The world has always needed people who are kind and wise and who can effectively and skillfully relate to the cries of the world. It would seem that Buddhist practices and values are designed to produce such people. That is what attracted me to Buddhism as a young man, and has kept me in the Buddhist fold for my whole adult life.
However, over the decades much of what I have learned about Buddhism concerns the ways these lofty promises have been exaggerated or unfulfilled -- perhaps partly due to my own idealization and wishful thinking. Of course Buddhism exists in the human realm and is practiced and taught by flawed and corruptible human beings. How could it be otherwise? It is true that Buddhism has produced some extraordinary people. It is just as true that Buddhist individuals and institutions--past and present -- have caused harm and suffering. We have only to look at the continuing drumbeat of bad news regarding present-day Buddhist teachers, leaders and institutions to realize that Buddhists -- like people of every faith -- come in all shapes and sizes.
Once Thich Nhat Hanh was asked to summarize Buddhism in one word, and he said, "Ahimsa," which means "non-harm." Following his example, when I am asked to briefly explain what Buddhism is about, I say, "It is about the kind of person you are and what you do." Of course it is about more than that too, but if it is not about that -- if it is only about some heady ideal of perfect enlightenment unconnected to character and action -- then I wonder what use it is.
On that point, I like the Chinese Zen story about an eccentric Zen teacher known as the Tree Master -- since he lived in a tree. Once a high lord, on hearing about the Tree Master's wisdom, visited him and asked, "What is the deepest truth of Buddhism?"
The Tree Master replied, "Do good, avoid evil, benefit beings." These are the three pure precepts of the Bodhisattva, which would have been known to every person of that time.
The lord, perhaps affronted by the apparent triviality of the teacher's response, said, "Why, even a three-year-old child knows that!"
The Tree Master retorted, "Yes, but even a hundred year old man can't fully practice it."
The Tree Master knew that the world of flawed human beings includes intrigue, treachery, betrayal, ambition, pride, rigidity and duplicity -- even among those who profess to be deeply spiritual. All religions -- East and West -- seem to partake of this darkness to some degree. Many adult converts to Buddhism have yet to fully accept this -- perhaps because so much of their knowledge comes from books or reading, which tend to display Buddhism's best face. Once a senior monk from a training monastery in Japan was visiting a large Zen center in America, and was astonished to see the meditation hall full of Americans silently meditating. The Japanese monk turned to his American host and said, "How do you get them to meditate without beating them?" Apparently in Japan it was unusual for Zen monks to actually like meditation.
In the 1970s, I once asked a highly regarded Japanese Zen teacher how many enlightened Roshis there were in Japan. The teacher paused and finally replied, "Four or five." I was taken aback. I had naively assumed that there were hundreds more just like him. That was an important lesson for me. Saints are rare, whatever the country or the era.
That being said, Buddhists ought not to be discouraged or disillusioned by hearing the news of how things really are. After all, "how things really are" is what the word "dharma" means. While I have at various times been dismayed on hearing bad news about some Buddhist individual or institution, I keep taking refuge in the thought that this too is Dharma. To know how things really are and to face those facts with clarity and courage is our work as Buddhists.
May that work long continue.