Not This, Not That ~ MY FATHER DIES

My mother’s 80th birthday was coming up, so I flew back to visit her; I’d not told her I was coming, so she got a surprise. Glen and Harold had also come from England to visit. Meanwhile, over in Melbourne, some people from the old group had got together and decided to rent another place for me so we could continue our meetings. In late November, one of them drove over to collect me and my stuff, and put me up at his home until a place had been found. Khanh was a newcomer to the group, and must have seen I had to use the toilet like everyone else or something, and realized I was just an ordinary mortal, and started to behave quite irrationally. I was glad to get away from him to the flat that had been found for me. We resumed our Sunday meetings, with Tuan translating when he could make it.

It was while I was in Hawthorne that I met Mrs. Cam Nguyen, a lady prominent in the Vietnamese community; she used to at-tend our Sunday sessions. So, too, I made contact with a woman in Adelaide named Joy, who had got my address from one of my books. We began to correspond frequently.

Then, one day, Khantipalo ~ or I should say, ex-Khantipalo, who had reverted to his old name, Lawrence Mills ~ came to visit me. Dressed in ordinary clothes and sporting a pony-tail ~ as favored by followers of the particular form of Tibetan Buddhism he’d adopted, Dzog-Chen, though why a pony-tail should be considered de rigueur I really don’t know. It had been some years since we’d last met, and it was good to see him again; he was much more human than he’d been before, and I admired him for the step he’d taken, because at his age, it must have been very difficult, as there was no chance of him entering the work-force again. I got the impression that he had no particular direction in his mind; that was to come later, and he eventually established a meditation-center in Northern Queensland, where he settled down with the Sri Lankan lady he’d married.

At the end of March ‘92, we participated in the annual Clean-up Australia Day, when people go out to pick up rubbish. This campaign was initiated a few years earlier by a man named Ian Kiernan. While sailing his yacht solo around the world, he was so appalled by the amount of garbage floating in the seas that when he returned to Sydney, he informed some friends of his observations, and asked them to join him in doing something about it on a practical level. And so, because he cared enough, instead of just thinking: “Oh, it’s terrible, but I didn’t do it, so it’s not my responsibility,” it has had a ripple-effect to the extent that an estimated 400,000 people took part in the clean-up nation-wide, and every year since there have been more.

More kudos to Ian Kiernan for his courage and determination, for striking a match and lighting the lamps of others waiting by, unaware of the matches in their own hands! Many of us wait for others to make the first move and will then follow, hesitantly at first, perhaps, and often glancing around to make sure we are not alone, but with increasing confidence as we go on, so that later, even if we do find ourselves alone at times, it won’t matter.

Now, I don’t know Ian Kiernan, or anything of his religious affilia-tions (if any), but I doubt if he calls himself a Buddhist and burns incense to an image of the Buddha or Avalokitesvara for help or salvation. I do know this, however: in doing what he did, he was practicing what Buddhists call Dharma or the Way, even if he was not aware of it; and in that sense, he is a Buddhist, much moreso, in fact, than people who call themselves ‘Buddhists’ but who do not live by the Dharma. You see, contrary to what many people think, Dharma is not something mysterious, esoteric or airy-fairy, that can be understood by only very few highly-intellectual or learned people; nor is it something to believe in and pray to for salvation, but something of ordinary everyday life, by following which we can help to make this world ~ our world, not mine or yours ~ a little bit better. Scattering garbage not only pollutes, destroys and causes problems for others, but is also an indication of the mental state of those who do it: care-less, dull and stupid. Cleaning up where others have despoiled, however, signifies caring, thoughtful and responsive minds. What we do is a reflection of what and how we think. And it is almost certain that those who go out to pick up garbage one day of the year, will not scatter garbage themselves throughout the year. And not only does this activity have a ripple-effect, spread-ing outwards from the man who started the campaign, but also has a spill-over-effect in those who get involved, for it probably will not stop at just garbage, if it began there; it will affect other areas of their lives, too. It is nothing less than a spiritual activity!

From my Sunday-school days ~ which weren’t a waste of time after all ~ I recall a little song about foundations, based upon one of Jesus’ parables; it is sound Dharma:

The foolish man built his house upon the sand
And the rain came tumbling down.
The rain came down and the floods came up
And the house on the sand went c-r-a-s-h!

The wise man built his house upon the rock
And the rain came tumbling down.
The rain came down and the floods came up,
But the house of the rock stood firm.

If we would examine our motives for what we do, and try to replace belief, fear, greed, compulsion and external authority with understanding and responsibility, our lives would rest on much firmer foundations than they do. We would then do what is right simply because it is right, and for no other reason.

I spent almost a year in that flat, and then accepted the invitation of someone over in Springvale to stay with him; His name was Quy, and he was single at that time and lived alone in his house; he was also vegetarian, which made things easier for me. While I was there, a lady brought her teenage son to me, and asked me to help him, saying he had a terrible temper. So entered my life Trung, and would remain with me for some years, causing me many headaches. I often wanted to chase him off, and sometimes did so; he also got mad with me on many occasions, but we were somehow reconciled. I guess there was some kar-mic-connection with him from the past.

It was alright at Quy’s for a while, but when he announced his intention to go to Vietnam in order to get married, I realized that he’d invited me there so I would take care of the place while he was away. I didn’t mind this, but upon his return a month later, he wasn’t the same person, and made it quite clear that it was time I left. When one door closes, another door opens, however, and while I was there, I’d been introduced to a Chinese temple not far away known as Bright Moon Buddhist Society. I gave a talk there, and it was later arranged that I should go to stay there. But first, I availed myself of a ride back to Adelaide on a coach-trip organized by Mrs. Cam Nguyen, who often arranged trips to different parts. I had arranged with Joy to stay with her for a while, even though she was a widow and lived alone, not a very wise thing to do, but as with the people in Manila jail, I knew my own mind.

Reaching Adelaide, I left the coach and Joy met me in her car and took me to her place. I spent two weeks there, and did some jobs around the place for her; she treated me kindly, but was the possessive-type and wanted to control me, not knowing that this was impossible. She drove me out to Gawler and left me there, and after a while, I returned to Melbourne yet again, to take up residence in Bright Moon.

Now, this place was in an ideal location, beside a busy road, and people would see the sign outside and stop by out of curios-ity. But it was run more like a business than a Buddhist center, and there were things going on that suggested a cooking of the books. I wasn’t aware of this until I’d been there for some time, of course. Something I did notice almost as soon as I went to stay there, however, was a presence, and I said to a volunteer named Lam, “There’s something here, you know.”

“How can there be,” he said, “with Buddha here?”

“That’s not Buddha,” I said, “but only an image.” There really was something there, and I felt and heard it so many times. The place was very large, set in a big block of land, and had been built as a sports-complex, so there was a gym, a sauna, squash-courts, and even a swimming-pool, all unused now. It was then used for some time as a restaurant before being bought and turned into a temple. A caretaker would stay overnight there, but apart from him, I was alone in the place when everyone went home. Now, I’ve mentioned earlier in my story that I am rather sensitive to spirits or ghosts, and I was no less so here. I often sensed something outside my tiny room, and when I used the bathroom and toilet at the rear in the early morning, there was so much inexplicable noise at times that I thought the roof might fall in on me! I began to call the presence Jeffrey. One night, when I was getting water from the drinking-fountain, something pushed me from behind and almost knocked me down, but I was alone in the place at the time; could it have been Jeffrey, seek-ing attention? I tried to do something for him, meditating and sending positive thoughts, but had no success in exorcizing him.

Months after I went to stay there, the temple sponsored a monk from China, and prepared a nice room for him at the rear of the temple, sparing no expense. It wasn’t long after Miao Chin got there that he also sensed something; he heard doors opening and closing in the night.

I gave very few talks during my stay there, not because I didn’t want, but because people there didn’t request any; the few that I did give were to outsiders, like members of the Buddhist groups from various universities. What I had to give, the Dull Moonies didn’t want; what they wanted, I either didn’t have or wouldn’t give. Like in so many Chinese temples where I’d stayed before, they were concerned only with ceremonies and making money. Interest in or desire for Dharma was noticeably lacking.

A Dutch nun once came to give a talk there ~ a dogmatic and forceful woman who had a speech impediment; she was unable to pronounce the letter ‘s’ correctly; it always came out as ‘sh,’ so you can imagine how it sounded when she spoke about ‘sit-ting in meditation’!

One day, a young woman in her thirties named Loi came to talk with me. She was Vietnamese-Chinese ~ that is, ethnic Chinese from Vietnam ~ and said she was interested in Buddhism, being from a nominally-Buddhist family. I had no idea what this first meeting would lead to, but before long, she brought her teenage nephew, Phong, and younger niece, Liz, to meet me. Loi’s mar-riage was in the middle of breaking up; I don’t really know why; she hadn’t been married long, but I think she really hadn’t tried to make it work; her husband was a nice-enough guy. Anyway, she became very supportive of me, and often took me for Sun-day-drives, with Phong and Trung; it was so nice to get away from the silliness in the temple; anything was better than that! Phong was pretty bright, and seemed genuinely interested in Dharma, much moreso than Trung. More about them all later.

In October 1993, I’d had enough of Dull Moon and felt the urge to travel again, so got a ticket to Malaysia, and just as I was about to leave, I came down with ‘flu, so decided to delay my departure for a week, preferring to be sick in Australia than overseas. Two days after I did so, my father, who’d been very ill for over a year, and in and out of hospital quite frequently, died. For him, it was a release as he was 84 and had suffered a lot through his illness; moreover, there was clearly little chance of him recovering. It was not a shock for me to learn of his death, therefore, as I had been expecting it. Mum left it several hours before calling me to tell me he’d gone, which was a bit late, but I immediately meditated for him.

At first, I didn’t intend to go for the funeral, feeling there was nothing I could do for him that I couldn’t do where I was, but the Dull Moonies were a bit shocked at this, and insisted I go, even getting the round-trip plane-ticket for me. It was good that they did so, because when I got home, I felt his presence around the place as if he were still there, as he might well have been, even though his body was in the funeral-parlor. I lay on his bed and meditated, trying to tune in to him and send him positive thoughts; at night, I sat outside his work-shed where he used to potter around, and sang his favorite song: “English Country Garden”. I got a lot of energy coming through, and felt good.

I was unpleased, however, by mum’s decision to go to England; she’d already bought a ticket and started packing, and disposing of things she didn’t want or wouldn’t need any more. I remon-strated with her, saying it was too soon, that it was winter there and she’d suffer from the cold; also that her friends would not be impressed, but she was adamant. I knew she wanted to see her old boyfriend, and I lost a lot of respect for her because of that.

Because she was a Christian, she had the funeral conducted accordingly, with a minister of the Salvation Army presiding; about thirty people attended. I stated my intention to speak, too. The minister spoke first, and said quite a lot about God, Jesus, life-after-death, Heaven, and so on. Then it was my turn to speak, and although I’d prepared some notes beforehand, I spoke extemporaneously. The gist of my talk was as follows:

“It is not a strange thing that we should grow old and die. The strange thing, on the contrary, is that we should live as long as we do! And who would wish to live forever? We get bored with our limited lives as it is!

“My father couldn’t complain that life had short-changed him; he lived for 84 years and witnessed many momentous changes in the world in this most-momentous century of all. And it is appro-priate that the father should precede the son into the Unknown; this is the natural order of things; it would be more sad if it were the other way around.

“It is my opinion, after many years of experience, that a funeral-ceremony is more for the living than for the dead, as the dead have left us to follow their destiny, while the living remain ~ hopefully to learn more about the life that is ours for just a while. At a funeral-ceremony, we are faced with the stark reality of life: that we will all go the same way as the one who has just gone. And death, strangely enough, is the key to life; instead of being something morbid to think about, it provides us with an incentive to live life more fully, while we have the opportunity to do so.

“Where we came from before we came into this world, and where we will go when we leave it, no-one knows. There are many concepts and beliefs about this matter, but they often con-flict with and contradict each other. We may believe this or that, but to be honest, we simply do not know.

“Buddhism, too, has its concept about what happens after we die, but since I, as a monk, have had no direct personal experi-ence of it, I am not qualified to say anything about it; were I to do so, I would merely be repeating what I have read or heard from others, and to me, that is not good enough. I prefer what Confu-cius is reported to have said when someone asked him: “Master, what happens after we die?” He replied: “Why do you want to know about that? You don’t even know how to live now!”

“But, although I know nothing about life-after-death, I have had some experience of this life, and am therefore somewhat quali-fied to speak about it.

“My father was nominally a Christian, as that was the only relig-ion he knew about. But names mean very little, and sometimes less than nothing. However, he belonged to the religion that we all belong to, and cannot get away from, but which very few of us know much about, as it is so ordinary and every-day: the Re-ligion of Life and Living. There are differences between us, of course ~ differences in race, nationality, religion, politics, culture, language and so on ~ but they are not nearly as important as we make them out to be. The similarities, the common denominators, are more numerous and much more important: people eve-rywhere wish to be happy and free from suffering; all have hopes, fears and aspirations. And if we understand our own feel-ings, hopes and desires, we will also understand others, and know what to do in our relationships and dealings with them, for they feel basically the same as us. The practice of the Religion of Life and Living, therefore, necessarily begins with ourselves, but should not end there. From understanding ourselves, we must extend our understanding outwards and expand our hori-zons to embrace an ever-greater portion of the world we live in.

“Life is precious, but the only place and time we have for living is HERE and NOW, for in reality, the past and the future do not exist. As far as we are concerned ~ each one of us ~ there is only the Here and Now; we cannot live anywhere else. Just try to live anywhere other than where you are: you will find that, wherever you are, it is always HERE. And whatever stage of life you might be in ~ infancy, youth, maturity or old age ~ it is al-ways NOW. It is therefore of great importance to live as close to the present as possible.

“Science has shown that nothing can be completely destroyed without trace; things are merely transformed into other things. So, we should consider death as a transformation; the life which informs our bodies here will flow on into other forms.

“So now, I hope and pray ~ and I’m sure you will join with me in this ~ that the person, force or energy which was my father in this life will go on into a higher and better life, will go on fear-lessly and with a light heart. May he be well, courageous and safe now, wherever, however and whatever he might be”.

After the service almost everyone there came up to me and said things like, “You gave us so much to think about!” The best part about it all, however, was that both Sheila and Frank ~ who have never been at all religious (I am from a family of ‘heathens’ ~ apart from my mother ~ who have not the slightest interest in things of the spirit) ~ both had tears in their eyes, and Frank was so stuck for words that his handshake was followed by a hug! I was amazed, as he is an unemotional person and we had never been close. I thought: “If only Dad could see this now! It would almost have been worth dying for!”

Where my father had gone, I don’t know, but do know that I could not think badly about him; such thoughts did not come into my mind any more, and I was happy about this, for he had his negativities, as we all do. I must confess that there were many times when I thought badly about him, but these burdens had been put down and I must express my gratitude to him for all the help he gave me, directly and indirectly. He wasn’t the best fa-ther in the world, perhaps, but neither was he the worst. He was, simply, my Dad. And from him, perhaps, I got my love of books.

At the funeral-service, Sheila introduced me to one of her neighbors, a Malaysian lady by the name of Annie, who told me she’d heard about me from a friend of hers in Penang. I asked who it was, but the name she gave ~ Yeap Tor Hor ~ didn’t ring a bell, and I have a good memory for names. It turned out that we had never met, but more about him in a while.

That afternoon, the phone rang. It was Wilanie, the Sri Lankan lady in Adelaide, wanting to know my number in Melbourne, as some friends of hers wished to invite me to preside at a memo-rial service for their late mother the following Saturday; she was very pleased, therefore, to learn that I was there in Gawler. I told her I intended to return to Melbourne on the Friday as I was booked to fly out to Malaysia on the Sunday. She requested me to delay my departure yet again, assuring me that her friends would pay any cancellation fees. To accommodate them, and also because I saw an opportunity to share something of the Dharma, I agreed to her request, and made a further postpone-ment of my trip.

That Saturday, I was picked up and taken to the house where the ceremony was to be. Many people had assembled, and after a sumptuous lunch, I began my talk, which went on for about two hours. At the end of it, someone whom I didn’t at first recog-nize came up to me and said that he had enjoyed my talk. Rec-ognition then dawned: it was a man with whom I’d had some dis-agreement way back in 1975 and had not seen since. How good it is to resolve old conflicts and allow the wounds to finally heal!

This was yet another spin-off or follow-up of my dad’s death; but there were others, and I recount some of them here to show how one thing leads to another in chain-like sequence. There is really no beginning or end to anything; everything has causes. Dad’s death was not an accident but an effect, and led ~ like everything does ~ to other things. After this talk, there was a re-quest for another talk that evening, also to Sri Lankans. There was no Sri Lankan monk in Adelaide at that time, nor, it seemed, any monk who spoke English well, and so, whenever I was back there and the Sri Lankans knew it, they invited me to give talks. They were concerned ~ and rightly so ~ that their young people, who have grown up there and whose first language is English, do not understand their religion well, and might lose touch with it. Some of my talks there went on for almost five hours!

Between the talks in the afternoon and evening, Wilanie discov-ered I was suffering from pains in my chest and left arm, so called a Sri Lankan doctor to come over and check me. Now, for the sake of anyone else who might be suffering from similar pains, I’d like to say that I’d had these pains, on and off, since 1976, but all the tests I’d undergone in various places, revealed nothing; all I was ever told was that it was not my heart at fault; I was never told what it was. The pain was so bad at times that it felt as if I were being stabbed or having a heart-attack. And ear-lier that year, in Melbourne, I had a prolonged bout of this pain that spread from my chest down my left arm into my hand, where it had never been before, and so concerned was I by this that I went, late one night, to the emergency-ward of a large hospital nearby and had an ECG, but again, it showed my heart to be normal. The pain, this time, lasted for several months and was quite debilitating; I could neither sit, stand nor walk for long without the pain increasing; the only position that I felt reasona-bly comfortable in was lying down; it quite curtailed my activities. The numerous acupuncture sessions I underwent, far from bringing any relief, only exacerbated the pain, and caused con-siderable bruising; the copious draughts of bitter Chinese medi-cine and Western analgesics also had no effect.

Dr. Karunaratna ~ for such was the name of the doctor who came to check me ~ asked if I’d ever had a neck x-ray, and sug-gested I get one done, as he felt the trouble might be from pinched nerves in my neck. That was strange, because not long before, I’d thought that the pains might be caused by nerves. Over the years, I’d been given various ‘diagnoses,’ including a blockage of the vital-energy (‘chi’), inflammation of the rib-cartilage, and even spirit-possession! Dr Karu’s explanation made more sense than even the sanest-sounding of the others, and I resolved to follow it up on my return to Melbourne.

When I got back to Melbourne the next day, I was met at the airport by Trung and his dad, and on the way back to the temple, was asked if I’d like to visit a friend on the route. “Why not?” I said, and so we went. Upon arriving there, I was told that Tuan’s father was near to death in hospital. I asked Trung’s dad if we might stop at the hospital next, so we went directly there. Making our way to the ward where he was confined, we found all his family gathered around his bed, on which he was lying in a coma, connected to life-support apparatus, with tubes running in and out of him in all directions; it looked as if he had already gone. His family was standing numbly and quietly, and I said to Tuan that this was an appropriate time for a Dharma-talk; he agreed, and asked everyone to listen. I spoke of the need at that time for everyone to control their grief, which would not help the departing person in any way and might even impede him, and to think with one mind in sending him positive thoughts. He loved you, I said, just as you loved him, and if he is still aware of us now, he would wish you to be happy, not sad. We cannot bring him back but must let him go, and in doing so, you should now focus on the good times you shared with him, and think posi-tively, in order to speed him on his way. As I spoke, Tuan no-ticed tears coming from his father’s eyes; had he understood what I was saying? He died soon afterwards, and I was re-quested to speak at his funeral, which I did.

I couldn’t get an appointment to see a neurologist in Melbourne be-fore I flew out to Malaysia a few days later, as the waiting-list was too long, and by the time I did, my mother had already gone to England, instructing Sheila to sell all her furniture and other stuff, as she wouldn’t be coming back. So she thought.

Wong met me at the airport with his wife and young daughter, and took me to stay in his new house, while I prepared to make another trip to India. The same friends who had taken me to see Dr. Soo in ’91, knowing of my pains, took me to see him again. I told him what Dr Karunaratna had said, and he immediately made an appointment for me to see Malaysia’s leading neuro-surgeon, who was a personal friend of his. Dr Bala’s clinic was crowded and I had to wait for several hours before being called into his examining-room, by which time, the x-rays that had been taken on my neck while I was waiting, were ready. Again, I was lucky to meet a kind and sympathetic doctor ~ the third in a row ~ and he showed me from the x-rays and explained in layman’s terms, the cause of the pains that had troubled me on and off for so long. Not only this, but he told me it was quite a common complaint ~ known as cervical spondylosis ~ and that, in fact, he’d had it himself some years before, but it had responded to medication without requiring surgery. He said that a minor op-eration could fix it permanently but advised against it at my age, as it might cause complications. He gave me some medication and I was happy to pay the bill of M$150; it was such a relief to finally know the cause of the pains, as not-knowing was just as bad as the pains themselves! If anyone else has been suffering from this ailment, without knowing what it is, and reads this and gets some insight into it, my pain will not have been in vain; I have told of it here in case there are other sufferers of the same thing who might get some relief.

The medication worked and some weeks later, the pain sub-sided to such a degree that I no longer needed it. I’ve not had it badly since then, but if they return, I’ll know better how to deal with them, and there will not be the fear that it is life-threatening.

“The book has been man’s greatest triumph. Seated in my library, I live in a time-machine. In an instant I can be transmitted to any era, any part of the world, even to outer space.

“I have lived in every period of history. I have listened to the Buddha speak, marched with Alexander, sailed with the Vikings, ridden in canoes with Polynesians. I have been at the courts of Queen Elizabeth and Louis XIV; I have been a friend to Captain Nemo and have sailed with Captain Bligh on the Bounty. I have walked in the agora with Socrates and Plato, and listened to Jesus deliver the Sermon on the Mount. “Best of all, I can do it all again, at any moment. The books are there. I have only to reach up to the shelves and take them down to relive the moments I have loved.”

- Louis L’Amour: The Sackett Companion

“The hardest part about gaining any new idea is sweeping out the false idea occupying that niche. As long as that niche is occupied, evidence and proof and logical demonstration get nowhere. But once the niche is emp-tied of the wrong idea that has been filling I ~ once you can honestly say, "I don't know," then it becomes possible to get at the truth.”
~ Robert A. Heinlein ~

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