Universal Worthy's Conduct and Vows
A Commentary by the Venerable Master Hsuan Hua
Another example of praise of the Thus Come Ones is the hymn in praise of Amita Buddha:
Amitabha’s body is the color of gold,
The splendor of his hallmarks has no peer.
The light of his brow shines round a hundred worlds,
Wide as the seas are his eyes pure and clear.
Shining in his brilliance by transformation
Are countless Bodhisattvas and infinite Buddhas.
His forty-eight vows will be our liberation,
In nine lotus-stages we reach the other shore.
“Amitabha’s body is the color of gold.” Amita Buddha, who created the Land of Ultimate Bliss, has a golden body. “The splendor of his hallmarks has no peer.” The light shining from Thirty-two Marks and Eighty Subtle Characteristics illumines the universe and is everywhere without equal. “The light of his brow shines round a hundred worlds.” See how vast is the fragrant light which radiates from the white hair tuft between Amita Buddha’s eyebrows! And how big are Amita Buddha’s eyes? “Wide as the seas are his eyes pure and clear.” His purple colored eyes are clear and as large as the world’s great oceans.
“Shining in his brilliance by transformation / are countless Bodhisattvas and infinite Buddhas.” Amita Buddha makes immeasurable and boundless numbers of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas appear in his light. He does not just manifest Buddhas, but he also manifests Bodhisattvas. Not only that, he further manifests Sound Hearers and Those Enlightened to Conditions. Nor does he only manifest Sound Hearers and Those Enlightened to Conditions, but he also manifests immeasurable and boundless numbers of beings in the Six Paths of rebirth.
“Hi forty-eight vows will be our liberation.” Amita Buddha made forty-eight great vows to rescue living beings. “In nine lotus-stages we reach the other shore.” The lotus flowers of Amitabha’s land are divided into nine grades, each one of which is again divided into nine grades for a total of eighty-one grades. These eighty-one grades enable everyone to reach to the other shore of enlightenment and be reborn in the Land of Ultimate Bliss.
Now I have explained one aspect of praising the Thus Come Ones. Universal Worthy Bodhisattva’s second vow is to cultivate the merit and virtue of praising the Thus Come Ones.
The Vajra (Diamond) Sutra says, “The Thus Come One does not come from anywhere, and does not go anywhere; therefore he is called the Thus Come One.” “Thus” is stillness, and “come” is movement. Thus Come One can also be explained as “like one who has come, yet his basic nature has not moved.” This is the Thus Come One.
“Come” refers to the fact that there is no place from which he comes, and “go” refers to the fact that there is no place to which he goes. “Thus” is the noumenon (principle), and “Come” is phenomena (specifics), an expression of the unobstructed state of the interpenetration of noumenon and phenomena found in this Sutra. This Sutra discusses the Dharma Realm of noumenon, of phenomena, of the unobstructed state of interpenetration of noumenon and phenomena, and the Dharma Realm of the unobstructed state of the interpenetration of phenomena and phenomena. The Thus Come One is just the Dharma Realm of the unobstructed state of the interpenetration of noumenon and phenomena. Thus Come One is also one of the ten names of the Buddha. This is also an aspect of praising the Thus Come One.
The third vow of Universal Worthy Bodhisattva is to extensively cultivate making offerings. “Extensively” means “on a vast scale,” and “cultivate” means “to improve and develop;” that is, one develops the ability and improves the quality of making offerings without limit.
There are many kinds of offerings. One might give his body as an offering; another might give his mind; still another could give both his body and mind as an offering. What does “giving one’s body as an offering” mean? There are two kinds of disciples who give their bodies as offerings to all Buddhas. The first leave the home-life and use their bodies to do the Buddha’s work: to cultivate the Buddhadharma. The second are laypeople who are not able to leave the home-life, but who take time out of their busy schedules to come to the monastery, light incense, and bow to the Buddha. This is giving the body as an offering. If you are busy or for some other reason cannot go to a temple, then you may daily, with a pure and clean mind, light incense and contemplate the Buddha in your home. Perhaps you are in a remote place or in some other unusual circumstance, in which case you can still give your mind or body as an offering, by giving offerings of incense and flowers, or by lighting lamps before the Buddha, or by buying fruit or new clothing as an offering, or by offering lighted candles to the Buddha. One can also give his mind as an offering by cultivating the Buddhadharma with a true mind, daily bowing to the Buddhas, worshiping and reciting Sutras, always being mindful, and always doing wholesome things for the sake of the Buddhadharma. These are doing various kinds of offerings.
Originally there were ten different kinds of offerings, but in time the ten became one hundred, and the one hundred has finally become 10,000. When we make offerings to one Buddha, we contemplate ourselves making offerings to uncountable and unlimited numbers of Buddhas everywhere throughout the Dharma Realm, and in this way we make offerings before each one of these Buddhas. If you contemplate in this manner, you are doing what is called “making offerings throughout the Dharma Realm.” By making offerings throughout the Dharma Realm, you accumulate the merit and virtue of the Dharma Realm and obtain the wisdom of the Dharma Realm. By obtaining this wisdom, you totally perfect the resultant position of the Dharma Realm. Therefore we should extensively cultivate making offerings.
“Extensively cultivate making offerings,” means exhausting your strength to make offerings using whatever strength you have to make offerings to the Triple Jewel-the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Universal Worthy Bodhisattva extensively cultivates the practice of making offerings as his third vow.
The Bodhisattva’s fourth vow is to repent of karmic obstacles and reform. “Repent” means to “regret previous offenses, to be contrite and self-reproachful.” “To reform” means “to correct oneself so that the same offense is not committed again.” To repent means that one wishes to change one’s previous offenses, and to have reformed means that one does not again make such mistakes. This means that evil acts that have already been done will not be done again, and that the potential for evil acts that have not yet been done is totally eradicated. It also means to cut off the continuing effect of evil acts which have already been done.
To reform means to increase ones good deeds and to do the good deeds which have not been done. You can also say it means to continuously do the kinds of good deeds that one has already done, and to cause the kinds of good deeds that have not yet been done to be done and continuously increase.
There are many kinds of karmic obstacles, and karmic obstacles are one of the three fundamental kinds of obstacles, which are: karmic obstacles, retribution obstacles, and the obstacles stemming from afflictions. Now we are discussing how to repent of karmic obstacles and reform. To repent of one’s karmic obstacles and reform involves repenting of one’s retribution obstacles and reforming the obstacles that come from afflictions.
In general, there are three kinds of karmic obstacles which are simply the karmas of body, mouth, and mind. The body creates three kinds of karma-killing karma, stealing karma, and the karma of sexual misconduct. When you discuss “killing” in terms of its broader aspects, it refers to killing larger animals, but in terms of its subtler aspects, killing refers to the killing of even the smallest creatures, like ants, mosquitoes, and flies. This broadly describes killing in its grosser and subtler forms, but there are also thoughts of killing. Although one does not actually kill, having the thought to kill is an offense in the realm of one’s self-nature. To have the thought to kill breaks the Bodhisattva Precepts. The cause of killing, the conditions of killing, the dharma of killing, and the karma of killing all break the precept against killing.
When we discuss “stealing” in its broadest sense, it means to steal a person’s country; on a smaller scale, it refers to stealing a person’s livelihood; and on a fine scale, it involves pilfering nothing more than a needle, a thread, a sliver of wood, or a blade of grass. In general, if you obtain something which is not given to you, you are stealing.
“Sexual misconduct” also has its grosser and finer aspects. Even a thought of sexual desire in your mind causes your self-nature to be impure and breaks the Bodhisattva Precepts.
The previous discussion is a general description of the karmic obstacles of the body: killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct.
There are also the three karmic obstacles created by the mind: the evil acts of greed, hatred, and stupidity. Karma is created from thoughts of greed, karma is created from thoughts of hatred, and karma is created from thoughts of stupidity.
Finally there are four evil acts of the mouth; the mouth creates karmic obstacles by irresponsible speech, false speech, harsh speech, and duplicity.
There are many ways in which one may create offense karma, and so now we should resolve to repent, because we do not want to allow new mistakes to arise. This is the meaning of repenting of karmic obstacles and reforming.
How does one repent? Before the Buddha, one may feel deep sorrow, a pain for past mistakes so deep that one cries before the Buddha in a sincere wish to repent and reform. If you earnestly repent, your karmic obstacles will be spontaneously destroyed. This describes the fourth of Universal Worthy’s vast vows, “to repent of karmic obstacles and reform.”
The fifth of his vows is to follow along with and rejoice in merit and virtue. “To follow along with” means “to accord with and to comply.” “To rejoice” means “to be happy.” “Merit” is what one establishes by benefiting others, and “virtue” is the result of the wholesome good deeds one does. One both accords with and rejoiced in one’s own merit and virtue, and one also accords with and rejoices in one’s own merit and virtue, and one also accords with and rejoices in the merit and virtue done by others.
If you wish to repent of karmic obstacles and reform, then you must follow along and rejoice in merit and virtue by doing many kinds of meritorious and virtuous acts. In fact, doing meritorious and virtuous acts is just repenting of one’s karmic obstacles and reforming. Therefore it is said, “To follow and rejoice in merit and virtue is to repent of karmic obstacles and reform. And to repent of karmic obstacles and reform is to follow and rejoice in merit and virtue.”
If this is the case, then are not the fourth and fifth vows redundant, and if they are, then why do we have this fifth vow?
The fourth vow instructs us to repent of karmic obstacles and reform, and if one wishes to repent of karmic obstacles and reform, one should also fulfill the fifth vow and follow and rejoice in merit and virtue. But in fact there are two separate and distinct things that one must do to practice these vows.
To follow and rejoice in merit and virtue includes doing all kinds of good deeds, and not crimes or evil acts. To follow and rejoice in merit and virtue, one may do something which benefits others, and this action is called a good deed. Merit is established by doing things for everyone, by acting for the general good.
For example, the Chinese character which means “merit,” kung, is made up of the characters which means “work,” kung, and the character which means “strength,” li. You should use your strength when doing acts of merit and virtue, and be sure that you are working for everyone, for the general good, and not for your own selfish interests. At present, the government takes care of most public work projects, but in earlier times, government were not involved in projects like fixing bridges, and so those who did this work established merit. This is an example of how to establish merit; whatever you do that is for the general good is called merit.
Meritorious acts are readily apparent to everyone. They have obvious characteristics, and everyone knows who did a meritorious deed. For example, schools have peoples’ names carved into plaques to show who helped make the building possible. This describes establishing merit.
By practicing what is good, one improves oneself. This is “virtue.” Whatever good you do that delights your mind is called virtue. Most people will not necessarily know about a person’s virtuous acts, but establishing merit is something everyone knows about. There are the two kinds of virtue: apparent and hidden. Apparent virtue is known by all and causes everyone to be happy, and hidden virtue is done to benefit everyone, but rarely is anyone aware of it. For example, spiritual powers can help all living beings in an invisible way, but no one is aware of them. This is an example of hidden virtue.
When one follows and rejoices in merit and virtue, one should reveal one’s good deeds and cause others to do similar acts, so that they too can follow and rejoice in merit and virtue of others.
Not only does this vow involve following and rejoicing in the merit and virtue of oneself and others, but it also includes following and rejoicing in the merit and virtue of all good deeds that bring joy to all living beings of the Dharma Realm. You follow them and rejoice by helping them do their joyful and wholesome acts. You can also follow and rejoice in the merit and virtue of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, the Sound Hearers, and of Those Enlightened to Conditions, as well as the merit and virtue created by all living beings.
What does it mean to follow and rejoice in the merit and virtue of the Buddhas? To explain Sutras and speak Dharma and to teach and transform living beings is to follow and rejoice in the merit and virtue of the Buddhas. If you teach people to practice the Six Perfections and the 10,000 Practices, and to cultivate the Bodhisattva Way, then you are following and rejoicing in the merit and virtue of Bodhisattvas. When you teach people to cultivate the Twelve Links of Causes and Conditions, then you follow and rejoice in the merit and virtue of Those Enlightened to Conditions. To cause others to become aware of the Four Noble Truths is to follow and rejoice in the merit and virtue of the Sound Hearers. To follow and rejoice in the merit and virtue of gods and humans you must teach the practices of the Five Precepts and the Ten Wholesome Acts. This has been a general explanation of Universal Worthy Bodhisattva’s vow to follow and rejoice in merit and virtue; in actuality, the possible explanations are inexhaustible in number.
The Bodhisattva’s sixth great vow is to request the turning of the Dharma wheel. What is the “Dharma wheel?” Wheels roll over things, and the Dharma wheel rolls over gods, demons, and those of outside ways. It enables the proper Dharma to exist eternally. After Shakyamuni became a Buddha, he turned the Dharma wheel of the Four Truths three times and crossed over the Five Bhikshus. This is an example of turning the Dharma Wheel, which basically means to “explain the Dharma.” To request the turning of the Dharma wheel means to respectfully and sincerely ask the Buddha to speak Dharma, or to ask various Dharma Masters to explain the Buddha’s teachings. All of these exemplify Universal Worthy’s vow to request the turning of the Dharma wheel. For example, we explain Sutras here everyday, and each time the Dharma assembly convenes, lay people or Dharma Masters who request the Dharma are fulfilling one of the vows and performing one of the practices of Universal Worthy Bodhisattva.
What value does requesting the turning of the Dharma wheel have? We need to have people turning the Dharma wheel in this world so that the demon kings will not dare emerge. If no one explains the Dharma, then the demon kings will come out. A second reason is that when you request the turning of the Dharma wheel, the merit and virtue crated by this wholesome act arises because of you, and is obtained by you, and you thereby follow and rejoice in merit and virtue. Furthermore, if you request the turning of the Dharma wheel, you will expand your wisdom, but this brings benefit not just to you, because your request is that a Dharma Master speak the Dharma for everyone, and so it benefits everyone. This is also following and rejoicing in merit and virtue.
So you can see that these ten great vows are all related. When you repent of all karmic obstacles and reform, you also rejoice in merit and virtue. If you wish to follow and rejoice in merit and virtue, you may request the turning of the Dharma wheel, for this is the greatest way to rejoice in merit and virtue.
Turning the Dharma wheel is not limited to lecturing on Sutras and speaking the Dharma. Any activity you do for Buddhism is called turning the Dharma wheel. For example, recording the lectures, translating them, and then printing them is turning the Dharma wheel. Taking notes of the explanations of the Sutras is done with the intent of turning the Dharma wheel. First you take notes, then you memorize them, and then you speak them for others. So now you are preparing to turn the Dharma wheel. Reciting Sutras, reading Sutras, and bowing to Sutras also are all forms of requesting that the Dharma wheel be turned.
Therefore, turning the Dharma wheel is not just one special kind of activity. In fact, anything you do which is of benefit to Buddhism is called turning the Dharma wheel. Writing the instructive verses on the front door, participating in the evening lectures, and attending the daytime meditation periods are all considered turning the Dharma wheel. What we do here is to request the turning of the Dharma wheel; if you understand, then in your daily activities you are requesting the turning of the Dharma wheel, but if you do not understand, and just do the work, then all this is just tiresome suffering, and only makes you afraid to turn the Dharma wheel.
The seventh vow of Universal Worthy is to request that the Buddhas remain in the world. The Buddha enters the world, lives in the world, and then enters Nirvana. When the Buddha remains in the world, it is like the sun high in the sky filling the world with light. When the Buddha enters Nirvana, the sun sets and the world becomes dark. Therefore, Universal Worthy Bodhisattva made a great vow to ask the Buddhas to remain in the world-to forgo entering Nirvana and always remain in the world.
Universal Worthy made this vow to request that the Buddhas remain in the world because the Buddhas are able to satisfy desires of living beings. If all living beings realized and sincerely asked the Buddhas to dwell here in the world, then the Buddhas would not leave to enter Nirvana. If you do not ask the Buddhas to continue dwelling in the world, then as soon as they finish teaching and transforming the living beings who should receive their instruction, they enter Nirvana. Therefore the Bodhisattva vowed “to request that the Buddhas remain in the world.” This is the seventh vow.
His eighth vow is to always study with the Buddhas. “To study with the Buddhas” means to study their teachings, the Buddhadharmas, of which there are many. In your study, do not be afraid that there are too many Buddhadharmas, because the more you study, the more extensive your wisdom will become. For example, why was Ananda’s memory so good? “The Buddhadharma is like a great sea which flowed into Ananda’s mind.” It was not that the ocean of Dharma flowed into his mind, for this is just an analogy which means that at all time, in life after life, Ananda emphasized learning and studied diligently, and so his memory was very good. To always follow the Buddhas and continually study with them means that you cannot be lax or lazy, or muddled, but you must diligently cultivate precepts, samadhi, and wisdom, and put your greed, hatred, and stupidity, the three poisons, to rest. If you can do this diligently and cultivate sincerely, perfect in precepts, samadhi, and wisdom and totally free yourself from all greed, hatred, and stupidity, then you are always studying with the Buddhas.
The ninth vow of Universal Worthy Bodhisattva is to constantly accord with living beings, and his tenth vow is to universally transfer all merit and virtue. “Constantly” means “always,” to be forever constant and never change. “Accord” means to “do what is suitable, to respond appropriately to the state of living beings.” Doing this may seem to some to pose a problem. While according with living beings who are deviant, should one accord with their deviant ways?
Basically, living beings are unaware, but if you accord with this lack of awareness, you will end up on the road of stupidity. To accord with living beings means to accord with their customs in order to rescue them from going against the flow. What does this mean? All living beings are topsy-turvy; it is their inverted views and behavior that are called “going against the flow.” For example, if a stream flows from west to east, but you wish to go up the stream from east to west, you are going against the flow. If you literally accord with living beings, then you will not become a Buddha, and if you want to become a Buddha, then you cannot accord with living beings. Then why does Universal Worthy wish to constantly accord with living beings? Did I not just speak about according with the living beings who are going against the flow until you rescue them? One goes against the flow of common people involved with the six sense objects, and enters the sages’ flow of the Dharma Nature. This is “to constantly accord with living beings.”
When living beings wish to create karma, should you accord with them by creating karma along with them? Does a Bodhisattva who constantly accords with living beings also create karma? Does he also create offenses along with living beings? Living beings give rise to delusions, they become confused, and then they create karma. After they create karma, they undergo the retribution. If you give rise to delusion, create karma, and undergo retribution along with living beings, then you are just a living being; you have become a living being. “To constantly accord with living beings” means to always, without the least feeling of distaste, go along with living beings to teach and transform them, and cause them “to turn their backs on confusion and return to enlightenment,” to leave the confused path and obtain enlightenment.
“To constantly accord with living beings” is also the Paramita of vigor. One who truly cultivates vigor never has a feeling of distaste for living beings who create offenses. Although living beings create immeasurable offenses, Bodhisattvas do not forsake them. They do not say, “You creatures have created so many offenses that I refuse to teach you, and even though some of you will fall into the hells, it is none of my business, so go as you wish.” Bodhisattvas do not have thoughts like this, but are always compassionate to living beings in spite of their offenses; they are kind and give to them, and take them across. This is truly the Paramita of vigor.
Once when Shakyamuni Buddha was on the causal ground cultivating the Way, cultivating the Paramitas of giving and vigor in the mountains, it snowed for many days, and everything was covered by a thick white blanket. When a mother tiger and her cubs came out to find something to eat, they could find nothing because of the heavy snow and were about to starve to death. It was then that Shakyamuni Buddha saw them, emaciated and unable to move. He thought, “I will give my body to the tigers and tell them to resolve their minds on Bodhi, and after they eat me, to perfect the unsurpassed Path.” After he made this vow, he covered his head with his clothes, leapt off a mountain cliff, smashing himself to death in front of the tigers. He gave up his body for three tigers. This is one way to constantly accord with living beings and is an example of vigor in cultivating the Paramita of giving. The Buddha always practices vigor and giving in this way and thereby constantly accords with living beings.
When constantly according with living beings, we should take them across. We should not think, “Universal Worthy says to constantly accord with living beings; now some of them take mind-confusing drugs, so I think I will too. Some are doing confused things, so I think I will indulge myself along with them.”
This is not the meaning of constantly according with living beings. “To constantly accord with living beings” means to pull living beings out of confusion, to pull them along with you on the way to enlightenment. It means to cause living beings to cultivate the Way along with you. Do not misunderstand and think that it means to run off and follow the confusion of living beings, running all over until you lose your way so that you don’t know the road back home. This vow reads in Chinese, “to constantly accord with living beings,” but the translation should read, “living beings constantly accord.” Now these are opposite in meaning, but now that I have said that living beings should constantly accord with me on the Path to enlightenment, the vow is more in accord with the Dharma.
The tenth vow is to universally transfer all merit and virtue. “Universal” means “infinitely pervasive, everywhere, and totally.” “To universally transfer all merit and virtue” means “to always make this transference.” To whom? To all Buddhas, like this:
May the merit and virtue accrued from this work,
Adorn the Buddhas’ Pure Lands;
Repaying four kinds of kindness above,
And aiding those suffering in the three paths below.
May those who see and hear of this,
All bring forth resolve for Bodhi;
And when this retribution body expires,
May we be reborn together in the Land of Ultimate Bliss.
This is what is mean by transferring the merit, or performing dedications of merit.
“To transfer” means “to come back,” and “to go out.” It means “to come inside,” and “to go outside.” After you have returned, then you can leave. To what place do you return? To the point where you universally transfer all merit and virtue. “I want to transfer merit and virtue to all common people so they become sages. I want to transfer merit and virtue to living beings so they all become Buddhas.” This is universally transferring merit and virtue. To return the common to the sagely, to return living beings to Buddhahood, to return the small to the great, and to return oneself to others: each of these is a way to transfer all merit and virtue.
What is the meaning of to return oneself to others? To do something good and transfer all the merit derived from this action to a friend, and thus cause the friend to resolve his mind to attain Bodhi and perfect the unsurpassed Way, is to transfer oneself to others.
“To transfer phenomena to the noumenon.” Whatever you do has a mark. But if you transfer it to the noumenon, it no longer has a mark, because the noumenon is without a mark. That is to say, you transfer merit and virtue which has marks and characteristics to the inexhaustible Dharma Realm, the Dharma Realm which can never be exhausted.
“To return the small to the great.” “Previously I studied the Small Vehicle, but now I will study the Dharma of the Great Vehicle.” This is the meaning of returning the small to the great.
The verses above discuss transferring merit and virtue. Everyday at the end of the Sutra lecture, we recite these verses. Explaining the Sutras is the practice of giving Dharma, the highest form of giving, and the merit and virtue accrued from this giving is greater than making offerings of the seven precious jewels in all of the three thousand great-thousand worlds.
“Even though the merit and virtue is so great, I do not want to keep it.”
Then what do you want to do with it?
“I wish that the merit and virtue accrued by explaining the Sutras, speaking the Dharma, and turning the great Dharma wheel will adorn the Pure Lands of the Buddhas.” You should use the merit and virtue which you earn to adorn the Pure Lands of the Buddhas of the ten directions.
“Repaying four kinds of kindness above” means “to repay heaven and earth, the king, your mother and father, and your teachers and elders,” all of whom are kind ones who nurture others’ development.
“Aiding those suffering in the three paths below” means “to rescue animals, hungry ghosts, and beings in the hells.”
“May those who see and hear of this” Sutra being lectured or those who hear this Dharma “all bring forth the resolve for Bodhi.” Everyone should quickly resolve to attain Bodhi, the Path of Enlightenment. “And when this retribution body expires:” Our present body is called a retribution body, and when it reaches its end, when it is exhausted and dies, “may we be born together in the Land of Ultimate Bliss.” All of us together will be born in the Land of Ultimate Bliss. This explanation of transferring merit and virtue, describes the tenth vow of Universal Worthy Bodhisattva as he transfers all the merit and virtue from his deeds to all Buddhas.
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