Manchester Buddhist Convention – the gentlest of radicals and a great social reformer by Jaya Graves

Footprint of the Buddha. 1st century, Gandhara...

Footprint of the Buddha. 1st century, Gandhara, with depictions of the triratna and the Dharmacakra. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Manchester Buddhist Convention – the gentlest of radicals and a great social reformer

(Sharing some personal thoughts)

The figure that comes to most of our minds when we think of the Buddha is of a being, eyes almost shut, hands resting in meditative equipoise, or touching the earth to bear witness. Tranquil. Supreme. Beloved.
If we lose sight of the force of His life’s testimony we still return to it in our moments of stillness for the Buddha was a towering figure even when surrounded by many other deeply realised beings. (1)

That we question and reflect, as the Buddha indicated we should do, is evident in some of the themes that recur over the years – about how Buddhism engages with social issues/ what its role when faced with difficult, ethical questions (one I’ve encountered in several contexts is the matter of organ donation). Buddhism and Psychotherapy crops up every year, monastic and lay life, death and dying, ‘Buddhism in the West’ sometimes used synonymously with ‘Western Buddhism’. Some people baulk at the term ‘religion’, connecting it perhaps, with commandments, instructions and prescription. Others may be content with ‘spiritual path’ and still others will insist that it is just a philosophy which, in my mind, seems to break the heart of the Buddha’s experience, which was a spiritual awakening.

In this Convention we try to respond to some of these questions in a tangible way. Interestingly, these questions seemed to have resonated among those who offered presentations when we first sent invitations. Several new groups have also responded.

Kalyanamitra and the Buddhist Group of Kendal (BGK) are active in the social context. Kalyanamitra provides Buddhist chaplaincy to different sectors. The Buddhist Group of Kendal and the Ketumati Vihara (Oldham), are working with the Police and fire service. Rigpa are doing pioneering work on death and dying based on the work of Sogyal Rinpoche, author of the ‘Tibetan Book of Living and Dying’. Here we are responding to the Venerable Piyatissa who remarked – ‘Yes, yes we must talk about dying. It’s very popular!’

Oxana will be looking at the role of women in Buddhism. (When the Buddha was asked by Ananda if women could become awakened he replied in the affirmative. Interestingly, Martine Bachelor’s remarks in ‘The Spirit of the Buddha’ that this was in 500 BCE. But in 1000 CE, ‘…some people in Europe were still wondering whether women had souls.’)

Presenters will be looking at the interface between lay life and monastic life and what it is to be Buddhist in the West. Other will present on core Buddhist principles like compassion and Boddicitta. There will be guided meditation as well as space for continuous chanting and personal and led meditation – a rich and substantial mix

We chose the theme: ‘The Buddha in our Midst: One Root Many Branches’ to underline that though we may belong to different Buddhist systems and schools, we have a core of shared teachings and truths which are directly linked to the words, deeds and practice of the Buddha and the early sangha. It gives confidence that the teachings are still directly connected with the words of someone of such magnitude – a still living connection. (This is an overwhelming notion and gives me goose pimples when I reflect deeply on it – sorry to be so un-poetic! I also remember a friend describing a similar sensation when she first visited Bodh Gaya – ‘I might have been breathing some of the same air as the Buddha did’, she said. ) It is for this reason that ‘lineage’ is important to me. There have been cautionary voices raised, at conferences as well as at various meetings and gathering, about the danger of aligning ourselves with a particular system or school (2). Are these appropriate for the West? Will it create ‘sectarianism’?

In His lifetime, the Buddha is said to have given 84,000 dharmas or teachings. Some of these may not have been more than a few sentences. Others may have been deep teachings requested and given at different times for people of different temperaments, inclinations, understanding and employment. This was the detail of his concern – not just for one, a few but for the many, given with the same loving attention and detail for all who may have come by him. He presented us with enough material to suit the needs of most people but urged us to use our own judgement and experience, – ‘Do not believe…’ So Buddhism has thrived on dialectical debate through thousands of years. The dharma adopted and adapted to the cultural milieu in which it found itself so Tibetan Buddhism may seemingly be very different from Zen or Chan and these from Theravada. Through all this the core teachings have remained secure because they are, according to the Buddha himself the ‘ancient path’ – the truth that is. Over time it can become submerged at which point it has to be rediscovered and ‘re-presented’ by new spiritual teachers. But, thus far, Buddhists of all systems have been meticulous about keeping faith with the original teachings that Buddha Shakyamuni transmitted.

If we find ourselves in danger of losing this message of perfect inclusiveness in the fear of ‘traditions’, systems, ‘authenticity’, independence (or not), it is as well to examine what could be causing that. If it is an individualistic approach to the Buddhadharma the problem is within us. Imagining that the problem is different systems of Buddhist thought rather than our own divisiveness, misplaces the problem and will ensure that we never find a solution to the problem, which is our own egotism, sectarianism and fear. If it is not, we are free to rid ourselves of the raft that has carried us – as the Buddha himself advised. (Unless we suspect there may be rapids ahead!)

It may also be useful to recollect that in the early Buddhist Universities in India, like Nalanda and Vikramashila the different systems studied and practiced together. In Tibet, different lineages had specific monasteries but they shared teachings and methods and lamas took transmission from teachers of different lineages and still do.

There are rituals and formalities associated with different Buddhist systems but this is not the ‘heartwood’ of Buddhism. These are contained in the teachings given by the Buddha and are the basic core that we share. It is embedded in the message compassion, not just for those we know or even for humans but for all beings. This is the central message of Buddhism – we need to allow our compassion to expand and include all sentient beings and to hold it there until suffering ceases…

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. It is how our chosen spiritual intention integrates with and infuses our day-to-day activities, our relationships and the smallest interactions we have, how we wake up to the day… Ideally, it is the starting point and reference for how we live and the choices we make, in the knowledge that we fall short as often as we manage to live to this aspiration in the course of a single day.

The Buddha practiced this. Every action, intervention and teaching is imbued with this message – his intervention between wrangles in the early sangha, between individuals, between tribal warlords and kings. In the early sangha there was space for murderers, for low-caste sweepers, for women, (3) for the sons of kings and priests. He didn’t set out to offend but sometimes offence was taken. He deliberately chose to teach in Prakriti and Pali – the languages of ordinary people. It was only later that the teachings were transcribed into Sanskrit, the language of the priesthood.

The Buddha lived most of his life in cities – where else? His concern and teachings were for beings. This image of sublime serenity to which we turn our minds when we think of the Buddha, one hand touching the earth the other held in meditative equipoise may be our need and is at it should be. All his actions and activity are embedded in deep-rooted humanity; in a love for all beings. It is this that makes him the gentlest of radicals and a great social reformer.

1) The Buddha is said to have taken birth in India for 5 specific reasons. One of these is that disciples from his past lives were gathering in India. The others were that there were suitable parents, a suitable situation (he was born into the warrior caste), a climate of questioning, discussion and debate and a decent lifespan.

( 2) I have chosen to dispense with the word ‘tradition’. This English word is misleading. A term we use in Sanskrit and Tibetan word is ‘yana’ or vehicle which conveys the notion of different approaches suited to different temperaments. Within the ‘yanas’ themselves, there are many different paths. There are many words like this and I think it would be a good use of our time and energy to examine these in great detail and create terminology to reflect them – terms like ‘void’, ‘emptiness’ (which are not at all to do with nothingness.) Or even ‘dukkha’, ( for which Martine Batchelor suggests ‘stress’. Dukkha is still ordinary usage in India and does not indicate soul-destroying ‘suffering’). Another one that leads into a morass of misunderstanding is ‘non-attachment’.

( 3) It has been suggested that his initial refusal was due to concern for their safety in taking the ‘homeless’ way. It is also the reason why many women who did join the Sangha were expected to stay close by where the monks lived.

Jaya Graves

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