I have several lineages, with True Buddha School being one of them. I took refuge in the Sakya, Kagyu and finally Nyingma. I am now a Rinpoche in the Nyingma. Grand Master took refuge in Kagyu, Nyingma, Gelug and Sakya too; these are the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Many of the Vajrayana patriarchs took refuge in several schools of Buddhism. If you are still young and you are of high capacity, you can take refuge in several lineages. You could accomplish your cultivation within a single lineage or within many lineages. You could also accomplish your cultivation within a single lineage, but later expand into other lineages, and finally attain enlightenment too.
The numerous teachings of the Buddha (Dharma) are common in nature, they are not mutually exclusive. If you accept one teaching and reject another, you are practicing wrongly. The Dharma is very pervasive. It is only a matter of which teaching suits you best. You could have practiced in a certain school of Buddhism in your previous life, so you would develop a natural fondness for the teachings in this school in the present lifetime - you are not a beginner. You had been connected with the Dharma in your past lives, so you would end up being reconnected with the Dharma in this lifetime. Eventually, you will accomplish the teachings you are fond of. When you have attained enlightenment, you will then realize that, actually, all teachings are similar in nature. If you are able to accomplish one teaching, you would be able to accomplish the rest of the teachings too.
So, what’s next after taking refuge? Your attitude towards cultivation will matter most. You could end up having a few thousand lineages but it is useless if you do not do the practice. If you did not take refuge but yet do your practice, you could still attain enlightenment. Sakyamuni Buddha attained Buddhahood due to His rigorous practice. He took refuge in teachers who were on the Outer Path because there was no Buddha present during His time. Finally, He took refuge in His own Buddha Nature and attained enlightenment.
Grand Master mentioned in his books that eventually, it is about taking refuge in one’s own Buddha Nature. One attains Buddhahood when he takes refuge in his own Buddha Nature, but not taking refuge in an external source of refuge. An external source of refuge is only an expedient method. Eventually, you will have to take refuge in your own Buddha Nature, which is the highest form of refuge.
You will also need to practice the Four Aspirations: 1) the Aspiration to help the numerous sentient beings attain enlightenment; 2) the Aspiration to end one’s unceasing mental afflictions; 3) the Aspiration to learn the numerous teachings; 4) the Aspiration to attain the most supreme enlightenment.
After taking refuge in the Three Jewels (Buddha, Dharma and Sangha), you should aspire to help other sentient beings to attain enlightenment too (bodhicitta). Before attaining Buddhahood, you will certainly have the numerous mental afflictions, so you should aspire to put an end to all mental afflictions.
The teachings of the Buddha are numerous. You should not learn one to the exclusion of other teachings, but learn all of them including the Mahayana, Hinayana, Sutrayana and Vajrayana, and aspire to attain Buddhahood.
Next, you should do your daily practice, at least once a day. Actually, there should be four practices in a day: morning, afternoon, evening and before sleep. During these four periods, you should visualize the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, intertwining your daily life with cultivation to prevent your mind being distracted by the worldly concerns.
We are layman Buddhists and we need to work, so doing it four times a day is a challenge. Of course it will be great if you could do so. Grand Master said we must practice once a day, but my view is that we should at least do it twice a day: once in the morning and once at night. On Saturdays and Sundays when we do not need to work, we can practice even more - three to four times a day.
Besides doing the seated meditation, the daily walking meditation is necessary too. You should spend some time on doing the walking meditation as it merges spiritual practice and physical exercise in one session. You could walk and chant the name of the Buddha or any mantra simultaneously. After the walking meditation, read some books related to cultivation – learn the numerous teachings of the Dharma. There are many sutras expounding the wisdom of the Buddha. Unless you can find an enlightened teacher who will expound the teachings to you personally on a daily basis, you will have to learn the wisdom of the Buddha on your own too, from the sutras. So, practice daily, do walking meditation, read books on Buddhism, and purify your own mind. When you free yourself from all mental afflictions and attain enlightenment, you can start helping others.
Cultivation is not limited to just this lifetime. It will span across numerous lifetimes. If you do not cultivate, you will end up being perpetually stranded in the Six Realms of Existence. If you cultivate slightly better, you may come back in your next life as a human being. If you fail in your cultivation, you will end up being born as snake, cat, dog etc., and you could only be reborn as a human after cleansing your negative karma.
The Six Realms of Existence is full of sufferings. The human world has more sufferings than happiness: birth, schooling, falling in love, worrying about children, aging, falling sick – these are largely painful experiences, with little happiness in between. Happiness, if any, lasts only briefly, before it turns into suffering again. Only cultivation can free you from sufferings and help you attain true happiness. Only cultivation can free you from mental afflictions and help you end your cyclic existence. Does it mean that you do not return to this world after attaining enlightenment? No. You will come back then from the Buddha Land to help the sentient beings in this world.
After taking refuge, you will need to “put the teachings into practice”. These are words found in the last page of every sutra. Of course, prior to these words, there is always a line that reads “Everyone rejoiced at the teachings”. Everyone rejoiced at the teachings of Sakyamuni Buddha, completely trusting the words of the Buddha, and resolved to put them into practice. If you do not put the teachings into practice, you will not get anywhere. Ananda was a good example. He was the student who stayed with Sakyamuni Buddha the longest time and heard the most teachings, but he did not attain enlightenment when Sakyamuni Buddha passed away into Nirvana, for Ananda did not put into practice the teachings of the Buddha.
After Sakyamuni Buddha passed away into Nirvana, the rest of the Arahats were led by Kasyapa to work on the compilation of all the teachings given by the Buddha. Although Ananda heard the most teachings, he was not invited to join the group because he had not attained the Arahatship. Ananda was then forced to practice hard and eventually attained Arahatship too. After which, he used his supernatural power to enter the cave shut before him, joining the rest of the Arahats who were working inside the cave on the compilation of teachings. So, if you trust the teachings of Sakyamuni Buddha and Grand Master, and put them into practice, you will attain enlightenment too.
Master Nan Huai Jin also mentioned putting into practice the teachings in his book entitled “Zen and Life Science”. Master Nan is a layman Buddhist of over 90 years old. He has a wife and children. There are many ordained monks, abbots and professors who wanted to become his students. But he rejected them. They were not allowed to call him ‘teacher’. He said, “I told you folks long time ago but none of you listened. It is pointless for you to call me teacher but not doing what I teach. You do not put into practice the teachings!”
He cited an exampled, “In the past, I used to have a student by the name of Miao Kan, who was the abbot of Southern Pu Tuo Monastery. He was being held in high regards. He constructed a meditation hall that cost several tens of thousands in US dollars. Others thought that I was the one who did it but it was actually built by him. I had no money!” When the hall was completed, Venerable Miao Kan invited Master Nan over to conduct a 7-day Zen retreat. It was a retreat to allow the participants to practice the teachings under the close supervision of Master Nan, with the objective to achieving the greatest outcome within the shortest time. There were 200 people registered for the retreat but the actual turnout was 700. Master Nan was frightened. He was not sure if the two-storey building could take the excessive load. If the hall collapsed, it would kill the rest of the people on the lower floor. He was very worried about the overloading issue during the time. It was fortunate that a disaster did not occur.
Later, Venerable Miao Kan, who was already 80 years old then, came to him again. Master Nan asked him, “Why did you come to me?” Venerable Miao Kan said, “Teacher, I would like to invite you to conduct another Zen retreat at my monastery.” Master Nan told him, “Let’s not talk about this. You must return immediately to your place and forget about the rest. Go practice diligently and chant the name of the Buddha.” Venerable Miao Kan left immediately after receiving the instruction. He followed the teachings of his teacher.
After returning to his temple, Venerable Miao Kan fell ill. Zhao Pu Chu, the former Chairman of the Buddhist Association of China, sent Venerable Miao Kan to Beijing for treatment by plane. But Master Nan clearly knew that Venerable Miao Kan’s sickness was not curable, so he called the latter and instructed him to return to his temple. The student of Venerable Miao Kan conveyed the message of Master Nan to his teacher. At the time, Venerable Miao Kan was already lying in his sick bed, unable to talk. But he decided to return to his temple immediately. So, you see, this is “putting into practice the teachings”. Master Nan said Venerable Miao Kan did just what his teacher taught.
Venerable Miao Kan could no longer speak before his death. Master Nan instructed his student to hold the phone near Venerable Miao Kan and asked if the latter could hear. Venerable Miao Kan moved his hand slightly to indicate that he could. Master Nan told him to remain mindful, chant the name of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, and follow the Bodhisattva who would lead the way to the Buddha Land. Venerable Miao Kan noted the advice by moving his finger slightly. Finally, he was reborn in the Western Blissful Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha.
Master Nan has several thousands of students, but only Venerable Miao Kan put into practice what his teacher taught. No matter what Master Nan said, he would follow without a second word. “Go back to your temple now!” So he went. “Resign from your abbot position. Resigned from all the positions you hold - the titles are useless and deceptive.” He did just that. “Do not stay in Beijing. Go back to your temple and chant the name of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara with mindfulness.” He listened to his teacher’s advice.
It is easier said than done. It is indeed difficult to ask you to put into practice the teachings and chant the name of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara with mindfulness while you are still alive and kicking. You are only concerned about the worldly matters: job, career, money, livelihood, children, family and comments by others etc. You are concerned about all worldly matters, how would you be able to put into practice the teachings and attain mindfulness? Let go of all the worldly concerns when you are still alive and kicking!
Master Nan also mentioned about the two stages of cultivation in his book: Development Stage and Completion Stage. The Development Stage is necessary e.g. offering of incense, prostrations, recitation of sutras, chanting of mantra, abiding by the precepts, doing good deeds, walking the path of the Bodhisattva etc. All these are actions to be done during the Development Stage. Are they necessary? Master Nan said, “Absolutely! Must do!” But will it guarantee you the Buddhahood after doing all these? No! For they belonged to the Development Stage. You will finally need to enter the Completion Stage where there is no Buddha, no mantra, just emptiness, and non-emptiness.
The Completion Stage is being expounded by Grand Master in his recent books when he talked about Zen. These few books are very important. Although they are very profound and not easily understood, you should still try to read them. These books talk about the Completion Stage, breaking away from what was taught in the Development Stage, leading one to the ultimate enlightenment. However, before one reaches the Completion Stage, one must first complete the Development Stage, making a steady progress from one stage to the next.
Can one enter the Completion Stage by skipping the Development Stage? Yes, if one is of high capacity. However, people of such quality are very rare. Even Sakyamuni Buddha had to start from the Development Stage: abide by the precepts, practice with diligence and austerity etc. So, we should start from the lower stage and gradually advance to the higher stage. When you have reached the higher stage, you may let go of what you learned at the lower stage. Actually, the higher stage and the lower stage are not mutually exclusive. Do not be surprised by Sakyamuni Buddha when he talked about “existence” at the initial stage, but “emptiness” at the later stage. Actually, He was trying to tell us that the Development Stage is the initial stage, whereas the Completion Stage is the higher stage.
The Development Stage will lead you to the state of Heaven, at its highest point of attainment. In his books, Grand Master lamented that the many schools of Buddhism are competing to build the biggest institute, the biggest hospital, the biggest temple, the biggest this and that… He said, such actions will undoubtedly generate merits, but they are confined to the Development Stage. If you do well, you will become a great king in the heavenly realm but you will not attain Buddhahood. The teachings in the Development Stage must be relinquished when one reaches the Completion Stage.
Grand Master mentioned about Venerable Sheng-yen too in his book. Venerable Sheng-yen was a renowned Zen master who built the huge Dharma Drum Monastery. He had many students, in tens of thousands. He was adept in Zen Buddhism and Sutrayana Buddhism. He was already 80 plus years old. A kidney patient with both his kidneys damaged, he had to do frequent dialysis. But he said, “My body is sick but my mind is not.” Grand Master commended him for saying so because that was a saying befitting an enlightened Zen master.
Later, Venerable Sheng-yen told others that he did not want to die immediately because he had yet to build a Buddhist university that would benefit many people. Grand Master was very surprised to hear that and he realized then that Venerable Sheng-yen actually had not truly attained enlightenment yet. An enlightened master will not say such words. Building a Buddhist university is a meritorious act in the Development Stage. Having it done or not is actually immaterial - the Completion Stage does not talk about such things.
I read the entire book written by Grand Master and kept thinking to myself, “Grand Master is so long-winded!” Sometimes, Grand Master would even scold in harsh words out of frustration because the readers did not seem to get it after so many repetitions. I felt that Grand Master was already being too explicit; he did not need to do so and yet repeat himself too much. I felt like giving Grand Master some advice in return, ha ha! But on second thought, I realized that I was actually scolding myself for I have been repeating myself to you folks and you don’t seem to get it either. That really pissed me off! Frankly, I had also told you everything that repetition has become unnecessary. It only requires you to put into practice the teachings.
In my opinion, it will be useless if you recognize your own Buddha Nature and yet do not put into practice the teachings. The recognition of one’s own Buddha Nature will first happen on a theoretical level. Eventually, you must truly walk the path to enlightenment. If you do not walk the path, you will continue to succumb to your mental afflictions despite your theoretical enlightenment. Knowing is one thing, doing it is another. So, putting into practice the teachings is the most crucial point of the teachings.