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Buddha-s Law Among the Birds - The - Part 1

by Sangharakshita

The Buddha's Law Among the Birds Seminar
The Buddha's Law Among the Birds Seminar
Held at "Il Convento", Tuscany, Italy
November 1982Those Present:
Ven. Sangharakshita
Dharmacharis Silaratna, Buddhapalita, Ratnaketu, Amoghacitta,
Khemananda, Silabhadra, Prasannasiddhi, Amoghavajra, Aryamitra

Sangharakshita: Alright then, I think we won't go through the preface and introduction. I
think we can go straight into the text. But if there is anything that you come across in the
course of your reading of the preface and introduction, and the article at the end which isn't
quite clear, well you can bring it up at the end of one of the sessions. But so far as i know
it's all perfectly clear. So we might as well go straight into the text, and devote what time we
have primarily to that. Alright, we actually begin on a page without a number, opposite the
illustration of the young crow. So would someone like to read that page, and the little preface
of the work itself which follows.
"The Lord Buddha has said: IN THE LANGUAGE OF ANGELS, OF
S: Well, we might as well have a few comments on that to begin with. Ignoring the actual
language of Conze's translation, which speaks of angels and fairies - no doubt he's trying to
appeal to as wide an audience as possible - presumably the 'angels' are devas and the 'fairies'
are (gandharavas). Well, what general principle emerges from these few lines?
Ratnaketu: The Dharma isn't just limited to human beings.
S: The Dharma isn't just limited to human beings. But as a corollary of that?
Khemananda: It's for everybody - all types of beings.
S: It's for everybody, but how does one get it across to everybody?
: In their own language.
1 The Buddha's Law Among the Birds Seminar
S: In their own language. So this is quite an important principle, quite a fundamental
principle, in fact, of Buddhism. That one should expound the Dharma to people in their own
language, so that they can grasp them. And this is why we have such a rich Buddhist
literature, in so many different languages - there isn't just one canonical Buddhist language
throughout the Buddhist world. In different parts of the Buddhist world the scriptures have
been translated into the local language. This seems to have been the practice, this seems to
have been the custom from the very beginning. The Buddha is said to have said to two
disciples who wanted to put his teachings into a sort of Vedic Sanskrit. He's said to have told
them "let everybody learn my Dharma - (my teaching) - in his own language." At least that's
one interpretation, one reading of what he said, and that seems much more in consonance
with the spirit of his teaching. The other reading, the other interpretation makes him say "let
everybody learn the Dharma in my language", which doesn't seem to be in accordance with
the spirit of Buddhism, or the Buddha's own spirit at all.
But when one says 'language', one doesn't of course say 'language' just in the literal sense.
One uses the word 'language' to mean also the whole system of ideas with which somebody
is familiar, or with which some group of people is familiar. With which some whole people,
even, is familiar. So it's important, when expounding the Dharma, to speak people's
language. To speak the language that people actually speak, not only literally but also
metaphorically. So this is what the Buddha is doing in this instance.
: So suppose that you were giving a talk to a working men's club, you'd have
to use their language.
S: Their language, but not necessarily their vocabulary, if you see what I mean. But you
wouldn't use an idiom which would seem strange, or unfamiliar, or condescending to them.
You wouldn't use illustrations which were remote from their lives. (pause).
For instance if you were trying to give an illustration, telling some little story, you wouldn't
say something like, "Well, suppose you were in the Bahamas for the weekend." (laughter)
Though nowadays, of course, it sometimes does happen that you find working men going
off for weekends in the Bahamas. But you see what I'm getting at? Or if you were talking
in India to an audience of ex-untouchable Buddhists, you wouldn't sort of refer, just in
passing, to their motor cars, because they just don't have any. These are just very simple
examples, but one must speak the language of the people whom one is addressing. Otherwise
the Dharma comes across to them as something quite remote and unfamiliar and strange,
with no relevance for them. So that suggests that you need to be pretty well aware of the sort
of people to whom you are speaking, what sort of ideas they are familiar with, what their
cultural range is. No use quoting Shakespeare at them if they've never heard of Shakespeare,
or if Shakespeare is some remote, impossible figure. You'll make them feel either that you're
over-educated, or that they're under-educated, or both.
2 The Buddha's Law Among the Birds Seminar
So, if you're talking to angels, speak in the language of angels, if you're talking to serpents,
so speak in the language of serpents. If you're taking to fairies, use the language of fairies,
and the same for the speech of demons and humans.
Ratnaketu: "The Lord Buddha has said" .... is that a quote from the Pali Canon?
S: No, I don't think so. I think this is not so much a direct quote as a sort of expression of
the Buddha's whole spirit, the spirit which it is...there may be a passage corresponding to this
in one of the scriptures, it's difficult to say, but it, at the same time, may well not be a direct
quote. It's certainly true that at the beginning of Mahayana sutras the audience, the
congregation is described as consisting of beings of all kinds, not only human beings, not
only Arahants and Bodhisattvas, but garudas and kinaras and ghandarvas and all sorts of
other beings - nagas and so on - and they are all said to grasp the meaning of the Buddha's
teaching in their own language. They hear the Buddha speaking, as it were, in their own
language. And this is the way in which the Mahayana puts it. That the Buddha is
simultaneously intelligible to beings of all kinds, speaking all kinds of languages. That is one
of the sort of special powers of the Buddha, according to the Mahayana tradition, to be so
Anyway, the general principle that emerges is quite clear. It doesn't actually say, the Buddha
doesn't actually say that he's expounded the Dharma in the language of animals or in the
language of birds - presumably that is to be understood, presumably they are included.
(pause) Alright, go on and read what follows.
"ONCE UPON A TIME, in the course of this our auspicious aeon, there was
to be found, on the border between India and Tibet, a beautiful wooded
mountain. "Pleasant Jewel" was its name, and it was a holy retreat for Saraha,
the great magician, an many other saints who dwelt in seclusion among the
summits of the Himalayas, which shine in all the splendour of perfect
whiteness. Here are found glaciers, like lions with manes of turquoise
displaying their majesty. All along the slopes of the mountain, far to the East
and South, live countless birds of good omen, birds like the white grouse and
others, and also a great many animals, - stages, argalis, antelopes and others,
all happily playing and frolicking free from care"
S: Alright, so - "once upon a time" - this is the way Conze translates. Clearly 'once upon a
time' is the traditional beginning of a fairy story. It suggests that what follows has a meaning,
but it's not to be taken too seriously, in the sense that it's not to be taken too literally, and the
phrase sort of transports one into a different kind of world.
So, "In the course of this, our auspicious aeon". The note says at the end, which we can just
3 The Buddha's Law Among the Birds Seminar
quickly look at, this is the Bhadrakalpa. The present aeon is called auspicious - Bhadrakalpa
- because in the course of it more Buddhas are said to make their appearance than in most
aeons. A thousand of them, to be more accurate, as against the usual three or four. This is
according to Mahayana tradition, rather. I think, as far as I remember, that according to
Hinayana tradition this kalpa is a Bhadrakalpa because it contains five Buddhas including
Maitreya, who is yet to come. But the Mahayana speaks in terms of a thousand Buddhas.
Anyway, it's a very auspicious aeon.
So, "In the course of this auspicious aeon, there was to be found, on the border between
India and Tibet, a beautiful wooded mountain. "Pleasant Jewel" was its name, and it was a
holy retreat for Saraha the great magician and many other saints." So the note says " the
original Saraha was a Buddhist sage and magician." Conze translates 'Siddha' as 'magician',
so the great magician is the mahasiddha - Saraha is one of the mahasiddhas. Siddha is
sometimes translated ...

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