Because I Care ~ NAME-AND-FORM

ALTHOUGH IT IS a trivial thing to write about, it obviously affected some people quite strongly, so maybe it is time I did so. It concerns my change of monastic robes, from one style to another, back in 1976. Telling of it might help someone see how easily we get stuck on outward appearances and fail to penetrate deeper, and serve as an example of what to avoid— or at least, what to be aware of.

I was ordained in 1972, in Penang, by Thai monks, according to the Theravada tradition. Soon after, my visa expiring, I left Malaysia and went to Thailand, where I tried to conform to the type of Buddhism that prevails there. But I was soon disillusioned, as I found it narrow and moribund, long ago having become a thing of mere tradition and not a thing to live by; it is what I now term ‘ethnic Buddhism’ and is more a thing of local culture than a spiritual way. Of course, there are Buddhists in Thailand who understand and live by the Dharma, but they are relatively few. And as for Thailand being a ‘Buddhist country,’ that is a myth and not true at all; there are Buddhists in Thailand, but Thailand is not a Buddhist country; if it were, we would have a hard time explaining why corruption and crime in many forms flourish there. Thailand is no more a Buddhist country than America is a Christian country!

Having seen something of Universal Dharma before becoming a monk, or even before becoming a Buddhist, I felt stifled by the hierarchical and ecclesiastical structure of ethnic Buddhism in Thailand (and later by forms of ethnic Buddhism in other countries), and returned to Malaysia in 1973 to begin the missionary work that continues until now (and yes, there is such in Buddhism, too; in fact, Buddhism was a missionary religion from its inception, five hundred years before Jesus of Nazareth was born; but it used reason and gentle methods rather than violence, threats and bribery, as other religions have done). I spent the second half of 1973 in the small town of Taiping.

Over the next several years, seeing and hearing how Buddhism had become a means of business to exploit gullible people by such things as chanting, fortune-telling, charms, amulets, and so on— especially by some Thai monks (although they were by no means the only ones), I became disillusioned with Theravada Buddhism in practice, although the doctrines of that particular school— which might better be termed ‘Pali Buddhism,’ from the Pali language of its scriptures— I still regard as basically sound and clear, and I decided to break away.

So, in 1976, I approached the ranking Chinese monk in Singapore, the late Venerable Hong Choon, and explained to him— through a translator, of course, as he spoke no English and I no Chinese— how I felt. I said I found it hard to propagate the Dharma in Theravada robes with the reputation of some— and to be fair, I must stress the word some— but not all, Thai monks in that part of the world, to contend with; many people have a negative impression of them, I said, and think of them as practicing ‘black-magic.’ Also, vegetarianism is important to me, and in Theravada robes it is sometimes difficult to explain about this, as most Theravada monks are meat-eaters. Therefore, I said to the Venerable, I would like to take Chinese monks’ robes, but that I did not want to be a Mahayana monk, any more than I wanted to be a Theravada monk. I don’t know if he really understood what I meant, but he said to me that as long as I am vegetarian (something that was very important to him), and propagate the Dharma, it was alright with him. On that basis, therefore, I took Chinese robes, which I have worn ever since. Usually, however, when I give a Dharma-talk, I wear the Theravada outer robe over the Chinese tunic and pants, so that people will find it hard to categorize me as either this or that.

Wearing Chinese robes, I returned to Taiping, and there and in other places where I’d stayed before, some people were somewhat upset and disappointed with me, as if I had betrayed them. Their reaction was quite surprising, as I had changed only the form; my ideas were basically the same as before, as most people who have known me a long time would probably affirm. They had staked quite a lot in the name-and-form of Theravada Buddhism, and without waiting to listen to my reasons for my change of form, regarded me as a traitor to their cause. Well, I have no regrets about changing, and if they could/can see no further than the outer appearance, that is their problem, not mine.

Over the years, I observed that Mahayana monks are more tolerant of their Theravada counterparts, and welcome them to stay in their temples and monasteries, while the converse is seldom so. I have spent most of my time since 1976, therefore, in Mahayana temples, where conditions are more conducive to me.

After my change of dress, someone advised me not to visit the monk who had ordained me in Penang, as— he said— he wouldn’t be happy. "Why not?" I said; "I’ve done nothing wrong by changing." So I went to see him and paid my respects. True, he wasn’t very pleased at my appearance, but neither was he displeased; he only remarked upon me wearing pants rather than a sarong.

I did not see him again for many years, and now he is no longer a monk. Why he disrobed I do not know, nor do I care, but I do know that he got a lot of trouble from certain people at the Meditation Center that he was instrumental in establishing in Penang; they showed their gratitude to him by making things hard for him. Anyway, I had wanted to see him again for many years, as I still respected him and was grateful to him for his kindness and assistance to me when I needed it. So, finally, in 1994, when I was in Kuala Lumpur, I learned that he was there, too, and went to see him. I found him little changed since I last saw him seventeen years before, except that he was no longer in monks’ robes. Our meeting was quite cordial, and I was happy to see him again, just as I was to see my old primary-school teacher in England some years earlier. If he was again unable to resist saying something about my dress it was probably because of his being insularly Thai. I replied that it is not important, being both impermanent and non-self. For my part, I made no mention about his change of dress. He did not ask me to speak at the center where he gives instruction in meditation, but I was neither surprised nor disappointed by that.

Why are we so attached to appearances? If, by wearing a certain kind of dress one could become enlightened, we could dress monkeys in such clothes and expect enlightenment of them! Alas, how can we avoid disappointment like this? It is worth thinking about how the Buddha might have been dressed when He attained Enlightenment under the Bodhi-tree. We don’t know how He looked, of course, but it is unlikely He was wearing the kind of robes that Theravada monks now wear; He was probably clad in rags, and very lightly clad, at that!

So, what is the purpose of robes anyway? Is this not a valid question? We have just debunked the idea that merely by wearing robes one becomes automatically enlightened, so what is the purpose? Do they necessarily make one better than people who do not wear robes? Again, no. Then?

< Previous  -   Next>

Home  -   Against The Stream  -   As It Is  -   Because I Care  -   Behind The Mask  -   Boleh Tahan -   Just A Thought -   Let Me See  -   Lotus Petals  -   Not This, Not That  -   Parting Shots  -   Ripples Following Ripples  -   So Many Roads  -   This, Too, Will Pass  -   Wait A Minute!  -   Your Questions, My Answers  -   Download  -   Funeral  -   Links  -   Contact