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Transcribing the oral tradition...

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New Zealand 1975 - Questions and Answers

by Sangharakshita


(The Ideal of Human Enlightenment, What Meditation Really Is, The Meaning of Spiritual Community)
Place: Probably at Broomhouse Farm [as jet fighter planes fly overhead - and obscure the speakers' voices -at very regular intervals. Broomhouse farm is/was very close to the runway of an air force base.]
Date: 25-7 July 1975
Those Present: Not noted at the time - those recognized by the transcriber (who was not involved in the FWBO in 1975) are the following: The Venerable Sangharakshita, Vangisa, Lokamitra, Manjuvajra, Marichi, Dhammadinna,
Sagaramati, Siddhiratna

Sangharakshita: Well has anybody any points?

_____: I had one. Are you really saying some teachers say duality is transcendent? ( ) This was talking about the Nature of Enlightenment. 

S: Yes. The Theravada, in fact the Hinayana schools generally, do not use that sort of language, but the Mahayana does. 

_____: ( ) duality? 

S: Well one can say that the Theravada point of view is, as it were, non philosophical, non-metaphysical. They speak of Enlightenment in more, as it were, psychological terms - a state of peace, state of happiness. Also of course a state of wisdom and knowledge, but they don't define the contents of that wisdom and knowledge. The Mahayana does that. At least it is a bit more adventurous in that [2] respect, and does try to bring out more fully in conceptual terms, just what that knowledge is knowledge of, and very often this point is made, that in Enlightenment there is no distinction of subject and object. In other words subject and object are transcended. The Theravada never actually says that in general. So therefore I say that some teachers do say this. One might say it's characteristic of the Theravada that it's much more philosophically reticent than the Mahayana. [Pause] 

_____: Bearing in mind the Dharma as a raft, which I take to mean virtually that the Dharma has to be taught to people in terms of their current conceptions, or misconceptions, why is Buddhism so definitely non-theistic? Do you see what I mean? 

S: Well because there is such a thing as right view and there is such a thing as wrong view. The fact that you speak to people in terms that they understand doesn't mean that you necessarily accept those terms, and you can use their terms by a way of negation. When we say that Buddhism is non-theistic we're speaking the language of theism. For instance to a Buddhist who's been brought up say in Thailand, to call Buddhism a non-theistic religion wouldn't mean anything at all. You'd have to explain first what theism was. Just as it doesn't make much sense to us to speak in terms of Anatmavada, because the sort of view of Atma that the Buddha was negating we don't have any longer. So Anatmavada isn't very meaningful to us. So in the same way non-theism isn't very meaningful to the Thai because he's got no concept of theism. He'll say 'Well the Buddha is the Buddha. What's the need to go in this roundabout way and speak of a non-theistic religion. The Buddha not being god and not being man. Of course he isn't, he's the Buddha!' They know that right from the beginning. So this language of non-theism, describing Buddhism as a non-theistic religion, is for the benefit of the theist or the ex-theist. 

_____: Occasionally you come across passages where the Buddha speaks in a sort of affirmative way about Brahman or Indra. In fact that Brahma Viharas suggest a positive aspect of (theory?) 

S: No, Brahma Vihara - well Brahma in Brahma Vihara means noble, exalted. Brahma is from a root meaning 'great' or 'to grow' or 'to swell', so the Brahma Viharas are the great or the lofty or the noble or the sublime, states of mind. You do get a figure - Brahma, not Brahman, but Brahma, appearing in the Buddhist scriptures along with Indra and Yakkas and so on, but it's always made clear that these beings are, as it were, within the Wheel of Life. These are conditioned beings. They are like human beings but much more powerful, of longer life, and they belong to higher realms of existence, but they are not transcendental. They've nothing to do with Nirvana, nothing to do with Enlightenment. They're all part of the Wheel. There's no reference in the Pali texts to Brahman in the abstract or in the neutral in the Upanishads. And of course in the Upanishads, Brahman is impersonal, not personal. 

_____: If you believe in rebirth and the Bodhisattva is reborn in a non-Buddhist country, this is just speculation, say they're reborn in medieval Europe in a very strictly Christian set up, how would that person go about communicating the Dharma? Wouldn't he have to work within a theistic set up to a certain extent. 

S: Well if he was, let's assume, we don't know whether it ever would happen, the Bodhisattva might not be so foolish to do [Laughter] ... He might consider that the obstacles to communication were insuperable, but supposing he did - if you speculate well I can only speculate too [Laughter] and let's suppose [3] that he did, one can only assume he would be using the language of Christianity against the grain. In a sense he wouldn't be using it very honestly, because as a Bodhisattva he wouldn't be believing in it, so he'd be constantly trying to use the Christian language in a non-Christian sort of way. 

_____: Which is in fact what the mystics often do. 

_____: Yes, but I'm thinking... 

S: Some did. Some seemed quite content to use the Christian language in a Christian sort of way, but we must remember that the middle ages intellectually and spiritually were not as homogeneous as we sometimes think. There were all sorts of very strange movements indeed. For instance, there were in (obscured by passing jet plane!)... though they used quite a lot of Christian language, they used it very much in their own way, and the church usually sat on them rather heavily as quickly as possible and sometimes even suppressed them by force (obscured by passing jet plane!)... 

_____: ... real insight and you're trying to communicate that but can only use some of the terms that were available at the time or would they be... 

S: It does seem like that. One can't generalize. It does seem as though some of them were trying to communicate something which was not really Christian. In a sense one finds that in Blake also, to take a much more recent example. Blake speaks in terms in God and Jesus but it's immediately clear that his God and his Jesus are quite different, and he was conscious of that. He said, "The vision of Christ that thou dost see is my vision's greatest enemy". He is very conscious of the difference. But what led you to speculate in this way? 

_____: I've just been reading (obscured by passing jet plane!)... 

S: ... as it were natural idea for man and the artificial idea for man and the fact that sometimes you feel, reading about these medieval thinkers and mystics, that they were sort of resisting the imposition of what was to them an artificial idea, and were trying to assert an idea which was natural or at least more natural for them. 

Vangisa: A digression to I think another interesting point, and that was the whole artificial annexation of orthodox Christianity on top of a different movement altogether which had been there from the start. In other words Evans-Wentz talks about the esoteric form of Christianity which was completely suppressed at an early stage by the followers of an exoteric form. 

S: I'm not quite happy about that sort of language because... 

Vangisa: This isn't his language. 

S: Yes. It wasn't so much esoteric as well, by the time it was suppressed, minority. They tried to be exoteric, they weren't allowed to be so they became esoteric because they were being persecuted and therefore had to keep their teachings relatively hidden. But you could say that in the beginning - not in the very beginning, we don't know anything about that really - but in the very early ages of the church, Christianity itself, as if were officially, was presented as an esoteric teaching. For instance, in the very early days the Catechumens were not permitted to be present at the celebration of what afterwards became the mass. They had to leave at that point, and only those who had been initiated and had formally accepted the scriptures via adult baptism could stay on for the mass. Others could not even witness it. They had literally to leave and there were door keepers appointed to see that no Catechumens stayed, that [4] they all were ushered out and the door firmly closed before the celebration of the mass began. But then as more and more people came in membership became more and more nominal and theology became more and more crude, and the more subtle spiritual teachings became less and less popular. In the end they were ...

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