Transcribing the oral tradition...

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

by Sangharakshita

... own movement very much, that one
doesn't indulge in a lot of miscellaneous Buddhist reading, but that you study the Dharma, you study
Dharma texts with a teacher. And you go into the texts really thoroughly. And this is one of the things
that I'm mainly concerned with at present. I don't have much to do with taking classes, and the public
things. But I get together with Order Members and others and we go as deeply as we can into
different things, like the Udana, the Sutta Nipata, the Majjhima Nikaya, the Bodhicaryavatara,
Precepts of the Gurus (and all these different things). This is very important, to go into the texts ...
and asking ourselves all the time, 'How does this relate to me and my spiritual life? How does it help
me? Does it help me?' If it doesn't help it, all right, then respectfully leave it aside. If it does help it
then you should try to apply it. And there's a mass of Buddhist scriptures, they're not equally relevant
to us all of the time, but there are certain things that are relevant to us at certain moments, and if we
are willing to (unclear) hold of them, and go as deeply as we can into them, and really apply them to
our own lives. This is the way that we study the scriptures, and, as I say, we attach great importance
to it. And the scriptures of all schools, we don't confine ourselves to the Theravada, or to Zen, or to
Tibetan Buddhism. Because we believe that there are great spiritual inspirations to be found in all
these Buddhist traditions as they come down to us. So our movement in England is non-sectarian, in
the sense that it is just Buddhist, not any particular form or outlook, we take our inspiration from
wherever we can find it. And not only that, some of our friends get inspiration from other sources
too. One of the major sources of inspiration outside the Buddhist scriptures, in England at the
moment is Blake. Lots of people get a lot of inspiration from William Blake, from his poems, and
from his prophetic books, and from other writings and from his art. And we even have a Blake study
group under the auspices of the movement. A lot of people get a lot ... so it's not even just the
scriptures, it's other texts even outside the scriptures, that we do find really helpful ... At one time
there was a group studying Yeats' dramas, as a lot get a lot from him too.

__________: Could I ask if this raises the question, in the Western tradition of rebirth. In your tape,
you said that perhaps this was time to have a look at this in Western terms, Western knowledge. It
seems to me that some people in the Western tradition who are if you like enlightened, like Blake,
they don't particularly see this in terms of rebirth (unclear).

S: This is a point that is often asked, interestingly enough, this is also a point which has also come up
among the Indian friends. I was asked more or less the same question amongst my Indian Buddhist
friends in Pune. And it really boils down to this, the extent to which belief in or acceptance of the
doctrine or teaching of rebirth are necessary to one as a Buddhist. In other words can you be a
Buddhist and not believe in rebirth. This is a question which sometimes people ask. And this was
what I was asked in India, by a Western-educated Indian Buddhist. He said, 'I can't believe in rebirth,
it seems incredible to me, to me there is just one life. So can I still be a Buddhist?' And this question
was asked in almost the same words by many people in England, by many people in the West too. So
I've usually one answer to that. I say, 'It's possible for you to be a Buddhist and not believe in rebirth,
on one condition. And that is that you try to gain Enlightenment in this life itself. Because the aim of
Buddhism is to gain Enlightenment, alright, a lot of Buddhists seriously believe that you make the
effort to Enlightenment over a series of lives, and eventually you gain Enlightenment. Well, if you
want to be a Buddhist, i.e. if you want to gain Enlightenment (and that's what being a Buddhist really
means, that you want to gain Enlightenment), but you don't believe in any future existence, well that
leaves you with this life. So therefore you undertake to gain Enlightenment in this life. And on that
condition you can be a Buddhist and not believe in rebirth. But if you believe that there is no life
after death, at the same time you're not prepared to even gain Enlightenment in this life, how can you
be a Buddhist? So it's up to us, it just makes it all the more urgent. And I also point out that as far as
we can make out from the reading of the Pali Canon, from those portions of the Pali Canon like the
Sutta Nipata, especially, the Paranavaga and the Attakavaga, and other quite ancient Pali texts like

the Udana, and portions of the Samyutta Nikaya ... as far as we can make out, from what seems to be
the older portions of the Pali Canon, the Buddha himself did not stress rebirth so much because the
emphasis was on gaining Enlightenment in this life, just as the Zen people stress very much.
Therefore in Zen you don't find much talk about karma and rebirth. Why is that? Because the Ch'an
or Zen masters emphasised gaining Enlightenment in this life. The more emphasis you place on
gaining Enlightenment in this life the less emphasis you place proportionately usually there is on the
teaching of karma and rebirth. Or at least on the teaching of rebirth. So even supposing you
emphasise gaining Enlightenment in this life and rather neglect the teaching of rebirth, that is not
without precedent even within the Buddha's own Teaching. The Buddha's emphasis, although he did
teach rebirth as far as we know, the Buddha's emphasis was on gaining Enlightenment in this life
itself. In some Buddhist countries, people use the Teaching of rebirth to put off any serious effort to
gain Enlightenment. I've met many a Buddhist from Ceylon or from Thailand who says, 'Why bother
to try to gain Enlightenment. I've got thousands of lives ahead, I can do it anytime.' That is not really
Buddhism, you see. So in a way the person who doesn't believe in rebirth, but is prepared to make an
all-out effort to gain Enlightenment in this life is in a better position than them. Is much more likely
to make spiritual progress.

But, as I say, this is a question which is quite often asked. I don't know why it is, but it's been
observed - in fact I was talking about this with Christmas Humphreys some years ago - and I
remember him saying that it's rather strange than when I started the Buddhist Society, he said, that
was then about 35 years earlier, most of the people who came to Buddhism were attracted by, among
other things, by the teaching of karma and rebirth. But he said that nowadays people who coming are
not attracted by that, there's been a change. And I've also noticed that among our own younger
friends, who come into our own movement in Britain, they don't bother much about rebirth. They're
quite keen on spiritual development, even the ideal of gaining Enlightenment in this life is very
meaningful for them. But they don't find karma and rebirth a very relevant concept. They don't reject
it. It's not that they don't believe it. But it doesn't seem to mean very much. They think much more in
terms of spiritual development in this life itself.

__________: I wonder with so much of the recent development in the concepts of evolution

S: I would say as far as my own experience goes in England in our own movement that there is very
little interest in the concept of rebirth and in a sense people don't take the trouble to link it up or to
explain it in this sort of way. If you asked them whether they believed in rebirth, they'd probably say
'Well, yes, I think I probably do.' But the emphasis is not there, there is not sufficient interest to work
out what reincarnation or what rebirth might mean in modern terms. I'm a little interested in this
myself, but most of my own friends and pupils in England seem not to be interested. But as an
emphasis, the emphasis on gaining Enlightenment in this life (unclear)

__________: Bhante, some teachers have explained the Pratitya Samutpada particularly as
something that is happening from moment to moment rather than over a series of lifetimes. What do
you feel about that?

S: Well, they're right and they're wrong. Because the Buddhist tradition is definitely that the 12 Nidanas are spread over a period of 3 lives. This is perfectly clear. At the same time the texts also say
that all 12 Nidanas are operating at every single moment of consciousness. So it isn't a question of
'either-or', in the texts themselves both positions are regarded as parts of the whole truth about the
(unclear). So I think that one shouldn't misrepresent Buddhist tradition to make it more acceptable to
the Western mind. One shouldn't say the 12 Nidanas do not refer to a series of lives, they only refer
to ...

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