WE ALL HAVE OUR OWN WAYS OF looking at things, of course, but if we were to examine them, we’d probably find that they are very much conditioned by factors outside our control. Really, therefore, they are not our ways of looking at things at all, but more the ways of other people that we have inherited. It is like the houses we live in: they are not really our houses in the sense that we didn’t build them ourselves, but more the houses of others—those who contributed in any way to their construction, and there were literally millions of them, stretching back over the ages to the infinite past. Everyone depends upon others before them, back and back and back.
So, where did we get our views from? Where did our conditioning begin? Are our views consistent with reality? Are they supported by and based upon facts? Are we mature enough to think about this and face the fact that what we have assumed until now to be right and true may actually not be so, and that we might have to start from scratch in constructing a workable philosophy of life? This is a very disconcerting prospect, and one which the vast majority of people would turn away from, preferring the consoling illusions that they may have been brought up with and have accepted without question. But there are always some brave enough to doubt the accepted norm, who will not be content with the mere name-and-form of religion, and provisions must be made for them.
When I was in Australia in 1996, a census was conducted, and everyone was required to respond, under threat of being fined if they failed to do so (Australia, I regret to say, is becoming like Singapore: a fine country, with voting compulsory, and fines imposed for failure to vote; many countries have insufficient democracy, but in Australia, we have maybe too much! Earlier this century, people struggled and suffered for universal suffrage (the right to vote); perhaps now, we need to struggle for the right not to vote! The whole idea behind the right to vote is the freedom to choose; surely, this should include the right not to choose, too!)
There was a question about religion on the census form, but since it was not compulsory to answer this, I left it blank. I feel that we should not label ourselves or others; if others wish to label me a ‘Buddhist’, that is up to them.
Checking to see how my eldest sister and her husband (with whom I was staying at the time) had filled in the form, I saw that they had answered the question about religion with ‘Church of England’. I didn’t say anything about this to them, of course, but thought it would have been better for them to have left it blank, too. They are not practicing Christians, never go to church, and I doubt very much if they would be able to explain what Christianity is all about!
Later, when the results of the census were made known, it was stated that about 2 million Australians (over 10% of the population), claimed to have no religion. While this would be true in many cases (and not just with 2 million, either, but with many more), it would not be true with all, as many of them would probably be quite religious in the sense of living by principles that are important to them. What they probably mean when they say they have no religion is that they do not call themselves by any particular ‘brand name’, and are able to see through and beyond the form and externalia of religion to the essence. I have much more respect for people who live religiously without calling themselves ‘Buddhists’, ‘Christians’, ‘Hindus’, etc., than for those who make a show about the superficialities of religion but ignore the essence.
Disregarding other religions for now, and their claims to exclusive possession of truth, let us focus on the divisions of Buddhism, which continue to cause friction. Historically, Buddhism went through three main phases of development in India, each lasting about 500 years: Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. I don’t intend to go into the causes of their development here, but will say that the development of one into another does not necessarily prove the superiority of the succeeding one; we must keep it in mind that there is not just evolution but devolution too: things do not always evolve and become better, but sometimes devolve and degenerate. I’m not saying that this happened in Buddhism, but neither am I saying that it didn’t; it is a matter of opinion, and we should make up our own minds about it.
Very often we find that the adherents of particular schools or sects of Buddhism are not very clear as to why they have chosen one sect over another; indeed, in most cases, they didn’t choose at all, in the sense of making an informed decision to follow this rather than that; it is more that they fell into it as into a hole, and then, embracing it as their own, proceeded to feel that it must be better than all others, must, in fact, be the best. What does this mean? Nothing more or less than egoism, the sense of ‘I, me and mine’. We become so bound up with thoughts of self that we forget, if we ever knew, the boundless ‘beyond-self’ that the Buddha tried to indicate. Let us be very clear about this: the Buddha had nothing to do with sectarianism; what He taught was Dharma, nothing less.
Sectarianism is like the nun in the parable who was so attached to a particular Buddha image that she would offer incense only to that one and not to the numerous other images in the shrine hall of her nunnery. Noticing that the smoke from her incense didn’t go straight up to her favorite image, however, but dispersed throughout the shrine hall, she wondered how she could get the smoke to go just where she wanted it to go, instead of straying to the other images. Finally, she hit upon a solution and made a funnel above the incense urn to direct the smoke upwards to her Buddha image. How happy she was to see the smoke finally obeying her wishes! It wasn’t long, however, before the funneled smoke blackened the nose of her beautiful Buddha image, making it quite ugly!
It cannot be said often enough that the Buddha did not teach what we call Buddhism, let alone sectarian differences that come under names like Hinayana, Mahayana, Vajrayana, Zen, and so on, but a way of discovering Reality or Universal Dharma, which applies to everyone and everything, in all times and places, which is all inclusive and all embracing rather than exclusive and partial. We must remember, too, that He didn’t set out to teach only Buddhists, as there were no Buddhists when He began; He didn’t care what people called themselves or thought of themselves as; He was concerned with human beings, and their potential to understand and grow. Are only Buddhists capable of this?
To understand this Universal Dharma we must be able to put aside, if only briefly, the fearful concern for self—my religion, my merit, my practice, my progress, my development, my enlightenment—and see, or realize, that there is really no separate self, that we are part of something infinitely bigger and more important than self, and that only by understanding ourselves as part of everything, instead of apart from it, does it make any sense at all; in other words, the part, by itself, simply has no meaning and does not exist.
This realization is of the utmost importance, as the struggle for personal enlightenment is self-defective and doomed to failure. The Buddha once compared His teachings to a snake, which, if caught by the tail, may turn and bite, but if caught behind the head, cannot bite. Right Understanding is the first stage of the Eightfold Path, because without it, our subsequent efforts may easily come to naught; it is indispensable.
We must begin with ourselves, understanding how we are, as that is the only place to begin. Looking back on the way by which we have reached the present (and the present is all we ever have; it is always only the present, the Now), we can see that we have been supported at every step upon our long, long journey by countless others, and that we have not come here merely by our own efforts. By honestly asking ourselves what we really want from life, we arrive at simple conclusions: basically, we want to be happy and not suffer or feel sad; we like others to be kind to us and help us rather than be unkind to us. By understanding this about ourselves, we will also understand about others, as they feel very much the same as we do. We will then know what to do, and how to live; we won’t need anyone else to tell us because we will know by ourselves. We must begin with ourselves, yes, but we must not stop there; from understanding things in this way, our hearts and minds begin to open, to take into account other fragments of life—fellow travelers— struggling along all around us, to show compassionate concern for them, and to reach out and help them according to our limited capacity whenever we have the opportunity to do so; and such reaching-out would come as an expression of our understanding of how things are, instead of with the idea of ‘making merit’ or getting more out of life than we have already got.
In this way, therefore, we find that Understanding and Love overcome the fearful concern for ourselves. If we were really as small and insignificant as we often think we are, there would be good reason to be afraid—in fact, we could not feel otherwise; but since we exist interdependently, there is no question about being alone. We just have to see and feel how things are, and then the fear for self will diminish, will be overcome.
But it is not only the fear for self that Love overcomes; there are other things, too. If we consider others kindly, with love and understanding, we are able to overlook their imperfections and failings, and see them, with their hopes, fears, and aspirations, as just like us: frail and fragile, struggling along, usually with no real sense of direction, but nevertheless lovable as human beings, worthy of respect and admiration. Love here, then, overcomes aversion and feelings of dislike towards others; it helps us to accept them as they are.
Love, too, may overcome enmity and unkindness in others; the Buddha said “Hate is not overcome by hate; only by love is hate overcome”. If this doesn’t always immediately work for us every time we try it, we shouldn’t be dismayed and give up, but should persevere; we cannot make others understand us or respond to us in the way we would like them to, but we can try to understand them. In fact, when we know something of the Dharma, the responsibility is more with us to understand others than with others to understand us.
The transition, development or upward growth from Understanding to Love—from Mind to Heart, as it were—typifies the almost traditional idea of the difference between Hinayana (and here, I do not mean the Theravada school of Buddhism, but an attitude of mind: the Hina or Smaller, Lesser, Lower, Inferior state of mind that is concerned primarily with self), and Mahayana (again, an attitude of mind rather than a sect or school of Buddhism, the state of mind that sees clearly how we are not separate from others, that is free from a fearful preoccupation with self, and that looks with Understanding and Love instead).
Our movement along the Path to Enlightenment is not just a matter of making effort, essential though this is; there is also the very strong and essential element of the Dharma working within us. Without trying to change for the better, even an intellectual study of the Dharma brings great results; but when we consciously turn towards Dharma and strive to align ourselves with it, and live according to its principles, our progress is greatly accelerated. The Dharma is so effective, and it is for this reason that we say from our hearts: Dharmam Saranam Gacchami.
“Only in dying is there life.
If one can die before one dies, perhaps one will discover
that one does not die when one dies”.