THE IMMUTABILTY OF CAUSE AND EFFECT
by Venerable Wu Lin
Respected Dharma Masters, respected practitioners and guests. Over the past few hundred years, the face of Buddhism has undergone several changes. First, it began to be regarded by some as a religion. Then, it was looked upon as a philosophy. Some even twisted it almost beyond recognition until it became more of a cult. And recently it has come to be portrayed by some as a show.
Some of these misunderstandings have been honest ones, often occurring as people have tried to understand and respect the teachings. Some of these misunderstandings occurred as people strove to benefit themselves at the expense of others. If we want to really understand and benefit from Buddhism, we need to go back to its original form.
Approximately two thousand years ago, in 67 AD, Buddhism officially came to China and since then, has spread and flourished throughout the country. The Emperor had sent special envoys to India to invite Buddhist monks to come to China to teach Buddhism, which at that time was understood to be an education.
The sutras, recorded teachings of Buddha Shakyamuni, address him as our “Original Teacher”. Those who listened to him were called students, which is what we call ourselves today. This teacher-student relationship is only found in education. Another reason that Buddhism is an education is also to be found in the sutras, where we learn that the students would ask questions of the Buddha, who would then answer them. If the students did not thoroughly understand, or thought that we would not thoroughly understand, they would ask for further clarification, which the Buddha would provide. This is essentially a classroom discussion. Please understand that Buddha Shakyamuni simply taught. He conducted neither ceremonies or rites.
Buddhism is Buddha Shakyamuni’s educational system, which is similar to that of Confucius for both presented similar viewpoints and methods. The goal of Buddhist education is to attain wisdom. In Sanskrit, the language of ancient India, this wisdom was called “Anuttara-smyak-sambhodi” meaning the perfect complete wisdom. The Buddha taught us that the main objective of our learning and cultivation is to achieve this ultimate wisdom.
He further taught us that everyone has the potential to realize this state of ultimate wisdom, because it is an intrinsic part of our nature. It is not something we can obtain externally. However, most of us have become confused through general misconceptions and therefore, are unable to realize this potential. However, if we can break through this confusion, we will realize this intrinsic part of our nature. Thus, Buddhism is an educational system aimed at regaining our own original, intrinsic self-nature.
It also teaches absolute equality, which stemmed from the Buddha’s recognition that all sentient beings possess this innate wisdom and nature. Therefore, there really is no inherent difference among beings. Everyone is different now because we have lost our true nature and have become confused. The degree of wisdom exhibited by individuals depends on the degree of delusion and has nothing to do with the original true nature of the individual. The Buddha’s teachings help us to realize this innate, perfect, ultimate wisdom. With this wisdom, we can solve all of our problems and turn our suffering into happiness.
Due to our lack of wisdom, we perceive and behave foolishly, and thus suffer the consequences evoked by our incorrect thoughts, speech and behaviour. If we have wisdom, our thoughts, speech and behaviour will be correct; how then can we suffer where there are no ill consequences to suffer from? Of course, we will be happy. From here, we can see that suffering is caused by our delusion and the source of happiness is our own realization of wisdom.
The Buddha’s educational system can also be witnessed today in lecture hall, in which we can see many teaching aids. When we enter the hall or classroom, we see the image of a Buddha, which symbolizes our original self-nature. We may see a container of water on the Buddha table. The clear water symbolizes the principle that our minds need to be as pure as the water; to be void of greed, anger and ignorance. It is calm without a single ripple indicating that we interact with people and matters with the serene and non-discriminating mind of equality. Furthermore, it is pure and calm, reflecting clearly and thoroughly just as we would see everything around us in a mirror.
Offerings of flowers symbolize the cause as the blossoms result in the bearing of fruit, reminding us that there are consequences to our every thought, word and action. Lamps or candles symbolize wisdom and brightness illuminating the darkness of our ignorance. The images of lotus flowers symbolize transcending the ten realms of existence. First, it rises through the mud at the bottom of the pond, which symbolizes the six realms of birth and death. Then it rises through the water, which symbolizes the four sage realms. Finally, it breaks through the surface of the water completely transcending the ten realms, reaching the one true Dharma realm, the stage of ultimate enlightenment.
The lotus flower teaches us that although we live in the world, we should not become polluted by our surroundings. The lotus flower above the water symbolizes that one day, all beings, from those in the hell realms to those who are Bodhisattvas, will become Buddha’s; beings with perfect complete enlightenment. The Buddha realm exceeds the ten realms and to become a Buddha is the ultimate goal of our teachings. So, when we see the lotus flower, we are reminded to practice the teachings as well as to transcend the ten realms.
Today, when we see images of Buddha Shakyamuni, we are reminded that we need to feel gratitude for his forty-nine years of teaching. The Buddha, a voluntary social educator, dedicated his whole life to teaching us how to cut off our afflictions to attain perfect complete wisdom and true happiness. He was an ordinary person who saw the sufferings of birth, old age, sickness and death, but did not know how to solve these problems. He was deluded but became awakened. He learned, through cultivation, the truth of life and the universe and then taught us how to become awakened by using himself as an example so that we could learn from his experiences. So, that we too can become awakened and thus live happy and fulfilling lives.
In the world today there are many beliefs, religions and cultures, manu different viewpoints of how to explain our world and our relationship to it. But although we seem to have so many differences, we really have so many similarities. Do not kill, do not steal, do not lie. Do all that is good and nothing that is bad. Do unto others as you would have done unto you. Remember the kindness of others and repay the kindness with gratitude.
Whether we call it caring for and respecting others or loving kindness or compassion, we believe in helping others, in giving of what we have or who we are, to those who need our help or our wisdom. Today, many people are searching for wisdom, for the understanding of why we are born, why we live and why we die. We are compelled by conflicting emotions. We are compelled by logic. When we hear of other beliefs the feelings of many people range from fear to curiosity, from surprise to fascination, from suspicion to cooperation.
Everywhere we look we see societies with greater diverse cultures, societies with more differences, societies that often emphasize these differences. Today many people look outside of themselves, to these differences, believing that they are the reason why so many are so unhappy. But the reason lies within us. As human beings, we undergo the sufferings of birth, old age, sickness and death. We suffer hardships, do not attain what we seek, are parted from our loved ones and find ourselves in the presence of those whom we resent or even hate. The failure of people to understand the real cause of their unhappiness, their suffering is increasing this very suffering.
We all know people who regularly have to take tranquilizers to be able to sleep. Why? They feel their lives are out of control. They wish to control other people and to possess more things. Fifty years ago, people had time to appreciate nature, time to study the works of wise people. Today we have no time for nature, no time for contemplation. Our lives are much more comfortable than were those of our predecessors but we have virtually no spiritual life. So, we search for excitement or take pills o paralyse our feelings, to cover our inability to cope with life.
How can we fix this? Reduce our time at work, at play. With purity of mind, we will need less. Our lives are wasted in our attempts to attain things. We brought nothing into this life. We will take nothing when we leave it. What we need is a simple manner of living. Buddha Shakyamuni lived a simple life with merely the essentials; one meal a day, three clothes, sleeping under a tree at night, yet he lived a happy, content life.
By following his example and living a simple lifestyle we can reduce our attachments and likewise lead contented lives. Work one year, take off one year. A simple manner of living brings us happiness and serenity. If we do not attach to giving or receiving, we will enter the awakened being’s state of quiet joy, tranquillity, serenity, gentleness.
How can we change the direction in which we are headed? By learning how to overcome our greed, anger, ignorance and arrogance so that our minds will no longer be deluded by awakened. By understanding the Law of Cause and Effect. It has been said that Bodhisattvas, who are beings who help others to reach realization after achieving their own, fear causes while sentient beings fear effects. Understanding this as they do, Bodhisattvas fear committing ill effects and therefore, they take steps to avoid creating all negative causes. In so doing, they eradicate the debts; the karmic obstacles generated from their previous wrongdoings as well as accumulate perfect merits and virtues until they reach the state of Buddhahood.
Whether worldly dharma, which includes things, events, phenomena, everything of this world, or Buddha Dharma, which is the teaching of the Buddhas; nothing is beyond the Law of Cause and Effect. It is said that everything is empty and unreal, an eternally impermanent element. But the Law of Cause and Effect is unchangeable and real, an eternally permanent element.
Both cause and effect are closely related as they co-exist mutually. A causal action becomes a consequential effect and this effect in turn gives rise to another causal action. From this endless cycle, we can see that a particular causal action is not fixed. Neither is a single effect the only effect. The combination of cause and effect forms a vicious cycle, the cycle of reincarnation.
A Bodhisattva is an awakened, understanding being and is therefore well aware that every single causal action produces an effect. Because of this, they are very cautious in their every thought, word and action. Fearful that a causal action will become a negative karmic effect in the future. For they will certainly have to personally bear the consequences.
Unlike Bodhisattvas, sentient beings do not understand the principles and the realities of life. The little knowledge we may have is limited and vague, far from complete. Consequently, we carelessly commit causal actions and do not understand, when the effects occur later, why they happened. It is then too late for us to regret. And for most of us, not only do we not feel remorse, but also we blame others for our misfortune. This in turn creates more bad effects. Cause and effect is constantly being played out all around us. If we are unable to connect the occurrences, it is because we are not mindful, rather we are rash and careless, not yet truly understanding.
Regardless of the method we practice, the method of practicing Buddha name recitation while seeking birth into the Western Pure Land, adheres to the Law of Cause and Effect. For our own sake, we do not want to not create any more bad deeds or causes, to only cultivate kind deeds, which is what ancient masters, sages and the patriarchs tired so hard to encourage us to do.
The Pure Land method allows us to carry our existing karma to the Western Pure Land. However, it is crucial that we understand that existing karma refers to the “old” and not the “new”. This “new” existing karma, which is created in the present, cannot be brought to the Pure Land. Actually, this new karma will be one of the impediments obstructing us from reaching the Pure Land. Carrying over our “old” existing karma means carrying over the negative karma that was created before we began to learn and practice Buddhism.
With this understanding, we must resolve not to create any more negative karma. Only then can we be totally liberated. It would be wrong to think that we can still be born in the Pure Land even if we continue to do bad deeds, that chanting alone will be enough. It has been said that out of ten thousand people, who practice the Buddha Name Recitation Method, only a handful are able to obtain birth into the Pure Land. Why? They did not stop creating negative karma in the present lifetime. In the end, regardless of all their chanting they were unable to obtain birth into the Pure Land. They still bore their consequences in the six realms of reincarnation. It is crucial that we understand this.
To practice Buddhism, we need to bring forth the Bodhi mind. What is the Bodhi mind? The awakened mind. The mind that clearly understands the principles and true reality of life and the universe. The great, compassionate mind, with every thought to attain complete realization for self and to help all others to do so as well. The mind with perfect determination to cease committing all wrongdoings, to cultivate only kind deeds, to practice only virtuous ways.
The great compassionate and sincere Bodhi Mind is to offer without selfishness. It is a mind without self-regard. The mind with no expectation of reward. With this mind, we will be able to care for all beings as we are for ourselves, for our family. Practicing with this Bodhi mind our karmic debts can be eradicated. The Buddha has explained it in this manner so that we are able to understand.
In truth, our karmic debts cannot be eradicated but can only be transformed into good fortune, which is happiness, intelligence, wellbeing, prosperity, etc. It is the great benefit of the human and celestial realms, therefore, it is only temporary and still subject to birth and death. However, transformation is equivalent to elimination to transform our afflictions into the Bodhi mind. It is to transform the cycle of birth and death into the state of Nirvana. In the process of transformation, our merits and virtues become flawless and reach completion as we attain Buddhahood, the ultimate perfection.
In the Flower Adornment Sutra, the Buddha tells us that all sentient beings inherently possess the virtuous abilities and innate wisdom of the Buddhas. In other words, all sentient beings have the same Buddha nature, the same self-nature, our original, true self that we still have, but which is currently obstructed, currently covered by our deluded thoughts, our wandering and discriminatory thoughts and attachments. But this original self-nature is not permanently lost. To uncover this original nature is to attain Buddhahood. To attain the state of perfect and faultless wisdom. Our virtues, talents, abilities and good fortune are also perfect. Thus, when our every aspect is perfect, we become Buddhas.
Why then are we presently leading such difficult lives? Because of wandering and discriminatory thoughts, attachments: afflictions. Afflictions are all the conditions that cause pain; distress and suffering which disturb the body and mind. Attachments are fixations to certain ideas or objects. They result in our having desires, having strong feelings of selfishness and jealousy, having the longing to control, the longing to possess others. Because of these we dwell on thoughts of what has occurred, what we have remembered, what we have imagined. We are led by these thoughts, unable to stop them.
It is crucial that we cease these attachments, which have made us sad or angry, those that have caused us to have strong emotions for due to these attachments, we cannot stop thinking of ourselves, of what we want. What can we do? As ordinary people, we are still subject to thoughts and feelings of attachment. So, as soon as these thoughts arise, replace them with the “Amituofo”. As the next thought arises, again replace it with the single thought of “Amituofo”. In this way, we can practice anywhere, anytime.
The Buddhas taught us that the universe is generated from our wandering and discriminatory thoughts, is created from our attachments. These obstacles represent false beliefs and wrong viewpoints and have created the forty-one Dharma Body Bodhisattva stages of enlightenment. Why are there different levels? They manifest from our different degrees of ignorance and wandering thoughts.
Where do the Ten Dharma Realms come from? They appear due to the lack of equality, from our discriminatory thoughts. When we harbour one single differentiating thought against other beings, matters or objects, then the Ten Dharma Realms will appear. The highest of these are the Four Sage Realms of Sound-hearer, Pratyekabuddha, Bodhisattva and Buddha.
When we cling to attachments, the Six Realms of Reincarnation of the heavens, asuras, humans and animals, hungry ghosts and hells will appear. And, as our attachments increase, the Three Evil Realms, being the lower of the realms will appear. Finally, when our attachments are the most serious and tenacious, the hell realms will appear. Why are we unable to transcend the cycle of birth and death? Unable to sever our karmic obstacles? Not only do we not yet want to correct our faults; we are constantly increasing them.
How then do we rid ourselves of these deluded and illusory thoughts to uncover the original capabilities and virtues of our self-nature? The only way is by letting go of our wandering and discriminatory thoughts, and attachments. When we have eliminated all of these, we will not only overcome the cycle of birth and death in the Six Realms but will surpass the Ten Dharma Realms as well. And when this happens, we will dwell in the One True Dharma Realm, the state of the Buddhas. And it is within this reality that the Law of Cause and Effect lies.
Wandering and discriminatory thoughts and attachments are causes. Greed and anger and ignorance are causes. The Ten Dharma Realms, comprised of the Four Sage Realms and the Six Realms of Reincarnation, are effects. Since wandering and discriminatory thoughts and attachments generate negative karma, they ought to be eliminated so that our merits and virtues can then be perfect and complete. Cultivating a non-discriminatory mind provides the serenity for practitioners to let go of afflictions. But, it is difficult for most of us to let go due to our sentimental attachments, due to the injustices we feel we have suffered and the grudges we thus hold.
However, feeling this way only puts us at more of a disadvantage because then we suffer the consequences of our grudges. Inequalities exist in this world because of our discriminatory minds. Ordinary people only think in terms of the four forms explained in the Diamond Sutra. “Self, people, other beings and time”. If we do not think in terms of these four forms, then we will break through our afflictions with the strength from our cultivation. Therefore, when we generate emotions we need to remind ourselves of these four forms and remember that they are only an illusion. When we do this, we will be truly happy, according with conditions and being joyful in the good deeds of others.
The accumulation of merits depends on our cultivation. What is this cultivation? The ability to let go of wandering and discriminatory thoughts, to let go of attachments, to correct our erroneous thoughts and ways. What are virtues? Virtues arise from having accomplished deep concentration, wisdom and the One True Dharma Realm. It is therefore important to understand the meaning of merits and virtues. For the attainment of beneficial merits and virtues is the perfect attainment of Buddhahood.
The merits and virtues bestowed upon the highest levels of Bodhisattvas are not yet perfect. Why? Because they have chosen not to break through the last remaining degree of the illusion of phenomenal existence. They have not relinquished the thinnest shred, the last degree of wandering thoughts and this is why their merits and virtues are not yet perfect. Upon breaking through this last degree of illusion, of ignorance, their merits and virtues will be the perfect completeness, which manifests the attainment of Buddhahood.
Sentient beings commit wrongdoings due to deluded minds and deviated viewpoints. When interacting with people, maters and affairs, we usually act from greed, anger, arrogance, from selfishness, from the wish to be in control of our surroundings. Therefore, to go along with our true nature, we need to give up trying to control and dominate others, to replace thoughts of ourselves with thoughts of all others. Then our purity of mind will increase and our afflictions will decrease. If we achieve this state of mind, we would do well to help others to achieve it as well.
But as long as we still have these thoughts of greed, anger, arrogance, the wish to control others, we still have the causes that will generate our birth into the Three Bad Realms of animals, hungry ghosts and hells. Why are we born into the animal realms? Ignorance. Greed is the reason we are born into the hungry ghost realms. And anger is the cause of our birth into the hell realms.
There is no way to avoid the effects of negative karma once the wrongdoing has been committed. We ourselves have to bear the consequences, the retribution arising from our misdeeds. No person, god or Buddha can help to reduce our suffering or bear the karmic effects on our behalf. They have neither the authority nor the power to do so. The reality is that we alone must suffer the consequences of our misdeeds. To hope otherwise is like trying to run away from our own shadow. In doing so, we will just perpetrate more wrong conduct.
There are many instances evidencing this phenomenon. Take the example of an ignorant person. Having done a small good deed, he or she hopes to obtain good fortune. This is wishful thinking, wistful dreaming. It is true that we will receive good fortune after doing a virtuous deed. However, such good fortune may not show itself immediately. Why? Because our transgressions are too heavy to be compensated by just one small virtuous deed.
Not understanding this, when things do not go well, we begin to doubt the teachings and question why the Buddha’s words are not true? Why do I do good deeds and receive misfortune when others commit wrongdoings and obtain good fortune? We then begin to doubt the Law of Cause and Effect. Consequently, we begin to doubt and inadvertently slander the teachings of the Buddhas. But by so doing, we further increase the severity of our wrongdoings.
There are three aspects of a karmic effect. First, good fortune arising from kind deeds or suffering arising from misdeeds may manifest within the present lifetime. Second, the respective karmic effects may not manifest within the present lifetime but in the next lifetime. Third, such karmic effects may not manifest until the third lifetime or they may not show up until after innumerable lifetimes. So, causal actions do not give rise to various karmic effects, we just cannot be certain when they will appear.
Under what circumstances would these karmic effects take effect? Good or bad karmic results can only be brought about by the existence of a catalystic condition or circumstance. If the appropriate condition matures in the present lifetime, the respective karmic effect will then manifest itself within the present life time. Hence, the first aspect of a karmic effect.
Similarly, should the catalystic condition mature in the next lifetime, the karmic effect will manifest itself then. Hence, the second aspect of a karmic effect. Finally, should the condition fail to arise after numerous lifetimes, the karmic cause can never be eradicated. Perhaps after the passing of immeasurable eons, the catalystic condition may finally arise and then the karmic effect will manifest itself.
Take for example, a story told by the Buddha in the Lotus Sutra. An old man had requested to become a monk. For this to happen, one needed to have good roots, good fortune, virtues and the right conditions. At that time, all those who became monks under Buddha Shakyamuni’s guidance achieved attainment. Buddha Shakyamuni tested his student’s ability by asking them to decide whether to accept the old man as a monk. All of the students were Arhats and thus, were capable of knowing a person’s past five hundred lifetimes. They doomed the old man as a prospect, because they thought that he had not planted the good roots within those lifetimes.
But, Buddha Shakyamuni told them that infinite eons ago, this old man had been a woodchopper. One day when he ran into a tiger on the mountain, he climbed up a tree to escape, calling out, “Homage to the Buddha”, for help. With only those few words, the old man had planted his cause. When he met with Buddha Shakyamuni after innumerable eons, the conditions had matured. Buddha Shakyamuni therefore accepted the man as a monk who later attained the level of Arhat, a state in which one possesses no erroneous perceptions, views, speech of behaviour. This is an example of a karmic effect, which manifested itself after innumerable lifetimes.
Every thought, word and action arising from our hearts and minds creates a karmic effect. We reap what we sow. By sowing good causes, we reap good consequences: sowing bad causes, we reap bad consequences. Even Buddhas and Bodhisattvas cannot alter this reality. The respective karmic effect will only manifest itself when the relevant condition ripens. If we do not yet see these results, it is only because the appropriate time has not matured.
With thorough understanding of this truth, we will naturally become very watchful of our every thought, word and action. We will also be able to adopt the right attitude when interacting with others, matters and affairs to accumulate more good fortune. When we are yet not able to uncover our virtuous self-nature due to our lack of awakening, we can only receive the benefits through virtuous cultivation.
The guideline for determining good and bad deeds has been clearly defined by the Buddha. When every thought arising from our mind is dedicated to the benefit of all sentient beings, we will create good fortune. But when every thought is solely to benefit ourselves, we will generate negative karma. We need to stop benefiting ourselves at the expense of hurting others for such behaviour only creates negative karma that we will have to repay later. If we do not believe this it will still happen. To correct it, we need to constantly practice great compassion.
Why do we use this guideline of whether we are benefiting ourselves or benefiting others to determine whether we are creating bad or good karma? Remember that the karmic causes of the Ten Dharma Realms are manifested from wandering and discriminatory thoughts and attachments. When every thought contains the element of “self” , is for “us”, our attachments are very severe. Consequently, we are still lost in the cycle of birth and death. Still mired in the ten realms of existence. Thus, it is negative karma when every rising thought is only of us, our family, our group, our country.
Ordinary people do not understand this, are under the misconception that it is perfectly natural, even correct to think in this way. They do not realize that such views are totally contrary to the wisdom of the Buddha. Unlike the Buddha, we are unable to perceive clearly and thus we have always seen things in a false light. The Buddha, knowing and understanding all, speaks only the truth.
Each and every thought is a karmic act. If a cause arises from wisdom, so then will the effect. If a cause arises from ignorance, so will the effect. Unfortunately, we plant causes mainly due to our ignorance and this is why we have created innumerable transgressions in our past and present lifetimes. Most of the time our bad deeds outweigh our good ones. If our good deeds had exceeded the bad ones, we would have already transcended the cycle of birth and death.
As long as we remain in this cycle, we will undoubtedly commit more bad than good deeds. Thus, we ought to be very cautious and mindful. However, the Buddha tells us that our karma is not fixed and can be transformed. Since everything arises from our minds, karma also arises from our minds. Since our wrongdoings are created by our minds, then they can also be transformed by our minds. Once we have attained purity of mind, our karma will be eradicated.
Often we fail to understand the full impact of the Buddha’s words. This is due to our confused minds and deviated viewpoints. We have read in the sutras that awakened beings, such as Arhats and Bodhisattvas, will be terrified after listening to these words of the Buddha. They tell us that an Arhat will sweat blood when they remember the unimaginable suffering they underwent in their past lives in the Avici Hell, the lowest of the hell realms. Thus, they are far more vigilant than we are. Since we are not yet capable of knowing our past lives, we do not know, do not remember any of this. We too have all been in the hell realms before. And as long as we are still mired in the cycle of birth and death, we will most certainly go there again and often.
The time spent in the hell realms is comprised of infinite eons while the time spent in the highest level of Heaven is a relatively short eighty thousand great eons. Although we all have committed heavy wrongdoings, we can still be helped before falling into the hell realms. But, once we have descended into them, it is extremely difficult for us to be helped notwithstanding the presence of Earth Treasure Bodhisattva who is there to help all sentient beings. Any Buddha or Bodhisattva, who has an affinity with a sentient being in hell and goes there to teach him or her, is called Earth Treasure Bodhisattva.
We may have an affinity with a sentient being in the hell realms. When we become a Bodhisattva or a Buddha and the catalystic condition has matured, we will be able to go there to help them and then we too will be called Earth Treasure Bodhisattva. Therefore, the name of a Buddha or Bodhisattva is a generic term and does not indicate any one specific individual.
In the Earth Treasure Sutra, we have seen that it is difficult to save sentient beings who have already descended into the hell realms. Earth Treasure Bodhisattva has great wisdom, great supernatural abilities and great transcendent abilities, thus he can help the sentient beings in the hell realms even to reach the Western Pure Land. However, due to our habitual behaviour, when we are able to ascend to the Heaven realms, we continue to commit wrongdoings. And after life in the heaven realms has ended, we will again fall into the hell realms. But to Earth Treasure Bodhisattva it is as if we have returned after only having been gone for a few days. Once in the hell realms, as we experience continuous suffering we will be unable to cultivate. Thus, our hatred and resultant negative karma will increase and become more binding. The sutras clearly explain this for us. From this, we can begin to understand how difficult it is to help sentient beings who have descended into the hell realms.
At what point in time can we be helped? After we have committed wrongdoings but before we pass on and descend into the hell realms. During this time, we must be awakened so that through feelings of intense remorse and terrifying fear, we will diligently forgo thinking, saying or doing anything that is bad and only do that which is good. In this way, we will maintain purity of mind
And in this way, we can change our present condition and transform a bad situation into a good one. It would be even better if we could bring forth the great Bodhi mind. If at the moment of death, we sincerely regret as we recite “Amituofo” one to ten times and seek birth into the Pure Land, we will accomplish this birth even though we would have gone to the Avici Hell. We will be born there as non-regressive Bodhisattvas. Once there, we will have the opportunity to return to our world to help those whom we have an affinity with to transcend the hell realms.
Often, we may have done various good deeds but continue to be ridiculed and looked down upon by others. Or, we may have suffered serious illness, poverty or misfortune with one life worse than the previous one. Why? Our serious misdeeds have been reduced to a form of light retribution, manifested in the present lifetime. In other words, to be in this situation means that our heavy transgressions have become lighter.
As the Diamond Sutrasays, we may be poor, debase or deserve the path of hell due to past transgressions. Because of this, we will suffer poverty and debasement in this lifetime. However, when we accept and practice, we will eradicate our transgressions and eventually obtain the Perfect Complete Enlightenment. Thus, we are able to transform bad karma with one single thought of enlightenment.
Furthermore, the sutras tell us that when we are performing the deeds of a Bodhisattva, the Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and heavenly beings will constantly support and help us. If we encounter obstacles and difficulties when performing these great deeds, it is due to our negative karma being too great. If we can just grit out teeth and diligently perform the deeds to accumulate these merits and virtues, without discriminatory thoughts or attachment, we will overcome the present suffering and bring forth innumerable benefits and good fortune. Act willingly to accord with adversity. To dissolve our debts we need to repay them with calmness, without any trace of hatred or grievance. If we feel hatred, then the debt of the next lifetime will be much greater than it was in this one.
My teacher, Venerable Master Chin Kung is a good example of this. He underwent many years of deprivations but remained diligent and hardworking. Subsequently, he met Ms. Yin-Han and her husband, who provided him with full support. Only then, with a manageable standard of living was he able to continue with his teaching and lecturing. His obstacles and hardships were a result of negative karma created in previous lifetimes. However, in patiently bearing these difficulties, his negative karma was gradually eliminated.
The establishment of the Hwa Dzan Library and the later establishment of the Corporate Body of the Buddha Educational Foundation were the turning points. Presently, under his guidance, over fifty Pure Land Learning Centers and Amitabha Buddhist Societies around the world help to propagate Buddhism. This is the manifestation of good fortune, which is in accordance with the teachings in the sutra.
Therefore, we must not be discouraged in the face of adversities. It has been said, that Buddhas and Bodhisattvas have arranged everything in our lives. All hardships and adverse conditions, no matter how severe, have been pre-arranged by then as well. The purpose of these is to gradually eliminate our negative karma until we accumulate merits and virtues. Also, they help cultivators elevate their state of practice and to achieve attainment. Why would the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas wish us ill? True cultivators are very precious to them. Understanding this principle, we will patiently and even gladly endure hardships without feeling discouraged.
Once we have proven the truth of the Buddha’s teachings for ourselves, as the Buddha has shown us, we will then be able to understand that any failure, no matter how big or small, is the benevolent arrangement of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. However, those who do not understand this principle will, in the face of adversity, begin to raise doubts in Buddhism. They will then blame the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas for not providing them with protection and guidance, further slandering the Triple Jewels. Consequently, they end up committing greater transgressions. How would they not fall back?
The Buddha told us, that we would do well to thoroughly and deeply understand the teachings in the sutras so that we will not feel helpless when crises arise. Regardless of good or bad circumstances, we ought to remain clam and composed. Bad times serve to eradicate our karmic debts. Do good times present any benefit? If we do not possess deep concentration and wisdom during good times, we will regress. Why? Because our minds have given rise to thoughts of greed.
Although we intend to behave properly, for example, not to lose our temper, something happens and we become angry before we can stop ourselves. When we give rise to thoughts of greed and do not get what we want, we give way to resentment. This is because we are controlled by our negative karma. How do we overcome it? By listening more to lectures and putting these teachings into practice. Understanding and practice are equally important as they complement each other and lead to an even higher state of understanding and practice.
Actually, attaining good fortune may not be good for us. When good fortunes arises and we do not enjoy it but rather we share it with others and thus benefit all sentient beings, the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas will in turn bring us ore good fortune. But, when we do not possess a certain degree of deep concentration and wisdom, they will not immediately bring us good fortune. Why? It would only harm us. They will allow us to suffer a little more because hardship is beneficial to our practice. From this, we realize that the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas have provided us with unwavering care and guidance for which we need to be grateful. This is something most people are not able to understand.
When most people meet with difficulties, they often blame others, even God. Rarely do they seriously think to reflect on their own faults. When we do not have deep feelings of remorse and regret, it is because of our delusions, our own false views. Today, we often hear of people being cheated. Why do people cheat others? It has unfortunately become an everyday occurrence in our world. But, what is really happening here? If we understand Buddhism and the true reality of life and the universe, we would realize that we are presently being cheated simply because in the past, we cheated others.
Understanding this and despite our having been cheated, we will maintain peace of mind if we look upon the situation as the repayment of a debt. A debt of money must be repaid in cash and a life owed must be repaid in kind. This is principally sound and cannot be avoided.
The Buddha told us that everything is a dream, an illusion, a shadow, a buddle. Nothing is permanent. Nothing can be held on to. Nothing can be gained. This is the true principle. If we remember little else, we would do well to remember this. When we are able to truly understand that nothing can be gained and thus nothing can be lost, we will finally be free of delusions. Therefore, when we experience hardships, we need to think of them as repayment of a debt. In this way, we will patiently, even gladly give what others want and constantly give rise to thoughts and feelings of remorse and regret.
Today, we see many people with great good fortune, with immense wealth. Where does this wealth come from? It does not happen by mere coincidence or luck. Rather it is accumulated from the cultivation of good deeds in previous lifetimes, from the giving of wealth. The manifestations of misfortune or good fortune do not occur by chance but are due to respective causes created in our innumerable previous lifetimes. When the appropriate condition arises in the present lifetime, it allows the cause to come into effect and therefore produces the result.
We can learn of the life of the Venerable Master Yin-Guang in his journal. Master Yin Guang said that everything is attained through sincerity, which is benefiting oneself; and respect, which is benefiting others. With sincerity and respect, we will be in harmony with others. In order to achieve a peaceful and harmonious society; we need to understand the principles of cause, condition and effect. For others to respect us, we need to respect others first, to change our ways to change the environment for the better. Otherwise, the great disasters in this world, being the shared karma of all sentient beings, cannot be averted.
Thus, throughout his entire life, Master Yin-Guang advocated the teachings of cause, condition and effect with the aid of materials such as the Four Lessons of Liao-Fan, which we now have in English. He tirelessly advocated and wholeheartedly dedicated his life to helping all others. Regretfully, there are many who wish for worldly fortune, but there are few who are truly awakened and who vow to be born into the Western Pure Land.
By his free distribution of books such as Liao Fan’s Four Lessonsand other books on cause and effect, Master Yin-Guang displayed a great heart of compassion and his devotion to helping humanity. He was indeed a Thus Come Bodhisattva, a manifestation of Great Strength Bodhisattva, who appeared in this world to help sentient beings. Although Master Yin-Guang has passed on, we can follow his example by introducing and extensively propagating the Pure Land method throughout the world with the aid of modern technology. Hopefully, this can help to reduce or even eliminate the disasters in this world that are the results of improper thoughts, words and deeds committed over the past two thousand years. In this way, our merits and virtues will be innumerable and immeasurable.
The Buddha taught us that we should not discriminate between other people and ourselves because we are all one. We need to have compassionate thoughts, do good deeds, say kind words, be a gentleperson. To be sincerely concerned for others, to practice loving-kindness.
We all live in the same world, have the same problems. Many of us need help when we have problems. If someone is drowning, and we can swim, we do not ask what religion, what race they are. We do everything we can to help them. If all of us gave help when it was needed, our world would be gentle, peaceful and happy, and we would not have the problems that we do, the hatred, the wars, the disasters.
We can either choose to create problems or to solve them. But if we do not help, we will never solve our problems. We can spend millions of US dollars on a bomb or twenty US dollars to provide for a person in a third world country for a month. We can spend money to kill or to save lives. Which one solves the problem? War will not solve problems, giving unselfishly will. And true giving is totally without expectation of reward. If we expect something then it does not solve the problem. When different cultures and religions respect and help each other, we will finally have a harmonious and prosperous society, a peaceful and stable world. This is what we hope for. This is our responsibility to create.
When I was in Australia a few months ago with Teacher, we attended the meetings of the Multi-faith Forum, which is sponsored by the government of Australia and the World Conference on Religion and Peace. At these meetings, the leaders of different religious groups share their opinions and ideas on how to resolve the conflicts among different religious and ethnic groups. Their objectives are to establish a harmonious and prosperous multicultural, multi-racial and multi-religious society. To have a stable and prosperous society and country, we first need to have harmonious interaction among cultural, racial and religious groups.
Every culture, religion and ethnic group possesses commendable qualities. And although we come from different backgrounds, we share many similarities. If we use these as a starting point to seek the common ground and lay aside our differences, we will then be able to appreciate each other’s good points. In this way, we will sincerely respect each other and no longer wish to interfere with the internal affairs of others or to solve problems by the use of force. In this way, conflicts will naturally dissolve, wars will no longer be fought and our society will be peaceful and prosperous.
Buddha Shakyamuni explained that the universe, everything in it and we, are all one perfect complete entity. If we could all share this understanding, there would be no need to worry about the stability and peace of our society or of our world. For using this as a starting point, we will realize that all others are ourselves.
To harm others is to harm ourselves; to benefit others is to benefit ourselves. When we isolate ourselves from the whole with every rising thought for ourselves, with every ensuing action for our own benefit, then it will be impossible to avoid confrontations and wars among races, religions and cultures.
From the Buddha’s teachings, we learn the importance of practicing and advocating compassion and equality. In our society, everybody plays a different role, but everybody’s role is equally important and necessary. There is no good or bad, high or low, just the difference between the assignment of tasks.
At the beginning of the Flower Adornment Sutra, there are one hundred seventy-five groups attending the assembly who are of different species from different worlds throughout the universe. It is the quintessential multiculture, the gathering together of beings from different worlds with different beliefs. In order to help us to achieve this same harmony, all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas first explain that the universe is perfect, is one entity.
The Chinese classic from three thousand years ago, I Ching, the Book of Changesexplains how Heaven and Earth, the four seasons and all phenomena were originally formed from infinite particles. Lao Zi clarified further that the universe and we share the same root and that all creations and we are one entity. As Buddha Shakyamuni said, we all arose from this same essence.
Let me tell you a story that someone reminded me of recently. We both heard if from the Zen Buddhist Master Thich Nhat Hanh. It is about the Buddha and Mara, who is the embodiment of all that is bad, all that is evil. It was Mara that the Buddha defeated the night he sat down under the Bodhi tree vowing not to rise until he attained enlightenment.
One day the Buddha was in his cave and Ananda, who was his attendant, was standing outside, near the door. Suddenly Ananda saw Mara appropraching. He was very surprised. He did not want that to happen and frankly, he wished Mara would get lost. But, Mara walked right up to Ananda and asked him to announce his visit to the Buddha.
Ananda immediately questioned him. “Why are you here. Don’t you remember that a long time ago the Buddha defeated you under the Bodhi tree? Aren’t you ashamed to be here? Go away! The Buddha will not see you. You are evil. You are his enemy”. When Mara heard Ananda say this, his began to laugh. “Did you say that your teacher told you that he has enemies?” Ananda could not say anything else and had to go to tell the Buddha of Mara’s visit, hoping that the Buddha would say, “Go tell him that I’m not here. Tell him that I’m in a meeting.”
But instead, the Buddha was very excited to hear that Mara, an old friend, had come to visit. “Is it true? Is he really here?” the Buddha said and he went right up to Mara, bowed to him and took his hands in his in the warmest possible manner. The Buddha said, “Hello! How have you been? Is everything all right”? But Mara did not say anything. So the Buddha brought him into the cave, prepared a seat for him and told Ananda to go and fix some tea, Ananda went to do so but kept listening to the conversation.
The Buddha warmly repeated, “How have you been? How are things going with you?” Mara relied, “Things are not going at all well. I am tired of being a Mara. I want to be something else. You know being a Mara isn’t easy. When you talk, you have to talk in riddles. If you do anything, you have to be tricky and look very evil. Frankly, I’m really tired of it all. But, what I especially can’t bear is my followers. These days, all they talk about is injustice, peace, equality, liberation and non-violence. I’ve had enough of it. I think it would be better if I turned them all over to you. I want to be something else.”
The Buddha listened carefully and was filed with compassion. Finally, he said in a quiet voice, “Do you think its fun being a Buddha. You don’t know what my followers have done to me. They put words into my mouth that I never said. They build garish temples and put statues of me on the altars to attract bananas and oranges and rice and then they eat them themselves. And they package me and turn my teachings into a commercial endeavour. Mara, if you really knew what it was like to be a Buddha, I’m sure you would not want to be one.”
One of the things the Buddha and Mara were talking about was selfishness. Our selfishness has resulted in our harming others to benefit ourselves. This way of thinking has led to quarrels among people, feuds among families, wars among countries. It is the basic cause of natural and human-made disasters. If we observe this world calmly, we might well wonder what is the cause of these increasing disasters. Our increasing selfishness. As the Buddha told us, all consequences come form our ignorance, our false beliefs and wrong viewpoints.
If we think of a tree as representing the universe and look at its leaves individually, as ourselves, they appear to be separate but in reality they are part of the whole. Our thinking of ourselves as being separate creates barriers and confrontations. If we were to look more carefully, we would see that the leaves originate from the same branch and that all branches grow from the same trunk. Looking deeply into the tree, to its root, we realize that the leaves, branches, trunk, roots are all one entity.
Once we truly understand this, all confrontations will vanish, as our loving-kindness and compassion naturally arise, as we care for others as we care for ourselves. We can help to teach others to have no attachments, to be happy and at ease. Who can we help? Sentient beings in the whole universe. Too many? Then just teach the whole world.
How? As students of the Buddha, we have the duty to propagate Buddhism properly, to guide all sentient beings. There are people with good roots who can easily accept the teachings and there are others who lack good roots and thus are unable to accept the teachings no matter how hard we try to explain them.
However, we need to give up judging others and to reflect upon ourselves and see whether our way of introducing the Dharma is correct, whether we have used convenient and skilful methods of propagation. Whether we are really employing our wisdom in helping these beings by using ways, that suit their manner of living and level of understanding.
The most significant problem is that we do not have true sincerity. Our mind, our heart is not sincere enough. If we have true sincerity, we can penetrate solid rock. If we have true sincerity we will be able to touch people and then we can help them to learn the Buddha’s teachings. But, we cannot, must not try to change a person’s religious belief. When I was in Australia, I met a fellow practitioner, who recently visited Singapore. He told teacher about being questioned s to how to convert Christians to Buddhists. Teacher and he agreed that this was wrong.
Instead, we need to help Christians to be good Christians, Muslims to be good Muslims, Hindus to be good Hindus. How can we convert a Christian to a Buddhist? How can we destroy a person’s religious beliefs? How can we negate what their parents taught them? To do so is wrong. However, if we encourage these Christians, these Muslims, these Hindus to be Bodhisattvas, beings who try to help all other beings, then we will be doing good. We do not help others by making them change their beliefs. Buddhism is a teaching of the wisdom that will help others to understand the true reality of life and the universe. While people do need to understand the truth, they do not need to change their religious beliefs to do so.
We cannot ask them to give up their beliefs, to betray their parents, their god. Buddhism cannot break the customs, the laws of this world. If we convert people to Buddhism, we are destroying the law. Please understand that Buddhism is not a religion. It is an education and we are students of the Buddha. We are not religious followers.
In the Flower Adornment Sutra, we learn of a Brahmin who was a religious leader. In actuality, he was a Bodhisattva who manifested as a religious leader. In so doing, he helped many sentient beings. If a Bodhisattva wants to help Christians, he can appear as a Christian religious teacher. If a Bodhisattva wants to help Muslims, he can appear as a Muslim religious leader. In this way, Bodhisattvas can help all beings to be good citizens.
But, if we are narrow minded and we stubbornly say that your religion is not as good as mine, that mine is better, then we are totally wrong. For, with this thinking, we will be unable to solve our problems. We will only cerate disharmony and conflicts. The Buddha taught four basic principles to use in helping others. The first is to make others happy. Because if others are not happy with us, then we have no good affinities with them and if we wish to help others, we need to have good affinities for them to accept what we say.
At the New Year’s Eve Charity Dinner, we had well over three thousand guests from different religions and different cultures. We were all together in one place for dinner and yet the dishes that were served were different. While we had vegetarian meals, the Malays had meals that were tailored to their tastes. We provided them with what they wanted and were used to. We did not expect them to eat like we do.
To help others, to bring gentleness and peace to our world, we need to understand who they are and what their likes and dislikes are. Then we will know how to respect their customs and wishes. We must show care and compassion towards all. We should learn of the teachings of other religions. Then we can explain Buddhism to them if and when they wish to learn. It is wrong for us to want them to give up their beliefs. We should care for others. Find out how to help then to attain their goals, to meet their needs, to help them to propagate their religions. Then they will be happy. Then they will be contented.
Recently, when we visited the aged and children’s homes of the Muslims and the Hindus, we gave them gifts of food and financial support. We did so because we were able to and because we are all on entity. We must be able to cooperate with each other because with good interaction we will be able to establish and develop lasting relationships.
To do this, we practice giving; one of the Six Paramitas practiced by Bodhisattvas. Giving includes the giving of wealth, the giving of Dharma and the giving of fearlessness. The highest form of giving is that of Dharma. One way to do this is to use kind speech. When we converse with others, we use words of loving-kindness and compassion for we truly care for them. We do not use empty sweet words that just sound good. We use speech that shows we sincerely care for them.
The next is to work together with them. For example, our next planned event is a multi-cultural, multi-faith festival. It is a celebration of all cultures, all religions. It is a celebration of the Flower Adornment as seen in the Flower Adornment Sutra. The Flower Adornment is a true practice of multi-culture. It is the true world of truth, goodness, virtue and beauty. The Western Pure Land and the Flower Store World live a multi-cultural festival every day.
In Buddhism, when we learn something worthwhile, we must put it into practice. Thus, we must put the Dharma into practice. We must truly help sentient beings to become Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. There is unity in diversity and diversity in unity. Thus in unity we all share the common wisdom, common teachings. Unity does not adversely effect diversity and diversity does not adversely effect unity. Rather, they are true beauty, happiness and harmony.
As ordinary people, we so often make the mistake of trying to force others to be the same as us. But, we must give up the thought to control others, give up the thinking to possess others. Only in this way, we will be able to enter the great festival of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. If we still have the thought to control others, we will always remain mired in the six realms of reincarnation, unable to enter the state of the Buddhas. Once, we live among the Buddhas we will be able to live harmoniously with all other groups. We now see many conflicts, many wars around the world. Why do we hate? Why do we fight? Why do we kill? Different cultures, different religious beliefs. But, how can we even begin to think that war can solve our problems?
Buddha Shakyamuni renounced his life as a prince in a wealthy country and left home to become a monk. Why? He was heir to the kingship but he knew that he could not attain peace through politics. He was a great warrior, but he knew that he could not attain peace through warfare. He was a great leader but he knew that he could not attain peace through economics. He was a brilliant student, but he knew that he could not attain peace through science. He knew that only through education and understanding, could he attain peace and thus became a teacher.
Only through education will we be able to truly solve our problems. Only by working together towards the same goals will we be able to attain peace and harmony. Only by helping each other will we be able to live and prosper together. And only if we are able to establish common thinking will we be able to eliminate the approaching disasters.
If we can accomplish this, we will truly reach the non-duality between others and us. Then we will understand that we are one being, are all interrelated with one another. This is truly realizing that the universe is one ideal family, that all groups are one perfect complete multiculture. Thus all disputes between others and we will naturally dissolve as we experience great broad mindedness. Those who have this great broad mindedness and understanding are awakened beings like Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.
They have learned to give up trying to control others. Have learned to give up selfishness and jealousy. To give up sentimental attachments. To give up blaming others for their problems. To give up expectations of reward and thoughts of self, people, other beings and time.
They understand that everything, every being, in the universe is subject to the Law of Cause and Effect. They understand that every causal action produces an effect. Understand that we alone are responsible for everything that happens to us. Understand that everything is an illusion, that nothing can be attained, that there is no real gain, there is no real loss.
The principles and methods of the Buddha’s teachings are both logical and practical. These teachings are a treasure of humanity. The wisdom, the common thread that is the very essence, the very heart, the very root of our religious and secular cultures. This wisdom is the perfection of the universe, which can perfectly solve all of our problems.
We need to practice great goodness, great gentleness. To care for others not for ourselves. To enter the awakened beings state of quiet joy, tranquillity, serenity. By doing so, we will bring understanding, awakening and true peace to our world, to all the worlds throughout the universe.