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Looking Ahead a Little Way

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by Sangharakshita

... such, a Samyaksambuddha as such, is one who re-discovers the path of enlightenment after it has been lost to humanity.

Christianity and Buddhism thus have two different versions, two different visions of history, of the historical process. The Christian vision, we may say, is a linear vision. It begins with creation and the fall of man and it reaches it's climax in the life and death of Christ, and ends with the last judgement. Before the creation and after the last judgement there is, so to speak, there is only eternity. This linear vision of history has dominated Western thought at least since the rise, since the time of the rise, of Christianity, and in modern times that same linear vision finds expression in Marxism.

Marxism can be described, in fact has been described, from a certain point of view as a secularised version of the Christian linear vision of history. And this linear vision, this linear vision of history, underlies modern notions of indefinite progress. Certain happenings in the present century however have rather undermined those notion of the indefinite progress of the human race, the indefinite progress of civilisation. We are less confident now than we used to be, say a hundred years ago, that the history of mankind is the history of uninterrupted progress on all fronts. We realise now that there can be regression, there can be a falling back to an earlier, primitive, even less civilised state of development.

So this linear vision of history is also shared by Islam. For Islam too, history is a single story so to speak, with a definite beginning and a definite end. Its' climax is not of course the life of Jesus Christ, even though Muslims do have the greatest respect for Jesus Christ, short of recognising him as the incarnate son of God. For Muslims the climax of the historical process is the life of Mohammed and the revelation of the Koran six hundred years after the appearance of Christ. For Muslims the turning point in history is the Hijra, Mohammed's departure from Mecca to Medina in 622 of the Common Era.

Of course both the Christian and the Muslim visions of history have roots in Judaism. One may therefore speak of the linear vision of history as the Semitic vision. It is the vision common to all three Abrahamic religions, or Abrahamic faiths, that is to say, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, as well as to Marxism and much of modern thought.

The Buddhist vision of history is, on the contrary, a cyclical vision. Buddhism sees history as proceeding not in a straight, or relatively straight line, certainly not in a single line. It sees it as proceeding in a succession, a series of cycles. Within each of these cycles there is a process of growth, maturity and decay, and this cyclical process Buddhism sees as applying not only to human history - Buddhism sees this process as applying to the whole world. It sees it as applying in fact to the whole universe. It sees it indeed as applying to the whole of phenomenal existence, or to what Buddhists traditionally call samsara. It sees phenomenal existence, it has , so to speak, a vision of phenomenal existence as being like a great ocean, an ocean without beginning and without end, an ocean without limit, without boundaries. And upon this great ocean, this infinite ocean, millions upon millions of waves are constantly rising and constantly falling, and these waves are universes or worlds. And upon these waves that are universes, that are worlds, there are millions upon millions of smaller waves, rising and falling. And these waves are civilisations, or empires or religions or nations or individuals. These too are constantly rising and falling, these too are undergoing the process of growth, maturity and decay.

Now here there is a remarkable point: Christianity and Islam both see themselves as continuing, triumphantly, or perhaps not so triumphantly, to the end of time, that is, to the last judgement.

Judaism presumably sees itself as continuing until the coming of the Messiah. Buddhism however sees itself as an organised religion, as the sasana, as an institution, as subject to the same cyclical process as everything else. Buddhism too, as an organised religion, is born, develops, matures, declines and dies. Many Buddhist texts predict or purport to predict this decline, and indeed in many parts of the Buddhist world it has come to pass, this decline has come to pass.

It has come to pass centuries ago in central Asia, in India and in Indonesia, which once had thriving Buddhist cultures and civilisations. In all these areas Buddhism has passed through the complete cycle. In more recent times Buddhism has seriously declined in China and Tibet, as well as elsewhere in the East to an extent. In the Buddhist East as a whole we may say, Buddhism has been in decline for at least a thousand years, which is a very sobering thought. This is not to say that individual Buddhists and even perhaps small groups of Buddhists, here and there, have not passed, have not pursued the path to Enlightenment, have even pursued it to the very end. But there have been fewer and fewer such individuals and little groups, and Buddhism itself has had for centuries less and less influence on the surrounding civilisation and culture.

But the cyclical process is a complex one. As I've said, there are waves upon waves, there are smaller waves upon bigger waves, there are cycles within cycles. and upon the back of a larger wave which is falling there may be a smaller wave that is rising. Within a cycle of decay, within what is overall a cycle of decay, there may be a cycle of growth. In other words we see arising within Buddhism, declining Buddhism, we see movements of revival and reform. And those movements usually are associated with the life and work of a great, prominent, outstanding individual. Thus in Tibet we have the outstanding figure, the outstanding achievement of Atisha, the founder of the Kadampa tradition. In Japan there is Hakuin, the revitaliser of Rinzai Zen. In more recent times in China there is the remarkable figure of the abbot Tai Tsu(?), who did so much for the revival of Buddhism in that country after the collapse of the Manchu(?) dynasty.

So much indeed that he is known to Chinese Buddhists as Bodhisattva Tai Tzu.

During the present century, Buddhism has been on the whole in decline. We all know what has happened in China and in Tibet. There it has been openly attacked by the forces of militant Marxism. And elsewhere in the East it has been undermined by the process of industrialisation and urbanisation. It's also been weakened by the inroads of Christianity. To such an extent indeed that some of the Buddhist leaders in some of the traditionally Buddhist countries have become seriously alarmed. Thus in the present century the wave of Buddhism in the world on the whole has been falling. But on the back of that wave there are smaller waves, some of them very small indeed, and those waves are rising. Two of those waves are, I believe, of particular importance and significance. One of these waves has arisen in India, where Buddhism has been virtually dead for nearly a thousand years, and the other has arisen in the West, in Europe and the Americas, where Buddhism was unknown until very, very recently.

The FWBO, including the WBO, is part of that wave. It is also part of the wave that has arisen in India, where of course it is known as the TBMSG. One could say also that the two waves, the Western wave and the Indian, are made up of a multitude of smaller waves. The FWBO/TBMSG would then be one of those smaller waves. We would be one of those smaller waves. Of course, we would not be one of those waves in any `collective' (with single inverted commas) sense because the FWBO/TBMSG is itself made up of hundreds, even thousands of waves. Those waves are the different chapters, city centres, country retreat centres, communities, team based right livelihood businesses, choirs etc. There are even the individual Order Members, mitras, friends, all of whom are I trust, undergoing on the whole a process of growth and upward development, or are making, in other words, some progress up the spiral path. That progress will be made of course by their consciousness, their citta for want of a better term - their physical body may be in a process of decline. If that is the case, and it will be the case sooner or later for all of us, our attitude should be that of the poet William Butler Yeats who says: An aged man is but a paltry thing A tattered coat upon a stick Unless soul clap its' hands and sing And louder sing for every tatter of its' mortal dress.

As Buddhists, as men and women who have Gone for Refuge to the Three Jewels, we have every reason to clap our hands and sing, both literally and metaphorically, whatever the state of our mortal dress may be.

But to return to my image of the wave. There are big waves and small waves, and very small waves, but they are all composed of water. All the waves of the ocean are composed of water, just water, H2O, without salt! And in the same way, all the different sects and schools and traditions and forms of Buddhism are composed of - well, Buddhism. Composed of the Dharma.

They are all expressions, under different conditions and circumstances, of the Dharma. Some of them are comprehensive in scope, some are more limited. Some are one-sided in one way or another, but all are manifestations of the Dharma, all are part of the great wave that we call Budhism. All have the taste of liberation.

And the FWBO/TBMSG is part of that wave. Or rather is part of a part of that wave. It is part of a wave that is rising. Rising that is in the West and in India. As such, it has a lot in common with those waves, both the large and the small. It has teachings and practices in common. Among those teachings are those of the three marks of ...

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