Sunday, December 17, 2006

Dharma Learning, Thinking, and Practicing

Today is the monthly Buddhist mantra chanting session for the Tampa Buddhist group of which my wife is a member. It is usually held at Brother Brian and Sister Connie’s house from 10.00 am to noon, followed by a vegetarian lunch. However, the group decided to have a post-lunch Dharma talk given by Brother Shieh, who came all the way from Orlando with his wife and son to share his Dharma learning with the group. I later learned that Brother Shieh was to continue his journey to Gainesville to deliver another Dharma talk in the evening, which speaks volume of his readiness to spread the Buddha teaching the best way he could. We would also soon learn that his enthusiasm for the subject matter is contagious, infusing perhaps everyone (at least from I can discern from my vantage position, being seated with my back against the wall) with a similar degree of fervor.

Our appetite satiated, the eager group gathered around Brother Shieh, who sat cross-legged comfortably and faced the group. Brother Shieh elected to adopt a bi-lingual delivery: Mandarin and English, since they are some among the group who are not well-versed in Mandarin. Also, Brother Shieh wanted to polish up his English delivery as several times in the past he has appeared before an English-speaking audience.

This is the second time I have attended a Dharma talk by Brother Shieh and this time was no difference: the same earnest self, captivating our attention with his down-to-earth explanation, practical analogies, probing questions, enthralling story telling style sprinkled with a judicious dose of humor, though he may not have realized it.

I hope I could do justice to Brother Shieh’s masterful coverage, both in depth and in breadth, spanning several aspects of the Buddha’s lessons, both from the transcription of my notes and my memory of the emphases. Any perceived inadequacy is a reflection of my limited understanding of both the Buddha teaching and scriptures, and their precepts.

While Brother Shieh’s delivery was coherent, inter-weaving a tapestry of the different lessons that comprise the Buddha teaching, here I would have to focus on the gist in point form in keeping with a blog format lest it become unwieldy.

1) All occurrences/births and terminations/deaths in earthly matters arise/depend from/on conditions. Therefore the Buddha teaches us not to be attached to the conditions, nor to the occurrences and terminations. As the 6th Chan Master, Venerable Huai Neng explained, attachment leads to affliction while detachment becomes a matter of wisdom. While affliction is often likened to wisdom, they are not the same; instead they can be viewed as two sides of our palm, which one facing up depends on our thoughts/mental response. In other words, by flipping our thoughts around, afflictions can be replaced by wisdom. For instance, we feel irritated when the air-conditioner is malfunctioning, a mental response brought about by the environment that is beyond our control. However, if we think again we would realize that it’s a temporary condition and also we could help ourselves to a cup of cold water. Then the sweltering heat would not bother us anymore.

2) Everything in life is Dharma teaching, provided we can learn from the experience and change our mental outlook for the better because of it. For example, somebody fetches us a cup of coffee and we complain that it’s too hot after taking it. So next time we would ask first, or perhaps take a very small sip first. [This reminds me of the story told by Venerable Huai Zheng during one of his Dharma lecture series on the Consciousness Only School (Wei Shi). A man always takes a particular way to work. One day while walking the same route he falls into a hole, which he has not realized before. The next day, he walks the same route again, apparently forgetting his mishap yesterday, and falls into the same route. The third day, he vaguely remembers the accident but decides to take the same way. The same result ensues. From then on he avoids the route altogether and takes a different one. So the first three occurrences are merely habitual while those after are the Dharma teaching at work.]

3) The Buddha teaching can only manifest when the inner self understands and is congruent with the teaching. This transformation presupposes that we understand our inner self and are able to change it in accordance with the Buddha teaching. This actualization requires the triple elements of learning, thinking, and practicing. Without the ability to think or not exercising our faculty to think, we cannot and would not be able to understand the Buddha teaching. And it has to be the right thinking or right view as well, one of the Eight Noble Paths and arguably the most important. A jaundiced view breeds more of the same in a vicious cycle and is the source of ignorance. On the other hand, a right view spawns new views that would lead to a purification of the mind.

4) We must especially guard against the apparent dichotomy between learning the Buddha teaching in abstract terms and when actually encountering the situation in real life that most of us tend to develop naturally. The former can misguide us into a false sense of enlightenment while we become illusionary in the face of reality. Brother Shieh always takes to heart the above tendency as a caution when conducting himself in life.

At this point I think I’ve reached the right length for a blog stuffed with enough food for thought for several nights. As Brother Shieh has expounded, we have to think for ourselves and reflect on the happenings so that we could draw Buddha lessons from each of them. Each of us has been able to accomplish what we set out to do primarily because we do not have second thoughts about it. The same applies to learning the Buddha way. We must place Dharma learning as a priority.

Stay tuned for the next installment of what Brother Shieh has imparted as I see it.

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