Putting Teachings into Practice

There is one thing about the Dharma that I am completely sure of: the Dharma is for people. The Buddha’s teachings are not a cold philosophy designed merely to rearrange the concepts in our minds, they are a living act of compassion intended to show us how to open our hearts. I learned this truth just as everyone must learn it—by living life and applying the Buddha’s teachings to what I saw. I hope that by describing a few of my experiences, I will help readers understand my approach to the Dharma and why I feel so certain that the Dharma is something that must be practiced with other people, among other people, and for other people.

I was born in a country village in Jiangsu Province, China in 1928. Like most people of that time and place, my family held a mixture of religious beliefs; they believed in gods and spirits as well as in the teachings of the Buddha. Where one belief began and another left off was not always clear, but one thing was certain—religion was a very important part of everybody’s life. By the time I was only three or four years old, I had already absorbed the deep religious convictions of my family.

During much of my boyhood, I lived in my maternal grandmother’s house. Due to her religious beliefs, my grandmother became a vegetarian at the age of eighteen. After she married my grandfather, she continued this practice and took up new ones. Every morning she awoke very early to chant. Though she could not read a single word, my grandmother had completely memorized both the Amitabha Sutra and the Diamond Sutra, among others. Her chanting brought her powerful religious experiences, which she interpreted as meaning that she was gaining supernatural powers. This caused her to redouble her efforts. She began getting up even earlier and meditating even more.

I can still remember her getting up in the middle of the night when it was still dark outside to meditate. Somewhere she had learned a yogic practice that made her stomach growl very loudly. The rumblings were so loud, they often woke me up out of my dreams.

Once I asked her, “Grandma, why does your stomach make so much noise?

She replied, “I’ve mastered my practice. It is the result of years of training.”

In the years that followed, I was exposed to many other forms of popular religious practice, including séances, spirit walking, and visionary journeying into other realms.

I became a novice monk when I was twelve years old, and my world changed completely. I went from being a carefree child to being a disciplined student of the Dharma. I studied for seven or eight years before I went home again for the first time. By that time, the war with Japan was over. I found my grandmother sitting under a tree sewing. I knelt beside her and the thought came to me that in all the years I had been in the monastery I had not once heard anyone say anything about any meditation technique that would make your stomach growl. I thought that maybe this would be a good chance to teach my grandmother something more about the Dharma. I said, “Grandma, does your stomach still make that noise when you meditate?”

With the perfect sincerity of an old woman, she replied, “Of course it does. How could I possibly live without my practice?”

I said, “But what is the use of having your stomach growl? Cars and airplanes also make noise. A machine can make more noise than your stomach. Your stomach growling won’t do anything to elevate humanity or liberate sentient beings from the cycle of birth and death. I have met many great masters over the last few years, and not one of them ever makes his stomach growl when he meditates.”

My old grandmother was stunned by my words. She sat still for a long time. At last she said, “Then what is the right way to practice?”

I said, “We should practice by cultivating our moral character at every opportunity, and observing ourselves closely to learn the nature of the mind. None of this has anything to do with a growling stomach.”

My grandmother looked at me for a long time. Beneath her kindly old gaze, my certitude dissolved completely. The worst thing was that she had believed me! Her decades of solitary practice were the foundation of her faith. Though it may have been true that the growling of her stomach was doing little for the morality of the human race, it was also true—and this was a far deeper truth—that her practice was all that she had. It had been everything to her. In a single thoughtless moment, and with just a few words, I had managed to cause her to doubt the very foundation of her faith. I could hardly bear to look upon the disappointment in her eyes. I was young and I had traveled beyond our little village, so she had believed me. We continued to talk, and yet I could see that nothing that I could say would ever remove the pain I had caused her. That memory troubles me to this day.

Before long, China entered the turmoil of civil war. I became part of a monastic relief team that was sent to Taiwan. At first, we all thought that we would return to mainland China very soon, but as the revolution progressed, and more troops retreated, we realized that we would probably have to stay in Taiwan for a long time. As I began to teach the Dharma in Taiwan, I remembered my experience with my grandmother. Never again did I try to destroy the complex folk beliefs that were held by the people who came to hear me speak. I had realized that this kind of religious conviction can be like an introduction to the higher truths taught by the Buddha. No one can comprehend the Dharma in a single sitting, and thus we should respect the beliefs that every person holds.

When I moved to Ilan on the east coast of Taiwan, I quickly realized that I was probably the first Buddhist monastic who had ever gone there to teach. There was a temple in the area dedicated to the goddess Matsu, a protector of sailors. Smoke from incense filled the temple all day long. All of the local people went there to bow before the altar and worship. None of those people had any real understanding of Buddhism, but they all thought that what they were doing was a form of Buddhist practice. Since they were satisfied with their religious practices, no one from outside had been able to convince them to try anything else. Many Christian missionaries had visited the area, but not one of them had succeeded in winning any converts.

With the memory of my grandmother’s disappointment still fresh in my mind, I approached the task of presenting the Buddha’s teachings with considerably more reserve than I might have. I decided that I would be gradual in my approach and carefully build upon what those people already had. I knew very well that to try to overturn their beliefs would do no one any good. Such a course of action would lead only to their disappointment in themselves or their rejection of the Dharma and me. Before the deep truths of the Buddha are widely disseminated within any society, it is important to go slow in teaching the Dharma. Wrong views are not as good as right views, but at least for a time they may serve to assuage the sense of loneliness and isolation that people feel when they have no religious conviction. My early years in the Chinese countryside taught me that religion is important for the well-being of society. One look in my grandmother’s old eyes taught me to see that it is essential to the well-being of each and every human heart.

Every Buddhist monk has to study the Dharma and learn from as many teachers as he can, and I was no exception. My primary teacher was Master Zhikai, the abbot of Qixia Shan monastery, who ordained me as a novice monk. Qixia Shan monastery was one of the largest and oldest monasteries in China, and although Master Zhikai was well-respected as the abbot of such an institution, he did not offer me any special treatment. Like many monks of his generation, Master Zhikai was a harsh teacher. Work was hard and discipline was strict.

In the 1930s and 1940s, China was a very poor country. The monastery where I lived had over four hundred people living in it. Our community was so poor that we were served rice only about twice a month. The rest of the time we ate thin rice porridge. The porridge we were given for breakfast was so thin it was almost clear. The little bit of food that was served along with the porridge was usually nothing more than soybean remnants or dried turnip strips. Real tofu was reserved for guests. The turnip strips usually had maggots crawling out of them right at the table. Since we never had any cooking oil, the soybean dregs were never cooked. There were few nutrients in what we ate, but I don’t remember people getting sick very often. Most of us were quite healthy. Monastic life taught us to be steadfast. We were expected to be tough and to be able to withstand physical hardship. Being steadfast is not the only virtue in the world, but I think that it can be very helpful in both learning and teaching the Dharma. If one cannot bear the trials of the body, then how can one ever expect to conquer the mind?

There is no better teacher than life itself. I don’t like to teach my disciples that way anymore, but I do not regret having been trained in the old style. After you have spent years living like that, there is almost nothing that can ever disturb you again.

At fifteen I received full ordination. The ordination retreat lasted for fifty-three days. That period of time left an indelible impression on my mind. It is the source of many of the habits I still have today.

During the fifty-three days of the retreat we were required to pay absolute attention to what we were doing. For fifty-three days I barely opened my eyes, and I never once dared to turn my head and look at what was going on around me. At fifteen, most children are very curious about their surroundings. They want to look at everything and see who is doing what. If they hear the wind in the grass, they want to go to the window and see what is going on. This is the normal curiosity of a young person. During my ordination, such behavior was impermissible. If we moved out of place, one of the presiding monks would come over with his willow stick and beat us quite severely. He would say, “Little boy, what do you think you’re doing? Pull your ears in and quit paying so much attention to things outside of yourself!” Or, “Young man, don’t keep looking around at everything you see! Of all the things that you see, which of them belong to you?”

I can well remember being hit by that stick and then thinking that what the master had said was true: in all of Qixia Shan monastery, there was not a brick, or a tile, or a blade of grass anywhere that belonged to me. That lesson really sank in, and today I still have the habit of often closing my eyes and withdrawing from the world around me. The peaceful vistas of the inner world open up, and my eyes and ears are filled with the sound of inner solitude rather than the noise of the outside world. When the ordination retreat was almost over and I got my first look at the world again, I can still remember how vivid and fresh it appeared to me. Mountains and trees and flowers leapt into my mind with an intensity I had never experienced before.

There is a saying, “Talking about the Dharma for ten minutes is not as valuable as practicing it for one minute.” The essays in this book have been presented to help people learn the profound teachings of Sakyamuni Buddha. They have not been presented as mere ideas, to be held apart from life. To learn the Dharma and not practice it would be tragic! It is my greatest hope that everyone who reads this book will also practice the teachings contained within it. Chanting the Buddha’s name or being consistent about meditation is like cooking. Our effort should be consistent, like the fire under a pot of rice. If we light the stove and then turn it off again, we will not succeed in preparing our meal. But if we apply the right amount of heat for the correct length of time, we will benefit from our effort. This is the wisdom of thousands of years of Buddhist practice. When we focus on these teachings and allow ourselves to be receptive to them, our lives will be filled with compassion and we will learn the way to the truth.

Buddhist practice must start with who we are and what we do. First we learn to control the negative impulses of the body. This is morality. Then we learn to control the mind. This is meditation. Then we learn to understand the deep truths of life. This is wisdom. Each stage depends on the one before it. When I was a young man we spent many long hours meditating. Like many Chinese monasteries, Qixia Shan Monastery taught a mixture of Pure Land and Chan teachings. Sometimes we chanted Amitabha Buddha’s name and sometimes we simply meditated on the Buddha nature within us. These two practices fit together quite well because the first teaches us to be humble enough to rely on the Buddha, while the second teaches us to be wise enough to rely on ourselves.

We usually meditated at night when I was in the monastery. I suppose that part of the reason was that we had nothing else to do. Our temple was situated deep in the mountains and we had very few resources. It would have been out of the question to waste lamp oil for reading in the evening when we didn’t even have enough oil for use in our food.

We were taught to sit in the lotus position, with our legs crossed and each foot on top of the opposite thigh. The purpose of meditation is to make the mind tranquil so that the distraction of deluded thinking can settle. As these thoughts settle, a higher awareness begins to appear. In Buddhist writings, the mind is sometimes compared to a pool of water. Its original nature is clear and pure, and it becomes cloudy only when the silt of delusion is stirred up in it. Meditation is a way of letting the silt in the pool settle. Once it has settled, everything becomes clear. Probably the greatest lesson that we can learn from sitting meditation is that mental clarity can also be achieved in all other situations. Once we become accomplished at sitting meditation, we will begin to see that it is possible to meditate while standing, or walking, or doing just about anything.

Meditation is an essential part of Buddhist practice, but no one should think that meditation is all that there is to Buddhism. The deepest truth that I learned in the meditation hall at Qixia Shan monastery is that the mind in meditation is the mind of all sentient beings, and that it is the mind of all Buddhas. Meditation is a door; what goes through the door is our compassion for others.

The biggest single reason that people do not gain much from their practice or drop it entirely is that they do not properly balance practice and learning. Due to this imbalance, they lose heart and conclude that there is nothing to be gained from the Dharma. If our understanding of the Dharma is based only on words or ideas, we will not have deep understanding. The purpose of chanting and meditation is to show us that the insights of the Buddha are real. When we experience them in meditation, or when we are inspired by them in chanting, we renew ourselves and empower ourselves to continue the long process of introspection and moral growth that is the path to awakening. If you feel yourself lagging in your studies or becoming bored with the Dharma, find a good place to meditate, or seek out an opportunity to join a retreat. You will be transformed by the experience. With practice the benefits of meditation can be brought into the mind very quickly. With practice we learn to see the Buddha within, and not to look outside.

My single greatest ambition has always been to disseminate the Dharma through writing. Only the written word survives the ages. I learned the Dharma largely from the writings of others and I feel that it is my duty to try to pass it on in good condition. The truths contained in the Dharma transcend language, and yet the medium that people use for conveying those truths is language. I hope that readers of this small book will enjoy the words that follow as they profit from the deep wisdom of the Buddha.