UNIVERSAL DHARMA

Because I Care ~ PAPER PEOPLE

SOME OF US HABITUALLY ‘DROP NAMES’— using other people’s names to create a good impression of ourselves. Being perhaps unknown and feeling ourselves unimportant, leading dull and shallow lives, we like to mention well-known people in connection with ourselves, as if doing so will add luster and dignity to ourselves. But this is foolish and transparent, like trying to steal someone else’s merit. Moreover, there is really no need for it, as we would discover, with a little investigation, that we are all special, just as we are, without calling attention to ourselves in any way.

As a monk, I am often asked questions like, "Do you know Master So-and-so?" "Have you met Venerable This-and-that?" "Have you visited Lama What’s-his-name?" Such questions are boorish and impolite, as they’re meant to measure and judge. Do they think I have no mind of my own? True, my mind might not be very bright, and I might not be famous, but I am able to think for myself, and consider myself sufficiently intelligent that I do not need to be led along like a cow on a rope. Just as I don’t follow fashion, so I do not play the ‘guru-hunting’ game and never have. Life itself is the Guru, and that means everyone and everything. If we know how to learn, there is nobody and nothing that is not our Dharma-teacher. (Someone once said to me: "I suppose you are a doctor?" [meaning a holder of a Ph.D.] Refusing to go along with his categorizations or measurements, I replied: "No, I’m a patient.")

During my years in Asia, I saw it is not rare for people to Take Refuge several times under different monks. Whenever a famous monk visits, and conducts a Refuge ceremony, they rush to Take Refuge under him, and then add another illustrious name to their list of masters, perhaps thinking they have gained great merit from contact with such monks, even though they probably learned little or nothing from them. Ignorant of the doctrine of ANATTA (Selflessness or Insubstantiality), they misunderstand about Taking Refuge, and make of it a personality game. If they knew anything of the Dharma, they would know that when they Take Refuge, it is not in the person of the monk who conducts the ceremony and recites the ancient formulas; in fact, going deeper, it is not necessary to undergo a ceremony at all; the only necessary and important thing is to make a sincere commitment to oneself about following the Way. A ceremony just adds a little weight— for those who need it, and not everyone does— to the significance of the undertaking, especially if the person conducting the ceremony explains the meaning of it clearly.

As it is, misunderstanding about this is not restricted to the laity; many monks suffer from it, and actively propagate it, so it’s not surprising their followers misunderstand. I have met monks who have ‘disciple-cards’ printed, with their own names already there in bold; all the ‘disciples’ have to do is fill in their names, and the monk then adds them to his ‘score-card’: "I have so many disciples! How many do you have?" One monk I met in Canada even urged people to burn their old Refuge certificates and Take Refuge again under him! What lies behind all this except ego? Such monks are more concerned with their own positions and prestige, as leaders of so many followers, than in helping people to understand the Dharma.

Some people ask: "Who is your Dharma-teacher?" and, not really wanting or waiting for an answer, proudly proclaim: "My teacher is So-and-so." Ask them what their teacher has taught them and what they have learned from him, and there is often an embarrassed silence. It is just like believers in reincarnation claiming to have been someone famous in a previous life. Years ago, in Manila, I heard that, in that city alone, there were at least 400 people who claim to have been Cleopatra of Egypt! Well, obviously, only one person could have been Cleopatra before, but unless she is a queen in this life, is not at that level now, and so had better be quiet about it, as she has come down in the world. If, however, a person was someone obscure in the previous life, but in this life has become famous, there may be some cause for celebration. Similarly, if someone has learned something from a teacher, there might be a reason for boasting of him— even if he himself is unknown— but otherwise not.

The Refuge certificates are rather elaborate and artistic, but does a ceremony or certificate make one a Buddhist? If we haven’t undergone a ceremony, and have no certificate, does it mean we cannot follow the Dharma if we wish to? We have allowed ourselves to be intimidated and brainwashed by these bits of paper that people brandish and wave about— including educational certificates, degrees, diplomas, etc.— and have lost sight of what it means to be flesh-and-blood, breathing, thinking, feeling human-beings; we have become ‘paper-people,’ no longer having minds of our own or the ability to think for ourselves; so we fall into every trap, pit, or pot-hole, big and small, along life’s way.

A certain monk in the US used to boast of his psychic powers and impress gullible and empty-headed people with talk of ‘dragons taking refuge under his preaching-throne,’ and other things that he knew could neither be verified nor disproved. Instead of doubting his dubious claims and asking for proof (such a thing is ‘not done’), people just believed, and fell into his clutches! Oh, maybe he did have psychic powers— I’m not disputing that!— but did he separate them from his ego? That is the question.

There was a person in Malaysia who was so proud of having read many books that in his prolific writings he took to putting stars beside some of the big and seldom-used words; these were then explained in a ‘difficult-words’ section at the end of his articles, for the sake of those who were not so ‘educated’ as he. In so doing, he not only allowed his towering pride to glare through, but implicitly insulted his readers, relegating them to a lower level and exalting himself. Maybe he thought big words and academic posturing are necessary to understand Dharma and the propagation thereof, whereas the opposite is more the case; if the aim is to help others understand something of Dharma, simpler words should be used wherever possible, so that anyone— even children, and not just highly-educated people— may comprehend.

To a large extent, Buddhism has become ‘monkocentric’— if I may coin a term here, meaning ‘centered around monks’— which is quite wrong, as the center place does not even belong to the Buddha Himself, but to the Dharma alone. It was not, and should not be, a personality cult.

I was once given a calling-card by a monk who was very proud of his rank and position. On it, among his various titles and qualifications, was printed: Great Dharma Master. It reminded me of a little story about a Zen master in Japan long ago, who was one day visited by the governor of Kyoto. Handing his card to the master’s attendant, the governor waited to be called into the master’s quarters.

When the master looked at the card and saw the words: Kitagaki, Governor of Kyoto, he said to the attendant: "I have no business with such a fellow! Tell him to go away!"

The attendant shame-facedly returned the card to the governor and told him what the master had said. Kitagaki, however, having some knowledge of the Dharma, was not upset, and said, "That was my error." He then crossed out the words ‘Governor of Kyoto’ with a pencil, and asked the attendant to take the card back to the master.

"Oh, is Kitagaki here?" exclaimed the master when he saw the amended card. "What are you waiting for? Bring him in! I’ve been wanting to see him for ages!"

It might surprise some Buddhists to learn that the idea of Taking Refuge is pre-Buddhist, and did not originate with the Buddha. Where it did originate, I don’t know (under the pervasive concept of everything being illusory or unreal— Maya— Indians attached little importance to recording history), but it must have been a stock-phrase for people to use to a teacher who had impressed them: "I take refuge in you and your teachings," as people were saying these words to the Buddha shortly after His Enlightenment— even before the calling of the first monks— and we can’t imagine Him telling people to say: "Repeat after me," kind of thing. Following His way of accepting instead of rejecting existing customs, and giving them new meanings so as not to alienate people, Buddhism adopted the Refuge formula, which became central. And so the words Buddham Saranam Gacchami, Dhammam Saranam Gacchami, Sangham Saranam Gacchami, have been recited by countless millions of devotees from ancient times until the present, meaning: I Take Refuge in the Buddha (the Teacher), I Take Refuge in the Dharma (the Teachings, and more: as that which the Buddha discovered and thereafter tried to indicate to others by His Teachings), I Take Refuge in the Sangha (the wider Buddhist Community, consisting of monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen). People Take Refuge when they understand and are convinced that this is the way they wish to follow; to merely repeat the formula without understand or conviction has little meaning.

And so, don’t be satisfied with mere certificates, but go for the real thing.

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