DURING MY TRAVELS, I have met many narrow-minded and sectarian Buddhists, people who consider their particular sect or school of Buddhism the only right one, and all others wrong, or only partially right, which is the nature of sectarianism universally. Some time ago, I heard of a ‘teacher’ in Hawaii who draws followers to him by hinting that he is enlightened, and claims he is propagating ‘original Buddhism’, thereby implying that other forms of Buddhism, or ways taught by others, are not. To me, this smells strongly of egoism, and immediately repels me; it sounds as if such an ‘enlightened teacher’ is trying to sell something, like a hawker in the market!

This kind of thing is unfortunately not uncommon. In this age of confusion, when gullible people are grasping at straws, ‘Living Buddhas’ are springing up like mushrooms! And the large numbers of people who follow them blindly should not be taken as an endorsement of their authenticity, because the masses of people—and I know, as I write this, that I might be accused of being conceited and an elitist for saying it, but I’ll still say it—are just like sheep, with little ability to think for themselves, and will follow anyone who comes along promising something extraordinary, without the need to do very much for themselves. Many people are more than ready to throw themselves at the feet of anyone who will relieve them of the tedious responsibility of thinking for themselves; far from considering it a loss, they look upon it as a liberation, and are happy to give it up —as obviously were the 900-plus fanatical followers of Jim Jones and his ‘People’s Temple’ cult who obeyed his instructions and committed mass suicide by drinking cyanide some years ago.

For the past few years, there’s been a new meteor in the sky of the expatriate Vietnamese Buddhists—a supposed-to-be nun who makes fantastic claims and promises, and sweeps crowds of empty-heads off their feet, to such an extent that some of them are said to have put her shoes and socks on their altars as objects of worship! Some are reported to have stood down-stream from where she was bathing, and drunk the water that had flowed past her ‘holy body’! So spiritually poor and lost are they that they imbibe her words like nectar, without question. And, not only does she claim to be enlightened, but to be on a higher level than the Buddha Himself, as she says that Gotama Buddha died a long time ago, while she is alive now; she therefore exhorts people to follow her rather than the ‘dead Buddha,’ because she is a ‘Living Buddha,’ right here and now! And if people dare to reject her claims and criticize her, she pronounces dire punishments on them! She draws sustenance from her ignorant followers, without whom, she would be nothing. Alas, the world is full of people who are unable or unwilling to think for themselves, and who want someone to think and live for them; it has always been like this, and maybe always will be.

The monk who ordained me, and who I used to call ‘teacher,’ although very kind, calm and peaceful, was quite sectarian, which was what led me to part company with him. He was not entirely to blame for this, however, as, being Thai, he was a product of that particular system—a system that has introverted and isolated itself, and refuses to accept that there might be ways other than Theravada Buddhism. If invited to a Buddhist gathering where there would be monks of other sects, he declined to go, saying: "Mahayana is not the teaching of the Buddha."

I came across a little joke recently that highlights the hatred that sectarianism engenders; I will repeat it here:

"I was walking across a bridge one day, and saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump off, so I ran over and said: ‘Stop! Don’t do it!’

"He said: ‘Why shouldn’t I?’

"I said: ‘Well, there’s so much to live for!’

"He said: ‘Like what?’

"I said: ‘Well, are you religious, or atheist?’

"He said: ‘Religious.’

"I said: ‘Me too! Are you Christian or Buddhist?’

"He said: ‘Christian.’

"I said: ‘Me too! Catholic or Protestant?’

"He said: ‘Protestant.’

"I said: ‘Me too! Lutheran or Baptist?’

"He said: ‘Baptist.’

"I said: ‘Wow, me too! Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?’

"He said: ‘Baptist Church of God.’

"I said: ‘Me too! Are you Original Baptist Church of God or Reformed Baptist Church of God?’

"He said: ‘Reformed Baptist Church of God.’

"I said: ‘Me too! Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915?’

"He said: ‘Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915.’

"I said: ‘Die, heretic scum!’ and pushed him off."

I’ve often come across this attitude, with people claiming to follow Theravada disparaging people claiming to follow Mahayana as having deviated from the Buddha’s Way (similar to how Protestants and Catholics accuse and revile each other, though Buddhists have never been violent about it). On the other hand, some who claim to follow Mahayana look down on Theravadins as selfish, and label them ‘Hinayanists,’ or followers of the Hinayana or Small Vehicle, in contradistinction to the Mahayana, which means Great Vehicle, as if they themselves have already passed that stage! Many Buddhists polarize themselves between these standpoints, and lock themselves into a certain position, becoming narrow in their outlook. But there is another way, a neutral way of looking at things, taking into account the Buddhist use of ‘skillful means’ or ‘techniques,’ whereby teachings are seen as means, not as ends in themselves. By taking sectarian standpoints, we see the means as the end, we mistake the finger that points at the moon for the moon itself, and get stuck on a sandbank in the river!

Many Theravadins reject scriptures which are not of the Pali Canon, saying they are not the Buddha’s words, and were written much later—in other words, they are interpolations. To me, it is not very important whether they are the Buddha’s words or not—and I presume that anyone who has read through my book this far might also feel the same way, as my words are not the Buddha’s words, but you are still reading them. What is important is to see if they are helpful to us or not on our spiritual path; if they are, they may be regarded as the Buddha’s words, even if He never said them; Truth is no-one’s monopoly. And these words are attributed to the Buddha: "If you find truth in any other religion, accept it."

If we are to understand what the Buddha taught, we must understand why He taught. If we understand why He taught, we shall be able to see the Dharma all around us, and in the teachings of other religions, too. We should not be bigoted and refuse to see what is here, but open and receptive. Dharma is not something localized and exclusive, but all-embracing. Ultimately, we shall see Dharma not merely in everything, but as everything; there is nothing outside it, and we can’t get away from it. Universal Dharma is far beyond sectarian Buddhism, far beyond the limitations of name-and-form, but we have grown so used to things coming ‘pre-packaged’ that the form is often considered more important than the essence. Having come this far, is that all we want from Buddhism—mere name-and-form? Is that all we bring to it, or reduce it to? Are we content to find a temporary and tiny identity within it such as a sectarian name provides? Or do we wish to experience something of what the Buddha discovered beneath the Bodhi-tree and which He thereafter set out to try to indicate to the world—that which takes us beyond dualistic thoughts of ‘I and you,’ ‘self and others,’ ‘us and them’?

Facing facts, we must realize that we are this side of Enlightenment, and wishing and hoping will not take us to the other side. We may, however, try to put self aside in our dealings and contacts with others, try to keep Dharma at the center, to remind ourselves that right and wrong are not people—"I am right and you are wrong" kind-of-thing—but changing perceptions or points of view.

When the Buddha attained Enlightenment under the Bodhi-tree, He was at first hesitant to leave the forest and go out to teach, and thought: "What I have found is very subtle, and hard to comprehend by people who are sunk in the mud of ignorance. If I try to teach, who will understand? It will only be needlessly troublesome for me. It is better that I remain alone in the forest and live peacefully until I die." But the voice of Compassion spoke to Him from deep within His mind, and said: "There are some beings with just a little dust of ignorance in their eyes, who, if they hear the Dharma, will understand, but if not hearing it, will fall away and be lost." (It is otherwise stated that a powerful deity, aware of the Buddha’s initial intention not to preach, spoke to Him in this way: "O Blessed One, there are some with just a little dust in their eyes, who, hearing the Dharma, will understand and accept, but hearing not, will fall away. Have compassion, Lord, and preach the Dharma! Let the Blessed One turn the Wheel of the Law for the sake of beings in ignorance!") Personally, I do not accept the latter explanation as it implies that deities or gods are more enlightened than Buddhas, which Buddhism denies. But it is not very important whether the voice came from within or without, and we need not waste time debating about it, as it cannot be definitely concluded; it is enough that it caused the Buddha to go out and preach, wandering around the Ganges valley for forty-five years, never considering, for a moment, His own comfort or convenience, teaching anyone who was ready and willing to learn, according to their level of understanding.

So, it is clear why the Buddha taught: out of compassion for the world. His Enlightenment was not for Himself alone, but had to be shared with others, and we still share it today, 2500 years later, in the form of His Teachings. His purpose was to lead people on to Awakening, and sometimes He used tricks for this, as in the case of His step-brother, Prince Nanda, who was about to get married. The Buddha persuaded him to become a monk instead, and when Nanda found little joy in the monk’s life, the Buddha further tricked him until he finally became Enlightened.

Such tricks and ‘cheatings’ are entirely legitimate and permissible when used for the benefit of others, unlike the tricks of the world, which are used for self-gain and the detriment of others. In using Dharma-tricks, therefore, we must be certain that we are using them as skillful means to lead others to understanding.

Although, in some ways, there is a lot of freedom in the West, there is also a lot of fear, tension and suspicion, and daily living, in many places, has become precarious. It seems to be taboo to make eye-contact with strangers, and people fear to look others in the eye. Rather than be accused or suspected of staring, people wear cold and distant masks. This, of course, has a spiral-effect, and causes the space between us to become ever wider.

Tired of seeing gloomy, unsmiling faces every day, a San Francisco bus-driver decided to do something about it. So, when people boarded his bus and tendered their fare to him, he said to them: "No smiling, please. Smiling not allowed on this bus!" Of course, this had the hoped-for effect, and people started to smile. When the bus stopped for more passengers, those already in the bus all watched the odd scene, knowing what was about to happen. Soon, many of the people in the bus were smiling and talking to each other; they had discovered something in common. The bus-driver had used a skillful means to wake them up.

All Buddhists accept the Bodhisattva-ideal as the highest, as a Bodhisattva is a Buddha-to-be, and a Buddha is one who discovers the Dharma when it has been lost and forgotten, and reveals it to those capable of understanding. A Buddha has been a Bodhisattva; a Bodhisattva will be a Buddha. Buddhists also believe that everyone has the innate capacity to become Buddhas, but that it is not necessary, as we can reach Enlightenment on a lower level; the only difference is in the degree of capacity to help others.

Let me ask a question here: Does a Bodhisattva know he is a Bodhisattva? Well, taking Gotama Buddha as an example—the only example that all Buddhists will accept— I would say ‘No,’ for, according to the story of Prince Siddhartha that has come down to us, he seemed unaware of being a Bodhisattva, although he was without doubt, a very special person from birth. He was raised according to his rank, trained in the martial arts a warrior had to know, was pampered and served, married and knew the joys of sharing his life with a beautiful and devoted wife. But in spite of all this, he felt dissatisfied; like molten rock forcing its way to the surface of the Earth by the line of least resistance, his destiny could not be averted, and finally caused him to leave the palace and wander off into the forest in search of truth. The force was there, and although he undoubtedly felt it, he was not aware of his status as a Bodhisattva until, after His Enlightenment, when He became a Buddha, He looked back on the way He had come.

So, if a Bodhisattva would not recognize himself as such, how could we possibly recognize one? Surely, such a person would not float around on an giant lotus-flower, with a bright halo, or announce: "Hey, everyone, look at me! I’m a Bodhisattva!" He/she would probably work quietly and unknown in some corner of the world, not making a show, but content to do what he could to help others. If someone recognized his merit, and tried to display him, like some kind of circus-freak or E.T., he might smile shyly—or grin like an idiot—and refuse to go along with them, or maybe just melt away into the crowd. Bodhisattvas, to my understanding—or maybe I should say, imagination, as I have not knowingly met any—are people who live in this world, but who outwardly look not very different than you or me. (I was once taken to meet a woman in Kuala Lumpur, who—I was told—claimed to have been a monk at the time of the Buddha, when, had he wished, could have become enlightened at the level of Arahant,1 but who chose, instead, to take the path of the Bodhisattva, and eventually become a Buddha. I must confess that I was—and still am—skeptical about her claim).

Personally, I regard the division of Buddhism into various sects as childish and silly, and refuse to wear any of the labels people try to stick on me. It has happened in the past that people, observing my appearance, have asked if I follow Theravada or Mahayana. Sometimes, I answer this question with another question that has no meaning at all except to wake people up: "Did the Buddha follow Theravada or Mahayana?"

Many of our problems would instantly disappear if we discarded sectarian names and focussed upon Universal Dharma instead. No name—including Buddhism, or even Dharma—is adequate to describe what we are looking for. Names often become traps, and prevent us going further.

Many Buddhists believe in ‘The Pure Land’ or ‘The Western Paradise’ of Amitabha Buddha, which is supposed to be 84,000 miles away to the West. They also believe that if they piously recite the name of Amitabha, when they die, they will be reborn there, from whence it is very easy to attain Enlightenment, or Nirvana. This is rather simplistic, and in direct contrast to what the Buddha said about Karma —how nobody can save another, but each must work out his own salvation by and for himself; it seems more Christian than Christianity, except for the damnation part of that religion, which teaches that only through total acceptance of Jesus as one’s personal savior can one be ‘saved’ and go to Heaven; according to many Christians, all those who do not accept Jesus are doomed to suffer in Hell forever. Well, they are entitled to their beliefs, as long as they do not interfere with others; if they want to believe that, it’s okay with me. I consider myself ‘saved’—saved from such beliefs rather than saved by them!

Belief in Amitabha and His Pure Land has long been a sore point between Buddhists of different sects—as has the belief in Mary among Christians. Clinging to their beliefs, some Buddhists get quite upset about it. Personally, I like the explanation of Hui Neng, the Sixth Patriarch of the Ch’an (Zen) school in China. He resolved the matter succinctly by looking at it in a different way. In The Platform Sutra—otherwise known as The Sutra of Hui Neng—he said that the Pure Land is not 84,000 miles away to the West, as was widely believed, but 84,000 wrong thoughts away in the mind, and that by overcoming these wrong thoughts, the Pure Land would be revealed. Unless we can find out by our own experience, however, it belongs in the realm of belief and speculation, and I do not want to venture into such a quagmire, preferring to stay with facts, in the spirit of the Kalama Sutta, which exhorts us to find out for ourselves, and not to blindly accept the words of others. Zen urges us "not to depend upon words and letters," and stresses "a direct seeing into the heart of man, seeing into one’s own nature, and the attainment of Enlightenment."

On the other hand, a genuine humbling of oneself is always good, and is the purpose of Buddhist devotional practices: to put down the ego, and humble oneself. The act of bowing, and touching the floor with one’s head, is an act of humility. In some cultures, like the Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese, people would be offended if someone touched their heads, because they consider the head to be the seat of the mind, spirit or soul. So, to willingly bow one’s head to the floor before another person or an image is to pay respect, humbly, to that person or symbol, in recognition of superior qualities. And the way Buddhists bow to Buddha-images is not done from fear, or in hope of getting anything in return—or should not be, anyway, if they understand—but from respect towards the ‘Maha Muni,’ the Great Sage, the One Who showed the Way, by following which we can benefit so much; He is therefore, worthy of veneration, even in the form of images and pictures.

Of course, the ego being what it is—always ready to play tricks and turn things around to its own advantage—we must take care not to fall into the trap of becoming proud of being humble, otherwise we might become like Uriah Heep, a character in Charles Dickens’ novel, David Copperfield, who, though scheming, obsequious, ambitious and ruthless, wore an ingratiating smile, and used to say: "I’m so ‘umble; I’m so very ‘umble."

If we are to make progress in the Way, we must know not only the good and the right, but also the bad and the wrong. If we do not know the bad and the wrong as such, how shall we avoid them?

When learning another language, many people learn the bad words—the swear words—of that language first. There are exceptions, and I, as a monk, am one, because no-one tells me the swear-words, and it was only by chance that I learned some such words in Thai and Vietnamese; I don’t know any in Chinese, Filipino or Malay, for example, though I do speak some of those languages; nor do I want to know. My point here is that even if we know the bad words, it doesn’t mean we have to use them, does it? We choose to use or not use them.

However, while we must be able to distinguish good from bad and right from wrong, we must be careful not to get stuck on these relative terms. I might say you are a good person, and you might say I am, but if you say you are good, or I say I am good, are we good? We might be good, but we could not talk about it, even if we were aware of it, which we would probably not be. And, in the same way, although a person might follow the Mahayana—that is, the Way of the Bodhisattva—he could not say that he does, for that would be tantamount to saying he is a good person. Immediately he were to say he follows the Mahayana, he would fall off. This is why it is called the ‘Razor-edged Path.’ So, we can say nothing about something that can only be done. From this, it can easily be seen that many so-called ‘Mahayanists’ would soon be disqualified. We may follow, but we cannot/must not talk about it.

Keeping in mind that we are not yet enlightened, we should not be narrow-minded and approach life with minds already made up about it, but should be prepared to make use of anything that might help us to become better people.

1(An ‘Arahant’ is someone who has attained Enlightenment—Nirvana—by following the Teachings of a Buddha).

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