Parami: True Success

“Success,” as it is generally understood, is nothing more than personal success in the present lifetime, things like fame, wealth, and power. In the teachings of Mahayana Buddhism, “success” means benefiting living beings, having successful cultivation, and becoming a Buddha or bodhisattva.

Quite a number of people believe that for Buddhist monastics to develop from ordinary people into sages they must cut themselves off from their family and loved ones and hide away in some remote mountain hermitage. Likewise, there is a saying in Buddhism that “All things are empty,” though this concept of “emptiness” is often misunderstood to mean that we should not want or pursue anything. This misapprehension recasts the Buddhist teaching on “emptiness” into nothing but meaningless talk about metaphysical ideas. But, according to Buddhism, success comes as the fruition of karmic causes and conditions. These instances of karmic fruition are also called paramitas.

Parami is an ancient Sanskirt word which means “to cross over,” in that one crosses from the shore of suffering over to the other shore of nirvana, while “ta” is an auxiliary particle that indicates completion. When the Buddhist sutras were translated from Sanskrit to Chinese, the choice was made to transliterate the term paramita, rather than translating its meaning, and most English translations follow in suit. This was done in order to preserve the concept as close to the time of the Buddha’s transmission of the Dharma and not to limit it by a particular translated term.

If we want to cross over affliction, trouble, and the cycle of birth and death, and transform suffering into happiness, partiality into universality, and affliction into enlightenment, we must rely upon the six paramitas. Also known as the “six perfections,” the six paramitas are six methods that enable us to cross over and transcend. The six paramitas are giving, morality, patience, diligence, meditative concentration, and prajna. Each of the paramitas will be explained more fully later.

The four main teachings of the Diamond Sutra are to give without notions, to liberate with no notion of self, to live without abiding, and to cultivate without attainment; this way of practicing the Dharma allows us to cross from this shore to the other shore and to fulfill our paramitas. To put it more simply, one should use a spirit that transcends the world to do the work of the world.

Human life can be divided into four levels:

  1. Physical life
  2. Community life
  3. Transcendent life
  4. Unending life

“Physical life” refers to the physical body as given to us by our parents. This human body is hard to come by, so we should take good care of it. “Community life” means fulfilling one’s role within the larger life of the group. “Transcendent life” means altruistically contributing what you can for the sake of others, the larger community, and for all living beings. “Unending life” refers to what Buddhism calls the “life of wisdom.” Someone who lives this way is not worried about whether he lives or dies, having transcended the suffering of life and the fear of death. This is eternal life where one no longer wanders through the cycle of birth and death.

Every human life has boundless potential. It is up to the mind of each individual to fulfill the value and success of life.

Reconsidering Value

In her later years, my mother was a patient at Whittier Hospital in Los Angeles, U.S.A. On May 31, 1996, I received news in Taipei that my mother’s illness had taken a turn for the worse, and I immediately boarded a plane for Los Angeles. During the flight I kept reflecting on the past. In my mind I could see my mother’s tender, smiling face as if it were before my very eyes. My heart filled with all manner of emotions, and I silently recited the name of Amitabha Buddha as a blessing for my mother.

Upon arriving at Los Angeles International Airport, I raced over to the hospital, but my mother had already passed on. All I could do was go over to Rose Hills Memorial Park to pay my last respects.

The nursing staff that had been looking after her told me that she was kind and frugal, and was plain and simple in her daily needs. She rarely bothered others and was always thinking of other people. My mother did not even want them to tell me about her worsening condition, to spare me any alarm or worry. My mother always took everything upon herself, and kept her feelings of care and loving concern inside. Twenty minutes before she died, she still left instructions with Venerable Tzu Chuang, the abbess of Hsi Lai Temple who was attending at her side:

Thank you for reciting the name of Amitabha Buddha on my behalf. I am leaving now, so, please, under no circumstances are you to let my son know, thus sparing him any distress. He should busy himself with the problems of all sentient beings and not be troubled on my account alone.

In the face of disciples and family members who had hurried to Los Angeles from various places, I decided to follow my mother’s final instructions by not disturbing the outside world and keeping everything simple. In accordance with her wishes, no formal condolences, no funerary contributions of money and no gifts or flowers were accepted. I then dictated the following obituary notice to solemnly inform all those concerned:

My mother, Mrs. Liu Yuying, peacefully passed away at 4:20 a.m. on the 30 of May, 1996, at Whittier Hospital in Los Angeles, U.S.A, amid the sounds of chanting “Amitofo.” She was ninety-five years old. Many of her children and grandchildren as well as my disciples were by her side. Her body was then transferred to Rose Hills that same day.

Four days later, my mother was cremated at Rose Hills. Amid the sounds of those assembled there chanting sutras and reciting Amitabha Buddha’s name, I gently pressed the green switch to activate the cremation process. At that time I composed the following poem in my mind:

Between this mundane world and the Pure Land,

There remains the unchanging bond between mother and son;

For whether here on earth or there in heaven,

She remains forever my dear mother.

With a burst of fire,

A puff of wind,

And a flash of light,

I bid eternal farewell to my mother.

My mother was twenty-five when she gave birth to my body. Since then seventy years had slipped away, and my mother has passed on. And so, with a push of a button, the body of my mother was cremated. Our physical bodies are like houses that we live in only for a short time. Time passes and the house becomes leaky and in need of repair. This temporary residence of ours will surely decay, and there will come a time when we will be unable to live in it anymore.

Some twenty years earlier, my mother once came to stay for a while at Fo Guang Shan, and on one occasion during a grand assembly of lay disciples, I asked whether or not she was willing to meet with them and say a few words. She agreed, but I was worried that my mother would be intimidated by stage fright. But to my surprise, she faced the assembled audience of more than twenty thousand and said with a calm assurance, “Fo Guang Shan is indeed the Western Pure Land of Ultimate Bliss; a heaven on earth. We should rely upon the venerable master to be our guide in the hope that everyone will achieve enlightenment here at Fo Guang Shan. Everyone has been so kind to me, but this old woman has nothing to give to you in return. I can only offer my son as a gift to everyone.”

Her words were met by thunderous applause from the audience. My mother was illiterate and had never read any sacred literature, nor ever prepared herself to speak in front of others. But she had experienced the chaos of the late Qing dynasty, the Revolution of 1911, the establishment of the Republic of China, the armed occupations of the warlords, the Sino-Japanese War, the stand-off between the Nationalist Party and the Chinese Communist Party, and the Great Cultural Revolution, as well as the changes over time in relations between Taiwan and Mainland China.

The turmoil of the times had kept her constantly on the move; she lived through nearly one hundred years of epoch-making change. In her life, she practiced the Dharma, but she was too busy to let the question of whether or not she had a firm background in Buddhism bother her. She had already transcended the scriptural understanding with all its careful wording to bring fulfillment to her own life.

And yet, through the power of a vow, we have the power to return again to this human world.

Humanistic Buddhism

As Buddhists we acknowledge that the Dharma exists in the world, but what exactly is the Dharma as taught by the Buddha?

The word Buddha means “enlightened one,” for he is one who has enlightened himself, enlightens others, and has completed his mission of enlightening others. A Buddha is one who transcends the ignorance of sentient beings. The quality of his enlightenment is unlike that of the sravaka or pratyekabuddha, who pursue enlightenment for themselves alone. A Buddha has realized a state of enlightenment that even a bodhisattva has yet to fully attain.

The founder of Buddhism was originally named Siddhartha, though he is also called Sakyamuni Buddha, the World-honored One, the Tathagata, and so on. He was born on the eighth day of the fourth month of the lunar calendar in Lumbini Garden within the Indian state of Kapilavastu. His father, King Suddhodana, was head of the Sakya clan. His mother, Queen Maya, died seven days after his birth.

Sakyamuni Buddha was raised into adulthood by his maternal aunt, Lady Mahaprajapati. As a prince, Siddhartha was a handsome and intelligent young man, who was skilled in both the civil and military arts. From boyhood, he was much beloved by the common people. His father put all his effort into training him to become a wise ruler. When he was seventeen, Siddhartha married the beautiful Yasodhara, and the following year she bore him a son, Prince Rahula.

However, despite his life in the palace with all its comfort and contentment, and the warm love and affection of his family, Siddhartha felt a deep void in his heart. He was seeking something more from life and needed a truer understanding of human existence. So at the age of twenty-nine, he bid farewell to his family, gave up all his pleasures and comforts, and left the palace to pursue his spiritual quest. At age thirty-five, after six years of austere practice, he sat underneath the bodhi tree, and attained enlightenment while looking up at a bright star, and said, “Marvelous, marvelous! All sentient beings have the Tathagata’s wisdom and virtue, but they fail to realize it because they cling to deluded thoughts and attachments.”

The now enlightened Buddha shared his realization with others, setting the wheel of Dharma turning, and established the monastic order. He then taught the Dharma for the liberation of living beings for forty-nine years, and entered nirvana while lying between two sala trees outside the city of Kusinara in the year 483 bce.

The Buddha was born in this human world, grew up and attained enlightenment in this human world; he passed into nirvana in this human world, as well. Buddhism has always been concerned with this human world. The Buddhist sutras which circulate today are a record of the Buddha’s teachings to liberate living beings, gathered and organized by his disciples after the Buddha’s final nirvana. From the time of the Buddha, the Buddhist teachings are meant to fundamentally address the issues of how we as human beings are to conduct ourselves, how we are to act and think throughout the course of our lives, as well as how we can gain liberation. The Dharma quite naturally serves as a guide to how to live our daily lives. As Buddhism enters the modern era, we as Buddhists must take an active role in the world and be diligent.

There are some people who think the Dharma serves as an escape, that one may “retreat into Buddhist practice,” as if Buddhism is some sort of pessimistic escape or resignation that does not demand that we accomplish anything. The Ekottara Agama states:

All the Buddhas and World-honored Ones come from the human world; their realization is not something attained in the heavenly realms.

Huineng, the Sixth Patriarch of the Chan School, also said in the Platform Sutra:

The Dharma is within the world, apart from this world there is no awakening. Seeking bodhi apart from the world is like looking for a rabbit’s horn.

If we seek enlightenment by rejecting the world, in doing so we throw away our potential. This creates a sense of withdrawal and escape in the mind, and then nothing whatsoever will succeed.

Buddhism is not a religion that belongs only to monastics, nor is it a body of philosophical texts to be studied by scholars. Buddhism should be something that benefits all people. Buddhism is not an abstract theory; it is a religion that brings happiness and well-being into the world. To learn Buddhism is to learn how to be happy, carefree, liberated, and attain meditative bliss and Dharma joy. Joy and happiness are the most precious things in life, and living a happy, blessed, and carefree life is what Humanistic Buddhism promotes. Humanistic Buddhism is the practical application of the Buddhist spirit in the world.

One day, the Buddha and his disciples entered the city of Sravasti to gather alms, and it so happened that they encountered someone who bore a grudge against the Buddha. This person started to malign, slander, and shout in a loud voice as the Buddha walked along the street.

Seeing how the Buddha was being insulted in public, one of his disciples said to the Buddha angrily, “The people here lack any speck of goodness and do not know how to respect the Triple Gem. Lord Buddha, it would be better if we left this place and went to a city with kind-hearted people!”

The Buddha replied, “Suppose we do move to another place but the people there still do not believe in the Dharma, what would you do then?”

The disciple said, “We should move to yet another place!”

“When will we ever stop moving if we do so because of external conditions? This is not the way to ultimately solve the problem! We can resolve the root of the problem this way: If we are treated with scorn, we must remain unperturbed and bring an end to slander through patience. We must not stop guarding our speech and training our minds until we are no longer treated with scorn.”

The Buddha continued, “An enlightened person remains calm and patient like the earth. We should not allow our mission to be shaken by either praise or blame. By contemplating the absence of an independent self, we will observe how all phenomena are false fabrications. Then the illusory distinctions of self and others, as well the so-called good and bad of the world, will become nothing more than froth upon the water that suddenly appears, and just as suddenly disappears. Can anything remain constant and unchanging?”

Buddhism such as this is what allows people to experience well-being and success. It is a religion for people, and one that is concerned with the development of people. In Buddhism there is a teaching called the “three Dharma seals,” which are three qualities that certify something as an authentic teaching. They are all conditioned phenomena are impermanent, all phenomena are without an independent self, and nirvana is perfect tranquility. By viewing the world through the teaching on impermanence, one can come to understand that all conditioned phenomena are impermanent. Determination and diligence allows us to see that “all phenomena are without an independent self.” In Buddhism there is a saying that “there is nothing to attain,” and it is because of this understanding that all the wonders of existence can arise out of true emptiness. The last of the three Dharma seals, “nirvana is perfect tranquility” asserts that our potential for success is unlimited.

Wholesome Wealth

There are many people in this world who believe that one of the standards for measuring success is making a lot of money. In terms of material wealth, Buddhist monastics live a plain and simple life: they live with three robes, a bowl, and few small items, such as sutras and a Buddha statue. There is even a saying in Chinese that, “A monastic’s rucksack weighs only two and a half pounds.” That being said, even a skilled housewife cannot prepare a meal without rice, and a poor couple will suffer hundreds of sorrows. A lay Buddhist must have some monetary wealth, or else he will be unable to care for his parents and support his family. Buddhist practice and acts of charity also require a certain amount of money to support them, let alone the riches required to engage in various social development programs. Therefore, Humanistic Buddhism does not disdain money, for wealth that is acquired through pure and wholesome means can serve as supporting resources.

However, we must also understand that worldly success arises from a combination of causes and conditions. Consider the example of a single individual. The process that takes this person from birth as a crying baby to maturity as an adult is supported by many causes and conditions, such as the safeguarding by parents, instruction of teachers and elders, as well as the various trades and professions that supply clothing, food, housing, transportation and so on. We go to school, find our place in society, start a family, and begin our careers; and we all hope we will be successful in these. But success is not building castles in the sky, nor is it possible to achieve it without hard work. Having the right conditions in place to support us is to our advantage, but even then depending upon others too much cannot lead to success either.

People are often greedy. If they have even a bit of money, they think of depositing it in the bank where it will accumulate interest. But in that case, such money cannot be used to launch new enterprises. We bring no money with us when we are born, and take none of it with us when we die, and during our lives it is always taken away by fire, flood, thieves, corrupt officials, and wayward children.1 We can only appreciate the value of money if we do not feel attached to it, but rather allow our wealth to circulate and accomplish good things. There is a Buddhist saying that captures this sentiment well:

What comes from all directions

Supports undertakings in all directions;

The generosity of thousands of people

Creates connections for thousands of people.

In this way worldly money can serve both worldly causes, as well as those that transcend this world.

There are some people who have a fixed view that spiritual practice does not need money and cannot involve money, and expect spiritual seekers to live in poverty. But poverty cannot guarantee a higher level of practice. These attitudes come from a fixed sense of self which is attached to appearing impoverished, that it is the only way to be a practitioner. This is a question of reality. If you have nothing, how then can you give something? To liberate living beings and practice giving, we need the qualities of physical strength, practical talent, ability, and commitment. Why must monetary wealth be singled out for disdain and rejection? To varying levels, lacking mental or material resources will limit our ability to give and liberate others.

The question that is truly worthy of our concern is how to best utilize the pure, wholesome, and noble wealth that is donated to benefit living beings. We should not fall into the view that only poverty can show that one is well cultivated. For a modernized Buddhism, Buddhists should engage in enterprise so long as such activities are beneficial to the economy of the country and the lives of its people. This then is the true meaning of the Buddhists teachings on “non-abiding” and “non-self.”

Oneness and Coexistence

There is a story recounted in the Samyukta Agama about two monastics who argue about who is better at chanting. One day the Buddha’s great disciple Mahakasyapa reported to the Buddha, “Lord Buddha, there are two monks who are both unyielding in nature; one is Ananda’s disciple Nantu and the other is Maudgalyayana’s disciple Abifu. The two of them argue with each other from time to time over who is the best at chanting, and tomorrow they are going to decide once and for all who can chant the most sutras and teach the Dharma the best!”

The Buddha sent someone to summon Nantu and Abifu. He then asked them, “Have you heard my teaching on how to determine the winner and the loser when two people are arguing with one another?”

“We have never heard of such a teaching concerning winning or losing.”

“The real winner is someone who puts a stop to the confusion caused by greed, anger, and ignorance; diligently practices the threefold training of morality, meditative concentration, and wisdom; and can destroy the thieves of the six sense organs. One who can truly contemplate how the five aggregates of form, feeling, perceptions, mental formation, and consciousness are as insubstantial as a plantain trunk; and can make the Noble Eightfold Path their guide can realize the bliss and tranquility of great nirvana. You may be able to recite hundreds of thousands of verses from memory, but if you do not understand their meaning, then how does that benefit your liberation?”

The Buddha wants us to cultivate right concentration, part of the Noble Eightfold Path, and stay away from any conflict between ourselves and others. The Diamond Sutra emphasizes how one should not abide in anything. In terms of human commercial enterprises, one must not become attached to a single fixed market. Do not cling to old markets and old industries, but have the courage instead to open up alternative avenues, seek out alternative markets, and set up new creative teams. By implementing strategies like “value reassessment,” “collective creation,” and “systematic leadership,” one can develop brand new enterprises and live a life as vast as endless space.

Value Reassessment

In the Diamond Sutra, the Buddha instructs living beings to not cling to the notion of self, the notion of others, the notion of sentient beings, or the notion of longevity, nor to allow the discriminating mind to hinder our practice. If organizations and commercial enterprises are able to align themselves closely with human nature, be attentive to the needs of the larger community, and offer more varied opportunities, then they can create new value.

In the past, hearing Buddhist teachings required a visit to a temple, but since such temples were located in remote locations with poor transportation, people often hesitated to go. Even the infrastructure of the temples failed to meet the needs of those who came to hear the teachings. Having done their best to visit once or twice, some beginning Buddhists would give up on their good intention of listening to the Dharma.

The Lotus Sutra states:

In whatever land where this sutra is received and upheld, read and recited, explained and copied, and cultivated and practiced as taught; whether in a place where a volume of scripture is kept, or in a grove, or in a forest, or under a tree, or in a monastery, or in a layman’s house, or in a temple hall, or in a mountain valley, or upon an open plain; in all of these places one should erect a memorial stupa and make offerings. Why is that? One must know that these places are temples.

The Vimalakirti Sutra also states:

The upright mind is a temple, the profound mind is a temple, the mind aspiring to bodhi is a temple, generosity is a temple, the three kinds of supernatural knowledge2 are a temple, the knowledge of all phenomena within a single thought is a temple.

That is to say, everywhere in the world can be a place for us to learn the Dharma and attain enlightenment. In order to spread the Dharma throughout the world, it should go into homes, schools, factories, farms, workplaces, and military bases. By upholding the principles of harmonizing the traditional and the modern, by sharing ownership between monastics and laypeople, by equally emphasizing both practice and understanding, and by integrating literature and art with Buddhism, we will continue to promote Humanistic Buddhism.

Fo Guang Shan and its branch temples all include facilities like auditoriums, conference rooms, classrooms, lounge areas, reception areas, and libraries, along with the gradual addition of the Fo Guang Yuan art galleries, Water Drop teahouses, and so on. Such an approach allows devotees to come to the temple not only to worship the Buddha, but also to receive the Dharma instruction that is offered in auditoriums, conference rooms, and classrooms. In this way Fo Guang Shan endeavors to combine the worldly with that which transcends the world, and integrate society with the mountain monastery, so that monastics and laypeople can practice anytime and anywhere.

With its transcendent spirit and worldly practicality, Buddhism liberates living beings by bestowing upon them the Buddha’s wisdom and compassion. The enterprises of the world with their profit motive must also adapt to changes in external conditions from time to time, so that they can provide the products and services that are aligned with the people’s demands in a planned, organized, and efficient manner. That too is using a spirit that transcends the world to do the work of the world.

Collective Creation

Organizations and enterprises must create new value, but this is impossible to accomplish by relying solely on one individual to take charge of everything and make all the decisions. What is needed is for everyone to pull together their creative ideas and the will for collective success.

In its early days, Fo Guang Shan had absolutely nothing. We had neither modern equipment nor today’s popular management theory, but what we did have was group planning and effort, and the tacit understanding we all shared about collective creation. In 1967, the construction of the temple began, and I brought along the first generation of my disciples—Hsin Ping, Hsin Ting, Tzu Chuang, Tzu Hui, and Tzu Jung—and together we began to toil and work. We cleared away each tree and moved every rock. We drafted the general layout for the temple’s structure in the Lichee Garden, and came up with our teaching guidelines in the old Huiming Hall.

At each stage in going from nothing to something, there were perhaps personal differences over understanding, conceptualization, and judgment, but once an issue affected the general direction of Fo Guang Shan, or what was needed to bring success to Buddhism, everyone promptly came together. There was never any conflict sparked by personal or selfish motives, for we shared a common determination to overcome any difficulties and help each other work towards the same goal. This was the spirit behind the founding of Fo Guang Shan.

“Collective creation” does not mean many people supporting the dictatorship of one individual; rather, it means that each individual within the collective participates equally, so we can broadly solicit views and opinions from all corners. From Fo Guang Shan’s founding to the present day, nearly every single issue has been decided democratically. At all of our meetings at every level of the organization, everyone has an equal opportunity to speak and exercise their right to vote, regardless of their degree of seniority or the duties they undertake. At the meetings I chair personally, anybody who is so inclined is free to sit in and listen at any time. Not only does this style reduce many of the barriers to getting things done, it also ensures that members of Fo Guang Shan who attend these meetings can learn the art of communication. Everyone has an opportunity to grow from such experiences.

When I think of Fo Guang Shan’s initial building phase, images of how all of us worked together from morning to night, shouldering loads of bricks, sand, rock, and cement with sweat streaming down our backs flash in my mind. After the hired workers had finished their day’s work and gone home, Fo Guang Shan’s disciples would continue working. In addition, there are no words to describe the assistance we received from all of the laypeople who wished to support the Dharma. This is why I often say, “the success of Fo Guang Shan belongs to everyone.” Fo Guang Shan is not for any individual. Rather, it belongs to its more than thirteen hundred monastic disciples, the millions of lay followers around the world, its many benefactors, as well as people from all walks of life. Fo Guang Shan was not something that was completed in a day or a certain period of time; it succeeded, bit by bit, through the continuous effort due to oneness and coexistence.

Systematic Leadership

Even during the Buddha’s time the monastic community had a well-developed organizational system. The Buddha set up the posadha system, in which monastics met regularly to reflect upon their religious lives and confess their faults, and the karman system for conducting meetings and adopting resolutions. In these systems we can see a set of legal procedures that are even more complete in their details than those of many modern countries. The Buddha’s management style reflects a deep understanding of human nature and his system of rules and regulations are skillfully adaptive. The Buddha’s monastic community could be ranked among the best of the many successful enterprises we have today.

Never in my life have I worried about my future, and I have not set my mind on any particular achievement. Things just fell into place naturally. The year I turned fifty-eight, I relinquished my position as abbot of Fo Guang Shan, but even then I was merely stepping down in accordance with the system. I then left Fo Guang Shan and went directly to Beihai Temple. I wanted to let my successor get on with the job, which is why I did not want to linger at Fo Guang Shan. In Buddhism there is a saying that one should “rely on the Dharma rather than an individual”; organizations and enterprises, likewise, need clearly defined and implementable system as they pursue success.

The Buddha’s Light International Association, a Buddhist organization founded to encourage the participation of lay Buddhists, has a membership now in the millions, while the entire Fo Guang Shan organization operates harmoniously. We have furthered the work of spreading the Dharma to all parts of the world, and each of our successes has been achieved by operating within our system. In this way the Dharma has been able to break through the barriers of race, language, and culture, and we have been able to use Buddhist chanting, calligraphy, writing, publishing, and visual and performing arts to spread Humanistic Buddhism to every corner of the world.

The success of Fo Guang Buddhists can be seen as an example of “cultivation without attainment”: in Fo Guang Shan, we have a policy that glory belongs to the Buddha, and the success belongs to the community. In this instance these achievements “belong” in the sense that each person contributes their cultivation without expecting to gain anything in return. In this way, Fo Guang Buddhists are one with all living beings, and can coexist together in harmony.

Building One Brick at a Time

In Chinese there is an old saying: “When the eggs are not ready to hatch, do not crack the shell; when the rice is not fully cooked, do not lift the lid.” Trying to break open the eggs when they are not ready to hatch will bring an untimely death to these small creatures, and trying to lift the lid of the pot before the rice is fully cooked will make it hard for the rice to be cooked tender.

There is no free lunch in this world. If you want to get something you must give something. I would suggest that, when a person is young, he or she should fear neither hardship, nor being at a disadvantage. One should harden oneself with real experience with no expectation of compensation. One should increase one’s own knowledge and experience, no matter if that be through reading books, starting a major undertaking, or engaging in some sort of work. Do not be eager for success: success that comes too easily can lead to pride and disdain for others, and with such irresolute aspirations, one will quickly fail and be laid low. A lofty tower is built from the ground up: no real success in this world is achieved all at once. Success does not happen by mere chance, nor is it a product of instant results. Rather, it is solidly built one brick at a time. Great minds often develop gradually. Likewise, there is a saying in Taiwan that goes: “a big rooster takes its time crowing.”

Quick success is not really all that good. Take trees for example: those that mature in a year are only good for firewood, while those that mature in three to five years can be made into tables and chairs. Only trees that take decades and decades to mature can be made into pillars and beams. That is why we should “cultivate without attainment,” and free ourselves of that win or lose mentality that leads to hasty work. We must gradually cultivate and refine ourselves, and wait until the conditions are right. As it is said, the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step; so never get ahead of yourself nor delude yourself with the idea that chanting Amitabha Buddha’s name for two days will give you a diamond-like mind capable of overcoming evil.

After Hongren, the Fifth Patriarch of the Chan School, gave the monastic robe and alms bowl to Huineng, signifying that he was now the Sixth Patriarch, he escorted Huineng to a riverbank and said to him:

Henceforth, you shall spread the Dharma far and wide. You should depart now and quickly travel south. Do not start teaching too quickly because it is difficult to spread the Dharma.

The Fifth Patriarch was telling Huineng not to be too eager to spread the Dharma publicly. It is important to wait for the right opportunity. This was why Huineng lived in seclusion among a band of hunters, eating some vegetables that he added to their pot of meat, as he bided his time. A favorable opportunity is when all the conditions are right. Any matter can easily succeed, if it happens at just the right moment when the causes and conditions are in place.

The Ten Directions and Three Time Periods

People often ask me, “The Fo Guang Shan monastic order is large and its activities are on an immense scale, how do you manage it all? How do you keep everyone focused, harmonious, and without contention?”

I always like to reply by sharing an old Buddhist expression: “Pervade across the ten directions and extend down through the three time periods.”3

The expression “Pervade across the ten directions and extend down through the three times periods” describes our own intrinsic Buddha nature. The size of everything in the world is limited, the only things large enough to “pervade across the ten directions” are prajna, our intrinsic nature, and the Dharmakaya. Such things are so large that nothing is outside them and so small that nothing more can be contained within; for they pervade everyplace and exist everywhere. In terms of time, although our physical bodies are born and die and our lives come to an end, our intrinsic Buddha wisdom can transcend the temporal limitations of past, present, and future. It neither arises nor ceases and does not come or go, which is why it “extends down through the three time periods.”

The year I stepped down as abbot of Fo Guang Shan my successor, Venerable Hsin Ping, would come and ask me the same question whenever any major event was about to take place at the monastery. He would ask, “How should we handle it this year?”

I would always answer, “Look to what was done before.”

Referencing earlier precedents means striving for consistency with the monastery’s guiding principles, yet as times change, all things should also undergo some reform and innovation. This is why I said to look to what was done before, not to follow what was done before.

To build people’s faith in the Dharma I have gone from riding a bicycle down to the village in my early years to taking automobiles. Because of this modernized society, instead of walking, I can now fly to and fro through the sky. I deeply appreciate how these modern forms of transportation offer many conveniences for teaching the Dharma. However, an appropriate respect for tradition can allow people to see the true meaning of Buddhism. For example, beginning in 1988 and continuing every other year afterwards, Fo Guang Shan has an alms procession, in which monastics collect donations with their bowls as in the time of the Buddha. Not only does this activity serve to bring the light of the Buddha’s compassion to every corner of Taiwan and give Buddhists an opportunity to make offerings and generate merit, it is a good experience for the monastics as well. In 1988 I launched a series of events across Taiwan entitled “Returning to the Buddha’s Time,” featuring ceremonies, performances, and a Dharma talk. The events used modern audio-visual multimedia to enable the audience of tens of thousands to travel back in time and return to the sacred site of Vulture Peak where the Buddha was teaching twenty-five hundred years ago and share in the Dharma joy of Buddhist chanting.

The policy of referring to past precedents is a manifestation of “extending down through the three time periods.” Whenever some improvement is introduced, it goes through a process of discussion and coordination and then later becomes widely known to everyone. Meetings are an indispensable part of this process. There are times when students ask to attend our meetings, and I do not refuse them.

In the past I served on the monastery staff, and while taking care of guests I developed a keen awareness as to how all things are connected. Each moment can be considered as a point that leads to some other point, together these points make a line, and by observing many of these lines, one comes to an understanding of the whole. By seeing some individual matter as part of the whole, then one can tweak its temporal and spatial qualities in just the right way so that nothing will be left out.

Buddha nature permeates everywhere, “pervading across the ten directions and extending down through the three time periods.” Because of this, in terms of our essence, both the Buddha and I possess the same Buddha nature. Therefore, I need not submit to force, nor become beguiled by wealth and honor. I am one with all living beings. Sometimes I may sit upon a high throne and expound the sublime truths of the Buddha, while at other times I can toil and work for the benefit of living beings and contribute through my sacrifice. I can be great or be small, I can come first or come last, I can do with or do without, I can handle happiness or suffering, I can expand or contract, and I can bear being full or being hungry. I was not born with the ability to do everything, but I am always willing to try.

It is because of the maxim “pervade across the ten directions and extend down through the three time periods” that we must throw open the universal gate. There can be no racial barriers or special treatment. We must be able to lead people from all walks of life, regardless of their religious and social backgrounds, into sharing equally in the benefits of the Dharma. This will enable all living beings from different regions of the world and different stations in life to benefit from the Dharma’s various positive connections, and bestow them upon society.

Buddhist Success: Paramita

As mentioned previously, paramita is a Sanskrit word that means “success,” “crossing from this shore to the other shore,” and “the perfect tranquility of nirvana.

We know that we must go from this shore of delusion and cross to the other shore of enlightenment, but can we do this just by thinking about it from time to time?

The Diamond Sutra says we should “Give rise to a mind that does not abide in anything.” In this instance, “abide” means to be attached to something, particularly attached to an independent self. When we become too focused on this sense of an independent self we become attached to the perceived value of this “self,” and thus cling to certain ideas and never let them go. When we worry too much about the gains and losses of this “self” our feelings become deluded by love, hate, sadness, and happiness. Having a mind that does not abide in anything calls upon us to live in the world according to the selflessness of prajna, for this is the only way to reach the state of nirvana. Nirvana is:

  • Complete tranquility
  • The highest bliss
  • Everlasting happiness
  • Complete merit and wisdom
  • Total freedom from desire
  • The ultimate state of liberation
  • True reality

Success in Buddhism is transcending this shore with its affliction, delusion, and suffering, and crossing to the other shore of purity and tranquility, where no afflictions appear and all suffering has ended. The specific practice to accomplish this is a group of virtues called the “six paramitas” or “six perfections.” The six paramitas are:

  1. Giving (dana-paramita)Giving is to take what one has or knows and give it to others. Besides the giving of wealth and property, this also includes giving the Dharma and confidence or fearlessness to others. The paramita of giving can help to eliminate the defilement of greed.
  2. Morality (sila-paramita)The basis of Buddhist morality is the five precepts, but it is not enough to think that the five precepts are just about not doing this or not doing that. The five precepts should be viewed in positive terms, for that is the path to happiness. For example, one should go beyond the first precept “not to kill” and in addition actively protect life. One can go beyond “not stealing” and practice giving. One can go beyond “not committing sexual misconduct” and be respectful. One can go beyond “not lying” and give praise. Going beyond not killing to protect life leads to a long life; going beyond not stealing to practice giving brings riches; going beyond not committing sexual misconduct to being respectful leads to a pleasant family life; and going beyond not lying to giving praise means that one will have a good reputation.
  3. Patience (ksanti-paramita)In Buddhism there are three kinds of patience: the patience for life, the patience for phenomena, and the patience for non-arising phenomena.4 A bodhisattva is one who patiently endures all the humiliations of life, as well as cold, heat, hunger, thirst, and so on. The paramita of patience can help to eliminate the defilement of anger.
  4. Diligence (virya-paramita)The paramita of diligence includes physical diligence and mental diligence. Mental diligence means earnestly practicing wholesome teachings while taking care to eliminate the roots of unwholesomeness. The paramita of diligence is the antidote for laziness and idleness.
  5. Meditative Concentration (dhyana-paramita)The paramita of meditative concentration comes from making one’s mind free of distractions such that it does not become confused or deluded by worldly matters. The paramita of meditative concentration can remove the defilement of doubt.
  6. Prajna (prajna-paramita)The paramita of prajna is the most important of the paramitas, and the forerunner of the other five. By using prajna wisdom one can eradicate the defilement of ignorance.

I loved playing basketball when I was young, so I often draw my analogies from basketball: be it spiritual cultivation, academic study, or interacting with others, they’re all like playing basketball. For example, when trying to get along with others, you should not go off to fight your own battles, for it is important to remember team spirit. One should wait for the right time to act, just as when one has possession of the ball, one must wait for any opportunity to make a shot. And if you break the rules, you must admit your fault, just as in raising one’s hand in a game.

When playing basketball, one must have the spirit of the six paramitas: you must pass the ball to your teammates to help them to score points on a basket (giving), you need to play by the rules of the court (morality), you must show restraint to avoid being bumped by others during the heat of a match (patience), you must practice your skills if you want to score (diligence), and, in addition to fundamentals, you must develop basketball strategy in order to win (prajna).

Why is prajna considered the foremost paramita? The Treatise on the Perfection of Great Wisdom says, “the other five perfections are blind without prajna to guide them.” It is impossible to reach the ultimate goal by relying only upon the other five paramitas and attempting to do without prajna. This is why prajna is described as the foundation of the six paramitas and is also the foundation of the Dharma.

The Lotus Sutra states, “The turmoil of the three realms is like a burning house.” The three realms of Buddhist cosmology (the desire realm, the form realm, and the formless realm) are like a burning house. But if we make our minds nice and cool, then the blaze of suffering that presses upon us will disappear. Only by cultivating prajna without the expectation of gain can we succeed with the six paramitas.

Once the Chan master Caoshan Huixia said to his attendant, “An enlightened person will be unperturbed by heat, no matter how hot it gets inside or outside.”

Huixia’s attendant agreed. Huixia then asked, “If it were extremely hot now, where would you go to escape it?”

The attendant answered, “I would seek refuge in a burning-hot cauldron.”

Huixia was puzzled. He asked further, “Nothing is hotter than a cauldron. Why would you seek refuge in such blazing heat?”

Pointing at his heart, the attendant answered, “The great mass of suffering cannot reach me here.”

The Diamond Sutra reveals to us the secret of success: to have a mind that does not abide in anything. This is prajna. The mind itself is all of wondrous existence, while abiding in nothing is true emptiness; and there cannot be wondrous existence without true emptiness. The prajna of the Buddha can make one understand the mind and body with crystal clarity, like the moon reflected in water, transporting one from this shore of delusion and attachment to the other shore that is permanent, blissful, pure, and has an inherent self. Practitioners are able to turn a world of blazing heat into a realm that is refreshingly cool, and transform defilement and affliction into the Pure Land. Such people find no situation in which they are not content.

1. These are the “five causes of loss”: five things mentioned in the Buddhist sutras that can destroy our wealth. Ed.

2. The three kinds of supernatural knowledge are knowledge of past, present, and future lives, heavenly eyes, and the power of ending all defilement. Ed.

3. 橫遍十方,豎窮三際: The ten directions are the four cardinal directions, the four intermediate directions, plus above and below, and the three time periods are the past, present, and future. There is a suggestion in the Chinese expression that space exists on a horizontal plane and that time exists on a vertical plane, with the two together encompassing everything. Ed.

4. This type of patience comes from the realization that, on a supramundane level, phenomena do not truly arise or cease, and all things are simply as they are. Ed.