Boleh Tahan ~ HOW CAN IT BE?
ACCORDING TO BUDDHISM,
if we do good we shall be happy; if we do bad we shall
suffer. Nice idea, but is it supported by the realities
of life? We should always test things instead of merely
believing, before inimical people come along and pull
the carpet from under us.
We’ve all seen people who lead very
good lives, who are kind and considerate of others,
but who suffer and undergo so many hardships, have
we not?. We’ve also seen people who lead very
irresponsible lives, who are virtually criminals,
completely disregarding the rights and feelings of
others, but who seem to prosper and be happy. What
are we to make of this? It is not an idea, but a reality;
there are people like this, and not a few, either!
Does it not cause us to think and wonder why? Something
seems to be wrong, does it not? Why should this be?
Should not the good and kind folks be happy instead
of suffering, and the cheats, exploiters and criminals
suffer instead of prospering? Where is the justice
in all this?
If we are not careful, our indignation and
sense of right and wrong might cause us to doubt the
teaching that ‘if we do good, we shall be happy,
but if we do bad, we shall suffer as a result’,
and even to abandon the Dharma.
It is not uncommon for people to ask: “Why
do bad things happen to good people?” We may
have asked it ourselves. Let us examine this question
to see what it means; perhaps it will reveal something
we were not aware of.
In order to ask it, we must first have an
idea that there is such a thing as ‘a good person’.
You might say I am good, and I might say that you
are, but if we say we are good ourselves, are we?
We can’t even think it. On the other hand, if
we think or say we are bad, it is also incorrect.
We must try to be fair with ourselves as well as with
others, and not falsely modest.
During one of my talks to a large audience
last year, I asked: “How many good people are
there here tonight?” After a few moments, two
people raised their hands, though why they did so
I don’t know. Then when I asked: “How
many bad people are there?”, again two people
raised their hands—one of them a Westerner.
I was later told that they were a pastor and his wife.
It wasn’t surprising, therefore, that they’d
raised their hands, as Christians are taught that
they are sinners and can only be saved through believing
in Jesus. Of course, I do not accept this. If we say
we are bad, it is the same as saying we are good,
as we’ve been taught not to think of ourselves
as ‘good’, so calling oneself good must
be bad, and conversely, calling oneself bad must be
good. This is false modesty!
While in India last year, I sought out and
visited a Jain monastery. Jainism began at the same
time and in the same area as Buddhism, and is also
non-theistic. I had heard something of Jainism, and
had read of what the Buddha thought of it, but had
never met any Jain monks until then.
I was not surprised, upon entering the monastery,
to find the white robed monks wearing facemasks, as
I’d heard that this was one of their customs.
One monk spoke English quite well, so I was able converse
with them. I was invited to sit—on the floor,
of course—but on a lower level than the Jain
monks; I noted the distinction, but didn’t object
(many Buddhist monks also subject other people to
this kind of treatment); I was also asked not to sit
too close to them in case I came into physical contact
with them, because—one of them said—I
was wearing a watch, and the battery that powered
it contained life (?).
Saying that I knew something of the Buddha’s
opinion of Jainism, in order not to be one-sided,
I wished to know how Jains thought of the Buddha.
They said that they agreed with most of what the Buddha
taught, but not with His meat-eating, which they found
unacceptable, as they are meticulous vegetarians,
avoiding not only things like onions and garlic (as
do many Buddhist vegetarians), but even vegetables
that grow in the ground and which have to be uprooted,
as that might cause the death of worms and insects
in the soil. Many Jains—not only monks, but
laity, too—also refrain from eating at night,
in case any insects get into their food in the dim
light. It is a religion of so many restrictions.
Unlike Buddhism, Jainism did not spread beyond
India and become an international religion, as Jain
monks won’t use any kind of transport and walk
wherever they want to go. They carry a soft broom
with them to sweep the way before them, in case they
accidentally tread on any insects and cause their
death; they also go barefoot for the same reason (feet
being softer than shoes). And instead of shaving their
heads as Buddhist monks do, they pluck out their hair
by the roots, though why they do this, I didn’t
When I asked what they expected to get from
their extreme practices, they seemed taken aback and
didn’t know what to say. Out of politeness,
I didn’t pursue this, but it is a thing I ask
Buddhists, too: What do you expect to get from your
practices, and are your expectations realistic? Do
our practices make us morally any better than people
who don’t do such things, or do they make us
proud and feel superior? Does shaving one’s
head—or plucking one’s hair out by the
roots—for example, make one a better person?
How? It is without moral values, and cannot be considered
good or bad; it is simply amoral, and we lose our
way if we think of it as good merely because it is
something different. The search for goodness can easily
lead to conceit and hypocrisy.
While discussing with the Jain monks, a Hindu
scholar joined us, and the situation changed. I did
not understand very much of the dialogue between Hindus
and Jains, but caught a word here and there, and because
I know something of Hinduism, could tell that the
Hindu was trying to prove his way better than Jainism.
He was talking about Maya—a central Hindu idea—maintaining
that everything is illusive and unreal. I found myself
taking the side of the Jains, and joined in the debate
by saying that things are real in context, at the
moment, but because they change, ultimately they are
unreal. “But can you say pain is unreal if I
pinch you?” I said, leaning over and pinching
the Hindu’s leg.
We must resist the tendency to think ourselves
better than others because of our practices, and not
elevate ourselves; if others elevate us we must be
even more careful, because if they can put us up,
they can also put us down. “Be humble, if wisdom
you would attain; be humbler still when wisdom you
have attained”, says The Voice of the Silence.
Sit on a high place and you may fall down; sit on
the floor and you cannot.
So, if we are not good and not bad, what
are we? It helps a lot to ask and answer this question.
We are simply people, at a particular stage of evolution,
and as such have come a long way in a short time.
According to anthropology, humans have existed about
five or six million years, which is not very long
at all, geologically speaking; we are new comers.
Early humans, however, were more like apes than we
of today, but even so, they were our ancestors, and
we have good reason to be grateful to them, for without
them, we would not be here; if the chain of generations
had been broken, humans would have followed the dinosaurs
into extinction. How did we survive? How did the chain
hold? It is really quite remarkable, and means that,
as human beings, just as we are, we are tremendously
successful. It is useful to try to understand this.
We have not, as some claim, descended, but
on the contrary, have ascended; we should think of
ourselves as ascendants rather than as descendants.
There never was a state of perfection from which we
fell—a Garden of Eden—as the Bible says;
we have evolved from primitive beginnings, and will
continue to evolve if we can refrain from destroying
ourselves and our Spaceship Earth.
It is imperative that we look at ourselves
in this way; we need such a perspective because we
do wonder why things are as they are, of course. But
instead of answering the question: “Why do bad
things happen to good people?” it will take
us beyond, and help us to look at ourselves not as
individuals, but as members of our species, as human
beings. We will get a feeling of belonging, and a
sense of pride in the resilience and accomplishments
of the human race.
Without the panoramic vision that reflecting
on our ancestry gives us, our understanding of the
present cannot be anything but narrow and murky; we
will wonder why misfortune happens to us, and why
there is so much pain and suffering. With this vision,
however, life unfolds and yields up many insights;
it does not appear so chaotic or meaningless; we realize
how fortunate we are, and instead of asking why bad
things happen to good people, we might ask in amazement
why so many good things happen to us. It’s not
surprising that we should grow old, get sick and die,
that we lose things, or that they wear out or get
stolen; on the contrary, it’s surprising that
we live as long as we do, and are so fortunate. We
may look at our situation negatively, and complain
about it, as if it is our right to be always happy
and have good things and never bad things happen to
us; or we may look at it realistically, with gratitude;
we have a choice. If we choose to look at it negatively
and complain, of course we will suffer, but whose
fault will that be?
In 1997, I made a trip up Malaysia’s
East Coast. I had done this many times before, so
knew many people in the towns there. At one town,
someone came to see me and told me that since we’d
last met he’d had a heart attack. “Oh,
I’m very sorry about that”, I said, “but
glad to see you survived”. Heart attacks, of
course, are momentous events; they are not things
we go looking for, and they don’t happen every
day. But to undergo one, and live to tell of it, should—or
could—shock one into waking up to the fragility
of life, and give one a new awareness of its importance
and value; it should open one’s eyes to the
wonder and beauty of it, should help one to tread
more lightly. I don’t know if this happened
with my friend, but he said nothing about it, nor
about the many good things that had happened—must
have happened—since we last met, nor about the
insights or flashes of understanding he had experienced.
What a waste of a heart attack! Just as we squeeze
juice from oranges, so we should try to extract something
from our experiences—especially the painful
ones. Everyone has insights; they are not as uncommon
as we think; we should just be on the alert for them,
and value them for what they are: glimpses of enlightenment.
Stay tuned to Dharma.
I presume, of course, while writing this,
that the people who may read it are relatively affluent,
people with the luxury of time necessary to read and
ponder on such things; I do not, at this stage of
my life, write for suffering people in places like
Zaire, Rwanda, Bosnia or Afghanistan—not that
I do not care about people in such woeful countries,
but because there is hardly any chance of my books
reaching them, or of making any sense to them if they
did, when life ? to them ? is simply a matter of survival.
I write for lucky people, to remind them that they
What can we possibly have done—you
and I and all the other people around us—to
have deserved all the wonderful things that we enjoy
in such abundance? Have we earned them, in any way?
As far as we can recall, we did not invent the TV,
radio, telephone, automobile, train, airplane, refrigerator,
etc., ad infinitum, yet we use them without thinking
much about them, and take them for granted. Someone
invented all these things, to be sure, but only a
few people, and not all those who use them daily.
How does the karma concept account for all this? Have
we all done similar deeds to enjoy similar effects?
Or is it not a matter of inheritance? We have not
earned, but have inherited all these things from people
who lived before us, and in turn, shall pass things
on to those who come after us. This is the cumulative
effect of civilization; our standard of living is
part of the result of being alive at this time—part
of the package—and may be considered—if
we like —our karma, but we should be grateful,
I am not offering palliatives here, or explanations
to encourage people in their self-pity; my purpose
is to indicate inner resources that will enable us
to face with fortitude whatever life throws at us,
without feeling sorry for ourselves, complaining and
saying things like: “Why me? Why is this happening
to me? I’ve never done anything wrong! I don’t
deserve this!” You do not need to have done
anything wrong; it is not necessarily the result of
something bad you did long ago; it might just be part
of the price one has to pay for being alive. Try,
therefore, to get your money’s worth, because
if you get nothing worthwhile out of life after all
your suffering, it is really a tragedy! Many people
are able to reflect on their lives and say: “Well,
without the hard times, I probably would not have
learned much”. We may—as we often do—bemoan
life, or we may celebrate it. It is much better to
focus on the positive things of life than the negatives,
because not only will we suffer less, but will be
able to use it more constructively, and for the benefit
of others, too. The world doesn’t exist for
us, but because of us; every moment, every one of
us is engaged in the process of creating the world.
When good things happen to us, we seldom
question them and say: “Why is this happening
to me? I don’t deserve it. I’ve never
done anything good!” We accept it, and even
ask for more. We’ve been brought up to do so;
greed is inculcated and encouraged in us.
A few years ago, in Australia, there was
a TV commercial by a lottery syndicate, holding out
the attractive bait of millions of dollars in prizes,
featuring a bus driver who had just hit the jackpot.
A song called “I’ve Got to Break Free”
was playing as he drove his empty bus past people
waiting under the hot sun at bus stops, out of the
town and into the countryside, as if to say: “I
don’t give a damn! I’m free now!”
Okay, you might not like your job, and winning the
jackpot would certainly free you of it, but until
you resign, you have a responsibility to do what you
agreed to do when you took the job. This advertisement,
therefore, was not just encouraging greed, but extolling
Surely, one of the marks of civilization
is to be civic-minded and consider others. I have
just been to apply for a tourist visa for India, and
would like to tell of the amazing procedure involved.
First, before one’s application will even be
considered, and after waiting in line for up to two
hours, one has to pay RM40 to pay for a telex sent
to somewhere in one’s country of residence,
to ascertain that one is not an ‘undesirable’.
After some days, when ‘clearance’ comes
through, one may go to apply for the actual visa,
at a cost of RM80 for a three months’ stay.
Later that day, one may collect one’s endorsed
passport. It’s a bit like trying to get into
Why do they make it so hard to visit India?
They are not afraid that one wants to stay there indefinitely,
are they? Would the geniuses who came up with this
hare brained scheme like to undergo something similar?
It is so inconvenient: three trips for something that
could be done there and then (and with computers,
it should be possible to do all that needs to be done).
Apart from the needless expense (about RM60 if one
goes by taxi), it is environmentally unfriendly, wasting
fuel and causing pollution. The authorities of neighboring
Nepal are much more practical and sensible, issuing
visas upon entry there, without bureaucratic b.s.
Indians should be happy to have people visit their
country and spend money there; they certainly need
it! It’s not a highly developed place where
everything is convenient, clean, efficient and the
people courteous! While Malaysia—for one example—is
urging its people to practice austerity and become
more efficient during its time of economic hardship,
India seems not only insistent on remaining backward,
but of becoming moreso! Where are their minds?!
Efficiency begins with putting ourselves
into others’ places and feeling how they feel.
Would we like to be treated how we treat others? Indians—Hindus,
at least—claim to believe in Karma and Reincarnation.
What kind of karma and reincarnation may they expect
if they don’t care enough to try to make things
easier for others, but insist on complicating things?
No wonder India is a mess!
Before he died in 1945, Edgar Cayce, America’s
most famous psychic—sometimes called The Sleeping
Prophet—saw India becoming a nation without
friends. Pretty accurate prediction, I would say.
Since gaining its independence from Britain in 1947,
it has fought three wars with Pakistan, a border war
with China, and has had numerous internal conflicts.
Cayce also predicted that India would break up. This
would also not be surprising.
Recently—11-Dec-97—I came across
a short article in Malaysia’s New Straits Times
entitled: Many new migrants disillusioned Down Under.
“MELBOURNE—A study by the Ethnic
Communities Council in Sydney has found that nearly
half of all newly arrived migrants believe they were
better off in their country of origin.
“Many said they had high expectations
as to their probable standard of living in Australia
before leaving their countries.
“About 46.2 per cent believed their
lifestyle in Australia was worse than in their home
country, compared with 42.9 per cent who thought they
were better off in Australia and 9.8 per cent who
said their standard of living was the same.
“ECC spokeswoman Pam Gracia said no
statistics were taken from Malaysians but many migrants
from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh were among those
who expressed the highest rate of dissatisfaction.
“The head of ECC, Malaysian-born Dr
Tony Pun, was quoted in The Australian newspaper as
saying that the inability of many new migrants to
find work, combined with a recent Federal Government
ruling that immigrants must wait two years before
receiving social security, contributed to the dissatisfaction”.
This is unbelievable, but maybe that’s
not the right word! Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis
complaining the most, as if their countries were like
heaven instead of open toilets?! They are probably
professionals, like doctors, who had servants in their
own countries to do all their housework for them,
but in an egalitarian society like Australia, they
have to do such demeaning work as washing the dishes,
keeping their toilets clean, and even making their
own tea, because no-one has servants there. Oh dear,
poor things! Maybe they should have stayed in their
own countries with their servants, in their big houses,
encircled by the squalor, stench, noise, and pollution
of cities like Bombay, Karachi and Dacca, and all
the inefficiency of the systems there. They may have
had Mercedes or even Rolls Royces in their own countries,
but on what kind of roads? They may have had all kinds
of electrical appliances, but what use would they
be during the frequent power cuts? They may have gone
shopping in fine clothes, but along the streets among
the beggars, mutilants, lepers and syphilitics that
abound in their sinkhole cities. They may have eaten
in the most expensive restaurants, unaware of the
hygiene—or lack of it—in the kitchens
or among the staff there. And of course, Australia’s
social security system is nothing compared to those
of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, I’m sure!
High expectations of life in Australia? Did they expect
to find the streets paved with gold? Australia did
not disappoint them; they disappointed themselves
by their unrealistic expectations, obviously thinking
only of what they might get there, instead of what
they might contribute. Such people would be disappointed
and complain anywhere they went. Better stay home
and learn to appreciate what they’ve got there
before looking for greener grass on the other side
of the hill!
If we do good with the idea of getting a
result—or of even trying to ward off misfortune—we
are laying ourselves open to disappointment. We may
come to the conclusion—If we do not get what
we expect to get, when we expect to get it, or get
what we don’t want—that ‘these teachings
are not true. I’ve been doing good, and still
this is happening to me!’ We may give up doing
good, thinking it’s no use anyway, and that
we may as well do whatever we like.
If this is the way we think—if we become
dismayed and decide to give up doing good—it
is a clear sign of business mindedness: I’ll
do this in order to get that, and if I can’t
get that, I won’t do it. This is the danger
inherent in doing good. But being good—goodness—is
something quite different than doing good. When we
allow the goodness in us—and it is there—to
operate, we will do good or right just because we
have the opportunity and capacity to do it, without
thinking of getting anything in return; it is not
a business deal, a means to an end, but an end in
itself, something natural, complete in itself and
without residue, an expression of our understanding
of Dharma. Goodness flowers in us no matter what happens,
and in spite of misfortune; it also helps us bear
cheerfully and with greater fortitude the pains and
problems of life; we will not allow anything to sway
us into abandoning it.
Different people respond to difficulties
in different ways. Some people complain about the
slightest little thing and become depressed when things
don’t go how they want. Others remain cheerful
no matter what happens, taking the misfortunes of
life in their stride. Sometimes, quiet and unassuming
people display an amazing capacity to deal with things
that seemingly strong people are overcome by. We often
don’t know what we are capable of until we are
put to the test.
To see results from our actions, we don’t
need to look far, don’t need to wait months,
years or lifetimes. There is no question about actions
having reactions; we need not worry that what we are
doing will or will not have an effect. Everything
has an immediate effect, and with a little awareness
and intelligence, we can see it. When we do something
good, we get a feeling of satisfaction, knowing that
we’ve done the right thing, and contributed
something positive to the world, thereby making it
a little better; this is an immediate effect, is it
not? We can be at peace with ourselves and forget
it; it will not bother us or cause us to lose any
sleep over it; we won’t lie awake at night thinking:
“I’ve done something good. I’m so
sorry and wish I hadn’t done it! I hope no-one
finds out!” We don’t need a good memory
Some people seem able to go through life
without a conscience, doing whatever they feel like
doing without remorse or regret. Would you like to
be like that? An active conscience can be quite uncomfortable,
it is true, but it is a sign of spiritual evolution;
it helps restrain us from doing things that we are
capable of doing. We can all lie, for example—and
in fact, often do—but we know it to be wrong,
and so try not to. A liar must have a good memory,
because if he forgets what he’s said and says
something different, others will know that he can’t
be trusted. Telling the truth, however, is otherwise;
we may forget all about what we’ve said, and
not worry about it, because we would not contradict
ourselves later. I don’t claim that I never
tell lies—who can claim that?—but if someone
says to me: “You said such-and-such”,
I might deny it and say, “No, I did not; I could
not have said that; you either misheard or misunderstood”,
because although I don’t remember everything
I say, I know what I would and would not say.
We may answer the question by saying that
it’s all a matter of Karma, everything is due
to karma. But this is too easy, too convenient, too
simplistic. Although it might help us come to grips
with our misfortunes, we must—I feel—be
very careful with this concept. To say, about our
own situation, “It must be my karma”,
may be useful, but we should be on guard against setting
ourselves up as judges and saying about others: “It’s
their karma”, as if we can see and understand
all the causes of their circumstances. If we think
we know when we don’t know—and we really
don’t know, let’s be honest—it prevents
further learning, and we come to a halt.
Before I close, I must say that I do not
want to leave any-one with the impression that I deny
the Law of Karma, for such is not the case; what I
am saying is that we should treat the concept with
caution, because not everything can be attributed
to Karma; there are other forces at work in our lives
besides that. As everyone knows, however, there would
be no point in planting seeds if one seed sown produced
just one seed grown or none at all; there are results
from our actions, but sometimes not the ones we expect.
And meanwhile, our looking for results prevents us
seeing what results are there.
This, though, shouldn’t deter one from
planting good seeds, as mentioned above. Different
seeds grow at different rates: a mungbean will grow
into an edible sprout in a few days, while a coconut
will take many years to grow into a fruit-bearing
tree. Nor should the harvest be of great concern to
us, as it isn’t really ours. Only the seed sowing
is ours. Leave the harvest for others, because even
if we get it, it will still not be ours, as we will
have moved on and changed between the time we sowed
the seed and the time of the harvest; we will have
become different people. Moreover, we get other people's
harvests, do we not?
In 1980, while I was living in the Refugee
Camp in the Philippines, the Camp Administration decided
to shift people around. Some refugees didn’t
want to move, as they had been there some months and
had planted gardens, but they had no choice. Before
they moved, however, some of them destroyed their
gardens, pulling up the vegetables and flowers, cutting
down the papaya trees and banana plants, thinking
that if they could not have them after they’d
planted them, no-one else would! How petty! How shortsighted!
Every day, we reap so many harvests of other
peoples’ sowing; we did not grow all the food
we eat, make the clothes we wear, build the houses
we live in, etc., etc. All these things —in
fact, most of what we have and are—have come
from others; they are not our harvests, but others’.
What do we reap of our own sowing? Really very little,
it seems. If we had to depend upon ourselves for everything
we needed, we would be in a very sorry state; you
see, we are never alone, but depend upon others, and
for this we should be grateful, for it allows us to
live as we do; we get others’ harvests in great
quantity. And what harvests will others get from our
Try, therefore, to see how you fit in and
what role you can play in the further development
of civilization; use what you have and are. When you
criticize or complain, do so constructively, suggesting
better alternatives, with the aim of improving things
for the whole; complain less about your own situation;
try to tahan your personal misfortunes. “Accept
the woes of being born”. Take joy in being human