A friend once complained her teacher was incompetent. The teacher “doesn’t know what he’s talking about and doesn’t make sense,” she said. Consequently, students met after class to discuss the lesson and work out problems.
Actually, the teacher appeared to me quite effective, forcing students to figure things out for themselves. They seemed to be truly learning.
A “bad” teacher can be a “good” teacher in this way. After all, the ultimate goal is the student’s learning, not the teacher’s teaching. In other words, the teaching doesn’t exist for its own sake, rather it exists to help students learn. Buddhism, or the Buddha dharma, is the same way.
Someone once asked me, “If Buddhism is real, where are all the Buddhas? Where can I meet one?” This person missed the point. The goal is not finding a Buddha or a “supreme being” out there somewhere. The goal is awakening to the wonder of our own life here and now—in a sense, to become a Buddha ourselves.
There’s a Zen Buddhist saying: “If you meet the Buddha, kill him!” Don’t be distracted by searching for something outside ourselves. The key to understanding lies within.
To clarify, the teacher/student relationship is an ancient Buddhist tradition. The three treasures give us the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. The Dharma is the “teachings” and the Sangha is our “community.” The “teacher” is the historic Buddha, called Shakyamuni or Gautama, who lived in India 2,500 years ago. His words and life serve as the origin of the Buddhist religion. All Buddhists traditionally consider the Buddha as their teacher.
However, the Buddha was a man who came to understand deep, universal truths about life. He taught these truths in order to help people overcome their suffering. “Rely on the Dharma, not on the people who expound it,” he once said. That’s why we don’t “worship” the Buddha or think of him as a being with supernatural powers who will solve our problems.
So then the question remains: How do we come to understand?
Come to the temple and hear Dharma talks, chant and sing gathas. Check out books on Buddhism from our lending library. Listen to guest speakers and attend lectures. Sermons, rituals, and practices help point you towards the Buddha Dharma, but ultimately they’ll fall short of solving your problems. These words and rituals may seem like a “bad” teacher who doesn’t make sense. You may scratch your head and say, “I don’t get it.”
The teacher is only a stick poking us in the back, prodding us forward. We alone must walk the path towards understanding. That means struggling with our problems and suffering, and living our own lives. In confronting life’s challenges and hardships, with the Buddha dharma as our guide, true understanding emerges.
In this way, any experience we have and any person we meet, may become our teacher.
The Avatamsaka (“Flower Adornment”) sutra tells the story of Sudhana, a young man who embarks on a journey seeking spiritual enlightenment. In his travels, he meets various people, each one different. For instance, he meets a hermit living in the forest, a king, a beautiful woman, a child, a sailor, a sage and a doctor. Sudhana learns an important lesson from each one.
The sutra says, “Just as all beings appear in the deep and vast ocean in which countless gems are hidden, all kinds of images appear in the pure body of the Buddha. They are the deep sea of causes and conditions in which the gems of virtue are stored.”
On our temple’s altar stands, not the historic teacher Shakyamuni Buddha, rather a statue of Amida Buddha, with wooden rays behind it, symbolizing infinite wisdom and compassion shining throughout the universe.
We can learn about life from our parents, family members, our children and friends. We can learn about ourselves from people we don’t know or don’t like. We can discover meaning in life from loved ones who are no longer with us.
Where are the Buddhas? They are everywhere.
Looking out my back window at a barren tree, I see hanging a solitary ripe persimmon—a sign of coming winter, cold winds and dark skies.
Another year passed, a new one begins. What have I accomplished, what lies ahead, where am I going? Thoughts swirl in my head.
Time is puzzling, passing so quickly, yet sometimes standing still. I see proof in the mirror each day, feel it in my bones and in the changing seasons. Sometimes I want to seize it, keep it still, to hold a fleeting joy, or the opposite, hope that it flies away quickly, taking with it, sadness and pain.
People usually believe time follows a straight line, with birth at one end and death at the other. Everything in-between is called life, “my life,” and within it lies good times and bad times. So much time spent seeking happiness, wealth, love and pleasure, but somehow come frustration, anger, hardship, illness and death. This world the Buddha called samsara.
A greater, more profound truth lies beyond the world of samsara. The Buddha described this truth in relation to time: Time has no beginning or end. It is infinite and boundless. All is connected, never divided, always One. Thus in Buddhism, time is symbolized, not by a line, but by a circle, without ends, always connected.
Nagarjuna (circa 150-250 C.E.), one of the seven masters of Pure Land Buddhism, likened this truth to fire and wood. Fire burns with wood. Fire cannot burn by itself. Wood contains fire. Fire cannot be separate from wood, and wood cannot be separate from fire.
Nagarjuna then spoke about time: “The Buddha said a limit to the past cannot be seen. This world is without bounds, indeed, there is no beginning and no ending. How could there be a middle portion of that which has no “before” and “after”? It follows that “past” and “future” do not exist.”
This truth seems to explain the persimmon. I wonder, “When was it born?” Before it ripened, it was a blossom on a branch, before that, a sprout, and before that, a seed of a tree. And before that, it was another tree. It will fall or be picked, nourish someone or decompose and nourish the earth. At what point was it “born” and when does it “die.” The answer really is unclear.
The Buddha also observed that all is impermanent, constantly changing, and that nothing stays the same, much like the persimmon on the branch. Of course the seasons change, we grow old and our loved ones pass away. We can’t stop time. This is the truth of impermanence. This thought seems so sad and filled with loneliness.
However, the Buddha also observed the wholeness of life, the interconnectedness of all things, about Oneness, and about the folly of dividing up the world by our misperceptions and ignorance. We do not exist alone in this life, suddenly being “born” and suddenly “dying.” Of course, our loved ones, our family and friends, and we ourselves, change with time, grow old, and pass away. We are impermanent.
We also are One and interconnected with each other, like fire and wood. The past is contained within our lives at this very moment. The future is contained within our lives at this very moment. If we look beyond the physical, beyond the impermanent, beyond the world of samsara, we understand the greater truth about life and death. There is no “past,” there is no “future,” there is no “birth” and there is no “death,” and consequently, no conflict between life and death.
This moment contains all of our loved ones, including those people who have passed away, and those people and children of the future. Being interconnected, they are part of our life in this present moment. This is how our limited “life” lives within the Great Life.
This is Oneness, this is the meaning of “now.” This is the meaning of “eternity.” This is the meaning of sukhavati, the Pure Land, the eternal land of peace and bliss. This is the meaning of Namu Amida Butsu.
In growing older, a woman once told me her knee became sore and weak. She began to use a cane, moving slowly and more cautiously than before.
While taking walks outside, she began to notice other people with difficulty walking. Her eyes couldn’t help but see people who used canes, crutches and walkers, who walked slowly or with limps. Suddenly the world seemed full of people like herself, whose steps were unsteady. She saw them struggle and felt their pain. She worried for their safety and prayed in her heart they would be all right. These thoughts spontaneously arose from within her.
These people who had trouble walking did not suddenly increase in number, making them more visible. Rather, the woman’s own pain stirred in her a sense of empathy and awareness, opening her eyes to people who were always around her, but whom she had not seen. Before, they were strangers and invisible, but now she felt a kinship with them.
I’m reminded of a saying: “We live in a dream and go through life in a fog.” We think we know what’s important—money, possessions, status, power, knowledge, accomplishments, friendship and love. We think we must focus on our goals and ourselves, and our families and friends. We think positive and avoid negative thoughts.
Imagine a glass half filled with water. When asked how much water is there, you may say it’s “half full” or “half empty,” depending on your mood. Either answer is correct, right?
Imagine the water in the glass represents all of those positive things we think are important in life—money, possessions, friends, etc. To focus on the water is only seeing half the glass. Ignoring the “empty half” makes us blind to the other half of life.
In this example, the empty part symbolizes negative things we want to avoid and not think about—failure, loss, hardship, frustration and pain, among others. It represents sickness, aging and death. Perhaps we feel thinking about these things will drag us down and prevent us from reaching our goals. Yet, these things are part of—in fact inseparable from—the so-called positive side of life, as the glass of water shows us.
To see only the water is to see life only as “positive.” No wonder “we live in a dream and go through life in a fog.” We see only what we want to see. This is natural. This is human nature.
However, this view of life sooner or later comes face-to-face with the painful reality of existence. We become sick. We grow old. Our loved ones pass away. We face death ourselves. We fail to find permanent happiness. When the only side of life we know crumbles and disappears, fear and anxiety arise to take its place.
We are encouraged by the Buddha to see all of life—the full and the empty, the positive and the negative, life and death. This life is not about “I” at the center in pursuit of desires. It is about awakening to the world of wisdom and compassion around us.
You may read these words and think, “What a nice thought,” but your heart will not change. Again, this is human nature. Freud called this strong sense of self the “ego.” The Buddha said this “ego” is a person’s greatest impulse. That’s why it’s so difficult to awaken to truth through our own will, or self-efforts.
In the Samyutta Agama sutra, the Buddha told of “The Parable of the Four Horses.” He explained: “There are four kinds of horses. The first horse gallops merely at the sight of a whip. The second horse gallops when the whip touches its hair. The third horse gallops when the whip touches its skin. The fourth horse only begins to gallop when the whip touches its bones.”
Most of us are like the fourth horse. We may suspect there’s something missing in life, but we are unaffected. We hear about this truth but are unmoved. We may see truth close by, but cannot grasp it. Not until our flesh begins to bleed are we moved.
Shortly after my father passed away a few years ago, people began to tell me, “I lost my father recently,” or “My mother passed away a few months ago” or “My parents have been gone for a few years.” Suddenly I felt what others must have felt in losing a parent, but their suffering had been invisible to me. A great many of us share this common human experience, yet it had not register in my consciousness until I experienced this loss in my own life. I felt a sense of shared pain with others.
The woman with the cane, without knowing it, felt the same way. Experience opens our eyes. This “other side” of life opens our eyes. Shinran Shonin called it Great Compassion that awakens us. This is how the invisible becomes visible.
My kids always seem to fight: Arguing over chores, who gets to watch television, and who talks more on the telephone. It’s normal for kids, I think. What really worries me, though, is if they fight as adults.
Unfortunately, a big cause of fighting between kids is the death of their parents. Too often, children fight over their parents’ money and property. At first glance, the matter may seem simple: Two kids can split in half the inheritance; four kids get 25 percent each.
What if one child takes care of an aging parent, while the other child never visits? Does one child deserve more than another? Maybe the oldest one feels he deserves the most; likewise, a financially needy sibling with her own children may feel she deserves more. Throw in a stepmother or stepchild and there could be all-out war. Brothers and sisters will stop talking to each other, sometimes feuding the rest of their lives.
What started out as good intentions—parents wanting to leave behind their “fortunes” (life-savings, homes, a family business)—sometimes turns out to be a curse. It seems the bigger the fortune, the bigger the curse.
Yet, most people probably think of money or property as the fortune they most want to leave behind. Is that the kind of fortune our children need most in life? An old saying comes to mind: “Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he eats for a lifetime.” Is there a teaching we can leave behind that would be more helpful and valuable than money?
Recently, I saw a documentary on television called “The Bridge” (more information at www.ifctv.com), about a film crew who recorded people jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. For an entire year, they trained their cameras on the bridge, and from time to time, recorded the suicides. Then they interviewed family, friends and witnesses of the people who jumped, piecing together the stories of how that moment came to be.
A windsurfer who was below the bridge during one jump said that when he surfed that day, he was feeling on top of the world. At the same moment, he said later, he realized there was someone who felt at the bottom of the world.
I wondered for a person who has reached the lowest point in his or her life, what could possibly help. According to the interviews, those people were dealing with a variety of problems, related to personal relationships, careers, their emotions, sometimes mental illness and sometimes, but not always, money. A young man jumped after his mother, who was his closest friend and confidant, passed away. He couldn’t see any meaning to his life.
What kinds of things could have helped these people? More than money or possessions, I thought of things such as patience, the ability to tell right from wrong, to try your best, to focus on what’s important (and not worry about what’s not important), to feel compassion in your life, and to live with wisdom. I then remembered that these six qualities are none other than the Six Paramitas in Buddhism, which are the six paths to becoming a “bodhisattva” (or Buddha-like).
These six aspects of life are what the Buddha tries to teach us. Through words, through texts, through rituals and through services, this is the wisdom that is handed down to us through generations, by various teachers and by those people who have preceded us as seekers of truth in the Buddhist tradition. By understanding these six aspects and embodying them in our lives, we gain the strength, wisdom and courage to encounter whatever difficulties life throws at us. We can live with joy and fulfillment, whatever our circumstances, whether we are young or old, male or female, rich or poor, healthy or sick. There can be no greater fortune than the wisdom that helps us see life truthfully.
We may not all be parents, but we are all children who have inherited this legacy from our parents, whether they are our real parents, or our “spiritual” parents. The parents who have come before us worked hard to build our temple, so that the “Buddha dharma,” the truth that awakens us to the preciousness of life, would be kept alive and passed on to us.
Some of you have said you only come to special services out of respect for your parents, who were once active at our temple. But your parents helped keep this temple alive for you. It was your parents’ wish to bestow you with great wisdom to live a fruitful and fulfilling life, that would break the bounds of our selfishness and help us embrace the universe and all the people in it. More than money and more than a big house, what greater fortune could you receive than knowing the true meaning of your life? Once grasped, then each moment of your life becomes a gift and you feel an unbroken connection to the world around you. This unbroken connection is expressed in the words “Namu Amida Butsu.”
In this way, people come to the temple to express their gratitude for having a place where they can hear teachings that are more precious than diamonds and jewelry, more useful than a business or law degree, and more valuable than a roomful of cash. Many of your parents felt this way, keeping this temple alive with the hope of passing this legacy to the next generation. And many of you feel the same way, supporting the temple through your efforts and contributions, helping to pass this wisdom down to yet another generation.
This is how the Dharma was passed down through the ages, from one generation to the next, over the past two thousand five hundred years since the time of Shakyamuni Buddha, from India, across Asia, over the Pacific, and all the way here to you today. Behold the most precious gift in the world.
What is your biggest goal in life? To become rich? Make a lot of money? To get married and have a family? Depending on your age and circumstances, you may say, "to graduate from school," or "get a job."
In probing deeper inside a person, ultimately I think the answer is really "to be happy." If being happy is truly at the root of human desire, then it must be the reason why so many people work so hard, worry so much and struggle through each day.
Where can we find happiness? People assume it lies in "having a successful career," "raising a family," "making money," "buying nice things" or "having more leisure time." Does it really?
First, what is happiness? The dictionary defines happiness with words such as pleasure, exhilaration, bliss, contentment, enjoyment and satisfaction. We can certainly feel exhilaration at graduation from college, feel contentment at having raised a family, and enjoy retiring after many years of work. However upon closer examination, we see that after graduating from college, we worry about finding a job, after raising a family, we worry about being lonely, and after retiring, we worry about growing old. Happiness once grasped seems to slip away.
Sometimes, people confuse happiness with the expectation of happiness. Having fallen in love, it's easy to dream about the happy days that lay ahead once we are married. But marriage is no guarantee of a happy life. We are elated when we find a job, but once it starts, we face a new set of worries. This expectation is like walking in a desert and seeing a mirage of an oasis. Just the thought of drinking from its waters provides a certain pleasure, which alas, is only fleeting and never satisfying.
The Buddha observed that people are easily attracted to such appearances, although there is no substance behind them, like the mirage in the desert. We badly want to be happy, so we'll grasp at anything that promises it.
Yet, people are so firm in their belief that they know exactly what makes them happy-love, money, possessions, fame or power-they spend their whole lives chasing after it. So strong is their belief that even when they get what they want and don't find happiness, they think acquiring more is the key.
The Buddha told the story of a man, a widower, who left his son at home to go to work. When he returned, he discovered that his house had burned down and that the charred body of a child lay close by. The man cried and cried, and soon had the little body cremated. The ashes were put in a small pouch, which he carried everywhere.
Late one night, the man heard a knock at the door and asked, "Who's there?" A little voice said, "I am your son, Daddy, please let me in." The father answered, "My son is dead and I carry his ashes. You must be a naughty boy trying to play a trick on me." The man refused to unlock the door. The boy eventually left and never returned. Thus the father lost his son forever.
In telling this story, the Buddha warned people against becoming attached to their views, ideas and perceptions, which can become obstacles to the truth. To believe so strongly in things that make us happy, when they never provide lasting happiness, is the kind of attachment the Buddha spoke about.
The Buddha observed and taught that all of life is impermanent and constantly changing. We see this truth in the mirror everyday as we see ourselves aging. We see this truth in the temporary happiness we experience when we get what we want, but which swiftly disappears in our desire for something else. This means that we are not something permanent experiencing something permanent. Rather, we are something impermanent experiencing something impermanent. In this constantly changing universe, how can we ever attain lasting happiness?
In Buddhism, happiness is not the goal we should seek. Rather, our enlightenment or "awakening" is most important. Constantly looking for happiness in things that never truly make us happy means to live in a world of dreams and illusion, like a sleepwalker. Waking up from that dream world means seeing the true nature of life.
The true nature of the world is that we are all connected to one another, interdependent and One. It is an illusion to think we exist alone in life, only to satisfy our selfish desires. Rather, we create life together with the earth, the oceans and the sky. We create life together with each other. That is why we can't be happy alone. We cannot be happy if our loved ones are suffering. We cannot be happy if the earth is suffering. Your suffering is my suffering. Your happiness is my happiness.
Wake up to this truth and our life transforms from a self-centered existence to a life that reaches out to the world around us. Instead of being consumed with the desire for only our own happiness, our concern extends to the happiness of others. We no longer live for just ourselves, but we live for each other. Your suffering is my suffering. Your happiness is my happiness. Wake up from the dream world and truly begin living in a world of wisdom and compassion, the Pure Land, a place of true happiness.
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