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Extending the Hand of Fellowship

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 188: Extending the Hand of Fellowship

The Relation of the Western Buddhist Order to the Rest of the Buddhist World In April 1988, at a celebration marking the twentieth anniversary of the Western Buddhist Order, I read a paper in which I proposed to trace what I called the History of My Going for Refuge to the Three Jewels, as well as to share with my auditors some of my current thinking as regards my own relation to the Order and the relation of the Order itself to the rest of the Buddhist world. As it happened, the tracing of the various steps by which I had arrived at my understanding of the act of Going for Refuge as the central and definitive act of the Buddhist life took much longer than I had expected, and I was obliged to postpone my remarks on the two remaining subjects to some future occasion. Two years later, when the Order celebrated its twenty-second anniversary, I accordingly read a paper on My Relation to the Order. But this, too, became longer than I had expected, with the result that I was unable to say anything about the relation of the Order to the rest of the Buddhist world. Now, six years further on, when we are celebrating the twenty-eighth anniversary of the Order, I hope to be able to deal with the subject, thus bringing my original undertaking to a belated conclusion. I shall take up the thread where I dropped it at the end of my paper on the History of My Going for Refuge. Having remarked that the nature of my relation to the Order had transpired to some extent in the latter part of the narrative, I continued: As regards the relation of the Order to the rest of the Buddhist world let me simply observe that it is a relation that subsists, essentially, with individuals, and that, on this the occasion of our 20th anniversary, we are happy to extend the hand of spiritual fellowship to all those Buddhists for whom commitment is primary, lifestyle secondary, and who, like us, Go for Refuge to the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha....

The three principles here laid down, at least by implication, provide me with a point of departure for what I have to say today. Before embarking on the subject of our - the Order's - relation to the rest of the Buddhist world, however, I want to make a few remarks of a more general nature.

Since I spoke on the History of My Going for Refuge eight years have passed. Eight years is a long time, especially when one considers that it represents nearly one third of the time for which the Order has been in existence. During those eight years quite a lot has happened. In 1988 there were 336 Order members world-wide. Two years later there were 384. Today there are 654. With the growth of the Order - and it has grown not only numerically but in `collective' experience and maturity - there has been a corresponding growth in its - and the FWBO's - activities. New public centres and residential spiritual communities, and even team-based right livelihood businesses, have sprung up, while old ones have expanded and diversified. Books have been written, new magazines launched, and films produced. One might be forgiven for thinking that there was no end to what had happened, both externally and, what is no less important, in terms of the achievement, by individual Order members, of a deeper experience of Going for Refuge by means of ethical living, meditation, Dharma study, spiritual friendship, community life, and ritual and devotion. For me personally the most important thing to have happened in the course of the last eight years is that I have been able to hand on many of my responsibilities as founder and head of the Order to a team of some dozen Order members, especially those comprising the College of Public Preceptors. Soon, I hope, all those responsibilities will have been handed on - at least to the extent that this is possible while I am still physically present among you. As you know, last year I celebrated my seventieth birthday, or rather you (and the rest of the Movement) celebrated it and I simply enjoyed the celebrations, and I feel it to be incumbent upon me, during such time as I have left, to do whatever I can to ensure the continuity, well-being, and growth of the Movement after my departure from the scene. This includes sharing with you my current thinking about the Dharma in general and our own tradition in particular, and this is one of the reasons I am addressing you today on the Relation of the Order to the Rest of the Buddhist World.

I have, of course, been anticipated by Subhuti, who in 1991 gave a talk on `Relations with Other Buddhists'. In this talk he explored the subject under the three principal headings of the Need for Clarity, History of the FWBO's Relations with Other Groups, and Principles behind our Contact with Others, each of which enabled him to touch on a variety of issues and make a number of important points. This paper will be much more limited in scope, as I shall be dealing with the relation of the Order, specifically, to the rest of the Buddhist world, as well as having more to say about that world itself. Subhuti's talk and my paper may therefore be regarded as complementary, and best read in conjunction with each other, even though there is a small amount of overlap between them. In any case, Subhuti has his style, and I have mine. Perhaps it is also relevant to observe that during the last four or five years I have had more personal contact with leading Western Buddhists, both European and North American, than I had in the course of the preceding twenty years.

But it is time I returned to the three principles that were laid down, at least by implication, in the remarks with which I concluded my paper on the History of My Going for Refuge and which provide me with a point of departure now. These three principles may be designated, for convenience, the principle of ecumenicity, as represented by the words `the relation of the Order to the rest of the Buddhist world,' the principle of personal contact, as represented by the words `it is a relation that subsists, essentially, with individuals,' and the principle of orthodoxy, as represented by the words `we are happy to extend the hand of spiritual fellowship to all those Buddhists for whom commitment is primary, lifestyle secondary, and who, like us, Go for Refuge to the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.' For the sake of connectedness of exposition I shall be dealing with the second and third principles in reverse order.

The Principle of Ecumenicity It may not have escaped your notice that I spoke, in my paper on the History of My Going for Refuge, not of the relation of the Order to the Buddhist world but of the relation of the Order to the rest of the Buddhist world. The word was intended to emphasize the fact that the Order, and with it the FWBO, is a branch of the mighty tree of Buddhism which, for more than 2,500 years, has sheltered a considerable portion of humanity, and that the same vital juice that circulates in the older, bigger branches of that tree circulates in our younger, smaller branch too, even if it circulates in it a little more vigorously than it does in some of them. It is important that we should not only acknowledge this intellectually but also feel it. After all, our doctrinal teachings and methods of meditation, together with our terminology and our iconography, derive exclusively from traditional Buddhist sources, and we therefore might be expected to experience a sense of solidarity with the spiritual and cultural oecumene of which we form a part and with which, moreover, we might be expected to want to be in communication.

But what is this Buddhist world? Most certainly it is not a centralized world like that of Roman Catholicism, with its Pope and its Vatican, and its sacramental and catechetical uniformity.

Notwithstanding the establishment of the World Fellowship of Buddhists in 1950, so few and so tenuous are the threads connecting the different parts of the Buddhist world that effectively no such thing as a Buddhist world really exists. Instead we have a number of sectarian Buddhist worlds which are divided one from another along doctrinal and other lines and which have - to revert to my previous metaphor - in some cases diverged so widely from the parent trunk that they have difficulty seeing themselves as branches of the same tree or feeling that an identical sap circulates through every one of them. According to the older Western writers on Buddhism there were two such worlds, that of Northern Buddhism and that of Southern Buddhism. In reality, however, the former consisted of two separate worlds, that of Northern Buddhism proper and that of Far Eastern Buddhism. Thus we may speak of there being, in the broadest sense, three Buddhist worlds, though these are such not only geographically and culturally but doctrinally and spiritually as well. Southern Buddhism is synonymous with the Theravada, the School or Teaching of the Elders, which is found principally in Sri Lanka, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos. Northern Buddhism corresponds to the Triyana Buddhism of Tibet (I am ignoring present day political realities), Mongolia, and Bhutan, together with parts of Nepal, India, and Russia, wherein elements of the Hinayana and the Mahayana are subsumed in a synthesis the overall orientation of which is that of the Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism. Far Eastern Buddhism is that form of the Buddhist religion which predominates in (Han) China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. Here elements of the Hinayana and, though to a much more limited extent, of the Vajrayana, are subsumed in a synthesis the overall emphasis of which is that of the Mahayana. All three forms of Buddhism, it should be noted, subsume substantial elements of local, indigenous ethnic culture, some of which are not always content to remain within the bounds prescribed for them.

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