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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 1975Those 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
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
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 virtually outlawed by the official triumphant church
which had in the meantime become the state religion. That was broadly the picture.
But another point is that Christianity during the Middle Ages, certainly the early Middle
Ages, was a much more fluid thing than it afterwards became and there was quite a lot of
doctrine that had not yet been formally defined and so things which became heretical say after
the Council of Trent were not heretical then, or things which afterwards became fixed were
not fixed then. For instance things like the immaculate conception ...

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