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Precepts of the Gurus - 3rd Seminar

by Sangharakshita


Sections VI-IX (1979)
Day 1Tape 1, Side 1('Voice-print' not sufficient for most voices to be identifiable)
Present: The Venerable Sangharakshita, Vajramati, Uttara, Adrian (Shantiprabha), Viramati,
Chris (Tejamitra), Andrew Fuller (Tejamati), Vajradaka, Ashvajit, Joss, Ratnavira, Ross,
John Toomey (Lalitaratna), Dipankara, Alaya, Sona, John Roach (Jayamati), Ray Bisson
Sangharakshita: All right, we're going to be going through as much as we can in the course of
these seven days of the Precepts of the Gurus. We are not starting at the beginning, because
various sections have been done on other study retreats. We are going to come on to Number
VI, "The Ten Things One must Know", and I don't know whether we'll be able to finish the
whole work: I very much doubt it, actually, because experience shows there is quite a lot to
discuss. First of all, there's the elucidation of the Precepts themselves, and then they have a
way of giving rise to consideration of all sorts of topics and sparking off all sorts of
discussions. Anyway, let's see how we get on this morning. We're going to stop halfway
through for a cup of coffee so as not to tire you too much. Anyway, let's see how it goes.
Shall we start reading round - just read one precept at a time, and then we'll stop and discuss
that, and each time we come to a new precept we'll have a new person reading it. So nice and
loud and clear, please.
(1) One must know that all visible phenomena, being illusory, are unreal.
S: This at once plunges us into the midst of a very important topic: the topic of the unreality
of visible phenomena, in fact of all visible phenomena. It's very important to know here what
exactly is meant by 'unreal', even what is meant by 'illusory'. There is quite a bit of
misunderstanding about this, as I hardly need tell you. I think the best way that we can
approach the topic, the best way we can start going into it, is by means of the analogy of
magic, of the magical [2] illusion, for which the term usually is maya. I'm going to be saying
something about this in a couple of weeks' time in the first, probably, of my talks on the
Vimalakirti Nirdesa, but it is also very applicable and very relevant here. Magic, or the
magical phenomenon, or the magical illusion, is used as an illustration for the irreality or,
strictly speaking, the relative reality, of the world. What is said is this: suppose there's a
magician. The magician conjures up an illusion which you actually perceive. He might, for
instance, conjure up an illusory elephant. So you perceive that elephant; maybe you can hear
it trumpeting, or maybe, if it was to seize hold of you, you would actually feel it doing that.
But it isn't a real elephant, it's an elephant specially conjured up by the magician. So it is not a
real elephant - that is to say, it is not an absolutely real elephant - inasmuch as it is conjured
up by the magician, but can you say that it is a completely unreal elephant in the sense that it
does not exist? Can you say that?
Asvajit: Not really, no. It exists inasmuch as it has an effect.
S: It exists inasmuch as it has an effect; it exists inasmuch as it is perceived, but you cannot
attribute to it an absolute existence. So the magical illusion of the elephant, or whatever,
occupies as it were a middle way, you could say, a middle position, between absolute reality
and absolute non-reality in the sense of non-existence. So the Buddhist teaching, especially
Mahayana teaching, says that all visual phenomena are like this. Inasmuch as they have a
cause, inasmuch as they arise in dependence on causes and conditions, they cannot be said to
be absolutely real, but inasmuch as they are actually perceived and experienced, they cannot
be dismissed as non-existent or as unreal in the sense of being non-existent.
So here, when this Precept says 'One must know that all visible phenomena, being illusory,
are unreal', it isn't meant to deny that you actually perceive them; it's only meant to prevent
you from attributing absolute reality to them. Because, inasmuch as they arise in dependence
on causes and conditions, they are not absolutely real; they belong to relative or contingent
So Buddhism denies their reality, in the sense of denying their metaphysical status as such,
but it certainly doesn't deny their tangibility. It doesn't deny the fact that you perceive them.
What it rejects is your wrong interpretation of things absolutely existing; things with an
absolute reality of their own, things with a svabhava, in the technical sense; things with an
own-being, something fixed, permanent, unchanging.
So 'One must know that all visible phenomena, being illusory, are unreal'. The illusoriness
and the unreality are really the same thing. You have a vivid perception of them, but you do
not interpret your perception in terms of anything absolutely existing in its own right.
One can go further than this, because one can say - well, this particular Precept speaks of
visible phenomena, but one can say that phenomena in general, including visible phenomena,
are of two kinds, as it were, they fall into two groups: there are visible phenomena which we
regard as constituting, or belonging [3] to, the object or an object; and visible phenomena
which we regard as belonging to, or constituting, the subject. So if you regard the visible
phenomena constituting the object as real, then you have a real, absolute, unchanging object,
out there. But if you regard the visible phenomena which constitute, or which belong to, the
subject as being real, then you have a real, absolute, unchanging subject - in other words, ego.
So, in other words, you are not to interpret your perception, you are not to interpret your
experience, in terms of the interaction of an absolute, real object with an absolute, real
subject. This is the dualistic illusion, as it were - or delusion; not just illusion, delusion. This
Precept raises all sorts of questions.
Asvajit: What you've just said amounts to materialism, actually, doesn't it? If one was to
suppose an absolutely existing object and an absolutely existing subject, it would result in a
mechanistic universe.
S: Well, it would result in materialism, but it might result in idealism, if you think that that
absolute, unchanging object is of a mental, not of a material, nature: yes? So this is against
idealism in the ordinary sense, as much as against materialism in the ordinary sense. Because
whether you believe that your unchanging ego is material, which is unlikely, or that it is some
kind of spirit or mind, doesn't really make any difference. In fact, you are much more likely to
regard your unchanging self as a spirit, as a mind, than you are to regard it as something
material. So materialism certainly, in the ordinary sense, isn't really much of a danger.
So, from a more practical point of view, what is important is to experience things, to have an
experience of existence, which is quite real and vivid, pleasant, blissful, but not to interpret
that experience dualistically, not to try to discriminate within it an object as existing
absolutely in its own right and unchanging, or a subject as existing absolutely in its own right
and unchanging. All that you have is phenomena which are interrelated in various ways and
which are constantly changing.
Or if one is to put it in more general terms, it means just as it were allowing oneself to
experience reality or to experience life as constantly changing, as flowing, even; and not try to
pin it down, as it were, in any fixed or final form. Because if you do that, then you will start
clinging to, becoming attached to, those fixed and final forms: you won't be willing to let
them go, as it were.
Uttara: Would this seen reality, seen existence, would this be Stream Entry, where you get the
vision of something flowing, so - ?
S: Well, it depends how far, how deeply, the vision goes. It has to go far enough, deep
enough, actually to cut off to some extent your tendency to cling to things and to become
attached to them, and if from one's actual behaviour it becomes clear that [4] this has
happened, then one can infer a measure of Insight, possibly even approaching Stream Entry.
But obviously one has to examine oneself or look at oneself over quite a period, and be quite
sure that the attachment and the clinging have really been cut, and cut for good, at least to
some extent; because everybody has their ups and downs - there are good days on which you
just don't feel any attachment or clinging at all, you feel so happy and content; but the very
next day you are greedily grasping, and there's a complete change. So one has to be able to
see this change taking place over quite a period of time before you can conclude that real
Insight has been achieved and a real transformation, and possibly an approach made to
Stream Entry. It isn't enough just to refuse a second cup of tea on one particular day.
Sona: There is a great danger, isn't there, in seeing all visible phenomena as being illusory,
and not at the same time experiencing it, and not enjoying life? I'm just thinking that no
enjoyment can be got from life because your experience isn't real.
S: Yes. But actually your experience - the word 'unreal' here is quite unfortunate, the English
word, because when you ...

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