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The 24 Nidanas

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by Sangharakshita

... never see What goes against the stream, Is subtle, deep and hard to see, abstruse.

Considering thus, his mind favoured inaction and not teaching the Law. Then it occurred to Brahma Sahampati, the ruler of a thousand worlds, who became aware in his mind of the thought in the Blessed One's mind, `The world will be lost. The world will be utterly lost. For the mind of the Perfect One, accomplished and fully Enlightened One, favours inaction and not teaching the Dharma. Then, as soon as a strong man might extend his flexed arm, Brahma Sahampati vanished from the brahma world and appeared before the Blessed One. He arranged his robe on one shoulder as a sign of respect, and putting his right knee on the ground and putting his hands palms together towards the Blessed One, he said, `Lord, let the Blessed One teach the Law. Let the sublime one teach the Law. There are creatures with little dust on their eyes, who are wasting through not hearing the Law. Some of them will gain final knowledge of the Law.' When Brahma Sahampati had said this, he said further, `In Magadha' - which is where the Buddha gained Enlightenment - `In Magadha there has appeared till now impure law, thought out by men still stained. Open the deathless gateway. Let them hear the Law the Immaculate has found. Ascend, O Sage, the tower of the Law. And just as one sees all the folk around who stand upon a pile of solid rock, survey, O sorrowless all-seeing Sage, this human breed engulfed in sorrowing that birth has at its mercy and old age. Arise, O Hero, Victor, Knowledge-bringer, free from all doubt, and wander in the world. Proclaim the Law, for some, O Blessed One, will understand.

The Blessed One listened to Brahma Sahampati's pleading. Out of compassion for creatures he surveyed the world with the eye of an Enlightened one. Just as in a pond of blue, red or white lotuses some lotuses that are born and grow in the water, thrive immersed in the water without coming up out of it, and some other lotuses, that are born and grow in the water, rest on the water's surface, and some other lotuses that are born and grow in the water come right up out of the water and stand clear, unwetted by it, so too he saw creatures with little dust on their eyes, with much dust on their eyes, with keen faculties and dull faculties, with good qualities and bad qualities, easy to teach and hard to teach, and some who dwelt seeing fear in the other world, and blame as well.

When he had seen he replied `Wide open are the portals of the deathless. Let those who hear show faith. If I was minded to tell not the sublime Law that I know, 'twas that I saw vexation in the telling.' Then Brahma Sahampati thought: I have made it possible for the Law to be taught by the Blessed One. And after he had paid homage to him, keeping him on his right, he vanished at once.' So that's the episode. This episode represents a crucial point in the Buddha's life. It represents a crucial decision on his part. To communicate or not to communicate, that was the question. It was a crucial question not only for him. It was crucial for the world. It was crucial for what we know as Buddhism. It was crucial for us. If the Buddha had not decided to communicate, if he had not decided to teach, where would we be now? We'd certainly not be here this morning, wherever else we might be.

A lot could be said about this episode, the episode of Brahma's request, as it's generally called.

It contains a lot that we need to reflect and meditate upon. There is, to begin with, the question of who is Brahma? And also, why did the Buddha have to be requested to teach? What does that mean? For the moment I'm going to draw your attention to just one thing, just one particular feature of the episode. The episode brings together the three great themes with which this conference is concerned - that is to say, the theme of reality, the theme of Buddhism, and the theme of transformation.

The Buddha speaks of the Law, or Truth, or Reality he has attained to, a Reality that is profound and hard to see, that is the most peaceful and superior goal of all, that is hard to discover, that is not attainable by mere ratiocination, that is subtle and for the wise to experience. Then Brahma Sahampati begs the Buddha to proclaim that reality, and the Buddha eventually agrees to do so.

And here we have the beginnings of Buddhism - at least the possibility of Buddhism, even the promise of Buddhism. And finally we have the pond of red, blue and white lotuses, some of them immersed in the water, some resting on the water's surface, and others coming right up out of the water and standing clear of it. In other words, we have the theme of transformation.

Thus all these three themes are present in this episode: reality, Buddhism, transformation. In other words, we have what is communicated - that is to say the Law, Truth, Reality, Dhamma.

We have how and why it is communicated - that is to say we have Buddhism as the means of personal transformation. And we also have to whom it is communicated - that is to say, all sentient beings, ourselves.

Now this morning we're concerned mainly with the first of these; we're concerned with Reality.

We're concerned with that the experience of which transformed the Buddha from an unenlightened into an Enlightened being. It is this that we're here to investigate. But first of all a few words about the lotus pond. This is really a most remarkable simile. It represents the Buddha's vision of humanity. The Buddha sees human beings as being in different stages of development. He sees human beings as growing. He sees them, we could say, as being in different stages of transformation.

We find the same kind of simile in the White Lotus Sutra, which is one of the great Mahayana sutras, as I expect most of you know. We find it in the White Lotus Sutra in that famous parable of the raincloud, which is also known as the parable of the plants. And the raincloud, of course, is the raincloud of the Dharma, in the sense of the Buddha's teaching; and the plants are all sentient beings. And the rain of the Dharma falls, the rain of the Buddha's teaching falls, on all alike, equally - not more to some and less to another. The rain of the Dharma, the rain of the Buddha's teaching, falls on all alike. But they all grow and develop in accordance with their different natures and their different capacities. And once again the emphasis is on growth, development, transformation.

This reminds me of another passage in the Pali Canon in which the Buddha is talking to and about his disciples. And he's enumerating their different distinctive qualities. Sometimes people think that if a teacher has disciples, all the disciples must be alike, even little copies of the teacher. And sometimes Buddhist art gives this impression. You see a picture, a figure of the Buddha - yellow robe, shoulder-bag, bowl, ushnisha - and then you see a whole row of little disciples, and they all look exactly like the Buddha, except for the ushnisha. I'm sorry about that; that's a Sanskrit word meaning the bodhic protuberance at the top of the head. So the disciples all look the same as the Buddha - same shaven head, same little yellow robe, same shoulder-bag, same begging bowl, same meek expression.

So you get the impression that disciples are sort of clones of the guru. That's a very big mistake.

And we see that it's a big mistake in a passage in the Pali Canon where the Buddha is praising his disciples. We might think, well, the usual thing is for the disciples to praise the teacher; and sometimes they do, sometimes they don't. But the Buddha praised his disciples, and he said `Look, there's Sariputta. Sariputta is the greatest of you for wisdom, capacity of exposition. And Ananda? - well, the greatest for popularity and friendliness. It's Ananda who introduced women into the Buddha's Sangha. So the women thereafter, the bhikkhunis in India, they regarded Ananda as a sort of patron saint, and they used to take his image in procession, according to ?Yuan Chan? And then the Buddha singled out another disciple as the greatest for austerities; another greatest as a preacher. And, because some disciples naturally had greater qualities than others, in the end the Buddha had to scrape the barrel a bit and he mentioned one disciple as the disciple who always managed to collect the greatest quantity of alms when we went on his alms round. So even he was the best at something.

So in this way the Buddha praised his disciples. He praised them for their different distinctive qualities. And yes, it was true of the Buddha's disciples. If you read the Pali scriptures - I'm afraid some Buddhists rather neglect the Pali scriptures - but if you read the Pali scriptures and you read them as human documents, you'll come across so many of the Buddha's disciples, and they're so different, their characters are so different, their qualities are so different. Sariputta and Moggallana, though great friends, so different; Ananda is different again; Kassapa is different again. Ananda is very amiable, he's very popular. Kassapa's a bit grumpy, at least that's the impression one gets. And well, some disciples are rather shy and retiring, others are rather forward and active.

So it's always the same with disciples. If they're real disciples they'll grow in accordance with their own nature. And this is what the parable of the raincloud and the plants in the White Lotus Sutra brings out very well. When the rain falls the tree grows and becomes a bigger and better tree - or maybe, since we're in Arizona, I should say cactus. I don't know whether cactuses require water or not, but anyway they grow. But a cactus never grows into a eucalyptus. However much you water it, it'll never grow into a eucalyptus. And a eucalyptus will never become a cactus. In the same way, someone of a ...

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