Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The Essence of Dharma: Compassion and Wisdom

Tuesday, i.e., yesterday, arrived with anticipation. And when it’s all said and done, it became a night of fulfillment and blessing, not only for those who turned up for the occasion at our home, but hopefully for all sentient beings as well.

Our home was graced by Venerable Hwei Chen last eveing, who has flown in from Taiwan to attend his commencement after completing the requirements toward a doctoral degree, accompanied by his mother. Many of our Buddhist friends made this possible: Sister Yu Huei picking up Shifu and his entourage from the Tampa International Airport, Sister Connie cooking vegetarian dishes, with others chipping in with their delicacies, and my wife and our S setting up the venue (me and our D were at work and school, respectively).

We first met Venerable Hwei Chen more than two years ago when we attended his Dharma talk held at USF. Then our paths crossed a few more times, one of which led to a Releasing Life outing at Clearwater, a year ago almost to the day, it being on May 7, 2006. I know that because I managed to locate photographic proof as shown to the right, right under the same date stamp in my digital album kept on my PC. How uncanny.

It was most opportune that the Tampa Buddhist Group (an informal gathering of like-minded Buddhist practitioners living in the Tampa area) was able to arrange Tampa to be the Florida landing point for Venerable Hwei Chen’s trip and above all, has kindly agreed to have our new home as the venue for his Dharma talk.

After partaking of the sumptuous vegetarian dinner (the main force behind it all, Connie, seen here standing next to my wife, both basking in the culinary offerings that would soon delight our taste buds. As several of the attendees remarked, the color, the aroma, and the taste, the three elements that a dish is judged by, were all present), Venerable Hwei Chen first conducted a blessing ceremony for our new home with sutra chanting by the attendees. Thus blessed, we then seated ourselves to listen to the Dharma talk by Venerable Hwei Chen, under the benevolent gaze of the image of Buddha hung high on the wall behind him.

Venerable Hwei Chen started off by first relating a remark that his colleague at Florida International University (FIU) where he was a guest lecturer, made: US needs Dharma. It seems that with all the technological advancements that cater to their material needs, people here are still in need of spiritual guidance, and in search of a moral compass for overall wellbeing, the attainment of which is fraught with vexations and afflictions.

Venerable Hwei Chen leading the blessing ceremony.

Citing the senseless killing at the Virginia Tech campus, which was precipitated by its own unique set of causes and effects, and conditions, Venerable Hwei Chen proffered the two keystone elements of Buddhism that would help ameliorate this aberrant manifestation of inhumane and inhuman behavior: compassion and wisdom.

These two character traits that everyone should cultivate also constitute the spirit of Dharma, forming its core that we all can relate to in terms of understanding. But practicing and actualizing them could prove formidable. In this respect, Venerable Hwei Chen would like to suggest two ways for each that could facilitate embracing, internalizing, and infusing them into our daily life. After all we are all creatures of habits, and naturally the right ways would imply cultivating good habits.

Venerable Hwei Chen enthralling an attentive audience with his ensemble of
personal anecdotes that illustrate the application of the teachings of Buddha.

On compassion, Venerable Hwei Chen recounted an encounter in a pet shop that affected him deeply. It was a scene we are all familiar with: the various animals, in cages/tanks, on display, and pegged at different prices. A rare pedigree could cost a bundle while some fish can be had for pocket change. Each is a life by itself, and in Buddhism, is considered equal and imbued with Buddha nature, intrinsically. In the material world, we are all being commoditized in a hierarchy of values, some lives being viewed as more “precious” than the others.

The above preamble is aimed at introducing one way to instill compassion: be a vegetarian. A central belief in Buddhism is rebirth (or samsara in the universal sense). The type of rebirth that arises at the end of one’s life is conditioned by the karmas (actions of body, speech and mind) of the previous life; good karmas will yield a happier rebirth, bad karmas will produce one which is more unhappy, grouped into six planes or realms. The Six realms are the six possible states of rebirth: a deva (the realm of bliss and pride, or the god-likes to distinguish them from the omniscient God in monotheistic religions and also from the next realm), an asura (the realm of the demigods), a human being (the realm of the homo sapiens), an animal (the realm of the nonhuman animals), a hungry ghost (the sentient beings who are unable to enjoy food or drink), or a being in Naraka (hell). [excerpted and recombined from the Wikipedia article, here and here.]

In other words, in our past lives we could be in any of these realms and, hence, be related to a “reincarnated” being in the present life in any of these realms, including animals. Viewed from that perspective, the chance of consuming an erstwhile relative does not seem remote as one would think.

Furthermore, we should always strive to maintain good relation with all sentient beings, regardless of what realm they are presently at. And that is easier to manage if we were vegetarians to begin with. Compared to vegetarians, meat eaters tend to be easily provoked, and less tolerant of dissenting views (Once upon a time I was too guilty of the same propensities. But advancing age is playing the role of being a vegetarian, you know, getting mellow with age. But I’m cutting down on my meat consumption and look forward to be a practicing vegetarian, full-time, in the not too distant future. As they say, habits die hard, especially the bad ones, I hasten to add.)

The second way to becoming a compassionate person is to speak no evil, only kind words. More people are hurt by mere words than resulting from physical action. And it takes much less efforts to deliver the former, and hence harder to restrain. If look could kill, word can totally annihilate. Conversely, word can heal too. And we should focus on the latter positive aspect next time we feel like launching a tirade.

In a nutshell, becoming a vegetarian and speaking no evil are the manifestation of compassion. And if we can do the latter beyond our circle of friends and acquaintances to strangers, that will be the epitome. Come to think of it, if we can practice compassion on those immediately around us, what so difficult about doing the same for others twice or even umpteen times removed?

Turning to wisdom, Venerable Hwei Chen let us in on one sure way to attain wisdom: become selfless. Who is “I”? The body? The Mind? Or is there a separate entity other than the body and the mind? Venerable Hwei Chen tried to provoke us into some kind of response. Essentially, to become selfless is to let go. We need to always contemplate, introspect, and ruminate on selflessness, on letting go, and on helping and facilitating others.

This introspection and reflection on being selfless is easier said then done, we have to acknowledge. So Venerable Hwei Chen recommends the second and easier way: chanting Buddha’s name. If you think about it, the flip side of chanting Buddha’s name is to bring us out of our consciousness by focusing on the chanting. So the two ways are mutually reinforcing, paving the way toward wisdom.

Buddhism values practice, and it is through constant practice that we can break out of our habits, our mold. Like shooting hoops, an analogy used by Venerable Hwei Chen, we can become compassionate and wise by infusing the four ways into our daily life, thereby transforming our daily grind into a life of compassion and wisdom just like shooting more hoops would likewise improve our accuracy.

Thus fortified, I approached my bedtime with clarity and equanimity. And today, I successfully negotiated my fork away from the meaty components of the dinner dishes (both breakfast and lunch were the vegetarian foods remained from yesterday). The not too distant future that I speculated above may just arrive sooner than I thought.

And if you still have doubts/reservations/qualms/skepticism regarding the practice of compassion and wisdom, I would like to leave these words by Chan Master Sheng Yen with you, taken from a pocket-sized pamphlet entitled Wake Yourself Up: Finding Inner Peace, which Sister Nancy brought last night:

With compassion, one has no enemy; with wisdom, one has no vexation.”


Venerable Hwei Chen interacting with some of the attendees after the Dharma Talk.

Venerable Hwei Chen catching up on some earthly matters, using the same tools just like us.

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