IF YOU GO TO INDIA, away from the cities and towns into the countryside, you will find life going on much the same as it did hundreds, or even thousands of years ago. Many villages still have no electricity, TV, telephones, paved roads, or even running water; people till their fields using primitive ploughs pulled by cows or buffaloes, draw water from wells, cook over cow-dung fires, etc.

In such conditions, it is easy to visualize the Buddha walking, barefoot, from place-to-place, with just an alms-bowl; His robes would probably be dusty and travel-stained and not often washed. Nor would He be clean-shaven every day, as we now are. He wouldn’t always have a specific direction in mind, and would not be in a hurry, but would spend time with people who wished to learn something, or whom He thought He might lead onwards. With His great wisdom, He could discern the capacity of people to understand, and teach them accordingly. Can you see Him, this Great Teacher?— Teacher, Human-being, not God, or Savior, for Buddhism rejects the idea that anyone can save another from the effects of his own deeds.

In Richard Bach’s book, Illusions, or the Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah, there is a delightful little anecdote about a colony of creatures that lived on a streambed. They spent their entire lives clinging to rocks and weeds, with the water flowing over them. Once, one of these creatures, tired of clinging to the same stone, announced that he would die of boredom if he lived so any more, and had decided to let go and see where the current would carry him. "Fool!", said the other creatures nearby, "No-one has ever done that before! You’ll be dashed against the rocks by the current and will then die a lot quicker than by boredom!" But he, disregarding their warnings, let go, and was immediately carried away by the current.

At first, he was dashed against the rocks as the others had predicted, but wasn’t killed. Instead of resisting the rushing water, he allowed it to carry him, and was soon lifted above the streambed, clear of the rocks and weeds. Other creatures below, seeing him pass by overhead, exclaimed in surprise: "Look— a being just like ourselves, yet he flies! He must be a Savior, come to save us! A Savior! A Savior!" "No!" he cried, "I am no Savior, but one just like you. I let go, and the current carried me. If you let go, you too will be carried along!" But they didn’t hear him, or chose to ignore his words, and cried all the more: "A Savior! A Savior!" And he was swept along, out of sight, and the other creatures remained clinging firmly to the places where they had been born, making legends of a Savior.

Although the Buddha stated clearly that no-one can save another, but that all must work out their own salvation, many Buddhists look for saviors to save them, praying to various Buddhas and Bodhisattvas to forgive their sins, erase their ‘bad karma’, etc. Indeed, it sometimes seems that they even expect monks to be saviors and supermen, too, not wanting them to be human at all. They pay so much respect to monks, and put them so high, that they almost need telescopes to see them in the sky! Then, if their heroes do something wrong or that they don’t like, they are disappointed and the monks fall in their esteem. But why are they disappointed? Because the monks did something wrong, or because they put them so high to begin with? Great expectations breed great disappointments. And if monks let themselves be so elevated, how can they possibly live up to such expectations? To try is to court disaster, because although we might like to be enlightened, what we would like to be, and what we are, are two different things. We would like to be enlightened, of course, but we don’t become enlightened merely by wishing to be enlightened; enlightenment comes to us when we have earned it and are ready for it, and not before.

Now, while elevating monks very high, at the same time many people put themselves very low, thinking, perhaps, that they are thereby exempt from the Law; they use the monks as an excuse for doing things that they know they shouldn’t do. Once, a man came to tell me that he’d seen a monk smoking, and said he thought it was very bad for monks to smoke. I agreed with him, but said: "How can you talk about others when you are smoking even as you are telling me?" He rationalized this by saying that, as he was not a monk, it was alright for him to smoke. Was this sound reasoning, do you think? Let us examine the mechanics of such thinking a little here.

As a monk myself, I’ve seen things from both sides of the fence and so am qualified to say that the Buddha’s Way, contrary to what many Buddhists obviously think, is not only for monks, nuns, and others who live in temples and monasteries. It is open for anyone and everyone who sincerely wishes to follow it. Not understanding this, many Buddhists, in their ignorance and indolence, want and expect others to do everything for them. To remedy such misconceptions, it should be clearly stated that there are not two Laws of Life, one for monks and another for the laity, but only one. And this Law of Cause-and-Effect makes no distinctions as to whether a person shaves his head or not, whether he wears a robe or ordinary clothes, whether he stays in a monastery or at home with his family. It is impartial, and has no preferences. If a monk takes hold of a burning coal he will be burnt by it, just as would a layman. A monk is subject to sickness, aging and death, just as are lay-people; he is not exempt from these things.

According to the Buddha, intention is the strongest factor in the making of karma; He said: "Intention, O monks, I declare to be karma". You get the results of your karma, and I get the results of mine. If it were possible to transfer our karma to others, our enemies would transfer all their ‘bad’ karma to us and be rid of it, leaving us to suffer the effects of their bad actions— and would not that be convenient for them? However, how could it be? And, in the same way, how could it be possible to transfer our ‘good’ karma to others? The reason why, as Buddhists, we are advised to practice transferring our merit to others— if we dare even suppose that we have any merit to begin with— is because it opens the mind and heart of the person doing it, which is a meritorious action in itself, is it not?

It is imperative to see the Buddha as He was when He was alive on this Earth: Enlightened, but a human being, a very warm and caring human being. To deify the Buddha, as many people have done, and pray to Him for assistance and salvation, is a great mistake, for He never told anyone to believe in Him or pray to Him, but to find the Truth for themselves and thereby become Enlightened and Liberated from Ignorance. The Enlightenment of the Buddha is just that: The Enlightenment of the Buddha; it is not our Enlightenment. So, too, with merit; we must acquire our own, not pray or beg for it, and find our own enlightenment; we shall remain within Samsara until we do, and no amount of praying to be saved will release us therefrom.

Saints— Arahants and Bodhisattvas— are rare today, and not to be found in every temple or church, and if we expect to find them there, we will surely be disappointed. And would we be justified in blaming anyone for that? Could we reasonably blame monks or priests for not living up to our expectations and not being saints? Who could we blame but ourselves, for expecting so much? The walking of the Way is the most important thing, and there is no substitute for this, no-one can do it for us, just like no-one can eat for us. If no seed is sown, there will be no harvest; if there are no causes, there will be no effects, and it will be absolutely useless to complain that the Buddhas or Bodhisattvas or the monks didn’t save us. View the monks as teachers of the Way, whether they themselves follow the Way or not; the most important thing is that we learn, and Learn, and LEARN. And when learning is sufficiently important to us, we will not mind who we learn from.

In school, when we study geography or history, do we care if the people who teach these subjects have ever been to the places they talk about or witnessed the historical events they describe? And do you suppose that when monks speak about Buddhas, Arahants, Bodhisattvas, Nirvana, Heaven, Hell, etc., that they are speaking from their own personal experience, or from what they have heard or read elsewhere? Maybe they are speaking from their own experience, but probably not. If they are, that still does not make it true for anyone else; we must experience for ourselves, and only then will we know. This is why the Buddha exhorted people not to believe what He said, but to "Test my teachings, as a goldsmith would test gold".

Someone once told me of a certain famous monk (the founder of the particular sect of Vietnamese Buddhism that he followed): "He was an Arahant— 100% sure!" I asked him how he could be so sure when he had not even met the monk, and was not an Arahant himself? To recognize an Arahant as such, a person would have to be an Arahant himself, would he not? Arahants— genuine Arahants and Bodhisattvas, not the usual fake ones of today, of which there are not a few— would hardly go around making a show and declaring themselves so. We might say— as I say about people like Thich Quang Duc or Mother Theresa— that we think such a person is an Arahant or Bodhisattva. But that would be just our personal opinion, and have very little to do with whether a person were actually so or not; our opinion would not make them so.

Years ago, I addressed a group of Catholic nuns in a Buddhist temple in Manila; they were about to go for missionary work in various countries with large Buddhist populations, and wanted to know something of Buddhism. During my talk to them, I quoted from the Christian Bible so as to emphasize certain points and make comparisons. When I had finished and it was time for questions, one nun said: "We heard you quoting from Holy Scripture", (meaning the Christian scriptures, as if they are the only scriptures in the world regarded as ‘holy’); "Are you allowed to do that?" I replied: "A diamond is a diamond no matter where it is found". We do not expect to find Truth only in books, and certainly not only in Buddhist books. Truth is not limited like that, and if we understand what the Buddha taught, we will be able to see the Dharma not only in the scriptures of other religions, but in everything, everywhere. Dharma is beyond Name and Form, and without limits.

Although Mother Theresa was a Catholic nun herself, she did not care that most of the sick, destitute and dying people she helped on the streets of Calcutta were probably Hindus or Muslims; she didn’t use her compassionate help as a means to convert them to Catholicism. The idea of doing so would probably never have entered her head! You see, the word ‘Catholic’ has two forms, one a noun, and the other an adjective. When used in its noun-form, we might say: "Such-and-such a person is a Catholic", meaning a follower of the Catholic branch of Christianity. But in its adjective-form, such as when we might say that a person "has a catholic point-of-view", it means ‘universal’, ‘liberal’, ‘broad’, ‘wide-open’. I thought of Mother Theresa as being Catholic in its adjective-form rather than its noun-form. If people call her a saint (as many do)— or even a devil!— would that have changed what she was in any way? Her compassion and selflessness constituted her sainthood, and it was hers; to canonize her will be as superfluous as painting a rose!

Is it not strange that, while Buddhism teaches that there is no Self— that a separate, personal ‘self’ or soul is an illusion— personality matters so much to many Buddhists? We are usually more concerned with the personality of the teacher than with his teachings, and this becomes a great obstacle. Often, we hear people criticizing monks, and saying that they like this monk, but not that one, while usually disregarding the Dharma altogether. This side of Enlightenment, we have ego, and because we are limited thereby, are subject to making mistakes. However, even though we are still unenlightened, there is no need for us to be bound up within the limits of ego and to act in egoistic ways. We can, if we want, go beyond, by reminding ourselves that the Dharma should occupy central place in our dealings with others, and not self.

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