WHEN I WAS A SMALL BOY, my mother took me to the family doctor for a vaccination of some sort or other, and held me in her arms with my pants down. When the doctor came towards me with the syringe, however, I lashed out and punched him in the face! Needless to say, he wasn’t very happy about this, but neither was I about having a needle stuck in my butt! At that tender age, I didn’t realize that it was for my own good!
It often happens that our fear of, and efforts to avoid pain only increase it. This is not to say we should masochistically enjoy it or even go looking for it, but to realize that Life involves pain. We can lessen it, but can never completely overcome or avoid it. It is, therefore, something we should try to understand.
When we turn towards Dharma, we should not expect it to adjust to us or our desires, for it will never do that. It is we who must adjust to it. If this is sometimes hard, it is because of our pride. We have certain images of ourselves and often feel no need to change, which is why spiritual friendship is so important. We need a kalyana mitra—a good friend—someone who, with our welfare always in mind, will advise, restrain, cheer, soothe, exhort and encourage us. A friend of this type will put friendship before self-interest. He will not remain silent if he sees us straying into unwholesome ways, though his disapproval will be kindly and without self-righteousness; it won’t have the flavor of “I am right and you are wrong”.
But how to find such a friend? They don’t come easily, with Kalyana Mitra stamped all over them. How will we know one if we meet one? There is risk of being hurt when we go in search of a friend; if we open ourselves and make ourselves vulnerable, we may find the wrong kind of friend. Feeling this, and perhaps having been hurt by ‘friends’ in the past, some people—my eldest sister is one—lock themselves up and prefer to have no friends. There are such friends in the world, however, and the benefits of having one are immense—making it well worth the risk of opening ourselves.
But are we worthy of such a friend? Do we deserve one? What kind of friend are we? Are we trustworthy? Can others depend upon us to do what we say we will do? Or do we expect more of others than of ourselves? Is our word our bond? Is it always others who should keep their word and not us? Can we be honest, and assess ourselves objectively? Are we the kind of friend to others that we ourselves would like to have? We fall far short of our own standards, do we not? Even so, never mind; it is as it should be, because we are on a journey and have not reached the end; as long as this is so, there will always be a space—a difference—between what we are and what we would like to be; but if we recognize and understand this, there is no need to feel so bad about it; we will not be forever at this stage. Some discomfort and embarrassment about our shortcomings, however, is good, as it keeps us awake and moving, instead of lapsing into lethargy and indolence. It is good to have standards, but they should not be double standards; we should apply our own standards to ourselves as well as to others.
Some time ago, while visiting a small town in Sarawak, someone told me about an American pastor who was working there. Apparently, he disagreed with something in one of my books that someone had given him, and asked to meet me. I had no objection, and an appointment was arranged. He came to the place where I was staying, and our discussion went on for two hours. Although he was rather naïve in some ways (aren’t we all?), I found him otherwise very nice.
He said he had detected some bitterness in my book and asked me why I was so biased against Christianity. I told him of my years in the Refugee Camps of S.E. Asia, and how un-ethical I considered the conduct of the flocks of Christian missionaries there, all doing their utmost to convert the Buddhists. I had no choice but to protest against this, I said, and if the situation had been reversed and Buddhists were trying to convert Christians, I would have said the same thing: “Don’t do that! It’s wrong! Help where and if you can, but do not use your help as a lever to pressure others to convert to your beliefs!”
The pastor’s response to this was revealing. With disbelief in his voice, he said: “Would you?” “Yes”, I said firmly, “I would”. Again, to make sure his ears were not deceiving him, he asked: “Would you, really?” and again I gave the same answer.
I will probably never find myself in that situation, because over its long history, Buddhism has never spread by such means. And precisely because of this, I can say that I would oppose any efforts to convert others to Buddhism by unethical means such as are used by others. I never tried to convert anyone to Buddhism during my work in Manila City Jail. Conversion, as I see it, is not a matter of a change of name, but a change of heart; I don’t care what people call themselves, and in fact, would prefer it if they did not call themselves anything. I know my own mind in this.
The pastor was surprised when I told him that Buddhism was also a missionary religion, and had been from its beginning, over 500 years before the birth of Jesus. He registered even more surprise upon hearing that blood has never been shed in the name of Buddhism, and that there has never been a Buddhist war. “We are not proud of that”, I said, “because this is just how it should be”. Unwilling to let this pass unchallenged, he said: “But just last year, a foreign tourist was killed by a Buddhist in Thailand!” “No”, I said, “she was killed by a Thai, not by a Buddhist, and though he called himself ‘Buddhist’—as do most Thais—and even wore a monk’s robe, it was not a Buddhist action and was not carried out in the name of Buddhism. There is no way that Buddhism can be held responsible for that”. (That particular ‘monk’ had a history of mental illness, and should never have been ordained in the first place; ordination is just too easy in Thailand; they will ordain anyone!)
Buddhism was old long before Jesus was born. Isn’t it time Christians came out of their spiritual shells and realized that there are other ways in the world beside theirs? We’re not asking for tolerance; it’s not enough. What we want is fairness. Would Christians like it if others tried to convert them by telling them that their religion is no good, that Jesus is a demon and anyone praying to him will go to hell? Of course they wouldn’t! So they should learn not to do that to others, should learn to follow the Golden Rule which they shout so much about, and claim that Jesus taught: “Do unto others as you would like others to do to you”. Jesus might have taught it, but he did nor originate it; many others had said the same thing before him (actually, Jesus didn’t say much that was original). The world has had too much of Christian hegemony—century after long century of it!—and unless and until Christians renounce and abandon this, there will be no possibility of religious cooperation. There should be a demand on the part of followers of other religions for Christians to publicly disavow this practice and openly accept and respect other religions. This is my demand, and I will continue to speak and write about it.
Buddhism teaches that everyone—no matter what they call themselves—has Buddha-nature, or the capacity to become enlightened. It’s intrinsic—inside us—no-one gives it to us. And you don’t have to call yourself a Buddhist to be a Buddhist. What freedom!
“You don’t need a good voice to be able to sing”.
you have a song in your heart, sing it!