Ch'an Newsletter - No. 89, November 1991

The Importance of Buddhadharma in the Modern World
Lecture by Master Sheng-yen on October 13, 1991

The world we live in has a genuine need for Buddhadharma. There are many fine things in the modem world, but there is much that is less than desirable. The world is becoming smaller and more crowded and people are getting busier and busier.

As a child, I read a Chinese novel called Journey to the West. It is the story of a monkey with mystical, supernormal powers who accompanies his master to India to seek special teachings from the Buddha. Despite the monkey's power, the journey is very difficult. The monkey could leap over 100,000 miles, but because his master lacked that power, the journey was arduous.

This would not be a problem today. They could both take a commercial flight -- six hours from China to India. It's only about 16 hours all the way to the United States.

We may feel that the world is getting smaller and smaller, but at the same time the distance between individuals seems to be getting greater and greater.

In ancient times -- even when I was a child -- people living in the country knew all of their neighbors for miles around. You would know most of the families in your neighborhood. This is no longer true. You may know your next door neighbor by sight, but you may not know his or her name.

When people married in times past, they would rarely consider the option or even the possibility of divorce. But these days people often marry with an attitude of "What's the big deal? The worst that can happen is that we separate."

There was a time when people were not so busy, and they had more time to know themselves and understand what their lives were about. Sometimes we don't even know ourselves. Our own selves may seem unfamiliar. We may be confused by such questions as: "What are you doing with your life?" or 'Where do you think you are going and what will you be doing in the future?"

Things move very fast in the world today. So much seems to have happened in the three months that I have been gone from the Center. I can hardly recall what the situation was like before I left. Even yesterday, Guo Yuan Shi had to remind me that I was scheduled to give today's talk. This just shows how busy I've been.

At lunch Ming Yee observed that if we didn't have a telephone and a fax machine, I would be able to get a little rest when I come to the States. But as it happens, no sooner do I arrive, then I find a fax and more responsibilities waiting for me. The same thing happens when I return to Taiwan. Whatever needs my attention follows me around. There is no place for me to run to. I imagine that many people find themselves in this situation. 

Yesterday five people vacationing from Taiwan came to visit me. They stayed one night and they took a plane to Canada this morning. They will be back in Taiwan in two days. I asked them what they were doing on vacation. "Rest," they said.

One consequence of the advances in communication and transportation is that people continue to get busier and busier. In addition, I have to adjust from a time zone that's half way around the world. It can be quite tiring.

How can Buddhadharma help us in this busy world? What can it do for the distance between people and the alienation people feel within themselves?

Buddhadharma teaches that the world we live in is only a very small portion of the universe. It is like a grain of sand in the Ganges river or a grain of sand in countless Ganges rivers.

Even if we feel that the world is as small as an egg, we can take heart in the vastness of the universe. We may not be able to roam through it in its entirety at this point, but we need not have any sense of claustrophobia or oppression because the Earth feels small to us now.

With a method of practice, we can discover a great world inside of us, and that, like the world around us, is limitless. There is no measure of the space within and without.

Buddhadharmna tells us that the unlimited living beings in our world and throughout the universe have suffered through rebirth upon rebirth in numberless worlds from beginningless time. Through countless lifetimes, each of these sentient beings has played the role of relative, friend, brother, sister, parent, child, etc. to each other.

All the matter in the universe at one time or another has been part of our bodies in previous lifetimes. That which comprised our bodies has become the matter which now fills the universe. It says in the sutras that the dust particles in 3,000 trichilicosms -- an unimaginably enormous expanse of space -- have combined to form the many bodies we have inhabited through time, and it is this enormity of matter which has been discarded with the disintegration of these bodies.

This will give you an idea of the intimate relationship you share with other living beings, animals, plant and even minerals. They all have been part of you. You are not a single isolated existence.

If we use the methods and concepts of Buddhadharma as a guide in daily life, not only will we feel the vastness of the universe, but we will also see our close connection to everything within it. The gulf between others and ourselves will be bridged.

I have spoken about how busy so many people are. What does this mean for a Buddhist practitioner? Should he be as busy as others? How should he perceive his life?

Let's look at Sakyamuni Buddha. He lived about 25 centuries ago in India at a time when many Indians lived relatively unhurried lives. There was a limit upon what had to be done and what could be done. But Sakyamuni Buddha was different. From childhood until his death -- for 80 years -- he led a very, very busy life.

As a child, he was occupied with learning the worldly knowledge of his day: the arts, Literature, philosophy, religion, martial arts, to name a few. Eventually, he decided to renounce the world and leave home. But be was still quite busy learning how to practice. He practiced very hard for six years using many different methods. Ultimately, he attained Buddhahood. But that doesn't mean he had nothing to do. No, he just got busier.

From the Tripitaka, the collection of the Dharma given us by the Buddha, especially the collections of Sutras and Vinaya, it is evident that Sakyamuni Buddha spent most of his life after his enlightenment traveling all over India, trying to help whomever he met. He had precious little time to rest. There was hardly a day when he had nothing to do.

Being busy in itself is not a problem. The Dalai Lama, a very important master, is very busy day in and day out attending to his people, trying to free his country, ministering his religion, and pursuing his own practice. He has been as busy as the Buddha was in his lime. But this only shows that being busy is not a problem for a Buddhist practitioner. The busy life of a Buddhist, especially the busy life of Buddha, is quite different from the busy life of an ordinary person.

What is the difference between a Buddhist practitioner and an ordinary person? When ordinary people are busy, they have a purpose, and that purpose is their own benefit. They busily seek fame, wealth, position, and power. It is for this reason that their minds are always unsteady. They live in tension, apprehension, constantly trying to fulfill their desires.

A Buddhist practitioner, especially someone with some attainment, may be busy, but it will not be for his own sake, for his own fame or fortune, for his own power or position. He will not be concerned about winning or losing something. He will not live in tension, apprehension, or confusion.

There is nothing wrong with being busy, but if it makes you restless or unstable, you will be filled with vexations. Being busy simply means that you have many things to deal with, one after the other. If your mind is not concerned with getting or losing, then there will be no vexation. When dealing with many things leads to restlessness, instability, and tension, then that is vexation.

Two people I know who occupy very high cabinet posts in the government in Taiwan have two very different attitudes towards their positions. One is quite concerned about his career. He is in constant fear that he will lose his post as cabinet head. He also worries that even if he keeps his position, there will be nowhere for him to advance. This attitude causes him to be tense and nervous, and consequently, apt to falter. As a result, he is often criticized and attacked.

The other person, whose position is equally high, has a completely different view of his role: "I only try to do my best," he says. "If the government thinks that I am doing well in this position, then I'll continue to work here. If the government wishes me to step down, then I'll gladly do it. I am concerned with what I do, not my position." He happens to be a Buddhist practitioner. In fact, he studies with me.

Here, then, are two people who share positions at the same high level, but whose perceptions of those positions are completely different.

Many people find the world to be a very difficult place in which to live. The quality of the air and the quality of our food leave much to be desired. Many people feel that we live in a garbage dump or a room slowly filling with poison gas. It is no wonder that there is great concern for the environment.

But this problem must be approached correctly. Recently in Taiwan there was an ironic turn of events involving some members of an environmental protection group. In their zeal to protect the water and air, some of the members ended up unleashing greater pollution into the environment. Their actions actually resulted in a number of deaths.

I gave a talk in Boston three years ago which happened to coincide with Earth Day. The Earth Day organizers and participants passed out a great number of posters and fliers filled with advice on how to save the environment. All that paper wound up creating a huge mound of garbage. Were these people part of the solution or part of the problem?

Again, a couple of years ago, there were two opposing demonstrations in Central Park. One group was pro, the other anti, nuclear power. Which of these groups was right? Whatever the answer, it seemed that at least in that situation, both groups contributed more to the disharmony of the environment than to any real solution.

These difficulties arise from the way people respond to the problems in the world. People want things to change. But the question is who should do the changing?

From the Buddhist point of view, it is a mistake to simply turn your attention outward in order to speak of others' problems, the world's problems, problems of the environment. If the only thing that you can do is to criticize others and you only demand that others change, that will not solve anything.

What does Buddhadharma say on these issues? Buddhadharma counsels each of us to maintain purity of mind and heart. In other words, we must each try to have less greed, hatred, ignorance, arrogance, and doubt in our minds. This will naturally lead the world in a better direction. It will become a purer, healthier, and safer place in which to live.

How do we achieve this goal? We must depend on the teachings, concepts, and methods of practice of Buddhadharma. Only with these can we reach the goal of purity of mind. Only when the mind is pure can the external environment become pure. Only when you attain purity of mind can you see the purity of the external world. Without this inner peace and purity, the world will always be troubled by problems. Few people are mindful of their own problems or their own inadequacies. Most of us fervently believe that the root of our problems lies in what others have done to us. Why, after all, do we use the word "ordinary people?" Because such people have ordinary, common problems basic to human nature, such as greed hatred, arrogance, and doubt.

Very few people reflect on the fact that they themselves are ordinary people with ordinary problems. Ii is because of their problems that they are so acutely aware of the problems of others. If I were a sage or a saint, however, I would not be troubled by the faults and shortcomings of those around me. We see the faults in others principally because we are ordinary, vulnerable beings ourselves.

Buddhadharma does not aim to control or subdue others. It is the goal of Buddhadharma to help us understand and tolerate others even as we learn to master our own bodies and minds. This is what we. call practice.

When we understand the problems of ordinary people, that, in Buddhadharma, is called compassion. We see that they have the weaknesses of ordinary people, It is only appropriate that ordinary people have ordinary problems. Mindful of this, our vexations will lessen. This will lead to tolerance and a muting of our criticism of such people. We will not harbor resentment or hatred toward them. At the same time, will reflect on our own faults and try to improve ourselves.

As long as you have awareness on one side, it will affect both sides. What does this mean? Your understanding of your own ordinariness and faults will engender an understanding of others' ordinariness and their faults. You will be aware of where you are vulnerable to making mistakes, and you will see where others are vulnerable, also. This will naturally bring about understanding and sympathy for sufferings others undergo. This understanding will translate into a peaceful attitude towards yourself therefore towards others.

Before lunch today, I encouraged those members who have been with the Center for a long time to receive bodhisattva precepts. This involves vowing to obserye and keep quite a number of rules. At lunch someone approached me and said, "Shih-fu, do you think that someone like me can take these bodhisattva precepts?" I asked, "Why not?" He replied, "Because if I take the precepts, I'm sure to break them." I said, "It's only by taking the precepts, that you will have precepts to break. If you didn't have them, you couldn't break them." Sakyamuni Buddha said that when you have precepts to break, that is the way of a bodhisattva; when you have no precepts to break, that is the mark of an outer path -- it should not be followed. The idea behind this is that if you take no precepts, you may think that you can get away with anything without breaking any rules. But you may in fact be doing much that is bad and harmful, no matter what you think.

On the other hand, if you have made the effort to take precepts, perhaps you'll break a precept today, but you'll know it. You may break another precept tomorrow, but you'll know that, too. Eventually, this awareness will encourage you to break precepts less and less often. This process will help you to become a bodhisattva.

Simply because ordinary sentient beings are ordinary, it is impossible for them to maintain the absolute purity of body, speech, and mind. After all, their bodies and their minds are not really under their control. In addition, they have any number of vexations, what we call karmic obstructions, that have been brought over to this lifetime from previous lifetimes. These bother and constrain us. It is difficult for an ordinary sentient being not to break a precept. But Buddhadharma lays down a clear path so that you will know which actions to engage in and which to refrain from. You establish these criteria for yourself and you vow to adhere to them. But it may happen that you will continue to break the precepts for a long, long time. In fact, a bodhisattva continues to break precepts until the day he attains Buddhahood. An analogy often given is this: precepts are like a robe. When you break a precept, it is as if you made a hole in it. Now you have to mend it or patch it up. Later there will be more holes and more patches. But eventually you reach a point where the robe needs no patching. This is the process that you must go through. Without the precepts, it is as if you had no robe; it is as if you were naked.

It is important for us to recognize that we are ordinary people, that we have weaknesses, that we have inadequacies, that we have vexations. Self-knowledge is the beginning of wisdom and it also leads to the growth of compassion for others. Compassion will eventually affect even the environment, leading to its improvement and purification.

How does this work? If we are somewhat less greedy, we will seek somewhat fewer material objects. What material objects we do have, we will use more economically and less wastefully. We will create less garbage and consequently, we will pollute the environment less. With more understanding and sympathy for others, there will be less conflict and more peace. This will certainly improve the world we live in. We will share more and thus put less strain on our resources. This, too, will enhance the environment. One more person practicing Buddhadharma, then, is an incremental force for the peace, purity, and stability of the world. If we wish to stop the destruction of the world and to stem the tide of insanity that sometimes seems to be prevalent among so many of its people, then we should dedicate our efforts to the understanding and the practice of Buddhadharma.

Buddhadharma emphasizes working on one's own personality, on one's own mind. If we can establish wholesome personalities, maintain the purity of our minds, and influence each other in a benevolent way, then we will be able to establish a Pure Land in this world.

It is not an issue whether everybody in the world is converted to Buddhism. The important thing is to turn away from trying to subdue others and to help others see that they must work on their own minds. This is the emphasis of Buddhadharma.

Buddhadharma does not advise against a reasonable accumulation of material things. It is simply that we should not take this to extremes, nor should we squander our resources.

It would be wrong to conclude that Buddhists concentrate only on themselves to the exclusion of others. The idea is that we first work on our own minds. Then, once we have benefited, we try to help others benefit also.

For the last few years I have been helping to establish a major Buddhist complex in Taiwan. It will include an academy, library, practice halls, and will have a variety of facilities. It is called Dharma Drum Mountain. We are now planning its development. Two sentences summarize the goal of Dharma Drum Mountain, and show the responsibility Buddhism recognizes it has towards the modern world: "To raise the quality of all human beings" and "To establish a Pure Land on earth."

All of what I have said today is expressed by these two ideas. Are there any questions? Don't worry about saying the wrong thing. Even bodhisattvas begin by making mistakes.

Question: Did you say that we should wait until we benefit from the practice before we can help others to benefit?

It is true that there is a sequence. But it is not a hard and fast rule. It is not that you must achieve a particularly lofty level of practice before you can go on to help others. It is true that you begin with yourself first. But as you work on yourself, you will begin to be able to help and influence others.

Question: The world is neither moral nor immoral, is that right? There is nothing right or wrong. I would like Shih-fu to comment.

You cannot say the world is moral or immoral. The world is like a white sheet of paper. Ideas of morality or immorality are human concepts. These have been set up by various people at various times, and accordingly we judge certain things to be moral or immoral. Because of differences in location, culture, and history, what constitutes morality today may change tomorrow.

Question: Isn't it possible that there are some forces in the modem world that are so powerful and so evil that they need to be subdued? Isn't there a limit to the tolerance of others?

There is a distinction between going to war to subjugate a country and acting in such a way that aggression is prevented. For example, in Sakyamuni's time there were situations where one country or another was bent on acting in an unreasonable way. He said that it was important for what he called righteous forces to maintain the kind of power that would discourage rash actions. This type of power would instill the idea in potential adversaries that if they did something unreasonable, they would be, in effect, harming themselves. The idea of going to war to conquer was not condoned. It is as if you saw a child about to do something mischievous, so you would hold both his arms to prevent him from getting into trouble. The child is both restrained and frightened. It is for this reason that in the Tantric Buddhist tradition there are many deities that take wrathful forms in order to tame evil forces.

One time years ago when the Center was on the other side of the street and we were in the middle of a Ch'an retreat, a drunk came in and started to harass us. Nancy, who was on the retreat, went to talk to him to try and convince him to leave. He would not move. I told Stuart, who is a very big, powerful guy, to talk to him. Stuart walked over to him, spoke a few words, and the drunk turned and left. This is not in contradiction to the compassion of Buddhadharma.

Question: You spoke quite a bit about ordinary sentient beings. If every sentient being is innately a
Buddha, how can they be ordinary?

An analogy used in the sutras is that of gold ore in a mine. Before it has been refined, it is still not in a form we would call gold, even though the essential content of gold is inside. All of us here may have gold content, but it has yet to be refined. What is vexation? Vexation is comparable to the stones and rocks mixed with the gold in the ore.

Shifu at McMaster University, with Prof. Koichi Shinohara, Prof. Tong E Jie, Dr. Robert Sharf, Prof. Dan Stevenson, and Ming Yee Wang.

Shifu lecturing at Montclair State College. Paul Kennedy translated.

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