Not This, Not That ~ THE REFUGEE CAMP

That brief visit was enough for me to decide to go to stay there; I told Thich Thong Hai (the monk’s name), “Let me round off my work in Manila, and I’ll come.” By the end of March, I was in PRPC to stay, not realizing I’d stay long-term. Thong Hai had arrived there from another camp in Malaysia ~ Pulau Bidong, near Kuala Trengganu ~ and before being taken to Bataan, had agreed to stay for two years until resettled in the US. After a while, he got people to help him build a temple at the top end of the Camp, and they went to the jungle nearby to cut trees and bamboo; before long the temple was in use.

The First Temple in the Camp

While they were doing this, other people helped me build a small hut beside a waterfall in the jungle; it was peaceful and pleasant, but impossible to stay there once the monsoon began, so I had to move back to the Camp, and a bigger hut was constructed for me beside the temple. It was to remain my abode throughout most of my stay there.

Imagine Thong Hai’s surprise ~ and mine! ~ when, less than six months after he got there, he was informed that he would be among the first batch to leave, on the 1st of July; he hadn’t long to prepare, and was soon on his way, but only after requesting me to stay and take care of the temple he’d set up. I never imag-ined I would stay there almost 4 years.

My main purpose in going to stay there and in remaining so long had to do with the suffering of the refugees. Having realized that Suffering is the First and Foremost Teacher ~ Guru Dukkha ~ on the Way, I felt an attempt should be made to show some of them how it can be turned around and something gained, otherwise, it would be an even greater tragedy than the suffering itself. This was, and still is my main purpose. The Buddha is not our First Teacher but the Second. Suffering is the First Teacher, because without Suffering, nobody would be interested in the Buddha’s Teachings about how to deal with and overcome Suffering.

Christian missionaries were soon hard at work there, and many refugees were induced, by fair means and foul, to change their religion. I protested, not because I’m against people changing their religion, but because they were pressured and bribed into converting. I didn’t blame the refugees for changing, but held the missionaries reprehensible for using whatever means they could devise to convert these poor, suffering and trusting unfortunates, many of whom had little left to call their own except the tradi-tional religion of their ancestors; it was cruel, calculating and ruthless of the missionaries to exploit them in this way. Sure, I know many Buddhists understand little or nothing about Bud-dhism, and that one name ~ Christian ~ is just as good as an-other ~ Buddhist ~ but still, that is no reason to pressure them to convert; these people risked everything to be free, and should have been left alone to choose for themselves something as personal as religion. I had little choice but to oppose such proselytisation, and encourage the Buddhists to keep their religion, and most of my talks in the Camps were given for this purpose. How much success I had in this, no-one could say; perhaps very little, if any. On the other hand, no-one could say what would have happened had I not exhorted people as I did. My words were seeds, freely scattered, in the hope that some of them ~ a tiny proportion, perhaps ~ would grow. Have any grown so far? That is not for me to say, but I like to think that some have.

Apart from the Vietnamese, who had been brought here from Camps in other countries, like Malaysia, Hong Kong, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia and Macau, there were many Cambodians and Laotians from Camps in Thailand. As more refugees came in, it was necessary to construct more accommodation for them, and Phase Two came into being, with four new neighborhoods, making ten from the original six. The three groups were housed separately in barracks in these neighborhoods; each neighbor-hood had thirty barracks, each barrack ten billets, and each billet was meant for at least six people; so, at maximum capacity, the Camp held 18,000 refugees, most of whom considered them-selves Buddhists.

As time passed, whenever people died, they were buried in a plot of land off to one side; this became known by the refugees as Neighborhood Eleven. During the time I was in the Camp, over a hundred people were buried there.

As one batch of refugees left, others came to take their places; there were so many in other Camps in the region. Countries like US, Canada, Australia, France, Germany, Norway, and so on, were still taking in large numbers of refugees; ‘compassion-fatigue’ was not to set in until some years later.

I became friends with someone named Trinh De, who was teaching English in order to earn a little money; he was the eld-est of 5 brothers, and because some Vietnamese names appear not so good to non-Vietnamese, I soon gave them English names, so De became Paul, and his brothers, Simon, Charles, Julius and Robert. Anyway, they helped me a lot, and sadly for me, they were among the second batch to leave for the US. I accompanied them on the bus to Manila airport, where they had to wait for some hours in a large hall for their flight out. A Flying Tigers (the CIA airline) plane had been chartered especially for them, as they were so many, and when it was ready, they all trooped out to it, leaving me behind, feeling solitary and lonely. I waited until the plane took off, my right hand raised in benedic-tion, and then left the airport to return to the temple. It was still dark as I walked down the road to get a taxi about 4 o’clock, and the words of an old song ran through my mind:

“In the early morning rain,
With a dollar in my hand,
And an aching in my heart,
And my pockets full of sand.”

Left in charge, I became increasingly aware of the depredations of the missionaries, some of whom ~ and there were so many, of different sects, all doing their utmost to ‘catch fish’ ~ were spreading the rumor that since America was a Christian country, and the people sponsoring the refugees were Christians, they should change their religion; they used many other tactics to achieve the same end; after all, they’d had centuries of practice at this, but could no longer do it at the point of a sword! I could not just let this happen, and so, discussing the matter with vari-ous people of the three ethnic groups ~ including several Lao monks who were there, and a Vietnamese monk who had just arrived ~ we agreed to hold a festival, and use it to elect a joint Buddhist committee, in order to put on a united front.

I enlisted the support of Buddhists from Manila for this, and many of them came out for the event. Lots of food was prepared and everyone ate. I gave a long talk about the situation, trans-lated into the three languages, after which, we elected the com-mittee, comprising members from each group; and, because I wasn’t of any of these groups, they elected me president. After-wards, the Cambodian committee-members came to me and asked if it would be alright to offer a small sum of money to the monks for participating in the festival; I said yes, as long as the nuns were offered the same amount (there were several white-robed Cambodian nuns, you see). They objected to this, saying it wasn’t their tradition to offer money to nuns, but I countered this by saying that these nuns had left their homes and families just like the monks, and were living similar lives, and that since traditions start somewhere, we could start a new one that day. They went away to discuss this, and then came back to tell me they agreed. I believe in treating people fairly and equally, I told them, even though there is no such thing as equality in nature, but only variety and difference; we should try to treat others as we would like them to treat us.

I settled down to life there, doing what I could, and sometimes standing up to the authorities on behalf of the refugees, who were afraid to speak for themselves in case it jeopardized their resettlement; the threat of this was one way the authorities used to enforce order, but with limited success. Soon, there were various scams going on. Wherever there were opportunities to get more than they otherwise would have done, there was no shortage of takers. Some refugee-volunteers in the food-distribution centers soon had more than their fair share. And those in the Camp post-office were unable to keep their hands off their fellows’ mail. Large numbers of letters would disappear, later to be found in the forest or the stream near the Camp, de-void of any checks or cash they had contained. People lost not only money that way, but also important documents they had been waiting for. And over the time I was there, I lost at least $1,200 that I knew of ~ money that had been sent for temple-purposes or for personal use. It was really a big problem, and I felt sure it was an organized racket. My ears were always open for tales of who might be responsible, and indeed, I did manage to have several refugees apprehended for it. But there was little I could do about the Filipino post-office staff, some of whom must have become very wealthy from working there. They knew I was watching them, and once, when I went to the post-office, I read the lips of one of them as she said to another: “Abhinyana!”

One girl who worked in the post-office often came to the temple to stand in front of the Buddha-image silently moving her lips in fervent prayer. After she left, someone told me that she had helped herself to the contents of many letters. No wonder she felt the need to pray so much!

There were always people staying in the temple to help with the work there, as it was a big area, and much had to be done. They were usually young men, mostly Vietnamese, but also some Cambodians; they had to be vegetarians while there, as we had no meat or fish ~ not dead fish, anyway; there were live ones in the pond that had been built, but they were not for food. As some of these unpaid volunteers left, others came to take their places, and at times, we had as many as ten or twelve. I didn’t just tell them what to do, but set an example by working myself ~ building, cleaning, gardening, etc.; the temple became perhaps the most beautiful place in the whole Camp.

At the end of 1980, the Camp Admin suggested I set up another temple at the lower end of the long and narrow Camp, for the convenience of the Buddhists there; it was a walk of about 40 minutes from bottom to top. I agreed, and with support from the Buddhists of Manila, was able to build a small temple in quite a pleasant spot, with a lovely grove of mango-trees, and behind, a beautiful vista of the mountains, forest and stream running be-low. It was years before I actually stayed at that temple, but I used to go there regularly to give talks.

At this time I met Tomas Pabiloña, a devout ~ and sometimes, too devout ~ Buddhist in Manila, and gave him some relics; he was very happy with these and said he’d just been wondering how he might obtain some. He was a qualified engineer but ran a hardware-store with his wife, Avelina ~ a quiet, self-effacing lady. They would help me very much over the next few years.

For some reason I never understood, the Admin decided to move the Vietnamese from near the temple to make room for Cambodians. Now, the Vietnamese had been there almost a year, and some had created small gardens, so weren’t happy to have to relocate, but had no choice. About their gardens, how-ever, they did, and some, thinking that if they couldn’t have them, no-one else would, pulled up the flowers and vegetables they’d planted, and cut down the papaya-trees and bananas, not stopping to think how we depend upon others for almost every-thing, including the food we eat; it was planted by others, not by us. We all eat others’ food, wear others’ clothes, live in others’ houses, use things made by others. We sit in the shade of trees, unaware that they were probably planted by someone long ago, someone whose identity we can only guess at; why don’t we plant trees, so that others later on ~ others we don’t and cannot know ~ may enjoy their shade and fruit after we’ve moved on?

The place from which the refugees left the Camp by bus for re-settlement was known as the ‘departure-area,’ not far from the temple, and there was a long straight path leading down to it. I sometimes went to see people off, then return to the temple by this path, which I thought of as the Via Dolorosa, after the route that Jesus was forced to take on his way to be crucified in Jerusalem; my heart was often heavy as I returned to the temple.

One time, I met a young man at that area; I’d not known him before, but he said to me, “I have been here for seven months, and the only thing I could think of was the day of my departure. Now that day is here, but I’m sad and don’t want to go, because I see that the hills around the Camp are green!” Imagine that! The hills around the Camp had not become green just on that day, especially for him; they’d been green for a long time, but he’d not no-ticed them because he was thinking of other things ~ looking, but not seeing! This is not uncommon; in fact, most of us do this very thing, and are seldom aware of what is right in front of us!

The Camp was in a beautiful setting, with rolling, grassy hills on two sides, a stream running through the forest on another, and the ocean some distance away on the fourth. Some refugees couldn’t resist the temptation to set fire to the grass, and the hills would go up in flames! This took place every dry-season, even though the Camp authorities had had the hillsides planted with saplings. No-one was ever caught and punished for this.

There was a stockade for the incarceration of miscreants, and it soon became known as ‘The Monkey House’. I became aware of it at the end of 1980 because of a boy named Nghia. He had a mental problem, and was forever up to some mischief ~ stealing from the camp-market, setting fire to his billet, and so on. He would be locked up in the Monkey-House, but Houdini-like, would always escape. Late one night, when I’d already gone to bed, I heard gun-shots nearby, so went out to look. At the temple gateway were some Filipino marines (a small de-tachment of them was stationed in the Camp to maintain order), grappling with Nghia, who had in his hand a papaya-leaf, with which he was hitting the marines over their heads! It looked so funny, but I said, “What’s going on here?” and they said some-thing about him making trouble somewhere. Now, no-one had ever been able to do anything with him except me; for some reason, he would listen to me, so I asked them to turn him over to me. I then gave him a place to sleep, and the next day as-signed him some jobs, like sweeping the temple-floor. He was alright when I was around, and if he got a bit out of hand, I had only to look at him over my glasses and say, “Nghia!” and he would become quiet. But he was incorrigible, and no sooner did I turn my back than he’d get up to mischief again. Once, when I returned from a few days in Manila, I found that he’d taken some of my clothes and gone around the camp wearing them, and because of this, he became known as ‘The Mad Monk’! There were many other incidents, but eventually he was resettled in New Zealand. I had no idea we would meet again one day.

The Admin was headed by Army personnel, the boss being a General Tobias who came out from Manila every week for what was known as the ‘Inter-Agency Meeting’. Under him were sev-eral ex-Colonels, one of whom, Col. Banzon, was alright with me, but another ~ Col. Ouzon ~ wasn’t, as I’d had a bit of a run-in with him over something or other. In ’82, he saw an opportu-nity to get back at me. Two monks arrived from VRC, and not knowing that they should register for billet-allocation and food-supplies, they were brought straight up to the temple by other refugees to stay with me. The next day, when I was down at the other temple on my bicycle, someone said to me, in a state of consternation, “Come quick! Two monks in the Monkey House!

What?” I said, “Monks in the Monkey House? How can this be?” and quickly rode off there to find that it was so. They told me Col. Ouzon had come looking for them and arrested them. I went to see him and asked him why he’d done that. “Because they broke the rules,” he said.

“How long do you intend to keep them there?” I asked.

“A few days,” he said. “In that case then, you’ll have to keep me there, too, as I’ll camp outside until you let them go!” Fearful, maybe, of a demonstration in favor of the monks, he had to back down and release them, and I said to him, “Now you can give me a van to take us back up to the temple!” He did, too.

Not having been given permission to stay in the Camp, I was there unofficially. I’d applied, soon after moving there, but was never told personally that I was cleared; someone who worked in the Admin building later told me he’d heard it coming over on the radio-link from Manila (there was no phone-link at that time). I became a bit of a thorn-in-the-flesh, and they didn’t know what to do with me as I had no boss who they could complain to; unlike other foreign personnel in the Camp who worked for vari-ous agencies, my position was unique, and I exploited it; I could get away with things that others would not have been allowed to.

The Buddhist committee was as ephemeral as the life of a but-terfly, because as the members left, it was very hard to replace them, and few people cared enough anyway. Soon, therefore, it fell apart, and it was left to me to take care of everything, and this was not easy, especially as some of the Cambodians began to ask for a temple of their own where the Vietnamese couldn’t go. I made it clear that the temples were Buddhist temples, not Vietnamese, Cambodian, Chinese or whatever, and were open to everyone, Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike, and while I was in charge, they would remain so. They could use them on equal terms as the Vietnamese, but they couldn’t have one for them-selves, I said. What an unenviable position I was in, caught be-tween the two communities. The Vietnamese never said things like that ~ at least, I never heard of it, and they would have known my response if they’d said it.

I was closer to the Vietnamese because of my vegetarianism and other things (Vietnam had been more fortunate than Cam-bodia, in receiving the 3 streams of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism from China, whereas Cambodia had had only Theravada Buddhism and some Hindu influence from India). Because of this, some Cambodians were quick to say I favored the Vietnamese. Whenever I had used-clothes from Manila to distribute, they accused me of giving the best to the Vietnam-ese. Well, I did first give such clothes to my temple-volunteers, but that was only natural. Later, I tried to prevent such com-plaints by dividing clothes into three piles on the floor of the tem-ple, calling representatives of the three groups, and saying to the Cambodians: “You choose first.” They then had the task of distributing them to their people rather than me; I wondered how impartial they were in this.

Of course, it’s impossible to please everyone, and one day, a Vietnamese came to the temple and said: “I’d like some clothes, please. You didn’t give me any last week, and I’m a Buddhist. You gave some to Christians instead!” I was astonished. “Look,” I said, “there are 18,000 people in this Camp, and I don’t have clothes for more than a few; moreover, I don’t know everyone here, and don’t discriminate like that anyway!”

Because we were short of so many things in the Camp, now and then I would bring empty oil-cans from Seng Guan See to use for carrying water, and partly-burnt candles, of which there were so many. When Sui Kim came to know of this, however, he told me not to do it, as they needed them there. Yes, I thought, just like they needed the left-over food.

Needless to say, it wasn’t easy to maintain the Camp, and sadly, many refugees were content to sit back waiting for their reset-tlement and let others do the work. It was necessary to institute a ‘Work-Credit System’, and each adult refugee was required to do some kind of work for two hours each day; for this, they were awarded points, and only if they had enough points by the time their basic English course and medical exams were complete, were they allowed to leave. Volunteers in the temples could get their points for working there, and I had to sign their work-sheets. Monks were also supposed to work, and there were jobs they could have done, but some of them were reluctant, consid-ering it beneath their dignity. One Vietnamese Theravada monk, staying at the lower temple, refused to do anything, although I told him I wouldn’t sign his paper when it was time to leave. He disregarded me. The months passed, and his English-course was over, so he needed his work-paper signed. I told him he did not qualify for points as he’d done no work. He almost wept, but I reminded him of what I’d told him earlier, and refused to sign. One day, before dawn, I was upstairs in my kuti and heard the sound of sweeping outside; thinking this odd, I went out to see who was working in the dark. It was this monk, trying to shame me into signing. “Come on, give me the paper.” I said. “Now go!” as I signed it. He didn’t last long in America before he disrobed.

Every two or three weeks, I went to Manila for a few days, and before going, would open the donation-boxes in the temples and take any money to help towards buying whatever supplies we needed. One time, opening the box in the lower temple where there was another monk in residence, I found only a single coin, so thought it wasn’t worth taking. Upon my return, I opened the box again, expecting to find at least one peso there, but there was not even that! I knew that someone had been stealing from the box, and found out that it was the monk, who’d been sending someone to get it at night and bring it over to his kuti, where he used a wire to hook the money out through the slot. When I con-fronted him about this, he made the excuse that he’d been sick, and a lady had come to the temple to offer him money for medi-cine while he was out, so had put it in the box!

At the same time, a man by the name of Duong Van Qui became active in the temple, and formed the idea of getting hold of the temple funds, unaware there were no funds. I was told he’d been saying that the temple should be under the control of Viet-namese rather than an English monk. He had wormed his way into some petty position with Col. Banzon, and using his imagi-nary power thereof, informed people he’d be able to help if they had any problems. But it was a scam, and to thwart him, I put a notice next to the donation-box exhorting people to put any com-plaints they had ~ in writing, with or without their names if they wished ~ into the box, so I could read them and maybe do something for them. Soon after, there was a note from a woman saying that Qui, knowing she had a problem regarding resettle-ment, had approached her and told her he would help her if she paid him some money! I had him! I informed Col. Banzon about him, and he was dismissed. I told him to keep out of the temple.

Now, it wasn’t uncommon for people to brand others ‘communist’ if they took a dislike to them, and this was the worst thing they could do, as it was useless for the person so branded to deny it. Once, someone came to inform me that another man who frequented the temple was a communist, and asked me to ban him from coming. “Look,” I said, “the temple has a gateway but no gate. It means it is open to anyone, and I cannot keep people out unless and until they make trouble.”

The refugees were sometimes given ‘gifts’ bearing names and slogans such as “Jesus Loves You,” “International Christian Aid,” “Jesus Care For You,” making it clear where they’d come from and leaving them feeling obligated, just as intended; there were strings attached. Once, I had a small consignment of bars of soap and cans of milk from Manila for distribution and, to avoid the missionaries’ tactics, I sent my Vietnamese volunteers to the Cambodians and Cambodian volunteers to the Vietnam-ese, to hand out the stuff to them, and if anyone were to ask where it came from, tell them it wasn’t important. If I’d sent the Vietnamese to the Vietnamese, and the Cambodians to the Cambodians, they would have given it to their friends. They set off with their boxes, but before long, several Filipino marines came to the temple with my Vietnamese volunteers and some Cambodians. The Cambodians couldn’t understand why anyone ~ especially Vietnamese ~ would give them anonymous gifts, so used were they to getting things with labels. “Look,” I said, “This is simply soap and milk; not Buddhist or Christian, but just soap and milk, but if you don’t want it, of course, you won’t get it,” and I took it back. It was very hard to be fair with these people.

Life is like a play, in which we are all actors, with the script writ-ten as we act, not before, and no-one knows what will happen next. In 1975, one of the most murderous regimes the world has ever known took control of Cambodia, and this once-gentle land became a slaughter-house, with more than two million people murdered or dying of starvation or disease. The killing would probably have gone on unabated if the armies of Vietnam hadn’t attacked in 1978 and taken over, driving Pol Pot and his demons into the jungles or over the Thai border, thus saving the remain-ing Cambodians. I met few who saw it this way, however, but many who hated the Vietnamese for invading their country. Ironically, had it not been for the Vietnamese ~ and the Vietnamese communists, at that ~ few of these people would have survived; they owed their lives, therefore, to the Vietnamese. Which is better: to be dead in one’s own country, which had be-come a charnel-ground, or to be alive and free in another? There was ~ and still is ~ an hereditary hatred going back centu-ries on the part of the Cambodians as a people towards the Viet-namese; being neighbors, conflict between them was endemic. It’s hard to get such hatred out of the national psyche; insight is reached by the individual, never by groups.

Once, a middle-aged Cambodian lady came to see me; edu-cated, intelligent, cultured and refined, she told me, in her bro-ken English, how she was the sole survivor of her family in Cambodia during the reign of the Khmer Rouge; her parents, siblings, and her children had all perished; her husband had died of starvation with his head on her lap! She was crying as she told me these things, of course, and I listened, without interrupting; it was important to tell her story and be heard. “I lost everything,” she sobbed. When she’d said all she wanted to say, I spoke to her as gently as I could and told her that she’d not lost everything, and that much might yet be won; I forget my words to her, but explained how few come to Dharma except through dukkha, and how pain leads to compassion. As I spoke, I saw a wonderful transformation come upon her face; I’d never seen anything like it before ~ it was like a light shining outwards through her skin ~ and I knew she’d understood, but didn’t know how deeply until she came again just before she left the Camp for the US, and she said to me: “Abhinyana, before I leave here, I want to tell you that what you said to me that day was sweeter to me than had been the love of my husband when we were first married.” Imagine that! It was the best compliment anyone has ever paid me, and has been one of the things that have kept me going all these years. Her name was Ping Kim Suor. But this is not the end of her story. More about her later.

In ’81, I received a letter requesting me to visit the smaller Camp on Palawan island in the south, for the opening-ceremony of the renovated temple there, so I got a plane-ticket and went. Temple committee-members met me at the airport, and took me to the Camp (indeed, the Camp was situated right beside the airport-runway, and people used to walk and exercise there when there were no planes landing or taking-off; there was only one plane each day, anyway. On another side was the sea). There was a simple room for me at the temple, but at that time there wasn’t a toilet in the temple, and no-one showed me where to go, and the Camp toilet-blocks were too bad to be considered, so I spent an uncomfortable five days there, really needing to go. Apart from that, my visit was quite a success, and the talks I gave were well-attended; I was the only Western monk they’d ever seen, so I had attraction-value. People who were in that Camp at one time or another may recall the scene of the talks out in front of the temple there, in the open air, with the moon and stars shin-ing down through the coconut-palms, the scent of the frangipani trees, and the sound of the surf in the background.

This Camp was a camp of first-asylum ~ that is, for refugees who had arrived in the Phils directly from Vietnam; no matter whereabouts in the Philippines they landed, they were brought here. It was known as VRC ~ Vietnamese Refugee Center.

Several Brits were teaching English in the Camp at that time ~ Muriel Knox (a Scot), Marion Lynch, Tony and Leslie. I got on al-right with Knoxey, and kept in touch with her for some years, but she wasn’t the best correspondent, and we eventually lost touch (strangely enough, we’d almost met in England before my first trip overseas in ’65; several times, out of curiosity, I joined the meetings of an organization called Moral Rearmament in a town some 5 miles from my home, and it appeared she also attended meetings at the same place, around the same time, though what she was doing in that area, I don’t know). Marion later married a refugee she met in VRC, and now lives in the US. Tony also married a girl he met there, and the last I heard of him he was in Holland. When these people left the Camp, they were replaced by other British volunteers; they were given a stipend in place of a salary, but it was barely enough to live on; they were there from commitment, out of the goodness of their hearts.

I was to visit VRC a total of ten times between 1981 and 1987, and stay for periods varying from the five days of my initial visit to two months later on. The population was less constant than in Bataan; in ’81, if I remember aright, it was about 5000, but by ’84, maybe only 2000. Some people spent up to five years there, waiting to be accepted for resettlement in other countries; with-out relatives elsewhere, or people willing to sponsor them, it was hard for them to get out. Then, like in Bataan and other Camps, there were an inevitable number of deaths; corpses were either buried in a local cemetery or cremated.

Sometimes, walking through the Camp, I would be struck by a sense of the terrible suffering of the refugees, and my legs felt so heavy that I could hardly move and had to sit down some-where ~ it didn’t matter where, or if there were people and noise all around ~ and my mind automatically became calm and clear. Indeed, suffering is the gate to the Way, and few people come to it in any other way. Writing of it now, I got a thought-shiver.

Not all in PRPC were refugees; some left Vietnam on what was called the Orderly-Departure Program; Somehow, having ob-tained clearance, probably by large bribes, they were allowed to fly out. I became close to one family who’d come in this way, as they were devout Buddhists and very supportive of the temple. They’d arrived via Bangkok, but there was some problem about their resettlement in the US. They had a son in Canada, but had not disclosed this, as they wanted to go to California, and the US officials discovered this, and put them on hold. For three years, they were kept in a state of uncertainty, running a small business in the camp market to earn a bit of money. The man’s name was Dong, his wife’s Phuong, and their children ~ two girls and a boy ~ Thi, Yen and Kien. Eventually, they were told they would be allowed to go, but only if Dong and Phuong made an effort to learn more English, which they did. I called Phuong Chi, or elder sister, as per the Vietnamese custom, so Chi Phuong.

I experienced several earthquakes while I was in Philippines, one when I was in Seng Guan See, when the temple began to sway in what was to me an alarming way, but was nothing out of the ordinary there. Another time, I was on the toilet in PRPC when there came quite a strong tremor, and I was concerned that the concrete slab over the pit below might crumble and send me plunging down to a place I really didn’t want to go!

At the end of 1981, Sui Kim asked me to attend an International Sangha Conference in Taiwan as part of the Philippines delega-tion, the temple covering the costs. I had a two weeks’ break from Bataan therefore. In Taipei, we were taken to The Grand Hotel ~ one of the top hotels in the world at that time ~ where we were to stay and the conference to be held. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven! Monks from many countries came, and we were well-treated. With robes of various colors, fabrics and de-signs, it was like a fashion-show. Having noticed me wearing what he must have thought was a too-old robe merely because it was a bit patched, a Thai monk came up to me and presented me with a new one. I thanked him, but didn’t wear it there and then, as I don’t like new clothes, all stiff and shiny, so continued to wear my old robe; it was clean, even if it was patched.

An enormous amount of money must have been spent, as no expense was spared. But I wasn’t very impressed and couldn’t see what came of it. To entertain us, we were taken to various museums and temples in and around Taipei, and even as far as Kaoh-Siung in the south, where there is a huge temple, the head-quarters of Fo Guang Shan (Buddha’s Light Mountain), the founder-abbot of which ~ Venerable Hsing Yun ~ is incredibly talented, and has established branch-temples all over the world; we were served so graciously there.

When the conference convened, every monk was introduced as ‘Venerable ……’ regardless of rank or years of ordination. It was outstanding, therefore when a senior Vietnamese monk from Canada arrived late and had himself introduced as ‘The Most Venerable ……’. I felt embarrassed for him! I have never been to another such conference.

One day, an old lady had seen a monkey for sale in the market and, knowing that some people liked to eat monkeys, spent some of her no-doubt limited funds to buy it and bring it to the temple where she knew no-one would kill it, and offered it to me. When I saw it, however, I put my head against the door-post, because when it had been trapped in the forest, its right hand had been cut off, and the stump was bloody and swollen, with two bones protruding from the wrist. I was sad to think that some refugee, who had fled his country in search of peace and happi-ness, had gone to the forest to trap monkeys, never thinking for a moment that these animals also had families and friends and wished to be free and happy, just like him; the money he got for his victim ~ a few pesos ~ would soon be spent; but the results of his callousness would go on for a long time. When we are suf-fering or in danger we pray for help and make promises, but it is often too late and the pain must run its course. If we wish to avoid suffering, we should consider the causes, more than the effects. Most suffering is self-caused, and so we are able to do something about it. To pray for release from pain if we have sown the seeds of it won’t have much effect.

I thanked and praised the old lady and tied the monkey up be-hind the temple and gave it food and water, then I went to look for someone to treat its wound, but found no-one. Feeling it use-less to apply ointment and bandage (as it would only have pulled it off), I left it, not knowing what to do and thinking it would soon die. When I went to see it two days later, however, I was surprised to see only one bone sticking out of its wrist! How it had broken the other off, I don’t know, but several days after this, the second bone was also broken off, and the flesh and skin began to grow around the wound until it was completely healed, without any infection! “Wonderful!” I thought; “I spent years in school, studied various things, learned something and traveled widely, but with all my knowledge, I didn’t know what to do. This monkey didn’t know anything about First-Aid, because monkeys don’t, but somehow, it knew what to do to save its life. Surely, there’s a lesson in this for me. Perhaps we listen too much to others and over-depend upon them to teach us. What if we listened more to ourselves ~ to our deep, inner voice ~ like this monkey had obviously done? It somehow knew what to do to save its life, but how? Did it, perhaps, have a store of natural wisdom? And, if so, might we not have, too? And if we have, why do we not use it? Is it the ‘common-sense’ we hear about, but which is really not so common?”

So, because of the train of thoughts that this event started in my mind, I can honestly say that “My teacher is a monkey”. Some people have misunderstood this, of course, and a least one monk ~ hearing this story ~ thought I was being sarcastic about monks, but such was/is not the case. There is no hidden mean-ing in it; it means just what it says; but if people wish to interpret it otherwise ~ and no doubt some will ~ let them.

One of the monkey-house monks ~ Thich Tinh Giac ~ stayed in Jetavana with me, while the other one ~ Thich Tien Phat ~ stayed at the lower temple. One night, I’d already gone to bed, when Tinh Giac, who’d been studying downstairs, called me: “Sir, sir, come quick! Con cop! Con cop!”

Knowing his excitable nature, I said: “Oh, why are you calling me to see frogs? It’s late and I’m tired, and need to sleep.”

“No frog”, he said, “Tiger! Tiger!” (I thought ‘con cop’ meant frog, when it actually meant tiger).

Tiger? No tigers in Philippines,” I said, but because he was so agitated, I went down to see, and there, outside, reflected in the light from the lamp, were the red eyes of his ‘tiger’ ~ a buffalo that had got into the temple compound during the night! We laughed so much about this; thereafter, Tinh Giac became known as ‘Tiger Monk’! He’d been picked up by a German ship from his boat, so should have gone to Germany, but I spoke with the UNHCR officer about him, and was able to help him go to Australia instead; he was sponsored by a temple in Perth.

By 1982, I wanted out, but decided to rebuild both temples first so as to leave them in good condition. But I had no funds, and wondered how I’d do it. Tomas came to my aid, and told me to get whatever I needed from his store and pay him later. He even gave me one of his trucks and drivers to transport the material, apart from much financial help; his generosity was unlimited.

There was a professional sculptor in the Camp by the name of Do Ky, who offered to make images for the lower temple. I got the material he needed and he set about it. After some weeks his work was done, and the image of the Buddha installed on the temple-altar, while outside, beside the pond that someone else had built, he made a large and beautiful image of Kwan Yin. I requested him, while he was working, not to put his name on his sculptures, explaining that I wanted no-one’s name in the temple, as it wasn’t necessary for people to know who’d done things there. He understood and agreed with me, and so his name didn’t appear. This was his contribution, and I’m sure many people were inspired by it.

While I was engaged in the slow job of rebuilding the temples ~ slow because I had to rely upon volunteers, and there were not great numbers of these, even though most of the refugees were Buddhists ~ I got a letter from a Vietnamese monk in one of the Camps in Hong Kong, asking me to help him get out of there.

Well, I had no power to do this, of course, but wrote back, say-ing that the Camp was a good place for a monk, and urging him to stay with his people and do what he could for them instead of considering only himself, but obviously, he wasn’t the kind of monk to think of this. Let us call him Monk X.

Because I’d heard about the condition of the Camps in HK, I also wrote the following letter to one of the foremost HK monks:

“Philippines. 29th March 1983.

Dear Ven. Kok Kwong,

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

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

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

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

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

Many Thanks and Sincere Regards — “

There was no reply to this, but that was not unusual. I wrote to several monks about various things since then, and was not graced with replies. Maybe I’m a bit old-fashioned in this, but I consider it ill-mannered not to reply to letters of a personal na-ture. In Asia, however, the standard seems to be different. Any-way, I was disappointed at the non-reply of this monk, as he had probably fled Communist oppression in China and become a refugee himself years before. He loved to print photos of himself in his magazine, in the act of releasing fish, crabs, turtles, etc., as an act of merit. Did I expect too much to think his compassion might extend a bit further than to such creatures and the pages of his magazine, to refugees like himself? He did nothing about my request, and when I tried to see him two years later, he made an excuse for not meeting me. So much for his compassion!

This monk was of a different nationality than the refugees, but so what? Buddhism helps us to see beyond such things as race and nationality. We had no control over where we were born, and might have been born anywhere, but we can be born in only one place per life. There is really no reason to be proud of race or nationality, as it is not a thing we achieved by our own efforts; if it were a matter of choice ~ as some reincarnationists like The-osophists believe, who would choose to be born in countries which suffer regularly from famine, drought, pestilence and war? No, nationality is a consequence of being born where we were. However, if we understand something of Dharma, we come to look at this matter differently than most people do, and see it in clearer perspective.

This idea is one of many that we become liberated from as we go deeper and our consciousness expands. Therefore, although I was born in England, and cannot deny this, I do deny that it makes me English. I don’t want to be English, because I found something bigger and better than that; if other people consider me English just because I was born in England, it’s up to them. Of course, before anyone asks, I should say that I cannot dis-pense with the formalities of passports and so on, and still travel on a British passport, which identifies me as ‘British”; I am also a citizen of Australia now, so have an Aussie passport, too. What I mean, however, is that I don’t think of myself as ‘English,’ and am not about to start thinking of myself as Australian”. If asked where I’m from, sometimes I reply: “When?”

“No, where are you from?” they repeat.

Again, I say, “When am I from where? ~ this morning, yesterday, last year? When do you mean? If you mean where I was born, I was born in England. Since then, however, I have been to and come from many places. But where I am really from, I don’t know, any more than you know where you are from!”

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

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

It is important to understand the difference between the Con-tainer and the Contents: Buddhism and the Teachings of the Buddha. If we are satisfied with Buddhism it is alright, of course; but we are not and who want something more than name-and-form, it must be said that though Buddhism is now old, tired and travel-stained, having come a long way and endured many ups and downs, the Teachings of the Buddha are sufficiently intact. However, these, too, should not be looked upon as something magical that will produce miraculous effects just by believing or reciting them, but should be understood and realized, for they are a finger pointing at the moon, not the moon itself. There are 3 levels, as it were: (1) Buddhism, the organization, which de-serves respect for having preserved the Contents until now; (2) Buddha-Dharma, or the Teachings of the Buddha; and (3) Dharma itself, realizing which, Sakyamuni became the Buddha, and thereafter tried to point out to others. If we insist on clinging to the Container while disregarding the Contents and making no attempt to understand, it is such a waste, to say the least.

One of the central elements of the Buddha’s Way is Compas-sion, but many people obviously think of it as just something of the scriptures ~ a word or idea ~ and seldom apply it in their lives; we talk a lot about it, which shows we haven’t got the real thing. Some monks have spots burned on their heads when they undertake ‘Bodhisattva precepts’ (some lay-people have spots burned on their arms). Now, a Bodhisattva is someone who dedicates himself to developing qualities which will enable him to help others, and he does so by ~ among other things ~ self-less service. Such a person would not seek or expect recogni-tion for doing what he does, and would not make a show, but do good simply because he sees it as the only thing for him to do; at that stage, he has gone beyond choosing between good and evil, and does good with an undivided mind full of love and com-passion. A person becomes a Bodhisattva not merely by talking about compassion and ‘saving all beings’, by burning spots on his head or taking ‘Bodhisattva precepts,’ but by serving others and showing compassion. Moreover, such a person wouldn’t think of himself as a Bodhisattva, and would not even know that he/she is one. We must be careful, therefore, when talking about compassion and Bodhisattvas, lest we injure ourselves spiritu-ally and set ourselves back by casual and thoughtless words.

A certain man used to come to the temple every day during his time in the Camp ~ a quiet, humble, but rather sad man named Tran Cong Nam, who always spoke politely, but never told me his story. Only after he’d left did someone tell me that when he had escaped from Vietnam, his two children had drowned before his eyes, and there was nothing he could do for them. We kept in touch by letter, he and I, but it was only after some years when he referred to the tragedy, that I felt free to advise him not to blame himself, and to let go insofar as he was able to. He ad-dressed me as ‘Father’ in his letters, although he is somewhat older than me, and was so moved by the starfish-story in one of my books that he used to sign off, “Your Small Fish.”

Work on the temples went on intermittently, until finally it was done and the opening-ceremonies over. The temple at the top end I renamed Jetavana, after a monastery in India where the Buddha often stayed.

Jetavana under construction, 1982

Jetavana Completed, 1983

I didn’t leave immediately, though, as I knew some of the Cam-bodians were waiting to take over when I’d gone, so I remained in place. Thus thwarted, someone ~ some people; it cannot have been just one ~ decided to do something about it.

My kuti, 1983

I came out of my kuti one morning before dawn, and ran into a thin wire that someone had stretched between two trees in the night at eye-level; I reacted fast, however, and drew back as soon as I hit it, so it did no damage.

Knowing I was fond of animals, they saw a way of getting at me. Two of my dogs disappeared, and I was informed they’d been killed and eaten; my cats were poisoned and died in agony, and I could do nothing for them. This was the final straw, and I said, “Okay; I’m going now!” But, in order to protect the Vietnamese and make sure they were not driven from the temple, I drew up a document giving them my kuti for their residence; the temple wasn’t mine, so I couldn’t give them that. I gave a copy to the Camp administration, and then I left.

After a few days in Manila, I went to Palawan again. This time, my talks in the temple were translated by a Catholic ~ Dr. Tuan, whose wife, Diep, also a doctor, was a Buddhist. It must have appeared strange, him sitting in the temple translating for me with a crucifix around his neck, when he never went to the church. They were an incredible couple; they’d tried several times to escape from Vietnam, and once, were wrecked on a barren rock where they survived until rescued by a VC boat by living on shell-fish and sea-birds, eaten raw! They were taken back and jailed, but managed to escape again, and this time, had been picked up by an American ship and brought to the Philippines. Because of this, they could have gone to the US early, but requested ~ not volunteered, but requested ~ to spend an extra six months in the Camp to serve their people. They were allowed to do so, but were not given preferential treatment, just the same rations and accommodation as the other refugees. When they went to the US in mid'84, they had only a small bag of clothes and $10 to their name. They settled in California, and Tuan had to study to requalify, as his papers from Vietnam were not recognized. Diep got a job as an assistant-nurse so as to support him, and when friends said to her, “You were a fully-qualified doctor in your own right in Vietnam, but now you’re only an assistant-nurse; don’t you feel bad about this?” she replied, “No, why should I? I’m still helping sick people.”

During my stay in Palawan, I dreamed I saw Cambodians in Jetavana with sand and cement, remodeling the altar there. Back in Manila, knowing I was soon to leave Philippines for Hong Kong and onwards, some of the Buddhists of Manila ~ led by a nun named Biao Chin, who had helped me so much over the previous few years ~ asked me to stay and not leave, and knowing how I felt about Seng Guan See, offered to build me a temple. I was touched and grateful, and thanked them for their kindness, but said I felt I must go now, and added that I might come back later. Then, after booking a flight to Hong Kong, I went to Bataan again, to find that my dream had been accurate, and the Cambodians had indeed taken over Jetavana after I left there. I was told how it had happened: Monk X had arrived from Hong Kong, and not long after, began to act very strangely, up-rooting plants and flowers and cutting down trees in the temple-compound, until one day, he cut down the bodhi-tree that I’d brought as a sapling and planted there in 1980! And when the Cambodians saw this, they became very upset, and came run-ning in their hundreds. They might have killed X if the Filipino marines had not timely turned up to intervene, and then the Vietnamese had to vacate my kuti, and the Cambodians finally got what they’d long-wanted; Monk X had given it to them! There was nothing I could do about it when I returned; it was too late. He was eventually resettled in California, and soon after getting there, disrobed and married.

Fearing that I’d come back to take over the temple again, some Cambodians made a lot of trouble for me, but I was impervious, and after assuring the Vietnamese that they had my heart even if the Cambodians had got my shirt, as it were, I left again, to prepare to depart from the Philippines.

I considered what to say to Abbot Sui Kim before I left Seng Guan See, and decided to say, “When I came here five years ago, I bowed to you, because I didn’t know you. But now that I know you, I’m not going to bow.” I didn’t need to do this, though, as ten days before my departure, members of the temple youth-group asked me to give a talk the following Sunday; I agreed, and thought about what I would say in the meantime. On the day, they came to me again and told me it was Sui Kim’s 80th birthday, and they were giving him a tea-party, and asked me to attend before giving my talk. I complied, and afterwards, went to the hall where my talk was to be given. I didn’t expect Sui Kim to attend, but he did, and sat in the front row. Now, I’d already de-cided what to say, and thought, “Should I change it because he’s here?” and decided, “No, why should I?” So I went ahead and said it. It included the old story of a monk who lived in a tree. One day, a certain scholar, proud of his studies, visited him to compare what he thought he knew with the monk. Standing at the foot of the tree, he called out, “Oh, Venerable Sir, I’d like you to explain to me the essence of the Buddha’s Teachings.”

The monk looked down and said, “Well, very kind of you to come all this way. The essence of the Buddha’s Teachings is this: Not to do evil, to do good, and to purify the mind.”

Is that all?” said the scholar, surprised at the simplicity of the monk’s answer; “But even a little child of eight knows that!”

“Yes, perhaps he does,” replied the monk; “But even an old man of eighty doesn’t know how to practice it!”

I could have changed it to seventy, eighty-five or any other fig-ure, but the story says eighty, and so I said it. Sui Kim didn’t move a muscle, but I felt good that at the end; I’d had my say.

"If I have seen further than others, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants."

Sir Isaac Newton, English Scientist and
Mathematician, 1642 -1727

Indeed, we owe so much to so many. No-one achieves or does anything by himself, but only with the help and support of countless other people, living and dead. Realization of this leaves no room for arrogance and feelings of superiority.

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