The Five Periods of the Buddha's Teaching
The Dharma spoken by the Buddhas was divided into five periods and eight teachings by the Great Master Zhi Yi, “The Wise One” (538-597 A.D.). The five periods will be categorized bymeans of the two kinds of wisdom, expedient and actual.
1) The Avatamsaka period represented in the world by the Avatamsaka Sutra, consists in the Dharma spoken by the Buddha during the first twenty-one days of his teaching. The period includes one kind of expedient Dharma and one kind of actual Dharma: the gradual and the sudden. That is, the Avatamsaka Sutra teaches one kind of expedient wisdom and one kind of actual wisdom.
The Avatamsaka Sutra explains the doctrine of the dharma realms: the dharma realm of phenomena; the noumenal dharma realm; the dharma realm in which phenomena are unobstructed; the dharma realm in which noumenon is unobstructed; and the dharma realm in which both phenomena and noumenon are unobstructed. Although this teaching was spoken for the sake of Bodhisattvas, the Avatamsaka Sutra nonetheless contains one kind of expedient dharma, along with the actual wisdom, that is, along with the real Buddhadharma.
2) In the second or Agama period, the Buddha spoke no actual Dharma, or actual wisdom, but instead spoke an expedient Dharma. At that time all sentient beings were like children, and since they did not understand the Buddhadharma, the Buddha used various expedient dharma-doors to induce and guide them, to transform them, and to take them across.
3) During the third period, the Vaipulya, the Buddha spoke three kinds of expedient Dharma and one kind of actual Dharma. At that time the four teachings were explained together: the treasury (tripitaka) teaching of the Hinayana; the connecting teaching; and the special teaching, which are the three expedient dharmas; and the perfect teaching, which is actual Dharma. “Revile the one-sided and upbraid the small” indicates that the one-sidedness of the small vehicle, the Hinayana, is wrong. “Praise the great and extol the perfect” commends the perfect teaching of the great vehicle, the Mahayana. In the Vaipulya period, the four teachings were explained together.
4) The fourth period is the Prajna period. In it there were two kinds of expedient Dharma – the connecting and special teachings – and one kind of actual Dharma, the perfect teaching.
5) In the Lotus-Nirvana period, which includes the Wonderful Dharma Lotus Flower Sutra and the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, there was no expedient Dharma; there was only actual Dharma and actual wisdom. To summarize the five periods, in the Lotus-Nirvana period, only actual Dharma appears; there is no expedient Dharma. In the Prajna period, two expedient dharmas and one actual Dharma appear. In the Vaipulya period, three expedients and one actual Dharma appear.
In the Agama period there is only expedient and no actual Dharma, and in the Avatamsaka period there is one expedient and one actual – the gradual and the sudden. The above explanation employs the two types of wisdom, expedient and actual, to categorize the five periods. If the periods were explained in detail, there would be much, much more to say. So in lecturing on the sutras I explain a little more each time, I tell you a little more of what you haven’t heard. Listen a lot and you will understand a lot.
The Meaning of “Sutra”
Sutras have both a generic and a specific title. The generic title is simply “Sutra,” while the specific title distinguishes one sutra from another. The Heart of Prajna Paramita Sutra is the specific title of this sutra. “Prajna Paramita” is the dharma, “Heart” is the analogy, “Sutra” is the sutra. The Heart of Prajna Paramita is the heart within the heart. No other sutra in the Prajna Division has this name. I have already explained the specific title, the Heart of Prajna Paramita, by an eight-line verse. Now the word “Sutra” will be fully explained.
What is a sutra? A sutra is defined as “path”, the path necessarily passed through in cultivation of the Way. If you wish to cultivate, you must move along that path; if you don’t want to cultivate, following it is unnecessary. But, if you do want to cultivate, “Sutra” is the path you must take. Now, if people don’t walk on a path, it becomes wild and overgrown with vegetation.
For example, you may have been able to recite the Heart of Prajna Paramita Sutra without referring to a text, but then four or five months pass without your reciting it, and you forget it. That forgetting is the path becoming overgrown. However, if you walk the path, if you cultivate the Way, then it won’t become overgrown, but every day will become smoother and brighter.
What is the benefit of reciting sutras? Reciting sutras doesn’t yield any benefits. You waste a lot of time and use a lot of energy to recite a sutra. For instance, what is gained by reciting the Heart Sutra in front of the Buddha? You read it from beginning to end, waste energy, spirit, and time, but don’t see any return from it. Ah, cultivators, don’t be so stupid! The benefits which you can see are not real; all appearances are empty and false. To grasp at a form, at what you can see, is not a benefit. That is why reciting sutras isn’t beneficial.
Don’t search for benefits. Recite the sutra once and your own nature is cleaned once. When you recite the Heart Sutra once, you have the feeling that you understand a little of its meaning; recite it twice or three times, and each time you understand a little more. Reciting sutras helps the wisdom of your own nature to grow. How much? You can’t see it; nevertheless, you can have a kind of feeling about it.
Therefore, it is not possible to talk about the benefits of reciting sutras. Moreover, each time you recite the sutra your afflictions decrease. You shouldn’t get upset during recitation by thinking, “You over there, you recited it wrong. You recited it too fast; I can’t keep up with you. The sounds that you make when you recite are really unpleasant, so I don’t like to listen to it.” No, don’t waste your effort in those directions. When reciting sutras or mantras, everyone should chant together.
It isn’t necessary for everyone to know the language the sutra is being recited in; but able to read the sutra or not, everyone should recite along together. For everyone to practice together, though, doesn’t mean your looking for my faults, and my looking for your faults. If there are really faults, everyone should find them. And if you yourself don’t find your own faults because they are too big, then your cultivation will not be attuned to receive a response.
Reciting sutras is a great help to one’s own nature in developing wisdom. Reciting the Diamond Sutra develops wisdom; reciting the Heart Sutra develops even more wisdom. You say that there aren’t any benefits gained from reciting sutras, yet the benefits are very great. It’s just that you don’t see them. You don’t see them? Then they are real benefits. Anything that you can see is just the skin. The word “sutra” has four other meanings: that which strings together; that which attracts; that which is permanent; and a method. “Stringing together” refers to the connecting of all the meanings which were spoken to make a sutra, as if a piece of thread were used to string them together.
A sutra “attracts” in that it can make use of opportunities for the transformation of sentient beings. This particular sutra is capable of responding to the causal opportunities of all sentient beings and of giving each a medicine to cure that being’s own particular disease. Just as a strong magnet can attract iron from a great distance, a sutra, like a magnet, draws in all sentient beings. We sentient beings are like iron, hard and stubborn, with large tempers and many faults. But as soon as we are pulled into the magnet, we begin to be slowly softened so that our faults fall away. That is the meaning of “that which attracts”.
A sutra is “permanent” because it is eternally unchanging dharma, and has neither beginning nor end. Not one word can be omitted from or added to a sutra; thus it is eternal. In ancient times and in the present, living beings have cultivated and will continue to cultivate according to this sutra.
A sutra is a “method” followed in cultivation of the Way. In the three periods of time, past, present, and future, one cultivates according to this Dharma. What is honored in the three periods of time alike is called the method. What is unchanging in the past and present is called the permanent.
Sutra also has the meaning of a marking-line. In ancient China carpenters used a tool called the ink-cup and line. It consisted of a string which was inked black. When the carpenters wanted to be sure that their construction was straight and true, they would stretch the string out, pull it back, and snap it to, in order to make a straight black guideline.
To sum up, a sutra is a set of rules. To recite sutras is to follow the rules. If you don’t recite sutras, then you don’t follow the rules. Since you are now studying prajna, you certainly should respect the rules of prajna. If you do, you will certainly develop your wisdom.
I have spoken in general about the title of the sutra, and now I will talk about the translator. For everything we understand of this sutra, we should give great thanks to the translator. If he had never existed, we should be unable to see the sutra or even to hear its name. If that were the case, how would we be able to cultivate according to the methods prescribed in it? It would be impossible to find its path of cultivation. Therefore, we should thank the person who translated the sutra, since from that time up to the present moment, every generation has benefited from his compassionate teaching and transforming. It follows that the merit derived from translating sutras is inconceivably great.
The text says that the Heart of Prajna Paramita Sutra was translated by Tang Dharma Master of the Tripitaka Hsüan- Tsang on imperial command.
Tang refers to the Tang Dynasty of China (618-907 A.D.). Tripitaka is Sanskrit for “three storehouses” – the three storehouses of the Buddhist Canon. They are the sutras, which teach Samadhi (Single-minded concentration), the vinaya, which contains the precepts, or rules of moral conduct, and the shastras, which contain discussions of doctrine. A Dharma Master is one who takes the Buddhadharma as his master and also one who uses the Buddhadharma to teach and transform living beings. This Dharma Master, Hsüan-Tsang, took the Dharma as his master, and he also used it to transform sentient beings. He was perfect on both counts, so either way you use the title Dharma Master, it applies to him.
Dharma Master Hsüan Tsang’s roots were especially deep, thick, and wonderful. The state of his existence was inconceivable. From his own time up to the present he is Buddhism’s greatest Dharma Master. One might ask, “How can you say that he is the greatest?” When he went to India during the Tang Dynasty to bring back the texts of sutras to China, the great modern transportation network of buses, planes, boats, and trains did not exist. What did Dharma Master Hsüan Tsang use for transportation? He went from China through Siberia across the Himalayas to India on horseback.
Such a journey is extremely long and involves much suffering, for no others had made the trip before him. Even though there were no mountains where he lived, Tang Master Hsüan Tsang, before he left to bring back the sutras, practiced running and mountain-climbing every day. How did he do it? He piled up a lot of chairs and tables and jumped from one to the next, from table to chair back and forth. By practicing at home before undertaking the extremely long journey, he was able to attain his aim and reach India. He lived there for fourteen years and collected many sutras which he brought back to China.
When he returned from India, he received an imperial command to translate the sutras into Chinese from their original language of India. Now it is up to you Westerners to translate the sutras into the languages of the West. The merit derived by the people who take part in this work will be without limit, for it will benefit not only their own lives, but will be cause for the gratitude of generations of people in the West. Everyone can be included in the work of translation; no one should fall behind in learning Chinese. You Westerners should make an offering to the people of the West.
Now it can be said that the world has gone bad. Only if people understand the Buddhadharma can the evil age be turned back. If people don’t understand the Buddhadharma, then I am afraid this world will arrive at the time when it will be destroyed. The Christians talk about Judgment Day – the Last Day. If the Buddhadharma is translated into English, if everyone understands the Buddhadharma, if everyone knows better than to be lazy, and if people come forward to cultivate the Way with open hearts and minds, then the Last Day will be very far away in the future; it will be hard to say how many great ages away.
Basically there isn’t any “Last Day”. Why? Because the turning of the great Dharma wheel of the Buddhadharma will even pull in the sun, which then will be unable to set on a Last Day. There won’t be any final day. All such matters are living; they’re not fixed, certain, and dead. Don’t think that what is called the Last Day is the Last Day, for then there will in fact be a final day. Now, which is more probable: that there will be a final day or won’t be one? If everyone studies the Buddhadharma, then the day of destruction won’t come. It’s all very alive, so don’t see it as fixed and dead.
For instance, from time to time people have spread the rumor that there is going to be an earthquake in San Francisco that will cause it to fall into the sea. For several years now people have been talking about this, and a lot of wealthy people who are afraid of dying have moved away.
I spoke about this last year, too, and at that time one of my disciples in San Francisco sent another disciple in Seattle a letter saying that I couldn’t go to Seattle, because if I did, San Francisco would fall into the sea. I was unable to buy a plane ticket, and even though they were going to give me a plane ticket, I couldn’t go.
At that time I told everyone, “If you really study the Buddhadharma, San Francisco won’t be allowed to move, because I haven’t lived here long enough.” Why did I say that? Well, this year I said to everyone, “Relax, all you have to do is recite the Shurangama Mantra and study the Buddhadharma with a sincere mind, and I will guarantee that San Francisco won’t budge.” I said that.
Why hasn’t San Francisco moved up till now? Because there are some people who have changed a little. Everybody recites the Shurangama Mantra and studies the Buddhadharma with a very sincere mind, so the gods, dragons, and the rest of the eightfold division of gods and ghosts are here to protect our Bodhimanda Way place, platform or seat of enlightenment. Chinese dao chang), our place of cultivation, to see that there are no disruptions. The meaning is the same as for the Last Day. If it is possible for the Last Day not to be the Last Day, it is even more possible that San Francisco won’t move, even if it wants to. It can’t find some other suitable place to rent, and it already has such a good place that it isn’t moving.
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