Not This, Not That ~ AGAIN IN MALAYSIA

In ’91, I felt the urge to travel, so took leave of my supporters and flew to Singapore, where I spent a few days before going to Muar. At the bus-station there, while waiting for someone to pick me up and take me to the Buddhist Society, a young woman came up to me and asked if I were a Buddhist. I told her that, in order to answer her, she must first tell me what she understood by the term ‘Buddhist,’ as it might be different from my understanding of it. She said she didn’t know much about Buddhism, so couldn’t really tell me. However, it was an opening that led to other things. She went on to tell me that her father ~ who she’d loved dearly ~ had died not long before, and she was very distressed by this, and, far from finding solace in anyone, had lost her faith in humanity; she complained that people were hypocrites. At this, I had a flash of insight, and interrupted her, saying: “Yes, we are, aren’t we?” and explained that we are all hypocrites, not because we want or try to be, but just because it is part of the condition of unenlightened life.

Just then, my ride came, and I went off, but met this woman again on several occasions, and explained a little more to her in a way she could understand, thus putting her mind more at ease. Meeting her was an auspicious beginning of what was to be an overall good trip in Malaysia; it was not planned or pre-destined, but neither do I consider it an accident, as things don’t happen just by themselves, but as the result of causes ripening together at certain points in time; all things have causes ~ count-less causes ~ and are therefore not accidents but incidents or events. And although we often say that things go wrong when they don’t turn out as we would like, this is not so; things don’t go wrong, they happen, and it’s up to us to see what we can do about or with them.

During one talk in the Buddhist Society, I spoke of Siddhartha seeing the Four Startling Sights ~ an old person, a sick person, a corpse, and an ascetic ~ and said that, contrary to what the books say about this, I could not accept that he was seeing such things for the first time in his life, but that, on this occasion, his mind must have been particularly sensitive, and it was as if he were seeing them for the first time.

At this, the president of the Buddhist Society stood up rather irately, and practically threatened me with damnation, saying that people who distort the scriptures will go to Hell! Echoes of medieval Christianity! I had visions of witch-hunts and people being stretched on the rack or burnt at the stake, merely be-cause they were slightly different in some way, or didn’t conform to the prevailing norm!

Well, that man and I obviously see things in different ways, but I can’t imagine the Buddha, who gave us the Kalama Sutta, and urged us to investigate things and find out for ourselves, saying things like that. I will quote here from a book called, Insights For The Age of Aquarius, by Gina Cerminara, published in 1973, a book which I would like to see become required reading in all high schools, as it is full of practical wisdom. She includes a quote from another book, An American Bible, by Elbert Hubbard:

“In courts of law, the phrase, ‘I believe’ has no standing. Never a witness gives testimony but that he is cautioned thus: ‘Tell us what you know, not what you believe.’

“In theology, belief has always been regarded as more important than that which our senses say is so. Almost without exception, ‘belief’ is a legacy, an importation ~ something borrowed, an echo, and often an echo of an echo.

“The creed of the future will begin, ‘I know,’ not ‘I believe.’ And this creed will not be forced upon the people.

“It will carry with it no coercion, no blackmail, no promise of an eternal life of idleness and ease if you accept it, and no threat of hell if you don’t.

“It will have no paid, professional priesthood, claiming honors, rebates and exemptions, nor will it hold estates free from taxa-tion. It will not organize itself into a system, marry itself to the State, and call on the police for support. It will be so reasonable, so in the line of self-preservation, that no sane man or woman will reject it.

“As a suggestion and first rough draft, we submit this:

“I know that I am here in a world where nothing is permanent but change, and that in degree, I myself can change the form of things and influence a few people; and that I am influenced by the example and by the work of men who are no longer alive.

“And that the work I now do will in degree influence people who may live after my life has changed into other forms….”

Mrs. Tan ~ whose husband I’d visited before he died of cancer ~ knowing I was working on a new book, invited me to stay in her home so I would have more peace. I accepted, thinking her sin-cere, and moved into her large house, where indeed, the condi-tions were more conducive. I was able to get on well with my book there, and after some weeks, it was ready for printing in a nearby press. This was the first edition of BECAUSE I CARE.

During this trip in Malaysia, I visited the refugee-camp at Sungai Besi near K.L. several times to give talks and encourage the people, and thinking to help them, put out a call in Malacca and Muar for used clothes. The response was such that two truck-loads were collected, and someone offered to deliver them to the Camp, where they were unloaded at the temple under the supervision of the Camp security personnel. It is true that some of the clothes were not very good (some people had even put in old and not-too-clean underwear!), but many were.

Years before, Wong had told someone that if he reached the age of 40 and was still single, he would become a monk and follow me. Now, here he was at 38, about to get married, and invited me to the wedding. I attended, and gave him and his wife my heartfelt blessings, but I was sorry, really, to see him go.

I set off on an extensive speaking-tour which took me all over West Malaysia, and during it, developed a cough which became progressively worse and defied all the medicines, syrups and lozenges that people loaded me up with. It came to a head at the casino-resort at Genting Highlands, just outside of Kuala Lumpur. I’d gone there to give a talk to the Buddhists who worked there, and they’d put me ~ together with another monk ~ to stay overnight in the hotel. Early the next morning, I awoke with a terrible pain in my chest, and thought I was having a heart-attack. I didn’t say anything, as the other monk was still asleep, but lay there for a while trying to suppress the pain. When I managed to get up, I sneezed, and almost collapsed from the pain. Still, I said nothing, and after breakfast, someone came to take me to a nearby town for a talk in the temple there. We arrived before lunch, and people were preparing food for me, but I felt so bad that I slumped to the floor with my back against a wall. They were unconcerned, and didn’t show me to my room. I told them I didn’t want to eat anything, and they went off. By evening, I pulled myself together enough to give my talk, and then Wong ~ who I’d called earlier to ask if he would come out and pick me up ~ arrived to take me back to K.L. I stayed with him for a few days, and he could see I was unwell; he later said that I wasn’t my usual cheery self, and it was true. Anyway, someone else insisted on taking me to see a doctor, and I credit him ~ Dr. Joseph Soo ~ with saving my life, because, after ex-amining me, he sent me for a chest x-ray at a Seventh Day Ad-ventist hospital, and paid for it himself; the results showed a shadow on my left lung; I was diagnosed with pneumonia! Dr. Soo put me on antibiotics, and I slowly began to recover, without the need for hospitalization.

I had quite a rough time; but didn’t let it interrupt my appoint-ments. I returned to Malacca, where D.V. arranged for me to stay with some of his friends, as he was unable to offer me ac-commodation at the time. One night, when he came to pick me up and take me for a talk, I was coughing so badly that I could hardly stand up.

“You can’t go like this,” he said; “You’ll have to cancel!”

“I’m going,” I said, “Even if I die. Come on.” I’d been to this particular place before, you see, and always got a good hearing; the people were receptive and attentive; had it been a place where people were not interested, I might have cancelled, but this place was special. When we got there, as soon as I entered the door, my cough stopped. Halfway through my talk, I realized I was feeling great, and afterwards, on the way home, D.V. said, “I couldn’t believe it ~ before and after: what a difference!”

“That is the power of the Dharma,” I said, “It works through the mind on the body.”

But it was a temporary reprieve; I still had far to go in my recov-ery. A few days later, back in Muar, a talk had been arranged in Mrs. Tan’s house. Aware of my condition, some people tried to persuade me to rest and not talk. I told them not to feel sorry for me because I was sick, but to be attentive to what I would say, as I would be speaking from the center of the storm, from direct experience, with authority, and not from mere theory. I said that I didn’t feel sad because my body was sick, and therefore was not suffering, and actually, they should feel happy for me.

“Happy? But you are sick!”

“Yes, I’m sick, but I’m lucky; lucky because it is the worst sickness I’ve ever had; however, instead of feeling sad about it, I use it to compare and measure how fortunate I’d been to remain healthy and free from serious sickness for so long until now; this sickness reminds me about this and about how everything is im-permanent. The Dharma enables me to turn it around.”

Back in Malacca, there was a water-shortage, as the local res-ervoir had been polluted and had to be drained. It went on for several weeks, and was very inconvenient for most people, but as the saying goes, “It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good.” Now, D.V. worked for his father in the pump-business he’d set up years before, and they had a great increase in sales.

For the first time, I visited a Buddhist Society in Johor Bharu named Metta Lodge, where there was so much emphasis on ‘making merit,’ that breakfast consisted of about 50 dishes, which was overdoing it a bit. I wondered what they would have said ~ all the people who came to offer this food ~ if I’d some-how managed to eat it all. Many of them clearly had such high expectations of monks that disappointment was unavoidable. Like moths to a candle-flame, they were fascinated at this time by a Thai superstar-monk who had been discovered and introduced to Malaysia by Mahinda, and was already well-known as charismatic and handsome; I wasn’t impressed, however, as his books were full of photos of him posing like a movie-star, clearly aware of his good looks and the effects he had upon others. I recall thinking then that he was too handsome for his own good. His fame went to his head, and he was later brought down by a scandal that blew up around him. Whether he was guilty of the things he was accused of or not, I cannot say. He denied the charges, but his adamant refusal to submit to a DNA-test cast doubts upon his integrity.

Until then, he had many followers in Malaysia, Singapore, Australia and other countries, and was regarded and received as an arahant in many places ~ including MBMC in Penang ~ and white cloths spread before him to walk on and ‘consecrate’; some folks then took these cloths home and treated them as objects of veneration, like holy relics; he was rapidly becoming a cult-figure, and did nothing to discourage this unhealthy trend, and he must surely have been aware of it; in fact, by not discouraging it, he tacitly encouraged it and caused people to be-come dependent upon him. In my opinion, this was his biggest mistake; he allowed people to worship him, and eventually, many people became confused and lost their faith. Of course, they lost their faith because it was misplaced, but he, in his posi-tion, should have used his influence to correct this and teach that a Buddhist’s faith should be in the Dharma, so that nothing can shake it. He should have explained that personality is in-substantial, hollow and empty, and will only let us down; like sand, it’s not a good foundation, and will crumble when troubles arise. Instead of doing this, however, he allowed people to be-come addicted to him ~ quite the opposite of the Buddhist Way.

Sadly, this kind of thing is not uncommon; numerous teachers and gurus are more concerned with promoting themselves than with helping people to understand Dharma; in reality, they are not teachers but cheaters!

So often I have seen how the excessive respect paid by lay-Buddhists to monks and nuns has a corruptive effect, and can become more intoxicating than whiskey. One must be on guard against it. It happens, in the case of the laity, when there is more faith than wisdom, and in the case of the monks, when there is more self-esteem than wisdom; in both cases it happens be-cause the central place of the Dharma is neglected or forgotten. Consequently, when scandals like this arise, many people lose their faith, whereas if it had been solidly rooted in the Dharma, they would not have been so shaken, and would still have been able to carry on.

Long ago, I rejected the personality-cult of Christianity, and now, free from belief in Jesus as a savior, regard him as a teacher. I do not mind that he was not free from imperfections; a person doesn’t need to be perfect in order for me to learn from him something useful to me in my own life; in fact, it’s maybe better that I see his imperfections, as it is easier to relate to him than it would be to someone perfect, if there is such a thing. Christians are not allowed, or refuse to see, the imperfections of Jesus; the Church has glossed over and explained them away, and made him into an unrealistic figure. The image it has projected of him is of someone so far beyond us as to be impossible of emula-tion; this is what comes of deification, of regarding a person as divine instead of human. Rather than being an elevation, it is really a degradation, and renders meaningless the attempts of a teacher to lead people to higher things than they have hitherto been aware of, and to indicate the potential of being human.

Milarepa, Tibet’s most famous and respected yogi, was once re-quested by the people of a certain village to stay with them as their guru. Gratefully declining, however, he said that if he were to stay with them, there would soon come a time when they would focus critically on his manners and behavior, and no longer listen to him when he explained the Dharma, and that would be to their detriment. It would be far better, he said, if he kept himself at a distance. What was he saying? That the Dharma is most important, and should not be confused with per-sonality. If only we would realize and remember this, it would be so much easier for us to understand the Dharma.

I spent 6 months in Malaysia this time, during which Piyasilo made the news big-time, but not in a way he wished (and oh, did he crave power and fame!) Since his downfall and expulsion from Seck Kia Eenh in ’78, he’d moved to a Thai temple in K.L., but soon wore out his welcome there. He then went to London, to join Sangharakkshita’s organization, Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO), but they also soon saw through him, and he was sent packing. He next went to California, trying to get a toehold, but people there faxed KL to ask about him and when informed of his character, rejected him. Back to Malaysia he came again and set up an organization ~ I mentioned earlier about his organizational ability ~ called FOBM: Friends of Buddhism Malaysia. But, instead of acknowledging the source of his ideas for this, he bad-mouthed Sangharakkshita and the FWBO. Then, as time passed and he attracted people to him, he started to attack everyone, including the self-styled Chief High Priest of Malaysia and Singapore, Dhammanda. He was so paranoid and insecure, that he had to strive to be Number One, and of course, in this, he failed. His attacks were always veiled and without names, but everyone could tell who his targets were.

Finally, unable to take any more, some of his disciples ~ oh yes, he considered he had disciples, this foolish idea! ~ exposed him and his misdeeds became public knowledge, and appeared on the front pages of Malaysia’s newspapers. Confronted by some Thai monks, he promised to disrobe, but not surprisingly, didn’t keep his word; his word meant nothing at all; everything about him was a lie. He tried to blackmail his supporters into staying with him, saying that if they deserted him, he would become a Christian and attack Buddhism, but it didn’t work. Only after some months was he prevailed upon to disrobe. His place was closed, and he went into hiding, with one or two of his die-hard supporters. A snake is always a snake, however, and he contin-ued to work his mischief.

In K.L., someone by the name of Charles ~ who I’d known since 1986 ~ introduced me to a couple who were visiting from Austra-lia; thus I came to know Bok and Pearl, who were themselves Malaysians, but living in Sydney, where I saw them whenever I was there over the years until now as I write this. They are gra-cious people, and have been very supportive of me, organizing talks for me whenever I’m there.

Also, at this time, I was told Khantipalo had disrobed. “How can it be?” I said, “He’s been a monk for over 30 years!” I knew, of course, that he had turned from Theravada towards Vajrayana and had become more flexible, and some people were upset about this, but I found it hard to believe he would disrobe. It was true, however, as I was later to find out.

My trip in Malaysia almost over, I stayed at Mrs. Tan’s again, but she was quite different towards me this time. Other people could see the change in her, too. I racked my brain to see what I might have done to cause her change of attitude towards me, but could find nothing; it wasn’t as if I’d made a pass at her or any-thing like that. I later asked other people if they knew what had caused it, but they either didn’t know or wouldn’t say, and my several letters to her from Melbourne went unanswered. The only thing I could think of that might explain it was the US-based Tibetan Rinpoche she was quite close to; she was a wealthy woman, and he might have felt threatened by me, and said something to her. It remains a mystery until now.

Back in Singapore, I stayed with Dhammika again in a new place he and his supporters had set up, and which they’d called Buddha-Dhamma Mandala Society, but he is like me in several ways, one of which is that he is difficult to stay with. One day, unable to use a typewriter, he asked me to type a letter for him, which I willingly did. While doing it, I said, “Why don’t you learn to type? If I can, you can” (I type with just three fingers, pecking at the keyboard with my right index finger, my left index finger on the space-bar, and my next-to-last left finger on the shift, but I manage alright and am quite fast). Sarcastically, as if I were criticizing him, he said: “That’s for sure!” Now, why did he feel a need to say this? He never learned to type well, and as late as 2004, when I read through a new book he’d written, I knew he’d typed it, although he never admitted it; there were so many typ-ing and spelling errors, and throughout it, he’d spelled ‘alms-bowl’ ‘alms-bowel’! Not only is his hand-writing childish scrawl, and his typing horrible, but I think he must be dyslexic, which is not his fault, of course, but he ought not to be so arrogant!

Some students of Singapore’s Polytechnic invited me to give a talk, and afterwards, one of them asked me what was rather an impertinent question (Piyasilo had been active here, and I got the feeling she was one of his followers, and probably thought he was ‘the best’). She said: “What have you achieved in your life?” ~ a question to ‘measure’ me.’ I thought for a few mo-ments, then said: “I survived.” Whether she understood my reply or not was immaterial, but to survive day-by-day, when we might die of a thousand-and-one causes ~ as many people do ~ is something to ponder on and appreciate.

Like most people, I guess, at times I get frustrated and de-pressed, and wonder where I’m going; sometimes, I cannot see the next step ahead of me, and it seems like I’ve come to a dead end; sometimes, when things are difficult, and there seem to be no results ~ or I get results other than what I want ~ I wish I had never gotten into this line of things; and sometimes, death would not be unwelcome ~ would be a release. But whenever I feel like this, I turn around and look back on the way by which I reached the present. Do you think it was as straight as an arrow? Of course it wasn’t, not for more than a short distance at a time, but twisted and turned, climbed and fell and sometimes even disap-peared below ground, only to reappear elsewhere. Often, there were obstacles, which, at the time, seemed insurmountable; the road was often pitted with pot-holes of despair; there was suffer-ing and sickness, lethargy and blues, times when I was de-pressed and stuck in the doldrums, and didn’t know what to do; there were times when I was lonely and sad, times of danger and fear, and times when the road ran near to madness and hell. It is a miracle I survived, yet survive I did and survive I do at the time of writing this, and usually, I’m happy about this.

"Talk sense to a fool and he calls you foolish."

~ Euripides - Greek Dramatist, 480 - 406 B.C.E. ~

No-one can please everyone. Abide by your principles, and if people agree, so much the good; if they disagree, don't change your mind just to suit them.

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