AS REFERRED TO IN the previous article, "Images," when people come to something with their eyes and minds open, it is easier for them to understand it, and see deeper and clearer, than for people who have grown up with it and perhaps never examined or questioned it.
For this reason, Westerners who come to Buddhism have an advantage over Asian Buddhists, for though the forms that Buddhism has taken over its long history are all Asian, the essence of Buddhism― the Dharma―being universal, transcends all forms and cultural accretions.
Sadly, many Westerners do not make the most of this advantage, or simply do not understand it, and so easily get side-tracked, or fall into the trap of choosing and identifying with one of the numerous ethnic forms of Buddhism, such as Chinese, Japanese, Burmese, Sri Lankan, Tibetan, etc., and become polarized thereby, whereas, if they had used their common sense, and followed up, instinctively, on what they had stumbled on initially (and many Westerners seem to have an inborn affinity with Dharma), they might have gone to the roots instead of fixing their attention on the branches and twigs. To study the forms is very interesting, anthropologically, no doubt, but to base one's life on one of them, and conform to it to the exclusion of other forms and ways, will result in a narrowing instead of an opening and a flowering.
There is some excuse―that is, it is understandable―for people who are born into and raised in a Buddhist culture to take sides like this, and become sectarian (it happens with any/every people, in whatever religious background they have been raised). But for Westerners, coming new to it from the outside, without any bias towards one side or another, there is little excuse for accepting and adopting the first form they come to, and for not investigating things clearly. I am not suggesting that all Western Buddhists proceed like this, but there are enough of them to warrant writing this about them. Having somehow sloughed off the fetters, dogmas, and superstitions of their Judaeo-Christian conditioning (or some of it, anyhow), they then proceed to drape themselves with Buddhists chains, as if they were garlands; the name and the form might be different, but the condition is essentially the same.
If I were to tell all the tales I have heard of the foolish things that Westerners―having become monks―get up to, in their desire to become enlightened, it would form a small book on its own, so I will mention just a few to serve as illustrations (and hopefully as warnings to others who might think of becoming monks).
All Buddhist monks, of whatsoever sect or school of Buddhism (and I should include Buddhist nuns, too, otherwise I might be accused of being sexist), have a rule to abstain from eating after 12 noon until dawn the following day. There are several reasons for this, not the least of them being the desire to cause as little inconvenience as possible to the lay-people who provide the food for the clergy. It was originally only a minor rule, however, as can be seen from the fact that for the first twenty years of the Buddha's forty-five-year-long ministry, monks were allowed to eat at any time. The proximate cause for this rule being made by the Buddha arose one evening when a certain monk went out with his bowl for alms to a village, where he saw a woman drawing water from a well. Standing quietly at one side―as monks are not allowed to attract attention to themselves or ask for anything when out on alms-round ― he waited for the woman to finish her chore and notice him. When she turned around and saw this cloaked figure standing in the half light however, she got a shock and, being pregnant, had a miscarriage as a result. Consequently, when this was reported to the Buddha, He promulgated the rule that monks should eat only up until noon. There were other reasons, too, among them the cutting-down of time monks spent thinking about food and eating it, and another, that of self-restraint.
Over the ages, this rule has come to be somewhat of a fetish, and many monks (and lay-people, too), place undue importance on it, seeming to think that enlightenment might be gained as a result of not eating after noon. But enlightenment is not so easily attained, alas! If only it were! Other monks, however―mainly from the colder countries to the north and northeast of India, to where Buddhism later spread, like Tibet, Mongolia, China, Japan, and Korea―choose to disregard this rule and eat three times a day, unlike the monks of Thailand, Cambodia, Burma, and Sri Lanka, who eat twice a day within five hours, and fast for the remaining nineteen hours, but whose intake of food is often the same as that of monks who eat three times a day.
I once spent some time with a certain Western monk who was well known―or perhaps I should say 'notorious'―for his meticulous observance of the rules, and who had a habit of pulling other monks up for not being as strict as himself. One day, he said to me: "You should brush your teeth after your forenoon meal, in case any particles of food that are lodged between them slip down into your stomach afterwards, constituting a violation of the rules." That struck me as absurd. I wonder if the Buddha would have thought of something so petty?
And here is another tale regarding this rule, about a group of Western monks who had been invited to someone's house for lunch. However, they were delayed, and arrived a little late, so did not have time to finish their meal before 12 o'clock. Several of the monks, who were on a strict-observance-of-the-rules trip, were anxiously watching the clock, and as the minute hand got near to 12, they put down their cutlery and ceased eating. One of them, however, who was not so strict, continued eating some cake he had started on, and became aware that the other monks were casting worried looks at him, and when one of them remarked: "I wonder what the Buddha would have said about eating over time," he replied: "He would have said: 'Eat your cake!' " which is just what he did.
The following story reached me from a German monk friend of mine who lives in Thailand, and concerned an Australian monk who told someone that when monks travel, they should carry with them some rope or cord to use as a clothes line, for if they were to use the clothes lines of places where they might sojourn, they could not be sure that they had not previously been used for hanging robes that monks had bought themselves (or which had not been 'properly' offered to them by lay-people), and the dye from an improperly offered robe might get into their own through the medium of the clothes line, thus besmirching its purity! How ludicrous! It is amazing how they can think up such things, instead of directing their energy to more important matters.
Needless to say, Western monks are somewhat 'odd', merely by reason of them being monks, but I think it can be fairly said that most of them are sincere, in their own ways, about their search for enlightenment, even if their efforts are sometimes a bit misguided. However, out of haste, and/or not understanding that the state of enlightenment known as Nirvana is unconditioned, and cannot be attained by anything we might do in our desire to attain it, they set about practicing all kinds of austerities and disciplines, and easily fall into playing the 'holier-than-thou' game with their rules. This is tantamount to what is known in Pali (one of the Buddhist scriptural languages) as 'Silabbattaparamasa', or a belief in and clinging to rites and ceremonies as a means of 'making merit' and/or attaining enlightenment; according to the scriptures, it is one of the three fetters or hindrances that fall away upon the attainment of the first stage of Buddhist sainthood known as 'Sotapatti', or 'Entering the Stream'. So, far from being weakened and broken, this fetter is only strengthened by the misconceived efforts of such monks (though it must be said that monks are not the only ones who enter such blind alleys).
Our greed or desire for Truth or enlightenment only drives enlightenment away. J. Krishnamurti once said: "The Sublime is not within the structure of thought and reason, for thought has always a measure. Nor is it the product of emotion and sentiment. If you are seeking the highest you will not find it; it must come to you, if you are lucky, and luck is the open window of your heart, not of thought," meaning to say―if I may offer an interpretation―that we cannot find enlightenment, cannot attain it by any effort, for it is unproducible, and cannot be caught by any snare we might set for it; the only thing we can do is to prepare ourselves for it, to become more sensitive, open, and receptive, so that enlightenment might arise; we can develop an interest in, a joy in, a passion for Dharma, can attune ourselves to it, and if enlightenment doesn't arise, we can try to live in an enlightened way, and this, to a great extent, is within our capacity. And from this should arise a feeling of joy, a sense of living in harmony with Dharma that transcends the personal happiness we seek. Enlightenment might then arise later, and take us by surprise, without being sought.
There is a passage near the end of Hermann Hesse's famous and beautiful novel, Siddhartha, where the principal character, whose name forms the title of the book, meets again his boyhood friend, Govinda, when they are both old men, and Siddhartha says to Govinda: "When someone is seeking, it happens quite easily that he only sees the thing that he is seeking, that he is unable to find anything, unable to absorb anything, because he is only thinking of the thing he is seeking, because he has a goal, because he is obsessed with his goal. Seeking means: to have a goal; but finding means: to be free, to be receptive' to have no goal. You, O worthy one, are perhaps indeed a seeker, for in striving towards your goal, you do not see many things that are under your nose."
In this book, also, Siddhartha meets the Buddha, and speaks with Him, and, although he is immensely impressed with the Buddha and His teachings, he cannot accept and follow them, but must find his own way. He tells the Buddha that never before had anyone explained things so clearly and logically, and yet, in His system, there was a flaw: it was impossible to convey to another what He had experienced during His Enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, as it was something so personal, and had to be experienced by the individual, each for himself; it cannot be transmitted.
Some Western monks remain in robes until they die; some remain for 20 or 30
years, then disrobe and return to lay life; others remain for just a few years
and then leave. I remember a remark once made by an Australian monk who resides
in Singapore about some Westerners who leave the monk hood, and I agree with it:
"They are not just not monks anymore," he said, "but not even
Buddhists!" This is probably because, having tried and failed to attain
anything of lasting value through their austerities and weird practices―tried
and failed to 'storm the gates of Heaven' kind of thing―they conclude that
there is nothing to be attained, and, in their disillusionment, discard
everything, and not just the robe. What a pity! If only they had not been in so
much of a hurry! If only they had not set their sights so high, and been content
with the small successes that they all surely had on their way. I cannot say
what, exactly, I have 'got' from my years as a monk, but I feel that, if I were
to disrobe (and this is a possibility, although I have no plans to do so), I
would still have something left over, as the Dharma doesn't depend upon whether
one has a robe and a shaved head or not; it knows no such restrictions, but is
applicable and available to everyone; and I can say this with authority, from
within rather than from without. I could say exactly the same things if I were
not a monk, but many people would not listen, as they are so attached to the
monks, so under their shadow, considering them to be the authority. This is
wrong, and I use the robe to inform people that it is wrong. I have said it
before, and I will say it again: the center place of Buddhism belongs to no
person or persons―not even the Buddha Himself―but only to the
Dharma; it is not, or was not, a personality cult. Unfortunately, over the ages,
people have come to overly depend upon the monks, feeling that only they can
understand the Dharma well, instead of exerting themselves and trying to realize
it themselves. But this is not so, and I have come across some lay people who
are better Buddhists, and more learned and humble, than most monks I have met,
and I say this here not to be critical of the monks, but in order to encourage,
uplift, and inspire lay people, and help them to overcome the erroneous idea
that, as laymen, they are somehow 'second class' Buddhists. Shaving one's head
and donning a robe does not automatically make one better or holier than people
who live the family life. It might be that the lifestyle of the monks, cut off
from the emotional ties and problems of family life, makes it easier for them to
follow the Way (whether they take advantage of the opportunities provided
thereby or not is another matter, of course; it does not automatically happen),
but it must be stressed, again and again, that the Dharma is not exclusive, is
not the monopoly of any class or group of people, but is open to all. Nor is it
necessary to call oneself 'Buddhist' to live by and benefit from the Dharma, as
it is universal and omnipresent, transcending all barriers and artificial