Behind The Mask ~ COMPETITION

A young woman had come to inquire about meditation, thinking it might help her overcome the nervousness she felt when she participated in karate tournaments. Not surprisingly, a little inquiry revealed that her motive for entering the tournaments was to win, and while in other areas of her life she was confident and relaxed, she felt nervous and tense only when she was about to participate in a tournament. A little research on her part, a little objective analysis, would probably have shown that hope of winning is invariably accompanied by fear of losing, as hope and fear are obverse and reverse sides of the same coin. Is it possible to hope for something without fear of not getting it?

It is not rare for people to think of meditation as something like a magic wand—something that will produce miraculous and immediate results and solve all problems. Thus, disappointment cannot be avoided, and meditation undertaken with such expectations would soon be dropped in favor of another ‘quick fix’, and any good results that might have come about through persisting in it for a while would be forfeited. People turn to such expected means of salvation when they have been unable—or perhaps have not even tried—to work things out for themselves, or have not understood their motives for doing things.

Some years ago, in Norway, I attended a Vietnamese Cultural Festival and found it both entertaining and interesting, reminding me that what had been Vietnam’s loss had been the gain of the West (although, to be fair, it must also be said that the West lost by gaining from Vietnam and other countries people that those countries gained by losing, and so the West now has elements that it could well have done without, having plenty of its own already; Pauline Hanson—Australia’s maverick politician, who has stirred up a bit of a hornets’ nest there recently—does have a point; some Asian immigrants have demonstrated their gratitude for being taken in by behaving in antisocial ways, thus gaining a bad reputation for all Asians in the eyes of people who don’t need much of an excuse to express their racial prejudice). This show included a traditional-dress competition, and a succession of pretty girls paraded across the stage displaying their graceful dresses, all of which were very nice, of course. Each girl had probably entered the competition in the hope of winning first-prize, but in this they were courting disappointment and inviting suffering, for only one person can win first-prize, and the others will lose or take lower places, and while everyone likes to win, no-one enjoys losing.

Now, the winner would be happy for a while, until, in a future competition, perhaps, the first-prize would be given to someone else. And loss is a form of suffering, is it not? But where does this suffering come from? Certainly, there is sometimes bias and favoritism on the part of judges, especially when they make personal choices, unsupported by verifiable facts. In the case of the traditional-dress competition—and in countless other cases—the losers’ suffering would come from nowhere but themselves, from the desire of winning and the fear of losing.

Even before the judges’ decision, the competitors would be anxious about the results, each secretly eyeing the others in an attempt to calculate her own chances. Oh yes, it’s all very exciting, of course, and there is a chance of winning, but the chances of losing, and of feeling bad, are much greater. And the happiness of the winner, too, would not be unalloyed happiness, as she would probably detect some inner resentment on the part of the some of the losers. Moreover, her happiness would not last very long and would soon be just a fading memory. Competition is therefore destructive and harmful as it encourages egoism, pride, vanity, bitterness, resentment, hate and fear. In the above-mentioned case, it would have been much better had it been just a display instead of a competition, with each girl happy to model her own beautiful dress and to receive the applause of the audience, without any thought of winning or losing; the audience was certainly happy to see this parade of pretty girls in lovely dresses; could it not have been enough for those girls to have pleased people that way, without inviting disappointment?

This crazy game is avidly played by so-called ‘religious’ people, too, with much pettiness and scheming for power and position. They are so concerned about being accorded their correct ranks and titles, and are always looking for ways to extend their influence—all of which means egoism, of course. Is that the purpose of religion? J.C. spoke about such people—how they expect the prominent seats at meetings, feasts or public gatherings—and he advised people to always take lower seats, in case the higher seats have been reserved for others; if the host wishes someone to sit in a higher seat, it is not difficult to elevate him, but if he wishes him to sit elsewhere, it causes embarrassment for everyone.

Although competition goes on among the followers of every religion—for an extreme example of this, take the intrigue, scheming, bribery and even murder that has accompanied the election of popes in the past—I will not, at this time, concern myself with other religions, but just with Buddhism, as we must be capable of and willing to turn the spotlight of criticism on our own religion first, with the aim of uncovering, understanding, and correcting its weaknesses and faults. And if and when we do criticize other religions, it should be done constructively and always for the purpose of discovering the Truth, remembering that Truth can be approached only by a process of negation—not this, not that—until, having eliminated everything that is not Truth, we may be left with what is Truth. It is like the process of panning for gold in a stream or river: scooping with a basin in the river-bed, one first removes the larger stones, leaves and twigs from the basin, then the smaller stones, then the sand and grit; and then, when everything that is not gold has been removed, if one is lucky, one might find some particles of gold there: a process—a positive process—of negation.

It is a pity that many Buddhists will listen to an exposition of Dharma only from monks or nuns, even if the experience and understanding of Dharma of non-clergy surpasses that of many—or even most—monks and nuns; it means they are attached to persons and external appearances, not understanding that Truth is not a person and should not be personified. It is said that enlightened people will hide their attainments from others rather than display them (the ancient Greeks believed that the gods sometimes disguised themselves as beggars in order to test people, causing them to be careful in their treatment of beggars. And I know personally of a monk who wished to acquire a piece of land next to his temple, and the owner of this land—an old and pious Buddhist lady—intended to donate the land to the temple, rather than sell it. Her son, however, was not so pious or eager to ‘make merit’, so one day, dressed in old and dirty clothes, he went to the temple to ask for something to eat. The chief monk there, not realizing who he was and thinking him a beggar, told him that, because it was after noon, there was no food left, as the monks there did not eat after midday. Not to be put off, however, and seeing some biscuit-tins through the open door, the man then asked for some biscuits. "We haven’t any", said the monk. "Well, then, could you give me a little money?", persisted the man. Again, the monk said he didn’t have any, and the man went away. A few minutes later, though, to the monk’s surprise, he drove into the temple-compound in his Mercedes, still wearing his old clothes! The monk did not get the land he desired). We should beware of judging by external appearances. Buddhas and Bodhisattvas can be seen standing or sitting on gigantic lotus-flowers, with haloes around their heads, only in pictures, images or movies, and would not appear so in real life!

It is rare for monks to compliment each other for a Dharma-talk, so rare, in fact, that when it happens it is remarkable. Indeed, many monks never give talks at all, but focus on performing ceremonies with lots of noise and smoke, bamboozling people into thinking that such ceremonies are essential, while explaining the Dharma is of secondary importance, or even less. I was recently told of a Chinese lady whose husband had been killed in a car-crash in Australia contacting a monk to ask if he could perform a ceremony at the site of her husband’s death to ‘free’ his spirit from that place and enable it to ‘go on its way’. She was surprised and not a little disappointed when the monk told her that he could and would do it—for A$10,000! I was then asked if I could perform such a ceremony, and I replied that I can also perform ceremonies for the dead, but cannot guarantee any results, and I don’t think anyone else can, either. And moreover, from the way that I have seen ceremonies performed in Asia, I am extremely doubtful about their efficacy, and have explained elsewhere that I think the nearest and dearest to the deceased are the people best qualified to help him/her; there is no need to spend a lot of money, nor even a single cent! These ceremonies are a great rip-off, an exploitation of people’s grief and bereavement, the only results being a lightening of their pockets and a feeling that Buddhism is becoming more and more materialistic. The real meaning of the ceremonies has been forgotten; they should be performed in the hope that, if the spirit or consciousness of the deceased person is still near and is aware of what we are doing, it might take heart from our thoughts of goodwill and encouragement and proceed with its onward journey. More than that, however, because—according to what the Buddha said about it—each person has his or her own karma, which is non-transferable, there is nothing that the living can do for the dead.

It is saddening to see the pious lay-people being ripped-off for these ceremonies. I would like to see people demand and require an explanation from the monks and nuns about how these ceremonies are supposed to work—an explanation in line with the Teachings of the Buddha. If they were required to explain the rationale behind these ceremonies, I doubt it would be very convincing and their lucrative businesses would probably soon dry up. It is in their own interests, therefore, to keep the people ignorant about Dharma. Sadder still than this is the fact that many Buddhists seem to prefer to remain ignorant, and never want to strive for understanding. And many of them are obviously of the opinion that the more expensive something is—like a ceremony—the more effective it must be; following that conviction, if something is free or doesn’t cost much, it can’t be much good. It is so much easier to cheat and exploit people than it is to enlighten them that one feels tempted to say, in exasperation, that people get what they deserve!

It is only a matter of time, I feel, before such money-making ‘Buddhist’ ceremonies are attacked by certain non-Buddhists who mean us harm. Personally, however, I think this might not be a bad thing and will welcome it; it might be just what we need to wake us up and force us to evaluate these ceremonies. Come, then, inimical people, and help us!

If I am able to do something to help someone—by ceremony or by any other way—I will try to do it, happily, and without a fee. If people wish to offer me something, as is the custom, I will accept it, gratefully. People understand that monks, like everyone else, have certain needs, and are not supported by the government; and although people occasionally invite monks to tell them if they need anything, and will supply it if it is within their capacity to do so, there is seldom any need to ask, as people are sufficiently generous and supportive without.

Sadly, as in other religions, there are people who use Buddhism as a means of business and who have no real interest in propagating Dharma. This indicates that they have had no direct and personal experience of Dharma and do not value it. I have come across this very often.

In one way, however, I can understand this ‘fee-setting’, because, as I have said above, many people do not value anything that is freely given and without charge, whereas they think that the more a thing costs, the more valuable and efficacious it must be. Thus they easily fall into traps set for them. It is rather like what has happened with many doctors in Australia: people go to them for medical-certificates in order to get time off work or draw sickness-benefit, whether they are genuinely sick or not. If the doctor refuses to give them such a note they will go to another doctor who will, and the doctor who conscientiously refuses will lose patients and revenue, while doctors who write out notes willy-nilly, without even a cursory examination, will get plenty of patients, but for entirely the wrong reasons. The whole medical-system suffers as a result, and eventually the patients, too, for when someone is really in need of treatment, and goes to a doctor who has grown used to just scrawling notes, they would probably not get the treatment they need (I have met such ‘doctors’ and was not favorably impressed; one Melbourne ‘doctor’ (I am tempted to call them quacks) that I went to see about pains in my chest made an appointment for me to see a heart-specialist some weeks later, without as much as putting his stethoscope on me! Had I really been suffering from heart problems, I might not have lived long enough to see the specialist!) In this way, both doctors and patients become the victims of each other. It is much the same when monks pander to the superstitions of the people in order to gain from them, instead of instructing them in Dharma and helping them understand and overcome their superstitions.

It has been my good fortune to meet monks who are learned, wise and humble at the same time, but they have been very few in number. On the other end of the scale, I have met monks who are learned and well-read but who are lacking in humility; they are always more numerous, of course, and one might be forgiven for thinking that the Dharma has the effect of making people proud rather than humble, when actually, it is the other way around. As an example of the former, I would like to tell here of my meeting with the Karmapa Lama in the Philippines in 1980, before he passed away: I felt so good to be in his presence; he spoke no English, and I no Tibetan, but he emanated warmth, friendliness and humility, and had a special childlike, simple, uncomplicated aura about him; there was a communication beyond words with him.

There is no need to give examples of the latter kind as they are frequently encountered, and anyone who makes a career out of self-centeredly talking about himself is more to be pitied for not having found anything of greater value when he had the opportunity to do so.

Some monks refer to themselves as ‘priests’ or allow others to refer to them as such, but the term ‘priest’ is something alien to Buddhism, which is a non-theistic religion, and therefore needs no-one to mediate between people and God; and, since the Buddha never claimed to be divine and never told or asked people to pray to Him, there is no question about anyone interceding with Him on anyone’s behalf. Unfortunately, over the ages, as people have forgotten or have never understood the position of the Buddha as a teacher or Way-pointer, many monks have assumed the role of priest, as the brahmins of India, but it is something that I flatly refuse to be called; I am not a priest!

Someone once told me that one of the monks of the temple in Manila where I spent five years had complained of me that "He never prays to the Buddha!"—meaning that I didn’t participate in their ceremonies for the dead, I suppose. My response to this was: "Too right I don’t, and if he does that’s his delusion, as the Buddha was a man, not a god, and never called anyone to pray to Him; in fact, He discouraged it, and exhorted people to strive for their own enlightenment, as He couldn’t do it for them".

Although I will readily admit to not liking certain people (nobody likes everyone, and if we were honest about our preferences; they would be less likely to cause trouble), I am not the kind of person who deliberately overlooks someone’s good points just because there are things about him that I may not like. A person does not have to be a saint before I will acknowledge his good points; neither will it prevent me from learning something useful from him if I can. I am not looking for someone to save me or forgive my sins, but if I learn something from someone that might be useful to me in my own life, I feel grateful to the person from whom I learned it or who helped me to understand. And my reason for writing the above is to urge people to see beyond personality and not to make it the basis for their learning; what is important is what we learn, not who we learn it from. I recall the Dalai Lama saying that Mao Tse Dung was one of his best teachers, in that he helped him—the Dalai Lama—to develop patience. That’s it! Anyone and everyone may be our teacher, if we know how to learn!

A very old and justly-famous monk from Sri Lanka used to visit South Vietnam before the tragic fall of that country to Communism in 1975, in order to teach the Dharma there. He had been a monk since his teens and had written numerous good and clear books on Buddhism, through which many people both in the East and the West had come to know the Buddha’s Way. I met him in Singapore in 1973, on his way back to Sri Lanka from Vietnam, and he gave me one of his books in which he signed his name, simply: ‘Narada’ —no ‘Venerable’ or ‘Dr.’ In front, and no ‘Ph.D.’ or other ‘Christmas-tree decorations’ after. He had something more important than such words or symbols, I feel. Years later, someone told me that when he first went to Vietnam, he was asked about his rank by some distinction-and-protocol-loving person, and whether they should address him as Reverend (Dai Duc), Venerable (Thuong Toa), or Most Venerable (Hoa Thuong). Well, although he was a very senior monk and had been ordained over forty years at that time, he answered: "Reverend will do". And so, to this day, many Vietnamese Buddhists continue to refer to him as ‘Dai Duc Narada’. But does it really matter, to one who is in search of the Nameless, what he is called? Is it not written in a Chinese scripture: "The name that can be named is not the Eternal Name"? Why are we so attached to such superficial things? Is it perhaps because, not having attained anything of real value, and hating to be empty-handed after so many years, we are prepared to grasp onto anything as a substitute? Back in 1981, I attended an International Sangha Conference in Taiwan, along with monks from all over the world. Each monk was introduced as "Ven. So-and-so", regardless of how long he had been a monk. It was conspicuous, therefore, when a certain Vietnamese monk, arriving after the conference had started, had himself introduced as "The Most Venerable So-and-so"! Names and titles are given or awarded us by others, not by ourselves, and titles of respect and politeness should be treated cautiously—like a landmine about to be defused—as they are dangerous and might easily lead us astray.

In the Dhammapada, verse 73, it is written: "The fool will desire undue reputation, precedence among monks, authority in the monasteries, honor among families". Compare this with the story of Upali, the barber of King Suddhodana: After hearing the Buddha preach the Dharma, some young noblemen wished to become monks, so set off to the place where He was staying, accompanied by Upali, who also wished to ordain. When they got there, the young men requested the Buddha to ordain Upali first so that he would be senior to them in monkhood. They had been of high rank before and Upali of low, but the Dharma had so affected them that they stepped back and allowed—no, requested—Upali to be given the senior place. This is just one instance of many in the Buddhist scriptures where humility is extolled. And surely, this is one way to test our progress—or lack of it—in the Dharma: are we becoming more or less proud and egoistic? If more, something is wrong. On the other hand, we must take care that we don’t become proud of being humble, which is really a contradiction in terms, as such ‘humility’ is only inverted pride.

I would also like to mention something about King Suddhodana, the Buddha’s father. After the Buddha’s Enlightenment, the King sent messengers to request Him to visit His hometown, and the Buddha agreed to do so, out of gratitude and love for His father. News of the Buddha’s homecoming preceded Him, and the King and all the people were in a state of great expectancy and excitement. When word came that the Buddha would arrive the next day, large crowds, including the royal family, were at the main gate of the town to welcome Him, from early in the morning. There was a guard of honor, dancers, musicians, elephants and horses. But the Buddha approached by the back way instead of using the main highway, along a rough road that led through the slums and hovels of the low-caste and poor people, going from house to house with His alms-bowl, receiving gifts of food from those who had some to offer. When news of His arrival in this manner reached the King, he was very angry and quickly rode to the place where his son, the Buddha, had entered the town, surrounded now and followed by great crowds of people. Charging through the crowd, who had barely time to scatter, with cries of "Bow down—the King!", he shouted: "Is it thus that my son returns to his city, begging from base-borns?! Why do you humiliate me in this way, Siddhartha?!" The Buddha raised His eyes to the King on his horse and answered: "It is the custom of my race, O King". "What are you saying?" gasped the King. "Our ancestors have been kings for many generations, and never have any of them done anything like this!" "When I spoke of my race", replied the Buddha, "I was not speaking of my kingly ancestors, but of my ancestors the previous Buddhas. There have been many Buddhas before me, and what I do now they all did. It is no shame".

So sweet was the Buddha’s voice and so tender was the way He looked at His father that the King’s anger melted away. He dismounted from his horse and knelt at his son’s feet, saying: "Welcome home, dear son". Then, taking the Buddha’s alms-bowl, he led the way into the palace, where the Buddha and His monks were served and fed, after which, He preached the Dharma to His father, His wife Yasodhara, and His son, Rahula, whereupon, hearing and understanding, they took refuge in the Three Jewels.

The Buddha had gone beyond all desire for power and fame; He was not in competition with others for disciples and never called anyone to believe Him or follow Him. His purpose was to help those who were ready to be helped and who could be helped to find Enlightenment. Though He had His share of enemies, He was no-one’s enemy, but everyone’s friend.

A person may be a Buddhist without calling himself a Buddhist since Buddhism teaches that everyone—and not just Buddhists—has Buddha-nature. When a person acts from his Buddha-nature—with wisdom, compassion and love—he is a Buddhist, even if he knows nothing at all about Buddhism. This accords with what the Buddha said about caste: that a person becomes high-caste or low not by birth into a certain family but by his actions. Buddhism—or the essence of Buddhism rather than the form—is so expansive that nothing and no-one is outside its range; it is truly a Universal Way. Therefore, each and every one of us has a place, and we need to realize that place. There is no need for competition here or to fear that we might be left out or forgotten. The Dharma is limitless; unlike money or land, it can be used and shared without it ever becoming less; in fact, the more it is used and shared, the more there is!

< 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