Boleh Tahan ~ COROLLARY
RETURNING TO MALAYSIA
IN November ‘97, I told in many places of my
trip in Turkey, and the response—especially
to my story of Gallipoli—was usually good; not
a few people rejoiced with me in my sharing of Nameless
Dharma. However, I knew that not everyone agreed with
me wearing ordinary clothes in Turkey. Due to their
attachment to form, some people consider a monk donning
ordinary clothes as tantamount to disrobing, or, if
not that, that he has some unworthy purpose in mind
that he couldn’t carry out while in robes and
wishes to conceal.
If we extend this idea to its logical conclusion,
it follows that anyone not wearing robes must—inevitably
and without doubt—be living in unworthy ways.
But is this so? I do not subscribe to a Buddhist caste
system, with monks at the apex, and lay-people at
the base. First and foremost, I am a human being,
and then a monk, not the other way around. Many Buddhists
‘invest’ in monks and want them to play
a defined role and live up to their expectations;
it is as if the monk is public property with no private
life of his own. I won’t say that I don’t
care what others think of me, because I do, but not
to the point where I will allow it to keep me quiet
about things that must be said. It cannot be stressed
strongly enough that Universal Dharma takes us beyond
the limitations of name-and-form, and I will hold
to that no matter what others may think of me.
At one place where I was scheduled to talk,
several young Thai monks turned up. I had not expected
this, as it is something quite rare, so debated with
myself: “Should I change my mind and not tell
of my Turkey trip, in case it upsets them?”
But I decided, “No, why should I? I’m
not ashamed of what I did, and am not going to be
hypocritical about it; I will tell it as it was, and
if they don’t like it, well, too bad”.
I don’t know what they thought, and don’t
particularly care; they must find their way just as
I must find mine. But at least one person in the audience
must have been shocked at my revelations, and came
straight out with: “Before you took off your
robes and put on lay-clothes, did you undergo a ceremony?
And before redonning the robes, did you have another
ordination ceremony?” I replied: “If I
must have a ceremony every time I take off my robes
and before putting them on again, I’ll have
two ceremonies a day, as I certainly don’t bathe
in my robes! I did not disrobe when I went to Turkey”.
If I disrobe—as I may and might do
(I’ve taken no life long vows about this)—I
won’t bother with a ceremony, but will say to
myself: “Okay; now I disrobe”, and do
it. Until then, because I feel I have something useful
to say and share, and because there are people—only
a few, perhaps, but there are some—who will
receive it, I’ll continue as I am. I make no
apologies for not being as enlightened as I would
like (and hope someday to be), or for not living up
to others’ expectations. I often tell people,
that just as we are (as human beings) we—myself
as well as others—are tremendously successful
already, and should try to understand this, before
thinking about more. And, while I do appreciate people’s
kindness and support, it is still my life, not theirs.
I am nobody’s monkey, and am not for sale. My
real responsibility is to Universal Dharma, and whatever
I am able to discover of this, I will try to pass
on to others and not keep just for myself; this, I
feel, is the best and only way I can repay them for
their kindness. If people think of me as a ‘field
of merit’ in which to sow seeds—like speculating
on the stock market—they risk disappointment.
But if they will listen to what I say, and think about
it, they may get something better than a few paltry
grains of merit.
Not long ago, someone in Penang who I’ve
known since 1971, asked me if I ever thought of disrobing.
I replied: “No, not really, and anyway, I can’t
think of anything else I’d rather do”.
Not long ago, too I was invited to lunch
in someone’s home, where a sumptuous meal was
served. The hosts were so solicitous of my welfare,
however, that it reminded me of when I was newly ordained.
People would bring food-offerings to the temple, but
unused to being served so respectfully, I felt quite
uncomfortable. They were too kind, standing over me
while I ate, watching my every move, ready to pile
more food on my plate when it showed signs of becoming
clear. I did not enjoy their devotedly prepared food—maybe
I was not meant to?—and often did not eat enough
to satisfy me (without feeling like a glutton, this
would have been difficult, with so many eyes on me).
I felt so self-conscious, and wanted to say: “Thank
you for your kindness, but I would prefer to be left
alone to eat in peace”, but of course, did not.
This is just another example of how people expect
a person to be different—and maybe not to have
feelings—just because he’s a monk. Really,
such ideas should be updated, and the role of the
monk in society re-evaluated.
Kindness should be balanced with wisdom,
or may lead to suffering. I once stayed briefly at
a Buddhist Society in Johor Bharu, where so many people
turned up to offer breakfast that there were about
50 dishes on the table before me! How much can one
man possibly eat? Sadly, they had very high but unrealistic
expectations of monks—serving them lavishly,
out of desire for merit, and desperately wanting them
to be saints. With a little wisdom they could have
avoided the disappointment that they consequently
underwent time and time again.
The story of Sakyamuni’s search for
truth illustrates how attachment to beliefs and opinions
can impede our progress in Dharma. Impressed with
the austerities they saw Sakyamuni practicing in the
forest, five yogis banded around him, feeling that
if anyone could make the breakthrough and reach enlightenment,
it would be him, and he would then show them the way.
But Sakyamuni almost died of starvation before he
realized this way would never lead to his goal. And
when, in order to regain his strength for a fresh
approach, he started to eat again, the five yogis
thought he had given up his search and returned to
a life of sense pleasure. Stuck on the view that liberation
can only be gained by self-mortification, they were
disappointed in him, and left. Fortunately for them,
after Sakyamuni achieved enlightenment and became
the Buddha, he sought them out and led them from their
wrong views to enlightenment.
At a place where I had been several times
before, I began a recent talk by saying: “Every
time I come here you ask me what is the topic of my
talk, although you should know by now that I don’t
put a topic or title on them. There are several reasons
for this: First, I do not plan my talks and seldom
know what I will talk about before the time, and,
secondly, because if I were to put a topic on my talks
it would make it too easy for you, so that, if someone
were to ask you afterwards, ‘What did he talk
about?’, you could answer with the title, even
though you might have understood little else. I want
you to get something more from my talks than just
the title; this is not asking too much, as I usually
give lots of simple illustrations. Attending a Dharma
talk should not be a matter of formality, otherwise
it will be waste of your money (as you must pay my
fare here) and of my time, and I don’t want
that. So, I would like to ask what you remember—what
you learned—from my previous talks here, and
I expect some answers—at least three—and
if there are no answers, I won’t say anything
else and will go back early.”
There was a long and noisy silence until
they finally realized that I meant what I said, and
then someone answered, but not to my satisfaction,
so I insisted on more. Slowly, more came, but clearly,
they had learned or remembered little from my previous
talks. Not wanting to hurt their feelings, I went
ahead in spite of this, but really, I felt it was
a waste of time.
A month after leaving Turkey, I was pleasantly
surprised to receive a post card from Ali, the Troy-Gallipoli
tour guide; he had received my letter from Istanbul.
Addressing me very respectfully, he said he had been
expecting to hear from me one day, and that he really
appreciated the teaching I gave him; “the secret
truth in it will lead me all the time”, he wrote.
Because he expected nothing from me he got so much,
and in turn, gave me so much; this card confirmed
something I already knew: that my trip in Turkey had
been a great success, and not just because I was able
to touch someone deeply, but because I had done it
without the support of the robe; in fact, I had only
been the agent, and it was the Dharma—Universal
Dharma—that had done it. The center place belongs
to the Dharma alone!