Sometimes we tend to have expectations for our students or our children, and mostly these expectations are from our own points of view. Of course the students and children cannot have the level of maturity as adults and are unable to meet the expectations. Similarly, people often have such demands in practice. Having read a lot of books on Buddhism and considering themselves knowledgeable, they would think the levels of others are too “low” since those others only go to temples for prostration or eat vegetarian meals only during the lunar New Year’s festival. They think better of themselves and disrespect those others or even criticize their practice as not truly studying Buddhism. But they do not know that when they are measured by others, some of their own behaviors are also not in accord with Buddhist teachings, and those who are “highly achieved” in practice may see them as “insignificant”.
When we measure others with our own yardsticks, others will also measure us with theirs. Therefore, it is necessary to point out that sincerity or intention is more important. If people have the desire to study and practice, which means they are willing to improve themselves, then they have already begun to practice. There is a saying in Buddhism that all words and methods which lead us towards goodness is Dharma.
How each person will improve after studying Buddhism is dependent upon each individual’s situation. Some are very diligent in practice, others may not be. Before I became a monk, I started to learn about Buddhism with a few friends at the same time. When I first read the Dharma books, it was more or less out of curiosity. As my reading continued, I found it so rich and wonderful that naturally I began to proactively searching for more Dharma books to read, from ”Buddhist Beginner’s Handbook” to “Biography of the Buddha”. Later on I began to study closely with Venerable Zhu Mo and read his “Lectures on the Sutras of the Universal Door of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva.” Reading so many miraculous stories about the great compassion of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, the feeling of joy rose in me. When I read “The Sutra on the Fundamental Vows of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva”, seeing that Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva has such great vows, the feeling of admiration also grew in me. After that, I became more deeply involved in Dharma study. But some people found it enough after merely browsing the “Buddhist Beginner’s Handbook”.
The causes and conditions of each individual in Buddhist study are not the same, and the pace of their study will be different. Some have interest in deepening their understanding. Others may feel satisfied on the surface. And still others feel that the Dharma is so profound that it would be like returning empty-handed from the mountain of treasure if they did not do their utmost to understand it. Even if they may not be able to understand it fully, knowing that their karmic root of virtue and wisdom are not sufficient, still the desire to further study has arisen in their mind.
Having had some understanding of the Dharma, some are able to directly apply it in their daily lives and often reflect whether their behaviors are in accord with the teachings. If they find some areas that are not in harmony with the Dharma, they try to correct or improve their conduct. It is the same with Chan practice. After learning the method, some can quickly apply the method; others stay at a certain stage for a long time. Take the method of counting breath as an example. Some are unable to do it well, but others can count easily from the very beginning of their practice yet get stuck after a period of time. Of course, some students practice steadily from the very beginning steps. They can enter the next level of depth naturally and know clearly in each stage how to apply the method and proceed.
Therefore, we need to know that in practice, everyone’s path and pace are different. Since the conditions are different, the progress in practice is not going to be the same. Do not encourage the thinking that since you have made some progress and you are on a “higher” level than others that you would measure others with your own yardstick. If you do so, not only it is harmful to others, it will hinder your own practice. It will create a mindset of imbalance, causing unnecessary trouble for yourself and others. Perhaps those whose profession is teaching are more aware of this — What you demand of your students, they may not be able to achieve. Therefore the teachers should first learn about the qualities and conditions of their students, and then help them accordingly with the hope that students will improve themselves. How much a student can improve depends on their internal conditions. The students must have the ability of inner reflection and awareness. Otherwise, no matter how the teacher pushes, the result cannot be as great as expected.
For instance, someone has a weak physical condition. To help this person become strong, is it useful to constantly feed this person vitamins or have this person exercise intensively? In many situations, others’ help is useless. The root cause must be treated from within. From the perspective of Chinese medicine, our internal organs are imperfect and problems of some organs are rather critical and can affect the operation of other parts of the body. So, treatment of the body must begin from there. Take a stomach problem as an example. If the digestive system has a problem, it will affect the absorption of nutrition, and other parts of the body will not receive what they need. So the stomach and intestines must be taken care of first, allowing proper nutrition absorption. Otherwise, it is useless to fill the body with various nutrients.
It is the same with the mind. Some people experience more vexations which may become obstacles for their practice. It is easily noticeable, for instance, if greed is strong, one can use the method of contemplating impurity. When one feels strong hatred, it is more apparent and one can use the method of “Metta” practice. The feeling of strong doubt or deluded thinking is very difficult to be perceived. It does not mean that people who have strong doubt tendencies are not intelligent. It is just that they may encounter obstacles in the learning of the Dharma.
In general everyone has some degree of ability to learn. However, can the learned knowledge be transformed into wisdom? With the same information or Dharma book, some see it and benefit from it immediately by applying their understanding towards the purification of their mind. Having had a good grasp of the Dharma, they can see the wisdom from any book or from the transformative effects of any experience. On the other hand, it may not have much of impact to someone even though they read Dharma everyday. This is due to the vexations that hinder one’s practice.
(Teachings during retreat at Ipoh, Malaysia, Originally published in Chinese by Fa Lu Yuen Publications, 1998)