UNIVERSAL DHARMA

Your Questions, My Answers ~ BEGINNING WITH YOURSELF

QUESTION:

"What’s the use of following the Way?"

ANSWER:

To answer this question, let us see what it implies. It has the taste of ‘What’s in it for me to make it worth my while? What can I get out of it?" This sounds rather calculating and self-centered, but it doesn’t really matter, for this is the only place we can begin: with oneself.

It usually comes as a shock to learn, after resisting it for so long, and pretending/hoping it isn’t so, that life as we know it, stripped of the veneer we have applied to it, is basically a state of suffering. Before anyone objects, saying that there is happiness, too, it should be said that, because the Universe is governed by the Law of Impermanence, even our states of happiness are potential states of suffering, as they change and become otherwise, and the higher we soar, the further we fall. As long as we grasp at happiness, seeking to possess it, this will always be so. Paradoxically, the search for happiness—something most of us are engaged in, especially in affluent societies—is the greatest obstacle to finding it and produces endless frustration. And so, seeking a way out of suffering, people turn to religion, concerned with merit, trying to abstain from negative, harmful deeds and to do positive, helpful ones. But of course, at this stage, it is all for self, undertaken either out of fear of possible consequences of not doing certain things, or from desire for things we think might come as results of different courses of action. And it is perfectly legitimate to start out in this way, just as much so as it is for a little baby to crawl on all fours before it learns to stand and walk; no-one blames babies for not being able to walk or run. But it is also necessary to know that this is only a stage where we will not remain forever, but will go on.

Slowly, just as slowly as we grow and develop from childhood, through adolescence, to adulthood—maybe even slower—our perceptions change, and we begin to see things clearer. Whereas before, when our initial response to the sufferings of life impelled us into fearfully following a religion, now we are able to look at things with better understanding, and see things in terms of Cause-and-Effect: Nothing comes from nothing or is accidental; all things arise from causes—not one cause, but many; every effect, from smallest to greatest, comes about from a concatenation of causes, working together, at some particular time and place, to produce something unique, as unique as anything and everything is unique. Moreover, we begin to see that we are not alone in this complexity of things; no-one is, nor ever can be. And in proportion as we see this to be so, our fear of the sufferings of life and death diminishes. Having seen, if only dimly, the relationship between Cause and Effect, we no longer feel powerless in the face of it all, and know that we can do something about it. Such knowledge is liberation, and is valuable not just to oneself, personally, but to the whole world, for we have seen—have we not?—that we are all in the same boat, regardless of race, caste or creed; we are friends in suffering, all; having been born, we face aging, sickness and death.

In times of trouble, people turn to religion, but often, because of poor understanding, only become further confused thereby. For example, many uninformed Buddhists obviously think of the Buddha as some sort of corrupt official who they can bribe into answering their prayers: "Hey, Buddha, last week I offered you flowers, fruit and incense and asked you to help me, but nothing’s happened yet! What’s the matter? Are you asleep or on strike or something?"

Not long ago, I was called upon to visit someone in the terminal stages of cancer. When I got to the house and saw him, I knew he had not long to live. As a result of the devastating chemotherapy he had undergone, he was emaciated and had only a few wisps of hair on his head. Twice daily, someone from the hospital came to check on his condition and administer medication. Many relatives and friends were there. What could I do, having been summoned? While not holding out any false hopes to him, I tried to cheer and encourage him with a Dharma talk, but alas, it was too late; both he and his family were paralyzed by fear and were not able to think clearly. Though they thought of themselves as Buddhists, and had a Buddha image on an altar with incense burning before it, they had obviously never bothered to learn anything about the teachings of the Buddha, and so, when help was available to them, they could not accept or use it.

I asked the man what he thought of his condition, and he replied that if the Buddha would help him, when he recovered he would become vegetarian for a month and shave his head. His wife clung to me, begging me to help her husband. I told her that I had been a regular blood donor for many years, so there was no need to ask me for help; I would do whatever was within my capacity, without being asked. I also told her that it was a matter of karma, and, while some things might be changed, the causes of other things are so strong that it is very difficult to change them.

The man died a few days later, but the family didn’t contact or inform me about this; I think they were disappointed because I didn’t perform the miracle they were desperately hoping for. Many Buddhists expect miracles from monks.

During my time in the Refugee Camps in the Philippines, people sometimes came to me in the temples there and ask me to shave their heads. When I asked why they wanted to do this they usually said that, while on their fragile boats at sea, in danger of drowning or starving to death, they prayed to the Buddha and vowed that, if He would help and save them, they would shave their heads; many people also promised to become vegetarians for a month or so. Some kept their promises, while others did not.

Where do they get such ideas? If just a few people thought like that, it may be supposed that they themselves had concluded that the Buddha might be cajoled and persuaded into helping them by offers of head shaving or abstention from eating meat for some time; but this superstition is so widespread that I can’t help thinking it must be part of their collective Buddhist background. Why should they suppose that shaving their head has any meritorious significance, or that it can be used as a bargaining chip? If there is any merit in shaving one’s head, I should have a mountain of merit, as I shave mine every week or so! And, if they consider that vegetarianism is the proper thing, why are they so reluctant to adopt it? Why wait until disaster befalls before becoming vegetarian? Surely, it would be better to prevent a thing before it happens, if possible, than to try to correct it after it has hit.

Have you noticed that when people survive a disaster or a dangerous situation, they often attribute their escape to supernatural intervention, saying such things as: "God saved me! I wouldn’t be alive today if He hadn’t helped me!" They are unaware of the implications of such statements: If God really did help and save them, why didn’t he do the same for others who perished? This is a serious stumbling block for the believers. I heard of missionaries telling Cambodian refugees in the overcrowded Camps in Thailand, that their parents, family and friends died in Pol Pot’s ‘Killing Fields’ because they didn’t believe in Jesus, and that the Buddha was only a man who couldn’t save anyone; so they had better accept Jesus and be saved. Poor refugees—to be insulted with such superstitious nonsense after undergoing so much suffering! We can’t blame them for not seeing the glaring flaw in the missionaries’ arguments: If Jesus—or God, who whoever else—could save anyone, then why didn’t he save those who Pol Pot’s demons tortured and starved to death? In fact, if he is as all powerful as they claim, why did he allow the whole thing to happen at all? It is true what the missionaries say about the Buddha—that He was a human being who could not save anyone; no-one claims that about Him if they understand what He taught. But is it true what they say about Jesus? What evidence have they got to support their claims—evidence that would stand up in a court of law? It is better to be honest and admit you don’t know, instead of making extravagant claims without evidence to support them; belief is not enough.

It is not my intention to denigrate Jesus, and I do not think I have done so; what I question are the claims of his followers. I respect Jesus as a Teacher, but am sorry that his teachings —or what remains of them in the gospels—are not-a-little ambiguous, and so were easily bent and twisted to the political purposes of ambitious churchmen into whose hands they later fell. If Jesus could see what they have done with his teachings, I’m sure he would be shocked!

To return to our question: "What is the use of following the Way?" Following the Way enables us to lessen the suffering in the world, does it not? Have you not had enough suffering already, without creating more? There is good reason for us to think about this, and to expand our consciousness, to think of the impact our living in the world has upon the life around us, not always to think of what we can get out of it, but also of what we can put back in. Do we not get so much out already, without thinking of getting more? Do we live by ourselves alone? Even Robinson Crusoe didn’t do so, but had his dog, his goats and his chickens, and was eventually joined by another human being—even though he was of a different race and couldn’t speak a word of English! And did Robinson later refuse to be rescued and choose to remain on his desert island? Or was he not happy to return to his homeland and rejoin his society? Few of us could live alone for long; some of us couldn’t even stand a single day of doing so; we prefer the company of others, as we are gregarious by nature, and there are many benefits to be had from living in a community. Imagine how life would be if each one of us had to live separately, and produce by ourselves all the things we needed: we wouldn’t like it at all, and definitely would not have all the wonderful things that cooperation with others makes possible. It is good for us to ponder on this now and then, as it’s so easy to lose sight of it.

Ah, but while we benefit in so many ways from living in a community with others, there are also responsibilities, and if we do not want to accept the responsibilities, we are also not entitled to enjoy the benefits; the two go together, inseparably.

To conclude, therefore: When we understand about our relationships with others, it is natural for us to follow the Way, and there’s no longer any question about the point of doing so.

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