Faced with problems of earning a living, supporting a family, making ends meet, etc., we might sometimes think: "Oh, how nice to be a bird, free to fly wherever you want". But Bob Dylan poetically looked at this from both sides when he sang:
"Oh, my friends from the prison they ask
Is not life for the birds—as for all forms of life—a struggle for survival? If you could be a bird for a week—or even a day —undergoing all the hazards birds undergo—the constant search for food, the inclemency of the weather and the need to watch out for and avoid enemies—you would probably soon be glad to change back to being human again. If you expect life to be easy you will often be disappointed; but expect it to be difficult and you will sometimes be pleasantly surprised.
We have been robbed, weakened and emasculated by the wonderful welfare systems we have developed within the last 50 years. I’m not suggesting, for a moment, that we should abolish such systems, but merely wish to point out how quickly we become used to good things, take them for granted, and become dependent thereon; this tendency works to our own detriment by making us lazy, greedy and unappreciative; too much of anything good becomes not good, especially if we did not earn it ourselves, but merely inherited it.
People like the refugees from South-East Asia, arriving in Australia over the last few years, found fantastic conditions there that were unimaginable in their own countries: a heaven like standard of living, work readily available, unemployment benefit, sickness benefit, Medicare, old age pensions, housing grants, study grants, etc. Maybe they thought it had always been like that, but if so, they erred. Australia is a young nation, and everything that has been built there—cities, towns, roads, railways, communication systems, etc.—has been built within the last 200 years by people before us, struggling, suffering, dying, and leaving their achievements behind for other people like us to benefit from. When I hear people complaining about the economic downturn, I feel like reminding them that life does not always go on the incline—from good to better—as we would like, but more like the waves of the sea, rising and falling. Our wishes and expectations often conflict with the nature of life and thus cause us extra suffering. By this, I don’t mean that we should not try to change things, but that, if we understood better the laws of life we would experience less suffering when our efforts to change things prove unsuccessful.
We can draw many lessons from the past to help us deal with the problems of the present. Are you aware that of all the beings on our planet, humans are the only ones with long term memory, and are able to write and record their experiences, and thus pass them on to posterity? This is known as history, and although it is never recorded exactly as it happens—it cannot be, because nobody ever sees anything exactly as it happens; all that we see is our viewpoint of it, which we then proceed to interpret according to our bias—it still affords us contact with people long dead, with their experiences, thoughts and discoveries. Animals can know nothing of their ancestors who died before they were born, but because of our ability to record things, we can know of people and things that ceased to exist long ago. Is it not wonderful? And, since the advent and development of the camera, we can replay events that took place before our birth, almost as if they were happening in the present. We can see and hear famous, infamous and non-famous people—artists, musicians, sportsmen, statesmen, etc. And we can—that is, it is possible to—learn from the experiences and mistakes of our ancestors, without having to undergo the same experiences and mistakes ourselves; most of our knowledge is acquired in this way. Unfortunately, it does not prevent us from making the same mistakes, as the 20th century—the bloodiest of all—has shown: there have been more wars than in any other century and on a greater and more devastating scale. Some things we learn very quickly, like computer technology, while other things we learn very slowly, like the importance of overcoming the stupidity of war and putting it behind us forever.
From the comfort of our living rooms we are able to travel the world, scale mountains, descend to the sea bed, watch micro-surgery performed inside the body, learn about genetic engineering and other wonders that science has revealed to us, pick up the telephone and talk with people on the other side of the globe, and watch far-away events happening live; we have even walked on the moon vicariously, you and I, via TV cameras. What an exciting time to be alive! But what has happened? In more cases than not it has made us dull, and we complain about boredom, because we have been presented with more knowledge and information—and of a startling, stupendous nature—than we can possibly comprehend or assimilate; we have been overdosed with it all! Technologically, we are in the Space Age, but psychologically, most of us are far behind; indeed, many of us are still in medieval times, and some are still living in mental caves! We are therefore divided between the past and the present, schizophrenically, unable to keep up with the rapid pace of change. As I write this, I’m reminded of the case of the Hmong hill tribesmen from Laos who were resettled in San Francisco: noticing ducks swimming freely on a park lake there, they made bows and arrows and went to hunt them; they could not really be blamed for this as it was natural for them to hunt wild birds and animals that didn’t belong to anyone; more to blame, perhaps, were the bureaucrats who placed these refugees in a situation that they had not the slightest knowledge of. But the same could not be said about certain Vietnamese who caused a loud public outcry in Australia by catching dogs on the street to eat! They were not tribesmen who knew no better, so they could not plead ignorance. The same thing happened to some of my dogs in Bataan Refugee Camp in the Philippines, and needless to say, I was not very happy about it!
In recent years, we have heard the term ‘compassion fatigue’ regarding the continued exodus of people from their native lands as refugees, and the increasing reluctance of other countries to grant them asylum. Some people find it hard to understand that a country like Australia, with its vast land mass and small population, should be unwilling to take in a more refugees than it already has; I’ve heard some refugees there complain about the government’s stand on this. But there are other ways of looking at it: Australia is now in recession; it has a foreign debt of well over US$200 billion—an unimaginable sum that increases at the rate of more than $1 billion every month; how it will ever be able to pay it off doesn’t bear thinking of! Also, it should not be thought that Australia is morally obliged to take in refugees. The idea of ‘rights’ has been stretched too far; it is not the ‘right’ of the refugees to be accepted for resettlement, but their great good fortune. By this, I don’t mean that refugees should beg and grovel for resettlement, but that, once they have it, they should demonstrate their gratitude by taking care of it as the treasure it is!
Years ago, when I heard people speak of the ‘boat people’ as ‘economic migrants in search of a better life’, I was quick to defend them. But now, I sadly admit that what their detractors said was true in some cases. I’ve seen how some—unfortunately, not a handful—abuse the hospitality of their host countries by engaging in robbery, extortion, thuggery, drug dealing, cheating the welfare system in whatever way they can, and various other forms of corruption. Those doing such things are in a minority, but because of them, many Australians have a low opinion of Vietnamese people in general. Such people might say that they fled Vietnam to find freedom (most of them say that), but what do they mean by ‘freedom’?, we might ask. Do they mean the freedom to live without oppression, the freedom to obtain education and employment, the freedom of speech—things they were denied in their own country, but which are available in Australia? Or do they mean the freedom to do just whatever they like, unrestricted, and regardless of the rights and feelings of other people? If this, they should know that no country wants or needs them. And why not? Because every country has enough hooligans and criminals already, without importing more! I love the Vietnamese people as a whole, but will not be quiet about the wretches who spoil it for others, for I have seen, and cannot be quiet. Such people should have stayed in their own country, as they don’t deserve to live in a country like Australia.
To conclude: Try to realize that we ride on the backs of all those who went before us and who left as their legacy all the good things we have inherited. We will then feel a sense of gratitude instead of greed and an urge to exploit and destroy. And people in whom gratitude flowers are able to make do with less and ‘tighten their belts’ when the need to do so arises. Nor will they mind this so much, as they will have found something else to compensate for it. To live with Dharma means to understand that everything changes, even if not always in an upward direction. So, we learn to make adjustments and compromises to the changes of life. We have survived so many things in the past; many other things await us.