ONCE, ADDRESSING AN audience at a Buddhist Society in a town in Malaysia, I spoke of Prince Siddhartha seeing the Four Startling Sights—an old person, a sick person, a corpse, and an ascetic—and said that, contrary to what the books say about this, I could not accept that he was seeing such things for the first time in his life, but that, on this occasion, his mind must have been particularly sensitive, and it was as if he were seeing them for the first time.

At this point, the president of the Buddhist Society stood up rather irately, and almost threatened me with damnation, saying that people who distort the scriptures will go to Hell! Echoes of medieval Christianity! I had visions of witch-hunts and people being stretched on the rack or burnt at the stake, merely because they were slightly different in some way, or didn’t conform to the prevailing norm!

Well, that man and I obviously see things in different ways, but I cannot imagine the Buddha, who gave us the Kalama Sutta, and exhorted us to investigate things and find out for ourselves, saying anything like that. I will tell anyone, clearly and unequivocally, that I am not a believer; belief is something I reject as an impediment. Rather, I try to follow the way of the Gnostic, or Knower. A Gnostic would probably try to share what he has found with others, as something worth sharing (as Jesus is reported to have said: "No man lights a candle and puts it under a bucket, but on a candlestick, where it gives light to all that are in the house"); he would try to nudge and inspire others into finding the same thing, as he would see that it is within the capacity of all. He would never threaten people to get them to accept his point of view, knowing that it is not something that can be transmitted to just anyone, but must be experienced by people individually, when they are ready for it. It can, however, be hinted at, indicated, referred to by analogy, and thus brought nearer to those who might be ready for it. In so doing, of course, there is some risk involved, for if we lack wisdom in our presentation of things, and are over-zealous, instead of our words being well-received, they might arouse antipathy, and thus, not only defeat our purpose, but might result in disaster; look what happened to Socrates and Jesus, for examples of this: Socrates publicly said too much, was accused of corrupting the youth of Athens with his ideas, and was made to drink poison; and though Jesus warned against ‘casting pearls before swine, and giving that which is holy unto dogs,’ he himself did this very same thing, and brought about his own death thereby.

If we are not prepared to take the risks and suffer the possible consequences—in the hope that someone might understand—we must bite our tongues and keep quiet. But what would our world be like if no-one spoke out and said things that should be said? It would be a much darker and fearful world than it already is. Moreover, since we will die of something anyway, we might as well die doing something that, deep inside, we know to be the right thing to do.

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