Buddhism: A brief Introduction
Venerable Master Hsuan Hua
The Teachings of Buddhism
The Problem of Existence
The Cause of Suffering:
Ignorance and Karma
The Path to the Cessation of Suffering:
Practicing the Dharma
The Cessation of Suffering
The Realm of the Buddha
Sangha, the third Jewel
The Schools of Buddhist Practice:
An Interview with the Venerable Master Hsuan Hua
The Chan School
The Secret School
Chart of Samsara,
The Realm of Birth and Death
The Ten Great Practices of All Bodhisattvas
Dharma Realm Buddhist Association
Many books have been written to introduce the Buddha’s teachings. Why write another one? There are three main reasons for compiling another work of this kind. These reasons also help to define the uniqueness of this book.
First, this book relies primarily on translations of source materials, rather than narrative explanations and interpretations of the teachings. Most introductory books on Buddhism are written in the second person and not the Buddha’s own words. Primarily source materials such as the Sutras1 (discourses by the Buddha or his contemporary disciples) appear infrequently, if at all, in most of the literature. This is understandable, because it makes for easier reading. Somewhat more energy and concentration is required to read original sources, because they tend to be more solemn in tone and rich in meaning. However, reading the Sutras directly yields unexpected treasures. One encounters the actual teaching of the Master unfiltered through someone else’s personal views. Therefore, the reader has the freedom to discover his own meanings and draw his own conclusions from the teachings. Buddhism: A brief Introduction tries to let the Buddha speak for himself directly to the reader by way of brief Sutra passages presented in a manner that weaves the entire body of teachings into a coherent whole.
Second, this small book is distinctive in its attempt to blend the central teachings of the various schools and sects of Buddhism into a unified and cogent philosophy. Thus the reader is being introduced to the fundamental teachings accepted by all major schools of Buddhism. With the intertwining of the Four Noble Truths, the paramount teaching of the Theravada or Southern
Tradition, and the Bodhisattva’s Four Magnificent Vows, the essential teaching of the Mahayana or Northern Tradition, a universal Buddhism emerges. This single, unified Buddhism combines the practical wisdom of the Sages with the all encompassing compassion of the Bodhisattvas. The result is a very complete and compelling Buddhism.
The third special quality if this book is its vitality. The quotations taken directly from source materials convey the spirit and purpose of the Buddha’s teachings immediately to the reader. Unfortunately, many modern works on Buddhism, in the name of “scholarly objectivity”, treat the Buddha’s teachings as an academic discipline such as sociology, anthropology, and other social sciences. Here in the realm of wisdom and spiritual insight, however, scholarly interpretations are often inadequate and strangely out of place. Extensive linguistic analysis, archaeological finds, and social analysis may lead to a better understanding of the cultural context within which the Buddha lived and taught, but they offer us, almost no insight into the profound meaning and abiding truths that continue to pulse through these timeless teachings. And in some ways mere scholarship can often inadvertently “miss the forest for the trees”. From the outset of his career, the Buddha explained that his teachings were “only a finger pointing at the moon; not the moon itself”. That is, they were a means or way to be cultivated, not a creed to be believed or a dogma to cling to. You must “drink the water yourself, to know whether it is warm or cold”—see for yourself what is true and attain ultimate freedom from suffering. Thus the Buddha said:
Monks, do you not speak that which is known by
yourselves, seen by yourselves, discovered by yourselves?
Yes, Venerable Sir.
You, Monks, have been instructed by this Dharma
(teaching)which is evident, timeless, inviting one to come and see ,leading onwards, and to be personally known
by the wise.2
The implication is clear: without actually practicing the teachings it is not possible to fully comprehend them. Mere study cannot compare to actual practice and direct experience. Thus, in the Bodhisattvas Ask For Clarification, Chapter 10, Flower Adornment Sutra, we find this principle stated the following vivid analogies:
Like a physician who,
Though skillful in prescribing medicine,
Is unable to cure his own illness;
I. Without practicing the Dharma,
Much study is the same way.
Like one who counts the wealth of others’
But has not a penny of his own;
Without practicing the Dharma,
Much study is the same way.
Like a person born in a King’s palace,
Who still suffers hunger and cold;
Without practicing the Dharma,
Much study is the same way.
Like a deaf musician playing tunes
Others enjoy but he himself does not hear;
Without practicing the Dharma,
Much study is the same way.
Like a blind artist whose many drawings
Are displayed for others,
But he himself can never see;
Without practicing the Dharma,
Much study is the same way.
If one wishes to fully understand
All Bhuddas of the past, present, and future,
One should contemplate the nature of the Dharma Realm3:
Everything is only a creation of the mind.4
“Who and what am I?” “Why do I exist?” Each of us, during
some part of our life, wonders about these questions. While we’re
aware of our own being, we don’t actually know how or why we
came to be. Our existence poses a great mystery. Our view of
who we are and why we’re here, consciously or unconsciously,
affect every moment of our lives. The Buddha was both troubled
and fascinated by these questions. He was troubled, in that life
unexamined, unsolved seemed meaningless; he was fascinated, in
that the solution to this deep riddle was accessible, within reach,
The teaching of the Buddha, known as the Dharma, grew out of his personal discovery, his awakening to “things as they reallyare.” Indeed, the word Dharma literally translated is “law”, meaningthe universe laws that govern all of reality. These laws are eternal. A Buddha is merely a human being who discovers these laws of
reality and compassionately makes them known for others.
Buddhism explains the mystery of existence in a way that we can
both understand and not understand. This was for a reason:
enlightenment must be directly experienced, not simply explained.
properly taught, it should awaken in us a sense of great wonder; a
resolve to seek enlightenment ourselves. The Buddha taught that:
1. All of existence is a creation of the mind. The true nature of
our mind has no particular location in space and no beginning
or end in time. It is not born and does not die. The realization
of this true nature is known as Nirvana5---something so
profound and extraordinary that it cannot be described in
words or conceived in thought. It can only be known by direct
realization. Because of its profundity, the Buddha spoke of
Nirvana in terms of what it is not:
There is, Monks, that realm, wherein there is no earth,
no water, no fire, no air, no sphere of infinite space, no
sphere of infinite consciousness, no sphere of
nothingness, no sphere of thought nor lack of thought6.
There is not this world or a world beyond, or both
Together; or sun or moon. This, I say, Monks, has no
Coming, no going, no staying, no passing away, and no
Arising without support; without duration and without
Any basis. This, indeed, is the end of suffering.7
2. Because of ignorance we experienced our “self” within Samsara8,
the realm of birth and death. This unreal “self” undergoes
limitless suffering. This suffering is perpectuated life after life
as long as we thirst for the pleasures of existence in Samsara.
3. The purpose of the Buddha’s teaching is to point the way to
the elimination of ignorance that covers over our true nature.
once we have awakened to it, out of great compassion, we
strive to help all beings to also awaken to their true nature; to
liberate all that lives. Thus, personal enlightenment and
universal enlightenment, self and others, become one and the
When you can see that the mountains, the rivers, the
great earth and all that originates from them, are things
within you own inherent nature; that the Three Realms
of Existence are only the mind, and that the myriad
dharmas are only consciousness; once you attain that
state, then everything, every phenomenon is devoid of
orgination and cessation. Everything you see-----the
mountains, the rivers, the great earth, the plants are
all one true reality.9
The Four Noble Truth &
The Bodhisattva’s Four Magnificent Vows
In the Buddhas’s teaching, the problem of existence and its solution are precisely expressed in the four Noble truths and the corresponding Bodhisattva’s Four Magnificent Vows. The first Truth diagnoses the symptoms of an illness and the Second determines its cause. The Third Truth describes the final cure of the disease once the cause has been eliminated, and the fourth prescribes the medicine or treatment that will bring about the cure.
The Four Magnificent vows extend these same truths beyond oneself to include all livings beings. Thus in numerous discourses the Buddha said:
Formerly and now, also, it is just suffering and the cessation of suffering that I teach.10
Bodhisattva is a Sanskrit word. It is a compound made up of the two words: bodhi which means “awakened” or “enlightened”; and sattva which means “being”. A Bodhisattva is both an “awakened being” and “one who awakens beings”. He is one imbued with great wisdom and compassion who simultaneously strives to perfect his own awakening along with his ability to awaken all other living beings. When the Bodhisattva has totally perfected these, he becomes a Buddha, one already perfected in wisdom and compassion.
Part I of Buddhism: A Brief Introduction is divided into chapters on each of the four Truths and Vows. A final chapter explains the meaning of Sangha. Each chapter begins with passages from the Sutras to illustrate each of the Vows and Truths
BTTS= a publication by the Buddhist Text Translation society which is available to the public.
1“Sutra” literally means a “string” or “thread”. Important words of brief phrases in religious teachings strung together were thus called Sutras by analogy with the string or thread with which a garland of flowers is made.
All Buddhist Sutras were transmitted orally for the first three to four hundred years after the Buddha passed into ultimate Nirvana. The teachings were originally taught in the various dialects of the people. In about the second or first century BC the sutras started to be written down in various Indic-languages. The largest collection of Sutras in the Theravada or Southern Tradition of Buddhism has survived in the Pali language. The Pali Canon consists of five groups of Sutras called Nikayas. The Northern Tradition was originally recorded in Sanskrit and Sanskrit derivatives languages. However, a very small fraction of these have survived to this present time in Sanskrit. Fortunately, ancient monk-scholars from India and China began to translate the Sutras of the Northern Tradition into Chinese beginning in approximately the first century AD. Through their work, which lasted for many centuries, the vast majority of Mahayana Sutras have survived in Chinese.
2Majjhima Nikaya I 265
3“Dharma Realm” is special term in Buddhism which is most closely correspond to the meaning of “reality”. “Dharma” has three basic meanings.
1) “Law”, which refers to the Buddha’s teachings in which he reveals the universal laws or truths that govern all of reality. In this sense of the buddha’s teachings, it especially refers to the spiritual practices he taught. 2) “Duty” refers specially to one’s duty in life accordance with one’s station, or it can mean one’s religious or spiritual duty. 3) a “thing” or “phenomenon” in the broadest sense. The Dharma Realm is the totality of the realm of all beings and states and the complex ways in which they interact and interpenetrate. It is the whole limitless universe. The nature of the Dharma Realm is the true mind of all living beings. Our true mind pervades the entire Dharma Realm, and the Dharma Realm is not apart from our true mind.
4Praises in the Suyama Heaven, Chapter 20, Flower Adornment Sutra.
5nir means “not” and vana is literally “effort of blowing”. The origin of the word probably refers to a smith’s fire, which “goes out” or “becomes extinguished” if no longer blown on by the bellows. A frequent simile is that of a lamp’s ceasing through exhaustion of wick and oil. The ancient translators of Sanskrit Sutras into Chinese interpreted Nirvana to mean
“without origination or destruction”.
6These last four spheres are the four heavens in the Formless Realm. Refers to Appendix I: A Chart of Samsara (the Realm of Birth and Death).
7Udana, Pataligamiya Vagga, Sutra No. 1.
8Refers to Appendix 1: A chart of Samsara (the Realm of Birth and Death).
9Venerable High Master Hsuan Hua’s commentary to the Shurangama Sutra, Volume 1, BTTS
10Maha-Parinirvana Sutra of the Pali Canon.
The Teachings of Buddhism
The Problem of Existence
First Magnificent vow of the Bodhisattva:
I vow to rescue the boundless
living beings from suffering.
The Buddha toils through eons for the sake of living beings
Cultivating limitless, oceanic, great compassion.
To comply with living beings, he enters birth and death,
Transforming the multitudes everywhere, so they become pure.1
This vow corresponds to the noble Truth of suffering.
What, Bhikshus, is the Noble Truth of Suffering? Birth
is suffering; old age is suffering; sickness is suffering;
death is suffering; sorrow, lamentation ,pain, grief, and
despair are suffering; to be together with what or those
you hate is suffering; to be separated from what or those
you love is suffering; not to obtain what you wish for is
suffering; in general, identification with the Five
Constituents of Existence (physical form, feelings,
Thoughts, volitional formations, and consciousness) is
sufferings.2 The Truth of Suffering should be understood.
To mention the “problem” of existence already implies there is
something wrong with life as we experience it. What is the
problem? The Buddha’s own life provides an insight.
The Buddha, Shakyamuni, whose name means “Sage of the Shakya clan,” was born about 2500 years ago in Kapilavastu, India. His father was a ruler of one of the many kingdoms comprising India at that time. Upon his birth, seers predicted his son would either become a great world-ruling monarch or would renounce the mundane life to become a fully enlightened sage, a Buddha, who would teach countless living beings to find a genuine happiness that transcends the world.
The king, fearing his son might renounce the throne, took special precautions I his son’s upbringing to prevent him from observing the sufferings of the world. His sin, the prince, continuously enjoyed the myriad pleasures of life and did not come into contact with any of its pains. Through his youth the Buddha-to-be enjoyed separate palaces for each season. It is said that he never even left the palace grounds. Thus the prince’s experience of life resembled a heaven on earth.
At nineteen the prince asked his father if he could take his first excursion outside the palace grounds. The king reluctantly consented but made sure that along the highways his son would encounter no one maimed, aged, or sick.
The prince, however, on his first excursion outside the palace grounds had the following experiences:
At that time the king of the Pure Abodes Heaven3suddenly
appeared at the side of the road transfigured as an old,
decrepit man in order to stir repugnance in the prince’s
heart. The prince saw the old man and was startled. He
asked his charioteer, “what kind of person is this with
white hair and bent-back? His eyes are dim; his body
wobbles. He leans on a cane an walkd feebly, Has his
body changed unexpectedly, or is this just the way things
The charioteer’s mind wavered. He dared not answer true.
Then the god from the Pure Abodes Heaven, with
His spiritual powers, caused him to speak truly. “His
form’s decayed; his energy almost gone. Much distress
and little happiness mark his life. Forgetful now, his sense
faculties are wasted. These are the attributes of old age.
Originally he was a suckling child, long-nurtured at his
mother’s breast. Then as a youth he cavorted and played
about handsome, unrestrained, enjoying sense desires.
However, as the years went by, his body withered and
decayed. Now old age has brought him to ruin.”
The prince heaved a long sigh, and then asked the
charioteer, “Is he the only one who has become decrepit
and old, or will we all like this become?”
The charioteer answered him again, “This lot in life alike
awaits the Venerable One. As time goes on your body
will naturally decay. This certainly, without doubt, will
come to pass. All those young and energetic, will grow
old. This, all in the world know, yet still they seek for
The Bodhisattva had long cultivated the karma of purity
And wisdom, and widely planted the roots of every virtue.
The fruits of his vows were now blossoming. Hearing
these words on the suffering of old age, he shivered; his
hair stood on end. Like a terrified herd of animals flees
the bolt of a thunder clap, the Bodhisattva in the same
way trembled with fear, as he deeply sighed and
contemplated the suffering of old age.
He shook his head and steadily gazed pondering the
agony of old age. “How can people find delight in the
pleasures of the world when old age brings it all it ruin?
It affects everyone; none escape it. For a time the body
May be robust and strong, but everything’s subject to
Change. Now my own eyes behold the truth of old age,
How can I not be disgusted and wish to leave it?”
The Bodhisattva told the charioteer, “Quickly turn the
Chariot around and go back. Unable to forget that old
Age will call for me, what happiness could I find in these
gardens and groves? “Obeying the command, he drove
as fast a the wind, and quickly returned to the palace.
The prince mulled over the experience of old age. The
Palace felt like a desolate graveyard. Everything he
touched left numb and cold. His heart could find no
peace. The king heard thath his son was unhappy, so he
urged him to take another excursion. He ordered all of
his officers to make everything more resplendent than
The god again transformed himself, this time as a sick
Person, barely hodling on to his life at the side of the
Road. With a gaunt body and bloated stomach, slow,
Asthmatic breath, stooped with withered hands and legs, he sorrowfully wept and moaned.
The prince asked the chatioteer, “What kind of person
is this?” The charioteer answered, “This is a sick person.
The four great elements composing his body are
completely out of balance. Emanciated and week he’s
unable to do much of anything. Tossing back and forth,
he has to rely on others.”
Hearing this the prince’s heart swelled with pity. He
Then asked, “Is it only this person who gets sick, or
others subject to the same?”
He answered, “ In this world everyone will also get
diseased. Sickness plagues all who have a body. Yet
foolish people seek joy in the fleeting pleasures of the
The prince heard this with horror and dismay. His mind
and body shuddered like the shimmering moon in
troubled water. “Adrift on this ocean of great suffering,
how can one be at ease?” He sighed for people in the
world, so deluded, confused, and obstructed. “The thief
of sickness can come at any time. Yet they seem happy
Then he had the chariot turn around and go back, his
mind distraught about the woe of sickness. He was just
like someone who, about to be beaten, curls his body
waiting for the clubs to fall. He quietly stayed in the
palace, aspiring only for a happiness beyond the world.
The king inquired the reason for his son’s return. He
was told the prince had seen a sick person. The king was
aghast and totally beside himself. He severely
reprimanded the people who had prepared the road. But
they too were perplexed and could not explain what had
Then more songstresses were sent to the Prince’s harem.
their music was more exquisite than before. The King
hoped the prince, enamored by song and dance, would
grow infatuated with the world and not abandon the
householders’s life. Day and night came offerings of
lovely women and song, yet he was not happy at all.
The king himself traveled in search of gardens, wondrous
and fine. He also selected the most fair and voluptuous
maidens for the Prince. They fawned on him; with all
their talents served him. They were so stunning, one look
at them befunddled men.
He adorned even more the royal road so all impurities
were out of sight. He ordered once more the good
charioteer, to carefully cleave to the gilded path.
At the time the god from the Pure Abodes heavens
tranfigured into a corpse. Four people carrying the
cadaver appeared right before the Bodhisattva. Only the
Bodhisattva and the charioteer saw this. No one else
was aware of it. He asked, “What is this body, with
flowers abd banners adorned? Those trailing behind are
all grief-stricken. Their hair hanging down, they wail as
they follow along.”
The god again ispired the charioteer. Thus he answered,
“This is a dead person. All of his organs have
fdeteriorated; his life has been cut off. His mind has
scattered; his consciousness has left. His spirit has
departed and his body has withered. It’s rigid and straight
like fry wood. Formerly all of his realatives and friends
adored him. They bathed in mutaual affection. Now none
of them even wish to seehim. They will shun and abandon
him in an empty graveyard.” When the prince heard of
death his heart ached; he felt all bound up. He asked,
world destined to the same?”
He answered, “Each and every one must die. Whatever
has a beginning, also must end. The old, the young, and
those middled aged, anyone who has a body, is subject to
“Is it only this person who dies, or is everyone in the
The prince was shocked. His body leaned forward over
the railing of the chariot. His breathing halted and he
sighed, “Why are people in the world so deluded?
Everyone sees that their body will perish, yet they still
Go through life so casually. They’re not insensible like
Dead wood or stone. Yet they never think about the
Impermanence of life.”
He ordered the charioteer to turn back home “This is no time for a pleasure ride. Life can end at any time, How
could I indulge in an excursion?”4
These experiences compelled the prince to renounce the common
life to find the path beyond birth and death. His father, however,
was adamant that he remain in the palace. The prince promised to
stay if his father could guarantee four things:
Only under four conditions will I abandon my resolve to
leave the householder’s life.
Guarantee my life will last forever, that I will be without
sickness or old age, and that all my material wealth will
never perish. Then I will respect your order and not leave
the householder’s life.
If these four wishes cannot be fullfilled, let me leave the
householder’s life. Please do not attempt to thwart me. I
am in a burning house. How could you not let me out?5
The prince did leave the palace to undertake a spiritual quest to
solve the problem of existence. Six years later he became a Buddha,
a fully Awakened One.
The Noble Truth of suferring suggests that a deep malaise
Permeates our life. Everything that we live for, everything that is
Dear to us will eventually be lost: our fathers and mothers, our
Sisters and brothers, our sons and daughters, our husbands or
Wives, and eventually even our own lives. Death takes everything
Away. This is a very serious matter both because it is inescapable
And real, and moreover because paradoxically the inevitability of
Death gives direction and meaning to life. The Bodhisattva feels a
Oneness with and resulting great compassion for all beings who
Undergo suffering. Thus he follows the Buddhas’s path to
Awakening to help all beings end suffering and attain true
I will be good doctor for the sick and sufferings. I will
Lead those who have lost their way to the right road. I
Will be a bright light for those in the dark night. I will
Enable the poor and destitute to discover hidden
Treasures. The Bodhisattva impartially benefits all living
Beings in this manner…
Why is this? Because all Buddhas, the Thus Comes Ones,6
take a heart of great compassion as their very substance.
because of living beings they have great compassion.
from great compassion the Bodhi-mind is born; and
because of the Bodhi-mind,7 they accomplish the Equal
and Proper Awakening.8
Therefore, great compassion for all the myriad living beings who
Are suffering in Samsara is the catalyst for making the profound
Resolution to become a fully Enlightened Buddha, that is, for
Generating the Bodhi-mind.
The Meritorious Qualities of the Bodhi-mind
You should know that the Bodhi-mind is completely equal
to all the merit and virtue of all dharmas taught by the
Budddha. Why? It is because the Bodhi mind produces
all practices of the Bodhisattvas. It is because the Thus
Comes Ones of the past, present, and future are born
from the Bodhi-mind. Therefore, good young man, if
there are those qho have brought forth the resolve for
Anuttara-Samyak-Sambodhi9, they have already given
birth to finite merit and virtue and are universally able
to collect themselves and remain on the path of All-
Good young man, it is just the way a single lamp, if
Brought into a dark room, is able to totally eradicate a
Hundred thousand years of darkness. The lamp of the
Bodhi-mind of the Bodhisattva, Mahasattva10 is that way
too, in that upon its entering the room which is the mind
of a living being, the various dark obstacles of all the
karmic afflictions11 from hundreds of quadrillions of
ineffable numbers of eons can all be totally destroyed.12
1 Rulers of the World, Chapter 1, Flower Adornment Sutra.
2 Turning the Dharma Wheel Sutra, Dharma Cakka Ppavattana Sutra,
Samyutta Nikaya LVI, 11.
3 Refer to Appendix 1, Chart of Samsara, The Realm of Birth and Death. The Pure Abodes are the Five Heavens of No-Return in the Form Realm.
4Acts of the Buddha (Buddhacharita), by Bodhisattva Ashvagosha composed in the 1stcentury BC or AD.
6 “Thus Come One” is one of the ten titles of the Buddha. See Chapter 4 for the entire list of ten.
7The Bodhi-mind is the catalyst for the Bodhisattva path. Refer to the section on the Bodhisattva under the heading. “The Sangha of the Sages” in Chapter 5.
8Universal Worthy’s Conduct and Vows, Chapter 40, Flower Adornment Sutra, BTTS.
9Anuttara-Samyak-Sambodhi literally the “Unsurpassed, Right, and Total
Enlightenment” meaning the ultimate Enlightenment of a Buddha.
10Mahasattva literally means ‘great being”, that is, a great Bodhisattva.
11See Chapter 2 for karma and afflictions.
12Entering the Dharma Realm, Chapter 39, volume 8, Flower Adornment Sutra, BTTS.
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