A Second Renaissance? Part 2

By Prajnaketu

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How are you reading this?

Forgive me for being so forward. Of course, you haven’t really got going yet. It’s probably too open a question anyway: the how of reading could mean lots of different things. First, there’s the medium – are you on your phone, a tablet, a laptop or desktop (though of course you might have printed this out, or be asking a text-to-voice AI to read it to you)? Then there’s the speed – are you scanning, skimming, skipping; or planning to stop and mull
over my word choice or points of interest as you go along? And how is the how of your reading influenced by your assumptions of what kind of writing this is, and even what the act of reading really is? Would you have even thought about it if I hadn’t asked?

Reading is changing. Mere text (see my previous blog) saturates our reading mind, profoundly diluting the drops of writing, and droplets of literature we meet. Recognising the existence and value of deep literature from the East is not a given, and yet it’s championed as the source of a second renaissance. But it’s not only discerning the value of what we read, it’s being able to extract its value in the way we read. We now take in so much text on screens, habituating us to scrolling-on, ‘reading in Fs’,1 and picking out key information rather than dwelling on the deeper resonances of a text. The other distractions of this medium – notifications, banner ads, and so on – which diminish our attention spans, consign much long-form prose to the ‘tl;dr’ bucket.

So bear with me.

In his 1985 lecture The Glory of the Literary World, Sangharakshita dangles before us the tantalising prospect of a second renaissance. He argues not only that Buddhist literature qualifies as literature, but that it’s of so lofty a stature that it could well usher in a cultural shift surpassing that of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It’s one thing to be aware of this possibility; training ourselves so that we can participate in this momentous movement will be more of a commitment. Whether Sangharakshita intends for the latter part of his lecture – what he describes as ‘a few more or less random remarks’ – to respond to the question of how to capitalise on the potential of Buddhist literature isn’t clear. But what is clear is that he is someone who has, for himself and others, already begun to do this.

I’ve met no one of such breadth and sympathy of reading as Sangharakshita. Having been given strict (and ultimately mistaken) medical advice to remain in bed for two years as a child he became a prodigious reader, describing for example at aged twelve his reading of Paradise Lost (which he read on Christmas morning) as ‘the greatest poetic experience of his life’ and an inspiration to write an epic poem of his own, which amounted (‘only’) to 900 lines. Those who lived with him later in his life describe the exhausting effect of trying to keep pace with Sangharakshita’s reading, and his astonishing recall.

It’s tempting to put this down to quirks of his neuropsychology, or of his childhood conditioning – and these clearly played a part – but such would be to distance ourselves from our own reading potential. Instead, and with the admission that I’ve still got a long way to go, I propose to take his suggestions for reading as a guide to how to read like him. In doing so, we see the kind of interaction with literature that may well catalyse a second renaissance.

Reload the Canon

Sangharakshita reflects on his reading The Bible Designed to be Read as Literature as a child evacuee in Torquay in 1940. In doing so, he proposes three ways to read Buddhist canonical literature as literature.

“… [it] means, in the first place, reading the canonical literature for enjoyment. This does not mean reading it for the sake of amusement, or simply to while away the time. Reading the canonical literature for enjoyment means reading it because, in so doing, we find ourselves immersed in an emotionally positive state of being such as – outside meditation – we hardly ever experience […] Reading the canonical literature for enjoyment means reading it because we want to read it. It means reading it because we have an affinity for it, and are drawn to it naturally and spontaneously.”

Clearly, if we enjoy reading something, we will want to spend time with it. And, as it’s rare for literature to reveal all its treasures on a first pass, spending time with it is the only way it’ll work its magic on us. If we already have experiences of literature opening our minds to something extraordinary, probably all we need is reminding of that possibility, and setting aside the time to engage with it. But if we don’t immediately enjoy it, and don’t know how to, we might easily become discouraged. Finding other people who ‘get’ it can be a potent way in: somebody who knows the text and knows us well enough to be able to join the two up. In this respect Sangharakshita was exemplary. His lecture commentaries on the Vimalakirti Nirdesa, the Sutra of Golden Light, and the White Lotus Sutra lay the foundations for many of us moderns being able to enjoy those texts.

The White Lotus Sutra is a personal case in point. Before I came along to the Triratna Buddhist Community I was a paid-up member of the London Buddhist Society and had access to their library. One day I withdrew a copy of this Sutra in the hope that, aspiring Buddhist that I was, I might meet with some profound teachings. I was surprised to find that much of the early part of the Sutra was devoted to singing its own praises in anticipation of it being preached. Fair enough, I thought: a device to build up the atmosphere. Then at some point the language shifts into the past tense, now praising the Sutra just preached and singing the praises of those who will preach and protect it. But what about the Sutra? I wondered whether I’d missed it on the page-turn. It wasn’t until some years later, having heard Sangharakshita’s lecture series ‘The Drama of Cosmic Enlightenment’, and in him found someone who actually understood the text, that I began to get it. He not only understood the text and could successfully guide us through the narrative, nor simply enjoyed reading it as a leisure activity, but he was someone whose mind was obviously lifted in the process and who could lift my own mind in his exposition. The text now liberated, I could begin to understand and enjoy it more fully for myself.

Sangharakshita can continue to serve this role, even after his death – I heard his recorded lectures on freebuddhistaudio.com, where they’re still available. And a second renaissance along the lines he suggests will not be possible without people who can realise the enjoyment of the literature of the East in this way.

But it requires something more fundamental too. Neuroscientists researching the activity of reading suggest that digital technology is changing the way our brains relate to text – and not always for the better.3 Scrolling down screens replaces turning paper pages, and the way we read on screens is increasingly spilling over onto the paper medium. One of the main spillages is that we now read mostly for information. We scan, harvest, and move on. This can be seen as a direct consequence of two things. First, with a diet so high in mere text we learn to filter out the fluff and dive straight to the point, whether it’s grabbing the gist of a news story in the gaps between meetings or running our eyes over a longer-than-welcome email. This is a positive adaptation in an information-saturated age. Second, our relationship with our digital devices has turned most of us into dopamine addicts. Discovering new information is what gives us a quick dopaminergic fix, and so this is how we come to act. It’s a species of enjoyment, but at the most superficial and addictive level. It echoes my early attempt at reading the White Lotus Sutra – I went straight for the ‘teachings’ and thereby missed the Teaching.

There’s another kind of enjoyment that comes from reading a text slowly, even reading it out loud or listening to it being read, which enables it to make its impression on us. Rather than picking out facts or information – things that are of ‘use’ to us – we soak up the feeling, the sound, the world, of the text. Here digital technology, in the growing form of audiobooks, is a real boon. Finding situations in which we can listen to canonical texts being read out loud and have time to reflect and meditate on them takes this enjoyment to the next level, as I’ve found recently while on retreat at Adhisthana and Padmaloka.

Picking wholes

“To approach the Buddhist canonical literature as literature also means reading it as a whole. This does not mean reading the whole of that literature (it is in any case fifty times more extensive than the Bible) but rather reading this or that item of canonical literature as a whole. Reading the Sutta Nipata, or the Vimalakirti Nirdesa, for example, in this manner, means reading it not piecemeal, not concentrating on the parts at the expense of the whole, but reading it in such a way as to allow oneself to experience its total impact. Only if we read it in this kind of way will we be able to grasp the fundamental significance of the work or, if one likes, its gestalt.”

This contrasts with the practice of chopping up texts: picking from here and there to create our own ‘playlists’ or ‘medleys’. Of course, many of us do this with music as a matter of course, lining up the power ballads to keep us conscious on long road trips, or creating an easy vibe for dinner guests. But in doing so we lose the whole work from which any one bit comes, and how each bit joins up with the others in the work. If literature, as I suggest, is something that elevates our mind by communicating the mind of its author, this won’t do. Minds present themselves as wholes, as totalities, all at once. Sometimes one can get a sense of this being around someone who is considerably wiser than oneself. (I certainly found it when I met Sangharakshita in person, and, curiously, something of this totality remains in Urgyen House even now he’s no longer alive.) Literature, music, film (and in a different way, visual art), though, all proceed sequentially, unfolding over a period of time. We don’t get the full effect unless we experience the whole in the particular order, and at the particular speed, its creator intended.

The next stretch

“Finally, and perhaps most importantly, to approach the Buddhist canonical literature as literature means to read it for its own sake rather than for the sake of some ulterior purpose.”

He lists several ulterior purposes, including the academic studies of history, or linguistics, or comparative religion, or in order to refute Buddhism. With the possible exception of the last, he assures us, none of these are intrinsically wrong. But they miss the point. We might reflect on the kinds of use to which Eastern literature can be put in our own times: social media slogans, bolstering our arguments with ‘Buddha says’, ‘ticking off’ a compulsory study module. None of these will prepare us for the full effect of Buddhavacana.

“The purpose that the Buddhist canonical literature exists to subserve is the happiness and welfare – the highest happiness and highest welfare – of all sentient beings, and we read that literature for its own sake when we read it with this in mind.”

Probably for most of us this requires a stretch of the imagination – as if in reading Buddhist canonical literature we’re participating in something of cosmic significance. Many Buddhist texts trumpet their own sublimity, reminding the reader that even to have heard a single stanza signals a spiritual achievement, suggestive of incalculable past lives of merit-making. In our cynical times, soused in texts of much lesser vision, we might find ourselves
discounting this as a form of self-aggrandisement – and it’s possible some of this is going on too – but we can also see this as a call to take what we’re reading very seriously. Actually, it’s a call to take ourselves very seriously: that it is through the reading, study, and teaching of these texts we become channels for the best in the universe to manifest. This is to elevate the act of reading to a level beyond anything our culture has conceived of before; the recognition of this potential alone begins to set us on course for something extraordinary.

Speaking in terms of a ‘second renaissance’ is, and was probably intended to be, the laying down of a challenge. ‘Renaissance’ as ‘spiritual rebirth’ means the radical transformation of our own minds and the mentality of the culture within which we live. While such a thing probably will need more than words to bring it about, entertaining such an expanded notion of literature and reading undoubtedly has parallels in the other arts, and even in science.

Ultimately: “Culture is a rainbow bridge thrown from the material world to the spiritual world.”4

1 See, for example, https://www.nngroup.com/articles/f-shaped-pattern-reading-web-content/
2 All quotations, unless otherwise stated, are taken from The Glory of the Literary World, in Complete Works Vol 14, Sangharakshita, pp287-304
3 For example, Maryanne Wolf, Reader Come Home (2018)
4 Sangharakshita, A Stream of Stars, Complete Works Vol 26, p66