THE SAGELY CITY OF TEN THOUSAND BUDDHAS
"Paramita,” a Sanskrit word, literally means “arrived at the other shore.” It means to completely finish whatever you do. If you decide to become a Buddha, then the realization of Buddhahood is paramita. If you want to go to a university and get a Ph.D., obtaining the degree is paramita. If you’re hungry and want to eat, then to get full is paramita. If you’re sleepy, then to lie down and go to sleep is paramita. The Sanskrit word “paramita” is transliterated into Chinese as bo luo mi. Bo luo is Chinese for pineapple, and mi means honey. So the fruit of paramita is said to be sweeter than the pineapple.
Bodhisattvas cultivate the six paramitas. They are:
There are three kinds of giving: the giving of wealth, the giving of dharma, and the giving of fearlessness.
As to wealth: although money is one of the things people love most, it is also the dirtiest thing in the world. Just consider how many hands it passes through and how many germs it gathers. In Buddhism, money is considered unclean. First of all, its source is often unclean. It may have been stolen or embezzled.
”I’ve earned every penny of my money,” someone may complain. ”It’s clean!”
Even if your money comes from legitimate sources, you still can’t deny that the money itself is filthy and covered with germs. Even so, everyone still likes it. A lot of people spit on their fingers when they count money. Then they pass it back and forth, making it highly suspect as a carrier of infectious diseases. But in spite of its filth, no one is afraid of getting too much money. If you gave someone all the money in America, he would not think it was too much. But when you have a lot of money, you also have a lot of problems. You can’t get to sleep at night. You are kept busy figuring out where to put it. Since money keeps you so preoccupied, it is basically not a good thing. But even though it is not a good thing, most people love it and cannot give it up. One who can give away money practices the paramita of giving and is cultivating the Bodhisattva Way.
It is not easy for people to give. Their hearts are the junction of yin and yang, the battleground of reason and desire. For instance, someone sees someone else in bitter straits without a bit of food and, being a principled person, he decides to give the poor person a dollar. He reaches into his pocket, but suddenly his desire seizes him and he starts to have second thoughts. “Wait a minute. I can’t give him that dollar. It’s the last bit of change I’ve got. If I give it away, I won’t have any money for the bus and I’ll have to walk. I can’t do it.” His first impulse was to be generous to someone else, but it was followed immediately by a second thought: his own welfare. So he puts the money back in his pocket and doesn’t give it away. That’s the way it goes. It happens the same way on a large scale as it does on a small scale, all the way from a penny to a million dollars. The first thought is to give, the second thought concerns oneself. The giving of wealth is not easy. Some people even go so far as to think, “I’d be stupid to give my money to you. Why don’t you give yours to me?” It is easy to talk about giving, but when the time comes to do it, it is difficult.
Ever since I was young, I haven’t known how to count. Whenever I got some money, I gave it away. If I had one dollar, I gave that, and if I had two dollars, I gave them both away. I didn’t want money. Most people would consider my behavior very stupid, because I didn’t know how to help myself out. I only knew how to help others.
By benefiting others one brings forth the heart of a Bodhisattva, and those who bring forth the heart of a Bodhisattva benefit others rather than themselves. They say, “It’s all right if I have to suffer and endure distress, but I don’t want others to suffer.” Bodhisattvas always benefit others by practicing good conduct without bothering to figure out if they take a loss.
Some people spend all their time making sure they get a bargain. When they set out to buy something, they do a lot of comparison shopping until they come up with the best buy. But what they end up buying turns out to be cheap in more ways than one - things made of the “latest material” wrought from scientific experiments, things which look handsome enough but which break as soon as they are used. Although such people think they’re getting a good deal, in the end they take a loss. Instead of indulging in such calculated selfish behavior, you should work for the good of others.
The lecturing of sutras and explaining of dharma are the giving of dharma. It is said:
Of all the kinds of offerings
The gift of dharma is the highest.
The money you give can be counted, but the gift of dharma can’t be reckoned. If someone comes to a sutra lecture and hears something that causes him to become enlightened - to genuinely understand - can you imagine how great the merit derived from such a gift would be? Because the gift of a sentence of dharma can cause people to realize Buddhahood, it is the highest kind of giving.
The giving of fearlessness takes place, for example, when you bring calm to the victims of robbery or fire or any other catastrophe that causes them to be terrified or panic-stricken. You can calm them and comfort them by saying something like, “Don.t be afraid. No matter what the problem is, it can eventually be resolved.”
The second paramita practiced by Bodhisattvas is keeping moral precepts. This refers to the precepts and rules, which are one of the most important aspects of the Buddha’s teachings.
What are precepts?
Precepts are the rules of moral conduct that Buddhist disciples follow. The precepts stop evil and guard against mistakes. When you maintain precepts, you don’t indulge in any bad actions, but instead you conduct yourself properly and you offer up your good conduct to the Buddha.
How many kinds of precepts are there?
Laypeople who have taken refuge with the Triple Jewel - the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha - and who wish to make progress should take the five precepts. The five are not to kill, not to steal, not to commit sexual misconduct, not to lie, and not to take intoxicants. One vows to follow these rules for the rest of one’s life. After receiving the five precepts, laypeople can make further progress by taking the eight precepts. Beyond the eight precepts are the ten precepts of a shramanera (novice). After receiving the shramanera precepts, to become fully-ordained - to become one who has left the home-life - one can take the two hundred fifty precepts of a bhikshu (monk) or the three hundred forty-eight precepts of a bhikshuni (nun). There are also the ten major and forty-eight minor Bodhisattva precepts. The first ten are called “major” because one cannot repent and reform for violation of any of these ten. If one violates the minor precepts, it is still possible to change one’s faults and begin anew.
When the Buddha was about to enter nirvana, his disciple Ananda asked him four questions, one of which was this: “When the Buddha was in the world, he was our master; after the Buddha enters nirvana, who will be our master?”
The Buddha told him, “After I enter nirvana, you should take the precepts as master.” He was indicating that people who leave the home-life - all bhikshus and bhikshunis - should take the precepts as master.
Laypeople who seek to receive precepts should certainly seek them from one who has left the home-life. When the precepts are transmitted, the precept-substance must be bestowed upon the recipient by a bhikshu. According to the Buddha’s precepts, bhikshunis cannot transmit precepts.
It is absolutely essential for people who want to cultivate the Way to receive precepts. If you can guard the pure precept-substance, then you are as beautiful as a gleaming pearl. Vinaya Master Dao Xuan (“Proclaimer of the Way”), who lived on Zhong Nan mountain during the Tang dynasty, held the precepts so well that gods made offerings of food to him. The virtue of the precepts is very great. If you study the Buddhadharma without receiving the precepts, you will be a leaky bottle. To keep the precepts is to patch the leaks. The human body has outflows. It leaks. If you maintain the precepts for a long time, eventually there will be no outflows.
This Shurangama dharma assembly, in which the sutra is now being explained, offers a combination of study and practice. The schedule is strenuous, from 6:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. daily, much more rigorous than regular school - but this is a school for ending birth and death. It is a school of complementary practice and understanding. From the study of the Shurangama Sutra we derive understanding, and we practice by investigating dhyana. Through the combination of practice and understanding we can stride forward over solid ground and get the job done without carelessness or negligence. Through your efforts, you may solve the problem of birth and death and obtain extremely great benefit.
An example will help to illustrate the value of combining understanding with practice. A blind man and a cripple lived together in a family compound. There were several other people living with them and helping them out. One day, however, everyone else went out - fishing, shopping, doing the sorts of things people like to do. The blind man and the cripple were the only ones left at home. On that particular day a fire broke out in the house. The blind man couldn’t see and had no way to get out. The cripple could see, but he didn’t have any legs. What a predicament they were in! Both of them were certainly going to burn to death.
At that time a good and wise advisor gave them some advice. “You two can avoid dying. You can get out of this burning house. How? Cripple, let the blind man use your eyes. Blind man, let the cripple use your legs.” They followed his advice. Did the cripple gouge out his eyes and stick them in the sockets of the blind man? Without a surgeon such a method would surely fail. To put the blind man’s legs on the cripple without a physician would also be difficult. What did they do?
They made the best of the situation. The cripple climbed on the blind man’s back and told the blind man where to walk. “Go left, go right, go straight ahead.” The blind man had legs and, although he couldn’t see, he could hear the cripple’s instructions. Thanks to the timely advice, the two managed to save themselves.
When you hear this, don’t mistakenly think that I am calling you blind or crippled. It is not you who are blind or you who are crippled. I am blind and crippled. But having understood the principle involved, I have spoken the analogy, which is not speaking of you or me and yet is speaking of you and me.
No one should be arrogant. Don’t reflect on your singular understanding or the greatness of your wisdom. Why haven’t you realized Buddhahood? It is because you are too arrogant. “I have so much knowledge,” you think, but whatever you learn obstructs you. If you have a lot of knowledge, you are burdened with the obstruction of knowledge. If you have a lot of ability, your ability obstructs you so that you are unable to realize the Way. We should get rid of our thoughts of you, me, and him. Let the thoughts settle. Relax. Purify them. Empty your belly.
Then you can fill your belly with the wonderful flavor of clarified butter, the unsurpassed wonderful dharma. Once there was a young woman, a Ph.D. candidate, who admitted that her mind was full of garbage. Now we’ll use her words and say, throw out the “garbage” from your mind, and then you can listen to sutras. Then each thing you hear will unfold into a thousand understandings.
The third paramita of the Bodhisattva is patience. There are three kinds: patience with production; patience with dharmas; and patience with the non-production of dharmas.
The fourth paramita is vigor. To be vigorous is to continually advance and never retreat. An example of extreme vigor is given in the Wonderful Dharma Lotus Flower Sutra in the Chapter on the Past Deeds of Medicine King Bodhisattva. This Bodhisattva wrapped his body in cotton, saturated it with fragrant oils, went before the Buddhas, and burned his body as an offering.
”Why did he do that?” you ask.
Because he felt the Buddhas’ kindness was so sublime, so profound, and so great that there was just no way to repay it.
Therefore, he used his own body, heart, nature, and life as an offering to the Buddhas.
”How long did his body burn?” you wonder.
For an extremely long time. There is no way to calculate for how long it burned.
When the Great Master Zhi Yi (“Wise One”), third patriarch of the Tian Tai school, read the Chapter on the Past Deeds of Medicine King Bodhisattva, he entered samadhi when he came to the passage that reads: “This is true vigor. This is a true offering of dharma.” Within samadhi he saw that the assembly at Vulture Peak, where the Dharma Flower Sutra was spoken by the Buddha, was still there and had not yet adjourned.
Master Zhi Yi saw that Shakyamuni Buddha was still there speaking dharma, turning the great dharma wheel, teaching and transforming living beings. Thereupon Great Master Zhi Yi entered the Dharma Flower samadhi and obtained the once-revolving dharani. After experiencing this he withdrew from samadhi. By means of the great wisdom he had gained, he established and systematized the Tian Tai school. This response was evoked by the inconceivable merit and virtue of Medicine King Bodhisattva’s vigor when he burned his body as an offering to the Buddhas.
Most people will react by saying, “If plucking out a single hair of my head would benefit the entire world, I still wouldn’t do it.” That’s because they only know how to benefit themselves and not how to benefit others. They can’t be called vigorous.
The fifth paramita is dhyana concentration, also called dhyana samadhi. There are four dhyanas and eight samadhis. The nine successive stages of samadhi are discussed in the text of the Shurangama Sutra, so they will not be dealt with in detail now. I will explain the four dhyanas briefly.
The first dhyana is called the “state of joy apart from production.” In the first dhyana, one’s pulse stops.
The second dhyana is called the “state of joy from achieving samadhi.” Here one’s samadhi is more solid than in the first dhyana. In the second dhyana one’s breath stops, but this does not mean death; it is instead another realm of consciousness. The outer breath ceases and an inner breath comes to life. Ordinary people can use only their external breath. If a person can breathe internally, he can avoid death. He can live as many years as he wants. However, one can live so long as to turn into a useless corpse-guarding ghost obsessed with the need to protect his “stinking skin-bag” of a body.
The third dhyana is called the “state of wonderful bliss detached from joy.” Most people who cultivate like to experience joy. However, the bliss experienced in the third dhyana, which is detached from joy, is extremely wonderful. In this dhyana, conscious thought ceases.
The fourth dhyana is called the “state of pure renunciation of thought.” Here all thoughts are abandoned. One can know what is happening in the heavens and among people. But one should not become attached to the experience. Entering the samadhi of the fourth dhyana represents only a first step in cultivating the Way. One should not think that accomplishing the fourth dhyana is a special attainment. It is just the first step toward realizing Buddhahood. It is not even the accomplishment of the first stage of arhatship.
The sixth paramita is prajna. Prajna is a Sanskrit word that may be translated as wisdom. Most people consider mundane intelligence to be wisdom. It is not. Intelligence is worldly knowledge such as that derived from the study of science, philosophy, and the like. “Wisdom” refers to the world-transcending wisdom that realizes Buddhahood. This is prajna. The word prajna is not translated because it contains many meanings and thus falls within the five kinds of terms not translated, which are:
This list was first drawn up by Tripitaka Master Xuan Zang in the Tang dynasty.
There are three kinds of prajna: