In this modern age, we are enjoying greater material well-being than ever before.But at the same time, we are also facing many problems: our trust in people and the index on happiness continue to decline; divorce, suicide, and crime rates keep rising; depression is even more prevalent. How do we resolve these problems? Buddhist philosophy can be very helpful at this time.
THE TRAGEDY IN MODERN SOCIETY
In the seventeenth century, Europe fostered the modern civilization; in the eighteenth century, Great Britain started the Industrial Revolution. After the transition from an agricultural society to an industrial society, new technological processes contributed to building substantial prosperity and wealth for mankind. Indeed, in this modern age, people are enjoying greater material well-being than ever before.
However, we are also facing many problems at the same time:
Firstly, our trust in people has diminished. Although the cultural standard is on the rise and knowledge base is ever growing, our moral standards have eroded. We no longer seem to know how to be a righteous person.
In the last century, from the 60’s to the 90’s, there was a decline of 28% in the index on trust among people in the United States and Great Britain.
How does such a steep decline come about in so short a time? The main reason is a lot of people are no longer sincere. When people lack sincerity, they no longer trust each other.
More importantly, despite uninterrupted progress in our society, the index on happiness continues to decline, while divorce, suicide, and crime rates keep rising. Depression is even more of a problem.
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF BUDDHIST CONCEPTS TODAY
How do we resolve these problems? I personally believe Buddhist philosophy can play a very significant role in this area. The following are seven core principles:
Respect Cause and Effect, and Practice the Ten Virtues1. What is Cause and Effect?
Buddha Sakyamuni in his time expounded the doctrine of cause and effect – all of the happiness and suffering in our everyday life arise not from the spirits or for no reason, but from two types of cause and condition.
The first type of cause and condition is called proximate condition (the causes and conditions which occurred recently); the other type is called distant condition (the causes and conditions which were produced at an earlier time in the past). When these two conditions converge, a result is produced. This is cause and effect.
People who do not understand cause and effect think it is very mysterious and filled with religious connotation. Actually there is nothing mysterious about it. If we are observant, we will discover all things around us – whether animals, vegetation, or mankind -- are subject to the law of cause and effect. A cause will always produce a result of the same kind. The ancients say: “You reap what you sow.” This is an objective principle of cause and effect. Although we cannot observe the subtle relationship between cause and effect with the eye, we can validate its existence conceptually. A lot of new discoveries in science were also assumed to be non-existent at one time because they could not be perceived by the eye. The law of cause and effect is no exception; it exists even if it cannot be seen.
The law of cause and effect is a natural law. Buddha Sakyamuni did not pronounce it, nor did he create it; the Buddha only discovered it and promulgated it to all people.
As stated in the Rice Seedling Sutra: “With or without the Tatagatha, the essence of phenomena abides.” Whether the Buddha appears or not in this world, the natural law of phenomena exists and does not change.
There is a very big difference between Buddhism and other religions: the law of cause and effect is a natural law; even the Buddha cannot change cause and effect. The Buddha is not all-powerful; neither are the other buddhas.
2. How is Cause and Effect Generated?Whatever action we take, whether it is killing, stealing, or freeing animals and giving, we no longer perceive its existence after the action takes place. However, a special energy is stored within the deepest level of our consciousness -- the alaya consciousness. Alaya is a Sanskrit word which means storage. It is like a computer disk which can store a great deal of information.
Not only that, all the information pertaining to the previous life -- including a person’s knowledge, personality, and living conditions that distinguish him or her from others -- is stored in the alaya and transmitted to the next life.
The alaya consciousness is the fundamental consciousness. All other types of consciousness, like the sixth consciousness, come and go; for example, they do not exist during our sleep or when the body suffers from a strong external impact and becomes unconscious. However, the alaya consciousness and the good and bad seeds, which are stored in the alaya, are always intact and unimpaired. Before the seeds ripen, we do not see them; but at some point, they mature and produce a result. Thus we have this saying, “good begets good; evil begets evil.”
3. Believe in Cause and Effect, Help Self and Others
Although most of the concepts the Buddha taught can be deduced logically, some are difficult to discover without profound insight like the Buddha’s. When Buddha Sakyamuni was propagating the Dharma, he also said it is difficult for an ordinary person to observe and understand cause and effect. Thus, before we reach a certain level of wisdom, it is best not to inspect the workings of cause and effect. Even if we try, we will not be able to come to any conclusion; we might even raise doubt over its validity.
Once there is doubt, we might act in our own interest without regard to the law and moral conduct; thinking others are unaware of our true intention, we bring harm and injury to them. If we genuinely believe in and respect cause and effect, we will be fearful of committing transgressions. This is because there is no connection between “cause and effect” and “whether others know our true intention.” When we commit a transgression, this action, like a seed, is stored and will one day mature. No one is spared at the time it matures; where there is cause, there is effect – that is the objective reality. Without cause and effect to restrain us, our moral standards will decline to even beyond the bottom line. This will create even greater alienation among people and generate a lot of problems for society. Therefore, we should believe in cause and effect, and practice the ten virtues1.
In whatever historical period or culture, it is always appropriate to practice any one of the ten virtues. Killing, stealing, breaking up other people’s family, etc. are never tolerated in society, because they are considered by all to be non-virtuous actions.
Assuming mankind truly believed in cause and effect, there would be no killing, lying, and stealing; no contamination of oil, meat, milk powder, and other food products; no violence and war. People would interact with complete sincerity.
Therefore, the Buddhist teachings on cause and effect are of immeasurable benefit to modern society.
Being Content with Less Desire
To be content with less desire is also a Buddhist principle which the Buddha expected his disciples to follow.
Comparatively speaking, people in ancient times were more content with fewer things to go by. Technology is a two-sided sword; while it has created great material prosperity for us, it has also inflated our desire. If we deplete our physical resources without restraint in order to satisfy this desire, we will ultimately bring on mankind’s own destruction. For example, if everyone in the world were to live as Americans do, we would need resources equivalent to three to five times what the earth can provide. This is a very worrisome thought! Altogether we only have one planet!
Some organizations and environmental groups are doing their utmost to promote resource conservation and environmental protection. Although this is most commendable, it does not solve the problem at its source. To resolve the shortage of resources on earth, the key is to restrain mankind’s unlimited desire. Hence, it is even more important for people in the modern age to learn to be content with less desire.
The nature of desire is that it can never be contained. This year’s luxury goods become next year’s necessity which we must possess in order to keep up with the times. In two to three years, the same luxury brands are taken off the shelf. Desire is like a treadmill; our footsteps can never keep pace with the speed of the treadmill. If we continue to feel happy as our desire grows, this may still be understandable since the depletion of resources on earth is a problem that future generations have to deal with, not us. However, the question is whether we can truly be happy if our desire grows with no end in sight. We cannot! As happiness is founded on satisfaction, when we incessantly covet all things, even if we are satisfied, it is only a very temporary feeling.
For instance, when a new technical device appears in the market, we purchase it at the first instant and feel very pleased. But technology is always on the change with first generation products, second generation products, third generation products, etc. In time, the device we originally took great pride in is no longer fashionable; the original feeling of satisfaction and that of happiness gradually disappear.
This is the same with learning the Buddhist teachings. Some people are very excited and serious about the teachings at the beginning; a year to two later, they grow tired of the Dharma and no longer take the practices seriously. All of us have this natural tendency – we always seek new and fresh experiences to satisfy our desire and curiosity.
Thus, we must exert great effort in curbing our desire. It is said that “desire is a driving force for growth.” This statement is true in principle; without desire, we cannot accomplish anything, including the wish to learn the Dharma. However, when desire is excessive, it is not a constructive force; instead, it becomes a threat to our survival.
Although many recognize this problem, they cannot effectively bring their desire under control. To this end, spiritual practice is necessary. The specific method is to practice meditative concentration.
Among the many schools in Buddhism, Ch’an in particular places great emphasis on letting go.
Perhaps many people may question how they can let go when they have responsibilities to the society and to their family.
It would be a mistake to think “letting go” means “abandoning or discarding” our responsibilities. We are simply letting go of our excessive attachment to money, career, and things. As an ordinary person, we cannot possibly be unconcerned about family and material goods; however, if we become overly attached to them, we incur suffering many times over.
The problems we have in everyday life come from different causes and conditions; however, all causes and conditions originate from our attachment. On this particular subject, many modern psychologists have been trying to tell us the same thing. Freud and other philosophers also took the same view – the more emphasis and importance we place on money, the greater our discontent and suffering. Without having to abandon anything, we should let go of unnecessary attachment. Not only does this not hinder our career, it often leads surprisingly to even greater success. We will also feel happier and more carefree.
How do we let go of attachment? There are two methods:
1. Attain Realization
What is realization? It is complete awareness of the basic nature of life and the world. Upon attaining realization comes unsurpassed wisdom. A non-practitioner cannot understand this. Most people in this modern age live a very hectic life. When there are constant disruptions in our life, we cannot cultivate our innate potential or our inherent wisdom. Nevertheless, we should still make time for practice every day regardless of the circumstances. Before the mind receives any kind of training, it is very vulnerable, often overwhelmed by the power of material temptations. However, as the training progresses, the mind becomes stronger as well. When the training reaches its ultimate point, that is, when wisdom is at its pinnacle, it is called attaining Buddhahood. Actually, attaining Buddhahood is not at all mysterious; it is no more than training the mind to reach its highest state of wisdom.
As ordinary people, however, we need not set such high expectations. We only have to cultivate more wisdom to handle the stress we undergo in life. If we practice the methods the Buddha taught, we can learn from our suffering and become stronger and wiser. Buddhism teaches how to “transform suffering into the path.” It means we cannot avoid suffering in samsara such as birth, aging, sickness, and death, but we can adjust our mindset and face suffering with ease. The “path” – similar to the path expounded in Daoism – is the practice. To “transform into the path” is to use suffering with skillful means to train ourselves. The most skillful means or method is to realize emptiness. Unfortunately, most people are unwilling to train themselves; instead they try their utmost to avoid all suffering.
2. Contemplate Impermanence
People always like to idealize the world they live in. Unprepared for problems ahead, they nonetheless still have to face them in the end. Even if we hope to, we cannot stay young or live forever. There is a natural law in this world which we must work with; if we go against or reject it, we incur suffering. Hence, we should adopt the right view and attitude toward life and the world.
All things including the universe, the Milky Way, the solar system, even the tiniest particle in the microcosm are in the process of change. How things change depends on causes and conditions at the moment, not on volition. The entity that is changing does not have a choice over how it changes itself either. However, causes and conditions cannot always be good; some are good, some are bad. We cannot foresee what will happen at any particular time in the future. For instance, a person may be fine now, but a month, a year, even an hour later, how that person will change is unclear since there are too many uncertainties. The things we cherish most or are attached to may be separated from us in an hour, a month, or a year – this is all due to cause and condition, the ever-constant natural law.
The higher the expectation we have of things, the greater the likelihood of disappointment. Hence, we must be alert to impending problems and changes. In Buddhist terms, this is the practice of impermanence. If we can face everything calmly and take hold of our attachment, we are learning to let go.
Of course, to truly let go, we must be able to see life as an illusion, just like yesterday’s dream, and completely cut through our attachment. This is neither necessary nor possible at this stage. As long as we are willing to rely on the methods the Buddha taught to train our mind, our ability to endure suffering will undoubtedly strengthen in time.
If we can appreciate life and the world we live in, we will feel great happiness. Our life will also be more meaningful. With gratitude in our hearts, we will not complain or get angry; we will experience harmony in the workplace, in the family, and among friends.
How do we cultivate gratitude?
If we accept the Buddhist ideas, it is easy to develop gratitude. Although some people do not accept the Buddhist concept of rebirth, there is sufficient evidence to verify its existence.
As long as the idea of reincarnation is accepted, we can infer everyone was at one point our parent. When they were our parents in a past life, they were no different from our parents in this life to whom we are indebted. Because the body undergoes a special process when it takes rebirth, many wonderful memories are lost. Even so, a lot of things in our past still exist if only latently. Our mother in a past life could very well be the dog or cat we adore, a total stranger, or even a stray dog or cat.
Once we accept this idea, we can train in seeing all sentient beings as family; in Buddhism, this is called bodhicitta. In so doing, we become a loving and compassionate person. Everything that we do is genuinely for the benefit of all beings. Even a non-Buddhist can become a more tolerant person; at the very least, when he or she encounters an infuriating situation, his or her anger thereof can be recognized in the instant it arises and be brought under control.
If the concept of cyclic rebirth is not to be accepted, it will be more difficult to cultivate gratitude. However, we can still try to persuade ourselves in this way: if a person wants to succeed, he cannot do so without the direct or indirect help and support of a lot of people. Similarly, if we want to attain Buddhahood, we need the help of all beings.
For instance, all of the practices in Buddhism can be classified into six categories – the six paramitas. The first of these is generosity. Giving money to the poor is one form of generosity; sharing our knowledge with others unconditionally and selflessly is another form; cultivating compassion for all beings is the other form of generosity.
Without sentient beings, to whom do we practice generosity? We depend on sentient beings to advance in our practice and to attain Buddhahood. Hence, we should be grateful to them.
Contemplate Samsara is Suffering
When told to contemplate samsara is suffering, a lot of people think the Buddhist perspective on life is pessimistic and passive.
This is not the case. Buddha Sakyamuni did not deny there is temporary happiness in the mundane world. Among the six realms, humans, celestial beings, and azuras belong to the upper realms. Rebirth in the upper realms is due to virtuous activities undertaken in past lives. Naturally the result of virtuous action is happiness. However, the Buddha also said if we examine our happiness more closely, we will find it is just an absence of any feeling of suffering at the moment. It is fleeting and relative, not absolute happiness. In fact, such happiness is also accompanied by much unhappiness. Looking at cyclic existence as a whole, most of it is filled with immeasurable suffering. Thus, the Buddha expounded: to say samsara is happiness is not entirely appropriate; to say samsara is suffering is just right.
If we know there is suffering in the world and are alert to impending problems in samsara and our life, we will be mentally prepared to take whatever steps are necessary to surmount them. This is doable because destiny can be changed.
In Buddhist terms, this is called liberating sentient beings.
In a competitive society, people experience a lot of stress and become increasingly self-centered, unconcerned about other people, other lives and their feelings. This preoccupation with the self leads to even greater stress. Continuing in this vicious cycle, no one can attain happiness in the end.
If a person is only interested in making money for himself, even if he succeeds, he will only gain temporary satisfaction. The consequences that follow are negative, resulting in problems that cannot be resolved with money. Ultimately, he will face a lot of suffering.
There is a Chinese book called So Poor Only Money Is Left. We may think the title of the book is somewhat distorted. However, a person who truly understands the essence of money, like Buddha Sakyamuni, or a business tycoon, would relate strongly to its message.
People generally equate having money with wealth, and not having money with poverty. However, having money is only a part of being wealthy; it is not its entirety. Similarly, not having money is a part of being poor, not its entirety. Some people are well off, but they feel empty inside and rely on compulsive shopping to fill the void. This is only a temporary fix, not the fundamental solution to the problem. If only they could think of helping others at this time, that hollow feeling inside their hearts would disperse so much more quickly.
Within Buddhism, the Theravada and Mahayana perspectives on money are somewhat different. In Theravada Buddhism, the monastics are not permitted to accept monetary offerings from followers, or to touch money and precious gems. The sangha of Southern Buddhism abide by these rules even to this day; they do not use their hands to touch money or gems. Since they practice the teachings for their own liberation, accepting money for individual gain is inappropriate.
In Mahayana Buddhism, not accepting monetary offerings from followers, though not a violation of the root precepts, is a breach of one branch of the precepts. This is because the true spirit of Mahayana Buddhism is in benefiting all sentient beings. If someone makes an offering in the form of money, a monastic should give the person the opportunity to accumulate merit. Money itself is neither good nor bad; the problem is how we treat money. Also, the thinking should be: the money is not mine; I am merely the custodian who is charged with distributing the money to whoever is in need. I am just a manager, a distributor, but not the owner.
In my opinion, if a corporate leader or someone successful can uphold this view, not only will he not chase after wealth relentlessly, he will also be able to avoid feeling empty inside after making money, and even put it to good use by helping others.
An important concept related to benefiting others is to treat all living beings as a whole and one’s relationship with other sentient beings as that of hands and feet -- if the leg is in trouble, the hand will come to its assistance; if the left hand is in trouble, the right hand will come to its rescue without the least bit of hesitation. Thus, even for a total stranger or a being who is unrelated to us in any way, we will also be willing to help. This is what the concept of being whole can do.
Using these methods to train the mind, even a very selfish person can change into a selfless person. Eventually, our work will no longer be a burden nor will we feel empty inside.
Elevating the Mind
A lot of people in this modern age lack substance. When they lose the things they possess – their wealth, reputation, position, power, etc. – they think they are left with nothing. Compared to prior generations, overdependence on material possessions has made them mentally much weaker. In a life preoccupied with material things, people become very restless. For example, if we are told to refrain from watching television, using our hand phone, or surfing the internet and to remain quiet for an hour, most of us will have a hard time with it, thinking we’d be bored out of our mind -- this is the negative consequence of living in a material-oriented world. If one day we were to be stripped of all these physical things in our life, we would be vulnerable to great suffering ahead.
In Buddhist terms, this is called suffering of change.
Businesses involved in the development of technological products understand the need to continuously upgrade their products. Most people also strive to scale up by acquiring bigger and better things – income, official position, reputation, property, cars, etc. However, few think of elevating their mind to new heights. When the mind cannot keep pace with the rapid advances in the outside world, suffering arises.
The Buddha said suffering can be transformed into liberation. From this standpoint, suffering is not a bad thing. If we can make good use of suffering, we will grow and learn from the experience. In Buddhist terminology, this is called transforming suffering into the path; since the path is the practice, it is also transforming suffering into the practice.
Hence, elevating the mind is extremely important. It entails a lot of Buddhist concepts and practices. The following are some simple methods for alleviating stress – meditative concentration, which is equally important to both Buddhists and non-Buddhists.
METHODS FOR ELEVATING THE MIND AND ALLEVIATING STRESS -- MEDITATION
Prior to practice, we should first finish our chores; then sit in meditation with the windows and door closed, and the phone turned off.
When sitting, maintain a state of complete relaxation with eyes open. Some people like to shut their eyes during meditation so as not to be distracted by things on the outside. Although this approach helps to calm the mind at the start, we may get tired and even fall asleep in ten to twenty minutes.
The benefits of meditative concentration, the sevenfold posture of Vairochana, and the practice of expelling chi are explained in the chapter “The Significance of Buddhist Philosophy Today” and are not repeated here.
1. One-Pointed Concentration
After expelling the negative chi in our body, focus the eyes and mind on an object in front of us.
This object can be a picture, for instance, a sketch we have made. It should be small, not too big. Buddhist followers can concentrate on an object like a statue of the Buddha. Our entire focus should be on the picture. Try to keep blinking to a minimum and let go of all thoughts, whether good or bad. The mind can in this way return to its relatively natural state. Then abide in this state.
2. Chi Visualization
Select a syllable or a word as an object and imagine it on the tip of the nose. When breathing out, visualize the object is expelled along with the chi; when breathing in, visualize the object returning to the tip of the nose again. Repeat this again and again over a period of time.
3. Counting the Breath
Refer to the chapter “The Significance of Buddhist Philosophy Today.”
This is the initial stage of concentration practice. Thinking we are in meditative concentration, we sometimes do not realize subtle thoughts have already arisen in the mind. Thus, we must be vigilant and bring our mind back to the object of focus as soon as we become distracted. Without vigilance, the mind may become scattered quickly and lose its concentration. The practice will see no result this way.
If this practice is preceded by some particular Buddhist sadhana, it is a Buddhist meditation practice. If we leave out the aspiration in the beginning and the dedication that follows, then it has nothing to do with Buddhism or any other religion. It is only a method for regulating the emotional state of mind.
At the beginning, we may only be able to concentrate for a minute or so. As we get better in the practice -- when the mind becomes very still and comfortable, and all the pressure and afflictions have dissolved into this state of tranquility -- we should stop there. If we continue, the mind will surely get distracted later on. So, stop before distractions appear; then refocus immediately. This way is much more helpful to the meditation practice.
If we plan to meditate for an hour, we can first count the breath for twenty minutes; then practice chi visualization or one-pointed concentration for forty minutes. To succeed, we must dedicate effort to the practice; the result will otherwise be less than ideal.
Conditions for Practice
The Ch’an monasteries often hold seven-day retreats. Each phase of practice consists of seven days. Like receiving a course of treatment for an illness, we can go to a seven-day retreat or to two or more seven-day retreats. We can make use of a long vacation to attend a retreat; even a week can be very helpful to us.
Meditative concentration can be practiced not only at a monastery but also at home. If there is a meditation room in the house, that would be a good place to practice.
It is imperative to maintain the right attitude every morning after waking up: today I must undertake an activity which is beneficial to others, and then practice meditative concentration afterwards. There should be no grudges held or unhappy thoughts just before going to sleep at night. With meditative concentration, dissolve all the stress, grudges, anger, and discontent, then go to sleep with a pure mind. This not only improves the quality of sleep but also helps one’s emotional state, physical health, work efficiency, and mental power.3. Timing
In a twenty-four-hour day, there are two periods which are relatively important for our practice: one is prior to going to sleep; the other is right after waking up in the morning.
A serious Buddhist practitioner will divide a day into four periods: early in the morning after waking up, morning, afternoon, and late in the evening before going to sleep. Those who work may only have time at the start and close of the day to practice. Each session should last thirty minutes to two hours. A practice can start with thirty minutes and gradually build up to two hours, but no more than that. Otherwise, fatigue and rejection start to set in. The key to practice is not in making an effort for a while, but in being consistent with daily practice.
Except when we are studying or taking a test, our mind is usually in a state of distraction; we allow our thoughts to go wild and do not take control over them. By way of concentration practice, we can substantially reduce the movement of the mind.
Since childhood, we have gotten used to examining things externally. By looking inward now, we discover there is actually nothing that we can practice or concentrate on. The mental faculty that we used to rely on for thinking and decision making does not exist in the brain or in the heart; it does not exist at all.
In the West, many classes are offered on alleviating stress, the content of which is precisely meditative concentration. For example, by attending an eight-week class and practicing every day, it is found -- after undergoing an examination at the end of the class -- that the ratio of the practitioners’ right and left brain has changed (with gray matter concentration increased in the left regions of the brain). A lot of practitioners discover the classes are very useful in helping them face problems in everyday life. Even an eight-week class is sufficient to generate a very positive energy lasting several months. However, without continued practice, this positive energy will still decline gradually; hence, sustained practice over a long period of time is critical.
Meditative concentration is fundamental to elevating the mind. Through meditative concentration, discontent and negative thoughts accumulated during the day can be dissolved and interpersonal relationships improved.
Of course, the real upgrade – enlightenment and the complete elimination of all afflictions – is not as easy.
1. Ten Virtues: ① Do not kill; ② Do not steal; ③ Do not commit sexual misconduct; ④ Do not lie; ⑤ Do not flatter; ⑥ Do not gossip; ⑦ Do not speak evil things; ⑧ Do not be greedy; ⑨ Do not be angry; ⑩Do not hold evil view.