WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM BUDDHISM
at Cathedral of the Pines
West Rindge, New Hampshire
August 29, 1971
What can we learn from Buddhism? The answer to this question could
be nothing or many things; both answers, according to Buddhism, are correct.
is easy to understand that there are many things one can learn from Buddhism.
It is difficult, however, to comprehend that there is nothing one can learn. The
very reason you came here today is to find out for yourselves what you can learn
from Buddhism. How, then, can the answer be nothing?
If the answer "nothing
can be learned" is correct, then the answer "many things can be learned"
must be wrong, or vice versa. How can both answers be right? If both answers are
correct, would it not be the same as saying that nothing is not different from
many things, or that none is identical with many, or that zero is equal to any
number? How could this be?
The answer depends on the level on which we communicate
with each other. In Buddhism we say that there are three general levels of communication:
the enlightened level, the intellectual level, and the common level.
let me make it clear that I have not become enlightened. As in the story of the
mother frog and her tadpole, I am only the tadpole who has not yet developed legs
and who is still waterbound, lacking the actual experience of the warm sunshine
or the gentle breeze that the mother frog has experienced on the bank of the pond.
So, anything the tadpole says about warm sunshine or a gentle breeze is only repetition
or an interpretation of what the mother frog has said, Similarly, since I do not
have a direct experience of enlightenment, what I am trying to communicate to
you now is only a repetition of what I understand of the enlightened Buddha's
However, I wish to stress this: A statement such as "none is
not different from many" or "nonbeing is not different from being (or
beings)" is precisely what an enlightened person would say to us.
literature one encounters many such statements. For example, the Hear Sutra says
that matter (or form) is not different from emptiness and emptiness is identical
with matter. In many other sutras, Buddha teaches that all the phenomena in the
universe are identical with emptiness and emptiness is identical with phenomena.
Since you and I are also part of the phenomena of the world, you and I are identical
with emptiness and emptiness is identical with us both. Can you understand and
appreciate this statement? Are you directly experiencing it and not merely intellectually
accepting or knowing it?
If your answer is affirmative, I congratulate you
and accord you much respect. Since you realize that you are identical with emptiness,
you can appreciate that the question of what you can learn from Buddhism is meaningless.
You, the subject, are empty. Buddhism, the object, is also empty, since Buddhism
is also part of phenomena. Since both subject and object are empty, the action
of learning is superfluous. So, both answers ?"nothing can be learned"
and "many things can be learned" ?are equally meaningless. To say both
are either correct or incorrect is irrelevant. They are just like the noises made
by a baby or the sound of the wind.
It is important to note that if you truly
experience identification with emptiness, no suffering can affect you, for where
is your body to receive pain? What is it that undergoes the suffering of death?
this reason, the Buddha concluded the Diamond Sutra with this verse:
world's phenomena and ideas
Are unreal, like a dream,
Like magic, and like
All the world's phenomena and ideas
Are impermanent, like a water
Like dew and lightning.
Thus should one observe and realize
the world's phenomena and ideas.
However, if you are not yet enlightened, I
wish to share with you the following experiences, which may be helpful.
twenty years ago, when I was in Hong Kong, I asked a monk, Reverend Yueh Chi,
how none could equal many and how phenomena could be identical with emptiness.
He looked at me and said:
"Once Buddha Shakyamuni was going to speak before
a large assembly. He mounted the platform and stood in silence. Then he raised
his hand holding a golden-colored lotus, and an inspiring smile appeared on his
face. The assembly wondered but did not understand the meaning of the Buddha's
action. Then one of the Buddha's great disciples, Mahakashyapa, responded with
a smile. The Buddha thereupon announced that the profound Dharma of truth had
been transmitted to Mahakashyapa."
After he told this story, Reverend
Yueh Chi closed his eyes and was silent. I could not understand his purpose in
telling me the story, and I was frustrated by his silence. So I asked myself,
"Have I learned something from this story or not?" Just then, I noticed
a slight smile at the corners of his mouth, and at the same time I felt a slight
smile on my own face. I felt inspired, but I did not understand the significance
of my inspiration. Not until many years later did I understand that this was a
typical example of communication at the enlightened level.
A few years later
someone told me that in order to understand the principle that phenomena are identical
with emptiness, one should view phenomena as images in a mirror and emptiness
as the mirror itself. Since the images are neither inside nor outside the mirror,
and since no one can physically separate image from mirror or mirror from image,
the two are identical.
Although I found this a good analogy, I did not think
it quite adequate. An image is the reflection of a certain physical object which
exists outside the mirror, but we cannot say that outside emptiness there exist
objects of which phenomena are the reflections. The explanation, therefore, did
not satisfy me.
Then, one day while I was watching television, I realized that
the screen of the television set would be a better metaphor for emptiness, and
the picture on the screen a metaphor for phenomena. The television screen is "empty"
when the electric circuit is off, but when the circuit is on and electronic impulses
stimulate the fluorescent particles that form the screen, all kinds of programs
appear. Such programs are certainly comparable to phenomena. The essential difference
is that a television program is two-dimensional, while phenomena are three-dimensional.
A further difference is that we are aware that there is a source from which electronic
waves are broadcast for television, whereas we have no idea how phenomena arise.
However, despite the shortcomings of this analogy, I felt I moved a step ahead.
I had another opportunity for understanding. This time I was discussing particle
energy with a professor of physics. It occurred to me that the universe is filled
with an infinite number of motionless, formless, and weightless "particles"
of energy which, when stimulated by certain intangible forces, manifest as complicated
phenomena/ Therefore, the different phenomena we encounter in the universe are
simply manifestations of energy. Space, light, heat, fire, electricity, and ?as
is common knowledge since Einstein ?matter are all different manifestations of
energy. No matter how complicated the physical object ?even a human being ?or
how intangible the phenomenon ?even the life of a human being ?it is the combination
of different manifestations of energy stimulated by creations forces.
like the television shows that appear on the screen, phenomena come into existence
in the emptiness of the universe. Like the images on the television screen, which
are manifestations of fluorescent particles stimulated by electronic impulses,
phenomena are manifestations of energy filling the universe, stimulated by certain
forces. In Buddhism these forces are analogous to what is called karma. Furthermore,
since the television shows are neither inside the screen nor outside the screen,
and since no one can physically or logically separate the television shows from
the screen or vice versa, they are identical. By the same token, phenomena, including
the force (karma) which produces the manifestations of energy, are not inside
emptiness nor outside emptiness, and since no one can separate phenomena from
emptiness nr emptiness from phenomena, they are identical.
I made this observation
to my professor friend, but he shook his head and said that this was not what
he had learned in science.
Whether or not this idea can be proven scientifically
remains to be seen. The essence of this kind of teaching ?that matter and ideas;
man, God, and Buddha; form and emptiness; one and many; being and nonbeing, etc.,
are identical and without differentiation is very challenging and perhaps beyond
ordinary human comprehension. This teaching is called 'prajnaparamita' in Buddhism.
prajnaparamita means arriving at the other shore through the perfection of wisdom.
It is the teaching which introduces the profound realization of the identity of
phenomena and emptiness. The state of such realization is called ¡¥shunyata?in
Sanskrit. The traditional translation of shunyata in English as ¡¥voidness?or
¡¥emptiness?requires clarification because, as you can now see, shunyata
is far from nothingness.
Again, shunyata is the state of realization of the
identity of phenomena and emptiness. Since 'phenomena' implies 'many' and ' emptiness'
implies 'none' the core of shunyata is the doctrine that none is identical with
many, as I have tried to point out above.
Our communication has moved onto
the intellectual level. It did so the moment I introduced the terms karma, prajnaparamita,
and shunyata and attempted to define them.
Ours is a common dilemma. For the
past 2,500 years, numerous monks, scholars, and laymen have submerged their lives
in the vast oceans of Buddhist literature in search of the truth of Dharma. The
challenge is so great and the inspiration is so dear that, once they have tasted
the profound doctrine of the Buddhist teaching, very few intellectuals can divorce
themselves from it.
I tell you this as a warning, because Buddha taught that
enlightenment is not a product of intellect. One cannot achieve liberation by
following an intellectual course. Intellectuals tend to spend too much of their
valuable time in study, critical analysis, and debate. They usually have little
or not time for practice.
Once Buddha told a story about a man who was wounded
by an arrow. Instead of allowing his relatives to find a doctor to pull out the
arrow, the man insisted on first finding out who hit him, the color of his skin,
where he came from, what material the arrow was made of, who made the arrow, and
so on. Buddha said the man would die long before he could find those answers.
who studies but does not practice is like a person who can recite the contents
of a huge cookbook but never goes into the kitchen to prepare food. He can never
relieve his hunger. Practice is therefore a prerequisite to enlightenment. In
some sects of Buddhism, for instance, Zen practices such as meditation are even
put ahead of knowledge.
Further, intellect, whether in the field of religion,
philosophy, science, or art, is a function of the human mind, The human mind is
like a computer that operates on the basis of the information stored within. The
mind receives its information mainly from the sense organs. Unfortunately, our
sense organs are so inferior that they perceive only very limited information,
and our picture of the universe is therefore distorted.
In two previous talks,
"The Five Eyes" and "A Glimpse of Buddhism," I used an electromagnetic
spectrum chart to illustrate the fact that our physical eyes can see only a very
small segment of the universe, and a sound reception chart to demonstrate the
limitations of our unaided ears. Because the information we perceive through these
organs is far from complete, the impressions we obtain, the interpretations we
formulate, and the conclusions we draw could be very wrong in any given instance.
the unenlightened human mind is basically a linear operator; it is finite and
exclusive; it is "either-or"; it is dualistic. On the other hand, the
enlightened mind is all-inclusive, completely spontaneous, nondiscriminating,
and all-encompassing. The scope of the ordinary human mind is similar to the view
one gets peering through a pipe: one is unable to see the whole horizon. Similarly,
one cannot reach enlightenment by the intellect alone.
Therefore, what we can
learn on the intellectual level is to accept the challenge of the vastness of
the Buddhist teaching, but to avoid being buried by it. The voluminousness of
Buddhist literature can itself be a burden and becomes a serious obstacle if one
clings to it. One must free oneself from all attachments before one can attain
enlightenment. Buddha used the raft as an analogy. A raft is used to cross a river.
Buddha asked his disciples, "Would you say that a man is wise if, after crossing
a river and seeing that there is a long way to walk on land, he puts the raft
on his back and carries it rather than getting rid of it?"
Now let us
discuss what we can learn on the common level. Communication at this stage is
probably most important, because these teachings are useful and down-to-earth,
and can be very helpful in enriching one's life regardless of one's denomination
Earlier I introduced the Sanskrit word 'karma.' I said that karma
is a kind of force which causes or creates the manifestations of energy that form
phenomena. According to Buddhism, each individual has his own karma and therefore
his own manifest world.
The second doctrine is that karma functions according
to the law of causation; that is, no phenomenon arises without a specific cause
or causes. Causes produce effects which themselves become causes, and so on. This
is the law of nature. Buddhism interprets this law of nature from the viewpoint
of morality, affirming that good deeds produce good effects and bad deeds produce
The third doctrine is that the world or the circumstances in which
you are now living can to some extent be modified by your own determination and
effort, because your deeds are the very causes of future effects. That is to say,
you are able to modify or influence your future by your own endeavor. A cause
of great magnitude will produce a great effect. Similarly, a karma of small magnitude
will produce a less significant effect. In Buddhism, the karma which produces
present effects need not have been created during this lifetime, and the effect
caused by present deeds may not occur in this lifetime, unless the magnitude of
the karma is so great that the effect is perforce immediate and significant.
on the above doctrines, Buddha emphasizes a teaching which is essence tells us
that we should concentrate on creating good causes or karma. Many ways for creating
good karma have been taught by Buddha. I wish to introduce to you two important
ways which, based on my personal experience, will produce effects that will make
your present life happier and fuller. In my opinion, they should be considered
as sources of joy. The two ways are to produce joy through dana, and joy through
1. Joy through dana.
'Dana' is a Sanskrit word which, broadly defined,
means helping others through giving. To help others through giving. To help others
be free from the lack of needed material, to help others be free from ignorance,
and to help others be free from any kind of fear are all called giving (dana).
help others to such an extent that one forgets one's own interests is the supreme
meaning of giving. Such giving has its foundation in the realization of the identity
of all men, the oneness of you and me. It is nondiscriminative, unconditional,
and unlimited, and it draws its strength from pure compassion. This is the giving
that Buddha taught.
Giving inevitably brings joy which is spontaneous, true,
and lasting. I am sure many of you have had personal experiences of joy through
giving. It is interesting to note, though, that if one expects rewards while practicing
giving, that expectation diminishes the joy. If you wish to attain full joy through
giving you should not expect any reward. The law of nature will take care of the
effect. The less expectation and desire you have for reward, the greater your
reward will be.
Furthermore, the effect of giving cannot be precisely quantified.
For example, the good karma created by traveler in the desert who shared his water
bottle with those of dying of thirst is infintely greater than that created by
a millionare who makes a $10,000 donation to a worthy cause. In fact, our world
is not much better than a horrible desert in which millions are thirsty. Your
kindness, generosity, wisdom, knowledge, patience, participation, and your few
pennies, are all the precious water of giving. We all have much to offer. Buddha
says in the Diamond Sutra that by reading, understanding, and telling others about
even one sentence of that sutra, one accomplishes merit of incredible measure.
above gives you a basic understanding of dana. This is the first way I would suggest
for creating the good karma that will bring you joy and a better life.
'Dhyana' is the Sanskrit word for the Buddhist practice which
elevates man's pure awareness to various degrees. This practice involves special
methods of mental concentration, intuitive apprehension, nonattachment, an so
forth. The usual translation of dhyana is 'meditation'; however, if you examine
the meanings of the two words carefully, you will find that they are not equivalent.
Nevertheless, in this talk I will use 'meditation' as a general term meaning to
In this book The Practice of Zen, Professor Garma C.C. Chang
gives a good bird's-eye view of various methods of meditation. Generally speaking,
there are three approaches to the practice of meditation: approach through breathing,
approach through bodily posture, and approach through mind.
In one of my previous
talks, "A Glimpse of Buddhism," I described a simple meditation method
called 'counting the breath,' which is the first of six continuous steps developed
by the Chinese T'ien T'ai sect of Buddhism. The technique is highly respected
Today I wish to introduce the second approach to you: the
approach through posture. Although the cross-legged sitting position is generally
accepted by all Buddhists, Tibetan Buddhism and Zen Buddhism put special emphasis
on its importance. The following is a basic training method used by Tibetan Buddhists.
underlying theory of this approach is that man possesses the natural ability to
elevate his awareness and to unfold his wisdom so as to reach ultimate enlightenment.
To adjust one's body in such a way that one's original ability can be self-developed
without hindrance is the objective of this approach. There are seven important
points to be observed in this method of meditation.
1. Preparatory step.
three times in a kneeling position, as done in some religious rites, is usually
a good preparatory step for meditation. Religious bowing, consisting of bending
down and extending the whole body on the ground, is even better. From a physiological
point of view, this serves to press out used air which has settled in different
parts of the body and to relax the muscles and nerves. If you are not used to
religious bowing and kneeling, the following suggested practices may achieve the
a. Exhale through the mouth gently but continuously a few times.
Near the end of each exhalation, bow down to press out more air. You may do this
either by sitting with legs crossed while pressing the lower abdomen with your
hands, or by standing with arms hanging straight down effortlessly. Always keep
your back straight.
b. Loosely shake your arms and hands as rapidly as possible.
Relax your shoulders and feel a lowering of your body weight.
The purpose of cross-legged sitting is to achieve physical equilibrium
of the body and to reduce the pumping effort of the heart by bringing the toes
closer to the heart. You may sit with both legs fully crossed, with one leg on
the other, or with both legs crossed loosely. Having both legs fully crossed is
not necessarily better than having the legs loosely crossed. you should assume
the posture most comfortable to you.
The shoulders and knees are the areas
most sensitive to chill and drafts. It is advisable that they be kept warm, perhaps
covered by a towel over the knee during meditation.
3. Erectness of the spine.
purpose of erect posture is to release the tension and pressure on your central
nervous system. This is a very important point. In order to achieve this posture
one should sit
a. with one's bottom about three inches higher than the ground
touched by the legs - this is accomplished by sitting on an inclined meditation
cushion - and
b. with one's head inclined slightly forward, but with chin back,
to straighten the back - pushing the chest out should be avoided.
4. Arm position.
sitting properly, relax the shoulders and arms, and then put the two hands lightly
in the lap so the arms are curved. It should be noted that palms are upward with
one palm over the other (preferably the right palm over the left), fingers together,
and thumbs touching each other lightly. The purpose of this posture is to improve
the body's circulation, including the blood circulatory system. The touching of
the thumbs completes the energy circuit, but if they are pressed together bodily
tension will increase.
5. Tongue touching roof of mouth.
One should not
do this too forcefully. Just a light touch will help induce saliva during meditation.
The swallowing of saliva not only will keep the mouth and lips moist but has been
proven scientifically to be good for your health.
6. The eyes and breathing.
one should not talk or open one's mouth wide during meditation. Except for one
teaching that suggests that the mouth should be open to help relaxation, most
teachers advise that the mouth be closed and that breathing be done through the
nose. It does not matter whether the eyes are open or closed during meditation.
For those who fall asleep easily, it is usually helpful to keep the eyes open;
but most people have difficulty concentrating when there are visual distractions.
It is also permissible to have the eyes half open.
There is a natural tendency
for breathing to become slower, deeper, and lighter as practice progresses. This
should be of no concern. It has been taught that breathing through the nose eventually
becomes very light and that all the pores of the body and the arches of the feet
may become sources of oxygen supply.
7. Dealing with mind.
before, the purpose of meditation is to elevate pure awareness. Pure awareness
means awareness without thought in the ordinary sense of the word. However, when
thought arises, you should avoid stopping it, since the decision to stop thought
is itself a thought. Any kind of hallucination should be classified as thought,
and therefore no attention should be paid to any vision or sound that may arise.
Remember that anything you can see, feel, or touch is an object and not the subject.
As your eye cannot see itself, the subject cannot see the subject. Therefore,
the "true you" for which you are seeking cannot be perceived by your
senses or brain.
It is also important to observe certain points after meditation:
One should rise slowly and avoid any vigorous physical or mental activities immediately
2) One should do certain exercises, such as rubbing the palms
and the arches of the feet, and massaging the various parts of the body which
feel stiff or tingling. Walking is also recommended as a post-meditation exercise,
and if one already has some experience of this practice it can itself become a
continuation of the meditation.
The best time for meditation is in the very
early morning after one has had a good night's sleep. It is not advisable to practice
meditation when one is tired.
Continuous practice of meditation will bring
natural equilibrium both physically and mentally. Physical and mental equilibrium,
once achieved, will inevitably bring joy. Imagine the joy of a chronic insomniac
who finds he can fall asleep quickly and soundly, or the joy of a tense, highly
excitable person who finds he no longer suffers remorse after arguments because
he has become much more even-tempered.
In closing, I would like to tell you
Once there was a young monk, who was very anxious to become enlightened.
He studied and practiced restlessly in a number of monasteries for many years.
His mind was full of desire to be enlightened, full of the methods he had learned,
and full of anxiety. After visiting many monasteries, he was told of a very wise
and accomplished old monk, who was highly respected by all who knew him. So, the
young monk went and stayed with the old monk, hoping to learn from him the correct
and fast way to enlightenment.
He imitated the old monk in every possible respect,
including the style of his hair and the ragged gown which barely covered his body,
because he thought that all this would help him to enlightenment. However, three
years elapsed and nothing happened.
Then, one day the young monk learned that
his master was gravely ill and probably would die. The young monk became very
upset and thought, "I have spent three years here and he hasn't taught me
any way to reach enlightenment. If he dies, how will I find another to teach me?"
So, the young monk went to his master with a knife. He pointed the knife at the
old monk, who lay seriously ill on his mat. The young monk said to him, "Reverend
master, for three years I have served you, hoping that you would tell me the way
to enlightenment, but you have not done so. Now you are very ill and this is probably
my last chance. You must tell me the way to enlightenment now or I will kill you."
old monk looked at the young one and sighed, "My dear brother, even if I
have something to teach you, where is the room in your mind to receive it?"
The young monk was suddenly enlightened, and he made a deep bow to the old master.
Last updated: June 16, 1998