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The Disappearing Buddha

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by Sangharakshita

... been too much for them whether they were gods or whether they were human beings. It would have been rather like, to take an illustration from classical Greek mythology, it would be like Zeus appearing to Semele in his full splendour. And you know what happened to Semele those who remember your Greek mythology. Well, when Jupiter did appear as himself, as Zeus, at her rather foolish and rash request, she was simply burnt up by that overpowering splendour. And there's also a little parallel to that in the Christian tradition, because according to the gospel, at the time of the transfiguration the three disciples of Jesus who witnessed his transfiguration were confused and frightened -- they could not bear it. Presumably because they'd had a glimpse of Jesus as he really was.

But on our own level, why is it important for us to even look like others at least to some extent when we want to communicate with them? Let me give you a bit of an example just from my own experience. As you heard a little earlier on, I returned to England from India some thirty years ago. I returned having spent twenty years in the East. And for nearly all that time I lived as a Buddhist monk. And I returned to England at the invitation of Buddhist friends in London to teach Buddhism, to teach the Dhamma. And I came as a Buddhist monk. Not only was I a Buddhist monk, I really looked one.

Because I came complete with my flowing yellow robe, which was a bit inconvenient getting on and off buses, and my shaven head which really wasn't adapted to the English winter. And I can say in the course of the two, three maybe four years that I spent teaching Buddhism, teaching the Dhamma, as a Buddhist monk and looking like a Buddhist monk, I did have some success. But I also have to admit that I did encounter certain difficulties. And one of the difficulties was that on account of my appearance, my very ascetic, very spiritual, very holy appearance, people started projecting on to me, projecting in the Jungian sense. Of course sometimes they projected positively, but sometimes they projected rather negatively. They felt me to be a rather threatening sort of figure. But they projected. But why was it that they were able to project at all? What made it psychologically possible? They were able to project because I appeared different, because I was other, because I was strange. I remember not long after my arrival I was interviewed by various journalists, most of them seemed to come from women's magazines, for some reason or other, and I remember being asked 'Are you allowed out of the monastery?' and they'd also ask -- 'Are you allowed to speak to people?' as though I was some sort of Buddhist Trappist. And I remember also I was asked 'Who sent you?' I used to say 'Well nobody sent me. I was invited, and I accepted the invitation and I came!' They seemed to think there was sort of some sort of mysterious Buddhist Pope- like figure away in the mysterious East that was sending me on some sort of secret mysterious mission. And they were quite surprised, sometimes a bit disappointed, when they learned I'd come more or less under my own steam. So these are just little examples. So people, many of them projected onto me, whether positively or negatively, but yes they projected. And because they projected they weren't really able to experience me or communicate with me as I really was. I won't say really was in the ultimate metaphysical sense, but at least as I really was in the more conventional sense. And it's because they were unable to experience me as I really was, so to speak, that the real communication between us could not go beyond a certain point. In almost all cases this is what I found. And I found that there was a limit therefore to what I could really teach.

Because teaching isn't just laying down the law, spelling out the facts, teaching is also a real genuine communication, person to person, heart to heart, mind to mind, even soul to soul. So after a few years I decided not to wear robes. I was quite happy with robes in India. In the East they're quite convenient, especially in hot weather. But here in Britain I decided after a few years not to wear robes except sometimes on ceremonial occasions when a little colour was called for. And I also allowed my hair to grow. In fact I must confess I allowed it to grow somewhat longer than it is now. And this upset some people very much indeed. It was an eye-opener to me how much it shocked some people. I was just the same, I was still myself, I'd only changed these externals, but these externals mean so much to people. I realised in the end that some people at least had become upset because I'd disturbed their projections on to me. But on the whole I found that my communication with people improved. I was able to communicate better, more as it were heart to heart and mind to mind and I was therefore able to communicate more effectively; I founded the FWBO. But that's another story, which is known to some of you, perhaps it doesn't at this stage concern others.

So we can see, perhaps we can get a glimpse of something of the rationale for appearing like other people. I've just thought of a little story, it's not in my notes but those who are accustomed to hearing me will know that sometimes the little stories pop up. Because I remember things that I've heard or experienced back in India. It's just another little example of a sort of projection. I remember I had a friend in Calcutta, a Bengali lady, who was a very great devotee of Ramakrishna. Some of you must have heard of Ramakrishna, the famous Bengali mystic of the last century. And she said that when she was a little girl, she was taken by her mother to see the widow of Sri Ramakrishna, whose name was Sarada Devi, who was revered as a great spiritual teacher. And in Bengali as in other Indian languages the word for goddess and lady is the same: devi. So my friend told me that her mother told her "We're going to see Sarada Devi, we're going to the this wonderful devi, this great spiritual figure". So the little girl got very, very excited, she was really looking forward to visiting that particular part of Calcutta, I think it was Babazar, where Sarada Devi lived in her little Hermitage. So the great day came.

Along she went, this little girl of eight, this friend of mine as she became, to see the devi, the goddess. So she saw her. And she got back home and her mother asked her, "Well, what do you think of the devi?" she said "Devi? There wasn't any devi, there's only an old widow woman". Now what had the little girl thought? The little girl was accustomed to seeing images of Hindu gods and goddesses with six, eight, or ten or twelve arms. And this devi had only two arms. So she thought 'it can't be a real devi, a real goddess' .

She'd been expecting to see someone with six, eight, or ten or twelve arms. But here was the little old widow with just two. She was deeply disappointed. So this is a sort of illustration of the kind of expectations, and in a way you could say projections, that we build up. Because of course had the little girl been really devoted and projecting strongly, which she wasn't, she would have seen ten or twelve arms there. But I sometimes think that when I had my yellow robes on, sometimes people saw six or eight or ten arms. And when there were no more yellow robes there were no more arms. And some people were really very disappointed. So anyway that was just by the way, but you can see perhaps the rationale for appearing like other people. It enables us to communicate better. Here we're too different, we can be a little bit different of course, well we are different anyway, but we mustn't be too different, otherwise people will project onto us and projection interferes with communication. Perhaps this is the reason why bishops no longer go around in full regalia, mitre, crozier, and so on as they did in the middle ages. You'd be very surprised if you met a bishop in full regalia walking along Piccadilly, wouldn't you? And perhaps it's even the reason why many clergyman no longer wear what I believe are called their dog collars. But let's go back to our text, let's go back to our text.

"Having adopted their appearance and speech, the Buddha addresses the members of the various assemblies." The text speaks of him delivering a discourse on Dhamma. The word Dhamma, or Dharma in Sanskrit, has quite a number of meanings. But here in this particular context it means something like truth or reality. It's the truth or reality, we may say, in a manner of speaking, the objective content of the Buddha's experience, his spiritual, his transcendental experience, when he became enlightened, when he became a Buddha. Now the text does not actually say what the Buddha actually said. It simply said that he delivered a discourse on Dhamma. It doesn't mention any specific teaching.

But it does tell us what the effect of the Buddha's discourse was. Whether gods or men, the Buddha's hearers were instructed, inspired, fired and delighted. And this is very important. It's important because religion, a discourse, shouldn't just instruct us, shouldn't just communicate factual information, even of a religious nature, important though such information may be and useful though it may be. It should also inspire us, it should inspire us with enthusiasm, it should fill us with overwhelming delight. One often listens to a discourse or sermon with feelings very far removed from overwhelming delight. But if it cannot do that, if it cannot inspire and delight us, well it won't affect us.

It won't sink in, we won't remember it. It won't help us to change our lives. Another little incident from my life in India. I used to give so many lectures in India. William was asking me ...

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