By Reverend Hung I
(from the July/August 2003 issue of The Edge newsletter)
A Buddhist education consists of aspiring to understand Sakyamuni Buddha’s enlightenment, wisdom, and courage and using this knowledge to improve one’s karma and achieving nirvana. The education begins with a lesson in becoming a good person. Master Tai-hsu said we should look to the Buddha’s teachings for guidance in all that we do; when we achieve this standard of perfection, we will realize our Buddha nature. We should strive to be good people and help others reach the same goal. If everyone leads a moral life, our society will be peaceful and harmonious. Learning to be a good person requires adopting a balanced approach to life.
A Buddhist sutra mentions this concept of the Middle Way. According to the Buddha, those who implement balance in their lives will be free of vexations. The fourth master of the Zen Buddhist School was named Dao-shing. In his youth, before he became master, he asked the third master, Sheng-tsan, to lead him to enlightenment. In response, Sheng-tsan asked him, “Who has bound you?” Dao-shing replied that no one had bound him. Then Master Sheng-tsan taught Dao-shing that he could achieve enlightenment through his own will and actions. “If no one has bound you, then you already possess the ability to become awakened.” As soon as Dao-shing heard his master’s words, he understood how to reach his goal. His story teaches us that no external factors, such as environment or other people inhibit our potential; the only force that holds us back is our own limited perception of the world.
We must understand that all things have more than one dimension. Consider the ocean. Still water and waves are not the same phenomenon. Though they exist in different forms, they are composed of the same natural substance. A balanced approach to life requires recognition of the multifaceted nature of all things. I would like to share five suggestions for achieving such an approach.
Transforming confusion into enlightenment:
According to a Buddhist sutra, sentient beings see things in a negative light whereas Buddhas see things in a positive light. Vexations are neither external nor objective. One’s own perception determines whether something exacerbates confusion or contributes to enlightenment. Without a positive attitude, even phenomena that typically help people become awakened appear to be sources of confusion.
As volunteers at the temple, we sometimes encounter criticism of our work. These criticisms cause vexation, and then a generous act that should contribute to enlightenment becomes a source of confusion. When we encounter obstacles, we must encourage ourselves to overcome them and even use them as tools to train our endurance and wisdom. Then we can increase our good will even in the face of adversity, and the criticisms will not be able to deter our original kind intentions.
At a deeper level, we should recognize that suffering is not completely bad. To become a Bodhisattva, one must relieve suffering, which requires that it exists in the first place. This state of being is attained through fulfilling the six perfections: generosity, precept, patience, diligence, concentration and wisdom. When we encounter sources of displeasure, we should transform them into opportunities to perfect these requirements.
Increasing compassion and improving interpersonal relationships:
In general, people in love see only the positive qualities of their loved ones, and people who hate see only the negative qualities of their enemies. Because these perceptions are extreme and unrealistic, they cause many vexations. To maintain objectivity and respect for one another, people must keep a certain distance and give others their space. Being too close does not imply a physical or emotional distance or even refer to how much time spent together; rather, it refers to having expectations of the other person. Expectations — a form of attachment — spawn vexations.
Someone once asked me if practicing Buddhism would change the way he treats his wife and children. I do not believe Buddhism would decrease the love he feels towards his family. But, at the same time, he should use Buddhism to eliminate the impurities in this love, namely self-centeredness, which leads us to magnify insignificant occurrences into great vexations and place conditions on our affection. To eliminate self-centeredness, we should extend our love to more people. Sometimes we forgo meeting new people because we feel at ease interacting with our friends and do not want to step out of our comfort zone. However, we should not only maintain our already-existent friendships but also widen our circle of friends and acquaintances.
Affection without wisdom is dangerous. We need to use good judgment in our relationships. For example, we should not ask our friends about their private business because it may offend them. Additionally, since we genuinely care about our friends’ feelings, we should not inquire about past sources of pain.
Escaping the influence of external conditions:
Some people feel overwhelmed when they have a lot to do; they want to escape from their responsibilities and retreat to peace and solitude. Yet when they are alone, they feel lonely. We have to learn not to feel overwhelmed in crowds and lonely in solitude. Usually, when a couple has been married for decades and one passes away before the other, the surviving spouse has difficulty dealing with the loss. Buddhism trains us to feel comfortable no matter what our external circumstances may be.
I greatly admire Master Shin-yuen because despite receiving many people everyday, he never feels vexed. He does not dwell on past occurrences, and he always lives in the present moment. Because he is free of attachment and vexation, Master Shin-yuen can accomplish many goals.
Contemplating on conditional origination, impermanence, and non-self:
Conditional origination means that no phenomenon arises independently. Each occurrence is the result of a complex web of causes, each of which, in turn, is the result of countless other factors. Observe that all phenomena are ephemeral and in a constant state of flux. Whether circumstances change for the better or for the worse depends on our own perception. With an optimistic outlook, we will welcome change as improvement; with a pessimistic outlook, on the other hand, we will perceive it as undesirable. Impermanence should not be a bad thing: when we see transition approaching, we can take steps to ensure the change is for the better by recognizing and seizing opportunities to improve our circumstances.
Because everything is ephemeral, we should not form attachments because they will lead to unsatisfied desires. Each individual is composed of various physical and non-physical components that are constantly changing. Buddhism teaches the concept of “non-self” to help us understand that there is no fixed, independent entity that embodies the essence of an individual; all the aspects of a person, including emotions, are always in flux. Anger, sadness, joy -these feelings come and go.
Negative emotions are uncomfortable and unproductive. If we can understand the concept of “non-self” and recognize the fleeting nature of our emotions, we will realize the futility of vexation. Then we will be less likely to form antagonistic feelings towards others, and our interpersonal relationships will improve.
Seeing reality clearly and having self-confidence:
We filter the world through the lens of our mind, but we constantly have to focus the lens to see things as they truly are. We cannot presume to get a clear picture after only one adjustment. In interacting with people, we should put ourselves in their shoes; this way, we will be more considerate of others and increase mutual understanding and harmony.
When doing volunteer work, we should always smile and keep in mind that any job, be it sweeping or other manual labor, offers a chance for positive interpersonal interactions. These good relationships will aid us in spreading the Dharma and helping sentient beings.
Towards others, we must have equanimity, and towards ourselves, we must have confidence. Self-confidence eliminates anxiety and anger in the face of criticism. One’s self-confidence, moreover, should not depend on compliments from other people. In addition, self-reflection is crucial: we need to identify and correct our mistakes, and if we have done nothing wrong, we should not let criticism bother us. Consequently, whether justified or not, criticism actually helps us become better people. To recognize that typically vexing occurrences offer valuable chances for self-improvement, we must first adopt a balanced approach to life.