I now recommend the Infinite Life Sutra, which is easier to understand both in language and meaning. Since many people lead such busy lives, I suggest reciting Chapter Six for the morning session, which is comprised of the Forty-eight vows of Buddha Amitabha. It is the core of Pure Land Buddhism because true cultivators need to have the same compassion and vows as those of Buddha Amitabha. For the evening session, I recommend reading chapters thirty-two to thirty-seven, in which the Buddha teaches us how to end all wrongdoings, practice good conduct and how to interact with objects, matters and people in our daily living. If we can follow at least these chapters then we abide by the precepts.
If we can follow the above practices, be mindful of Buddha Amitabha and abide by the teachings in these six chapters, we would have the same mind, vows, understanding and practice of Buddha Amitabha and then we are Buddha Amitabha. But if we chant or read indifferently without applying the principles, then all the efforts we put forth will be pointless. The combination of morning and evening sessions was designed in ancient times and proved to be useful, for the people of that time had better understanding of what they were reciting. These sessions reminded people to behave in a proper manner and thus helped them to detect their faults. Today, however, people simply recite absentmindedly, like small children who sing a song with the right words to the right tune, but without understanding the meaning. Only when we become aware of the purpose and method of chanting the sutra can we actually achieve any results.
My late teacher, Mr. Lee, always told his students that when they listened to lectures, they needed to concentrate on understanding the principles in the sutra and not the words themselves. These principles are the laws governing the Buddha¡¦s teachings as well as worldly teachings. One, who thoroughly understands the principles of one sutra, can then use them to master all sutras. In other words, the student must conscientiously follow the methods taught by the teacher and do so wholeheartedly without being distracted by anything new and different.
To develop the Paramita of Patience, we need to persevere in our cultivation. People may recommend other methods or sutras as a better choice. Do not listen to them; do not pay attention to them until we have attained wisdom. Delve deeply into just one method. This is the key to success in our study and cultivation.
The eleventh principle of the Three Conditions is encouraging others to advance on the path to enlightenment. To do this, we extensively introduce Buddhism to those who are willing to learn. While the first ten principles of the Three Conditions are for self-benefit and cultivation, the eleventh is to encourage and help others to understand and practice Buddhism. To help others is the act of a Bodhisattva.
By fulfilling all the principles in the Three Conditions, from practicing filial piety for parents to encouraging others on the path to enlightenment, we will become the ¡§good man and woman¡¨ of the Mahayana sutras. The Earth Treasure Sutra tells us that if we chant the name, make offerings to Earth Treasure Bodhisattva and accord with the teachings, then we can be born into the thirty-third Heaven one hundred times, without falling into the three bad realms.
In our world, we are considered a good man or woman after fulfilling the First Condition. The criteria in the Theravada teachings require us to meet the First and Second Conditions. However, in the Mahayana teachings, we are required to meet all three conditions. Therefore, when reading sutras, we need to ask ourselves whether or not we are qualified to be "good men or women". How much have I achieved? And does my conduct conform to the standards set forth in the Mahayana teachings?
The Six Principles of Harmony
The Three Conditions are the basis for individual cultivation whereas the Six Principles of Harmony are the basis for group cultivation. The sangha is a group of four or more people who properly practice the Buddha¡¦s teachings together, especially the Six Principles of Harmony. They are:
1. Sharing the same viewpoints or goals,
2. Abiding by the same precepts,
3. Living and practicing together harmoniously,
4. Not quarrelling,
5. Experiencing the inner peace and happiness from practicing together harmoniously and
6. Sharing benefits harmoniously.
Sharing the Same Viewpoints or Goals.
This means mutual understanding or agreement. A group needs to share the same viewpoints of the principles and methods for study and practice. This is the basis for harmonious group cultivation.
If a society is to remain stable, its members need to live in harmony. Only harmony can draw us together in terms of opinions, ideas and our way of life. In other words, being harmonious can minimize the differences in human relations and improve equality. After that, peace and then finally, happiness can be achieved. To obtain happiness we must have a peaceful heart and body. Both Buddhist and worldly teachings emphasize the importance of harmony and respect.
A few years ago I went to Beijing and visited the Forbidden City, where there are three main palaces, the names of which all contain the word harmony. This shows that the early emperors of the Ching Dynasty, the last dynasty, tried to rule the country with harmony. However, the disharmony, which plagued the imperial family at the beginning of this century, ended the dynasty. Therefore, harmony is crucial for lasting peace and happiness.
Buddha Shakyamuni provided innumerable methods to practice but he did not intend that we try them all. We need to find the one most appropriate for us and then remember that the key lies in exclusive pursuit. In ancient times, the Pure Land School adopted three sutras and one sastra, now we emphasize five sutras and one sastra. As stated in an ancient Chinese textbook, ¡§Of all the teaching principles, exclusive pursuit is the most important¡¨. Suppose some people like the Infinite Life Sutra while others prefer the Amitabha Sutra. Can these two groups of people merge into one? They may merge, but they cannot practice harmoniously together, for when one half begins to recite the Infinite Life Sutra, the other half will want to recite the Amitabha Sutra. In order to create group unity, it will be necessary to set up two separate way places.
This explains why there are so many different way places even though we are all Pure Land practitioners. The same principle applies to choosing sutras with multiple commentaries. Which one will we use? This will result in a further setting up of way places. The same process can even occur when deciding which form of chanting to follow. Some prefer to chant slowly ¡§Namo Amituofo¡¨ while others prefer a very fast ¡§Amituofo, Amituofo, Amituofo¡¨. It would be very difficult for the two groups to practice harmoniously together.
The people in ancient way places were able to achieve because everyone shared the same viewpoints and goals and practiced the same method without intermingling. Their very atmosphere was conducive to magnificence and peace. Thus, all those who entered naturally gave rise to respect.
Unfortunately, a common situation in modern way places is that the teachings of various schools are intermingled. Contradictions and conflicts are unavoidable, and it will be difficult for practitioners to focus, much less to succeed. So, it becomes evident that ¡§Sharing the same viewpoints or goals¡¨ is crucial in a way place.
If the people in a group share similar ideas and viewpoints as well as the same interests and objectives, they can remain in harmony and thus form a sangha. However, they may as well form a separate sangha if differences arise. Otherwise, there would be conflicts and no one would succeed. By providing an infinite number of methods for cultivation, the Buddha meant to ensure that people of different viewpoints and interests would all be able to succeed in their cultivation. Thus, it is said that all paths lead to the same goal, as all methods are equal. This demonstrates the Buddha¡¦s great, compassionate heart, as he never forces anyone to practice one particular method.
As we have seen from the example in the Visualization Sutra. Madame Vaidehi, being overwhelmed by the suffering in this world, asked Buddha Shakyamuni to tell her of a place where suffering did not exist. Instead of directing her to the Western Pure Land, he displayed all the Buddhalands for her so that she could choose one for herself. This is unlike most of us who want others to accept our opinion; ¡§I have been practicing this method. It¡¦s great. Come and try it.¡¨ When others have different ideas and viewpoints, this will often disrupt the harmony of the group and is the very thing we should guard against. The best way to introduce Buddhism is to provide a general introduction to the Mahayana teachings and practices and let others chose whichever method they prefer.
Those who prefer Buddha Name Chanting can practice together; those who prefer meditation can practice together. In this way, everybody has a place to go for cultivation and there is no need to pressure anyone into using one particular method. All methods are equal and were taught to meet our different needs, abilities and levels of understanding. Thus, each school should respect and praise the other. This is the true practice of the first harmony.
Abiding by the Same Precepts
When we live and practice together, we need to have rules and regulations for without them there will be disorder. Needless to say, the rules need to include the five fundamental precepts set by the Buddha. Rules vary for lay sanghas and those at way places. The former conforms to the five fundamental precepts, the latter to the monk or nun precepts. In addition, common rules, regulations and local laws and customs are also to be observed. These all comprise the Permanent Resident Agreement of a way place. One or two members can be designated to draft the rules, which are then presented to the group for discussion and voting. Each individual living in the way place must abide by the agreement once it is set up. If every member respects and abides by the agreement, there will be no discord within the group, because all are have equal status and no special privileges are granted to anyone. Thus, the sangha is truly democratic and law abiding.
Living and Practicing Together Harmoniously
The purpose of establishing a way place is to help everyone achieve in group practice. It is definitely not to help individuals escape their worldly responsibilities. It is a serious mistake to think this way, especially in the light of all the offerings way places receive from followers and the reality that every offering will have to be repaid, if not in this lifetime then in a future lifetime. The manner of living together does not mean that each person has his or her own room. If luxurious and comfortable facilities are available, it will be very difficult to achieve. Why? The Earth Treasure Sutra tells us that, ¡§Every single movement or stirring of thoughts on the part of the living beings is karma and an offense¡¨. For uncountable eons we have been deluded and confused and have thus committed infinite wrongdoings. Consequently, we have developed and accumulated infinite bad habits. When with others, we usually try to be civilized and behave ourselves. But, when alone, we tend to indulge ourselves in doing whatever we feel comfortable with and easily forget proper conduct.
To counter this, members of the group share sleeping quarters. These quarters in a traditional way place were comprised of one large platform bed with a space for each person. Quilts were neatly folded as in an army barracks. Life in a way place was even more rigorous than that of the army and the monks and nuns were even more disciplined than the soldiers were. Only by living in such a disciplined way place, are we able to mold our temperament and reform ourselves through the Three Learnings of self-discipline, deep concentration and wisdom. This is true cultivation.
However, there are exceptions in way places. For example, the managing monk and the executive deputy chief, due to their responsibilities, have their own rooms, which are usually very small, in order for them to plan and take care of daily tasks without disturbing others. Monks and nuns, who are aged or ill, also have their own rooms. To accomplish our cultivation, this shared living is necessary, even in today¡¦s affluent society.
All the members who live together need to do so without quarrelling. In this way, they can best concentrate their efforts on cultivation. When people are together, the most frequent act is that of speech, so speech karma is the easiest to commit. We have a proverb, ¡§Illness enters by the mouth. Trouble exits from the mouth¡¨. Another is ¡§More speech, more trouble¡¨. One, who eats too much, easily becomes sick. One, who talks too much, easily gets into trouble. Sometimes misunderstandings arise because the listener is sensitive while the speaker is careless. Both parties develop resentment and hatred, which gives rise to endless retaliation in the future. This is why ancient sages advised us to ¡§Talk less and chant the Buddha¡¦s name more¡¨. The less we speak, the better it is for the less trouble we will be in. Ideally, we would only speak when it was necessary.
When I was in Los Angeles, a friend told me about the three-day Zen retreat his high-school son had attended. Once inside, no one was allowed to talk. The daily practice was sitting meditation, from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and from 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Nothing else was done. Keeping silent for three days in a way place like this will help us to calm down and relax. The boy was so impressed that he wanted to go back for the longer winter session. The distinctive feature of such a way place is the harmony of silence and no quarrelling.
So, at a strict way place where chatting or other irrelevant talk is forbidden, there is virtually no opportunity for quarrelling. Almost exclusively, all we will find is the silent or voiced continuous chanting of ¡§Amituofo¡¨ in the chanting hall. In a Tibetan way place, the chanting of mantras is ceaseless. For instance, during my early stage of Buddhist study, I was under the guidance of Living Buddha Master Zhang-Jia for three years. Through my observation, he never stopped silently chanting a mantra while moving his lips even when he was with visitors. He only paused to talk and as soon as he was finished, would resume his silent chanting.
This silent chanting while moving our lips is a form of practice called, ¡§Diamond Holding¡¨. Master Zhang-Jia was one of the sincerest practitioners I have ever met. His mind was pure without any attachments or wandering thoughts. His teaching method was unique. He never spoke a word until he found the listener attentive and concentrated. He then spoke only a few words while looking directly into your eyes. Each of his words bore heavy weight, which his listener would never forget and would adhere to for the rest of his or her life. The goal of our practice is to eradicate all afflictions and attain the Buddha Name Chanting Samadhi. If we do not practice this method, it will be very difficult for us to achieve this goal.
Experiencing the Inner Peace and Happiness from Practicing Together Harmoniously
This is to savor the Dharma joy. Whichever practice method we choose, the basic achievement we have in our practice is happiness. If we feel unhappy after beginning our practice, we have definitely encountered a serious problem. But the problem does not lie with the Buddha¡¦s teachings. We may have done something that goes against the principles of these teachings or we may have chosen the wrong method. Otherwise, the results would be evident; awakening from confusion and obsession, leaving sufferings behind and obtaining happiness.
With each passing year, we would have fewer worries while enjoying greater happiness and freedom. This is the evidence of success in our practice. If we are not achieving this, then we need to examine ourselves for the cause of our lack of success. If we can correct our mistakes, find the root of our afflictions and sever them, we can then attain the benefits of our practice.
Practicing Buddhism is to experience life and to train our minds. Buddhist cultivation arises from our heart as we participate in daily life. What kind of heart do we cultivate? One of purity. When we have proper viewpoints and understanding and truly dedicate ourselves to Buddhism, regardless of who we are or what our circumstances are, whether good or bad, favorable or unfavorable, we will be able to reduce karmic debts and to plant the seeds of good fortune, wisdom and happiness. How then can we be unhappy? A feeling of joy naturally arises from our heart, as we savor the Dharma Joy. If we practice together harmoniously, everybody will attain this Dharma joy, everybody will attain achievement.
Sharing Benefits Harmoniously
In ancient times, ordained people led a simple life with one meal a day. They received food donated by people in the village, rested under the trees at night and cultivated constantly. So, the way place was more like a school to educate the local community on Buddhism. Learned and far-sighted people built them with the financial support from those who were wealthy and held high status in the community. Then well-known and respected monks were invited to cultivate and conduct the teachings.
Way places were Buddhist educational institutions where everyone shared equally. If this principle were to be applied to society there would be no psychological imbalance and hence no social disturbances. At way places, none of the Six Harmonies can be neglected or else there will not be a true Sangha. As the Chinese say, ¡§harmony in the family is the basis for any undertaking¡¨. Similarly, if a country is united, it will not be easy for another power to dominate it, because the power of unity is inconceivable. Consequently, if a family, company, social group or a country can practice three of the six harmonies of sharing the same viewpoints or goals, observing the same precepts, and sharing benefits harmoniously, they will become prosperous.
We find an example in the business world. Since the Second World War, Japanese business has developed dramatically. After only half a century, these businesses were among the most successful in the world. Why? They have practiced these three harmonies. By sharing the same viewpoints and goals, the sangha can reach common understanding. By abiding by the same precepts, all abide by the laws. By sharing all benefits equally, everyone is assured that there will be fairness in all things.