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A New Voice - The Unity of Buddhism

by Subhuti

Chapter Two of: Sangharakshita: A New Voice in the Buddhist Tradition, written by Dharmachari Subhuti
and published by Windhorse Publications, 1994 - ISBN Number 0 904766 68 3
The Unity of Buddhism

(Reprinted in this collection with the kind permission of
Dharmachari Subhuti and Windhorse Publications)
[Please no te that whilst diacritic m arks we re used where app rop riate for P ali and Sansk rit terms in the origin al
pub lication, d ue to the lesser tec hnolo gy bein g used to pro duce this bo ok the y have b een o mitted!]
They carved Him out of sandal, chipped from stone
The Ever-moving, cast in rigid bronze
Him Who was Life itself, and made Him sit,
Hands idly folded, for a thousand years
Immobile in the incensed image-house;
They gilded Him till He was sick with gold.
And underneath the shadow of the shrine
They sauntered in their yellow silken robes,
Or - lolled replete on purple-cushioned thrones -
In sleepy stanzas droned His vigorous words
To gentle flutterings of jewelled fans...
Arise, O Lord, and with Thy dust-stained feet
Walk not the roads of India but the world!
Shake from the slumber of a thousand years
Thy dream-mazed fold! Burn as a Fire for men!7
In the late summer of 1942, at the age of sixteen, Sangharakshita had the decisive experience of his life.
On reading the Diamond Sutra he knew for the first time that he was a Buddhist. Sublime as was the
teaching of the Sutra,
I at once joyfully embraced it with an unqualified acceptance and assent. To me the Diam ond Sutra was
not ne w. I had know n it and believed it and realized it ages before and the reading of the Sutra as it were
awoke me to the existence of something I h ad fo rgotten . Onc e I realiz ed tha t I was a Buddhist it seemed
that I had always b een o ne, that it was the most natural thing in the wo rld to b e, and that I had never been
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anything else.
He had a similar response to the Sutra of Hui-neng, a translation of which he discovered at the same time
as the Diamond Sutra. Whenever he read it, he was thrown into a ‘kind of ecstasy’. The impact of these
two spiritual masterpieces has continued to affect him. Recently he has said that he has never seen any
reason to doubt the initial insight they precipitated in him. Indeed, it has been the basis for his whole life,
from that moment on.
Sangharakshita’s discovery that he was a Buddhist and that he had always been one came through direct
contact with the inspired utterance of the Enlightened mind, for, although the Diamond Sutra is almost
certainly not a literal record of the historical Buddha’s teaching, its words clearly emanate from a very
high level of spiritual experience. The Sutra, through paradox and counter-paradox, systematically
negates all the categories of Buddhist thought. It leaves nothing for the rational mind to grasp,
particularly a mind almost entirely unfamiliar with Buddhist doctrine. The prajna-paramita or
‘Perfection of Wisdom’, which is the subject of the Sutra, reveals itself not to the intellect, but only to
the uplifted spiritual imagination. It is all the more remarkable that the sixteen-year-old youth should
have responded as he did.
Before encountering the Sutra, he knew little of Buddhist teaching. He had had no contact with Buddhist
culture and he was not to meet another Buddhist for a further two years. For him, Buddhism was
therefore nothing but the supra-rational insight to which the Diamond Sutra had introduced him.
Buddhism was the Dharma: the pure and undiluted truth about the nature of reality, communicated from
the lips of the Buddha of the Sutra who himself embodied that truth. The Dharma was, for
Sangharakshita, beyond all thought and all culture. In a sense, it was therefore eternal and omnipresent.
This is perhaps partly what he means when he says that the Diamond Sutra was not new to him when
he first heard it.
The Unity of Buddhism Page 1
Extracted from Sangharakshita: A New Voice in the Buddhist Tradition by Dharmachari Subhuti
Sangharakshita’s insight into the meaning of the Diamond Sutra enabled him to see from the outset the
underlying unity of Buddhism. Extraordinary though it may seem, he first perceived the truth of the
Dharma at the point where words dissolve into paradox and the rational intellect is confounded. He saw,
from the first, the entirely transcendental nature of the Buddha’s Enlightenment - transcendent, that is,
over all our normal ways of knowing, accessible only to the eye of Wisdom. If the Dharma is, by its very
nature, beyond all thinking, then no one expression of it can claim to be exhaustive. Words and concepts
can only be ‘fingers pointing to the moon’, as the Zen saying has it: they can only indicate a higher truth
that they can never fully capture. Sangharakshita has therefore always seen the various schools and
traditions as so many attempts to express that single transcendent experience that he first encountered
in the Diamond Sutra. Indeed, his first published work on Buddhism, written at the age of eighteen, was
an article on ‘The Unity of Buddhism’, published in June 1944 in Buddhism in England (now The Middle
Way), the journal of the London Buddhist Society.
Bud dhism ... is not one road to Enlightenment but many - although in a deeper and mor e hidd en sen se all
ways (dharm as) are o ne. It is there fore su ited to all sorts and conditions of minds; the youthful and the
aged, the me lancho ly and the joyful, the simple and the profound; it is the universal way of salvation. In
its all-emb racing unity all the p olarities w hich o ur arb itrary hab its of discrimination have built up since [the]
beginning of time, all distinctions of colour, creed, and social position, of ignorant and learned, even of
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Enlightened and Unenlightened - all these are utterly obliterated.
An understanding of this would seem to be integral to Buddhism itself, yet it has not always been
unequivocally shared by all Buddhists. This is not, in a sense, surprising. In the elaboration of the
Buddha’s original teaching by the different schools, quite diverse, even contrary, teachings and practices
arose. Those divergences were then compounded by transmission through the various cultures of Asia.
It has not been easy to see all Buddhism’s many manifestations as equally striving for the same
transcendental goal. Buddhists have therefore often identified the Dharma with their own particular
brand. Fortunately, such Buddhist sectarianism has been altogether of a milder kind than is often found
in Christianity, yet ignorance of other schools or indifference to them is widespread.
From the very outset of his career as a Buddhist, Sangharakshita did not identify with any particular
school, nor did he conceive of Buddhism in terms of any one of its many cultural forms. This perspective
gave him the freedom of the entire Buddhist tradition. He could draw sustenance and inspiration from
whatever source was available to him, according to his unfolding spiritual needs. Before we examine his
idea of the unity of Buddhism in more detail we must follow him in his encounters with its various
manifestations.
He had begun early on the road to that crucial experience brought to him by the Diamond Sutra. It was
principally his reading that guided him to Buddhism. At the age of eight he was confined to bed for two
years and launched into the world of literature and art. Among other books, he read Charles Kingsley’s
Hypatia, a historical novel about the last of the Neoplatonists in Christian Alexandria. He was deeply
impressed by Kingsley’s description of the trance into which the beautiful Hypatia falls as her soul flies
‘alone to the Alone’. This was his first encounter with the mystical and it made a lasting impression. In
Harmsworth’s Children’s Encyclopaedia he read the lives of the world’s great religious leaders. The
Buddha must have made a particular impression on him, even at this age, for he wrote a life of the great
sage, which he copied in purple ink on his best notepaper. He learnt of Plato too, when he was about ten,
and sent his mother to the local public library for a copy of the Republic, the first work of philosophy
he read.
Although baptised into the Church of England, Sangharakshita received little formal religious education
and his parents put him under no pressure to attend services. Indeed, they themselves showed decidedly
heterodox tendencies and dabbled in some of the more obscure popular religious movements of the time,
such as spiritualism, the Rechabites, the Druids, and Coué’s New Thought. When he was eleven, mainly
for social reasons, he joined the Boys’ Brigade - a quasi-military organisation similar to the Boy Scouts,
formed to encourage the leading of a Christian life. His company was attached to the local Baptist church
and so he began attending Bible classes and Sunday services. Although he did experience some
temporary fervour for the person of Christ, the simple emotionalism of the Baptists made little lasting
impression on him. He was, even then, already thinking for himself on religious matters and said his
daily ...

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