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Standing on Holy Ground

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by Sangharakshita

191: Standing on Holy Ground

A couple of years ago I happened to find myself in Berlin. It was probably just my second or perhaps my third visit and of course I was visiting the British Gate, not the Brandenburg Gate but the Buddhist Gate. The Buddhist Gate is of course the name which has been given to our FWBO Centre in Berlin, apparently we could not call it the Berlin Buddhist centre because there was already a Berlin Buddhist Centre so it was decided by those responsible that our FWBO Buddhist Centre should be called the Buddhist Gate. I was there just for a few days, I was meeting people, doing a bit of sightseeing but of course inevitably before very long someone asked me if I would mind doing something for the Order Members and mitras, just for them. So I thought it over for some reason or other I didn't want to give a full-blown lecture, I didn't exactly want to give a poetry reading because after all it was Germany and even though so many people in Germany do speak excellent English it didn't seem quite fair to inflict a reading of English poetry on them especially not mine. So I decided that I would try a little experiment, I thought I would do something that I hadn't ever done before and just see how it worked out, whether people took to it or not. Well I said I didn't intend reading my own poetry but in a way that's what I ended up doing, but not reading lots of poems but reading just one of my own poems and explaining it line by line at some length. So this was the experiment I decided to undertake, to just take one of my poems, a short one, and explain it line by line, just go into it, it was after all a quite informal sort of occasion, so you may be wondering which poem did I choose to read and comment upon. Well the poem was the one which is included in my Complete Poems, the one called just 'Meditation', the one beginning 'here perpetual incense burns'. I read this poem, I explained it line by line, I had a very good translator in Anomarati, and I believe we really did go into that poem and the response from our German friends was very very positive, and I concluded that my little experiment had been quite successful. In fact I think I was quite surprised at how successful it had been. But not only that, there was something else. As I explained the poem, line by line, I think I took about 45-50 minutes to do so, its only a short poem as some of you may remember, I was surprised to find how much in fact there was to explain. I was surprised, even though I myself had written the poem, I was surprised how much there really was in the poem, and I think I can say that in the course of that 45-50 minutes, by way of explaining that poem line by line, by way of commenting on it, I managed to bring out, to draw out practically the whole of Buddhism. Because I hadn't really expected to do that and this of course gave me food for thought and I thought about it quite a lot afterwards in fact I've thought about it quite a lot since.

That little experiment made me appreciate, made me realise, that the poet or the artist, is not always conscious of exactly what he is doing, what he is saying, at least not always fully conscious of that. That is no doubt why Plato in The Phaedras(?) speaks of poetic inspiration being a kind of madness, a madness that comes from the Muses, it doesn't come from you, not you in your ordinary everyday, Quotidian(?) selfhood. Now when I wrote that poem, when I wrote 'Meditation', I didn't consciously or deliberately try to put all of Buddhism into it. I wasn't even really trying to write about Buddhism, it was a poem about meditation, it was a poem based, I suppose, on my own experience of meditation at that time. But none the less, though I hadn't tried consciously or deliberately to put any Buddhism into it, nethertheless if one looked closely enough, deeply enough, there was quite a lot of Buddhism in it. I managed to draw out so to speak, well practically the whole of Buddhism, certainly all the fundamental principles so far as I can remember, and last year I had a similar kind of experience. As you probably know, I get lots and lots of letters, people send me all kinds of things, they send me cards of course and little presents, loads and loads of cards, they send me photographs, they send me very very long letters at times, they also send their theses from time to time, their MA and their PhD theses and one of them I remember was on some obscure branch of chemistry.

The young man sent it to me, well I looked at it, I can't say that I read it, I don't think I could have understood it even if I had read it, but I think it is very nice that people think of me in this way, that they send even their thesis on some obscure field of chemistry.

But anyway, on this occasion, a young man in Finland sent me a copy of his MA thesis on one of my own poems and the poem was 'Hercules and the Birds'. Of course the thesis was written in Finnish which at first was rather frustrating, here was this fairly fat little volume, and Finnish is a totally different language, you can't make out a word, even if you know French and German and Italian and the rest you can't make out Finnish, it is really beyond you. So here I was with this tantalising thesis knowing that it was on my own poem, 'Hercules and the Birds' and I couldn't understand a word of it but fortunately someone came to the rescue, Sridevi came to my rescue and she very kindly sent me a summary of the thesis in English and when I read the summary, I must say I really was astonished because this young man writing this thesis had seen in my poem all sorts of things that I had not consciously put there. I had to admit when I read Sridevi's summary that those things definitely were there, I couldn't deny it. So I couldn't help thinking, remembering my Plato, when I wrote 'Hercules and the Birds', well was I mad? Or was I mad when I wrote 'Meditation'? Did they just come from the muses? Well perhaps I was just a little bit mad at the time, hopefully. But mad or not, this evening I am going to repeat the Berlin experiment, I am going to explain one of my poems, I am going to try to see what it was that I put into it without really knowing at the time what I was doing. I am not going to explain the poem 'Meditation', I've chosen another poem, I've chosen a poem called 'The Scholars'. I wrote this poem in Kalimpong in 1957, and you may or may not remember it, even if you have worked your way through the 'Complete Poems'.

Even if you remember it, I'm pretty sure you don't know it by heart so I am going to begin by reading the poem. It is relatively short. It is called 'The Scholars'.

Asked 'What is Buddhism?', off they go, Consult the dictionaries, row on row, Sanskrit, Tibetan, Pali - German too, As though it was the only thing to do, Until we wish in all sincerity, A second Burning of the Books could be.

Have they no other word for sick souls full Of doubt than 'Read my latest article'? Off with the shoes! 'Tis Holy ground! Depart! Buddhism's in the life and in the heart.

So that's the poem. I can't remember exactly the circumstances but 1957, the year in which I wrote it was the 2500th anniversary of the Buddha's Parinirvana and that was being celebrated all over the Buddhist world and especially it was being celebrated in India, there were all sorts of celebrations of different kinds, and I myself participated in some of them, as you may remember from the pages of my memoirs, and of course, in that year, many many books on Buddhism were published. Perhaps not surprisingly, these books were of rather varying quality. Some were good, some were bad and some were so-so. Quite a number of them, I'm afraid, were really rather dry, not only dry, but they very often showed a complete lack of any real understanding of the Dharma. I think at that time, I must have read at least some of these books. I think that some of them must have, shall I say, rather annoyed me, hence the poem. I must have written it in a mood of some annoyance, but before I go on to explain it line by line, I want to say just a few words about the actual title, the title being of course, 'The Scholars'.

Dr Johnson, in his famous dictionary, distinguishes four meanings of the term 'scholar'. One, the scholar is 'one who learns from a master'; a scholar is a disciple.

Two, a scholar is 'a man of letters'. Three, a scholar is 'a pedant, a man of books'.

And four, a scholar is 'one who has had a lettered education'. According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, the primary meaning of the word is 'a learned person, especially in language, literature etc., an academic'. In the poem I am speaking of a certain type of scholar, corresponding more or less to Dr Johnson's pedant or man of books, and of course I am speaking of a certain type of Buddhist scholar, or rather perhaps I should say a certain sort of scholar in Buddhism, that is to say, I am speaking of someone, perhaps, who is learned in the history, the doctrine, the development, the archaeology and so on of Buddhism. Who knows perhaps the canonical languages and literature of Buddhism, literature in Pali, Sanskrit, Chinese, Tibetan and so on, and who holds perhaps a teaching post in a university, in other words I am speaking of someone who is an academic in the field of Buddhism. And of course, such a person may not regard himself as a Buddhist. Sometimes you might find that the scholar is even somewhat hostile to Buddhism, but none the less you might find him teaching Buddhism at university level, you might even find him writing books and articles on the subject and he may even be regarded as an authority on Buddhism and it is with scholars of this type that my poem is concerned. That is to say is concerned with those who know a lot about Buddhism intellectually but who have little or no actual experience of it. That is to say, those who know a ...

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