Because I Care ~ FOUNDATIONS

SOMETHING MOST VISITORS to Singapore notice is its remarkable cleanliness, with which even many Western cities cannot favorably compare. But why is Singapore so clean? In one word: FEAR. People there are afraid of the penalties imposed for littering— namely: heavy fines— and therefore restrain themselves; it is not really from understanding that most Singaporeans (of course, there are exceptions) keep Singapore so clean, for I have observed Singaporeans in Malaysia— where the laws are not so strict or easily enforced— thoughtlessly scattering litter; I’ve also heard of this from several Malaysians, so it is not only my own observation.

By this, I’m not implying that Singapore shouldn’t have strict laws (I’m happy that at least one city should be so clean; compare it with Bangkok, Jakarta, Manila, or even New York or London, and the advantages are obvious). What I am saying is that it is a pity that people should need such laws, as need them they do, for as I have shown above, those same people think nothing of trashing other countries where the laws are not so strict and there is little chance of being caught. Perhaps this is a reaction against rigid control or a way of asserting themselves. It means that after living under rigorous laws for so many years already, the meaning of those laws has yet to permeate deeply into their minds and bring about a genuine transformation of behavior. Understanding is a much firmer foundation for living than fear, but how to get people to understand? It is very difficult, and confirms the old proverb: "You can take a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink!"

Australia— and some other countries, too— now has an annual Clean-up Day, when people go out to pick up rubbish that others have negligently scattered. This campaign was initiated a few years ago by a man named Ian Kiernan. While sailing his yacht solo around the world, he was so appalled by the amount of garbage floating in the seas that when he returned to Sydney, he informed some friends of his observations, and asked them to join him in doing something about it on a practical level. And so, because he cared enough to do something, instead of just thinking: "Oh, it’s terrible, but I didn’t do it, so it’s not my responsibility," it has had a ripple-effect to the extent that, in 1993, an estimated 400,000 people took part in the clean-up nationwide, and every year since there have been more.

All praise to Ian Kiernan for his courage and determination, for striking a match and lighting the lamps of others waiting in darkness, unaware of the matches in their own hands! Many of us wait for others to make the first move and will then follow, hesitantly at first, perhaps, and often glancing around to make sure we are not alone, but with increasing confidence as we go along, so that later, even if we do find ourselves alone at times, it won’t matter.

Now, I do not know Ian Kiernan, or anything of his religious affiliations (if any), but I doubt if he calls himself a Buddhist and burns incense to an image of the Buddha or Avalokitesvara for help or salvation, but I do know this: in doing what he did, he was practicing what Buddhists call Dharma or the Way, even if he was not aware of it; and in that sense, he may be called a Buddhist— much moreso, in fact, than people who call themselves ‘Buddhists’ but who do not live by the Dharma. You see, contrary to what many people think, Dharma is not something mysterious, esoteric or airy-fairy, that can be understood by only very few highly-intellectual or learned people; nor is it something to believe in and pray to for salvation, but something of ordinary everyday life, by following which we can help to make this world— our world, not mine or yours— a little bit better.

Now, does scattering garbage improve the world or not? It not only pollutes, destroys and causes problems for others, but is also an indication of the mental state of those who do it: careless, dull and stupid. Cleaning up where others have despoiled, however, signifies caring, thoughtful and responsive minds. What we do is a reflection of what and how we think. And it is almost certain that those who go out to pick up garbage one day of the year, will not scatter garbage themselves throughout the year. And not only does this activity have a ripple-effect, spreading outwards from the man who started the campaign, but it also has a spill-over-effect in those who get involved, for it probably will not stop at just garbage, if it began there; it will affect other areas of their lives, too. It is nothing less than a spiritual or religious activity!

From my Sunday-school days— which weren’t a waste of time after all— I recall a little song about foundations, based upon one of Jesus’ parables; it is sound Dharma:

The foolish man built his house upon the sand
And the rain came tumbling down.
The rain came down and the floods came up
And the house on the sand went c-r-a-s-h!

The wise man built his house upon the rock
And the rain came tumbling down.
The rain came down and the floods came up,
But the house of the rock stood firm.

If we would examine our motives for doing what we do, and endeavor to replace belief, fear, greed, compulsion and external authority with understanding and responsibility, our lives would rest on much firmer foundations than they do. We would then do what is right simply because it is right, and for no other reason.

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