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Contents of Mitra Retreat 1985 - Questions and Answers

by Sangharakshita


Devamitra: ... involved in the FWBO for thirteen years and I've been an Order Member for
well over eleven years now and during that period many times I've been introduced as a
speaker by Bhante but one privilege has always evaded me and that has been an opportunity
to get my own back on him. (Laughter). This is the first time I've ever had to introduce
Bhante to an audience. But of course he's someone who proverbially does not need any
introduction whatsoever. He himself has observed more than once on men's events here how
ridiculous or impossible it seems to introduce speakers like Subhuti or Nagabodhi or
Vessantara or Abhaya because they're so well known, everybody knows them. But how much
more impossible is it to introduce Bhante because he's even more renowned than they are. So
without any further ado I'll hand over now to Bhante who's going to very kindly answer your
written questions. (Pause)

Sangharakshita: As I expect you know quite a wide variety of questions have been handed
in and therefore the question arises exactly how one is to deal with them. Is one just to deal
with them at random or is one to try to organise them into various groups or categories.
Usually I try to organise questions into groups or categories so that we're not jumping too
disconcertingly from one topic to another. But I must admit I haven't found it easy to sort out
your questions for this evening into clear cut categories. But I've done my best and I've come
up with a classification into questions dealing with body, questions with speech and questions
dealing with mind. Well some of you may be thinking you can't remember having asked any
questions either about body, speech or your mind [Laughter]. Which goes to suggest that one
isn't to take this classification too literally.

To take the classification in reverse order, under questions relating to mind I've included all
the more, as it were, theoretical questions, or if you like even philosophical questions or
doctrinal questions. And under the category of speech I've included questions about
truthfulness and literalness, literal-mindedness. And under body I've included all sorts of
practical questions. So those are the three categories under which I'm going to consider the
questions that you've handed in.

So first of all, starting with questions which can be classified as dealing with mind or
theoretical questions. These are both traditional and non-traditional and there's a tiny bit of
overlapping in fact. In fact we've got four questions about conditioned co-production. So
let's deal with these first. These are of course quite theoretical. First of all comes two
questions from the same person, I think, or the same group.

"Are conditioned coproduction and creator god mutually exclusive"?

Well the very short answer to that question is that they are. You can't really believe in creator
god and conditioned coproduction at the same time. But perhaps I'd just better offer a few
words of explanation. Perhaps the key term here in a way, is creator god because various
forms of the theism think of god as the creator. The creator of the universe. The creator of
everything mundane, everything that exists. So usually when one thinks in terms of a creator
one thinks in terms of a creation. You think of a first point at which or from which
everything began. Before that there was nothing, that is to say, nothing mundane, nothing
created. If you like there was only god though some theologians will argue that you cannot
even speak in terms of before and after with reference to God. But certainly creation had a
beginning, creation was the beginning.

But if we think in terms of conditioned coproduction there is no beginning, there is no first
beginning, no ultimate beginning, or perhaps I should say, because this qualification is
usually added, no perceptible first beginning. If one thinks of conditioned coproduction one
thinks in terms of a particular phenomenon arising in dependence on another phenomenon
which in its turn has arisen in dependence on another phenomenon which in its turn has
arisen in dependence on another phenomenon and so on back and back and back and back.
And you never come to, you can never perceive, an ultimate first beginning of everything.
You don't come to any point at which the mundane or the 'conditioned' in Buddhist language
issues from the unconditioned. You don't find yourself at any point of ultimate origin or first
beginning or creation.

So for this reason we say that conditioned coproduction and creator god are mutually
exclusive. There is something more that can be said and this relates to that qualification
which I introduced, no perceptible first beginning. Because when you try to go back and
back to that point of first beginning, as you trace your steps, as it were, back and back. As
you trace the sequence of phenomena back and back, it is of course your mind that is tracing.
You are thinking in terms of that process. Your mind as it were accompanies you. So at
every stage however far you go back there's not only the phenomenon arising, there is the
mind which is conceiving of the phenomenon as arising.

If we take this, as it were, philosophy of conditioned coproduction a little further, a little
deeper we see that the phenomenon which arises represents the object, and the mind that
perceives that phenomenon represents the subject, and that there is no object without subject
and no subject without object, no nama without rupa, and no rupa without nama. So this is
why it is said that there is no perceptible first beginning of things. You cannot perceive a first
beginning of things because that would be to perceive, one might say, the non-object. You'd
come back to a point where there was a subject but there was no object. And again according
to Buddhism subject and object are interdependent. Where you get object you get subject,
where you get subject you get object. So you can't go back to a point where you have only
the perceiving subject and not the perceived object. You go back and back and back
indefinitely so long as there is a perceiving subject. The only way that you can cease to
perceive the objective universe is to cease to perceive so to speak the subject that perceives
that universe. In other words you cannot go beyond the object without at the same time going
beyond the subject. And if you eventually do go beyond the subject and the object, or beyond
the object and the subject then you'll be so to speak in a transcendental state, though state isn't
the right word because that's to overly subjective, a state in which the very distinction of
subject and object no longer has any meaning and where the whole concept of origination as
well as cessation has no meaning either.

So this is the standard Buddhist view we may say. So clearly this kind of view, the view of
conditioned coproduction is not compatible with the idea of a creator god. This is just a very
rough outline as it were. So then there's the second question on the same paper goes on to

"How radical was the 'things with its cause view'? Was it new or did it form part of some
philosophical viewpoint prior to the Buddhist enlightenment?"

Well here again the answer is quite simple and straightforward. As far as we know. As far as
the records go, as far as the evidence goes, there was no trace of this way of thinking before
the Buddha's time. We have the Vedas, we have the brahmanas, we have the Upanishads,
though even the oldest of those are now believed by at least some scholars to be post-
Buddhistic rather than pre-Buddhistic, but nowhere in that literature do we find anything like

the view of conditioned coproduction, pratitya-samutpada. And of course from a Buddhist
point of view that is not altogether strange because according to the Pali scriptures, in fact
according to all the Buddhist scriptures the pratitya-samutpada, the conditioned coproduction,
represents the formulation in conceptual terms of the very insight that made the Buddha the
Buddha. So inasmuch as the Buddha became a Buddha at a time, in a place. where no
Buddhas existed, one would not really have expected there to have been any knowledge of
conditioned coproduction inasmuch as that represented the conceptualised expression of the
content of His enlightenment experience.

So as far as is known the philosophy, if one can call it that, of conditioned coproduction is
unique to the Buddha and unique to Buddhism. It represents a quite distinctive point ...

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