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Great Buddhists of the 20th Century

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by Sangharakshita

Tape 186: Great Buddhists of the Twentieth Century

Sangharakshita Doctor Vajrajnana [??] and friends, and I must say first of all that I am very glad, very pleased, to be here addressing you this afternoon. And I'm very pleased to be speaking once again, after an interval of many years, under the auspices of the Maha Bodhi Society. And I'm glad also to be speaking on the subject of Great Buddhists of the Twentieth Century. As Doctor Vajrajnana has already intimated, my contact with the Maha Bodhi Society goes back quite a long way. It goes back, not only into the 60s, not only into the 50s, it goes right the way back into the 40s. It goes back, that is to say, into the days which I spent ­ the months and years, even decades ­ which I spent in India. During that period, which was obviously a very important and impressionable period of my whole life, I was in regular friendly contact with most of the bhikkus who were working for, or were connected with, the Maha Bodhi Society. Some of them were stationed in Calcutta, some in Sarana, one or two in Delhi, Agnow, Madras. I think I was in fairy regular contact, sometimes very regular contact, with practically all of them. And of course, as Dr Vajrajnana also mentioned, for 12 years I edited the Maha Bodhi Journal. Only quite recently in connection with some memoires I'm currently writing, I was looking through some back volumes, some bound volumes of the Maha Bodhi Journal, and I calculated that several thousand articles must have passed through my hands in those days. I recollect that I was what is sometimes called a ferocious editor. I must admit that sometimes I blue-pencilled about two-third of an article ­ if anyone was to do that to an article of my own (LOUD LAUGHTER), I would protest vigorously (LAUGHTER), but in those days ­ well I was young then (LAUGHTER) ­ I did it with the utmost confidence. And of course in the course of my days in India and my contact with the Maha Bodhi Society's workers, some of the Society's bhikkus, became very good friends of mine. But unfortunately all those whom I knew then, all those who were friends of mine in those far-off days, are now passed on into some other reincarnation. And there's only one Maha Bodhi Society bhikku at present with whom I'm in personal contact, and that is Dr Vajrajnana ­ he is the sole survivor as it were, and yes, as he intimated, I've known him for nearly 30 years which is quite a big slice of anybody's life. Of course I got to know him not in India, as I did the other bhikkus of the Society, but here in England.

As he has already mentioned, he was present at the very first ordinations into the Western Buddhist Order, one Sunday, morning I think it was, 7th of April 1968 here in London itself.

It's this same Dr Vajrajnana who has invited me to speak here today. And it is he who has chosen the subject, the subject of Great Buddhists of the Twentieth Century. Now I don't know what led him to choose this subject, he didn't reveal that to me, he didn't give me any indication of his thinking. But I must admit that the subject is probably not one that I would have chosen myself. After all, it's a really vast subject ­ Great Buddhists of the Twentieth Century. But Dr Vajrajnana, being a friend of mine, I agreed to speak on this. And I thought in any case as well, why not speak on subject which is not of one's own choosing, perhaps it will stretch one a little bit beyond one's customary boundaries, not to say limitations. So yes, I agreed to speak on this subject of Great Buddhists of the Twentieth Century. So, as my custom is after my acceptance of this invitation to speak on this subject, I started thinking. I usually keep the subject of a lecture or a talk at the back of my mind, and I sort of advert to it at odd moments, sometimes when I wake up in the night, or sometimes when I'm having my daily walk. But I start thinking about it. And not long after I started thinking about this particular subject of Great Buddhists of the Twentieth Century, I realized that I had a problem. And the problem was that once I started thinking about it, there were so many Gbo.

Initially, I hadn't realized this. Originally I had assumed that there were just a few, just a handful, but the more I thought about it and the more names I recollected, the more it seemed that there were dozens upon dozens of Gbo, and of course I couldn't possibly speak on all of them. In order to speak on all of them, I would have to have whole series of Saturday afternoon lectures, and I've just got one Saturday afternoon, just got an hour-and-a-half or so.

So obviously I would have to select. But that raises a further problem ­ how is one to select? On what basis is one to select? What would be the principle of selection? So that was the problem. In the end I decided to base my selection on two principles.

First of all, an elimination. I decided not to speak on any great Buddhists who were still alive, (LAUGHTER), that left me off several hooks (LAUGHTER). After all, even a great Buddhist might change their religion, and then they'd no longer be great Buddhists because they were no longer Buddhists and where (LAUGHTER) and where would that leave me? (LAUGHTER) And of course they might have committed other mistakes (SUBDUED LAUGHTER). Sophocles said "Call no man happy, until he is dead". And similarly one might say "Call no man a great Buddhist, until he is dead". That's the safer way ­ so that safer way I decided to take. Not to speak about any great Buddhist ­ question mark possibly ­ who was still alive.

And then secondly, my second principle of selection, I decided to speak on great Buddhists with whom I had had some kind at least of personal contact.

So in this way, with the help of these two principles of selection, I was able to cut down my list of Great Buddhists of the Twentieth Century, to a quite manageable figure. But then a further question arises, which is how does one define a great Buddhist, what is it that makes a great Buddhist? For, as a matter of fact, how does one define a great man? Well, I'm going to leave the latter question aside. Let's concentrate on what it is that makes, what it is that constitutes a great Buddhist.

Well, in the first place, only too obviously, a great Buddhist has to be a Buddhist ­ maybe that isn't always realized, so let me repeat it... a great Buddhist has to be a Buddhist. That's the first thing. You can't be a great Buddhist unless you're a Buddhist. The great Buddhist has to be committed per se, by definition, in theory and in practice, to the Three Jewels. He or she has to Go For Refuge to the Three Jewels: to the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. To be a great Buddhist, whether of the 20th century or any other century, it's not enough to be a scholar in Buddhism, however learned one may be. One may know Pali, one may know Sanskrit, Tibetan, Chinese ­ all of which languages, modern scholars in Buddhism have to know apparently ­ but one is not a great Buddhist, unless one also Goes For Refuge to the Three Jewels. And it's not enough either to occupy a prominent position in a Buddhist organization. During my time in the East, this was one of the great stumbling blocks for me.

I'd come into contact with various Buddhist organizations, meet their secretaries and presidents, and then I'd discover that they weren't Buddhists, and I thought "well, why is it that someone who is not even a Buddhist, can lead a Buddhist organization?" This was a great puzzle to me in those youthful days of mine. And similarly to be a great Buddhist, it's not enough to have been born into an important Buddhist family, not enough for instance to have been born into a Royal Buddhist family, or Buddhist royal family ­ that also doesn't make one a great Buddhist.

A great Buddhist, I would say, is one who possesses at least some of the characteristically Buddhist qualities to an eminent degree. Not just a little bit of metta, but a lot of metta. Not just a little bit of virya, but a lot of virya. Not just a little bit of prajna, but a lot of prajna. So a great Buddhist, among other things, is one who possesses at least some of the characteristically Buddhist qualities to an eminent degree. Of course, it goes without saying that he or she possesses also the characteristically human qualities to an eminent degree. One can't be a great, or even a good Buddhist, without being at the same time a great, or good, human being.

And then again, a great Buddhist is one who's life and work as a Buddhist, influences many other people especially many other Buddhists. Thus, the great Buddhist contributes to the making of Buddhist history. The great Buddhist has a place in Buddhist history.

And finally, a great Buddhist is a paradigmatic figure. The great Buddhist provides a model, or an example, for other Buddhists, both during his lifetime, and after his death. He or she functions as a source of permanent inspiration and guidance for other Buddhists.

Now the great Buddhists about whom I'm going to speak this afternoon, are not I would say all equally great ­ it's not easy to compare them ­ they're not great in quite the same way, thought they are great. And I must also say that I personally don't necessarily agree with everything they said or did or wrote, but they were all undoubtedly great in the sense that I have defined. So it's probably high time I told you who these great Buddhists, about whom I'm going to speak, are. Well, there are 5 of them. I pondered for quite a while whether there should be 7, or 6, or 5, or 4, but in the end I thought well 5 is just the right kind of number. So the five are, first of all Anagarika Dharmapala, secondly Alexandra David-Neel, thirdly B.R.

Ambedkar, fourthly Lama Govinda, and fifthly Edward Conze. Quite a bunch huh? (LAUGHTER) I'm going to talk about them in this same order, ...

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