Some Knowledge About Buddhism

-continued from issue #107
-by Dr. C.T. Shen, Upasaka and
founder of the institute for advanced studies of world religions; chairperson of the board of trustees of Vajra Bodhi Sea Journal.

The second point I wish to make is that according to Buddha's teaching, gods can be very powerful compared to human beings, but nevertheless, they are not free from affliction and can be angry. The life of a god may be very long. This explains the concept held by many religions that god is eternal. But according to Buddha, the Almighty God worshipped by the ancient Indians is still subject to death and rebirth. So, a god cannot be called Buddha, who frees himself by the cycle upon enlightenment.

The third and most challenging point discovered by Buddha during his enlightenment is that every human being can become a Buddha. Buddha discovered that every human being possesses the same wisdom that he himself possesses, but that wisdom is clouded by ignorance and cannot easily reveal itself.

      It should be emphasized that when I say every human being, I do mean that each and every one of you here can become a Buddha. This is a fundamental teaching of Buddhism. To put it another way, everyone does have the potential to achieve complete wisdom and complete compassion.

Now, before explaining how one can become a Buddha, let me present to you two fundamental concepts in Buddhism. One is samsara and the other is karma. Both words are Sanskrit, an ancient language used in India. Samsara is an aspect of the universe, which cannot be detected by human eyes. It is the cycle of birth and death of a being. Buddhism teaches that the birth and death in the present lifetime of a being is only one segment in a chain of infinite lives of that being. The death of a being is by no means the end.

Buddhism further teaches that there are five kinds of life forms or existences into which a being can be reborn. The five kinds of existences are as heaven-dwellers, to which gods belong, human beings, animals, ghosts, and hell-dwellers. After death, a human being is reborn into another existence. He or she can be reborn as a human being or, perhaps, a heaven-dweller, animal, ghost, or hell-dweller. Therefore, a human being does have the opportunity to be reborn as a god in heaven. By extension, a hell-dweller can also be reborn as an animal, a human being, etc., and a heaven-dweller can also die and be reborn as a human being, hell-dweller, and so forth. This change of existences goes, on infinitely unless and until the chain breaks, which occurs when this concept of birth and death becomes meaningless to a being. According to Buddhism, this happens when one is enlightened. Then the concept of birth and death is no longer applicable. This realization of having no birth and death is called nirvana, another popular word in Sanskrit. One who achieves the status of nirvana breaks the chain of samsara and eliminates rebirth in any of the five existences. Yet, this does not mean extinction. Not only did Buddha Sakyamuni reach nirvana, many of his disciples did as well.

      The next question is who or what causes samsara? Who or what determines that the next life of a being will be in heaven or hell, or will take the form of a human being? A similar question can also be asked: Who or what determines that the people on earth, although all human beings, vary so much in appearance, character, wealth, life span, health, fate, etc.? It is even more interesting to note how much the circumstances in which a person is born can influence his or her destiny. Which race, which nation, what skin color, what kind of parents—all these factors make a great difference. Now, who or what determines these choices? Would it not be more logical to say that something happened before one's birth that caused all these effects, than to say that they are purely accidental, or that they are God's will? If a baby has no past life, then on what grounds does God judge whether to reward or punish that baby by causing him or her to be born under such tremendously; different circumstances? According to Buddhism, it is not accidental, nor is it God's will. It is one's own actions that determine one's own destiny. Since Buddhism teaches past, present, and future lives, the actions of the past, which include all actions taken in all past lives have a direct effect on one's present and future lives. It should be pointed out that when I say actions of the past, it includes the actions of the present because the present is merely an instant, which does not remain. As soon as we say, "This is the present," it is already the past.

This law, that one's own actions determine one's own destiny, is called karma. In the Random House dictionary, karma is defined as "actions, seen as bringing upon oneself inevitable results, good or bad, either in this life or in a reincarnation." I wish to expand this definition by saying that karma is an action or combination of actions by a being or a group of beings, which produces effects. Those effects, which can be good, bad, or neutral, determine the future of that being or group of beings. Good karma produces good effects, bad karma produces bad effects. Here, the good or bad effects produced by good or bad karma is purely and simply a natural phenomenon governed by the natural laws that act automatically with complete justice, and is not a judgement made by a supramundane authority such as a god. Furthermore, the good or bad referred to here is not defined by any code or law created by human beings, unless such code or law follows the natural laws. For example, when democracy was first devised, women did not have the right to vote. At that time, women who complied with that status were considered "good" and those who fought against it were considered "bad." That judgement was incorrect, however. The natural law is that human beings are all equal, and thus, the system which gives women equal voting rights with men is the truly just one. Therefore, those who opposed the unequal voting system were actually the good ones.

This law of karma, or cause and effect, is so powerful that it governs everything in the universe except, according to Buddhism, the one who is enlightened. Upon enlightenment, one understands this law thoroughly and therefore does not fall prey to it by making mistakes in cause and effect. In this way, the law of cause and effect loses its significance once one is no longer confused in one's actions and conduct.

-Continued in next issue