Someone once came to me to complain that his mother was overly-superstitious and believed in untenable things. I told him that he was lucky to have such a mother and that he should regard her as his teacher, as she unintentionally provides him with an example of things to be avoided, if possible.

It is normal and natural for kids to rebel against authority, but often, it is just rebellion for the sake of rebellion—a blind hitting-out at things that are not understood. If we understood things clearer, and rebelled intelligently, our rebellion would not only satisfy our need to rebel and assert ourselves—a normal part of growing up and learning to stand on our own feet—but would enhance psychological growth and maturation. Indeed, such rebellion should go on throughout our lives and not just when we are young (that’s just a ‘practice-run’), because the forces of darkness, ignorance and oppression are always with us—within and without—and our search for truth necessarily entails rebellion—rebellion against everything that is not true, everything that is wrong and harmful.

It is just as important to know what is wrong as it is to know what is right, and if we can perceive and understand wrong in others, we might be able to avoid such wrong in ourselves. Imperfections in others provide us with a platform for going further than them ourselves, and so we should be grateful to other people for their faults and failings as well as for their good points and things we admire in them. This requires discernment on our parts, not fault-finding, and we must keep it in mind that no-one wants to be wrong or bad. We all have negativities of character, but this is not because we want such things (we are all mentally imbalanced to some degree, as we are this side of Enlightenment, but we are not that crazy!) So, recognizing that we have our faults and limitations, we learn to be more tolerant of, and to make allowances for such things in others, and in this way, something positive can be seen in negativity; there is white in the black.

No-one is 100% bad, and to say about someone—as we sometimes do—that, "he is no good", is not only incorrect but is a limitation of ourselves, and actually says more about ourselves than about the one we are referring to, as it means we have failed to perceive anything good about that person, and there is—there must be—something good about him, as he is a human being. Thus, that is something we should never say.

When we turn our gaze inwards, introspectively, to see what is there, we must be equipped with honesty and courage, as we are sure to find, almost immediately, frightful and horrible creatures lurking there, things that, hitherto, we have managed to suppress and contain quite well, or to disguise with reason and rationalization in order to preserve our relative sanity and self-respect, or have pretended that they didn’t exist.

To many of us, it comes as a shock to discover the presence of such disreputable characters as ambition, pride, envy, anger, hatred, jealousy, lust, greed, deviousness, hypocrisy and so on, ensconced in our minds. It is even more of a shock to realize that these things are not mere guests in temporary residence, who can be given notice to leave at any moment, and who will readily comply, but are elements of what we call our character—that is, they are parts of our psychic make-up. Compared with positive things like generosity, self-restraint, kindness, understanding, forbearance, willingness to step back at times and make way for others, ability to recognize when we are in the wrong and to apologize, and so on—the negativities are stronger, more numerous, and more tenacious.

The shock of discovering and recognizing what is there is too much for many of us—understandably—and we hurriedly back off and close the door on it all, never to open it again, preferring to let things be as they are and to live under the illusion that "all’s well with the world".

But a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. We have names for things like jealousy, anger, greed, pride and so on, and recognize them as such, only because they are there in us. If they existed only in other people and not in ourselves how would we be able to recognize and understand them? They are probably remnants of our remote and primitive past, when personal survival was of the utmost importance and everyone had to look out for themselves. We can see these things openly manifested in animals; they are not found only in humans.

We do not live alone in this world, however, and although, individually, we may turn away from and refuse to admit the existence of negative states of mind in us, collectively we cannot. The world is made up of individuals, and if we ourselves, and even the majority of people like us, refuse to see and accept what is there within us, there will always be some brave pioneers who will dare to venture where most of us fear to tread. And their discoveries, painfully gained and dearly bought—like the discoveries of science—will then be available to the human race as a whole, for people good and bad, weak and strong, rich and poor, young and old, near and far, just as, when a cure for cancer is finally found, it will benefit humanity as a whole, and not just the nation or race of the person who discovers it. It is fascinating to see how, when we discover something good, beautiful or true, we transcend the barriers of like and dislike we have erected—or have been erected—in our minds; our discoveries are made available not just for people of our own various groups, like family, nation, race, religion, or to people who we like for whatever reason, but to all, without distinction, including those we don’t like. Discovery of the Good, the Beautiful and the True liberates us from the narrow limits of self and gives rise to love, and love, in this sense, does not choose or divide and say: "I love these but not those". It embraces all equally, without discrimination, as it is not born of self but of understanding; it has no center and therefore no circumference.

Although the present is the result of the past, we have not made ourselves—you and I—as we are now. It is very important to understand this, so that we may cease feeling guilty and responsible. This body-mind of ours is not of our own deliberate creation, but is rather a product of countless forces working together, and involving not a little ignorance. Actually, we—as we are now—had very little to do with its creation; we merely inherited it, like something passed down in the family for generations, although it never belonged to anyone else before us. Imagine, if you had used your choice, intelligently, from childhood, and if your choice had been enough to bring about change, would you have chosen to be as you are right now? Are there not things about yourself that you are dissatisfied with, ashamed of, and would like to be rid of, if you could? While everything arises from causes, and nothing by accident, it does not mean that we have carefully and consciously orchestrated the causes to become as we are, for it is plain to see that we are nowhere near to being masters of ourselves, but are more like victims, led hither and thither by our whims and fancies, which again, are things that we do not understand, and which we did not deliberately cultivate.

I am speaking of conditioning. We are products of our environment and our times, results of countless causes conspiring together, of innumerable influences pressing on us from all sides, bending, turning, twisting, molding, nurturing, brainwashing, indoctrinating us: parents, siblings, friends, teachers, leaders, colleagues, strangers and even enemies, by society and its ideals and standards in general, language, education, politics, religion, philosophy, climate, food, clothes, music, television, fashion, the media, and so on. Simply put, we are not ourselves, but neither are we the creation of any one thing like a God, a factory production-line or an artist’s studio; we are results of causes, of conditioning; we react according to our conditioning, and will continue to do so until we learn to understand it, and then we might begin to operate more freely and independently, might begin to rebel intelligently instead of blindly, to put our powerful preferences aside and look at things less subjectively and more objectively, and to be more in control of our lives than we are.

Even our names are not ours, but were given to us, applied to us, stuck on us by others to enable them to conveniently identify us and distinguish us from others. We have accepted their names for us without question and have taken them for real, so that, when asked: "Who are you?" we answer with the name that others have given us. This is a great mistake, and a great loss, because, first of all, we do not know who or what we are, and secondly, names and words are not the things they refer to. We are much more than a name that distinguishes us from others, much more than a sound in the air or a word on paper; but how much more, and who or what we are, we have yet to discover.

Looking at things like this, we see that people cannot be held totally responsible for their actions, as they really do not know why they are doing them, but are often merely reacting, as programmed victims, according to their conditioning.

Poor humans! We stagger through life, not knowing who we are, why we are here, where we came from, or where we are going, subject to our blind urges and fears, searching for and grasping after happiness but usually finding only more of its opposite; confused and suffering, we move ever forwards to the dreaded finalé of death. Our situation as individuals and even as members of the human race, is pitiable, and, as we peer into the mists of the future, trying to perceive something there and make sense of it all and find some light therein, we may be excused for feeling lost and hopeless.

Yet all is not black and bleak. If we look back on the way we have come, and review our history as a species, we may see a pattern in our sorrow and madness, and path that twisted and turned, rose and fell, doubled back on itself, came up against obstacles, and indeed, often seemed to disappear altogether, only to reappear elsewhere. Our collective history has not been just a series of blunders, wars and crimes, a record of man’s inhumanity to man, an utmost unbroken trail of tragedy and suffering; we have also made progress, not just in a material sense, but mostly in a mental and spiritual way. We have achieved widespread literacy in a very short time, and this is a great leap forward, as it has altered our attitudes and behavior and broadened our horizons tremendously. And although we still give vent to our violent tendencies in aggression and war, deep inside us, we know that the old conviction that ‘might is right’ is not so. Our conscience is alive and well, though not yet strong enough, perhaps, to prevent our passions from carrying us away and leading us to do things which we know to be wrong. But do we not respond, on an unprecedented scale, to disasters and misfortunes far away, by donating to help the victims, who are often of different races, nationalities and religions than our own? We are making progress, even if only slowly and painfully; the picture of human-nature is not totally black and negative; there is Yin as well as Yang, and so much that is positive remains to be discovered in us.

Life is like a river:
Straight, it seldom flows,
But twists and turns and winds about,
As on and on it goes.

Life is like a play, in which
We are all actors.
But the script is written as we act,
Not before, and no-one knows
What will happen next.

Alone, and by ourselves, we simply do not exist; in isolation, our lives simply have no meaning. Only when seen as parts of something else—in context, like a piece of a jigsaw-puzzle—do our lives have any sort of meaning. We do not live alone, by and for ourselves. In order to make sense of our lives, in order to be more in control of our lives than we have been so far, in order to go in the direction that we wish to go, in order to live more positively, we must understand two things. First, our conditioning: how we have come to be as we are, that is, as the result of many causes, and not by choice or plan; and secondly, that we do not live alone. Our lives can only be lived effectively if we understand that we are parts of the community, and that whatever we do has an effect upon the community, just as what all the other members of the community do has an effect—even if we do not see or feel it—upon us. We henceforth work, not just as a way of earning a living and supporting our families, but as a way of serving others; whatever work we do, as long as it is within the limits of the Right Livelihood of the Noble Eightfold Path, can and should be seen as a way of contributing something to society, and making the world a better place for all to live in; one’s work therefore becomes—and is seen as—part of one’s Dharma practice; it becomes a spiritual or religious activity. Imagine how this world would be if everyone would consider their work in this way. People would find joy in their work instead of working only for money, with long faces; they would have much more energy and work more efficiently.

So, too, with study. We spend years in school and university, some of us, all the time thinking that we are studying for and helping only ourselves instead of realizing that our studies enable us, first of all, to overcome ignorance with knowledge, and secondly, to be of more help in the world around us than if we remained ignorant. It is not—or should not be—just a matter of studying so as to become better qualified and earn more money. But most people do not realize this, and so study and work only for themselves, locking themselves up and depriving themselves of the satisfaction of knowing that what they are doing is serving others and benefiting them, just as they themselves benefit so much from the labors of others. We are often so short-sighted that we see no further than our own noses.

If and when we understand that almost everything we have, as well as most of what we know, has come from others, we cannot help but ask ourselves: "What can I give? What can I put back, after receiving so much?" The answer is, of course: In reality, very little. In fact, we can put back almost nothing that we have not first received. But what little we can put back we should do so, not with the idea of getting something else out in return, but because it is the only thing we can do when we see how much we benefit from belonging to the community we call the World. And if the Communist leaders had understood this, and had helped their people understand it, their system might have stood a better chance of success. Communism failed because it was an idea whose time has not yet come; it was premature in a world that was not ready for it; people cannot be made equal, but must think equal, and treat others as they would like others to treat them. The psychological basis for Communism to succeed wasn’t there, and so the leaders tried to force it to succeed, and we have all seen the results of that.

We often hear Buddhists talk about ‘renouncing the world’, by which they mean leaving their homes and families, shaving their heads, and becoming monks and nuns, instead of abandoning or transcending selfishness. How can we ‘renounce the world’ when we are the world, when we can understand ourselves only in context, as parts of something much bigger than ourselves? It is not a question of seeing ourselves as separate from the rest of life—’I’ as apart from ‘You’—but of realizing the Oneness of Life—not mine, not yours, but ours!

We live in this world for only a short time and then die. We do not know what happens—or even if anything happens at all—after we die; we merely believe. About this life, however, we can know something, and the time we spend here can be either wasted or used to good effect. We leave our marks in passing and, just as we have inherited so much from people who lived here before us, we too will leave something behind for those who come after us. We create gardens, we create garbage. What are we—you and I—going to leave behind us for those who will follow?

We must have a vision of how we fit into and belong to this world as integral parts, and how we have a responsibility to live as members of it. Hate the world and cause trouble in it, and we hurt ourselves deeply thereby; love the world and do good in it, and we help ourselves. It is in our own interests, therefore, to live responsibly, thinking not just about ourselves.

I would like to supplement and enhance what I have written above with a passage from The Lessons of History by the famous American historian, Will Durant:

"We should not be greatly disturbed by the probability that our civilization will die like any other. As Frederick the Great of Prussia asked his retreating troops at Kolin: "Would you live forever?" Perhaps it is desirable that life should take fresh forms, that new civilizations and centers should have their turn. Meanwhile, the effort to meet the challenge of the rising East may reinvigorate the West.

"We have said that a great civilization does not entirely die. Some precious achievements have survived all the vicissitudes of rising and falling states: the making of fire and light, of the wheel and other basic tools; language, writing, art, and song; agriculture, the family, parental care, social organization, morality, and charity; the use of teaching to transmit the lore of the family and the race. These are the elements of civilization, and they have been tenaciously maintained through the perilous passage from one civilization to the next. They are the connective tissue of human history.

"If education is the transmission of civilization, we are unquestioningly progressing. Civilization is not inherited; it has to be learned and earned by each generation anew; if the transmission should be interrupted for one century, civilization would die, and we would be savages again. Our finest contemporary achievement is our unprecedented expenditure on higher education for all. Once, colleges were luxuries, designed for the male half of the leisured class; today, universities are so numerous that he who can run may become a Ph.D. We may not have excelled the selected geniuses of antiquity, but we have raised the level and average of knowledge beyond any age in history.

"None but a child will complain that our teachers have not yet eradicated the errors and superstitions of ten-thousand years. The great experiment has just begun, and it may yet be defeated by the high birth-rate of unwilling or indoctrinated ignorance. But what would be the full fruitage of instruction if every child should be schooled till at least his twentieth year, and should find free access to the universities, libraries and museums that harbor and offer the intellectual and artistic treasures of the race? Consider education not as the painful accumulation of facts and dates and reigns, not merely the necessary preparation of the individual to earn his keep in the world, but as the transmission of our mental, moral, technical, and aesthetic heritage as fully as possible to as many as possible, for the enlargement of man’s understanding, control, embellishment, and enjoyment of life.

"The heritage that we can more fully transmit is richer than ever before. It is richer than that of Pericles, for it includes all the Greek flowering that followed him; richer than Leonardo’s, for it includes him and the Italian Renaissance; richer than Voltaire’s, for it embraces all the French Enlightenment and its ecumenical dissemination. If progress is real despite our whining, it is not because we are born any healthier, better, or wiser than infants were in the past, but because we are born to a richer heritage, born on a higher level of that pedestal which the accumulation of knowledge and art raises as the ground and support of our being. The heritage rises, and man rises in proportion as he receives it.

"History is, above all else, the creation and recording of that heritage; progress is its increasing abundance, preservation, transmission, and use. To those of us who study history not merely as a warning and reminder of man’s follies and crimes, but also as an encouraging remembrance of generative souls, the past ceases to be a depressing chamber of horrors; it becomes a celestial city, a spacious country of the mind, wherein a thousand saints, statesmen, inventors, scientists, poets, artists, musicians, lovers, and philosophers still live and speak, teach and carve and sing. The historian will not mourn because he can see no meaning in human existence except that which man puts into it; let it be our pride that we ourselves may put meaning into our lives, and sometimes a significance that transcends death. If a man is fortunate, he will, before he dies, gather up as much as he can of his civilized heritage and transmit it to his children. And to his final breath he will be grateful for this inexhaustible legacy, knowing that it is our nourishing mother and our lasting life".

Yes, we need a vision—a broad vision—of how the present has arisen from the past, and how we are now—and always—in the process of creating the future, which is a result of everything that has gone before. Only the present, however, is in our hands, only this is ours, and here and now we must act with wisdom, to learn from the past and endeavor to bring about a better future.

< 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