The Significance of Buddhist Philosophy Today
In our world today, it is increasingly apparent and obvious a lot of problems of a spiritual nature cannot be resolved by material means. To treat mental problems we must work with the mind. It is imperative that we look immediately for answers within the Buddhist culture to address concrete problems in our life, and to ameliorate the stress and anxiety we feel.
Buddhism can be said to be a special kind of culture since it encompasses many rich academic disciplines, among them philosophy, astronomy, geography, and science. Not only that, Buddhism also has its own view on life, on right values, and on the world. In this chapter, we will introduce the Buddhist view on the world.
The worldview is firstly a specific knowledge; but more importantly, it is one of formulating this knowledge into ways and methods which can be used in our daily life. One aspect deals with regulating our own mind; the other aspect deals with benefiting sentient beings, bringing happiness, a healthy life, and joy to more people – this is also the basic tenet of Buddhism.
Some students of Buddhism or other religions like to dwell on clairvoyant power and states of realization, but this is not the real purpose of Buddhism. Although Buddhism does not object to transcendent power, it does not chase after it. Buddhism mainly teaches how to cultivate compassion, develop wisdom, and serve others.
In this modern age, nearly everyone is under a great deal of pressure, in particular many entrepreneurs. It has become increasingly apparent and obvious there are a lot of problems of a spiritual nature which cannot be resolved by material means. Many rich people have discovered wealth is not the answer to everything. In the past, it was assumed wealth would lead to happiness; contrary to expectation, it has actually had a substantial negative impact.
The World Bank and World Health Organization expect depression to be the biggest public health problem worldwide in the not too distant future. In 2006 alone, the annual expenditure on anti-depressants in the United States was estimated at seventy-six billion US dollars. However, the effectiveness of these drugs has been less than ideal, since the drugs cause damage to that part of the brain that controls the subtle thought processes. Thus, the long term use of anti-depressants will affect our emotional state.
How can we solve this problem?
To treat mental problems we must work with the mind. Nothing could be more appropriate for the treatment of mental conditions than methods that work with the mind. Especially in our present business-oriented society, it is imperative that we look immediately for methods and answers within the Buddhist culture to address concrete problems in our life, and ameliorate the stress and anxiety we feel.
Of course, if we are always lingering on the outside, analyzing and judging Buddhism from the standpoint of a bystander, the result cannot be good. However, if we are willing to joyously approach, even readily seek, the teachings of the Buddha, I am certain answers can be found to our satisfaction.
In the following, I shall try to give a simple introduction to the basic Buddhist doctrines and to several meditative practices for eliminating stress.
OVERVIEW OF BUDDHISM
Three Turnings of the Wheel of Dharma
Buddha Sakyamuni turned the wheel of Dharma three times.
The first turning of the wheel of Dharma came shortly after the Buddha attained Buddhahood. The teachings are basic in nature, easy to understand, and deal mainly with cultivating proper conduct in life, eradicating evil deeds, taking up virtuous deeds, and other such actions linked to Theravada Buddhism. The teachings of the first turning are likened to courses given in primary school.
The Buddha then turned the wheel of Dharma a second time at Vultures’ Peak in India, with the emphasis this time on prajna. “Prajna” is a Sanskrit word, also called prajnaparamita, which in Chinese is translated as zhi hui du. “Zhi hui” means (transcendent) wisdom; “du” means crossing over to the other shore.
Every sentient being is endowed with wisdom, but our wisdom is limited in depth and scope because we lack proper training of the mind. Zhi hui du refers specifically to the training of the mind, to cultivating the wisdom that allows us to reach the unsurpassed state of attainment -- Buddhahood. From the view of an outsider, the process appears to be mysterious and connected in some way with religion; however, a true practitioner knows this training of the mind is very real. The sutras most people are familiar with, such as the Heart Sutra and Diamond Sutra, as well as many Ch’an discourses, belong to the second turning of the wheel of Dharma. The teachings of the second turning are likened to courses given in secondary school.
The third turning of the wheel of Dharma focuses on the grand vision of Mahayana Buddhism and on the clarity aspect of Buddha nature. The teachings are more advanced by comparison. Just prior to his parinirvana, Buddha Sakyamuni also transmitted tantric practices. The core teachings of the third turning of the wheel of Dharma in exoteric Mahayana Buddhism and the tantric practices are likened to courses given in the university.
After Buddha Sakyamuni entered parinirvana, his disciples proceeded to explain, in accordance with their own understanding and realization, the teachings which the Buddha expounded. The Dharma teachings which are the actual words of the Buddha are called sutras; the commentaries of the disciples are called sastras. In the Chinese edition of the Tripitaka, collections of both the sutras and the sastras can be found.
There is an extensive compilation of sutras and sastras in Buddhist literature. Many of the Tibetan monasteries and Buddhist institutes of advanced studies have included five types of sastras in their required curriculum. They are called the five major categories of sastras.
Five Major Categories of Sastras
The five major categories of sastras are five different types of commentaries, each of which is a system of its own.
The first type of sastra is called precepts, which deals primarily with regulations governing the conduct of monastics and laymen.
The second type of sastra is called Abhidharma which focuses on many subjects: among the subjects are creation, destruction and change within the universe, the condition of the microcosm, human physiology, mental phenomena, karmic cause and effect, reincarnation, meditative practice, and the nature and type of liberation.
In the area of mental phenomena, Buddhism provides a very detailed analysis of the human mind. Included are classifications of emotional states, the number of which are negative or positive, the relationship between different types of emotions, the circumstances under which the emotions arise or disappear, how they can be controlled, etc. Also included are the meditation practices of Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism.
The third type of sastra is called the Middle Way. Simply speaking, it refers to the view in the middle, in neither extreme. The core concept in the Middle Way is emptiness; the extreme views are existence and non-existence, eternalism and nihilism, etc. The Middle Way is one of Mahayana Buddhism’s most important sastras.
The fourth type of sastra is called logic, which is a very special and sophisticated form of dialectics. Its approach is similar to the major and minor premises in Western philosophy, but Buddhist logic covers a lot more fronts. A very comprehensive and rigorous logic, it should be studied by those with interest in this subject.
Logic is the same as reasoning. It is the study of reaching conclusions based on a series of logical steps.
In many Tibetan monasteries, it is common to see monastics engaged in debate. It is through debate that views are established.
The fifth type of sastra is called Ornament of Clear Realization, which deals primarily with the Mahayana Buddhist practice. What do we mean by practice? Although many people are very learned in literature and the arts, what constitutes cultural refinement is just knowledge. The problem is whether we can integrate this knowledge into our life. For example, a person can be proficient in Confucian philosophy and very well versed in the Analects and Di Zi Gui (Standards for Students); whether this knowledge can be applied to his or her life, however, requires special practice. In this sastra, the entire process of the Mahayana Buddhist practice is clearly laid out.
The following is a simple introduction to the worldview in Mahayana Abhidharma and to some of the concepts in the Middle Way.
REALISTS, IDEALISTS, ILLUSIONISTS
Western philosophy can be divided into two different schools of thought – idealists and realists. Buddhism is neither one nor the other, even though the teachings contain a great deal of both elements. Some of the more substantive views of the idealist school in the West are set forth, for instance, in Bertrand Russell’s discourse “Appearance and Reality,” and in the writings of George Berkeley, the prominent British empirical idealist. They claimed reality consists solely of sensory perceptions and that there is no material world apart from this reality. These concepts are similar to the Mind Only school in Buddhism. However, Berkeley in the end encountered a contradiction in his own argument. In his response to exponents of the realist school, he grudgingly handed the problem back to God, which rendered his position unacceptable.
The Mind Only tradition is relatively more important in Chinese Buddhism. When Xuanzang went to India to seek the Dharma, he spent most of his time studying at Nalanda University, the highest Buddhist institute of learning in India at the time. Courses were offered in Mind Only, Middle Way, and tantra. Xuanzang’s teacher was an accomplished master of the Mind Only school. As a result, Xuanzang received more of his training in the Mind Only tradition, and mainly propagated this school of thought upon returning to China.
Although some of the views of the Mind Only school are similar to the idealists, the underlying concepts in Buddhism and the idealist school are not the same. If I must select a comparable name for Buddhism, it is “illusionist.”
Firstly, Buddhism teaches two types of truth -- relative truth and ultimate truth. The word “truth” is used in both cases to indicate they are both real.
What is real? As an example, all the appearances in a dream are not real to a person who is awake; however, they are very real to a person in the midst of a dream, just as the experiences in life are very real to a person during the day. Similarly, a practitioner and a non-practitioner see this world differently. However, each thinks the world he or she lives in is real.
According to the Buddha, the life that ordinary people live is real to them. Hence, ordinary people can only do what is right; they must not do what is wrong such as stealing, cheating, lying, taking life, etc. However, this reality is just relative reality, not absolute reality.
As an example, if we put a cobblestone on a table and examine it with our eyes, we only see a still object. From the standpoint of our eyes, there is motion in water and the clouds; there is no motion in a physical structure and a cobblestone. However, placed under a microscope, the situation is completely different. This apparent contradiction arises because the eye and microscope perceive things from a different level. The microscope is a sophisticated instrument which can see more clearly than the eye; accordingly we should conclude the finding under the microscope is more accurate. Nonetheless, in everyday life, we consider the stillness of objects we perceive with the eye to be true. In this relative reality, that which is perceived with the eye is relative truth; that which is perceived through the microscope is ultimate truth.
We should never rely too much on our senses because they are imperfect. The eye can only see the most superficial layer of the earth; we see light, but only a minute part of the spectrum. We hear sounds, but only ordinary sounds; we cannot distinguish between sound waves of higher or lower frequencies. Hence, we cannot conclude our sensory perceptions are absolutely real.
What about the discovery of Brownian motion under the microscope – is it real at the absolute level? Actually, there is always some wisdom more profound, an instrument more advanced and more sensitive. With the emergence of quantum mechanics, we find many of the theories in classical physics no longer work. All worldly knowledge is only valid on a relative level, not on an absolute level.
Many people have read the Heart Sutra and may even have recited it. According to the Heart Sutra, there is no eye, ear, nose, tongue, and body. Although in life no one would deny the existence of the eye, ear, etc., the ultimate conclusion in Buddhism is that all phenomena are illusory. We just have not realized it yet.
If we examine the world, we find the earth is travelling at a speed of 29.79 kilometers a second; yet in our lifetime, we are not in the least bit aware of it. What the sutras stated over two thousand years ago about the microcosm and what science has newly discovered are in agreement – all phenomena arise and cease in an instant. Whatever is newly born is instantly annihilated.
If this is the case, why do we not see the process of arising and ceasing? The reason is because it is happening so quickly we are not aware of it. Students of philosophy should find the concepts of motion and arising-ceasing easy to accept.
The term used in the sutras is “arising-ceasing”; the term used in physics is “motion.” Which of these terms is more precise? I personally think the Buddhist term “arising-ceasing” is more precise.
In observing the movement of electrons from the standpoint of physics, we mistakenly believe that if an electron starts out in the east, moves south, west, north in that order, and then back to its starting point, it is the same electron; hence we call this “motion.” However, in observing the movement of electrons from the standpoint of Buddhism, we discover that when an electron appears to be revolving around the nucleus of an atom, the electron occupying the first degree of the orbit is already destroyed in its place; occupying the second degree up to three hundred sixty degrees of the orbit are countless electrons, all newly arisen and instantly destroyed in their place; these different electrons form the illusion of an orbit.
In the same way, the world we see actually exists only in an infinitesimal fraction of a second (one out of ten thousand parts of a second, possibly less). The world in the instant before has already disappeared; the world in the future has yet to come. Nonetheless, we believe the world exists in a continuum, permanently without change. This conclusion is the result of our deluded mind.
There is a very convenient example in modern technology. The old motion picture film is actually made up of many reversal films; the first picture film has no connection whatsoever with the second picture film, but due to the speed at which they are rolled out (twenty-four films per second), we do not notice where one picture ends and the next begins. We mistakenly think when a person in an image is walking and talking, it is one continuous motion; we do not expect the connecting images to be formed by many separate films. An illusion is produced because our eye cannot perceive matter of a subtle nature. For scientists and philosophers, this logic should be easy to follow.
Thus, Buddhism believes all phenomena which arise and cease due to causes and conditions are like a dream, like magic, like a water bubble, like shadow. They are all unreal and illusory.
However, from the standpoint of relative truth, if we want to survive and live a normal life, we need the illusion. If this illusion is shattered, the basis of our survival and our beliefs will collapse.
How do we prove the world is an illusion? A hundred years ago, our ancestors relied entirely on logic to make deductions and come to a conclusion. Today, apart from logic, we can also rely on technology to substantiate the conclusion that all phenomena are ultimately empty.
Perhaps one might ask how matter can be ultimately empty when the more it is divided, the more matter is produced.
In philosophy and mathematics, we refer to things sometimes as infinitely large or infinitely small. However, this is an incorrect concept, since an infinitely small particle simply doesn’t exist in this world. For instance, a minute can be divided into sixty seconds; a second can be divided into one hundred even smaller units; if we continue in this way, we end up with something we call infinitely small.
In fact, if a second can be divided indefinitely, time will stop permanently on that second, unable to get past it. Yet we all know, in the objective world, there is a time limit to a second. The two obviously contradict each other.
Similarly, if a molecule or electron can be divided indefinitely, then a building and a grain of rice will be equal in weight and mass. However, we know from experience a grain of rice hardly carries any weight or mass because it is comprised of very few molecules and atoms; a building, on the other hand, is massive and heavy because it is made up of a lot of molecules and atoms.
Why is there a contradiction? This is because there is a gap between our subjective consciousness and objective reality.
In other words, even though in concept a second can be divided into ten thousand units, or a hundred thousand units, etc., all of it is illusory. Just like a high-speed electric fan, we do not see the individual blades, only the circular form as a whole. Or a glass we drink from, we do not see the multitude of molecules and atoms which comprise it, or the many electrons which revolve around the nucleus of each atom. Our eye perception is very limited; we cannot see the true reality of phenomena, only the illusion.
APPLYING ILLUSIONIST CONCEPT TO LIFE
Transcending the Mundane World
What does the concept of illusion have to do with our life in this world? How do we make use of it?
Firstly, even though we now know the world is an illusion, it is a very real world from the standpoint of our eye, ear, nose, tongue, and body. Because of this relative reality, we have to be responsible to our society, family, and company employees; we need to build a career and provide for our family. We have to abstain from destroying and harming life, from stealing and cheating, etc. Knowing everything to be illusory, we must nonetheless distinguish between right and wrong, good and evil.
The Buddha exhorted us to live by the rules in this world, to discern between good and evil, and to be mindful of cause and effect.
Secondly, since we know everything is illusory, we are all in the midst of a dream. The difference is our dreams at night are generally short, whereas our dream in this world of samsara is comparatively long. When we reach the end of our lives and look back, we will find all the circumstances in life are as illusory and unreal as the dream we had the previous night. Hence, we should not grow overly attached to wealth, to relationships, etc. – things we think we can be attached to.
Of course, lay people do not have to abstain from desire. The Buddha did not believe it is wrong to have a normal relationship, so long as it does not bring harm to oneself. However, we should understand relationships are also illusory like a dream; we should not just plunge ourselves unduly into a relationship – without proper judgment, we only end up in misery.
A lot of lay people feel unbearable pain when they encounter problems in personal relationships mainly because of their over attachment.
The Buddha instructed us to follow the middle way, to avoid extreme measures in any situation. We need not be resentful, disgusted, or pessimistic in life; but we should not see life as perfect either. Wealth and relationships are neither good nor bad on their own; whether they become good or bad depend on the mind. If we look upon wealth, relationships, and other worldly pursuits with equanimity, our life will be that much happier.
The key to building happiness in life is our practice. Just as with an athlete who must train very hard in order to win the championship, or with a patient who must follow the doctor’s prescription in order to recover. If we practice according to the Buddha’s teachings, we can learn to deal with emotional negativities by not becoming despondent from excessive attachment nor desperate from overwhelming stress. In so doing, we can succeed in our work or business, and be very happy and carefree at the same time. In Buddhism, and in particular Ch’an, the expression “let go” is often used to describe this state of mind.
To let go does not mean to abandon. Letting go of our work is not the same as abandoning our work; letting go of wealth is not the same as rejecting wealth. To abandon is a form of escape; to let go is a method for confronting problems.
The world is not as beautiful as we think; life is filled with disappointments. If we expect too much from this world and from life, if we are not prepared for impending difficulties, we will just be left to face death, illness, bankruptcy, loss of reputation, etc. with apprehension. It will be hard for us to accept what happens at that time; even a minor problem can lead us to take our own lives.
During the Vietnam War, an admiral in the US navy, James Stockdale, was captured. His observations in prison led him to conclude: “The optimists were the first to die. They were the ones who blindly believed everything would work out. They always said, ‘We will be freed by Christmas!’ When it was Christmas and they were not freed yet, they would say, ‘We will definitely be out of here by Easter.’ When it was Easter and they were still in prison, they would say, ‘We will be freed by Thanksgiving.’ However, when Thanksgiving came and went, they were still around. Because of overly high expectations and harsh conditions in prison, they finally died broken-hearted.”
Actually, this is the case in all situations. We should neither be too pessimistic nor too optimistic in life. We should abide in the middle way, go with the flow, and understand all things are impermanent, like a dream or illusion. With the right view and attitude, we can be free from the grip or hold that wealth has on us. With money, we can be happy; without money, we can be equally carefree.
This is how the Buddhist teachings can be applied to life.
Practice to Attain Liberation
In our present society, everyone is under stress. How we resolve our stress is a pressing and serious question for study.
Although there are many methods in Buddhism, we will only discuss those methods that relate to concepts we have touched on.
Ordinarily, when we talk or go for a walk, our mind is filled with a whole range of distractions. When we cannot concentrate or stay focused, it is difficult for wisdom to arise. It is only after subduing the mind, when it becomes clearer and sharper, that our thinking is more focused and more effective in problem solving. This includes problems connected with running a business and earning money.
Actually, many of the exciting discoveries made by scientists and philosophers in the past came during meditation and in their dreams. In no case did it happen when the mind was agitated or in states of discursiveness.
How do we calm the mind? The specific methods are as follows:
Firstly, choose a time when all our tasks are completed; close the doors and windows, and turn off phones and other sources of distraction; then rest in the sevenfold meditation posture of Vairochana.
Essential Points of the Body – Meditation Posture
The seven essential points are:
1. The legs in a cross-legged position.
2. The hands in the gesture of meditation (dhyāna mudrā) – palms facing up, the right hand placed on top of the left, thumbs touching each other – rest hands four fingers below the navel.
3. The upper arms away from the body.
4. The body straight, the posture proper -- without leaning left, right, front, or back.
5. The head bent slightly forward.
6. The eyes slightly closed with the gaze directed toward the tip of the nose.
7. The tip of the tongue touching the palate -- breathe normally, neither too quickly nor slowly. This allows every part of the body to relax; it also calms the mind very quickly.
It is best to sit on a cushion when we meditate. The so-called meditation cushion should be higher in the back than in the front. If we sit on a soft sofa, our body will be uncomfortable and not relaxed.
Essential Points of Speech – Expelling Impure Chi
After sitting in meditation, the next step is to expel the impure chi or life-energy in our body.
1. Why do we need to expel the impure chi in our body?
Ordinarily, we are not aware of any connection between our breath and our thoughts; however, a true practitioner knows the two are closely connected.
Practitioners all know the posture, outer breath, and inner and secret chi circling inside the body are intimately linked. Just as we need to wash our bowl before eating dinner, a practitioner has to expel the chi associated with all his or her discursive thoughts accumulated during the day before practicing meditative concentration. When the impure chi is expelled, all of the discursive thoughts, negative and destructive emotions are also purged. In Buddhism, this meditative technique is known as visualization.
Visualization is a very effective method in meditative practice; it is also scientifically based. This technique can clearly change the relative structure of the left and right brain. Evidence shows that sadness and happiness are connected with the frontal lobe of the left and right brain. The left brain is responsible for happiness; the right brain is responsible for sadness. When the left brain is unusually active, our feeling of happiness increases accordingly. Scientists have discovered very high levels of activity in the outer layer of the left-sided frontal lobe during visualization. In other words, meditative practice can definitely lead to a state of happiness and well-being.
In general, we are used to associating power with matter and not with the mind. Let us not forget sometimes the power of the mind far surpasses that of matter.
2. How to expel chi?
Firstly, with the left hand, press your thumb against the base of the fourth finger (a blood vessel is located there); place all four fingers on the thumb; this is called a vajra fist; then press down on the artery in the left upper thigh next to the groin. Next, with the right hand, press your thumb against the base of the fourth finger; except for the forefinger, place all three fingers on the thumb; make a circle with the forefinger pointing up; then press the forefinger against the right nostril.
Expel chi from the left nostril by breathing out lightly, three times in succession. When doing so, visualize the following: let all the negative emotions produced during the day change into a black gaseous substance, just like the impurities emitted from the exhaust pipe of a diesel-powered vehicle, and let it be expelled from the left nostril.
Switching hands now, make a vajra fist with the right hand and press down on the artery in the right upper thigh next to the groin; make a circle with the left forefinger pointing up; then press the forefinger against the left nostril, and lightly expel chi from the right nostril three times in succession. Following this, make a vajra fist with the left and right hand at the same time; press down together on the artery in the left and right upper thigh next to the groin; and expel chi from both nostrils three times.
Focus on Breath
After completing the above, place your hands in the mudra of meditation and rest the hands four fingers below the navel. With eyes looking down, focus completely on your breath. Breathe normally, neither too quickly nor too slowly; then count your breath. Each time, count up to seven breaths; when you exhale and inhale, that constitutes one breath. When we have finished the first round, go back to one, and count again up to seven. We want to do three sets of seven breaths each, a total of twenty-one breaths altogether. Based on the experience of past practitioners, it is better to repeat sets of seven than to increase the count at one time to, for instance, fifteen, sixteen, or twenty, since it is difficult to maintain concentration at that level. Depending on how much time we have, we can decide how many sets we want to do. If we meditate for an hour and can maintain our focus entirely on counting the breath during that time, we will succeed in eliminating stress.
Why does this method work in reducing stress? When we place all our focus on the breath, our emotions become less disturbed. With concentration, there are no discursive thoughts. There are no thoughts of family, relationships, work, etc., no thoughts of the past, the future, or the present. If during this hour or half-hour, we can loosen up completely, we will enter a state of great tranquility. In this state, all our anxieties, afflictive emotions, and stress will be eliminated. This may last only a minute or so initially, but it should increase in time to two, five, ten minutes or more. The benefit to us is substantial if we can meditate at least twenty minutes every day.
Like a Dream
After the mind is settled, we should contemplate: what exactly am I so attached to or concerned with every single hour of the day? Using the logic explained earlier, we finally come to the conclusion that all phenomena are illusory. Once we have developed certainty in this view, and have a strong sense that “life is indeed a dream,” do not reflect on the question any more. Just stop the contemplation right away and abide in this realization for one, five, or ten minutes. We may have this feeling for only a minute or so at the beginning. That is not a problem; with repeated contemplation, realization, and abiding over half an hour or an hour, the practice will gradually change the way we perceive things, and reduce our stress.
Meditating on illusion and counting the breath are both effective ways of reducing stress. We can practice these methods even if we choose not to learn the Dharma. Although they are Buddhist practices, there is no religious component in the two methods. Just as yoga is neither Hindu nor Buddhist, the above practices need not be associated with Buddhism, and can be taken up strictly for health reasons.
The Best Time to Meditate
Before we retire in the evening, the stress we have accumulated over the day due to complex personal relationships and social activities is at its peak. At this time, if we can use these methods to alleviate our stress, we will be able to sleep soundly through the night.
Also, we can wake up an hour earlier in the morning and, after freshening up, meditate for an hour, half an hour, or even twenty minutes. By adjusting our mindset before going to work, the mind can stay calm throughout the day, which is certainly a plus for whatever we need to do that day.
Meditation practice is a commitment requiring time and effort. We should not be discouraged by a few unproductive sessions and give up. Like all things, we need to build the practice step by step. Without putting in the time, we cannot succeed.