Against The Stream ~ WHAT HAVE WE GOT?

IT IS EASY TO DESTROY OR distort things, while to create, or clarify things, is hard. This is why religions, over the ages, lose their clarity and vitality. Buddhism is no exception; it has absorbed many things that were not originally there, and is often misrepresented. Take the kung-fu movies churned out in Hong Kong, for example: as light-entertainment, these films may have some value, but often erroneously portray Buddhism and Chinese philosophy. Thus, when a genuine attempt to propagate Buddhism is made, we are confronted with nonsense that impressionable people have absorbed from such movies, under the idea that it has something to do with Buddhism. It becomes like having to clear the weeds, rocks, and garbage from a piece of ground in order to plant crops there.

Years ago, I saw a Japanese movie about the Buddha, but it was so inaccurate, long and boring, that I almost went to sleep during it, and couldn’t wait for it to end. Then there was the Shaolin Temple movie from China, showing monks eating dogs, drinking wine, fighting and killing—things quite contrary to the life-style of monks. And a cheaply-produced Hong Kong trash-film about the Buddha showed Him being dragged from His seat beneath the Bodhi-tree by demons, and then rescued by a white ‘monkey-god’ which defeated the demon-king by its magic and kung-fu! It was extremely boring and silly, though it was obviously appreciated by the monk in whose temple I saw it in San Jose, USA! Why do movie-makers have to distort things so much?

Are these movies a result of popular demand? Do they really reflect people’s tastes? If so, why are people so undiscerning? We are better-educated now than ever before (though not necessarily more intelligent), and yet we turn to rubbish for entertainment. Is everyday life so boring that we must escape into silly and unrealistic fantasy? Apart from the costumes and architecture, these movies are dull and unconvincing; the plots vary very little; the kung-fu scenes go on far too long, with the combatants rarely sustaining injury or getting tired or dirty; the magical-element is too fantastic, and the sound-effects amateurish. When the Buddha or Kwan Yin are shown, they look foolish, seated on flashing, revolving, jet-propelled lotus-flowers in the midst of multi-colored clouds, the Buddha with some outlandish coiffure, etc. Are these deliberate attempts to misrepresent and belittle Buddhism? If so, they succeed quite well. What kind of impression do people who know nothing about Buddhism get from such movies?

If you intend to buy a house, it is advisable to have it evaluated first, otherwise you might later find that you paid far too much for it. Should we not also evaluate our religion and philosophy of life? Dare we do so? Would our religion stand up to honest scrutiny today? Why do so many Buddhists discard Buddhism and embrace other religions? Is it merely for material gain, or, as refugees, to acquire sponsorship? Have they found something better than they had? Did they understand what they had before changing? And do they understand the religion they are changing to? We should really be prepared to ask such questions and not to go blindly on, thinking that "Our religion is better than others", as we often do. If we were asked to explain why we think our religion is better than others, would we be able to?

We can see that, as far as social-service is concerned, Buddhism is so far behind that it is nowhere in sight! And as for ceremonies and rituals, well, other religions have such, too. What constitutes Buddhism’s difference, and why should it continue to exist in this world, more than 2,500 years after it began? Why should it not have followed into oblivion the ancient Greek and Roman religions, remains of which we can find now only in museums and books on mythology? Does Buddhism offer to people anything at all that they cannot get elsewhere? If we are afraid to ask such questions, it means we have not really understood, and have no real faith in what the Buddha taught. We should not think it disrespectful to doubt and inquire, for this is what the Buddha encouraged, not belief. When He was about to pass away, He asked His monks if they had any doubts or questions about anything. When they all remained silent, He said that, if they didn’t like to ask, out of respect for Him, they should get a friend to ask for them. There was still no response, and the Buddha knew this was because they had understood, and had no doubts, and not because they were afraid or shy to ask.

Unlike some other religions, Buddhism did not develop as a branch or out-growth of a previously-existing religion, but as a result of the Buddha’s Enlightenment. Buddhists therefore claim it is based upon verifiable facts, and does not require its followers to accept and believe things unquestioningly.

There is, in Buddhism—as in most other religions [indeed, some religions are based upon it]—a ‘miracle-aspect’. However, it is not emphasized or regarded as important, as it is unverifiable, and that part of it is from the past, while the important aspects are of the present, the Eternal NOW. Even today, there are people with ‘super-natural powers’ who can perform ‘miracles’. The Philippines is famous for its psychic or spiritual healers, who are reputed to be able to perform complicated surgical operations with just their bare hands and effect miraculous cures. India has countless yogis and holy-men, many of whom are supposed to possess magical powers; perhaps the most famous of these today is SAI BABA, whom many people have witnessed producing various objects from thin air. It cannot be disputed; there are certain things that most people, including skeptical scientists, know nothing about. Scientists cannot explain, for example, how people can walk on fire, without getting even minor burns, yet this feat is not rare in some Asian countries.

The importance—or lack of it—that Buddhism places on ‘magic and miracles’ is illustrated by a little anecdote told about the Buddha. One time, while walking beside the Ganges River, He came to a hermitage. After exchanging greetings with the long-haired ascetic there, He inquired about his discipline. The ascetic replied that he had been there for many years, practicing austerities in order to be able to walk on the water, and now, at last, his efforts were about to bear fruit. The Buddha smiled—perhaps a little mischievously—and said: "But don’t you know that just upstream is a ferryman who can take you across for two pence?"

Psychic-power is said to be available to anyone who practices certain kinds of meditational disciplines, but the Buddha stipulated that, if His monks did develop such powers, they were not to display them but keep them hidden. The Scriptures say that He had psychic-powers Himself, and there are accounts of Him performing miracles such as creating the illusion of multiplying Himself for others to see, making fire and water issue from His body, disappearing from one place and reappearing in another, and so on. But these things are not regarded as important. The real miracle of Buddhism is the attainment of Enlightenment, of Waking-up to Reality, and this possibility is open to everyone. The Buddha did not claim the monopoly on Truth; He said that anyone could find what He had found. His own cousin, Devadatta, though he was a monk and had psychic-powers—whereby he could fly through the air, pass through walls, walk on water, etc.—was not enlightened; indeed, having such powers caused him to become vain and corrupt, and he died in a state of anguish.

Yes, Buddhism was, and still is, a Way that leads to Awakening, while living in this world. This is what constitutes Buddhism’s raison d’etre; Buddhism does have something to offer to our world—a world that, in spite of the wonderful advances of science and technology, is still filled with ignorance, superstition, hatred, fear, intolerance, darkness, and suffering. We must rediscover our heritage as Buddhists, dust off our treasures and bring them out for all to see. Many people are waiting for what we have to offer; shall we withhold it from them? Before we can give it to others, however, we must first understand and appreciate it ourselves, and know it is worth offering to others.

To approach Buddhism, requires both Faith and Wisdom, and they must balance each other. When there is too much Faith and not enough Wisdom, things go wrong, and we can see the results in some other religions: they become naïve and unrealistic, superstitious remains of Man’s primitive past. Moreover, these imbalanced religions have often been productive of intolerance, fanaticism, persecution, conflict, and war. Why do people not look deeper into things, instead of seeing only surface-appearances, and believing?

What is Faith? Many of us equate Faith with Belief, but actually, it is quite different. We tend to believe people we respect or like, even if we have no proof or knowledge that what they say is true; we are often misled this way. Belief exists in the absence of knowledge. For example, most people would probably answer "Yes" if asked whether they believe in ghosts or not, even though they have never seen a ghost. And if you ask those who say "No" to accompany you to a cemetery at night, they would probably refuse, which would seem to indicate that they do believe. Belief and Disbelief go together, and we often find that one is the mirror-image of the other. But Faith has little to do with Belief, for it arises out of, or because of knowledge, not in the absence of it. For example, you have seen Kodak-film advertized; the manufacturers spend huge sums to promote sales; maybe you have been influenced into buying Kodak-film by such promotions yourself. Until you buy and use it, and get good results from it, however, you can only believe it is good, but when and if you get good results from it, then Faith in it arises, and you would probably buy Kodak-film again. If you had poor results from it, you would not have faith in it, and would not buy any more. So, Faith (Trust, or Confidence) arises from direct, personal experience, and displaces Belief. When we have faith in something, we don’t believe anymore, because we know.

Two people go to the market to sell their wares. One conceals his goods and calls out to people, very loudly, to come and buy them, saying that if they miss this opportunity they will regret it for the rest of their lives. He requires people to believe what he says without giving them any evidence to support his claims. The other man spreads his goods out for all to see and examine, but neither threatens nor promises; if people want to buy, they buy, otherwise not. This person is like the Buddha, who never called anyone to believe or follow Him, saying that if they did, they would be saved and go to heaven when they died, but if not, they would go to hell.

What is Wisdom? Wisdom is the ability to distinguish between the True and the False, the Right and the Wrong, the ability to see things as they are, and not as we would like them to be. And it is the capacity to live according to that seeing and understanding. It leads us to Enlightenment, which is something that might make even a blind person say: "Oh yes, I see! I understand!" Stevie Wonder, the blind singer, once said: "I want to help people to see the beauty that is all around us!" See? Without eyesight? Yes, that’s right! Wisdom is seeing. Many people have good eyesight but not much wisdom, so they see and understand very little.

This world, and everything in it, changes and passes away; all our works, good or not, crumble, eventually, to dust. Buddhism offers Enlightenment, nothing less.

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