Saturday, August 21, 2010

Learning the Basics of Buddha's Teachings

The Tampa Fo Guang Shan Dharma discussion group was formed several months ago with the tireless organizational effort of Sister Yu Tze and under the able leadership of Venerables Chueh Fan and Yung Kang, who later became the group's instructor, both from the Guang Ming Temple in Orlando. The group, comprising Buddhist followers and practitioners from the Tampa area, has decided to use the Fo Guang Shan series of Buddhist lessons, which consist of twelve volumes, as instruction materials. The group meets monthly at the Sunridge Clubhouse. And today marked the fruition of this effort when the group settled down into the “regimen” of learning Buddha's teachings.

As an introductory class with the proper circulation of the text of Lessons 1 of Volume 1, Venerable Yung Kang devoted it to outlining in general the fundamentals of Buddha's teachings and the proper attitude and the frame of mind that we should cultivate in order to realize the benefits of learning Buddha's teachings. The account that follows is my attempt at summarizing the salient points that emerged during the discussion as a record of sort and also as a sounding board for follow-up discussion. All are welcome to add, amplify, and amend to serve as a learning opportunity.

Venerable Yung Kang stressing a point (taken at a previous discussion group meeting held on June 26, 2010)

1) Why participate?
To learn and understand Buddha's teachings (the Dharma), to share experience. To do that, we need to digest the teachings. Oftentimes teaching through example is more effective than mere talking. That is, we need to convince others that we have changed, for the better.

2) Dharma is not just concepts and mere precepts. We have to internalize the teachings, their tenets, and embrace them in our daily life and reflect them in body, speech, and mind. And when the conditions become conducive, these actions will all bear fruit and accrue merits to ourselves and others.

3) In this quest, we should not accept verbatim what others, even famous Masters, have to say. Certainly we should not be covetous of others' achievements. Inquisitiveness is encouraged, and in fact, mandated, so that answers received will lead to new questions by departing from a single point in multi-dimensions to envelope Buddha's teachings in all their inter-connectedness. Searching for answers exercise the mind. Once we are imbued with the why and how of Buddha's teachings, then we are positioned to influence others to benefit from Buddha's teachings.

4) Many practice Buddhism. However, not many attained enlightenment. A primary reason is because we are not meticulous, or detailed, or fine-tuned, in our learning journey. Some of the early disciples of the Buddha were Brahmin high priests but were able to become enlightened by listening and thus understanding the profound meaning of the Buddhist verses:

5) The four sequential steps of learning Buddhism are Belief, Understanding, Practice, and Verification. Actualizing Buddha's teachings should be as natural as breathing. After all, life is in between breaths: breathing in is life, breathing out is death.

6) Lessons in the Fo Guang Shan's series of Buddhist lessons are structured to lead us through the door with a proper entry. The starting chapter answers the question of what Buddha's teachings have got to do with us. The simple answer is to build our character as exemplified by the Buddha through practice, a path of rectification.

7) Buddha's teachings center on leading a life of compassion and wisdom. There is no grand abstract notion that requires complex thinking. They are expansive and not amenable to a narrow focus. It is incumbent upon us to spread Buddha's teachings so that others would benefit as well.

8) Sentient beings are reborn because of karmic retributions while Bodhisattvas, because of great vows. Thus, the Buddha was born in India at a time when the caste system was well-entrenched, and into a Royal family. The former because of inequality, while the latter, expediency since it was easier and faster to influence others in a top-down manner rather than bottom-up.

9) Buddha's teachings are founded on rationality, and transcend feelings and emotions. On karmic retributions, they can be understood simply as you reap what you sow, both the good and the bad, abiding by the principle of cause and effect, but occurring over multiple lifetimes. A bad action begets another bad action, and the resulting tit-for-tat always leads to a huge mess not unlike the bad debts. This vicious spiral can only be eliminated if we transform from retaliation to doing a good deed, starting with ourselves first. The ensuing good karma and conditions will then resolve a bad karma.

10) On the mother-and-children relationship, we are advised to follow a three-stage approach:

First stage, as mother to nurture them;
Second stage, as relatives to help them; and
Third stage, as friends to lend a ear to listen and a shoulder to cry on.

It is not for us to say to others that we treated you well, but rather for them to say to us that you have treated us well.

11) Oftentimes tension arises because of the chasm between principles and conduct. Both need to merge/blend into harmony in order for differentiation and attachment to dissolve. If skewed to either one, then principles, which are harder but quicker to enunciate, will give rise to anger while conduct, which is easier to realize but takes time, will fall prey to ignorance.

12) Our life can be described as a pie chart upon which we attempt to fill with what we do through our body, speech and mind that manifest in the good and the bad as illustrated below.

We should all attempt to expand the proportion of good, at the expense of the bad so that we would start to build up the capital, the resources to help others, and these good forces will be fully mobilized once the conditions become conducive. And we do this by increments, starting from a well-laid out foundation, and not to take up more than we can chew.

13) Unlike Dharma talks that adopt the format of a Dharma teacher delivering a Dharma lecture dominated by passive listening followed by a short session of Q&A for clarification purposes, a Dharma discussion group, on the other hand, places premium on dialogue/discourse and sharing as the learning template and that applies to everyone in the group so that progress will be made in a concerted manner.

14) To prepare for the class, Venerable Yong Kang admonished us to spare half an hour a day to go through the text, do research, and get prepared to share in the coming class.

The lively discussion concluded with a scrumptious vegetarian lunch.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Illuminating the World in Peace

We first read about the Jade Buddha for Universal Peace in the March 5 edition of the St. Pete Times. It reported that the Jade Buddha, a 10 ft high Buddha statue weighing 10 tons is coming to the Town N' Country area of Tampa. Reading on, we note that the Statue was sculptured by expert craftsmen in Thailand over a two-year period from a monolithic gem-quality jade found in Canada. The global tour of harmony is under the aegis of an Australian-based Buddhist organization, the Great Stupa of Universal Compassion.

Then last night, Wify learned that her sister in Australia actually knows Mr. Ian Green, the chairman of the above named organization. Mr. Ian Green was also instrumental in arranging for the visits of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama to Australia. It is against this backdrop of condition arising that we visited the Minh Dang Quang Monastery this morning to partake of this unique opportunity.

The road side ringing the Monastery compound was already filled up with cars when we arrived this morning about 9.30am. Fortunately, the Monastery is abutted by the Town N' Country Commons, a block of building with children playground and a sizable parking lot located behind the Monastery but separated from it by a shallow lake circumscribed by a concrete walkway.

The Jade Buddha is housed in a staged area located next to the temple. A constant throng of visitors was already lining up to ascend a shallow flight of steps to a platform upon which the Jade Buddha is seated, amidst Buddhist music with a melody that we are familiar with, the Mantra of the Great Compassion. Wify realized immediately that the lyrics is a repetition of Om mani padme hum, the six syllabled mantra of the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteshvara (Chenrezig in Tibetan, and Guanyin in Chinese, or the Goddess of Mercy in popular parlance).

Apart from the temple proper, the compound has several discrete areas devoted to depicting the various stages of the life of Siddhārtha Gautama/the Buddha in the form of life-sized statues. Venerable bhikkhus and bhikkhunis (male and female Buddhist monastics) mingled freely with the crowd who was engaged in different manners of praying, prostration, posing and photo-shooting, and browsing the various items of Buddhist interest displayed on individual stalls scattered over the compound. The main attraction was undoubtedly the Jade Buddha for Universal Peace seated tall on the raised platform, looking benevolently on the stream of visitors paying their homage and praying collectively for global harmony. Wify went through the same ritual while I dutifully recorded the proceeding as a keen observer.

Before we left, we stopped by the Temple as well where the Buddha's relics housed in elegantly shaped crystal mini stupas are on display. The setting is simple but solemn, eliciting a sense of serenity in the visitors. Having fulfilled our intent, we departed with the firm belief that indeed the Jade Buddha will illuminate the world with peace. We still have to do our fair share, but importantly, we too have to believe.

The Jade Buddha will be on display at the Minh Dang Quang Monastery through March 14.

The gathering crowd waiting for their term to pay homage and pray for world harmony.

The first of the 3D depictions of the life of Siddhartha Gautama/the Buddha: In Lumbini Park, on the seventh step after emerging from the right side of Queen Maya, Prince Siddhartha and the Buddha-to-be, declared, "I'm supreme," with his right forefinger pointing skyward. Here the pronoun is in reference to the Buddha Nature.

Here the young Prince Siddhartha is preparing to enter into monastic life by cutting off his hair (symbolically severing all worldly ties) after leaving the confines of the palace on the white horse.

The Buddha at the ascetic phase of his truth-seeking journey before he gave up his austere penances to become enlightened.

Upon enlightenment attained under a Bodhi tree at Bodhgaya, the Buddha first taught the Dharma to five former companions, who became the Buddha's first five disciples, at the deerpark of Isipatana (Sarnath). This was the incipient formation of the Sangha, the monastic order. The Buddha's first sermon became the Four Noble Truths that were completely expounded through the three rotations (exposition, exhortation, and verification) of the Dharma Wheel. This beaming beacon of the light of wisdom embodied in the four universal truths of suffering (dukka), the origin of suffering (samudaya), the cessation of suffering (nirodha), and the path to the cessation of suffering (marga) thus became the essence of Buddhism that is intertwined with condition origination (causality).

The Buddha seated in the lotus position.

Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara appearing in one of the thirty two forms, in this case the most recognizable as the Goddess of Mercy, holding a bottle containing the water of compassion to sprinkle on all sentient beings.

A boy praying in full concentration next to the Buddha and the fronting Bodhisattva Maitreya, the successor of Śākyamuni Buddha.

Now it's Wify's term.

Wify and other devotees venerating the Jade Buddha and praying for world harmony.

The setting in the Temple with a table-ful of mini stupas housing the relics (Shari) of the Buddha in the foreground.

A silent reminder of the impermanence of life stands starkly in the compound.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Appreciating Buddhist Arts and Cultivating Buddhist Practices

Since the start of this year, we have already visited the Fo Guang Shan Guang Ming Temple of Orlando twice. The first was on January 31, for the Lamp Offering Completion Dharma Service, the very first full Dharma service that I have ever attended. Until then, I had only accompanied Wify to these Dharma services but usually stayed in the library to catch up on my reading. However, since I have registered, I felt duty-bound to attend these Dharma services in person. And that I did on January 31 this year, participating in chanting (silently) and the prostration and circum-ambulation, which I thought would aggravate my knee problem (hence my preferred seating meditation, on a chair that is instead of cross-legged). But apparently my apprehension, and hence reluctance to exert any form of pressure on my knees, was ill-founded. And my knees actually felt pretty good. Perhaps it's because of the short-term periodic flexing of the knees, rather than the long period of sitting cross-legged, that did the trick on the mind, I rationalized.

Anyway, the Lamp Offering Completion, as the name suggests, is the completion of the Lamp Offering initiated early last year during the Lunar New Year of 2009 so as to bring light to every corner of the world by praying for world peace, blessings, and good fortune in the coming year.

The on Feb 28, we participated in the Lamp Offering Dharma Service for the Lunar Year of 2010, which constituted our second trip. By now this Orlando trip has become a yearly pilgrimage for us. This year, though, we stayed on in the afternoon and visited the Chinese Cultural Arts Exhibition held at the temple in the afternoon.

Of the many events that were hosted, we particularly enjoyed the Tea Ceremony and Chinese Calligraphy demonstration. The Tea Ceremony was conducted by Mr. Bao, who hailed from Hong Kong. The surprising thing is that he learned the trade purely out of personal interest, and perhaps as a way to cope with the stresses brought about by the hustle and bustle that we euphemistically call life, and he often indulges in discoursing on life's issues with his wife in the unhurried comfort of home over a pot of freshly-brewed tea.

The calligrapher is Roy, who hails from China, and is presently a visiting lecturer in a college in Orlando. He especially revers the late Venerable Hong-I, as reflected in the pseudonym, literally translated as Respect for Venerable Hong-I, that he uses. In our conversation, he has expressed his wish to propagate Chinese Buddhist Calligraphy, a unique style of Chinese Calligraphy as evidenced from the various great calligraphy pieces by the great Buddhist monks on display in the Temple, the late Venerable Hong-I included.

Here then is a pictorial account of the above activities, some appearing as a collage of images, and a sample of Buddhist Arts and Calligraphy that even a casual visitor to the Fo Guang Shan temple in Orlando will not miss and likely be held in awe, not only by the easy flow of Chinese Calligraphy, the simple and yet delightful statuettes, but more importantly, the various Buddhist themes on the simple joy of life, on living at the moment, and on mindfulness embodied in these great Buddhist Arts.

The facade of Buddhist architecture welcomes visitor to its compound (top) and main shrine (bottom), with enhanced gaiety afforded by the hanging red lanterns in celebration of the Lunar New Year.

The Lamp Offering Completion Dharma service held on Jan 31 ended with a Dharma delivery by venerable Chueh Fan (top) and the Lamp Offering Dharma service for the current Lunar Year (2010) in progress on Feb 28 (bottom).

The tea lounge setting for the tea ceremony (top) and Mr. Bao, the tea master for the day, demonstrating and explaining the intricate details of brewing tea of various hues with English translation provided by a Fo Guang Shan volunteer.

Mr. Bao demonstrating the art of tea tasting by keeping the sip of tea in the mouth, breath contained, letting the tea fragrance linger, and then gradually releasing the tea fragrance through the nostrils.

Roy engrossed in writing the Chinese character for Tiger, in commemoration of the Year of the Tiger that is 2010, creatively curving the last stroke to mimic the tiger's tail (top) and demonstrating the easy strokes to write the Chinese character for the Buddha, primarily for the benefit of westerners who may be alien to the Chinese calligraphy strokes. The completed calligraphy pieces on colored papers spread in front of him illustrate several scripting styles that amplify the richness of Chinese calligraphy (bottom).

Roy penning his fervent wish, Chinese calligraphy style, to propagate the Art of Chinese Buddhist calligraphy with his pseudonym assumed in deference to the late Venerable Master Hong-I appearing on the bottom left.

Four-character verses of prosperity, cultivation of compassion and wisdom, and doing virtuous deeds, usually written top down on red paper, make for a favorite display item during the Lunar New Year. The left is by Venerable Grand Master Wei Chueh of the Chung Tai Chan Monastery and the two to the right are by the late Venerable Grand Master Sheng Yen of Dharma Drum Mountain.

These are by Venerable Master Tsing Yun of Fo Guang Shan, written by him over the years. This collection and the one above now adorn the walls of our living room.

This is the Heart Sutra in Chinese, 260 characters in all, written on bamboo sheet by the late Venerable Master Hong-I.

These couplets of seven characters each, adorn the four walls of the dining hall in Fo Guang Shan Temple, all related to the theme of vegetarianism, plain cooking that is easy on our body but Dharma bliss for our mind.

Painting of Sramanera (Sanskrit meaning young Buddhist novice) holding various objects of learning (top) and a pair of Sramanera holding an alms bowl as piggybank sitting on top a shelf at our home. After the sojourn at our home, they will return to their rightful home at Fo Guang Shan Temple, in a brim-ful state, of loose change that is (bottom), twice a year, one on the Buddha's Birthday in May, and the other, the lunar year end. They are cute to look at, compassion-inspiring to fill up, and fulfilling to be parted with.

Chinese Buddhist calligraphy mixed with pictogram that exhorts giving, simple living, mindfulness, and ease of mind. The left two are the Chinese calligraphy works of Venerable Master Tsing Yun, the bottom epitomizing his wish to shine the Buddha Light (literal translation of Fo Guang) across the five continents to benefit all sentient beings. The bottom right, themed the fragrance of the tea, embodies the serene state of letting things flow and just enjoying the fragrant scent of tea lingering on the tongue.

Be joyous in all occasions (top), and free willing (bottom) as expressed through Buddhist cartoon drawings of the famous fabric bag (literal translation from Chinese) monk and a Sramanera riding the baby whale. The legendary monk got its nickname from the big fabric bag that was slung over his shoulder and was purported to contain all he ever needed. Armed with his trademarked open-mouthed hearty laughs and his rotund pot belly, he sleeps wherever he is, often dispensing enlightened exhortations to listeners who, out of ignorance, often treat them as wise cracks. He is said to be the reincarnation of Bodhisattva Maitreya, the future Buddha (translated loosely from the Chinese Baidu encyclopedia website).

These are the statuettes of Sramanera in various depictions of practicing simple life, leading life in the moment by focusing on the task at hand, and cultivating mindfulness that dot the compound of the Fo Guang Shan temple in Orlando, a constant and vivid reminder to visitors and lay Buddhist practitioners to follow such observance.

Many more of the above, indicating that life can indeed be that simple if only we rid ourselves of cravings and delusions.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

I have registered

As a life-long student that is, in the Buddhist school of inner peace, of serenity of thought, of compassion, of giving, of letting go, and of spiritual enlightenment, by undergoing the Taking of the Three Refuges ceremony.

Hitherto I was auditing the Buddhist course so to speak, driving Wify to various venues of Dharma sessions, and mostly listening in along the way. Then on January 9, 2010, I took the leap, at the behest of Wify's persistent cajoling, wanting me to walk the life-long path with her in search of Buddhist wisdom and to practice compassion.

And the occasion was the Dharma session on the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch organized by Sister Conchita Hsu and delivered by Venerable Jian Zong whom we have met on several previous occasions (here and here) and who is presently the Abbott of the Chung Tai Zen Center of Houston. The venue, the University Inn on East Colonial Dr, Orlando, one which we too have frequented on several prior occasions. The hall was lined with Buddhist verses that conferred an ambience of serenity, engulfing the attendees in a sea of tranquility.

Buddhist verses on the walls adding to the aura of Dharma bliss, thanks to the Chinese calligraphy and artwork of Sister Wendy, a reporter with the World Journal based in Orlando who also did a news report here, including a group photo.

It was a 2-day session, and we drove on both days to the venue from Tampa. In addition to the Dharma talks, Venerable Jian Zong also conducted meditation classes to calm the body, and more importantly, the mind. We also participated in an introductory Tai-Chi class taught by Venerable Jian Tsan.

Finishing up the 2-day Dharma event was the Taking the Three Refuges ceremony during which the disciples vowed to follow the Three Jewels (or Triple Gem) of the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha (monastic order). We underwent the entire ceremony, simple and yet solemn, under the watchful guidance of Venerable Jian Zong, who presided on behalf of Venerable Grand Monk Wei Chueh, the founder of the Chung Tai Chan Monastry. At the end of the ceremony, each of us received a certificate of the three refuges, granting each of us a unique Dharma name. The literal English translation of mine is propagating acumen, or foresight. I'm indeed honored by the bestowal and will strive to live up to it.

The great vows that we as Buddhist disciples profess during the Taking the Three Refuges ceremony.

The certificate received by the Buddhist disciples at the end of the ceremony, to go along with the bracelet of wooden beads that now fits snugly on my left wrist.

What's next for a kindergarten student like me? Taking the Five Precepts in the not too distant future. Right now though, the immediate task is to actualize the Buddhist teachings as embodied in the Taking the Refuge in the Three Jewels.

Venerable Master Jian Zong explaining the difference between sudden and gradual enlightenment as exemplified by the famous Buddhist verses put forth by the Sixth Patriarch, Master Hui Neng, and Venerable Shen Xiu, with Venerable Jian Tsan providing the Chinese text as needed.

A group photo of the Tampa entourage with Venerable Master Jian Zong taken by Venerable Jian Tsan.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Spritual Renaissance

Domestic Violence. Wife battery. Those were the initial thoughts occupying Venerable Chang-Hwa's mind one day when she was attending to a lady devotee who seemed visibly shaken at the Buddhist Temple she was stationed, not long after her ordainment as a Buddhist nun under the late Venerable Grand Master Sheng Yen. “What did Shi Fu teach us under this circumstance?”

She continued to stall for time while churning her mind trying to look for an appropriate response. Meanwhile, she learned that their children knew about the incident as well. "That's not good," she reasoned.

Then the question followed naturally. “Why did he hit you?”

“Well, he likes to donate to orphanages and welfare homes. And I always nag him as it's like throwing away good money.”

“Huh?”. And after a palpable sigh of relief, Venerable Chang-Hwa was in her elements. “Do you know what great blessings your husband have accrued by giving to others? It's a tremendous act of kindness that should invite praise, not criticism. You're indeed blessed to have him as your husband whom you should cherish.”

After a brief moment of bewilderment, the woman's face beamed. That's how a change of perspective can tip the emotional balance from utter outrage to gratitude.

The above anecdote is just one of many that Venerable Chang-Hwa shared with us on Jan 24, 2010 in Clearwater, a Dharma session organized by Brother Peter and Sister Nancy Kau on behalf of the Dharma Drum Mountain Buddhist Association (DDMBA).

Entitled the Art of Letting Go, Venerable Chang-Hwa, who is the Director of the New York Ch'an Meditation, led the attendees through the various pathways toward cultivating inner peace and leading a life that is devoid of cravings, but instead, one filled with compassion and rich with giving that are enshrined in the Living Proposition for the 21th Century as encapsulated in the 5/4 movement of the Mind, a thoughtful legacy from the late Grand Master Sheng Yen who has worked tirelessly to inject tranquility into the daily hustle and bustle of the masses through Buddhist practice and meditation. (The image of the Late Grand Master on the right is taken from the newsletter of the Malaysian Dharma Drum Mountain Buddhism Information Center.

The 5 refers to the five realms, and the 4, virtuous pathways under each of the realms. Captioned as the Spiritual Renaissance, the 5/4 Movement of the Mind has its roots in protecting the four environments (Spiritual, Living, Natural, and Social) that the late Master Sheng Yen first advocated in 1992. The bilingual version of the essence of the 5/4 Movement of the Mind appears below, courtesy of Wify's Chinese calligraphy based on the handouts and the DDMBA website for the English translation:

Fivefold Spiritual Renaissance - A Proposition for Living in the 21st Century

The Four Fields for Cultivating Peace

To uplift the character of humanity, we propose to cultivate:

* Peaceful Mind through being content and having few desires.
* Peaceful Body through diligence and a simple life.
* Peaceful Family through love and respect for each other.
* Peaceful Conduct through peaceful thoughts, words, and actions.

The Four Guidelines for Dealing with Desires

A proposal for calming minds:

* Our needs are few.
* Our desires are many.
* Pursue only what we can and should acquire.
* Never pursue what we can’t and shouldn’t acquire.

The Four Steps for Handling a Problem

A proposal for resolving difficulties in life:

* Face it: Face the problem, do not deny its existence.
* Accept it: Accept the reality; everything happens for a reason.
* Handle it: Take care of things with wisdom, and take care of people with compassion.
* Let it go: Make best efforts to resolve the matter, regardless of its outcome

The Four Practices for Helping Oneself and Others

A proposal for getting along with others:

* Be grateful for favorable and adverse situations that nurture our growth.
* Be thankful for opportunities to offer ourselves to others.
* Be reflective on improving ourselves through meditation, contrition and beginning anew.
* Be inspiring to others through our behavior.

The Four Ways to Cultivate Blessings

A proposal for increasing blessings:

* Recognize our blessings: be content and happy.
* Cherish our blessings: treasure what we have and repay the kindness that we have received.
* Nurture our blessings: share with others and give to those in need.
* Sow the seeds of our blessings: benefit all people with the growth of wisdom and compassion.

They are self-explanatory. The hard part is to embrace them in our daily life, making ourselves the living proof of the spiritual renaissance, one day at a time.

Sister Nancy Kau introducing the Dharma teacher of the Day, Venerable Chang-Hwa.

Venerable Chang-Hwa engagingly answering a question from the floor.

The attentive audience.

A group photo, courtesy of Brother Peter Kau.