Teachings in Chinese Buddhism

    (1) How I came to follow the Buddha’s Path

As we travel the journey of life, we are bound to encounter darkness and many unexpected difficulties. However, darkness is not eternal and difficulties are sure to be overcome in the end. We who are born into the human realm must rely upon our human existence to progress towards a higher and brighter realm. We must preserve the health and harmony of our minds and bodies. We must be rational, warm and faithful, and not fall into empty despair. Thus, religious faith is necessary.

Anyone who has no faith or lack of faith in religion is easily frustrated and tends to reject themselves. They often reside in a state of melancholy and despair. Such a person may descend into a state of mind where he mistreats others, suffers severely from hysteria, or commits suicide. Human life which has become evil and corrupt is indeed fearful! This is especially so in these modern times. Human minds are forever pursuing greater riches and material assets. There is emptiness within their hearts. They lack purpose in life. Moral virtues too, have become more and more attenuated. Religion which sets out to heal the hearts of human being is clearly more needed today than ever before.

Let me explain how I came to have faith in Buddhism. In 1918, I began my religious search, and ended by choosing Buddhism. The final step was my entry into the monastic order. How did I come to choose Buddhism? Now that I try to put it into words, I find the choice hard to explain.

I was born and brought up in a peasant’s family. Due to poverty, I had to give up my studies at an early age. However, I began to study Chinese medicine and the phrase "Medicine is the royal way to Immortality" led me to revere the Way of the Immortals. Shen Nung’s Materia Medica, [and other Taoist classics such as the Bao Pu Zi (Book of the Preservation of Solidarity Master)], which refer to medicines beneficial for the prolongation of life and alchemy excited my faith in the religion of the Way of the Immortals. In addition I sought after the esoteric "Arts of the Miraculous", such as divination by the dexterous arrangement of the Celestial Stems and Earthly Branches and by charms and spells.

I joined the Tong Shan Association in which I studied the arts of Shamanism and hypnotism. During this period I was thoroughly engulfed by the magicized religion of the Way of the Gods, paying great attention to the phenomena of individual longevity and mysticism. This enlarged my vision and this search for truth had a good effect upon me.

I groped around in the darkness of this faith for two or three years before my father discovered what I was engaged in. He, of course, did not approve of what I was doing and wanted me to become a teacher. With the help of teachers and friend I began to study the work of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu (the Taoist philosophers) and at the same time read some modern works. The result was that my religious outlook began to change.

One cannot say that there is no connection between Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu and the later ascetic practices of the Taoists. The philosophical principles of these two thinkers are exceedingly deep and far reaching. They were opposed to the artificial, and demanded a return to what is natural and they searched after an ideal simplicity. But this ideal of theirs is unattainable. A philosophy which is firmly based in this world and is concerned with refining human nature seems to be a reasonable philosophy, but for me, their philosophy lacked the power necessary for its fulfilment. Surely, a life of retirement led purely for the cultivation of one’s own goodness cannot be of any positive value to society. The thought of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu was a contributing factor in my choice of Buddhism. Taoist philosophy and Taoist methods of self-cultivation captured some of my sympathy. Nevertheless, I was no longer a disciple of Taoism for I had awakened from the beautiful dream world of the Way of the Immortals.

After my faith in Taoism was shaken I did not let it go. I followed it haphazardly and returned to Confucian books which I had previously studied. Confucianism was the absolute opposite of Taoism with its completely esoteric character and its religious individualism.

Confucianism stresses the need for mental and physical cultivation. Above all, it is concerned with a great political ideal. It is common, down to earth, takes human affairs seriously and pays honour to rationality. All these are principal elements in the culture of China. I agreed with their philosophies and even praised them, but they were unable to fill in the emptiness in my unsettled heart. Others thought that I had become more pragmatic, but the fact is that I experienced an increasing emptiness.

Now that I reflect on it, I find that this experience was due to the fact that Confucianism gives little emphasis to religion. To the ordinary people, the practices of Confucianism seem common, and down to earth. The establishment of one’s virtue, merit, and teachings solely for this life cannot be constructed into an imposing and glorious blueprint for living. Such a plan is lacking in foresight. It cannot bring people into a state where their minds and hearts are at peace(i.e. a state in which they are unmoved by gain or loss, suffering or joy, life or death) and in this state stride forward along the path of glory. My sojourn among Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu, Confucius, and Mencius lasted four or five years.

I was in a state of agitation and emptiness when I was introduced to Christianity. I became deeply interested in it. This is a religion with a fully socialised character. It was from Christianity that I learned the relationship of devoutness and a pure faith to the true meaning of religion. Christianity, which had faith, hope, and love had something that Confucianism had not. I studied the Old and New Testaments, and Christian periodicals such as True Light and Spiritual Light. I practised praying, and attended revival meetings. Nevertheless, I could never bring myself to be a Christian.

The external causes for this included the fact that there was an anti-Christian movement at that time. Although this had no connection with the Christian faith itself, yet the Christian Church, relying on an international background, could not avoid the sin of cultural aggression. My main reason however, was the difficulty I had in accepting certain aspects of Christian thought, such as the promise of eternal life for believers, and eternal fire for un-believers. Human behavior and actions (both in the heart and externally) were not taken as measures for this judgment. The standard of judgment was simply whether one had faith or not. The slogan "Let live the believer, condemn the unbeliever" exhibits a fiercely monopolistic and exclusive attitude. All are to be destroyed except for those belonging to one’s own side. Underneath this "class love" was revealed a cruel hatred. There is also the view that a man’s spirit comes from God and that this spirit is united to flesh and thus becomes man. According to Christian doctrine, a human being can only be saved if he is born again. This implies that the great majority of people are walking on the way to Hell. To say that an omniscient and omnipotent God is willing to treat all mankind, which He calls His sons and daughters, like this, is beyond imagination and unreasonable. I could not believe that Jesus was able to atone for my sin and redeem me.

The light I received from Christianity lasted less than two years and rapidly disappeared. The feeling of emptiness and hopelessness descended upon me, just like a tiny ship in the midst of violent waves. I became emotionally depressed and at times perplexed and troubled. In this state of deep depression I read anything to pass the time.

By chance I came upon Feng Meng-Chen’s preface to Chuang Tzu in which he says: "Are not the texts of Chuang Tzu and the commentary by Kuo in fact forerunners of Buddhist thought?" My heart leapt and I began to enquire into Buddhism. However, it was difficult to get information on Buddhism and it was not easy to obtain copies of Buddhist scriptures. I visited monasteries and searched everywhere, but only managed to obtain and read the "Lung-shu-ching-tu wen", the "Chin-kang ching hsi-shu", the "Jen-tienyen-mu", the "Chuan-teng lu", the "Fa-hua ching", a damaged copy of the "Hua-yen ching shu-chao chuan yao" and the "Chung lun".

Naturally, I failed to understand the writing for it was too difficult for a beginner like me. Yet, it was my failure to understand which caused me to pursue this course. I was like a child who was fascinated by the luxurious surroundings and keen to know and learn. Although I could only understand them partially, this is where I began to realise the limitlessness of Buddhism.

Later, I came across Abbot Tai-Hsu’s article entitled "A Method for the Study of Buddhism in the Home" and only then was I able to commence my studies from the simple levels. I read a number of introductory books as well as some works concerned with the Madhyamika and Vajrayana Schools of Mahayana Buddhism. Although I was still lacking in comprehension, Buddhism had become my glorious ideal and my faith grew continuously. I firmly believe that the teachings of the Law of Karma come closest to the reality of our situation in life. It is through a knowledge of this that we leave what is evil and turn to what is good. It is by following this path that we turn from being an ordinary human being to becoming a sage. Even if we fall, in the end we shall progress upwards and achieve complete enlightenment if we stay to the path. It is not simply a matter of looking for a final refuge. Along our way to enlightenment, there are also circumstances when the pathway appears to be leading to a dead-end, and yet, we discover so often that a new road appears. These situations spur us on, comfort us, and lead us on so that we can continue on our journey of eternal hope.

I find that Buddhism is a religion that does not rely solely on faith. It takes good or evil behavior as measure in justifying an ordinary person and a saint. It stresses individual enlightenment and above all, it emphasizes benefitting all living beings. Buddhism puts great emphasis upon perfect enlightenment. It is only through such an awakening that genuine freedom can be obtained. Buddhism is a unity of faith, perfect wisdom, and compassion. The cultivation of body and mind in Buddhism embraces the best to be found in Confucianism, and then goes far beyond it. Conversion through trust, which is found in Christianity, is also to be found in Buddhism.

In my opinion, Buddhism contains all that is best in all religions. There is final truth and there is expedient truth. Each of them is able to meet the need of every kind of person, logically leading them on to that which is good.

I chose Buddhism to be my comfort in distress and the light which brightened my darkness. Unfortunately I lack sensitivity by nature and although I praise and look up to the eternal way of Bodhisattvas, I have yet to experience it for myself. However, from the time of my choice of Buddhism until now, I have lived quietly and securely, knowing nothing else except bold and direct progress in accordance with its teaching.

In 1928 my mother died and a year later my father followed her. The time was appropriate for me to enter the monastic order. There was no longer anything in my family which demanded my care. So, in the summer of 1930, I decided to become a monk. May my body and mind be absorbed in the Triple Gem and strive for Buddhism, the highest of religions.

Translated Chai Gao Mao, edited by Mick Kiddle, proofread by Neng Rong. (19-2-1995)

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