UNIVERSAL DHARMA

Because I Care ~ NOT SO NARROW

AFTER READING ONE OF MY BOOKS, a friend wrote to me, saying: "It is not good for a Dharma-speaker to explain the words of Jesus and other heretics in a Buddhist way, for the simple reason that the listeners will be misled into thinking that the heretic preachings are the same as the Teachings of the Buddha, thus degrading the Dharma. It is happening now. People don’t know how to distinguish the Truth from the Non-Truth, and think that all religions are the same. In so doing, they are also degrading the Teachings of the Buddha into mere religion. This, sadly, is the main cause of the Kali Yuga."

Well, he’s entitled to his ideas, of course, but I still maintain that Dharma is broad and all-embracing, not narrow and exclusive belonging only to Buddhism. This would be clearer if we distinguish what the Buddha taught (Buddha-Dharma), from what He realized upon His Enlightenment (Dharma); the two are often confused and considered to be one-and-the-same-thing. But Dharma is not something that the Buddha invented or put together; it exists independently of the Buddha; a Buddha is someone who discovers it and points it out to others.

The Buddha told of Three Characteristics He had discovered: (1), that all compounded things are impermanent, and change constantly [ANICCA]; (2), that all living things, from the tiniest to the largest, feel pain and suffer [DUKKHA]; and (3), that nothing exists in and by itself, but only in dependence upon supporting factors [ANATTA]. Is anything not subject to these conditions? They form part of the overall Law of Cause-and-Effect, which applies to everything, animate and inanimate. This, and what lies behind it—its positive aspect, about which little can be said, but which must be realized by the individual, each person by and for himself—is one of the meanings of the word Dharma. When we speak of ‘practicing Dharma,’ we mean the application of some of the principles of the Buddha’s Teachings, or Buddha-Dharma, the aim of which is to harmonize ourselves with Universal Dharma. Dharma, therefore, is not something man-made, like some moralistic code, but is WHAT IS. And it is not in the good without being in the bad, not in the right without being in the wrong, not in the white without being in the black, but in everything. Maybe we can better say: everything is in Dharma, in that everything functions thereby—even pain and evil have causes, and are not accidents, but the effects of certain causes. Thus, nothing is outside of Dharma. And though we try to avoid doing evil and causing pain, we must know about such things, for good has no meaning apart from evil, wisdom no meaning apart from ignorance, Nirvana no meaning apart from Samsara (unenlightened existence). In this way, evil and ignorance can be seen as having important roles to play.

If we perceive Dharma, as Truth or Reality, only in or through the Buddha’s Teachings, not only might we easily become bigoted and dogmatic; it means we have not really understood at all. The Buddha claimed no monopoly on Truth, for Truth, like the sky above or the air we breathe, is free and open, and cannot be monopolized or confined. And, if the Buddhist scriptures are accurate, He Himself told His followers that if they found Truth in other religions, they should accept it; by this, perhaps He meant that a diamond is a diamond no matter where it’s found. The simile of the Buddha’s Teachings being like a finger that points at the moon, but not as the moon it points at, is well known.

Though I am not a Christian or a follower of Jesus, it does not mean I can learn nothing from him. I do not consider him a ‘savior’, ‘Son of God’, or even fully-enlightened, but we would need a very-high opinion of ourselves to feel we could learn nothing from him! As we progress along the Way, we find we can learn something useful from anyone and everyone, anything and everything, without exception. There is still room in my world for Jesus of Nazareth.

Having criticized Christianity numerous times and exposed out what I consider to be its fallacies, maybe it is time for me to acknowledge my gratitude to it—and I am grateful to it—because it played a part in my life, and without it, my life would surely have been different than it is.

Why I was born in England rather than elsewhere, no-one can say, of course, but I was, and as a result, was exposed to the influence of Christianity. To regret this, even if I would, is useless; it is much better to try to extract something positive from the experience; I can and will do this.

It is more often the case than not that people do not understand and appreciate the religion they were raised in, in the same way that fish probably don’t understand the water they were born and live in; it’s just part of their environment. This is so with Buddhists no less than with people of other religions, and I consider myself fortunate that I was not born into a Buddhist family; had I been, perhaps I would have found little of value in it, but, like most people who call themselves ‘Buddhists,’ might have taken it all for granted as ‘just something there,’ unworthy of any investigation.

In my childhood, therefore, Christianity was the only religion I knew anything of; I had nothing to compare it with, and so could not consider it ‘the best,’ for to do so requires a knowledge of other religions, which I did not have. But I didn’t remain in ignorance about this forever, and when I later came into contact with other religions—Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism—my Christian upbringing provided me with a basis for making comparisons. Instead of fearfully holding onto my own background-religion, however, and considering it unquestionably superior to these ‘other’ religions, I found myself investigating, and was happy to find that, especially with the Eastern religions, there were exciting concepts I had known almost nothing of before, and besides which Christianity appeared narrow and immature. This inspired me to investigate further—not only the other religions, but Christianity, too—and since then, I have understood more of Christianity (insofar as it might be understood), than I ever did before, and now, although I still respect Jesus, I am happy that I ‘graduated’ from Christianity. Yet I am grateful to it, as I said, for it provided me with a ‘platform,’ like the launching-pad of a rocket, without which the rocket could not take off.

It is not uncommon to hear Christianity being castigated —I’ve done it myself—for such horrors as ‘The Holy Wars,’ ‘The Holy Inquisition,’ the persecution and murder of millions of people whom it regarded as ‘heretics’ or deviants, and the wholesale destruction of indigenous cultures in the New World and other lands. But we should give credit where credit is due, and acknowledge the role of the Christian Church in preserving some form of order, and acting as an anchor during those centuries after the Roman Empire collapsed, when Europe was overrun by wave after wave of marauding barbarians, whom the Church managed to tame and civilize somewhat. We cannot know what Europe—and therefore the rest of the Western world—-would be like had not the Church been its dominant power; it is easy to say it might have been better, but it might also have been worse. But this is almost certain: without Christianity to oppose its spread, Islam would have conquered Europe over a thousand years ago, for within 100 years from the time when Mohammed proclaimed his message, Islam had spread right along the coast of North Africa, up through Spain, and into France, and almost reached Paris before being repulsed and driven back to Spain by the Franks. How rapid was its spread! And how brilliant was the Islamic civilization that developed and flourished in Spain until the Moors were finally expelled from that country by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492, the year Columbus discovered America! That, alas, was Spain’s loss!

Another thing I appreciate Christianity for is the magnificent ‘stone dreams’ it raised all over Europe during the beginning of the second millenium of the Christian Era—the cathedrals—though perhaps these came more from ‘Marianity’ than from Christianity, for at that time, stern, masculine and patriarchal Christianity was slowly and subtly being modified and softened by the rising cult of Mary, the feminine element that early Christianity had tried hard to destroy in the form of the ancient nature- and fertility-cults that were widespread in Europe; it did not succeed, despite its horrific persecutions, but only drove them underground, where they bided their time until, finding expression through Mary-worship, they gained legitimacy and triumphed. In Mary, people found a representative of the female principle on whom to lavish their devotion; this was reconciled with, and absorbed into Christian theology by regarding Mary as a go-between to intercede with her son Jesus on behalf of her petitioners, who felt that, if Jesus did not, or would not answer their prayers, he would not refuse the requests of his mother. It is not easy for us, who live in a secular age, to understand what a profound effect the cult of Mary had upon Christianity.

Since I wrote this in 1992, my research led to a different view of what happened in Europe after the Roman Empire collapsed, and I realized I had been naïve, but instead of omitting the previous two paragraphs, I’ve decided to leave them more-or-less intact, and add something else, to illustrate how, when more information comes to light or we learn something new, it can change the way we look at things considerably.

I was under the illusion that the Christian Church had preserved civilization in Europe during the ‘Dark Ages,’ but it seems that far from this being so, the Church was responsible for those centuries of cultural darkness, when only the monks and leading churchmen could read and write and even the nobles were illiterate. The Church, all along, was concerned with the acquisition of wealth and power, opposing change and development, and ruling with an iron hand. (Even the title of the Popes, ‘Pontiff,’ was taken from the Roman Emperors’ appellation as ‘Pontifex Maximus’—’Supreme Ruler’). Some of the leaders of the ‘barbarian hordes’ that over-ran Europe were much more civilized than the leaders of the Church, but their efforts to promote culture were stymied by the Church.

So, Europe became a cultural desert for a thousand years, while Islam flourished in the Middle East, North Africa and Spain. The West actually owes a great deal to Islam, as it was Islam, in places like as Spain, Sicily, Egypt and the Middle East, that preserved the science, philosophy and medical lore of ancient Greece and Rome while Europe languished under Church domination. Even before the irresistible upsurge of the Renaissance in the 14th and 15th centuries, European scholars, athirst for knowledge unavailable in Christian lands, journeyed to Spain and Sicily to avail themselves of education in the marvelous Muslim universities there. It is surely a tribute to the openness of Islam at that time that they should have been accepted and taught, without pressure to convert. Islamic culture was so much in advance of Western culture. The fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453 was a blessing in disguise to Europe, as refugees fleeing to the West brought with them books and manuscripts of inestimable value that heralded the end of the Church’s stranglehold. It was a time of stupendous change, when old beliefs were questioned and chains broken; the process continues until today.

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