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A Life for the Dharma

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by Sangharakshita

190: A Life for the Dharma

Sangharakshita (Birmingham Buddhist Centre, Feb? /1999) Well, thank you very much Vajragupta for that introduction. I'm afraid there aren't going to be any bombs this evening; there might one or two little squibs (laughter) ­ but we shall have to wait and see.

A few years ago - I don't remember exactly how many it was ­ I gave a lecture on 'great Buddhists of the twentieth century'. Some of you may remember that lecture, if for no other reason, because it was one of the longest I've ever given in this country ­ it was something over two hours. Well in India I was quite accustomed to giving Dharma talks lasting two hours, but in this country people usually don't have that sort of stamina, they start, you know, fidgeting and looking out of the window.

But anyway on that occasion at least I gave this quite exceptionally long talk which some of you may remember, a few years ago. Some of you may remember what the talk was about. The title I gave it was 'great Buddhists of the twentieth century' and some of you may remember who those great Buddhists were. There were five of them altogether about whom I spoke. I spoke about Anagarika Dharmapala of Sri Lanka, who restored the Buddhist holy places around the turn of the century, and did a great deal toward the revival of Buddhism in the land of its birth. I spoke about Alexandra David-Neel, who was the first woman, a very intrepid woman, to make the journey to Lhasa. And I spoke about Dr B. R. Ambedkar, the great leader of the ex- untouchables, under whose leadership many hundreds of thousands of them took refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. And then I spoke about Lama Govinda, the German lama, a lama of German birth, who for many years concentrated on the subject of 'Tibetan mysticism' as he called it, and wrote a quite important book on the subject. And then finally I spoke about Dr Edward Conze, who had devoted more than twenty years of his life to the translation of the Prajnaparamita corpus of Mahayana sutras.

So all these were truly great Buddhists, great Buddhists of the twentieth century. But one of the things I mentioned in the course of this lecture was the fact that though they were all great Buddhists, they were very, very different in character, very different in background, very different in education, different even in nationality, different in culture. At the same time I also emphasised the fact that they possessed certain very definite and important qualities in common. They were all single-minded.

Dharmapala was single-minded about the restoration of Bodh Gaya and other Buddhist holy places. Alexandra David-Neel was single-minded eventually about getting to Lhasa, which she did, in disguise. Ambedkar was single-minded about emancipating his people - the ex-untouchables - from the socio-religious slavery of many centuries. Lama Govinda was single-minded about getting to Tibet, especially to Western Tibet and the old temples and monasteries of Tsaparang. And Dr Edward Conze was very single-minded in his devotion to the translation of those thirty-odd difficult and abstruse texts of Mahayana Buddhism, the Prajnaparamita sutras.

So they were all single-minded, they were also all fearless. They had courage; they were prepared to face and overcome opposition, even ostracism. And not surprisingly 1 all five of them were quite unconventional in so many different ways. And they were also self-motivated, they were autonomous, they were therefore true individuals. In short we say that all five were heroes, and of course in the case of Madame David- Neel a heroine in the very best sense of the term. And I concluded my lecture those few years ago by saying we needed to cherish our heroes and heroines. Not put people up on a pedestal in an artificial way and then knock them off for the sake of amusement, so to speak. We need to cherish our real, our true heroes and heroines.

We need to admire them, we need to cherish their memory, and we need to rejoice in their merits. So, we needed to appreciate our great Buddhists. But of course it's not only in the twentieth century that great Buddhists are to be found, not by any means.

They are to be found in all of the centuries that have elapsed since the Paranirvana of the Buddha. They are found in many Asian countries, and begin to be found in western countries, speaking different languages, and following different forms of Buddhism.

But there is a difficulty, a difficulty that arises at this point. My five great Buddhists of the twentieth century all lived of course quite recently, and we do know quite a lot about them. Some of them even have written autobiographies. And there are many records even apart from their autobiographies, many documents about them; in fact as I did mention on that occasion when I gave the lecture, I had had some kind of personal contact with every one of those five great Buddhists. But with regard to the great Buddhists of previous centuries the case is in fact very different. We often know very little about them, sometimes in fact the greater they were the less we know about them. Think for instance of Nagarjuna, think of Asanga, how much do we really know about them. Perhaps we've seen thankas; Tibetan painted scrolls, representing them. We see Nagarjuna sitting on his raft floating on the ocean, and we see a sort of mermaid-like figure, a naga princess, coming up from the depths of the ocean and offering him the Perfection of Wisdom sutras. We have that sort of representation.

And in the case of Asanga we have thankas representing Maitreya, the bodhisattva Maitreya looking down from the tushita devaloka, sending down a ray, a beam of multicoloured light, and along that beam of multicoloured light, come teachings, higher spiritual teachings which Asanga then records. So we have these sort of pictures which are very vivid and inspiring even, but we don't have much in the way of concrete information about these great teachers, these great Buddhists of earlier days. We do of course have their writings for which we must be very grateful, and in a sense we can know them, we can know Nagarjuna, we can know Asanga, we can know Vasubhandu, we can know Dharmakirti, Shantideva, through their writings. We can even feel that we know them very well, despite the de-constructionists. We can know what they thought, even how they felt, but there's very little solid biographical information.

Nagarjuna and Asanga of course were Indians; they lived and worked in India. And Indians we have to recognise historically were rather different to biography and history. So far as I recollect in the whole of classical Sanskrit literature there is only one historical work, and that is the Raja-dharangini (?), the ah, the chronicle of the kings of Cashmere. So far as I remember there is no other historical work at all in classical Sanskrit. They cultivated, the ancient Indians, almost every other, you know, form of literature, drama, commentary, sutras in the brahminical sense, drama, philosophical exposition, hymns, they cultivated all those different forms, but not history, not biography. So generally speaking we know about the great Buddhists of 2 India only when they or their disciples come in touch with the countries outside India, or even when they go those countries outside India, or come from those countries outside India. And especially when they go to or come from China and Tibet.

Traditionally the Chinese and the Tibetans are rather fond of biography and history.

The Chinese cultivated those two genres quite intensively, and the Tibetans also, later, under the influence of Buddhism did likewise.

So this evening, to unveil the mystery at last (laughter), this evening I want to speak about a great Indian Buddhist who went to Tibet, who went there in the eleventh century of the Common Era, and who came to play a very, a crucially important part in the development of Tibetan Buddhism, and who is therefore deserving of our highest respect. I refer to Dipankara Srignana (?), generally known as Atisha, which means something like the 'great lord'. Comparatively speaking we do know quite a lot about Atisha. We have of course the Tibetan translations of his own writings. His original writings of course were in Sanskrit, and their colophons sometimes contain biographical information, and we also have several biographies of Atisha written in the Tibetan language by disciples and disciples of disciples. And we also have records in Tibetan of some of his personal teachings to his disciples; not formal teachings, not teachings in the form of treatises, but teachings in the form of what came to be called precepts, teachings suited just to the character, the temperament, the state of spiritual development of that particular disciple. Now it's not that it is possible to extract a straight-forward biographical account from all this material which we have about Atisha, and of course naturally, I was going to say Tibetans being Tibetans, but perhaps I should say Buddhists being Buddhists, there are also plenty of legends. So what I shall try to do this evening is give an outline of the generally agreed facts of Atisha's career both in India and Tibet, and in so doing I shall dwell in particular on those episodes in or features of his career that have a significance for us today. And when I say for us today I mean for people who are trying to practise the Dharma in the industrialised, secularised, urbanised, competitive, consumerist, materialistic, violent society in which at the end of the twentieth century of the common era we find ourselves, fortunately or unfortunately, living.

Atisha was born in the year 982 of the Common Era; that is to say he was born about fifteen hundred years after the Buddha. It is quite important for us to realise this fact; he came at the ...

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