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Questions and Answers at the Buddhist Society of New South Wales - Sydney 1979

by Sangharakshita


The Venerable Sangharakshita

Questions and Answers at the Buddhist Society of New South Wales, Australia, March 1979

Please note that this transcript is the result of copy typing from a handwritten transcript taken from
tapes which are now missing.
Rather than leaving this material unavailable it is published in this form without its having been
checked against the original recording. Silabhadra


Sangharakshita: Maybe, first of all, I'll just say a few words explaining what, you know, what I'm
thinking about rather than giving a lecture, or even a talk. It's partly because, as Mr Dear... has just
said that most of you have heard me speak before on tape, so you've heard the talks. So therefore I
thought that while I was in Sydney on my way to Auckland it would be better instead of giving a
talk, I took the opportunity of getting a little more feedback from you. And so I thought that it would
be better to have some question and answers and maybe that can lead to some sort of dialogue. So
that it isn't simply the one way process, with me giving a lecture and everybody else obediently
listening, but I also get a feeling of what you feel about the Dharma, and what interests you in the
Dharma. So therefore I thought that it might be a good idea if the people asked questions to begin
with, maybe on points in the lectures themselves. Or asked about whatever they might want to know
in connection with the movement in England. Or any just general Dharma points. So this would give
me an some idea of where you are all at. Because I've plenty of experience of England. I know where
English Buddhists are at the moment ... or maybe not at the moment, I knew 3 weeks ago where they
were at then. Then I spent 2 weeks in India with my Indian Buddhist friends, and had quite a number
of ... so I know pretty well where they are at. And just a few days ago I was in Malaysia in Penang, in
Alor Star, and also in Ipoh ... and the last of these was a question and answer. So I've been getting
feedback in all these places, otherwise it's more or less the same thing, where I give my lectures, but
I don't really know what people are thinking. So I would like to know a little bit what people are
thinking. So I'd like to know a little bit what people are thinking, and what is it in the Dharma that
really attracts them, what are the aspects in the Dharma that they find personally most significant. So
as I said if anyone's got any questions arising out of the lectures or anything that they'd like to know
about the movement in England, or any general Dharma questions. Let's make a start someone, and
perhaps get into some kind of discussion in that way, and see where that leads.

__________: I'd like to ask, in your lectures on the Lotus Sutra, you saw much of it as being
symbolic from one particularly great speaker ... ah ... should we view the Dharma particularly that of
the Lotus Sutra in this symbolic way coming to find the Dharma in ...

S: I think in a way that we are forced to ask ourselves these sort of questions. For the benefit of those
who haven't heard those tapes or who haven't read the Saddhamma Pundarika Sutra, the White Lotus
Sutra, perhaps I should explain that this is one of the great Mahayana Sutras. In some ways it's the
basis of Chinese Buddhism. Ah, it's widely studied in Chinese Buddhism and commented on by
Chinese teachers. It's originally in Sanskrit, but it contains a lot of what I've called symbolic spiritual
material. It contains lots of incidents that you cannot possibly take literally. So the question arises - if
you cannot take them literally, what are you going to do about them? You can't remain in some sort
of stage of spiritual indecision. You can't just read them and that's that, you've got to make up your
mind: Are these to be taken literally or are they to be taken symbolically? And if they are to be taken
symbolically, then what is their meaning? So that I think as we go through the Buddhist scriptures
generally we have to ask ourselves these sort of questions. There are some things which the Buddha
means to be taken very definitely literally. But there are others ... not so much Teachings, but things
that happen, episodes in the scriptures, especially in the Mahayana scriptures which seem to be

teaching us in a different sort of way. So instead of taking those incidents literally, we have to ask:
'What is the scripture or what is the Buddha trying to tell us in this particular way?' And I think that it
is very important for us to get this sorted out, otherwise we don't know really where we are, we don't
know whether we are taking it literally or whether we are taking it symbolically and it can lead to a
sort of intellectual dishonesty - or at least a sort of intellectual indecisiveness. So in the case of the
White Lotus Sutra here there are many things that must be taken literally, like the Buddha's
instructions as to how the preacher of the White Lotus Sutra should behave. This must be taken quite
literally - straightforward, ethical and spiritual instruction. But when this magnificent stupa, many
miles high comes springing up out of the earth, decorated in all sorts of wonderful ways, well, are
you to take that literally? Can you, as an Australian Buddhist, let's say, really believe that? If you can
believe it, then that's fine. But if you can't then what are you to do about it. If you're unable to believe
that at a certain point in the Buddha's life, quite literally, this gigantic stupa literally appeared out of
the earth. If you can't believe that it literally happened, then what are you going to do about that
episode? Either you have to dismiss it completely as a later fabrication, and as worthless, or you have
to take it as a symbolic ...

__________: If I believe literally, and if I was to take it as this incredible thing, then still I ask: Am I
still to look symbolically for its meaning, because even it literal ...

S: Yes, because even the literal is also symbolical, there is that point too, that some of the actions of
the Buddha were literal and symbolical. But there are certain other 'actions' (inverted commas)
described in scriptures, which are just symbolical. For instance, one that I quote in my lecture on
symbols in the life of the Buddha, you know biographical symbols where the Buddha walks up and
down in the air simultaneously emitting fire and water. So what does this mean? Even if he did it
literally, what does it mean? I mean why should have the Buddha walked up and down in mid-air,
emitting fire and water. Well, it wasn't for a sort of fireworks display. So even if it had a meaning it
doesn't matter very much, in these sort of borderline cases, whether it did happen literally, with a
symbolical meaning, or simply that it's symbolical. The general meaning here seems to be, the union,
the bringing together of these two opposite qualities, the positive and the negative, the fiery and the
watery, the yin and the yang, a complete unification and integration in the Enlightened personality.
This seems to be the point here, whether it happened literally or not. But sometimes you, in the case
of these yogic incidents, those incidents involving yogic powers, it is very difficult to know whether
it has a literal meaning, or whether it is just symbolical. But we have to be quite honest with
ourselves and thrash it out one way or the other, but not sort of bluff ourselves, and pretend to
believe things that we don't believe, that we can't believe. Perhaps we should believe, but if we can't
believe, with our Western education and background, then we must honestly say, 'I can't believe it,
I'm sorry, many Buddhists do, but I can't'. In which case, I take it in such-and-such a way. But I think
mental honesty, intellectual honesty is very, very important. And the White Lotus Sutra gives one a
good opportunity. It's a very wonderful Sutra, very inspiring, sometimes I think that one should take
it as poetry rather than as religious literature. If you take some of these Mahayana Sutras as poetry,
and if you also believe that poetry, great poetry, can have a deep spiritual meaning, you're probably
on safer ground than if you take it dogmatically, and try to get a dogmatic or intellectual philosophy.

But problems like these will arise when we study these Buddhist texts, especially the Mahayana
Sutras. They have a very deep and really wonderful meaning but it isn't always the literal meaning. I
mean literal in the sense of factual, historical, scientifical, because the spiritual is also literal, the
symbolical is also literal, on its own level, which is not the level of history and scientific fact.

__________: Would you say that the deeper meaning is to be understood either by ... repeating the
Sutra, or by a meditation, or by what?


S: Well, in all these things, in all these different ways. But also you need to study the scriptures with
a teacher. This is one of the things that we emphasise in our ...

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