Teachings in Chinese Buddhism

    (3) The Path From Human to Buddhahood    

1. To practice Buddhism is to learn from the Buddha

In discussing the Path from Human to Buddhahood, we must first recognise that we are human beings. As human beings who would like to practice Buddhism, what are the things that we should try to learn? How should we learn them? I will touch on some of the basic, important steps here, so that you may know the keys to attain Buddhahood.

We should try to understand the Buddha’s Teaching from two aspects. Firstly, the ultimate ambition and goal of practising Buddhism is to attain Buddhahood. Secondly, due to variations in background and upbringing, there are many different ways for an individual to practice. However, the ultimate aim of all practices is to attain Buddhahood. This resembles the roads that we are walking on, some walk on smooth and flat roads, some walk over roads full of bumps and pits, some follow the winding tracks, while others follow a straight and direct path. As long as we are clear on our final aim, then "All these roads will lead us to Rome". Now, I would like to discuss with everyone the Path from Human to Buddhahood. This is the direct and easy path. Not only is this path reliable, it is also easier in leading us to our goal.

To practice Buddhism is to learn from the Buddha and to take the Buddha as our example. We should follow the footsteps of the Buddha and learn the best methods of attaining Buddhahood from him. Thus, the real purpose of practising Buddhism should be:

1.1 To practice Buddhism for more than just worldly merits, and happiness in future lives.

Some people perform meritorious deeds such as almsgiving, hoping that the future life will be better than the present one. In Buddhism, we call this "practice with a mind to accrue’. The objective is to secure good merits and good karma for the future life, so as to be reborn in heaven. Although this may be expedient in Buddhism, it does not aim at attaining Buddhahood. A point to clarify here is that this does not mean that when one practises Buddhism one does not seek to improve one’s future life. Before one attains Buddhahood, one will of course hope to be reborn in a heaven or human realm, but this should not be the ultimate aim of following the Buddha. Everyone should aim at attaining Buddhahood. If we practise according to the Teaching of the Buddha, we should have the long term ambition of carrying out the Buddha’s advice diligently and accurately, our aim will then undoubtedly be achieved.

One may ask why is it not satisfactory to be reborn as a human or a heavenly being? This is because it is not perfect, nor ultimate. It is imperfect to be born in the human realm, because in this realm one’s wealth, life-span, status, and personal relationships are in constant change.

To be born in heaven is equally imperfect. Even beings in the realm of heaven experience constant changes in their lives, and will one day fall again from heaven. Those who believe in heavenly beings will certainly disagree with this point, but in actual fact, heavenly beings are not completely emancipated. Take the Mahabrahman, an Indian God, for instance. He claimed that all things, including human beings were created by him and were born from him. Let us ask, was there a heaven and earth before heaven and earth were created? Were there human beings before human beings were created? If not, then why should heaven, earth and human beings be created? The Brahman’s answer is; "For the sake of having fun." That is to say, all the creations are just a show of ego-freedom and self-satisfaction for the Mahabrahman. This is like a new but vacant house that gives one a feeling of hollowness and dissatisfaction. Thus it must be decorated by furniture and vases etc. Therefore, to say that human beings and all other things are created by God implies that this God does not like to be lonely. He feels loneliness in himself, and therefore his mind is not at peace. For example, when a person is very busy, he feels impatient and hopes that he can be left alone to rest quietly, but when he is actually given a quiet rest, he feels lonely and wants to be around someone again. In other words, in order to fulfil his self-satisfaction and enjoyment, the Mahabrahmin wanted heaven and earth, human beings, and all things. As a result of that, he created endless suffering for all. He is in fact looking for trouble for himself.

A person who possesses a discontented and demanding mind is still not at peace, and is not perfectly emancipated. When a follower of Buddha talks about the cultivation of mind and the emancipation from life and death, his aim is to feel contented anywhere he dwells, whether amidst a buzzing crowd or in an utterly deserted place. It is practitioner who is peaceful and free from attachment everywhere. The Gods in theistic religions are not free from desires, their minds are not yet at peace and this is the most important cause for their falling from heaven in the future. Therefore we cannot adopt this way as our right path.

1.2 To practice Buddhism for more than self-salvation

Nothing in the human or heavenly realm is completely emancipated, so we must try to be released from the cycle of life and death (Samsara), and transcend the three realms of Sensuous Desire (heaven), Form, (the human realm), and the Formless realm of the pure spirit. But this path that is only leading to self-emancipation is still a narrow and roundabout path. The aim of practising the Dharma of course, is to be released from samsara. But the emphasis should be of benefitting others as well as oneself. The release from samsara achieved by practitioners who emphasise self-emancipation only is not final. It is like a pedestrian who runs a short distance and hastens to rest by the roadside. This attitude of hurrying towards a goal can actually result in slower progress. Even as the turtle and the rabbit raced in the well known fable, the rabbit runs fast, but is too anxious to rest and sleep, and he is left behind in the end. Similarly, if we are too anxious to be released from samsara and suffering to secure happiness only for ourselves, the path we follow will prove to be a tortuous one.

1.3 To practice Buddhism for Perfect Wisdom

A true follower of the Buddha should follow the teachings of the Buddha with the aim of attaining the Buddha’s perfect enlightenment. This is the only path that is perfect and direct. The enlightened mind is replete with the perfections of faith and determination, wisdom and compassion; and a beginner may lay their emphasis on any of the following:

a) Faith and Determination: A beginner may seek enlightenment with faith and determination. Since the spiritual potential of each sentient being is different, beginners may try to seek enlightenment through their faith in the abounding merit, ultimate perfection, supreme wisdom, and all-embracing compassion of the Buddha. They look upon the Buddha as their goal and hence determine to attain perfect enlightenment.

b) Wisdom: Another type of person may seek the Buddha’s perfect enlightenment through the practice of wisdom. They investigate the Buddha’s answers to the truth of the Universe and the reality of human existence, and realize that only Buddha has the wisdom and ability to see the truth in all things. He is the most perfected One. Hence, they are determined to learn the Buddha’s great wisdom and through the accrual of wisdom, they progress toward Buddhahood.

c) Compassion and Loving Kindness: There are others who realise the endless sufferings of all living beings and praise the Buddha’s great compassion and loving kindness. The advocation of moral standards, participation in community and cultural activities, and increasing economic growth cannot bring us ultimate peace. The Buddha’s great compassion and loving kindness is the most perfect one. We should practise the Buddha’s great compassion and loving kindness and progress towards enlightenment.

There are many ways of following the Buddha. Meditation on the Amitabha Buddha has its emphasis on faith and dedication. Recitation and study of scriptures in order to understand the theories of Buddhism has its emphasis on wisdom and those who do charitable works stress compassion. We should try all these meritorious ways and can start with anyone of them. However, a dedicated follower of the Buddha must gradually practise all three of them if achieving enlightenment is his ultimate goal.

2. Only human beings can learn from the Buddha’s example

2.1 The Superiority of the Human Mind

Generally speaking, human beings have a strong sense of self-esteem. Yet often they belittle themselves, feeling that they are insignificant. We are often unwilling to undertake great tasks or to strive towards the highest ideals or goals. This is the wrong attitude! In fact human beings are of great significance.

Buddha Dharma tells us that among the six realms, the beings in hell are too miserable, and the hungry ghosts are always starving. Under such conditions, these beings cannot practise the Buddha’s teachings. The animals have low intelligence and are unable to understand the Buddha’s teachings. The Asuras are too suspicious and cannot believe in what the Buddha said. They are also full of hatred and in constant warfare. The heavenly beings have too much enjoyment, and cannot find the time and mind to practice the Buddha’s teaching. That is why the heaven of Longevity is considered as one of the miseries of the "Three Sufferings and Eight Miseries". Hence, it is said in the Buddhist scriptures, "Human form is difficult to come by", and only human beings have the ability and opportunity to follow the Buddha.

Some may ask: "What is the difference between the theistic and Buddhist teachings?" Theistic teachings claim that the human realm of existence is inferior to the heavens, but in Buddhist teachings, we claim that the human world is better than the heavens. Now that we have acquired a human body, we should not waste it. We should respect our own body and try to develop fully our maturity. We should strive diligently towards our goal. This is a speciality in the Buddha’s teaching.

What is so good about being human? According to the sutras, human beings are endowed with three supreme qualities which even the devas cannot exceed. Although Mahabrahman was a noble being he was not as great as human beings. Therefore, Buddha had chosen the human realm of existence as the place to be born in and to achieve enlightenment, setting an example for us to follow.

The three supreme qualities of Human are memory, pure behaviour and perseverance.

a) Memory — In the Indian language the word human (manusya) means memory. The human memory is stronger than that of any other creature. We can remember clearly things that happened in our childhood. We are also capable of preserving our experiences and history from thousands of years ago. In this regard, cattle, sheep, pigs and dogs, or even devas are not as good as us. Because of our memory, we have gained great wisdom. All the cultural and scientific advances that we have made to date are the fruit of the progress and development of our accumulated past experience and preserved memory. This wisdom that we have derived from memory is incomparable to any other creatures.

b) Pure Behavior — The control of carnal impulses, the performance of a moral acts for the benefit of others, often at the sacrifice of one’s own profit, is distinctive only in human behaviour.

c) Perseverance — Human beings are capable of withstanding a great deal of suffering and can overcome almost any difficulty that exists in this Saha world. Determination and perseverance to succeed is another supreme quality lacking in the devas.

These three supreme human qualities if used unwisely, can cause great suffering and disaster to Mankind. However, when used to perform meritorious deeds, they become the "great wisdom", "great benevolence", and "great courage" of the ancient Chinese sayings.

Now everybody knows that all sentient beings are endowed with the Buddha-nature and have the ability to achieve Buddhahood. The sutras say that the Buddha-nature possesses four merits, namely, wisdom, compassion, faith-joy (the joy of believing in the Dharma), and samadhi (concentration). Meritorious deeds are equivalent to compassion, and when there is faith-joy, there will be perseverance, The three supreme qualities of Human are equal to three of the four merits in Buddha-nature. These traits are especially well developed in humans, and because of this human find it easier to follow and succeed in practising the teachings of the Buddha. Prime Minister Fei Siu of the Tang Dynasty once said; "All sentient beings can attain Buddhahood, but among the beings of the six realms, only the human beings can practise the acts of a Bodhisattva and strive towards perfect enlightenment." The merits of the Buddha-nature are most developed in the humans, thus, Man can practise the Buddha’s teachings and attain Buddhahood.

2.2 The Direct Path from Human to Buddhahood

Among the expedients, for example, trying to be reborn in heaven or become an Arahat, are generally more tortuous ways of attaining Buddhahood. For instance, through the practice for achieving a heavenly realm, we may be reborn in the heaven of Longevity, and be caught in one of the Eight Miseries, obstructing our progress on the Buddha’s path. On the other hand, those who practise with the aim of self-emancipation only may attain Arahathood and be released from samsara, but this will be like a person who gets attached to the enjoyment on the way of the journey and forgets about the final destination. This journey is neither direct nor fast.

Thus, it is better for us to take the straight and direct route. We start out as a human and, if necessary, we should try to be reborn as a human again, remain in this state until we achieve Buddhahood. We should not aspire to be reborn in heaven nor attain the fruits of the Arahat practice. It is best if we depend on the human form as we work towards attaining Buddhahood. Some people think that they are pursuing the path to Buddhahood, but actually, they are engaging in the esoteric practices of the devas. Some ignore the cultivation of wisdom and devote all their attention to acquiring concentration (samadhi), which really aims at rebirth in the heavens. Some study the Mahayana doctrines, but do not possess great compassion. This is similar to following the path of a selfish practitioner. Of course pursuing courses as such may also lead to Buddhahood eventually, but the way is a tortuous one.

When we practice Buddhism in these modern times, it is important that we should first pursue the right path as a member in the society, and not segregate ourselves from home or country. We should start on the path from Human to Buddhahood in order to avoid any misunderstanding in the society. Modern people have a different disposition from those of ancient times, especially the Chinese who lay a great deal of emphasis on moral human relationships. Chinese Buddhists particularly, must develop their moral practices and human relationships first.

With the accumulation of righteousness in this world, the causes and merits needed for us to progress towards Buddhahood will also increase. None of us should waste our time, we should fully utilize the short life span that we have and strive diligently towards the goal of Buddhahood.

3. Faith and Understanding needed in Practising

To follow the Buddha’s path, faith and understanding are indispensable. The scriptures give eight logical, solid reasons why we should have faith in the Buddha-Dharma. We have now simplified them into six categories.

3.1 The authority and merits of the Triple Gem

The Triple Gem is the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. The Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in Mahayana Buddhism all possess supreme wisdom and compassion and are worthy of our deep reverence. They are also capable of doing things that ordinary people cannot do. Besides our belief in the Buddha’s and Bodhisattva’s authority and merits, we should further believe in Buddha-Dharma, which is the door towards Buddhahood. The Buddha-Dharma also possesses merits and powers, which enable us to attain our ultimate aim if we practise conscientiously.

3.2 The Truth of All Dharma

By "All Dharma" we mean all events and things in this world. All phenomena that we know in this world is not absolute. Why? This may be explained in two ways.

a) All things, from human beings to the earth that we live in are in constant change, they are not permanent and not ultimate.

b) Everything in the world is relative. When there is good there will be bad; when there is birth there will be death; when there is a rise there will be a fall; when there is this, there will be that; when there is this family, there will be that family, when there is this nation, there will be that nation; and within the same nation, there are different parties. In addition, there are parties outside the party and there are groupings within the party. This is how the world stands. It is relative and full of contradiction. Hence the phenomena in this world cannot be considered absolute. Since everything in this world is relative and changing, human existence cannot be regarded as ultimate either. Therefore, a true follower of the Buddha must believe amidst this variegation, that there is an unchanging indiscriminate truth of absolute equality. If one tries to understand this by proper methods, and puts this understanding into practice, then one will be able to experience the Truth. Suffering will then be alleviated and endeavours towards Buddhahood and Bodhisattvahood will be duly rewarded.

3.3 Pure Karma

Most people know that Buddhism lays a great deal of emphasis on the Law of Cause and Effect. But the causes and effects that we have created may not necessary be pure, Evil deeds such as killing, robbery, adultery and lies have causes and effects that are not pure. Likewise, even acts such as almsgiving, paying homage to the Buddha, or reading sutras are not necessarily pure.

Take almsgiving for instance, which is undoubtedly a good act. Sometimes people may do this with the thoughts; "I can perform good acts", or "I have given more than others", or "I can win someone by this action to serve my own purposes". In these situations, as long as there are thoughts of an ego or an expectation of reward for the act, then the act is not a pure one, and is sullied. Thus, one who follows the Buddha, must believe in the existence of pure causes and effects; i.e.: causes and effects that are free from defilements, free from the attachments of an ego. Pure causes will produce pure effects. One should adopt the attainment of Buddhahood as one’s ideal goal and have strong faith and understanding in pure causes and their corresponding effects.

3.4 The Possibility of obtaining Bodhi

But understanding faith in the three previous sections, does not guarantee one’s path towards Buddhahood. Some may say "I am too dumb or too busy". If we do not have confidence in ourselves, how can we find the determination to follow the Buddha? Therefore we must do our best to strengthen our confidence and believe that everyone possesses Buddha-nature and be determined to attain enlightenment. We should do our best and use all the strength we have in the endeavour. If we fail today, we still have tomorrow. If we cannot be successful in this life, we still have the next life. With unflinching determination, faith, and continuous effort, enlightenment will be achieved one day.

3.5 The expedient path

All sentient beings are endowed with Buddha-nature and all may become Buddhas. But Buddhahood is secured through practice. If we practise according to the teachings, we will eventually become a Buddha. Such teachings are called expedients to Enlightenment.

To use an analogy; it is not enough for us to believe that there is water under the ground. We must know how to dig down to the water level and how to bring the water up. If we do not do this, we will remain thirsty despite the proximity of the water. Likewise, Buddhahood has to be achieved by certain methods and thus, there is neither a naturally born Maitreya Buddha nor a naturally existing Sakyamuni Buddha.

3.6 The sacred teachings of Tathagata

None of us are Buddhas, so how do we know the path leading to Buddhahood? After Sakyamuni became a Buddha out of his compassion towards the sentient beings, he taught the methods for Enlightenment. These were later recorded in the Tripitaka (the "Three Basket"). Therefore, we should believe in the teachings that are recorded in the sutras, vinayas and abhidharma and try to understand them. Our faith in these teachings will strengthen our endeavours to follow the Buddha’s path. Those who can read should read, and those who cannot read should listen, as in these "Three Baskets", there are helpful methods that can lead us to Buddhahood.

4. Begin as a Bodhisattva of Ten Meritorious Deeds

After we have acquired sufficient faith and understanding of the Buddha, we should start to practice the Ten Meritorious Deeds like a Bodhisattva. Many people do not understand the term "Bodhisattva". There is a lot of misunderstanding about it. "Bodhisattva" is an Indian word which is made from the two words; bodhi and sattva. Bodhi means enlightened mind and sattva means a sentient being. Therefore, a Bodhisattva is a sentient being who seeks an enlightened mind.

There are different levels of Bodhisattvas, some are higher in their practice and some are lower. To an ordinary mind, the term Bodhisattva usually reminds one of great Bodhisattvas such as Manjushri, Samantabhadra, Avalokitesvara and Ksitigarbha. In fact, any person who has made up his mind to be a Buddha is a Bodhisattva. The difference between a Buddha and a Bodhisattva is that the Buddha represents supreme perfection, the summum bonum. He is like a person who has completed all processes of learning, while a Bodhisattva is a student who is still in school. The students can be in kindergarten, primary school. secondary school, university or even post-graduate school. They are all students, with the only difference being the degree of learning while the process of study is the same for all. Similarly, there are also Bodhisattvas who have just started on their path. They are not much different from the common people except that they have made the decision to seek enlightenment and to become a Buddha. If they continue to learn and practise the various acts of a Bodhisattva, they will eventually attain the standards of the great Bodhisattva such as Manjushri Bodhisattva and Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva.

We should not think that it is impossible for us to become like them. When we go to school. We start with the kindergarten and gradually progress to postgraduate school As with a Bodhisattva, the great Bodhisattvas too had to start from the novice level. Now, lets talk about the Bodhisattva who have just started their journey as they are closer to the common people mentally and their example is therefore much easier to follow.

A newly initiated Bodhisattva should lay his emphasis on the following points:

4.1 Start with a mind of great compassion

When one makes a decision to become a Bodhisattva, one needs to cultivate one’s faith, dedication, and wisdom. However, the emphasis should be on compassion. Those who start out with a feeling of compassion for all sentient beings and are determined to acquire Buddhahood with the intention of saving sentient beings are the Bodhisattvas. Without compassion, Buddhahood cannot be achieved. Even when a person has thoroughly envisaged the Truth, if he has no compassion, he will become a selfish practitioner. Therefore, the most important thing about a Bodhisattva is his compassion. He sees and shares the sufferings of sentient beings. He thinks of methods to relieve them from their sufferings. This is the mind of a Bodhisattva, and the seed to Buddhahood. To take an initial step towards Bodhisattva is to be compassionate, to set great vows and be determined not to forget them. Once the mind has decided, we should make a firm stand and never turn back.

There are many ways of cultivating compassion, one of the best methods described in the scriptures is that of "putting yourself in the other person’s shoes". We should think what it is like to stand in the other person’s position. When we do this, our compassion will naturally grow. If a question is asked: "What are the things that you love most?" All of us will almost certainly answer, parents, spouse, friends, country, nation. But in actual fact, as the Buddha said, "One loves no more than oneself". One can, of course love one’s parents, and others, as long as they do not hurt one’s own interests. Otherwise we will love no one.

Almost everyone loves others with the selfish mind of loving themselves. If a person can think of other people’s sufferings as his own sufferings, can love others in the same way that he loves himself, always thinks of the other persons situation rather than his own perspective, then this can be called true love and compassion. If one considers the suffering of others, before one’s own suffering, then great compassion will come naturally. It is not necessary for a newly initiated Bodhisattva to have supernatural power or magnificent body and appearance, once compassion is aroused, and one aims to acquire Buddhahood for the salvation of sentient beings, one becomes a Bodhisattva. However, a mind with an ambition to attain Buddhahood is still not enough to get us there. It must be strengthened with right action.

4.2 Act according to the Ten Meritorious Deeds

The difference between ordinary people and a Bodhisattva is that the latter have the determination to seek enlightenment, and perform the deeds of a Bodhisattva. A novice Bodhisattva is one who performs the Ten good acts with a mind to be enlightened. He is called a Bodhisattva of the Ten Meritorious Deeds.

The Ten Meritorious Deeds are the ten good acts that counteract the ten evils. They are as follow:

(1) Not to kill is to love and protect lives.
(2) Not to steal is to refrain from illegal possession of wealth.
(3) Not to commit adultery is to refrain from illicit sexual behaviour.
(4) Not to lie is not to tell something false.
(5) No gossiping tongue is not to tell tales between people thereby causing disharmony between them.
(6) No harsh speech is not to say things that are coarse or sardonic. When criticizing others for their wrong deeds we must speak softly instead of using words that are cruel and hurtful.
(7) Not to speak words that are beguiling is to speak words that are moral and beneficial for society. Beguiling words are words that sound nice, but have wrong thoughts and may result in killing, robbery, adultery, falsehood and other sins. They can be meaningless prattle and a waste of time.
(8) Not to be greedy is to take only what you deserve, and to be content with few desires. We should not covet things that do not belong to us.
(9) Not to have any hatred is to have compassion and to refrain from disputes and fights.
(10)To be free from wrong views is to have right under-standing. This means understanding and accepting the Law of Cause and Effect, the existence of past lives and future lives, the cycle of life and death, the state attainable by the saints and Arahats, and that Bodhisattvas and Buddhas are able to release themselves from the cycle of life and death. Do not let wrong thoughts, such as thoughts that claim death as the end of human existence arise.

A Bodhisattva who acts according to the Ten Meritorious Deeds is an apprentice who has initiated the mind of enlightenment that has great emphasis on compassion. He is determined to become a Buddha for the salvation of other sentient beings. To act according to the Ten Meritorious Deeds can be accomplished by almost everyone.

If we say that we cannot perform the ten good deeds, then we must be fooling ourselves. The Buddha-Dharma teaches us that to be a human equipped with a wholesome personality, we should start by observing the Five Precepts and the Ten Meritorious Deeds. The Ten Meritorious deeds are the right actions and conducts for life. However, if a person has high morals and is able to perform the Ten Meritorious Deeds, but lacks compassion, they will only be a sage in the world or a virtuous Human among men. In Buddhism, it is different. The Ten Meritorious Deeds are guided by the mind of compassion, the essence of the mind of enlightenment. Therefore, the Ten Meritorious Deeds are the first steps from Human to Buddhahood.   

Everyone should consider Buddha as the ideal, be dedicated to seek enlightenment, and practise the Ten Meritorious Deeds. Besides we should also repent, set vows, pay respect to the Buddharupa, meditate on the Buddha, and be enthusiastic to protect the Dharma as we would protect our own life. We should not think "As long as I am following the Buddha, that is good enough". We should also care about what is happening to Buddhism in the world. Should Buddhism meet with any disaster or destruction, we must protect it for our own faith as well as for the spiritual life of all sentient beings. There are many things a Bodhisattva should do which cannot be covered by this brief address. Last but not least, I hope that you all will start to take this first step in practising the Mahayana Buddhism. Try to be a Bodhisattva-child, cultivate your compassion and practise the Ten Meritorious Deeds.

Translated by Neng Rong, edited by Mick Kiddle, proofread by Neng Rong (14-5-1995).

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