Certainly, there are racial differences between Caucasians (Europeans or ‘whites’) and Asians, which no-one can deny. But is there any basic, innate psychological difference between people that is not due to cultural influences? It would seem, from the findings of science, that the brain functions in much the same way no matter what race, religion or politics. And, from observations made during my extensive travels, I would say that, mentally, people the world over are basically very similar in the way they think and feel; all desire happiness and fear pain; their hopes, fears and aspirations are remarkably alike; we are all subject to the Three Universal Poisons of Greed, Hatred and Delusion, as can easily be seen from international politics and business.
Someone has said that the mind is what the brain does; it is therefore not separate from the brain. But this is disputable, for some people have been able to recall things from their intra-uterine life—through hypnotic regression—and even as far back as the moment of conception, when the fertilized ovum contained only a potential brain. What are the implications of such findings, therefore, to the idea that ‘the mind is what the brain does’, when there really was no brain to do anything? And this is not even to mention the claims of regression to previous lives! If it is true that we have lived before (and I’m not saying it is or is not true, just if), each time, we would have had a new or different brain, as the brain is physical and dies with everything else of the body. But we might say that the mind is non-physical, and not subject to physical laws. Here, however, we are in the realm of speculation, unable to prove things one way or another, and I do not like to be here, so will return to the subject of this discussion.
We can see that the mind is influenced and conditioned by many things, like education (and the mis-education that goes under the guise of it), religion, culture, politics, climate, location, etc.; in other words, we are products of our environment and time, and few of us seem to be ready, willing or able to question this and break away from it to become individuals.
History is a record of—among many other things—clashes and conflicts between people of different races, religions and cultures, and it still goes on, although now, more than ever before, we have the means and reasons to see beyond the differences between us and focus, instead, on our basic and common humanness. I think we are moving towards this, and cannot do otherwise, even though the road is bumpy and far from straight, and progress along it is often opposed by people who have vested interests in maintaining the status quo of the age-old divisions, barriers, antagonisms and preferences.
The development and ease of transportation has made travel possible for the common man today, and the resulting foreign tourism has done perhaps more than any other thing to weaken and break down ancient fears, suspicions, misunderstandings and intolerance between peoples of different lands. By direct and intimate contact we are able to see others as very similar to ourselves instead of as three-eyed, baby-eating monsters, and so on. But though we have made a good beginning we still have far to go and must be vigilant. Old superstitions and prejudices die hard and there is always a chance of slipping back into the mud of bigotry out of which we have climbed so slowly and with so much difficulty.
I recall working in England with people who used to speak disparagingly of foreigners as ‘Wogs’, even though they had hardly been farther than their hometown (and probably because of it), and had had no contact with people of other lands. Isn’t it strange how people regard their ignorance as a virtue, to be put on display rather than hidden away? True knowledge, on the other hand, has a humbling effect on people, enabling them to see themselves in perspective. (The term ‘Wog’, by the way, was an acronym originally meaning ‘Western Oriented Gentleman’, and was therefore—from the point of view of Westerners—supposed to be a kind of compliment towards non-Westerners who leaned towards—or were pushed, induced or otherwise adopted—Western ways).
In spite of the multi-culturalism of the West these days, racial prejudice and intolerance are still very much alive there. History shows that in times of economic instability such as at present, people look for scapegoats—someone to blame and use as targets for their frustration and anger. We don’t even have to look as far back as the Nazi Holocaust, because in the very recent past Jewish synagogues and cemeteries have been desecrated in France, Germany, the ex-Soviet Union, and even in Australia! There have been ‘Paki-bashings’ and race-riots in the UK, and loud calls in Germany for the forced repatriation of ‘guest workers’ from Turkey and Southern Europe, large numbers of whom were brought in during the economic boom of the ‘sixties and ‘seventies. In the US, the perennial black/white conflict goes on, and only after much international pressure and internal unrest was South Africa’s hateful Apartheid system brought to an end and a black majority government elected. The list could go on and on.
Of course, racism and xenophobia are not restricted to Westerners, but are world wide things. Hindus in India, for example, until quite recently considered non-Hindus ‘untouchable’, apart from their own Hindu ‘Untouchables’; (with Hindu fundamentalism increasing, this horrible belief will be more openly expressed, even though it is officially outlawed there); Queen Victoria—then ‘Empress of India’—was even considered ‘doubly untouchable’ by some Hindus, firstly, because she was a non-Hindu, and secondly, because as a widow, she had not immolated herself on her husband’s funeral pyre! The British in India, however, displayed just as much bigotry and intolerance, and because they were in control, were able to enforce their prejudices. Signs outside exclusively ‘white’ clubs in India read: "DOGS AND INDIANS NOT ALLOWED"!
Chinese people for centuries looked on their civilization and culture with great pride and held other cultures in contempt, thinking and speaking of Westerners as "foreign devils" or "red haired devils". There can be no defending the behavior of certain Westerners who, by force of arms, introduced opium use to China in the 19th century, causing countless Chinese to become addicts; they well deserved the name of ‘devils’! But, so used have many Chinese grown to this term that they continue to use it until now. Some years back, while I was staying in a Vietnamese temple in Melbourne, a group of Chinese people came to visit, and upon seeing me there, one said to the others: "Kwai-loh, Kwai-loh!". I had heard the term before, so understood its meaning. They probably did not realize the offensiveness of it, nor recall that, in Australia, they were also ‘foreigners’!
Although we are almost in the 21st century, have been to the moon and are sending out radio messages in attempts to make contact with extra-terrestrial beings, there are still people of various religions who refer to each other as ‘heathens’, ‘pagans’, ‘infidels’, ‘unbelievers’, and so on. When Cardinal Sin of the Philippines (strange name for a Cardinal: Sin!) visited Australia in 1990, during a press conference he mentioned the many American Protestant missionaries in his country, and expressed his fears that some were CIA agents. He went on to say that, as the Philippines is a Christian country already, they were not needed there, and should concentrate their efforts on pagan countries in Asia instead. He did not specify which countries he regarded as ‘pagan’. (The origin of this word might be of some interest, since people are still being branded as ‘pagans’: Early Christians referred to themselves as ‘milites’, which is Latin for ‘enrolled soldiers’ [hence the word ‘military’, and the famous battle hymn: "Onward Christian Soldiers"]; they called non-Christians ‘paganus’, which meant ‘civilians’ at that time. Now, if Cardinal Sin was using the term in its original sense for non-Christians, it would have been alright; but it no longer has that meaning, and for centuries has meant ‘barbarians’, ‘heathens’, ‘idol worshippers’, and so on, which are highly offensive terms that should be just as frowned upon today as the derogatory term for Negroes or black people: ‘niggers’! It does little to promote inter-religious harmony and understanding, and it is unbecoming for a prominent religious figure like a Cardinal of the Catholic Church to use such terms).
In the late ‘Sixties—and especially after the Beatles’ trip there to learn meditation under the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in ’67—India became almost a ‘must’ for people seeking spiritual enlightenment; it was regarded as the place to find a guru or master. Long before this, however, it had had a reputation for being a spiritual land, and until now, there are said to be about 8 million ‘sadhus’ or holy men of different sects and shades, but this figure doubtless includes many fakes, charlatans and beggars. They can be seen all over India with their staffs, alms bowls, and a few other meager possessions, clothed very simply, many with long matted hair and beards. Along with India’s myriad and often magnificent temples and famous scriptures, these holy men are rather impressive, living austere and frugal lives; there are, until now, genuine holy men there. But as for the whole of India being spiritual, well, that is not true. Superstitious and ignorant, yes, very. Dirty and backward, definitely; India is one big open toilet, and people can be seen defecating everywhere, even in the streets of big towns and cities! It is also a very materialistic country, as exemplified by the increasing number of ‘dowry murders’, which are committed purely from greed. Although the system whereby families wishing to find husbands for their daughters had to pay varying sums in cash and kind to the husband’s family as a dowry—and the higher on the social scale the husband, the higher the dowry—is banned by law, it still goes on, and there are often newspaper reports of young brides being dowsed in kerosene and burned to death by their husbands and mother-in-laws when they have been unable to extract anything further from her family; the common excuse given is that the stove exploded while she was cooking, and her clothes caught fire! Either because women traditionally have few rights in India and/or conclusive proof of murder cannot be produced, convictions for such crimes are rare, and the rascally husbands are left free to look for other dowry bringing brides. In former times, dowries meant things like cows, goats, jewelry, kitchen utensils and clothes, but the availability of modern consumer goods has created demands for color TV’s, VCR’s, refrigerators, cars, scooters, etc., by the grooms’ families, along with large sums of money. It indicates that, for all its temples, religious festivals, and holy men, India is a very materialistic country, and the poverty and squalor everywhere is not evidence to the contrary; it merely means that there is not the opportunity to indulge in materialism as there is in the West; it does not mean the desire is not there.
Other atrocious crimes are committed in India for money, like the murder of babies and young children for their internal organs, which, by some fiendish process, are then used in the manufacture of ‘medicine’. Also not rare is the kidnapping and mutilation of children, who are then put out to beg, minus their hands or feet. Then there is the body trade, whereby poor people are induced to sell their bodies for a down payment before they die, and, upon dying, their families receive the rest of the agreed-upon price; the corpse is then taken away to be stripped of flesh and the skeleton exported for the studies of medical students; India is the largest exporter of human skeletons, and it is not hard to imagine people being murdered for their bones instead of waiting for them to die! Life in India is so cheap! These things—in a land that has produced so many wise and saintly people! The contrast is stark and the wisdom is highlighted and enhanced by the great degree of ignorance and darkness there! Verily, the mud that lotuses need to grow is very abundant in India!
I have been to India nines times now, and each time found something there; but I have come to the conclusion that because of all the hassles one must undergo there, one would have to be pretty dumb to get nothing; everything has a price, and although it’s good to visit the holy places of India and touch the almost timeless reality of that land, at times it is far from enjoyable to be there; India is something one has to experience for oneself before one can know about it, of course.
But, although I have benefited greatly from my trips to India, I would not say that what I found is only to be found there and nowhere else. It is not something localized or limited like that, but universal, and can therefore be found wherever one is; it is the idea that it is to be found only in special places like India or Tibet that prevents us from seeing it where we are.
The West, like the East, has had its saints, and, while there are various standards whereby people are judged to be saints—wishful thinking plays a large part in it—there is general agreement about the high spiritual stature of people like Francis of Assisi and Kabir of Benares. Nearer our time was Ramakrishna of Bengal, while in our time, and only recently deceased, was Mother Theresa, who was Albanian by birth.
And was/is not the struggle for justice and social improvement in the West—a struggle that was by no means easy or quick—of a spiritual nature? Not all Westerners are slaves of materialism, and many of them are deeply spiritual—with or without religious affiliations. Indeed, the present concern over the environment has a strong spiritual element; it should not be thought that spirituality concerns only ‘the other world’ or life-after-death; it is more a matter of living according to spiritual principles in this world. And as far as the environment is concerned the East lags far behind, and must follow the lead of the West.
I was once informed that a certain pipe smoking Thai monk in Adelaide had said that it is very hard for Westerners to understand what the Buddha taught, implying it is only for Asians. Well, I strongly disagree. Although the Buddha lived and taught in India, and never went outside, what He taught was something universal and not localized, like culture; it applies to everyone and everything, and not just to Indians or Thais. It is silly to think that Asians are better able to understand Impermanence, Suffering and Selflessness than Westerners; there is not the slightest reason why they should be able to. I mean, so many Asians who call themselves Buddhists don’t know the first thing about what the Buddha taught, and in fact, mis-know.
While it is true that until the 19th century, Buddhism was an Asian religion—that is, confined to Asia and Asians—it has since spread and is now worldwide. And with Sangharakshita’s Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, we are seeing the emergence of a Western form of Buddhism, and I fully agree with it. There is no need for Westerners to adopt Asian cultural forms in order to benefit from the Buddha’s Teachings; in fact, they would do well to avoid all forms and focus instead on the essence, because the form is a restriction. Strictly speaking, ethnic forms of Buddhism are not really Buddhist at all, and somewhere along the Way, we must choose between being Thai, English, Chinese, American, Japanese, Vietnamese, and so on, and Buddhist, for they are mutually exclusive; one cannot be a ‘French Buddhist’, a ‘Vietnamese Buddhist’, a ‘Thai Buddhist’, etc.; one can be French or Buddhist, but not French and Buddhist.
But, upon reaching this point, we must see the distinctions between Buddhism as the organization it has become over the past 2,500 years, what the Buddha taught, and what He realized. Both the religious organization and what He taught, had a beginning in time, and so, not unnaturally, will have an end. Buddhism reached its zenith over 1,000 years ago and has been declining ever since; and if we cling to the sinking ship we shall be pulled down with it. His Teachings, too—being subject to change—become less clear as time passes, and disputes have arisen out of this; can we reasonably expect that this prodigious body of teachings should have remained the same, unchanged over such a long period of time? After undergoing numerous translations and interpretations—which, by the way, were made when there were no cross lingual dictionaries!— change must be expected. But, what He discovered under the Bodhi tree and thereafter tried to indicate to others, had no beginning and therefore will not—cannot—have an end. It is, eternally, and no matter whether we call ourselves Westerners, Easterners, Northerners or Southerners, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, English, Chinese, Fijians, Thais, Norwegians, Americans, or whatever, and whether we know about it, believe it, understand it or not, we can’t get away from it; it holds us all, for it is LIFE—nothing more and nothing less. How we use it and what we do with it, is up to us, individually, of course, and has nothing at all to do with which area of the world we were born or live in.