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.