HAVE YOU EVER NOTICED how we often criticize people of our own race or nation, but if someone of a different race or nation says something negative about ours we feel quite upset or become defensive? What does this indicate but racism, in a latent form, at least? We might hotly deny that we are racist, and would never do anything that might be condemned as such, but it is there in most of us nevertheless, and in many people it would not take much to stir it up; governments do this, with various forms of propaganda, and by appealing to patriotism and nationalistic sentiments, when it serves their purposes to do so.
If, however, we are aware of the lingering and deep-rooted element of racism in us, and that it is there because of ignorance of the nature of life, we will be better able to control it when and if, under favorable conditions, it might otherwise awaken from its dormant state and burst out.
We might have had some unpleasant experiences of people of a certain race or nation; it does happen. But we must be careful not to let it influence us into developing a dislike for that race or nation in entirety, and stigmatize the people thereof as "no good." For, just as our own race or nation consists of not just one type of person, so people of many kinds are to be found everywhere; no nation or race has the monopoly of 'good' or 'bad' qualities; all are still in the process of evolution, though evolving to what we really cannot say. And if we make statements such as ― for example ― "I don't like Greek people," we should qualify and soften them somewhat with the phrase "in general," or "generally speaking," for no one has ever met all Greek people; moreover, if we had met many people of a particular nationality, we would surely have come across some whom we liked, as well as some we didn't. During my several visits to Turkey, for instance, I encountered quite a bit of hostility from people there, though this might have been because they had had some negative experiences with other Westerners before me; thus, their hostility was not necessarily directed at me personally. But I also met some kind and friendly people there, and I would like to go back again someday, to discover something that I feel I missed or overlooked before.
We may be cultured, urbane and sophisticated, but how deep does it all go, and what lurks beneath it? There are countless things in our psyches ― many of them from the remote past ― that we know little or nothing about. Are we so sure of ourselves that we dare say we would never, under any circumstances, give way to our baser instincts? Our principles would need to be very strong for that, would they not?
Undoubtedly, cannibalism was an integral part of life in many parts of the world, and has come to an official end only within living memory. Nor is it hard to imagine a resumption of it, under certain circumstances ― and I'm not referring to isolated and well publicized cases of serial killers like Geoffrey Dahmer of Milwaukee, USA, whose demonic mentations caused him to dismember and eat parts of his victims' bodies. What I mean is that civilization, as we know it, is often only a very thin ― and in some cases, not a very highly polished ― veneer; scratch it and beneath, we might easily find barbarism and savagery, alive and well, biding their time, awaiting opportunities to emerge and terrorize the world; it has happened before, and will undoubtedly happen again. Our primitive instincts are not dead and gone, but are there in all of us, and we are all capable of doing things that normally we would be horrified at. Our moral codes are validated not because we have transcended the capacity for anti-social behavior, but because, still being capable of such, we restrain ourselves, either out of fear of being caught and punished, or out of understanding that certain things should not be done. Make no mistake, though: we are all capable of breaking the law in many ways. Moreover, most of us feel a certain pleasure in doing so, if we can get away with it.
Some years ago, in the Palawan Refugee Camp, a group of young boys came to me in the temple one day, and asked me to shave their heads (this was not uncommon among the Vietnamese Buddhists, some of whom had vowed to shave their heads or become vegetarians for a month or so if they survived their escape from Vietnam by boat). Someone else told me that these boys ― all unaccompanied minors ― had been at sea for many days, during which their supplies of food and water had run out, and the only way they could survive was by eating the flesh of their companions who had died of starvation or exhaustion. I complied with their request, and tried to assuage the guilt that they obviously felt by telling them that they had done nothing wrong, as they had not killed the people whose flesh they had eaten, and only did it in order to survive. Even though I am a convinced vegetarian, I can understand people doing that, though what I would have done had I been in their situation, I don't know, and can only speculate. It would have been a real test of my principles; would they have stood up under such conditions? Or should they have stood up? I can eat meat; that is not difficult; all you have to do is put it in your mouth, chew it, and swallow it. I have taken no vow to be a life long vegetarian, but it is something that I feel strongly about.
One time, while staying in a temple in Malaysia, someone brought some cakes and rolls for my breakfast, and when I bit into one of them, I found that it contained meat, so I put in on one side, without making a fuss over it. When the man saw that he had unintentionally brought meat he was quite upset and apologetic, but I told him not to worry, as meat wouldn't kill me. Unlike the brahmins of India, I am not a vegetarian out of concern for personal purity, but for the sake of the animals; I object to killing, and vegetarianism is one way to express this. No matter if we take extreme care to eat only food that is considered ritually 'pure,' the body is full of all kinds of impurities like excrement, urine, sweat, pus, sebaceous secretions, mucus, ear wax, etc.; there is no question about bodily purity.
Benjamin Franklin became a vegetarian for some time, and was quite happy with it until " … in my first voyage from Boston, being becalmed off Block Island, our people set about catching cod, and hauled up a great many. Hitherto, I had stuck to my resolution of not eating animal food, and on this occasion I considered the taking of every fish as a kind of unprovoked murder, since none of them had, or could, do us any injury that might justify the slaughter.
"All this seemed very reasonable. But I had formerly been a great lover of fish, and, when this came hot out of the frying pan it smelt admirably well. I balanced some time between principle and inclination, till I recollected that, when the fish were opened, I saw smaller fish taken out of their stomachs; then, thought I, 'If you eat one another, I do not see why we may not eat you.' So I dined upon cod very heartily, and continued to eat with other people, returning, only now and then, occasionally to a vegetarian diet. So convenient a thing is it to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do."
Well, at least he was honest about relaxing his principles.
It is easy to be 'moral' and 'good' when our circumstances are fortunate, but if our circumstances change, and we fall upon hard times, what becomes of our principles? Will we ― can we ― maintain them, or will we change them like we change our clothes? Dare we say that we would never kill, cheat, lie or steal? We do not know what will happen tomorrow.