Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Crashing Plane

There are 2 kinds of death – i) slow death & ii) sudden or quick death. In the first case, time is on our side. If we know we are dying soon, and our doctor had given us 6 more months to live, then at least, we have that much time to settle whatever “unfinished business” we have. But, in the case of sudden death, there will be no time to finish “unfinished business”. In the case of heart attack, death comes in a matter of seconds. If we are in a plane that is going to crash, we may have a few minutes to a few hours, depending what caused the plane to unable to function.

It is this latter example of a plane that is going to crash in a matter of minutes that one Christian “friend” of mine made a particular comment to me last week. We were not exactly discussing religion but our discussion diverted to talking about Christianity and Buddhism. He was doing more of the talking. I kept quiet most of the time as I do not know anything, but I am very surprised that he knows more about Buddhism than many Buddhists do. Ultimately, however, what kept him as a Christian are his wrong concepts of Buddhism, in particular that Buddhism is unable to help in life and death situation. He said that in Buddhism we have many doctrines such as karma, Noble Eightfold Path, Bodhisattva Path, Four Noble Truths, Emptiness, etc. He said that if you are in a plane that is going to crash, all these aforementioned teachings would not be able to save you. At that moment, he said, only “the divine” such as God can help. He said all our Buddhist knowledge would not be able to save us if we are in that plane that is fast going down. In that panic situation, most people will just pray to God. He said that in that desperate situation to continue living, only God can save us. If we imagine ourselves in that situation constantly, he said, ultimately all the Buddhist doctrines will remain as doctrines – incapable of Divine Grace like God’s. But he did not explain to me his concept of God because even within Christianity (according to different denominations or church), there is a wide range of what this word “God” means. [note: “God” is not only referring to Brahma or Jade Emperor as Buddhists would like to believe. As much as Christians have a misconception of the Buddha, I think that Buddhists themselves have a misconception of “God”]

It occurs to me now that different Buddhist will react differently in that plane. Assuming there are one Theravadin, one Mahayana Pure Lander and one Tibetan Buddhist. All three persons will react differently. If the Theravadin is skilled in mindfulness meditation, he will attempt to go into a meditative state and dwell on being mindfulness, such as on his breath. The Pure Land Buddhist will pray to Amitabha Buddha or Kuan Yin and pray to be reborn in Sukhavati Pure Land . Actually this is the equivalent to “the Christians praying to God” in that plane. And the Tibetan Buddhists will pray to his/her Guru and recite some mantras and hope for some miracle blessings from his/her Guru. Don’t you think this is similar to Christians hoping for God’s miracle (except that you are not praying to God)?

I was thinking how to give a proper response to his comment to restore the dignity of Buddhism without going into details into the different schools or traditions of Buddhism. Without going into an argument with him, surely I have to correct some misconceptions he has. So I told him, as far as I know, if a practicing Buddhist were to face a desperate life or death situation in that plane that is going to crash in a matter of minutes, he will know that there is no escaping from karma. And if he had lived his life properly, he will have nothing to fear. What he can do is to make one final refuge prayer, one final confession of all his negative actions done, one final dedication of merits and aspire the Bodhisattva vows to enable all sentient beings to achieve complete enlightenment, and then, die fearlessly. I told him there’s no need to yell to God or whoever: "Save me ! Save me!"

For a moment he was stumped, speechless. He did not see that coming. Then he slowly conceded to my point and said, “…arrrh, but how many Buddhist can do that?” To that, I agreed and we both ended our “discussion” having mutual respect for each other.

My point? We can try whatever means to save our precious body, and try we must, if not for ourselves, for the sake of our loved ones. But if there’s nothing else we can do, we have to acknowledge the situation.

To side-track a little, someone shared with me a story of a monk who was about to die. He had a dream in which someone showed him a “video” image of his master burning in hell. He was shocked because he knew his master was a respectable Buddhist, constantly teaching the dharma. He was told by this “Official of Hell” that his master went to hell because he did not believe in Christ. Upon waking up, he converted to Christianity. You can study and practice Buddhism for 20 or 30 years or more, but does not mean you have tasted the dharma. If you have not tasted the dharma, all your Buddhist knowledge remains superficial. When Prince Siddharta saw the old man, sick man and dead man, he had the first taste of dharma – i.e. the first noble truth. It is a powerful feeling and you will feel like as if you had been sleeping all the while, and suddenly you wake up. That kind of powerful encounter, when you experience that what the Buddha had taught is genuine and not false. It means that you have followed the advice of the Buddha (as per the Kalama Sutta) to check his teachings for yourself, and not just believe him out of devotion. If it had been just pure faith, it would have been no different from the Christians or others.

And if we have not tasted the dharma by experiencing it, then such things as what happened to that monk may happen to us. But, converting to Christianity is not necessarily a bad thing. If it was not possible for you to reach London by direct flight, it does not matter if you take a longer route. Moreover, if the Christians realize that when Christ died on the cross, it means to give up self-grasping for the benefit of all sentient beings, then the Christians will equally reach “Omniscience” too, like the Buddhists. If we have tasted the dharma, we can tell this “Official of Hell” that even if he shows you that the “Buddha” is burning in hell, it won’t matter, because you have realized for yourself the truth. Once you say that to him, the Buddha, hell and official will all disappear. And then, you will realize it’s a test every Buddhist will have to take one time or another. Mara will test you. Your Guru will also test you. But most of the time, we don’t realize it’s a test. And thus, we fail in our tests.

So, returning to the plane that is going to crash in 5 minutes time… by having strong faith in the Guru-Triple Gem, faith in the workings of karma, as well as understanding that ultimately birth and death is but an illusion, let us prepare to die fearlessly… all the time!

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