Tuesday
May092017

Those who do not understand, ask “Why?”

Those who do, struggle; but move on.

When faced suddenly with a tragic loss of life, an initial response is often the grief-stricken moan, “Why?” But as heartrending as the loss is, even more terrible is remaining stuck, forever searching for an answer. Never understanding how such a tragedy could happen. Never moving forward. As Buddhist practitioners, such loss still leaves us with a wrenching sorrow, but we have thankfully learned the answer to “Why?” Everyone, even the young and innocent, planted the seeds for what happens to them in this lifetime. Our minds are not yet clear enough for us to know the karmic cause of an unexpected death. But we can at least grasp that the cause existed because the result would not have happened otherwise. The loss is tragic, but not unfair. Such understanding does not magically erase our pain. It does, however, enable us to move on and figure out how to exist with our grim new reality.

Sunday
May072017

An Introduction to the Amitabha Sutra: Chap. 39: The Buddhas in the Western Direction

In the worlds of the western direction there are countless other Buddhas, like the Buddha “Infinite Life,” the Buddha “Innumerable Characteristics,” the Buddha “Innumerable Banners,” the Buddha “Great Light,” the Buddha “Great Illumination,” the Buddha “Jewel Appearance,” and the Buddha “Light of Purity.” Each of them . . . [teaches in his own land with the truthfulness of a Buddha] and covers a whole cosmos, speaking these sincere words: “all of you sentient beings should believe this sutra extolling inconceivable virtues, which all Buddhas protect and keep in mind”.

As previously seen, the names of the Buddhas in the eastern direction teach us the fundamentals of learning and cultivation. We also learned that the names of the Buddhas in the southern direction teach us to cultivate wisdom. Now, from the names of the Buddhas in the Western direction, we will learn to accumulate good fortune. As we do this, we need to remember that we do not seek good fortune for our personal enjoyment.

Rather, through our own life serving as an example, people will wonder how we came to acquire many advantages like a long and healthy life, a good appearance, prominence, and wisdom. We will then be able to show people that, through practice, they too can attain such advantages. Thus, our objective in accumulating good fortune is to help others by leading them to practice.

The first Buddha named in the western direction was Buddha Infinite Life. Infinite Life is not only the name of the Buddha of the Western Pure Land of Ultimate Bliss; it is also a name shared by many other Buddhas. Buddha Infinite Life is named first in this passage because infinite life is of vital importance. Even within the context of this present lifetime, a long lifespan is one kind of good fortune. When one has a long lifespan, one has a greater opportunity to practice and thus to awaken sooner.

We can better understand this when we consider how hard it is for us humans to succeed. The average human lifetime is a matter of mere decades, and much of that time is spent sleeping, working, socializing, and with family. We allocate very little of our day to actual practice. With a longer lifespan, however, our cumulative practice time can be increased and thus so will the likelihood of our success.

The second Buddha named was Buddha Innumerable Characteristics. Characteristics, such as a youthful complexion and a graceful gait, are the auspicious physical attributes that adorn a Buddha’s Manifestation Body. Such features symbolize good fortune.

As with all forms of good fortune, when we have both a long lifespan and a pleasing appearance, it is for the benefit of others, not for personal enjoyment. In one’s continual efforts to be of assistance to others by helping them to understand and accept Buddhism, such attributes can be very compelling. They provide good examples. Therefore, it is most helpful if a long lifespan, a pleasing appearance, and other positive attributes are evident. Appreciating this helps us to understand the next Buddha better.

The third Buddha named was Buddha Innumerable Banners, who signifies superiority and prominence. In times past in China, a banner would be displayed prominently at a monastery to signal that a virtuous and wise monastic was teaching the Dharma. In a similar, but much grander, manner, “Innumerable Banners” in this Buddha’s name signals his great prominence in virtue, wisdom, and prestige. Due to these accomplishments, he is respected by countless beings. Again, we see the importance of good fortune, which in this example occurs as prominence.

The fourth Buddha was Buddha Great Light, whose name refers to the “light” of wisdom. Longevity, good fortune, and prominence all originate from great wisdom.

The fifth Buddha was Buddha Great Illumination. This name signifies the function of great wisdom. Perceiving that a being has attained great wisdom assures others that the being is qualified to help them also achieve such benefits.

The sixth Buddha was Buddha Jewel Appearance, whose name signifies an excellent appearance. As we learned from Buddha Innumerable Characteristics, an excellent appearance is a sign of great good fortune.

The seventh and final Buddha named in the western direction was Buddha Light of Purity. This name signifies the foundation for cultivating good fortune. For us to perfectly attain great good fortune, our three karmic activities of thought, speech, and action must be radiant and pure just like this Buddha’s name, “Light of Purity.”

The Buddhas cited in this sutra passage can help us reinforce our dedication to chanting the Buddha-name and learning the Pure Land teachings. In so doing we will purify our mind and thus accumulate great good fortune.

 

Friday
May052017

When inclined to take the easy way out,

determine whether you can 

live with the consequences.

When confronting an unappealing job, we often resist. Not because we question whether it is appropriate to do, we lack the necessary skills, or it entails some other valid reason. The chore is something we just don’t feel like doing. So, day after day we sense a stirring of discomfort inside us as yet again reminders of the still uncompleted task loom up before us. And, once again, our response is delay. Aversion. Laziness. Resistance. Call it what you will, we’re like little children stamping our feet and yelling, “I don’t want to!” Sounds silly, when we think about it. But our resisting could prove grave. What might happen if we don’t finish our task? An acrimonious relationship? An even more dreaded task? Diminishing good fortune? We need to consider the logical outcomes and ask ourselves, “Will the consequence be more painful to endure than the job itself?”

Tuesday
May022017

It is not the quantity of teachings that matters,

but how we practice those we have.

Our goal is not to become a “nightstand Buddhist,” but a focused practitioner. The former consumes teachings: reading one book, moving it to the read pile, and picking up a new one. Those focused in their practice read the book, get to the last page, turn the book over, and begin reading again. And again. And yet again. A book reviewer once complained that a master’s books kept repeating the same thing. A commenter replied it was because we still weren’t doing what the master had instructed in the earlier books. In other words, until we internalize and practice a book’s teachings, we’re not ready for more. So, we do not need a bookshelf full of books. We need to practice what we have. In Pure Land Buddhism, we do not have dozens of books to pile on our nightstand. And that’s okay because the ones we possess provide abundant teachings. We just need to clear away the clutter on our nightstand for our one book. 

Sunday
Apr302017

An Introduction to the Amitabha Sutra: Chap. 38: The Buddhas in the Southern Direction

In the worlds of the southern direction there are countless other Buddhas, like the Buddha “Lamp of the Sun and Moon,” the Buddha “Light of Renown,” the Buddha “Great Blazing Shoulders,” the Buddha “Lamp of the Polar Mountain,” and the Buddha “Infinite Vigor.” Each of them . . . [teaches in his own land with the truthfulness of a Buddha] and covers a whole cosmos, speaking these sincere words: “all of you sentient beings should believe this sutra extolling inconceivable virtues, which all Buddhas protect and keep in mind”.

The names of the five Buddhas in the southern direction represent the cultivation of innate prajna wisdom, which all beings possess. Perfectly awakened beings function entirely from their innate prajna wisdom, while we deluded beings rarely function from ours. We are unable to because we have overwhelming karmic obstacles. The result? We remain mired in delusion. Delusion is one’s afflictions and residual habits. Because we are deluded, our wisdom lies hidden. Fortunately, if we truly practice according to Sakyamuni Buddha, our wisdom will shine through.

Consider the following analogy about wisdom. That of Buddhas is like the sun on a beautiful, cloudless day, shining radiantly without any obstruction. The wisdom of us ordinary beings, however, is like the sunlight on an overcast day. Although the sun is shining, dark clouds obstruct its light. In a similar manner, our obstacles block our wisdom from shining forth.

What are these obstacles? They are our wandering thoughts, discriminations, and attachments. As the Avatamsaka Sutra says, “All beings have the wisdom and virtues of a Buddha but cannot attain them due to their wandering thoughts and attachments.” To overcome our wandering thoughts and attachments, Sakyamuni Buddha taught us to cultivate ourselves. Once we eliminate these impediments, the wisdom and abilities innate in our true nature, our prajna wisdom, will shine through.

The first Buddha named in the southern direction was Buddha Lamp of the Sun and Moon. In our world, the sun shines brightly during the day, and the moon shines at night. Lamps can illuminate places where sunlight and moonlight cannot reach. “Lamp of the Sun and Moon” signifies that innate prajna wisdom, which is wisdom unhindered by obstructions, can perfectly illuminate all things in all places.

The second Buddha named in the southern direction was Buddha Light of Renown. Here too, “Light” signifies wisdom. “Renown” refers to fame, a state of being highly acclaimed and widely honored for one’s accomplishments, and is often accompanied by wealth. The attainment of renown is a crucial juncture, a critical time in cultivation that requires decisive action. By personally enjoying fame it will be easy for one to look down on others. With such arrogance, regression will follow.

When we reach this juncture of fame and wealth, we will need to not only use wisdom to illuminate the darkness of our delusion; we will also need to shine it on our renown. In other words, upon having achieved some distinction for our cultivation, that distinction must be clearly illuminated and understood. There must not be the slightest attachment to fame, prestige, gain, and wealth. Otherwise, we will be obstructed by them and remain trapped in the cycle of rebirth when we should be transcending it.

To transcend, we need to eradicate our afflictions. Failing to do so, our innate wisdom will continue to remain largely inaccessible. With the eradication of a part of our afflictions, a part of our wisdom will come forth. With the elimination of all our afflictions, our innate wisdom will come forth fully.

Eradicating afflictions—letting go of wandering thoughts, discriminations, and attachments—takes careful cultivation and innate wisdom. How do we begin to uncover this wisdom? Not through studying many teachings. The way to reveal our wisdom is to delve deeply into just one method and immerse ourselves in it for a long time. This immersion will enable us to understand Sakyamuni Buddha’s teachings and practice in accordance with them.

Sakyamuni Buddha taught us to see the truth and to let go of our wandering thoughts, discriminations, and attachments. When we start to let go a little, we will start to reveal a little of our wisdom and see a little of the truth. Seeing a little of the truth will, in turn, help us to let go a bit more, uncover a bit more of wisdom, and help us to see even more of the truth. From our initial generation of the bodhi mind until our attainment of Buddhahood, our learning and practice of Buddhism consist of letting go of our wandering thoughts, discriminations, and attachments, uncovering wisdom, and seeing the truth.

After we put into practice what we learned from the names of Buddha Lamp of the Sun and Moon and Buddha Light of Renown, we will reveal two kinds of wisdom: real wisdom and expedient wisdom. The importance of these two wisdoms can be grasped thanks to the third Buddha, Great Blazing Shoulders. As practitioners, we should “shoulder,” or take up, the responsibility to propagate the Dharma and help all beings. To accomplish this, we need both real wisdom and expedient wisdom.

Real wisdom is a pure mind: the mind of sincerity, purity, and impartiality. When we are even just a little attached to our fame, prestige, gain, or wealth, we no longer have a sincere, pure, and impartial mind. We do not have real wisdom. Consequently, we are also devoid of expedient wisdom, which is proper understanding and compassion.

Therefore in lacking a sincere, pure, and impartial mind, we also lack proper understanding and compassion. Instead of having compassion for all beings, we will be concerned about those we like and indifferent to those we dislike. This is partiality, not impartiality. It is not the way to aid all beings. To propagate the Dharma and aid all beings, we need both wisdoms. We need real wisdom: the mind of sincerity, purity, and impartiality. We also need expedient wisdom: proper understanding, and compassion.

The fourth Buddha named was Buddha Lamp of the Polar Mountain. This Buddha’s name teaches us that in the cultivation of wisdom, we need to transform the eight consciousnesses to wisdom. As Venerable Master Chin Kung explained, “In cultivating oneself and teaching others, the goal is to break through delusion and attain awakening. One should transform the sixth, or mental awareness, consciousness to Wisdom of Wondrous Observation; transform the seventh, or thinking mind, consciousness to Wisdom of Equality in Nature; transform the eighth, or store, consciousness to Great Perfect Mirror Wisdom; and transform the first five consciousnesses to Wisdom of Completion of Actions.”

As we previously learned, consciousness comprises eight sub-consciousnesses. The first five consciousnesses are sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. The sixth is mental awareness, the seventh is the thinking mind, and the eighth is the store consciousness. Like an enormous warehouse, this eighth consciousness stores all the karmic impressions from our countless lifetimes over innumerable kalpas.

Each of these eight consciousnesses has a particular role. That of the first five consciousnesses is to perceive through the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and body. The function of the mental awareness consciousness is discrimination. The function of the thinking mind consciousness is attachment. The function of the store consciousness is wandering thoughts. These eight sub-consciousnesses form the consciousness, the false mind we need to transform into the true mind. The true mind is wisdom. Bodhisattvas show us how to accomplish this transformation.

With their wisdom manifesting, bodhisattvas transform the mental awareness consciousness to the Wisdom of Wondrous Observation. Wondrous observation is to understand clearly. When the eyes see, one knows precisely what is viewed. When the ears hear, one knows precisely what is heard. Similarly, when the nose smells, the tongue tastes, and the body touches, one knows precisely what they smell, taste, and touch.

When one’s mental awareness consciousness is transformed to a mind like that of a bodhisattva, one is clear about one’s thoughts. This is observation. Wondrous Observation is like a mirror that reflects clearly, with no wandering thoughts, discriminations, and attachments. It is true wisdom. If there is discrimination in one’s knowing, one is deluded and using one’s consciousness, not wisdom.

The thinking mind consciousness is transformed to Wisdom of Equality in Nature. The function of the thinking mind consciousness is attachment. With attachments, everything is viewed with partiality: “I want it to be this way or that way; I think this is right and that is wrong.” With the elimination of such attachments, impartiality will come forth and Wisdom of Equality in Nature will be attained. At this point, we will be able to fulfill tasks perfectly.

When using consciousness while engaging in a task, we will surely make mistakes. This happens because, with the use of consciousness, our consideration is limited. When we use wisdom, however, we will see the past, the present, and the future, and everything in the ten directions. With time and space perceived in this new manner, we will accomplish all tasks perfectly.

Finally, the store consciousness is transformed to Great Perfect Mirror Wisdom. Great Perfect Mirror is a metaphor for “all knowing.” Why “all knowing”? Embedded in the store consciousness are the seeds of residual habits from innumerable kalpas. These residual habits may be good, bad, or morally neutral. Regardless, all of them are transformed into wisdom. With Great Perfect Mirror Wisdom, one is clear, without the slightest confusion, about all causes and effects.

When the mental awareness consciousness is transformed to Wisdom of Wondrous Observation, the thinking mind consciousness to Wisdom of Equality in Nature, and the store consciousness to Great Perfect Mirror Wisdom, then the first five consciousnesses will be transformed to the Wisdom of Completion of Actions. One then acts from this Wisdom of Completion of Actions.

When one accomplishes such actions of wisdom, one’s actions can be a boon to oneself as well as to others. One benefits oneself by attaining not only thirty-two auspicious marks but also eighty secondary physical characteristics. These marks and characteristics are the major and minor physical attributes of a Buddha.

One benefits others by being a role model and a teacher. This sets an example for all beings. Both, serving as a good role model and teaching, are expressed in the world by the first five transformed consciousnesses.

Learning Buddhism means to learn from Buddhas and bodhisattvas how to transform our consciousness to wisdom. With such wisdom we will remain unaffected by the situations we encounter. Currently, we are affected by everything. Encountering a favorable situation, we become attached to it. Facing an adverse situation, our anger and aversion arise. Explained in terms of the eight consciousnesses, this means that when we come into contact with a situation, our afflictions immediately arise as seven emotions. The seven are pleasure, anger, sorrow, joy, love, hate, and desire.

Then, as we react in response to these, we commit negative karmas. Once these negative karmas are committed, we will naturally suffer their retributions. Fortunately, we now know how to stop this destructive behavior. By transforming consciousness into wisdom, we will stop creating negative karmas, stop planting the seeds for future suffering.

The fifth and final Buddha named in the southern direction was Buddha Infinite Vigor. Vigor, or diligence, is our root of cultivation and will facilitate the attainment of great wisdom. Sakyamuni Buddha used the metaphor of a root to show the process of growth, flowering, and fruit-bearing. From where do all wholesome dharmas here in the cycle of rebirth originate and grow? From the three good roots of no greed, no anger, and no ignorance. Vigorous cultivation of these three good roots will bring us good fortune. Lack of their cultivation will result in misfortune. Whether we have good fortune or misfortune depends on our thoughts. With one worthy thought, we plant a seed for good fortune. With one wrong thought, we plant a seed for misfortune.

When we understand this, we will practice changing our thoughts so as to stop planting seeds for misfortune. Our intentions will be good. Our thoughts and actions will be virtuous. This is our daily cultivation.