Editors note: In a series of blog posts, OakPark.com spirituality, ethics and religion blogger Tom Holmes recounts his experiences while travelling alone in Thailand towards the end of 2010. For links to all of the blog posts in this series, visit OakPark.com/ThailandTravels

Fon had found a guesthouse for me, the Riverside B and B right on the Ping River in central Chiang Mai. Kampan and M’s “guesthouse” had been a gift, but now I was really alone again—where I wanted to be.

One of the advantages of being alone was that I had more time to read, so I took out the book that Bhikkhu Buddha Dhatu, the monk I talked to in Bangkok, gave me and was at last able to try to figure out how he could say that all religions are the same.

As I got into The Truth of the Messengers, I think I figured out what the old monk was saying—basically that all religions are the same in terms of the ethics they teach. He wrote, All religions are the same—all teach the same precepts and all religious teachers say the same things: avoid evil, do good, keep your thoughts pure, do unto others what you would want others to do to you, you reap what you sow etc. etc. (p. 121)

Indeed, the Five Precepts that Buddhism teaches the lay people to keep–

1. Do not kill
2. Do not steal
3. Do not engage in sexual misconduct
4. Do not lie
5. Do not drink alcohol

–sound very much the Bible’s Ten Commandments except for precept number five, and for some Christian churches that should be number eleven.

I found some things in The Truth of the Messengers that did sound very much like what I had been taught in Church.

v People today are blinded by money and their desires for a luxurious life and do not realize that at death, they lose everything. . .

v If our minds are free of hate, anger and delusion, we would be better off than kings and presidents. Many rich people are poor in their minds; many poor people are rich in theirs.

v People say that our society is modern and progressive. . . .Yet, the world is full of materialism and selfishness and people do nothing much more than strive to survive the rat race.

As I read further, I discovered that Dhatu pictured himself as a reformer. He was especially critical of how many monks were behaving, much like Jesus had condemned the Pharisees. He even contended that some of the worst of them would be reincarnated as dogs. “No, not just dogs,” he ranted. “Even insects.”

I had retained enough anti-authoritarianism from the sixties to resonate with that attitude a little bit, although he also scared me a little, because I know I hadn’t always lived up to Jesus’ standards when I was a pastor.

I also learned that many Buddhists think of their religion as having two tracks. If you were a lay person, the most you could hope for was to be reborn into a better position next time around. Forget about Nibbana (Nirvana).

A lay person is too distracted by the responsibilities and stresses of life to be “free of desires, attachments, anger and delusions.” “As laypeople,” Dhatu reasoned, “your days and nights are filled with the problems of survival in this materialistic, dog eat dog society. How then can you meditate well?”

In contrast, he argued, the role of the Sangha (the community of monks) is to detach from all the cares of making this impermanent life work. “The sole duty of the Sangha,” he declared, “is to strive for enlightenment, for Nibbana, and then, to show others how to do the same.”

Having been brought up in a religious tradition that taught that pastors were just as human and sinful as lay people, I had a hard time buying that one. What was even harder for me to understand was kamma (karma).

Dhatu defined kamma as “action leading to future reward or retribution.” It’s “you reap what you sow” to the max. In Buddhism, there is no room for randomness or luck. If you are receiving good, you must have done good. . .in a previous life or in this one. If you are suffering, well, that’s what you get for not following the precepts.

Dhatu, and every other Buddhist teacher I’ve ever heard or read, insists that what you become in the future is all up to you. Buddhism is often called a non-theistic religion. It really is all up to you.

The reason kamma is hard for me to swallow is that fifteen years ago I was diagnosed with a progressive neurological disorder called Primary Lateral Sclerosis which left me disabled and unable to continue function in what I considered to be my vocation. This, even though my whole life I had exercised, eaten right, gotten enough sleep and done nothing to shame my parents! In other words, I had been a good boy—not without sin by any means, but having done nothing to deserve this.

So when Harold Kushner’s book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, came out I was one of the first to buy it. On top of that, I had been raised in the Lutheran tradition which taught that we sinners are saved by God’s unmerited grace. If a book had been published entitled Why Good Things Happen to Bad People, it would have been written by a Lutheran.

In other words, I had no problem seeing randomness and surprise, bad luck and grace in life. And, the notion of having done something in a previous life, even if it were true, didn’t help me deal with my PLS in this life. And that’s the way it has often gone when I’ve crossed cultural boundaries. I got one of my questions raised by Bhikku Buddha Dhatu—his statement about all religions being the same—answered by reading his book, only to have several others arise.

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Tom Holmes

Tom's been writing about religion – broadly defined – for years in the Journal. Tom's experience as a retired minister and his curiosity about matters of faith will make for an always insightful exploration...

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