Against The Stream ~ FULL CIRCLE

AS WE CAN ALL very clearly see, Change, or Impermanence, is the Law of Life. Our new house doesn’t remain so forever, the shiny new car gets scratched, dented, breaks down, wears out; we ourselves grow older from the moment we are born, and finally, after a period of time that varies with each individual, we die.

All things, having come into being, move towards dissolution. Meetings end in partings, construction ends in destruction, birth ends in death. We might not like this, and there is nothing we can do to prevent or change it, but we can accept and try to understand it. Complaining and struggling blindly and feebly against it doesn’t help, but only makes matters worse.

Buddhism, too, with its philosophy based upon Change, is not exempt. See how the great Way of Freedom proclaimed by the Buddha over 2,500 years ago has degenerated and come almost full-circle. Many monks have become priests (some even term themselves so), like the Brahmins of the Buddha’s time, who considered and taught that they were a class apart, the highest of the four castes of the brahmin dominated system that prevailed in those days (and largely still does). They claimed to have been born from the mouth of their supreme God, Brahma, hence their caste-name: Brahmins. The second caste were the Kshatriyas— nobles, rulers, statesmen and warriors— who were said to have come from the arms of Brahma. (Prince Siddhartha was of the Kshatriya caste; his father was a Raja or minor king; perhaps that is why it is said that Siddhartha was born from the right arm-pit of his mother, instead of in the usual manner). Next in the hierarchy were the Vaishyas— merchants, artisans and farmers; the Brahmins said the Vaishyas came from Brahma’s loins. The lowest of the four castes were the Sudras, who were said to have come from Brahma’s feet, and who were permitted to do only menial work like sweeping, cleaning toilets, garbage disposal, etc; they were considered Outcastes or Untouchables, whose very touch to a brahmin was considered defiling; if touched by an Untouchable, even accidentally, a brahmin was required to immediately bathe and put on clean clothes. Society was so stratified.

The brahmins, through long centuries of brow-beating and intimidation, had convinced the people that they had the monopoly on religion. They claimed to hold the ‘keys to heaven’, and taught that anyone wishing to be reborn there had to pass through their mediating influence and rituals— for a fee, needless to say. Just as Christians of today claim — though without the slightest scrap of evidence— that only through Jesus can a person be ‘saved’ and go to heaven after death, the brahmins taught that their rituals and sacrifices were necessary for a heavenly rebirth. It is not hard to see how this led to all kinds of excess and corruption. The brahmins grew rich and arrogant through exploiting the gullibility of the unlearned and superstitious masses.

The Buddha wasn’t the only one to denounce the caste-system, of course; there were other free-minded individuals who saw through the fallacy and iniquity of it. But it was He who spoke out against it the most clearly and effectively, and it reeled under the impact of His wisdom and compassion. Whereas the brahmins taught that caste was a matter of birth, and that a person could never, within a particular lifetime, change caste, the Buddha said: "Not by birth does one become high-caste or low, but by his actions".

The Buddha spent His life going from place-to-place, patiently teaching and explaining to anyone who was ready to listen. Sometimes, He would speak to large crowds, sometimes to small groups, and often, just to individuals, trying to lead them on to enlightenment. He never performed ceremonies or engaged in rituals as the brahmins did. Indeed, He identified attachment to rites and rituals as one of the three fetters cut through when a person attains the First Stage of Enlightenment (Sotapatti, literally: Entering the Stream).

How come, then, that in many temples, there is so much emphasis on ceremonies and rituals, and so little on teaching of the Dharma? Why have the monks become mere performers of ceremonies instead of teachers of the Way? Is it good enough to say: "Oh, well, it’s the Kali Yuga (Dark Age) now"?

Shortly after His Enlightenment, the Buddha called His disciples together. There were only 60 of them, but they had become enlightened through listening to His Teachings. He said to them: "Go forth, O monks, for the good of the many, for the happiness of the many, out of compassion for the world, for the good, benefit and happiness of gods and men. Let not two of you go the same way. Preach, O monks, the Dharma, which is excellent in the beginning, excellent in the middle, and excellent in the end, both in the spirit and in the letter. Proclaim the Holy Life, perfect and Pure. There are beings with just a little dust in their eyes who, not hearing the Dharma, will fall away. There will be those who will understand the Dharma".

He did not say: "Go forth, O monks, and build big temples, and exhort people to make offerings to you and the temples", as the brahmins did. We might say: "Yes, but those monks were already enlightened, they were Arahants, while we are not". You see how we evade the issues? If we are going to wait until we become enlightened before we do anything, or sit down and wait for someone who is enlightened to come by and teach us, we will probably wait for a very long time. These days, it seems, there are very few enlightened people in the world, and they are not to be met on every street-corner or in every temple. But because enlightenment— like a thermometer— has many degrees, it would not be incorrect to say that many of us have some degree of it, even though we might be nearer to the freezing-point than to the boiling-point. If we know a little, we can share it with others; if we know a lot, we can share that; but we do not need to be Fully-Enlightened— or to show certificates of Arahantship or Buddhahood— to share something of the Dharma with others. We might know only a little, yes, while others might know much more than us, but there are countless others who know even less than we do, and who are in greater darkness.

"The best gift of all is the gift of Dharma", we say. So, why are we so unconcerned about bestowing this best-of-gifts on others? We call it ‘the Dharma-Jewel’, but do we understand what this means? In many temples, the Dharma is relegated to the background, and a Dharma-talk is the exception instead of the norm; it shows that we don’t really consider the Dharma to be a jewel at all; in fact, some Buddhists obviously regard it as rubbish! Or can it be that, in these years of inflation and economic insecurity, we are stock-piling and hoarding it, waiting for the price to rise before bringing it out to sell.

Buddhism was originally a Way of Life, a Way of freedom from superstition and ignorance, but it has become a ‘Way of Death’, centered around ceremonies for the dead, a Way of Bondage and dependence upon the monks. Many Buddhists feel monks are indispensable to perform ceremonies. In this way, the monks are like a drug that people have become addicted to— monk-addiction! I have looked at it from both sides of the fence, and so can say that there is absolutely nothing that a monk can do that a lay-person cannot do, if he wants to do it. It is we, not the Dharma, that make distinctions between monks, nuns, and lay-people.

Some years ago, when I was staying in a large and very wealthy temple in Manila, the chief monk grumbled at me for not joining the other monks in performing ceremonies, but going to the jail to be with "all those bad people" (as he called them). I remained silent until he had said what he wanted to say. Then I replied: "I also can perform ceremonies for the dead if I wish to, but my way is more for the living than for the dead. I don’t think I can help the dead very much, but I might be able to do something for the living". He wasn’t able to say anything else to me then, but soon after, he stopped the monthly allowance I had been given. However, no-one can keep me quiet for $10 per month! I am not for sale like that!

If you buy a can of lemonade, do you buy it for the can or for the contents? Buddhism, as an organized religion, with its temples, monks, devotees, ceremonies, rituals, traditions and whatever, is like a container. Unfortunately, few Buddhists are aware of this, and do not know what it contains. It is the Container of the Buddha’s Teachings, and the Contents are more important that the Container.

Many people, who have never thought of it or investigated, assume that Buddhism and the Buddha’s Teachings are one-and-the-same-thing, but it is very useful to know the difference, especially in these times when materialism reigns, and decline and corruption of religion is evident all around, causing people to lose their faith. If we understood the difference, our faith would be strengthened instead of weakened.

Buddhism began at a specific point in time, when the Buddha went out to teach at the age of 35, shortly after His Enlightenment. It had a beginning in time and so, too, it will have an end. Moreover, during its existence so far, it has grown, changed, adapted, absorbed various elements that it came into contact with, developed rituals, ceremonies and traditions, and became an establishment long ago. Things have been added and taken away, and it certainly underwent the inevitable process of editing. We can be sure that it is quite different now than when it started out on its long journey.

Going deeper into Buddhism, the religion, we find the Teachings of the Buddha, but this is also a Container— a Container within a Container— because, after His Enlightenment, the Buddha had to attempt to describe what He had discovered in order to share it with others. Of course, this was very difficult— like trying to explain to a blind man about colors or flowers, etc. He formulated His teachings around what He had seen, and called it The Middle Way; He explained about Suffering, the Cause of Suffering, the End of Suffering, and the Way— known as The Eightfold Path— to the End of Suffering’; These He called The Four Noble Truths. These basic Teachings did not change during the rest of His life, although He did present them in many different ways.

So, although His Teachings were His own way of presenting what He had found, He was merely trying to point out to others, who saw less clearly than He, what was already— and is always— HERE. He spoke about facts, which He did not invent, and which do not depend upon Him, as everyone can see. Therefore, there are three levels that we should know about: (1) Buddhism, the religion; (2) Buddha-Dharma, or the Teachings of the Buddha; and (3) Dharma, or the Facts of Life. A Buddha is one who realizes these Facts (Dharma) and reveals them to the world through His Teachings (Buddha-Dharma), as far as He is able to; Buddhism, the organization, developed out of His Teachings.

Now, after so many centuries, Buddhism is old and tired, and— not unnaturally— beset with sickness and corruption. In Asia, many temples have degenerated into business-houses or funeral-parlors, where blessings are dispensed, fortunes told, horoscopes cast, charms made, spirits exorcised. Many monks have become magicians and medicine-men, pandering to the desires of people who are quite ignorant of what the Buddha taught, instead of helping them to understand. Perhaps, soon, we must hold a funeral-ceremony for Buddhism!

Seeing all these things— which, really, have little to do with Buddha-Dharma— many people become disgusted and lose their faith in Buddhism; they either turn to other religions or choose not to identify with any. For this, they cannot be blamed, and can even be understood, but it is a pity that they see only the Container and get no glimpse of the Contents. This is largely because almost nobody— the monks whose duty it is to explain the Way to others— cares to try to help them understand, and also because the people themselves are lazy and not interested to learn.

A new car will be shiny and spotless, but, after driving it 100,000 kms or more, you could hardly expect it to be as bright and clean as when it was new. So, although the Container is not now the shining, crystal flask that it once was, and it somewhat stained and covered with the dust of Time, we owe it a debt of gratitude. It has preserved the Contents down the ages for us, and we can, with a little effort and perseverance, still see the Contents through the dust. Do not be too disappointed if the Container is no longer bright and shiny.




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