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Conze-s Introduction to Buddhism - Its Essence and Development

by Sangharakshita

Sangharakshita in seminar

The Seminar on the Introduction to Edward Conze's:
"Buddhism, Its Essence and Development"
Held At: Sukhavati Community, London Date: December 1976Those Present: The Venerable Sangharakshita, Manjuvajra, Vajradaka, Roy Campbell, Robert
Gerke, Atula, Chintamani, Andy Friends, et al.
Cassette One, Side One
Sangharakshita: All right, we're going to do this first introductory chapter of Dr Conze's
Buddhism. We're going to do this particular chapter for two reasons: first of all, Dr Conze
does raise and clarify certain quite basic issues that we ought to be familiar with and aware of
anyway; and secondly, he does it in his own way, which is broadly acceptable, though there
are one or two things that he says, or one or two of his attitudes, that can at least be
questioned, or that we should at least realize aren't necessarily to be taken as axiomatic. So,
inasmuch as we do make quite a bit of use of his writings in the Friends, and inasmuch as
they are very valuable, it's advisable that we should be, as it were, on our guard against any
exceptions to that general valuableness that might have to be made.
Also there are quite a large number of, as it were, talking points in the course of these three
pages. We might not even be able to get through them though there aren't very many pages,
but we'll see, just see, how it goes.
So we're going to start off this morning with the subsection on Buddhism as a Religion. So
let's go through this Introduction reading round as we usually do, each person reading a
paragraph. So let's have the first paragraph and then discuss it.
Text: Buddhism as a Religion
Buddhism is an Eastern form of spirituality. Its doctrine, in its basic assumptions, is identical
with many other teachings all over the world, teachings which may be called 'mystical'. The
essence of this philosophy of life has been explained with great force and clarity by Thomas
Kempis in his Imitation of Christ. What is known as 'Buddhism' is a part of the common
human heritage of wisdom, by which men have succeeded in overcoming this world, and in
gaining immortality, or a deathless life. (page 11)
S: So the first thing to understand here is the problem, as it were, or at least the difficulty
which Dr Conze is having in making, as it were, an initial statement about Buddhism. First of
all you must realize that this book was written quite a long time ago - 1951 - or published in
1951 originally, and that's twenty-five years ago. Twenty-five years isn't really a very long
time, but it is one whole [2] generation, and quite a lot of literature has been published on
Buddhism since those early days. In fact there's no comparison. There was very little available
in 1951, just a few years after the war. Hundreds of books on Buddhism, quite important and
valuable ones, have been published since. And one may say that even twenty-five years ago
people knew very much less about Buddhism in this country certainly than they do now; not
that they know all that much now, but there are degrees, even of ignorance one might say.
So Dr Conze was writing this whole book at that time in that sort of situation mainly for
people who knew perhaps nothing whatever about Buddhism, and had perhaps no particular
sympathy, were just perhaps approaching it from the standpoint of comparative religion, if
even that. So he had to be very careful about his initial statement. In other words, he didn't
want to put them off right from the beginning. He wanted to do justice to Buddhism as much
as he could; at the same time he had to speak a language which was at least a little bit familiar
to people.
So one must realize, especially as the book was written twenty-five years ago, that there was
this extraordinary difficulty of putting things across and giving people some idea or at least
some clue to what Buddhism actually is. So therefore we mustn't be surprised if he seems to
make at this time perhaps rather more concessions to the Western point of view and Western
outlook, and Christian outlook, than we would find it necessary or feel it necessary to make
now, especially within the context of the Friends. So, with those thoughts in mind, let's just
look at this whole paragraph sentence by sentence.
His initial statement is interesting: 'Buddhism is an Eastern form of spirituality'. So what do
you think about this? Do you think this still holds good as an initial statement? What is
spirituality? Do you see that he's trying to avoid the two extremes - of saying so much that he
doesn't convey anything and saying so little that also he doesn't convey anything? 'Buddhism
is an Eastern form of spirituality.' How would it strike you, for instance, if you hadn't read or
known anything about Buddhism?
Roy Campbell: If I was starting to write something about Buddhism I certainly wouldn't make
my very first sentence the fact that it was Eastern, because that's not the most important thing
about it by any means.
S: But don't you think that that is something that people think; at least they've got that
impression: that Buddhism is somehow Eastern. So he's making, as it were, a concession to
that, isn't he? But you're saying that you wouldn't make that sort of concession? (Roy
Campbell: Right.) Or you think that it isn't even a concession, it's a misrepresentation?
Roy Campbell: Yeah, certainly. In so far as it's Eastern in origin I certainly don't think that's
important enough to be the very first thing said about it in a book. [3]
S: Right, yes ... Though presumably one would have to refer, later on at least, to the fact that
it had originated in the East and had many characteristics of some forms of Eastern culture.
But you wouldn't include that in the initial statement; and it is after all the very first sentence
of the very first paragraph of the introduction. Anybody else feel the same way?
Voice: (...Unclear...)
S: So would you for instance say that Buddhism is a form of spirituality?
Manjuvajra: I wouldn't even use the word 'spirituality'.
S: You wouldn't? Ah ... (Laughs) What does 'spirituality' convey to you then?
Manjuvajra: A vast sort of fuzzy confusion. It's used in so many different ways.
S: But perhaps some at least of that confusion has arisen since this book was written, partly
due to the publication of books not only on Buddhism but on all sorts of other things too. I
suppose it's quite a hopeless task asking people what their initial statement would be. Have
you ever tried it? What would be your initial statement - if you had to make a initial statement
in this sort of almost staccato way?
Roy Campbell: There would be very few people reading this book that didn't already know it
anyway; I mean, about being 'an Eastern form of spirituality'. I'd be very surprised ...
S: Hm, yes. They'd know it's an Eastern something, so he's seizing hold of that as a starting
point and saying, well, it is Eastern, it's an Eastern form of spirituality. That's his sort of
starting point.
But what about this word 'spirituality'? Do you really think it's been so debased? And if so,
what is an alternative word? Is there an alternative word? Or could there be? You notice
though that it is a strict logical definition? I take it that you noticed this? You know what a
definition is, logically?
Voice: (...Unclear...)
S: No, no, that's still more elementary. A definition consists in the stating that a thing belongs
to a certain genus and stating also the characteristics which distinguish it from other species
in the same genus. So: 'Buddhism is an Eastern form of spirituality.' So 'form of spirituality' is
the genus. So what particular form or kind of spirituality? An Eastern one. So you define a
thing by stating the genus to which it belongs and the accidents which differentiate it [4] from
other species of the same genus. So Conze has done this quite sort of strictly.
Manjuvajra: But I tend to take 'spiritual' now as meaning pertaining to those positive mental
states which cover the normal realm and beyond that - so ... a 'spirituality'? I can't see how
you can make a noun out of it.
S: Well, this is how I use the words 'spiritual' and 'spirituality', and I spoke about that in a
lecture you might remember. So a spiritual life is a life devoted to the cultivation and
development of those positive qualities or life which is oriented in the direction of those
positive qualities or based or centred upon them. Whether that is how spirituality is
understood by the public at large, that's a quite different matter.
Manjuvajra: We have to be quite careful about using words in a technical way that have got
an unclear popular meaning as well. I notice further on he uses the word 'immortality' - 'and in
gaining immortality' - which seems to me a very confusing sort of statement.
S: Mmmm ... All right, any other difficulty anyone can see in this opening statement:
'Buddhism is an Eastern form of spirituality'? I mean, the statement can certainly be justified.
But as an initial statement, as an opening statement? You're sort of nailing your colours to the
mast, as it were. Or can anyone think of anything better?
Robert Gerke: I'm a bit sympathetic. (...Unclear...) .. he had to start somewhere in 1951 and ..
S: .. he did his best. (Laughter) And he didn't confine himself to that; he went on.
Robert Gerke: It's not that bad.
S: Well, what would it convey to you?
Robert ...

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