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Understanding Buddhism
EXCERPTS FROM THE TALK IN AUSTRALIA, JANUARY, 1996

1 A VIRTUOUS AND PERFECT EDUCATION
2 THE GOAL OF THE BUDDHA'S TEACHING
3 SYMBOLISM AND THE ARTS

CHAPTER ONE
A VIRTUOUS AND PERFECT EDUCATION

@@Today, we see an increasing number of people around the world starting to practice Buddhism. However, not many people truly understand what Buddhism is. Therefore, this becomes a very important topic. What exactly is Buddhism? We need to understand it clearly. Buddhism is a most virtuous and perfect education directed by the Buddha towards all sentient beings in the nine realms. How can we tell that Buddhism is an education? First, we can tell from the way we call Buddha Shakyamuni our "Original Teacher" that he is the founder of Buddhism and that we are his students. From this, it is very apparent that the Buddha and we share a teacher-student relationship. This is only found in education.

@@If Buddhism is his teaching, who then is the Buddha? Buddha is a Sanskrit word meaning wisdom and enlightenment. However, this wisdom is not the worldly wisdom we think of today. Broadly speaking, the Buddha's wisdom is the ability to ultimately, perfectly and correctly comprehend the true reality of life and the universe in the past, present and future. One who has perceived this wisdom is called a Buddha. Buddha Shakyamuni told us that all sentient beings, including ourselves, possess this innate wisdom and ability. Thus Buddhism regards all beings equally. Although we are equal in origin, presently we cannot see this because everyone's wisdom and abilities differ.

@@In our society, there are those who are intelligent and those who are not, those with great ability and those with less. How do these things come about? The Buddha told us that they are due to our varying degrees of delusion. Our innate wisdom and abilities are temporarily lost due to this delusion, but are not truly or permanently lost. If we can break through this delusion, then we will be able to recover these abilities. Therefore, the Buddha's teachings show us how to rid ourselves of delusion and to uncover our innate abilities.

@@It is often stated in Mahayana sutras that the Buddha did not directly help sentient beings. Then how do sentient beings become Buddhas? By themselves. The Buddha only assists from the side by explaining the true reality of how we delude ourselves. After realizing this, we diligently put his teachings into practice to attain enlightenment of true reality. We then become Buddhas. Buddha Shakyamuni clearly explained that becoming a Buddha is attainable by all sentient beings.

@@From this, we can see that Buddhism is a teaching. However, a teacher can only educate us about the principles, tell us of his/her experiences in practice and attainment, and suggest various methods for our attainment. The rest ultimately depends upon us. We are the ones who need to be enthusiastic and diligent in order to attain achievement. Once we understand that Buddhism is an education, we will logically regard the Buddha as our teacher. From this, we understand that in proper Way Places, we do not regard the Buddha or Bodhisattva images as gods to be worshipped. We make offerings to these images for two reasons. First, to remember and repay our gratitude for this truly great education, which we have so fortunately encountered and accepted in this lifetime.

@@The opening verse to sutras says it very well; "It is extremely difficult to encounter this teaching in infinite eons." The debt of gratitude we owe the Buddha is similar to the remembrance, which some Chinese have toward their ancestors. We reflect on our origins for without these ancestors we would not exist. The second reason we make offerings to the Buddha is to follow the examples of the virtuous. Buddha Shakyamuni was an ordinary person like us; yet, he was able to be awakened and become a Buddha. What is there to stop us from achieving this as well? Therefore, the pictures or statues of the Buddha serve to remind us every moment to advance diligently towards this goal. The images are not to be regarded as gods or objects of superstition.

@@In Buddhist Way Places, the images of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas have many appearances. This has often led to the misconception that not only is Buddhism a religion but one that worships multi-deities as well. Indeed Buddhas and Bodhisattvas have many names. For example, in the Tripitaka there is the Ten Thousand-Buddha Names Sutra, which gives us over twelve thousand Buddha's names and even more names for Bodhisattvas. Why are there so many Buddhas and Bodhisattvas? Within our original-nature there exists infinite wisdom, virtuous and artistic abilities that cannot be completely represented by merely one name. It is similar to a highly accomplished person in a prominent position; his or her business card could have numerous titles.

@@The names of the Buddhas represent the complete, innate and virtuous abilities within our self-nature. All the Bodhisattva names represent cultivation of different virtues. The original abilities within our self-nature are infinite, but temporarily lost. Without genuine cultivation, we will not be able to uncover any of them. All the Buddha and Bodhisattva names are none other than ourselves. Once we understand this, we will realize that a high level of artistry represents the styles of the Buddha's teachings. For example, sculptures and pictures can express the Dharma. Understanding the true meaning of these images will help us to gain the true benefits of the Buddha's teachings.

@@If Buddhism is not a religion, why is it not then a philosophy? In philosophy, there is both a subject and an object. In Mahayana Buddhism, there is no difference between subject and object; they are one. This meaning is very profound and difficult to understand. For example, a great master said, "Utilizing gold to form utensils, all utensils are of gold." Are the gold and the utensil the same thing or different? From their appearances they look like two different things. However, from their composition we realize that they are the same.

@@We need a profound intuitive comprehension to truly understand the reality of life and the universe. All of the Mahayana Sutras try to explain this concept and truth. We will share the same viewpoints with the Buddha when we truly understand and clearly recognize this truth. Ordinary people, like we are deluded. In what way? Because we see everything in opposition to the other, not knowing that in reality everything is actually one and not two.


CHAPTER TWO
THE GOAL OF THE BUDDHA'S TEACHING

@@From the intrinsic nature of Buddhism, we proceed to the goal of the Buddha's teachings. This goal is to break through delusion and achieve enlightenment. The Buddha pointed out to us why we are leading lives of suffering and why the six realms of reincarnation exist. It is so, because the wisdom and virtuous abilities in our original nature have yet to be uncovered. Thus, all our viewpoints and ways of interacting with life and the universe are incorrect. The erroneous acts committed due to these incorrect viewpoints and ways have resulted in the suffering of reincarnation within the six realms.

@@The goal of the Buddha's teachings is to help and to guide us break through our delusion, to be awakened and to escape this suffering and obtain happiness. What do we seek in Buddhism? We seek Annuttara-Samyak-Sambodhi, the Perfect Complete Enlightenment. The Buddha teaches and hopes that all of us will attain this ultimate enlightenment, in other words, will become a Buddha.

@@The Perfect Complete Enlightenment can be explained as three levels: Arhats, Bodhisattvas and Buddhas. The first is "Proper Enlightenment." In our world, there are some very intelligent and wise people, such as scientists, philosophers and religious leaders. They have reached higher realization than most people have. However, although they may have reached a certain level of realization, the Buddha would not recognize their knowledge as the proper enlightenment, because they have not severed their afflictions. They still dwell on the rights and wrongs of others, on greed, anger, ignorance and arrogance. They still harbor wandering, discriminatory thoughts and attachments. In other words, their minds are not pure. Without the pure mind, no matter how high the level of realization one reaches, it is still not the proper enlightenment.

@@In Buddhism, the standard for proper enlightenment is the pure mind from which wisdom arises. It is the wish of all Buddhas that we attain this proper enlightenment. This is the level or degree of an Arhat and is similar to attending a university to earn an undergraduate degree. Therefore, Arhat, Bodhisattva and Buddha are titles similar to degrees of enlightenment attained in Buddhism. Those who achieve proper enlightenment are called Arhats. Arhats do not have illusory or misleading thoughts and viewpoints. They do not dwell on the rights and wrongs of others, or on thoughts of greed, anger, ignorance or arrogance.

@@From this, we can comprehend intuitively the difference between Buddhism and worldly education. From the Buddha, we learn the true teachings and proper enlightenment. Only with this proper enlightenment can we escape all sufferings to obtain true happiness. As human beings, we undergo the sufferings of birth, old age, sickness and death. We do not attain what we seek, are parted with our loved ones and find ourselves in the presence of those whom we resent or even hate. We are surrounded by all these sufferings with no apparent way of being truly free. Only after learning Buddhism will we be able to reach genuine liberation.

@@The Flower Adornment Sutra explains to us, "All sentient beings possess the same wisdom and virtuous capabilities as the Buddha, but these qualities are unattainable due to wandering thoughts and attachments." This clearly explains the root cause of our problems. Practicing Buddhism is to accord with the teachings of the Buddha, to rid us of wandering, discriminating thoughts and attachments. Thus, we uncover our pure mind, in turn giving rise to true wisdom, which is proper enlightenment. Therefore, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas would not recognize the intelligent and worldly wisdom, as it lacks the pure mind, the proper enlightenment. Upon attaining proper enlightenment, we have the ability to transcend the endless cycles of birth and death, not to mention the ability to solve everyday problems.

@@Whether talking about the Buddha's education or worldly education, it is essential to understand the concept of delving deeply into one method in order to attain achievement. This is especially so in Buddhism. One who truly wishes to learn effectively needs to follow only one teacher and practice only one path to ensure a smooth journey. When following two teachers with two different paths, we are bound to become confused as to which path to take. Even worse, following three teachers catches us at a T street. With four teachers, we are caught at a cross street. Today's young people like to learn a lot, but fail to attain a good result. The problem lies with being caught at those cross streets, confused as to which way to take. To succeed and attain achievement in practicing Buddhism, we need to follow just one teacher and concentrate on just one method.

@@What is this achievement? True achievement is attaining a pure mind. Upon achieving some degree of pure mind, we will have fewer afflictions and thus an increase in true wisdom, enabling us to solve problems in this world and beyond. Without this true wisdom, there is no way to truly solve problems. Therefore, true wisdom is essential in leading a happy and fulfilling life. On a broader scale, it can help us to solve society's problems.

@@Today there are many intelligent politicians who thought they were very smart but have ended up bringing their countries to the brink of disaster, as well as putting their citizens through much misery. What is the reason for this? These leaders have not severed their afflictions, discriminating and wandering thoughts, and attachments. Consequently, their first consideration is their own benefit, their self-attachment.

@@The Buddha taught us to attain true wisdom by first breaking free of our own viewpoints. Without this wisdom, we could misinterpret the meanings within the Mahayana sutras. If we are able to part from the selfish mind, then true benefits will definitely be received. With proper enlightenment, only when we have no ego or self-attachment, will we be able to differentiate true from false, proper from deviated, right from wrong and beneficial from harmful. Without breaking through our own viewpoints, we will not have these abilities. From this, we understand there is a standard to the proper enlightenment.

@@One level above the proper enlightenment is the " Equal and Proper Enlightenment." Equal means equal to the Buddha, but not yet having become a Buddha. This level is higher than that of an Arhat. The equal and proper enlightenment requires us to break through one degree of ignorance, to attain one degree of Dharma body. At this point, the way we view the reality of life and the universe is very close to that of the Buddhas. One who achieves the equal and proper enlightenment would be called a Bodhisattva.

@@The Flower Adornment Sutra explains the forty-one levels of Bodhisattvas, all of which have these levels of enlightenment. After breaking through the very last degree of ignorance, perfecting wisdom and enlightenment, one achieves the "Perfect, Complete Enlightenment" that is Buddhahood. Therefore, Buddha, Bodhisattva and Arhat are common titles, not a specific name for a specific person. They are titles similar to those of Doctorate, Master or Graduate degrees. For example, in the name Guan Yin Bodhisattva, Guan Yin represents great compassion and kindness. The title of Bodhisattva is similar to a Masters Degree. Presently, people have misconceptions about Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, thinking these names are specific beings. They do not understand that these titles refer to any being who possesses those characteristics. Buddha or Bodhisattva, when added to a name is simply referring to a specialty.

@@From the intrinsic nature of Buddhism, we realize that our purpose of practice is to seek wisdom. In Zen, this goal is called, "In pursuit of clarity of mind to see into one's self-nature." In other words "Complete Enlightenment." In the Pure Land School, this is called "One Mind Undisturbed." The Pure Land School is unique in that not only do we seek to have One Mind Undisturbed but also seek birth into the Western Pure Land. This is unlike other schools, which rely on one's own strength of cultivation in seeking solely one goal. The Pure Land method has two goals that can be achieved in one lifetime.

@@One who is very familiar with the Infinite Life Sutra and understood its teachings would be free of doubt. The full title of this sutra reveals the goals of our practice: The Buddha Speaks of the Infinite Life Sutra of Adornment, Purity, Equality and Enlightenment of the Mahayana School. Infinite life and adornment are what Pure Land practitioners seek. Infinite life refers to the merits and virtues of one's perfect self-nature. Adornment refers to perfect complete wisdom with great ease and fulfillment. Purity, equality and enlightenment are the methods, the three ways of practice. Upon attaining any one, all three are attained. Of all the schools of Buddhism, none surpass these three ways of practice.

@@The Zen School uses the awakening path to reach the great enlightenment and attain the clarity to see into one's true nature. Buddhist schools other than Zen stress the practice of understanding or proper viewpoints, until reaching great complete understanding. The Pure Land School, on the other hand, concentrates on the pure mind. A person with purity of mind will naturally be non-discriminating and awakened. An awakened person will naturally have a pure and non-discriminating mind. The route chosen may be different but all reach the same goal. In Zen practice it is expressed as "obtaining clarity of mind and seeing into one's true nature."

@@Different schools may use different names but the results or the level of the state of mind are the same. Therefore, to criticize any other schools would be to slander both the Buddha and the Dharma. All these methods were passed down to us from Buddha Shakyamuni. Choosing any path will enable us to attain achievement. How can we say that one method is better than another? From all these different methods we just need to know how to choose the one method that is most suitable for us and our level.

@@First, if the level of the method we chose were beyond us, making it difficult to practice, we would not succeed easily with that method. Second, it needs to be suitable and convenient for our manner of living. Third, it needs to be compatible with modern society, because we cannot separate ourselves from society or other human beings. Therefore, we need to consider these factors when choosing our method of cultivation.

@@However, no matter which method one practices, it is essential to be rid of self-viewpoint and attachment in order to obtain the benefits from practice. Or else, like so many have experienced, the great efforts put into the practice will have been in vain. Some practitioners have felt that even after years of practice they have achieved virtually nothing, even to the point of feeling that they were better off before they practiced. It seemed as if the more they practiced, the worse they felt. All this comes from having chosen a method that was unsuitable for them. This is similar to choosing an unsuitable major in school. When we choose a major that is not suited to our foundation and ability, we have an extremely difficult time trying to succeed. Choosing the right major makes studying much easier, so we will have a much better chance of success. The same thing goes for practicing Buddhism. If we do not know our own capacity, we can test ourselves.

@@Like myself, for example. After reading many Mahayana sutras, I thought myself incapable of any achievement. I wanted very much to sever my wandering, discriminating thoughts and attachments, but was unable to. Finally, I chose the Pure Land method to attain achievement. It does not require one to be completely rid of but rather to suppress these hindrances. As long as we are able to suppress all afflictions, we can still be born into the Western Pure Land carrying over our existing karma.

@@This method suits me very well and thus is how I chose it. Previously, I had tried Zen, the Teaching Schools, the Esoteric School and the practice of following the precepts, but could not reach achievement with them. Thus, I came back to the Pure Land method and wholeheartedly delved deeply into the Buddha Name Chanting Method while concentrating solely on lecturing on the Pure Land sutras. These are my experiences from decades of practice.
CHAPTER THREE

SYMBOLISM AND THE ARTS

@@After we understand clearly the goal of the Buddha's teachings, we will view the sutras differently. These sutras are one of the world's largest literary collections. I believe that when considering the range of all academia, none of them surpass Buddhism. To obtain the benefits from this vast collection, it is necessary for us to know and understand the essence of its content, which is the true reality of all Dharma, the true reality of life and the universe. Life refers to ourselves. Universe refers to the living environment that surrounds us. It would be incorrect to treat Buddhism as an abstract and obscure learning that had nothing to do with our daily lives. Every word in the sutra closely relates to our daily living. Furthermore, it is definitely not superstition.

@@How and where do we start? For convenience, the perfection in the methods of the Buddha's teaching uses a high level of creativity. Buddhism of two thousand years ago had already taken an artistic path. For example, all the Buddha's names and sculptures represent our virtuous nature, innate qualities of wisdom, virtuous abilities and artistic talents. All of the Bodhisattva's names and forms represent our cultivation of virtue. They instruct us how to apply the teachings in our daily lives to bring out our virtuous nature so we may receive Buddhism's benefits.

In Chinese Mahayana Buddhism, four great Bodhisattvas represent our order of practice and level of achievement. The first is Earth Store Bodhisattva. Whether we are thinking of worldly teachings, the dharma or Buddhism; nothing can be accomplished without the earth or a place of existence. The existence of humans cannot be separated from our great earth as we rely upon it for survival. Whether for food, clothing, living or working, all rely on the production of the land, thus the infinite treasures that the great earth encompasses are seemingly endless for us to use. The word "earth" in the name Earth Store Bodhisattva represents the mind and the word "store" means treasure.

@@The Buddha's teachings guide us to first start the practice from our mind, as our true nature encompasses the infinite wisdom and virtuous abilities that are no different from those of Buddhas or Bodhisattvas. However, today it seems as if we have lost our innate wisdom and virtuous abilities. The Buddha told us that all these qualities are not truly lost, just not yet uncovered. In the present moment, we endlessly immerse ourselves in wandering, discriminating thoughts and attachments, which have resulted in this temporary loss of abilities. However, inside the true mind, no wandering thoughts exist. If a mind has wandering thoughts then that mind is a false one. We originally possessed this true mind, so practicing Buddhism is simply recovering it. Therefore, our first goal in practice is to uncover and look for the treasure in our mind. In other words, the Buddha's teachings do not seek from the outside but rather they seek from within our self-nature.

@@Earth Store Bodhisattva represents filial piety; thus, the Earth Store Sutra is about filial piety, a basic concept that everyone would do well to start from. The kindness that our parents have shown by giving us life and nurturing us is beyond description. To be filial and take care of our parents is naturally our basic responsibility. Not only do we need to take care of their material needs but of their spiritual life as well. Moreover, we need to nurture their aspirations for us and for us, this is the hardest of all. Parents wish their children to have successful careers, behave well, and to be respected by current and future generations. In other words, we would do well to act in a manner, which will make them proud of us. Therefore, the ultimate and perfect achievement of filial piety is to become Buddha. We begin our practice from here and expand our filial piety and respect to include all sentient beings.

@@The second Bodhisattva, Guan Yin, represents the cultivation of great compassion and kindness. What is the meaning of making offerings to Guan Yin Bodhisattva? It is to remind us that we would do well to treat all people with great compassion and kindness, to use unconditional love and care to help all sentient beings.

@@The third Bodhisattva, Manjusri, represents wisdom and rationale, reminding us that when we practice and interact with others we need to fulfill our filial duty, to rely upon wisdom and rationale, not on emotion. The fourth Bodhisattva, the Great Samantabhadra (Universal Worthy) represents carrying out the cultivation truthfully, applying filial piety, compassion, kindness and rationale in our daily lives. When we perfectly achieve the way of Universal Worthy Bodhisattva, we become a Buddha. Buddhism teaches us how to live in harmony with the true reality of life and the universe. In other words, we would live perfect and wonderful lives similar to those of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. This is the true, ultimate and perfect Mahayana teaching.

To practice Buddhism, we start by:

1. Being filial and respectful toward parents, teachers and elders,

2. Having the great compassionate mind,

3. Nurturing our thinking and wisdom and

4. Broadening our mind.

@@Although in sequence, they also can be practiced simultaneously, as each encompasses the others. For example, being filial to parents includes compassion and kindness, reasoning and wisdom. Wisdom includes being filial, compassionate and kind.

@@Once we have a general understanding of Buddhism, how do we apply it to our daily living? First we need to know what each Buddha and Bodhisattva represents. If we do not, then Buddhism would be reduced to superstition and we would not receive its true benefits. All Buddhist sutras contain these qualities, characteristics and the ways of practice; therefore, learning only one sutra will be enough. We need to know how to understand and apply the teachings effectively.

@@Usually in the center of the main hall of a temple, there are statues of one Buddha and two Bodhisattvas, which represent our self-nature and original entity. The two Bodhisattvas represent our virtuous abilities within our self-nature; one is understanding and the other is practice. If the Buddha in the middle is Buddha Shakyamuni, then the two figures on either side of him will be Manjusri and Universal Worthy Bodhisattvas, representing wisdom and application respectively. Thus, understanding and practice are combined into one. If the hall has the three sages of Western Pure Land, with Buddha Amitabha in the middle, representing self-nature, then the two figures on either side of him will be Guan Yin and Great Strength Bodhisattvas. They respectively represent compassion and wisdom, completely symbolizing the infinite wisdom and virtuous capabilities. Therefore, we again see that Buddhism is a teaching.