Against The Stream ~ NOBODY'S MONKEY

ALTHOUGH I WAS TAUGHT to respect age, I respect arrogance in no-one, regardless of years.

There are many different kinds of people in the world. Going around from place to place to give talks, I meet not only many kind and friendly people, but inevitably— I guess — quite a few rude ones, too; the rude people make the kind ones stand out in contrast, and vice versa. Some people are rude deliberately, and others without intending to be, just because they know no better.

Usually, I try to bite my tongue and say nothing when I encounter rude people, but at times, I feel something must be said for their sakes, because somewhere down the road, we all have to learn, and to explain why it is improper to be rude may be an act of compassion. And why is it improper to be rude? Simply because it limits us, and we do not like others to be rude to us, so should try not to be rude to others; it’s not hard to understand this, is it?

A few years ago, in a Malaysian town, I met an old wind-bag whose fondest pastime was wagging his tongue and showing people how much he knew. I met him several times over the years, and each time, he tried to ‘ear-jack’ me. He wasn’t interested in learning anything, and had forgotten— if he had ever known to begin with— that he had two ears and one mouth, instead of the other way around.

Finally, tired of him talking down at me and showing off his intellectual understanding of the Dharma, I refused to talk with him any more, despite his several requests. My time is better spent with people who sincerely want to learn something, and in the absence of such, I must think a bit of myself; I also need rest, among other things, and am not— just because I’m a monk— public property. I’m willing to serve and go places where most other monks probably would not go (and have a track-record to prove this), if I think I might help someone understand something, but I am not a servant, and will not be treated as such!

I was asked to speak in that town again recently, and when I arrived there, was told he was boycotting me and would not attend my talks, and that if I wanted him to come, I must ask him to. I said: "Tell him not to hold his breath waiting for me to ask him, as that will never happen!" He didn’t come, but I didn’t mind; in fact, I wish he had boycotted me during my previous visits, for he obviously got nothing from me then. I began my talk by asking the audience if they had come to see me or to learn something of the Dharma. They said— as I hoped they would— that they were there for the Dharma. "Then we may profitably proceed", I said. "The speaker, his personality and history, may be disregarded; what is important— or what should or might be— is what he says, and to ascertain this, you have to listen carefully and use your discrimination, instead of merely believing. Don’t come here for my sake and think you are doing me a favor, but for your own sakes. Obviously, I think I have something important to say, otherwise I wouldn’t say it, but that doesn’t automatically make it important to you; only you can decide if it is or not".

If Old Windbag thought he was doing me a favor by attending my talks, he actually did me one by staying away! His loss (he might have gained something if his mind had been more open) was my gain: he was off my back!

In late ‘97, I made a speaking-tour of East Malaysia. After my talks in Sandakan, the chairman of the Buddhist Society there openly told me that he had earlier asked someone in K.L. to send him a tape of one of my talks there (to see if I were ‘suitable’ for his group; apparently, this was his ‘standard procedure’; he’d already screened or censored me in advance). He was a bit embarrassed when I said: "Well, I’m glad I passed your test". I later wrote to ask if he issued certificates of approval, and if so, would he send me one. I’m still waiting.

For some time, I have felt the need for something to be said about the arrangement of Dharma-talks. It is really a shame that it needs to be said at all. But because I have not heard or read of anyone else saying it, I will say it, knowing, as I do so, that some people will not like it. Well, too bad.

There are several conditions, all of which concern respect for the Dharma, and which really must be there, otherwise there is no point in organizing Dharma-talks. The purpose of a Dharma-talk is to lead people towards enlightenment; therefore, it should not be treated lightly, as a mere formality.

The President or Chairman of the organization should not be merely a rich person who has hijacked the position, but should be qualified for it by understanding and caring about the Dharma. He should set a personal example to those who elected him by attending Dharma-talks; the fact that this seldom happens shows the need for improvement. Usually only when a high-ranking or famous monk is to speak, can the presidents be seen. They obviously think the speaker is more important than the Dharma This should not be the case. We speak of the Dharma as a Jewel: the Dharma-Jewel. We must understand and treat it as such, not as Dharma-rubbish!

Punctuality is a quality to be cultivated as part of one’s Dharma-practice. A Dharma-talk should start at the stated time and not take second-place to TV programs, as this demeans the Dharma. If people are unwilling to make the effort to come on time, it shows they are not interested. People manage to get to work on time or go to the movies before the film starts, so why the laxity regarding Dharma-talks? It is a habit that can and should be broken.

An usher should be appointed to show people to their seats and see they are seated and ready before the speaker is invited to the front; the speaker should not have to wait for the audience. Then, while he is speaking, the audience should listen and not talk among themselves, get up, wander around or go out. Some people get up and leave when they do not get the ‘fairy-tales’ they expect in a talk, thus depriving themselves of any possibility to learn anything. Many people consider it meritorious just to attend a talk, but not necessary to listen. Merely attending is not enough; people should listen and try to understand. If they don’t want to listen but insist on talking among themselves, instead of ‘making merit’ by attending, they will only make demerit. It would therefore be better to stay at home, as not only is their talking disrespectful, but it disturbs others and prevents them hearing. There will be time for them to speak after the talk, when it is opened for questions and answers.

Mobile-phones should be switched off during a talk so as not to cause interruptions; the workaday mind should be left outside with the shoes.

Concerning the customary offerings made to speakers by Buddhist Societies: Firstly, a price cannot be put on the Dharma, so offerings are not a form of payment, but a token of appreciation. It seems, however, that offerings are often made on the basis of a speaker’s rank, fame and so on, with different amounts being offered to different persons for the same service. This is incorrect. There should be equal treatment. Whatever is offered to one should be offered to all; there should be no discrimination on the basis of personality. Monks who perform ceremonies should not be offered more than those who teach Dharma, as this is very disrespectful towards Dharma, and therefore harmful to those who practice it.

If I play the role of The Devil’s Advocate, it is because someone must. Without a political opposition-party to speak out, we would see much more abuse of power than we do; it is therefore a healthy and necessary thing. I am not asking anything other than equal treatment— no more and no less— but merely trying to correct some of the discrepancies I have observed. I am in a position to do this, too, as I have no temple of my own to take care of. If I had, I would not be free to say what I think should be said, but would have to say things to please people, in order to get their support. The Dharma would then be compromised, and that would be everyone’s loss.

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