Behind The Mask ~ HOW TO READ A BOOK

I came across the following article in 1994, and found it so open and refreshing that I requested the author, Venerable Visuddhacara, for permission to reprint it herein. He kindly gave it, and I am grateful to him for both this and his words. Venerable Visuddhacara was, at the time he wrote this, the resident monk at the Malaysian Buddhist Meditation Centre in Penang, which is where I stayed prior to and shortly after my ordination there. He is a Theravada monk, while I am not (I left Theravada a long time ago), but, as he said or implied below, as human beings we all have many things in common and can all learn things from each other, without subscribing to each other’s viewpoints in totality].


"When you read a book, you must keep an open mind. Do not allow prejudice to cloud your judgment. Instead, try to read and understand what the author is trying to say. Try to give him a sympathetic ear. He is trying to convey something he seriously thinks about and which he seriously believes in. At least, give him a chance to say his piece. You need not agree with everything he says, but you may find some common areas of agreement, or you may find something new, something you can actually learn from him. Then you can pick out what you can relate to, learn something from him, and as for what you cannot relate to, and concepts you cannot agree with, you need not accept them, you can reject them, or just let them be. Or in areas you are not so sure about, you can say without rejecting or accepting, Well, I’m not so sure about this; it may or may not be; who knows? I’ll just keep an open mind and see how it will all eventually work out, and you can read on.

"But at least now you know about his point-of-view, about another’s point-of-view. In that sense you are not so ignorant; you have some understanding of others’ concepts or viewpoints, some of which you can agree with, and some of which you just cannot; it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you have learned something about others’ views, and when you give talks and have discussions, you will be better able to discuss and relate with others. You can speak with more knowledge and understanding. You can point out both the differences and the similarities, and you can also appreciate the goodness in others’ traditions, for they too are trying to practice compassion and transcend the ego. And oftentimes, their compassion and practice put us and our own practice to shame, do they not? For we may claim to know, but how much of what we know do we practice? How wise and compassionate are we? Do we really know what we claim to know? Do we not have doubts sometimes, and if we have, can we admit them? Can we say we don’t really know fully as yet, that our understanding is still incomplete, and therefore we should not think or behave as if we know everything, as if we are an authority, or that we hold the monopoly of truth, wisdom and compassion?

"It is good to have knowledge of each other’s religious views as this will foster religious tolerance and understanding; it is also good to have knowledge of other Buddhist schools and traditions so that we can understand our differences and still have respect for each other. Sometimes, as I said, we can learn wonderful things from another. For example, reading a non-Buddhist book about dying entitled FINAL GIFTS, I learned a lot about death from people who have witnessed it first-hand; yes, from hospice-nurses who with great compassion tended to the dying, and who related for our benefit their experiences with dying people. I learned a lot about compassion from that book, how, by just being present, by giving a gentle squeeze to a hand, by tenderly stroking a forehead, by saying a soothing and comforting word, one can bring relief to a dying person. I learned how a dying person can die peacefully—with understanding, love and comfort from his loved ones and friends. I marvel at the hospice nurses who, in their great compassion, sacrificed so much of their energy and time for the dying, something which I myself cannot do. It makes me more humble, more appreciative and respectful of others and the wonderful work they are doing.

"Reading a book entitled HOW CAN I HELP? by Ram Dass and Paul Gorman, I learned some more about compassion, about how people from all walks of life serve society, each in their own wondrous ways. It was a very eye-opening and touching book. It made me feel humble and wanting. I know we are all here to serve. Why, even the Buddha asked the Arahants not to just sit back and relax after attaining their goal. No, He asked them to travel all over the place to spread and share the beautiful Dharma.

"Today, many people are serving in their own ways. Mother Theresa cares for the sick and destitute in Calcutta; the Dalai Lama preaches peace and non-violence throughout the world; Thich Nhat Hanh asks us to be mindful in our everyday life and shows us how in very simple and delightful ways. For example, we can be mindful when answering a telephone call or when we are stalled at the traffic lights. He says: Don’t look at the red light as your enemy, as something to beat before it turns green, but look at it as a mindfulness-reminder, as if it is blinking at you and telling you: "Hey there! Be mindful!" And when we wake up every morning, he asks us to wake up with a smile on our face and a resolution to live every precious waking moment fully and to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.

"Yes, I always say we can learn from others, if only we don’t close our minds and hearts altogether. When I read the Dalai Lama, I see that here is a very compassionate and wise person, and a very humble one, too. When he is questioned and doesn’t know something, he says so openly, even to an audience in an auditorium; he’s not afraid to admit it. He’ll say: "This beats me; I don’t know. You tell me". He can speak to psychiatrists and psychologists on their own level. He can ask incisive and profound questions which reveal his depth of understanding, concern, sincerity and compassion with regard to whatever is being discussed.

"True, I may not agree with the Dalai Lama or Thich Nhat Hanh with regard to certain Vajrayana or Mahayana concepts, but I respect their rights to their views, and I can appreciate how through their concepts and school of thought, they too express wisdom and compassion in their daily lives and practice in ways which show that they live what they preach; they are not just talkers but doers. And more, they have won world recognition and acclaim for their work of propagating peace, non-violence, mindfulness, understanding and compassion. Their significant accomplishments and contributions as Buddhists to the world at large is something which we all, as brothers and sisters in a big Dhamma family, should be proud of.

"I can appreciate their skills in relating to and communicating with people, their genuine love and compassion for all beings. Why, they too are teaching people to be mindful, to uphold the five precepts, to have love and compassion for all beings. And, more importantly, it would appear that they live up to what they teach. I learned a lot from their ways of expression, especially Thich Nhat Hanh’s skills in communicating the mindfulness practice in the context of everyday life, in the mundane activities of everyday routine.

"Yes, what I am trying to say here is that we should not close our minds totally; there are things we can learn from others. We too must realize and concede our own limitations—that we are not perfect and our understanding is still incomplete. As Theravadins, we should not think that we have a monopoly on wisdom and compassion, that we know best, that we are superior to others in both theory and practice. We should recognize, appreciate and respect the goodness in other traditions too; otherwise we might just be caught in another ego or conceit trip.

"If we nurture a humble attitude we stand to gain a lot, we open up, we are not so narrow or dogmatic, we can begin to learn from others, a whole new wide world will open up. By opening up, it doesn’t mean that we throw away what we already have. No, on the contrary, we reinforce what we already have. How? We’ll learn how to apply our own beliefs and understand more skillfully. We take what is helpful from others, their skillful ways of practicing which do not conflict with ours, and with those views or ideas which we cannot relate to or agree with, we just leave them alone, just let them be. After all, you cannot expect when you read a book to agree with everything in it, can you? There will always be some differences in opinions and interpretations. We can acknowledge the differences and adhere to our viewpoints, but we can now understand another’s viewpoint. And we can see where we share similarities, and we can learn how skillfully others apply the practice, especially in the areas where we share similar viewpoints and understanding. We can learn from them skillful ways. And we can appreciate and be grateful to them for teaching us those ways.

"If we will read only what we consider as 100% Theravadin books, then we will have closed our minds, and how can we then learn from others? Have others nothing to teach us? Do they not practice compassion and wisdom in their own ways, too? Can’t we see the beauty and goodness in their practice and work, even though we may not agree with certain of the religious concepts they subscribe to? And do you know that even Theravadin writers have their differences in opinions and interpretations of Theravadin doctrine and meditation? Yes, as students of Dhamma, it is for us to read intelligently, to think for ourselves as the Buddha wanted us to, not just to accept or reject blindly. So, having understood somewhat our Theravadin Dhamma, we should be able to read others’ viewpoints too, and decide for ourselves what we can accept and what we cannot. We need not throw everything out. We can see common principles that underlie different techniques and approaches.

"In this way, we can study more intelligently and maturely; we can have a more intelligent and mature approach. This way we have nothing to lose but everything to gain. I, for one, can tell you I have learned and gained a lot by listening carefully to what others have to say, by reading with an open mind, taking what I can relate to and leaving alone what I cannot. I trust and pray that I will continue to grow in humility, compassion and wisdom as I try, according to my ability, to apply as faithfully as I can, the spirit of the Dhamma as taught by the All Compassionate and Wise Buddha.

"May all beings be well and happy. May they keep open minds. May they know how to take what is good and leave what might not be so good. May there be tolerance, loving-kindness, compassion, appreciation and understanding. May all sincere and compassionate seekers and practitioners, by whatever path they may have chosen to travel, eventually reach their goal of wisdom and happiness, of Nibbana and the cessation of all suffering".

Visuddhacara. 27 September 1993.

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