So Many Roads ~ ORDINATION

“Ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death.”

~ Albert Einstein: Religion and Science ~

Having decided to become a monk, my ordination was arranged, and I learned the Pali formula I would have to recite during the ceremony. My hair and beard ~ which had become progressively shorter over the previous months, anyway ~ were shaved, and the next day ~ the first Sunday in May ~ I was taken to Wat Chayamangalaram ~ the main Thai temple in Penang ~ where the ceremony was held. Ray, Dorothy and other friends came, and I got through it and emerged in saffron robes and with a new identity ~ Abhinyano, which was the first part and the last part of my teacher’s name: Abhi-dhamma-pala-nyano.

We returned to MBMC immediately afterwards; I didn’t stay in that awful temple. The reason I say ‘awful’ is because of its blatant focus on making money; you were unlikely to get any Dharma-instruction there, and the only enlightenment would be a lightening of your pocket! I’d be very surprised if it’s changed since then. It is frequented by local Buddhists, as well as being on the ‘must’ list for foreign tourists. Some years later, I went there to see how things were; around the huge reclining-Buddha-image were numerous other images, each with a donation-box before it bearing inscriptions like: “If you pray to this Buddha, you will be happy”; “If you pray to this Buddha, you will be lucky”; “If you pray to this Buddha, you will be wise”; “If you pray to this Buddha, God will bless you,” etc. ~ the very opposite of what the Buddha taught! I counted no less than forty donation-boxes (as well as ‘fortune-telling’ machines!) around the main image. Now, gullible people (of which there is no shortage), eager for happiness, blessings, luck, and so on, might put money in each box, and the temple-people would rub their hands. But what would foreign visitors think? If they went there with open minds, not unsympathetic towards Buddhism, but came away thinking of it as a thing of superstition, greed and exploitation, I would quite understand; if I had not seen any deeper than just the façade, I would have felt that way myself!

Before my ordination, I had just $135 to my name, but thinking I wouldn’t need money any longer, I sent this to my mother. I had the idea that I’d find a sense of fellowship and brotherhood in the monasteries of Thailand, but was soon to be disillusioned.

Newly ordained

Of course, I felt awkward as a monk at first, especially when people offered food and hovered over me while I ate, so solicitous of my welfare that I felt like a monkey in the zoo. I couldn’t eat my fill from fear of being considered greedy, and wanted to say, “You are very kind, and I appreciate it, but would you mind leaving me to eat in peace?” I still feel this way.

Soon after ordaining, I organized a blood-donation, and persuaded a number of people from MBMC to accompany me to give blood; I continued to give blood on a regular basis from this time for many years ~ no more selling ~ eventually reaching 65 donations before prevented from further giving by diabetes; but I’m jumping the gun again.

My visa about to expire, I got one for Thailand, ready to leave; Luang Pau gave me 500 baht to go with. There was an Indian from Bangkok staying in MBMC at that time, though what he was doing there, I never discovered. Anyway, he wanted to return home, so Luang Pau entrusted me to his care ~ giving him money, too ~ and we set out for the border, but having crossed, he slipped away, taking 200 baht of the money Luang Pau had given me. I was stranded, but someone soon took me to the local wat (monastery), where I was welcomed and stayed for a couple of days before going on by train to Chaiya. There, the famous teacher, Buddhadasa, had his monastery, Wat Suan Mokh. Now, Luang Pau had not wanted me to go there, as some people considered Buddhadasa too liberal, with somewhat unorthodox views, while Luang Pau was strictly Burmese vipassana in his, but I went anyway, and although I noticed nothing extraordinary about Buddhadasa except his friendliness, I had quite a nice time there, joining the other monks on alms-rounds in the early morning, and sitting around in a large circle in the forest with Buddhadasa in a prominent place to eat afterwards.

Some other Western monks were staying there at the time, including a German, whose name was Santitthito, a heavily-built man who was a little hard of hearing. I asked him to tell me, in Thai, how to say “I don’t speak Thai” (I didn’t know a word of Thai at that time); he told me, “Pood Thai mai dai.” I thought I’d be able to deal with any situation that arose whenever anyone spoke to me in Thai; all I’d have to do would be to retreat behind those four words. Alas, when the time came, I’d forgotten the word ‘pood,’ which means ‘speak,’ and said just “Thai mai dai,” which somehow ~ as Thai is a tonal language, and if you use the wrong tone, even if you get the word right, you may easily say something wrong, and sometimes disastrously so ~ meant, “I’m unable to defecate”. I probably got some quizzical looks, as if to say, “Now, why is he telling us that?”

I’d been assigned a small kuti ~ monk’s hut ~ in the forest, and was left alone. This is how it is, I thought, so settled down to meditate as I’d been doing in Malaysia. But this was Thailand, with quite a different and unfamiliar environment; I was new as a monk and knew no-one there, as the Western monks had already left; I became quite nervous, so nervous, in fact, that I developed a stutter, which I’d never had before, and felt that if I continued to meditate alone, I would become mad; so I gave up formal meditation until I should feel more stable.

Soon afterwards, I went to Bangkok, to a well-known monastery named Wat Cholabatthan. I had a letter of introduction from Luang Pau to one of his friends, a senior monk there, only to find that he was away. I visited the abbot Ven. Panyananda, a good friend of Buddhadasa, who told me I could stay there for some days, and that there was a German monk who would help me with my needs. I thanked him ~ he spoke English well, as did Buddhadasa ~ and I was taken to a kuti and given the key thereof before being led to the hut of Dhammaviro, for such was the German monk’s name. He didn’t seem surprised to see me and invited me in, saying that he’d been expecting me. “Expecting me?” I said. “How did you know I was coming?”

“Oh,” he said, “Good news travels fast” (Santitthito had reached Bangkok before me and told him I was on my way, it seems). Anyway, Dhammaviro was my first real friend in Thailand and remained so for many years, until, after meeting him in Munich in 1995, we lost contact, and I have grave doubts of his safety, as the last I heard of him, he was living on a beach somewhere north of Phuket; I hope he survived the tsunami.

From Wat Cholabatthan, I sought shelter in Wat Pleng, nearer the city, and was introduced to the deputy-abbot, Phra Prasert. But no-one told me of his rank or position, and so I didn’t greet him as he was used to being greeted; he wasn’t very friendly towards me because of that, and of course, I had to deal with him quite often, as he spoke English well. Nevertheless, I was assigned a kuti.

A number of other foreign monks were there at that time, and so I met Bill ~ a brutal kind of American ~ and his wife, Michelle, both of whom had ordained as monk and mae-chi (the nearest Thais have to nuns, although on a much lower level than monks, and were treated abominably, as menials, and they accepted it, too); there was also John, from Melbourne, whose ordained name was Jagaro, Paulos, a Hungarian doctor, and Michael, a German, who was soon to become a monk, and with whom I formed a close friendship. Then, there was Bobby’s young son, Sean; they had arrived in Bangkok before me, and she’d taken him to Wat Pleng with the idea of letting him ordain as a novice for a while (she was probably glad to get him off her hands, too). He was to prove a headache to many people, including myself!

From the time I arrived in Thailand, the first letter I got from home brought the terrible news that George had committed suicide. He had been found hanging from a tree in the hills outside Adelaide, still sitting on his motorbike. Apparently, he’d tried several times to end his life. He didn’t leave a note telling why he’d done it, so we never knew, but it seems he was schizophrenic, although he’d not actually been diagnosed as such. For a mother to lose a child that way is enough to break her heart. Mum’s hair turned white almost overnight. I was so far away, and there was nothing I could do except meditate for her and him. Poor George!

My first few months in Bangkok were not easy, and for a while I was so poor that I didn’t have enough to buy a stamp or soap. But that didn’t last, and whenever I received offerings, I made a point of sharing them with some of the boy-monks who had even less than me. I’ve never really been short from then until now.

I wasn’t pleased to see some of the things that went on. Monks who had learned how to chant well ~ even if they didn’t understand the meaning of what they were chanting ~ were often invited for house-blessings, funeral-ceremonies and such like, for which they received offerings in the form of money, towels, toiletries, and so on. Instead of sharing them with others who had little or nothing, some monks would now and then send someone to a shop to sell the things they had accumulated.

Every morning, like the others, I would go on alms-round, and really enjoyed this. It is not begging, as is commonly assumed, as we do not ask, but just receive whatever people are willing to give; people wait outside with the food they have prepared, for the monks to come along; the monks see them waiting, and approach them demurely. But there are so many monasteries and monks in Bangkok that sometimes it is not easy to get enough to eat. On days of new-moon and full-moon, however ~ days which, according to tradition, are considered special ~ so many people wait to offer food to the monks that they receive too much. Now, why this imbalance? Why, on most days, do some monks get barely enough to eat, but on two days of the month, they get a surplus? Because it is considered that offerings made on these days will produce more merit than those offered on other days. It is not so, of course, but that’s what people believe, and shows that desire for merit is in their minds. Had it not been like this over the centuries, however, monks would have found it very hard to survive.

Not everyone knows who Bodhidharma was, so I will introduce him briefly, before telling something of him that is relevant here. Bodhidharma was an Indian monk who lived in the 6th cent CE and was acknowledged to be the 28th of a line of masters going back to one of the Buddha’s chief disciples, Mahakasyapa. This line of teachers had preserved a special kind of teaching on meditation. When Bodhidharma went to China to propagate these teachings he became the 1st Patriarch of the Ch’an School of Buddhism there (known later as Zen in Japan). Not long after arriving in China, his fame reached the ears of the Emperor, who was a good and pious Buddhist, and he invited Bodhidharma to the palace for an audience. When he came, the Emperor received him respectfully, and told him of all he’d done to promote Buddhism in his realm, and asked how much merit he had made thereby. He was very surprised when Bodhidharma bluntly replied: “None whatsoever, your Majesty!”

“Then what is the purpose of the Buddha’s Teachings?”

“Nothing holy, but pure emptiness,” said Bodhidharma, which confused the Emperor even more, and Bodhidharma left without explaining what he meant, and went to sit in cave for nine years.

This story has been told and retold countless times over the centuries, and it has been accepted that the Emperor was suffering from delusion and wrong view; Bodhidharma’s manner is seldom questioned. He is supposed to have been enlightened before going to China, but if so, why need to sit in a cave for so long, seeing no-one and saying nothing? And why, if he was so wise ~ even before his enlightenment, if that is what happened in the cave ~ and cared enough about the propagation of Buddhism to go to China in the first place, did he not explain his meaning to the Emperor, who was not only a good man, but had tremendous capacity to lead many others to a better understanding if he had understood better himself? Surely, this was a mistake on Bodhidharma’s part. Why speak so cryptically when a simple explanation might have produced a much better result? (It is said that later, when someone else explained Bodhidharma’s meaning to him, the Emperor did understand, so why didn’t Bodhidharma explain it himself?) Many followers of Zen ~ especially Western Zen aficionados ~ are guilty of this kind of thing, and it is done, in many cases, to display their grasp of the subtleties of things they think are beyond ‘lesser mortals’; it is often just a game, a silly show, and nothing to do with Zen.

Bodhidharma might have explained that actions done with the aim of getting returns will produce corresponding results on the material level, but not merit, which has the function of decreasing the defilements of Greed, Hatred and Delusion; in fact, greed is only increased thereby. Merit is the result of actions done through understanding, knowing they are the right things to do. And the freer actions are from the desire for results, the greater will be the merit; conversely, the greater the desire for results, the less merit where will be therefrom. How we do things is just as important as what we do.

What we received in our alms-bowls had to serve for two meals, breakfast and lunch, after which we would not eat again until the next morning. This was/is one of the monks’ rules, but more importance is placed upon it than should be. It is a training-rule, to help discipline oneself so that one can stand hunger instead of over-indulging. It is not a moral precept, and does not make one any better than those who don’t follow it. Moreover, the Buddha promulgated this some years after he began His ministry, which clearly indicates it was only a minor rule. And following it without understanding will bring one no nearer to enlightenment, and in fact, will only bind one more firmly. Whatever we do should be done with understanding, not from fear of punishment or desire for reward, and we should beware of becoming proud of it.

It has been a custom since ancient times for monks to spend three months of each year in so-called retreat; it is known as The Rains Retreat because it was held during the monsoon, when it was hard to wander around, as monks normally did; thus, it would be a time for monks to rest, and focus on meditation and study. And, knowing where the monks would be at that time, it was also an opportunity for people to get more Dharma-instruction. This custom has largely lost its meaning now, as most monks stay in one place year-round anyway, and no longer wander from place-to-place as they did originally. It is still observed by Theravada monks, but not always by others.

Michael was ordained before the start of the Rains’ Retreat, and given the name, Madhavo; and then, together with Paulos, Bill and Michelle, went to stay in a beach-side monastery near the Cambodian border. Young Sean was also ordained as a novice, and I was asked to take charge of him, but this didn’t work out, and he was sent to join the others at Ranong. I was then the only Westerner in Wat Pleng for a while, but didn’t really mind that; as it was more incentive to learn Thai. Now, Paulos had left some stuff with me that included a typewriter. I’d never touched a typewriter before, and decided I’d like to try, so wrote and asked if I might use it, and when his reply came authorizing me to do so, something came into my life that would ultimately change it quite a lot, and although I never got beyond pecking at the keys with just two fingers, I became quite fast, and it opened doors for me. I had always been a letter-writer, and my mother used to say that she was always thankful that I wrote home regularly. Because I used to write very finely by hand, I could get 150 lines on an aerogram, and Pete once replied to me and said, “Thanks for the book!”

During the Rains, for days on end there were torrential downpours, so that the grounds of the monastery became a virtual pond, and the frogs therein set up an infernal chorus; the sun couldn’t break through, and wet clothes became mildewed, unable to dry, but this is how it normally is every year, and if the rains fail, you get drought; it may not be very comfortable, but consider the alternative.

Halfway through the Rains, an Australian named Alan Driver arrived to stay; he spoke Thai well, having been teaching English in Bangkok for some years, and was also soon to ordain. So I had some English-speaking company. And there was a Brazilian monk who kept to himself, meditating alone; I sometimes shared my food and other things with him, as he had often had less than me. Also, there was a Cambodian monk who I sometimes used to talk with, but he was reclusive, and one day, was found hanging in his kuti; he’d been so concerned with getting results from his unsupervised meditation, and something had snapped.

It wasn’t long before Sean made himself such a nuisance that Bill took it upon himself to disrobe him. He was then brought back to Bangkok to stay with his mother; they eventually left Thailand and returned to Penang, where enterprising Bobby got a job on a yacht in some capacity, and that took them to Israel. We kept in touch over the years, and I will tell more of her later.

One time, down with tooth-ache, I went along to a government hospital which had a dental-section. Now, I’d always dreaded going to dentists, and asked for injections whenever I needed a filling. But I was a monk now, and decided I should try to bear whatever pain there was, so went for it without anaesthetic. The young student-dentist they turned me over to drilled such a large hole in the offending molar that I was convinced he’d been a road-worker earlier, using a jack-hammer! I could get my tongue into it. And while he was drilling, I could smell the tooth burning away; but I tried to observe it all in a detached manner, without fear, and although it was still painful, of course, it wasn’t half as bad as I’d remembered previous fillings to have been. It was a good lesson in mind over matter! It’s amazing how much pain we can stand if we have to.

Alan was ordained during the rains, and given the name Dhammadharo. At this time, I became friends with a Thai monk named Onsai, who taught me several handicrafts, in which he was quite talented, such as how to crochet alms-bowl covers and repair robes neatly. After the Rains, I accompanied him to a monastery at Saraburi, some 100 miles north of Bangkok, where he was well-known and regarded. I greatly enjoyed being there, going for alms in the nearby town first thing in the morning, and spending the rest of the day in communal activities. During the time I was there, he took me to another wat not far away, situated beside some very deep caves, in which I came the closest I’ve ever been to complete silence; there was not even the sound of dripping water; it was an experience that stuck in my mind.

In early ’73, I returned to Wat Pleng to find Madhavo there, and we decided to make a trip to Northern Thailand like real monks, barefoot and without money. Before catching a bus out to the suburbs (monks could ride free on city buses; the back seat was reserved for them, and anyone sitting there when a monk got on had to vacate it for him), we went to attend the disrobing-ceremony of a Thai monk-friend of ours, and for participating in this, we were offered a small sum of money, which we didn’t really want, but used it to get a bus to the monastery at Saraburi; Onsai was no longer there. The next day, after alms-round, I told Madhavo we needed water-bottles for our journey, so asked him to wait while I went into the town to visit a shop-keeper I knew. Sure enough, he had some suitable plastic bottles, and taking them from a top shelf and dusting them off, presented them to me. Back at the wat, I showed Madhavo my acquisitions, but they’d obviously been on the shelf so long that they were perished, and shattered in my hands!

We set off down the road, but the little money we had left soon became a source of contention between us; Madhavo wanted to buy soft-drinks with it, and I still wanted to buy water-bottles. We eventually compromised by dropping the money at the side of the road for someone to find. That night, we stayed in a monastery in Lopburi, and the next day, were given things like toothpaste and toilet-rolls for our journey ~ things that most monasteries had plenty of. Well, we eventually got as far as the Golden Triangle, and something I remember from our brief sojourn in a monastery there was a trick that Madhavo showed some monks: taking six matches, he asked them to make five squares with them, which they proceeded to do easily by making first one square with four matches, then laying the other two matches crosswise inside this square to form four smaller squares. Then, taking just 4 matches, he asked them to make two squares, but, no matter how they tried, they couldn’t do it, until he showed them how simple it was. First, he made one square, and then, using the same matches, made another, and could have gone on forever with the same matches ~ a matter of recycling, or using the dimension of Time, and was a good case of how to look at things in different ways. Since then, I have used this to explain about dimensions ~ how there are more dimensions than we realize, and beyond the dimension of Time, too. In order to demonstrate this, we must also use mental dimensions ~ the dimension of intelligence, for example, and, if we really care about sharing something with others that might open their minds a little, the dimensions of Love and Compassion, which can and should be considered dimensions or aspects of the mind.

Resuming our wanderings, we took a track from Chiang Rai through the mountains and jungle to Chiang Mai, and hadn’t gone far when I felt the urge to ‘go’. Taking a toilet-roll, therefore, I told Madhavo to wait and stop anything that might come along while I was doing my thing.

As I was happily relieving myself, I heard a vehicle coming up the road, and thought Madhavo would try to stop it, but unknown to me, he’d also decided to do what I was doing, on the other side of the track, and as the pick-up truck got nearer, we came out of the bushes holding toilet-rolls! It must have been a very strange sight ~ two Western monks emerging from the bushes on a jungle road with toilet-rolls in their hands? The pick-up drove straight past us in a cloud of dust; maybe the driver ~ and most Thais are quite superstitious (although they are not alone in this, of course) ~ thought we were ghosts or demons! (Many Chinese, until now, refer to Westerners as ‘Kwai Loh,’ meaning ‘Foreign Devils,’ obviously not realizing how offensive it is. Well, the British who forced opium on the Chinese in the 19th century and fought the Opium Wars for the right to do so, and thereby grabbed Hong Kong, certainly merited that epithet, but that’s a long time ago, and not all Westerners deserve to be called that now. Meanwhile, mainland China continues its brutal policy of repression in Tibet; should they not be called ‘devils’ for this?)

We eventually got to Chiang Mai and went to stay with our friend, Santitthito, in the monastery ~ Wat Umong ~ that had been his base for a number of years, and knowing how to press his buttons, I got him going one evening by quietly singing some old Bob Dylan songs such as “Desolation Row” and “Like a Rolling Stone” (now, monks are not supposed to sing, so I was breaking one of the rules in doing this), and he, who had also been a hippie (Madhavo hadn’t), said, “Wow, groovy!” I can see him now; it was so funny!

We got our plastic bottles in Chiang Mai, and more money also found us as we headed back to Bangkok. Madhavo then went off with another friend for a while, and I met a Singaporean monk named Freddy Khong (Tissadhammo), and joined him at his monastery for the Thai New Year festival of Songkrahn, when monks submit to having water poured over them by lay-people. With the monks there, we sat on chairs, and people came behind us pouring water of varying temperatures ~ warm, cold, some with flowers and perfume, and some with chunks of ice in it! ~ over us, until we were soaked, no doubt getting their own back on us for the many times they had been liberally sprinkled with ‘holy water’ during other festivals and ceremonies.

Now, in spite of these adventures and unusual things, I wasn’t at ease with Thai Buddhism; it had become a thing of tradition centuries ago and not really something to live by. There are, of course, Thais who live by the spirit of the Buddha’s Teachings (just as there are Christians, Hindus and others who live by their faiths), but they are in a minority. To understand the heart of religion requires time and effort, and few people, are prepared for that; it is easier to simply believe, and so the real meaning of religion is wasted on those who are unable or unwilling to make it their own. Merely calling oneself ‘Buddhist,’ ‘Christian,’ ‘Hindu,’ Muslim,’ isn’t enough; a name is not a thing and doesn’t change much; in fact, a name is a lie. You can call a stone ‘bread’ if you like ~ it‘s not against the law ~ and even put butter on it, but it doesn’t become edible thereby. Having seen something of Dharma before becoming a Buddhist, let alone becoming a monk, I felt as if I was in a strait-jacket in Thailand, with all the dry rules and unrealistic expectations of monks, so I decided to return to Malaysia, thinking, perhaps, to get some real teachings from Luang Pau there, such as I hadn’t got in Thailand. Consequently, this is what I did, hitch-hiking all the way down the peninsula to Penang, stopping off near Phang-nga on the way to visit Dhammaviro, who had recently moved from Wat Cholabatthan to take up residence in a mountain-canyon with two other German monks.

Reaching Penang, I went to stay in MBMC again, but although I was able to communicate somewhat with Luang Pau in the Thai I’d picked up over the previous year, I got no more teaching from him than I did when I was unable to talk directly with him; and not only this, but my disappointment in him stems from this time. Now, monks are supposed to avoid physical contact with females ~ including even their own mothers and sisters ~ at any cost; at least, this is how the Thais interpret this particular rule, which has it that a monk should not engage in physical contact with a member of the opposite sex with lustful intent, and it is the last three words that are the key. Now, Luang Pau was so strict about it that he wouldn’t even have female animals in the temple! One day, to test him ~ naughty me! ~ I asked what he would do if he saw a woman drowning and could reach in and save her; would he do that? “Mai dai! Mai dai!” (“Cannot. Cannot!”).

“Then what would you do?” I persisted.

“I’d look for a stick or some rope and hand that to her and pull her out,” he replied. It was only a hypothetical question I’d asked, to be sure, and what he would have done if he were actually faced with such a situation, I don’t know, but to answer without hesitation as he had done, I think he really might have followed his convictions, unable to see that by the time he’d found his stick or rope, the woman would have drowned, not waiting around in the water for him to save her by such means!

I also soon came to see that Luang Pau was quite sectarian. If invited to any gathering to which non-Theravadin monks had also been invited, he refused to go, saying, “Mahayana is not the teachings of the Buddha” ~ a typical Theravadin attitude! I wasn’t impressed by this ~ at least, not favorably ~ and wondered where the vaunted quality of tolerance was. Of course, I was soon to see that many Buddhists regard other sects of Buddhism with more disdain than they regard other religions, no different, in fact, than people of other religions, Catholics and Protestants, Sunnis and Shiites, and so on. Was it my idealism that made me expect Buddhists to be any way different?

Unable to get better teachings in MBMC, I went to spend some more time in the Ipoh cave-temple, but Lodro-Thye, the English monk, had returned to Nepal. I did my own thing there, and retreated in a side-cave for some time to meditate alone. Then, when some devotees of the abbot came and said they were going to Singapore and invited me to go with them, I availed myself of the ride down with them, never having been there before.

Upon arrival, these kind people took me to a Thai temple, where I was allowed to stay. It was there, one evening, that an Englishman and his wife, with their adult children ~ two boys and a girl ~ came to visit. While talking with the boys, I asked what they were doing in Singapore, and they said they worked in their father’s store. “What kind of store?” “Hardware”. I still didn’t think anything, until I spoke with the girl, who told me she’d been adopted by this couple, and was Anglo-Chinese! At this, warning-bells started to ring in my mind, as the year before, while in Wat Cholabatthan, Dhammaviro had introduced me to a Thai-monk astrologer ~ although monks were expressly forbidden by the Buddha to engage in such ‘unworthy’ practices ~ who predicted that in ‘73, I would return to Malaysia and Singapore, where I’d disrobe and teach English, meet an Anglo-Chinese girl whose father had either a bookshop or hardware-store, and get married. He also said I would marry twice by the age of forty.

Now, in ‘72, I had no idea of returning to Malaysia, and had not been to Singapore before in any case, so put this out of mind and didn’t think of it again until many of the things he’d foretold came together in combination. I left there the next day and went to stay in a Sri Lankan temple, and never saw those people again. Nor did I get married by the age of 40, either once or twice, or until now as I write this; I can’t say about the future!

Sri Lankaramaya was a large and nice place that had been built mainly with donations from Chinese, but very few went there, and the Singhalese did little to attract or make them feel welcome; their donations were enough. There, I met Venerable Narada, a well-known missionary monk who had written many books. He had just returned from South Vietnam, where he used to spend a month each year. He asked me to proof-read his book, “The Buddha and His Teachings”. I was honored to do it.

Back in Malaysia, I went to stay in a Buddhist Society in a small town named Taiping. A Sri Lankan monk was staying there at the time. He specialized in chanting and blessings, such as most Chinese Buddhists love, but never gave any teachings; in fact, I’m sorry to say it, but few monks, of any sect or school, do; consequently, many Buddhists are superstitious and completely ignorant of what the Buddha taught; it’s such a shame, to be so near, but at the same time, so far away.

I spent a year in that place, doing what I thought I should do, but with little success. A small group of people began to support me, although I soon regretted it. They followed someone in Penang, who I’ve mentioned before, an arrogant man who felt he was enlightened; they latched onto me with the idea of ‘making merit’, as that’s what their guru emphasized. While I was grateful for their kindness, I also felt uncomfortable to have them on my back, as it were, and be treated as their ‘pet monk’.

I used to visit someone who was seriously ill in that small-town hospital, and my visits often coincided with those of the patient’s younger brother, who was about thirteen at that time. One day, a prisoner from the local jail was brought into the ward and handcuffed to a bed. He was avoided by other patients and visitors and so spent most of the time alone. I went over to speak with him but the language-barrier didn’t allow much communication.

The younger brother of my patient must have been thinking about this. After a few days, without any prompting from me, he went over to the prisoner, removed the chain with his Buddha-pendant from around his neck, and unspokenly offered it to him.

This action, performed without any idea of ‘merit’, touched the prisoner and brought tears to his eyes. Later on, after he’d served his sentence and been released, he went to visit his young benefactor and kept in touch with his family for quite a while; he had seen that someone ~ a complete stranger ~ cared about him, a criminal.

To give with love, with no other motive, is a real act of merit, regardless of who one gives to. But if our giving is calculative ~ that is, looking at who one is giving and considering if he is worthy of a gift or not, or wondering how productive of merit giving to someone might be ~ can there be merit therefrom? This is something to ponder on. Merit, like enlightenment, comes from inside, not from outside.

I restricted myself to Taiping when I should have gone to other places to do what I could; granted, I was only just starting out on my missionary work, and my capacity was very limited, but I did care, and still do.

As a Westerner, maybe I’m naturally skeptical and inclined to dismiss things like 'holy water' as 'just Asian superstition' (I still think Buddhism has gathered its fair share of superstition over the ages). But while in this Buddhist Society, trying to keep an open mind about things I didn’t understand, I came to see that there really is something behind the popular belief in 'holy water’; this is how it came about: One day, a young man named Boon Chai came and told me that his friends' baby was crying almost non-stop, day and night, and its parents didn’t know what to do, since the doctors they’d consulted had been unable to help them. Boon Chai ~ of a scientific bent, and not the type to incline towards superstitious belief ~ asked me to give him some 'holy water' for the baby, so, obligingly, I put some water in a plastic bag, concentrated on it, and gave it to him. The next day, he came again, and told me that the baby had stopped crying. Now, for those who claim that 'it's all in the mind,' I would like to point out that, in this case, I had not even seen the baby, and didn't know its parents, and even if I had, what could the baby have understood about what I was doing to the water? From this, I came to see that by concentrating and thinking strongly over water, while holding it, one's energy ~ or chi ~ passes into it; and this was confirmed by something I later read on the subject, about people who are so sensitive that they can taste the difference between water that has been 'magnetized' or 'energized,' and water that has not, or who can hold an object that someone has used or worn, without knowing the owner, and by concentrating over it and tuning into the 'vibrations’ thereof, are able to tell many things about the owner; it is known as 'psycho-
metry.' Perhaps this is what lies behind the 'magic wands' that feature so prominently in some of the old fairy tales: rods or staffs that have been used for so long by high-powered individuals that they have become charged with their energy, like batteries; I think this is quite possible.

I mentioned earlier that I’d been born and grew up in a haunted house. Well, this Buddhist Society was also haunted, but I didn’t know this when I first went there; at that stage of my life, I was not worried about having to stay all alone in the colonial-era mansion-turned-temple, which was locked up, from the outside, when people went home at night. There were all kinds of noises, of course, like the creaking of timbers contracting from the drop in temperature, birds, bats, mice and other things that could not be identified. One night, however, there was a knock on my door, and someone called my name, twice. Now, I knew there was no-one else in the building, but got up and opened the door anyway. No-one/nothing there. Maybe it could be said I had been dreaming or imagining things, but the same thing happened on another occasion when two Sri Lankan monks were staying there. One was awoken by a knock on his door and someone calling his name. “Yes?” he said. No answer. He got up and opened the door, but there was no-one there, so he crossed the hallway and knocked on his friend’s door.

“Yes?” his friend said, “What do you want?”

“What do I want?” said the first, “What do you want? Why did you knock on my door and call me?”

“I didn’t”, said the second. The mystery remained, and some people said it was the ghost of an old woman who had died there many years before, and who seemed to be ‘stuck’ in the place. I actually know the grand-daughter of this old woman, and she confirmed that she had been very stingy.

Yes, some people are so attached to things ~ family, house, possessions ~ that after death, their spirit, ghost, consciousness ~ call it what you will ~ gets stuck and unable to go on. A similar thing seems to occur in cases of people who die ~ or are killed ~ suddenly and unexpectedly: they don’t realize they are dead but think they are still alive. There are numerous cases of people being resuscitated and brought back to life after clinical death, indicating that the spirit or consciousness of the ‘deceased’ can see and hear things on this side, but can’t be seen or heard except by clairvoyants. It must be a miserable and frustrating condition. Tibetans recognize this. When someone dies, they carry the body to the cremation-ground, and say things like: “Don’t come back! We don’t want you anymore! You must go on with your journey!” This isn’t from lack of affection for the deceased, but, on the contrary, because they love him/her, and are concerned about his continued welfare, not wanting him to get stuck here. They feel that to show grief or affection towards the deceased would encourage the spirit to remain near, and get stuck in limbo ~ not here and not there, as it were.

Christian artists vividly depicted ghosts and demons as ferocious enemies of Man. The Temptation of St. Anthony ~ a desert-hermit of the 4th century ~ was a favorite theme of Renaissance artists, who painted him surrounded by and pinned beneath nightmarish figures. Satan, the Devil, was shown as a malicious, goat-like personage, with horns, cloven-hoofs and a long, pointed tail; people spoke about being ‘tempted by the Devil’; but surely, a figure like that would terrify instead of tempt or persuade! People are tempted, persuaded and seduced by the pleasant and alluring, not by the terrifying, which is why it is so hard to resist! We want pleasure and beauty, not pain or ugliness, and our desires lead us astray.

Buddhist art has portrayed Sakyamuni beneath the Bodhi-Tree surrounded by the demon-army of Mara, the Evil One, but this is just iconography, and many Buddhists see Mara as the personification of evil instead of an actual being. The appearance of these phantasms is looked upon as the last-ditch stand of Sakyamuni’s ego before his attainment of Buddha-hood. Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness could be viewed in a similar way.

According to my several experiences with ghosts (there were others besides those I told of earlier), I feel that they come not with the intention to harm us, but in search of help; theirs is a fearful condition, and there is no need for us to fear them. If we understand this, as our fear decreases, our capacity to help them increases. Now, in what way might we be of assistance to such ‘hung-up’ spirits? Obviously, food, money and clothes are of no use to them, but compassion and positive thinking might be, just like a caring parent might comfort and reassure a young child who has just awoken from a bad dream; it means a great deal to the child to have someone near who cares.


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