Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Three Stages of Spiritual Cultivation (修行的三个层次)

Zen Buddhism often talks about the three stages of spiritual cultivation. At the first stage, an ordinary person sees a mountain as mountain and a lake a lake. An ordinary person will feel happy upon seeing a beautiful mountain but upset upon seeing an ugly one. The mind of an ordinary person will be affected by the external environment. An ordinary person will feel happy upon seeing a beautiful lake, but upset upon seeing an ugly one with murky and filthy water. Our old Singapore River was filthy and stinky. When one saw it in the past, he would feel very uncomfortable. That is the mentality of an ordinary person. No one is spared before he embarks on the path to enlightenment. All ordinary folks are in this stage, no matter how smart he is, be it a president or a bagger - it makes no difference. As long as you are still bound by the misconception of the notion of “I”, your mind will be affected by your surroundings.

At the second stage, you have started doing your spiritual cultivation. Initially, you must observe lots of precepts, refraining from the negative conducts and abiding by the Five Precepts. You must be bound by the precepts at the initial stage and do the Ten Virtous Acts. In order to transform from an ordinary person to a saint, you must uphold the Five Precepts and do the Ten Virtous Acts. Otherwise, you will forever remain an ordinary person in the first stage. As long as you do not discard your self-importance, you will forever be stranded in the Six Realms of Existence.

Precepts are very crucial. You must start from observing the precepts. There are many precepts in the Hinayana practice and a greater number in the Mahayana practice, and even greater number in the Vajrayana practice. If you want to attain the ultimate enlightenment, you must observe the precepts. You might ask, “Can I not abide by the precepts?” The answer is “No!” We were born with the three poisons of lust, hatred and ignorance deeply ingrained in us due to our karma. Our negative propensities are so strong that we can easily fall into the Three Lower Realms (animal, hell being and hungry ghost), if we are not protected by the precepts. Besides, at this stage, a rigorous practice is a necessity. Without rigorous practice, you will never stand a chance to break free of the cyclic existence. At this stage, you have already started doing your spiritual cultivation, and you will now see a mountain not as a mountain and a lake not as a lake. You have broken away from the old mindset and perception of an ordinary person and see the world in a different light. The second stage can last an awfully long period, up to many lifetimes or even eons; you might not realize that you have been practicing for a long time. In the Hinayana, this stage can last billions of years, even as long as three big eons. This is just the preliminary practice of the second stage.

Take a look at how Saykamuni Buddha attained His enlightenment. In his past life, he even offered himself to a hungry tiger because he already attained the state of “selflessness”. Take a look at Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara who readily gave up His eyes to someone else! “A mountain is not a mountain, and a lake is not a lake!” To Him, eyes were not “eyes” - they were not “His”. He would give His eyes to you if you want them. Now you have come to the later part of the second stage which is extremely difficult only a few can reach. Most of you can only reach the earlier part of the second stage, which is to observe the precepts and do the virtuous acts. How will you be able to give up your wealth when others request it? Or give up your house, car, wife, children, etc.? Will you give up all your possessions, your life? Although the advance practice in the second stage is of extreme difficulty, it is not the ultimate attainment yet.

Finally, you must enter the third stage, where you will see a mountain as mountain and a lake as lake once more. If you continue to persevere on observing the precepts, you will forever remain in the second stage where you will see a mountain not a mountain and a lake not a lake. You will just be a special practitioner different from others; you will appear to be a sublime looking deity being worshipped in a shrine, at the most. You will not be able to walk into the crowd and mingle with them, with the ultimate aim of guiding them onto the path to enlightenment. If you want to help the sentient beings, you must return to the state of seeing a mountain as mountain and a lake as lake once more, like the rest. Of course, by now you have already become a different person in the third stage, different from what you were in the first stage. Regardless of whether the mountain or lake is good or bad, it makes no difference to you - you will not be discriminative now. You have become a happy person, immersed in great joy in a state where you will see a mountain as mountain and a lake as lake once more.

Basically, when you have reached this stage of cultivation, you can break free of the precepts – you can “transgress” the precepts. Like the story told in the Mahā-vaipulya-buddhâvatasaka-sūtra, you could even become a prostitute and offer yourself to any man who wants you, in order to help him enter the path to enlightenment. You can do anything you want and offer anything you wish, for you have already surpassed the conceptual mind of life-and-death, and the discriminative and antagonistic views. You will appear crazy but, in fact, you have truly attained the state of enlightenment. Many of the enlightened Tibetan masters were accomplished practitioners of the Great Perfection (Dzogchen), who lived like animals in filthy places such as a garbage-dumping ground or a latrine. They appeared to be lunatics but, in fact, they are the accomplished masters! The real lunatics are different because they are mentally disordered, unable to tell the difference between good and bad, clean or dirty; they are unable to spiritual practice nor help other sentient beings, let alone being accomplished in spiritual attainment. Those who have attained the third stage of cultivation are different - they are superior, accomplished and non–discriminative. They are fully aware of the differences between good and bad, clean and dirty, but they are just not affected by the differences. They are fine with what you give or not give. They are not bothered by your scolding or teasing. The third stage is a very superior level of attainment most difficult to achieve.

We must walk the path to enlightenment one step at a time. Zen Buddhism has its danger of being reduced to mere “pet phrases of enlightenment”. One might just end up having an empty claim of “I am a Buddha.” If you are not a truly accomplished practitioner and yet you choose to do something against the Dharma, you will fall! It is pointless for you to simply claim that “I am a Buddha!” You will fall because you have not truly attained the state of Buddhahood. So, you had better start from the second stage and abide by the precepts! Otherwise, you will get yourself into trouble.

You might say that “I can do anything. I can kill!” Alright, then I will give you a knife to kill and see if you will be spared from the universal law of cause-and-effect. Unless you have truly attained enlightenment, like Guru Padmasambhava who could deliver the souls of those He killed immediately to the Western Blissful Pure Land, you had better keep the knife away. We had better walk the path to enlightenment one step at a time, starting from the Hinayana, progressing gradually to the Mahayana, and finally the Vajrayana. A gradual approach is a safer approach

Do not be mistaken that you could truly understand the quintessential teachings of Zen Buddhism through the mere intellectual study of Zen books. In the past, there were many Zen practitioners who expounded Zen without truly understanding it’s true meaning. Grand Master has written nearly 10 books on Zen by now, in order to help us understand the ultimate teachings. However, so what if you have intellectually understood the ultimate teachings? It is pointless as long as you are unable to apply the ultimate teachings in your daily conduct! It is more important to be able to apply the ultimate teachings in our conduct than having a mere intellectual understanding. Both pet phrases and intellectual understanding are inadequate - you will still fall unless you are truly enlightened. So, we had better take it one step at a time - walk the path slowly to break free of the cyclic existence eventually.

When you truly break free of the cyclic existence, like that mentioned in the Diamond Sutra, you can discard all the teachings including the precepts, cultivation, meditation and mantras. They are like a boat ferrying us from one shore to another . When we reach the other shore, we should not carry the boat along on our back anymore - that will be meaningless and it will become a burden instead. A boat will become useless when we reach the shore. A boat must be discarded after crossing the river. Another word, when we have truly accomplished our practice, we should discard all the doctrines and precepts. However, you cannot do so before reaching the other shore. Without the boat, you cannot cross the river but you will get drown in the river instead. As long as we are still practicing in the Causal Stage, we will still need the doctrines, the precepts, the practice, the meditation, the mantra, praising the Buddha, the Six Perfections, etc. One day, when we reach the other shore, we can then discard the boat. Otherwise, we need to hold on to it tight!

Now, while we are holding tight to our boat, we might be seeing someone else discarding the boat. We must not criticize others for discarding the boat because we may not understand their true ability. There are many people who criticize Grand Master for drinking alcohol, dancing, eating meat but not vegetarian food, etc. Not only outsiders criticized Grand Master, even his own students followed likewise, “Why did he do that?” The outsiders said, “Your teacher does not look a bit like a monk! A monk must abide by the numerous precepts, but he does not!” Sometimes, Grand Master wears normal attire instead of a monk robe when he goes out of the temple. Others saw it and criticized him, “How can a monk like you wear normal attire? You don’t have the serious mannerism of a monk.” Actually, the person did not know that Grand Master is a truly accomplished practitioner. A truly accomplished practitioner can wear anything, be it a monk robe, normal attire or nothing – he is still an enlightened Buddha. When you are not a Buddha yet, no matter how serious you wear, you are just an ordinary person!

So, we must not criticize others before knowing who he really is. The greatest taboo of a practitioner is to criticize others based on what you think you know – you can be wrong! This is my greatest taboo too. I do not criticize others but merely sing praises of them. If I happen to see any actions of you against the Dharma, I will just think to myself that “Maybe you have already attained enlightenment. You may be breaking away from the precepts for the sake of helping the sentient beings. I may not understand it yet. How could I simply criticize you? If I do so, I might just be committing a great sin through my speech!” No matter what, we must not criticize others. We should not commit bad karma through our speech but to maintain a pure speech at all times. When we criticize others, we are actually criticizing ourselves for being non-accommodating. So, instead of committing bad karma through our speech, we would rather train our own mind and practise with vigour, which will be a more meaningful act.

A discourse given by Acho Rinpoche on 26-10-2010

Monday, May 9, 2011

Reading is Part of Practice (修行要读书)

The mere reading of sutras or books on the teachings will not free you of the cyclic existence nor make you enlightened immediately. Nevertheless, I still think that reading is very important because a spiritual practice could either start with an actual practice followed by the intellectual understanding, or start with an intellectual understanding followed by the actual practice. Even the Great Perfection (Dzogchen) teachings of the Nyingma start with intellectual understanding.

Mipham Rinpoche said, “If one does not understand the teachings, he will have great difficulty attaining enlightenment.” So, one must start with the intellectual understanding through studying the teachings. Some of the incomprehensible spiritual attainment could actually be explained intellectually through the teachings. So, reading is very important. Sometimes, you may come across some inspirational teachings, inconceivable personal attainment or experience of others that will humble us and spur us on the path of cultivation.

I hope that you can choose a wider range of subjects including the sutras, for reading and sharing. This will force you to think more deeply on the teachings expounded through the sutras instead of doing mere recitations, and you should strive to understand the various teachings in totality, without conflicts. You will make good progress through the preparation and thinking process before sharing with others, unless you have already achieved a very high level of enlightenment and could simply share any teachings in an impromptu manner.

A discourse given by Acho Rinpoche on 25-03-2010

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Cultivations of Wisdom & Merits (福慧要双修)

(Singapore River in the old days)

Acho Rinpoche: Yesterday was the birthday of Dharma Sister Yue. So, we bought a cake for her to celebrate her birthday tonight. Although we are late by one day, we still wish her a happy birthday today. We had a very special encounter yesterday at the Singapore River. So, I would like to invite Dharma Brother Shao to do his sharing first.

Shao: First, I would like to share with you a dream that I had this morning. In the dream, Acho Rinpoche instructed me to share the story at Singapore River. I did not know the reason initially, but I did know that it was related to Dharma Sister Bing. She told us that she worked at a place near the Singapore River. She also joked about asking me to do a soul deliverance ritual at her workplace. In the dream, I told Acho Rinpoche that there were seven of us sitting at a table. The word “seven” in Mandarin sounded like “begging”. So, it meant that there would be seven of us experiencing starvation at an eatery.

Last night, we had our dinner at an eatery selling clay-pot rice. On my way to the washroom, I had a vision: there were many laborers squatting on the stools, sharing a very small bowl of food on the tables. The employers were very stingy in the old days, paying meager salaries to their employees. So, the laborers lived a very thrifty lifestyle, eating very little food each day. Most of the time, they did not have a full meal. Some people did not even have a job and were unable to make their ends meet; they had to do without meals every day. How pathetic! But they got use to it. So, we ought to learn to appreciate our food and good fortune today.

In the dream, Acho Rinpoche told me that “seven” meant “death”. I could not figure it out and I woke up from my dream at that point. It was 4am in the morning. I went to the washroom and had a vision at that point – I “saw” Fort Canning Hill. I ignored the vision and returned to my bed. But I could not sleep again because I kept “seeing” Fort Canning Hill. I understood the meaning of the vision - the spiritual beings in Fort Canning Hill were requesting my help. So, I went into my shrine and did a prayer for them. After the prayer, I emptied my mind and saw numerous spiritual beings coming out from my stomach. How strange! In my vision, Fort Canning Hill is a place full of negative energy. For it was a place where many people were brutally killed (during Japanese occupation). It is being ruled by a Mountain God. There is a palace within the hill, resembling the nether world. What a strange place!

Acho Rinpoche: Due to a very strange reason, we made a trip to the Singapore River yesterday. I seldom go to such places because they are usually very crowded. And it is not within my scope of work too. However, there was still a small reason for us to be there because Lianhe Zaobao (a local Chinese newspaper) organized a Mid-autumn Festival celebration there. So, I thought, “Probably we could celebrate Dharma Sister Yue’s birthday there. There were Taiwanese food stalls selling stinky bean curd, oyster omelet etc. Since we just came back from our Taiwan trip recently and we still find their local delicacies memorable, why don’t we just celebrate her birthday there?”

When we reached Clark Quay at the Singapore River, Dharma Sister Chan informed me of those coming. But I somehow felt that an important person seemed to be left out. Soon after, I saw that person appearing among us. Clark Quay was full of people that we could not even squeeze ourselves into the crowd. So, I decided immediately that we should leave the place and go somewhere else for dinner. Since Dharma Sister Chan also works in the same location, she recommended us a place nearby. We came to an eatery selling clay-pot rice. This place was crowded and there was not seats available but we did not feel like going elsewhere and just waited for our turn. Soon after, there was a big table available which accommodate about twelve of us. But still, we had a few more members waiting outside for their turn.

We ordered our food but we believed that the kitchen could not deliver, because there were too many customers that they could not cope! The eateries around this area are usually very quiet on the weekends but the celebration of festival brought such a big crowd to this place. We waited for about 20 minutes before our first dish was served. The clay-pot rice was reminiscent of the familiar taste dated back 30 years ago. It was very delicious! The small group sitting outside already had their seats and ordered their food. When we were almost done with our dinner, the group sitting outside was still waiting for their first dish to be served. So, they checked with the owner of the eatery on their order. But another hour passed and they still did not have any food served. Dharma Brother Liang was kind and he brought over a small piece of bean curd from our table and gave it to them. Our little Dharma Brother Xin usually was not too interested in bean curd but he ate it all up as he was too hungry. Next, we sent a set of clay-pot rice over to them too. By this time, their food was still not delivered. We were done with our dinner, and the customers on other tables had left too, with new customers continued streaming in who had their food served too. It was only our group sitting outside had nothing served. After two hours, there was a small plate of stewed port knuckle served and that was it.

Finally, the group complained to the lady boss. The lady boss found it very strange, “This is the first time such funny thing happened in our shop! The orders are placed in order. There is no reason why only the first dish was served and the rest are left out!” She could not figure out how on earth it happened? I stood beside her and just smiled. Of course I knew what the reason was.

After that, everyone asked me the reason for such strange happening. I told them a little bit of the secret. It was just like what Dharma Brother Shao said, “One plus one.” First, the laborers in the old days lived in poverty. They hardly had food to eat. Often, they had to sleep with an empty stomach. The group was made to experience hunger felt by the laborers in the past, so that they would understand that our ancestors built our modern Singapore through hardship. Their contributions are great, yet they had so little to eat and they were starved most of the time!
In addition to that, Dharma Sister Bing tried to help the spiritual beings stranded in the nether world by pouring the holy water into the fountain at her workplace, and that brought some of the spiritual beings over to the eatery too where we had our dinner. These spiritual beings were beheaded during the Japanese occupation, and they could not eat because they were too used to the habitual actions of eating with their mouths. I had to give them blessings and “reproduced” their heads, before offering them the food. And we had to transfer our “merits” from our table to the table outside, giving them (spiritual beings) the food to feed them.

These sentient beings suffered in hardship due to the lack of merits. So, we must cultivate merits too. Without merits, it will be difficult for one to practice spiritual cultivation. Just take a look at those laborers, they were so pathetic because of the lack of merits – they could not even afford a meal! Take a look at those beings who died from being beheaded – they suffered great pains and are still stranded in the nether world today, unable to take a rebirth. They continued to suffer from starvations – they can’t eat without heads, even though there is food.
We cannot do without merits. So, we must practice the cultivation of both wisdom and merits. We did a Jembhala prayer just now at the request of a Dharma Brother who had the word “merit” as part of his name. I thought of doing this prayer at 3pm today but it slipped my mind soon after. It was this Dharma Brother who requested the prayer to be done that we managed to do it today. Just now, an inconceivable number of Jembhala descended from space to receive blessings from the Sun Moon Lamp Buddha. So, this red wine being offered to Jembhala during the prayer will bring merits to those who drink it. Such merits will follow you in your future lives, supporting you financially in your spiritual practice. With that, we have completed our prayer today. Amitabha!

A discourse given by Acho Rinpoche on 11-9-2010, the birthday of Jembhala.

(Singapore River today)