Delivered as Christ Church Parish
Ridgewood, New Jersey
November 1, 1978

Dear friends:

You probably all know that China is a nation in Asia. How many of you know the Chinese character for the word China? It is Chung Kuo (? ?). Literally, chung means middle or center, and kuo means country or kingdom. Chung Kuo is, therefore, the Central Kingdom. For thousands of years, the Chinese believed their country to be the center of the world and their emperor, whom they usually referred to as the Son of Heaven to be the highest authority on earth. So it was that the Chinese believed that all people inhabiting areas other than the central kingdom were inferior and that their rulers were subordinate to the emperor of China. If, during that period, someone had proclaimed that there were many emperors on earth, some even more powerful than the Son of Heaven, his head very likely would have been chopped off.
It was not until the beginning of the eighteenth century, when Western civilization reached China, that the Chinese began to realize that there were many nations on earth with many powerful rulers. The Chinese were no longer in an "ivory tower"; their perspective was broadened; they shared with other nations the responsibilities of the world. It is, however, important to note that regardless of that recognition, the importance of their own head of government was in no way diminished in the minds of the Chinese. To this day, their own leader is still the most important and influential person in their lives.
On another note, just a few hundred years ago everyone thought that the sun was the center of the universe. Today, however, astronomers tell us that the solar system as we know it, with the sun, the earth, and her sister planets, is merely a small group of celestial bodies at the edge of a galaxy called the Milky Way, which consists of more than 100,000 million stars like the sun. Furthermore, the Milky Way is only one modest member out of the thousands of millions of galaxies in the universe. So we understand that there are countless suns. It is incorrect to say that there is only one sun, or that the earth's sun is the center of the universe. However, the recognition of this fact does not diminish the importance of our earth's sun to us. With the improvement of knowledge and technology, the sun - the source of life and energy to mankind - has become even more important and vital to us than in the past. It has a most direct influence on our lives.
Most of the great religions, including Christianity, teach that there is only one God. Some religions even claim that their God is the true God and that the gods worshipped by other religions are false. In Buddhism, the teaching is different. Let me present you with some historical background:
More than 2500 years ago, in the land known today as Nepal, at the foot of the Himalaya mountains, there lived a prince - a human being - whose name was Siddhartha Gautama. At the age of thirty he realized the full impact of the existence of human suffering, left his palace, gave up his life of luxury, and for six years practiced many kinds of ascetic methods in search of a way to save human beings from suffering. Finally, by applying his own method of insight contemplation, he was enlightened. He was then called Buddha Shakyamuni. Buddha is a title given to one who achieves complete enlightenment; that is, one who achieves perfect wisdom and perfect compassion. He traveled to many places on the Indian continent and taught his disciples and the public for over forty-five years before he passed away at the age of eighty.
Upon enlightenment, he realized that the universe is infinite; that there are numerous worlds like earth; and that there are numerous gods comparable to the almighty God worshipped by the people of his time.
Your attention is invited to the fact that although Buddha discovered the presence of numerous gods throughout the universe, he never tried to diminish the importance of the God worshipped by the people of his time. He simply told the truth. And that truth does not affect the importance of one specific God to a specific group of people who worship that God, because that God is still the most direct and intimate influence on that group of people.
This is the same as the discovery by the Chinese of the existence of many rulers in the world. It does not diminish the importance of the Chinese government to the Chinese. Nor does the fact that there are numerous suns in the universe diminish the importance of the earth's sun as a source of light, heat, and life itself to the earth's inhabitants.
This is the first point I wish to communicate to you: there are numerous gods in the universe, but that by no means diminishes the importance of God worshipped by this church. In fact, a Buddhist who truly understands Buddha's teaching should respect all the gods worshipped by mankind. This explains the historical fact that no war was ever fought between the believers of Buddhism and followers of other faiths. Buddhism does not have a religious sovereignty. Buddha is not a god.
The second point I wish to make is that according to Buddha's teaching, gods can be very powerful compared to human beings, but nevertheless they are not free from affliction, and can be angry. The life of a god may be very long. This explains the concept held by many religions that God is eternal. But according to Buddha the almighty God worshipped by the ancient Indians is still subject to the cycle of death and rebirth. So, a god cannot be called a buddha, i.e., an enlightened one who has freed himself from that cycle.
The third and most challenging point discovered by Buddha during his enlightenment is that every human being can become a buddha. Buddha realized that every human being possesses the same wisdom that he himself possesses, but that wisdom can be clouded by ignorance and does not easily reveal itself.
It should be emphasized that when I say every human being, I do mean that each and every one of you here can become a buddha. This is a fundamental teaching of Buddhism. To put it another way, everyone does have the potential to achieve complete wisdom and complete compassion.
It should be emphasized that when I say every human being, I do mean that each and every one of you here can become a buddha. This is a fundamental teaching of Buddhism. To put it another way, everyone does have the potential to achieve complete wisdom and complete compassion.
Now, before explaining how one can become a buddha, let me present to you two fundamental concepts in Buddhism. One is 'samsara' and the other is 'karma.' Both words are Sanskrit, the ancient language of India. Samsara is an aspect of the universe which cannot be detected by human eyes. It is the cycle of birth and death. Buddhism teaches that birth and death in the present lifetime of a being make only one segment in the chain of infinite lives of that being. The death of a being is by no means the end.
Buddhism further teaches that there are five kinds of life forms or existences into which a being can be reborn. The five kinds of existences are heaven-dwellers (to which gods belong), human beings, animals, hungry spirits, and hell-dwellers. After death, a human being is reborn into another existence. He or she can be reborn as a human being or, perhaps, a heaven-dweller, animal, hungry spirit, or hell-dweller. Therefore, a human being does not have the opportunity to be reborn as a god in heaven. By extension, a hell-dweller can also die and be reborn as a human being, hell-dweller, and so forth. This change of existences goes on indefinitely unless and until the chain breaks, which occurs when the concept of birth and death becomes meaningless to a being. According to Buddhism, this happens when one is enlightened. Then the concept of birth and death is no longer applicable. The realization of having no birth and death is called 'nirvana,' another popular work in Sanskrit. Not only did Buddha Shakyamuni reach nirvana, many of his disciples did as well. One who achieves the status of nirvana breaks the chain of samsara and eliminates rebirth in any of the five existences. Yet, nirvana does not mean extinction.
The next question concerns who, or what, causes samsara. Who, or what, determines that the next life of a being will be in heaven or hell, or will take the form of a human being? A similar question can also be asked: Who, or what, determines that the people on this earth, although all human beings, vary so much in appearance, character, wealth, life span, health, fate, etc.? It is even more interesting to note how much the circumstances in which a person is born can influence his or her destiny. Race, nation, skin color, type of parents - all these factors make a great difference. Now, who or what determines these choices? Would it not be more logical to say that something happened before one's birth that caused all these effects, than to say that they are purely accidental, or that they are God's will? If a baby has no past life, then on what grounds would God judge whether to reward or punish that baby by causing him or her to be born under such tremendously different circumstances? According to Buddhism, it is not accidental, nor is it God's will. It is one's own actions that determines one's own destiny. Buddhism teaches that there are past, present, and future lives, and that the actions of the past have a direct effect on one's present and future lives. It should be pointed out that when I say actions of the past, it also means actions of the present, because the present is merely an instant which does not remain. As soon as we say "this is the present," it is already the past.
This law, that one's own actions determine one's own destiny, is called karma. In the Random House dictionary, karma is defined as "actions, seen as bringing upon oneself inevitable results, good or bad, either in this life or in a reincarnation." I wish to expand this definition by saying that karma is an action or combination of actions, by a being or group of beings, which produce effects. These effects, which can be good, bad, or neutral, determine the future of that being or group of beings. Good karma produces good effects; bad karma produces bad effects.
This law of cause and effect is so powerful that it governs everything in the universe except, according to Buddhism, the one who is enlightened. Upon enlightenment, cause and effect loses its significance, and samsara ceases.
With the knowledge of samsara and karma, you may be interested to learn from Buddhism that you, as a human being, actually have the best chance to become a buddha. It may be easier to understand this if I say that the hell-dweller, the hungry spirit, and the animal have less chance to cultivate themselves and become a buddha. But why not the heaven-dweller, who is supposedly at a higher level than a human being? The answer is that life in heaven is too rich with too many pleasures. A heaven-dweller, so busy just enjoying life, has no inclination toward further cultivation. Only a human being, who has the brain capacity to receive the teachings, who has the time to practice, who has suffered hardships and sorrows that serve as alarms to stimulate one to search for a way to be rid of those sufferings, and above all, who has the opportunity to hear Buddha's teaching, possesses the ability to liberate himself and become a buddha.
It is also interesting to note that Buddhism does not encourage rebirth in heaven, but rather encourages people to follow the example of Buddha Shakyamuni, and work hard to cultivate themselves in this very life to become buddhas.
Your life may be very comfortable now. Most people living in this great country of America have a materially luxurious life, but you should not forget the fact that there are many sufferings which human beings cannot avoid. Furthermore, many people in the world are actually living in a condition not much better than that of hell, even without mentioning the sufferings of those in a war zone!
As I said before, suffering serves as an alarm to stimulate one to search for liberation; so let us examine the different kinds of sufferings that a human being experiences.
Eight basic sufferings were taught by Buddha 2500 years ago. At that time in India, material comfort was much less than it is today and human suffering was more noticeable. Strangely enough, however, the eight basic kinds of sufferings seem to have changed very little over the long years. These sufferings are:
suffering because of birth
suffering because of old age
suffering because of sickness
suffering because of death
suffering because of separation from loved ones or things one likes
suffering because of confrontation with an undesirable person or thing
suffering because of the denial of one's desires
suffering because of the burning intensity of the five aggregates of an individual (or, in simpler terms, the burning intensity of human behavior, such as hatred, jealousy, etc.)
It is regrettable that with all the progress that has brought mankind to an age when travel to other planets is imminent, human beings are still unable to lessen or abolish the basic suffering. You may agree with me that on certain occasions suffering is even intensified by the quickening of life's pace and the increase of material temptation. This is particularly noticeable in the case of the last four kinds of sufferings.
Not only did the Buddha recognize the pervasive existence of suffering in the lives of beings, but he was also able to perceive the far-reaching significance of suffering from the broader perspective. The Buddha, with his highly developed wisdom and understanding, could see, all too clearly, that beings are trapped in the cycle of birth and death, and thus are dominated by suffering not only in this life but in all the innumerable lives to be experienced in the future. He perceived the suffering that beings will experience in the future as a result of the ignorant deeds that they are engaged in at present. Thus the Buddha's heightened sensitivity and insight led him to be acutely aware of the enormous burden on sentient beings. The full extent of this suffering is difficult to appreciate for those of us who cannot view reality so clearly.
The realization of recognition of human suffering is a significant step in Buddhism. It is usually referred to as the first if the Four Noble Truths. The remaining three Noble Truths are:
Desire and craving are the causes of human suffering;
Suffering can be stopped; and,
The way to stop suffering.
I have already given you too much to absorb, and time does not permit going into details of the Four Noble Truths. So, I will just give you a brief explanation of the Four Noble Truths, the way to stop suffering, since there are still a few important points I wish to introduce concerning the path to take in order to become a buddha.
There are eight components which make up the way to stop suffering. This path is usually called Eight-fold Right Way, and it is the guiding principle for the life of a Buddhist. The Eight Right Ways are:
Right View
Right Resolve
Right Speech
Right Conduct
Right Livelihood
Right Effort
Right Mindfulness
Right Concentration
The key word here is 'right.' In order to make it easier to understand its application to daily life, I define right as: 1) not hurting others and, if possible, helping others; 2) understanding the law of cause and effect (karma) and observing it carefully; and 3) understanding that your body is the vehicle on which you must rely to sail from this shore of suffering to the other shore of liberation, and so you must take care of it.
If one can live according to these guiding principles, desire and craving will decrease and suffering will thereby diminish.
Please note that Buddha's teaching pays much attention to the community and demands a high degree of self discipline in his followers. Buddha founded the 'sangha; - an organized group of monks that conduct themselves in the right way of living. The sangha set an example for the public as to how the causes of human suffering can be controlled, reduced, and finally eliminated. An activity or way of living which disturbs the community or creates trouble for other people, even in the name of religion, or Buddhism, should not be considered genuine Buddhism because such an activity is against Buddha's teaching.
When you study Buddhism, you will find that Buddha usually taught on two levels, depending upon the level of understanding of the audience. One level may be referred to as the enlightened level, and the other as the mundane level.
Is there anyone here who has had the experience of enlightenment or who understands Buddha's teaching on the enlightened level? I do not know. I have not. I haven't had the actual experience of enlightenment. So the little bit I'm telling you today to introduce you to the enlightened level should be treated as one tadpole repeating to another the mother frog's story about the warm sunshine and the gentle breeze she experienced on the land. The tadpole's words are not based on personal experience.
Upon enlightenment, Buddha realized that all phenomena and ideas are unreal and impermanent, arising because of human beings' incorrect and incomplete perceptions of the universe.
An example that demonstrates our incomplete perception is as follows: We human beings say that air is empty and we can freely move in it. On the other hand, water is not empty to us. However, a fish may see it entirely differently. A fish will consider water, in which he can move freely, as empty, while air is not. In fact, air may be as solid as a rock to a fish. It can hardly move an inch in air.
I can give you many other examples which all lead to the one conclusion that our eyes and ears and other sense organs do not give us a complete view of the universe, and that such incomplete information can be very misleading. Unfortunately all our knowledge, and thereby our actions, have been based entirely upon the incomplete or incorrect information perceived by our sense organs since the first instant we left our mother's womb.
Even more detrimental is the stubborn nature of our brain which refuses to accept the fact that our senses are faulty. This is because the information continuously and consistently fed into the brain by the sense organs is so incomplete. Therefore, even though you understand what I am saying at this moment, the next moment you forget or discard it completely because your eyes and ears give you an entirely different picture which your brain habitually accepts is true.
It is therefore extremely important to point out that intellectual understanding alone is not enough to overcome our habitual acceptance of this incomplete and incorrect view of the world. Enlightenment is needed. With enlightenment you can observe directly, clearly, and continuously that the universe is empty; that all phenomena and ideas are just like a dream, or like clouds floating in the sky, which come and go without leaving any trace behind. You will then be unaffected by whatever phenomena appear. Phenomena are by nature empty. They are unreal and impermanent. This is the great wisdom.
How can one become enlightened? Buddha told of his own experience, that he was enlightened by right concentration and right contemplation. You may still remember the story about the mother frog and her tadpoles I mentioned a few minutes ago. Now, I am just like the tadpole and cannot explain the experience of enlightenment to you further. But I can go on to the next point, which you have to know to become a buddha, that is, the perfection of great compassion.
To talk about great compassion, I must introduce to you one more important term in Buddhism, namely 'bodhisattva.' In Sanskrit, 'bodhi' implies enlightenment or the act of enlightening others and 'sattva' means being. So a bodhisattva is either an enlightened being or one who leads other beings to enlightenment. A bodhisattva is a being who is on the path of becoming a buddha and who is committed to helping other sentient beings reach enlightenment.
It is interesting to note that a bodhisattva can be a monk, nun, or an ordinary person like ourselves. As a matter of fact, most of the bodhisattvas in Buddhist history were laity. This is so because to do the deeds a bodhisattva ought to do, one should be in close contact with people in the community.
The most important quality for a bodhisattva to have is compassion. Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (in Sanskrit), or Kuan-yin (in Chinese) is a symbolic representative of great compassion. The great vow of this bodhisattva was to free all sentient beings from fears of any kind. Allow me to quote two sentences of a famous verse:
I shall go to thousands of places
In response to the thousands of prayers.
In the vast sea of suffering,
I always serve as a ferry to deliver beings.
In this verse you may note that there is
1. no geographical limitation
2. no limit to the number of prayers to which the bodhisattva will respond
3. no restriction as to what kind of prayers will receive responses
4. no discrimination as to who is making the prayer
5. no interruption in serving; it continues day and night
6. no expectation of a reward of any kind
This is the great compassion one should learn.
At this point you may think that this is quite similar to the 'great love' taught by Christ. And rightly so, because according to a Buddhist interpretation, Jesus Christ was indeed a great bodhisattva. On many occasions Christ taught his followers to give totally of themselves in the service of others. He himself even gave his own life.
Thank you very much.