Against The Stream ~ DON'T FOLLOW ME

"I AM A DISCIPLE OF Master So-and-so", he said. "What do you think of him?" This put me in rather a difficult position, as I had already written about this master, and knew that my questioner had read it. I did not want to hurt his feelings unduly, but, on the other hand, I must be true to myself and not compromise my principles.

I told him I had recently had a letter from someone in Australia asking why I never print photos of myself in my books. In my reply, I said it is because I like to downplay personality and emphasize Dharma, as that alone deserves center-place. What use are pictures of myself? There are much better things than that! I want to give people good things, things that can stand on their own and which do not depend upon me, things self-evident, things that can be used again and again without becoming worn-out. Don’t be concerned about me— about personality— if you want to make progress in Dharma.

Turning to the disciple, I asked him what he had learned from his master that he could use again and again throughout his life. He thought for some time before sadly admitting that he couldn’t think of anything right then, but added that he had felt good while participating in ceremonies with his master. I made no comment. After a few more moments, he said: "I understand". He had answered his own question.

I know that some of the things I write and say are controversial and provocative; I intend them to be. Because of this, someone once asked me: "Are you not afraid that you’ll become unpopular as a result?"

"Like everyone", I answered, "I like people to like me; this is quite normal. But there is something more important to me than this, and that is to say what I think is right and needs to be said. If the price for this is unpopularity, so be it. And you should be thankful that there is someone willing to speak out and say things that should be said, because it is for you, too, and not merely for self".

Here, I will reproduce a letter that I wrote to the New Straits Times of Malaysia in August 1998*

"A few days ago, I had an experience that I feel should be brought to public notice: I was traveling by air-conditioned bus from ----- to -----, and my seat was directly behind the driver.

"About an hour into the journey, the bus stopped at a road-side restaurant for a while. Resuming his seat thereafter, the driver did not put out his cigarette. I requested him to do so, but he ignored me except for giving me an unfriendly look, and continued to smoke. I said nothing more about this until he lit up again, but again, he ignored my remonstrations, even though I pointed to the NO SMOKING sign above his head, and said that I would report him. True, no-one else complained, but that does not change the fact that it was against the law. It was/is my right to complain about this and demand that the law be followed; I was a paying passenger, and he should have respected our rights. Suppose the bus had been full of other non-smokers like myself: would his response have been any different?

"Probably angry because I had complained of his smoking, he stepped on the accelerator, recklessly endangering the lives of everyone in the bus; by this time, we were on twisting mountain roads, and he was taking sharp bends on the wrong side; fortunately, there is little traffic on this highway. Not wishing to appear a habitual complainer, I restrained myself from saying anything about this, until another passenger— a young man— came to the front and asked the driver to slow down. Knowing, therefore, that I was not the only one concerned about his irresponsible driving, I added my voice, but he still did not decrease speed. Only when I raised my voice and told the co-driver to tell him to slow down, did he do so, and slammed on the brakes so hard that the smell of burning rubber from the tires permeated the bus.

"Then he stood up, turned around, and started to berate me, calling me ‘Stupid’, and saying things in Malay that I did not understand (I am visitor from Australia). I also called him 'stupid’, but I was justified in this, whereas he had no reason to call me so, as I had done nothing out of place.

"He then ordered me to get off the bus, offering to reimburse me for the ticket-cost. Had he any right to do this? I had caused no trouble. All I had done was stand up for what was not only my right and the right of the other passengers, but for what is right, and voice a legitimate complaint. Of course, I did not get off. He then shouted at me: "Okay, you drive!"

"The other passengers, however, seemed ready to die or suffer horrific injuries rather than complain, because when I turned round and asked: "Do you agree with me?" the only person who gave a quiet ‘Yes’ was the young man who had asked the driver to slow down; the others remained silent. Looking back on their passivity, I was/am rather amazed! How to help people who won’t help themselves?!

"As I had said I would, I reported him. Soon after submitting my complaint— by the hand of a friend— I received a call from the manager of the bus-company, thanking me for my report and apologizing profusely for what had happened. He said he’d had other complaints about this particular driver before, and would definitely take action against him, as I had demanded.

"I wrote to him again the same day, and told him that because of his positive, polite and sincere response, although I still intended to write to the press about this incident, I would omit the name of his company and the bus-route, adding that if I ever traveled that route again, I would not boycott his company.

"Several days later, the manager called again, thanking me for my second letter and informing me that the offending driver had admitted his fault and apologized, but that, in view of the seriousness of the offence, he had dismissed him. I told him that I hadn’t complained out of desire for revenge, and was sorry that the man had lost his job, but it was really the only thing to do, in the interest of public safety. "Prevention is better than cure", where cure is possible; but there is no cure for death!

"If my complaint can save just one person from death or serious injury, it will have been well-worth my trouble. I’ve seen and heard of too many people lying mangled and dead on the road. I care!"

When we speak out against or for something, let us be clear in our minds that it is not just for ourselves but for others— and, better still— for what is right. We can and should put up with quite a lot of personal inconvenience, but it is a different matter when others are involved, and restraint or silence may not be appropriate. Regarding the bus-incident described above: If the bus had gone off the road or— worse— crashed into another vehicle, and some passengers had been killed and others injured, hundreds or maybe even thousands of people would have suffered as a result, and not just the dead and wounded. Their mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, children and other relatives, their friends, employers/employees and associates would also have suffered, and because those people would suffer, other people behind them would also be affected. Surely, all would agree that the smash was detrimental in every way, and that if someone or something had prevented it, it would have been a great blessing. The manager of the bus-company was quite right to appreciate my complaint, as it was in his interest, too; he might have lost his business, his position, and his wealth if the bus had crashed. And the errant driver himself benefited— even though he lost his job as a result of my complaint. He could also have been killed or injured as a result of his carelessness, and then his wife, children and other relatives and friends would have suffered. Had I not done what I did, I also might not be alive to tell of it. How could I have kept quiet and said nothing?

I am not boasting here, or thinking of myself as a hero for preventing all these possibly disasters, as I was only doing my duty, even if I did it alone, with no back-up support except for a quietly-spoken ‘Yes’ from a single person.

Two men were sitting in the stern of a sinking boat, looking at others in the bow frantically bailing out water. One said: "Lucky for us that the water’s at their end instead of ours!"

Many of us are like this. While feeling entitled to enjoy the benefits of society, we feel no responsibility to contribute anything to it. We only want to take, and take, and take. We are blind, and our reluctance to participate in society’s problems and help solve them makes things worse, and we are to blame for decline and destruction. We expect others to carry and feed us, like babies. The funny thing is, though, we are also pulled down when society’s boat sinks, but we cannot, do not, or will not see this until it’s too late.

If you hate society, or if you do not want the obligations and responsibilities of being a member of it, the honest thing to do is to give up the benefits of society, too, and go away to a forest or an island somewhere and live on your own. If you are not willing to do this, try to understand what it means to be a member of society, and how you benefit in so many ways therefrom. Try to love your country, or the place where you happen to be at any time, and do your best to improve it; it doesn’t have to be the place where you were born, but it is part of your world, wherever it is, and supports your life. And if there’s nothing you can do to improve it, then try to do nothing to make it worse. If you are doing nothing to improve it, but just sitting on the fence, indifferently watching life go by, but expecting your ‘rights’ anyway, you are making it worse. Therefore, do not complain when you suffer, too.

You know, the concept of ‘Human Rights’— and it is only a concept— is very good and important, but have you ever stopped to wonder about these ‘rights’ and where they came from? The concept is comparatively new— it’s only a few years since the UNO formulated it— and though it has been given lip-service by most countries, it is still flouted whenever it suits nations to do so. Talk of ‘human rights’ to the late demon Pol Pot when he was in power in Cambodia, and your head would leave your body! Protests about violations of human-rights in Vietnam and other places would earn you a place in a ‘re-education camp’. In the West, therefore, although violent crime is increasing and society is being increasingly terrorized, and where injustice and police-brutality are not uncommon, we are still very lucky and have much to be thankful for. We should take care of the good things we’ve got while we have them, as they can be easily lost, and when they are lost, they are not ours to take care of anymore.

When there is a power- or water-cut we moan and complain, but that’s not the time to be surprised; on the contrary, the time to be surprised is when there is power and water, as it is much easier to lose something than to gain it. The fact that we are so used to having things provided, however, blinds us to this; we take so much for granted, and always expect things to be ours at the touch of a button; then, when they are lost, we suffer.

Nature knows nothing of ‘human-rights’, and cares not if we live or die. Life is not a right but a bonus, day-by-day, and we shouldn’t take it for granted, like we usually do, for one day, we will die, maybe unexpectedly and without warning.

It is good, now and then, to go to poor countries like India, Bangladesh or places in Africa, and see how people live there, as it helps us to realize how lucky we, in the West, are. We have such a high degree of material comfort— much higher, in fact, than kings and queens of former centuries had. I imagine Queen Cleopatra of hot and dusty Egypt would have envied anyone with an air-conditioned room. Alexander the Great or Napoleon would have been overjoyed with an ‘ordinary’ Toyota or Ford— even a second-hand one!

Many of us, having thoughtlessly grown used to the good things of life, expect the standard of living to always go on the incline, from good to better. But life is not like that, as a brief review of history soon shows; many empires and civilizations arose, remained a while, and declined. Life rises and falls like the waves of the sea; nothing lasts forever. If we understood this better, we would suffer less than we do.

In conclusion, here is a Key: Don’t think so much about what you’ve lost, as it is no longer yours to think about. Think, instead, of what you still have, and Take Care.

*Published on August 17th 1998



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