Liaofan’s Third Lesson – The Ways to Cultivate Goodness – Part 3

Understanding Goodness (continued)

Another example is of Quan Zhongli, an immortal of the Han dynasty, who was teaching his student, Lu Dongbin, the art of transforming iron into gold. They would use it to help the poor. Dongbin asked his teacher if the gold would ever change back to iron. Zhongli said: “after five hundred years, it will return to its original form.” Dongbin replied: “Then I do not want to learn this art for it will harm those who possess the gold in five hundred years.”

Zhongli offered to teach Dongbin alchemy, the art of turning iron into gold. Upon learning that the transformation would not be permanent, Dongbin declined, for in the end the transformation would have hurt people. Today, most people are only concerned with what they can get now and do not think about how it might affect others in the future. From this, we can sadly see how moral standards have decayed over the years.

Zhongli said: “To become an immortal, one must complete 3000 virtuous deeds. What you have just said came from a truly kind heart. Your 3000 deeds are fulfilled.” This is account is another example of whole goodness and half goodness.

With this single good thought, Dongbin had instantly accomplished the virtuous deeds required to practice immortality. His concern to not harm any sentient beings had actually surpassed three thousand kind deeds. Thus, one single thought was enough to fulfill the requirement. This is similar to what Liaofan did when he had reduced the taxes on the farmers, for that one kind thought alone fulfilled his vow of 10,000 kind deeds. This is the benefit from practicing from our hearts.

When we perform a good deed, it is best not to attach to what we have done. If we practice in this way, then all of our good deeds will reach fulfillment and success. But, if we always think of the good that we have done as we look for a reward, then do matter how diligently we practice, even for an entire lifetime, the deeds will still be considered half goodness.

For example, when we donate money, we can practice “pure donation.” We do not linger on the thought of “I” who is giving, on the importance of the object that is given, or on the one who has received. We simply give out of true sincerity and respect. When we practice pure donation, one pound of rice can bring infinite good fortune and the merits from giving one cent can wipe away the transgressions of a thousand eons.

But if we always think of the good that we have done and expect rewards for our actions, then even a donation of one million dollars would not bring us the reward of a fully good fortune. This is another way of explaining whole goodness and half goodness.

If we try our very best, then we will achieve full goodness, but if we have any reservation and do not do all that we can, then we will achieve only half goodness. Therefore, when accumulating virtuous deeds we need to do everything with complete sincerity.

Many people do not understand the true reality, so consequently they have doubts about Buddhism. This doubt is one of the Five Poisons of greed, anger, ignorance, arrogance and doubt. These people seem to believe and act according to what we have told them. However, they are unable to dedicate themselves wholeheartedly to practicing good deeds. In donating, they still want to reserve something, to hold something back. They do not have the understanding, wisdom or determination to practice full goodness. They can only achieve half goodness. This is why although many people are doing good deeds, they do not obtain good fortune in return or see any immediate results.

When we are willing to let go of our wealth, we will gain wealth. When we give teachings, we will gain wisdom. When we give fearlessness, we will gain health and long life. The law of causality is a reality and as natural as the laws of heaven and earth. If we perform goodness without expectation of reward, without the wish for prestige, wealth, wisdom, health, or long life, without the wish for anything, then we are bound to uncover everything that is already in our true nature. Is this not being free and having great contentment?

Only a virtuous nature is similar to the true nature; it neither arises nor ceases. This is what freedom is all about. Only someone with great merits and wisdom is willing to let go of all belongings, for no ordinary person would be willing to do so. This is why we only find Bodhisattvas and Buddhas practicing true great merits; even Arhats do not practice them. Arhats are inclined to avoid trouble. And if we wanted to help someone and they rejected, slandered or embarrassed us, we would become angry and abandon the attempt! The goodness would be incomplete.

Therefore, one of the goals as a Buddhist is to return to reality, to uncover the intrinsic true nature that already contains everything including infinite and inexhaustible wisdom and abilities. There is no need to seek outside, only within. Everyone has this true nature; we do not yet realize it and until we do, we can reply upon the Buddha to teach us how to develop it. This is why his benevolence towards us is so magnificent!

We read in the Surangama Sutra that “During the Dharma-Ending Age, the number of deviated teachers will be as numerous as the grains of sand in the Ganges River.” They may appear to be teaching Buddhism, but their behavior is that of demons. Then where should we go when we ant to plant the seeds of good fortune and to practice virtuous deeds? What if people with deviated views run the temple we visit? Might we not only fail to plant the seeds for good fortune but commit bad deeds instead?

Buddhism is a teaching of practicing within. If our genuine intention is to go and pay our respects to the Buddha, then the Buddha will be Buddha Amitabha or Buddha Shakyamuni, according to what our heart is giving rise to. If our hearts are genuine and truthful then even if we go to a temple run by bad spirits, the Buddha will be true. However, if our hearts are improper to being with, then even if we are practicing at a proper temple, we will still be according with deviated people.

This not to say that there are no good places to practice Buddhism during the Dharma-Ending Age but that the real place is within our hearts. The Vimalakirti Sutra tells us that “A sincere heart is a cultivation place, a pure heart is a cultivation place and a compassionate heart is a cultivation place.” A proper cultivation place is within our hearts. When our minds are on the path to enlightenment then no matter where we are, there will always be a place for cultivation. As long as our hearts are proper, then no matter where we are, there will always be a place for cultivation. As long as our hearts are proper, then no matter where we go, there will always be proper teachings. Thus, the environment around us changes according to our minds. If we can understand this and be diligent in our practice, then society and countries will be enveloped in good fortune. If we do not eradicate our wandering thoughts and our attachments to our good deeds, then even if we give away a million dollars, our merits will not be full.

What are “big goodness” and “small goodness”? Once, an important official, Wei Zhongda was led into the underworld for judgment. When the records that the judge had ordered to be brought out arrived, Zhongda was astounded at the courtyard filled with his bad records and the single scroll of his good deeds.

The official then ordered them to be weighed. Surprisingly, the bad records, which had filled the courtyard, were lighter than the single scroll of good deeds that was as thin as a chopstick! Zongda asked the judge: “A am barely 40 years old, how could I have committed so many offenses?” The judge answered: “When you give rise to a single thought that is improper, it is considered a bad offense there and then; it does not have to be carried out to be counted as a wrong.”

Good fortune and kindness come in both big and small sizes. All of us have committed good and bad acts during our lifetimes. All of these are recorded and kept with the king of the underworld and the ruler of the spirit world. This is why Liaofan taught us to have respect and fear within our hearts.

When the records of Zhongda were placed upon a scale to see which was heavier, the one thin scroll of good deeds outweighed the volumes of wrongdoings! Zhongda had probably committed many minor faults but no serious offenses. Therefore, one great kind deed can offset countless minor faults. When he saw the results, the judge was quite pleased, for Zhongda was a good person after all.

When Zhongda questioned how he was able to commit so many faults, the judge explained to him than an improper thought was still recorded as a fault even if the corresponding action was not taken. Thus, even if we do not actually commit any major transgressions, we may have thought about them. Luckily, Zhongda had one great good deed that outweighed all his lessor faults.

Zhongda then asked the judge what was recorded on the single scroll. The judge replied: “Once, the emperor planned to build a great stone bridge. You opposed the project due to the hardship it would cause the tens of thousands of people needed for the work. This is a copy of your objection.” Zhongda said: “I did make the proposal, but the emperor dismissed it and proceeded with the project. What I said had no effect on the matter. How can it bear so much weight against all my offenses.”

The judge replied: “Although the emperor rejected your suggestion, your one thought of kindness for all these people was very great. If the emperor had accepted your idea, then the good performed would have been even greater.” Therefore, when one is determined to do good for the benefit of all people, a small deed can result in great merits. If one thinks only about benefiting oneself, then even if many deeds of kindness were performed, the merits would still be small.

The scroll contained a description of the major good deed that Zhongda had performed. He had foreseen that the project would waste money and cause hardships. From this, we can see that what matters most is our original intention.

From this, we can see the magnitude of goodness behind this single thought. Although the emperor did not listen to Zhongda’s suggestion, this did not alter the fact that it was sincerely made from the true heart and was an example of full and complete goodness. Of course, had the emperor accepted the proposal, the significance of the act would have been greater.

The difference between big and small goodness lies in our intentions, by whether we are thinking of all the beings in the world or whether we are thinking of ourselves and our families. We need to understand this when we recite sutras or a Buddha’s name. Usually, we dedicate the merits to a particular person, wishing that the Buddha would help him or her to gain various benefits. This is small goodness and the benefits gained will be small as well.

People often say, “I have dedicated all my merits to others and have gained nothing for myself. What is the use in practicing goodness?” This could only come from a narrow mind. If we prostrate in front of the Buddha but do not feel any response, it is because our hearts are selfish. We are totally self-seeking and do not know that we should magnify our merits so that they encompass the entire universe. When we dedicate the merits to all living things, it is like passing on a light. We use our flame to light those of others, so that the whole world is bathed in brightness. This results in great benefit for all with no loss to ourselves. People who practice Buddhism need to dedicate the merits from practice to all living beings in the universe, to awakening and to reality, in order to uncover the perfect complete true Buddha-nature.

What are “difficult goodness” and “easy goodness”? Scholars of te past said that one who wished to conquer greed and desire should begin with what is most difficult to overcome. When Confucius talked about our cultivation of humanity, he also said to begin with what is most difficult to practice.

This section cites teachings of the ancient sages and virtuous people, which tell us that we possess innumerable afflicting bad habits and desires, and that we need to begin with whatever is the most serious. If we can overcome our most serious faults, then we will overcome other matters that are trivial in comparison. When we want to eliminate the bad and practice the good, we must know where to begin. This is another reason why when Confucius was teachings the cultivation of humanity, he believed that we should begin with what is most difficult to practice. The following are a few examples.

For example, an elderly teacher, Mr. Shu of Jiangxi, gave to two years earnings to a poor man who owed money to the government. If the man had been sent to prison, the family would have been torn apart.

This is very good examples, for Mr. Shu did something that was difficult to do and gave up something that was difficult to give up.

Another example is Mr. Zhang from Handan. He gave what had yaken him ten years to save to a poor man who owned money to the government. This saved him from going to jail and enabled him to remain with his wife.

Such examples as Mr. Shu and Mr. Zhang are rare, for they gave what is most difficult to give. What others would not sacrifice, they did so willingly.

People depend on money and material objects to survive. Therefore, to give away money is extremely difficult especially when it is all that we have. This is to “begin with what is most difficult to overcome…most difficult to practice.” Practicing in this way will help us to curb our desires.

Another example is Mr. Jin from Jiangsu province who was old and without sons. His neighbors him their young daughter in marriage so he might have descendants to continue his family. Mr. Jin refused the offer and sent her home. This is another example of being able to overcome what is most difficult to conquer in oneself.

Mr. Jin recognized the great age difference, and although he deeply wanted a son, he felt that he could not ruin the girl’s future and happiness to server his own purpose. This is another good example of restraining one’s desires especially when it is most difficult to do so.

Therefore, the heavens showered down especially good fortune on these three men. It is easier for those who have money and power to accumulate merits and virtues than for those who are poor.

However,, if one refuses to cultivate goodness when the opportunity presents itself, then it would truly be a shame. For those who are without wealth or status, doing good things for others is very difficult. However, if one can help others in the face of difficulties it will be even more valuable.

We  should grasp every opportunity to practice goodness and accumulate merits. Once the opportunity is lost, we may not get another chance when we want to do that which is good. Wealth does not last forever. Our luck changes every five years, and in our lifetimes there will be the best five years and the worst five years. If the good years are during our old age then this will be true good fortune. But, if the worst five years occur during our old age, then the hardships will be even more difficult because we will already be at a physical disadvantage.

Thus, we should practice goodness at an early age, to let everyone share in our good fortune because once we share it, we will still gain in the future whatever we are destined to have. When young and strong, we would do well to not selfishly exhaust all of our good fortune on ourselves so that it will remain intact for us to enjoy later in life. Similarly, if we suffer hardships first, then there will be none left for us to endure when we reach old age. This is why we must learn to cultivate and accumulate good fortune for our old age.

It is most important that as Buddhists, we know exactly what we are practicing—to accumulate the ultimate good fortune for our last moments of life. What is ultimate good fortune? It is to know that when our time is up, we can leave this world without illness, in a sitting or standing position, and that we know exactly where we will be going. This is the greatest good fortune, but most people are unaware of this. Practitioners should constantly remind themselves to share their good fortune with others. That way the good fortune will be even greater.

When we have prestige, it is easier to help others more and to accumulate merits. But we must not use this prestige against others. If we have the means to practice goodness but do not, we are throwing away a wonderful opportunity. On the other hand, when we are poor and do not have the means but still try to help others, the difficulty of the task makes the act even more valuable.

Practicing the Ten Good Deeds When Conditions Arise

There are many ways to help others whenever the opportunity presents itself. These can be simplified into the following ten important categories:

  1. To support the practice of kindness.
  2. To revere love and respect.
  3. To help others succeed in practicing goodness.
  4. To persuade others to practice kindness.
  5. To help those in desperate need.
  6. To develop public projects for the greater benefit of people.
  7. To practice merits by giving wealth.
  8. To protect and maintain proper teachings.
  9. To respect elders.
  10. To love and cherish all living things.

We need to be pleased about other’s virtuous deeds and not be jealous or hinder them in any way. Instead, we should do everything possible to help them when the right opportunity arises. Because there are so many kinds of virtuous conduct that can be accomplished, they have been summarized into ten categories.

What does “to support the practice of kindness” mean? Emperor Shun lived during the Yao Period. One day, before he became emperor, Shun was watching some fishermen on Lake Leize. He noticed that all the younger and stronger fishermen took the spots where the water was deep and the fish were abundant, while those who were older and weaker were left with the rapids and shallow water, where there were very few fish.

When Shun saw this, he sympathized with the older fishermen. He joined in the fishing and whenever he saw younger fishermen grab the good spots, he said nothing. But whenever someone yielded to others, he praised them everywhere he went and emulated their humble and polite manner. He did this for one year until the fishermen got into the habit of yielding the good spots to others.

Feeling saddened by the situation, the patient Shun thought of a way to remedy it by “concealing faults and praising kindness.”

Today, good deeds are often ignored as people emphasize improper conduct. As soon as someone acts differently or breaks the law, the media publicizes it. When this happens, there is bound to be more bad than good people, for when goodness is ignored, there is little incentive to practice it. In fact, it gives even more encouragement to practice wrong doings.

We should follow the examples set by ancient sages and virtuous people. They did not speak of the faults of others but waited for those people to reflect until they had awakened. This is the proper way to teach people. Everyone has a conscience although it can be overwhelmed by the desires of wealth and power. As long as we use a skillful way to help others see the truth, they will eventually come around. This is what Emperor Shun did with the fishermen. In the following passage, we can see why sages and virtuous people acted as they did.

A wise and capable man such as Shun could have easily influenced others with a few words. Why did he not simply say something instead of trying to change others by setting a good example? Shun’s painstaking and good intentions were like expert artisanship that results from long practice and hard work.

Shun did not want his words to influence others, but wisely preferred to set an example. Although it took a longer time, the effects were much more lasting because actions speaks louder than words.

In today’s era of low morality, social breakdown and loss of proper thinking, it is extremely difficult to find a good standard of behavior. Therefore, when those around us have shortcomings, we do not use our strengths to point out their deficiencies. When others are unkind, we do not use our kindness to compare ourselves to them. When others are less capable, we do not purposely surpass them. Even when we are intelligent and competent, these are to be kept hidden. Instead of boasting, we need to behave even more modestly. When someone makes a mistake, we tolerate and do not reveal it. This provides the opportunity to reform without the loss of self-respect.

Having advantages others lack does not mean we can gloat. We must be all the more careful to conceal our abilities and to accommodate the faults of others. To remember this and not flaunt our skills and intelligence is true broad-mindedness and tolerance. If we need to show off every time we can do something, then we will accomplish little. If we are capable of great achievements, we need not be as superficial as many people are. By being tolerant and not speaking of the faults of others, but instead praise the goodness of others, we will truly uphold the precepts and cultivate good fortune.

When we allow others to keep their dignity, they will even be more careful of future actions. When we see strengths or small kindness in others, we can learn from them and praise them to others.

If we can set an example with our behavior to the extent that others learn moderation, then we have done very well. When we see the slightest goodness displayed by others, we should be happy about it, and praise the person more for it.

The late Mr. Li Bingnam said not to talk about the faults of others and better still, to hide them. He explained: “When you praise others, the harm you cause can be even greater than when you scold them for their faults.” How could that be? He continued: “It takes great wisdom to know how to praise others.” Thoughtless praise can cause great harm. If we excessively praise people when they display even a little ability, they may become proud and think that they are incredible. This will prevent them from further progress. And to not progress is to regress. Now, haven’t you done more harm than good?” After thinking about this, you should understand.

So, what sort of person should we praise? In Buddhism, we praise those who can remain unaffected by the Eight Emotions of gain or loss, fame or disgrace, praise or blame, pleasure or pain. We can praise such people because they will not be affected. In fact, the more we praise such people, the more modest they become and the more they will try to improve. We can give special praise to these people.

Therefore, we should be very careful with our praise, not inadvertently allowing our good intentions to create bad deeds. Now we can see how much are Emperor Shun used in taking an entire year to help the young fishermen correct their faults and bad habits.

In daily life, we can refrain from speaking and acting with selfish intentions, but instead, seek to benefit society. We can help set standards for others to follow. These are the qualities of a great person; someone who thinks of public welfare as more important than his or her own.

We need to set good examples for others to follow. What are the qualities of a great person that Liaofan wrote of? A great person disregards his or her own welfare and thinks only of benefiting others. The selfish person only thinks of benefiting himself or herself. In the Sutra of the eight Realizations of the Great Beings”, “great beings” refers to the Bodhisattvas and the eight kinds of realizations. The sutra tells of their conduct and practice.

What does “To revere love and respect  for others” mean? Sometimes it is hard to tell on appearance whether someone is an honorable person or a fraud, since frauds pretend to be honorable. The difference is as obvious black and white. As Mencius said, the difference between honorable people and ordinary people lies in their intentions.

Confucianism talks about honorable persons, sages and virtuous people. Buddhism teaches of numerous Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. What differentiates all of them from ordinary people are their respective intentions. It is extremely difficult to distinguish just by appearance and this is why we have often misunderstood virtuous people.

The heart of a genuinely honorable person is filled with loving-kindness and respect for others. There are thousands of different types of people in this world, some close to us while others are strangers. Some have prestige while others have none. Some are smart while others are not and some are virtuous while others are corrupt. Nevertheless, we are all humans and are thus, all one entity. We should neither hate nor disrespect anyone.

The first of the Ten Great Vows of Samantabhadra Bodhisattva is to equally respect all Buddhas and things. From this aspect of principle, despite the apparent differences among people, all people are one to those who understand. From this aspect of phenomenon or appearance, we know that differences exist. But regardless of this, we are all part of humanity, all part of one another. Realizing this, we will view others as we view ourselves.

The Buddha said: “Throughout all time and space, there is only the one self.” Thus, the kindness and compassion of the Buddha is “unconditional affinity in great kindness and the embodiment of all in great compassion.” This is wisdom and we need to understand, respect and pass it on. We are to have loving-kindness and respect for all beings, sentient and non-sentient.

When our hearts are filled with loving kindness and respect for others, it is the same as if our hearts were filled with loving-kindness and respect for the sages and virtuous people. When we understand and agree with others, it is the same as if we understand and agree with the sages and virtuous.

In ancient times, well-educated people knew how to respect the sages and virtuous people. Today, our technological society is immersed in greed, anger, ignorance and arrogance. When we show respect, our thoughts and intentions are different from those of people in the past. Their respect was sincere, and the sages and virtuous people were role models for society. Upon seeing a sage, others would immediately emulate the sage to correct their own behavior. Today, people often go through the formalities of paying respect to the Bodhisattvas, heavenly beings and spirits in the hope of gaining something in return. All to often, this is the sole intention.

Liaofan said that understanding and agreeing with others is the same as understanding and agreeing with the sages and virtuous people. Their main objective is to create goodness and happiness for all people. Who would not prefer to live in a peaceful and prosperous society? Most people wish for the Five Good Fortunes of wealth and prestige, longevity, merits and virtues, happiness and no adversities, and a good death.

Practicing goodness and accumulating merits begins from our learning to have loving kindness and respect for all beings and circumstances. This loving-kindness and respect must be genuine. This is why the first of the Ten Great Vows of Samantabhadra Bodhisattva is to equally respect all Buddhas and things.

Why? Because all the virtuous people and sages want people to obtain what they wish for. If we can have loving-kindness and respect for people, and help them to achieve in their endeavors, we are acting as a sage or a virtuous person.

The sole intention of sages, virtuous people, and Bodhisattvas is to teach all beings how to properly obtain what they want. For those who are outstanding, intelligent and so-inclined, the virtuous people will try to teach them to be a Buddha or Bodhisattva. For those who are not so-inclined, the virtuous people will try to help them achieve what they wish for. Therefore, we too would do well to have loving-kindness and respect for all beings.

We need to help others to achieve in their endeavors. Helping others is one of the virtues of the true nature and enhances our merits. Jade is used as an example for it is considered one of the most delicate and beautiful of all stones and when carved and polished, it can become extremely valuable.

So, when people whom we feel have the potential to practice goodness or to work towards a proper goal, we can guide, support, praise, and encourage them, thus helping them to succeed.

This is about nurturing talented people. When we see others whose hearts are kind, whose natures are loyal and generous, and whose goals are virtuous, we need to encourage them to follow the right path and support them until they achieve their objectives.