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Ming Zhen Shakya

Holier Than Anybody

by Ming Zhen Shakya, OHY

A scripture can afford deus ex machina resolutions to any problem it presents. In ordinary life, no god suddenly materializes to tie loose ends into a nice neat bow, wrapping up a package of 'just deserts' for everyone involved. Scriptures often give preposterous stories and rules of conduct that on the surface seem totally irrelevant. Their naiveté is almost embarrassing.

Yet scripture endures; while other practical, by-the-numbers solutions to our problems are consigned to fad's graveyard. We resort to 'pop-psychology depth perception' which, like any look into a deep pool, tends to reflect only surface images. We resort to pharmaceutical fixes - which are fine when problems are organic; but when problems arise from emotional turmoil, from an inability to view our situation objectively, and from a lack of that spiritual insight which can fathom and illuminate the obscure, we require the guidance of Holy Writ. It doesn't matter how silly the scripture seems on the outside. When we read it at a certain nonjudgmental level, we touch the heart of wisdom when the scripture works its magic.

The Vinaya, some of Buddhism's oldest writings, are just such scriptures. They will crank out a miracle or two to end a story happily - as a cola that lets the lesson trail off smoothly into a nonessential point; but the message strikes the core, and long after other "serious" explanations slough off in superficiality, the scriptural point remains.

One of the Vinaya's valuable lessons concerns the peculiar problems of leading a religious organization.

A religious leader is often like a man who makes a great show of wealth in order to attract a woman but who then is furious at the thought that she might love him for his money.

A religious leader teaches forgiveness and extols the virtues of gentle forbearance and assures everyone that it is safe to rely upon divine support in difficult times; and then, when trusted students insouciantly break the rules, or scheme to tear down all that he has built in the service of his Lord, why... he is expected to forgive them and gently welcome them back into the fold, even if they have succeeded so well in their divisive mischief that there is no fold to welcome them back to. They do not even have to consider how their actions might have hurt him, since he, being blessed with divine protection, has obviously been immune to earthly calamity.

A subordinate is not similarly discomfited. A subordinate, for example, knows that a certain deference is expected of him, that he cannot overtly threaten his superiors or outwardly agitate or provoke other subordinates to act in ways that are injurious to the leader. If he does intend to harm, he must hide his activities, disguise them, appear to be more interested in the welfare of the group than in his own future as natural heir to the leader he intends to depose. He will justify his activities by exploiting that nuance of difference that, in his mind, separates him from the object of his scorn.

No matter how genuinely pious a leader is, someone who wants to criticize him will establish a criterion in which he is superior to the leader. This is a variation on the often cited theme, "He is a terrible man... he beats his wife indiscriminately. I beat my wife, too - but I make sure she deserves it before I strike her." Who can fail to applaud such virtue?

Each person, in any relationship between two people - friends, student-teacher, lovers, parent-child, business associates, spouses - has a wild-card, a joker that can be played to trump any card on the table. The card serves the need of the ego's Persona function: it demonstrates superior virtue or, when necessary, it mitigates culpability.

In subtle ways or gross, in minor instances or major, a balance of merit or demerit between the persons is always disturbed. Nobody is ever equally guilty. Nobody is ever equally innocent. One never gives the other all the credit. One never accepts all the blame.

No one can tell to any degree of certainty what thoughts are motivating another person. Demeanor is a practiced manner of speech and carriage, of poise and gestures, of facial expressions and properly determined remarks and attitude; and for so long as a person conforms his conduct to the required criteria, in the religious life, he is assumed to be what he appears to be. He may openly sin; but if he openly confesses, he is restored to his former status because that is what the religion requires.

A man may claim to be a pianist, and thirty seconds at a Steinway can disprove that claim. In dance or mathematics, the inept have no shield. But piety may have an appearance that does not penetrate the surface upon which it lies. And the difference may not be discernible even after years of observation. Likewise a person may appear to be gruff, irreverent, crude in speech, dirty in dress, and yet inwardly may house the most loving and devout character.

In the religious life, fact is the servant of belief.

In an early chapter, the Vinaya warns us to be wary of the jealousy and resentment that even the most highly respected spiritual persons may secretly feel towards a superior.

It isn't as if the same warning couldn't be given in ordinary counsel. It can; but for some inexplicable reason not even the most sage advice, personalized and articulately stated, ever has the force of these ancient writings.

How Scripture is able to accomplish so much in such a peculiar way was illustrated to me recently by an old friend who feared that I had given an incorrect - or at least an incomplete - picture of the Vinaya in an essay I had written. "The Vinaya is more than just a bunch of antiquated monastic rules," she said, adding reverently, "I'm a happy woman today - and without the Vinaya I don't think I would be."

Before I repeat the specific scripture that influenced my friend so beneficially, I'll sketch some of her history and repeat her comments:

Back in the 1960s, this lady had suffered through an injurious divorce and, badly wounded, had started to drink herself into oblivion when, on a visit to New Jersey a few years later, she saw "a pretty girl with a really long braid" do yoga on TV.[clearly, this had to be Lilias Folan]. Deeply impressed, she got herself a book on yoga and meditation and one thing led to another until she became an adept at the various asanas and also, in her personal spiritual life, a devotee of Vishnu and, since she regarded the Buddha as an avatar of Vishnu, of the Buddha as well.

By day she was a sales clerk in a grocery store; but by night, alone in her little apartment, she was a blissful yogini. She had found God and God rewarded her for making the discovery. She thought at the time that her spiritual development was complete. She did not realize how wrong she was.

She began to teach simple asanas to patients in a substance abuse treatment facility, and soon her evenings were spent in ministering to others. Eventually she sublet a studio for teaching, got a telephone listing, and started her own group which she called, "Yoga For The Otherwise Engaged." It was Yoga for working people of all religions who could not or would not adhere to the strict dietary and spiritual regimen she followed. The fees she charged covered the rent and also the tea and cakes she provided after each session. Additionally, she was always available to give her students free spiritual and emotional counseling. Whenever she wanted a second opinion about the advice she was giving, she'd call me. Occasionally we had lunch together; but I had no other involvement with her or the yoga group.

She had one assistant - a financially independent woman who functioned as a receptionist and who also collected money and kept the accounts receivable ledger. In exchange for this woman's help, my friend gave free classes to the residents of a high-end retirement community in which the woman had a vested interest.

The yoga group prospered. With a modest increase in fees, she was able to leave her employment and to sign a lease on a more expensive facility in which she could hold morning classes for those who couldn't attend evening sessions.

For several months the Yoga group enjoyed a surge in membership. And then, overnight, everything changed. My friend learned to her astonishment that her assistant was opening a Yoga and Ayurvedic center with a man from India who said he had ayurvedic credentials. Her assistant quit, went to India to be initiated in a religious order, and returned with a shaved head and an aura of sanctity. The new center which she and her partner founded sold a full line of health and beauty products, garments, religious paraphernalia and books, and gave classes in hatha yoga. The assistant now had a new name and title. She also had a valuable mailing list.

The "Yoga For The Otherwise Engaged" group failed immediately. Attendance dropped nearly to zero during the months that followed, and the "Devotee of Vishnu" quietly went back to work, struggling to pay the facility's rent. She left town after the lease expired.

During those final months she suffered through the gossip - the ungracious remarks the defectors from her group made in order to justify their switch in loyalty. They claimed that her version of Eastern religion was not authentic since it lacked hierarchical validity, that by trying to accommodate everyone she sheltered no one, that she offered watered-down yoga, too diluted to be efficacious, and that she was merely a physical exercise instructor who had spiritual pretensions.

The new ashram, despite having none of these shortcomings, nevertheless managed to fail in less than a year; and, unlike the Yoga For The Otherwise Engaged studio, it failed amidst a flurry of sexual and financial scandals. The guru from India turned out to be bereft of ayurvedic information but was a compendium of Left Hand Tantric lore. There was talk of unexplained expenditures, but he left town without the mystery of them ever being solved.

So my old friend read my reference to the Vinaya and called to set me straight.

For several years after she left town she remained bitter and disconsolate.

Perfidy and ingratitude are a one-two punch. Together they can deck the strongest man or woman.

One day, sitting in a public library, she picked up Volume One of a three volume set of the Vinaya. Her cure was instantaneous.

Here, in nearly a word for word transcription of Rhys Davids and H. Oldenberg's translation of the Mahavagga, I, 15-20, we learn that in the course of his wanderings, the Buddha came to Uruvela, a place which contained the sanghas of three great ascetics: Uruvela Kassapa who had 500 followers; Nadi Kassapa who had 300 followers; and Gaya Kassapa who had 200 followers.

The Buddha, having stopped at the hermitage of the chief ascetic, Uruvela Kassapa, asked, "If it is not disagreeable to you, Kassapa, let me spend one night in the room where your sacred fire is kept."

The unwilling host, making a pretense of being honored by the visit, nevertheless cited an unfortunate circumstance which prevented him from granting permission. "It is not disagreeable to me, great Samana," he said, adding lamely, "but there is a savage Naga, a serpent king of great magical power, a dreadfully venomous serpent ..." thus Uruvela declined to give permission, stating his fear of the harm that might befall the Buddha.

Undeterred, the Buddha again asked for permission to spend the night in the room where the fire was kept. And again, Uruvela demurred.

Yet for a third time, the Buddha asked for a night's lodging in the fire room, and for the third time, Uruvela expressed his fear for the Buddha's safety.

Then the Buddha reassured him, "He is not likely to do any harm to me. Pray, Kassapa, allow me a place in the room where your fire is kept."

Uruvela relented. "Stay there, great Samana, as you wish it," he replied.

The Buddha entered the room, made himself a couch of grass, and sat in meditation; but the intrusion annoyed the Naga; and he exhaled a great cloud of smoke.

The Buddha, deciding not to harm the Naga but merely to let his own fire conquer the fire of the Naga, sent forth a cloud of smoke. This infuriated the Naga, who let his body become a blazing column of fire and discharged a stream of flames towards the Buddha. The Buddha did likewise; and to the hundreds of ascetics assembled nearby, the sight of the brilliantly lit room was astonishing.

In the morning the Buddha tossed the Naga into his alms-bowl and showed him to Uruvela. "Here you see the Naga, Kassapa; his fire has been conquered by my fire."

Then the great ascetic Uruvela thought, "Truly the great Samana possesses high magical powers and great faculties, in that he is able to conquer by his fire the fire of that savage Naga king, that dreadfully venomous serpent." And then, thinking about his guest, he smugly added, "He is not, however, as holy as I am."

And then, on one beautiful moonlit night, the Guardian Kings of the Four Directions appeared before the Buddha as he sat in a grove of trees near the hermitage. The kings saluted him and stood in the four directions, blazing like firebrands. Their brilliance could be seen for a great distance around.

And in the morning, Uruvela, curious, came to tell the Buddha that the morning meal was ready. He casually asked, "Who were they, great Samana, who came, this beautiful night, filling the whole grove with light by the brilliancy of their complexion, to the place where you were, and having approached you and respectfully saluted you, stood in the four directions like great firebrands?"

"They were the four great kings, Kassapa, who came to me in order to hear my preaching."

Then the ascetic Uruvela Kassapa thought, "Truly the great Samana possesses high magical powers and great faculties, since even the four Kings come to hear his preaching." And he considered this and added, "He is not, however, holy like me."

And on another night Indra, king of the gods, effulgent and splendid, appeared before the Buddha and saluted him. The dazzling light he emitted shown for a great distance around; and in the morning Uruvela came to inquire who had emitted such a great light. "Indra visited me," said the Buddha. And Uruvela thought, "Truly he is an important person to have the king of the gods come to call on him to pay him respects." And he considered this and added, "He is not, however, as holy as I."

Again, on another night, Brahma, shining in all his glory, appeared before the Buddha to pay him homage; and again, Uruvela came the next morning to inquire about the visitor. When he learned the identity of the night visitor, he marveled at how important a person the Buddha must be in order for Brahma to call upon him. And he considered this and added, "He is not, however, as holy as I am."

At that time it was customary to hold a great ceremony at Uruvela. People from throughout the district would come to the celebration, bringing meat and rice, vegetables and fruit as offerings. The great ascetic Uruvela Kassapa thought, "Presently my great sacrifice is approaching, and all the people of Anga and Magadha will come and bring with them abundant food. If the great Samana should perform a wonder before that great assembly, gain and honor would increase to the great Samana, and my gain and honor would diminish. Well, the great Samana shall not appear here tomorrow."

But the Buddha could read Uruvela's mind and knowing how the ascetic resented his presence there, left the area and went to Anotatta lake. There, alone, he took his meal and rested during the heat of the day and through the night.

And in the morning Uruvela Kassapa went to where the Buddha was and said to him, "Blessed One, Why did you not come yesterday? We wondered, 'Why does the great Samana not come?'"

The Buddha replied, "Didn't you fear that if I stayed there and performed a wonder, my honor would increase and yours would diminish? Didn't you vow to prevent me from being present at your ceremony? That is why I left and came here."

Then Uruvela Kassapa thought, "Truly the great Samana possesses high magical powers and great facilities, since he is able to understand by the power of his mind the thoughts of other people. However, he is not holy like me."

At that time the Buddha found some rags in a trash heap and thought he would use them for a robe for himself. He wanted to wash them; but he could find no waterhole. As he searched for a suitable place to wash the rags, Indra, king of the gods, read his mind and with his hand scooped out a waterhole. Then he said to the Buddha, "Lord, might the Blessed One wash the rags here?" Then the Buddha thought, "What shall I rub the rags on?" And Indra put a rock in the waterhole. The then Buddha thought, " What shall I hold onto to lower myself to the water's edge?" And a god that lived in a nearby tree bent a branch down for the Buddha to use. Then the Buddha wondered what he could use to lay the clean rags on to dry; and Indra placed a large stone by the water hole.

And in the morning Uruvela Kassapa went to where the Buddha was, saying to him,"It is time, great Samana, the meal is ready. What is this, great Samana? Formerly there was here no washing hole, now there is one. Formerly there was no washing stone, now there is one. Formerly there was no tree branch bent down, now there is one."

The Buddha answered, "I had rags taken from a dust heap, and I thought, 'Where shall I wash these rags?' Then Indra, understanding my thought, dug a water hole with his hand and said to me, 'Lord, might the Blessed One wash the rags here.' Thus this hole has been dug by the hand of a non-human being.

"Then I thought, 'What shall I rub the rags upon?' Then Indra placed a stone here for me. Thus, this stone has been put here by a non-human being.

"Then I thought, 'What shall I take hold of when lowering myself in the the water hole?' and a tree deity lowered a branch for me to hold. Thus this branch was lowered by a non-human hand.

"Then I thought, 'Where shall I lay the rags to dry? And Indra placed this great stone here for me to use. Thus this stone was placed here by a non-human being."

Then the ascetic Uruvela Kassapa thought: "Truly the great Samana posses high magical powers and great faculties since Indra does such services for him. But he is not, however, holy like me."

The next morning Uruvela returned to the Buddha to tell him the meal was ready; but instead of accompanying him, the Buddha said, "You go ahead, Kassapa. I will follow you."

After Uruvela left, the Buddha went to the foot of the distant Himalayas where the gambu trees grow and picked some gambu fruit. Then he went to Uruvela's fire room and waited. When Uruvela came to the fire room he was astonished. "By what way have you come, great Samana? I departed before you and yet you have arrived here before me."

"When I had sent you away, Kassapa," said the Buddha, "I went to pick fruit from the gambu tree and then I came here and sat down in the fire room. Here is the gambu fruit, Kassapa, it is beautiful, fragrant, and full of flavor: you may eat it, if you like."

"No, Great Samana," said Uruvela, "to you alone it is becoming to eat it." But to himself he thought, "Truly the great Samana possesses high magical powers and great faculties, since he is able, having sent me away before him, to go and pluck a fruit from the gambu tree and then arrive before me and to sit down in the fire room." And then he added, "He is not, however, holy like me."

And the next day when Uruvela came to tell the Buddha that the meal was ready, the Buddha asked his host to go on ahead of him. And after Uruvela departed, the Buddha returned to the foot of the Himalayas and from trees that grew near the gambu, he picked mangoes and also fruit from both the myrobalan and the yellow myrobalan trees. Then he went to the Tavatimsa heaven to pluck a parigataka flower. After this he returned and sat in Uruvela's fire room.

Again Uruvela Kassapa came to the fire room and was astonished to see the Buddha in possession of these distantly obtained fruits and flowers.

The Buddha told him where he had been and what he had done. "Here is the parigataka flower. It is beautiful and fragrant. You may have it if you like."

"Nay, great Samana, to you alone it is becoming," said Uruvela; but to himself he thought how truly great were the magical powers and faculties the Buddha possessed, but," he thought, "for all that, he is not holy as I am."

And it happened at that time that the ascetics, who wished to attend to their fires, could not succeed in splitting firewood. "Doubtless," they thought, "this is the magical power and the high faculty of the great Samana that we cannot succeed in splitting firewood."

Then the Blessed One said to Uruvela Kassapa, "Shall the firewood be split, Kassapa?"

"Let it be split, great Samana."

Then in a moment the five hundred pieces of firewood were split and Uruvela Kassapa thought, "Truly the great Samana possesses high magical powers and great faculties, since even the firewood splits itself at his command. He is not, however, holy like me."

At that time the ascetics could not succeed in lighting their fires, and they thought that surely this was due to the magical power of the Buddha.

Then the Blessed One said to Uruvela Kassapa, "Shall the fires be lit?"

"Let them be lit, great Samana."

Then in a moment the fires were all lit and Uruvela Kassapa thought, "Truly the great Samana possesses high magical powers and great faculties since even the fires light themselves at his command. However, he is not holy, like me."

And then, after they had used their fires and wanted to put them out, they could not succeed and they supposed that this, too, was due to the Buddha's magical powers. Then the Blessed one said to Uruvela Kassapa, "Shall the fires be quenched?"

And Uruvela Kassapa said, "Let them be quenched, great Samana."

The fires were quenched and Uruvela thought how truly great the Buddha's powers and faculties were that fires were lit and extinguished by his command. But then he thought, "He, however, is not as holy as I."

And during the cold winter nights in the time between the Ashtaka festivals, when snow fails, the ascetics plunged into the river Nerangara and emerged again. Repeatedly they plunged into the water and emerged. And the Blessed One created five hundred vessels with burning fire so that the ascetics coming out of the river water were able to warm themselves. And the ascetics thought, "Surely this is the magical power of the great Samana." And Uruvela Kassapa thought, "Truly the great Samana possesses high magical powers and great faculties since he can create such great vessels with fire. He is not, however, holy like me."

And at that time a great rain fell out of season and a great inundation arose. The place where the Blessed One lived was covered with water. Then the Blessed One thought, "What if I were to cause the water to recede round about, and if I were to walk up and down in the midst of the water on a dry, dust-covered spot." and he caused the water to recede and he walked up and down in the midst of the water on a dry, dust-covered spot.

And the ascetic Uruvela Kassapa, who was afraid that the water might have carried away the great Samana went with a boat together with many other ascetics to the place where the Blessed One lived. Then he saw the Blessed One walking up and down in the midst of the water on a dry, dust-covered spot. He called, "Are you there, great Samana?"

"Here I am, Kassapa," replied the Blessed One and he rose in the air and stationed himself in the boat.

And Uruvela Kassapa thought, "Truly the great Samana possess high magical powers and great faculties since the water does not carry him away. He is not, however, holy like me."

Then the Blessed One thought, "This foolish man will for a long time continue to think thus: 'Truly the great Samana possesses high magical powers and great faculties; he is not, however, holy like me.' What if I were to move the mind of this ascetic to show him my superiority."

And the Blessed One said to the Ascetic Uruvela Kassapa, "You are not holy, Kassapa, nor have you entered the path of arahatship, nor do you walk in such a practice as will lead you to arahatship, or to entering the path of arahatship."

Then Uruvela Kassapa prostrated himself, inclining his head to the feet of the Blessed One, and said to him, "Lord, let me receive the pabbagga and upasampada ordinations from the Blessed One."

But the Buddha replied, "You, Kassapa, are chief of five hundred ascetics. First go to them and inform them of your intention and let them do what they think fit."

Then Uruvela went to those ascetics and told them that he wished to lead a religious life under the direction of the Buddha. "You may do, Sirs, what you think fit."

The ascetics replied, "We conceived, Sir, an affection for the great Samana some time ago. If you will follow the great Samana, we will all join you in leading a religious life under the the great Samana's direction."

Then all the ascetics shaved their heads and threw their hair, their provisions, and all the things for the fire sacrifice into the river and went to the place where the Blessed One was, approached him and prostrated themselves, inclining their heads to the feet of the Blessed One "Lord," they asked, "let us receive the pabbagga and upasampada ordinations."

"Come, O Bhikkhus," said the Buddha, "well taught is the doctrine: lead a holy life for the sake of the complete extinction of suffering."

Thus these venerable persons received the upasampada ordination.

And when the other two great ascetics, Nadi Kassapa and Gaya Kassapa, saw the hair, the provisions, and the things for the fire sacrifice flung into the river they inquired of the venerable Uruvela Kassapa if the present circumstance was blissful. Upon being assured that it was, indeed, so, they and their followers did likewise and became followers of the Buddha.

These were the passages from the Vinaya that my friend found to be so helpful. "It was as if I had been tethered to a huge stone and suddenly the rope that tied me to it broke," she said. "I was free. After the initial elation, I felt such shame for having felt so sorry for myself. If the Buddha could be so badly treated by an associate, who was I to escape such treatment?"

But that was not all she learned. The Scripture showed her that no matter how astonishing a person's achievements are, credence lies with the believer, as does the evaluation of the achievement.

"Ah, but I learned even more than that," she said. "Naturally I had wanted the new ashram to fail; and when it did I fantasized about what I would do or say if my old students came back to me. I had a million insults ready that would hurt them as much as their actions and remarks had hurt me. And I vowed to let them rot before I ever listened to another one of their troubles or helped them in any way. And the scripture rescued me from that unworthy response. As soon as I could I came back to town and got my old job back. Sure enough, I wasn't back for two weeks when I got a call from one of the students who had gone to the new yoga school and had spoken badly about me. She asked if I would consider starting another group like the one we once had, that many of my old students wanted to return; and then she added that she was sorry she had left my group. 'Why do you regret it?' I asked. 'Because I set back my yoga program more than a year,' she said. 'I can't do the postures half as well as I used to do them.'

"So that was what she regretted - not hurting me, but setting back her program. I said, 'I did not realize how badly I failed you as a teacher of a spiritual discipline.' And I sincerely meant that. Then I told her that her regret was misplaced, that she had been free to leave my class but had not been free to justify her leaving by denigrating my abilities. I told her to go talk to the others and see what they had to say; and if there was enough of them who were sorry, too, - not for what they did to themselves but for what they did to me - and wanted to return to class with me, to come and let me know. I got that from the Buddha."

And that, I suppose, is the point of scripture. It isn't just anybody who is mistreated or maligned. It is the Buddha. It isn't somebody's uncle or therapist who gives advice. It is the Buddha. We know that he didn't miraculously zip around picking fruit, that what the scripture is telling us is that not all the power in the world can impress the unenlightened ego. We also can see clearly the error of many modern, sentimental versions of the Message: a teacher doesn't give credit for error if he expects his students to grow and increase their merit. He shows them where they have erred and requires that they acknowledge the error. A teacher learns to emulate the Buddha by conveying this information only after being very patient with the student; and then, by conveying it firmly, but with quiet respect and forgiveness.

This is why scripture endures while all our other words are, as Keats once said, "writ in water."  


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Last modified: July 11, 2004
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