The Right Order of Learning Buddhism
Belief, Understanding, Practice, and Realization
We have looked at the basis for learning and cultivation and have had a brief introduction to the main practice guidelines. Now let's look at the creative teaching methods of Buddhism. As Master Qingliang explained, in the Flower Adornment Sutra learning and cultivation can be divided into the four stages of belief, understanding, practice, and realization.
The first stage is belief. When we are able to believe then our conditions have matured. There is a saying "the Buddha is unable to help those who have no affinity with him".
What is affinity? It is being able to believe. Even a Buddha cannot help someone whose conditions have not yet matured. However, when they have matured, the person will have belief. Then the Buddha can help. Religions are different from Buddhism in that once the believers have faith, they are saved, whereas, the belief in Buddhism, means that we believe in the benefits of Buddhism and accept one of the many methods.
Once we have the belief, we have to have understanding. Buddhism explains the truth of life and the universe. Only after we have acquired a true understanding of it can we begin our practice. Therefore, practice is based on understanding. If we do not understand the principles and methods, how can we practice? True practice is based on the foundation of principles and correct methods.
The ultimate goal of practice is to achieve attainment, to attain the real benefit. What is attainment? It is the application of what we believe, understand and practice in our daily lives, to attain the ultimate enjoyment in life. For example, what we find in the Infinite Life Sutra is just what we think and practice. What we think and practice in our daily lives conforms to the sutra. This is attainment and true reality and this is what makes Buddhism so valuable.
Thus, we need to know the proper sequence of cultivation, which is belief, understanding, practice, and attainment. When we speak of belief, first we believe in ourselves. This is where Buddhism differs from religion. In religion the most important criteria is to believe in God. In Buddhism the most important criteria is to believe in ourselves, not something outside of ourselves. We need to believe that we have the same Buddha nature. Believe that originally we were Buddhas. Believe that we are no different from the Buddhas. Believe that our true nature has become polluted and that once we remove this pollution we will uncover our true self-nature.
However, if we are always dwelling on thoughts that we have heavy karmic obstacles and fear that this will keep us from achieving attainment, then we definitely will not achieve. Why? If we do not believe that we can achieve, then even the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas cannot help us. Buddhas and Bodhisattvas can only help those who help themselves. Therefore, it is crucial that we have this confidence and belief in ourselves.
In addition, we also need to believe in the teachings of the Buddhas. We have been told infinite principles and methods. We will surely succeed as long as we follow them. After we have belief in ourselves, we need to have belief in the Buddha's teachings. Maser Ou-Yi described this as believing in principles and in matter. Where does matter come from? From the principle, that is the pure mind of the true nature. All phenomena in the universe arise from the principle. They are related by the endless cycle of cause and effect. A cause gives rise to an effect, which in turn becomes the cause of the next effect. This process continues ceaselessly. Developing understand and belief in true reality builds our confidence enabling us to seek thorough understanding of everything. Only in this way can we be free from confusion and doubt, which are obstacles in our cultivation and thus obtain enjoyment and smooth advancement.
In practicing Buddhism, it is most important to accept the teacher's instructions and practice according to the recommended methods. This has been the right way to learn since ancient times. The first requirement was to follow the five-year learning restriction, which was set by the teacher. In so doing so, the teacher took full responsibility for whether the student succeeded or failed. This is the principle of honoring teachers and revering their teachings. This principle, however, no longer holds today for teachers are not responsible and students are not earnest. The principles of teaching are declining and this is the tragedy of our times. Students no longer respect teachers and teachers no longer sincerely help students to achieve.
The five-year learning restriction resulted in the student following just one teacher. It laid the foundation for the Three Learnings of self-discipline, deep concentration and wisdom. It was the responsibility of the teacher to see that the student learned this. Consider Zen Buddhism. What did the teacher ask of the student for the first five years? They were assigned a simple manual labor and asked to perform it earnestly, without change, every day. They were also to memorize the sutra. They were to read after completing their work and not to be concerned with anything else. The purpose of this labor was not to treat them as servants.
After a while the student felt bored and would think that he or she had worked very hard for five years without accomplishing anything. In actuality, he or she had acquired much without realizing it. What was acquired? Afflictions were greatly reduced and concentration was increased because of a ban against seeing and listening to many things. If the ban was properly followed, the students attained both good fortune and wisdom. What is good fortune? Working every day in the way place was cultivating the practice of giving. Since monks and nuns had no money to give away, they could work to cultivate the Paramita of Giving. Through the restrictions on listening and reading thereby concentrating the six sense organs, the students also acquired a pure mind and attained deep concentration. This is wisdom. So, the teacher taught the students to cultivate good fortune and establish the foundation of self-discipline, deep concentration and wisdom. The teaching was designed to be subtle yet effective. With the five-year learning restriction as a base, upon listening to one or two years of Dharma lectures, the students could become enlightened.
In the biographies of well accomplished monks we see that through this method many monks become enlightened in three to five years. Today, however, practitioners can live in a way place for thirty or fifty years, even a lifetime without awakening. They may have read numerous sutras but were still not enlightened. At most, they have memorized some general knowledge about Buddhism, but nothing to sever their afflictions or attain wisdom. So, we must try to find a good teacher for guidance. This advice may seem boring at first. But after the initial stage, we will be truly delighted and joyful in our attainment.
Many of us have made the big mistake at the beginning of our cultivation, of wanting to learn all different methods. Ancient learned monks and nuns started with the second of the Great Vows of Buddhas and Bodhisattva, "Afflictions are inexhaustible, I vow to end them all". In ending all afflictions, we will achieve deep concentration and attain wisdom. Then, the "Ways to practice are boundless, I vow to master them all". This is the correct order for cultivation. The mistake many people make is to attempt to study extensively without having severed afflictions. Master Qingliang called this "Understanding without no practice". These people concentrate only on understanding while neglecting the practice. They do not try to end their afflictions to cultivate a pure mind. As a result, they develop deviated viewpoints rather proper views and knowledge.
Practicing the Three Learnings Concurrently
What is the first step in learning Buddhism? Start by reciting one sutra.
Do we need to understand it? No.
For when we have not ended afflictions, our understanding will be erroneous. Then why do we recite only this sutra?
Self-discipline requires that we "Do nothing that is bad. Do all that is good". Reciting a sutra can prevent us from generating wandering thoughts so we will be prevented from doing anything that is bad. Sutras are words that flow from the Buddha's true nature. Nothing can surpass these words in virtue. Therefore, reciting a sutra is doing all that is good and results in the perfection of self-discipline so there is no need to practice the precepts one-by-one.
When reciting a sutra we must focus. By focusing, we cultivate concentration. Clearly enunciating every word correctly without any omission is the practice of wisdom. Therefore reciting the sutra properly is to practice the Three Learnings at the same time. Any attempt to analyze the sutra while reciting is in fact treating the sutra as a worldly book. This will result in none of the Three Learnings being accomplished and is not true cultivation. Never belittle the practice of sutra recitation, as it is the base of cultivation. Reciting for one hour accomplishes one hour of cultivation, reciting for two hours accomplishes two hours of cultivation, etc. Needless to say, the longer the better.
Many of my fellow practitioners in Taiwan and Dallas are reciting the Infinite Life Sutra ten times a day. So far, some may have chanted the sutra over two thousand times, thus they are very familiar with the text and only need thirty to forty-five minutes to finish one sutra. Reciting ten times thus means five or six hours of practicing self-discipline, deep concentration, and wisdom. With so many hours devoted to cultivation, we will naturally develop a serene mind in just a few year's time.
Sutras flow from the pure and quiet mind of the Buddha. When we have developed a mind as pure and quiet, we will understand all we read in the sutra. The reason why the sutra is so hard to understand now is that our minds are filled with wandering thoughts. How can this mind be in harmony with one that is pure and quiet? This is why we do not understand the Buddha's words. So, if we want to learn from a good teacher, we need to trust and believe that their methods are proper and correct.
Just chose one sutra without being distracted by any others. If we chose to follow the Pure Land School, we recite and study the Infinite Life Sutra. If we choose to follow the Tiantai School we recite and study the Lotus Sutra. If we choose to follow the Flower Adornment School we recite and study the Flower Adornment Sutra. When choosing a school follow its principles and delve deeply into the sutra for five years. In other words sever all afflictions and try to develop a pure and quiet heart. This is the first step in learning Buddhism.
Frankly speaking, five years of learning and cultivation were enough for a practitioner to attain a pure mind in the past, because their minds were not as polluted as ours now are. In the past, children would remain innocent until around ten years of age. Then they would begin to be aware of differences between right and wrong, self and others. They would begin to develop such characteristics as greed, anger, ignorance, and arrogance. Look at today's children. They start showing greed, anger, ignorance, and arrogance when they are only a few years old! Where do they learn these things? From television. They are exposed to television every day. They naturally become polluted. They do not have the happy innocent childhood their parents had. How unfortunate they are!
I was born and grew up in the countryside and was neither sensible nor knowing of the world until I was thirteen. True happiness is to remain innocent as long as possible in childhood and to not be aware of any of the suffering in the world. All I knew was how to play. Once we loose our childhood innocence, we are no longer happy. For then, we have to be constantly aware of others. So, I say that modern people are less fortunate than their predecessors are.
Once we have developed a pure and quiet mind and have attained wisdom, then we can begin to broaden our knowledge. We can see, hear, and learn of anything that we are interested in, for now we have attained wisdom and will not be affected by our surroundings. Since we have self-control, the more we see and hear the wiser we will become and the greater our strength from deep concentration will be. How are deep concentration and wisdom increased? Remaining unmoved by surroundings will enhance deep concentration. Developing a clear and understanding mind will enhance wisdom. Then we can learn from other schools to further enhance our deep concentration and wisdom. First, we practice self-discipline, concentration and wisdom to attain our original wisdom. Then we can learn extensively to perfect our acquired wisdom. This is the way of learning from ancient times.
The Buddha told us in the Great Prajna Sutra, "innocent intuitive wisdom knows all". So, we must cultivate "innocence" first. The five-year method of practicing self-discipline results in our remaining innocent of the happenings in the world. When we are again in contact with the world, we will be aware of "knowing all". Th is is the proper sequence and method to learn and practice Buddhism.
Ancient patriarchs not only abided by the rules set by Buddha Shakyamuni but also took Confucianism as the basis for their learning and practice. Chinese Buddhism has abandoned Theravada Buddhism in place of Confucius teachings. Chinese Buddhists as the basis for learning Buddhism adopted the five virtues of Confucius of gentleness, kindness, respectfulness, thriftiness and humility. From this foundation, they developed the Three Conditions, the Six Principles of Harmony, the Three Learnings, the Six Paramitas, and the Ten Great Vows. All the schools of Mahayana Buddhism adopted this framework of learning and teaching. In other words, we can accomplish our learning and cultivation in any school as long as we follow these principles and methods. So, we can say that taking the Five Virtues and Six Harmonies is the basis and a unique characteristic of Chinese Buddhism.
There was another advanced method of teaching and learning in Buddhism; continuing education for teachers. It was not until recently that this method again came into use. When he was in this world, the Buddha had many students. Some stayed with him because they had not finished their study and thus had not yet become independent. But others had reached some achievement. The latter were Bodhisattvas, who were responsible for spreading Buddhism. They went to different locations, set up way places and taught on behalf of the Buddha. Then they would return to where the Buddha currently was for a three months summer retreat for continuing education. This is similar to today's summer vacation when the students are out of school but the teachers cannot rest for they need to receive further training. So, the Bodhisattvas went back to be with the Buddha for a summer retreat. They listened to his teaching and thus were able to increase their concentration, wisdom, and virtues. They also discussed difficulties they had encountered in their teaching and tried to find the solutions. They learned from each other in seeking self-improvement. This system of continuing education has been infrequently seen in Chinese history.
It is advisable that way places and Buddhist societies conduct summer and winter retreats of Buddha name recitation and Zen meditation, seminars, etc. for short-term training. This is very effective and people are able to accept this idea of short-term continuing education. If we directly tell them that it is for severing afflictions; cultivating self-discipline, deep concentration and wisdom, and transcending the cycle of birth and death, only a few people can accept this concept or be interested.
Today, people differ in their concept of Buddhist education from those in the past. They want to learn more at the beginning of their study, not knowing that their method will limit their accomplishment whereas following the traditional method in practicing Buddhism can result in infinite benefits. In the past many people have benefited from this traditional method and achieved in their cultivation and attained Buddhahood. However, at best, the present methods can only help us to get a doctorate of Buddhism, fame and wealth. But frankly speaking, it will not be easy for us to sever afflictions or transcend the cycle of birth and death. We should consider this very carefully.