Liaofan’s Third Lesson – The Ways to Cultivate Goodness – Part 4

Understanding Goodness (continued)

The Avatamsaka Sutra provides a very good example of nurturing people. We see Sudhana, who as a student had 53 good spiritual teachers. Although he was young, he is to be considered as our elder, a senior in high standing. His virtues, merits and knowledge are truly deserving of respect. We can learn much from him. As Sudhana met each of the spiritual leaders, he bowed and paid his respects. Each advisor would then ask him, “Where did you come from, why did you come here, and what is it you seek?” All 53 teachers asked Sudhana the same question and all received the same answer. Therefore, this question and answer is memorable.

The first part of the answer is: “I have vowed to attain supreme enlightenment and I wish to achieve unsurpassed Bodhi, but I do not know how to practice or what intent to have. Thus, I have come to ask for your guidance.” Setting a goal is what we mean by making a vow. If the goal is worthy and the student is diligent, then we must do our best to help him or her. Therefore, as long as we have a proper goal, then no matter whether the teachings are of this world or beyond, we will have a bright future and great accomplishments. If we see others who have this potential, we can encourage and assist them in their endeavors. If they suffer hardships, we should alleviate their difficulties so that they can concentrate on accomplishing their learning.

If others wrongly accuse them, we can try to clear their name and share their burden of slander. Only when we have helped them back on their feet to become a functioning part of society, will we have fulfilled out responsibility in helping others to do good.

Why would others want to cause trouble for us if we are good? Good things do not come easily. There are many obstacles for those trying to be virtuous. If someone wants to commit evil deeds, then Mara will be very happy because he loves evil. Not only will Mara not get in the way of the person, he will also do all he can to the person commit evil. On the other hand, if we want to perform virtuous deeds, that would be going against Mara’s wishes so he will do everything he can to deter us.

Mara is one factor that causes trouble; another is our karmic creditors from past lifetimes. When they see that we are practicing well and might transcend samsara, they will want to stop us. This is because we have not repaid what we owe them from the past. This debt may be money or a life. These creditors will not stand idly by and watch us succeed in our practice but will create obstacles to deter us. Thus, the path to awakening is filled with obstacles.

Most people dislike those who are different from them.

Most of us prefer those who are like us. For instance, those who practice Buddhism feel closer to practitioners than to others. This is especially noticeable within a family. If our parents and siblings are not practitioners and we are the only vegetarians, then there will be conflict. Since this is actually our own fault, we need to determine what we are doing wrong.

Why would other family members disapprove of us practicing Buddhism? Sometimes, when fellow Buddhists visit us, we may seem closer to them than to our families. We might appear happier with then than with our own mothers who upon seeing this could understandably become unhappy. Therefore, we should love and care for our families in the same way that we do other practitioners. Then our families will not oppose our practicing Buddhism. There are many cases where family conflicts have arisen when only one member practiced. Often, that one member did not consider his or her behavior and did not see what the cause of the discontent was. Only when we are objective, can we see the problem.

When other practitioners come to visit us, we should show even more respect to our parents so that our families will feel better. In this way, they will no longer object to our practice. They might even come to like it, and encourage friends and relatives to follow suit. Therefore, when interacting with family members, we should not use verbal education, but learn from Emperor Shun and use behavioral education to set good examples. Then, as they see the good results from practicing Buddhism, they will automatically help us to advocate it.

There are always more bad people around than good people; so, those who are good often have difficulty standing on their own.

Immoral people are in the majority and have more power than those who are honest. Because of this, decent people often have problems standing on their own. It becomes more difficult for them to be good because others will use their powers to create obstacles.

Ethical people often lack the opportunities to learn and are impeded by those who are immoral. This is why sometimes ethical people who are trying to stand on their own may not get the opportunity to practice goodness as much as they wish to. While they may be able to keep themselves unpolluted and pure, they lack the strength to help others. If we want them to be able to create goodness for the entire world than those of us who possess wisdom, good fortune and virtues must do our best to help them.

Good people have abilities and virtues that enable them to become famous. They usually pay little attention to their appearance. They can easily be wrongly accused so striving to do good turns out to be a challenge. When this happens, it is entirely up to virtuous people and elders to protect and help those who are moral to stand on their own. They can do this by providing what the people need to practice goodness. The merits of the virtuous people and elders who do this will be great.

Those who have unusually good abilities and virtues usually achieve fame. Locally, they are well known. Their lives are easy and they pay little heed to details, and this unfortunately often offends others. When we practice Buddhism, we must be extremely respectful to the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. However, we need not be overly concerned with inconsequential matters, for to do so will interfere with our practice. We should feel and show respect; but if we see others who are disrespectful, we should not mind them. In our practice, we need to believe that “the pure heart will give rise to the pure land.” Night and day, always remember to chant “Amituofo.” Everything else is immaterial.

Exceptionally talented people are not bothered by minor details and consequently can easily offend others and cause gossip. Therefore, striving to do good turns out to be a challenge because good people often suffer from accusations and slander. When this happened, those who are trying to be good must depend on virtuous people or elders with wisdom and virtue to help them overcome their difficulties so that they can contribute to society. Virtuous people and elders will achieve the greatest merits because they are not helping just an individual, but all of society, so that everyone may enjoy the same good fortune. This is truly a great merit.

If we are able to encourage, nurture and help a Dharma master so that he or she can teach Buddhism to others, the merits would be incomparable. However, many people do not know this. They believe that if they donate money to restore a temple, the merits would be greater. Actually, such merits are limited. In fact, sometimes we may even have committed a bad deed in spite of our good intentions. Therefore, only in nurturing talented people do we truly achieve great merit. Only with these masters can we guarantee the propagation of the teachings so that Buddhism will remain in our world.

It is extremely difficult to encourage and help talented teachers of Buddhism. They must seek self-enlightenment as well as help others to achieve enlightenment. Their minds must be pure, non-discriminatory and void of selfish thoughts. These are the necessary qualities for someone to teach Buddhism. If we encounter such a true Buddhist successor, we should do our utmost to help him or her. Once this person is accomplished and able to contribute greatly to Buddhism, the merits we have achieved in helping will be equal to his or her own.

What does “persuading others to practice kindness” mean? As humans, we all want to be good and to have a conscience, but chasing after wealth and fame has kept us so busy that we have stopped listening to our conscience. This is the result of having to survive in a world filled with hardships

When a friend is about to ignore his or her conscience to do something unworthy, we can remind and warn this friend, hoping to wake him or her from delusion. It is like waking up someone when they are having a nightmare. It is up to us to shake them into reality. When a person is undergoing a long spell of depression, we can pull this person out of it and help to clear his or her mind. We are most virtuous if we can treat our friends with such kindness.

Virtually everyone would prefer to be good. Even the worst person will usually say he or she would like to practice goodness. From this, we can conclude that a good heart and behavior is the true nature of humanity. Buddhism teaches us that this is a virtue of our true nature. If this is the case, why do people resort to immoral conduct? Two reasons: First, people commit bad deeds because of their afflictions and bad habits; second, they do so because of bad conditions. While they are committing bad deeds, most are bothered by their conscience, unfortunately, they do not have any good friends to help them to reform and so they become more deluded and confused.

As Liaofan said, although we want to practice goodness, the necessity of surviving in a world filled with hardship can result in our forgetting to do so. While trying to make a living, we do many things to maintain a certain standard of living for our families and to further our careers. Thus, the environment that we live in strongly influences our behavior. This could become disastrous in our immoral society.

Sometimes, we may find it quite easy to make money in the stock market. But, the wealth we gain from trading stocks was destined to be ours. If our destinies do not include wealth, then the money will soon be gone. In terms of handling money, if we carry it with us, we are afraid of being robbed. If we deposit it in the bank, all we can do is look at. What is the difference between our money vs. others’ money deposited in a bank? When we think about it, we will realize that wealth only increases our greed, anger and arrogance.

All that we need is enough food, adequate clothing, and a safe place to live. Would it not be better if we were to use our good fortune a little at a time rather than exhaust it all at once? If our family members or friends try to obtain wealth through improper means, we need to use reason to help them realize that such methods are improper and that we should not engage in speculation or adopt improper ways to obtain wealth. This is the proper path for it can last a long time.

We must help others with what is most beneficial to them. In helping others to learn and to attain awakening, Buddhism is accommodating and skillful so others are happy to listen and open to accepting what we say. In this way, we will be able to help others understand how they can reform and be led away from confusion. When they suddenly become vigilant, it will be similar to awakening in Buddhism. This is like eliminating the roots of all afflictions. All that remains is a sense of serenity and freedom. This is wisdom.

A scholar named Hanyu once said: “By word of mouth, one can only persuade and influence others for a while. If one can persuade and influence others through written words, one’s words can be passed on for hundreds of generations around the world.” Depending on what is appropriate in the circumstances, we can use either speaking or writing.

This illustrates the flexible and expedient method of teaching. When we explain the principles and advise others in order to help them awaken, we do it by word of mouth but this only benefits them in this lifetime. If we wish to guide many others as well as future generations, then the best way would be through writing. By recording our own good words and deeds, we can pass these down for future generations. This will ensure the preservation of these good words.

An example of this is Liaofan’s Four Lessons. Liaofan’s objective in writing the book as to alert his son to the dangers of committing bad deeds. Liaofan had not intended these four lessons to be widely read for many generations and so he has unintentionally performed a great deed of goodness. Many people who follow his teachings have succeeded in changing their destinies from that of suffering to happiness, thus, benefiting from Liaofan’s written words. This thin volume is a prime example of teaching people to be good. He used his own life as an example for his descendants, hoping that they would understand and learn to practice goodness. This is the most effective, profound and all-encompassing goodness.

We may think that we are unqualified to write but this is not so—we are all qualified. If we can just record one or two occurrences that we hear or see each day, the outcome would be like the lessons in this book. We can see that persuading people by speech and persuading generations by writing are not difficulty as long as our hearts are sincere and our determination unshakable.

To encourage virtue, we can persuade others through speech or writing. Compared with teaching others through behavior, speech and writing are more direct and clear. Sometimes, we do not have time to teach others through behavior. Then verbal or written education will become more effective. Furthermore, if we can apply it like the right medicine for an illness, often it will prove to have wonderful effects. Therefore, we cannot give up.

We should interact with those whom we are trying to help and use our actions as examples to inspire others, similar to what Emperor Shun did with the fishermen.

In Buddhism, the Four Embracing Methods are used to guide and influence all sentient beings. The first method is giving unsparingly to establish a good affinity and amicability with others. Once we have honestly earned the confidence of others, then what we say or do will create a positive effect on them and they will be more open to what we say and do.

The second method is to use kind words. This does not mean we use flattery or persuasive words to sway others. Kind words means to act with flexibility with others and to make them feel comfortable. As explained by Master Zhongfend earlier in this lesson, when our motivation comes from loving-kindness, for others, then even if we scold or punish them for their own good, it would be an act of kindness.

But when we are scolding, we should take into consideration their ability to withstand and accept the reproach. If they reject it because it is overdone, then our words will have a negative effect. Therefore, when we speak to others of their faults, we should make sure that no one else is present so that they will not feel embarrassed or be antagonized. This is an example of being flexible and helping the person feel comfortable.

The third method is beneficial action. This means that our words and actions must truly be to help others. The fourth and last method is comradeship and cooperation, which means that we participate in proper activities with others and guide them by being good examples.

Everyone is bound to encounter misfortune during his or her life. We are now living in a relatively peaceful world; however, we will always enjoy such peace? If we look realistically at the way we are currently headed, the future looks bleak, If would be most unfortunate if the hardships were to occur during our middle years or old age. Therefore, when we meet others who are suffering the same hardships and quickly do everything we can to help. This is the giving of fearlessness.

When others are oppressed or wronged, we must help them by pleading on their behalf and do whatever we can to prove their innocence. When they suffer from continuous hardships and we are unable to help them by ourselves, we must inform others and enlist their assistance. The scholar Mr. Cui said that it is not important whether we are able to help a great deal or just a little; what is important is that we help when others need our help the most. However, while we should provide assistance in an emergency, poverty is a different issue. The best way to assist those in poverty is to help them lean ways to earn a living so that they can support themselves and become independent. This is the act of kindness.

On a small scale, we can benefit a village. On a larger scale, we can benefit a village. On a larger scale, we can benefit a city or a country. Today, this is known as social welfare. Every citizen, every governing body would do well to consider it their responsibility to do good deeds to help everyone.

We should do anything that benefits the local community. Only when everyone has good fortune, do we have it as well. If we alone enjoy good fortune while others are suffering, then adversity is not far behind. As a Chinese proverb says, one family’s wealth can cause resentment from thousands of families. If we share our good fortune with others, it will help to create a stable society and a peaceful world. This will then become true good fortune. When we share our good fortune with others, it is a sign of great wisdom, good fortune and virtue. Today, when we speak of “developing public projects for the benefit of others,” we can do so by encouraging others to practice the teachings in Liaofan’s Four Lessons and the teachings of Buddhism.

What does “accumulating merits and good fortune by giving wealth” mean? In Buddhism, giving is considered the foremost practice among all the methods.

This is the way to practice for good fortune. In Buddhism, there are infinite ways to practice. For the sake of simplicity, Buddhism has organized these infinite ways into the six major practices called the Six Paramitas. The Buddha often taught the Six Paramitas of infinite practices. If we summarize then, all six become the first Paramita: that of giving. Keeping the precepts or moral self-discipline and patience can both be considered the giving of fearlessness. Diligence, deep concentration and wisdom can be considered the giving of teaching. Thus, the three types of giving encompass all the methods of practices in Buddhism.

No matter how many other ways there are, they are all encompassed in giving. In the Diamond Sutra, the Buddha taught us to be attached in our practice of giving. This is the ultimate perfect guideline for all the ways of practice. This is the ultimate perfect guideline for all the ways of practice.

Therefore, to give is to practice good fortune. This is the practice of Bodhisattvas. Since the Six Paramitas are the way to practice good fortune, wisdom is a part of good fortune. When we practice the giving of teaching, we gain intelligence and wisdom, which is considered good fortune. When we practice the giving of fearlessness, we will gain healthy, long lives. When we practice the giving of wealth, we will gain wealth. The Chinese speak of these as the Five Good Fortunes of wealth and prestige, longevity, merits and virtues, happiness and no adversities, and a good death. A good death is good fortune because it can in turn lead into a h0Sundaygood rebirth. And the best death is to die while chanting a Buddha’s name to be reborn into the Pure Land. During my lifetime, I have seen many instances where this had happened.

If we wish to attain perfect happiness in this world, we will not go wrong if we practice according to the teachings in this book. If we wish to attain perfect happiness beyond in this world, then we only need to practice according to the Infinite Life Sutra. And if we lead our lives according to the guidelines of both the Infinite Life Sutra and Liaofan’s Four Lessons. We will attain the great liberation in both this world and beyond. Thus, we are encouraged here to practice good fortune through giving.

What is giving? Giving is letting go. A wise person who understands this principle would be willing to give away everything, even to the point of letting go of our attachments to the six sense organs within. Externally, we also give away that which we see, hear, smell, taste, touch and think.

To give is to let go, to give away. The more we give, the freer we will become. “A wise person who understands this principle” is someone who has true wisdom, like a Bodhisattva. When we speak of letting go of the six sense organs and the Six Dusts, we are not talking about letting go physically. How can we detach ourselves from our physical body? Even if we are able to discard our body, it will still not solve our problems.

Therefore, when we speak of letting go of the six sense organs, we mean to detach ourselves from the aspect of our mind. This means that we do not have any attachments or discriminations and are not tempted by external phenomena. We learn in the Diamond Sutra, “Do not attach to form—remain unmoved within.” Not attaching means letting go of the six senses. Once we have severed our attachments within and without, we will no longer be deluded but will have uncovered our true nature and become Buddhas.

To let go is to do so from the mind. It is to detach ourselves from the Five Desires and the Six Dusts of the mind. We should learn to not have attachments to our bodies or our minds. As ordinary people, we are filled with wandering, discriminatory thoughts and attachments, and find it extremely difficult to sever them. The Pure Land way of practice is to change our thinking, so that we are mindful only of Buddha Amitabha. Then, we will finally be free. Truly cultivating the Bodhisattva way is concentrating only on Buddha Amitabha and chanting only his name.

We can give away anything. When we find ourselves unable to do so, we can begin with the giving of wealth. Ordinary people regard their clothing and food as dearly as their lives; therefore, they consider wealth to be the utmost importance. When we give spontaneously, we can cure stinginess while helping others in dire need. However, for many this is very difficult to do, especially at first. But, gradually the more we give the more natural it will become. This is the best way to cure selfishness and to eradicate attachments and stinginess.

The Diamond Sutra tells us: “Everything with form is illusory and false.” This teaches us to give, to let go and be free of worries and attachments. I we find it difficult to do this then we need to begin by giving away our wealth so that we are not affected by it.

This is also the method that the Buddha taught us to enable us to escape the cycle of birth and death, to transcend samsara and to transform ourselves, from ordinary people to sages. It is always a little difficult when we first learn to give, so we often do so grudgingly and may feel upset and perhaps even regret what we have done. This is when we need to use our wisdom and be determined to gradually make giving a habit until it become natural. Everyone will experience such a stage in his or her learning and cultivation.

As we give, we will eventually experience a lessening in worries and stinginess and when we no longer attach to wealth or enjoyments, our bodies, hearts and minds will feel great contentment and liberation. This is when our true nature will begin to be uncovered and we will gain complete contentment and freedom.

The law of causality never changes, either in this world or beyond; the more wealth we give, the more wealth we will gain. We do not even know where this wealth will come from, but it will come. The more teaching we give, the more wisdom we will gain, so we do not want to withhold any of our wealth or knowledge. Poverty is the result of not giving wealth. Ignorance is the result of not giving teachings and illness and short lives are the result of not giving fearlessness.

The Five Good Fortunes are all gained through the cause of giving; therefore, to gain the good result, we must practice the good cause. It is a wandering thought to think that we can gain the result without first planting the cause. This is impossible.

What does “protecting proper teachings” mean? For millions of years, proper teachings have been a standard of truth and provided spiritual guidance for all living beings. Without proper teachings, how can we participate in and support the nurturing of heaven and earth? Without proper teachings, how can we help people to succeed in their practice? How can beings in all the realms succeed in their endeavors without a standard to live by? How can we be free of the Five Desires, the Six Dusts, our delusions, our afflictions? Without proper teachings, how can we set a standard in the world and help people transcend samsara?

Proper teachings are the personal achievements of wise sages that have been proven by using the standards of truth and wisdom, such as those found in the great teachings of Confucius and Buddha Shakyamuni. This illustrates how important it is to protect the proper teachings.

We need to understand this to see why Buddhism is currently undergoing difficulties and has declined. As is the root, Confucianism taught us how to properly conduct ourselves. If we cannot even be a good person, how can we become a Bodhisattva, much less a Buddha? Our learning and practice to become Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are built on the foundation of the humanities.

Today, schools emphasize technology and have largely forgotten the humanities. But, no matter how advanced our technology, if we do not study the humanities, then as the ancient people questioned, what is the difference between humans and animals? If we do not know morality, benevolence and honor, then there will be little difference between animals and us.

Proper teachings include those of Confucius and the Buddha. They have been the standards of truth that have provided guidance for thousands of years. Heaven and earth have the merits and virtues of giving rise to and nurturing infinite things. Heaven gives rise and the earth nurtures. Heaven and earth have shown great kindness to all beings, sentient and non-sentient. Once we understand this, not only will we not harm the natural environment, we will do all that we can to help the natural ecological balance to become perfect so as to enable all beings to receive what they need.

The merits of heaven and earth are vast and great. Those who are genuinely moral and knowledgeable can participate in and support the rising and nurturing of heaven and earth. The world’s wise sages, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas do just this. As Buddhists, we learn that “If we can transform objects and beings, then we are just like a Buddha.”

To transform objects means to change our views, to let go of selfishness and to participate in the light of the sky, earth, sun and moon. To let go of our selfishness and to wholeheartedly help all beings is the true cultivation. Buddhas and Bodhisattvas propagate the teachings and help all beings by teaching them how to eliminate delusion and attain the truth. It is like heaven and earth nurturing all beings. The merit from this immeasurable. When we are able to transcend delusion and are liberated from confinement, we will end all of our afflictions and worries, uncover our wisdom and transform delusion into awakening.

We can use the behavior of sages and virtuous people as examples. The teachings of the sages are the classics and sutras. The thoughts, words and deeds of sages are correct and without error and surpass the dimensions of time and space. This is called “The career of the sages and virtuous people for guiding the world.” We know that Buddhist sutras surpass time and space, because 3000 years ago Buddha Shakyamuni instructed and helped the people of that time. Today, as we read the sutras, we still feel that every sentence spoken by the Buddha is logical and is to be practiced accordingly. This is especially true for Pure Land sutras, which teach people how to transcend the world by attaining rebirth into the Pure Land in one lifetime.

Buddhism was initially taught in India and was then introduced into China. India and China are very different, yet what the Buddha taught was fitting for both countries. And as it moves to western and westernized countries, it is still appropriate.

Similarly, the Four Books consist of the thoughts of Confucius and Mencius and are the essence of Chinese culture. Confucius and Mencius lived 2500 years ago. Their guidance benefited individuals, families, society and the entire country. As the Four Books are introduced abroad, people in other countries nod their heads in agreement after understanding what they teach.  These teachings are timeless and beyond the boundaries of space. This is why the teachings of Confucius, Mencius, Laozi and Zhuangzi are said to surpass the dimensions of time and space are genuine sutras and teachings on how to properly govern. Upon careful comparison, we can see that those of Confucius, Mencius, the Bodhisattvas and Buddhas are unsurpassed.

Among all of the Buddhist sutras, the Infinite Life Sutra is flawless, for it attains the highest level. The essence of traditional Chinese culture is contained within the Four Books. The contents of the Four Books are very similar to that of the Avatamsaka Sutra, which provides principles, methods and behavior for us to emulate. Of the Four Books, Doctrine of the Mean provides the methods. Analects and Mencius tells us of the lives of Confucius and Mencius respectively and teach us how to apply the principles and methods in our daily lives. Thus, Analects and Mencius are just like the 53 visits of Sudhana for they also provide us with good examples. And we too are to be good examples to help guide others.

The teachings of the sages have a direct bearing on the thoughts of individuals, trends in cultural behavior, the overall well being of a group and societal happiness and peace. Since ancient times, wise and virtuous people have analogized the teachings of the sages as the guidance for heavenly beings and humans. How do we protect and uphold them? Buddhist centers are institutions of Buddhist education while schools are institutions of worldly education. Both need to be protected and sustained. But today, schools have largely abandoned the education of morality and this is why we have such unhappiness and sufferings. If we fail to awaken to this, our world will be destroyed.

Ancient Chinese sages were knowledgeable about science and technology and yet they chose not to continue development of such knowledge. Why? They foresaw that in the end, technology would destroy our world. So, they chose instead to concentrate on the humanities, to help people develop wisdom and to understand and practice morality, to help people fully understand the relationship between humans, among humans and spirits and among humans and nature, and to become a person who is fearless and indomitable. Only in this way, will individuals experience true happiness and well being, and will citizens and countries have a genuine future. This is genuine education.