One day, a famous government official was passing along a road. He saw an old monk teaching Buddhism. Hardly unusual except that the monk was seated on a tree branch.
The official asked the elderly monk what he was doing. After all, the monk was in a very precarious position. One wrong move and he could fall to his death!
The monk replied that the official’s position was even more precarious. If the monk made a careless move, he alone might be killed. But if the official made a mistake, it could cost the lives of thousands.
The official considered this and decided that it was a very good reply. He told the monk that if he could explain the essence of Buddhism in one sentence, he would become the monk’s student.
“Easy!” said the monk. “The essence of Buddhism is to avoid all that is evil, to embrace all that is good, and to purify one’s mind.”
The official scoffed, “Is that all? Even a child of three knows that!"
The monk replied that while it was true that a child of three may know it, there was no certainty that a man of eighty could do it.
Avoid all that is evil. Embrace all that is good. Purify one’s mind.
We all know we should do this, but as the monk wisely pointed out, few do.
Why is this? Is it our lack of trying? Or do we not know exactly how?
Almost 3000 years ago in an area that is now in Nepal, a prince was born. As this future ruler of a prosperous kingdom grew up, he had everything: parents who loved him, the best teachers, admiration from those who knew him, future wealth and power—he had everything. Or did he?
When he was just seven years old, the prince had sat quietly under a tree. As he looked around, he saw insects writhing in pain after being cut by plows that were slicing into the earth. A small bird swooped down to devour the struggling insects and was in turn caught by a larger bird.
Even as a child, the prince recognized suffering.
And the more he looked around him, the more he saw that it wasn’t just animals who suffered.
Every living being suffered.
They suffered from birth and from the pain of having a body that weakened with age. They underwent separation from those they loved and association with those they disliked. They underwent the hardships of living and the pain of death. All these are suffering.
But surely, surely since suffering existed, there was a way to end it!
As time passed, the prince’s need to discover both the cause of suffering and the way to end it become firmly entrenched within him.
Then, one day, he knew it was time. He was to become the future ruler, yet he knew of no way to end the suffering of those he would be responsible for. Nor could he end his wife’s suffering or his newborn son’s suffering. He would be helpless in the face of their sickness, aging, and death.
Knowing his wife and son would be lovingly cared for, and vowing to return when he had found the Way, the prince renounced his life as a future king. He became a wandering seeker for the sake of all beings.
For six years, he sought the Way to end suffering. But none of the traditional practices and knowledge revealed what he sought.
One evening, knowing what he needed to do, he sat down on a pile of grass under a tree. Slowly, he assumed a meditation position. He vowed that even if only his skin, sinews, and bones remained, and his blood dried up and flesh withered away, he would not stir from his seat until he had attained supreme, perfect enlightenment.
Gradually he went deeper and deeper into his meditation, and his heart and mind expanded. He began to search throughout all time, throughout all space. And as the new day was dawning, he realized the cause of suffering and the Way to end it.
The wandering seeker had become Buddha—the awakened one. Finally, he could truly help his family, his subjects, all beings. He would do so by teaching for the remaining forty-nine years of his life.
He taught of four noble truths to help us see that we ourselves create our suffering through our craving. But since we each create our own suffering, we each can end our suffering. How? Through moral self-discipline, meditative concentration, and innate wisdom.
He taught about cause and effect. Everything we think, say, and do will have its resultant consequence, which we will undergo. Understanding this, we will know to be wary of every thought, every word, every deed we are about to do. To be wary of the consequences once the deed is done is futile for then it will be too late.
The Buddha taught us to forgive others. They, like we, act out of ignorance. They, like we, do not truly understand that all our thoughts, words, and deeds will return to us, like fine dust thrown into the air above, like flotsam cast upstream as we stand below.
Those who do wrong will reap the consequences. W e do not need to punish them. We should forgive them and feel sorrow at their future suffering, not anger at their current misdeeds. Forgive them, for it is not up to us to judge and punish them. We do not need to do so.
The Buddha taught us to be tolerant and, then, to go beyond tolerance to care for others with a joyful heart. To not close our hearts to the entreaties, spoken or silent, of others. To instead, open wide our hearts to embrace all beings, knowing they and I are one. Their sorrow is my sorrow. Until they are happy, I cannot be truly happy.
He taught us to unconditionally love all beings, animate and inanimate. To illuminate with love as the sun shines equally on all without differentiation between this one and that one; and without clinging to those it shines on. To love as the sun shines—with warmth and brightness. To love without any expectation of love in return.
The Buddha taught about avoiding evil, doing good, and purifying one’s mind. What if we cannot purify our minds? Then avoid all that is evil and embrace all that is good. And if we cannot embrace all that is good? Then at least avoid all that is evil.
Through ten virtuous deeds. By phrasing these in a positive way, we can strive to avoid committing evil while accomplishing what is good.
I resolve not to kill. Instead, I will respect and have compassion for all beings.
I resolve not to steal. Instead, before taking or using anything, I will ask permission of the owner.
I resolve not to engage in sexual misconduct, or any sensory indulgence. Instead, I will develop the mind of self-restraint and purity.
I resolve not to use false speech. Instead, I will speak the truth in a wise way and at the right time.
I resolve not to use harsh speech. Instead, I will speak words that benefit others and foster peace.
I resolve not to use divisive speech. Instead, I will speak words that foster harmony and understanding.
I resolve not to use enticing speech. Instead, I will speak sincerely and truthfully.
I resolve to refrain from greed. Instead, I will open my heart and practice giving.
I resolve to refrain from anger. Instead, I will develop patience and the compassion to see the suffering of others.
I resolve to refrain from ignorance. Instead, I will discipline myself and calm my mind so that I can act from wisdom.
Suffering is caused and it can end. Forgiveness, appreciation, love, and virtuous conduct. Avoid all that is evil, embrace all that is good, and purify the mind. These are the heart, the essence of the teachings of the Buddhas.
~ Talk given by Venerable Wuling at “Morality & Virtues: A Faith Perspective and Conversation with Faith Leaders” Interfauth Forum, March 17-19, 2012, Toowoomba, Australia