DURING ONE OF MY RECENT TALKS, I was asked a very plaintive question. She—at least, I think it was a lady, but am not sure, as the written question was passed out to the front—said her father, who was a vegetable farmer, had to use pesticides to protect his crops. She was worried because many insects are killed by this, of course, and, being Buddhist, wondered what will happen to her father as a result. “Will he go to Hell?” she asked. “He is kind and not a bad man, and always taught us to do good. I love him and don’t want him to suffer. Please tell me what to do”.
Near the temple where I usually stay whenever I’m in Kuala Lumpur is a busy road junction, with many trees beside it. These trees—though I don’t know why, as trees in other places are not so frequented—are the roosting-place of so many crows that when they are all settled there for the night, there seem to be almost as many crows as leaves on them!
Before dawn, I see them flying past the temple, bound to wherever it is they go at that time, to do whatever crows do (mainly scavenging for food, no doubt), and in the evening, before darkness falls, they return to their places at what I have come to call Crow Junction, undisturbed by the roar of the traffic beneath them. This has probably gone on for many generations, offspring instinctively following their parents without question. I’ve not seen any nests at this place, so I guess they only roost there, and nest elsewhere.
It is teeming with rain as I write this, and the poor crows must be huddled on their branches in the dark. What if I were to take an umbrella down to the Junction and offer them shelter? Quaint idea! It would be just as kind but hopelessly sentimental and impractical as Francis of Assisi’s efforts to repair a spider-web he had accidentally brushed against with threads pulled from his own garment. The spider, in his case, would not have appreciated his kindness in the least, and the crows, in mine, would only flutter and flap their wings in alarm and get out of my way. They might not think me mad—as would any onlookers observing my bizarre behavior—but would not accept my well intentioned albeit foolish offer, and I would only get wet myself.
We should use common sense with religion and try not to be too idealistic or sentimental. What are we to do about the precept to abstain from killing if, when we need to shower, there are ants all over the bathroom floor? To remove them, one by one, would take too long. Are we to forego showering because of this? Or will we go ahead, knowing that many ants will drown while we are doing so? Well, why do we shower? Is it to kill ants or to cleanse ourselves? It is unfortunate that they die because of our shower, but it is not our purpose to kill them. We may try to stop them from getting into the bathroom before we shower, but we cannot absolutely prevent it.
And if we discover termites in the woodwork of our home, will we just resign ourselves to the destruction and let them go ahead? Whatever we do, or whatever is done for us, somehow involves the death—if not the killing (the two are different: death and killing) of other things. If we continually worry about killing things, we will never get anything done. The important thing is to live with the intention to cause as little pain as possible as we pass through this world, but not to feel too bad if we cannot completely succeed. I don’t think anyone will go to Hell for killing insects in the course of their work. And anyway, I’m not convinced there is such a place; I may be wrong, but I think it’s a state of mind.
We cannot always have things our own way, and must often compromise. This is why we should meet and assess each situation as it arises instead of with minds already made up. A way of dealing with one situation may not be right for another; each situation, being different, requires a different approach; if one approach doesn’t fit the situation, another might. And if you make a wrong decision or use an unsuitable approach, well, who has never made a mistake? Don’t castigate yourself too much; try to learn something from it.
When my father was sick, just before he died, out of curiosity, I asked an old monk who was visiting Melbourne if he could give me some advice for him. I was not surprised or disappointed when he replied: “Tell him to chant the Buddha’s name”; I didn’t expect much else. I wonder what my father would have said if I had told him this? It was, in his case, useless advice. If he had said, “Tell him to recite ‘Hammer, nails and saw’”, this would have been much more meaningful, as my father was a handyman, not a Buddhist. What we think is good for us is not automatically good for everyone else.
Some Buddhists say: “It’s not enough to read books; we must practice the Dharma!” What does it mean? Sometimes, it seems, they speak without thinking, and their words have no meaning. What do they expect to get from their practices? They say their aim or purpose is insight or enlightenment. But that is a result or an experience, not a practice; we cannot do insight! There is no insight button we may press; it is not within our capacity to make it arise. It arises—if it does—when we are not looking for it or thinking about it. And it may arise while we are reading no less than by anything else we might be doing. Why discriminate against books? Is not reading books also a practice?
It is true, of course, that “reading books is not enough”; we must also eat, drink, sleep, relieve ourselves, bathe, and do countless other things; we cannot live just by reading books. But it is a mistake to look down upon and despise reading; like everything else, books are in the mind—how else do we process the information registered by our other senses? Books are one of many means to liberation—and not a minor one, either; we may save ourselves lots of time and trouble through reading. Much of our knowledge of Dharma comes from books; it doesn’t all come from practicing. The Buddha’s Teachings were preserved in books, and even people who emphasize the importance of oral teachings also read.
Practices of any kind are always carried out with the idea of getting something in return; can we practice anything without thought of result? Would we practice anything if we thought we could get nothing in return?
So, I do not agree with the statement “reading books is not enough”, in the sense it is used here, and would say: “Practicing Dharma is not enough”. We have to let the Dharma practice us! When we draw near to Dharma by rejoicing in it, the Dharma starts to work in us like yeast in dough, making it rise. Practicing Dharma is self-conscious, self-centered, contrived and artificial, something with a purpose or motive in mind. Why are we doing what we are doing? What do we expect to get from it? If we are not careful, we may become entangled in a web of our own spinning. Why do we continue to produce fire by rubbing two sticks together—and sometimes wet sticks, at that—when there are better and easier ways of doing it? Why do we insist upon doing things the hard—and not necessarily the best—way? We should take care that we do not become pious hypocrites.
Our practices are often based upon fearful self-concern, which distorts things, of course. We set ourselves apart from others by practicing things that they do not; do you see the danger in this? It is easy to consider ourselves better and more enlightened than people who don’t do what we do.
If, however, we observe how life is: how we depend so much upon others and benefit from them in so many ways, something gets freed up in us—something that’s long been jammed—and we begin to respond to life from gratitude and love. Deep inside, we know what is what, and need only give this knowing chance to operate, instead of always trying to control and manipulate things the way we want them. Is it not sufficient to do good or right simply because we know it to be so, and not because of what we think we might get in return?
Are we separate from and better than others just because we have seen some light and set our feet upon a spiritual path? Or are we not part of the whole, and subject to the force of evolution, too? We have not reached our present state of—what shall we call it?: evolution, progress, development?—by our own efforts, but only because we belong to something infinitely bigger than our tiny selves. We are humans, members of the human race, and it is only because we are so, that we are able to even think as we do; we have no right to hold up our heads and arrogantly say: “This is mine! I have achieved this! This is my enlightenment, a result of my own efforts.” Where is the self that thinks and says such things? When everything is selfless—empty of self—they cannot, therefore, be said.
“You don’t need
a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”.