Understanding Buddhism (認識佛教): Part 1

Understanding Buddhism (認識佛教) is a book by the Buddhist monk teacher Master Chin Kung. It is aimed at those who are beginning to learn Buddhism or improve their understanding of it. The book is written in the traditional Chinese way from top to bottom, right to left. It starts with a preface explaining that many students do not have a correct understanding of Buddhism when they begin learning it, hence the need for this book. Below is the first in a series of three posts summarizing this book.

What do Buddha and Buddhism Mean?

The founder of Buddhism was Shakyamuni Buddha who was born in ancient India 3,000 years ago. He lived to the age of 79 and taught for 49 years. 1,000 years after his death, during the Eastern Han dynasty, Buddhism officially passed into China. The name Buddha (佛,佛陀) means "wisdom" and "awakening." Originally, all beings have the same Buddha nature as an awakened Buddha, but because of delusion and attachment, we do not realize it.

Buddhism is the teachings of the Buddha, namely how to awaken the endless beings of the universe. Its teachings encompass the past, present, future, and limitless worlds. Because of the teacher-student (Buddha-us) relationship, it is an education and not a religion. In ancient China, students called themselves disciples and temples were places disciples went to learn about Buddhism, like modern-day schools.

The Goal of Buddhism

The goal of Buddhism is to eradicate false views of the self and our environment so that we stop making mistakes, which lead to suffering, and instead make choices that bring happiness; in other words, attain true wisdom. Then we will be able to help others achieve the same wisdom and happiness. So ultimately, Buddhism is very practical and leads to happiness, a happy family, a harmonious society, wealthy and strong nations, and world peace.

Five Main Subjects of Buddhism

  1. Three Conditions of Meritorious Acts (三福)

  2. The Six Harmonies (六和敬)

  3. The Three Learnings (三學)

  4. The Six Perfections (六度)

  5. Ten Great Vows (十願)

Three Conditions of Meritorious Acts (三福)

The basic cause of Buddhahood can be summed up in the Three Conditions of Meritorious Acts:

  1. Be filial and provide and care for parents (孝養父母), be respectful to and serve teachers (奉事師長), be compassionate and do not kill (慈心不殺), and cultivate the Ten Virtuous Karmas (修十善業).

  2. Take the Three Refuges (受持三皈), abide by precepts (具足眾戒), behave in a dignified and appropriate manner (不犯威儀).

  3. Generate the Bodhi mind (發菩提心), deeply believe in the law of cause and effect (深信因果), recite and uphold the Mahayana Sutras (讀誦大乘), and encourage others to advance along the path to enlightenment (勸進行者).

Being Filial to Parents and Respecting Teachers (孝養父母,奉事師長)

Chinese pay respect to and remember their ancestors because all of humanity going back into the past and forward into the future is connected as one entity. When people respect their ancestors they will naturally respect their parents, and when they respect their parents, they will naturally respect teachers. When people respect Buddha as their teacher, they will naturally respect all their teachers. If a person seemingly respects their teacher but is not filial to parents, then it is not real respect and they have some ulterior motive. When Chinese hang up portraits of their ancestors and teachers it is not because they worship them, it is so that they can pay respect to them and remember them.

Doing well in school and in work is being filial to parents because it makes them not worry about their children. Getting along with siblings is also being good to parents.

Even the character for being good to parents 孝 is made up of the character for child: 子 and elder 老, which signifies the different generations are interconnected. The foundation of Buddhism is being good to parents (孝道).

Being Compassionate and Not Killing (慈心不殺)

The extension of being good to parents is being compassionate (慈悲) towards all beings. The most basic requirement for being compassionate is to not kill. This includes animals and all living beings.

The Ten Virtuous Karmas (十善業)

The Ten Virtuous Karmas are sort of like the Ten Commandments and there is some overlap. The ten are no killing (不殺), no stealing (不盜), no sexual misconduct (不淫), no lying (不妄語), no abusive speech (不兩舌), no slander (不惡口), no enticing speech (不綺語), no greed (不貪) no anger (不嗔), and no ignorance (不痴). The first three are all related to the body, the second four are related to speech, and the last three are related to thought.

Bodily Karmas (身業)

There are 28 different levels of heavens that one can be reborn in depending on the combination of Ten Virtuous Conducts one follows and the level of meditative concentration one is able to attain. By having good meditative concentration one will be able to not give rise to thoughts of the five desires: (五欲, money, sex, fame, food, and sleep). Which will allow you to attain higher levels of heaven.

Stealing includes things like avoiding paying taxes. This is pretty bad because if you steal from one person, you only need to pay one person back in a future life. But if you are avoiding paying taxes, then it’s like stealing from everyone in the nation and so you will need to pay everyone back in future lives.

Speech Karmas (口業)

The various unwholesome speeches cause people to fight, mislead and cheat people, create suspicion, destroy harmony between people, and hide the truth.

Thought Karmas(意業)

Greed, anger, and ignorance are considered the three poisons. They prevent us from seeing through to our true nature. Greed is the root of all barriers to good and when the object of one's greed is not acquired, anger arises. Ignorance is the absence of wisdom, the ability to distinguish true from false, good from evil. Once we can eliminate the three poisons, our true mind will naturally show itself.

Take the Three Refuges (受持三皈)

The Buddhist initiation ceremony where a person formally becomes of student of the Buddha is called Taking the Three Refuges (三皈依). The three refuges are the Buddha (佛), the Dharma (Buddhist teachings, 法), and the sangha (the Buddhist monks and nuns, 僧). The Buddha represents awakening (覺) to the true nature of oneself and the universe, the Dharma represents correct knowledge and views (正), and the sangha represents purity (淨).

The Buddha that a person takes refuge in is the Buddha of their own true nature. Amitabha Buddha, Shakyamuni Buddha, and all the Buddhas are all manifestations of the true nature. By taking refuge in the Buddha, one commits to becoming awakened and stopping being lost. Taking refuge in the Dharma means to make our own knowledge and views the same as a Buddha’s (佛知佛見), which are in fact the same knowledge and views of our true nature. Taking refuge in the Sangha represents becoming pure. The eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and thoughts of the average person are contaminated due to coming in contact with the world, thus greed and anger arise. But the true nature is originally pure.

People use the three refuges to correct their thoughts, views, words, and actions. When one of the three refuges is attained, all three are attained. Different sects of Buddhism choose from awakening, correct knowledge and views, and purity to focus on. For example, Zen chooses awakening and Pure Land chooses purity. When people see images or sculptures of Buddhas they are reminded to awaken, when they read Buddhist scriptures they are reminded to learn correct understanding and views, and when they see Buddhist monks and nuns they are reminded to be pure.

There are unlimited methods to cultivation, but the important thing is to choose one method, stick with it, and not change methods. Taking the three refuges is the most important and solemn undertaking in beginning to learn Buddhism.

Abiding by the Precepts (具足眾戒)

There are five precepts (戒) that to cross are an offense: killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, talking nonsense, and drinking alcohol. The last is only an offense if a person has officially “taken the precepts.” The precepts are important because the Buddha followed them. Drinking alcohol is an offense because it causes poor behavior when drunk.

The precepts are also flexible. For example, part of the not killing precept is being a vegetarian. If someone invites you to a dinner that has meat dishes, it is okay for you to accept and eat the meat. This is called “opening the precepts” (開戒). This way, you don’t offend the person who invited you and make them happy by attending and enjoying their hospitality. This is much more likely to make them think well of Buddhism than if you remain rigid and cling to your precept, which might make Buddhism look bad.

Following a nations laws, customs, and morals are also considered precepts. Furthermore, a place’s laws and customs change with the times. Many of the laws that the Buddha followed in ancient India are no longer applicable today because times have changed. The essence of the precepts are to do good and not evil (諸惡莫作,眾善奉行), so while laws, customs, and therefore precepts may change, the essence stays the same.

Following the precepts also puts ones mind at ease which makes it possible to attain meditative concentration. Meditative concentration then leads to wisdom (因戒得定,因定開慧).

Give Rise to the Bodhi Mind (發菩提心)

Bodhi (菩提) is Sanskrit for awakening. In Theravada Buddhism, one only helps themselves attain liberation or at most the people one wants to help. Mahayana Buddhists on the other hand must give rise to a mind and heart that helps all beings attain liberation. Those who give rise to the Bodhi mind will actively teach others, whereas a Theravada follower would only teach when asked.

In order to liberate beings, one must first be able to liberate and cut off all affliction in oneself. Only then will one be able to liberate the countless beings in the universe. This is indeed giving rise to a great compassionate heart and mind (大慈悲心).

Deeply Believe in Causality (深信因果)

The law of causality says that good deeds cause good rewards and bad deeds cause bad consequences (善有善報,惡有惡報). Buddha name chanting (念佛) is a cause and becoming a Buddha (成佛) is the result. By deeply believing in this law, through Buddha name chanting, one is reborn into the Pure Land where they may meet Amitabha Buddha and continue to learn on the way towards Buddhahood.

Recite the Mahayana Sutras (讀誦大乘)

Reciting the sutras means learning Buddhism twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening. The morning study session is about reminding oneself that during the day one will follow the Buddha’s teachings in thought and interactions with other people, things, and situations. The evening study session focuses on self-examination. While reading a sutra one can ask oneself, “Did I remember the Buddha’s teachings?”

Master Chin Kung advocates reading the Infinite Life Sutra (無量壽經), which is about how the Pure Land was created by Amitabha Buddha and what it is like. One of the goals of reading this sutra over and over again is to make one’s mind and vows the same as Amitabha Buddha’s. In such a way, one will be able to meet Amitabha Buddha in the future.

It is important to select one sutra and study it for five years before moving on to another. In this way, one will understand the meaning at a deep level in one sutra, so it will be easier to understand other sutras.

Encouraging Others to Follow the Buddhist Path (勤進行者)

The final requirement of the Three Conditions of Meritorious Acts is to encourage others to follow the Buddhist path. All of the other requirements are directed at changing oneself, but this last one is focused on others.

Continue on to part two.


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