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The Disappearing Buddha

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by Sangharakshita

... Before he passed away he went on a quite extensive farewell tour. Don't forget he went on foot, and for a man of 80 it was quite an undertaking, but he wanted to bid farewell to the different groups of disciples that he had scattered all over North Eastern India. So he walked from village to village, from one group of little huts to another, from town to town, and wherever he went he gave teachings. The Mahaparinibbana Sutta is the story so to speak of that final tour of the Buddha. It describes his meetings with his various groups of disciples. It describes the teachings he gave, right up to the very end, when as a very old man aged 80 he passed away lying between two beautiful sal trees. So in the passage I'm going to read, which is our text for the evening, the Buddha is addressing Ananda. Ananda is the Buddha's cousin, one of his cousins, and his long-term companion. Ananda has been with the Buddha day in and day out for about 20 odd years. Ananda is sometimes known on account of his personal closeness to the Buddha as the St John of Buddhism. St John being of course, as most of you will know, the beloved disciple. And in this particular passage, this particular text, the Buddha is addressing Ananda on what you might think is a rather strange subject. He's addressing Ananda on the subject of the eight great kinds of assemblies. I'm going to read the passage, going to read this text.

"Ananda there are these eight kinds of assemblies. They are the assembly of Khattiyas, the assembly of Brahmins, the assembly of householders, the assembly of ascetics, ... of devas of the realm of the four Great kings, ... of the 33 gods, ... of maras, ... of Brahmas.

I remember well, Ananda, many hundreds of assemblies of Khattiyas, that I have attended and before I sat down with them, spoke to them, or joined in their conversation, I adopted their appearance, and speech, whatever it might be. And I instructed, inspired, fired and delighted them with a discourse on Dhamma. And as I spoke with them, they did not know me and understand and wondered, who is it that speaks like this? A deva, or a man? And having thus instructed them, I disappeared. And still they did not know he who has just disappeared. Was he a deva, or a man? I remember well many hundreds of assemblies of Brahmins, etc of householders, etc... Of Brahmins, and still they did not know who he has just disappeared. Was he a deva or a man? Those Ananda are the eight assemblies. " So let's get into this a little gradually. First of all, the eight assemblies. The Khattiyas are mentioned first. The Khattiyas or Ksatriyas in Sanskrit, are the nobles, the warriors, they are [?] the land-owning or ruling class or caste of ancient India. The Buddha himself was born into this particular caste, the caste of the Khattiyas or Ksatriyas as also was Ananda. But of course the Buddha did not attach any importance to hereditary caste.

And no distinction of caste was observed within the Sangha or spiritual community which he founded. On one occasion the Buddha said that just as the great rivers of India on reaching the ocean, the mighty ocean, lost their separate identities, separate names, so on becoming members of his Sangha, his spiritual community, people from the different castes, Shakya, Brahmana, Vaisya, Shudra, and so on, lost their identities as members of those particular castes and they all became, regardless of their social origin, simply sons and daughters, spiritual sons and spiritual daughters, of the Buddha. Then the Brahmins of course were the hereditary priests, the hereditary priests of what wasn't exactly Hinduism, then it was more like Vedism. The Brahmins believed in the Vedas, the four Vedas. They believed in them not just as literary documents, in fact they were transmitted orally, they believed in them as revealed truth, as divine revelation. And the Brahmins officiated at a variety of sacrifices including even animal sacrifice based on Vedic texts. And the Brahmins of course were very keen on maintaining their social- religious status. In later generations the Brahmins liked to style themselves as gods on earth. And the Buddha, it's not surprising to learn, clashed with them on a number of occasions because he did not accept their hereditary pretensions. Some Brahmins of course, in fact quite a number of Brahmins actually, became the Buddha's disciples.

Sariputra for instance was by birth a Brahmin. Sariputra is usually regarded as the chief disciple of the Buddha. His official title was the Dhamma (??) which means the Commander-in-Chief of the Dhamma. So this reminds us of his quality of courage. You can't be the Commander-in-Chief even of an ordinary army without courage unless (??) you stay right behind the lines of course as sometimes happens nowadays, and if you're going to be Commander-in-Chief of the Dhamma, the Spiritual Truth, well you need more courage, far more courage, infinitely more courage even than an ordinary Commander-in-Chief. So where were we? Yes. So Sariputra despite his birth as a Brahmin was one of the, or became one of the Buddha's disciples. And then there's the assembly of householders, the gahapatis (??). They were the heads of families because in India in those days, as in India still today, families weren't nuclear - they were joined families. You could have fifteen, twenty, thirty, forty, up to a hundred people, all living under the same roof or collection of roofs as one family with a single head, the gahapati.

And these householders, these gahapatis especially were engaged in economic activities, in trade. And then we have the ascetics. These were the non-Vedic, even anti-Vedic religious wanderers and teachers, the (?). They were the sort of alternative people of those days. The Pali word for them is samana. Samana means one who makes an effort.

That is to say of course a spiritual effort. An effort in the direction of personal spiritual development. The Buddha's contemporaries, according to the Pali scriptures especially, the Buddha's contemporaries regarded him as a samana. He is usually referred to as samana Dharma. To his disciples of course he was the Maha samana, the great samana.

Now Khattiyas, Brahmins, householders and ascetics, the members of the first four out of the eight assemblies are of course all human beings. Khattiyas, Brahmins, householders and ascetics, all human beings. But the members of the next four assemblies are not human beings at all. They're what we may describe as supernatural beings. Or perhaps I should say supernormal beings, because according to Buddhism, the supernatural in this sense is also natural, it's natural in the sense that it's included in the realm of what Buddhists call conditioned existence, included within the higher reaches of the samsara.

Now in this particular text, the one from which I've been reading describing the eight assemblies, the Buddha mentions only four kinds of supernatural beings. But if we look at the Pali texts as a whole we'll find about 30 different kinds mentioned, about 30 different kinds of supernatural, supernormal beings. But this is of course much too complicated to go into this evening, fascinating though it might be if we had time. So I'm going to simplify things. I'm going to lump the members of the fifth and sixth assemblies together, and I'm going to translate the broadest terms into the roughly corresponding Christian ones. So in this way we have an assembly, a double assembly we may say, of angels of two different kinds. But there are still two assemblies left. I'm going to continue to translate into the roughly corresponding Christian terms. We've got the assembly of maras and the assembly of the Gods of the thirty three. So the assembly of maras, let's render it as the assembly of satans. And the other assembly, let's render it as the assembly of archangels.

But the Buddha, the text tells us, appears in all eight of these assemblies. The Khattiyas, Brahmins, householders, the ascetics, and then using the Christian terms, Angels, Satans and Archangels. But before appearing in any of them, what does he do? It says he adopts their appearance and speech. In other words he does what St Paul says he does. He becomes all things to all men. Of course in this case all men and all gods. But he does this on an even greater scale. We may say he becomes all things not only to all men but to all Angels, all Archangels and even to all Satans. And a very important principle is involved here. If you like you could criticise the mythological framework if it bothered you, as it might, and just concentrate on the principle that's involved here. The principle involved here is, that if you want to communicate with people, and don't forget the Buddha entered these assemblies to communicate the Dharma, if you want to communicate with people you must meet them half way. You must even adopt their appearance, look like them. You must speak their language both literally and metaphorically. And this principle applies at all levels from the highest to the lowest.

From a Buddha's communication to those who are not Buddhas, to our own communication with one another. But you may ask 'Why is it necessary for us to adopt the appearance of those to whom we speak or with whom we're trying to communicate? Why is it necessary?' You can understand perhaps why it's necessary for us to speak their language. If we didn't speak their language, whether literally or metaphorically of course they wouldn't understand us. But why do we need to look like them? Why do we appear, why do we need to appear as one of them in the interests of effective communication? We can say that in the case of the Buddha, if he had appeared as the Buddha, as he reality was in truth and reality, it would have been too much. It would have ...

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