Some Knowledge About Buddhism

-Continued from issue #109
-By Upasaka C.T. Shen

      Upon enlightenment, Buddha realized that all phenomena and ideas are unreal and impermanent, arising because of human beings' incorrect and incomplete perceptions of the universe.  Buddha realized shunyata.

Shunyata is a prerequisite of the achievement of perfect wisdom. But what is shunyata?

Shunyata is a Sanskrit word translated into English as "emptiness." But I must emphasize that shunyata is not "nothingness" nor does it mean a void. Shunyata is a term used by the enlightened ones to describe the true nature of the universe. I will approach this from two sides:

First, let me ask: Is there anything in this open space in front of me? A few hundred years ago probably all would have answered: "No. It is empty." Today, you might still consider it an empty space but some of you may say that there is air or dust in it. Someone who studied chemistry may go a step further and say that it contains oxygen, nitrogen, and possibly bacteria. A physicist would probably say it contains much more than that; referring to cosmic rays, radio waves, and many other things which only scientists understand. Now what does all this mean? It means that this open space is far from empty. We arrive at the incorrect conclusion that this space is empty because it is full of things and activities that our naked eyes and ears cannot detect.

Second, let me ask: How about my physical body? Would you say it is empty? Most likely you will say: "No. This is a solid body," Is that answer correct?

You certainly have seen X-ray photos. If my body is exposed to X-rays, what do you see in the photo? You can no longer see my body, what you see is a bone structure of a human being, not much different from that of a big monkey. Again if my body is examined under a giant microscope, what happens? There will no longer be the form of a body. What one can see may be a complex chain of molecules. If we amplify further to the atomic level, the things one can detect would be very few except for vast empty space. Theoretically everything can be analyzed to its root as energy and energy is formless, and cannot be seen; it is empty.

How interesting it is! When one says this open space is empty, it is actually full of things. When one says my body is solid, it is empty.

Another example is perhaps even simpler to comprehend. We human beings say that air is empty and we can freely move in it, but water to us is not empty. However a fish may see it entirely differently. A fish will consider water, in which he can move freely, as empty while air is not. In fact air may be a solid as a rock to a fish. It can hardly move an inch in air.

I can give you many other examples which all lead to one conclusion that one eyes and ears and other sense organs do not give us a complete view of the universe and that the result of such incomplete information could be very misleading. Unfortunately all our knowledge and thereby our actions are entirely based upon such incomplete or incorrect information perceived by our sense organs since the first instant we left our mother's womb.

Scientifically, the electro magnetic spectrum clearly tells us that our human eyes can only detect a very small segment of the spectrum the light waves. Our naked eye cannot see things far away or things microscopic.

It is not just our eyes that are incomplete. The porpoise can detect sound at frequencies as high as 150,000 cycles per second. The dog can hear sound at frequencies between 15 and 50,000 cycles per second. But we human beings can only detect sound with the frequency range of 20 to 20,000 cycles per second.

Even more detrimental is the stubborn nature of our brain, which refuses to accept the fact that our senses are faulty. This is because the information continuously and consistently fed into the brain by the sense organs is so incomplete. Therefore, even though you understand what I said at this moment, the next moment you forget or discard it completely because your eyes and ears give you an entirely different picture, which your brain habitually accepts as the true picture.

It is therefore extremely important to point out that understanding alone is not enough to overcome the habitual acceptance of this incomplete and incorrect view of the world. Enlightenment is needed. With enlightenment you observe directly, clearly, and continuously that the universe is empty; that all phenomena and ideas are just like a dream or like clouds floating in the sky which come and go without leaving any trace behind. You will then be unaffected by what ever phenomena appear. They are by nature empty. They are unreal and impermanent. This is the great wisdom.

How can one be enlightened? Buddha told of his own experience, that he was enlightened by right concentration and right contemplation. You may still remember the story about the mother frog and her tadpoles I told you a few minutes ago. In this case, I am just like the tadpole and can hardly explain to you further about the experience of enlightenment. I have to stop at this point and go on to the next point which you have to know to become a Buddha; that is, the perfection of great compassion.

To talk about great compassion, I must introduce to you one important term in Buddhism, which is Bodhisattva. Bodhi means enlightenment or to enlighten and sattva means being. So Bodhisattva is an enlightened being or one who leads other beings to enlightenment. A Bodhisattva is therefore a being who is on the path of becoming a Buddha and who is committed to helping other beings reach enlightenment.

It is interesting to note that a Bodhisattva can be a monk, a nun, or an ordinary person like we are. To do the deeds a Bodhisattva should do, the Bodhisattva takes many forms to be on close contact with various kinds of people and beings.

The most important quality for a Bodhisattva to have is compassion. Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara or Kuan Yin is a symbolic representative of great compassion. The great vow of this Bodhisattva was to free all sentient beings from fears of any kind. Let me quote two sentences of a famous verse:

"I shall go to thousands of places

In responding to thousands of prayers,

In the vast sea of suffering

I shall serve always as a ferry to deliver beings."

In this verse you may note:

1) There is no geographical limitation;

2) There is no limit to the number of prayers that the Bodhisattva will respond to;

3) There is no restriction as to what kind of prayers will be responded to;

4) There is no discrimination as to who is making the prayer;

5) There is no interruption in serving, it continues day and night;

6) There is no expectation of a reward of any kind.

This is the great compassion one should learn.

At this point you may think this is quite similar to the "great love" taught by Christ. And rightly so, because according to Buddhism's interpretation, Jesus Christ was indeed a great Bodhisattva. On many occasions Christ taught his followers to give totally of themselves in the service of others. He himself gave even his own life.

Concluded next Issue