Thiền Tông Việt Nam
Keys to Buddhism (Chìa Khóa Học Phật)
Learning Buddhism

In worldly life, every subject has its own way to be studied. For example, when a pupil wants to learn about mathematics, he first needs to learn numbers, then how to add and subtract, next, the multiplication tables and division, and then, more complex formulas. When he wants to study writing, he has to learn how to spell, understand proper grammar, how to write essays, etc. Similarly, as Buddhism is a subject that can be studied, it has its own methods.

Three methods to achieve wisdom are learning, reflecting, and practicing. Without wisdom, we cannot enter the gate of enlightenment. The Buddha-dharma is the truth. If we do not have the light of wisdom, how can we clearly see truth in every phenomenon? If we only learn about Buddhism through beliefs, it is a great mistake. This is a serious disease among many contemporary Buddhist pratitioners. To treat this disease, we have to thoroughly apply the following three methods.

Wisdom through Learning13

After studying and listening to the Dharma, our wisdom can develop. This is called wisdom through learning. We learn about the Dharma from the teachings of monks and nuns and from our senior dharma friends. These teachings have their origins in the sutras which contains the correct teachings, revealing the truth. The more we listen, the clearer our wisdom becomes. The Brahma Net Sutra, chapter 6, precept 7 states, "When one who has just received the Bodhisattva precepts hear that a sutra or the Vinaya is being taught, they should go there to learn even though they may be thousands of miles away." Directly reading sutras and Buddhist books is another way to develop our wisdom through learning. Diligently studying and listening to the teachings is to enter the house of the Buddha-dharma through the gate of learning.

Wisdom through Reflecting

Reflecting is investigating and contemplating. When deliberation and discrimination are applied when we are presented with the Buddha's teachings, our wisdom can develop. If we believe immediately what we are told or read, this is not a correct attitude for studying the Dharma. It is better to use our wisdom to judge whether it is correct or not. Only when we find that it is correct should we then believe. One of the last sayings of the Buddha is, "You, yourself, have to light your own torch as you go. Light it with right Dharma."14 We want to develop our wisdom but how can we do it by ourselves? We can light our torch from the Buddha's torch of right Dharma.

How do we light it? When we hear a teacher saying, "All things in the world are temporary," we should use our wisdom to decide if it is correct by posing a counter question to ourselves. We may ask, "If all things in the world are temporary, are there any exceptions?" If there are any exceptions, this saying is not true. If we find that there are no exceptions, we can believe in the saying.

Right now, let us investigate together whether human life is temporary or not. Our grandparents and our parents are born, grow up, become sick or old, and, then, die. Similarly, we will go through the same process. All human beings in the world, from long ago and into the future, will experience the same process. Therefore, we may conclude that human life is, in fact, temporary.

Are things like houses, desks, chairs, cars, or buses temporary also? Let us investigate together. Our house is quite fine when it is newly built. However, it will deteriorate with the years; perhaps collapsing after fifty years. Similarly, a desk, shiny when new, becomes old with time (the paint peeling, the surfaces covered with scratches, etc.) and then, falls apart. The devices we use every day are also affected by impermanence. We can examine thousands of things to see that they follow the same process. Therefore, we can conclude that it is true that all things in the world are temporary. Although there may be others who say differently, after we have filtered what we have heard through the wisdom from investigative reflection, we can firmly believe in the truth of impermanence.

Although example is if we hear a teacher say, "Everything in the world is involved in reincarnation." We may ask ourselves, "How is it that all thing are in the realm of reincarnation? Is there anything outside of this cycle?" Let us begin by examining the plant kingdom. From seeds, a plant will germinate, grow, bloom, and then produce fruits that bear more seeds, continuing the cycle endlessly. This is the cycle from one generation to another.

Even in one generation, we can see this process. A plant, taking in nutrients from the soil and water throuh its roots, grows into a large tree with leaves and branches. The leaves and branches fall to the ground, becoming compost. Another example is water evaporating into vapors in sunlight. Vapors rise and meet cold air, condensing into droplets that falls to the earth, where it, once again, becomes vapors, continuing this endless cycle. Also, when the earth rotates, there are light and dark phases. People then create hours, days, months, years, and the four seasons: Spring, summer, fall, and winter... in an endless cycle. With these examples, we can see that all things in the world follow a cycle of becoming and ceasing, or reincarnation. This is an undeniable truth. 

We can use this method of reflecting to investigate other teachings of the Buddha or other sources. Doing so, we will not be misled by incorrect teachings. This is the right attitude for Buddhist practioners.

Wisdom through Practice

Once we have determined that the Buddha's teachings are true through investigation, if we apply them to our daily lives, the teachings will become even more meaningful. This is wisdom through practice. For example, we may apply the teaching that "all things are temporary" to the following three cases.

When there is something wrong in our own life or with our family, if we remember the teachings on impermanence, it may help us to keep calm and not be scared or fearful. We know that no one can escape impermanence and our fear usually only makes the problem more confusing. When we are not frightened, our minds can be calm and wisdom arises to help us to better solve our problems or to console others who suffer like us.

Likewise, when we are in the heat of craving, if we remember that all things in the world are impermanent, our hearts will cool. We will not struggle for fame, money, or lust anymore because we know that these things are temporary. So, why would we struggle for them, causing ourselves and others suffering? We know this would be like trying to catch the moon by chasing its shadow on the water. When we understand impermanence, the craving for worldly pleasures will be alleviated.

Remembering impermanence, we cannot passively wait for death. We have to try to do good deeds now. When death does come, there is not much we can do at that moment even though we may want to. We should value our time now because we cannot relive the days that have passed. We have to strive to be of benefit to ourselves and others without delay. By wisely applying the teaching that "all things in the world are impermanent" to our daily lives, great benefit will develop. Relating to the teachings in these ways, accompanied by an alert and awakened mind, is called wisdom through practice.

We may also employ the teachings that all things are involved in samsara. When we understanding how it applies in our daily lives, we may make better choices. For example, knowing that plants are in the realm of birth and death, we may choose the higher quality seed to cultivate the best fruits for everyone's enjoyment. Similarly, if we are aware that we cannot escape from the cycle of samsara, we would create good cause so that we will be reborn into a good realm. Knowing the rules of samsara, we have to find out which cause is pulling us into the cycle. After that, we have to find the way to escape from the cycle of birth and death, not accepting being involved forever in the cycle of samsara. It is similar to scientists studying the gravitational pull of the earth to understand how much force is needed to propel a spaceship into space. Understanding samsara and finding the way to escape from it is the spirit of wisdom through practicing.

Learning and reflecting about the Dharma is necessary, but practicing it is more important. If we learn and reflect but do not practice, the wisdom we acquire will be empty wisdom, useless since it has no practical applications to our daily lives. It is through practice that the value of learning and reflecting will be measured. Then, wisdom acquired from practice will, in turn, reinforce learning and reflecting.

These three wisdom practices are totally congruent with modern methods of investigation. To study any worldly subject, first people study the theory, then, analyze and investigate, and, at last, put the theory into practice.

According to The Mahanama Sutra in The Samyutta Nikaya, the Buddha taught the laity that when they visit temples, they should meet with monks and nuns to inquire about the Dharma. Then, they reflect on and apply these teachings in their daily lives. This is the proper spirit of a practitioner. In the Shurangama Sutra, volume 6, Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva reported that in a long and remote time before, he met a buddha who taught him these three methods of learning, reflecting, and practicing. Applying these methods, he was able to enter into deep concentration. Therefore, in order to study in the manner the Buddha taught, it is useful to develop wisdom through learning, reflecting, and practicing. Mastering these wisdom practices are based on the principle of self-investigation. When grounded in self-investigation, practitioners are more able to properly read and interpret Buddhist and texts. 

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