Wait A Minute! ~ WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?

Without wishing to belittle or denigrate but merely to see things as they are, I wish to say that if we observe and examine our Buddhist establishments we will be forced to conclude that most of them are not really Buddhist in the true sense of that term—Budh being its root, meaning ‘awake’ or ‘enlightened’—but simply ‘ethnic Buddhist’ centers, places more of national or racial culture than of Universal Dharma.

If they are recognized as such, there is no problem, of course, but they are often taken to be representative of the whole instead of just a part. This causes misunderstandings.
As an example, take Melbourne—not because it is outstanding in any way, but because I spent several years there and so am more familiar with it. Melbourne now has numerous Buddhist centers—monasteries, temples, societies and associations—as do most big cities in Australia and other Western countries. Firstly, because it is the oldest, there is the Buddhist Society of Victoria, with a mostly Western membership; because of this, it is—or should be—more open and less sectarian than any of the other groups, as most of its members have chosen to be Buddhists rather than being born into Buddhist families and thus inheriting Buddhism; it should be comparatively easy for such people to perceive Universal Dharma, as they do not have to cut through the cultural accretions of centuries, but many still allow themselves to be sidetracked and polarized by sectarian and ethnic Buddhism, and this is very sad, of course. The Buddhist Society of Victoria leans more towards Theravada Buddhism, and towards the Thai form of Theravada in particular, probably because that is the form that has been most active there in recent years.

Then, there are numerous Vietnamese temples—ten or more of them—plus small groups of Vietnamese Buddhists who meet regularly, but they are not very strongly linked to each other. There are several large Tibetan centers which cater mostly for Westerners who prefer the Tibetan cultural flavor and teaching style; there are four or five Chinese temples (not on very close terms with each other), two or three Thai temples, two Laotian temples, two Sri Lankan temples (also at odds with each other), two Cambodian temples, and the ubiquitous Zen groups, with their would-be-Japanese Western devotees, using Japanese Zen terminology, as if Dharma can only be understood in Japanese.

All these centers provide something for people, but I sometimes feel that instead of helping them to open and broaden their minds, they only make them more narrow and sectarian, and in this way, do them a disservice. Although most of these centers would probably turn no-one away (and I say ‘most’ here rather than ‘all’, as an Australian lady once told me of being turned away from one of the Sri Lankan temples with the explanation that it was only for Sri Lankans! What kind of Buddhism is that?), some make no attempt to cater for any-one other than their own ethnic groups—most of the Vietnamese monks resident in Australia, for example (according to my experience of them) seem unconcerned about the necessity of opening their doors to non-Vietnamese, and I have spoken and written about the vital importance of making things available in English as well as in Vietnamese, not just for any non-Vietnamese who might be attracted to their temples for whatever reasons, but also for their own young people whose first language now, having grown up in the West, is English rather than Vietnamese; if these people are not catered for in languages they understand, it will be very difficult to reach them. Sadly, I foresee nationalistic and cultural enclaves—which is what the Vietnamese temples in the West really are—having little future and in danger of drying up at the roots and becoming irrelevant. Moreover, most of them—and the Chinese temples, too—provide little in the way of teaching and helping people to understand the Way of the Buddha, but focus more on ceremonies and chanting. I have not met more than two Vietnamese people who have ventured into forms of Buddhism different than the several forms prevalent in Vietnam; countless Vietnamese—under various kinds of pressure—have converted to Christianity, while many others have such a shallow understanding of Buddhism that it really does not matter what—if anything—they choose to call themselves. Many obviously think of Buddhism as merely a matter of offering incense to an image twice a day!

Chinese temples in the West, however, without knowing it or understanding the significance of it, have an advantage over temples of other ethnic groups like the Vietnamese, Thais or Sri Lankans—something consistent with the Bodhisattva ideal that is central to their usually moribund form of Buddhism —in that there are no nationalistic flags to be seen (except, perhaps, for that of their host country); the Chinese people assemble in their temples from many countries; this is definitely a big step in the right direction towards Universal Dharma, but is seldom—if ever—seen as such, and is not used as a spring board for going further.

Now, why do I differentiate between what I call ‘ethnic Buddhism’ (or ‘cultural Buddhism’) and Universal Dharma? I must explain this again—hammer away at it—as it is of paramount importance. Let me define the terms first. ‘Ethnic’ has to do with racial divisions, but my use of this term here merely means I recognize that differences exist between races; it does not and should not be taken to mean that I am racist, although, as I have explained elsewhere, we all have some racism in us (if only latent) by reason of our upbringing as members of one or another of the various racial groups; belonging to such a group, however, does not mean that we must automatically allow racist feelings towards others to manifest in us; knowing something of how racism operates, we can be on guard against partisan emotions flaring up in us and be more in control. Make no mistake about it, though: every one of us is as capable of expressing racism as we are of killing and stealing, even if we never do such things; there are things inside us that we know nothing about.

Different races have different cultures, traditions and ways of doing things. These things may be seen and enjoyed by others if they are sympathetic (or at least, not unsympathetic), or they may be seen as threats, merely because they are different. But whether it is seen as positive or negative, culture is something that forms a division between people and sets them apart from each other, unless and until they can see through and beyond it.

Now, as Buddhism spread from its native India it encountered different cultures and traditions, but being flexible and tolerant as it always was, instead of conflicting and contending with them for mastery it adapted to them and adopted elements of them, with the result that it developed different forms. So now there are a dozen or more forms, distinct from the original Indian Buddhism—Tibetan, Chinese, Mongolian, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian, Thai, Burmese, Nepalese and Sri Lankan, with subsects of these, too. Nor is this surprising, as different people have different ways of looking at the same things.

The problem is, we are prone to getting stuck on form, without seeing the essence. Most Buddhists (there’s no need to mention people of other religions here, though they are—for the most part—in a similar or even worse condition) accept, without question, the form of Buddhism that they were born into and raised by, without investigating other forms; it is part of their overall conditioning. Most conclude that their form of Buddhism is either the totality of Buddhism or the purest and most complete form, not realizing that the real Buddhism is far beyond any of its forms. Thus, they overlook—and may not even be aware of—the treasures of the Dharma within the form, but take the form for everything.

There is a little story to illustrate how we become stuck on form: A certain monastery had a cat, which used to come into the dining hall at mealtimes and make itself a nuisance by jumping on the tables. So as to keep it away from the food, the abbot ordered it to be tied to one of the posts. This solved the problem, and from then on the cat was tied to the post at meal times. When it died some years later, the ritual of tying up the cat had become such a part of daily life in the monastery that another cat was acquired just so it could be tied up at meal times. The original meaning of tying up the cat had been forgotten and had been superseded by the ritual.

And there’s another funny little story illustrating the difference between the form and the spirit, the letter and the meaning:

While out in the African jungle one day, a missionary was confronted by a ferocious lion. Unable to escape, he fell to his knees and prayed: Oh, Lord, please give this wild beast just one Christian thought”.

Thereupon, the lion fell to its knees in imitation of the missionary, and said: “For what we are about to receive, may the Lord make us truly thankful. Amen!”

Westerners, coming to Buddhism from the ‘outside’, and finding all its forms Asian, usually adopt one of them, though on what basis they choose one over the others is often not clear; it is probably just a matter of following their preferences or taking the first they come to. This is sad, as many of them, having become sufficiently disentangled from their Judaeo-Christian background, are looking for something more logical to replace it; many of them have an inbuilt understanding of Universal Dharma—to some degree, anyway—but allow themselves to be drawn into this or that form of ethnic Buddhism, and try to conform thereto; thus they become sidetracked and polarized. I once saw a Western Zen follower bowing to his meditation cushion as he had heard that such was done by meditators in Japan as a way of showing respect to the support given by the cushion. But if we are going to adopt such customs—tying the cat to the post, as it were—we should be consistent and bow to the toilet-seat and the seat of the car and the armchair, because they also provide valuable support and it is possible to meditate while sitting on them, too. In fact, why let respect stop there, or anywhere? We depend, vitally, upon so many things; respect should come from understanding, and so infuse us that we become respectful. But were we to start bowing to things both big and small from which we derive support, we would constantly be bowing, and would—not without reason—be regarded as cranks!

I heard, not long ago, of monks in England visiting one of their supporters for breakfast and insisting on their toast being cut into bite-sized pieces and their coffee stirred before being ritually offered to them! These particular monks follow the rules very strictly—and even invent more—obviously believing that they are becoming holy thereby, and not realizing that they are causing inconvenience for others and making themselves look silly. The custom of food being formally offered is only to make it quite clear that it is intended for the monk and that he has not taken what was not given to him. When it is clear that the food is meant for the monk, the rule has no significance. It would save a lot of time and trouble if we would ask ourselves why are we doing what we are doing? Obviously, we expect to get something from our practices and disciplines, otherwise we wouldn’t do them. But what do we expect, and are our expectations realistic? It would pay dividends to think carefully and examine things before beginning a spiritual journey. Many of us are in a great hurry to achieve things, and do not seem to be aware of the dangers thereof. Meditation may easily turn into maditation!

There is a Western form of Buddhism now taking shape, shorn of Asian cultural trappings, and this will probably be good, as long as the limitations of form—any form—are understood and not mistaken for the essence.

And the Essence, or Universal Dharma—which applies to everyone and everything, in all times and places—takes us far beyond name-and-form and frees us from narrow ideas and beliefs pertaining to race, nationality, party politics, culture, creed and so on, most of which are artificial and mind-made anyway. And most of all, it frees us from the distorted, convoluted and deluded ideas about ourselves and others, from the notion that we exist separately and independently from everything else, apart from, instead of a part of. The Buddha said that He remained unenlightened until He fully understood this and other things like Anicca and Dukkha. Enlightenment comes about, therefore, by understanding things clearly and deeply, and comes from inside—that is, from the mind—not from outside. It is not true—as some people claim—that the Buddha received help from a God, angel, spirit or divine being, etc; what He found came from within His own mind.

And can this Essence be revealed shorn of cultural and ethnic accretions? Yes, it can, insofar as it can be revealed by one to another; ultimately, it must be experienced directly, by the individual, and in no other way. No-one can eat or drink for another, can they? It is just as intimate as that.

Wherever we were born, it was into one or another of the various races that populate this planet; by birth, too, we acquired nationality. Such things were coincidental upon our birth and not accidents, as nothing happens accidentally, just by itself. But just why we were born, we really don’t know, in spite of what various religions have said about it—and I’m talking about something more than just the mating of our parents, who provided merely the physical basis for our birth. Why were we born where we were born? We must be honest and acknowledge our ignorance about this, and not try to fill the gap with concepts, theories and fairy tales, for we simply do not know! What we can see, however, is that it was not an accident but a result of causes, and because it is a complex result rather than a simple one it must have involved innumerable causes, conspiring to produce—in each case—a unique being. There is no reason for a person to think and feel superior to others just because he was born into a certain nation and race, for his birth there was not a matter of his choice; in fact, there is not much about us that is a result of our choice, for who would choose to be blind, deaf, crippled, deformed, arthritic, diabetic, mentally retarded, etc.? We would all choose to be good looking and healthy if we could, of course, but such things are results of causes outside our choice and preference, and so far beyond our comprehension that life seems to be unfair, cruel and arbitrary, producing—on one hand—people who have everything going for them from birth, and—on the other hand—people who seem doomed to suffer and to have no chance in life from the start. No, it is not by choice that we are as we are, and if we understand this we will walk carefully through life, more considerate of other people’s rights and sensitivities. As far as possible, too, we will resist the inclination to become proud about our well being and good fortune and not take it for granted, as it can change, sometimes very quickly and suddenly, as did the life of movie-star Christopher Reeve, famous for his role as Superman. Thrown from a horse, he landed on his head and will probably be paralyzed from his neck down for the rest of his life, trapped as a prisoner in his body, fully aware of his condition.

We must be grateful to culture for providing us with security when we need it most, with a framework or backdrop for our lives. As we grow older and mature and become surer of ourselves, however, we need such security less and less until finally, it can and should be left behind, to the extent that we cease to identify exclusively with it and no longer think of ‘our’ culture as superior to that of others; failure to drop it and leave it behind when we no longer need it has a stultifying effect, like insisting on forcing our feet into shoes we have outgrown; thus, what may have served us well at a particular stage impedes us at a later stage and we become victims of culture instead of beneficiaries.
But to leave behind one’s cultural identity can be risky and scary, for it will often mean facing life alone and accepting responsibility for oneself. Leaving the security of the known, we proceed into the unknown, and this means insecurity and vulnerability; there is little we can hold onto for support, and must acknowledge—honestly and humbly—that there are many things we don’t know—that, in reality, there is very little that we do know, by our own experience. I have noticed that, as I grow older, it becomes less difficult to admit that I don’t know things; when we are young, this is hard to do, as we are involved with establishing our identity; this requires a certain feeling of security. As we grow older, and learn more about life, we realize that security is an illusion; the carpet can be pulled from under us at any moment; life is fragile and slips from our grasp. Why be shy or embarrassed to admit that we don’t know? On the contrary, we should be happy to admit it, as it opens us to the possibility of learning.

Embarking upon this path many years ago, I felt secure within the framework of Buddhism (it gave me an identity and a sense of security that comes from knowing one is not alone), and thought I knew quite well what Buddhism was/is. Some years ago, however, that sense of security began to slip; perhaps I had reached a point where I could stand on my own feet and didn’t need it any longer, so now, if someone asks me what Buddhism is all about, I might answer—without shame—”I don’t really know anymore”, as Buddhism is just so many things to so many people that it would be impossible to adequately explain it in a way that would be acceptable to everyone. I might say “It is this” or “It is that”, but would have to qualify my statements by adding that this is my understanding of it and not necessarily anyone else’s, and certainly not everyone else’s. Moreover, Buddhism became so mixed up with Hinduism in the land of its birth that it would be almost impossible to separate them.

No, I’m not ashamed to say I don’t know what Buddhism is all about now, although I must and do gratefully acknowledge my great debt to Buddhism—the organization, the religion, the container—for having preserved and been the vehicle of the Buddha’s Teaching for so long, just as I also acknowledge my lesser debt to Christianity for what it gave me earlier on in my life. What is important to me now, however, is the Contents rather than the Container, and if I seem to disregard the Container there are plenty of other people who will continue to serve and take care of it, even if they pay little attention to the Contents. But we must be very clear about this: The Container—no matter how resplendent—exists for the Contents, not the other way around.

So, I will leave the explaining of what Buddhism is and is not to others; to me, it is just one of the many religions in the world which we may compare and contrast in an attempt to prove that ‘ours’ is better than ‘yours’—is, in fact, the best—but still it will be, at most, the best among many and not the totality. I am more interested with that which embraces and involves everyone and everything, and this is what we mean by the word Dharma (I realize that it is a culturally loaded and religiously biased word, with a strong flavor of India, but if we were to try to translate it we would need many words and would still only get an approximate meaning; it is better, therefore, to leave it as it is and try to feel its several meanings, the most important and broadest being Cause-and-Effect); also, if we are open-minded, to the extent necessary for following a spiritual path, we surely will not mind the use of this word; if we are not so open-minded, no amount of words will suffice, and we will have to wait. So, if we are really sincere in our desire to discover what is True, we must see that Buddhism, in any or all of its forms, is not enough, and in going beyond them would really demonstrate our respect and gratitude to them, while to cling to them would mean that we have not understood and used them as far as they can take us.

I would like to close here with a quotation from WALK ON! By Christmas Humphries, the late founder-president of the London Buddhist Society: “In the early stages we move, like cattle, in herds; later, we congregate in religions, movements and societies; later, we advance in groups, which grow ever smaller; finally, we advance alone”.

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