Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Diamond Sutra: A Brief Encounter

The 2007 Thanksgiving holidays are now part of history, for most people that is. But mine would last for one more day, the following Monday, so that we could attend the Dharma talk by Ven. Jian Hu under the aegis of Middle Way Buddhist Association and held at its Pinellas Park venue. This is a return visit by Ven. Jian Hu since his first visit here in July. Conducted in Mandarin, the Dharma talk was scheduled from 9.30am to noon.

We left home just after 8.00am, joining the morning commute toward downtown. The usual traffic congestion only slackened after we were on the I-275 Bridge over the Bay. We reached our destination just before 9.00am, being the first to arrive. Being early birds have its advantages, for we got to savor the blooming flowers, the scenic landscape that surrounds the neighborhood, and the quiet moment save for the lone eagle soaring in the sky above us.

Sights and, well, more sights around the venue.

Then the attendees started to show up and the Dharma talk soon got underway as scheduled. Ven. Jian Hu chose to speak on the Diamond Sutra, one of the most profound Buddhist scriptures. Written in seamless prose, the Diamond Sutra is a favorite text for recitation. More important, the Diamond sutra is a unique text the understanding of which opens the gate to Buddhist wisdom that can be applied in our daily life.

Divided into 32 chapters, the seeming repetitions therein are a consequence of our coarse mind, misconstruing the need for detailed elaboration to ease understanding. The dichotomy into an over-arching theme and various differentiated sub-themes is analogous to our mastering of arithmetics where the rule of addition forms the core algorithm and the subtraction, multiplication, and division follow suit, being the derivatives of the former and hence forming the differentiated products.

The first chapter admonishes us to take care of everyday life, and not to neglect any matter because it is simple. It highlights the importance of practicing, and cultivating a mind of equality, just like the Buddha going about his business of holding the alms bowl, going from house to house in no particular order, for a simple meal, and returning to his residence, cleaning himself, and meditating. All done with mindfulness, focusing on the present and now, the stillness in the mind secure. The message: do the thing, then return to the original ground, mind serene and without discrimination. No attachment, none before, none now, and none in the future.

For lay followers like us, however, meal time can be a challenge as our mind is fixated on choice, often agonizing over which menu to select for the day. Similarly, it seldom rains in Southern California (or never as the song goes), and most people are so used to this phenomenon that they find it hard to deal with the rain when it comes, often lamenting and declaring the day ruined. Unlike Taiwan where precipitation can occur every other day and occur unannounced, the local people are prepared for this eventuality by bringing along an umbrella with them whenever they go outdoor. When the rain comes, open the umbrella. When sunshine returns, tuck the umbrella. No hassle, no bother.

This is the way of no discrimination, or Wu Wei. The mind is the source of all worries, and all troubles. All natural phenomena are transitory, just accept them as they come to pass, no thought arising.

The other way to handle matters is to cultivate appreciation. When the boss hands you a tough assignment, do not fret. Instead, appreciate the opportunity to grow, to learn.

Ven. Jian Hu then related the story of Subhuti, a disciple of the Buddha who looked for wealthy hosts in his alms round. While this may seem as a discriminating act, he did have a purpose. He wanted to induce these wealthy people into giving thereby gaining meritorious rewards for themselves. On the other hand, the rewards will be even more when we help those in dire needs and are destitute. However, the greatest reward will accrue if we harbor no expectations when giving.

The second chapter deals with making great vows to attain the Bodhi mind. Instead of making personal vows that are confined to our family circle like education/career goals for children, why not make great vows, for enlightenment, for nirvana?

To do that, we need to tame our mind. But where do we anchor our mind? On our children? On earthly matters? So doing does not guarantee liberation, as long as our mind is narrowly confined. We need to hop out of this attachment to the daily grind. It's not apathy, but seeing the bigger picture.

Ideally, we should set our mind on the triple learning of Precepts, Concentration, and Wisdom. But this is beyond us most of the time. But all is not lost as there are different paths we can embark on and tread on one that is compatible with our natural endowments, one that evokes a sense of synchronicity, a congruence both in time and in substance.

Regardless, foremost in our mind should be the emphasis that we are to tame the mind, and not the environment. In this respect, the Diamond Sutra emphasizes reiteration on constant practice in its approach, progressively dishing out in simpler terms the gems of Buddhist wisdom.

Oftentimes our vexation can be traced to our reluctance to accept reality, i.e, we eschew suchness, the reality that thing is as it is, or as is. This is not the same as fatalism, as we are enjoined to take care of matters as they arise through circumspection, with a discerning mind, and most of all, with compassion. As we embrace suchness, we can see with clarity karma at work, and subscribe to the notion of dependent origination and the principle of causality. All these will help ease us into a frame of mind that would treat any action of enmity, often the source of distress, with equanimity, and loving kindness.

The third chapter is making vows to help all sentient beings to be enlightened. We can all facilitate the attainment of such vows by striving for the six perfections (Paramitas) one of which is charitable giving.

The merits accruing from giving are generated by three considerations:

1) What is the state of mind? Do we expect something in return? Do we look at the ledger and act only when there is positive return? Or perhaps prompted by tax exemption given to gifts? The best approach is to practice no attachment, and to treat it as a simple act of giving, of helping others.

2) What is the object of the giving? Certainly if we are vegetarians who actualize compassion for animals, we would refrain from offering meat, and we should not worry about negative responses should they arise, which sometimes do either out of ignorance or habitual dietary pattern.

3) Who is the beneficiary? Certainly those who can least afford the gift, and the most needy. However, in a larger context, the ultimate target of giving is the triple gem of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. For they in turn are the most direct, the most extensive, and the most lasting media through which our liberation from suffering is realized. The world needs more places of worship, more Buddhist monks and nuns in order to reach a greater proportion of populace who are constrained by the lack of opportunity to seek an end to their suffering.

Due to time constraint, Ven. Jian Hu ended the Dharma talk by fielding some questions from the attendees before the whole class adjoined to a nice treat of vegetarian lunch courtesy of the volunteers.

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