Against The Stream ~ WHAT IS A TEMPLE?


To some, it is a public place, like a park, where they can go to relax, take photos, meet friends, have picnics, scatter garbage, etc.

To some, it is a place where they can get something ‘free’, and many things fly away without wings.

To some, it is a place where they can change their footwear—old for new.

To some, it is a place for seeking ‘face’, power, position, name.

To others, it is a place to ‘make merit’, while to others, it is a place to burn forests of incense-sticks and make ‘holy smoke’.

To some, it is a place to beg and grovel, to petition for help or salvation, to ask for ‘lucky numbers’, or for success in exams, love, etc.

To some, it is a place to seek solitude and solace, away from the problems and pressures of home and work.

And to some—always only a few—it is a school, where they can learn something useful to apply in their lives outside.

Today, although there is a resurgence in religious fundamentalism, the number of people who will openly admit to following no religion has grown tremendously, and continues to grow. These trends seem to form two opposing camps; let’s take a brief look at them:

Life in our time has become so fast and complex—we might even say mechanical—that many people find it difficult to adapt to its rapid change, and it is easy to understand why they become alienated, frustrated and neurotic. In need of something stable to hold onto—an anchor—some fall back on things of the past, things our ancestors held onto and seemed to gain strength and comfort from, especially religion. This is why we see a rise in what is called ‘Fundamentalism’—a clinging to ancient forms which are considered time-tested and indispensable elements of religion, in the hope/belief that the answers to all the problems of the present and future lie therein. But, if anything, this only increases the problems, because, first of all, the realities of the present are often ignored and avoided in a looking-back instead of a looking-ahead. Secondly, this fearful clinging to beliefs and ideas—which, more often than not, have no factual basis—further divides people and makes for more conflicts and problems, so that, even today, we still have the curse of Jihad or ‘Holy War’ with us. Fundamentalists, like Iran’s late Ayatollah Khomeini and his successors, are often dangerous fanatics; and in a world where terrible consequences can be brought about by people with itchy fingers on buttons, their ideas of alone being right while others are therefore automatically wrong, are frightening to contemplate.

Many of the world’s troubles can be directly traced to this narrow thinking of "I/we are right, and you/they are wrong". Fundamentalists seldom have a balanced view of life, and make themselves conspicuous by their unflagging zeal to influence and infect others with their ideas. In the political field, the communists were the best example of this in recent times, while in the religious field, it is all too-obvious who would win the prize for it, without mentioning any names here.

On the other end of the stick are people who have either rejected religion in totality for any of many reasons, or who never had any interest in religion to begin with. Religion has no restraining influence upon these people, and if and when they think about it at all, many of them would just shrug off religion as anachronistic and irrelevant in the present. Though this is also an extreme, I can better understand and sympathize with such thinking than with that of the fundamentalists. Many of them have been over-dosed and turned-off by the untenable dogmas and superstitions that religion has tried to foist off on them. It is quite right that such things should be rejected as obsolete and unacceptable.

Sometimes, however, people ‘throw out the baby with the bath-water’ in their wholesale rejection of everything to do with religion; they discard the good as well as the bad. But they cannot really be held responsible for this, as it is usually a reaction against the past. It is up to the leaders of the various religions to perform a house-cleaning, from top to bottom, and bring religion into line with the findings of modern science and psychology (or at least, not hold it in opposition to them). The sooner this is done the better it will be for the whole world.

Religion and Science have been divorced and opposed for far too long, although there is really no natural reason for them to be so; it is mainly because Religion has often required blind belief in things that it was unprepared or unable to provide proof for. But now, in the Space Age, the need to bridge the artificial gulf between these two great areas of human activity is more imperative than ever.

Gone—thank goodness!—are the times when Religion could dictate to its followers what to think and do. Sadly, though, many people don’t know what to do with the freedom that has suddenly come to them as the result of the efforts of others. Some of them would be much better off without it, for having it, they do more harm than good, both to others and themselves.1 Democracy is something that many people are obviously not ready for, like dogs incapable of appreciating diamonds; it has been served to them on a plate instead of them earning and deserving it themselves.

During that part of European history known as ‘The Middle Ages’, and even until as late as the 17th century, the Popes of Rome maintained their own armies, and occasionally even directed them in battle! But today, religion has lost its claws and such temporal power, and in most cases, is separated from the power of the state. However, it still has a very important—and beneficial—role to play in the world, if only it will not insist on living in the past.

For many years, my efforts at propagating Dharma have been confined mainly to Asians, because I feel that Westerners are easier able to learn about Dharma—if they want to—than are Asian Buddhists. Why do I feel this? Not because I’m an Asiaphobe (I’m not; if anything, I’m just the opposite!). Nor is it because I think Westerners are more intelligent or better in any way than Asians. It is because, if Asians wish to learn about Buddhism, they have to struggle through the accumulated traditions and superstitions of centuries which have grown up around it, and which have sometimes little or nothing to do with Buddhism. A good example of this is the burning of all kinds of objects made of paper—houses, cars, TV’s, hell-money, etc.—in the belief that dead relatives will get these things in more-concrete form on ‘the other side’. Once, in Malacca, I witnessed the burning of a paper palace, replete with furnishings and tiny liveried servants, etc., that had cost about US$4,000! The monks in the temple where this took place, however, did nothing to discourage this expensive, wasteful and useless superstition, and so, by their silence, tacitly condoned its continuation.

If an Asian wishes to learn about Buddhism it might be difficult to know where to begin. Many, not bothering to investigate at all—indeed, probably not even aware of the mix-up of gold and clay to begin with—just accept the whole thing unquestioningly. Admittedly, ignorance is sometimes blissful, and people do seem to derive solace and satisfaction therefrom, but that is not what Buddhism is all about. Would the young people of today and tomorrow accept things without question? Many Asians living in the West, now having the opportunities to indulge their hitherto unfulfilled desires, become more materialistic than Westerners. Many of them abandon their culture and religion and adopt Western ways, but without understanding them first. Does religion have anything for these opportunistic people? Many of them will not go near a temple except for the funeral-ceremonies of relatives or friends. But can they be blamed for this when almost no-one cares enough to try to explain things to them?

Confucius is reported to have said something like this: "If you love, and nobody responds to your love, look into your love", meaning to be capable of self-criticism. Should not Buddhist leaders try harder to understand the situation instead of expecting to be understood, or just saying: "Well, it’s the Dharma-ending time now; what can we do?"

Buddhism is a way based upon Change, and its forms have changed many times, and will change. As long as the essence is retained, however, it doesn’t really matter. Between the Chinese/Vietnamese forms of Buddhism, and the original Indian Buddhism, for example, there are so many differences. Nor is this surprising, for Buddhism is like a stream of water which, at its source high in the mountains, is crystal-clear. But as it runs downwards, it is joined by other trickles of water, growing larger as a result, and bearing along with it things it has picked up along the way—sticks, leaves, stones, mud, sand, dead animals, and sometimes, perhaps, some specks of gold. Before it reaches the sea, it has long ceased to be a stream of clear water, and has become a mighty river whose waters bear along thousands of tons of sediment and man-made pollutants; indeed, how could it be otherwise? The estuary is far from the source, both in time and space.

Fewer and fewer people go to the temples regularly now. Many of those who formerly used to go often, but now do not, if asked why, might say that they are too busy and have no time. But this is just one reason; there are other reasons, unvoiced, I’m sure. I will readily admit that the Western way of life—which prevails not just in the West but in other areas, too—is very fast and hectic. But I will not accept that it is to be blamed for all our troubles; it is unfair to always blame external conditions for whatever happens to us; we should look nearer to home for the causes. Many Asians change a lot after living in the West for a while; I have heard people complain about how much they find their friends have changed after meeting them again years later.

We change, yes—everything changes, constantly—but are we always to be the victims of Change, and devolve, or can we, perhaps, understand and use Change to evolve and become better? A boat without a rudder is at the mercy of the wind and waves, while one with a rudder can be steered in any direction desired.

Some years ago, I was surprised to learn that no less that 14 Vietnamese monks had disrobed and left the monkhood since arriving in Australia as refugees; that number must be higher now. Something is obviously wrong here, and I think we should endeavor to find out what. It is not good enough to blame the attractions and seductions of the Western way-of-life—although these things undoubtedly play a part in it. Is it that the Vietnamese Buddhist system hasn’t adapted to conditions in the West and is therefore out-of-touch with reality? And can it not adapt? If not, it is in danger of following the way of the dinosaurs, whose bones we see in the museums; it must be expected that, as the older devotees depart from us, there will be few others to replace them.

Has anyone seriously thought to consult people about this state of things? What does ‘the-man-in-the-street’ think about it? What do the young people—tomorrow’s adults and leaders —think? Should they not be consulted, and as many points-of-view on these things as possible gathered, so the picture becomes clearer, and solutions to the problems found?

For years, I have said that every temple should have—to balance the ubiquitous Donation-box—a Suggestions-box, wherein people may put their written suggestions, ideas, or complaints concerning the temple, with or without their names, as they saw fit. In this way, as in a democratic system, everyone could feel they have a say in the way things are done in the temple. The temple committee could learn what people wanted there (it would also act as a check against the possible abuse of power by people in positions).

At this point, it might be appropriate to explain the difference between a Monastery and a Temple: A monastery is especially for monks, and is controlled and administered by them, not by others. A temple, however, is different, being mainly for lay-people, as a place for them to worship and hopefully to learn something. A temple is run by lay-people and belongs to the Buddhist community in general, not to any individual. A monk who stays in a temple does so in the capacity of spiritual advisor to the lay-people, and his role is a very exalted one, for people call him ‘Teacher’, and expect to learn from him something of the Buddha’s Way. The temple is not the personal property of the monk, who has embraced the homeless life and should not be looking for another home in place of the one he left.

The distinction between Monastery and Temple should be emphasized, for many people now do not understand, and have come to depend too much upon the monks, instead of upon the Dharma, and consider them indispensable. I have been to many temples where there are no monks, and where people said to me that they were very sad because they had no resident monk. Whenever I heard this complaint, I tried to explain that they should not worry about it, but should try to understand the Dharma themselves, and not always to wait for someone to come along and teach them. If they have a monk visit them for a few days once in a while, to sow some Dharma-seeds by talks or counseling, and then go away, to be followed, later, by a different monk with other seeds to sow, it might actually be better than having the same monks staying there for years. People tend to become bored of hearing the same thing after a while, and begin to look for something new. It’s like eating the same kind of food for every meal, day after day; no matter how delicious we might find it in the beginning, we would soon become tired of it and desire something else.

It is not— as some shallow-minded people think— that I am against monks and temples; I think the role of the monk and the temple is still very important. But let me state, clearly, in what way I think they are important: THE MONK IS A TEACHER, THE TEMPLE IS A SCHOOL. The temple should be a place where people can go to learn something of the Buddha’s Teachings (though a temple, of course, is not the only place where one may learn about that). A monk is someone who should be able to help people understand that the Dharma is everywhere, and not just in the temple. He should be concerned about guiding people to become self-sufficient by understanding and depending upon the Dharma, not upon any person. His aim, in fact, should be to ‘do himself out of a job’ as a teacher, although he need never worry it would ever happen. We understand slowly, one-by-one, not en masse.

Someone once told me that he looked upon the temple as a hospital, where people go to be cured of sickness, but that, since he was not sick, he felt no need to go there. Following his analogy, I replied: "A hospital needs doctors and nurses to treat the sick, so if you feel no need to go there to be treated, perhaps you can go there to help treat, in some capacity, instead". We might say that, when we have learned all that can be learned in the temple—if ever—there is no need to go there anymore; but that would be a selfish way of looking at it. We could still go, but in the capacity of teacher or Dharma-friend to those who are still learning, instead of as a learner, like before. So, you see, although I might have different ideas about temples than others, I do not consider them unimportant; this is why I established two temples in the Refugee Camp in Bataan, Philippines.

The exiled leader of Tibet’s Buddhists, the Dalai Lama, was awarded the Nobel Peace-Prize for seeking to liberate Tibet from China by peaceful means. In a publication called, "Opening the Eye of New Awareness", His Holiness said:

"Each of us has responsibility for all humankind. It is time for us to think of other people as true brothers and sisters, and to be concerned with their welfare, with lessening their suffering. Even if you cannot sacrifice your own benefit entirely, you should not forget the concerns of others. We should think more about the future and benefit of all humanity.

"Also, if you try to subdue your selfish motives—anger, and so forth—and develop more kindness and compassion for others, ultimately you yourself will benefit more than you would otherwise. So, sometimes I say that the wise selfish person should practice this way. Foolish selfish people are always thinking of themselves, and the result is negative. Wise selfish people think of others, help others as much as they can, and the result is that they, too, receive benefit.

"This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples, no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness".

Wonderful words, and they don’t contradict what I’ve just said about the temple, either, for the temple should be a place where people can learn the meaning of the Dalai Lama’s words. He himself lives in a temple, does he not?

John Lennon upset a lot of conservative people with his song, "Imagine", in which he sang:

"Imagine there’s no country—
It isn’t hard to do;
Nothing to kill or die for—
And no religion, too".

Seen as Dharma, this makes perfect sense, but it was also what led to John Lennon being killed himself! He was killed by someone who was obviously stuck on the external aspects of religion, and who failed to see the essence.

It is up to the leaders of the temples to help people understand— and to understand, themselves— that if they do so, they will not lose support. In fact, by giving people a new and refreshing look at religion, by helping them see that it is not a museum-piece (as it often seems to be), they will probably gain support as a result of being in touch with the times we live in.

We must get our priorities in order, and I do not consider the purchase of a bell costing A$22,000 (for a temple in Sydney), nor the acquisition of a set of Buddhist scriptures in Chinese costing several thousand dollars for a Vietnamese temple in Melbourne, to be priorities, for very few people are able to read it now, and in the future there will be even less. The Buddhist scriptures are not things that, by the mere possession of them, or just being able to remember and recite portions of them by heart, will bring about magical results. It amuses me to hear people talk about this-or-that sutra being ‘very good’ or ‘very powerful’, in the sense of efficacious against danger or misfortune; they ask each other: "Do you know how to chant the Lotus Sutra?", or "Can you recite the Surangama Sutra?", etc. This is not the purpose of the Buddhist scriptures at all; by treating them in this manner, we reduce them to mumbo-jumbo.

We really must try to demystify religion if it is to have any relevance in the future; we must try to rid it of elements of magic and superstition if it is not to continue losing ground. It is necessary to present things in languages that people under-stand—their own everyday languages, languages that they think, speak, and dream in. What is the use of knowing words of foreign languages without knowing their meanings? (I once read somewhere of a Chinese gentleman meeting an American lady at a dinner-party and, noticing she was wearing a polished brass medallion with some Chinese characters on it, he asked her where she had acquired it. After telling him she had come across it in a curio-shop in Hong Kong, and had taken a liking to it, she asked him if he could tell her the meaning of the characters on it. Somewhat hesitantly, and with a shy smile, he said: "City of Shanghai. Licensed Prostitute". It was a relic from pre-revolution days!).

To end this off, I would like to say that the aforewritten—like all my writings—is just my opinion about things; I do not claim that it represents ‘official Buddhism’, even if there were such a thing. Therefore, beware, and do not just accept my ideas and adopt them as your own without thinking of them; I would not be flattered if you did that, but would consider you ‘dumb’. If you have made the effort to read through all this, I would like to ask you to think about these things clearly and carefully, and ask yourself if they are true and useful to you or not. If you would like to write to me and tell me what you think of what I’ve written, please feel free to do so; I would like to know your opinions, too, as they might help me to present things better. I want to know what you want to know, then I might easier decide if I am ready, willing and able to provide what you want. Let me say, though, that if all you want is ceremony and fairy-tales, better go to someone else, for though I can—and sometimes do—perform ceremonies for the dead, my way is more for the living.

1Witness the behavior of British soccer-fans at soccer-matches; it is clearly an abuse of freedom.

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