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Combined Convention 1991 - Questions and Answers

by Sangharakshita


1991 Combined Convention
Questions and Answers with Dharmacharinis

Held at:

Sibford School, Banbury, Oxfordshire


10th August 1991
Those Present:
The Venerable Sangharakshita and Dharmacharinis of the Western Buddhist

Sangharakshita: When I first suggested that I should meet together with you all this afternoon it
wasn't that I had anything in particular to say. I just thought it would be a good idea if I could just
take a good look at you all together [Laughter] because I don't think it has happened before that -
well it definitely hasn't happened before - that we've had so many Dharmacharinis in one spot. You
might have had more on the Women's Convention, I don't know. But certainly this is the first time
I've seen so many Dharmacharinis together so while it is good to meet you from time to time
individually it's also good I think to see you from time to time collectively, just as it's nice just to
have one flower in a little glass of water but it's also nice to see a whole flower-bed! [Laughter]
Dozens and dozens of flowers all blooming side by side. So as I say it wasn't that I had anything in
particular to say but just to see
you all together. But I did also suggest that if there were any questions arising out of, or left over
from, the Dharmacharinis' Convention well we might talk about those.

So Dhammadinnā has in fact handed me quite a few questions, though it wasn't specifically my
intention to have a sort of question and answer meeting, if you see what I mean. But I will deal with
a few of these questions. I have just had time to look through them and there are one or two that I do
in fact find quite interesting - I think probably for quite subjective reasons [Laughter] - but you
probably won't mind a little subjectivity anyway! [Laughter] I'm not going to be able to get through
them all. You see there's quite a stack, but some of them, yes, are quite interesting to me personally,
so I think I'll at least talk about some of them but please don't get the impression that here is Bhante
giving the answer to each question and thereby putting a stop to any discussion that might otherwise
have taken place.

I'll take up some nice easy ones first. There's a question here:
"Did you ever meet Madam Alexandra David-Neel, and if so what were your impressions?"

Well I never actually met her but I did correspond with her. I started corresponding with her in 1950,
and if you've ever had access to back numbers of 'Stepping Stones', you would have noticed that
there's a contribution from her there which she sent me. I can't remember what it was called. It is a
long time ago, but yes she sent this article and later on when I was editing 'The Maha-Bodhi Journal'
I asked her for contributions. She had in fact many many years earlier contributed to 'The Maha-
Bodhi Journal', and we were in correspondence. I had a number of letters from her. I'm afraid those
letters disappeared from my files in Kalimpong - I think it was during a landslide while I was in
England so I don't have that correspondence, but she was a very very old lady when she wrote to me.
She was probably in her nineties. But she did write a very clear, firm hand and one certainly

wouldn't have thought from her letters that she was so old. I do believe that she died in her
hundredth or hundred and first year retaining all her faculties to the end. She settled in the French
Alps at a place called - I'm not sure how you pronounce it - Digne. She settled there, at first with her
adopted lama son, and then of course she remained there for many many years after his death until
her own death.

So I did have some kind of contact with her. So the impression I got from her letters, and also from
her writings, was of a very strong minded determined sort of lady - no doubt about that - but I can't
really say very much more than that. So so much for Alexandra David-Neel. There has been a
biography of her recently published, hasn't there. Some of you may have seen that. I did see reviews
of it but some of reviewers seemed to think it didn't quite do justice to the more Buddhistic side of
her life.

Anyway so much for that. Now another fairly easy one.
"Do you think the native American Indian traditions have anything to contribute to our
practice as true individuals e.g. considering the consequences of a major decision down
seven generations; seeing the environment as a living entity etc."

I think I'll deal with these two more specific questions in reverse order. Seeing the environment as a
living entity. I think this is quite important and of course it means mainly, I imagine, the living
environment in the sense of other living things, both vegetable and animal. Being more aware of the
natural world, and while I'm not quite sure what the different American Indian traditions have to say
about this there's no doubt that in Buddhism itself, especially say in the Pali Buddhist literature, one
does find a very definite, a very strong, awareness of the natural world, of the environment.
Sometimes of course expressed in what we would regard as a mythological form. In the Pali
scriptures you don't just meet the Buddha and his disciples. You don't just meet men and women,
don't even just meet human beings and animals. You meet all sorts of spirits. You meet especially all
sorts of tree spirits and flower spirits and so on. So you are made very much aware of trees and
flowers as really living things. They are living in a quasi-human sort of way, and I think this sort of
consciousness is diffused very strongly all through the Pali scriptures. And when you get a selection
from Pali texts, that element, that aspect, is usually edited out. You just get the Buddha's teaching,
but you don't get much of the context within which the Buddha gave that teaching. Occasionally it's
touched upon as when we're told well the Buddha was born in the open air, and while his mother was
holding onto the branch of a tree. That the Buddha gained Enlightenment in the open air sitting
under a tree. And also passed away between the twin sala trees.

So we can see just from this simple example that the Buddha himself was in close contact with
nature, and we mustn't forget that he and his disciples were wandering for eight or nine months of the
year. They weren't wandering through city streets, they were wandering from one village to another
through the jungles in much the same way that I described in my little story 'The Cave', in the much
the same way that I described Sumana wandering during his wandering period, and of course I
myself had something of that experience during my own wandering days.

So in the Buddha's day his disciples were always wandering along these forest paths, and you get a
very strong impression of this especially in the Theri and Theragathas, the songs of the elder monks
and elder nuns, the Theras and Theris, that they are listening to the birds and hearing the rustle of the
leaves. It was a much more common sound so far as they were concerned than the sound of traffic or

human voices; and there's a very beautiful poem - I forget whether it's by a Thera or a Theri, where
the monk or nun, whoever it is, is just watching the flight of white cranes, I think it was, across in
front of a dark blue cloud and noticing the contrast of the colours. The pure white and the deep, dark
blue. You get little touches of that sort.

So in the Pali scriptures you are very much aware of the natural background, and it's not inert nature,
it is alive nature, it is animated nature. So I think that this element is there in the Buddhist tradition.
We need it very badly today as everybody knows, and if it can be reinforced by recourse to native
American Indian traditions, well so much the better. I know some people do find those particular
traditions quite attractive.

All right what about, 'anything to contribute to our practice as true individuals, e.g. considering the
consequences of a major decision down seven generations.' But that's not so easy. [Laughter] I mean
the general principle is clear. It really means just realise that actions have consequences. What you
do now will affect not only your own future life, it'll affect the lives of future generations, even down
to seven generations. But can you really plan for that? I mean some of you have got children, have
you even been really able to plan their lives? Did you even know you were going to have them?!
[Laughter] What to speak of other factors. So I think there's a bit if hyperbole here, a bit of sort of
meaningful exaggeration, that when coming to any conclusion ...

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