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Vimalakirti Nirdesa

by Sangharakshita

... which are impermanent. None the less, people do become attached to
things which are impermanent because, despite the fact that they 'know' that a particular thing
is impermanent, they treat it as though it was permanent. Their mental, or rather their
emotional, attitude towards it is that it is permanent. Their emotional state depends on the
nature of their perception. So in a sense the Enlightened and the unenlightened person see the
same object, but they interpret it differently; their experience of it is the same but their
evaluation of it is different one in effect treating it as permanent and the other as what it really
is, that is to say impermanent. o it is the same with illusion and reality. One can see or
experience an [4] illusion as an absolute reality and treat it accordingly, in which case that
will give rise to unskilful mental states. think the use in English, when discussing Buddhism,
of the term illusion or illusory creates a lot of misunderstanding. Even this illustration of the
magician and the magically produced elephant can create a lot of misunderstanding; because
it is an illusion only metaphysically considered. It is not an illusion in terms of ordinary
human experience. I think that is the main point.
Subhuti: It's an analogy, isn't it?
S: It's an analogy, yes. It is not that the elephant that you actually experience is of the same
order of reality as the illusory elephant that you experience. There is an objective difference,
so to speak, between an elephant which is actually an elephant and an elephant which is only
an illusory elephant.
Nagabodhi: In the case of the illusory elephant, a clear-sighted man could say 'It's all right, an
illusion; sit still and you will be all right,' and people could, out of blind faith, follow his
word and come out unscathed. But in the case of the real elephant the responsibility is on the
individual to well, death is coming, for example; the Enlightened man can say 'There is
nothing to fear,' but unless we have actually become Enlightened we can't know the
fearlessness. So the misunderstandings of the illusion idea seem to deprive people or stop
people taking responsibility.
S: In the case of the magically produced elephant, an illusory elephant is used to illustrate the
nature of an elephant which is only relatively real or anything else which is only relatively
real. Do you see what I mean? Anyway, perhaps that's enough about that. wonder why
Prakasha wasn't satisfied with my definition, if you can call it that, or my definition and
non-definition, of the term magical; because one would have thought that, if one tried to pin
down the term too much and have a clear-cut definition, the term then ceases to do its work, it
ceases to fulfil its function. So though I've defined it in a certain context, in a certain way, in
the traditional Buddhist way, I've also used it in a rather looser sense deliberately, one might
say, to create a particular kind of atmosphere. Perhaps I haven't succeeded in doing that so far
as Prakasha was concerned. would have thought, though, that when one spoke in terms of the
'magic' of a Mahayana sutra, it is clear enough what one is trying to convey, so that it's really
not very appropriate to ask what exactly does the term mean. Well, if you are going to say
exactly what something means, you clearly should abandon terms like magical and poetical
and imaginative, and express yourself in quasi-scientific terms; which is exactly the opposite
of what I was wanting to do. Normally, if you say of something that the effect was magical, or
that the scene was really magical, or that person's got a really magical personality it is pretty
clear what you really mean, isn't it, or what you are trying to convey, or what your experience
of that particular thing or that person was? think I said some time ago, speaking about Sir
Walter Scott, that some of his descriptions of scenery were magical. Well, exactly what does
one mean by that? one could ask; but if you've missed the point, so to speak, you can't really
fall back on precise definitions. It's as though, if you are asked for a precise definition, the
person has really missed what you are trying to get at. So if you tried to introduce precise
definitions, you would in fact be talking about something else, something quite different. But
not by way of comment on this particular question, but just by way [5] of associative thinking
I have noticed on quite a number of occasions that people would understand better what I
meant, and therefore would not ask 'What did you mean by such-and-such?', if they just tuned
in a little bit more carefully to what I was trying to say.
Subhuti: I wonder if it's the product of studying a transcript; because the original lecture
series I remember very much being a magical experience.
S: Well, as I said, I am not referring especially to this particular series or this particular
comment, but it is a general thing that I've noticed. Anyway, perhaps we will go on from that.
Subhuti: Another one from Prakasha, asked by Kovida, about what characterizes Bhante's
life.
S: I've got '3', which is something else ... Oh yes, that's right.
Prakasha's second question: In the first lecture, you mention that 'sameness' characterizes
many people's ordinary lives. On asking myself, I found that 'struggle' characterizes mine.
What would you say characterizes your life?
S: I did think a bit about this this afternoon, but found myself unable to come to a conclusion.
I am not so sure whether in my case sameness characterizes my life at all. I suppose there are
certain threads running through. I was thinking perhaps I could say 'effort' or something like
that, but in a way it's so sort of vague or general as to be almost meaningless. I do speak of
sameness characterizing many people's ordinary lives; well, perhaps I haven't led an ordinary
life, and therefore sameness doesn't characterize it; not in the sense in which I was using the
term sameness in this particular context. Well, in a sense sameness characterizes it, yes: I
have breakfast every morning at 7.30, my lunch every day at 1 o'clock, and I usually see
people at 4 o'clock, so I suppose there is a certain sameness. But I wasn't really talking about
that; that's only a purely external, superficial framework, not my real life. So I think probably
sameness in that sense doesn't characterize my life at all. Because perhaps it isn't a very
ordinary life. But perhaps on reflection people should have realized this that the emphasis
here is on people's ordinary lives.
Prasannasiddhi: I think he realized that, but then he was thinking about his life that it wasn't
all sameness, so what was it? And he thought struggle was the thing in his life. So then he
was
S: Well, I think he was thinking we can't ask him, so we can't be sure that sameness was a
general characteristic, so there could be specific types of sameness. One person's life might be
characterized by sameness in the form of struggle, it was a struggle all the time; somebody
else's that it was a life of deprivation all the time that it was in that that the sameness
consisted. One could, on the other hand, say that there were dozens of things -
[6]
S: which characterized one's life all the way through. But, yes, as I said, the emphasis should
be on 'ordinary'.
Dharmadhara: If your life isn't characterized by sameness in that sense, what was behind your
using that introduction to the lecture? Was it because it is obviously a feature of many
people's lives, or were you picking up on a sense of sameness in the Movement at the time?
S: No, not at all. Don't forget I am talking about the magic of a Mahayana sutra; and what is
the opposite of magic in the sort of sense in which I use the term? It's sameness. I was just
getting into that topic of the magical, and so I did that by starting from people's lives and then
contrasting their sameness and ordinariness with the extraordinariness, the magical quality,
that one encounters in this particular sutra. It was just a way of getting into the subject.
Subhuti: At the same time, I do remember at the time you gave the series, before you gave it,
you said you felt what was needed was something as it were from a totally different
dimension.
S: Well, that's always the case, isn't it?
Subhuti: You seemed to be saying at that time that you felt it
S: It could be that I did feel it. I can't remember. Clearly, it must have been appropriate to
some extent to a lot of the people there, otherwise I wouldn't have taken that particular point
of departure. It would have been rather unreal. Perhaps people had been complaining about
the sameness of their lives; I can't remember. But basically it was a means of getting into the
main subject matter, and arriving at the magical nature of the sutra by way of contrast.
Subhuti: Taking this question a little bit further: at the beginning of the lecture you stress the
need for experiencing a totally different dimension, experiencing the magical, broadly
speaking. But, having just come back from El Bloque, where people try to live well, they live
in a sort of magical world, or they live in a sort of interpretation of the world as magical
S: Having stayed at El Bloque for a week, I think 'magical' was about the last word I would
have applied to the situation there!
Subhuti: Sure, yes. But they do their interpretation of their experience is a pseudo-magical
one.
S: ...

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