Saviors And Supermen



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            SOMEONE ONCE REMARKED TO ME that she had heard it said that a certain well known monk had a wife. I replied to her: "I don’t care if he has ten wives! What is important to me is what I can learn from him that might be useful to me in my own life".

            Long ago, I gave up the immature pursuit of looking for a ‘savior’, someone to ‘save me’, ‘forgive my sins’, or live my life for me. I have accepted responsibility for my own life, and hope that I will have the fortitude from doing so to accept whatever comes to me without overly complaining or blaming others; I am in training for this now.

            Some people think that a teacher’s teachings have little value if he himself does not always live by them, but I do not subscribe to this idea. If we do not expect the teacher to be perfectly enlightened, or to ‘save’ us, it becomes unimportant whether or not he lives by his own teachings. (If someone cooks delicious food, and spreads it on the table, but does not eat it himself, it would not mean that other people could not eat it, would it?) In any case, people would be foolish to merely believe what he says, but should test it to find out if it is true and useful to them or not. In this way, we might learn something good from anyone, regardless of the morality of the person; and we would discover that the teacher is important only insofar as what he says is true; it is not enough for him to claim that what he says is true; it must be true, independently of his claims. And would you mind if your geography teacher had never been to the far away places that he talks about in his lessons? Would you dismiss his teachings as invalid if he hadn’t?

            Jesus of Nazareth spoke so much about Love that many people have come to regard it as the cornerstone of his teachings, but he actually said very little original about Love, other teachers having said much the same kind of things before him. He said things like, "Love your neighbor as yourself", and "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them who despitefully use you and persecute you", and so on. But he did not always show love himself, and was often quite harsh (contrary to the ‘gentle-Jesus-meek-and-mild’ image many people have of him), especially to the Scribes and Pharisees, whom he cursed as ‘hypocrites’ and ‘vipers’. Moreover, his love was not broad and all embracing, but was limited to a small group of people ― the Israelites ― and he told his disciples to go forth and spread his message only to the Children of Israel and not to the ‘Gentiles’ (the Jewish term for non-Jews). And there was also the time, as recorded in Mark 7:25-30, when a Greek woman approached him and asked him to exorcise her daughter of the spirit that possessed her. He told her that it was not right to give the bread of the children to dogs, meaning that his teachings and help were not for Gentiles. But she persisted, and said that the dogs may eat the crumbs that fall from the table, whereupon, Jesus relented and helped her. But why, if he was all compassionate and loving, should he have hesitated to help her in the first place? These days, he would be accused of racism for talking like that!

            Then again, there is nothing in the story of Jesus, as recorded in the New Testament, to indicate that he felt any kindness towards animals; on the contrary, we read (Matt. 8, Mark 5, Luke 8), how Jesus drove evil spirits out of a possessed man, which then went into a herd of pigs that was grazing nearby, causing them to run headlong downhill to drown in a lake. He was also not averse to giving instructions on how to catch fish.

            In spite of such personal discrepancies, we don’t dismiss the teachings of Jesus as useless, and it doesn’t mean that we cannot benefit from them. There are the inspiring examples of Francis of Assisi and the late Mother Theresa to demonstrate that the love which Jesus spoke about is a real and practicable thing; in fact, these two followers of Jesus seem to show love in a higher degree than did Jesus Himself (Saint Francis and Mother Theresa can't deny that, as they would, because he died more than 700 years ago, and she died just recently, but we can imagine them being horrified of the suggestion that the disciple should be more advanced than the Master!); they didn't allow Jesus' occasional 'lapses from perfection' to prevent them from applying and experiencing what he taught.

            Imagine what the world might have been like if more Christians had attempted to live by the teachings of Jesus, instead of merely believing in Him, and praying to Him to save them; or if Buddhists had not treated the Buddha as a God or Superman, and tried, instead, to experience for themselves what He was talking about! It would, for sure, have been quite different than it is now!

            Most of us have, or have had, 'hero figures' to whom we look up and admire. Some of them we leave behind as we grow up and mature, while others remain with us for life; and as we go along, we might acquire others, too. Often, however, we find that if we meet our heroes ― who are usually remote from us, and beyond our reach ― they appear otherwise than the image we have built up of them, and not larger than life, as we previously supposed. And so, we feel somewhat disappointed and let down. It would, therefore, be better, perhaps, not to meet our heroes, but to keep them at a distance, for then the qualities that we most admire in them might remain intact and continue to inspire us and serve as examples for our own living.

            My elder brother, who is really quite a heathen and not at all religious or spiritually inclined, once went to church with his wife and young children, for some reason that I no longer remember. They sat there quietly, waiting for the service to begin, and when the minister, in his clerical vestments, mounted the pulpit from behind, the silence was suddenly broken by a loud and awe-filled whisper from one of my nieces to the other: "Look, Linda, there's God!"

            There are many misconceptions about clergy people, some of which have been deliberately propagated and maintained over the ages to engender a mystique in the minds of the laity, but, while few people would retain their childhood ideas into adulthood, many people do harbor strange ideas about monks, nuns, and priests. Among the faithful, there are some who elevate the monks and priests so high that they almost need a telescope to see them in the sky, and then, if the monk or priest does something they don't like, or that they feel he shouldn't do, he falls in their esteem, and they feel quite disappointed. But this is more because they put him so high to begin with, rather than what he might or might not have done. They expected him to be super-human and not to have human frailties. Some of them might even be surprised to learn that the monk or priest has to use the toilet like other people!

            Some people use the clergy as scapegoats, so that they can do whatever they like without feeling too bad about it; they feel that Dharma is only for monks and nuns, or other people who live cloistered lives, and that it doesn't apply to them; they resent any suggestion that it does. A man once came to see me to complain about a monk whom he had seen smoking, and said it was very bad "But," I said, "what about you? You are smoking right now as you are telling me this!" "Oh, but I'm not a monk," he replied, "so it's alright.'' Thus, the monk becomes a convenient excuse for them to avoid doing what, deep inside them, they know they should or should not do. "I don't have to do that," they say, "because I'm not a monk."

            If a monk refuses to be placed on a pedestal and worshipped, but insists on being a human being, with feelings and faults, like other people; if he admits that he is not enlightened, and refuses to pretend that he is, as many people expect him to be; if he presents his ideas in ways that people cannot reject, evade, or pretend that they don't understand, it throws some people into turmoil, and they feel threatened, and don't know what to do. This is because they live in a framework of rigid concepts, in which there is very little need to think for themselves. Very few of us want to hear things explained to us in ways that we can understand; very few people want the undergrowth of delusion cleared away, for they would stand exposed and be robbed of any excuse for avoiding their responsibilities. Anything that reminds them about their social obligations is resented and resisted; they just don't want to know! And anyone who wishes to propagate Dharma must be prepared for opposition, and no doubt he will have many enemies, for the naked truth is the last thing that most people want; this is the reason that religions have cloaked themselves in mystery and ceremony: as a concession to the masses; deny them this, and they withhold their support. Truth is never popular in the world; it hurts.

            Many other people, of course ― mainly of the materialist kind ― view clergy people as out of touch with reality, as anachronistic in the modern world; clergy are often the subjects of derision, ridicule, and jokes at the hands of such people, unless and until they need them for occasions like baptisms, weddings, or funerals, and then they come with polite, respectful words and fine titles, and expect the monk to be ready and happy to oblige them.

            I was told recently that someone had said that I am not a real monk because I don't stay in a temple, or chant every day, or perform ceremonies. Well, I have met this person several times over the last five years, and know that he is stuck on form, and knows little of the essence; nor does be seem to be interested in learning anything, being content with what he thinks he already knows. No doubt he feels his beliefs are threatened by my non-conformity, and doesn't know how to categorize me, and fit me into his scheme of things. But why should I fit into his narrow world? I am not his puppet or slave, and I must say that the opinions of such people do not matter very much to me. Nor do I claim to be, or wish to be, the kind of monk that he is used to: those who stay in temples, chant in languages that few of them understand, perform ceremonies for the dead, etc., but who provide little for the living in terms of helping them to understand something of the Dharma. My way is not a way for the dead, but for the living, and I think I may fairly say, without boasting, that people would have to be pretty dumb if they could learn nothing useful from or through me, out of all the things that I have explained.

            If monks refused to live up to people's unrealistic expectations of them, and would admit that they are not enlightened (although they would like to be), it would be so much better. As it is, because they feel that people expect them to be 'holy,' there is a tendency, in some monks, to pretend that they are, and once they get into this game, it is very difficult to get out.

            During the Dalai Lama's 1992 tour of Australia, he was interviewed on a current affairs program, the host of which, Derryn Hinch, said to him that he had heard that he ― the Dalai Lama ― had quite a sharp temper. The Dalai Lama replied, with one of his delightful chuckles, and in his rather high pitched voice, "Yes, why not? I am also a human being!", and went on to explain that he thought he had inherited it from his father, who was quick tempered. What a startling admission from someone who is highly revered and widely regarded as a genuine holy man! I can imagine some people being somewhat shocked and disappointed to learn that even people at such a level can sometimes get annoyed! Many of us, you see, are so unsure of ourselves, so weak minded, that we look outside of ourselves for saviors and supermen, someone to do for us what only we can do for ourselves ― to become, in other words, a vicarious substitute. This tendency leads to all kinds of excesses and troubles, and severely weakens a person's capacity for making the necessary efforts himself.

            Because I feel that I have something worthwhile to share with others, I would like to make it quite clear that it is not within my capacity to take the karma of others upon myself, even though I might wish and be willing to; each and everyone has his/her own individual karma (plus group karma), and each must try to work things out for him or herself, with whatever help they might get from others; if they are unwilling to do this, any help from outside will ultimately not be very effective. The best form of help is that by which a person comes to understand how to help himself; without this, other forms of help might only cause a drug-like dependence.

            I am also not a priest or intermediary between people and the Buddha. I do not, merely because I am a monk, have special powers that other people don't have, neither do I have access to secret knowledge denied to others.

            I can perform ceremonies for the dead, like other monks, but I do not know how effective they are in helping those who have passed on. Perhaps there is an effect, and perhaps there is not. I do not know what happens after death, so I am not qualified to say anything about it; nor do I know anyone who is, although lots of people talk about it as if they are in direct contact with the after-life. I have read about it, of course, and heard others speak about it, but how can we be sure that they are not just repeating what they have heard, like parrots? On this matter, I must plead ignorance.

            What then, can I do that might be useful to others? I know that some people think that the things I talk about are just a matter of words. Well, they are, if people allow them to remain as such. But, if they would test the things I talk about, to see if they work, and are valid and useful to them or not, rather than merely believing or disbelieving what I say, they might find out, for themselves, whether they really are a matter of words or not. From my side of the fence, the things that I talk about and try to transmit to others, are things that I have had some experience of ― it is not merely a matter of words or belief with me. However, I will readily admit that I do not always live by what I talk about, and sometimes, I make mistakes. But this should surprise no one; like the Dalai Lama, I am also a human being! And, even if I do not always do what I say, that doesn't make my words invalid and useless to others, does it? If people do not expect me to be a savior or a superman, they could still learn useful things from me, just as I could learn things from them. And it does not really matter from whom we learn as long as we learn; a diamond is a diamond, no matter where it is found. Personality should not come into it, but so often, like small children clinging to their mothers, many people are unable or unwilling to see beyond personality. Meanwhile, life goes on.

            Yes, but we need to be able to respect a person in order to learn from him, some people might say. This is rather like putting the cart before the horse, is it not? If we respect only the form and then expect to learn, we might be disappointed; we might even be led astray. Respect should be earned, and not bestowed just out of custom. Lao Tsu said ― in the Tao Te Ching "Respect of Tao and honor of virtue are not demanded, but are in the nature of things." And somewhere else, in the same book, he spoke about foolish people laughing at the mention of Tao. So obviously, respect comes only from those who recognize something deeper. For my part I respect, and feel grateful towards, anyone who helps me understand something useful, and that person does not have to be holy, good, or even someone I like! Respect comes naturally if learning is important to us. And respect does not necessarily mean bowing to someone and making offerings to him or her. The best way of showing respect and gratitude to someone who has helped us understand something is to apply what we have learned from him in our lives; merely to say "yes, yes," but to do ‘no, no’, has very little meaning.

            I once knew someone who was excessively respectful towards monks, but when he tried to manipulate me, and I refused to 'dance to his tune,' he got mad with me, and told someone that he would give up being vegetarian. But if he became vegetarian because of me, it was a sign that he had no roots in himself, and didn't understand about vegetarianism. This same person donated a refrigerator for my use, but it didn't work; perhaps he thought that it would work for me when it wouldn't work for him because I am a monk! He also donated a saucepan with a hole in the bottom! It is amazing what people expect of monks! However can they avoid disappointment?

            I have no, nor do I want, any disciples; I feel that we should be disciples of Dharma, or Life, not of a person or persons.

"Pain is neither intolerable nor continuing, provided you remember its limits, and don't let your imagination add to ft."

(Epicurus, Greek philosopher, c. 300 B.C.)

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Last Updated on:  03/02/2001 10:49 AM