Introduction to Buddhism
It is necessary for us to a have correct understanding before practicing Buddhism; otherwise, all the time and effort spent in cultivation will be futile, as the most superior result will not be attained. Therefore, I would like to briefly explain the true nature of Buddhism.
Chinese history tells us that about three thousand years ago, Buddha Shakyamuni, the founder of Buddhism was born in Northern India. He lived for seventy-nine years and dedicated forty-nine of them to teaching. In 67 AD, one thousand years after he entered Parinirvana, these teachings were formally introduced into China.
Before acquiring a good knowledge of Buddhism, we need to understand the terms Buddha, Dharma, Buddhist Dharma, and Buddhist teaching, as they are important to our cultivation. Buddha is a Sanskrit word, meaning “wisdom and enlightenment.” Why was it transliterated as Buddha and not translated into wisdom and enlightenment? The meaning of “Buddha” is so profound and extensive that these two words were insufficient to cover the original meaning. Therefore, transliteration was used with further explanations.
In essence, Buddha means wisdom while in application or function it means enlightenment. There are three levels of wis- dom. First, “General and All Knowledge Wisdom” is the correct understanding of the noumena, or essence, of the universe. It is the wisdom of knowing the general aspect of all existences, the wisdom of Theravada sages.
Second, “Differentiation Wisdom” is the wisdom that can correctly comprehend all the infinite phenomena of the universe, the wisdom of knowing the discriminative aspect of all existences, the wisdom of Bodhisattvas. How did these phenomena arise? From where? In what way? What were their results?
Third, “Overall and Perfect Knowledge Wisdom” is the exhaustive and perfect perception and comprehension of the truth of life and the universe without the slightest doubt or error, the wisdom of Buddhas. The Buddha, possessing all three of these kinds of wisdom, completely understood the true reality of life and universe.
The function of wisdom is enlightenment. There are three clas- sifications of enlightenment. First is “self-enlightenment,” a state in which one possesses no erroneous thoughts, speech, or behavior. Arhats and Pratyekabuddhas in Theravada Buddhism have attained this level of self-enlightenment, but have not yet generated the Bodhi mind to help others achieve enlightenment.
Second, is “enlightenment of self and others,” a state in which one helps others to reach enlightenment after achieving his or her own. Bodhisattvas in Mahayana Buddhism have attained this level.
Third is "Perfect Complete Enlightenment,” a state in which one reaches perfection in both enlightenment for self as well as helping others to reach enlightenment. This is the state of Buddhas.
The Buddha told us that this perfect wisdom and virtue are innate to all beings. The sutras, recorded teachings of the Buddha, tell us, “all sentient beings can attain Buddhahood” and “every being possesses the wisdom and virtuous character of the Buddha.” In other words, all beings are equal to Buddhas in nature. However, due to our wandering thoughts, discriminations, and attachments, which are the root cause of all sufferings and disas- ters, we have temporarily lost our original Buddha-nature. Thus, we continue being born into the endless cycle of birth and death.
The more we rid ourselves of these wandering thoughts and at- tachments, the more we will experience freedom from suffering, and the more wisdom and enlightenment we will uncover. Once we completely free ourselves from wandering thoughts, discriminations, and attachments, our fixations to certain ideas or objects, we will regain our lost Buddhahood that is our original perfect enlightened state, our true nature Buddha.
Possessing great wisdom and enlightenment enables us to truly know all that exists and all that is infinite. This includes matters and objects as tiny as a speck of dust or the finest hair on the hu- man body, to those as great as the infinite universe. All of these are the objects of our perception, or wisdom and enlightenment.
The Buddha used the word Dharma to symbolize these infinite phenomena. Buddhist Dharma or principle is the infinite wisdom and enlightenment, the perception of all things and laws in life and the universe. The Chinese often say that Buddhist Dharma is as infinite as the object perceived is infinite and the wisdom per- ceivable is infinite. This wisdom is innate to our true nature.
The Buddha said, “Innate perception and the objects in the universe perceived are ONE not TWO.” When we think about it logically, if the Buddha’s words are complete and perfect, then we can believe that this wisdom and enlightenment are ultimate and perfect. However, if perceived and perceivable are opposites, then wisdom can hardly be complete and perfect and is limited.
The Buddha told us that knowable and known, perceivable and perceived are ONE not TWO. This is called the One True Dharma Realm, the most genuine, perfect, and highest realm as explained to us in the Avatamsaka Sutra. The Western Pure Land of the Pure Land school also belongs to and is not separate from the One True Dharma Realm. The Western Pure Land, was created by Amitabha Buddha as an ideal place of cultivation and those who are born there are no longer subject to reincarnation within the six realms.
In 1923, a well-known Buddhist scholar, Mr. Ouyang Jingwu gave a speech at Nanjing Normal University in China, titled “Buddhism Is Neither a Religion Nor a Philosophy. It Is a Modern-day Essential.” It caused considerable sensation. His well-documented speech gave much conclusive support to the proper definition and understanding of Buddhism.
What is Buddhism?
This question arises in all those who wish to better understand it. Buddhism is a most virtuous and perfect education directed by the Buddha towards all beings in the universe. It covers a boundless range of phenomena and principles that is much broader than what is currently studied in modern universities. In regards to time, it encompasses the past, present and future and in regards to space, it encompasses everything from our daily lives to the in- finite universe. Buddhism is an education of the wisdom and understanding of life and the universe and is not a religion. The teachings of Confucius concerns one lifetime; the teachings of the Buddha concern infinite lifetimes.
How can we tell that Buddhism is an education? Today, the terms teacher and student are only used in school. We call Bud- dha Shakyamuni our original teacher and we call ourselves stu- dents, as did our predecessors in ancient China. This is unlike religions in which the god and his or her disciples do not have a teacher-student relationship, but rather a parent-child relationship. In Buddhism, however, it is clearly stated that the Buddha is the teacher and we are the students. Bodhisattvas and we are classmates; they were the Buddha’s former students while we are his current ones.
Furthermore, a monk or nun is called heshang, which is the transliteration of the Sanskrit word meaning a direct mentor who provides teachings and acts as our personal guide. We share a close teacher-student relationship with this individual. Buddhist temples or centers have only one heshang. Teachers who teach on behalf of the heshang are called asheli. Their speech and behavior can be models for us to follow. Others who do not directly teach would be called Dharma masters or fashi. They are like teachers whose lectures we do not attend or those who do not directly teach us. All these terms are characteristics of education and are not found in religion.
For further examples of how Buddhism is an education, we can examine Chinese temples and centers where the activities are held. They are educational institutions, which combine Buddhist teaching and art, similar to the combination of a modern school and a museum. Nowadays, people pursue the arts in everything. Buddhism, however, practiced artistic teaching as early as three thousand years ago.
The staff organization further illustrates the similarity to modern schools. The heshang is equivalent to the principal of the school, deciding policies, making plans for courses of study, and employing the teachers. Reporting to the heshang are three associates or program executives, who are in charge of everything directly related to teaching, advising and disciplining, and general services. In China, a traditional temple or center was regarded as a Buddhist University. From this administrative structure, we can further see that Buddhism truly is an education.