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Dharma Teaching

The True Spirit of Buddhism
 - 2005, 6,14th,Master Haikong’s public teaching at Wanshan temple.

What is the true spirit of Buddhism? As Buddhist practitioners or researchers, this is the fundamental issue we need to understand thoroughly.  First of all, we will go through the basic terminologies of Buddhism, Buddhist Study, Buddha Dharma, and Buddhist Practice:


Buddhists and Buddhism believers take every speech given and action shown by the Buddha as guidance, inspiration, example, precept and teaching, to help them and all sentient beings to attain the path of enlightenment.  Thus, the combination of teachings, dogma, doctrine, and canon taught by the Buddha is called Buddhism.  Although from the conventional view  is a misconception that ,Buddhism refers to Buddhist organizations, system and social structures.

Buddhist Study

All types of academic studies about Buddhism can be considered as Buddhism studies.  Buddhist studies include:

  • Dogmatic thoughts
  • Location of the community
  • Systematic structure
  • Historical evolution
  • Linguistics and phonics
  • Historical art forms and cultural heritage

Nowadays however, Buddhist Studies are generally perceived as solely the dogmatic thoughts.  Unlike Confucian studies, Taoism studies, or Divinity studies, Buddhist Studies are used to explain the ultimate truth of the universe.

Buddha Dharma

All the notions, methods, theories and antidotes that Buddha Shakymuni has taught us are for helping  all sentient beings to free themselves from painful suffering and afflictive emotions.  Thus those teachings are called Buddha Dharma.  However, many people now consider terminologies and glossaries recorded in Buddhist classic books as Buddha Dharma. Some even stretch its meaning to include experiences and states of partial realizations described by various Buddhist practitioners, such as “All realities are Dharma teaching in the eyes of the Buddha” or “Yellow flower, green bamboo, the beautiful mountains and water; these are the expressions of the Buddha while he is teaching Dharma” and so forth.

Buddhist Practice

Buddhist Practice means believing, studying and practising Buddha Dharma, with the ultimate aim of freeing all sentient beings from pain and suffering and attaining permanent happiness. The ultimate goal of Buddhist Practice in the Mahayana tradition is to become Buddha. Therefore, these four processes – belief, comprehension, practice and attainment are highly regarded in Buddhist teachings. If we are determined to use Buddha’s words, demonstrations, and heart-advice as our guidance and inspiration through continuous practice, this will make us a true practitioner.

We have just covered the fundamental terminologies and current conventional explanations of Buddhism, Buddhist Study, Buddha Dharma and Buddha Practice. Then, what are the characteristics of Buddhist Studies?

Let’s now only focus on the Dogmatic Thought part of Buddhist Study: from the time Buddha Sakyamuni first attained enlightenment and became a Buddha then started to teach Dharma and help others to attain their enlightenment, until he established the Buddhist community.  The unique characteristic of Sakyamuni’s teachings is that he has indeed completely realized the ultimate truth of the universe - that all phenomena are subject to the law of cause and effect .  Before and after him, many religious and philosophical viewpoints on the origin of the universe and life existence went no further than naturism, monotheism, twaintheism, pantheism and atheism. Sakyamuni’s omniscient realization on the law of cause and condition is that all things and phenomena arise and decay in dependence upon other things and phenomena.   Neither material nor spiritual things can exist or decay independently and nor will they exist or decay permanently.  This interdependent relationship is what we call cause and condition.

How are Chinese Buddist Studies characterized? Since Buddhism spread into China, Chinese native and historical cultural elements have been intergrated to form the Chinese style of Buddhism.  In the beginning stages,  many scholars and researchers used the words and terminologies adapted from Chinese Confucianism and Taoism to describe and introduce Buddhism. Buddhism at this developmental stage is Called Geyi (primitive) Buddhism.  Later, Huayen school’s doctrine of dependent origination was developed based on the Tathāgatagarbha (usually essentially the same as the Buddha nature concept) sutra, Vinaya and Abhidharma. on which the Buddha’s words were recorded in a basket.) However, traditionally, Chinese people were not content with the teaching of the empty state and the display of emptiness; so very soon teachings from the Chan School started to flourish. Such dissertations have been frequently discussed in history books of Chinese Philosophy.

In today’s Chinese Buddhist community, people who are considered as Buddhist practitioners and those who are considered as Buddhist researchers are completely different from each other. Today, we need to really emphasize  the differences between these two groups.  This is something critical to the growth and decline of the future of the entire Buddhist community.

What are the differences between Buddhist practitioners and Buddhist researchers?  


True Buddhist practitioners follow the Buddha’s footprints, using his teaching as guidance, inspiration and instruction to help them to attain their path towards enlightenment.  It is essential and critical for them first to connect and integrate their own thoughts and action with those of the Buddha’s and the Dharma teachings, then to practice with great determination to achieve full enlightenment. When practitioners implement methods and theories taught by the Buddha into their life path, sweeping away the negative karma and bad habits, liberating themselves from pain and suffering, realizing the true nature of the mind, gaining peaceful state of mind and ultimate wisdom and attaining Buddha-hood, this is what we called the true spirit of Buddhism!

On the other hand, the research undertaken  to explore aspects of Buddhism is merely a kind of study.  It is an explanation of Buddhism from the Academic Standard and viewpoint. The real Buddhism and its practitioners describe and explain the worldly knowledge using the Buddha Dharma but not vice versa.  There have been many contemporary intellectuals who have futilely tried to interpret Buddhism using academic knowledge alone.  If it  took only academic knowledge to understand Buddha Dharma, why would a person as widely knowledgeable as Sakyamuni felt that he had to leave his home, country, and family and become a homeless monk in order to pursue the path of the ultimate wisdom?  Those who have read the biography and stories of Sakyamuni and studied  basic Buddhism theory would be able to understand my question.

At that time, as the prince of Kapilavastu, Sakyamuni was  outstanding in both  his social position and studies. He was gifted, and there was no worldly knowledge in which he wasn’t accomplished. He  was also  able to master extraordinary skills in Martial Arts such that  with only one arrow, he could perforate seven-layered leather drums! At such time, leather drums were made from tightly stretched ox leather.  You can imagine what kind of strength he had to have to do that. However, temporal knowledge could not yield the answers to his quest.  For example, it cannot explain the phenomena or solve the problem of birth, aging, disease and death.  And Sakyamuni even at that time had already been well versed in Vidya known as five sciences: Science, Philosophy, Medical, Linguistics and Inner Learning.  If all this worldly knowledge could clearly explain things in the world, why would he need  to become a monk?  He did so, because he realized there was no other option. Up to the present, in spite of significant achievements in science and technology,  we are still unable  to explain the deepest mysteries of life and the universe. Yet if we look into the books of Buddhist history, we will find out that more than twenty-five thousand years ago, the Buddha already knew many things confirmed by today’s technology. Buddhism would not have continued to thrive for for more than two thousand years if it could  be explained by worldly knowledge and technology. It is evident that there has been no person in the interceding two thousand years who has surpassed the understanding of the Buddha. The principles of Buddha’s teachings cannot be spelled out by worldly knowledge.  Yet with the wisdom of the Buddha and truths evidenced by the Buddha, we can explain  many phenomena and matters existing in the temporal world. We must be clear about this notion.

From now on we need to review and emphasize the differences between Buddhist study and Buddhist practice on a daily basis.  The tragic lesson from Indian Buddhist History taught us that after Buddha’s passing, Buddhists in India were influenced by Hinduism and Brahmanisim, and they started to use ordinary worldly language and teaching methods to explain Buddhism.  Also Buddhism tried to adapt to the existing social environment, complementing thoughts and teachings from Hinduism, and eventually lost its   true spirit.  From then on,  Indian Buddhism was completely destroyed and extirpated. We already know that in order to reveal the truth of the universe and life, Buddha Sakyamuni became a monk.  He gave a full revelation of the ultinmate truth of the universe and of life..  There is no need to explain Buddhism by worldly knowledge and inferences.

A true Buddhist practitioner would not only pursue the Buddha Dharma, but also do  what is taught by the Buddha and attain  true happiness and ease through honest practice and realizations. The ultimate goal of  practice is to be free of pain and suffering, follow the law of cause and effect, leave the cyclic Samsara and achieve Buddha-hood.  Intention differs from those who interpret Buddhism using conventional ways of thinking and philosophical measures and who are never  able to advance their own realization level. This is the major difference between a Buddhist practitioner and a Buddhist researcher or scholar.  Furthermore, many Buddhists who have previously practiced diligently and even attained a certain level of realization, as soon as they engage in academic and ordinary world debates  or ways of thinking, many fall into  corrupt views and biases during the course of their practice.  As well, due to the disturbances of their own bad karmas and habits, they suffer a disastrous decline and cannot extricate themselves.  By doing so, many Buddhists have gone astray, this is a painful lesson we learned from the history.  Just as we  discussed with the example of ancient India history, Buddhist tradition has lost its true spirit and has been distorted by the temporal academics ever since and this resulted in its extinction.  In other words: when the worldly thoughts permeate Buddhist teaching, Buddhism starts to decline. What a dangerous situation it is!

All those who are acquainted with the differences between learning from Buddhist Practice and Buddhism Study must often remind themselves not to be led by ordinary worldly concepts. The key measurement of a true Buddhist is whether one’s practice has truly followed the correct notion and theory from the Buddha’s teaching. As Buddhists, above all we must  remember that if we merely treat Buddhism as a kind of superficial belief, knowledge or academic study, then we really don’t need to take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha (Three Jewels). We would simply be a Buddhist scholar and researcher. By not taking refuge, the content of the Buddha Dharma will have no meaning to us.  If we would rather be a true Buddhist and take refuge in the Three Jewels, then Buddha is the one we should be relying on and following to attain our final destiny.

So, a true Buddhist who has committed to the Three Jewels must not take Buddhism as only a kind of academic study. Throughout  history, it is evident that the more knowledge one knows academically, the more obstacles are in the way of practice.  If we want to be capable of transforming the obstacles with our knowledge, then a precondition is needed.  It is that  we must have attained the realization - the correct view of emptiness.  With this realization, we shall be able to skillfully assimilate, apply, and transform these obstacles.  In other words, expedient and skillful means must be established upon the base of the correct view of emptiness.  Without that realization, we are still holding onto the sense of self - self cognition, self consideration, ego thought, ego feeling, aware and observing issues within the boundaries of the ego discrimination. Therefore, all you have accomplished  in the name of being skillful and expedient is actually  a series of actions of bias and wrong doing.  Without the correct view, your opinion will be turned into the opinions of others, that is to say when [Jack] says this – your opinion will be turned into that of [Jack’s]; after a while when [Jim] says this – your opinion will be turned into that of [Jim’s].  The more convincing it sounds to you, the more likely you are to adopt that   opinion.  In fact, you have forgotten your own original opinion and lost control of your own thought. The opinions of others have become yours.  That is the saddest thing for Buddhist practitioners.  For the original correct opinions of one’s own are replaced by the opinions of others.  That is to say, the undefiled mind that we originally have, has been contaminated by distressful, mundane and confused minds.  That is very dangerous.

As practitioners of Buddhism, it becomes crucial for us to build a good foundation for the correct notion, correct view and correct motivation of our practice. To accomplish this, we need to cultivate truthful, honest and practical attitude and establish proper thought.

As Buddhists, we also should be aware the goal and destiny of our practice as well. Our aim must be definite and the method must be correct. We need to understand the truth that everything arises from conditions instead of being independent in nature and all the deluded experiences cause pain and suffering. By absorbing this concept, the heart of renunciation, which is base of all Buddhist beliefs and desires, starts to rise.

All Buddhist, especially those follow the Mahayana tradition and are destined to pursue no only attaining Buddhahood themselves but also to liberate all sentient-beings from pain and suffering, should take the “Three Principals of the Path” as the core.  The very life of our practice is dependent on these three Principle Aspects of the Path - also considered as the three fundamentals of all Buddhism schools. Without these three fundamentals, our practice will just like building high-rise condos on top of the sand dune, which cannot withstand wind or rain.  Those buildings are very unsteady and easy to collapse by themselves even without the help of the blowing wind.  So we must regard the ‘three principles’ as the ground work of our life of practice; otherwise, all of the practices are unstable, partial, limited and imperfect.

What are the Three Principals of the Path?

The first principal aspect is the correct motivation - renunciation, which is key to learning and practicing Buddha Dharma.  If renunciation doesn’t arise in a practitioner’s heart, any practice and kind behaviour done by her or him are actually planting the seed of suffering.  These seeds then continue to grow into plants within the cycle of Samsara and will not exceed the range of Five Aggregates (form, feelings, perception, mental formations, and consciousness). Eventually, the fruits will taste bitter since there is no escape from the Samsaric pain and suffering, and no obtainment towards the ultimate happiness.  Without cultivating the true renunciation, the gates to the Buddha path are closed. Even for ordained monks and nuns, not having the correct motivation – renunciation, would make their practice a show or play that can only entertain others but is meaningless to them. And for Lay practitioners under the same condition, they merely accumulate some knowledge, limited merit and blessed rewards in the humanly and heavenly realm.  Those rewards within the Samsaric realms are nevertheless, fruitless.  Planting good seeds result in good rewards and bad seeds result in bad rewards, thus, we can never stop creating karmic effects, both good and bad, inside the Samsara. The obstacles brought forth by bad karmic effects will keep throwing us back into the turbulent wave of Samsara over and over, and our practice will in no doubt, fail to reach its destiny.

What is renunciation? It is to be renounced from the Samsaric nature of pain and suffering. Samsara is the most important theory introduced in Buddha Dharma. Buddhism believes that the life of all beings in the universe coexist in a continuous recurrence of life and death.  It has no beginning and ending point like a circle – this is called Samsara.  Before managing to break away from Samsara, we have to drift with the tide of our own karma, whether good or bad, continuously on the move of Samsara – without a result and pervaded with endless suffering.

Setting forth renunciation, does not mean to be negative or pessimistic, but to observe the truth of life through a positive attitude, to eradicate distress, to be free from pain and suffering and attain great peace and ease.  While some people may wonder that our life is quite good, why we need to renounce, and what to be renounced? Many agree that in this world, we can enjoy so much such as good foods, drinks, entertainment and excitements; we hold many unfulfilled desires and interests, why should we renounce them all?  As a matter of fact, cultivating renunciation would not affect our reasonable desires, nor will it contradict our normal life style and career path.  Only when we start to recognize the true meaning of our lives and to realize the amount of pain and suffering caused by the cyclic path of live and death, will we begin to search for the true meaning of our current existence - that is to change our life path and to renounce the reality of pain and suffering with a optimistic and positive attitude.  This does not require us to wander around without eating or drinking.  We have already acquired a human form and come to this humanly world – the Saha world, we could not possibly come to the Saha world with no co-responding karma.  Everyone born in this world is due to their karmic effect of distress, pain, lust and attachments.  So the most important question to us now is how to deal with this reality, and how to renounce the endless recurrence of suffering?  It is the principal issue, and this is why we have no other choice but to cultivate the motivation of renunciation when to begin our journey of practice.

As we have discussed, when basing on a positive and optimistic viewpoint to cognize the truth nature of our lives, to eradicate the distress in life, to gain the ultimate peace and happiness, this is the correct foundation on which our renunciation should be built upon. During our practice, we will experience various obstacles brought forth by our own karma, social karmic effect and by lacking of necessary virtue, merit and wisdom. Buddhisattva Maitreya once asked the Buddha, “For what reason has it become so hard for nowadays people to practice, to tame their turbulent mind and to not lose their confidence?” The Buddha answered, “That is because they have not accumulated enough merit, virtue and wisdom in their numberless life times, on the contrary, they have accumulated too much karma with their body, mind and speech”.  That is to say, the supplies and provision on the way of our path have not been fully prepared.  Since we now know this reason, we shall make great efforts in generating our merits, good deeds and virtues that needed to support our practice.  Without enough of these supplies and provision, our roads of practice will be full of thorn bush.

Therefore during the course of Buddhist practice, after having cultivated the motivation to renounce, the next step is to generate Bodhicitta - the heart of compassion.  It’s said by Great Master Je Tsongkhapa that generating Bodhicitta is the backbone of the Mahayana teaching, the root of all great deeds, the magical accumulator of wisdom and fortune and the treasure reserve of endless merit.  With Bodhicitta – the heart of compassion, all our good deeds will be transformed into elements of attaining Buddha hood, and will create tremendous merits, virtues and benefits to us.  That’s why we consider Bodhicitta to be the number one dharma treasure of all Buddhism. 

By skillful and dedicated practice and the cultivation of Renunciation and Bodhicitta, the originally defiled mind that filled up with five poisons (greed, anger, ignorance, arrogance and doubts) will be gradually transform in to a mind of peace, compassion and wisdom.  The seed of the Bodhicitta, under this condition, will be spontaneously taking roots, growing flowers and bearing fruits. Bodhicitta lead us to see all sentient beings on the equal level and without discriminations. The truth is, ultimately, there is no difference between all sentient beings.  If we are able to achieve such an impartial mind, the cultivation of Bodhicitta begins.

To cultivate Bodhicitta, we must start from repenting the karma of sins to achieve an impartial mind.  In countless live times we have brought forth tremendous bad karmas and negative actions, for this reason, we must remember to repent ourselves. During the course of every day early-morning practice, typically, nuns and monks will repent for negative karmas and actions from their numberless lives in Samsara. The next step after repentance is to cultivate the worldly Bodhicitta, then the aspiring Bodhicitta and engaging Bodhicitta, and eventually the perfected ultimate Bodhicitta. If we have honestly followed these steps, we would be able to be blessed and empowered by all the Buddha from the ten directions of the world, to eradicate karmas and avoid evils and obstacles.  If one practices Buddhism but does not have Bodhicitta, we could say that he or she hasn’t step into the gate of Buddhist practice.

Moreover, if renunciation does not coincide with Bodhicitta, it is not complete. Master TzongKhapa said in his teaching: renunciation that is not integrated with Bodhicitta will not lead to ultimate wisdom – the reason of complete happiness. Having that been said, a wise practitioner needs to cultivate Bodhicitta.

Once we have clarified the correct notion about Buddhist practice, we shall never stop our practice and practice with dignity, honesty and dedication. In fact, if we were all pursuing what have just been discussed above, we would be one step closer to the day of attaining the ultimate wisdom and happiness. It is truly one step away!

There are many who have studied Buddhism for decades do not fully understand the relationship and differences between Buddhism Study and Practice, and haven’t find the correct position of their own. This situation also shared by some ordained monastics as well.  As for some lay practitioners, very often they only recognize the Buddhism sects they’ve known about, such as Pure Land sect, Zen, Tantric and so forth, and give improper opinions to depreciate other schools and traditions.  This shows that their minds are still in chaos– how could they find the peace and balance needed for their practice?  A mind of equality is the right path!  Without this, we will deal with everything in this world with a discriminated mind.

If we would like to see Buddhism to flourish and would like to spread the Buddha’s wisdom to the world, and to enable human beings use this wisdom to contribute to our society, then we must hold the true spirit of Buddhism, keep passing it on from one generation to another.  If we lost the true spirit of Buddhism and only held on to the empty words, then Buddhism will gradually fade away from the memory of the ordinary world’s people. If each day we carry on teachings such as “the three principles of Buddhism” to people and claim that once they’ve learnt about  the law of cause and effect - the reason of the sufferings in this world, then they will be able to cultivate renunciation and Bodhicitta.  However, if we haven’t gained clarity on those issues ourselves, how could we possibly earn trust from others? Practicing Buddhism doesn’t rely on words, but on concrete truth and factors.

Learning and understanding Buddha Dharma creates an opportunity for us to establish our confidence and beliefs towards Buddhism.  While the aim of having those confidence and beliefs is to continually making progress on cultivating a right motivation, upholding and practicing the Dharma to attain the ultimate wisdom, without having them, we will not be able to merge the Dharma wisdom into our lives and our practice, then we are not a real Buddhist practitioner – we are Buddhist scholars and researchers with a poor mind and full of empty words. This is a very sad and dangerous situation! Therefore, once we considered as a Buddhist disciple who have taken refuge to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, and have made the four Bodhisattva vows, we should be truthful and honest to the path we have chosen.

Today, a great cause and condition has brought us all together under the Nagapushpa assembly (Buddha Metraya’s assembly). This truly is a rare opportunity of countless life times! I often joke to some people that there are less than one human being on earth among tens of thousands other living beings. And we are all humans now, not only that we have very fortunately heard about Buddha Dharma, and even more we have already met and started to practice Buddha Dharma together! We must cherish this opportunity, follow the Buddha’s teaching and practice hard through our entire lifetime to grasp the truth and spirit taught in Buddha Dharma, and further apply this into our actual practice.

Since we have made the decision to follow the Buddha Dharma, we should also make the decision to accomplish it in this lifetime, a decision to uproot the distress in life and a decision to finally stop the pain and struggle.  Armed with Buddha Dharma will enable us to attain real wisdom and save us from tragic situations.  Otherwise, we would keep sinking deeper and deeper into the trap of the Samsara.  Understanding the differences between a Buddhist practitioner and a Buddhist researcher or scholar, is above all the foremost critical factor to us. We should be fully alerted about the uncommon notion between them. This is an extremely important subject.



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