RETURNING TO MALAYSIA IN November ‘97, I told in many places of my trip in Turkey, and the response—especially to my story of Gallipoli—was usually good; not a few people rejoiced with me in my sharing of Nameless Dharma. However, I knew that not everyone agreed with me wearing ordinary clothes in Turkey. Due to their attachment to form, some people consider a monk donning ordinary clothes as tantamount to disrobing, or, if not that, that he has some unworthy purpose in mind that he couldn’t carry out while in robes and wishes to conceal.
If we extend this idea to its logical conclusion, it follows that anyone not wearing robes must—inevitably and without doubt—be living in unworthy ways. But is this so? I do not subscribe to a Buddhist caste system, with monks at the apex, and lay-people at the base. First and foremost, I am a human being, and then a monk, not the other way around. Many Buddhists ‘invest’ in monks and want them to play a defined role and live up to their expectations; it is as if the monk is public property with no private life of his own. I won’t say that I don’t care what others think of me, because I do, but not to the point where I will allow it to keep me quiet about things that must be said. It cannot be stressed strongly enough that Universal Dharma takes us beyond the limitations of name-and-form, and I will hold to that no matter what others may think of me.
At one place where I was scheduled to talk, several young Thai monks turned up. I had not expected this, as it is something quite rare, so debated with myself: “Should I change my mind and not tell of my Turkey trip, in case it upsets them?” But I decided, “No, why should I? I’m not ashamed of what I did, and am not going to be hypocritical about it; I will tell it as it was, and if they don’t like it, well, too bad”. I don’t know what they thought, and don’t particularly care; they must find their way just as I must find mine. But at least one person in the audience must have been shocked at my revelations, and came straight out with: “Before you took off your robes and put on lay-clothes, did you undergo a ceremony? And before redonning the robes, did you have another ordination ceremony?” I replied: “If I must have a ceremony every time I take off my robes and before putting them on again, I’ll have two ceremonies a day, as I certainly don’t bathe in my robes! I did not disrobe when I went to Turkey”.
If I disrobe—as I may and might do (I’ve taken no life long vows about this)—I won’t bother with a ceremony, but will say to myself: “Okay; now I disrobe”, and do it. Until then, because I feel I have something useful to say and share, and because there are people—only a few, perhaps, but there are some—who will receive it, I’ll continue as I am. I make no apologies for not being as enlightened as I would like (and hope someday to be), or for not living up to others’ expectations. I often tell people, that just as we are (as human beings) we—myself as well as others—are tremendously successful already, and should try to understand this, before thinking about more. And, while I do appreciate people’s kindness and support, it is still my life, not theirs. I am nobody’s monkey, and am not for sale. My real responsibility is to Universal Dharma, and whatever I am able to discover of this, I will try to pass on to others and not keep just for myself; this, I feel, is the best and only way I can repay them for their kindness. If people think of me as a ‘field of merit’ in which to sow seeds—like speculating on the stock market—they risk disappointment. But if they will listen to what I say, and think about it, they may get something better than a few paltry grains of merit.
Not long ago, someone in Penang who I’ve known since 1971, asked me if I ever thought of disrobing. I replied: “No, not really, and anyway, I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do”.
Not long ago, too I was invited to lunch in someone’s home, where a sumptuous meal was served. The hosts were so solicitous of my welfare, however, that it reminded me of when I was newly ordained. People would bring food-offerings to the temple, but unused to being served so respectfully, I felt quite uncomfortable. They were too kind, standing over me while I ate, watching my every move, ready to pile more food on my plate when it showed signs of becoming clear. I did not enjoy their devotedly prepared food—maybe I was not meant to?—and often did not eat enough to satisfy me (without feeling like a glutton, this would have been difficult, with so many eyes on me). I felt so self-conscious, and wanted to say: “Thank you for your kindness, but I would prefer to be left alone to eat in peace”, but of course, did not. This is just another example of how people expect a person to be different—and maybe not to have feelings—just because he’s a monk. Really, such ideas should be updated, and the role of the monk in society re-evaluated.
Kindness should be balanced with wisdom, or may lead to suffering. I once stayed briefly at a Buddhist Society in Johor Bharu, where so many people turned up to offer breakfast that there were about 50 dishes on the table before me! How much can one man possibly eat? Sadly, they had very high but unrealistic expectations of monks—serving them lavishly, out of desire for merit, and desperately wanting them to be saints. With a little wisdom they could have avoided the disappointment that they consequently underwent time and time again.
The story of Sakyamuni’s search for truth illustrates how attachment to beliefs and opinions can impede our progress in Dharma. Impressed with the austerities they saw Sakyamuni practicing in the forest, five yogis banded around him, feeling that if anyone could make the breakthrough and reach enlightenment, it would be him, and he would then show them the way. But Sakyamuni almost died of starvation before he realized this way would never lead to his goal. And when, in order to regain his strength for a fresh approach, he started to eat again, the five yogis thought he had given up his search and returned to a life of sense pleasure. Stuck on the view that liberation can only be gained by self-mortification, they were disappointed in him, and left. Fortunately for them, after Sakyamuni achieved enlightenment and became the Buddha, he sought them out and led them from their wrong views to enlightenment.
At a place where I had been several times before, I began a recent talk by saying: “Every time I come here you ask me what is the topic of my talk, although you should know by now that I don’t put a topic or title on them. There are several reasons for this: First, I do not plan my talks and seldom know what I will talk about before the time, and, secondly, because if I were to put a topic on my talks it would make it too easy for you, so that, if someone were to ask you afterwards, ‘What did he talk about?’, you could answer with the title, even though you might have understood little else. I want you to get something more from my talks than just the title; this is not asking too much, as I usually give lots of simple illustrations. Attending a Dharma talk should not be a matter of formality, otherwise it will be waste of your money (as you must pay my fare here) and of my time, and I don’t want that. So, I would like to ask what you remember—what you learned—from my previous talks here, and I expect some answers—at least three—and if there are no answers, I won’t say anything else and will go back early.”
There was a long and noisy silence until they finally realized that I meant what I said, and then someone answered, but not to my satisfaction, so I insisted on more. Slowly, more came, but clearly, they had learned or remembered little from my previous talks. Not wanting to hurt their feelings, I went ahead in spite of this, but really, I felt it was a waste of time.
A month after leaving Turkey, I was pleasantly surprised to receive a post card from Ali, the Troy-Gallipoli tour guide; he had received my letter from Istanbul. Addressing me very respectfully, he said he had been expecting to hear from me one day, and that he really appreciated the teaching I gave him; “the secret truth in it will lead me all the time”, he wrote. Because he expected nothing from me he got so much, and in turn, gave me so much; this card confirmed something I already knew: that my trip in Turkey had been a great success, and not just because I was able to touch someone deeply, but because I had done it without the support of the robe; in fact, I had only been the agent, and it was the Dharma—Universal Dharma—that had done it. The center place belongs to the Dharma alone!