Essentials of Lay Buddhist Practice
By Cheng Chen-huang
By Cheng Chen-huang
(A speech delivered at the founding ceremony of Malaysian Buddhist Kulapati Association)
All Dharma Paths Are Equal
Buddha dharma has numberless paths. Each path can make one achieve nirvana, and thus is worthy of learning. There is no such distinction as Hinayana and Mahayana.
The Southern Buddhism has also bodhisattva spirit, six paramitas and ten paramitas, thus cannot be called Hinayana Buddhism, and is equal to Mahayana Buddhism and Vajra Buddhism. However, some lay Buddhists make little progress even they have practiced Buddha dharma for many years. As a custom, they are on the path of Buddha dharma, why do they still encounter bottlenecks? The problem is not that any Buddhist path is wrong, but their understanding about the Buddha path is not sufficient.
In Samyukta-agama-sutra, the Buddha’s teaching is very short and simple. He only taught the disciples to contemplate on the teachings logically and to observe objectively all conditioned things including five aggregates (material things, sensations, perceptions, volitional actions, and consciousness), twelve entrants (six sense organs and their objects), 18 realms (six sense organs, six sensual objects, and six kinds of consciousness), etc. as impermanence, affliction, and insubstantiality, the listeners were liberated from afflictions and obtained fruitions of holy man immediately.
Three Characteristics of Conditioned Things
Practice of Buddha dharma is actually very simple. If one can see the ultimate reality of all conditioned things, i.e. impermanence, affliction, and insubstantiality, and abide one’s mind in these three characteristics, one will emancipate from affliction and sufferings, and attain nirvana.
Impermanence gives us full confidence. Affliction makes us detach from external things. Insubstantiality frees us from ego-centeredness. Aren’t the Three Characteristics the state of nirvana which is emancipated and free of mind?
Great masters of later generation divided the Buddha dharma into five paths: the path of preparation, the path of expedient means, the path of seeing, the path of cultivation, and the path of culmination.The Five Paths were designed according to the spiritual ability of human beings. People of low capacity should start from the path of preparation, i.e. cultivating merits and generating wisdom. Merits are cultivated through giving, altruism, and doing good deeds. Wisdom is generated from right understanding and right view.
Right understanding and right view are very important. If one has right understanding and right view, all mundane things are Buddha dharma; if one has no right understanding and no right view, all Buddha dharma will become mundane things. Mundane things are originally Buddha dharma. Mundane things have the nature of impermanence, affliction, insubstantiality, and impurity which are exactly revealed by Buddha dharma. Therefore, all mundane things are Buddha dharma. On the contrary, if one has no right understanding and no right view, the upside-down and delusive ideas will lead one to mistake mundane things as permanent, blissful, substantial, and pure, and thus suffer and take rebirth again and again. Without right understanding and right view, even if one practices a lot and knows plenty of Buddhist theories, one is still doing the mundane things.
Understand Rightly that Mundane Things and Buddha Dharma Are Non-dualistic
“Buddha dharma is in the mundane world, and not apart from the mundane awakening.” But, if Buddhists have no right understanding and no right view, although they have got involved in Buddhist circle for decades or chanted sutras by heart, the Buddha dharma will become mundane things, being unbearably vulgar, degenerated, and disgusting.
Why do lay people make no progress in spiritual cultivation? It is not the problem of Buddha dharma, but because they possess no right understanding and no right view. The five paths are established for different spiritual abilities. Those who are of low spiritual ability should start from the path of preparation, i.e. the accumulation of merits and wisdom. The accumulation of merits is done by means of confession of karmic obscuration, and creation of worldly good things. And, the accumulation of wisdom is for the establishment of right understanding and right view. When the path of preparation is completed, one can walk further onto the path of expedient means which include samatha (concentration meditation) and vipassana (insight meditation) to see the impermanence, affliction, and insubstantiality of conditioned things. Then, one can go through the path of seeing the truth and the path of cultivation to reach the final path of culmination.
Those who are of medium spiritual ability can start from the path of expedient means. They can fulfill the path of preparation immediately once they hear the discourse on the essence of Buddha dharma, and go straightly onto the path of expedient means, i.e. Samatha and Vipassana.
Cultivate the Five Paths According to One’s Spiritual Ability
Those who are of high spiritual ability can cultivate the wisdom of emptiness directly, and enter the path of seeing the truth. The Sixth Patriarch Platform Sutra records that HuiNeng got sensual enlightenment when he heard the reading of the Diamond Sutra at a guest house. Then, he went to the Fifth Patriarch Hong Jen’s monastery, and heard the reading of Master ShenShiu’sgatha, i.e. “Body is the Bodhi tree, and mind the bright mirror stand. Clean the mirror diligently from time to time! Don’t let it get dust.” He understood that this indicated not yet seeing the mind nature. He asked somebody to write down his realization: “Bodhi has no tree, and mirror is not a stand. Originally there is nothing. Where is the place to get dust?” This is the rational enlightenment of seeing the emptiness in the nature of all conditioned and unconditioned things. Then, when he listened to the Fifth Patriarch’s discourse on the Diamond Sutra, and heard the sentence of “generating one’s mind without abiding on anything,” he was totally enlightened that all things are not apart from one’s innate nature: “How amazing it is that one’s innate nature is pure! How amazing it is that one’s innate nature was not born and will not decay! How amazing it is that one’s innate nature is inherent! How amazing it is that one’s innate nature has no movement! How amazing it is that one’s innate nature can generate all things!” At that time he reached the path of seeing the truth. “One should generate one’s mind” is the manifestation of loving-kindness and compassion while “without abiding on anything”the wisdom of seeing the emptiness of innate nature in all conditioned things. Emptiness and existence are not dualistic. One should do all virtues but with no attachment. Therefore, he started the cultivation from the path of seeing the truth. Then he was conferred the patriarchal robe, bowl, and dharma teaching by the Fifth Patriarch, and followed the latter’s advice to flee to the south in midnight, and hid himself amid the hunters in the mountains of Shih-huifor 15 years“to train his mind and to increase his ability.” This is his path of cultivation. After 15 years, when he felt that the time was ready, he left mountains to give dharma teachings to people.
Therefore, it is not the problem of dharma, but the Buddhists’ understanding and view. They are prone to attach to a dharma teaching or a teacher. For example, our teacher asks us to cut off all desires in order to cultivate the path of liberation. But, cutting off all desires is the first monastic request only. If lay people also cut off all desires, many problems will happen in one’s family, society, country, and the world. Not to mention the sexual desire, if the desires of learning new knowledge and achieving successful business are also cut off, how can the civilization of mankind make progress?
Lay People Should Have Desire for Good Things
Lay people have to work to earn living, and have to run business, if they don’t have such a desire, how can they run their life well? Therefore, lay people cannot cut off desires, should have desire for good things, should cultivate the Eightfold Noble Paths, and should base on the Right View to practice right thought, right speech, right action, and right livelihood. Lay people should also develop the wisdom of inter-dependent origination and emptiness of innate nature to purify their bodily, verbal, and mental actions.
Lay people still need desires. The problem is that they should not be enslaved by desires, and drowned into the great ocean of birth and death of affliction and ignorance.
All Buddhist scriptures aim to develop our prajna or transcendental wisdom. The Heart Sutra focuses on the non-duality of emptiness and existence, and that both the mundane and the supra-mundane are emptiness in innate nature. Meanwhile, the Diamond Sutra concentrates on no abiding in generating one’s mind, generating one’s mind with no abiding, being detached from the four marks (of me, other, all beings, and longevity), and being detached from both existence and emptiness. Master Kumarajiva’s Chinese version of the Diamond Sutra has only 5,176 or 5,180 characters while Master Hsuan Chuang’s Chinese version of the Heart Sutra 268 characters. Therefore, many Buddhists chanted them daily.
Three Contemplations in One Thought and Three Truths in One Thing
Lay people should apply prajna to integrate the phenomena and the noumena, benefit oneself and others in mundane world, and consider all things as having no obstruction. Knowing that all conditioned things have the innate nature of impermanence, affliction, and insubstantiality, they find no obstruction in everything; Master Chih Yi of Tien-tai School called it pseudo-name or pseudo-contemplation. All things are generated because of the integration of causes and conditions, and extinguish because of the disintegration of causes and conditions. Moving from having no obstruction in phenomena to having no obstruction in noumena, i.e. realizing that all phenomena are empty in substance because of inter-dependent origination, one will have no obstruction in noumena. Master Chih Yi of Tien-tai School called it emptiness of innate nature, or emptiness contemplation. When one understands that all phenomena are illusory, one will detach from all phenomena. When one detaches from all phenomena, one will attain enlightenment and understand that all phenomena are emptiness in innate nature. Therefore, one can detach from worldly things while engage in worldly things, and no more feel affliction about worldly things. The Sixth Patriarch HuiNeng called it “No Thought (detach from thought whenever thought arises), No Phenomena (detach from phenomena whenever sense of phenomena arises), and No Abiding (the essence of mind).”Inter-dependent origination is exactly emptiness in innate nature, and emptiness in innate nature is exactly inter-dependent origination. Pseudo is exactly emptiness, and emptiness exactly pseudo, Master Chih Yi of Tien-tai School called it Madhyamika (Middle Path) and Madhyamikacontemplation. Pseudo is exactly emptinees, and exactly Madhymika. There are three contemplations in one thought, and three truths in one thing.
Work Is Exactly Cultivation of Buddha Dharma
I have a student who is working in a company as a clerk. He is very busy every day. His boss assigns him many works. Every morning, he is very reluctant to get up until the last moment, stuffs a few loaves of bread into his mouth, and takes bus to the office in a hurry. He opens the computer, and finds that about 50 emails are there for him to answer. Besides, the telephone rings incessantly one by one. Every day he is under very heavy pressure, and his emotion always falls down to the bottom.
He tells me from time to time that he wants to quit the job or changes to a lighter job so that he can have time to cultivate the Buddha dharma. However, he has no good fortune, and still has to work to earn his living. I tell him that what needs to be changed is not his job, but his mind.
I say to him, “Regard work and living as cultivation of Buddha dharma. Buddha dharma is not the chanting of dharani or sutra in Buddha hall, but seeing the nature of work, living, and encountering. Following the Eightfold Noble Paths to benefit the living beings will free one from affliction and suffering.”
Today I am very happy to receive his email. He tells me that he finally sees his misconception, and realizes that all depend on one’s mind, and work is exactly the cultivation of Buddha dharma. Now he can work happily every day. What is not right is not the work and the environment, but the mind.
If one has no right understanding and no right view, one will produce perverted thoughts, and make discrimination all the times. As a result, Buddha dharma may turn out to “harm” us.
When a layman cultivates Buddha dharma, he should understand his identity clearly. Why? (Why do I cultivate Buddha dharma? Why do I promote Buddha dharma and benefit the living beings?) It is for ridding our afflictions and gaining happiness as well as for breaking perplexities and developing enlightenment. Who? (Who am I?) I am a layman, not a monk. Whom? (Whom should I learn with? Whom should I promote Buddha dharma to?) I should learn Buddha dharma with the learned practitioners, and promote Buddha dharma to all beings. What? (What Buddha dharma should I cultivate?) I should cultivate the Buddha dharma which fits my spiritual ability and the Buddha’s teachings. When? (When can I practice Buddha Dharma?) I practice Buddha dharma not at daily fixed timeonly, but at every moment to experience the three characteristics of conditioned things, i.e. the truth of all phenomena. Where? (Where can I cultivate Buddha dharma?) I can cultivate Buddha dharma everywhere. How? (How will I cultivate Buddha dharma?) I should follow the learned practitioners of Buddha dharma, listen to the teachings on right Buddha dharma, think according to the truth, and practice according to Buddha dharma.
居士修行，要清楚自己的定位。Why?(為什麼修行？為什麼弘法利生？)為著離苦得樂、破迷啟悟。Who?(我是誰？)我是在家居士而不是出家眾。Whom?((向誰學習？向誰弘法？)向善知識學習，向一切眾生弘法。What? (該修何種法門？)契機契理的法門。When? (何時修行？) 不是只每天抽出固定時間來修行佛法，而是每時每刻都在體會三法印——諸法實相。Where? (何處修行？)處處都是道場。How? (怎樣修？) 依止善知識，聽聞正法，如理思維，如法修證。
It is not easy for lay people to practice Buddha dharma. Sakyamuni Buddha said in the UpasakaSila Sutra, “There are two kinds of bodhisattva: One is laity, and the other is monk. The monastic bodhisattvas are the bodhisattvas of true significance,it is not difficult for them to practice Buddha dharma. But, it is difficult for lay people to practice Buddha dharma. Why? It is because that lay people are entangled in many bad conditions.” It is very rare for the lay people to practice Buddha dharma only because that they are entangled in many bad conditions, and encounter many challenges. Therefore, their wisdom is very special because they can obtain the wisdom which is difficult to obtain.
The Prajna of Lay People Is Very High.
Day before yesterday, I was in Singapore. A friend asked me, “How can lay people practice Buddha dharma?” I answered that lay people should practice bodhisattva path. The prajna of lay people is very high because they not only practice Buddha dharma but also know mundane knowledge such as modern scientific technology, sociology, politics, economics, and etc. The propagation and support of Buddha dharma needs lay people, although it is mainly the monastic sangha to lead the public to learn Buddha dharma.
It is not difficult for the lay people to attain Buddhahood once they live up to prajna, great loving-kindness and compassion, and expedient means.