Behind The Mask ~ THANKS

It has long been in my mind to write a book about people to whom I feel grateful for the help they gave me along my way, but never made a start on it as I felt that if I began, I would never finish because there were just so many, and as I go on, I receive more help, like we all do.

Now, however, I’ve decided to delay no more but to make a start, even if it’s not a whole book on the subject, and even if I limit myself to mentioning just a few people who helped and encouraged me, as I feel that, in our day and age, when so much is taken for granted, and we have become jaded and mediocre, it is good to be reminded, now and then, of how much we depend upon others. I hope no-one will be upset for not receiving a mention, and that everyone will understand and rejoice with me in expressing my gratitude in these pages. I also wish to say that if, in my humble and limited capacity, I am able to pass on something useful to someone—and without boasting, I know that this sometimes happens—it is only because of the help and support I have received from others. No-one acts alone, lives alone or dies alone, but only in concert with others.

We are as we are not just because of our own efforts (which, if analyzed carefully, contributed not as much as we think to the overall effect), but mainly because of the influence of countless others, living and dead, met and unmet, known and unknown. Just think of how much our lives depend upon the language, for example—together with countless other things of local and world-wide culture—that we were born into; as we think, so we speak and act, and so we become; our lives are greatly conditioned by words, by language, and moreso if we are not aware of it.

We are all flowers on the human tree, and it would not be incorrect to say that the whole of human history and prehistory is present in all of us, with the influence of active, inventive, thinking individuals more present in us than that of the passive and thoughtless masses which populate the Earth in any age. However, it should not be forgotten that the high rests upon the low—we can have the foundations of a building without the roof, but we cannot have the roof without the foundations or the walls—and without the latter kind of people, the former could not exist. The influence of the active but negative people is also present in us, as positive and negative always go together, inseparably, and as we all know, it is easier to learn and acquire something negative than something positive, just as it is easier to fall down a tree than it is to climb one.

If we’ve never thought of ourselves like this it is not too late to do so, and to consider this body-mind that we have somehow evolved into. In taking stock of it and understanding more of it than we did before, we will be better able to control and direct our lives and have more choice in the way we want to live, instead of always being under the control of our feelings or outside influences. Right now, we cannot talk of ‘free will’ as our will is not free but heavily conditioned. If it can ever be totally free, completely our own, I don’t know and dare not say, but it can, I am sure, be more ours than it is now.

Now, I do not claim to know myself very well, as there are many things that I am only dimly aware of and surely many things that I know nothing of at all; in spite of this, however, I feel that I know myself better than anyone else does, especially as I do not live long in one place but move around a lot. I am aware that I have a number of faults and imperfections (who doesn’t?) and they do not go away merely because I’m aware of them and don’t want them. But, on the other hand, because I do not accept the basic Christian idea that man’s nature is totally corrupt and can only be redeemed by ‘God’s grace’, I am convinced that there is goodness in everyone, including myself. I have some positive qualities (if I were to be falsely modest and deny that I have any, it would be a contradiction of what I have said above about positive and negative always going together inseparably). And because I know myself better than anyone else does, I advise people not to look too closely at me or place importance on my personality, but to divorce this from what I say and try to find something in my words that might be useful to them long after I’ve gone and been forgotten. In spite of this exhortation, however, I know that some people will insist on picking up my ‘droppings’, as it were, instead of the occasional pearl that might be found in my words. (This applies not just to myself but to others, too). What can I do about this? If that is what they prefer, in spite of my warnings, well, let them have it!

Where my spiritual search began, I cannot say, for if we look for the beginning of anything, it leads us back and back, from one thing to another, and outwards and outwards, and no sooner do we think we have found it than we find something else before that, and something before that, on and on, until finally, we realize that there is no beginning to anything, but just links in a chain—or knots in a net, to use a better analogy—that stretches out to infinity. And we may suppose, from such observations, that just as a beginning to anything cannot be discovered, so also, a final end to anything cannot be conceived of. We are told now that nothing can be totally destroyed but only transformed into something else. We might consider ourselves in this light: where we came from prior to our birth we do not know, and must admit this, just as we don’t know what will happen to us after we die. This, however, we do know: we were born. We also know that we did not remain babies, but grew and developed from that state to the state we are now in. We can see, too, that we will not remain like this but will grow older (even if we don’t become old; not everyone becomes old), and sooner or later we will die. This is certain. After that, although we can see that the body is transformed, either quickly, through cremation, to ash, heat and smoke, or slowly, by decaying in the ground and becoming something else, we cannot say for sure. And what happens to the mind after death? We may surmise that such a potent thing—and who would deny that it is this?—can’t just abruptly cease to exist. We must, for lack of evidence or personal experience, plead ignorance and suspend judgment about this. It’s no use repeating old beliefs and theories that we have inherited from the past, for although these might be comforting and reassuring, we still don’t know!

However, for the sake of conveniently relating part of my story, I will choose something that took place in 1970, when I was in India. My purpose had been to travel overland from Europe as far as possible and then to go by plane or ship the rest of the way to Australia to join my parents, who had recently migrated there; I supposed Australia would become my home too, and so, thinking that it might be my last time in India (I had been there before), I decided to wander around for a few months and visit some of the ancient and holy places before leaving for Australia.

While in South India, in the holy town of Rameswaram, where there is a huge and marvelous Hindu temple, I was approached on the street one day by a yogi or sadhu—a middle-aged man with very long hair and beard, his thin and wiry body clad in just a loin-cloth. He spoke no English and I spoke very little Hindi, which was his native tongue, being from North India; but somehow, we were able to communicate. This meeting was a major turning-point in my life, for whereas before, I had had no real direction in my life, after that I embarked upon the journey that I’m still on. He invited me to stay with him in a nearby pilgrims’ rest-house known as a dharma-sala, and I accepted, sleeping on the cement floor and bathing at the well. I stayed with him only a few days before resuming my wanderings, and although during this time he gave me no specific lessons that I can remember and put my finger on, I think of him—Jagadish Narayan—as having played an important role in my life. May he be well and happy now, wherever he may be!

Leaving Rameswaram, my trip took me from Kanyakumari—the southernmost tip of that vast and fascinating country—through the southern states of Tamilnadu, Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, the central states of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, the Western states of Gujerat and Rajasthan, to the northern states of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. In one of my previous books—BECAUSE I CARE—I told of several illuminating experiences I had at the caves of Ajanta-Ellora and the old Buddhist site of Sanchi, so will not repeat that here. Instead, I will pass on to New Delhi where, late one afternoon, as I was making my way out of the city by foot to a highway where I hoped to be able to hitch a ride in the direction of India’s holiest city, Benares (or Varanasi, as it is more commonly known), I was overtaken by a Buddhist monk (the first I had ever met), who asked me where I was going. When I told him, he said that as it was getting late, it might be better if I spent the night at his temple nearby, and go on the next day. I accepted his invitation and went with him to the temple, which was a simple building of corrugated-iron with a banyan-tree in the compound, and little else. He introduced me to his brother-monk there who, like himself, was from Chittagong in what was then East Pakistan, but which soon afterwards became Bangladesh. I was received hospitably and a charpoy (a wooden bed-frame interlaced with rope) was placed out in the yard for me to sleep on under the stars; in October, this was quite suitable as the rainy season was over and the nights were mild. I don’t recall being bothered by mosquitoes, so there probably weren’t many, and those there were I was able to tolerate, having traveled widely in India and grown used to sleeping outside on a rush-mat I carried with me.

The next day, Venerable Dhammika—for such was the friendly monk’s name—invited me to accompany him to the home of some of his supporters. I accepted, and on the way there, by scooter-rickshaw, he told me that, a few days before, one of the children of the family we were going to visit had been knocked down by a car and killed; the funeral was already over, and he was going to the house to give a memorial sermon.

Before I go any further, I should say that, Venerable Dhammika being the first Buddhist monk I had ever met, I knew nothing at all about the lifestyle of monks. Therefore, I thought nothing of it when he instructed the family to prepare a seat for me alongside his against the wall, and to serve food to both of us, while the family sat facing us. So I sat there and ate what was served, unaware that monks of the Theravada school of Buddhism—of which he was a follower—never ate together with non-monks but always separately. Maybe he thought it would be inconvenient and embarrassing to explain about this to me, or maybe he placed little importance on this custom and was ready to overlook it; I do not know. Maybe he was just kind; this I know.

After eating, he took his long-handled fan (which I since learned was used while preaching) and, holding it before him so that the people could hear his voice but not see his face, he began to speak. Now, I understood not a word of what he was saying, although I presumed it was about the death of the child. But, whereas the people in front of him could not see his face because of the fan, I, still sitting beside him, could, and I saw that, while speaking, he was weeping, with tears rolling down his cheeks. This moved me, for I saw that he cared so much about the people to whom he was speaking, and shared their loss and sorrow. I didn’t know, at that time, that monks are not supposed to show their emotions so but to restrain themselves. On the other hand, however, we are taught to consider others as ourselves, and to feel their suffering and pain as our own, for it is by identifying with others that compassion arises.

I will state unequivocally here that I was far more impressed with Venerable Dhammika of New Delhi, who was not ashamed to weep with the family over their loss, than with all the stony-faced monks and nuns I’ve seen performing ceremonies over the years—far more impressed, and favorably so! Should a monk make his heart cold and hard like a stone, which almost nothing can move? We all know, of course, that no-one lives forever and that it’s only a matter of time before we all pass through the gateway of death. Increasing detachment and equanimity result from reflection on this and insight into how things are, but have nothing to do with mere unconcern or indifference towards others.

I stayed with the two monks for three days, during which time, the brother-monk, noting my interest, asked me whether I would like to become a monk, and if so, he would ordain me. I told him that I would (I’d already decided this after my experience at Sanchi), but that I wasn’t yet ready as I first wanted to go to Australia to visit my parents and tell them, in person, that I would be going back to India to become a monk. Thanking them, I left, and went on my way.

Over the years, I have thought many times about Venerable Dhammika and his kindness to me, but this is the first time I have written about him; I confess my neglect. In 1988, I was back in Delhi for the first time since 1970, but I couldn’t remember just where his tiny temple was located, as Delhi had changed so much in the meantime. I made some inquiries and a monk at another small temple that I came across told me he had died some years before; I don’t know if this was true (I remember feeling somewhat doubtful about it at the time, as the monk didn’t seem sure himself), and when I was in Delhi again at the end of 1993, I made a further search for him, by taxi and on foot, but had no more success than in 1988. Reluctantly, I abandoned my search, but the fact that I wasn’t able to see him again does not diminish the respect I still have for him. He was the first monk I met, and without intending to, he gave me something that has stayed with me until now: an example of humility, kindness and concern for others. I am fortunate to have met him, particularly at that stage of my life; his example has helped to sustain me through times of doubt and depression. Wherever and however he is right now, I wish him well in every way, and am grateful to him forever!

The next year, after visiting my parents in Australia and telling them of my intention to return to India to become a monk, I went to Indonesia, as the cheapest route out of Australia, and it was there, on my 25th birthday, that I met the chairman of a Buddhist Society in Semarang, Central Java, and was invited to stay with him for a few days and make use of his extensive library. His name was Pak Sadono, and he was very kind to me, providing me with different kinds of Indonesian food every day. He also gave me letters of introduction to several other Buddhist Societies and temples on my way, and I was thus able to travel from one place to another in Java and Sumatra, receiving much hospitality and kindness.

Then, in the North Sumatran city of Medan, I met another beautiful person: an Indian gentleman by the name of Kumarasami, who took me, a waif and stray, under his wing during the few days I spent in the temple there, making me feel like one of his sons. I recall him speaking to me of the love that develops as one follows the Path; he himself manifested it in abundance, and I have since felt it at times and know what a wonderful thing it is, but—like humility—it cannot be practiced; it must come from inside, as a result of understanding or seeing things clearly. Before I left to go to Malaysia, he also gave me letters of introduction to temples in Penang and Kuala Lumpur, but sadly, these letters were not received in the same spirit as they were given to me.

In 1978, I was again in Indonesia, and was looking forward to seeing both Pak Sadono and Mr. Kumara-sami again, but alas, this was not to be. I learned that Pak Sadono had died some years before. And, two weeks before I got to Medan, my dear benefactor there also passed away. This was a cruel blow to me, but I survived and have good memories of both these men, both of whom were householders and had families, and it is because of this that I can say, with authority, that the Dharma is not only for monks or other people who stay in temples or monasteries.

If, now, I am able to pass on and share something with others, it is only because I received so much from people like those I have mentioned in this article, and in so sharing, perhaps I am able to repay them in some measure for their love and kindness to me. I bow to their memories!

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