The Right Order of Learning Buddhism – Belief, Understanding, Practice and Realization

We have looked at the basis for learning and cultivation and have had a brief introduction to the main practice guidelines. Now, lets look at the creative teaching methods of Buddhism. As Master Qingliang explained in the Flower Adornment Sutra, learning and cultivation can be divided into the four stages of belief, understanding, practice and realization.

The first stage is belief. When we are able to believe then our conditions have matured. There is a saying “the Buddha is unable to help those who have no affinity with him.” What is affinity? It is being able to believe. Even a Buddha cannot help someone whose conditions have not yet matured. However, when they have matured, the person will have belief. Then the Buddha can help. Religions are different from Buddhism in that once the believers have faith, they are saved, whereas, the belief in Buddhism, means that we believe in the benefits of Buddhism and accept one of the many methods.

Once we have the belief, we have to have understanding. Buddhism explains the truth of life and the universe. Only after we have acquired a true understanding of it can we begin our practice. Therefore, practice is based on understanding. If we do not understand the principles and methods, how can we practice. True practice is based on the foundation of principles and correct methods. The ultimate goal of practice is to achieve attainment, to attain the real benefit. What is attainment? It is the application of what we believe, understand and practice in our daily lives, to attain the ultimate enjoyment in life. For example, what we find in the Infinite Life Sutra is just what we think and practice. What we think and practice in our daily lives conforms to the sutra. This is attainment and true reality and this is what makes Buddhism so valuable.

Thus, we need to know the proper sequence of cultivation, which is belief, understanding, practice and attainment. When we speak of belief, first we believe in ourselves. This is where Buddhism differs from religion. In religion the most important criteria is to believe in God. In Buddhism, the most important criteria is to believe in ourselves,, not something outside ourselves. We need to believe that we have the same Buddha nature. Believe that originally we were Buddhas. Believe that we are no different from the Buddhas. Believe that our true nature has become polluted and that once we remove this pollution we will uncover our true self-nature.

However, if we are always dwelling on thoughts that we have heavy karmic obstacles and fear that this will keep us from achieving attainment, then we definitely will not achieve. Why? If we do not believe that we can achieve, then even the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas cannot help us. Buddhas and Bodhisattvas can only help those who help themselves. Therefore, it is crucial that we have this confidence and belief in ourselves.

In addition, we also need to believe in the teachings of the Buddhas. We have been told infinite principles and methods. We will surely succeed as long as we follow them. After we have belief in ourselves, we need to have belief in the Buddha’s teachings. Master Ou-Yi described this as believing in principles and in matter. Where does matter come from? From the principle, that is the pure mind of the true nature. All phenomena in the universe arise from principles. They are related by the endless cycle of cause and effect. A cause gives rise to an effect, which in turn become the cause of the next effect, which in turn becomes the cause of the next effect. This process continues ceaselessly. Developing understanding and belief in true reality builds our confidence enabling us to seek through understanding of everything. Only in this way can we be free from confusion and doubt, which are obstacles in our cultivation and thus obtain enjoyment and smooth advancement.

In practicing Buddhism, it is most important to accept the teacher’s instructions and practice according to the recommended methods. This has been the right way to learn since ancient times. The first requirement was to follow the five-year learning restriction, which was set by the teacher. In so doing so, the teacher took full responsibility for whether the student succeeded or failed. This is the principle of honoring teachers and revering their teachings. This principle, however, no longer holds today for teachers since they are not responsible and students are not earnest. The principles of teaching are declining and this is the tragedy of our times. Students no longer respect teachers and teachers no longer sincerely help students to achieve.

The five-year learning restriction resulted in the student following just one teacher. It laid the foundation for the Three Learnings of self-discipline, deep concentration and wisdom. It was the responsibility of the teacher to see that the student learned this. Consider Zen Buddhism. What did the teacher ask of the student for the first five years? They were assigned a simple manual labor and asked to perform it earnestly, without change, every day. They were also to memorize the sutra. They were to read after completing their work and not to be concerned with anything else. The purpose of this labor was not to treat them as servants.

After a while the student felt bored and would think that he or she had worked very hard for five years without accomplishing anything. In actuality, he or she had acquired much without realizing it. What was acquired? Afflictions were greatly reduced and concentration was increased because of a ban against seeing and listening to many things. If the ban was properly followed, the students attained both good fortune and wisdom. What is good fortune? Working everyday in the way place was cultivating the practice of giving. Since monks and nuns had no money to give away, they could work to cultivate the Paramita of Giving. Through the restrictions  on listening and reading thereby concentrating the six sense organs, the students also acquired a pure mind and attained deep concentration. This is wisdom. So, the teacher taught the students to cultivate good fortune and establish the foundation of self-discipline, deep concentration and wisdom. The teaching was designed to be subtle yet effective. With the five-year learning restriction as a base, upon listening to one or two years of Dharma lectures, the students could become enlightened.

In the biographies of well accomplished monks we see that through this method many monks became enlightened in three to five years. Today, however, practitioners can live in a way place for thirty or fifty years, even a lifetime without awakening. They may have read numerous sutras but were still not enlightened. At most, they have memorized some general knowledge about Buddhism, but nothing to sever their afflictions or attain wisdom. So, we must try to find a good teacher for guidance. This advice may seem boring at first. But after the initial stage, we will be truly delighted and joyful in our attainment.

Many of us have made the big mistake at the beginning our our cultivation, of wanting to learn all different methods. Ancient learned monks and nuns started with the second of the Great Vows of Buddhas and Bodhisattva, “Afflictions are inexhaustible, I vow to end them all”. In ending all afflictions, we will achieve deep concentration and attain wisdom. Then, the “Ways to practice are boundless, I vow to master them all.” This is the correct order for cultivation. The mistake many people make is to attempt to study extensively without having severed afflictions. Master Qingliang called this “Understanding with no practice.” These people concentrate only on understanding while neglecting the practice. They do not try to end their afflictions to cultivate a pure mind. As a result, they develop deviated viewpoints rather than proper views and knowledge.