The Meaning of Practice and Enlightenment

1. General Introduction

The thorough clarification of the meaning of birth and death -- this is the most important problem of all for Buddhists. Since the Buddha dwells within birth and death, the later do not exist. Simply understand that birth and death are in themselves Nirvana, there being no birth-death to be hated nor Nirvana to be desired. Then, for the first time, you will be freed from birth and death. Realize that this problem is of supreme importance.

It is difficult to be born as a human being, let alone come into contact with Buddhism. By virtue of our good deeds in the past, however, we have been able not only to be born as human beings but to encounter Buddhism as well. Within the realm of birth-death, then, our present life should be considered to be the best and most excellent of all. Do not waste your human body meaninglessly, abandoning it to the winds of impermanence.

Impermanence cannot be depended upon. We know neither when nor where our transient life will end. This body is already beyond our control; and life, at the mercy of time, moves on without stopping for even an instant. Once the ruddy face of youth has disappeared, it is impossible to find even its traces. When we think about time carefully, we find that time, once lost, never returns. Faced suddenly with the prospect of death, kings, state ministers, relatives, servants, spouse, and children, and rare jewels are of no use. We must enter the realm of death alone, accompanied only by our good and bad karma. You should avoid associating with those deluded people in the present world who are ignorant of the law of causality and karmic retribution. They are unaware of the existence of the three stages of time and unable to distinguish good and evil.

The law of causality, however, is both clear and impersonal: those who do evil inevitably fall; those who do good inevitably ascend. If this were not so, the various Buddhas would not have appeared in this world, nor would Bodhidharma have come to China. The Karmic retribution of good and evil occurs at three different period in time: 1. Retribution experience in ones present life; 2. Retribution experience in life following the present; 3. Retribution experienced in life following the second period. This is the first thing that should be studied and understood when practising the Way. Otherwise many of you will make mistakes and come to hold wrong views. Not only that, you may fall into evil worlds, undergoing a long period of suffering. Understand that in this life you have only one life, not two or three. How regrettable it is if, fruitlessly holding false views you vainly do wrong, thinking that you are not doing bad, when, in fact you are. You cannot avoid the karmic retribution of your evil acts even though you mistakenly assume that because you do not recognize its existence you are not subject to it.

2. Release through Repentence

The Buddhas and Ancestors because of their great mercy, have left open the vast gates of compassion in order that all beings -- both human and celestial -- may thereby realize enlightenment. Although karmic retribution for evil acts must come in one of the three stages of time, repentance lessens the effects, bringing release and purity. Therefore, let us repent before the Buddha in all sincerity. The merit-power of repentance not only saves and purifies us; it also encourages the growth within us of pure, doubt-free faith and earnest effort. When pure faith appears it changes others just as it changes us, its benefits extending to all things, both animate and inanimate. The essence of the act of repentance is as follows: "Even though the accumulation of our past bad karma is so great that it forms an obstacle to practising the Way. We beseech the various enlightened and compassionate Buddhas and Ancestors to free us from karmic retribution, eliminate all obstacles to the practise of the Way, and share with us their compassion, for it is through this compassion that their merit and teachings fill the entire universe. In the past the Buddhas and Ancestors were originally just like us; in the future we shall become like them. All our past evil deeds were the result of beginningless greed, anger, and ignorance: products of our body, speech, and mind. Of all these do we now repent." If we repent in this way, we shall certainly receive the invisible help of the Buddhas and Ancestors. Keeping this in mind and acting in this proper manner, make your repentance. The power derived thereby will wipe out your wrongdoings at their roots.

3. Ordination and Enlightenment

Next, you should deeply venerate the Three Treasures. They deserve our veneration and respect no matter how much our life and body may change. The Buddhas and Ancestors in both India and China, and various countries, correctly transmitted this reverent veneration of the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.

Unfortunate and virtueless people are unable to hear even the name of the Three Treasures, let alone take refuge in them. Do not act like those who, awestruck, vainly take refuge in mountain deities and ghosts or worship at non-Buddhist shrines, for it is impossible to gain release from suffering in this way. Instead, quickly take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, seeking not only release from suffering but complete enlightenment as well.

Taking refuge in the Three Treasures means, first of all, to come with a pure faith. Whether during the Tathagatas lifetime or after it, people should place their hands together in gassho, and with lowered heads recite the following: "We take refuge in the Buddha. We take refuge in the Dharma, We take refuge in the Sangha. We take refuge in the Buddha because the Buddha is our great teacher. We take refuge in the Dharma because it is good medicine. We take refuge in the Sangha because it is composed of excellent friends." It is only by taking refuge in the Three Treasures that one can become a disciple of the Buddha and become qualified to receive all the other precepts. The merit of having taken refuge in the Three Treasures inevitably appears when there is spiritual communion between the trainee and the Buddha. Those who experience this communion inevitably take this refuge whether they find themselves existing as celestial or human beings, dwellers in hell, hungry ghosts, or animals. As a result, the merit that is accumulated thereby inevitably increases through the various realms of existence, leading to the highest supreme enlightenment. Know that the Bhagavat has already borne witness to the fact that this merit is of unsurpassed value and unfathomable profundity. Therefore all sentient beings should take this refuge. Next, we should receive the three pure precepts. The first of them is to refrain from all evil, the second is to do good, and the third is to keep the mind pure. We should then accept the ten grave prohibitions: 1. Do not kill. 2. Do not steal. 3. Do not engage in improper sexual conduct. 4. Do not lie. 5. Do not indulge in intoxicating substances. 6. Do not speak of the faults of others. 7. Do not be too proud to praise others. 8. Do not covet. 9. Do not give way to anger. 10. Do not disparage the Three Treasures.

The various Buddhas have all received and observed the three refuges, the three pure precepts, and the ten grave prohibitions. By receiving these precepts one realizes the supreme Bodhi-wisdom, the adamantine, indestructible enlightenment of all the Buddhas in the three stages of time. Is there any wise person who would not gladly seek this goal? The World Honoured One has clearly shown to all sentient beings that when they receive the precepts, they enter into the realm of all the Buddhas-truly becoming their children and realizing the same great enlightenment. All the Buddhas dwell in this realm, perceiving everything clearly without leaving any traces. When ordinary beings make this their dwelling place, they no longer distinguish between subject and object. At that time everything in the universe -- whether earth, grass, tree, fence, tile, pebble-functions as a manifestation of enlightenment; and those who receive the effects of this manifestation realize enlightenment without being aware of it. This is the merit of Nirvana, the merit of non-discrimination, and awakening to the Bodhi-mind.

4. Making the Altruistic Vow

To awaken to the Bodhi-mind means to vow not to cross over to the other shore before all sentient beings have done so. Whether layperson, nun or monk, living in the world of celestial beings or of humans, subject to pain or pleasure, all should quickly make this vow. Though of humble appearance, a person who has awakened to the Bodhi-mind is already the teacher of all mankind. Even a little girl of seven can become the teacher of the four classes of Buddhists and the compassionate mother of all beings; for in Buddhism men and women are completely equal. This is one of the highest principles of the Way. After having awakened to the Bodhi-mind, even wandering in the six realms of existence and the four forms of life becomes an opportunity to practise the altruistic vow. Therefore even though up to now you may have vainly idled your time away, you should quickly make this vow while there is still time. Though you have acquired sufficient merit to realize Buddhahood, you should place it at the disposal of all beings in order that they may realize the Way. From time immemorial there have been those who have sacrificed their own enlightenment in order that they might be of benefit to all beings, helping them to cross over first to the other shore.

There are four kinds of wisdom that benefit others: Offering, Loving words, Benevolence, and Identification, all of which are the practices of a Bodhisattva. Giving offerings means not to covet. Although it is true that, in essence, nothing belongs to self, this does not prevent us from giving offerings. The size of the offering is of no concern, it is the sincerity with which it is given that is important. Therefore one should be willing to share even a verse or a phrase of the Dharma, for this becomes the seed of good in both present life and future life. This is also the case when giving of ones material treasure, whether it be a single coin or a blade of grass, for the Dharma is the treasure and the treasure is the Dharma. There have been those who, seeking no reward, willingly gave their help to others. Supplying a ferry and building a bridge are both acts of giving offerings as are earning a living and producing goods.

The meaning of Loving words is that when beholding all beings one is filled with compassion for them, addressing them affectionately. That is to say, one regards them as if they were ones own children. The virtuous should be praised and the virtueless pitied. Loving words are the source of overcoming your bitter enemy's hatred and establishing friendship with others. Directly hearing loving words spoken brightens the countenance and warms the heart. An even deeper impression is made, however, by hearing about loving words spoken about oneself in ones absence. You should know that loving words have a revolutionary impact on others.

Benevolence means to devise ways of benefiting others, no matter what their social position. Those who aided the helpless tortoise or the injured sparrow did not expect any reward for their assistance; they simply acted out of their feelings of benevolence. The foolish believe that their own interests will suffer if they put the benefit of others first. They are wrong however. Benevolence is all-encompassing equally benefiting oneself and others.

Identification means nondifferentiation -- to make no distinction between self and others. For example, it is like the human Tathagata who led the same life as that of us human beings. Others can be identified with self, and thereafter, self with others. With the passage of time both self and others become one. Identification is like the sea, which does not decline any water no matter what its source, all waters gathering, therefore, to form the sea.

Quietly reflect on the fact that the preceding teachings are the practices of a Bodhisattva. Do not treat them light. Venerate and respect their merit, which is able to save all beings, enabling them to cross over to the other shore.

5. Constant Practice and Gratitude

The opportunity to awaken to the Bodhi-mind is, in general, reserved to human beings living in this world. Now that we have had the good fortune not only to be born in this world but also to come into contact with the Buddha Shakyamuni, how can we be anything but overjoyed!

Quietly consider the fact that if this were a time when the true Dharma had not yet spread throughout the world, it would not have been possible for us to come into contact with it, even if we were willing to sacrifice our lives to do so. How fortunate to have been born in the present day, when we are able to make this encounter. Listen to what the Buddha said: "When you meet a master who expounds the supreme Bodhi-wisdom, do not consider the masters birth, look at the masters appearance, dislike the masters faults, or worry about the masters behaviour. Rather, out of respect for the masters great wisdom, reverently prostrate yourself before the master three times a day -- morning, noon, and evening -- giving the master no cause for worry."

We are now able to come into contact with the Buddha Shakyamuni and hear the Dharma due to the compassionate kindness that has resulted from the constant practice of all the Buddhas and Ancestors. If the Buddhas and Ancestors had not directly transmitted the Dharma, how could it have come down to us today? We should be grateful for even a single phrase or portion of the Dharma, still more for the great benefit accruing from the highest supreme teaching -- the eye and treasury of the True Dharma. The injured sparrow did not forget the kindness shown to it, rewarding its benefactors with four silver rings. If even animals show their gratitude for kindness rendered to them, how can human beings fail to do the same? The true way of expressing this gratitude is not to be found in anything other than our daily Buddhist practice itself. That is to say, we should practise selflessly, esteeming each day of life.

Time flies faster than an arrow: life is more transient than the dew. No matter how skillful you may be, it is impossible to bring back even a single day of the past. To have lived to be a hundred years old to no purpose is to eat of the bitter fruit of time, to become a pitiable bag of bones. Even though you have allowed yourself to be a slave to your senses for a hundred years, if you give yourself over to Buddhist training for even one day, you will gain a hundred years of life in the present life as well as in future life. Each day's life should be esteemed; the body should be respected. It is through our body and mind that we are able to practise the Way; that is why they should be loved and respected. It is through our own practice that the practice of all the Buddhas appears and their way teaches us. Therefore each day of our practice is the same as theirs, the seed of realizing Buddhahood. All the various Buddhas are none other than the Buddha Shakyamuni. The Buddha Shakyamuni is nothing other than the fact that the mind itself is the Buddha. When the Buddhas of the past, present, and future realize enlightenment, they never fail to become the Buddha Shakyamuni. This is the meaning of the mind itself being the Buddha. Study this question carefully, for it is in this way that you can express your gratitude to the Buddhas.