Behind The Mask ~ CRABS FIRST

When, in 1984, I went from the Philippines to visit the Vietnamese Refugee Camps in Hong Kong and eventually got permission to do so, I was approached in one of the Camps by a government official—(my activities in the Camps until then had almost surely been monitored and approved, otherwise they would soon have been terminated)—and politely asked if I could/would visit the Camps on a regular basis, or, failing this, if I knew of any monks in Hong Kong who would do so. He said that there were numerous Christian missionaries visiting the Camps regularly, but so far no Buddhists.

Sadly, I had to tell him that not only was I unable to visit the Camps regularly myself—as I was only passing through Hong Kong—but I did not I know of any Hong Kong monks who would do. I didn’t tell him—because I was ashamed to—that the previous year, while I was staying in the Bataan Refugee Camp in the Philippines, I had heard of the neglected plight of the Buddhist refugees in the Hong Kong Camps, and had written to a prominent Hong Kong monk about it. My letter to him is here reproduced:

"Philippines. 29-March-1983.

Dear Ven. ..... (name omitted here),

allow me to introduce myself: I am the monk in charge of Buddhist affairs in the Philippines Refugee Processing Center. I have been here for three years, during which time we have built two small temples for the Buddhist Refugees.

I have had the pleasure of meeting you on two occasions—once in Bogor, Indonesia, in 1978, and again, in Taipei in 1981—though probably you will not remember me.

My reason for writing to you now, Venerable, is to ask for your assistance: you are well-known for your compassion, and I am confident that you will help. The problem is this:

I have heard, from several refugees who arrived here from Hong Kong, that there are two Vietnamese Buddhist monks in two separate Camps there; they are very much in need of help since, apparently, no-one is allowed to go in to see them. Somehow, though, it seems that Christian missionaries are allowed inside the Camps, and are very active trying to convert the refugees. What a shame for our religion that no-one is allowed to go there to minister to the needs of our co-religionists! (Even in Thailand, where there are about 300,000 monks, the Buddhists just sit idly back and permit the endless streams of Christian missionaries to commit their outrage against Buddhist refugees—buying them, and otherwise influencing them to change their religion).

Ven., please try to help these two monks; they need Buddhist books, Buddha-pictures and other articles for distribution to their faithful followers; ceremonial instruments such as a wooden-fish, gong and bell, would be very much appreciated. I also understand that they are personally in need of clothes. More than anything else, though, they are in need of care and moral support from local Buddhists. [The names and addresses of the two monks were included].

Many Thanks and Sincere Regards—

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

There was no reply to this, but that, I since learned, is not unusual. I have written to several monks about different things since then, and was not graced with replies. Although I spent many years in Asia, I am still a Westerner, and look at things from a largely Western point-of-view. Perhaps I’m a bit old-fashioned in this, but I consider it ill-mannered not to reply to letters of a personal nature. In Asia, however, the standard seems to be somewhat different.

Anyway, I was rather disappointed at the non-response of this Hong Kong monk—hence my writing about it now—as he had probably been a refugee himself years before, fleeing Communist oppression in China; there is also the possibility that he will become a refugee again in the near future, when Hong Kong reverts to China. He likes to print photos of himself in his Buddhist magazine, in the act of releasing fish, crabs, turtles, etc., as an act of compassion. Did I expect too much of him to think that his compassion might extend a bit further than to such dumb creatures and the pages of his magazine, to refugees like himself? Obviously, I did, because he did nothing about my request, and when I tried to see him the following year in Hong Kong, he made an excuse for not meeting me. So much for his compassion!

Now, the refugees were of a different nationality than this particular monk, but so what? Was he not a Buddhist? And does Buddhism not help us to see beyond such things as nationality? We had no control over where we were born; we might have been born elsewhere than in the place of our nativity, but we can be born in only one place per life. There is really no reason to be proud of our nationality, as it is not something we achieved by our own efforts; if it were a matter of choice—as some reincarnationists believe—who would choose to be born in countries which suffer regularly from famine, drought, pestilence and war? No, nationality is a consequence of being born where we were. However, if we understand something of Dharma, it enables us to look at this matter somewhat differently than most people do, and see it in clearer perspective. This idea is one of many that we become liberated from as we go deeper and our consciousness expands. Therefore I say that although I was born in England, and cannot deny this, I do deny that it makes me English. I don’t want to be English, because I have found something bigger and better than that; if other people consider me English just because I was born in England, that is up to them. Of course, before anyone asks, I should say that I cannot dispense with the formalities of passports and so on, and still travel on a British passport, which identifies me as ‘British"; I am also a citizen of Australia now, so have an Aussie passport, too. What I mean, however, is that I do not think of myself as ‘English’, and when, after the ceremony whereby I became an Australian citizen, someone said to me: "So, now you are an Australian", I objected and said: "No I’m not; I’m a citizen of Australia. I don’t want to be English, and am not about to start thinking of myself as Australian". If asked where I am from, sometimes I answer: "When?" "No, where are you from?" they repeat. Again, I say, "When am I from where?—this morning, yesterday, last year? When do you mean? If you mean where I was born, I was born in England—or at least, I was told so, though I don’t remember it myself (to be more accurate, I was born in my mother’s bed, and that, as far as I was concerned at the time, could have been anywhere). Since then, however, I have been to and come from many places. But where I am really from, I don’t know, any more than you know where you came from!"

We learn to see beyond such artificial divisions to the basic fact of our humanity. Shall we therefore restrict our compassion to just one group of people? What kind of compassion would that be?

The Buddhist scriptures record the story of a certain monk who was so ill and incapacitated that he could do nothing for himself and was left lying in his own filth by the other monks, who wouldn’t go near him because of the smell and dirt. When the Buddha heard of this, He called for water to be heated and cloths to be brought, and went to clean up the sick monk with His own hands. Of course, when He did so, many monks rushed to help, but the Buddha insisted on doing the onerous job Himself, as an example to all. He explained that, since none of them had mothers, wives or anyone else to take care of them, they should take care of each other when necessary, living as a community, in brotherly love. This incident led Him to utter His famous words: "He who serves the sick serves the Buddha".

Before I went to Thailand in 1972, in my naiveté I expected to find such a spirit of brotherhood in the monasteries there, but was soon disillusioned and found little or nothing of it. Instead, I found that Buddhism had become merely a thing of tradition, and no longer something to live by. Fortunately, I had already realized the difference between Buddhism as a religious organization, and the Buddha’s Teachings, and so was able to continue; had I not realized this I would probably have abandoned everything in disgust and gone on my way long ago. Since then, therefore, I have been trying to share this realization with others, as I consider it of great importance. It has stood me in great stead many times, like when I went to the Philippines in 1979, and stayed in the largest temple in Manila. From the moment I went there until I left five years later, some of the monks never even smiled or nodded to me, but looked through me as if I were invisible. True, the language-barrier prevented verbal communication, but even that was not insuperable. I might have understood their attitude if, after I had been there long enough for them to get to know me somewhat and possibly conclude that ‘this fellow is no good’, they had become cold towards me, but to treat a complete stranger like that didn’t say much to me about their understanding of Dharma. And my opinion of them was not improved by their concentration on performing lucrative ceremonies for the dead, whereby they had their pious but gullible followers ‘over a barrel’. Such monks become very rich, financially, by their activities, but one really wonders about their spiritual wealth!

I must, at the risk of becoming tedious, emphasize the vast difference between the Container and the Contents: Buddhism and the Teachings of the Buddha. If people are satisfied with Buddhism it is alright, of course; but for those who are not, and who want something more than mere name-and-form, it must be said that though Buddhism—the Container—is now old, tired and travel-stained, having come a long way and suffered many vicissitudes, the Contents—by which I mean the Teachings of the Buddha—are still quite intact. However, these, too, should not be looked upon as something magical in themselves, that will produce miraculous effects just by being believed in or recited, but should be understood and realized, for they are only ‘a finger pointing at the moon’, not the moon itself. So, there are three levels, as it were: (1) Buddhism, the organization, which deserves our respect for having preserved the Contents thus far; (2) Buddha-Dharma, or the Teachings of the Buddha; and (3) Dharma itself, that which, upon realizing it, Sakyamuni became the Buddha, and which He thereafter tried to indicate to others. If we insist on clinging to the Container while understanding nothing of the Contents and making no attempt to do so, it is rather a waste, to say the least.

Compassion is one of the central elements of the Buddha’s Way, but so many Buddhists obviously think of it as just something of the scriptures—a word or concept—and seldom apply it in their lives; we talk so much about it, and this shows that we haven’t got the real thing. Some monks have spots burned on their heads when they undertake ‘Bodhisattva precepts’ (some lay-devotees have spots burned on their arms). Now, a Bodhisattva is someone who dedicates himself to developing and acquiring spiritual qualities which will better enable him to help others, and he does this by—among other things—devoting himself to the selfless service of others, and the term ‘selfless service’ here is most important, as such a person would not look for or expect recognition for doing what he does; he would not make a show, but would do good merely because he sees it as the only thing for him to do; at that stage, he has gone beyond choosing between good and evil, and does good with an undivided mind full of love and compassion. A person becomes a Bodhisattva not by mere talk about compassion and ‘saving all beings’, by having spots burned on his head or by taking ‘Bodhisattva precepts’, but by serving others and showing compassion towards them. Moreover, such a person would never think of himself as a Bodhisattva, and would not even know that he/she is one. It is only upon complete enlightenment and the attainment of Buddhahood when, looking back, that person sees that he has been a Bodhisattva before.

We must be very careful, therefore, when talking about compassion and Bodhisattvas, lest we injure ourselves spiritually and set ourselves back by casual and thoughtless words.

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