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The 24 Nidanas

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 184: The 24 Nidanas

Venerable Sirs and Friends Yesterday evening Sharon shared with us some of her extreme experiences. She spoke about her experiences in the slums of Calcutta, with which I am also somewhat familiar, and also her experience in the Sydney Opera House, which I've seen at least from a distance. And while she was speaking I couldn't help remembering a few of my own extreme experiences, some occurring quite a while ago, and some even very recent. Those of you who've taken the trouble to read the biographies of the teachers may have noticed that under my own biography it says, in part, `After the war he stayed on in India and adopted the life of a wandering ascetic, travelling on foot from place to place, and meeting and talking with many eminent spiritual teachers.

Well, this was indeed an extreme experience. Yes, I was a wandering ascetic, a freelance wandering ascetic. That was before I took any Buddhist ordination, though I was actually a Buddhist at that time. I wore very simple yellow - well, in the West we call them robes, which creates altogether the wrong sort of impression. Robes are something rather grand, something splendid. But these were just two pieces of yellow cloth. In fact, they were two pieces of white cloth that I'd dyed myself with gerua mati, which is a sort of earth which is used by Indian ascetics to dye their robes - sorry, to dye their clothing.

And I didn't have any money, walked from place to place. Of course I was shaven-headed, though after a while I let my hair grow. It grew right down to my shoulders, and it looked I think really quite wild. I was very young then, of course. And I had all sorts of extreme experiences - sometimes slept in ashrams, sometimes slept on people's verandahs, sometimes slept on railway station platforms, sometimes slept at the side of the road. And yes, that was quite an extreme experience, and one which I still cherish and remember with great affection.

And of course the other extreme is - well, staying here. Quite a contrast. But anyway, we won't say anything more about that. But, just to revert for a moment to my life as a wandering ascetic, you can imagine I couldn't carry much with me. In fact most of that time I had a very small cloth bag which contained my total worldly possessions: a small towel, a small brass pot for what Indians always call one's ablutions, and one or two books. Perhaps for me the most ascetic part of that ascetic experience was being limited to one or two books, because by nature I'm a great reader. I love reading. I read all the time. I read far too much. I'm sure my Zen friends would strongly disapprove of this, at least to the extreme that I carry it. I had just these one or two books. I'd started off with a small library, but even a small library is very heavy, so it had been reduced eventually to one or two books.

And one of these books was the Dhammapada. The Dhammapada has always been one of my most favourite Buddhist texts. Some people tend to skip it over; they think it's rather simple, rather elementary. But it is far from that. The little verses are pregnant with meaning, sometimes with very deep meaning, and the meaning is always very very relevant. The Dhammapada, though I was acquainted with it before, was in fact the very first Buddhist text that I acquired on my arrival in India in 1944, which is exactly fifty years ago. And I remember where I bought it.

I bought it in the Buddha vihara in New Delhi, which I afterwards visited as a monk a number of times. And I carried that dog-eared little volume around with me for years and years and years.

And I referred to it constantly.

So when I was thinking about this talk, when I was trying to grapple with this very recondite topic that we've been allotted for this conference, my thoughts turned to the Dhammapada, and my thoughts turned to a verse in which the Buddha says that it is happiness to meet with good people. And he goes on to give a comparison. The Buddha says meeting with good people is like meeting with kinsfolk - meeting, that is to say, with one's nearest and dearest. Now of course in our modern age meeting with kinsfolk isn't necessarily a happy experience. Things have rather changed, it seems, since the Buddha's day. But let's take it that meeting with good people is like meeting with kinsfolk.

But I think it's an even greater happiness to meet with good people when those good people happen to be fellow Buddhists. And I'm therefore very happy to be here today and to be taking part in this conference. I'm happy to have the opportunity of speaking on `The nature of reality: Buddhism as transformation'. I'm happy to have an opportunity of emphasizing the transformational potential of the Buddhist view of reality on our everyday lives.

But before I actually begin I must congratulate Lepan Clode and his associates at Arizona Teachings for having organised this conference, and I must congratulate them very warmly for the excellent arrangements that they've made for us, both teachers and students, both senior teachers and junior teachers. When I first encountered this phrase, I wasn't quite sure what it meant. Apparently I was classed as a senior teacher - but I concluded that it simply meant that I was an old teacher. The junior teachers were the young teachers. I can certainly claim to be an old teacher, because with the exception of Roshi I'm the oldest teacher here. So whether you're an old teacher or a young teacher, a senior teacher or a junior teacher, doesn't really matter so much. What is more important is the quality of the teaching.

I remember in this connection a verse which I heard quite often in India, a Sanskrit verse taken from the Hindu tradition. And it goes, as far as I can remember, something like this. `The teacher and his disciples are sitting under a tree. The teacher is only sixteen years old. The disciples are all old men. The teacher speaks. The disciples attain Enlightenment.' I think it's from the Dakshana murti spotra. ? So it's not just age that counts. In fact, to refer to the Dhammapada again, there's a little verse in the Dhammapada which goes `One is not a thera - that is to say a senior monk - simply because one has spent so many years in the monastic order. If one has not practised the Dhamma during that period, one is called' - and Bhante there will give us the Pali for this - `old in vain'. So we don't want to be old in vain, we don't want to be young in vain; we want to practise the Dharma.

But to come back to this conference, I think conferences of this sort have quite an important part to play in what I think we've come to call Western Buddhism, by which I suppose we mean Buddhism studied and practised under Western conditions. Conferences like this enable us to have a much broader view of the total Buddhist tradition. They give us, I think, a livelier appreciation of the riches, the unbounded riches, of that tradition. They enable us to get to know one another personally, even to make friends with one another. They help us to realise what we have, how much we have, in common as Buddhists, regardless of the particular tradition that we happen to belong to or to follow.

At this point I have a slight correction to make. This is not in my biography, but in the little publicity brochure for the conference that was put out, I believe, some time ago. This little brochure relegates me to the Mahayana. No doubt this was for the sake of symmetry, schematization, because yes, we have Bhante Gunaratana for the Theravada, we have Aitken Roshi, a very distinguished representative of Zen, and we have Chetsang Rimpoche for the Vajrayana. So we have Urgyen Sangharakshita, naturally, for the Mahayana, and in this way the four principal forms of Buddhism extant in the West are very neatly covered.

But - well, organisers have to tie up things somehow, but in my case this is not quite correct. I must say I don't regard myself as a Mahayana Buddhist - that is to say, I do not identify myself exclusively with the Mahayana tradition. I have no less appreciation for the Theravada, for Zen or Ch'an, and for the Vajrayana in its various forms. They are all in their so many different ways among the glories of Buddhism. But I don't identify myself with any of them exclusively. I've had teachers belonging to many different traditions. So I prefer to think of myself as being simply a Buddhist. And it's therefore as a Buddhist, not as a Mahayanist, that I'm addressing you this morning.

Not only that. I'm going to do my best to avoid Pali and Sanskrit terms which may not be familiar to you. And I'm going to speak, or try to speak, in reasonably plain, straightforward English. Now this may not be so easy for me as you might have thought, because a lot of my thinking about Buddhism is done in Pali and Sanskrit, and I find sometimes that it's very difficult to find appropriate terms in English for the Pali and the Sanskrit terms. Nonetheless it has to be done.

The Chinese did it for their language, the Japanese did it for their language, the Tibetans did it for their language, so we have to do it for our language, if that language is English. If you're interested in finding out the Pali and Sanskrit original terms for some of the expressions I'll be using, you'll be able to find them in my books anyway.

The subject of the conference is of course a very important one: The nature of reality - Buddhism as transformation. Nothing less than that. So here we're confronted by three great themes, three tremendous themes, for one little lecture, or two little lectures. Reality: think what that might mean, just let your mind dwell on it just for a moment. Or rather, don't let your mind dwell on it. Reality. And then Buddhism. And then transformation. It's these themes that we're investigating in the course of this conference, ...

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