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A Survey of Buddhism - Chapter 1 Sections 8 - 18

by Sangharakshita

Sangharakshita in Seminar

Questions and Answers on
"A Survey of Bu ddhism" Chapter One: Sections Eight to Eighteen
Held at: Sukhavati, East London, in April 1982
[Second ‘Transcriptions’ Edition - April 2000]
Those Present: The Venerable Sangharakshita, Dharmacharis: Tejamati, Kuladeva, Kulamitra, Jinapriya,
Dhammarati, Siddhiratna, Dharmananda, Atula, Mahamati, Sagaramati, Vairocana, Virananda, Vajradipa
[Numbers in square brackets refer to the page numbers of the first edition. These original page numbers are still used in the
‘Une dited Sem inar Ind ex’, ava ilable se para tely from ‘Tra nscrip tions’]
Sangharakshita: I don't know whether Kulamitra explained to you how we came to our decision about this
particular group. He put it to me that it would be a good idea if I got together with study group leaders. He
wasn't altogether clear why it was a good idea for me to get together with study group leaders but he seemed
to think it was definitely a good idea. So then the question arose what I might do with them? I thought after
we'd talked about it for a little while that it would be a good idea to go over some quite basic material,
because one thing that we've been noticing recently when Subhuti's been taking retreats for the intensive
pre-ordination course people has been the extent of what he calls their `horrendous ignorance' of the
Dharma; and it does seem that people aren't getting nearly a sufficiently good grounding in quite basic
things, and I couldn't help wondering whether it was perhaps because people who were taking study
themselves weren't always very well grounded in basic things, or whether perhaps questions didn't
sometimes arise that they - the study group leaders - hadn't been able to deal with properly. Consequently
there'd be still some vagueness in certain areas or uncertainty in certain areas amongst people attending
those classes. I've also gathered from odd comments, mainly by Mitras that sometimes there's quite a lot of
general discussion in study groups and that the study groups often get quite a long way away from the
Dharma, even when the text is ostensibly a dharma text, and that perhaps suggests that some study group
leaders at least don't feel altogether at home with purely dharma material, perhaps not quite confident of
themselves in that area, and therefore tend to allow, if not to encourage, discussion to just become very
general, because that is much less demanding. So I thought for these various reasons that it might not be a
bad idea to go back to some of the more basic chapters of the Survey, because most people sooner or later
do get around to reading the Survey, and especially in the case of study group leaders one might as well
have a proper understanding of it. It may well be that one is asked questions by people attending study
groups based on their reading of the Survey. So I suggested to Kulamitra that we used this time - I think it's
going to be four Sunday mornings - just to go into the material contained in some of the more basic or even
the more crucial chapters of the Survey. [2] So I suggested to him certain sections for study and I asked him
to convey to all of you that you should study - at least read through - the appropriate chapters or the
appropriate sections before this study group meets and make a note of any points that you are not yourselves
very clear about or which you welcome the opportunity of discussing at some length, or raising questions
that you have been asked based on those particular sections by people in your study groups but which you
felt you hadn't been able to deal with adequately; maybe because you didn't understand the material
properly yourself. So we're going to make a start along those lines this morning. I take it you've all got a
note of those sections. I think it's three sections that we're going to try and deal with this morning, isn't it?
So where do we start?
A Survey of Buddhism (Chapter One Sections VII-XVIII) Seminar - Second Edition - Page1
Siddhiratna: Page 56.
Sagaramati: Page 50 in the new edition.
S: Yes, I've got the old edition. So we're not going to read through or anything like that. It may be that
there's quite a lot that you do understand, but let's take up any point or any particular aspect that people
don't feel quite sure about or clear about or which they feel needs bit of further discussion. We adopted this
method, by the way, on the course in Tuscany and it worked very well. People dug out all sorts of questions.
Dhammarati: The first thing that I came to is the wee stanza on page 57 of the old edition from the Sutta
Nipata, just the last couple of lines
"When all conditions are removed, All ways of telling are removed".
I've been reading the 'Three Jewels' recently and you give an example in there of the difference between
anitya and anatta. You use the example of a leaf, the red leaf becoming a green leaf, and there's no
substance apart from their properties. In a way that seems quite clear and it's a fairly easy idea to
understand, but I almost feel disappointed at what's apparently so simple, because it seems that here was
something sort of..
S: Something?
Dhammarati: It's a quite sort of mysterious verse almost that the idea can be apparently so simple. Is it just
a linguistic thing, to actually say the language cannot handle the experience or is it going further than that?
S: It is going, I would say, even further than that. Not that language cannot simply handle the experience
but even thought, in the sense of concepts, cannot handle the experience. Language is based on and derived
from one' s experience in the sense world, one's rational reflections upon [3] that, so when that sort of
language encounters an experience or a state that goes beyond the sense world, goes beyond the kamaloka,
goes even beyond the rupaloka and arupaloka, well there are no categories that apply, there are no words
that apply. One can perhaps communicate something but not in a sort of scientific way, if you see what I
mean. Not by means of abstract concepts; one can't communicate in a straightforward information-giving
sort of way. One can perhaps communicate just a glimpse or a taste by sort of semi-poetic means. One can
suggest, one can indicate, but one can't really describe. I think this is something I've touched upon once or
twice in lectures. I think it's very important to understand with regard to Buddhism, with regard to the
Dharma, with regard to the Buddha, with regard to the Buddha's experience, that there is a lot, in fact the
greater part, that we don't understand. I mean it's very easy to say, well the Buddha gained Enlightenment
and Enlightenment is such and such, and we take it that we've understood, but I think we have to question
whether we really have understood - or how much we have understood - otherwise we're sort of cherishing
the notion that we know all about it when in fact we don't. If we have the impression that we know all about
it, well we won't be making much of an effort really to know all about it because we'll be thinking we know
already, we know all about Enlightenment, we know all about nirvana, because we can reel off the
appropriate traditional expressions.
This can come up in other ways. I remember reading some months ago something by Ruskin. He was
talking about Apollo. This may seem a bit of a diversion but actually it isn’t. He was talking about Apollo, I
think it was Apollo anyway. He was saying that Apollo, if it was Apollo, or rather he was saying that we
think that we know what Apollo looks like because we are familiar with the traditional Greco-Roman
A Survey of Buddhism (Chapter One Sections VII-XVIII) Seminar - Second Edition - Page2
iconography, so we can at once think of a human form of a certain type, bearing certain emblems, weapons
and so on with a certain expression, a certain pose, and we think well that that is Apollo. But Ruskin says
actually that isn't Apollo, we don't know anything about Apollo, and as far as I remember he goes on to
make the point that it’s a sort of spirit of imagination, prophecy etc., that we should feel and be in contact
with if we're to know Apollo. Do you see what I mean? It is not just a question of familiarity with the
traditional iconography, so to speak. So it’s much the same with Buddhism, it’s much the same with
Buddhist iconography say when it comes to the Bodhisattvas. You can say well you're familiar with the idea
of Manjushri, you know what Manjushri looks like - he's sixteen years old and he carries a flaming sword,
lotus, book and all the rest of it, but no you're only familiar with the iconography of Manjushri or
Manjugosha. I mean you've got to have a real feeling for Wisdom, a real sensitivity to that, some awareness
of it, some experience of it, before you can be really said to know Manjushri or Manjugosha. So it's much
the same with the visual icons, as it is, so to speak with the 'verbal' icons. Do you see what I mean? We
think that just because we're [4] familiar with the verbal icons, familiar with the visual icons, we have real
knowledge of what those icons represent. But actually we don't. So if we sort of are manipulating these
verbal and visual icons too - what shall I say? - too nimbly or too slickly, ...

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