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Standing on Holy Ground

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by Sangharakshita

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... a situation, they describe what scholars, mere scholars do when asked 'What is Buddhism?'. They consult the dictionaries, they write books and articles based simply on knowledge of the words of the scriptures. But how do we feel when we get that sort of answer to our question, an answer just based upon words? Well we feel frustrated, sometimes we feel very frustrated indeed, we asked a serious question. Perhaps we really did want to know what Buddhism is. I personally met people who were actually put off Buddhism by the kind of books on Buddhism which they had read. The books were just too dry, too scholarly, too abstract, too academic, so what did they conclude? They concluded Buddhism is not for me. This is much less likely to happen nowadays, nowadays there are good books on Buddhism written by scholars who are also practising Buddhists. I am thinking of works like Reginald Ray's 'Buddhist Saints in India'. But at the time I wrote my poem, well quite a lot of the books on Buddhism that were available were written just by scholars, so naturally people sometimes felt very frustrated. In the biblical phrase they'd asked for bread and been given a stone.

I remember a rather sad case of this sort of thing. It happened soon after the mass conversion to Buddhism of Dr Ambedkhar's followers. I remember I had a very good friend who was himself a follower of Dr Ambedkhar, he was either about my own age or a little older and he was a good friend of mine, I could say I was quite fond of him.

He was a little skinny sort of man, a little bit fiery, and he happened to be a lecturer in Pali in a college in Bombay. So after the mass conversion, he thought we should start up classes on Buddhism in the college where he happened to be teaching and he asked for my cooperation and I agreed to help him. Perhaps I should also mention, just to throw a little light onto the type of person he was, some years later he got into his head that we should do just what the Buddha did, so he decided he'd get married, he'd have one son and then he'd leave his wife and son and become a bikkhu. Well he was a very determined sort of person and, believe it or not, that is exactly what he did. He did get married, he did have one son, I suppose he thought it very lucky it wasn't a daughter, and a little while later he went forth, he became a bikkhu, and I continued to know him as a bikkhu. But that development lay some years in the future.

Anyway we got together a class in Buddhism and it was divided into two parts, and I was supposed to give a little talk on Buddhism in the first part and he was going to teach Pali grammar during the second half. So we got along 30 or 40 people to begin with and we had to start at 8 o'clock because the people who mostly came along were mill workers and they didn't finish work until 8 o'clock in the evening. They were mostly illiterate, they had converted as part of Dr Ambedkhar's programme of mass conversion, they didn't know anything about Buddhism, some of them hardly knew how and why they'd been converted but anyway they thought they should know something about Buddhism, they really did want to know. So we had them coming along. So I gave my little talk and then afterwards my friend the professor, the lecturer in Pali, he would start giving his lesson in Pali grammar, and he used to go on and on and on. After a few weeks my Dharma talk got squeezed out completely, it was Pali grammar and Pali grammar, Pali grammar, because he thought the Buddhist scriptures are written in Pali, (because he was a Theravadin), and if you want learn Buddhism you've got to read the Pali scriptures, and if you want to read the Buddhist scriptures, well you've got to know Pali and if you want to know Pali, well you've got to do the grammar. He was very logical and a very determined person so here he was night after night hammering away at the Pali grammar. He used to make these people, these poor tired men, after a full day's work, recite all these declensions and conjugations and get them all by heart. He drilled them like anything and afterwards he'd say to me 'Ah Sangharakshita, I love teaching Pali grammar'. But the result was, after a few weeks nobody came anymore. Nobody came anymore.

So I thought this really does illustrate, in a very graphic way, at a very basic level, the sort of thing that I've been talking about. These people wanted bread, well they wanted roti, they wanted chapati, but my friend, with the best of intentions, he only gave them a stone. At that stage he was just a scholar, a very good one, he knew his Pali grammar back to front, he was ablaze with enthusiasm when he was doing all this declining and conjugating but the others just didn't catch afire. So we lost, he lost all those students who might have imbibed something of the Dharma, they must have felt really quite puzzled as to what was going on, the must have felt a bit frustrated, even a bit angry. If they did, well, I wouldn't blame them. So that's the sort of situation that I envisage in the next lines of the poem. The scholarly abstract books haven't answered our questions, they haven't told us what Buddhism really is so we throw them aside, get rid of them, or we don't come to the Pali grammar class anymore. We may even want to burn those books, I was going to say, those Pali grammar books, but I don't think those poor people even got so far as to even look into a Pali grammar book, well most of them couldn't read anyway. So we feel more and more frustrated if we're in that sort of situation until "we wish in all sincerity, a second burning of the books could be". That's putting it rather strongly of course, but it is after all, a poem not prose but if we are deeply disappointed we do feel strongly. I forget which particular burning of the books I had in mind when I wrote this particular poem. It may have been the burning of the books which took place in China 213BCE, under Shin Hwang Te. It may have been that which took place in India in 1197 CE when the Turkish Muslim invaders sacked the great monastic university of Nalanda Mahavihara, that great library with all those treasures of Buddhist literature, sutras and shastras and other works in palm leaf manuscripts, which is said to have burned for six whole months. There must have been hundreds of thousands of valuable works consumed. So for the purpose of the point it doesn't really matter which particular burning of the books I had in mind and in any case, nowadays we're faced by a rather different problem. Nowadays we're not frustrated because we get stone instead of bread. Nowadays we get too much bread. That is to say, there are too many good books on Buddhism available. Books that we would like to read, maybe quite scholarly, but based on a certain amount of spiritual experience. Also, there are really too many reliable translations, too many in the sense that there are more of them than we really have time to read.

So let me make just a few suggestions as I'm sure quite a few of you must find yourselves nowadays in this sort of position. So first suggestion, read, if you possibly can, books written by Buddhists, books in which scholarship is subordinated to understanding and practice and experience of the Dharma. Second suggestion, read books that concentrate on the basic Buddhist teachings, on the Four Noble Truths, on the Noble Eightfold Path, on conditioned co-production, on the Bodhisattva Ideal, the Bodhisattva path and so on. Don't bother with material dealing with obscure schools and teachings. Third suggestion, read Buddhist scriptures. One gets the impression that some Buddhists, not necessarily within the FWBO, read almost anything except the Buddhist scriptures, so read the Pali canonical texts. Read the Digha Nikaya, the Majhima Nikaya, the Dhammapada, the Sutta Nipata the Udana and read the great Mahayana sutras. The Pali texts will give you a vivid idea of the actual life of the Buddha, give you a vivid idea of the Buddha as a historical person, as a historical personality, living in India about 500 before the common era, the kind of conditions under which he lived and worked and taught and associated with his disciples. The Mahayana sutras, some of them at least will give you an impression, a very vivid impression, very often, of the grand, as it were, archetypal background of Buddhism.

The Mahayana sutras are full of inspiring, archetypal imagery. They transport one, so to speak, to other worlds, worlds full of light and colour and music and beauty, far transcending the world in which we live, but of which nonetheless our world, at its best, in the person of some human individuals, can be at least a distant reflection. So we shouldn't even just read the scriptures by ourselves or to ourselves. We should sometimes at least read them aloud, read them perhaps in a ritual context so that the reading of the scriptures becomes a definite spiritual exercise in itself. And then, fourth suggestion, select, even specialise. I think this is particularly important, especially from the practical point of view. Some of us read far too much, which sometimes means we read hastily and superficially. And when I say some of us read far too much I'm afraid I have to include myself in this category, but fortunately, some years ago, I had a lucky escape because I spent twelve whole years in Kalimpong and I didn't have access to many books, including books on Buddhism.

For one thing, I didn't have the money to buy them. If I spent two rupees on a book, well that was quite a big item of expenditure. And of course, in the area in which I lived, there was no public library, but somehow I managed to collect, I managed to put together, I managed to build up a small collection of books, mainly on Buddhism, perhaps a hundred volumes and those hundred volumes are the nucleus of the present Order library. Most of these, most of these hundred volumes ...

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