Seminar at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas

During April, members of the Sino-American Buddhist Association held a weekend seminar at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas which provided an introduction to the study and practice of the Orthodox Buddhadharma for members of the East West Academy of Healing Arts. Dr. Effie Poy Yew Chow, President of the Academy and more than twenty members and friends joined the Avatamsaka assembly for two formal lectures followed by questions and answers. They joined in the meditation periods and participated in the meal offering, ceremonies and evening recitation. Vegetarian meals were served. The Academy, a group of professional people dedicated to healing and interested in "wellness," had the benefit of informal instruction and question and answer periods throughout the two-day retreat. The following is a transcript of one of these instructional talks given by the Venerable Master Hsuan Hua, translated by Bhiksuni Heng Yin, reviewed by Bhiksuni Heng Ch'ih.

As people grow up they develop interests and pursue them. But if you remember, when you were first born, you didn't have any particular interests—you didn't know anything at all. Gradually as you grew up you came to select certain things that you wanted to study and certain jobs that you wanted to do. If you think about this principle—people carry with them from former lives a certain kind of disposition that makes them attracted to certain things in the life that they have now. But then when they get born again they forget it all. For example, someone who is a linguist may develop an interest in languages early in life and start studying like mad to learn all the world's languages, and maybe if they are really good, by the time they are very old they will have mastered every language and then what happens? They die--because nobody lives that long. And then when they die they forget everything they learned in the life before, and they have to start all over again from the beginning.

People's lifetimes are like waves on the sea—one follows the other and there is a connection between them--they are different but they are connected. So maybe in the life after that this person will be inclined to study languages and start all over again with French or Spanish or whatever and finally get to the point where they are about to master all the languages and then they die. The reason is, regarding this kind of external knowledge, there is no way you can learn everything--taking it from outside and putting it in but still you are inclined to do these things. Healing, or being a nurse or doctor, is the same thing. In a lifetime you can study many methods of healing people, helping people, but there is a limit to what you can do in a single lifetime. You cannot perfect all the healing skills. If you get to the point where you are very close to doing so—nobody knows how long your life is going to be. You don't know how long you are going to live—maybe sooner maybe later—but when the time comes you'll lose all your knowledge. You'll get born again; you're just a little baby, you don't know anything, you have to start all over. Someone may not believe in past lives or future lives, but whether you believe in them or not, the principle is still true—we carry these inclinations and dispositions from life to life, but at no time, because of seeking externally in our knowledge do we ever really perfect ourselves in our knowledge.

People who cultivate the Way run into the same situation. They cultivate the Way to end birth and death. So maybe someone is a cultivator in this life and they leave home--cut their hair off, put on the robes—and really work hard to cultivate and solve the problem of birth and death once and for all. And when they get to the point where they are just about ready to become totally enlightened and become Buddhas, they die. They don't quite make it. They get born again, they get born into fairly good surroundings--they have some blessings from having cultivated before—but they get all caught up in thinking that being a layperson would be nice this life instead of a person who has left the home life, because as a layperson you can do whatever you want--if you want to go get loaded you can get loaded, if you want to go to the movies you can go to the movies, and so instead of leaving home, which is what they did before, they are a layperson, and what happens is they dissipate all their merit and wisdom that they gained in their former lives as a cultivator and end up sliding down and their wisdom and merit decline.

This is because when you cultivate for a while you get so you have a little foundation to rest on and you get to the point where you don't want to do it anymore and you just sort of ride on what you have and enjoy yourself. But the problem with this is, you just keep going from one end to the other and you never really get anywhere. You make a certain amount of progress in the direction of ending birth and death, you get to a certain point and decide you don't want to go any further, for whatever reason and then you go back, and once you go back you have to build up all that again. You start over again from the beginning and you keep going and going and going and you are about ready to get enlightened and you die, or something happens and you retreat from the path of cultivation. This is because in your cultivation you didn't get to the point where there is no turning back. In cultivation if you become enlightened and end birth and death there is no retreating. You know when you are going to be born and you have complete control over your own life and death. Then it's all over. Until you have done this, you just go along in a confused way studying one thing while at the same time thinking about studying something else and getting a little bit here and getting a little bit there and it is all very confused and you go from life to life like that, going from one thing to another, back and forth. Sometime you may get to the point where you wonder, where does it all stop? Where does it end? When is there rest? This happens because ordinary people of the world have not ended birth and death, and enjoy leisure, enjoy enjoying themselves. Maybe they take drugs or drink or whatever--they get into using what they have--like being a super consumer. Whatever internal wealth they have they blow. A lot of  people think when they have a little something going for them,  "Well, I'm really intelligent." 

      But when looked at from the point of view of the sage, someone who has genuine wisdom, they are really confused, really upside down, but they still go around thinking how smart they are, that it is not necessary for them to cultivate. This is not being true to yourself, it's not doing what ultimately has to be done, which is to take the wheel of rebirth and bring it to a stop. Stop the wheel and get off.

I don't know if what I have just said is right or not. But it is my opinion of things. If anyone has anything they would like to add or any criticisms or comments, please do so.

Question: In Christianity there is a saying that no matter how many lives or how much effort and discipline a person has, it still takes incredibly long and maybe it's impossible to really become enlightened and so the reason for the whole Christian story for Easter is that some of this is being done for us to lessen our sins. I was wondering if the Master would speak to this point.

Answer: I also believe that. But I believe that Jesus cannot eat for me on my behalf, Jesus cannot wear clothes for me, Jesus can't sleep-for me. These three things are very important and he can't do them for me, so how can he lighten my offenses? I don't want to say Jesus was wrong, but I must bring up that point.

I'm certainly not criticizing Jesus, but for living beings to think that Jesus could do the work for them is really rather pathetic, and this includes me.

If it were really the case that Jesus could, by sacrificing his own life, undergo suffering for the sake of living beings, then I would now gladly grind my body to powder, smash it to dust, undergo that much suffering out of a desire to undergo suffering for the sake of living beings, but it can't be done.

This is not a matter of criticizing Jesus; it is a matter of the interpretation living being shave of him and there is a saying in Buddhism that you cannot necessarily believe what you think. You can't necessarily have trust in your own thoughts, because your mind is basically not something you can trust. Only when you become a fourth stage Arhat can you really believe what you are thinking.

Now you may be thinking, "Well, I'm a fourth stage Arhat so I can believe what I think." But a fourth stage Arhat, in the first place, when he walks his feet don't touch the ground. So if you are at that point, that when you walk you are not on the ground, then you can believe your own mind.

Not only in Christianity, but in Buddhism, if there are principles in it that don't make sense, I won't believe them. Although I am Buddhist and represent the Buddhist viewpoint on things, if there is something in the teachings that is not principled, I won't believe it. It has to be true, it has to have principle.

Question: Does that mean that in your own experience it would ring true?

Answer: According to your own wisdom.

Question: So essentially we have our own Buddha inside of us?

Answer: And a ghost.

Question: Is that a person's aura?

Answer: Is that aura something that's real or not?

Question: Is it the ghost?

Answer: You say there is a Buddha within you. Have you seen it?

Question: It's sort of knowing of it, but not a vision.

Answer: But Westerners have to see it before they believe it.

Question: NO.

Answer: Then you're not a Westerner. So now where are you? I've said she's not a Westerner, but she knows she's not an Easterner.

Question: I'm all of it.

Answer: Like the motes of dust.

Question: Touché.

Answer: Who's "touched?" If you can’t find out who you are then how do you know that you've been touched?

Question: I just felt that you were closing me off with that "motes of dust" so I was admitting you won.

Answer: I basically wasn't debating, so how could I have won?

Question: If it's true that Jesus has done a lot of the work already, then if that's the case, then logically that means it should be very easy for Christians to become enlightened because Jesus did all this work already. So the question is, why aren't Westerners, and more specifically, more Christians enlightened, if it's so easy? And if it isn't easy then why aren't we doing what was necessary to become enlightened?

Answer: This is a big question, but I don't like to answer big questions like this. A big question like this can't be answered thoroughly on the spot. To answer it would be like taking Christianity to court, and I don't like legal proceedings, so I don't want to answer this question. Besides which, when this question is explained it frightens people. I can say this, but it's not a direct answer to the question, it's just indirectly related. It's this: people who believe in the Buddha should not be superstitious about the Buddha and thereby give other religions the impression that Buddhism is superstition. That's the very reason I said earlier that if the principles the Buddha spoke are not reasonable, I won't believe them. For instance, if he had said that if you kill that person you will have great merit and virtue—you will be able to become enlightened! Basically there is no such principle. If he had said, by killing that person you prevent great harm to the people of this world because this person is evil, although there's a little principle in this, it's still an offense to kill, and that's not principled.

Suppose, for instance, you steal, and then use the money you get to help other people. There's also a little principle in this, but it's not ultimate, because it is not totally right. People like Robin Hood and the like represent good within evil, but their method is not an ultimate one. So I can't put much faith in this method.

Again, if a Buddhist were to say that when the Buddha entered Nirvana he took all living beings' offenses with him, then all of us people should be very happy. So why is it that there is still so much suffering in this world? He took it with him.

It is said that Jesus took on the offenses of the people of this world, so then everyone should be without offenses. Why are there still so many people with offenses? And if you have to admit there are still those with offenses, then this theory won't hold.

So people who believe in the Buddha should not be superstitious about the Buddha; people who believe in Jesus should not be superstitious about Jesus. What does it mean to be superstitious about Jesus? It is just to think that what he said that is right is right, and what he said that is wrong is also right. One who thinks like that turns into a piece of wood, into a crucifix, and nails Jesus up to die. You should all take heed of this. By being so fixed in our thinking we nail Jesus on the cross so he can't move. So those who believe in Catholicism should not be superstitious about God, and people who believe in Mohammedanism should not be superstitious about Mohammed. People who believe in Confucius should not say that Confucius was totally correct. There were places where the things Confucius had to say were very selfish and unprincipled. If what Lao Tzu said is right then certainly we can believe it, but if it is not right, I have to look into it, to use a little bit of wisdom within my stupidity to distinguish the actual appearance of all Dharmas. So no matter what you believe, don't be superstitious about it. If you become superstitious about what you believe then it turns stiff and you become bound up by your religion so you can't even move, the same way Jesus was nailed to the cross. Although you are alive, you have already been nailed up, especially those who always wear a crucifix. This just represents that in the future you yourself will be nailed to a cross, following in Jesus' footsteps to take on the sins of those in the world. If someone could take on the sins of the world we first have to discuss--can someone eat on behalf of those in the world? Can someone sleep on their behalf? Can someone wear their clothes for them? If that is possible, then I will believe that they can take on my sins and undergo my sufferings. But if they cannot represent me in these three very superficial things, sins are invisible. Ah, you say it's just because they are invisible that someone can say, "I'll take them for you." Well, I can also say that I will take on all the sufferings of living beings in the world. You can give them all to me. Giving them all to me is fine, but in order for it to count f there should be no more sufferings. Why is it that all of you still undergo suffering and distress? In your homes there is trouble and difficulty, quarrels and fighting--still the same kind of disobedience and unruliness. Tell me, how can I be taking it on for you? Suppose I say I will represent all of you in being unruly, but I don't follow the rules, you still continue to not follow the rules as well. So tell me how can I be representing you? Right?

I, I also have a self, but this self is a false self, so I hope that whoever of you knows some genuine principle will describe it for me, and if I feel--that it is absolute truth, then I can change at any moment and believe in what you have told me, and bow to you as my teacher.

Right now I'm the teacher, but whoever of you disciples can tell me some perfectly true principle and I feel that it is correct and everyone else agrees that it is, then I can change and not be the teacher any longer, but become the disciple. That's how democratic I am. I certainly do not say I have the status of teacher and I cannot ever relinquish it. I haven't any status. All I'm doing in this world is investigating true principle with all of you. This is my conviction.