Impermanence: A Buddhist View of Life
Professor Minor Lee Rogers
The Religion Department
It is very nice to see you all here this evening. I guess if I really understood the subject for tonight I would take out my well-prepared introduction, tear it up, and just speak naturally. But there are some things I want you to know about our speaker tonight and how he came to be invited to Washington and Lee University.
In January of 1990, my wife Ann and I were members of a small group making a trip to Buddhist sites in Nepal and Northeast India: Lumbini, the place where the Buddha was born; Bodhgaya where he reached Enlightenment; Sarnath, very near Benares (Varanasi) on the Ganges, where he preached his first sermon; and then Kushinagar, the place where he died or, as the Buddhists would say, realized Nirvana. We met the members of our party at the Vajra Hotel in Kathmandu, the capital of the Himalayan kingdom of Nepal. It was a very interesting group. There were some twelve of us: two physicians, a clinical psychologist, an artist, a professor of philosophy, an ACLU lawyer, an experienced trekker and a junior in college who was on a sort of mid-winter independent study. We came for many reasons and we all shared an interest in the Buddhist tradition.
But it was another member of our group who caught my attention. He really seemed to know why he was there--purposeful, concentrated, connected and expressed devotion. He seemed to really know what to do, and when we visited a stupa or place where relics were enshrined he would circumambulate the stupas. He offered alms to the monks. He knew when to light candles and burn incense at the appropriate moments. Clearly, for him, this was a pilgrimage. Especially striking was his care with words and his actions. We soon began to notice changes in the behavior of his roommate, Clint, the fun-loving college junior. Clint would ask him question after question, and Clint even made it to breakfast on some mornings. We soon came to realize our good fortune in having with us a genuine disciple of the Buddha who could put the teaching in terms we could understand. His every word and action was grounded in practice. Naturally I wanted him to come to Washington and Lee to meet our students, our faculties, and members of the community. I guess at first it was the sort of Southern hospitality when I said, "Well, you really must come to Washington and Lee sometime," and we left it at that. Then when I got back in the Fall, I realized that we really wanted him to come; and so he has come and we thank you for gathering this evening.
Yutang Lin is a native of Taiwan. He received his B.A. in philosophy from the National Taiwan University which, I understand, is the top university in Taiwan, in 1969. He received his Ph.D. in Logic and the Methodology of Science from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1983. I am told that, on the day he received his degree in logic, he gave away all his logic books to the libraries at Berkeley, and became a full-time practitioner of the Buddhist way. I guess, my debt to him is that he has helped me to see that practice is the key component of the Buddhist path, and it is not reading libraries full of books. He will speak for forty-five or fifty minutes, and then we will have some time for questions. We welcome Dr. Lin!
Impermanence: A Buddhist View of Life
Thank you. I sense that Minor is a little bit nervous, so let us talk about something else first. What I am wearing is a traditional Chinese robe which is considered formal wear. It was passed down to me from my teacher, Yogi C. M. Chen, who passed away in 1987. This is a common Chinese hat called a "watermelon hat" because it is shaped like half a watermelon. It is not very common now, but my teacher used to wear this kind of hat so it has become part of my religious formal wear.
Earlier today Professor Rogers asked me: "Do you want to bring the notes along with you?" He was referring to an outline of this lecture that I had sent him months ago. I replied, "When I talk I don't need that; what you see is what you get!" (laughter from the audience) Well, actually, it does not mean that I did not prepare for this lecture. I have already given it mentally to myself more than ten times. Nevertheless, I did not want to write it down because had I prepared it that way, then when I came here I would not be thinking through the topic. I would be simply reciting a written speech. I would not be really facing the topic as I am; what I would be presenting is what I thought about at an earlier time. Besides, what would happen if I lost the notes or forgot to bring them with me? Then I would be very nervous trying to remember what I should say. Furthermore, after I return home and compare the notes with what I have said, I would probably have many regrets. (laughter from the audience) But when you want to ground practice in Impermanence, you try to learn to do without, you go on with what you have and what you are. So now, as I am talking about this topic, I am just revealing to you what is going on in my mind. I am not thinking, in a sense, and I am working on this topic anew, right at this moment. Now let us all think through this talk together.
What do I mean by "impermanence"? We have some ordinary understanding. For example, when one of Professor Rogers' former students heard that we were going to talk about impermanence, he said, "Oh, of course, it is a short thing; life is so short!" What else do we know about impermanence? We know that things are changing, however, in order for our society to keep functioning, we have to assume some constancy. We have an institute called Washington and Lee University. The faculty members are changing and the students are changing, but we use our concepts to keep the institute going, to preserve the culture, to conduct our activities. So what do I mean by "impermanence"? Do I want to destroy all this? No. Besides, I have shown that it doesn't mean that, then, one cannot function. See, I am still capable of coming here to give you a talk, although I have rooted my practice in this notion of impermanence.
Before I continue it might be better to talk first about what Buddhism is all about; then we can understand better why Buddhism emphasizes impermanence. To some extent we know what impermanence means already, but then what is the need for Buddhists to adopt it as a basic teaching of their religion? So, first of all, we need to know that what Buddha tried to give us is not some kind of view. Although he did point out that certain views were wrong and taught Right Views, the final goal is not just a system of concepts.
Sakyamuni came from a very good background--he was a prince; he did not have any of the problems that ordinary people had. Nevertheless, he had chances to face the realities of life: once he saw someone who was sick; once he saw someone who was senile and having difficulty moving; and then once he met a corpse, and he even needed to ask, "What is this, what is this?" From all this he learned that there is such a thing as suffering in life, so he started to worry. He asked, "What is the use of the throne if I finally have to face this? How can I escape from this?" Consequently, he gave up everything, the kingdom, the family..., and went into the forest to follow religious persons. He thought that maybe in that way he could escape from these problems, so he followed them, and the religious persons taught him some practices. One type was punishment of the body; he followed that practice to such an extent that once he became so weak that when he took a bath in a river, he almost drowned. The religious persons also told him to practice meditation and he was very good at it; soon he had achieved what they told him to be the final thing, but still he sensed that this was not the solution.
Finally, he realized that the way is not through punishing your body. Through continued efforts he discovered what was still wrong when he achieved what those teachers had taught him to be the ultimate; but then he thought that there was no way he could convey what he had discovered at that time to people because it was too subtle. Besides, although people don't know the truth, they are not lacking in anything. What did he discover at that time? At that time he experienced complete freedom from concepts.
You see, as human beings, at that time they also had languages; that means they also used concepts. We grow up in certain cultures and have certain sets of values; we have our definite ways of looking at life and treating each other. How can we escape from all this? What is wrong with all this? The problem is that once you start to use concepts, at first they are just tools used to communicate and pass on knowledge, but because we use them so often, the concepts begin to control us. For example, why do we have so many tensions? One main source of our problems is our strong sense of self-awareness; our thinking is very self-centered. We are constantly reflecting on ourselves and there seems to be no escape. We always worry about certain things and our thoughts run in circles. We care so much about certain things that we cannot go beyond them. We have fixed views, and when we come into contact with any situation we do not handle it as it is, but handle it as we think it is. How can we escape from this kind of self-centeredness?
At the time Buddha realized the freedom of Limitless-Oneness, it was too difficult to express because, in modern terminology, our self-centeredness is rooted in our sub-consciousness. There is something there but you don't know where. You cannot find it, and there is no way to capture it unless you find yourself in a situation and it comes up--then you know, oh, I have something like this--I have this anger, I have this greed. Before it shows up, you don't even know it is there. How can you escape from this? Furthermore, what the Buddha achieved then was not getting anything. He was just free from those things. So in that sense, no one is lacking anything, and there is nothing to give you. We should be aware that, after all, all preachings are just talks. The Buddha's experience, in some sense, is as something that we would never be able to achieve--how could we dig out something when we don't even know where it is? At the request of the heavenly beings and out of his compassion, Buddha started to try to show people how to reach the freedom of Limitless-Oneness. In so doing he communicated with people and thus made use of concepts.
Up to now, you see, it has already been more than 2500 years, and different people have received the teachings. What they received has been from books and from what other people have said, and again each one perceived it based on his concepts, and developed it as he understood it and as he experienced it. Consequently, due to the limited capacities of individual Buddhists, there are many, many schools in Buddhism; the Tripitaka, a collection of all Sutras and Sastras, consists of thousands of volumes. Who has the time to figure out what is really going on in such vast literature? Nevertheless, I am a practitioner, so I need to be able to say it; otherwise, what am I practicing? What I am trying to do now is to present my insight as to what Buddha was trying to teach. Of course what I can say is, still again, just words to convey concepts. You won't get the real thing from this, nevertheless, this kind of concept, if you put it into practice, will gradually bring you to Buddha's experience. How do you know? Because if you practice, you will gradually sense the freedom. You see, what I am doing now -- I don't come with the prepared notes.
So, the fundamental concept is that everything is, in fact, a Limitless-Oneness. In traditional Buddhism, some will say, "Oh, you cannot even talk about one, because the moment you say one, then you have to be able to define it, and then there are already two (the one defined and the one defining)." So I say it is a Limitless-Oneness. If you are a logician, you will say, "Isn't that kind of contradictory? On the one hand, there is one; you have a definition of a certain one there, and then you break up the boundary by 'limitless.'" Nevertheless, such a dilemma is inevitable in conceptual approaches to understand this experience. Then you have to consider everything. We had war with Iraq, but first, before we say, "How can you believe in such a notion, in the face of such a reality that we have wars?" let us try to understand the concept that all are actually one. When I say "all," I am not just limiting to the beings, the living ones that have feelings, but everything. So that means no limits, no distinction, and also it means that when you try to get away from the concepts, there are no limits. Okay, how can we believe such a notion? I will give you examples.
For example, something happened today at lunch. Professor Rogers, a student named Clark, and I were having lunch together to discuss Clark's paper. Clark said he needed to see a doctor later today because for two weeks he had felt numbness from the left knee down. As soon as I heard this, I cared about him, and I sensed at once that this part (pointing at my left leg about one inch above the ankle) of his body was blocked inside, and I sensed something here (pointing to a point on my lower back) in my body, without feeling pain. So I told him, "Well, Clark, this is what I sense: You have two problems, there and there." He said, "Yes, I also have pain here (the point on the lower back)." So, without telling him, during lunch I prayed for him. After lunch what I sensed was that it was no longer like that, but still this part (lower leg) had a thin layer inside surrounding the bone. I don't know what his X-ray results will be, (laughter from the audience) but now I am telling you, so later we can check with Clark. Then when I went back to Morris house (the guest house on campus), I was still thinking about him. Then I sensed that there were four things shaped like hooks holding on to the leg bone. Then I sensed that there was a line on his left sole and I thought he had better massage his sole along that line. It would help him. We have to wait until we meet Clark to find out whether it will work. There are other cases like this. I am not claiming that I have power to heal or anything. It happened naturally and I did not intend to do anything like this. I believe that this is the result of practicing in the direction of achieving the Limitless-Oneness.
Once a friend's wife went back to Hong Kong and I didn't know what she was going to do over there, but then I saw in my dream that she was releasing turtles. When she came back to the United States, I checked with her. My dream occurred only a few hours after she did that. (This is a Buddhist practice of saving lives; we purchase the turtles from the market, and then release them back to their natural habitat.) There is no way to explain that, but if you remember the concept I was talking about, a Limitless-Oneness, then it is very easy to understand. Actually, it is like public information; it is there in the air. (laughter from the audience) Since we are accustomed to thinking that it is never possible for us to see beyond our normal senses, we notice only what we see on the TV, what we read in books, and we ignore these kinds of subtle messages that are blurred by ordinary perceptions. We are accustomed to always thinking only about me, myself, my wife, my children, my, my, ... Always just everything that is related to me, and nothing else. Then you lose the ability that is natural to all of us.
However, why have I had such extrasensory experiences, even though I did not intend it? I understand the theory and I put it into practice. What the practice does is to help you reduce your conceptualization. Then it comes naturally. Of course, it is never proved; but those are true experiences. So, at least, this concept of Limitless-Oneness is worth considering.
Now, in the light of this, let us go back to examining the notion of impermanence. The traditional teaching would say, first of all, we are bound to die and there is no escape. This, of course, we all know. Furthermore, it is a very sad thing, very difficult to accept. Why do we bother to bring it up? Why not continue to live in the way we usually do, i.e., avoid talking about death; and when it happens, try to make it look pretty and pass it over as soon as possible. Nevertheless, in order to free ourselves from our preconceptions and attachments, we need to be aware of this fact and to reflect on our preparedness for it. Can we really handle it well?
Of course, death is just the final part of life--why do we want to spend time looking at it now? It will become a problem just at the moment of death and it will be over in an instant, so why do we have to look at it now? It is simply because if you look at it now then you will have a chance to look back and reflect on your life, even though you may not really be close to the end. You will have a chance to reevaluate your life--have I lived a truly significant life? am I doing things that I really want to do, or am I doing them just because I need clothing and food? Is human life really just working for survival?
It would be like a vaccination, you take a shot in advance so that when the disease comes, you are well prepared.
The other aspect of this is that usually we just think from our self-centered point of view, and consequently we never have a chance to get out of this circle of my this and my that to reflect upon it.
The second point about impermanence of life is that we do not know when life will come to an end. We always make plans: "Oh, this semester I am going to do this, and next semester I am going to do that." Have you ever stopped to think -- What if today is the last day of my life? How would I have lived today? It would be very, very different. Many things that you are worrying about and many things that you are fighting for become nothing. Besides, if you don't reflect upon this, all of your life will be wasted with things that are, in the final analysis, just nothing. Hence, it is so very important to think about it in this way. This is not just talk; unexpected death happens all the time. Several months ago a famous basketball player dropped dead on the basketball court. If he had known that he was so close to death, I think he would not have risked his life.
Finally, the third point about impermanence of life is for us to understand what counts at that time. Usually we think in terms of fame, money and other worldly things, but at the moment of death none of these things really count; there is nothing we can take with us. The only thing that we have to face at that moment, and it comes naturally, it simply falls upon us, is--What are our regrets, and what have we done to help others? Have I really cared for others? This is what counts. This is the only thing that counts. If you want to have peace at that moment, this is the only thing that can give you peace, and nothing else can!
Besides, when we reflect upon all of these three points related to impermanence, then we will sense how lonely each one of us really is. Each one of us has to face death alone and no one can face it for us. All of us have the same situation, so what shall we do? We don't know when it will be our time to go. What happens after someone passes away in an accident? All those who are close to that person say, "Oh, I wish I had done that;" "Oh, I wish I had said that." So we have to appreciate whatever others are doing for us, because whenever someone is doing something for us he cannot be helping anyone else. Once we realize that life is so fragile and impermanent, then we can appreciate others' help much more. Besides, we will realize at once that all those small fights were nonsense.
Forgive each other! Love each other! Have empathy for others! Many times no one else knows our real situation, so we should be generous to one another. Don't be so critical of others. How much do we know about others? We, indeed, do not know the reasons for what they are doing. When we stop criticizing others what will we gain? We will regain our innocence. Our natural innocence will return. We will be able to live our lives as pure, innocent and happy children. I think this is what is meant by the saying from the Bible that children can easily get to heaven. We can have heaven here, if only we know how to live our lives.
You know, when I was working on this topic mentally, indeed I thought of many other things. Once I really face you, those other thoughts just become logician's pursuits; and the intellectual things evaporate. It doesn't matter that you can see this concept from so many angles; what is essential is what I have just said from the bottom of my heart. These are things that will really help your life, and that is what counts.
Now we still have some time, so I would like to talk more about the Limitless-Oneness. Well, suppose that this is the real thing to guide us, then how can we act in accordance with it? It is completely opposite to what we are accustomed to. We are always holding on to something, and yet now I am talking about a limitless thing. How can we approach that? Indeed there are two principles that can guide us to approach the Limitless-Oneness. They are two aspects of the same thing, but when we talk we are limited by language; hence we need to consider both the active aspect and the inactive aspect. The principle of the inactive aspect is to let go of our attachments and let go of our prejudices. Don't be so sure of our views and judgements; be more tolerant. The principle of the active aspect is to open ourselves up. To open up intellectually when we handle a situation, we no longer think that ours is the only way that works; there may be many, many ways and hence we should be flexible. Emotionally we also need to open up! Don't always care for just a few relatives and friends. Each one of them can go at any time. If you care only for these few, what happens when they all go? You would have no reason to live, and so you are doomed to misery. That is not the right way to live your life. Open your love to all! Each one may go, but there will always be others for you to care for and to help. Also, it is very important to do this kind of practice, because you will become happier. Besides, only through this kind of practice will you gradually sense the Oneness of all and spiritually grow up.
Only after you have the sense of Oneness can you serve other people well, because previously you always had a sense of "self." Even when you can sacrifice yourself for others, you cannot do it naturally. You would say to yourself, "Oh, I am doing this good deed, I am a good Christian, and I will have my reward in Heaven." You cannot do it naturally, like children who do not know about rewards, nor about what is good or bad, but simply love small animals, play with them and care for them. That is real happiness--to be so good, so pure that you don't know you are good.
We need to learn how to apply these principles in our daily lives. It is an art. No one can tell us what is the best way to do this or that, because no one else is in our shoes. Once we know these principles and we try to apply them to our lives, then when something happens we say, "Oh, I want to open up; I want to apply these principles to the situation." However, what do we do when life is peaceful and no difficult situation arises? Is there something that we can do so that we can still grow in this way? Yes, we need to adopt some spiritual practice. It is just as some of us jog, some of us swim, hike, etc., to maintain our health, mentally and spiritually we also need exercises and nutritious food. There are ways that can help us.
A simple way is to practice chanting. In Buddhism, one learns to repeat a mantra that consists of certain sounds but does not necessarily have any meaning, or the name of a Buddha, e.g., "Amitabha." For Christians, I think you can try just repeating "Jesus" or the Prayer of Jesus: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner," which is in the orthodox Christian tradition.
Why do we want to do this? The reason is very simple, you see, because each one of us has only so much energy, but we are accustomed to using the energy on only certain things that are related to ourselves. Furthermore, we are so accustomed to doing this that we have no escape from this situation. Even when we are tired due to such entanglements, we still cannot sleep because of their heavy burden on us. We say to ourselves, "Now, let me forget this!" and yet, even at that moment we are still tied up with it. We are still reacting to it. The way to escape from our sorrows is to adopt a practice so that our energy will gradually flow toward something that is not related to what we have been accustomed to. The moment our energy can flow completely in the new direction is the moment we become free. The question that would follow is--will this build us a new fence? No. Why not? Because the phrase that you are chanting, when it is a mantra, has no meaning and hence no conceptualization. When it is the name of a Buddha, e.g., "Amitabha," it means, on the one hand, infinite light that means limitlessness in space, and on the other hand, infinite life that means limitlessness in time. Thus, the basic structure of our universe has been broken up and there is nothing that you can hold on to, and you will be free from concepts.
However, you may still object and say, "You have told us the meaning of "Amitabha." When we chant it, aren't we still holding on to this one concept?" No, that will not be the case in the end. When you repeat it only ten times or one hundred times, the meaning is there. However, after you have repeated it millions of times over many years, what will it mean then? It will become just that sound; it will return to its original purity. The same thing is true for the Prayer of Jesus. So, this is a way to escape from our self-centeredness.
It does not follow that chanting will stifle us so that for the rest of our lives we know only this one thing. Quite the contrary, it is a practice to open us up; even when no situation arises for us to apply the principles of openness and no attachment, we can still grow spiritually. It will help us because the moment we are chanting we are giving up our attachment to what we have been accustomed to and thereby at the same time we become more open. You will sense the opening up of your awareness and the ease and relaxation that comes with it, if you really adopt this practice and do it daily.
If you jog daily, then you will notice the improvement in your fitness and health. Similarly, you will sense the relaxation and peace that comes as a result of the daily chanting practice. Besides, when situations in life arise, we try to apply these principles. In this way we can still go on living a normal life but it will be a better and happier one because now, even though we are still using our judgements as to what is a better thing to do, it is no longer just for ourselves, but rather for all involved. That is the difference. Hence, adopting a chanting practice will not destroy our rationality.
I think this is all that I want to say. If you have questions, you are welcome to bring them up and we will discuss them.
Question: If life is a Limitless-Oneness, then is that on the outside Limitless-Oneness?
Answer: I did not say that life is a Limitless-Oneness. I said everything is Limitless-Oneness.
Question: Then the environment and life will be considered as part of Oneness. Then, if one person reaches Buddhahood, would not that affect the entire Oneness?
Answer: Yes and no. (laughter from the audience) I say "yes" because then there is one more person that will selflessly serve everyone. Of course, that makes a difference. Also there is another level that I was talking about -- there are supernatural things that do occur which science cannot explain. When one reaches Buddhahood he is in Oneness. What we normally think of as being very far, to him there would be no distance. He can help others right away, beyond the limits of time and space. On the other hand, why did I answer "no"? Since most of us are blinded by our own conceptions, we are still fighting with one another here. Although we are not away from this Oneness, we don't know how to make use of being one-with-all. So, in that sense, Buddha can help us only through preaching, trying to persuade us to do some practice so that gradually we will see the truth ourselves. Before we have really changed, it would seem as if Buddha has not affected us.
Besides, to him there is no problem. Why? We think of this as a problem or that as a problem due to our conceptualizations. Buddha is already free from being bothered by concepts. This does not mean that he cannot make use of concepts. He understands our problems, furthermore, he sees the aspect that we do not see that has no problems. Nonetheless, I do not expect you to really understand this because it is beyond normal understanding, and can only be understood through practice.
Question: What does he do in Nirvana, what are his responsibilities?
Answer: Your question arises from your concept of Nirvana. You think of it as something static. Actually what is Nirvana? It is just a concept. This kind of concept is used to design something to help you out of the conceptual bounds; same with the concept of impermanence. When you study Buddhism, they say you should not hold on to one side. If that is the teaching, then why do we hold on to impermanence? Isn't this concept also one-sided?
Question: You said one will have compassion for all, but how?
Answer: I pray for everyone that I know to have problems. Every time I watch television and see an accident that happened, then I do Powa, a Buddhist Tantric practice, to help those who died in the accident.
Question: Would not then your compassion be limited only to the deceased?
Answer: The compassion is limitless, that means we pray for all beings all the time. However, when you encounter a special situation you respond to it by offering a special prayer. It does not follow that you have preference for these few people. It is just that when you know of an event you naturally respond to it. It is independent of who they are and what relation they have to me, and that is where the limitless compassion comes in. It is not because they are related to me in any way; it is just because I know they have a problem that I pray for them.
Question: To whom or what is our prayer addressed?
Answer: Usually the answer is just "Buddha," but what is Buddha? Buddha is that Limitless-Oneness. So it is like this: We are all one, so we are asking all to help this particular part of the whole. When I have a cut on my left hand, the right hand will put medication on it. In this sense you can even say that you are praying to yourself, but it is only in this sense. This Oneness cannot be defined by the usual notion of a "self" because it is limitless, and hence indefinable. The example of your right hand helping the cut on your left hand might help you understand it better.
Question: So there is only one goal of Buddhism and that is to bring the entire Oneness to nothing?
Answer: No. I was saying that once you sense Oneness, then you can selflessly serve other people. Furthermore, in Buddhism "Emptiness (Sunyata)" does not mean nothingness.
Question: Well, I am saying that the life on earth is not necessarily bad. There are old people who do not feel sufferings. They have a good time in their lives and are grateful for their lives, and to die and be reborn is not a terrible thing for them.
Answer: Yes, that is true. Nevertheless, first of all, those happy moments will not last forever.
Comment from the Audience: However, those are special moments, and if they lasted continuously then they would not be special.
Answer: Right. However, you see, they think that in their next life they will be just as lucky, but there is no assurance. Besides, if you have the openness of Limitless-Oneness, then you will immediately enjoy life much, much more than what you think you are enjoying now. Maybe you feel happy because you can forget about what is happening in the rest of the world, then you say, "Oh, I enjoy it." Would it not be better if you could enjoy it in the openness of Limitless-Oneness? It is a matter of quality.
Comment from the Audience: I mean, we might consider being human a finer quality than being a dog, but many dogs are happy.
Answer: First of all, we actually do not know this. (laughter from the audience) Secondly, when we talk about breaking of concepts we no longer think that dogs are inferior. When you are free from concepts, it is Oneness and Equality.
Question: Are there other practices for breaking concepts that you can tell us?
Answer: There are many. However, the problem is how many of us have the readiness to really go into those practices. For example, meditation is one practice, and if you want to do this, you will have to follow someone who has experience. At least you have to follow the sutras which are believed to be the record of Buddha's teachings and Buddha is one who really had the experience. If you read the sutras carefully, you will notice that when they talk about meditation, for example, in the Eight-Fold Noble Path, the Right Meditation comes last.
What comes before that? First you have to learn the Right View; you have to adjust your thinking to the Right View so that it becomes Right Thinking; you have to watch your speech and activities so that they are proper; and your livelihood should be maintained by honest dealings. There are so many things you have to do first before you can sit down and meditate. Why? When you are so busy with your daily life and have so many worries, can you simply sit down and say, "Let me stop thinking for thirty minutes." No way! You will just sit down to concentrate on your worries because you are not really ready to do meditation.
If you read teachings on meditation practices in the sutras, you will find that even for the most simple practice, they always say that, when this person has given up the world and goes into seclusion, then he sits down and does this practice. Nowadays people just copy the latter part of the teaching and ignore the first paragraph that contains the necessary preliminaries. They want to jump into meditation even though they are far from being ready for it. It could even be dangerous! If you are already practicing meditation, that is of course better than no practice at all. However, you still need to work on the necessary preliminaries.
Chanting is not dangerous because you are not trying to eradicate the old self all at once. Instead you are just stealing energy from it a little bit at a time, and the result is always simply how much has been accumulated on this side and how much is still left on that side, which is slow but safe. Besides, it is the only practice that most of us can do. How many of us can give up everything in order to do a spiritual practice? Almost no one can. You want to go on as you are. You have your duties and relationships. So what do you do now? Practice a little because it will at least help you relax in the busy world.
Chanting on your own is very safe for an additional reason. Some people might tell you that certain practices will achieve this or that, so come and follow me, give me money and form a big organization. This kind of situation will not happen if you simply practice chanting on your own. You just stay home and do your own practice. Later when you sense that it is something worth doing, then you will do more on your own. No one can fool you in this way. Furthermore, it will not prevent you from adopting advanced practices later when you become more mature in choosing a teacher.
Even if it does not produce as many good results as I have said, at least it is a practice of concentration that is very useful in our daily lives. To do anything, you have to be able to concentrate. Even if you think of the practice of chanting just as a practice for concentration, it is still very worthwhile for you to try.
Question: Are we all responsible for the war? People got bombed in Kuwait; are we all responsible for that?
Answer: Well, to go into this will take too much time, so briefly, yes, because the basic concept is cause and effect and we are all related as one society.
Before we go on with the questions and answers, I want to add one more thing. It is about the notion of Limitless-Oneness. From the Buddhist point of view, what is really important is just that unspeakable experience, and it is unspeakable because it is beyond concepts. All speech involves concepts. Therefore, even the notion of Limitless-Oneness is again just a concept trying to show you how to approach that experience. Therefore, in the end you just get rid of this notion of Limitless-Oneness. Do not be bound by the thought that you have to remember this Limitless-Oneness. Go beyond that! That is why Buddhism is so good. It helps you come out, but it does not capture you again. Buddha's teachings are like a raft that we use to get across the ocean of sorrows. Nevertheless, when crossing the ocean on a boat, before we reach the other shore, we do not jump from the boat but hold on to it; similarly, before we attain Enlightenment we need to follow the teachings of Buddha and do daily practices.
Question: Is it not that all forms and all experiences arise at Enlightenment?
Answer: What do you mean they all arise? When you reach that stage even the notions of space and time are no longer operative. So, there is no such thing as past, present and future; there is no such thing as arising and ceasing. That is what the Heart Sutra talks about -- no this and no that.
Question: Is that just nowness with all these?
Answer: No. Nowness is still a concept within time. Even time is gone.
Question: The eternal now is ...
(laughter from the audience)
Answer: The point is not to try to capture it because whatever you capture would not be it. Why? It is something so big, how can it be something that you can capture? It is the whole universe. Are you trying to use a concept to capture the whole universe?
Question: I think the heart of Christian teaching is "Do onto others as you would have them do onto you." Has it simply expressed, Sir, what you thought?
Answer: That is splendid! That is Oneness; however in Christianity the difficulty from the theoretical point of view is that, although you talk about God as everywhere, all the time, infinite, when it comes to the final result, it is said that you will go to heaven and always remain a subject of the Lord. The relationship will always remain as that of a master and his people. When you have that concept it is very difficult to reach real Oneness. That is the difficult part.
That is why in many religions, as in Islam, they say God is love, oneness and everything, but then they distinguish between followers and non-followers and conclude that followers should fight the non-followers.
Buddhists think the basic problem is that we are bound by concepts, so we do not hold on to the concepts and do not fight. We even say that when you have to face an enemy, you should think of the occasion as a chance to improve yourself. The enemy is your teacher. He is teaching you how to handle adverse situations. Just change your concept; then your enemy becomes your teacher, and you do not have to fight.
Besides, Buddhism is so flexible and adaptable that it does not say that if your enemies want to kill you, just let them do it. No. In the Mahaparinirvana Sutra there is a section entitled "Vajra Body" that says that in order to preserve the teaching and defend the preacher in case somebody is going to destroy the teaching, you can fight in defense and even kill the enemy. On the whole, the basic attitude of Buddhism is non-violence and working out peaceful solutions when possible. Nevertheless, there are cases of emergencies. For example, if this is the only person who has the real experience and can give us guidance or this is the only copy of a Sutra left, with the presence of this person or Sutra, many people can be benefited. If this is destroyed, many people will suffer and who knows when this kind of teaching will be discovered again. In that kind of urgent situation, kill! It is absolutely not for any personal considerations. Its justification lies in the magnitude of the loss, and it is justified only in that case.
There is no real contradiction in these teachings if only you can understand that the view really stems from such a universal point. Of course it may happen that someone would misuse such teachings and do evil in their name. As a result, those people would lose the chance to attain real liberation. When compared with what Buddha has experienced whatever they try to get is nothing. Those people who misapply the teachings are indeed punishing themselves already.
Question: Could you please explain a little bit more about prayer, praying for someone? Because there is confusion in my mind about what it is that you would be praying for, if there is no concept, say, health or ...
Answer: When we say "freedom from concepts," that is the final thing. Even after you have reached that, it does not mean that you cannot use concepts. The problem we have now is not so much that we use concepts but rather that in our usage we are bound by them. We do not know how to go about without them. We, instead of being the master, have become slaves of our language, of our concepts, although they are man-made. You think of something and then you worry about this and that and hence become a slave to your thoughts. That is what we try to become free from. When you have full control of the situation, i.e., you can think through things without being overwhelmed and remain free from being prejudiced, then why not use concepts? So, using concepts we can pray for others. Besides, when you are praying for others, then you are using concepts to practice reaching out; you are no longer limited to just this little self.
Question: Can you explain the meaning of "unborn"?
Answer: Well, that is just one of the conceptual tools to counteract your preconceptions. It is never something that you should try to really hold on to. You think, "Oh, I have got the key!" Please do not be fooled by words. No matter how well it is presented, it is still just a concept.
Question: But what is the basic idea of "unborn"?
Answer: Well, the teachings contained in the sutras are trying to guide us toward the experience of Limitless-Oneness. Therefore they have to devise concepts, and one of those concepts, originally in Sanskrit is called "Sunyata." It is then translated into Chinese as "Kong." "Kong" has several meanings. When it is translated into English, the popular meaning of "emptiness" is used. Consequently the common English readers just look at the word "emptiness" and think that Buddhism is saying that everything does not exist. No, it does not say that. It is foolish to look at this guy here and say, "No, he is not here." (laughter from the audience) How can that be the teaching of a great religion?
The real meaning that is the result of philosophical analyses is that there is nothing that has an absolutely independent existence. To understand this concept of absolutely independent existence would require a lengthy discussion. That is what I try to avoid by using the simple words "Limitless-Oneness." Those discussions can be understood only by people who have some familiarity with philosophical discussions. That is too difficult for ordinary people, so instead I use terms that we all have some understanding of. In the philosophical sense what is meant by "unborn"? It means that, since there is nothing that has an absolutely independent existence, there is nothing being created or destroyed in the absolute sense, and therefore nothing is born: that is the meaning of "unborn."
Question: You said that Buddhism approves of war under certain circumstances, right? I think, in a way, all nations do that; instead, we do not think about it that way. How do you compare the Buddhist reason for going to war with the Christian reason for going to war?
Answer: In practical terms, there is probably no way to really distinguish between them because when people make decisions they are always limited. Besides, they say one thing but what they really have in mind may be something else. The point is that at least intellectually we know that there is an important and fundamental difference. In the Christian teaching there is a final concept of God that, in a sense, is limited. There is always the subject and object distinction and hence theoretically there is no way to reach Oneness. Only Buddhism offers that possibility. When you bring it down to earth, maybe there is no way to distinguish between the two religions except in superficial ways. Nevertheless, for those who are sincere about reaching the goal, the difference is very, very big. According to the Buddhist understanding, that difference is where the true freedom lies, and that is the point where Sakyamuni Buddha went beyond the Hindu teachings.
Comment from the Audience: I think it is said generally that religion is the greatest cause of war.
Answer: How many wars have been caused by Buddhism?
(laughter from the audience)
Question: How does a person in your position support yourself?
(laughter from the audience)
Answer: In general, practitioners, i.e., monks, nuns or lay persons who devote their lives to Buddhist practice are supported by the faithful or relatives. In my case, it is my parents and wife who are supporting my livelihood.
Concluding Remarks by Professor Roger: What you say is always fresh and surprising. Thank you very much!
(loud and long applause from the audience)
After the talk about one-fifth of the more than one hundred persons in the audience came up to Dr. Lin to express their appreciation.
A Public Lecture Sponsored by The Religion Department and The East Asian Studies Program 8 p.m. May 14, 1991 Northen Auditorium Washington and Lee University Lexington, Virginia U.S.A.
By Yutang Lin