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
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
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
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!