SOME YEARS AGO, I was told that one of the monks in the large and very wealthy temple in Manila where I was staying at that time, had complained of me “never praying to the Buddha”, as I did not join in their ceremonies for the dead, by which they made so much money. I pleaded guilty to the charge, readily. Pray to the Buddha? Why on earth should I do that, to someone who spent His entire life trying to help others understand? There is a little verse that expresses how it is:

“No-one saves us but ourselves;

No-one can, and no-one may.

We ourselves must walk the Path;

Buddhas only show the way”?

It is time I made it clear—at the risk of being branded a heretic—how I see the Buddha, and not how other people might expect me to see Him; I should have done it long ago, leaving people in no doubt as to where I stand.

I feel the centuries have distorted Him to such an extent that He’s almost not visible at all, and His words in the scriptures seem disconnected and disembodied. People deify Him because—in my opinion—they don’t understand the meaning of His Teachings; they want Him to be a God so that He will save them, instead of making the effort to become enlightened; consequently, what happens is they become enlightened.

I do not accept that he was born in any but the normal way; nor do I accept the miraculous stories concerning his birth; it was common, in those days—and for many centuries after—to glorify and embellish the stories of the founders of religion (it’s called ‘gilding the lily’); Buddhism is no exception. So, I do not believe that the new-born baby could walk and talk. Neither do I believe he was born with teeth—let alone forty teeth, which is held to be one of the thirty two major marks of the Mahapurisa (Great Person), according to the popular divination. Nor do I believe that he had webs between his fingers and toes, like a duck. Nor do I believe that, after He left home and cut off His hair, it never grew again, but remained as tight little curls covering His head; although I have never seen a statue or a picture of the Buddha with a shaved head, He did shave it, just as He expected His monks to shave theirs; nor do I believe His hair was blue. Nor do I believe that He had such long ears that the lobes touched His shoulders. Nor do I believe that he grew to be about sixteen feet tall! Nor do I believe that He was effeminate looking, as He is often shown in Indian or Thai pictures; He was a man, a male, not a hermaphrodite! Nor do I believe that He was omniscient, knowing everything about the past, present and future; I think that He knew and fully understood the facts of life, not the kind of things that we know. I don’t care what other people believe, or how many people believed such things in the past; I do not believe them!

I do not believe that in His previous lives, He was an animal—sometimes a deer, an elephant, or a monkey, and so on —who could speak human language; we shouldn’t take everything in the scriptures literally; much is only symbolic. If we set out by believing a thing to be true just because it is in the scriptures, we will find a way to explain it, even if we have to twist it and stretch our imagination to do so. We will see only what we want to see and not necessarily what is there. Hope, fear, insecurity and desire are quite capable of constructing convincing philosophies, but a thing is still not true for us unless and until we have experienced it directly and by ourselves. To approach things with minds fully made up, believing they must be true because they are found in religious scriptures is piety without foundation, and is wrong.

I do not believe that Prince Siddhartha had never seen old people, sick people, dead people or ascetics before the age of 29, and that he had been kept as a prisoner in the palace until then; I think that, like you and I, he had seen such people before, but on that particular occasion, he saw them as if for the first time, with new eyes and clear perception. One day, this—or something similar—might happen to us. We have never really seen; we have only looked!

I do not regard the Buddha as a cosmic savior or superman, with the power to help or save; praying to Him is useless; He never asked people to do that. We should try to apply His teachings in our lives, instead, in order to find out if they are true or not, and whatever success we have in this will encourage us to go further.

There are two parts to Buddhism: the part of the past, (this includes the life story and legends of the Buddha), which we cannot verify, and the part of the present—the Eternal Now —the Dharma, which it is within our capacity to apply, test, and realize. I respect the Buddha as a Teacher or Way-pointer, who revealed the Dharma, but I do not pray to or worship Him.

Although I tentatively accept the concept of ‘rebirth’ as a hypothesis, I know nothing about life after death, nor do I know anyone who does. I have read what others have written about it and heard others speak of it, but I wonder if they are speaking from their own experience or are merely repeating what they’ve heard others say. Anyway, without seeming to contradict myself, I must say that, according to Buddhism, there is really no such thing as ‘rebirth’; it is another case of words being misleading. Seldom is it questioned, but the word—which really means ‘born again’ (‘re’=again)—is not appropriate for what Buddhism maintains happens when we die: like a stream, our consciousness, ever-changing, flows on; there is nothing that remains the same or is reborn. The Pali word that is unfortunately translated as ‘rebirth’ is bhava, which means ‘becoming’—becoming other than we are.

Likewise with the concept of ‘karma’; I accept it, but guardedly and not in a fatalistic way whereby each and every thing that happens to us is attributed to ‘our karma’; there are forces other than the law of karma working in our lives, shaping, molding and influencing us. Personal karma accounts for only some of the things that happen to us, and not, by any means, all. Also, unlike the Law of Cause-and-Effect, the Law of Karma cannot be demonstrated and proved; it remains a hypothesis.

There, I have expressed my unbelief, and what has happened? The earth didn’t quake and swallow me up; lightning didn’t flash and strike me. No doubt some people would like to see it, but will I be excommunicated? There are no fixed and binding dogmas—no creed—that we must accept and profess when we take up the Buddha’s Way. Our responsibility is not to believe but to find out. At times, we should do a bit of stock-taking, should cut the dead wood from the tree, and separate culture, belief and legend from the Dharma.

Even before I became a monk, I learned how to chant in Pali (I have some musical ability, so it was not hard), but soon became disillusioned by what I saw chanting being used for. I do not believe in the miraculous power of chanting; the scriptures are supposed to be the teachings of the Buddha, not magic charms. If I had learned how to chant in Chinese and perform funeral ceremonies (as I could easily have done; it is not difficult), I would have been very rich—in terms of money—long ago. But I regard such ‘work’ as abhorrent and unmanly, fit only for eunuchs! I refuse to lower myself to such a level!

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