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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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Buddhism in the World by Jaya Graves

Buddhism in the World

English: The worlds largest tibetan stupa

Image via Wikipedia

Forty years ago, you could arguably, fit the number of Buddhists teachers, if not on the tip of a needle, then on the square platform of a Saxon church.  All this has changed as the number of Buddhist centres grow exponentially. Two major causes are cited for this. One is the post-war occupation of Japan which brought Zen to the West.  The other is the Chinese invasion of Tibet. Alongside the carnage, this created a huge exodus of Tibetan lamas to India from where they and the teachings spread across the world. 

Buddhism is often defined as a religion. Books on the subject are tumbled into “religious” sections of libraries and bookshops.  Occasionally, they appear on philosophy shelves. But how does it define itself?   Buddhists refer to the “dharma” – the way. Buddhism is not a theistic “religion”. There is no creator god issuing commandments, judging or punishing. Nor is there anyone who promises salvation. Salvation is possible, even inevitable, but we will reach it through our own efforts.  Neither is Buddhism a philosophy. It aims to go beyond concepts, the domain of Western philosophy. To do this it uses a thorough and rigorous investigation of inner and outer phenomena that include ideas, emotions, actions and interactions.  Phenomena are unstable and impermanent – a dance of particles – an instability we are unable to control. We cannot create permanence.

Imagining we can control phenomena creates many of our current delusions and anxiety. And from this stems our conflicts with ourselves, with each other, between neighbourhoods and nations. Since the data of our human situation is subject to continual change it follows that our investigation must also be continuous and our conclusions must be adjusted. This personal investigation is central to Buddhist practice.  There are no laboratories.  No contrived replication. For this reason the process is sometimes dismissed as “subjective” and unscientific. It is not “evidence-based”. I am arguing that it is tested.  It is evidence based but not necessarily within the Western framework of investigation. It is personalbut it is not subjective. We have the support of teachings and commentaries. Investigative practices have been explored and established. Skilled and wise researchers have “peer reviewed” these over millennia and continue to do so. But in the end it is our own inner tenacity, our passionate intention through which we must judge our path and progress.

This core practice is undertaken not only to create a degree of ease in ourselves but through a commitment to everything that lives. The development of compassion for all things is part of being human and cannot be conditional. It must include those with whom we agree, whose belief systems are congruent to our own as well as those we may traditionally see as “enemies” or who harm us, or whose belief systems challenge our own or whose interpretation of life is alien to ours. We need to be judicious but we cannot judge the person only the action.  On this Buddhism takes no hostages. Our concern must include all living things (not only human).

Buddhism is moving from the fringes to centre stage. It offers strategies to deal with fraught lives.  Meditative practices can be oases of calm at home or in centres. It is not a continuous assault to make choices, make judgements, accumulate information, juggle loyalties. It turns the attention inward.

The binary frameworks generally used to explain or explore our experience are flawed.  By this I mean that there is an ideological split between spirit and matter; theism and atheism. (Buddhism is non theistic not atheistic.) The dichotomies of either/or, good/evil, black/white, lies/truth, for us or against us, need not coalesce into destructive factions within us and between us in which there is no accommodation and between which we must choose, sometimes on pain of death.  Contradiction is is the stuff of our human condition. We are not asked to repress and destroy these. Instead it is suggested that they obscure our true nature. We are urged to investigate these obscurations and are offered methods to transform them. So anger can become energy. Afflictive desire can become compassion for all beings. (Not only for humans.)  Pain can teach us sympathy and concern for all.

Buddhism recognises that suffering is our inheritance and will be our legacy. It makes demands in how we locate ourselves in the world. For me, in this context, it raises questions about the infliction of a model of infinite growth on a finite system; of our assumptions of entitlement to resources; our profligate use and treatment of land and water. It challenges the notion that our main concern is “the family”.  It isn’t.  There is a family beyond the family, beyond the neighbourhood, beyond the state, the country.  Nuclear families are only a microcosm of this.  Our care has to be embedded in the wider context.  It is not a competition. It is reconfiguration.

Tried and tested methods of making an inner journey are offered. These enable us to change our own responses to a world in flux. It can harmonise relationships and enable us to maintain a degree of equanimity in personal adversity as well as in our engagement with the world. This exploration merges seamlessly into the metaphysical.  Beyond worldly flux with which we must engage there is a timeless truth.

Jaya Graves: I was born in India and work with Southern Voices, a small educational organisation concerned with issues to do with the South or “developing world”. I am involved in activities involved with refugees and the movement of people and have been active in anti-racist activities, the womens’ movement and the peace movement.

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