It is necessary for us to a have correct understanding before practicing Buddhism; otherwise, all the time spent in cultivation will be futile, as the most superior result will not be attained. Therefore, I would like to briefly explain the true nature of Buddhism.
Chinese history tells us that about three thousand years ago, Buddha Shakyamuni, the founder of Buddhism was born in Northern India. He lived seventy-nine years and dedicated forty-nine of them to teaching. In 67 AD, one thousand years after he entered Nirvana, these teachings were formally introduced into China.
Prior to acquiring a good knowledge of Buddhism, we need to understand the terms Buddha, Dharma, Buddhist Dharma and Buddhist teaching, as they are important to our cultivation. Buddha is a Sanskrit word, meaning ¡§wisdom and enlightenment¡¨. Why was it transliterated as Buddha and not translated into wisdom and enlightenment? The meaning of ¡§Buddha¡¨ is so profound and extensive that these two words were insufficient to cover the original meaning. Therefore, transliteration was used with further explanations.
In essence, Buddha means wisdom. In application or function, it means enlightenment. There are three levels of wisdom. First, ¡§General and All Knowledge Wisdom¡¨ is the correct understanding of the noumena, or essence, of the universe. It is the wisdom of knowing the general aspect of all existences, the wisdom of Theravada sages. Second, ¡§Differentiation Wisdom¡¨ is the wisdom that can correctly comprehend all the infinite phenomena of the universe, the wisdom of knowing the discriminative aspect of all existences, the wisdom of Bodhisattvas. How did these phenomena arise? From where? In what way? What were their results? Third, ¡§Overall and Perfect Knowledge Wisdom¡¨ is the exhaustive and perfect perception and comprehension of the truth of life and the universe without the slightest doubt or error, the wisdom of Buddhas. Buddha Shakyamuni, possessing all three of these kinds of wisdom, completely understood the true reality of life and the universe.
The function of wisdom is enlightenment. There are three classifications of enlightenment. First is "self-enlightenment", a state in which one possesses no erroneous thoughts, views, speech or behavior. Arhats and Pratyekabuddhas in Theravada Buddhism have attained this level of self-enlightenment, but have not yet generated the Bodhi mind to help others achieve enlightenment. Second, is "enlightenment of self and others", a state in which one helps others to reach enlightenment after achieving his or her own. Bodhisattvas in Mahayana Buddhism have attained this level. Third is "Perfect Complete Enlightenment", a state in which one reaches perfection in both enlightenment for self as well as helping others to reach enlightenment. This is the state of Buddhas.
The Buddha told us that this perfect wisdom and virtue are innate to all beings. The sutras, recorded teachings of the Buddha, tell us that ¡§all sentient beings can attain Buddhahood.¡¨ and ¡§every being possesses the wisdom and virtuous character of the Buddha¡¨. In other words, all beings are equal to Buddhas in nature. However, due to our discriminating and wandering thoughts and attachments, which are the root cause of all sufferings and disasters, we have temporarily lost our original Buddha nature. Thus, we continue being born into the endless cycle of birth and death.
The more we rid ourselves of these wandering thoughts and attachments, the more we will experience freedom from suffering, and the more wisdom and enlightenment we will uncover. Once we completely free ourselves from discriminating and wandering thoughts and attachments, our fixations to certain ideas or objects, we will regain our lost Buddhahood; our original perfect enlightened state, our self-nature Buddha.
Possessing great wisdom and enlightenment enables us to truly know all that exists and all that is infinite. This includes matters and objects as tiny as a speck of dust or the finest hair on the human body, to those as great as the infinite universe. All of these are the objects of our perception, or wisdom and enlightenment.
The Buddha used the word Dharma to symbolize all these infinite phenomena. Buddhist Dharma or Principle, is the infinite wisdom and enlightenment, the perception of all things and laws in life and the universe. Chinese people often say that Buddhist Dharma is as infinite as the object perceived is infinite and the wisdom perceivable is infinite. This wisdom is innate to our self-nature.
The Buddha said, ¡§Our innate perception and the objects in the universe perceived are ONE not TWO.¡¨ When we think about it logically, if the Buddha¡¦s words are complete and perfect, then we can believe that this wisdom and enlightenment are ultimate and perfect. However, if perceived and perceivable are opposites, then wisdom can hardly be complete and perfect, but rather it is limited.
The Buddha told us that knowable and known, perceivable and perceived are ONE not TWO. This is called the One True Dharma Realm, the most genuine, perfect and highest realm as explained to us in the Flower Adornment Sutra. The Western Pure Land of the Pure Land School also belongs to and is not separate from the One True Dharma Realm. This Western Pure Land, was created by Buddha Amitabha as an ideal place of cultivation as those who are born there are no longer subject to reincarnation within the six realms.
In 1923, a well-known Buddhist scholar, Mr. Jing-Wu Ou-Yang gave a speech at Nanjing Normal University in China, entitled ¡§Buddhism is Neither a Religion Nor a Philosophy, but the Essential for Our Modern Time.¡¨ It caused considerable sensation. His well-documented speech gave much conclusive support to the proper definition and viewpoint of Buddhism.
WHAT IS BUDDHISM
This question arises in all those who wish to better understand it. Buddhism is a most virtuous and perfect education directed by the Buddha towards all sentient beings in the universe. This education covers a boundless range of phenomena and principles that is much broader than what is currently studied in modern universities. In regards to time, it encompasses the past, present and future. In regards to space, it encompasses everything from our daily lives to the infinite universe. Buddhism is an education of the wisdom and understanding of life and the universe. It is not a religion. The teachings of Confucius concern one lifetime. The teachings of the Buddha concern infinite lifetimes.
How can we tell that Buddhism is an education? Today, the terms teacher and student are only used in school. However, we call Buddha Shakyamuni, our Original Teacher. We call ourselves students, as did our predecessors in ancient China. This is unlike religions in which the god and his or her disciples do not have a teacher-student relationship, but rather a parent-child relationship. In Buddhism, however, it is clearly stated that the Buddha is the teacher and we are the students. Bodhisattvas and we are classmates; they were the Buddha¡¦s former students while we are his current ones.
Furthermore, a monk or nun is called He-shang, which is the transliteration of the Sanskrit word meaning a direct mentor who provides teachings and acts as our personal guide. We share a close teacher-student relationship with this individual. Temples, or Way Places, have only one He-shang. Teachers who teach on behalf of the He-shang are called Asheli. Their speech and behavior can be models for us to follow. Others who do not directly teach would be called Dharma masters or Fashi. They are like teachers whose lectures we do not attend or those who do not directly teach us. All these terms are characteristics of education and are not found in religion.
For further examples of how Buddhism is an education, we can examine Chinese way places where the activities are held. The way place is an educational institution combining Buddhist teaching and art, similar to the combination of a modern school and a museum. Nowadays, people pursue the arts in everything. Buddhism, however, practiced artistic teaching as early as three thousand years ago.
The staff organization of the way place further illustrates the similarity to modern schools. The He-shang is equivalent to the principal of the school, deciding policies, making plans for courses of study and employing the teachers. Reporting to the He-shang are three associates or program executives, who are in charge of everything directly related to teaching, advising and disciplining, and general services. In China, a traditional way place was regarded as a Buddhist University. From this administrative structure, we can further see that Buddhism truly is an education.
THE FIVE FORMS OF BUDDHISM TODAY
Currently, there are at least five forms of Buddhism. The first form is the traditional Buddhism I have just discussed. It is the education of the Buddha¡¦s teachings. This original form is rarely seen today. The other four forms are deviations of this one.
The second form is religious Buddhism. Although originally not a religion, it has become one in the past few hundred years. Today, it is difficult to deny this. Why? The external form of Buddhism today is indeed that of a religion. It is no longer the education found in a traditional way place where cultivators had up to sixteen hours a day for both lessons and cultivation. The lessons included listening to lectures and discussions. The cultivation session included either Buddha name chanting or sitting meditation. Study and cultivation were used hand in hand to strive for the right and proper understanding and practice, to purify practitioner's minds and to eventually attain the state of enlightenment.
Since the monks and nuns spent sixteen hours a day on study and cultivation, there was little time for discriminating or wandering thoughts, and so achievement could be attained relatively quickly. Unfortunately, this traditional form of Buddhism is seldom seen nowadays in way places for many of them have become a place to make offerings, to pray for blessings and to conduct memorial services. It is little wonder that people regard Buddhism as a religion.
The third form is philosophical or academic Buddhism often found as a course in college. This is inappropriate. Why? Buddhist education is a complete university in itself, including all branches of learning. But now it is reduced to merely a philosophical discipline. Regarding it as such, we miss the importance of the fact that the teachings are a necessity for all sentient beings. Why? Because these teachings can resolve all problems ranging from those in our current lives to those in the future, including even those of birth and death. Buddhism's scope is broad and profound and regarding it as merely an academic field of study is frankly, another deviation. These two forms cause no serious harm to society. Religions try to encourage people to be good. Philosophy strives to pursue truth and to gain knowledge.
The fourth and most recent deviation is Buddhism as a show. It consists of a few hours of music, singing and dancing with a short talk in between. However, the fifth form is a deviation that has gone too far, that of the distortion of Buddhism into a cult. This deviated form has appeared in the last thirty to forty years. The exploitation of Buddhism by evil cults has gone too far. In the name of Buddhism, they take advantage of the weaknesses of human nature, creating chaos by cheating, and misleading people, endangering the safety of the public. Some of their propaganda and deeds can sound extremely enticing and appealing. However, if we join their activities, which doom us to ruin, by the time we realize our mistake, the damage will have already been done. It will then be too late to regret. Therefore, we need to choose wisely which form to practice in order to receive the true benefits.
THE GOAL OF BUDDHIST EDUCATION
The Buddhist Educational System
What is the ultimate goal of the Buddha¡¦s teachings? It is to attain the Perfect, Complete Enlightenment. Transliterated from Sanskrit, it is called Anuttara-samyak-sambodhi. Out of respect, this phrase was maintained in its original form rather than translated. There are three stages within this enlightenment: ¡§Proper Enlightenment¡¨, "Equal and Proper Enlightenment¡¨, and ¡§Perfect, Complete Enlightenment¡¨.
The Buddha told us, that although scientists, philosophers and religious scholars may have reached a good understanding about life and the universe, this realization is neither complete nor proper. Why? Although they have obtained some understanding, they are far from having freedom from worries, from ending their afflictions. They still indulge themselves in the Five Poisons of greed, anger, ignorance, arrogance and doubt. They remain mired in all the troubles of human relationships and are swayed by personal feelings. In other words, they are human.
If a person has severed greed, anger, ignorance, arrogance, doubt and afflictions, it will be acknowledged that this person has attained the first level, that of Proper Enlightenment. He or she will be called an Arhat, similar to the initial academic degree in Buddhism. Arhats differ from Buddhas in the way that they use their mind. They use it in the same manner we do. The difference is that we still have afflictions while Arhats do not.
The next higher level of enlightenment is that of Equal and Proper Enlightenment, represented by Bodhisattvas. They resemble Buddhas in motivation but have not yet reached the same level of enlightenment. The minds of Bodhisattvas are genuine; they remain forever unchanged and are similar to those of Buddhas. Buddhas use the full and perfect true heart. Buddhas represent the highest level of enlightenment, which is the Perfect Complete Enlightenment.
In Buddhist classic literature, the perfect, true mind of a Buddha was symbolized by a full moon. The mind of a Bodhisattva was symbolized by a crescent moon, which was neither full nor perfect. And the mind of an Arhat was symbolized by moonlight reflected from the surface of water, it is not real.
These three levels of enlightenment can be compared to our college educational system. The level or degree of Arhat is similar to earning an undergraduate degree. The level of Bodhisattva is similar to earning a Master¡¦s degree and the level of Buddha is similar to earning a Doctorate¡¦s degree. The word Buddha is not exclusive to Buddha Shakyamuni, but a common title for any being who has attained the perfect complete enlightenment. Thus, Buddha, Bodhisattva and Arhat are only names or titles to represent the levels of enlightenment or a degree we receive in Buddhism. And they are most certainly not deities to be worshiped.
So, a Buddha is one who has fully comprehended the truth of life and the universe and acquired the ultimate and perfect wisdom. This is also the goal of Buddhist education; to enable beings to attain this same level of wisdom. Therefore, Buddhism is an education of wisdom.
The Objectives of the Buddha¡¦s Teachings
The principle of Buddhism is to break through all superstitions and delusions. It is to resolve delusion to attain happiness and enlightenment, to eliminate suffering to gain serenity and purity of mind. What is delusion? When we do not thoroughly and properly understand the phenomenon around us, we tend to be deluded, to have wrong ideas, which lead us to make mistakes. Then we suffer ill consequences as a result. However, if we have correct understanding about life and the universe, we will be free from mistakes in thought, judgement and behavior. Then our result, or effect, will be favorable. Thus, resolving delusion to attain enlightenment is the cause and eliminating suffering to attain happiness and purity is the effect.
Only through resolving superstition and delusion, can enlightenment be attained. This is the objective of the Buddha¡¦s teaching. This wisdom will enable all beings to differentiate true from false, proper from improper, right from wrong and good from bad. It can help us to establish a dynamic and caring attitude toward life and our surroundings. So, we can clearly see that Buddhism is neither passive nor obsolete, nor is it retreating from society. As said in the Buddha Speaks of the Infinite Life Sutra of Adornment, Purity, Equality and Enlightenment of the Mahayana School or the Infinite Life Sutra, Buddhism can perfectly solve all afflictions and problems. It enables us to obtain true and ultimate benefits by creating fulfilling lives, happy families, harmonious societies, prosperous nations and a peaceful world. These are the objectives of the Buddha¡¦s teachings for our world now. The ultimate objectives of abandoning all worries thus transcending the six realms are even more incredibly wonderful. Therefore, we can see that it is an education that will enable us to attain truth, virtue, beauty, wisdom and genuine eternal happiness.
THE ORIGINAL VOW OF EARTH TREASURE BODHISATTVA SUTRA
The Great Perfection
After understanding the goals and principles of the Buddha¡¦s teachings, we need to deepen our understanding of the Dharma. What is the Dharma? It is the true reality of life and the universe, all the teachings of the Buddhas, which are included in sutras. These ancient textbooks documented all of the Buddha¡¦s teachings and were recorded by his students. The most basic one of Mahayana Buddhism is the Original Vow of Earth Treasure Bodhisattva Sutra. It can be regarded as a textbook for first grade students, within which, the truth was clearly explained, not with spoken language but with emissions of light. The sutra, as told by Buddha Shakyamuni, begins with his emitting infinite bright lights called:
1. Great Perfection Brightness Cloud,
2. Great Compassion Brightness Cloud,
3. Great Wisdom Brightness Cloud,
4. Great Prajna Brightness Cloud,
5. Great Samadhi Brightness Cloud,
6. Great Auspicious Brightness Cloud,
7. Great Good Fortune Brightness Cloud,
8. Great Merit Brightness Cloud,
9. Great Refuge Brightness Cloud,
10. Great Praise Brightness Cloud.
Although ten kinds are given, it does not mean that there are only ten. The number ten is regarded as a symbol of perfection, a complete cycle symbolizing infinity.
What is called perfection in the Earth Treasure Sutra is infinity in the Infinite Life Sutra. Not only can life be infinite, everything can be infinite! However, of all infinities, that of life is the most important. We may have boundless wealth and immeasurable good fortune, but how can we enjoy them if we do not have sufficient life spans? Therefore, the Pure Land School uses ¡§infinite life¡¨ to symbolize all infinities. In the Earth Treasure Sutra, the ten Brightness Clouds represent this concept. One is all and all is one¡¨ clearly explains the infinite cosmos and life.
Perfection of Wisdom