Sun, Mar 03, 2002 - Page 8 News List

How to get people to part with their money

By Brian Kennedy 甘迺迪

What do the new lottery and the relic of the Buddha's finger have in common? They both pander to the greed, ignorance and superstition of the Taiwanese public and they both are nothing but money-making ventures for their respective sponsors.

A Buddhist relic believed to be the 2,500-year-old remains of a finger of Sakyamuni Buddha, the historical Buddha and the founder of Buddhism, was recently brought to Taiwan from a Buddhist temple in China. This relic will go on a tour of the island over the next month.

Much has been written about the negative impact the new lottery is having on Taiwan, with the poor and the foolish squandering what little money they have on lottery tickets, but in essence the "Grand Buddha Finger Tour" is nothing different. It, like the lottery, is a way to separate fools from their money. P. T. Barnum, whose famous quote "There is a sucker born every minute," has apparently been reincarnated as the Taiwanese Buddhist "Master" Hsin Yun (星雲法師).

"Master" Hsin Yun is the promoter for the Taiwan leg of the "Finger Tour." Making a profit is what the lottery and the finger have in common. "Master" Hsin Yun can best be described as Taiwan's home-grown mix of US evangelists Jimmy Swagart and Jim and Tammy Baker. "Master" Hsin Yun has devoted his life to selling religion and playing politics; both of which are contrary to the teachings of the Buddha.

The comparison with the lottery is quite apt for a number of reasons. In both cases we have the profiteers, "Master" Hsin Yun in one case, the Taiwanese government in the other, saying "it will help Taiwanese society, it should not be criticized." In both cases we have an "attraction" geared to encourage people who are not the brightest stars in the sky to open their wallets. In both cases we have guaranteed money-makers for their respective sponsors.

Taiwanese Buddhist followers might do well to heed the lesson of a story about Ajjan Chah. Ajjan Chah was a respected teacher in the Thai Forrest tradition of Theravada Buddhism. Thailand, much like Taiwan, was, and still is, riddled with superstition and a lot of Thai Buddhism focuses on magic charms, lucky numbers and other occult nonsense. Because of Ajjan Chah's reputation as a meditation master, he was often approached by lay followers who wanted him to give them a magic charm to ward off evil and bad karma. Ajjan Chah's reply was always: "Forget that foolishness, don't seek a material thing to protect you, the only magic charm that really will protect you is the dharma."

The dharma is the teaching of the Buddha. And that teaching focuses on sila, which is morality, samadhi, which is mental development, and panna, which is wisdom. A popular quote from the Buddhist scriptures says, "The gift of dharma excels all gifts." Taiwan's Buddhist followers would do well to bear that in mind and devote less of their energies to magic charms and Buddhist versions of P. T. Barnum. As for Taiwan's followers of "lottery-ism," I would recommend taking a refresher course in Mathematics 101.

Brian Kennedy is an attorney who writes and teaches on criminal justice and human-rights issues.

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