Pascal vs. the Buddha

Pascal’s Wager is sometimes said to be the first formal use of decision theory. Blaise Pascal of the 17th century reasoned thus: if one believes in the Christian God

  • and the belief turns out correct, one is rewarded with an eternity of gain (or, conversely, avoids an eternity in hell);
  • if the belief is wrong, one loses almost nothing.

The thought struck me that the lesser known second part of the Kalama Sutta is also a similar application of decision theory. This is about 2,200 years earlier than Pascal. But it was not as formally laid out, and is also a far more complicated (but therefore more realistic) case.

The Buddha applied it to moral decisions in the context of the extent to which one believes in the cause and effect of one’s actions, or simply put, Kamma/Karma, the full extent of which is necessarily linked to rebirth.

Although how causes, moderated by conditions, lead to their effects is a highly complex matter, they are generally still apparent to us (think physics) and therefore believable… except for the catch that there might not be enough time for all effects to come to fruition within one lifetime. Therefore rebirth completes the idea of Karma by providing opportunity in the future for fruition of effects.

Ordinary people, however, do not have knowledge of their past lives or that of others’, so the idea of rebirth is not as apparent and believable.

According to the Buddha’s reasoning as re-told by the Kalama Sutta, if one acted accordingly to avoid unwholesome deeds and carry out wholesome ones throughout this life:

  • if rebirth were true, one benefits in this life as well as after the end of this life by having a better rebirth;
  • if rebirth were not true, one most probably still benefits by having lived blamelessly and avoided substantial suffering in this life.

I did a quick Google and found out that other people have linked this to Pascal’s Wager before. In fact, some folks online called this the Buddha’s Wager. There is also another scripture that is in the same spirit: the Apannaka Sutta.

The Buddha’s Wager is a far more complex application of decision theory, however, because:

  1. Pay-offs is positive (according to the formulation above; just like Pascal’s Wager, it can be formulated in the negative sense, i.e., living an unwholesome life) in both options, just that one (with afterlife) is on top of the other (this life only). In Pascal’s case, pay-off is usually taken as neutral (=zero) in the worse of the options (but see below).
  2. The degree of uncertainty is different between the two pay-offs. It seems to me that this is a critical part of the Buddha’s version. Cause and effect within this life is more believable (=lower uncertainty) because it is usually observable; rebirth (i.e., continuation of cause and effect after death) on the other hand is usually not observable and therefore highly uncertain. (In Pascal’s case, there is only one non-zero pay-off option so uncertainty is only relevant for that pay-off.)
  3. There is a cost involved, because this case, in contrast to Pascal’s in the context of Christian doctrine, is not just about belief but about taking action. Acting incurs opportunity cost in the process, e.g., effort invested, or “opportunities” missed from not taking advantage of others or not indulging oneself.

The Buddha’s case is therefore pitting a additional pay-out (P1) that has higher uncertainty (U1) together with a basic pay-out (P2) that has lower uncertainty (U2) against the cost of action (C). So one should only take action and incur the cost if one can be sure that the combined expected benefits are high enough:

P1* (1-U1)+ P2* (1-U2) – C > 0

The Buddha’s Wager is not so much of a wager as it is a statement of inequality: that P2* (1-U2) > C so that the value of U1 is irrelevant, i.e., the benefits of a wholesome life are sufficient in itself to justify us taking the trouble, whether or not there is an afterlife. In such a formulation, the Buddha portrays moral behaviour as cost-beneficial regardless of afterlife belief.

If we go strictly by the Kalama Sutta, U2 seems to be taken to be zero, which reduces the inequality condition to an even simpler one: P2 C. Herein lies the link back to the rest of the Kalama Sutta, and the difference between Pascal’s Wager and the Buddha’s version.

In Pascal’s Wager, the pay-off in choosing to believe is positive infinite. In such a system, nothing finite can be greater than positive infinite, so the pay-off for disbelief, even if positive and not zero, will never outweigh the pay-off for belief. This means that Pascal’s Wager, while logical, is still a non-falsifiable statement of theistic belief.

On the other hand, the Buddha’s inequality statement is possible to be false, and therefore can be subjected to testing; one just needs to estimate P2 and C. This is why it fits in with the first half of the Kalama Sutta: the Buddha’s exhortation to the Kalamas not to base their actions on the sole basis of belief, but to test it out for themselves and weigh the benefits and costs of their actions for themselves and others.


Walk in, walk out

Today’s ST Forum had a letter (gist of it reproduced here because they usually take it down after a week). A Christian halfway house called Hiding Place was asked to move from its current premises. It also lost its Institute of Public Character status. So a whole host of civil service officers signed off a letter explaining why.

So out of curiousity, I searched for the earlier letter. Apparently someone wrote in to express his concern:

I am also concerned by the loss of the home’s standing as a charity, with the Government’s removal of its status as an Institution of a Public Character (IPC) three years ago.

The reason given was that the home’s Constitution should be inclusive and not aimed at proselytisation. But if IPC status was granted when it first applied, was there a reason for treating it differently subsequently?

Inclusivity is demonstrable by an organisation’s conduct rather than the political correctness of its statements.

Furthermore, last Saturday’s report noted that 90 per cent of the home’s walk-ins are not Christians, but Buddhists, Taoists, Hindus and Muslims – a testimony to the home’s inclusivity.

This was the official reply:

As for the halfway home’s Institution of a Public Character (IPC) status, the ministry recognises that religion plays an important role in the rehabilitation of former offenders. So, in 2008, it granted special concessions to nine halfway houses, including The Hiding Place, to let them use religious principles in their programmes, provided participation is voluntary and the programmes do not aim to proselytise.

Their governing instruments should not explicitly state religious promotion as the aim, to distinguish them from other religious charities that do not qualify for IPC status.

However, The Hiding Place decided to retain its objective of propagating its religious faith although it knew that doing so meant that its IPC status would have to lapse on expiry in 2009.

As the IPC status is a pre-requisite for the Halfway House Service Model (HSM) administered by Score, The Hiding Place subsequently withdrew from the HSM on Feb 1 last year.

That “90 per cent of the home’s walk-ins are not Christians, but Buddhists, Taoists, Hindus and Muslims” is moot point. If proselytization to ex-convicts is the objective, surely you won’t be taking in 90% Christians?

Walk in as a non-Christian, but walk out as a Christian. That’s the whole point. “Inclusivity” isn’t the issue. “Intention” always is.

Relase or no release? That’s a Buddhist question.

NParks, as they do every year, released a statement in the media reminding the public not to “release animals into the wild”.

I wrote a letter to Today last year about this. I am also part of a working group of the Society for Conservation Biology that’s currently drafting a position statement on animal release practice and conservation.

This year, some musings:

First, “the wild” means just terrestrial environments? Or does it include the marine wild this time? As far as I know, it is only illegal to release animals into the nature reserves. I think. Singapore has no marine reserves as of yet. Most animal release still being advocated by some Buddhist organisations in Singapore are using marine animals such as fish and crabs.

Second, to “complement the efforts of” Operation No Release, “NParks is partnering volunteers and students from CHIJ Our Lady Queen of Peace to conduct an outreach ambassador session at the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve…” I see some awkwardness here. Students from a Christian school will partner a government agency to conduct public education against what is commonly seen as a Buddhist practice.

It doesn’t sound quite right, if you know what I mean.

Also, it’s a shame that only the more progressive Buddhist organisations are daring enough to stick their necks out on this, but barely any take any real action. Vesak Day, too busy lah. But this is the usual malaise in the Buddhist community in Singapore. When instead you have the chance to recreate your image to capitalize on your strengths, such as Buddhist environmental ethics, you let stuff like these continue to erode the standing of Buddhism in the eyes of those uninformed.

They’ve done it again

No, I’m not talking about the Worker’s Party.

When I was in my Honours Year, I came across a poster outside the Science Library, which led me to a Christian website that misrepresented some parts of Buddhist doctrine. I have no doubt that it was put up by someone from an organisation on campus.

Just now, a photograph floated up on facebook showing some smiling Theravadin monks and a small girl with hands clasped in anjali. The words were (emphasis mine):

Thailand. The land of the free. The constitutional monarchy is a very well-loved and respected King. The country of smiles.

But did you know? Thailand is a place of little true joy. Buddhism is so much a part of the Thai national identity and permeates into every level of society and culture that only about one hundred Thais accept Christ each year in the country of over 68 million people.

Do you share the burden of being the one small change agent, bringing gospel to the Thais, one at a time?

With its many temples and monks, it is hard to ignore the fact that Buddhism is Thailand’s national religion. With only 1.6% Christians, most Thai students see Christianity only as a foreign religion. The land of smiles needs to hear the gospel message. Come and share with Khonkaen university students that Jesus is the Way, the True [sic], and the Life!

Go. Change. World.

Visit that website, and you will find that it is run by the Campus Crusade for Christ, which has a chapter in NUS.

The style and spirit seemed inspired by the beautifully illustrated but roundly condemned coffee table book, Peoples of the Buddhist World.

Thailand is not the only place they are training people for:


Though most Japanese students profess to be Shintoists or Buddhists, they do not show much interest in religion. Yet, by the power of God, previous Gen12ii teams have had the privilege of seeing converts go on to disciple others and become life-long laborers for the Lord. Will you avail yourself to bring the good news to the Japanese where many have never even heard about Jesus?

[“East Asia”. I suppose this means China.]

As a country that has witnessed one of the fastest growing Christian population, this is an exciting ministry to be a part of! However the spiritual need in this country remains huge. Along with the growth in wealth, East Asia is witnessing increased materialism and moral decline. There is a great need for us to bring the life-changing message of Jesus to them. Will you step out in faith to partner Him to change nations?

[Turkey. Note that instead of writing “Muslim”, they abbreviate it as “M”. Why the stealthy reference? Afraid of search engines?]

In a country where much of the population is M, much prayer and work is needed in this place. As our first team to be sent to this place, you will be reaching an unreached people group. This is a pioneer work where you will get to help start movement on their campuses! Come & be a part of this team and trust God for greater things!

[New Zealand.]

You may remember New Zealand as the filming location for “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, but do you know that the country has become increasingly secular in recent years? Today, almost 40% of New Zealanders claim to have no religion at all. A new venture for GEN 12ii, go to New Zealand and share the Good News with university students!

[North-East Thailand.]

With its many temples and monks, it is hard to ignore the fact that Buddhism is Thailand’s national religion. With only 1.6% Christians, most Thai students see Christianity only as a foreign religion. The land of smiles needs to hear the gospel message! Come and share with Khonkaen university students that Jesus is the Way, the True and the Life!


The Incredible India, the second most populous country in the world, its cultural history spans more than 4,500 years. India is notable for its religious diversity, with Hinduism, Sikhism, Islam, Christianity, and Jainism among the nation’s major religions. Take this chance to help pioneer campus movements at Bihar, which have been previously attempted yet failed for 3 times.

I jumped up, borrowed a camera, and rushed down to the lecture theatre where it was stated to be found, but I could see no signs of it. Only a group of ?students on a bench outside. I could catch fragments of what they said, and they were most probably discussing the issue.

While I must say that since becoming Buddhist, I have mellowed in my opinions and reactions to such things. Still, I had at least some blood boiling to deal with. That is my defilement, and I acknowledge that I need to deal with it.

But meanwhile.

The photo is making the rounds on facebook. Following the case study of Rony Tan, let me guess what’s going to happen:

1. Someone is going to send it to TOC, TRE, ST, or it gets picked up somewhere and the authorities cannot ignore it any longer. Some political leader will speak out.

2. The people responsible will apologize to the Thais and Thai Buddhists, and note that the poster has been taken down at the first opportunity. They say they regret the words, which were poorly chosen, and say they have the highest respect for Buddhism and Thailand, or words to that effect. Maybe they will also beseech everyone not to share the photo.

3. SBF or the elder Sangha will accept the apology, and urge all Buddhists to move on.

4. Everything is then assumed to be well and dandy, and the bad feelings are swept under the carpet.

5. NUS OSA and authorities clamp down on religious and racial student societies. They will use a very big, indiscriminate clamp, meaning that the ones that have never made trouble and on the contrary have always showed great respect for others, such as Catholic Students’ Society, Muslim Society, and of course Buddhist Society, will see greater controls exerted on them. As it is, my juniors have complained to me that they are finding more and more restrictions and demands placed upon them by the administration. One particular conversation was recalled to me: an officer asked the committee if our speakers, who are monks and nuns, can come in ordinary clothes and not robes. So robes are deemed to be religiously sensitive or offensive? At the same time, student societies are experiencing a change in the incentives to join extra-curricular activities.

6. At the next fellowship meeting, those who are unhappy with the noise made about this issue will discuss how it is to be expected that they are being persecuted for carrying out their Good Work, and that such obstacles are a test of their faith.

What is a test of faith? When your loved ones suffer immensely from sickness and misfortune, and you are wringing your hands about how to help them – that is a test of faith. When someone insults you, bullies you, betrays you, trespasses upon you, and you feel that hate rising uncontrollably – that is a test of faith. When emptiness strikes, and life seems meaningless – that is a test of faith. But when you trespass, you impose, you ignore the good that others are doing, and then society and law lays a heavy hand on you, is that a test of faith?

So, will a sorry be enough? I spent the 1.5 hour journey back home thinking about this. It’s very difficult. On one hand, there is no point in an apology if it does not reflect a true change of heart. Saying your regrets and expressing your respect is pure hypocrisy if it just means that you are biding your time for the hue and cry to die down again.

So, should they then remain completely blatant about it? To refuse to repent, to refuse to recant, to stand tall and say, I have not changed my mind about you? But, this was what happened above, and here we are feeling offended about it.

But when they speak their minds, at least everyone knows that this is the truth about how they feel, and what they believe in. Maybe only then can members of society judge collectively. We will have to choose: should people with such beliefs give in and toe an acceptable line on proselytization? Or should the rest of us accept that we should open ourselves up to this, and it is all fair game? Communities have their own way of weeding out behaviour unacceptable to them. As members of this community, our role is to voice out what we feel, and not keep things under wraps.

Unfortunately, one complication is that these are precisely the kind of people that refuse to come to inter-religious forums to talk. Because they find it no point acknowledging the other religions by conversing with them, perhaps?

On this note, I think the people that most deserve an apology are the Thais. Those that are insensitive while misrepresenting the complexities of Thailand should be scrutinized for their views before being allowed in.


The photograph has also been taken down from facebook, along with all the shares (300 at last count) and comments that people had.

One of the comments that disappeared was by a Buddhist friend who noted that these people are pushing the boundaries to see how far they can get away.

*Update 2*

I saw the photo on facebook at 8pm, and by then it was stated that it was posted 3 hours ago. Which means it first appeared around 5pm yesterday. By 12 MN, not only has the photo been removed from facebook, the website that the poster pointed to has also been disabled. This tell us much about these people’s resources.

This also brings up an alternative to the “bowing away” scenario I outlined above, called the “slinking away” scenario. Because the primary sources of controversy has been removed, there is little reason for authorities to blow up the matter further. The mainstream media will probably profit much more from hounding Yaw Shin Leong. Yes, people have saved and re-posted the photo, yes, hardware zone forum moderators have no reason to take down the discussions on it, and yes, maybe it will make it to TOC. But they can now say that they have done all they can to remove the offensiveness. Heck, they probably won’t even need to say sorry about it.

Unfortunately, we all have less of a chance now to learn from the whole matter.

*Update 3*

NUS Provost has issued a circular saying that CCC has apologised.

Have we, however, made any progress along this issue?

a. Was the CCC apologising purely for losing control of what was intended for internal circulation?

b. If the CCC is apologising for offensiveness of the material, why was it endorsed in the first place? Whether internal or external, circulation meant that you approved the message.

c. Does the apology mean that those who created and approve the material have reflected and changed their minds about Thais and Buddhism?

I hope those that were present at the meeting where the apology was issued had asked these questions. If not, nothing has changed.

C’mon, don’t tell me you were surprised…

Many would have heard of Rony Tan and his interviews by now, so I shall spare you embedded videos and links to the videos.

For those who haven’t heard of him, you will soon, since it has already made its way to Channel 5 news.

While, no doubt, the misinterpretation of the practice of Buddhism was vile and not pleasing to watch…

C’mon. Don’t tell me you were surprised that these things happen in Singapore.

I recall being distributed a pamphlet near Parkway Parade that condemned the traditional Chinese folk beliefs of the Hungry Ghost Festival. I recall a woman walking around the Vesak@Orchard exhibition areas distributing pamphlets and warning participants that they were on the road to hell. A neighbour has told my mum that we were praying to idols by having a Bodhisattva shrine in our home and told her not to be so superstitious.

Haven’t you seen these kind of things happening?

‘Course they do.

I wasn’t surprised by the clip. Curious, but not the least shocked by the contents of the interview. I was more surprised that the church was un-savvy enough to have uploaded it on their website. Once it was up, there was no way, as much as they can pray, that they can reverse the course of their actions. That’s called karma by the way.

But let’s look a bit further. If the good pastor made vile comments, what of the people in the congregation that laughed along with it? I saw those aunties in the first few rows rocking in their seats and clapping their hands when Buddhism was being made fun of. They had a good laugh at those jokes, didn’t they?

Everyone has got such ignorance, though. Have you never poked fun at the expense of something else? Such is the ignorance and heedlessness that Buddhists try to guard their minds against, with “a virtuous life” and mental cultivation, as well put by dear old ex-“monk” Joseph. We don’t always succeed, but we try, and it’s not just Buddhists that should try, everyone should try. Buddhism is not Buddhism. Buddhism is daily life.

And if you don’t succeed, keep trying. One of the things I’ve learnt from listening to Joseph is: never blame my meditation teacher if I fail. Never blame myself either. True failure only happens when you fail n times and try n times. Everyone succeeds if they fail n times and tries (n+1) times. Even dear Joseph. Look: he tried a new method and called upon higher powers to stop the blood in his stools! He may have falled short in his effort in meditation, but he sure succeeded elsewhere: n was simply zero in this case! (:D Poking fun at Joseph, at his expense, sorry.)

On the topic of sorries, the good pastor has just apologised on the church website:

Urgent Message From Pastor Rony

I have received a number of emails from people who have been saddened and hurt by the testimonies of an ex-monk and an ex-nun. I realized that my presentation and comments were wrong and offensive. So I sincerely apologize for my insensitivity towards the Buddhists and Taoists, and solemnly promise that it will never happen again.

When we have received those emails, we immediately removed the video clips from our website. I urge those who have posted those clips on the YouTube to remove them as well.

After reading the frank views from those emails, I was also prompted to tell my members not only to continue to love souls, but also to respect other belief and not to ridicule them in any way, shape or fashion.

Let’s put our goal to build a harmonious Singapore a top priority.

While I am tempted to ask the pastor how he intends to build a harmonious Singapore with people like me who insist on being fed visions by Satan when I am doing meditation (I’m sure he was serious about this when he said this about past life visions in the video, don’t tell me he wasn’t – apologising for saying something doesn’t necessarily mean he doesn’t believe what he said), I think I’ll cut him some slack.

Everyone needs some slack, as long as they truly apologise: from Goh Kah Heng @ Shi Ming Yi to Joseph to Rita to Rony Tan. Let’s all cut them some slack if they really feel sorry.

May those who have caused us hurt and distress, too, be well and happy.

Former Baptist preacher now one of U.S. Army’s few Buddhist chaplains

A most interesting article that I found at The Buddhist Channel.

For Thomas Dyer, there was fire and brimstone. “There was the idea that there’s an angry God and somehow you could really make Him mad.”

Dyer grew up fearing God. He was a Cumberland Presbyterian, then a Baptist. He had hoped religious conviction would lead to contentment. He attended seminary and preached as a Southern Baptist minister.

That seems like a lifetime ago as Dyer, 43, sits on a cushion in the shrine room of the Pema Karpo Meditation Center in the Raleigh neighborhood of Memphis, Tenn. Six statues of various Buddhas are positioned against the walls. His teacher, a Tibetan monk who founded the temple, listens as Dyer explains his exodus from the pulpit in search of nirvana.

“The question that arose in my mind is, ‘Why is there so much suffering?’ Christianity did not have a satisfactory answer. I wanted to be happy. The idea that we have to live with suffering until we die just did not make sense to me — the idea that God wants you to suffer so you can then enjoy heaven.” Dyer kept asking, “Is this all there is to life?”

As a Christian, he had been interested in mysticism. That led to meditation. Dyer studied Buddhism, then visited the temple near his Raleigh home. Right away, he says, “It was like, ‘Whoa, I’m home.'”

His conversion would also mean trading the pulpit for the battlefield. To support his family after leaving the ministry, Dyer joined the Chaplain Corps of the U.S. Army and became one of its first Buddhist chaplains. He says he will deploy to Iraq in January as an Army National Guardsman.

“There is a profound amount of suffering for soldiers, civilians and for people who are enemies now but won’t always be enemies,” said Dyer, who was commissioned as a chaplain in 2008.

He has left his boots at the door of the temple, but in the temple room he wears a standard Army camouflage uniform. Instead of a cross or crucifix on the right chest his uniform bears the “dharma wheel” insignia as a symbol of the Buddhist faith.

Army Chaplain Carleton Birch, spokesman for the Office of Chief of Army Chaplains in Washington, says there are at least 3,300 Buddhists in the U.S. Army. “In the Middle East, our Army is stretched and stressed more than ever,” he said. “We’re seeing the need more than ever in keeping the soldiers going.”

He said two more Buddhist chaplain candidates now are in training in South Carolina.

The military as an outlet for Dyer’s beliefs is not coincidence. After high school, he thought he wanted to be in the military special forces, maybe as a sniper. He joined the Marine Reserves and was soon being trained as a “killer.” Part of the training was aimed at smoothing the edges of conscience.

It was on a shooting range in Hawaii when Dyer knew he had had enough. As another Marine reset pop-up targets, Dyer looked through his rifle site. “I put him in the crosshairs, and I thought, ‘I could kill him.’ I turned away right then. I kept it quiet. I didn’t want anyone to know this kind of mind was developing in me.”

Dyer left the Marines and enrolled in Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. After seminary, he became minister of churches in Senatobia, Miss., and Brownsville, Tenn.

In and out of church, Dyer says unhappiness and dissatisfaction seemed pervasive. Wealth and success made no difference. “Everybody is basically suffering about the same. The average Joes you can see happiness in their lives, but it doesn’t take long that you will see confusion and dissatisfaction. I wanted to explore the idea that you could find a solution to suffering,” he said.

Converting to Buddhism wasn’t painless. “When you grow up in the Bible Belt, that teaching is very strong. It’s almost better to be a drug addict, an adulterer or a scalawag than to say, ‘I’m a Buddhist.'”

His marriage and two children also were issues. Dyer’s wife, Sidney, and the children are members of an evangelical Christian church. “It challenged us to the point that it made us wonder if we could make it,” she said.

Sidney Dyer’s belief that “God plans it all” helped. “I actually thank God in a way because I wouldn’t have gone as deep in my own faith if I hadn’t been challenged,” she said. Instead of rejecting the suffering that her husband questioned, she embraced it: “I think each individual’s suffering is personally designed for that individual to lead him to God.”

She describes her husband as “a deeply spiritual person” and holds out hope that his spiritual journey will lead him back to Christianity.

Dyer, who says he still appreciates the teachings of the Bible, says he doesn’t think of Buddhism as a rejection of Christianity.

But the happiness he once sought as a Christian no longer seems beyond his grasp. “Without a doubt, without equivocation, there has been a continuous, constant diminishment of suffering and awakening of peace and happiness,” he said.

Crazy Wisdom from Persia

This is a most interesting story that Zen Master Wu Bong shared with us, and I feel that I must share it on.

The Mullah Nasrudin was a Sufi mystic that, at least to me, sounded more like a Zen Master.

In the village that Nasrudin lived there was a cafe (of sorts) that he liked to visit. Outside this cafe there hung a huge lantern.

One night, a friend of Nasrudin found him on all fours on the ground beneath the lantern, looking around as if searching for something.

“Mullah,” he asked. “What are you looking for?”

“I lost my ring!” Nasrudin replied.

“Oh you lost your ring! Let me help you find it. Where did you lose it?”

“There.” Nasrudin pointed.

And the place he pointed to was nowhere under the light of the lantern. It was a dark spot further down the street.

“There?!” the friend cried incredulously. “Then why are you searching for it here?!”

The Mullah looked at him, as if he was asking the simplest question on earth.

“Because only here, I can see!”

And so how many of us are like this? Especially us living in a so-called scientific and modern world. We are most comfortable of searching for answers to life in the realm of the known, although more likely than not it lies in the realm of the unknown.

The first Catholic mission to Buddhist Tibet

A most interesting review of a book from Bhante Dhammika’s blog, “Two Catholic Missionaries in Tibet” I, II & III:

By the 1840s the Imperial Chinese government was beginning to realize just how precarious its long cherished independence was. It looked on with alarm as its neighbors one after another fell to the Western powers. The pattern of absorption was often the same — first came either missionaries who attacked traditional institutions, or merchants who demanded unfair privileges. When their behavior caused trouble and the government tried to keep them in line, the missionaries or merchants would demand protection from their respective governments and soon gunboats were sailing and armies marching. Determined that this would not be their fate, the Chinese had banned all missionaries and had tried to restrict merchants to a few so-called treaty ports.

But if the merchants were and cunning and determined, the missionaries were even more so. Ignoring rightfully enacted laws and statutes, missionaries had disguised themselves and penetrated into some of the most remote parts of the empire. Suspecting some of them of spying for Western powers, as indeed they often did, the Chinese had put in place a series of draconian measures to deal this threat. Any missionary caught could expect to be executed, often after horrible torture.

Such was the situation when Father Regis-Evariste Huc, a French member of the Lazarist Order arrived in Portuguese enclave of Macao in 1839. The next year, taking advantage of yet another British attack on Chinese forces, Huc slipped across the border in disguise and made his way to Peking. From there he went through the Great Wall into Mongolia. He spent three years learning the language and later met Father Joseph Gabet who was head of the mission there. The two became friends and gradually conceived the audacious idea of taking the Gospel to the most remote, the most forbidden place on earth – Lhasa the heart of Tibetan Buddhism. The chances of getting there and returning alive were, the two men knew, very slim but with a courage and faith typical of their kind, this only made them more determined to go.

In August 1844 the two intrepid missionaries together with a Mongolian convert acting as servant, set of towards the west on what was to be a remarkable 2400 kilometer journey. Passing through seemingly endless stretches of uninhabited grassland and desert they finally got to the regions where Tibetan Buddhism prevailed. On one occasion while staying at a wayside inn a senior lama and his retinue arrived.

Curious to know who the strangers were the lama paid them a visit. Hue and Gabet refused to stand to greet him, a breach of etiquette which the lama had the good grace to ignore.

After a few polite exchanges the lama saw the prayer book which the missionaries had deliberately put out for the purpose of initiating a discussion on religion. The lama picked up the book, flicked through the pages, admired its gilt edge and then said; “Our two faiths are like this”, raising two fingers and putting them besides each other as he did so.

The missionary’s response to this spontaneous gesture of good-will and magnanimity was predictable.

“Your beliefs and ours are at odds with each other”, Huc said. “The object of our journey and our efforts, and we make no secret of it, is to substitute our prayers for those in use in your monasteries”.

“I know”, said the lama with a smile and after some more conversation he left. If Huc and Gabet were hoping to become martyrs it would not be at the hands of the Buddhist lamas.

Despite their rocklike sense of superiority and occasional rudeness, Huc and Gabet were generally far more sensitive and tactful than most missionaries of the time. Huc later wrote, “All the experience of our long journey… convinced us that it is through teaching and not controversy that one must work for the conversion of the unbeliever. Argument can reduce an adversary to silence, humiliate him even, anger him sometimes, and convince him never. When Jesus Christ instructed his Apostles, he told them; Ite, docete omnes gentes, and this does not mean ‘Go and argue with all nations’. In our own day, two schools of philosophy, one following the steps of Descartes and the other of Lamennais, have long argued the question as to whether paganism is a crime or an error. In our opinion it is neither, but simply the result of ignorance. The mind of the pagan is in darkness; show him a light and the darkness is gone. He needs no Cartesian no Lamennaisian imputations, he simply needs instruction.”

However, such sentiments also highlight Huc’s naive optimism. During their stay in Tibet the two missionaries had the opportunity to ‘show the light’ to many people but not one came forward to be baptized.

After many adventures and difficulties Hue and Gabet eventually arrived at Kumbum, the fourth largest monastery in Tibet, housing as it did some 4000 monks. This monastery had been built over the birth place of Tsong Ka-pa, the great 14″’ century reformer and the founder of the Gulupas, the main sect of Tibetan Buddhism. They found accommodation and someone to teach them Tibetan and then settled down to a period of diligent study. Their main aim was to both learn Buddhism and then write a book explaining the basic tenets of Christianity.

As word of the two strange ‘lamas’ got around they started to have a continual stream of curious visitors. Monks would come and respectfully ask them about the altar they had erected and inquire about the meaning of the pictures of various saints put up on the walls. The polite questions, the nods of appreciation and the requests for deeper explanations raised the two men’s hopes that they were going to make some converts. But the lamas were nearly doing what is natural for Buddhists – being respectfully interested in and open to other faiths. Huc and Gabet tried to impress their visitors by telling them about the miracles Christ had performed. But wonders that had supposedly happened long ago and far away did not have the same immediacy or appeal to the Tibetans as the wonder that they could see every day – the Tree of Ten Thousand Images.

Kumbum monastery had grown up around a miraculous tree which, tradition said, Tsong Ka-pa had been born under. Called the Tree of Ten Thousand Images, this tree was famous throughout central Asia because it was covered with letters from the Tibetan sacred alphabet. Western scholars had heard of the tree and were curious to know whether the stories about it were true but up till now no reliable persons had seen it.

Huc and Gabet were the first Westerners to see the tree and to give an full and accurate description of it. Huc wrote; “Here the reader will expect us to say something about this tree. Does it still exist? Have we seen it? What is it like? What about those miraculous leaves? All these are justifiable questions. And we will therefore try to reply to them as far as we are able. Yes, the tree still exists; we had heard so much about it during our journey that we were quite impatient to go and see it. On the foot of the mountain on which the monastery was built and not far from the main temple was a large enclosure surrounded by a brick wall. We went into the courtyard and could examine at leisure the miraculous tree whose branches we had already glimpsed from outside. We immediately looked at the leaves with burning curiosity and were dumbfounded to see that, sure enough, on each leaf there were well-founded Tibetan characters, sometimes darker green, sometimes lighter, than the leaf itself. Our first reaction was to suspect fraud by the lamas; but after the most detailed examination we could find no evidence of this. The characters gave every appearance of being part of the leaf, like the veins and nerves; they were not always similarly places, but were sometimes on the top, sometimes in the middle of the leaf, sometimes at its be base and sometimes on the side; the young leaves had the character in a rudimentary form, only partly formed; the bark on the trunk and the branches, which peeled off something like the bark of palm trees, was also marked with characters. If one removed a piece of the old bark one could see on the new bark beneath the vague shapes of the characters, which were in the process of formation. The strange thing is that they were often different from the characters on top. We made every effort, until our brows were wet with sweat, to discover some evidence of fraud, but in vain. Others cleaver than we may be able to find a satisfactory explanation of the peculiarities of this tree, but we gave it up. Some will smile at our ignorance, we care little so long as our integrity is not doubted …The Tree of Ten Thousand Images looked very ancient. Its trunk, which three men could hardly encircle, is not more than eight feet high. The branches did not go upwards but thrust outwards to form a plume and were very bushy. Some branches are dead and decaying with age, the leaves were evergreen, the wood reddish and with a delightful perfume rather like cinnamon. The lamas told us that during the summer, about the eighth moon, it produces large red flowers of great beauty”. Over the centuries efforts had been made to grow offsprings of the tree from seeds or cuttings but these had always failed and it remained the only one of its kind.

After being in Kumbum for a while the monastic routine and the various pujas started to seem strangely familiar to Huc and Gabct, sometimes uncannily so. Huc commented; “It is impossible not to be struck by the similarities between the reforms and innovations introduced by Tsong Ka-pa and Catholicism. The rozier, the mitre, the dahntic, the cope or pluvial which the Grand Lamas wear when traveling or when conducting a ceremony outside the temple, the service with two choirs, the singing of psalms, exorcism, the five-chained censer which can be opened and closed at will, the blessing given with right hand raised over the head of the faithful, the chaplet, the practice of celibacy, the retreat, the worship of saints, fasting, processions, litanies, holy water: all these are common to both religions.”

Hue and Gabet were neither the first or last to notice these parallels. Amongst 19th century Catholics the most popular explanation for this closeness was that Tibet had once been Catholic under the legendary king Prester John and then become perverted by the Devil and only the rituals remained. Huc suggested a much more rational explanation. He knew that in the 14th century several Catholic monks had arrived at the court of the successor of Gangeis Khan. It is possible, he conjectured, that the Mongolians had been so impressed by the majesty of Catholic ritual that they had adopted it from where they passed to Tibet. Most scholars now put the similarities down to coincidence, albeit uncanny coincidence.

The missionaries also noticed that the behavior of the lamas towards them accorded to what they would expect from the best Christian institutions.

“So strong is the effect of religion on the heart of man, even when that religion is false and knows nothing of its true purpose! What a difference between these lamas, so generous, so hospitable, so brotherly towards strangers, and the Chinese who will even sell a glass of cold water to a thirsty traveler. At the welcome we received at Kumbum we could not help being reminded of those religious houses, built by out forefathers, those hospitable monks, as hostelries where travelers and the poor alike could always find relief of body and comfort for the soul.”

After a three-month stay at the great monastery the two missionaries were ready for to undertake the final long journey to Lhasa. They headed south and for a while traveled with a huge caravan which consisted of 15000 yaks, 1,200 horses, the same number of camels and 2000 men. On the 29th of January 1846, after a grueling 18 months on the road the weary but elated missionaries finally arrived at their goal — Lhasa. The golden spires of the Potala Palace, the richness of the Jokung Cathedral and the color of the pilgrims and merchants from every part of Central Asia were all overwhelming. But they had not come to sightlessness and as soon as they found accommodation they began planning to conquer for Christ this citadel of paganism.

When the authorities knew their presence they received an order to appear before the Regent, ruler of Tibet until the young Dalai Lama came of age. Full of trepidation and hope they obeyed. The Regent happened to be an urbane and deeply religious man and as soon as he was satisfied that the strangers were not spies but genuine men of religion, he became friendly towards them. When he asked why they were in his realm they told him that they had come to convert the Tibetans the one true religion. Far from being perturbed or angry, the Regent was delighted. Hue recorded his words: “All your long journeys were made for a religious purpose. You are right, for man’s business in life is religion. I see that you French and we Tibetans are one in this. But your religion and ours are not the same so it is important to find out which one is true. We shall therefore examine them both carefully and sincerely. If yours is true, we shall adopt it. Indeed, how could we not? But if ours is found to be true, I hope you will be reasonable enough to adopt it yourself”. The missionaries could hardly have wished for a more positive reception. It seemed that all their prayers had been answered.

In the following month the three men met often, had long discussions and gradually developed a genuine respect for each other. The Regent arranged for them to learn more Tibetan so they could more easily clearly explain their beliefs, found them more comfortable accommodation and purchased their horses at a very generous price thus giving them much needed extra cash. As at Kumbum, curious and interested people began visiting them, some of them on a regular basis, to find out about the new religion. But just when it looked like all the missionary’s prayers had been answered, disaster struck. The Chinese ambassador had been trying for some time to have the missionaries expelled but the Regent had put him off, found excuses to do nothing or used delaying tactics. Now Chinese pressure became intense and the Regent and his government finally had to give in. After a friendly farewell from the Regent and an invitation to come again at a better time, the two men left the Forbidden City and headed east towards China.

Huc and Gabet arrived in Macao in October 1846 full of plans to establish a mission in Lhasa but their dreams were soon to be dashed. They learned that the Vatican had granted the Society des Missions Etrangeres the exclusive right to preach the Gospel in Tibet and they were not prepared to let Lazerists or any other Order poach on what they now considered to be their turf. As it happens, the Society des Missions Etrangeres was never able to get around to organizing a Tibetan mission and indeed no Catholic or even Protestant missionaries were ever to step foot in Lhasa again. Thus ironically it was not Buddhist resistance but ecclesiastical rivalry and polities within the Catholic Church which prevented the Gospel being preached in the-fabled Forbidden City. Father Gabet went to Rome to plead to be able to return to Tibet but was unable to reverse the decision. He was eventually posted to Brazil where the friendship he had cultivated with Tibet’s regent, the language skills he had learned in China and Tibet and his knowledge of the region were all wasted. He died of yellow fever in 1853. Father Huc remained in Macao for two years writing an account of the mission. In 1852 he returned to France but never really recovered from the hardships of his long journey and he died in 1860 worn out at the age of 47.

This three-volume travelogue attracted much attention in academic circles, being the only first-hand account of Lhasa to appear during the whole of the 19th century. It went through several editions and was translated into English. Huc’s account of the Tree of Ten Thousand Images in particular created much interest. The idea of such a tree sounded so improbable and yet in all other matters Huc seemed to be a careful and objective informant. Further, as a Catholic missionary hostile to all aspects of Tibetan Buddhism, he had no reason to say anything positive about it. Unfortunately, the truth about the wonderful tree can now never be known for certain. The British traveler Peter Flemming saw it in 1935 but it was autumn and it had shed its leaves. Andre Migot saw it in 1946 but by then it had been enclosed in a temple and he was unable to examine it carefully. Communist Red Guards destroyed the Tree of Ten Thousand Images in the 1960’s.

Being a Buddhist in a Christian World

I borrowed this book from the NUS library. It was a study by a researcher (who was Korean) who interviewed over fifty men, women and youths active at a temple called “Sa Chal” in LA, USA, gathering their views on retaining or reverting back to their Buddhist faith as immigrants in a predominantly Christian country. The title caught my attention instantly. Here are some excerpts from Chapter 7:
“The Christians think that Buddhists are devils and that you only have to believe in God to be saved! In Korea, Buddhism was the original teaching but now they think of it as the devil. I used to follow my younger sisters to church when I first got here because I wanted to learn something about Christian beliefs. But now, even though I don’t go to church anymore, my sisters still thnk I believe in Christianity. They don’t know that I go to temple because I don’t tell them. If they knew they would keep asking me why I didn’t believe in God and they would keep on bothering me. But my belief is my own choice, so I don’t want to hear any protests. I don’t say a word: I just fo along to temple diligently and think of the Buddha inside my heart.” [Mrs Oh, a fifty-one year old Buddhist woman living on her own in Los Angeles]
That a woman should find it necessary to hide her Buddhist identity from her own sisters (themselves previously Buddhist) illustrates what many Korean Buddhists encounter on a daily basis: the ubiquity of church affiliation among Koreans living in America. Since it is widely assumed that Koreans are Christian, many Buddhists like Mrs Oh choose not to divulge their Buddhist identity…
… The rapid multiplication of Korean American Christian churches comes as no surprise to Buddhists at Sa Chal. Many Buddhists in fact complain that they are often urged to convert to Christianity while they chop at the Korean markets, do business with fellow Koreans, and meet with friends. Even their children are pressured to convert at their high schools and colleges, where Korean Christian church groups are becoming an increasingly powerful presence, One Sunday afternoon at Sa Chal, Michael, a fourteen year old member of the temple’s youth group, complained to his friends about how “an old woman kept folloing me in a car and tried to give me flyers to get me to go to her church but I told her I was Buddhist. She then got really upset and told me that it was wrong for young people to believe in Buddhism!” Both students then rolled their eyes in exasperation and sighed, “Christians just don’t understand about free choice!” Lisa, a high school senior, concurred: “Yeah, my friends are always trying to get me to come to church. They tell me that I am going to go to hell becuase I don’t believe in God.”…
Mrs Jin, a fifty year old mother of two sons in their early twenties, vehemently believes that her children should choose their own religion. Even though she herself lived as a Buddhist nun for ten years in Korea before marrying at the age of twenty-eight, she still believes that it is more important for her sons to choose for themselves what religion they want to practice. This choice, according to Mrs. Jin, is the measure of what being a Buddhist is all about; in fact, she even encouraged her two sons to go to church so that when they chose a religion, they would make an informed decision:
“I even sent my kids to church. Why did I send them to church? I told them that they should try going to church and try to compare the merits of each faith. Since I have taken them to temple with me since they were young, they were not influenced by Christianity. Rather than telling them no to go to church, I told them that they should try to understand the Christian faith in God so that later on, if they chose to believe in Buddhism, their beliefs would be deep and strong because they have chosen for themselves. For us, since we have had such a strong and deep faith in Buddhism, we can’t just convert to Christianity so easily, but my kids didn’t have that experience. So I told them to go to church.”
When asked if she thought it was strange that her children would go to church even though she and her husband are Buddhists, she replied quickly:
“Oh no! I want to teach them the Buddhadharma, but as the kids grow up they will eventually outgrow their mother’s influences and will have so many things they want to do on their own. Also, more so than their mother, they actually think their friends are better to listen to. Because of that, I told them that if they went to temple or to church, no matter where they placed their faith, it wa their choice.”…
… For Dr. lim, a forty-six year old woman who recently converted to Buddhism following her second marriage, Buddhism seems to produce less stress in her life, for it has far fewer rules and regulations.
Through the influence of her grandmother, Dr. Lim was raised a Buddhist as a young girl growing up in Korea. Yet like many Korean women, she converted to Christianity for her first marriage because her first husband’s family “was a Christian family and they told me we had to go to church together”…
… When she marired a second time a little over six months ago (her first husband died years ago), she renounced her membership at a local Korean Presbyterian church and began to attend Sa Chal’s Buddhist services…
… “It seems like the dharma is a little more liberal, it’s not exclusive, and Buddhists don’t believe that ‘only my way is the right way.’ There really are some easier things about the temple. At church, first of all, you always have to attend services; there are so many meetings and they always tell you to go to them. If you don’t, then a phone call comes… and also they say that you have to proselytize. If you don’t do it very well, then they sort of publicly recognise it. But if you go to the temple and say that you couldn’t proselytize other people, it’s just not a big deal; but in a church it’s sort of a sin”…
… Dr. Lim thus maintains that Christians are too afraid to rely on themselves to “make it” in America like the Buddhists. At the same time, she also believes that a spiritual connection through Christianity creates a bond of mutual trust and generosity that can be useful for economic success in America. Despite this allure, she feels that Buddhist worship on Sundays suits her just fine, for “Christians seem to want to fight a lot among each other and the Buddhists seem a lot more relaxed.” Like many Koreans, she believes that Christianity has spread among Koreans because it provides an opportunity to worship in Korean as well as a place for good business contacts, especially for someone like her who runs an ethnic-specific business.
To Dr. Lim, the main difference between Buddhism and Christianity is a question of agency. She says that Christianity teaches that one has only to believe in God and all will be taken care of, if one is faithful. Buddhism, on the other hand, teaches about self-reliance, an aspect that all my participants cited as very important. This characteristic self-reliance leads to agency and, by extension, the instantiation of the American values of independence, which a Christian dependence on God and the church is believed to prohibit…
… Aware of the discrimination that many Buddhists feel in the Korean American community, Chin Mi Young, a divorced fifty-two year old mother of one, responds by drawing a strong distinction between the self-knowledge and reliance derived from Buddhist practice and the dependence on an outside agent in Christianity. Mrs Chin arrived in the United States in the spring of 1992 and has since been divorced from her husband, a Christian… As a child, Mrs. Chin attended church a number of times and also had a friend who was a minister in the United States. Yet after attending this friend’s church several times, she found:
“In Christianity, you ask for your well-being. In Buddhism, though, you are the subject and therefore you have to come to a realisation of yourself and discover your well-being through the teachings. I find this to be more practical in daily living. In Christianity, you are not the subject, you leave everything up to the spirit of God to decide. This does not make sense to me because if you need to go somewhere , you have to know the directions for getting to that destination. When I go to the health spa and there are some Christians there who as my why I attend the temple, I turn and ask them the same question about why they go to church. Their only response is because ‘God is the creator of all things.’ I tell them, however that coincidences have gathered and formed everything. And besides, how could a man and a woman form a family it there was a creator God? If there was a creator God, then thecreator should be forming all humans and then there would be no need for humans to involve themselves in reproduction. Really, before the development of technology, the Christian religion might have made snese to people but as technology developed, the people have awakened.”…
… While many women respond to the rise of Christianity with both admiration and disdain, others have had direct experiences of proselytixing from friends and family, often leading them to subvert or hide their Buddhist identity among Christians. SUch is the case with In Soon Song, a woman born to Korean parents. During college she moved to Japan and married a Japanese Buddhist… Although she grew up in a Buddhist household in Korea, she is the only one of her siblings who has remained Buddhist. Her older brothers converted to Christianity and her children in the United States do not attend temple…
… Her friends, however, have not adopted the same “live and let live”American attitude that this woman seeks to maintain, Instead, since coming to the United States her religious choices have been much scrutinized within her circle of Korean female friends, all of whom are heavily involved in the church. She expresses her frustration with her Christians friends, who insist on converting her and not respecting her decision to remain a Buddhist…
… Jae Woo Shin, a twenty-eight year old Eastern medicine student, maintains that Buddhist meditation and worship focus on self-awakening as opposed to relying on an outside force to attain religious salvation, It is this difference of agency that appeals to him, for Buddhism teaches him to depend on and awaken himself…
… Thus when asked about the future of Korean Buddhism in America, he maintains that people should not be forced to practice religion but that an interest will gradually grow. He also believes that since Americans are becoming more interested in Buddhism, the percentage of Buddhists in the United States will increase as more Americans begin to convert…
Mr Koh, a volunteer accountant for Sa Chal, has attended Sa Chal since retiring from his job as a liquor store owner in 1993. According to him, the rise of Christianity in the Korean American community can be attributed to the inability of many Koreans to comprehend the subtle complexities of Buddhist doctrines…
According to Mr. Hong, although many people convert to Christianity from Buddhism upon arriving in America, they “don’t convert because they really want to believe but because they are isolated in the U.S. and so if they go to church, they meet other immigrants and people they know.” Unlike Buddhists who “rely on themselves to get through their difficulties in America,” Mr. Hong maintains that Christians are less capable of taking care of themselves and therefore more dependent on God. Furthermore, since he believes that Buddhism is a better and more truthful religion, he exhibits little anxiety over its future:
“If you look at it, Christians are coming back to the temple. A lot of old people are doing the same because there’s a lot of lies in their beliefs and so they come back to Buddhism because they are of a true nature. Ministers say to live and believe in them and believe in God, but the monks say that you have to awaken your own mind. Ignorant people think that if I believe in God then I will live well and be well off. So ignorant people tend to follow that way. But a smaller number of people, if they have knowledge  and know how, then they decide to come back over this way to Buddhism.”…
… Dr. Kin also maintains that women traditionally have gone to temples to pray for the well-being of their families but that “men are probably still too embarassed to publicly worship at temples since Buddhism had been so denigrated as low class during the Yi dynasty.” Furthermore, he adds:
“Men think that if they go to temple, they will seem like they are somewhat backward because people tend to think that those who believe in Christianity are more modern. If you believe in Buddhism you will be considered old-fashioned and so that’s why it seems that there are less men in the temple… In Korea there were a lot of Buddhists who did not admit that they were Buddhists. Because they were worried about looking somewhat ignorant, they didn’t tell people that they were Buddhists.”
As a result of being considered old-fashioned and ignorant, men did not and still do not mention their Buddhist affiliations publicly nor do they worship in the presence of women. Dr. Jin’s comments illustrate why some Buddhists choose to hide their religious identiy or seek out the social comforts and benefits offered through the churches. But these Buddhists are “not real Buddhists, for real Buddhists who have a knowledge of the philosophical tenets of Buddhism, an understanding of the sutras, and a desire to attain enlightenment could never convert!”
… James remains confident about the long-term success of Buddhism, for he believes that eventually more and more people will become disillusioned with Christianity:
“I think at a certain point… the Christian community is going to get smaller. As science and technology develops even higher and higher, then Christians are going to lose interest. There are a lot of unbelievable things states in the Bible by Christians. There are always those things that cannot be backed up by science. As science grows even further and further and the sense of philosophy embedded in individuals grows deeper and deeper, they are going to start looking for other religions that do not revolve around following direct orders. They will look for a religion that revolves around finding yourself, finding your innermost feelings, and finding what you should do instead of listening to what you should do.”
Thus, for this Korean American student, “being a true Buddhist, you create your own life,” which James considers a much better option than relying on others to tell you how to live your life.

How the Bible made me a better Buddhist

A piece of writing from Bro Piya that I can connect with very much…
As Singapore becomes more English-speaking and global (TMC has many overseas students), we also see a growing presence of Christianity and religious mobility (see Straits Times, Saturday, 9 August 2008), we (as Buddhists) must come to terms with such a challenge.
My religious life began with the Bible: I loved reading, and my brother was an elder in his own church. That was in the early 1960s. I even have a certificate from an Australian Bible school for successfully completing a study of the four Gospels and a few books of the Old Testament.
Two things I learned from my Bible studies: they (many different Bibles) often use beautiful English and they write with such conviction. You will see how I try to write in beautiful English and with conviction in what I believe today.
One thing troubled me though. Near the end of my course, I asked my tutor how I should treat my non-Christian friends: a saintly Hindu octogenarian, a Bahai classmate, Muslim friends, and many Chinese friends of various religions. In one short paragraph, he said that they worshipped Satan, and that I best avoided them!
I was shocked, to say the least! He had not even met any of my friends. Moreover, I have not come across anywhere in the Bible where it says you should hate your friends.
I can say that I have at least one good Christian friend, that is, my brother. He respected my religion and loved me even when I was a monk. Once he quoted the Bible to me, “Let not a brother be a stumbling block to another brother.”
Another helpful piece of advice he gave me was to work for what I really believed in. He told me to set up a kind of trust or even a small company, if I wanted to avoid human weaknesses, such as quarrels and lack of commitment. This is one of the ideas that inspired the Minding Centre.
If more Buddhists were like him, we would be more successful in working for Buddhism.
When I was a monk, my eldest nephew once visited me on a Sunday. Then the puja bell rang. I told him that I have to go for puja, and suggested that he went for his prayers in the church next door. He replied that he could not do that! “Why,” I asked.
He said, “They are of a different confession.” My sad reply: “Now you know why I am not a Christian: if I joined any one church, I will have to denounce over 6000 other churches!” I can have more friends without being a Christian.
Please don’t get me wrong: Christianity, like Buddhism and the other world religions, have great teachings. But people are messing all of them up. I loved studying religion, living ones, dead ones, new ones. But only Buddhism encourages me to think for myself and that the answer lies within me.
A saying from Amos still inspires me: “Walk humbly with your God.” As a young monk, I put in every effort to study all the Buddhist religions: Theravada, Mahayana, Vajrayana, Zen, Nichiren, Western Buddhism, etc. After some 20 years, I still find that the Buddha’s Buddhism is still the best. Still I have a lot to learn from other religions, Buddhist and non-Buddhist.
In a famous beautiful verse from the first Corinthians, Paul writes, “And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could move mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.” Then I discovered that the Buddha too (2 millennia before) speaks in a similar tone. But how do I learn to love and show it? I only really learned this when I became a monk and learned lovingkindness meditation, and I discovered a greater love than even charity.
For, to give with love and wisdom is the best giving. To love is to give a hand to someone when he needs it; to give wisdom is to teach him how to help himself and give a hand to others, too.
A couple of Bible verses puzzle me, though. One is where John the apostle says, “No greater love has a man than this, that he lays down his life for another.” I discovered later that the Buddha had said the very same thing 2600 years ago (see Sigalovada Sutta). Then I thought, if the Buddha had died for us, the world today would have had no way out of suffering! Thank you, Buddha, for living for us. Buddhaghosa, too, said in his Visuddhimagga that it is better not to die, but to live for those you love!
Both Matthew and Luke said something like “Do not resist evil. If someone smites you on one cheek, give him the other. If someone takes your cloak, let him take your shirt, too.” The Samyutta tells an interesting story about how the Buddha did something just like that (S 10.12)! There is also a Chan story where a poor monk sheltered a thief who then stole his bowl. But, he got up and ran after the thief: “Here, take my robe, too!’
Often in a bus or train or in public, I meet an evangelist who slaps me on my left cheek, and I used to give him my right, too. But it got worse, he kept on slapping me. Finally, I told them in a bus on Bukit Timah Road: “Please stop slapping me on my cheeks. You don’t know anything about cheek-slapping. Please find out more about it from the Bible.”
It’s not that I love the Bible less, but I love the Buddha more. If you are a true believer of your religion, and you find people do not really practise what they preach, you will surely find solace in the Buddha. For, he tells you that you are not alone.
All by himself the Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree
All the five monks left him, but he struggled on
His greatest moment came when he was all alone
The wisest being of all arose in that stillness.
Share with me this great reflection:
“When I face my life’s great struggles, I may be all alone,
But so did the Buddha in his greatest moment.”