The Second Condition: The Good Fortune Required to be a Theravada Sage
The second of the Three Conditions is:
Taking the Three Refuges
Abiding by precepts laws and customs
Behaving in a proper and dignified manner
Mahayana Buddhism is based on the foundation of Theravada Buddhism, which was introduced into China during the Sui and Tang dynasties, 1300 years ago, but soon gave way to Mahayana Buddhism. Why did the Theravada teachings decline in China? In ancient times, people who learned Buddhism had already been nurtured in the Taoist and Confucian teachings, which were enough to replace the Theravada teachings. Since the Taoist and Confucian teachings were also similar to those of the Mahayana teachings, it was natural for the Chinese to accept them. Thus, the Theravada teachings were not practiced as Taoism and Confucianism served as the foundation of Mahayana teachings.
Consequently, Theravada teachings never really developed in China. Today, people learn and practice Mahayana but ignore Theravada Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. This is similar to ignoring the foundation and first floor when building a house. Such an attempt would not work because the house would be “a cabin in the sky”. This is why we see so few Buddhist successors today.
Theravada Buddhism is established on the human-heavenly basis, which includes being filial to our parents, respectful to our teachers and elders, compassionate to others and diligent in practicing the Ten Good Conducts. With this base, we can meet the criteria to begin learning and practicing Buddhism. To be a Buddhist practitioner, after we have acquired basic understanding, we pay respect to the teacher and take the Three Refuges of the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, the 5th principal of the Three Conditions. We pay respect to Buddha Shakyamuni and express the wish to follow his teachings for the rest of our lives. From this point on we will have the standards for changing our thought, speech and behavior.
Taking Refuge in the Triple Jewels is to take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and the Sangha. In ancient times, everyone understood the meaning of the Triple Jewels. Today however, many people misunderstand the meaning. When they hear the word “Buddha”, they think of an image. When they hear the word “Dharma”, they think of monks and nuns.
The Sixth Patriarch of the Zen, Master Hui-Neng, foresaw the possibility that people in the future would misinterpret the meaning of the Triple Jewels. Therefore, whenever he taught he would he would not use the words Buddha, Dharma or Sangha. Instead, he used enlightenment, proper understanding and purity. These terms are more easily understood and less subject to misunderstanding. They are called the Triple Jewels of Self-nature, which are the true principles for us to follow. If we become misled here and follow and individual master, we will remain misled from now on. if that happens, how can we achieve any real attainment?
When we take refuge in the Triple Jewels, we first return to and reply upon the Buddha. For uncountable aeons, we have been wandering helplessly and miserably in the six realms. Now we have met a good teacher who shows us that we need to return from our confusion, delusion and erroneous thinking and to rely upon awakening of our self nature. Our self-nature was originally awakened. So, the Buddha that we rely upon is not be found outside of ourselves but is innate to our self-nature. The Pure Land School teaches “Buddha Amitabha and the Pure Land are already within our self-nature”. Buddha Amitabha, Buddha Shakyamuni and all Buddhas manifest from our self-nature. Therefore, what we rely upon is the Buddha or awakening of our self-nature. from now on we should be awakened and never again be deluded or filled with attachments, for if we do so then we have not turned back.
Next we return to and rely upon the Dharma, of which our thoughts and viewpoints of life and the universe completely completely accord with true reality. This treasure is only found within our self-nature. Buddha Shakyamuni taught us to return from erroneous thoughts and viewpoints and to reply upon those that are proper. This is to return and rely upon the Dharma. The Buddha did not tell us to blindly follow him but rather to be a dauntless independent individual and to find the truth by ourselves.
Next we return to and rely upon the Sangha, which represents purity of the Six Senses of sight, sound smell, taste, touch and idea. Most of us will find that our six senses become polluted when they encounter external surroundings. When these are pleasing, we develop a heart of greed, which is pollution. When these are displeasing, we develop a heart of resentment and anger, which is pollution as well. We need to remember that the Five Desires of wealth, lust, fame, food or drink and sleep and the Seven Human Emotions of joy, anger, sorrow, fear, love, hate and desire are impurities of the heart. The Buddha told us that originally our self-nature was pure without impurities. We need to eradicate all impurities and reply upon our pure heart. This is to return and rely upon the Sangha.
In summary, taking refuge in the Buddha means being awakened and not deluded. Taking refuge in the Dharma means having proper viewpoints. Taking refuge in the Sangha mans being pure and not polluted. These are the Triple jewels of Self-nature that the Buddha taught us for our practice: awakening, proper viewpoints and purity. From now on, we need to forget our past and return to and reply upon the triple Jewels and use them to correct our thoughts, speech and behavior.
When we attain one of the Three Refuges, we achieve the other two as well. Think about it. Will an awakened person have erroneous viewpoints? Will this person have an impure heart? Can a person with an impure heart and erroneous viewpoints attain awakening? The Buddha has shown us three guidelines to uncover our original self-nature and to attain Buddhahood. This is similar to a way place with three entrances, we only need to step through one and we are in!
Zen Buddhism uses the sudden enlightenment method to uncover our self-nature. However, only cultivators with superior capability and purity of mind can achieve attainment in this way. For example, the Sixth Patriarch of Zen, Master Hui-Neng only taught students with superior capabilities.
Other schools such as the Tiantai, Flower Adornment and Three Sastras (Discourse) Schools use the proper thoughts and viewpoints method by correcting thoughts and behavior following the guidelines in the sutras. However, this requires endurance and much practice because achievement takes a long time and we have to study many sutras.
The Pure Land and Tibetan Schools, however, emphasize practice through purity of mind through cultivation. It is logical that these two schools are popular today in the Dharma Ending Age. However, the Pure Land School does not require unusually superior abilities or a long period of time for practice. As it stresses the Buddha Name Recitation Method to attain purity of mind, it is much easier to practice and to reach attainment in than the Tibetan School. Again, although the doors to the way place are different, each of them will give us entry. Therefore, all methods are equal and that the three methods of enlightenment, proper thoughts and viewpoints, and purity are in essence the same.
Thus, we need to acquire a clear understanding of the Triple Jewels of Self-Nature and to know which method to choose as the basis for our practice. Only in this way will we find genuine refuge. Otherwise, we will remain ignorant of where to take refuge and upon what to rely.
Although we may now have more understanding of the Triple Jewels, we may still be confused as to how to practice them in our daily lives. Each school has its own representation of the Triple Jewels. For example, in the Flower Adornment School they are Vairocana Buddhas, the Flower Adornment Sutra, Manjushri Bodhisattva and Universal Worthy Bodhisattva and the forty-one Great Bodhisattvas, respectively. They are our role models to emulate.
The Triple Jewels of the Tiantai School are Buddha Shakyamuni, the Lotus Sutra and the Bodhisattvas named in the sutras, respectively. In the Pure Land School they are Buddha Amitabha, The Infinite Life Sutra, the other four sutras and one sastra or commentary; Guan Yin Bodhisattva, Great Strength Bodhisattvas, Manjushri Bodhisattva and Universal Worthy Bodhisattva, respectively.
We learn compassion from Guan Yin Bodhisattva and single-minded concentration from Great Strength Bodhisattva. “The Chapter on the Perfect and Complete Realization of Great Strength Bodhisattva” in the Surangama Sutra tells us how Great Strength Bodhisattva concentrated on the Buddha Name Chanting Method from the time he took refuge until the time he attained enlightenment. He taught us that they proper way to chant is the complementary practice of concentrating the six sense organs and continuous pure mindfulness of Buddha Amitabha. Pure mindfulness is to chant without “doubt, intermingling with other thoughts and methods”, to chant with a pure mind. Continuous means uninterrupted with one sentence after another. This is the key to success in the practice of Buddha Name chanting, which was taught by Great Strength Bodhisattva.
Mr. Xia wrote in his book entitled, “Essentials for Practice of the Pure Land School” that Great Strength Bodhisattva was the founding patriarch of the Dharma realm. Initially, his comment greatly surprised me because I had never heard this before. Later, I understood what he meant and greatly admired him for his perception. Throughout the universe, Great Strength was the Bodhisattva to concentrate solely on the Buddha Name Chanting Method.
When Buddha Shakyamuni manifested in our Saha world, the first sutra he taught was the Flower Adornment Sutra. In this assembly, the Ten Great Vows of Universal Worthy Bodhisattva concluded the sutras and guide us to the Western Pure land. Thus, Universal Worthy Bodhisattva is the founding patriarch of he Saha world. Then, after the Infinite Life Sutra was introduced into China, Master Hui-Yan of the Eastern Jin Dynasty, which was sixteen hundred years ago, built a cultivation hall and gathered together one hundred twenty-three fellow practitioners. They exclusively studied the Infinite Life Sutra and practiced the Buddha name Chanting Method. Therefore, the three founding patriarchs of the Pure Land School are Great Strength Bodhisattva of the Dharma realms, Universal Worthy Bodhisattva of the Saha world an Master Hui-Yuan of China.
Years ago, Master Chin Kung’s teacher. Mr. Bing-Nan Lee, of Taizhong in Taiwan, suggested that he should introduce Pure Land Buddhism to the west. He established a way place in Dallas, Texas and called it the “Flower Adornment Society”, the same name he used in Taiwan. When he brought statues of Buddha Amitabha, Guan Yin Bodhisattva and Great Strength Bodhisattva from China, they were too small for the twenty-one foot hall. He though that it would be better to have larger paintings with western features to symbolize the introduction of Pure Land Buddhism to the west.
Just one day before his departure for the United States, he received some paintings with the request that they be taken to Dallas. To this day, he still does not know who the donor was. The paintings were of Buddha Amitabha, Guan Yin Bodhisattva and Great Strength Bodhisattva. What a surprise! Buddha Amitabha had Indian features. Guan Yin Bodhisattva had Chinese features and Great Strength Bodhisattva had western features! The donor had the same idea that Master had. The western features of he founding patriarch of he Dharma Realm symbolized the arrival of Pure Land Buddhism in the United States. Thus, the Pure Land Society was set up in the west. Mr. Lian-Ju Xia had been the first to suggest that a Pure Land society be formed. But it was not to be in China, but rather in Dallas.
The Triple Jewels are also represented by images of Buddhas, sutras and monks and nuns. They are to remind us of the need to return and reply on the Triple Jewels of our self nature. When we see images of the Buddha, they remind us to be awakened and not deluded when interacting with people, mattes and objects. Without this daily reminder we will remain confused and wrapped up in worldly matters.
The sutras are to be recited daily but not for the benefit of the Buddha. We recite them as another reminder of how to cultivate our mind and how to properly interact with people, matters and objects. For example, our daily conduct is an expression of the Infinite Life Sutra when we emulate the qualities found within it.
The image of a monk or nun, whether or not they have abided by the precepts, reminds us to keep our six senses from becoming polluted. We need to understand that we do not take refuge in individuals who pass on to us the meaning and the cultivation guidelines of the Triple Jewels of awakening, proper thoughts and viewpoints, and purity.
Although there is an uncountable number of methods, their objectives are the same. As is often said, “all roads lead to Rome” and “all methods are the same.” Pure Land practitioners should never criticize or slander Zen, Tibetan or any other schools. Why? Because their objectives are the same as ours, they simply follow different methods. This is similar to our taking a bus while others chose to walk. We cannot day that they are wrong when all roads lead to the same destination. They have the freedom to choose their way. Master Chin Kung was once asked by a student: “I am confused by so many methods. Which one do you think I should choose?” At the time, there happened to be a ball on the ground. He pointed to the ball and said: “Look at this ball. The surface has points countless as the number of methods. The teachings require you to find the center of the ball. You can reach the center from any point on the surface as long as you follow a straight line. You need not find a second or a third point. As an old saying goes: ‘Follow the road and you will get home. There is no need to circle around’”. He then understood that Buddhism pursues the true mind. Once we attain enlightenment, we attain everything. Therefore, no matter which method we choose, the key to success is concentration on one method. So long as we adhere to our chosen method, we will achieve deep concentration, attain wisdom and uncover the self-nature of Great Perfection.
From all of this, we can see how important the Triple Jewels are to us. Monks and nuns are the treasure of the sangha. We need to respect all of them. We can learn from the good ones, as well as from those who do not follow the rules and guidelines. We emulate the former and use the latter to serve as negative examples.
If we fail to understand that taking refuge in the Triple Jewels does not mean following a certain person, then there will be the most serious of consequences, as we fall into Avici Hell. Why? Throughout the universes, there is only sangha, an integral body. The sangha in our present world is just a part of this whole. If we take refuge in and follow only one individual monk or nun, and regard that person as our only teacher and refuse to respect others, then we will be “Splitting and sowing discord among the group.” This is the fifth of the Five Deadly Offenses of murdering our father, murdering our mother, causing a Buddha to bleed, killing a Bodhisattva or an Arhat and disrupting the unity of the Sangha. Therefore, it would be even worse to choose only a certain monk or nun for refuge than not to take refuge al all.
Furthermore, we only need to take refuge once. It does not accomplish anything to take refuge from one person this time and another the next time. We may think that we can get much more protection if we follow many monks and nuns. However, as the saying goes: “A clay idol crossing a river cannot protect itself”. Nobody can protect us. Only when we take Refuge in the Triple Jewels of our self-nature, can we protect ourselves. Those who have gone through a Taking Refuge Ceremony, have a clearer understanding then they can properly take refuge in the Triple Jewels by following the principles of awakening, proper thoughts and viewpoints and purity.
The sixth principle of the Three Conditions is abiding by the precepts, laws and customs. Of all the precepts the most important are the basic Five Precepts. Master Chin Kung’s late teacher, Living Buddha Master Zhang-Jia once said: “The Three Refuge’s and the Five Precepts are so essential that all Buddhist cultivators need to abide by them every moment”. Then he explained further: “It is like a train ticket for you to get from northern Taiwan to southern Taiwan. From the moment you board the train until you reach your destination, you must hold on to that ticket. You must not lose it, because you have to show it when you depart. Taking Refuge in the Triple Jewels and the first Five Precepts are as important to you as that train ticket”. He further explained that if we we part from the Triple Jewels and the precepts, we will lose the teachings and will no longer be a student of the Buddha.
The Five Precepts are no killing, no stealing, no sexual misconduct, no lying and no intoxicants. The first four offenses are physical transgressions of the self-nature. Whether or not we have taken the precepts, it is wrong to commit these acts. But for one, who has formally taken the Five Precepts, this will be considered as committing a double violation.
However, drinking alcohol and taking intoxicants is different. A person who has not taken the precepts is not guilty when drinking, however, a person who has taken the precepts and the drinks will have broken the precept. The purpose of refraining from intoxicants is to prevent us from committing the first four transgressions while under the influence. Therefore, intoxicants in themselves are not wrong. This is an example of why we need to understand the purpose of he Buddha’s precept setting, its function and benefit.
When deciding whether to formally take the Five Precepts, the essence of all the precepts, we need to ask the Dharma Master to explain to us exactly what they mean. Only then we will know if and how to abide by them. Merely reading a book of the precepts does not necessarily ensure our commitment to keeping them.
Some people have complained that there are too many precepts and that it is too easy to violate them. Thus, they abandon abiding by the precepts. This is why most people prefer reading or listening to talks about the sutras while avoiding those on precepts. We need to remember that precepts guide us in our behavior and are the proper conduct of all Buddhas. If there were no precepts, then there would be no Buddhism. If there were no courtesies, then there would be no Confucianism. Merely reciting the sutras without practicing the teachings within them will result in our not receiving any of their benefits. True learning lies in practice and the precepts represent the practice of Buddhism. Thus, abiding by the Five Precepts becomes the standard for our daily lives and the guidelines for us to attain proper enlightenment.
When he Buddhas was in our world, he was joyful and open-minded, whether taking part in daily life or teaching. And it was this joy and energy that attracted people and helped them to accept Buddhism. It is not meant to bind us, but to benefit all beings by bringing them joy and happiness. The formation of the precepts was to show us the right path to attain a happy and fulfilling life.
A good illustration is Master Chin Kung’s late teacher, Mr. Bing-Nan Lee, who lived a simple and frugal yet happy life. For decades, he only ate one meal a day. But, whenever he was invited out for dinner, he accepted. On several occasions, he invited Master to accompany him. Since Master had been practicing the precept of not eating dinner for years, he felt very uncomfortable when being invited. Mr. Lee simply said to Master, “Come with me! Come with me!” Later, he spoke to me, “With this attachment, you will not be able to help people. Why? Because if you intend to help them, you must make them happy. Eating this dinner is not violating the precepts but rather it is lifting them. They invited you with good intentions. If you reject their invitation, they will look upon you as being closed to reason. Then he will not only reject Buddhism, but will tell others that we practitioners are arrogant and look down upon others. He may also urge them to avoid Buddhist. So, you could ruin the opportunity of an untold number of people to learn of Buddhism. Furthermore, this will result in the creation of negative karma for you”. Therefore, he was not violating the precepts but was instead simply lifting them for this meant making others happy, helping them to learn of Buddhism as well as according with conditions.
When Mr. Lee and Master arrived at one dinner, the host apologized, “I am very sorry that I did not know that my Mr. Lee does not eat after noon”. The host was obviously deeply moved that Mr. Lee had accepted his invitation. We can see from this that Buddhism is flexible. However, it would have been entirely different if Mr. Lee, or one who practices this precept, wanted to eat something in the evening.
Many years ago when Master was very young, a friend told him a story about himself. It occurred during the Chinese War of Resistance against the Japanese invasion. After the fall of Nanjing. some Japanese soldiers chased the individual and two of his friends. The three fled to a temple and were saved by an old monk who shaved their heads, gave them monks clothing to put on and told then to blend in with the large assembly of monks. When the Japanese soldiers arrived at the temple, they were unable to find the three and soon left. Thus, they were saved.
When the war was over, the friends returned to Nanjing wishing to repay their debt of gratitude. They invited the old monk to a lavish banquet. He arrived to find the table covered laden with chicken, duck, pork and fish. All of a sudden, they remembered that the monk was a vegetarian! They were extremely upset over their mistake and did not know what to do. But the monk acted like there was nothing unusual and picking up his chopsticks invited everyone to sit down. The three friends were greatly moved.
Did the old monk break the precepts? No! His behavior followed what is said in the sutras: “Compassion and kindness are the basis of Buddhism and skillful means are the method”. He had just used the first of the Four Beneficial Methods, making others happy. The old monk was moved by their gesture and did not blame them for their honest mistake. He had used the same method that the Bodhisattvas use to help people through the dharma doors. If the monk had been angry, he could have easily ruined their interest in Buddhism. But he was wise enough to use the opportunity to help guide three people. Therefore, we again see that Mahayana Buddhism is highly flexible, as it accords with existing circumstances.
Let’s look at strictly abiding by the precepts. The Five Precepts are the heart, the essence of all the precepts. Expanding further, we follow all the precepts as set forth by Buddha Shakyamuni, as well as the social norms, customs, rules and laws in every country. When in China we follow Chinese customs, rules and laws. When in the United States we do the same. In other words, precepts are rules we need to follow in our daily lives. The modern conveniences of transportation and communication have greatly increased opportunities for travel to difference countries and regions of the world. We need to follow the advice of “When in Rome do as the Romans do”. This is called strictly abiding by the precepts.
Many of the precepts taught by Buddha Shakyamuni were appropriate for that time but are no longer suitable today. Why? Our manner of living, dressing and eating is totally different from those of India several thousands of years ago. For example, of the two hundred fifty precepts for monks, ten rules on the etiquette of dressing are totally unsuitable for today as ancient Indians dressed differently than we do. Eating is another areas that has changed considerably. Therefore, when we recite and study the texts on the precepts today, we are learning “the spirit of the law and not just the letter.”
Likewise, when we practice adhering to the precepts, the most important point is to follow their fundamental spirit, “Do nothing that is bad: do everything that is good”. “To do nothing that is bad” is directed toward us. This is a Theravada precept to develop self-discipline and is to be followed conscientiously. It is what the Chinese call “Attending to one’s own moral wellbeing even while alone”. When we practice self-discipline, we need to remain true to the precepts, even when we are alone. “To do all that is virtuous” is for the benefit of all beings. This is a Bodhisattva precept in teaching us how to interact with others. Precepts are the criteria for distinguishing between good and bad.
Because of the difference in the political system, philosophy and culture, the precepts needed to be modified when Buddhism was introduced into China. The rules established by Master Bai-Zhang, in the Tang Dynasty, were modified version adapted for China in that time, however, the essence remained unchanged. This is similar to a state revising the law from time to time. As new situations arise, it becomes necessary to amend some articles, but the principle remains the same. In China, way places in every province and region have their own version of the precepts. They need to mesh with the local conditions for people to follow them. This is simply a modification. If this is not done, then Buddhism will not survive. Only through this updating and modification will it be vital and constantly renewed, allowing it to be accepted and practiced around the world.
The Buddha told us that if we can abide by the precepts and laws, we will have a tranquil body and mind, which will allow us to be free from worries and fear. Deep concentration arises from tranquility. Therefore, the precepts are essential to self-cultivation. If we break the law or the precepts, then our conscience will be plagued by guilt even if no punishment is meted out. Moreover, even of we avoid worldly retributions, there is no way to avoid karmic retribution. When our body and mind are disturbed, we cannot concentrate on our practice. To practice successfully, we need to be tranquil. It is said, “Precepts or self-discipline lead to deep concentration, from which wisdom arises”. In summary, the Second Condition, including abiding by the precepts, is a Theravada act of merit and the basis for practice.
The seventh principle of behaving in a dignified and proper manner means we act approximately for the circumstances we are in. We act from the heart of sincerity and respect for all beings, animate and inanimate, to accord with social etiquette.