What is the first step in learning Buddhism? Start by reciting one sutra. Do we need to understand it? No. For when we have not ended afflictions, our understanding will be erroneous. Then why do we recite only this sutra? By reciting the sutra, the Three Learnings of self discipline, deep concentration and wisdom are accomplished together.
Self-discipline requires that we “Do nothing that is bad. Do all that is good.” Reciting a sutra can prevent us from generating wandering thoughts so we will be prevented from doing anything that is bad. Sutras are words that flow from the Buddha’s true nature. Nothing can surpass these words in virtue. Therefore, reciting a sutra is doing all that is good and results in the perfection of self-discipline so there is no need to practice the precepts one-by-one.
When reciting a sutra we must focus. By focusing, we cultivate concentration. Clearly enunciating every word correctly without any omission is the practice of wisdom. Therefore reciting the sutra properly is to practice the Three Learnings at the same time. Any attempt to analyze the sutra while reciting is in fact treating the sutra as a worldly book. This will result in none of the Three Learnings being accomplished and is not true cultivation. Never belittle the practice of sutra recitation , as it is the base of cultivation. Reciting for one hour accomplished one hour of cultivation, reciting for two hours accomplished two hours of cultivation, etc. Needless to say, the longer the better.
Many practitioners are reciting the Infinite Life Sutra ten times a day. So far, some may have chanted the sutra over two thousand times, thus they are very familiar with the text and only need thirty to forty-five minutes to finish one sutra. Reciting ten times thus means five or six hours of practicing self-discipline, deep concentration and wisdom. With so many hours devoted to cultivation, we will naturally develop a serene mind in just a few years time.
Sutras flow from the pure and quiet mind of the Buddha. When we have developed a mind as pure and quiet, we will understand all we read in the sutra. The reason why the sutra is so hard to understand now is that our minds are filled with wandering thoughts. How can this mind be in harmony with one that is pure and quiet? This is why we do not understand the Buddha’s words. So, if we want to learn from a good teacher, we need to trust and believe that their methods are proper and correct.
Jut choose one sutra without being distracted by any others. If we choose to follow the Pure Land school, we recite and study the Infinite Life Sutra. If we choose to follow the Tiantai School we recite and study the Lotus Sutra. If we choose to follow the Flower Adornment Sutra we recite and study the Flower Adornment Sutra. When choosing a school follow its principles and delve deeply into the sutra for five years. In other words sever all afflictions and try to develop a pure and quiet heart. This is the first step in learning Buddhism.
Frankly speaking, five years of learning and cultivating were enough for a practitioner to attain a pure mind in the past, because their minds were not as polluted as ours are now. In the past, children would remain innocent until around ten years of age. Then they would begin to be aware of differences between right and wrong, self and others. They would begin to develop such characteristics as greed, anger, ignorance and arrogance. Look at today’s children. They start showing greed, anger, ignorance and arrogance when they are only a few years old! Where do they learn these things? From television. They are exposed to television every day. They naturally become polluted. They do not have the happy innocent childhood their parents had. How unfortunate they are!
Master Chin Kung was born and grew up in the countryside and was neither sensible nor knowing of the world until he was thirteen years old. True happiness is to remain innocent as long as possible in childhood and to not be aware of any of the sufferings in the world. All he knew was how to play. Once we loose our childhood innocence, we are no longer happy. For then, we have to be constantly aware of others. So, Master says that modern people are less fortunate than their predecessors are.
Once we have developed a pure and quiet mind and have attained wisdom, then we can begin to broaden our knowledge, We can see hear and learn of anything that we are interested in, for now we have attained wisdom and will not be affected by our surroundings. Since we have self-control, the ore we see and hear the wiser we will become and he greater our strength from deep concentration will be. How are deep concentration and wisdom increased? Remaining unmoved by surroundings will enhance deep concentration. Then we can learn from other schools to further enhance our deep concentration and wisdom. First, we practice self-discipline, concentration and wisdom to attain our original wisdom. Then we can learn extensively to perfect our acquired wisdom. This is the way of learning from ancient times.
The Buddha told us in the Great Prajna Sutra, “Innocent intuitive wisdom knows all.” So, we must cultivate “innocence” first. The five-year method of practicing self-discipline results in our remaining innocent of the happenings in the world. When we are again in contact with the world, we will be aware of “knowing all.” This is the proper sequence and method to learn and practice Buddhism.
Ancient patriarchs not only abided by the rules set by Buddha Shakyamuni but also took Confucianism as the basis for their learning and practice. Chinese Buddhism has abandoned Theravada Buddhism in place of Confucius teachings. Chinese Buddhists, as the basis for learning Buddhism, adopted the five virtues of Confucius of gentleness, kindness, respectfulness, thriftiness and humility. From this foundation, they developed the Three Conditions, the Six Principles of Harmony, the Three Learnings, the Six Paramitas and the Ten Great Vows. All the schools of Mahayana Buddhism adopted this framework of learning and teaching. In other words, we can accomplish our learning and cultivation in any school as long as we follow these principles and methods. So, we can say that taking the Five Virtues and Six Harmonies is the basis and a unique characteristic of Chinese Buddhism.
There was another advanced method of teachings and learning in Buddhism; continuing education for teachers. It was not until recently that this method again came into use. When he was in this world, the Buddha had many students. Some stayed with him because they had not finished their study and thus has not yet become independent. But others has reached some achievement. The latter were the Bodhisattvas who were responsible for spreading Buddhism. They went to different locations, set up way places and taught on behalf of the Buddha. Then they would return to where the Buddha currently was for a three month summer retreat for continuing education. This is similar to today’s summer vacation when the students are out of school but the teachers cannot rest for they need to receive further training. So, the Bodhisattva went back to be with the Buddha for a summer retreat. They listened to his teaching and thus were able to increase their concentration, wisdom and virtues. They also discussed difficulties they had encountered in their teaching and tried to find the solutions. They learned from each other in seeking self improvement. This system of continuing education has been infrequently seen in Chinese history.
It is advisable that way places and Buddhist societies conduct summer and winter retreats of Buddha name recitation and Zen meditation, seminars, etc. for short-term training. This is very effective and people are able to accept this idea of short-term continuing education. If we directly tell them that is for severing afflictions; cultivating self-discipline, deep concentration and wisdom; and transcending the cycle of birth and death, only a few people can accept this concept or be interested.
Today, people differ in their concept of Buddhist education from those in the past. They want to learn more at the beginning of their study, not knowing that their method will limit their accomplishment whereas following the traditional method in practicing Buddhism can result in infinite benefits. In the past many people have benefited from this traditional method and achieved in their cultivation and attained Buddhahood. However, at best, the present methods can only help us to get a doctorate of Buddhism, fame and wealth. But frankly speaking, it will not be easy for use to sever afflictions or transcend the cycle of birth and death. We should consider this very carefully.