Buddhist Audio Books

The three jewels
The Central Ideals of Buddhism
By Sangharakshita
ISBN: 1899579060
Read by Subhadra

Three precious jewels lie at the heart of Buddhism, radiating the light of awakening into the world, the Buddha Jewel: as symbol of Enlightment (the figure of the Buddha), the Dharma jewel: the path to Enlightenment taught by the Buddha, the Sangha jewel, the Enlightened followers of the Buddha down the ages who have truly devoted their lives to his teachings. This book illuminates these precious gems in a clear and radiating light

An Extract from: The three jewels
From chapter 7: The Essence of the Dharma

Many students of Buddhism are at first staggered by the vastness of the field before them and bewildered by the abundance of material. This is natural. Like Christianity and Islam, Buddhism is not only a teaching but a culture, a civilization, a movement in history, a social order, in fact a whole world in itself. It comprises systems of philosophy, methods of meditation, rituals, manners and customs, clothes, languages, sacred literature, pagodas, temples, monasteries, calligraphy, poems, paintings, plays, stories, games, flower-arrangements, pottery, and a thousand other things. All this is Buddhist, and often immediately recognizable as such. Whether it be a stone Buddha seated cross-legged in the jungles of Anuradhupura, a Tibetan sacred dance, a cup of tea between friends in Japan, or the way in which a bhiksu answers a question in London, everything is invisibly signed with the same mysterious seal. Sometimes it floats with the clouds between heaven and earth, shines in the rainbow, or gurgles over pebbles in the company of a mountain stream. 'Looked at, it cannot be seen; listened to, it cannot be heard.' Sooner or later, however, the student tries to identify it. He wonders what it could be that gives unity to all these diverse expressions, so that however remote in space and time, and however different their respective mediums, one perfectly harmonizes with another, creating not the dissonance that might have been expected but 'a concord of sweet sounds'. Eventually a question shapes itself in his mind, and at last he enquires, 'What is the essence of the Dharma?'

The best answer to this question would be the 'thunder-like silence' with which Vimalakirti, in the Mahayana sutra that bears his name, answered the bodhisattva Manjusri's question about the nature of Reality. Can we describe even the colour of a rose? But this apparently negative procedure the student would not find very helpful. Concessions must be made. Buddhism is essentially an experience. 'An experience of what?' Before answering this second question let us try to explain why, of all the words in the dictionary, 'experience' is the first term on which one falls back when compelled to abandon the 'thunder-like silence'. Unlike thought, experience is direct, unmediated; it is knowledge by acquaintance. Hence it is characterized by a feeling of absolute certainty. When we see the sun shining in a clear sky we do not doubt that it is bright; when a thorn runs beneath our fingernail we do not speculate whether it is painful. In saying that Buddhism is essentially an experience we do not suggest that the object of that experience in any way resembles the objects of sense-experience, nor even that there is an object at all. We simply draw attention to its unique unconceptualized immediacy. The relation between sense-experience and the one with which we are now concerned is merely analogical. For this reason it is necessary to go a step further and complete our definition by saying that the essence of the Dharma, of Buddhism, consists in a spiritual or transcendental experience. This is what in traditional terminology is called Enlightenment-experience.

Apart from conveying an impression of the subject having now been lost sight of in the clouds, the mere addition of these adjectives is inconclusive. They themselves need definition. But inasmuch as this will involve the use of terms even more abstract, more remote from concrete experience, such definition will set up a process of conceptualization as a result of which the reflection of Enlightenment-experience in our minds will be in danger of complete distortion, like the moon's reflection in a pond the surface of which the wind has chopped into waves. Concepts had therefore better be treated as symbols, the value of which lies not in their literal meaning so much as in their suggestiveness. They should be handled in the spirit not of logic but of poetry; not pushed hither and thither with grim calculation like pieces on a chessboard, but tossed lightly, playfully in the air like a juggler's multicoloured balls. Approaching the subject in this spirit we may define Enlightenment-experience as 'seeing things as they (are yathabhutajnanadarsana)'. This is the traditional definition. Here also, it will be observed, the use of the word 'seeing' (darsana) – which primarily denotes a form of sense-perception – emphasizes not only the directness and immediacy of the experience but also its noetic character. Enlightenment-experience is not just a blind sensing of things, but, as the English word suggests, the shining forth of a light, an illumination, in the brightness of which things become visible in their reality. Such expressions should not mislead us into thinking that there is any real difference between the subject and the object of the experience, between the light and the things illuminated (which disposes of the second question raised above). Were it not for the fact that all words indicative of existence have for Buddhism a disagreeable substantialist flavour, it might even be preferable not to speak of Enlightenment as an experience at all but as a state of being. Fortunately other ways of surmounting the difficulty are available. The Avatamsaka Sutra, for instance, depicts the world of Enlightenment-experience as consisting not of objects illuminated from without but entirely of innumerable beams of light, all intersecting and intersected, none of which offers any resistance to the passage of any other. Light being always in motion, this striking similitude has the additional advantage of precluding the notion that Enlightenment is a definite state in which one as it were settles comfortably down for good, instead of a movement from perfection to greater perfection in a process in which there is no final term, the direction of movement alone remaining constant.

If spiritual or transcendental experience is a state of seeing things as they are, its opposite, mundane experience, wherein all unenlightened beings are involved, must be one of seeing them as they are not. The cause of this blindness is twofold. Being a creature of desires, man is concerned with things only to the extent that they can be made to subserve his own ends. He is interested not in truth but in utility. For him things and people exist not in their own right but only as actual or possible means of his own gratification. This is the 'veil of passions' (klesavarana). Usually we do not like to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that our attitude towards life is often no better than that of a pig rooting for acorns. Motives are therefore rationalized. Instead of admitting that we hate somebody, we say he is wicked and ought to be punished. Rather than admit we enjoy eating flesh, we maintain that sheep and cows were created for man's benefit. Not wishing to die, we invent the dogma of the immortality of the individual soul. Craving help and protection, we start believing in a personal God. According to the Buddha, all the philosophies, and a great deal of religious teaching, are rationalizations of desires. This is the 'veil of (false) assumptions' (jneyavarana). On the attainment of Enlightenment both veils are rent asunder. For this reason the experience is accompanied by an exhilarating sense of release. The Buddha compares the state of mind of one gaining Enlightenment to that of a man who has come safe out of a dangerous jungle, or been freed from debt, or released from prison. It is as though an intolerable burden had at last been lifted from his back. So intense is this feeling of release from pain, suffering, conflicting emotions, and mental sterility and stagnation that many of the older canonical texts speak of the Enlightenment-experience exclusively in terms of freedom or emancipation (vimukti). One of them represents the Buddha himself as saying that even as the great ocean had one taste, the taste of salt, so his teaching had one flavour, the flavour of emancipation. Besides a psychological aspect, vimukti has an intellectual and an existential aspect. In the first place it is a freedom from all theories and speculations about Reality; and in the second, from any form of conditioned existence whatever, including 're-becoming' as a result of karma. The freedom into which one breaks through at the time of Enlightenment is not limited and partial, but absolute and unconditioned.

This introduces an aspect of Enlightenment-experience which is not always properly understood. Freedom, to be really unconditioned, must transcend the distinction between conditioned and unconditioned, samsara and nirvana, bondage and liberation, all of which are really mental constructions and, as such, part of the 'veil of assumptions'. Therefore there can in the ultimate sense be no question of escaping from the conditioned to the Unconditioned as though they were distinct entities. Or, to speak paradoxically, in order to be truly free one has to escape not only from bondage but from liberation, not only from samsara into Nirvana but from Nirvana back into samsara. It is this 'escape' or descent that constitutes the mahakaruna or 'Great Compassion' of the Buddha, which is in reality his realization of the non-duality of the conditioned and the Unconditioned as that realization appears from the viewpoint of the conditioned. The Enlightenment-experience is therefore not only one of illumination and freedom but also of infinite and inexhaustible love, a love which has for object all sentient beings, and which manifests as uninterrupted activity in pursuit of their temporal and spiritual welfare.


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