Editorials by Sangharakshita

 
 

Untie the Boat!

This editorial first appeared in The Maha Bodhi, October 1955

Once upon a time there was a wise man who lived in a small hut not far from the bank of a river. Every morning and every evening he used to go to the river and bathe, after which he would return to his hut and perform his devotions. One day, just as he was about to step down into the water, which was neither very wide nor very deep, he noticed near the opposite bank a man in a boat. Strange to relate, though the man was gripping the oars lightly and rowing vigorously, the boat was making no progress at all, but remained exactly where it was. Seeing that the wise man was looking at him the man in the boat turned his head. His face was red as the proverbial beetroot and streaming with perspiration.'Hi, you!' he shouted across the river to the wise man, 'There's something wrong with this boat. It won't move.' The wise man smiled. 'Why don't you unfasten the rope that ties it to the shore?' he replied.

This anecdote, which some of our readers might have heard before, illustrates a certain aspect of spiritual life which most of us are unwilling to consider. We sincerely do want to make progress. We strive hard to follow the Noble Eightfold Path. We read books on Dharma, go on pilgrimage, give donations, feed bhikkhus, build temples, practise meditation, even write articles and give lectures on Buddhism, but somehow, despite all our efforts, we make no progress at all. We just stay where we were. It is a very puzzling experience. Sometimes we feel rather aggrieved, as though the universe was playing tricks upon us, or as though the law of karma, after smoothly operating for so many centuries, had at last gone out of order and was no longer working properly. Then one day, after we have blamed the books we had read, blamed our spiritual teacher, blamed our environment, blamed the climate, perhaps even blamed Buddhism, we have a humiliating but wholly salutary experience. Someone seems to be smiling at us, and we hear a voice saying - perhaps in the secret recesses of our own heart, perhaps through the mouth of a friend - 'But why don't you untie the rope? Why don't you give up drinking? Or smoking? Or debauchery? Or your bad temper? These are the things which are holding you back.'

 

As with individual men and women, so with societies and states. Nations commit exactly the same mistakes as the people of whom they are made up, only they commit them on an infinitely larger scale. What is war but mass murder? How does peace between nations differ, except in extent, from the goodwill that exists between neighbours? An international conference, even at the topmost level, is based on the same principle as the chat over the back garden fence by means of which neighbours settle their differences instead of assaulting each other outside in the street. Similarly, the attempt made by an individual to follow the Noble Eightfold Path, and the efforts made by any State, whether Buddhist or non-Buddhist, to revive, consolidate or propagate the Dharma, are in a very real sense analogous, and just as the individual may fail to make the progress he desires because he neglects to remove some very real hindrances to progress so the State too may be unsuccessful, or only partially successful, in its work for Buddhism, because certain important factors in the national life are exerting their influence in the opposite direction.

The Path to Enlightenment is divided, as is well-known, into three successive stages - Sila or Morality, Samadhi or Meditation, and Prajna or Transcendental Wisdom. Leaving aside the second and third, which are comparatively advanced, let us take up Morality, the first stage of the Path, and see how certain factors in the national life of many Buddhist lands are are hindering its universal practice. Unless these hindrances are removed the protection and propagation of Buddhism on a national scale becomes not only futile but even a mockery.

In our July editorial we spoke of the menace of the so-called horror comics, of their thoroughly corrupting influence on the minds of the millions who read them, and pleaded for their complete banishment from the soil of Buddhist Asia. But what about the menace of film, especially the normal (?) Hollywood product? The film is today probably the most powerful medium of mass propaganda in the world. Potentially it is a power for incalculable good. In reality it is a source of untold moral evil. Once a month, or two or three times a year, the young men and young women of India, Ceylon, Burma, Siam and other Eastern lands may go to a temple or monastery, and listen half attentively as they are told not to kill, steal, commit adultery, tell lies or drink intoxicants. The sermon usually makes very little impression upon them. Truth to tell, it is usually a long-winded droning out of dull and feeble platitudes. But at least once a week, perhaps twice or thrice a week, those same young people visit the local cinema. Instead of sitting on hard ground they recline in luxuriously cushioned seats. And what lesson does the cinema usually teach them? That to kill is manly and heroic; that to steal is the lawful prerogative of a handsome face and a superior intelligence; that sex is the most important thing in life, and the performance of the sexual act, whether inside or outside of marriage, the chief occupation and principal pleasure of man; that to tell lies is one of the normal ways of getting what one wants, and foul language a sign of superior culture; and that, finally, to drink intoxicants and smoke cigarettes is an integral part of the daily round. The lesson of the average contemporary film may be summed up in the phrases 'Have a good time', and 'Enjoy yourself'. The lesson makes a very deep impression indeed. What with the warmth and darkness of the cinema, the lush music, and the panorama of seductive sights unfolded on the screen, the young people are thrilled, excited, stimulated. Then we wonder why they are not good Buddhists, why they are not interested in Buddhism and what does the State do? Does it ever think of stopping the profanity? No, it draws good dividends in the form of entertainment tax, and plans to publish a few little pamphlets on Buddhism, especially the Five Precepts!

Then there is the sale of liquor. More than one Indian province, and more than one Buddhist State, still derives a handsome revenue from this polluted source. Yet the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of the Nation, and of the Buddha, are militant against this evil. Those who accept the Vedas can, of course, plead the example of the holy Rishis as their excuse, but for those who accept the Tripitaka there exists no such loophole.

A Ministry of Health (Govt. of India) news item, says the ban on the export of monkeys has been lifted as transport conditions have now improved. Under this apparently quite innocent piece of information lies concealed the hideous and revolting fact that the Indian monkeys are being transported not to zoos, not as pets, but to the laboratories of scientific institutions for the purposes of vivisection. We do not know what were the thoughts of the Health Ministry official concerned when he (or she) scribbled the signature which lifted the ban and condemned thousands of monkeys to protracted and agonizing death. We feel sure that he (or she) had forgotten the noble words of Mahatma Gandhi, who said, 'Vivisection, in my opinion, is the blackest of all black crimes that man is at present committing... We should be able to refuse to live, if the price of living be the torture of sentient beings'. Fortunately for the descendants of Hanuman, they have found a champion in Sri C. Rajagopalachari, formerly Governor-General of India, who has published in a recent issue of The Harijan a pathetic and deeply moving poem on the monkeys' plight. It is in fact one of the noblest cries of compassion that have ever come from the human heart, and shows that the writer is not only a deeply religious but even a saintly man.

Illustrations of our thesis could be multiplied indefinitely but these three must suffice of what use it is for any government to seek to propagate even the A B C of Buddhism when it is at the same time allowing the films, drink, cruelty to animals, and a hundred other factors, to exert therein incalculably more powerful influence in the opposite direction? Surely there appears a smile on the face of Enlightenment to behold their efforts if only a voice would call out to them, 'Untie the Boat!'