Boleh Tahan ~ GALLIPOLI

“Hate is not overcome by hate;

only by Love is Hate overcome”.

Thus reads the Dhammapada.

IT IS SAID THAT, AT ONE TIME, THE BUDDHA was surrounded by a great company of disciples waiting for Him to address them, but instead of saying anything, He held up a flower. The assembly was mystified: Why was the Buddha holding up a flower without saying anything? Finally, one of the monks smiled, and the Buddha knew he had understood.

What was the Buddha’s meaning? There must have been a meaning, and everyone would have expected one; He was not holding it up as if to say: “Look what a nice flower I’ve got!” And how did the monk understand His meaning? Could he read the Buddha’s mind, telepathically? Or did he realize, intuitively, that the flower could have been anything at all and still have the same meaning: that, being empty of self-being, it is, at the same time, full of everything—is everything; because of the interconnectedness of things, everything is—or involves —everything else. It wasn’t the flower that was important, but what it symbolized by its being.

Now, if I knew this myself, but didn’t explain it to anyone, would anyone understand my meaning if I were to hold up something? And I am holding something up. Do you see what I am holding up? I am holding up my words. What is the meaning of my words? Don’t just listen to or read the words, but try to understand what my meaning is. For this, we must be together, must be one in our meeting of minds.

My talks usually go on for two hours or more, during which I say many thousands of words. Just another talk; you have heard so many. Afterwards, out of politeness and custom, you might say: “Oh, very good”—whether you think so or not—offer your red envelopes, and go home. And what has happened, during and after all the talks you have heard, the purpose of which is to try to awaken people, to help them become a bit more enlightened? Has there been any effect from all the talks you have listened to? How are my talks any different from all the other talks you have heard? They are different simply because they are my talks, and no-one else’s. You may decide whether you think they are better or worse than other talks you have listened to; that’s up to you, but it will be your opinion. And if you listen (or read) with a mind full of expectations about what I’m going to say, it will prevent you from hearing. It would be better if you listened without expectations, without preconceptions and minds already made up, without ideas of good or bad, better or worse. This talk—this different talk—might be the one that strikes a chord in you after so long, and might make you exclaim, “Ah!” It’s not impossible.

Just now, as I write this, I had a call from a lady who had recently attended talks by a Korean Zen Master who was passing through Kuala Lumpur—talks that drew large audiences. She said the talks had frequently been punctuated by applause from the audience, though she, not understanding the points he had made, had not joined in. She asked if it were appropriate to applaud in the middle of a talk, and I told her that it depends upon different things. If it is a response to genuine understanding, it is appropriate, but very often, I feel, people attend such talks with minds already made up, and full of expectations about what would be said, so that, even if the master said a lot of old rubbish, they would still applaud, as a sign that they were so attuned to him and had understood; how come no-one applauds during talks by other teachers? The applause seems to be part-and-parcel of a talk on Zen. There is a great deal of hypocrisy and intellectual snobbery attached to so-called ‘Zen’, and the name-and-form become all important. Without them, many ‘Zennists’ see nothing of the Zen that is all around them, and need someone to point it out before they will see, and then, of course, it’s no longer Zen! Zen is never second hand.

For many years, I had wanted to revisit Turkey. I had been there a number of times before becoming a monk—first in 1967, and last in 1970. During these visits, on my way to and from India, I had several unpleasant experiences. I was twice attacked on the street, for no apparent reason, as I’d not done or said anything to my assailants; I was spat upon and verbally abused, and had stuff stolen. However, these experiences did not prejudice me to the extent that I held the whole Turkish nation responsible; it was only a few people who did those things to me. Also, I reasoned that, because they knew nothing at all about me, they were not doing it to me personally, but maybe had had some negative experience with other Westerners before me, and so were merely reacting. Always, since then, I wanted to go back, feeling I had missed something, and that the Turks deserved ‘another go’.

In 1997, therefore, while in Malaysia, I made up my mind to go before I became too old to do so. When I announced my intention, not a few people were surprised, and said things like: “Why do you want to go to there? Turkey is a Muslim country. There are no Buddhists there!” I replied: “Yes, I know it’s a Muslim country, and that there are no Buddhists there—I’ve been there—but the Turks are also human beings, are they not? If we are concerned only about people who call themselves ‘Buddhists’, what kind of Buddhists are we? How many people do you know who say they are ‘Buddhists’ but who know nothing—and in fact, mis-know—about Buddhism? The name doesn’t make one a Buddhist. Also, I do not care what people call themselves; it’s more important what they are. Nor is it my aim or hope to convert people to Buddhism. I’m only concerned with people as people; in fact, I want to help Buddhists become free of Buddhism and discover their humanness, for this—to me—is what it’s all about.” A name is not enough.

So, I went to Turkey, and now have a completely different impression of Turkish people than before. To overcome prejudice is always good, as it makes the mind so much lighter, which is what enlightenment is all about. I would like now to tell of some of my experiences there, but for my story to make sense, I must start by saying that I went in ordinary clothes, not dressed as a monk. There were several reasons for this: Firstly, had I gone in robes, it would only have attracted unnecessary attention and served no useful purpose. In Malaysia —and in other countries with large Buddhist communities— many people are very respectful towards monks, often even without knowing anything at all about them; they react to their appearance. Knowing this, certain persons have dressed up as monks and gone begging on the streets, and because this has become quite common (a number of such fake ‘monks’ have been arrested), there is now a call for monks to carry special identity cards.

On the other hand, in some Western countries, I have been abused with obscene language on the street because of my appearance: same appearance, different reactions, and in both cases, by people who knew nothing about me personally.

I decided to go incognito, not as a monk, but as a human being, and relate to people on that level, to communicate with them by my own ‘merit’, if you will. I wanted to make it on my own, without the robe. In retrospect, I see this was the right decision. In Malaysia, no-one ever mistook me for a Malaysian, nor for an Indian in India, but I was able to blend in so well in Turkey that people often spoke to me in Turkish, thinking I was a Turk! And whereas I’ve quite often been verbally abused in other countries, I was never once hassled there, but experienced much kindness and helpfulness. People would willingly leave whatever they were doing—their work, shops, and so on—and go out of their way to show me directions, often without knowing any English and without expecting anything in return. Turks also smile easily. It made me feel good!

It was pleasant to move around unhindered, and not to stand out in the crowd, and one time, because of it, I was even arrested! I had boarded a tram for the first time there, and had bought my ticket before getting in, as is the way there, but not knowing that one should enter by the front door, I went in by the middle door. No-one paid me much attention. I got down at my stop and was walking away, when I felt a hand on my shoulder. Turning, I found myself face-to-face with the tram-driver! He thought I had ridden without a ticket! I opened my hands in a gesture of helplessness, saying “I don’t know!”, then fumbled in my pocket for the ticket, at which he realized I was a foreigner and said: “Oh, tamam, tamam”—“Okay; never mind!” I walked away smiling.

I would often meditate in the marvelous mosques of Istanbul, wherein there is a very special atmosphere; their lofty minarets and soaring domes lift the mind to spontaneous calm and quiet. I met several interesting people this way.

One day, after my meditation in Fetiyah Mosque, I was approached by an elderly man who spoke to me in fluent English and said he was curious, as he had never seen anyone sitting like this before; he asked if he might talk with me. “Certainly”, I said, so we sat on the carpet in that tranquil setting and had a nice conversation. We introduced ourselves, and he told me his name was Ali, saying he was a retired school headmaster. When I told him I was a monk, he said: “Oh, I’ve read something about Buddhism; but the Buddha was not a prophet, like Mohammed; he was only a philosopher.”

“You are right”, I said; “he was not a prophet”, but did not add that he was also not only a philosopher. He then spoke to me at some length about Islam and tried to convince me of its superiority. I listened, without interrupting, and when he had finished, I told him something about Anicca—Impermanence, or Change—and how we can hold on to nothing and claim it as a possession. I also told him that by ourselves, we know so very little, that most of what we think we know is not our knowledge at all, but has come from other people or books. And, because he had spoken a lot about God, I asked him about that word: “Where have you got it from? Is it something of your own experience? Did it suddenly come into your mind one day when you didn’t know it before? And do you have only the word, God, or do you know what it represents, what it symbolizes, what lies behind it, if anything? A word is not a thing, not the thing it stands for.”

It caused him to think, and he did not really know what to say. Instead, he took from his pocket a rosary, and presented it to me, and I, in turn, took from my bag one of the geodes I carry with me to give to people who I think might appreciate them: hollow pebbles with quartz crystals inside, called in Australia, ‘thunder-eggs’. I explained the meaning—or rather, my meaning—before giving it to him: “What we are looking for is not outside of ourselves”. He was surprised at the difference between the outside and the inside of this stone. He then invited me to a nearby coffee shop where he introduced me to some of his friends and we spoke more before going our different ways.

The next day, I visited him again, although I had not intended to do so and he wasn’t expecting me. He was pleased to see me, but was different from the previous day—not so assured or pushy; in fact, he was contrite and almost abject, and said to me, in a choking voice: “I am a bad man. I’ve done so many bad things and made so many mistakes; I will go to Hell forever; there is no hope for me!”

You can imagine that I did not agree with this, and said to him: “I don’t think it matters if you do not pray five times a day” (as Muslims are supposed to do, but which many do not, and of those who do, many pray mechanically and as something expected of them, rather than because they want to do it. In this, they are not unlike followers of other religions, most of whom do not really understand why they are performing the things their religions require of them); “our right actions are our prayers.” Then I told him a story from The Hadith, which is a book recording tales of and about the Prophet Mohammed:

It is about a prostitute who had lived an immoral life and had been in no way religious. One day, however, she came upon a cat lying beside the road, dying of thirst. Feeling pity for this cat, the woman took off one of her shoes and scooped some water from a nearby well in it, and gave it to the cat to drink. The book says that because of this kind action, when she died, the woman went immediately to Paradise.

Telling this tale had the effect of cheering Ali up. He had been feeling so sorry for himself, and here I come—a Buddhist monk—and tell him a Muslim story to restore his spirits! We parted friends.

(The story I told him, however, contrasts and contradicts something found earlier in The Hadith: how, four months after the moment of conception, an angel is sent to appoint the destiny of the foetus in the womb: what kind of person it would become, what kind of actions he or she would perform, the livelihood he/she would engage in, and whether, after death, he/she would go to Paradise forever, or to Hell. The person would have no choice about it, as everything had already been divinely appointed for it. [St. Augustine, and John Calvin, the founder of Calvinism, said much the same thing]. This, surely, presents the Muslim with a problem as to what to believe here. On one hand, they are told that everything is predetermined, and on the other, the story of the woman and the cat indicates that destiny can be changed. Buddhists do not have this problem, as Buddhism teaches that everything happens because of causes, and though the past has conditioned the present, here, in the present, we have some choice, and can change the conditions; it does not hold that things are predestined).

After retracing my old footsteps in Istanbul and exploring this history-steeped city, I set off on a long trip around the provinces, visiting places I had been and not been before. The easternmost point of this trip was Erzerum, where I had formerly had several negative experiences. Though it is a very old town, with ruins dating back to Roman times, my purpose there was not sight seeing, but to finally lay those old experiences—like old ghosts—to rest; I achieved this, and now feel peaceful about Erzerum. While there, I had an experience which, though neither good nor bad, holds a lesson, and may be of interest to some people. Someone came up to me on the street and tried to sell me a carpet (this is common in Turkey, which is famous for its hand made carpets). I told him I didn’t need a carpet, and that if he could sell me one, he would be the best salesman in the world. “But everyone needs carpets”, he said, and when I repeated that I didn’t, he asked why not. “Because I have no home”, I said. “Then where do you live?” he asked. “I live here”, I replied. Puzzled, he said, “Here, in Erzerum?” “No, here”, I said, stamping my feet on the ground, meaning that I live just where I am and nowhere else (in fact, we all live just where we happen to be at the present moment; it’s not possible to live elsewhere). Unprepared for such an answer and not understanding my meaning, he said: “You’re crazy!” and walked away, abandoning any hope of selling me a carpet. But does it mean I’m crazy because he didn’t understand me? Perhaps I am crazy, but not because of that!

The best part of my trip in Turkey was towards the end, in the west, when I arrived in Canakkale, a small town situated at the entrance to the narrow strait of water that separates Europe from Asia known—from ancient times—as the Dardanelles. It is from Canakkale that most people visit the ancient city of Troy and the First World War battle site of Gallipoli. I also had come for this, and had been advised, by people I had met along the way—other travelers—to join a tour group rather than doing it alone. This, therefore, is what I did, and found myself in the company of mainly young Australians.

The tour began at 9:00 a.m. with a visit to Troy. Our guide was a retired submarine commander also named Ali, whose manner of narrating facts and stories was quite endearing; he clearly loved his work; I can hear his voice now: “Ladies and gentlemen”, he would begin. He made Troy live for me; I ‘saw’ scenes described by Homer in The Iliad: of King Priam and his son Paris, whose abduction of Helen had precipitated the war with the Greeks; of the fierce combat between Achilles and Hector, in which the latter was slain; of the Wooden Horse, by which subterfuge the Greeks finally gained entrance to Troy and destroyed it.

Always interested in history, I asked Ali a number of questions about Troy and his answers satisfied me. We returned to Canakkale and crossed the Dardanelles to Gallipoli. I’d heard of Gallipoli before, of course, but until going there, knew little about it. Now I know more, and would like to tell something of it before going further.

When the First World War broke out in 1914, Russia took Britain’s side against Germany, and Turkey—enemy of Russia almost by tradition—found itself on Germany’s side (European alliances were so complex and changed so often, that this year’s enemy might be next year’s friend).

Britain, at that time, had the largest empire the world has ever known, and could call upon almost unlimited manpower. Australia and New Zealand, until then, had never been involved in overseas wars, but when the call for volunteers went out, many Aussies and Kiwis—either from patriotism or desire for adventure—enlisted to serve in places that most of them had never even heard of. From cities and farms they came to fight for the King-Emperor, knowing nothing of those they would face. They were then shipped off to places like Egypt, to be given basic training in military discipline and the use of arms, before boarding other ships for the invasion of Turkey, the aim being to capture Istanbul, and thus knock Turkey out of the war.

Had these plans succeeded, Istanbul—which consisted mainly of wooden buildings at that time—would have undergone a firestorm. But the Turks were anticipating invasion, and had mined the waters of the Dardanelles, so when a joint French-and-British fleet—the vaunted British fleet that controlled the oceans to the anthem of Rule Britannia, Britannia Rules the Waves—tried to enter, several of its ships were sunk by mines in the first day, forcing withdrawal and reconsideration.

The powers in far-off London then decided to land troops on a peninsula not far from the entrance to the Dardanelles, at a place known as Gallipoli. But again, the Turks were prepared, and although the Allied ships launched a terrific bombardment of the Turkish positions, the invaders were unable to advance very far and were pinned down by Turkish fire; thus began trench warfare. To protect themselves from enemy fire, both sides dug trenches for shelter; but were so close to each other that in places the distance separating them was only 10 meters. The battle went on for 8 months, during which British / Australian / New Zealand casualties (killed and wounded) were 205,000 out of 410,000, French casualties 47,000 out of 79,000, and Turkish 250,000 to 300,000 out of 500,000. The suffering was incalculable, but the stories of courage and heroism that emerged from it have become legendary, and made of the Battle of Gallipoli something unique in military history. (It is not my intention to glorify war and fighting, and I hope it doesn’t seem as if I am doing so here; my purpose in writing this is to point out that the Dharma was present—or perceived by some—during the madness of war, and to show that even on a battlefield, with death and suffering all around, people are still able to see beyond to a higher dimension).

Following military custom, orders were periodically given for bayonet charges to be made. The men, though naturally afraid and wanting to live, obeyed without question and went over the top to almost certain death. They did not say, “I don’t want to go! I don’t want to die!” but climbed out of their trenches and faced the withering fire of the enemy’s machine guns. The carnage during these futile and stupid charges was horrific!

After one such charge by the British, when the survivors had withdrawn to their trenches and the gunfire had ceased, from the blood stained and corpse strewn ground between the trenches came the cries of a badly wounded British officer calling for help. No-one dared go to his assistance, however, as they would have been immediately cut down. But then something amazing happened: A white flag appeared from the Turkish trenches, and out climbed a burly soldier, who went over to the wounded British officer, picked him up and carried him to the British trenches, where he gently put him down and went back to his own position. No-one knows the name of this valiant and compassionate Turk, but such acts—it wasn’t the only one; there were others, on both sides—gave rise to deep respect in each for the other.

The night before the tour, together with many other tourists, I watched a video documentary about Gallipoli, showing survivors from both sides, now very old men. Almost invariably, they said that although they fought and killed their opponents, they never hated them, but merely followed orders. They spoke, too, of the respect and admiration of the courage shown by their erstwhile enemies.

With such background information, we trod the hills and sand-dunes of Gallipoli with awe and reverence. It has become a sacred place, a place of pilgrimage, visited by millions from both sides with homage in their hearts. Young Australians especially (I met so many of them in Turkey that half of Melbourne seemed to be there!), are drawn to this place, as it has a special place in Australian history: their baptism by fire, as it were. Every year, on ANZAC Day, people march down the streets of the towns and cities of Australia (and New Zealand, too), in remembrance of those who died in such battles. Survivors still march if they can, in their old faded uniforms with medals on their chests, tears in their eyes and thoughts of fallen comrades, heads held high; some go by wheelchair. There are not many left now of those who fought at Gallipoli. In fact, I just heard that the oldest remaining Australian survivor of the battle of Gallipoli—Ted Matthews, one of the first men to land at Anzac Cove at Gallipoli, and one of the last to leave—had died in December 1997, aged 101.

In the trenches, unable to advance and the battle at a stalemate, men from both sides resorted to making hand grenades from tin cans filled with stones, bullets, lead-shot and so on; but the fuses on these bombs were so long that they would take up to 30 seconds to burn down and explode—ample time to pick them up and toss them back to where they had come from. The deadly missiles would go to and fro like ping-pong balls before exploding, and no-one knew where they would go off; sometimes they would explode in the places where they had originated! It was soon realized this was too risky; they were killing themselves as often as their opponents!

Then, someone must have seen the irony and stupidity of the whole situation—maybe someone with some understanding or feeling for Universal Dharma—and from the Australian trenches, instead of bombs, chocolate bars began to fly across no-man’s land! The British and Australians—unlike the Turks—had supplies of chocolate. When the Turks—who I saw have a good sense of humor—recovered from their surprise at such strange weapons, they expressed their appreciation and reciprocated by tossing back fresh fruit, which, being on home ground, they had in abundance, while their enemies lacked this.

One day, from the Turkish trenches, a packet of tobacco came flying over, with a note on a scrap of cloth written in broken English, saying: “I, you, tobacco. You, me, paper. Okay?” They had tobacco but no paper with which to make cigarettes; the British and Australians had paper, but were short of tobacco. So, from the British and Australians magazines and newspapers started to fly. Each side got what they needed.

This and other tales told by Ali—one of whose grand fathers had been killed at Gallipoli—brought tears to my eyes; many of the young Australians in the tour group I had joined were similarly moved. But there was more:

When the British War Office in London finally realized it had made a huge blunder and could not win this battle, it reluctantly decided to evacuate its forces from Gallipoli. But how to get out? The Commander-in-Chief of the invasion force was asked how many casualties must be expected during the evacuation. His casual reply of 50% caused outrage in Britain; he seemed to regard the troops as ‘throw-aways’, with plenty more to replace those lost. He was replace by someone less callous and more efficient—someone to whom men were not so expendable. Plans were made to withdraw during the dark phase of the moon, and orders given to make no sound that might alert the Turks to what was going on; elaborate devices were rigged up to create the illusion that life in the trenches was as normal.

It is impossible to move a whole army quietly, however; the Turks knew what was happening, but their Commander-in-Chief, Mustafa Kemal—who later became the first President of the Turkish Republic, and was honored with the title of Ataturk, meaning Father of the Turks—had given an order, of just three words: “Follow your tradition”, which was taken to mean: Do not shoot a retreating enemy in the back. So, whereas the British had expected to lose many thousands of men, they lost not a single one, only two men being wounded. So deeply had the Turks grown to respect their valiant enemies that they allowed them to go peacefully. What honor! Where can we find another such example of it?

Wandering around the Allied cemeteries at Gallipoli, reading the epitaphs on the stones, I was stunned that the over whelming number of soldiers who took part in this deadly conflict were just boys in their late teens and early twenties. Most of them had enlisted to go and fight for king and empire in places many of them had never heard of; Gallipoli became the graveyard of about 28,000 British, almost 9,000 Australians, over 2,000 New Zealanders, and unnumbered Turks.

Because I had asked Ali a number of questions during this tour, too, towards the end, he took me aside and pulled from his pocket a tiny box containing bullets and shrapnel from the battle site, and gave it to me. I was very touched by his gift, but not more touched than he was when, in turn, I presented him with one of my ‘thunder-eggs’, saying to him what I had said to the other Ali in the mosque: “What we are looking for is not outside of ourselves”. When he opened it, he was so moved that he said: “I will keep it in my pocket always!” A few words had affected him so much! Just as the monk understood from the Buddha’s flower, so Ali got something from my stone. I then told him that I am a monk—the word in Turkish for monk (it’s actually Arabic), is rahib—and he said: “I knew there was something different about you!”

At the end of the tour, I thanked Ali, and told him that although I’d had a good trip in Turkey and visited many wonderful places, this had been the best part of my trip there, and I would surely write something about it for my next book (this one; I have kept my word about it). He shook my hand very firmly and warmly; I had made a new friend.

Over the years, I have given such stones to many people in many places, with differing effects. Some people merely said “How nice!” and stored it away with their other nice things. But others, like Ali, the Turkish tour guide, were deeply touched. As Lao Tsu wrote: “More words count less”.

A few days later, before I returned to Malaysia, I wrote to Ali from Istanbul, but because I knew neither his full name or address, I sent my letter to the hotel—ANZAC HOUSE—that had arranged the tour, hoping it would reach him, but not knowing if it would. I will have more to say about this in the next article, COROLLARY.

< Previous  -   Next>

Home  -   Against The Stream  -   As It Is  -   Because I Care  -   Behind The Mask  -   Boleh Tahan -   Just A Thought -   Let Me See  -   Lotus Petals  -   Not This, Not That  -   Parting Shots  -   Ripples Following Ripples  -   So Many Roads  -   This, Too, Will Pass  -   Wait A Minute!  -   Your Questions, My Answers  -   Download  -   Funeral  -   Links  -   Contact