Buddhist Audio Books

The Inconceivable Emancipation
Themes from the Vimalakirti-Nirdesa
By Sangharakshita
ISBN: 0904766888
Read by Subhadra

Step into the magical, paradoxical world of a Mahayana Buddhist scripture. Mahayana Buddhism, to which the Zen and Tibetan traditions are related, emphasizes the ideal of the Bodhisattva, one who seeks to become Enlightened out of a compassionate desire to help all living beings. In the Vimalakirti-Nirdesa we meet the Bodhisattva Vimalakirti, a worker of wonders, a formidable debater and skillful teacher. Sangharakshita’s commentary illuminates this original text, its myths and symbols, and explores the powerful figure of Vimalakirti and the significance of his teachings. By journeying into this scripture we can find the wisdom and compassion that lie at the heart of the Bodhisattva path and discover, communicate and put into action Vimalakirti’s message

An Extract from: The Inconceivable Emancipation
From chapter 4: The Transcendental Critique of Religion

Once our basic needs for food, clothing, shelter, and leisure have been met, what do we need more than anything else in life? What is our essential need as human beings? Surely it is freedom. The real meaning of human life is to develop our distinctively human characteristics: awareness, emotional positivity, responsibility for ourselves and others, and creativity. But we cannot develop, we cannot grow, unless we have space – both literally and metaphorically – to grow into. We need freedom: freedom from all that restricts us, both outside us and within us, freedom from our own conditioning, even freedom from our old self.

And what helps us to be free – apart from our own efforts – is, or at least is considered to be, religion. We have seen that in Buddhism the spiritual life is frequently described in terms of freedom, but Buddhism is not alone in this. The followers of other religions, at least the universal religions, would probably also say that their religion stands for the freedom of the individual. The Christian might quote from the New Testament the words: 'You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.'

But if we consider what it is that stops us from becoming free – apart from our own sloth and torpor, laziness, neglect, forgetfulness, and so on – we encounter a tremendous paradox. Strangely enough, religion, rather than helping us to become spiritually free, only too often helps to keep us enslaved, and even adds further shackles to our chains. To many people, the very idea that religion has anything to do with freedom sounds like an absurd contradiction in terms. Some people, and I must confess that I am among them, feel uncomfortable using – in a sense being obliged to use – the word 'religion' at all.

We find it so difficult to associate religion with freedom – we in the West, that is – not because of what religion is in principle, but rather because of its historical record. Take, for example, the record of Christianity over the last sixteen hundred years, since it was declared the official religion of the Roman Empire. It is fairly obvious that we cannot develop as individuals unless we are free at least to think for ourselves. But organized Christianity – certainly in the form of its major churches – has hardly ever allowed the individual that freedom. People in Christian countries have been obliged to think as the Church thought, to toe the theological line – or face the consequences. Even today, what the Church calls blasphemy is still a criminal offence in Britain.

Not only has organized Christianity refused to allow individuals to think for themselves. It has made them think in ways actually detrimental, actually inimical, to their own personal development. It has made them think of themselves as miserable sinners, as weak and powerless, made them think that being independent and taking the initiative is wrong, if not positively sinful.

So what went wrong? How is it that religion has become not a liberator but a jailer? The short answer is that religion has become an end in itself. The forms which religion takes – doctrines, rituals, institutions, rules – have all become ends in themselves. It has been forgotten that religion is a means to an end – that end being the individual's development from ignorance to Enlightenment, from mundane consciousness to transcendental consciousness.

What are we to do in this situation? We need to grow, we need to become free, and we need something to help us do so. If we agree to call that thing 'religion', how are we to make sure that religion does not become a means of enslaving or stultifying, even of crushing, the individual? We need something that will constantly remind us of the limitations of religion, something that will constantly remind us that religion is only a means to an end. In other words, we need a transcendental critique of religion....

This critique has always been part of Buddhism. The Buddha said 'I teach the Dharma under the figure of a raft.' In other words, just as a raft is useful for getting you across the water, but you wouldn't carry it with you once you had reached dry land, so the Buddha's teaching is useful for carrying us across the waters of samsara, but we will have no need for it when we have reached the other shore of Enlightenment. This sort of emphasis is particularly strong in the Mahayana, and strongest of all, perhaps, in Zen. You get Japanese and Chinese pictures of the Sixth Patriarch tearing up the Diamond Sutra. There is the story of the traveling monk who needed fuel because he was cold, and chopped up the wooden Buddha images in the temple at which he was staying. And there is the master who famously said to his disciple 'If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!'

These are all rather extreme, rather bizarre ways of underlining the same message: that Buddhism is only a means to an end. It is because Buddhism has always been aware of the difference between means and ends that down the centuries it has remained spiritually alive. For the same reason, it has not on the whole been dogmatic or intolerant. It has never persecuted the followers of other religions, and the followers of one form of Buddhism have rarely persecuted the followers of another.

Other religions, it must frankly be said, are not really on a par with Buddhism in this respect. They do not always help the individual to become free. They do not really see themselves as a means to an end in the way that Buddhism does. The theistic religions are especially hampered in this respect. They have no critique of religion, whether transcendental or otherwise; they have no self-critique. It is therefore necessary that we apply the Buddhist critique to them, that we get Vimalakirti to come along. And when we do this, we find only too often that other religions are not in fact means to the development of the individual at all. The critique perforce turns into a criticism.

Some people think that one should not criticize religions other than one's own, or even that one should not criticize religion at all. But such criticism is essential in revealing obstacles to one's development as an individual. It is only by means of a critique that we can ensure that the means to the development of the individual remains a means and does not harden into an end in itself.

We should therefore apply this critique, even this criticism, to everything that presents itself to us as religion. We should apply it to Christianity, apply it to Buddhism, apply it to the Hinayana, apply it to the Mahayana, apply it to the Vajrayana....

We need, of course, to make sure that we apply our critique appropriately; sometimes it is more appropriate to express appreciation. A guiding principle might be to apply the critique first and foremost to oneself. If we all applied this transcendental critique to our own spiritual practice, there would hardly be any need for a transcendental critique of religion in general, or of our own religion in particular. We must be careful not to knock away the very ladder by which we are climbing – not, at least, until we are ready to do without it. We need to apply the critique to whatever practices we undertake – whether it is meditation or devotional practice, reading books or attending lectures, living in a community or working in a Right Livelihood business. We need to stay alive to the crucial question: is it helping me to develop? We should never allow any of these things to become ends in themselves; they are all means to an end.


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