Letter 21 – Buddhism and the Tao

The Taoist Master “Ocean Corpse” recently conveyed your letter to me. From reading it, I learned that you have  been practicing Taoism assiduously for a long time and that your achievements are profound. That you are now inquiring into the Pure Land method, which is the foremost practice in Buddhism, demonstrates that in previous lifetimes, you planted deep, wholesome roots in the Buddha Dharma. That is why you have not followed the grasping view of the God of Water, but, out of the ocean of teachings, have learned to seek the shore of Ultimate Liberation.

Since you are acquainted with Master Ocean Corpse, why not seek instruction from him; why leave the lofty, bright ground he represents for a low, dark place? Is it not turning your back on your hopes and aspirations? The Taoist Master Ocean Corpse was originally well-versed in Buddhist teachings and schools, has practiced both Zen and Pure Lan and is no less than the boat of Great Vows in the sea of Birth and Death. Because of his modesty, he adopted the name “Corpse.” In truth, anyone who encounters such a corpse in the sea of Birth and Death will, without doubt, speedily reach the other shore and peacefully return home. Is it not better to approach him than to ask a lowly monk who lacks full understanding of the Dharma?

Nevertheless, since you had the poor judgement to have inquired of me, I shall, for my part, reply to you in accordance with my shallow opinions. Hopefully, my answers may assuage some of your doubts!

I venture to think, in their essence, Buddhism and Taoism spring from the same source. However, their various schools differ greatly in their practices today. Buddhism, teaches us first of all, to practice the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, that is, to contemplate the body as impure, all feelings as suffering, the [ordinary] mind as impermanent and all phenomena as devoid of self. When we realize that body, feelings, mind and phenomena are impure, the source of suffering, impermanent, without self, false, dream-like and illusory, the True Thusness Nature will manifest itself.

Buddhism encompasses all methods and dharmas. Not only does it clearly explain the issues of body, mind and life, it does not neglect the small issues of human morality, such as “filiality, respect for elders, loyalty, faith, propriety, justice, decency, and shame.” An exception is the practice of “balancing energy currents,” about which not a single word is said in the Buddha Dharma. Not only that, Buddhism forbids the practice entirely. This is because while Taoism regards the preservation of body and mind as an ideal, Buddhism, on the contrary, teaches that body and mind are intrinsically false, born of conditions, disappearing also through conditions. They are not the Self-Nature True Mind.

From your letter, it seems that you already know that “Immortals” have a definite life-span while the Buddha’s life is without limit. Therefore, now that you are advanced in age, you should diligently practice the Pure Land method. Keep your investigation of Zen and other teachings to a minimum, as these methods are broad and profound and not easy to study. Even if you were to reach the ultimate source, you will still need to return to the Pure Land method to resolve the problem of Birth and Death in this very lifetime.

You should read the Pure Land sutras and commentaries without delay and practice in accordance with their teachings—with deep faith in the words of the Buddhas and Patriarchs. Do not develop doubts when you encounter something you do not understand, If you are utterly sincere in your Faith, Vows and Practice, you will naturally be able to rely on the compassionate power of Amitabha Buddha to achieve rebirth in the Pure Land. Once reborn you will be close to Amitabha Buddha, in the company of the Ocean-Wide Assembly and gradually attain the fruit of Non-Birth and the rank of a One-Life Bodhisattva. At that time, looking back at your original intention of becoming an Immortal in the assembly of Lord Brahma, and comparing it to your current status, you will discover that the two years are as different as a dark ravine from the blue yonder!

“Sarira” is a Sanskrit word translated as “relics,” “remains of the body.” It also means “miraculous remains,” which are the crystallization of the cultivation of precepts, concentration and wisdom and not the result of balancing energy currents.” It is the symbolic mark of the cultivator who has reached the state of union between Mind and Buddha. However, Buddhist relics do not come only from the transformation of flesh, bones and hair during cremation, but also derive from many other circumstances.

For example, once upon a time, an Elder Master, while bathing, suddenly obtained some relics. A Zen Master, having a tonsure, saw his hair turn into a string of relics. There are instances of relics emerging from the mouths of practitioners earnestly reciting the Buddha’s name. A printer setting the text of a famous Pure Land commentary saw relics among the wooden typefaces. A laywoman embroidering Buddhist images and sutras found relics under her needle point. In another case, a practitioner who had returned from afar and was wholeheartedly paying respect before his alter, suddenly saw relics emerging from one of the statues. These accounts demonstrate that relics are due to the power of cultivation [not internal energy currents].

The Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (Kuan Yin) has, since time without beginning, been a Buddha with the name of True Dharma Light. While residing in the Land of Eternal Stillness, because of Her boundless concern and compassion, She also appears in all lands and realms. Standing besides Amitabha Buddha, She also manifests Herself everywhere, as Buddha, Bodhisattva, manifests Herself everywhere, as Buddha, Bodhisattva, Arhat, Pratyeka Buddha, or takes the form of various beings along the Six Paths in the Dharma Realm of the ten directions. She accomplishes whatever deeds are of benefit to sentient beings and takes whatever form is necessary to rescue them and teach then the Dharma.

P’u T’o Mountain is the place associated with this Bodhisattva. In order to provide sentient beings with a focal point to express their sincerity, the Bodhisattva manifested Her Parinirvana (earthly demise) on this mountain.

This does not mean that the Bodhisattva resides only on P’u T’o Mountain and not elsewhere. As an analogy, the single moon in the sky appears in ten thousand rivers and lakes. From the oceans to the tiniest dewdrops, wherever there is limpid water, the moon appears. However, if the water is turbid or muddy, the image of the moon will be blurred or hidden. Our Mind-Nature is similar to the water. If sentient beings concentrate single mindedly on the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, She employs all kinds of expedients, favorable or unfavorable, hidden or overt, to bring them benefits. If, on the other hand, the cultivator is not utterly sincere and single minded in his recitation, his “mind water” will be turbid and it will be difficult for him to obtain a response. The meaning of this is very profound. If you read the section on P’u T’o Mountain in my compendium of letters you will understand this yourself.

The Bodhisattva, in the casual stage, “visualized” (concentrated on) the nature of hearing and thus attained perfect all-pervading power. In the result stage (as a Bodhisattva), She visualized the voices of sentient beings called upon Her and goes to their rescue—hence the name “Regarder of the Cries of the World.” Moreover, the Bodhisattva’s methods are boundless and all-encompassing. She preaches every kind of method to teach and transform sentient beings in accordance with their individual capacities and nature without insisting on any particular method. Therefore, her approach is called “all-sided.”

What I have just discussed are some “superficial” issues, which you are not familiar with because you have not examined them. My answers have followed the order of your questions. In fact, these answers do not cover the Pure Land method, a teaching that can bring you full benefits. However, if I were to give a more detailed explanation, I fear it would be lengthy and waste more paper and ink. You should obtain and read the Longer Amitabha Sutra, the Meditation Sutra, and Biographies of Pure Land Sages and Saints … These books provide a full explanation of the theory and practice of cultivation and attainment.