In ages past and times to come,
As well as in the present, no guiding master
Speaks only a single dharma
To help beings attain the Way.
The Buddha knows sentient beings’ minds
Are uniquely different in nature.
Based on what they need to be saved,
He speaks Dharma for them accordingly.
── Avatamsaka, Chapter 10
The Bodhisattvas Ask for Clarification
How does a Buddhist decide what methods to focus on in cultivation? Which, among all the potential practices, are most appropriate for me? For you? For anyone? What criteria should we use to choose our life’s work?
That is some of what I pondered after I found Buddhism. In this life, my “finding” of Buddhism brought me to the Buddhist Lecture Hall in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the late ‘60’s. As I joined the small group meditating in that tiny hall and being guided by the Master, I wondered what had happened in the past that brought me to Buddhism at this point, in this life. More importantly, I began to look at what might need to happen in this life so that I could find Buddhism in my next and future lives. As I sat on that bench hour after hour in that simple hall, I reflected on my initial impression of our wise mentor, Venerable Master Hua. The wisdom of his teaching resonated deep within my psyche, reverberating through my remembered experiences and beyond. He wore virtue humbly; he bestowed kindness graciously; and, although I was aware beyond any doubt that he knew each of us inside out, he allowed us our dignity and nurtured our potential in positive ways.
The Master explained the Shurangama Sutra that summer, encouraging us to study it diligently. In complement with that study, the Master emphasized the Shurangama Mantra, vegetarianism, and meditation. He told us that besides leaving us a vast legacy of teachings, the historic Buddha, Shakyamuni, advised us that in this world, in the age in which we have been born, the tendency will be for people to bring about the demise of the Dharma.
After that lesson, I returned to my meditation and found that now my vision was expanding to include not only how to direct my future in Buddhism but also what I could do to help ensure Buddhism’s future. That, I guess, was the moment of my initial resolve. I wanted to be Buddhist and to give everyone in the world, now and forever, a chance to be Buddhist too, so that all of us together could advance to full awakening.
Now I knew how I wanted to direct my own cultivation in this life. I wanted to keep alive the very teachings and practices whose disappearance would herald the beginning of the end of Buddhism. The Master had already told us which dharmas those were: The
Shurangama Sutra and the Shurangama Mantra. And what could I do to help keep them alive? I could open the sutra text every day and read and study it and even memorize it; I could join in the task of translating it into English; I could memorize the mantra and then chant it as often as possible; I could try to live by the teachings in the sutra and to share those with anyone who wanted to listen.
This is not a perfect world and we are not perfect people. We live in the midst of dualities that place us continually in conflicting situations and force us to make choices that are often the lesser of two evils. Finding resolution within those ceaseless dichotomies requires a sense of daring and a willingness to pick ourselves up and continue on our way each time we fall. To maneuver through the chaos and remain safe and sane is a lifelong challenge that requires the ability to remain on the edge—that point of dynamic tension in the gestalt; to balance at the mid point between every set of options; and more, to be flexible while doing so and yet, to never compromise our principles.
For me, it would be impossible to do all that unaided and that is why I have been faithful to the Shurangama Sutra and the Shurangama Mantra ever since the day I first was introduced to them by the Venerable Master. The sutra’s explanations of what kind of world we live in and how to cope with it and what to do to leave it once and for all are my daily guide. The mantra’s cleansing air and latent power always take me by surprise. From the first syllable to the last, over and over again, it acts as a stabilizing thread, weaving its might and majesty into the warp and woof of my life.