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The 24 Nidanas

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by Sangharakshita

... and investigating this morning and this afternoon.

The three themes are of course interconnected. They're interconnected because the Buddhist view of reality has the effect of transforming us, transforming our lives. So where shall we begin? Where shall we find our point of entry? Well, let's begin with Buddhism, because out of the three this is in a way the most accessible. Let's begin with Buddhism. And let's go back to basics. The term Buddhism is of course from Buddha, and Buddha is from a Pali/Sanskrit root meaning simply `to know' or `to understand'. A Buddha, therefore, is one who knows. He's one who understands. And by the way, perhaps I should mention that Buddha is not a proper name. We should always use the definite or indefinite article before it; it's a title.

So a Buddha, the Buddha, is one who knows, one who understands. And originally, in pre-Buddhistic times, and perhaps even in the early days of Buddhism itself, Buddha meant simply `a wise man'. In the Dhammapada sometimes the word occurs in this sense, sometimes it occurs in the more distinctively Buddhistic sense. But in the Buddhist tradition generally this word Buddha, meaning `wise man', came to have a very special meaning. It came to mean one who knows reality, ultimate reality - one who knows things in their depths or, as it was often expressed, one who has achieved knowledge and vision of things as they really are, not as they appear, things as they really are.

Yesterday Bhante Gunaratana touched upon this distinction between seeing things as they really are and seeing things as they only appear. Siddhartha Gautama, the prince of the Shakya clan, became a Buddha in the Buddhist sense when he gained under the bodhi tree this knowledge and vision of things as they really are, attained it in its completeness, in its totality, in its all-comprehendingness. And when he knew that reality, that ultimate reality, he was transformed, he was transfigured. He became the Buddha.

The nature of the reality, the vision, the knowledge of which he attained, we shall be looking at later on. For the present I just want to stay with the term Buddhism. As we've seen, Buddhism is from Buddha. But what, we may ask, is the relation between the two? We can of course say that Buddhism is the teaching of the Buddha, and that's quite correct - plus, of course, the interpretations that have gathered around that teaching in the course of so many centuries in so many countries at the hands of so many great Buddhist teachers. But to say simply that Buddhism is the teaching of the Buddha doesn't really help us very much. It doesn't go deep enough.

For instance, why does the Buddha teach? Whom does the Buddha? `Teach' is after all primarily a transitive verb. One doesn't just teach. One teaches someone, or one teaches a number of persons; one doesn't just teach. In the Buddha's case he teaches us. He teaches those who are not Buddhas. I don't think anyone would disagree that we are not Buddhas. He teaches us, those who are not Buddhas; or in the more traditional phrase, he teaches gods and men, all sentient beings.

Thus Buddhism, we may say, is a communication. It's a communication from the Buddha to those who are not Buddhas. It's a communication from the Enlightened mind to the unenlightened mind. And the purpose of that communication, that great communication, is not theoretical, not academic. It's highly practical, it's practical in the highest conceivable degree. Its purpose, the purpose of that communication, is to enable those who are not Buddhas to become Buddhas, to enable the unenlightened mind to transform itself into an Enlightened mind.

And it's because the purpose of the Buddha's communication is practical that he likened his teaching to a raft. This is a very famous teaching, a very famous parable in the Pali scriptures.

The function of the raft is to carry one across the river. I've seen some of these great Indian rivers.

You stand on one bank, you can't see the other bank, they're as broad as that. So the function of the raft is to carry one across the river. The river of course has a symbolical significance; it's the river, the ogre, as Bhante Gunaratana was explaining yesterday, of samsara. Once one has reached the opposite bank one is free to discard the raft. The raft is only a means to an end. It's not an end in itself.

And this is one of the most striking and most important of all the Buddha's teachings: that Buddhism itself, our so greatly loved and cherished Buddhism, the Dharma itself, is just a raft.

Religion is just a raft. It's for getting across, not for carrying with one when one has crossed over and reached the further shore. That's an extreme. But of course there's another extreme to be avoided, and that is not actually using the raft to cross the river at all. And this extreme is much more common. Some people board the raft but they don't ply the pole. They start making the raft a bit comfortable. They start building walls, maybe a little roof; then they install furniture and cooking utensils, bring on board their wives and families and friends. They turn the raft into a house, and they moor it very securely to this shore. They don't like any talk about releasing the mooring or the anchor.

There are other people who just stand on the shore, stand on the bank and they just take a good steady look at that raft. They say `It's a fine raft. It's a magnificent raft - so big, so solid, so well constructed, so impressive.' And they take out their measuring rod or their tape, they measure it.

They can tell you the exact dimensions of it. They can tell you the sort of wood it's made of, and where and when that wood was felled. They can tell you all about the raft. And they produce a beautiful monograph on Buddhist rafts which sells like hot cakes, which even enters the best seller list. But it's only a book about the raft, and they've never even perhaps set foot on that raft.

And of course there are other people who think, well, that old raft's a bit plain, not very attractive, a bit rough and ready. After all, it's just a lot of logs lashed together. So they paint it and decorate it and cover it with flowers and make it look quite pretty. But they also don't ever get on board.

They don't ever start using that pole and ferrying themselves across to the other shore.

So all these are extremes. But there's another lot of people - they claim that they've inherited the raft. They claim that the raft happens to be their ancestral property, it belongs to them. So they don't have to do anything about it, don't have to board it or use it. It's just there; it just belongs to them. It's enough, quite enough, that they simply possess it.

Now I've said that Buddhism is a communication, a communication from the Buddha to those who are not Buddhas, from the Enlightened mind to the unenlightened mind. And such a communication is not easy to make, even for a Buddha, because between the Buddha and the worldly person there is a tremendous gap. We can't really conceive how tremendous that gap is.

It's all very well for us to say we're potentially Buddha, we're potentially Enlightened. But those usually are just words. We don't know, we don't realize, don't see, the vast extent of the gulf which separates us, the unenlightened person, from the Buddha, the Enlightened person.

Sometimes people talk about the Buddha in a very familiar sort of way, almost as though he was their next-door neighbour and they knew him very well - they knew all about him, knew about his realization and his Enlightenment, and just what it consisted in. But this is really, if you think about it, a sort of profanity. We don't really know the Buddha, we don't understand the Buddha.

There's a vast gulf between his ultimate realization and our own experience.

So it's very difficult even for a Buddha to bridge that gap, to make contact with the unenlightened mind, make real contact. In the Mahayana there's a very beautiful myth about the descent of Avalokitesvara or descent of Kshitagarbha into the depths of hell. That hell isn't necessarily another world; it's this world. And it represents the difficulty that the Bodhisattva, that the Buddha has in establishing real contact with our unenlightened, our mundane mentality.

(bit missing?) He hesitated whether or not to communicate or to try to communicate. Let me just read you the Pali Canon's account of this episode. It's found in the Vinaya-pitaka, the first of the three pitakas, and I'm going to read from Bhikkhu Nanamoli's translation from the Pali. And I must just warn you that in this translation the word Dhamma, which can be rendered in various ways, is rendered as Law. We could also render it as Reality or Truth or Teaching. So this is the passage.

`Now while the Blessed One was alone in retreat, this thought arose in him. `This Law that I have attained is profound and hard to see, hard to discover. It is the most peaceful and superior goal of all, not attainable by mere ratiocination, subtle, for the wise to experience. But this generation relies on attachment, relishes attachment, delights in attachment. It is hard for such a generation to see this truth: that is to say specific conditionality, dependent arising. And it is hard to see this truth, that is to say stilling of all formations, relinquishing of the essentials of existence, exhaustion of craving, fading of lust, cessation, nibbana. And if I taught the Law others would not understand me, and that would be wearying and troublesome for me.' Thereupon there came to him spontaneously these stanzas, never heard before: Enough of teaching of the Law That even I found hard to reach, For it will never be perceived By those that live in lust and hate.

Men dyed in lust, and whom a cloud Of darkness laps, will never see ...

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