Behind The Mask ~ NONZENSE

In our haste or greed to get something, find something, or learn something, we often block ourselves, fall over our own feet, or overlook what is right in front of us. Our looking prevents us from seeing, because we always look with something in mind, with an idea of what it is we are looking for.

Not long ago, someone told me that she wished to make a trip to Taiwan in order to learn something of Dharma there, and asked my advice. I encouraged her to go but not to think about learning anything there; just go and see what happens, I said, and you will be sure to learn something; but if you go to deliberately learn something you will be inviting disappointment, because although you would probably still learn something, it might not be what, or as much as you expected.

As long as we have a basic understanding of Dharma and, very importantly, are interested in it—that is, take joy in understanding and discovering things—learning more, or the arising of insight, is assured; there is no need to constantly think about learning; after all, Dharma—in the sense of reality—is all around us and never absent for a moment; all we have to do is turn to it and tune into it; it is nothing special.

So, do not try to learn anything. By this, I mean, forget about learning and you will learn. But in case anyone misunderstands me here, I should say that this is something quite different than trying not to learn, which is a deliberate turning-away, resisting, rejecting and refusing to acknowledge what is here.

Because of our misguided efforts, we often cheat or rob ourselves of their full effects. Take the idea behind ‘making merit’, for example: certainly, we need merit; it is the foundation of our Dharma-life, and without it, we won’t get very far. But to have merit constantly in mind and to let it guide our actions, makes it into something like a business-investment and only increases our greed and attachment instead of reducing it.

Some people give things to others with the idea of getting a ‘good return’, which clearly reveals their motive; it is rather like buying shares on the stock-market. It is a pity that our actions are not better guided or rooted in clearer understanding. Obviously, like this, we think that merit is something that comes to us from outside, from other people or things, when, in reality, it comes—like enlightenment—from inside ourselves.

As a monk, I depend upon the support of others (we all do, in various ways, either directly or indirectly) and although I am grateful, of course, for people’s kindness (without which I could not live as I do), I must say that it is uncomfortable to be seen as a ‘field of merit’ in which to plant good seeds. Needless to say, I want to be enlightened, but wanting to be enlightened and actually being enlightened are two quite different things. How far from enlightenment I am I cannot say, of course, but I’m afraid that offerings made to me, as a monk, will not produce great results, and I want to warn people about this. If people like to support me in my efforts to propagate Dharma, however, it is another thing, especially if they themselves have been able to learn something through me, but I don’t like to be used as an investment. I would also like to advise people to give for the joy of giving and because they have the opportunity and capacity to give, and not from thoughts of what they might get in return.

Many years ago, a small group of people supported me with the obvious aim of ‘making merit’ thereby; they were obsessed with merit, and treated me as their ‘pet monk’, more like an object than a person, or as someone who should obey them and live up to their expectations. It was uncomfortable, and I felt sorry that they could/would not see any further than this. When, in ‘76, I changed robes from the Theravada to the Chinese style, these people were most upset and behaved as if I had betrayed them; they left me and ceased to support me, but this was a relief to me rather than a disappointment. They were so attached to the form that they didn’t even bother to inquire why I had changed robes, and didn’t see that I was the same person as I was before, with the same ideas. I never saw them again, but I hear they are still hung-up with form and merit.

The Buddha once told Anathapindika—one of His wealthy patrons, who offered the Jetavana garden to Him and the Order—that alms given to the Order of Monks, together with the Buddha, is meritorious; more meritorious than such alms, however, is the building of monasteries for the use of the Order; more meritorious than the building of such monasteries is Taking Refuge in the Three Jewels; more meritorious than Taking Refuge in the Three Jewels is the observance of the Five Precepts; more meritorious than observing the Five Precepts is meditation on Loving-Kindness; and most meritorious of all is the development of Insight into the fleeting nature of things.

Venerable Narada, in his book, The Buddha and His Teachings, says: "It is evident that generosity is the first stage of the Buddhist way of life. More important than generosity is the observance of at least the Five Rules of regulated conduct, which tends to the disciplining of words and deeds. Still more important and beneficial is the cultivation of such ennobling virtues as loving-kindness which lead to self-development. Most important and most beneficial of all self-discipline is the sincere effort to understand things as they truly are".

Let’s examine the concept of generosity a little here: Is it generosity to give something in the hope of getting something in return or as a result? That is really giving to oneself, not to others, is it not? Should we not give from the joy of giving and because we have the opportunity and capacity, and not from what we might get in return? We have already received so much from life; how can we—how dare we—think of getting anything more, without understanding what we already have? What we can give or put back is very little compared with what we have received. So, have we not, in our greed for results and ‘merit’, forgotten the meaning of generosity, and turned the very basis of our spiritual discipline into a materialistic pursuit? I know, as I say this, that I risk cutting the support away from under me, but I would willingly make do with less for the sake of helping people understand something more of the great spiritual Way of the Buddha; it pains me to observe the excessive emphasis on ‘making merit’ nowadays, when there is just so much to be discovered and so far to go, and I say this out of appreciation for people’s kindness; I don’t want their kindness to be wasted and in vain.

I would like to quote here a short extract from Sangharakshita’s recent book, Forty-three Years Ago (page 26), where he speaks of the relationship between monks and lay-people; he explains that many people have fallen into the erroneous way of thinking that the spiritual life is something reserved for ‘ordained people’, and therefore the layman " .... does not seek liberation from mundane existence. Instead, he seeks to attain a state of greater happiness within mundane existence, both here and hereafter. Such a state is not attained by means of wisdom, but by means of merit. ‘Making merit’ thus comes to be the principle religious activity of the Theravadin layman, and the best and easiest way for him to make merit is by supporting the monks, in the sense of providing them with food, clothing, accommodation and medicine (the traditional ‘four requisites’), and, in modern times, many other things besides. Supporting the monks is the best and easiest way of making merit because monks are leading the spiritual life and because, according to tradition, the more spiritually-developed the person is to whom offerings are made the greater is the merit that accrues therefrom".

In Thailand, where Buddhism has largely degenerated into a thing of mere tradition, and is no longer a thing to live by (of course, there are people there who understand and live by it, but they are in a minority, which is why I said largely), there are about 300,000 monks; they can be seen everywhere, in their distinctive saffron robes. Every day, most of these monks go out with their alms-bowls to receive—not beg for—the food that people have prepared to offer them. But, because there are so many monks in some areas, it is sometimes difficult for some of them to obtain enough to eat. On the days of the new-moon and full-moon, however—days which, according to tradition, are considered special—so many people wait to offer food to the monks that they receive too much. Now, why this imbalance? Why, on most days, do some monks get barely enough to eat, but on two days of the month, they get too much? It is because these days are considered special and that therefore food offered then will produce more merit than food offered on other days. It is not so, of course, but that’s what people believe, and it is a clear sign that greed for merit is behind their offerings on these days; thus, monks are used as business-investments!

Since not everyone knows who Bodhidharma was, I would like to introduce him somewhat, before telling something of him that is relevant here. Bodhidharma was an Indian Buddhist monk who lived in the 6th century CE and was acknowledged to be the 28th patriarch of a line of masters going back to one of the Buddha’s chief disciples, Mahakasyapa. This lineage of teachers had preserved a special kind of teaching on meditation. When Bodhidharma went to China to propagate these teachings he became the 1st Patriarch of the Ch’an School of Buddhism there (which later became known as Zen in Japan).

Not long after arriving in China, his fame reached the ears of the Emperor, who was a good and pious Buddhist, and he invited Bodhidharma to the palace for an audience. When he came, the Emperor received him respectfully, and told him of all the good deeds he had done to help Buddhism flourish in his realm. When he asked Bodhidharma how much merit he had made from all his good deeds, however, he was surprised when Bodhidharma bluntly replied: "None whatsoever, your Majesty!" His further pronouncement that Buddhism was "nothing holy, but pure emptiness", confused the Emperor even more, and Bodhidharma left without explaining what he meant.

This story has been told and retold countless times over the centuries, and it has been accepted that the Emperor was suffering from delusion and wrong view; Bodhidharma’s manner is seldom if ever questioned. It is generally assumed that he was enlightened before he went to China, but if so, why would he need to sit in a mountain-cave for nine years, seeing no-one and saying nothing? And why, if Bodhidharma was so wise—even before his complete enlightenment, if that is what happened in the cave—and cared enough about the propagation of Buddhism to go to China in the first place, did he not explain his meaning to the Emperor, who was not only a good man, but also had tremendous capacity to lead many others to a better understanding if he had understood better himself? Surely, this was a mistake on the part of Bodhidharma. Why did he speak so cryptically when a simple explanation might have produced a much better result? (It is said that, later on, when someone else explained Bodhidharma’s meaning to him, the Emperor did understand, so why didn’t Bodhidharma explain it himself?) Many followers of Zen—especially Western Zen afficionados—are guilty of this kind of thing, and it is done, in many cases, to display their grasp of the subtleties of things they think are beyond ‘lesser mortals’; it is often just a game, a silly show.

Bodhidharma might have explained that actions done with the aim of getting a return—as had been the Emperor’s motive—will produce corresponding results on the material level, but not merit, which has the function of decreasing the defilements of Greed, Hatred and Delusion; in fact, our greed is only increased thereby. Merit is the result of actions done through understanding, of actions done knowing that they are the right things to do. And the freer our actions are from the desire to get a return, the greater will be the merit; conversely, the more we act from the desire to get a return, the less our merit will be therefrom. How we do things is just as important as what we do.

In 1973, I used to visit someone who was seriously ill in a small-town hospital in Malaysia. My visits often used to coincide with those of the patient’s younger brother, who was about thirteen at that time.

One day, a prisoner from the local jail was brought into the ward and handcuffed to the bed he was to occupy. He was studiously avoided by the other patients and their visitors and consequently spent most of his time alone. I went over to speak with him, but the language-barrier did not allow much communication.

The younger brother of my patient must have been thinking about this because, after a few days, without any prompting from me, he went over to the prisoner, removed the chain with his Buddha-pendant from around his neck, and unspokenly offered it to him.

This action, performed without any idea of ‘merit’, touched the prisoner and brought tears to his eyes. Later on, after he had served his sentence and was released from jail, he went to visit his young benefactor and kept in touch with his family for quite a while; he had seen that someone—a complete stranger—cared about him, a criminal.

To give with love, with no other motive, is surely a real act of merit, regardless of who one gives to. But if our giving becomes calculative—that is, looking at the person to whom one is giving and considering if he is worthy of our gift or not, or wondering how productive of merit giving to someone might be—can there be merit therefrom? This is something to be pondered on. Merit, like enlightenment, comes from inside, not from outside.

Why should we always worry and crave for more when we have already got so much out of life? This is low thinking, and demonstrates lack of insight.

Somewhat the same idea might at first seem to be found in the words of Jesus: "Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing"; however, the full text of the Christian admonition changes the point of view, and we can see that there is still an aim in mind:

"Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you". (Matt 6:1-4).

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