THE SAGELY CITY OF TEN THOUSAND BUDDHAS

Thailand

13 September (Day 49)

We leave for Bangkok today. The flight which was supposed to leave at 9 a.m. is delayed until 3:15 p.m. All day long people come over to say goodbye. Laywomen crowd the hallways with questions for all of us at every turn.

The plane ride takes about two hours and we arrive at Bangkok just as the setting sun pours in shafts of copper gold. We drive in heavy rush-hour traffic through somber grey and brown avenues, choked full of pedestrians, motorcars, trucks, and vans. The car weaves among old Chinese tenement buildings, Thai vats (temples), bazaars, and streets lined with little shops, all lit up in the dim evening aura, resembling a maze of fireflies by a dark riverbank. The business community is practically all Chao Chau (Swatow) Chinese.

There is no lecture tonight; there has been no publicity and our hosts have been waiting for the Abbot to arrive before putting the news in tonight’s paper. We arrive at the Chinese Buddhist Association: a large four-story house about thirty years old, built in a quasi-Chinese and European style, complete with split levels. About fifteen of us stay here: eight from the delegation, along with other laypeople traveling with us, some of them en route to the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas from Malaysia.

14 September (Day 50)

This morning a group of us visit the famous Temple of the Jade Buddha. This is situated within the Grand palace, a large imperial complex sprawling over twenty acres built by the successive generations of Thai kings, dating from the eighteenth century. Within the palace walls are government offices and royal apartments, built in a mélange of styles, European and Thai.

As one strolls through the palace grounds, one encounters an endless labyrinth of turrets and spirals, their glazed tiles of enamel glistening red, yellow, turquoise and green under the hot sun. Contoured verandas are ornamented with bas relief and frescoes depicting episodes from the Ramayana. The entire place is swarming with gawking tourists, with tour guides firing off in rapid succession their monologues in the different languages. Sadly enough, the stench of cigarettes deters any spiritually uplifting effect.

My perceptions of “sensational sights and sounds” have changed. I used to be an avid traveler, ever-ready to drive into any new “scene” to top the previous one, in truth desperately trying to fill the cravings of a jaded appetite. Having started to return the light – and I’m sure many cultivators feel the same way – I have discovered the value of true in-sights within. The best picture-show occurs inside the Mind Ground. You need not jet to Paris, Morocco, Greece, the moon, or Jupiter. Sitting in full lotus with eyes turned inward is the key that unlocks the door to true wonder.

Without going outside the door,
One knows the entire universe.
Without looking through the window,
One sees the Way of Heaven.  

The farther one goes, the less one knows.
Thus, the sage knows without traveling.
He understands without looking.
He creates without doing.

Tao Te Ching

In the evening a gathering of about seventy come to hear the Abbot. This is the smallest turnout we’ve encountered so far, which seems strange, since Buddhism is Thailand’s national religion. Driving through the streets we often see ochre-robed monks hugging their begging bowls meandering through city traffic. The fact that Buddhists are not united shows that every Buddhist still has a job to do.

The Abbot talks lightheartedly to an audience comprised mainly of Chao Chau businessmen, their wives and a few Dharma Masters:

“This is my third visit to Thailand, and I will first introduce myself. In Malaysia I’m known as one of the five great freaks of Hong Kong. Now, as to why people think me so bizarre I don’t know, perhaps because I eat one meal a day, or because I wear my precept sash at all times. But I do these things in order to manifest the appearance of a Bhikshu, and in no way am I trying to set up a special style of my own. Others say that I am a mao-shan, a Taoist ghost-exorciser. This rumor was started by a certain self-acclaimed leader of the Secret School in Hong Kong whom I’ve never had the pleasure to meet: perhaps he didn’t dare to call himself a monster, so he has chosen to call me one instead.

However, in coming to Asia this time, we’ve brought you a present. I’ve paved a new road that starts from America, and which spans the entirety of Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Completing the full circle, it unites the East and West. I often call myself a road, and any being can walk over me. I also call myself an ant, a horse, a mosquito. No matter how many names I have, they are all false anyway.

Now tonight I am supposed to speak on Buddhism in America, and I’ll sum it up for you in one word: the religion of stupidity. Why? Just look at these monks prostrating themselves once every third step. They bow up a big sweat, and every day – be it rain or shine – they keep on bowing. Just think, if this is not stupid then what is it? and yet,

If you can’t give up death,
You can’t exchange it for life.
If you can’t relinquish the false,
You can’t accomplish the real.  

Cultivating till you’re like an idiot is just the wonderful;
Only when your learning approaches stupidity is it truly rare.
To endure suffering is to end suffering,
To enjoy blessings is to exhaust your blessings.

If you call yourself a Buddhist disciple, why can’t you endure the least bit of suffering? You tell others to give, but you yourself do not give; you tell others to cultivate, but you yourself do not cultivate; that’s called talking about food but not getting your fill. Don’t spend your time in the samadhi of bantering. Also, in cultivation one shouldn’t be moved by any states, whether pleasant or unpleasant. If upon meeting a pleasant state you are happy, or upon meeting an unpleasant state you’re say, then you are just being turned.”

People seem to absorb the Dharma much slower here, with much more reticence. Everywhere we go it’s different. Truly all dharmas arise from conditions and all dharmas are extinguished by conditions as well.

15 September (Day 51)

We make an early morning visit to Pao En (Universal Calm) Temple. The Abbot Dharma Master P’u Ching has been appointed by the King of Thailand as the chief Chinese Sanghin in the country, and he enjoys considerable fame and affluence. His company is graced by government officials, royalty and well-to-do businessmen.

The temple is a lavish work of art. The immaculate lawns are ornamented with flames of the forest and poplars trimmed with fastidious delicacy. Fleshy, pink camellias are veiled in dark green foliage, while azaleas explode in stunning carmines, pinks and purples. The tiled mosaic floors inlaid with lotus designs are waxed smooth to the point of being slippery. Everything around us – marble balustrades, columns covered with gilt tracings, shiny red pillars and carved memorial arches – suggests the resplendence of palace grounds rather than an ascetic Place of the Way.

Dharma Master P’u Ching receives us in his private quarters. Lining the four walls are pictures of himself and the Thai King taken at different grandiose occasions. We find that on top of every doorway, a place which is usually reserved for Buddha images, is a picture of our host in some heroic pose. With his two young attendants, who serve us strong black tea (Iron Kuan Yin), we exchange pleasantries for the next half hour, quaffing down the mildly bitter beverage in every small cups.

The Abbot is poised and unruffled. He is never on any occasion turned by flattery or cajoling. With disarming innocence he lays his cards on the table. “We are giving the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas to the entire world. Would you want a share of it?”

Dharma Master P’u Ching is impressed despite himself,

“Oh, it’s such a big place … ah, perhaps I can buy a small plot of land there and built myself a thatched hut?”

“No need to buy, whatever you want is yours. This land is ours,” the Abbot doses him with a giant grin, his arms gesturing to include everyone.

After that the sharp, crackling lucidity mellows.

That evening, back in the Thai Buddhist Association’s lecture hall, Kuo Kuei talks fluently about the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas. The Abbot’s gesture of dedicating this city to Buddhists world-wide is so magnanimous a gift that most people fail to pick up the message upon first hearing. It has to be repeated several times before it starts to sink in.

“This is the Space Age, yet we can’t even unite Buddhism within our own globe. Each country is vying with the other. What is the use of venturing into outer space when we haven’t solved the problems at home?’

The crowd listens politely, interested, but not stirred. Aside from a language barrier (Mandarin has to be translated into Swatow) there is a curtain of skepticism or sheer inertia here. Mental muscles are slack. It is so easy to slide into oblivion. Once having been born, we inhale the toxins of the three poisons of greed, hatred, and stupidity until our brains are as flabby as jello. How rare it is to find a sage who has cultivated to accomplishment the transcendental path.

The less-than-stable political situation explains the underlying anxiety and anger that taints all aspects of life here. Going back and forth from temples in smog-choked streets we wind our way through houses worn to a dull grey-yellow from automobile exhaust and industrial pollution. Danger and thwarted desire. We sense the simmering resentment in the paved walkways, the concrete, the glaring billboards advertising war and gung fu movies. Collective karma at work? When the mind is defiled, living beings’ actions and countries appear accordingly.

The Abbot follows with this address,

“There are many people within Buddhism who try to steal a bell while stopping up their own ears. This is called cheating yourself and cheating others. Not only are you not reliable in your cultivation, you put up a front and influence others in Buddhism to do likewise. No wonder outsiders are not inspired to bring forth respect or faith in our religion. Knowing this I am determined to change what is wrong, and I must start with myself.

Ever since the day I left home, I have never hoarded private assets. Whenever people gave me offerings it all went to the central funds of the temple. I never harped about the money; whatever policy suited the majority was fine with me.

The City of Ten Thousand Buddhas is ready-made. It has about seventy buildings with first-class facilities: lecture halls, study rooms, conference rooms, plus ample space for a lot of expansion. That’s why I want to give it to the whole world.

The reason why I urge Sanghins to give up holding private assets is that once you have money, trouble arises. You start to eat, drink, and play as you wish, and many are lured back to lay life. If monks don’t hoard private property it won’t be as easy for them to go astray. Instead of building temples, let us build schools. Because we neglected education in the past, we have not been able to plant roots of faith within people’s hearts. With this fault in its foundation, Buddhism could not withstand stormy weather. From now on, if we fortify our educational system, build elementary schools, high schools, and universities, then young people will develop a first-hand understanding of the Dharma.

This is why next year we will hold an International Buddhist Convocation at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas. The purpose is to elect a head of the Buddhist Central Assembly, as well as to draft the Constitution and bylaws by which all Sanghins can model their lives. Now, most people do not believe that I really want to give the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas to the whole world. I’ve always been stupid like this. However, sooner or later they’ll have to believe.

Every Buddhist should take up the responsibility of propagating the Dharma and not push it onto someone else’s shoulders. There is nothing wrong with Buddhism per se; however, we ourselves as Buddhist disciples are to blame for our present problems. Buddhist disciples should daily reflect: what contribution have I made toward Buddhism today? If we haven’t made any, we should be ashamed and quickly change!”

People listen but the reaction is not electrifying as was that of the crowds in Malaysia and Singapore. There is a certain dullness, and inability to respond spontaneously; it comes from worry and fear. The Abbot transmits the Wisdom Mantra, but not the Forty-two Hands and Eyes. They do not seem to mind. Truly, in each place, living beings are entrenched like fish in their karmic nets.

Today we leave for Hong Kong. Just at the point we are to leave, people start to open up. Did they not dare to before? I believe so. Years of uneasiness have left them in a state of constant embarrassment. The streets, the greed, anger, and stupidity-filled air, the dowdy buildings, down to the sullen-eyed Thai pedestrian all speak the same message: worry and tension. Often people may want to give, but are crippled by their fear. Lunch is a gallant effort, as if to make amends for the warmth they could have imparted to us. We are overwhelmed by some casseroles, two or three different kinds of soups, and a wild range of Thai confections. The laywomen mill around us excitedly with a sudden burst of maternal attentiveness, while several leaders of the Buddhist Society – especially Mr. Kao, a business tycoon in the community – look on with an air of wistfulness, a mixture of sentiments that mere words find hard to express.

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