The Path to the Cessation of Suffering: Practicing the Dharma
Third Magnificent Vow of the Bodhisattva:
I vow to learn the measureless Dharma-doors.
Using measureless dharma-doors, he is totally free and easy.
He tames and regulates living beings
throughout the ten directions,
And yet while doing all of these among living beings,
the Bodhisattva is detached and makes no discriminations.
This corresponds to the Noble Truth of the Path That Leads to the Cessation of Suffering.
What, Bhikshus, is the Noble Truth of the Path That Leads to the Cessation of Suffering? Just this eightfold path; namely right views, right intention, right speech, right behavior, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right meditative-concentration. (The Bodhisattva’s Dharma-doors or methods of practice are the Six Perfections: giving, morality, patience, vigor, meditative-concentration and wisdom.) The Path should be practiced.
The word Dharma refers to the Buddha’s teachings. As mentioned before it literally refers to the laws or truths that govern reality. In Buddhism it particularly alludes to the methods of practice the Buddha compassionately set forth to guide living beings through the dense forest of their ignorance to the light of their true nature.
The Dharma offers a profound analysis of the problem of suffering, while providing both an alternate vision free of suffering (Enlightenment) and the actual methods we need to realize that awakening.
Simply put, the Dharma is:Not doing any evil.
Reverently practicing all good.
Purifying one’s own mind.
That is the teaching of all Buddhas.
The essential Dharmas of practice consist of morality, meditative-concentration, and wisdom.
From the moral precepts comes meditative-concentration, and out of meditative-concentration arises wisdom.
Without a strong foundation in moral conduct it is impossible to develop skill in meditation and to acquire the genuine meditative-concentration that leads to wisdom. The Buddha established the Five Moral Precepts as basic virtues for human life and the very essence of spiritual cultivation. They are as follows:
1. Do not kill. We should not deliberately kill any living creature, either by committing the act ourselves, instructing others to kill, participating in or approving of acts of killing. One can avoid indirect involvement in killing by eating only vegetarian food. Compassion, mutual respect for life, and a sense of oneness with all living creatures are compelling reasons for holding this precept.
2. Do not steal. If something is not given to us, we should not take it. This precept applies not only to valuable items such as gold and silver, but even to things as small and inexpensive as needles. This can also be interpreted as living frugally and not wasting resources.
3. Do not engage in sexual misconduct. Sexual activities with anyone other than our lawful spouse are considered promiscuous. Promiscuous sex, or perverse sex, such as homosexuality and sexual activity with animals, leads to rebirth in the lower realms of existence in which one experiences much suffering.
4. Do not speak falsely. In general, there are four kinds of incorrect speech: lying, irresponsible speech, (such as gossip and talk which upsets people’s emotions); abusive speech, (such as harshly berating others); and backbiting speech (which causes dissension and discord among people).
5. Do not take intoxicants. Alcohol, illicit drugs, stimulants, or depressants and even tobacco are all considered intoxicants. They harm the body, confuse our spirit, and cause us to be dull-witted in future lives.
Now I will describe the rules of conduct a householder should follow to become a good disciple. However, if one wishes to fulfill the duties of a Bhikshu, one cannot do so by possessing the property of a householder.
Let him not destroy life, nor cause others to destroy life, nor approve of others killing. Let him refrain from oppressing all living beings in the world, whether strong or weak.
Then because the disciple knows that it belongs to others, stealing anything from any place should be avoided. Let him neither steal, nor approve of others’ stealing. All stealing should be avoided.
The wise man should avoid, a non-celibate life as he would a burning charcoal pit. If he is unable to lead a celibate life fully, let him not transgress with another’s wife.
Whether in an assembly or in a public place, let him not lie to another. Let him neither cause others to lie nor approve of others’ telling lies.
The householder who delights in self-control, knowing that intoxicants destroy it, neither takes intoxicants, nor would he lead others to take them, nor approve of others’ doing so.
Moral precepts are the foundation for Enlightenment.
The moral precepts of Buddhism are rooted in self-respect (especially cherishing one’s spiritual nature) and respect for others. Self-respect and respect for others in turn develop naturally out of our first and most fundamental human relationship: child and parents. Kindness, compassion, generosity and mercy as well as our self-esteem are all kindled and instilled within the ongoing give and take of that relationship. Thus in the discourse on the Bodhisattva Precepts from the Brahma Net Sutra the Buddha observes that:
Filial compliance is a dharma of the ultimate path. Filiality is known as moral precepts. It is also called restraint and stopping.
The most basic human virtue is reverence for one’s father and mother. The Buddha regarded filial piety as absolutely essential to a moral life.
Bhikshus, there are two persons whom you can never repay. They are your mother and father. Even if you were to carry your mother on one shoulder and your father on the other for one hundred years, and they should even void their excrement there; and if you should attend to them, anointing them with salves, massaging, bathing and rubbing their limbs, even that would not repay them.
Even if you were to establish your parents as the supreme lords and rulers over this earth, rich in the seven treasures (gold, silver, lapis lazuli, crystal, red pearls, mother of pearls and carnelian), this still would not be a sufficient display of gratitude. Why? Parents do so much for their children, Bhikshus. They bring them up, feed them, and guide them through this world.
And in the following passage from the Sutra of the Deep Kindness of Parents and the Difficulty of Repaying It, the Buddha poignantly describes what parents do for their children.
For ten (lunar) months while the mother carries the child, she feels discomfort each time she rises, as if she were lifting a heavy burden. Like a chronic invalid, she is unable to keep down her food and drink. When the ten months have passed and the time comes for giving birth, she undergoes much pain and suffering so that the child can be born. She fears for her own life, like a pig or lamb waiting to be slaughtered. Then the blood flows all over the ground. These are the sufferings she undergoes.
Once the child is born, she saves the sweet for it and swallows the bitter herself. She carries the child and nourishes it, washing away its filth. There is no toil or difficulty she does not willingly undertake for the sake of her child. She endures both cold and heat and never even mentions what she has gone through. She gives the dry place to her child and sleeps in the damp herself. For three years she nourishes they baby with milk, transformed from the blood of her own body.
Parents continually instruct and guide their children in the ways of propriety and morality as the youngsters mature into adults. They arrange marriages for them and provide them with property and wealth or sound advice on how to obtain these things. They take this responsibility and trouble upon themselves with tremendous zeal and toil, never mentioning their toil and kindness.
When a son or daughter becomes ill, parents are so worried and afraid that they may even grow ill themselves. They remain by the child’s side providing constant care, and only when the child gets well are the parents happy once again. In this way, they cherish and raise their children with the sustained hope that their offspring will soon grow to be mature adults.
From this we begin to appreciate the deep debt of kindness we owe our parents. In this same Sutra the Buddha suggested some ways we can show our gratitude:
Disciples of the Buddha, if you wish to repay your parents’ kindness, write out this Sutra on their behalf.
Recite this Sutra on their behalf. Repent of transgressions and offenses on their behalf. For the sake of your parents, make offerings to the Triple Jewel (The Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha). For the sake of your parents, hold the precept of pure eating (vegetarian eating). For the sake of your parents, practice giving and cultivate blessings. If you are able to do these things, you are being a filial child.
In the Sigalaka Sutra the Buddha advised the layman Sigalaka how to live a wholesome and happy life. The Buddha outlined the respective duties and responsibilities one owes to father and mother, teachers, wife and children, friends, workers, and the religious. The following is advice on good friends and the management of personal wealth.
The friend who is a helper and the friend through thick and thin; the friend who shows the way that is proper and the friend full of sympathy: a wise person knows the true worth of these four kinds of friends and cherishes them with care, as a mother her dearest child.
The wise one trained and disciplined shines like a beacon; he gathers wealth just as the bee gathers honey, or ants build their mound. With wealth so gained, a layperson can devote it to people’s good. One should divide one’s wealth into four parts. One part may be enjoyed at will. Two parts should be put to work and the fourth part should be set aside as a reserve in times of need.
Whether one is a layperson or a monk or nun, morality constitutes the essential foundation for any genuine spiritual understanding and experience. Although the specific precepts (the “letter”) vary slightly between monastics and the laity, between monks and nuns, the underlying goal and rationale (the “spirit”) is the same to foster the virtuous qualities that develop concentration and allow wisdom to unfold.
By upholding the moral prohibitions we purify the activities of body and speech, thereby laying a firm foundation for transforming the more deeply rooted and subtle habits of the mind. Meditation develops concentration. This in turn enhances our innate clarity of mind allowing us to see through the transient and superficial to the heart of things. As a result of this insight we become less flustered by trivial matters, more impervious to life’s little ups and downs. A pleasant sense of calm and dispassion gradually ensues enabling one to experience less and less suffering because of the effect of external events. The methods for developing concentration vary: sitting in meditation, as well as forms of standing and walking meditation; reciting the names of the Buddhas or Bodhisattvas, bowing to the Buddhas or Bodhisattvas, bowing repentances, bowing to the Sutras, reciting the Sutras, and reciting mantras. The possibilities are actually limitless; different methods suited to different people at different times. Although the methods vary, if practiced with utter absorption and underpinned with virtue, the result is the same: wisdom.
The following passage from the Shurangama Sutra, Volume 8, describes what occurs when we enter the initial stages of meditative-concentration.
Ananda, be aware that as you sit in the Bodhimanda (a place, such as a monastery, where the Dharma is practiced), you are doing away with all thoughts. When those thoughts come to an end you are free of all thinking. You enter a state of unadulterated alacrity. Your mind no longer shifts between movement and stillness, and remembering and forgetting become one and the same.
When you dwell in this place and enter Samadhi, you are like a person with vision who lives in utter darkness. The wonderfully pure mind that is your pristine nature does not yet emit light. This is called the “region of the form skandha.” If the person’s eyes become clear, then he experiences the ten directions as an open expanse and the darkness is gone.
In Buddhism, there are three kinds of wisdom or prajna: literary wisdom, which arises from the study of the Sutras, contemplative wisdom, by which one deeply ponders the meaning of the Sutras and then attains true understanding, and the wisdom of reality, by which one sees the true nature of reality. All phenomena in the universe have their own characteristics, yet ultimately they are mere conditioned appearances having no substantial nature of their own. That is, every phenomenon is analogous to a flower. A flower begins to arise after a seed is planted in the earth. When the seed receives water and sunlight in a timely manner, it will eventually blossom into a flower. The existence of the flower depends on all of these supporting conditions of the earth, water, and sunlight, as well as the basic cause of the seed. The flower does not have any inherent or independent being apart from these supporting conditions. When one sees that all things are like this, then one has the revelation that the true nature of reality is empty, i.e., beyond appearances. It is beyond the duality of existence and non-existence. Therefore, the wisdom of reality is a profound world – transcending insight into the real nature of all things. It sees the insubstantial nature of all phenomena and the true reality beyond appearances. This state cannot be conceptualized or described; it can only be known by actually experiencing it.
Contemplate the fundamental falseness of appearances. They are just like flowers conjured up in space that bear empty fruit. Why, then, investigate the meaning of their formation and disappearance?
Prajna empowers the Bodhisattvas who appear in the world over and over again to help living beings. Although they see that the true nature of reality is very profound, pure and perfect in itself, yet they appear in the illusory world – the distorted, misperceived reality, which living beings have created through their ignorance – in order to help all beings. Without this wisdom, they would be swept away with the current like everyone else. Wisdom, however, allows them to “enter the fire and not be burned.” It enables them to be like the lotus flower rooted in the muck and mire but whose petals never touch the polluted water. Thus the Bodhisattvas embody the Dharma that they teach, and this embodiment of virtue, concentration, and wisdom is the true “speaking of Dharma.” The teaching and the teacher become one and the same.
In teaching the Dharma, a Bodhisattva understands the limitless differences among living beings that stem from their past karma and present circumstances. To be effective, his teaching of the Dharma must be appropriate to their natures. Therefore, over the course of many lifetimes, he purposely traverses the paths of rebirth, studying the Dharma from many Buddhas and other Bodhisattvas, learning the measureless methods for teaching and influencing the almost infinite number of sentient beings. In this way, he acquires the ability to give the highest gift of the Dharma, to all living creatures.
Among all offerings, the offering of the Dharma is supreme. This is the offering of cultivating according to the teachings, the offering of gathering in living beings, the offering of benefitting living beings, the offering of standing in for living beings who are undergoing suffering, the offering of diligently cultivating the roots of good, the offering of not renouncing the karma of the Bodhisattvas, and the offering of never forsaking the Bodhi-mind.
Excerpt from the Vajra Prajna-Paramita Sutra
and explanation by Venerable Tripitake Master Hsuan Hua
All conditioned dharmas
Are like dreams, illusions, bubbles, shadows,
Like dew drops and a lightning flash:
Contemplate them thus.
Explanation of the Sutra: Everything is a conditioned dharma. Eating, wearing clothes, walking, standing, sitting, lying down, running a business – all activities are conditioned dharmas. These are examples of external conditioned dharmas. There are also the five constituents of existence: physical form, feeling thought, volitional formation and consciousness which are conditioned dharmas. The four elements, that is earth (solids), water (liquids), fire (temperature), and air (motion) are conditioned dharmas. The six sense faculties, their objects, and the respective consciousness that arises at each sense faculty when it is in contact with its object are all conditioned dharmas. All those dharmas whether external or internal, Are like dreams, illusions, bubbles, shadows.
What is a dream? No one knows. If we knew then we would not dream. People are in a perpetual dream. When you fall asleep and dream, you are unaware of the things which exist in your ordinary waking state, and when you awaken from your dream, you usually cannot remember the events of the dream. In the same way, we are unable to remember the events of our former lives, because they have disappeared in this present life’s dream.
Someone may have a dream in which he becomes wealthy, is appointed an official, and is on the verge of becoming president, when suddenly someone else says to him, “Sir, you are actually having a dream.” But in the midst of his dream of power and wealth, the person cannot believe what he is told.
“Everything that is happening to me is real,” he says, “I am wealthy, I am an official, I am a candidate for president. How can you say that I am dreaming?” However, when he awakens from his dream, without being told he will know that all those events happened in a dream.
So, too, we people are as if in a dream. Now I will tell you: this is a dream. Although I have told you, surely you will reply, “What do you mean, a dream? This is all real. These things are actually happening. How can you say it is a dream? You are just deceiving us.”
When your spiritual cultivation is accomplished, without being told, you will awaken from this dream and know that everything you did in the past was a dream. The reason you do not believe me when I tell you that you are dreaming is that you still have not awakened from your dream. When you awaken you will agree, “Yes, it was all a dream.”
Illusions are unreal, like a magician’s tricks. The magician recites a mantra and a lotus flower suddenly appears in the water, or in the midst of fire. Or he may cause a piece of jade suddenly to appear as if from nowhere. A magician appears to have spiritual powers and miraculous abilities, but what he does is unreal. Although it seems real, if you investigate, it is seen to be illusory and non-existent. Children may be fooled into believing that the lotus in the fire is real, but an adult will take one look and know that it is a trick.
When you understand the Buddha-dharma you know that everything is empty and illusory. The world is empty and illusory; it comes into being from a conflux of conditions which only seem to be real. When you do not understand the Buddha-dharma, you are like the foolish child who considers everything to be real. This is not to belittle people: it is a simple fact. People who do not understand the Buddha-dharma think that being wealthy and having an official position are real. In actuality everything is one. Everything is the same. A person is the same whether he is rich or poor. If you understand that everything is empty and illusory, then you cannot be confused by anything. You will not become attached to unreal states.
Bubbles are also unreal, and quickly disappear, thereby revealing their emptiness.
Shadows follow people around. When there is form, then there is a shadow. The form has actual substance, but the shadow is empty. If explained in more depth, even form itself is empty and unreal. If you do not believe this, then just continue to cling to your body; protect and maintain it, and see whether or not it dies.
Like dew drops and a lightning flash. If you look outside early in the morning you will find dew, but after sunrise the dew will have evaporated. A lightning flash is also quite evanescent.
Contemplate them thus. You should look upon all conditioned things in this way. If you do, then heaven will be empty and earth will be void. The measure of your mind will be as vast as the heavens and as broad as the reaches of space, free of any impediments. Without impediments you will have no fear whatsoever.