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Volume 5 no 3

Venerable Shen-Kai Answers

BUDDHISM - The Big Picture

Some people do not fully understand Buddhism. Some confuse Buddhism with other religions, yet others think of Buddha as a God to pray to and to ask for protection from harm or simply for good fortune. In the following Q & A, Venerable Shen-Kai clarifies and presents a clearer and bigger picture about Buddhism.

1. How does the Buddha come about?

The Buddha is a result of great compassion and loving-kindness.

1. Abhasvara: light-sound heavens, where the inhabitants converse by light instead of words.
2. Heart: mind; source of mental activity
3. Dharma-nature: the nature underlying all things and phenomena
4. Six realms: realm of Heavens, Asura, Human, Animal, Ghost and Hell

First of all we must know where human beings come from. If we do not know where human beings come from, then how are we to know where Buddha comes from? Human beings are born of their parents, and they in turn of their parents, and so on. But, where do our first ancestors come from? According to the Sutras, there are 28 levels of heavens. One of them is called the Light-sound Heaven [1]. This is where the ancestors of human beings came from. At that time, human beings had a virtuous nature. However, as time passed, they began to commit evil deeds. When these accumulated and became infinite, the essence of the universe arises to a heart or mind [2] of compassion and loving-kindness. This heart of great compassion and loving-kindness is Buddha, which also means complete awareness and enlightenment. Every one of us has the innate awareness and enlightenment nature. When we emulate the Buddha's practice, enliven our awareness and enlightenment nature, maintain our awareness and illumination, and continue to practise diligently, then eventually we can become Buddhas ourselves. All things and phenomena have their own Dharma-nature [3] and as human beings we have awareness and enlightenment nature. This briefly explains the relationship between Buddha and human beings.

Christians believe that God created the human race. Therefore, many people say that they believe in God because God creates human beings. However, the Humanity Vehicle Buddhism, among others, talks about human beings originating from the Light-sound Heaven, the formation of the sea of suffering in this world, and the transmigration in the six realms [4] of existence. All of these are recorded in the Sutras and there are proofs of their existence.

2. Where does the Buddha nature reside?

The Buddha nature is omnipresent in the space of the universe.

1. Buddha-nature: the capacity for enlightenment, it remains in us in the same way as 'wheat-nature remains in all wheat'
2. Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva: Kuan Yin Pu-Sa
3. Raksasa: malignant demons

The Buddha nature [1] is omnipresent in the universe. It is also called 'awareness and enlightenment nature' or one's 'own nature'. However, due to their own ignorance, sentient beings are not able to realize this nature. If we learn as well as emulate the Buddha's practices diligently, our mind will become illuminated with brightness one day, and this is when we have realized this innate nature. Just as dark clouds can overcast a clear sky, so can our Buddha nature be tarnished by ignorance; and when the sky clears, similarly our Buddha nature will reappear.

According to the Universal Door chapter of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva [2], anyone sailing in a boat finding himself blown away by a dark wind and being cast adrift to the kingdom of demons [3], needs only to sincerely chant 'Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva', and he shall be extricated from such horrible sufferings. What is that dark wind? It refers to the wind created by our unenlightened, dark or ignorant mind. For example, in a domestic quarrel between husband and wife, objects may be smashed or the children may be subject to beating. At this moment, the family is just like a boat being blown by a dark wind. If the quarrel escalates to the extent that the family is on the verge of destruction, then it is like the boat being drifted to the kingdom of demons to suffer under their grip. If at this moment the name of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva is chanted, the anger will immediately subside and the mind becomes clear again. The Buddha nature suddenly manifests itself again, and the family regains its peace and harmony, and is saved from the grip of the demons.

3. How do we distinguish the authentic Buddhism from superstition?

Buddhism is about awareness and enlightenment.

1. Mara: the Evil One, described as a murderer, hinderer, disturber, destroyer, etc

Buddhism is a religion that is found on awareness and enlightenment. If we understand this truth, we will know how to distinguish between superstition and authentic Buddhism. However, it is not easy to attain this level of understanding. This is because apostates or heretics claiming to be Bodhisattvas easily mislead many people who do not understand this truth, and they become their followers.

There is a saying in Zen Buddhism, 'Obliterate the Buddha when he appears; obliterate the Mara [1] when he appears', meaning to ignore and not to be attached to such forms. Should the Mara disguises himself as Buddha and appears before you, simply ignore him. Outwardly he may appear to be Buddha, but in fact he is Mara. Some people may claim that theirs is the authentic Buddhism and others are not, or that Sakyamuni Buddha has retired and he is reigning Buddha now …… It is important to understand that Buddhism is about awareness and enlightenment. Do not be taken in when you encounter or hear about them, simply follow the Zen saying, 'Obliterate the Buddha when he appears; obliterate the Mara when he appears'.

4. Is there any relationship between God and Buddhism?

Buddhism does not subscribe to the concept of a creator of all things in the universe.

It is recorded in the Buddhist Sutras about a Mahabrahma devaraja, king of the Mahabrahma heaven, who claims to be the creator of all things in the universe. When he came to know about Sakyamuni Buddha in the human world who speaks of the universal truth, he was curious and arrived at the human world with the intention to debate with the Buddha. The Buddha, with his ability to know another's mind, knew his intention and asked, "You claim to be the creator of the human race and all things in the universe, is this a fact?"

The king replied, "Yes, it is."

Buddha continued to question him, "Since you created life, why did you also create death? Is death created by you too?"

The king paused for while, and thinking that everyone loves life and nobody welcomes death, he replied, "I did not create death."

Buddha asked him again, "All human beings experience sickness, did you create sickness also?" The king knew that nobody likes to be ill, and he replied, "I did not create illness."

Buddha asked many questions in succession, but the king denied that he created them. Eventually, he admitted that he did not create the universe and all things in it, and certainly not the human race. The king of heavens was full of regrets and he felt ashamed. Finally, he accepted Buddha as his teacher and invited Him to spread the Dharma in the heavens.

5. Is it appropriate for a Buddhist to go to Christian church?

It is perfectly appropriate as long as we are not superstitious.

There is nothing wrong about Buddhists going to a Christian church as long as they do not believe in superstitions. Christians who have in them innate virtuous roots and who have formed a cause to be enlightened, that is, a Buddha cause, need people to guide them so as to kindle and enliven their virtuous roots. There is no reason why Buddhists and Christians cannot be friends. Buddhists can go to church and even participate in the service, but they must not be superstitious. The Universal Door chapter of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva states that, "If a person can only be enlightened by embracing another religion, then manifest as a person of that same religion to explain the Dharma to him."

Such interactions inevitably provide the opportunity for Christians to learn about Buddhism.

6. Are there any differences between Buddhism and Taoism?

Buddha attained enlightenment while Lao Zhi was still on the path when he disappeared.

There are differences between Buddhism and Taoism. Buddhism is whole and complete - the ultimate. That is why it is called Buddhism. The word 'Buddha' means 'completely aware, awakened and enlightened.' Taoism originated from the word 'Tao' in Chinese, meaning a path or road. Lao Zhi founded it. It is said that after he was seen riding a green bull getting out of Han-ku pass, nobody ever saw him again and neither did anyone know where he had gone. Certainly, he is not known to achieve the ultimate. Buddhism is the teaching of Sakyamuni Buddha after he attained Supreme Enlightenment and became Buddha. The teaching is complete, thorough and profound. It is ultimate and rounded without obstructions. Naturally, it is different from Taoism.

7. Buddhism speaks of no ego, suffering, emptiness, and impermanence; isn't it pessimistic?

These are not pessimistic values but the basis of happiness in life.

The non-ego and impermanence that Buddhism speaks of, is something that practitioners of Buddhism need to understand.

Impermanence is, for example, the darkness of the night and the brightness of the day. There is the impermanence of good karma and evil karma. An adorable newborn baby is not spared from impermanence too. In twenty years, he becomes a youth. Twenty years later he enters into middle age, and in another twenty years his life is nearly over. This is impermanence. A building cannot avoid impermanence either. When newly completed, it receives commendations for its architectural beauty. In a few short years, its condition will begin to deteriorate. Worse still, a natural disaster such as an earthquake may reduce it to a pile of rubble. In general, all things experience formation, existence, deterioration or destruction and eventually emptiness. For human beings, we experience birth, ageing, sickness and eventually death. Thus, no one likes impermanence. Instead, everybody yearns for things to be permanent.

The founder of Buddhism, Sakyamuni Buddha, even at a young age realised the impermanence of life as we progress through birth, ageing, sickness and death. He felt that there was no significant meaning to the mundane life, and therefore sought to find the 'permanent' meaning of life. He denounced the worldly life and became a monk. He subsequently attained Buddha-hood and realised the true permanence of the universe.

Emptiness is a manifestation of impermanence. The flower is very beautiful when it blossoms. However, soon after, it begins to wither. This process of blossoming and withering is a demonstration of impermanence. We see this everywhere; even the world that we live in is a demonstration of impermanence.

Is it pessimistic to be without our ego? The meaning of 'non-ego' refers to a Buddhism practitioner's attainment of non-attachment to his own ego. With that, he is naturally able to see through and let go of the many issues that he encounters in life. This is definitely not being pessimistic, neither is it gloomy. If the ruler of a country knows of seeing through and letting go and declares an end to war, then he saves many lives and resources. Isn't this a good thing?

From the foregoing, we can see that Buddhism is not pessimistic. We need to be very clear about what we ought or ought not to do. It is not pessimistic and gloomy if we do not do those things that we ought not to do.

8. Do Buddhists believe in heaven and hell?

There is indeed heaven and hell.

Of course, there is heaven and hell. The sky above us is indeed vast and yet all that we can see are the sun, moon and the stars. However, beyond these there are 28 levels of heavens. We cannot say that they do not exist just because we are not able to see them.

Once, there was a Japanese General who did not believe in heaven and hell. One day, he visited a Buddhist temple and met a young novice monk. Seeing the little novice adorable as he was, the General asked him, "My little one, how long have you been a monk?" The little monk replied arrogantly, "For a long time." He was taken aback by the manner he answered the question despite his tender age, the General continued, "Then, tell me what is heaven and what is hell?" The little novice replied, "What qualifications do you have to ask such a question?"

Although the General did not feel offended, the rebuttal agitated the accompanying officials and the guards. They felt that the little monk was insulting the General so they tied him up and brought him back to the General's residence. There, he was hung up in the back yard.

Soon after, the General came and asked him, "Now, do you know what is heaven and hell?" The little monk shouted, "I am in hell now. I am being tied up here and suffering; suffering is hell." The General's wife took pity on the young boy and released him. She kindly bathed him and gave him a change of new clothes. Thereafter, he was happy and playing about the General's house.

When the General returned, he asked him, "Now, do you really know what is heaven and what is hell?" The little monk answered happily, "Of course I know. I am in heaven right now!" As a person of his stature, the General felt ashamed for being ignorant about heaven and hell, and having to ask a little novice monk.

Therefore, we cannot say that heaven and hell do not exist. If your family is happy and blissful, all of you are in fact in heaven. If you are heavily indebted and repeatedly committing evil, then you are no different from being in hell. Performing good deeds enable one to go to heaven, and evil deeds to hell. This is for sure and there are no two ways about it. Thus, we should not assume that heaven and hell do not exist just because we do not see them.

9. Are there really 18 hells?

Yes, arising from the six sense organs, encountering the six dusts, and producing six sense-consciousnesses.

The human being has six sense organs - eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind. These organs encounter the six dust of sights, sounds, smell, tastes, and objects of touch and ideas. (These are called the six dusts because these are the causes of all impurities in the human mind.)

When the eyes set its sight on an object, they distinguish, for example, its colour and shape - whether it is green, yellow, red or white, long or short, square or round, or whether a person is male or female, old or young. This is the function of the eye sense-consciousness. Whatever that the eyes can see is called the field of the eye sense-consciousness.

When the ears hear a sound, they distinguish whether it is a teaching, a conversation or the engine of a car or aeroplane. Whatever audible sounds that the ears can hear are in the field of the ear sense-consciousness.

In the same way, the nose distinguishes whether a smell is fragrant, foul, good or bad. Thus, all that the nose can smell are in the field of the nose sense-consciousness.

The tongue distinguishes whether a taste is sour, sweet, bitter or salty. All tastes are therefore in the field of the tongue sense-consciousness.

If a person closes his eyes and uses his hands to touch an object, he can also tell, for example, if it is a pair of spectacles, a microphone, a cup or a vase. This is the distinction produced by the bodily sense-consciousness. All that can be felt by the body is called the field of the bodily sense-consciousness.

The mind is even more volatile. It can wonder from one subject to another, be it in the sky, on the ground, or whether at home or overseas. The ideas produced by the mind are the results of the mind sense-consciousness. All perceptions produced by the mind sense-consciousness are called the field of mind sense-consciousness.

When the six sense organs encounter the six dusts, they produce six sense-consciousness. The sum of the three sixes result in a total of eighteen fields. Thus, a person who performs good deeds goes to the heavens, and if he performs evil, then that transforms to the eighteen hells.

10. Is there really a hell on earth? How does it manifest?

Sufferings from retribution of negative karma constitute hell on earth.

'Hell' on earth exists everywhere and it is there for everyone to see. In fact, we see it very frequently.

The term 'hell on earth' is not found in the Buddhist Sutras. However, whilst in deep meditation one day, I realized that this is in fact the hell on earth. In the Sutras, it is referred to as the 'lonely hell'. The karma or deeds that we commit can be classified as collective karma meaning the deeds collectively committed by a group of people, or individual karma meaning deeds committed by an individual acting alone. If everyone in the family is very fine and only one person is suffering from the retribution of his negative karma that he himself has committed, then this is the lonely hell or hell on earth. The father of a wealthy family, bedridden and suffering as a result of a stroke that left him paralysed is an example of hell on earth. The mind creates all things and phenomena. As human beings, we must transform the hell on earth so that everyone can be in the heaven on earth.


Copyright 2002.Jen Chen Buddhism Centre