CONTRARY TO WHAT MOST PEOPLE THINK, religion is something ordinary rather than special, as it is concerned with ‘ordinary’, everyday life, and is not— or should not be— just for special days, like Christmas or Wesak— to be brought out, like best clothes, for the occasion, and then, when the day is over, to be stored away in the closet with the moth-balls until the next celebration. People who make of religion something special like that destroy it; they are responsible for its decline.

Religion should be as ‘ordinary’ as the air we breathe. We breathe not only on certain special days, but everyday and all the time, and if we do not breathe, we die! But, just because something is ordinary, that does not mean it is unimportant. There is nothing more important than air or water— things considered ordinary, in the sense of common.

We must turn around and see things with our own eyes and minds, instead of through the eyes and minds of others. Nobody can live for us. Why do we allow others to dictate to us what should think and do? We must discover what life means for ourselves.

Religion should not be just a part of our life, but the whole of it; it should be the focal-point around which all else turns. Actually, life and religion should not be seen as two separate things, but as one-and-the-same: Life = Religion, Religion = Life, although this will probably mean some adjustment to our ways of thinking of both, as I am trying to explain. We should live religiously, aware of ourselves and our place, aware of others, side-by-side with us, and their places, aware of their feelings, hopes, fears, their birth, aging, sickness and death. We have so much in common, especially pain and suffering. Suffering is the mortar that should bind us together in our living, and prevent us from causing more unnecessary suffering in our poor overburdened world.

Some people say Buddhism is not a religion at all but a way-of-life; however, this is just splitting hairs. It doesn’t matter what we call it; what is important is what we do with it. To some, it is a religion, with rituals, ceremonies, feast-days, and so on; to some it is a way-of-life, with certain principles to mould one’s life around; to some it is a way of self-knowledge, liberation, enlightenment; to some, it is a philosophy; to others, it is a system of ethics, with rules for harmonious living; to still others, it is a means of business. What others choose to consider it and do with it should not concern us too much; we must decide, for ourselves, what we are going to do with it. If someone uses a surgeon’s scalpel to cut down trees, or a bulldozer to clean his garden-path, that is his affair.

And Buddhism is not— as many Buddhists mistakenly think— only for monks and others who live in temples or monasteries, but for everyone and anyone who wants to make it his or hers. Monks have no secret books, teachings, or other things that are unavailable to other people; though there are teachings that apply specifically to monks, they are not secret teachings; there are secrets only if we close our eyes and refuse to see.

Some people are of the opinion that, just because they are not monks or nuns, they cannot follow or realize the Dharma. This is incorrect, and often an excuse for being lazy or for doing just whatever they want to do. People who say things like this have probably never tried to follow the Way, and therefore, do not know; they probably think it is something difficult, mysterious and special, whereas in reality, as I have tried to show in this and other articles, it is not. Actually, to say such things is to use the monks and nuns as scapegoats. How often do we hear people complaining about monks doing certain things, while they do the very same things themselves? If Buddhists saw monks killing even ants, mosquitoes or cockroaches— which most of them don’t, of course— they would soon complain, while thinking nothing of doing things much worse than this themselves. Needless to say, this is practicing double standards.

I refuse to be used as a scapegoat like this, and will shift the responsibility back onto people to do what they know to be right! I am not going to do it for anyone— I cannot; everyone must do it for themselves. People put the monks too high and themselves too low, expecting too much of the monks and not realizing their own importance; nor do they realize that— if they are Buddhists— they are also members of the Sangha, or wider Buddhist community. To be a Buddhist, as I’ve tried to show in this and other books, is not merely a matter of calling oneself so, but of striving to realize something of what the Buddha tried to indicate, and if we can do that, the name ‘Buddhist’ will be superfluous.

Let me speak plainer still, so that no-one will be in any doubt as to my reasons for writing as I do. Some people have described me as a ‘revolutionary,’ though in what sense they did so, I am not quite sure; but it is not a term I reject, for, in line with the Buddhist symbol of the Wheel denoting revolution (and a wheel has the sole function of turning, revolving, does it not?), I wish to inspire people with the will, determination and love to bring about a change in their lives— a turning towards light and spiritual awakening— instead of simply drifting through life and being blown along by the winds of change. I would like to quote, as appropriate here, from The Lessons of History, by American historians Will and Ariel Durant:

"There may be a redivision of the land, but the natural inequality of men soon recreates an inequality of possessions and privileges, and raises to power a new minority with essentially the same instincts as in the old. The only real revolution is in the enlightenment of the mind and the improvement of character, the only real emancipation is individual, and the only real revolutionists are philosophers and saints."

Lao Tsu wrote, as if frustrated: "My words are easy to understand and easy to perform, yet no man under Heaven knows them or practices them." Most people look for something magical or esoteric, something different than what they perceive in their ‘ordinary’ daily lives, unaware of the wonders and miracles of life all around them. When a simple way is presented to them, shorn of the mumbo-jumbo and the accretions of centuries that they have grown used to, they are more than likely to reject it, and cling more firmly than ever to their old ways, even though they might understand little of these, too; the new and different is often regarded with suspicion and hesitation, and not without some reason, as it might be dangerous.

I do not write for those who habitually complain and blame others for the situations they find themselves in, and do not know how to or are unwilling to use their discontentment to bring about a positive change. I write for those whose disillusionment and dissatisfaction with life compels them to look for something different, something else, for those who wander through life ‘beach-combing’— seeing beauty in things that the tides have tossed up but which others would pass by without a second glance. I write for those who are a bit ‘out-of-the-ordinary,’ those who will understand what I mean when I say that ordinary is special. Yes, my purpose is to disturb people, just as, when a person has overslept, and someone else calls him to wake up to go to school or work, and he says: "Oh, don’t disturb me. I want to sleep"! Perhaps most people who I call will just turn over and continue sleeping, but some might respond, and wake up; the possibility of this makes my efforts worthwhile, and so: Onwards!

As a Westerner, I approach Buddhism not from a traditional point-of-view, and see it differently. To look at things from the view-point of tradition is to see them through rose-colored spectacles; piety often obscures what is here, and I have said and written before that I consider myself fortunate to have come from ‘outside’ rather than being born into a Buddhist background, wherein, like fish in water, people seldom question and understand what is there, but merely take it for granted as part of the landscape. If Thailand were a Buddhist country, Buddhists everywhere would have a lot of explaining to do: why morality there is so low, why it has one of the highest and rapidly-rising rates of HIV and AIDS in the world, why child-labor and exploitation is common, why it is one of the main producers of illicit drugs and home of the world’s most blood-thirsty pirates, why it played willing host to Pol Pot and his murderous demons and allowed its ports to be used to import weapons for them, why the wild-life there has been hunted to the point of extinction and why almost everything that moves there is killed, why nearly all its forests have been destroyed, and so on. We must still ask why, but as people, not as Buddhists; although Buddhists are people, it is not people as Buddhists who are responsible for those things. The majority of Thai people call themselves ‘Buddhists,’ and many wear numerous small Buddha-images around their necks as talismans or amulets, but that is just the superficial aspect of a religion, not the substance— only the name-and-form, and a name is never the thing it indicates; they do not really understand Buddhism.

I have singled Thailand out not because it is the only country where such things go on— unfortunately, it isn’t— but because I wish to combat the widespread fallacy about it being a Buddhist country. Someone once told me that a Malay friend had asked him why Buddhism encourages prostitution, and when asked why he said so, replied: "Well, Thailand is a Buddhist country, and look how prostitution flourishes there!" Buddhism and prostitution exist side-by-side in Thailand, true, but the one is not responsible for the other, though— no doubt like many other people— I have wondered why Buddhism has not played a more active and positive role there, discouraging vice and encouraging virtue. Far from this being the case, however, it is not unheard of for monks to perform blessing-ceremonies in bars and nightclubs, which is a kind of prostitution, too.

Doubtless, there are good Buddhists in Thailand, but Buddhism became a thing of tradition there long ago, and lost thereby its validity as something to live by, degenerating into something that people merely inherit and accept without question, in much the same way that we accept, unquestioningly, the air we breathe. The temples are there, the monks are there, yes, but it seems that, to many people, the monks are mere dispensers of blessings— similar to slot-machines: put your money in and get your blessings out— and not teachers of the Dharma. They expect monks to be ‘fields of merit’ in which seeds planted will yield good harvests. And so, Buddhism in Thailand has become a materialistic concern, instead of the great spiritual Way that it once was. People support the monks, help to build and maintain temples and monasteries for what they can get in return, on the material level; other aspects are of little interest to them, it seems.

There are over 300,000 monks in Thailand, but few of them, according to a report in Bangkok’s daily paper, The Nation, dated 19-November-1987, "are qualified to teach Buddhism and morality. Religious Affairs Director, General Adul Rattananda, said that there are more than 19,000 Buddhist teaching centers all over the country, but only 75 of them in 50 provinces are up to acceptable standards. This is a serious defect in the education system of Buddhist monks. Poorly-educated Buddhist monks are to blame for spreading superstition and encouraging activities against Buddhist precepts instead of promoting the Teachings of the Buddha."

Fungus springs up on dead trees as they rot and break down. Likewise, when religion declines, beautiful but empty temples and churches spring up; people pay more attention to the external form than to the essence. When religion is alive and well, the essence is more important than the form, and simple edifices serve as places where people can learn that religion is something to be used and applied wherever one is, and not just in the temple or church.

It is time to come down out of the clouds, to stop dreaming about life, and to live with our feet on the ground. If we can do so, maybe here, in this very ‘ordinary,’ every-day world, we shall find many special things; indeed, maybe we shall discover that ordinary is special, after all!

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