In practising Buddhism from establishing faith to experiencing enlightenment, there are stages of "understanding" and "practice". The terms "practice" and "understanding" are self-explanatory. But there are infinite numbers and boundless ways of understanding and practising Buddhism. Now I will expound only the two most essential points. Regarding "understanding", we must know two things. Firstly, continuity of birth and death, secondly, mutual accretion of all entities.
Continuity of birth and death explains that the life is impermanent and continuous. This is consistent with the truth that all phenomena are impermanent. From childhood to old age, life is continuously changing. Although it is constantly changing, the state in the future is different to the present, the life forms of the present and future are forever inter-connecting, thus life maintains its seemingly identical and continuous individuality.
In a broad sense, death in this life marks the beginning of the next new life. Death is not the end of all existence. For example, when we go to bed tonight, we will wake up tomorrow morning again. Having understood this truth, then we can deeply believe in the Law of Conservation of Karmic Fruit (conditions of rebirth depending on previous karmic conduct). In terms of present time, the success or failure of our undertakings will depend on whether we receive proper upbringing and schooling. In addition, if we do not make an effort at young age to learn and master a skill, or we are not hard at work, then we will have no means to make a living at older age.
Extending this simple principle, it shows that if we do not behave well and fail to cultivate blessed-rewards in this life, then we will face unfavourable living conditions in our future rebirths. In other words, we have to behave well this life so that in future rebirths we will be better off, more intelligent and happy. This fact of continuity of birth and death, and the truth that every phenomenon is impermanent will help us to make an effort to uplift ourselves.
Now we come to mutual accretion of all entities. Here accretion means strengthening or growth through mutual dependence. No person can live independently in a society, as there must be mutual dependence and support among individuals. For example, young children depend on their parents for upbringing and guidance and when the parents grow old, they in turn, will need the support and care from their children. By the same token, all branches of activities in the society, such as agriculture, industry, commerce, politics, depend on the others for its growth.
According to Buddhism, in the universe we have an intimate relationship with all sentient being residing in all dharma-realms (forms of existence). It is possible that other sentient beings have been our parents, brothers and sisters in the infinite past. Due to the influence of karma, our living existence and circumstances now differ to that of the past, therefore we do not recognise each other. When we gain an understanding of mutual accretion, then we can cultivate the virtue of helping and loving each other. This in turn will lead us to a harmonious and happy co-existence with others. Otherwise, we can never achieve world peace and personal happiness if we harm each other, cheat each other, and kill each other. Thus we can play an active role in this world. If we wish to turn this impure world into a pure land, then it depends on whether or not we can start to lead a harmonious and happy life with our fellow sentient being of this world.
Regarding the methods of practice, although there are many, principally they are: purification of one's mind and performance of altruistic acts. To follow the Buddha is to hold the Buddhas and the Bodhisattvas as our ideal objective to attain. Our chief aim is the accretion of blessed-rewards, virtues, and wisdom. But we cannot acquire these without practising what the Buddha has taught. The major tenet of practising Buddhism is the purification of our own minds. Since the beginning of time we have deluded our minds with greed, aversion, heterodox views (perverted views), arrogance, and doubt. They all serve as obstacles to prevent us from performing wholesome acts to profit ourselves and others. Thus, to follow the Buddha we must first purify our minds.
The purification of our minds does not require us to abandon all worldly affairs, do nothing and think nothing. We should do and think (i.e. contemplation) anything that is appropriate, however, we should cultivate a wholesome mind to act and think in accordance to the truth so that we can profit ourselves and others. These practices are similar to removing the weeds in a garden. Not only must we totally uproot the weeds so that they will not grow again, but also we must plant flowers and trees for everyone to enjoy and appreciate. Hence, Buddhism states that the practice of concentration (dhyana)
alone is not sufficient to solve the problems of birth-and-death. We must cultivate both concentration and wisdom at the same time, and sever the mental defilement to attain the fruits of enlightenment. Buddha-dharma states, "All sentient beings are pure if our minds are pure. The world is pure if our minds are pure." These revelations teach the dharma practitioners to purify themselves first. Then they should extend this purification to the world and other sentient beings. Mind-purification is the essential practice among all schools of Buddhism.
Next we can talk about the altruistic acts. According to the principle of mutual accretion, an individual cannot exist away from the masses. In order to find happiness and security for ourselves, we must first seek security and happiness for the masses. In terms of a family, you are one of its members, and in respect to a society, again you are one of its members. Only when the family is happy and secure can you find happiness and security for yourself. If everyone in society is peaceful and happy, then you will have real peace and happiness. This is similar to the observation of sanitary practices. If you care only for the cleanliness within your home, and pay no attention to the sanitation of the surrounding environment, then such sanitation is not thorough.
Thus, in the view of Mahayanists, practises that emphasis on self-benefit and self-liberation only are not ultimate, they are only expedient paths.
The Bodhisattvas emphasise altruistic acts. Altruism is always the first and foremost intention of their every word, every act, every where and every time. Purification of the mind is common to the two-vehicles (Sravakas and Pratyeka -Buddhas) and to put highest emphasis on acts of altruism is a special feature of Mahayana Buddhism. This is a practice that conformed with the spirit of the Buddha's teachings.
Translated by Lin Yang, edited by Mick Kiddle, proofread by Neng Rong. (19-5-1995)
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