Sunday, December 21, 2008

Learning at a Tzu Chi Training Camp

We have participated in several local donation drives organized by the Orlando Chapter of Tzu Chi Organization, a world-wide Buddhist Compassion Relief headquartered in Taiwan, in the past years, as well as their roving tea gatherings in the homes of Tampa-based Tzu Chi volunteers. But this is our very first trip to their training camp focusing on the responsibilities and duties of Tzu Chi volunteers, and the conduct becoming and befitting of representatives of Tzu Chi in consonance with the teachings of Buddha. And that took place at the home of Brother Yang, who would later become Wify's teacher in Chinese calligraphy, on Nov 15, 2008.

Starting at 10am, it was to be an intensive 5-hour session till 3pm, under the able guidance and lucid delivery by the Orlando team headed by Brother James Huang. Using powerpoint presentation interspersed with videos and lively demonstrations, the team did a fabulous job of getting into the essence of what being a Tzu Chi Volunteer entails, subscribing indeed to a noble standard of moral conduct that is above reproach even from the standpoint of the most stringent critic, leaving no room for mis-interpretation. I had originally intended to write an account of the proceedings by referring to the snapshots of various slides that I had taken in sequence but thought that it might turn out to be wordy and dry. More important, I might have misconstrued the thoughts and intents of the dispensations in my zeal to translate verbatim. Therefore, I have decided to resort to a pictorial account instead, replete with the actual slides but with my English translations that I feel would transmit the gist of the messages by and exhortations from Master Cheng Yen, the founder of Tzu Chi. Hopefully, the clarion call encapsulated therein to help the suffering masses will motivate each one of us to join their rank, not necessarily as part of Tzu Chi, if we are not already enamored to doing so.

Meticulous preparation is the key to a successful training camp: complete presentation materials, functional computer equipment, appropriate venue lighting, friendly seating arrangement, and smooth delivery.

Neatly arranged reading materials, all are reflective of how an organization is perceived.

Brother James Huang started the ball rolling, under the watchful and yet benevolent gaze of Master Cheng Yen, not forgetting the session recording using both still photography and video taping for archiving and continuity.

Brother James Huang setting the tone by outlining the schedule of the day, covering the sequence methodologically.

A captivated audience, eager to partake of the Tzu Chi experience.

One of the many astute observations by Master Cheng Yen, going straight to the core of society's malaise, contributed in no small part by the sensationalized, while multi-faceted, reporting in the mass media, leading to the decay of cultural values and the erosion of moral standards such as the blind obsession of today's youth with hedonistic trends (hair coloring, body tatoos, etc.), ultimately resulting in a depraved lifestyle shorn of self-respect and moral character. Once the crux of the problem is identified and conditions arising discerned, Tzu Chi has developed a comprehensive suite of spiritual goals encompassing the Four Great Missions and Eight Great Footprints, Breathing in Unison with Earth/Discipling Oneself/Reviving Morality to reclaim the innate humanism in us.

Tzu Chi is action-oriented, steeped in the belief that actualizing Buddhist teachings in life is paramount to learning and discoursing on the precepts. Sutras are a way to attaining enlightenment and revealing one's Buddha Nature, and the way must be trekked, even trudged, which implies putting precepts into practice, diligently. Dharma is everywhere, therefore seeking Dharma away from our world is wishful thinking, an exercise in futility. Pureland is on Earth, so is Hell. And Tzu Chi manifests Buddhism amidst our society.

Attachment is our bane. So let go when we have given, only leaving behind the experience, the way, and gratitude, respect, and love to cherish.

It's better to respect the sanctity of life than to release life occsionally. Genuine holistic deliverance is one that bridges through all space and time, and over the schism between us to deliver us from suffering. The best holistic deliverance is exemplified through self love, humility, gratitude, and giving.

Tzu Chi promotes Disciplined Food Abstinence, and reveres life. At the same time, Master Cheng Yen admonishes all to persevere tirelessly and relentlessly. And in the smaller prints below: Being on a vegetarian diet is food abstince only, appropriate consumption is discipline. Therefore, we have to both follow a vegetarian diet and avoid consuming excessively.

This elaboration on Buddhist greetings and their parallel with western practice is self explanatory.

Do not relax in abiding by the ten precepts of Tzu Chi (No killing; No stealing; No sexual misconduct; No lying; No intoxicants; Obey traffic rules; No politics; Be gentle in speech and behavior; Respect your parents; and No gambling or speculations), nor indulge in image transgression. The innate beauty of Tzu Chi hinges on individuals meshing on personal conduct. May we endeavor to uphold the shared reputation of Tzu Chi. [Later, it was clarified that Tzu Chi volunteers should take heed of political developments, but not to participate in political affairs.]

Singing praise on Master Cheng Yen through hand signaling for being an exemplar and icon of delivering the humanity from suffering through Tzu Chi's action-oriented Buddhist Compassionate Relief. A translation of the lyrics appears below.

Delivering the Humanity
Your gait is like white cloud streaming across the azure sky; and your footprint, water encircling the green mountains; Sometimes concealed and sometimes manifest; sometimes near and sometimes distant; Criss-crossing with compassion and loving kindness, indefatigably delivering the humanity from suffering.

Your gait is like white cloud streaming across the azure sky; and your footprint, water encircling the green mountains; The epitome of modesty, the exemplar of ordinariness; Practicing Dharma mindfully, and doing virtuous deeds unwaveringly; Criss-crossing with compassion and loving kindness, indefatigably delivering the humanity from suffering.

Now, what did I take home with me? Yes, I'm sure most of us are ennobled by these "ideals", which seem unattainable. They are put in quotation marks here to denote in the sense that they seem out-of-step with the rat race careening toward us at such great momentum that we hardly have time to be good samaritans, defenders of the public good and role models all rolled into one. Or the world is not in short supply of such angel guardians. Let them save the world while we cling on to every aspect of our materialistic world. However, at the same time, I believe we are born with goodness in us. We may be momentarily waylaid by the amenities of earthly attachments, but given time and exposure, we will come to our senses and start on the worthy cause in our own small way, one step at a time. As Edmund Burke put it poignantly (or others may have paraphrased him), "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." In my mind, the same goes with something as simple (but no less onerous) as helping fellow human beings in need.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

The 19th Dharma Session of MWBA (Oct 18, 2008): The Buddhist View on Ghosts

The notion of ghosts has always been around in most cultures. While ghosts may be scary to kids, and make for excellent cautionary tales for the young, they are the subject of celebration too. For example, Halloween is a popular day of festivity in US while the Chinese have their own version of the Ghost Festival. In some religions, ghosts are not sacrilegious, but may have a different moniker when referenced. Such is the case in Buddhism, and to make the nexus between the Chinese society, particularly the Buddhist worldview, and the West, using Halloween as a proxy, as regards the ambivalence that ghosts are regarded in each was Venerable Chueh Fan from Guang Ming Temple, Orlando during the 19th Dharma Session of Middle Way Buddhist Association on October, 15, 2008 at its Pinellas Park venue.

While Halloween, a largely secular celebration started as a Celtic tradition and brought into US by Irish immigrants, falls on October 31, the Chinese Ghost Festival occurs on the 15th day of the lunar month of July. In Buddhism, it's referred to as the Festival of Ullambana as cited in the Ullambana Sutra, a Mahayana sutra consisting of a brief discourse given by Gautama Buddha principally to his disciple, Maudgalyāyana, on the practice of filial piety. In a nutshell, the Buddha instructed “Mahāmaudgalyāyana on how to obtain liberation for his mother, who had been reborn into a lower realm, by making food offerings to the sangha on the fifteenth day of the seventh month”. On this day, the Sangha community would emerge from the forest after three months of Summer retreat coinciding with the Monsoon season to celebrate the completion of their meditation and report their progress to the Buddha. Thus, the day is viewed as Buddha's Joyful Day as the incidence of attaining enlightenment among the Sangha community during the retreat was high.

While originated in India, the Ullambana Festival inevitably assumes an overtone of Chinese culture as practiced by Chinese.

In Buddhist cosmology, there are six realms into which rebirth can take place: the three higher realms of Devas/Heavenly Beings, Human and Asura, and the three lower realms of Animal, Hungry Ghost, and Hell, an occurrence dictated by karma.

Venerable Chueh Fan regaled the attendees with ghost stories gleaned from the Buddhist sutras.

Through a slide presentation, Venerable Chueh Fan elaborated on the traits of each realm as follows:

Devas/Heavenly Beings
Populated by godlike beings who enjoy great power, wealth and long life, and live in splendor and happiness. These privileges and their exalted status blind them to the suffering of others. Thus, despite their longevity, they still grow old and die, and suffer from the lack of wisdom and compassion. Eventually, they will be reborn into another of the six realms.

the only realm from which beings may escape from samsara, the cycle of rebirth. While enlightenment is within reach, only few open their eyes and recognize the potential. Rebirth into this realm is conditioned by passion, doubt, and desire.

These are strong and powerful beings, marked by their fierce envy, and are sometimes depicted as the enemies of the Devas. Hatred and jealousy would jettison a being into this realm.

Typified by prejudice, complacency, and lack of wisdom. They live sheltered lives, and avoid discomfort of anything unfamiliar. Rebirth into this realm is conditioned by ignorance.

Hungry Ghosts
Characterized by having huge, empty stomach, pinhole mouth, and thin and fragile throat. They always look outside themselves for the new thing that will satisfy the craving within. The realm is associated with insatiable hunger, addiction, obsession, and compulsion.

This is the most terrible of the six realms where inhabitants have a short fuse, easily angered. They drive away anyone who shows them love and kindness, and seek out the company of fellow hell beings. Unchecked anger and aggression can cause rebirth into the hell realm.

Venerable Chueh Fan then posed three questions for us to ponder, and briefly answered them as well:

Does everyone turn into ghost after death?
This is not taught by the Buddha, even though it is recognized as one of the realms. In short, karma is that which causes people to be ghosts.

Are our acts (karma) related to which realm we are reborn?
Yes, and the traits that preferentially condition rebirth into a particular realm are laid out above. As detailed in the Buddhist Karmic Rewards Sutra, these undesirable traits include:

The body has committed evil (Act Evil)
The mouth has committed evil (Speak Evil)
The mind has committed evil (Think Evil)
Fawning and Jealousy
Perverse ideas
Attachment and not letting go
Dying of starvation
Dying of thirst

How scary is a ghost?
There are good, and there are bad, ghosts, just like in the human world. While there are evil ghosts, the good ghosts number in the majority. More importantly, their “evilness” pale in comparison to the human atrocities that recur in the annals of our civilization. And ghosts are powerless against a kind human being of high morals as eloquently encapsulated in the Chinese saying: if we do no evil in the day, we need not worry about evil ghosts knocking on our door at night. On reflection, the ghosts outside of us are not nearly as frightening as the ghosts inside of us.

The anecdotes on the encounter and conversations between Maudgalyayana and the ghosts in the hell, as contained in the Maudgalyayana Sutra, enable us to glean the operation of the law of cause and effect (causality). For example, if we hit with a stick, we will have headaches. And if we do not help others when we are wealthy, we will sleep outdoors in the cold and rain.

A distinct feature of Halloween is the many different costumes. It is as if people already know what ghosts look like, extending their human perception and experience into the ghostly realm. By association, there are then as many different ghosts as there are different human characters. However, according to Abhidharma-nyayanusara, there are three kinds of ghosts: wealthy, not so wealthy, and poor. Then in Abhidharmamahavibhasa-sastra, ghosts are categorized into those with dignity and prominence, and those who are lacking in them. Then there are large and small ghosts, beautiful and ugly ghosts, and noble wealthy and lowly impoverished ghosts.

When concluding her Dharma session on the Buddhist view on Ghosts, Venerable Chueh Fan admonished us not to think about ghosts, but about Buddha, and about turning the human realm into Pureland. And this can be achieved by honestly and diligently working toward meaningful goals in life, rather than battling over superficial glory and illusory fame and ending up with a heap of old bones and a handful of dirt.