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New Zealand 1975 - Questions and Answers

by Sangharakshita

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... of the Virgin Mary - not
the Virgin Birth but the immaculate conception of Mary herself - this was a matter of opinion
all through the Middle Ages. Some saints and doctors believed it, others didn't, but it was
fixed only much later on.
So there's quite a bit that was tolerated during the Middle Ages until at least the Fourteenth
Century when the inquisition was started. It was certainly not tolerated later on. People like
Joachim of Flora(?) were never excommunicated though the speculations were almost
certainly heretical. But what eventually triumphed was doctrinal Christianity in its narrowest
and most exclusive form. That became the norm unfortunately, and it's only in very recent
days, only within the last twenty or thirty years that there's been any let up. A lot has
happened during the last twenty or thirty years.
_____: So it's been an artificial ideal imposed for a long time would you say? Doesn't
Christianity arise from a natural ideal?
S: Not in the Buddhist sense.
_____: So if the natural ideal is something which is the potential in man which one is trying
to realize, then it seems strange that for so long such a large part of the world hasn't been able
to function at all.
S: I think it is partly due to the historical situation - the collapse of the Roman Empire,
invasion of the Barbarians, need to conserve for many centuries rather than to create, and the
nature of Christianity itself as a theistic religion, and I think one can never get round this, that
it is a theistic religion.
_____: So there's always likely to be conflict within that as people naturally want to have a
natural ideal, if you see what I mean.
S: It does seem that in the very early ages there was some possibility of there being a quite
reasonable, as it were, form of Christianity, but that just never developed. It was suppressed
and a quite different form of Christianity, which was equally Christianity, succeeded in
_____: What about the idea of the imitation of Christ? Was that an outlet for the ideal?
S: No, this idea of imitation of Christ is rather different, and pertains as much to externals as
to real spiritual qualities, and especially identification with Christ and his sufferings, which
can sometimes become a bit unhealthy almost.
One can't help feeling when reading the history of Christianity, reading the history of Europe,
that Christianity confused the issue [5] for many, many centuries, and then there was this
attitude towards indigenous beliefs, customs, traditions, especially in Northern Europe, and
the local culture was completely suppressed.
Vangisa: What was the psychological basis (jet plane obscures words!) of the need for
something like Christianity. Quite clearly it's existence ... and this need doesn't seem to be
have any sound psychological basis...
S: I think one has to recognize that in the Dark Ages, Christianity did perform a very
important cultural function. At the time of the collapse of the Roman Empire it was only the
bishops, it was only the church, that had any authority, and that were in the position to
enforce some sort of law and order, to give some sort of security, and they also carried on the
tradition of learning, and for centuries the clergy were the learned class. So I think there's this
very important cultural function of the church which shouldn't be underestimated.
After the collapse of the Roman Empire there were vast tracts of Europe which became
depopulated and there was virtual anarchy, and the church was the one strong institution, and
it certainly, in many ways, upheld a quite noble ideal. The bishops were constantly trying to
stop local wars, and to enforce what they called 'the peace of God' and they gradually
managed to get all these different feudal chiefs to agree at least first of all not to fight on
Sundays, then not to fight on holy days and then not to fight after such and such time of day.
Yes, this was a long process, and it was the church mainly that did put a stop to this constant
local warfare, and the monasteries played a very important part in colonizing the fresh areas
and developing agriculture and so on. So there was a very important cultural function of the
Vangisa: There was a very interesting point you mentioned when you were talking about
monasteries. It would seem that certainly for a long period, a person who wished to try to lead
a spiritual life had to get away, completely get away, from the social environment completely
conditioned by the church as an institution into a different kind of environment. A different
aspect of the Christian church as an institution, the monastery as opposed to the town
whatever it might be. In other words there had to be a way out of normal Christian society
into something else. In normal Christian society you weren't leading a spiritual life if you
wanted to.
S: No, we must be very careful here because the church didn't demand you should lead a
spiritual life in the Buddhist sense. If you were a Christian layman and if you attended church,
if you confessed and if you participated in the sacrament, then that was sufficient. You were
assured of heaven. That was enough. No, I think that the main difficulty from the point of
view of Christianity was a sort of devaluation of man. Not speaking of man as something
which was admittedly imperfect but could develop, but speaking of man as something very
very badly spoiled by sin, and virtually irredeemable except by the sacrificial death of Christ.
I think this was the way in which Christianity mainly imposed a, not exactly artificial ideal -
you could hardly call it an ideal - but made you devalue yourself, or did devalue and made
you participate or accept that devaluation, and then sort of exacerbated this to a point where
you feel really desperate and need someone to redeem you from this terrible state of sin, into
which the church had got you, as it were. And this is what I found the Christian missionaries
in India insisting most on, and they used to complain about the Indians, especially the
Nepalese - 'they had no sense of sin'. This was their great point. 'These people have got no
sense of sin.' They used to say that you are hardly human unless you had a sense of sin.
So being convinced that you are a sinner is quite a different thing [6] from just seeing, quite
objectively, that you are a weak and imperfect and faulty person who is in need of a great deal
of development. It's a quite different thing. So it's as though Christianity didn't so much give
man an ideal - that is to say give man as he is an ideal, but it sort of depressed him first and
then offered an ideal, as it were, which was a way out of the state that they put him into
themselves to begin with. It was much more like that. It's like putting someone in prison and
then presenting yourself as that person's deliverer from prison. That isn't exactly an ideal for
that person, to be delivered from prison, because he shouldn't have been there in the first
place anyway. No doubt Christianity, to be fair, does say that man was created perfect by god
and then fell, but the emphasis was always on the fallen state and that was the present state,
that man as he is now is a fallen creature, he's a sinner and cannot do anything for himself and
he has to be redeemed. So in this way, one can say, the ideal which Christianity offered was
not so much an artificial one but a distorted one. Whereas Buddhism says well yes, man is
blind, man is ignorant, man is full of craving, he is selfish, but he can transform himself - the
seeds of goodness are there. He's not completely evil by any means.
So the ideal consists in urging man to live up to what is best in himself and to develop what is
best in himself, and the Christians don't like this sort of approach. I remember when I was in
Kalimpong I gave a lecture once to a local Bengali cultural institute. It must have been in
1950, and some Seventh Day Adventist missionaries attended - they were Americans and they
wanted to know what I had to say, I knew one or two of them - so they listened very carefully
and I was speaking about Buddhism, about Buddhahood and Buddhist life in my usual way -
It's not changed I'm afraid in twenty five years! [Laughter] I heard them discussing my lecture
afterwards and I heard them describing it as 'naturalism'. That's the term which they used. In
other words there was nothing supernatural. There was no need for redemption from sin or
anything like that. That man by his own human efforts can improve himself and realize the
truth - this is naturalism, according to them, as against supernaturalism. So they clearly felt
that when they described my lecture as naturalism well that was that, they'd classified it quite
neatly and obviously there wasn't anything in it worthwhile from their point of view.
_____: They'd more or less made it humanistic.
S: Yes, right, yes. Though of course Buddhism isn't humanism in the western humanistic
Lokamitra: Does this come from Christ's teachings himself or a feeling the need to spread the
S: Well one must say that, in the gospels themselves, the emphasis of Christ does not seem to
be on man as a sinner. This seems to have come much more with Paul, who is said to be
responsible for many things. But, as far as one can make out, and there aren't very many
sayings of Christ - only about three hundred in all - he did not emphasize the ...

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