Against The Stream ~ HIGH AND DRY

IT IS SAID that the Buddhist scriptures were first written down about the beginning of the Christian Era. Until then they were transmitted verbally from one to another and memorized by heart— a prodigious feat, as they are so voluminous. Indians were very good at such memorization.

We do not know who undertook the task of recording them in script but they must have had a very high level of scholarship and lots of patience. It is one thing to listen to someone preach, and quite another to set his words down in writing— moreso when it was 500 years after he passed away. How did they dare to undertake the task? 500 years is a long time. The sound of the Buddha's voice had long since ceased to echo.

Reading the work of those scholars, can we hear the Buddha’s voice and see His face? We must use our imagination, or the words will be just ink on paper. Can we hear His pauses, His emphases, His nuances? Can we see His smile, the twinkle in His eyes as He said something humorous? Can we see His gestures, His raised eyebrows and other body-language? Although He would always have been calm and composed, He would not have sat motionless, like a statue, and His voice would not have been robotic and monotonous, but probably very expressive.

Several times, as an experiment, I’ve had someone read out a passage from one of my books before an audience, and I then read out the same passage myself, to demonstrate the difference in feeling. The person who read the passage first had no way of knowing how I felt when I wrote it, and could only interpret, whereas I read it as I wrote it, from my heart.

We must keep it in mind, when reading the scriptures, that the people the Buddha spoke to were often simple and illiterate, and had a different way of looking at life than we of today. To them, demons, ghosts and gods— although not visible— were as real as the other people and things around them. The Buddha would have taken this into account and spoken to them accordingly. Had He come straight out and denied these things, had He spoken to them at His level, few people would have listened; consequently, He spoke to people in their language, at their level, and slowly led them onwards; He was very skilful at this. If He were here now, He would speak in a different way, according to the conditions of our time.

Many people won’t have this, however, and insist on seeing the Buddha as a figure of the past, like an old fossil. They take everything in the scriptures at face-value. One of my ‘colleagues’— whom I’ve known for 20 years— is like this, and has become fundamental in his approach, convinced that because a thing is found in the scriptures, it must therefore be true. During his talks and in his writings, he quotes frequently from the scriptures, impressing many people, but it is a smoke-screen— mere parrotry— and not from his own experience. Such quoting would not be accepted in a law-court and would soon be dismissed.

Recently, someone informed me that he had told a group of people— educated people— that Kuala Lumpur’s water-shortage of the past few months was a punishment by the devas for it being a ‘sinful city’. Well, having heard him make several illogical claims like this over the past three years, I recognized it as his style and wasn’t surprised. The only thing that struck me as ‘strange’ about it was the word ‘sinful’, which I can’t imagine him using, but I could be wrong; maybe it was another word, similar in meaning. I asked one of the people who had heard him say this if he had objected to it, and he said: "What’s the point?" "What’s the point?" I echoed. "The point is that this is blatant superstition, and he should not be allowed to get away with it!"

There are people— many of them kind but naïve— who will believe things like this simply because he’s a monk, but it should not pass unchallenged. It is hard enough trying to combat existing superstition without others spreading more!

What an arrogant statement to make! What gives him the right to set himself up as a judge, as if he perceives all the causes of something that affects a city of two million people?! Is he so all-knowing, so all-seeing as to explain a water-shortage in this way? From where has he got such strange ideas? No doubt he can quote from the scriptures about this, too, but that proves nothing except his gullibility. Has he seen devas, and does he know what they think and why? This is pure fundamentalism, in complete disregard of the explanations of science. The El Niño Effect is a recently-observed and understood phenomenon; it has just entered our vocabulary. We do not know if it existed at the time of the Buddha, but it probably did. In those days, however, there was no science of meteorology, and the causes of different weather-patterns were not known. Perhaps people attributed storms, thunder, lightning, floods, and so on, to the intervention of gods or devas; some people obviously still do. I myself prefer the explanations of science; I don’t want fairy-tales any more.

No doubt there are some ‘sinful’ people in Kuala Lumpur (every city has its share), but we cannot be so sweeping as to condemn a whole city as ‘sinful’; there are— there must be— many good people in K.L.; in fact, his family is there; does he include them in his judgment, whereby he is saying: "You deserve whatever you get, otherwise you wouldn’t get it! And, because this water-shortage is a form of suffering, the causes of it must be such as to produce such an effect!"? He is a Karmite— a professor of Karmology— believing that whatever happens to us is a result of our karma, whereas this is definitely NOT SO. There are other forces at work in our lives apart from the law of Karma, which— come on, let’s be honest— at our level, is still a concept and not a proven fact.

Some years ago, this ‘colleague’ of mine sent me tapes of some of his talks with a note saying: "If you meet anyone who would like to listen to pure, unadulterated Dhamma, you may give them these". I was astounded, and it was quite some time before I could even bring myself to listen to them; I was afraid the earth might quake or something, as it was supposed to have done when the Buddha gave His first sermon! When I finally summoned up the courage to play them, however, and nothing extraordinary happened, I wasn’t surprised to find them dry, scholastic and hair-splitting, full and overflowing with scriptural references: "Sutta number so-and-so; this Nikaya, that Nikaya", and so on. I could not, in all conscience, have given them to anyone; I don’t want to scare people off!

Please, people, be very careful with this concept, lest it do you more harm than good. Be very careful about listening to monks explaining Dharma. Don’t automatically assume that they are authorities and simply believe whatever they say, but listen to them attentively and use your intelligence to decide whether what they say is true and useful to you or not. The Dharma should not leave us high-and-dry, like whales stranded on the beach!

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