Buddhist Audio Books

Drama of Cosmic Enlightenment
Parables, Myths, and Symbols of the White Lotus Sutra
By Sangharakshita
ISBN: 0904766594
Read by Subhadra

An image or story can mysteriously convey a sense of truth that the most convincing intellectual argument cannot. In the White Lotus Sutra, bursting with symbols, imagery and myths, we meet the Buddha as a story-teller. Indeed, this sutra tells the greatest of all stories, that of human life and human potential. This great story takes the cosmos as its stage and all sentient beings as its players, yet within it lie many tales that address aspects of our lives or personalities. This delightfully illustrated commentary on one of the most influential, revered and well-loved Buddhist scriptures brings these stories vividly to life and shows how they relate to our own spiritual quest.

An Extract from: Drama of Cosmic Enlightenment
From chapter 5: Symbols of Life and Growth

The quality of impartiality is particularly drawn out in the parable of the rain-cloud. The word which the Buddha uses to describe the rain is ekarasa (eka meaning 'one', and rasa meaning 'taste', 'juice', or 'essence'). This same word is used in a similar connection in another parable, one which occurs in the Pali scriptures: the parable of the great ocean. The Buddha says that wherever you go in the great ocean, you can scoop a handful of water and it will have the same taste: the taste of salt. Likewise, whatsoever part of his teaching you take up, it will have one taste: the taste of freedom. In other words, whatever aspect of the Buddha's teaching you practise, it has one essence, one purpose, one effect - to help you to get free from your conditioning. There are many different presentations of the Buddha's teaching. There are the lists: the Eightfold Path, the Five Spiritual Faculties, the Three Refuges. There are the teachings about suffering, impermanence, and no-self. And there are all sorts of methods of practice: the mindfulness of breathing, the metta bhavana, the contemplation of the impurities, the brahma viharas. But all these many teachings, traditions, and practices have just one aim: to help individual human beings to become free from their conditioning.

From this the important corollary follows that the Buddha's teaching is not to be identified with any one formulation. It is not possible to say that the Buddha's teaching is the Noble Eightfold Path and just that, or the contents of the Pali Canon and just that. The Buddha's teaching is not just Zen, or just Theravada, or just what Professor so-and-so says it is. Buddhism cannot be identified with any one individual formulation, much less with any one individual school or sect. The Buddha's teaching or message can only be identified with that spirit of liberation, of freedom from conditionedness, that pervades all these formulations, just as the taste of salt pervades all the waters of the ocean. Whether it is the teaching of the Eightfold Path or the teaching of the Bodhisattva Ideal, whether it is this meditation practice or that, if it helps us to become free from our conditioning, it is part and parcel of the Buddha's teaching.

When we read about Buddhism, it is very important not only to remember this but to try really to feel it; otherwise all our studies and knowledge will be in vain. When we read the scriptures or hear about the Buddha's teaching, it is not enough just to pay attention to the words, the ideas and concepts. What really matters is to feel, through the concepts, through the images and symbolism, that which informs and gives life to them all - the experience of emancipation from all conditions whatsoever. In other words, we are trying to feel at least to some degree the absolute consciousness of the Buddha, the Enlightened consciousness from which all the teachings originally came.

Now, although the rain falls on all alike, and the sun shines on all alike, the plants themselves are all different and they grow in different ways. A nut grows into a tree, and a seed into a flower; a rose bush produces big red blossoms whereas a crocus bulb produces small yellow ones. Some plants shoot up in the air, others creep along the ground, and others clasp bigger and stronger plants. They all grow according to their own nature. And it is just the same, the parable suggests, with human beings. They all receive the same truth, they all hear what is in principle the same spiritual teaching, and they all grow. But the strange, astonishing, and wonderful thing is that they all grow in different ways. They all grow according to their own nature. People may all hear the same teaching, believe in the same teaching, and follow the same path, but they do what seem to be completely different things. Some become more and more deeply involved in meditation, so that in the end they are spending most of their time meditating and have hardly any contact with other people. Others take up social work. Others burst into song, write poetry, or paint pictures. And others, perhaps the majority, simply go on being themselves. They do not display any specific talent, but just become more and more individual. The paradox is that although we each become more and more different from one another as we grow and develop, at the same time we also become more and more like one another: more aware, more sensitive, more compassionate; in a word, more alive.

This means that in the spiritual life there can be no question of regimentation. It is reasonable to expect that, with a little endeavour, all human beings will grow, but it is unreasonable to expect all human beings to grow in the same way. This, unfortunately, is often forgotten. When we discover something that we ourselves find very helpful to our own development, we tend to think that everybody else should also find it helpful. Indeed, if we are not careful, we even start insisting that they must find it helpful. Or, conversely, we discover that something is not helpful to us, at least at present, and therefore refuse to recognize that it is helpful to other people.

It is this kind of fixed attitude which leads to sectarianism in Buddhism. When people hit upon a helpful approach to their spiritual development, rather than just making use of it, they are quick to declare that the school or method they have discovered is Buddhism. If you don't follow this school, they say, you can't really be a Buddhist. This is just as bad as orthodox Christianity, and indeed represents a carrying over of Christian attitudes into Buddhist life.

I must confess that I found a lot of this sort of thing in the English Buddhist movement when I came back in 1964 after spending twenty years in the East. For instance, there were some people who - quite rightly - found meditation very helpful indeed, and devoted a number of hours every day to practising it. And because they found meditation so helpful, they used to declare that the practice of studying the scriptures - or reading about Buddhism at all - was completely useless. In their opinion, nobody who called themselves a Buddhist should be expected, or even allowed, to do anything other than meditate.

But there were other people, I found, who preferred to study. And these people, who tended to be rather bookish, would say that people in the West, being tense and full of problems, and rather difficult in all sorts of ways, were simply not ready for so sublime a spiritual practice as meditation, and ought to stick to reading books. Some people went so far as to say that meditation was dangerous, and that if you insisted on doing it at all, five minutes at a time was quite enough. Other people again were against anything ceremonial or colourful. They did not find ritual helpful themselves, for one reason or another, so they tended to say that it was bad for everybody.

We need to be careful not to get stuck in fixed ideas about which particular Buddhist school is best, or which kind of Buddhist practice is best. Furthermore, we need to examine our fixed ideas about what 'Buddhism' is, and even what 'religion' is. Again we can take as our reference point the parables of the White Lotus Sutra, which say that the rain falls and the sun shines on the good and the bad alike. But in applying this to our own situation, I want to put it rather differently: the rain falls and the sun shines on the religious and the secular alike.

For a couple of thousand years in the West, all cultures and communities were 'officially' religious. This meant that you could only develop higher states of consciousness through traditional religious means: prayer, meditation, the sacraments, and so on. If you wanted to evolve, you had to be a religious person and do it in the religious way. You had to be a pious church-goer, or a religious scholar, or a mystic.

But a great change has taken place. It began at the time of the Renaissance, when thinkers, philosophers, and artists started separating - some would say emancipating - themselves from the tutelage of religion. Then, after the Industrial Revolution, the whole process speeded up, and today in most Western countries - and the change is spreading to the East as well - communities and cultures are secular rather than religious. Art is secular art; it has no direct connection with conventional or traditional religion. And literature is very definitely secular literature.

But despite this split between the religious and the secular, the Higher Evolution is still possible. In the modern world, especially in the West, it can take place not only in religious but also in secular terms. Indeed, in the West today spiritual progress is more likely to take place within a secular context than within a conventional religious one. All that is traditionally or conventionally associated with the word 'religion' has little appeal now for the vast majority of thinking people. One can even go so far as to say, to put it bluntly, that those who go to church are probably not very interested in religion, and those who are very interested in religion are unlikely to go to church.

It might be better, therefore, to present the Higher Evolution of man not in conventional religious terms at all, but in secular terms. Perhaps more people would then be attracted to the teachings and benefit from them. It may be that one day we shall have to conclude that in sticking to traditional religious forms, including Eastern religious forms, we are being unimaginative and unrealistic, and perhaps even excluding - or at least not encouraging - some people who could benefit from the teachings of the Higher Evolution.

The rain falls and the sun shines on the religious and the secular alike. Both rain and sunshine help all plants to grow in their own way. In everything that we have seen so far, the two parables are similar. But there is a distinction between them, although this distinction does not exactly amount to a difference. The symbolism of the rain-cloud and the symbolism of the sun are complementary. The rain-cloud gives moisture, whereas the sun gives light and heat. To borrow terms from the Chinese tradition, the rain-cloud is yin, associated with the depths, with the earth, and the sun is yang, associated with the heights, with the sky. And in terms of human development, the individual is quite literally like the plant. Just as the plant taps its moisture up from the earth, and gets its heat and light from the sky, so the developing human being must be nourished from below, from the unconscious depths, and also from above, from the supra-conscious heights.

To translate this into more simple terms, we must be nourished through both emotion and reason. Usually presentations of Buddhism in the West emphasize the rational aspect, or even give the impression that Buddhism is exclusively rational. We are told about Buddhist thought and philosophy, Buddhist metaphysics, psychology, and logic; and sometimes it all seems very dry and academic. The other side, however, the side represented by myth, symbol, and the imagination, the emotions and vision, is no less important, and for many people perhaps even more important. This is why we need to absorb texts which appeal to our emotions, like the parables, myths, and symbols of the Mahayana in the White Lotus Sutra.

It is not enough to understand the Buddha's teaching intellectually. Anybody who has the ability to read - and a moderate intelligence - can do that. We have to ask ourselves again and again not just 'Do I know? Do I understand?' but 'Do I feel? Do I vibrate with this?' We might even ask ourselves 'Do I really feel like a plant at the end of the hot season? Is this how I feel after a day's work or after I've been immersed in the ordinary daily round? Do I feel all dry and withered? Do I feel in need of nourishment? Do I really feel ready to take something in?' When you come in contact with the truth, with the Buddha's teaching, do you actually feel as though you are being refreshed by a great shower of rain? Do you really feel that you are going to drink something in after having been dry and thirsty for a long time?

Again, when you come in contact with the Dharma, do you really feel that the sun has come out? During the months of winter it is not unusual to feel dull and tired, and even miserable, because the sky is grey with fog and mist, and you are cold. You look forward to the spring sunshine, to your summer holiday, to the first beautiful, warm, bright weekend when you feel that spring is really on the way. When you see the buds begin to open and the flowers blooming in the parks and gardens, you can hardly help but feel a lifting of the heart. You feel as though a new spirit were rising within you.

But do you feel like this when you come into contact with the Buddha's teaching? Do you feel as though you are drinking in spiritual sunshine? If you do not respond in this way, your approach is still just intellectual. It is important that we should actually feel ourselves living, feel ourselves growing just like the plant when the rain falls and the sun shines, feel ourselves expanding. If we feel like this, our birth as human beings is not in vain, for we will ourselves be symbols, living symbols, of life and growth.


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