What are the Right Buddhist Teachings?
by Venerable Yen Pei
Friends in the Dharma, today, I would like to discuss with you the following topic: what are the right Buddhist teachings? When we discuss this topic on what constitutes Buddhadhama (Buddhist teachigs), we would be reminded of the existence of “semblance Dharma”, which resembles Buddhist teachings, but is not exactly the same as Buddhist teachings. The co-existence of “semblance Dharma” within Buddhist teachings is an undeniable fact. Shakyamuni Buddha propagated His truth teachings more than two thousand five hundred years ago. Buddhadharma has been circulating in our world for a long time and over an extensive space, so the original Buddhadharma has, of course, undergone significant changes in order to adapt to different times and places. That is to say, some secular elements that do not accord with Buddhadharma have mingled into it. Therefore, there is a high content of “semblance Dharma” in the Buddhist teachings that are circulating in the world today.
If one wants to learn Buddhadharma, one has to be skilful at differentiating true Buddhadharma from “semblance Dharma”. Otherwise, one will mistake “semblance Dharma” for true Buddhadharma, then one will not gain benefits from Dharma-learning, but instead get one’s Dharma-body and wisdom-life jeopardised. It is thus crucial to be able to distinguish between true Buddhadharma and “semblance Dharma”. Yet, this is not simple. There must be a suitable standard to rely upon. Buddha had given us a very clear instruction on how to do so, that is, to verify all Buddhist teachings using the Three Universal Characteristics. Only those teachings that accord with these Three Universal Characteristics are right teachings of Buddhism.
Today, I shall talk to you on these “Three Universal Characteristics”, as this is a very important topic. Once you have right understanding of the “Three Universal Characteristics”, then regardless of whose teaching you listen to, you will be able to distinguish true Buddhadharma from “semblance Dharma” and you will not get deceived by people.
All over the world, there are many people who cannot distinguish true Buddhadharma from “semblance Dharma”. For example, two years ago, I was propagating Buddhadharma at a Buddhist monastery in Saigon, Vietnam, where a ceremony for “Repentance to Ten Thousand Buddhas” was held. Many Buddhists participated in the repentance ceremony. Everyone was chanting the repentance text, but among them, there was an elderly Vietnamese who was chanting by himself a scripture of a heterodox religion. Later on, he came to pay respects to me and asked me whether the religious text that he had chanted was good.
I said to him tactfully, “The religious text that you chanted is not a Buddhist scripture. It is not found in the Buddhist Canon. A true Buddhist absolutely will not recite this text. If you consider yourself to be a true Buddhist, then it is best that you recite orthodox Buddhist texts that Buddhists often recite, such as Diamond Discourse, Discourse on Amitabha Buddha, Chapter on the Universal Gate, Heart Discourse and so forth.”
After hearing what I had said, the elderly Vietnamese said to me very earnestly, “Venerable, your advice is indeed right. However, at the beginning, I did not know that this text does not contain Buddhist teachings. Ever since I embraced Buddhism, I have always been reciting this text. I have been doing this for more than thirty years. Now, it is abrupt and seems unjustified for me to give up reciting this text.”
Seeing that he is so persistent in continuing with his wrong way, I did not speak further with him on the topic. Think of this: if a person treads a wrong path and continues to advance forward, not knowing that he has gone astray, he seems to be pardonable. However, if he clearly knows that he has trodden the wrong path, but he is still reluctant to give up the path, then that will be very dangerous! Therefore, when we learn Buddhist teachings, it is best that we do not tread any wrong path from the beginning. On the path of learning Buddhadharma, if one takes a wrong step, it will not be easy to turn back, so I hope that all of you will pay special attention to this.
The Three Universal Characteristics refer to: impermanence, insubstantiality and tranquility of Nirvana. Many people know these three Buddhist terms, but very few people understand their meaning, so there is a need to explain these Three Universal Characteristics here.
We should examine all Buddhist teachings based on these three major principles of truth. Those teachings that accord with these three major teachings can be acknowledged as right teachings of Buddhism. Otherwise, we should not acknowledge them as Buddhist teachings at all. Every Buddhist should keep this important point firmly in mind and master it well, in order to advance onto the great path of Truth and gain the true benefits of Buddhadharma. In this way, one is unlikely to go astray onto the wrong paths.
By practising along the right path, of Buddhadharma, we will definitely be able to attain liberation from cyclic existence. The important of the Three Universal Characteristics in Dharma-learning is thus clear.
1. IMPERMANENCE OF ALL PHENOMENA
All things in the universe, from as big as the universe, down to as small as a nuclear particle, are changing endlessly in a state of flux. We absolutely cannot find anything that is permanently unchanging.
Why is everything impermanence? This is because all things, whether sentient or non-sentient, that arise will definitely cease to exist. Why? In fact, this is not a sudden change, but rather a gradual progression that is happening constantly. This is true not only of things over a long period of time. Even in a momentary instant, everything is undergoing change — arising and ceasing, arising and ceasing. There is a Buddhist saying, “What is once seen will not be seen again.” In the twinkling of an eye, whatever that we see still seems to be the same, but it has actually undergone multiple changes and no longer the same as before.
Philosophers of both the east and west had, in general, also talked about this truth of impermanence. For instance, the Chinese philosopher, Confucius (circa 551 B.C. – circa 479 B.C.), once stood on a riverbank and could not help lamenting when he saw the water rolling down the river. “The passage of time and constant flux of changing phenomena is just like this river, which is flowing away endlessly day and night.”
Heraclitus (circa 535 B.C. – circa 475 B.C.), a Greek philosopher, had said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.”
The first Greek philosopher, Thales of Miletus (circa 620 B.C. – circa 546 B.C.) also particularly liked to use water to explain the phenomena of change and flux in the universe. He said that change and flux occurring in all phenomena is not temporary, but forever taking place. It is thus clear that Buddha’s teaching on impermanence is indeed an unalterable truth.
Everything in the universe exists by virtue of a combination of the Four Great Elements, namely earth, water, fire and wind. All material things, from the beginning to end, exist due to mutual combination of the elements. They also cease to exist due to changes of the elements. There is absolutely no permanence at all throughout. This phenomenon of impermanence forms an illusory cycle of arising and cessation, without stopping for even a moment at all, just like the cyclic transformations that occur when water freezes into ice which then melts into water again. The principle involved is the same. This is true of the microscopic matter that is not discernible by the human eye.
For instance, the atoms and atomic nuclei discovered by scientists are extremely microscopic, yet there is still incessant motion within them. The “paramanu” (equivalent to what is called “atom” now) mentioned in Buddhadharma is also formed from causal conditions and thus subject to change. When its energy is exhausted it will cease to exist. This fact of impermanence accords with modern scientific theory.
However, in ancient India, there was a group heretics who held the view that the “paramanu” does not have ten-directional attributes, but is round and everlasting. When this entire world gets annihilated in the Final Age, the “paramanu” will still be dispersed in boundless space, as it exists forever without annihilation. This type of thinking is a bit similar to the Law of Conservation of Matter. However, Buddhadharma thoroughly refutes this kind of eternalistic thought. According to Buddhadharma, whatever that exists is definitely subject to arising and extinction. Whatever that is subject to arising and extinction will definitely undergo changes, so how could it be said to be eternal? Everything will cease to exist in the end. Moreover, when something first arises, the cause for extinction already lies latent in it. We may even say that the very moment of arising is the moment of extinction. Therefore, everything in the universe is constantly undergoing the process of formation and annihilation.
Every sentient life is continually evolving, just as the waves in an ocean never pause for a moment. This has already been proved by modern science. For instance, in every instant, new cells are formed in the human body to replace old or damaged cells. Modern science offers clear explanations for the evolution of life. Yet, the words of King Prasenajit in Surangama Discourse are unparalleled in their clear and thorough elucidation of this issue.
When King Prasenajit discussed this topic with Buddha, he was already sixty-two years old and of course, had deep realisation about life. Therefore, his exposition on the reality of life was very convincing indeed. After hearing this elucidation of King Prasenajit, you cannot but become highly vigilant towards the impermanence of life!
First of all, Buddha asked King Prasenajit, “Is this present body of yours already deteriorating gradually?”
The king replied honestly, “My body still looks strong, but actually, it has already started to age gradually. In the near future, this body will certainly continue to deteriorate and finally perish.”
Based on the king’s reply, Buddha asked further, “In fact, your body has not become thoroughly decrepit, so how do you know that it will perish in future?”
King Prasenajit replied, “Yes, this body of mine is not yet decrepit now. However, I have made careful observations and discovered that life is in a constant state of change and flux, with continual metabolism that never ceases, just like things get burnt into ashes and dissipate gradually. Therefore, I know that my body will definitely deteriorate and perish in future. It absolutely cannot maintain in this state forever.”
After hearing these words of King Prasenajit, Buddha asked again, “You are already old now, so how do your present looks compare with that during your childhood?”
The king replied in this way, “My present and past looks cannot be mentioned in the same breath. During my childhood, my skin was very tender, soft, smooth and lustrous, but now, I have aged gradually and my physiological structure has undergone tremendous changes. For example, my face has become very haggard and emaciated, with wrinkles very clearly visible. Half of my hair has already become white. My mental agility is not as good as before. Considering these conditions, I think that my life is most probably already near its end — death. How could my current state be compared with that when I was in the prime of life? I am not the only one who has such a feeling. Anybody who is advanced in age will feel the same way.”
Buddha said, “The changes in your physique and looks have not occurred within a short period of time, right?”
The king replied, “The changes in the body do not occur all of a sudden, but progress gradually in stages. With the seasonal changes and passage of time, before I know it, my body has slowly developed into this state. At the age of twenty, I was a strong and robust youth, but there had already been many changes in facial appearance compared to the time when I was ten years old. At the age of thirty, I was in the prime of life, but there were some signs of ageing compared to the time when I was twenty years old. Now, I am sixty-two years old. Compared to the time when I was fifty years old, I feel that I was much stronger at fifty than now. Yet, when I examine these changes carefully, I realise that they had not occurred over ten years, one month or a single day. Instead they are happening every minute, every second, every instant, in every thought-moment, never stopping at all. Therefore, I think that this life of mine will certainly come to an end in future.”
The evolution of sentient lives — arising and then passing away, as well as the impermanent changes in the non-sentient, material world, are realities of the world. None can deny this truth. If one thinks that the world exist forever, that is certainly an erroneous idea. No matter how we seek among the multitudinous things in the world, we cannot find anything that is real and eternal. Life is always advancing towards death, regardless of our wish. With each day that we live, we get closer to death.
Someone said, “At the beginning of life, everyone receives a lit candle. One does not know how long it is, but knows that with each day that one lives, the candle gets closer to its extinction by one day, until it is all burnt up.” This is the impermanence of life.
As the saying goes, “The seas will transform into mulberry fields while the mulberry fields transform into seas.” The occurrence of great changes with the elapse of time is a common phenomenon in our world. Therefore, Buddha’s teaching on impermanence is indeed a timeless truth.
If we can penetrate into the truth of impermanence of all phenomena, then we naturally will not cling to the world or this fragile life. In general, the fundamental reason for our attachment to this world is lack of understanding of the impermanence of all phenomena. Therefore, regardless of what we see, we would think that they are very good and wish to possess all of them. We seek to gain that which we have not yet acquired and retain that which we have already acquired. With such limitless desires, we thus experience endless suffering. Impermanence is the root source of suffering.
Venerable Yin Shun wrote in An Outline of the Buddhist Teachings: “All happiness and wellness is subject to continual change. One may have one’s wishes gratified, one may live in peace and comfort, yet one will not enjoy these conditions forever. They do not last long and will eventually deteriorate and cease. All compounded things, no matter how stable, will move in this direction. Whatever arises will definitely decline. Hence, we conclude that impermanence causes suffering.” We should earnestly seek a penetrating understanding of impermanence.
“Self” has the connotation of freedom. What is called “self” should have self-mastery and moreover, should also be able to control everything else. If such an entity with self-mastery and mastery over everything else really exist, then we should, of course, acknowledge the existence of “self”. However, in reality, such a “self” cannot be found at all. It is a perversion to regard “self” as existent when it actually does not.
Buddha taught us that everything, whether sentient beings or non-sentient objects, arise due to combinations of various interconnected conditions. Nothing can exist independent of such causal conditions. This is what is meant by “insubstantiality of all things”. All that we perceive before us now seem to exist and Buddhadharma does not deny their existence. Yet, all that exist are causally arisen and provisionally existent only. They do not have any substantial “self”. You could take anything for such an analysis and you will come to the conclusion that everything is devoid of self-nature.
Dependent Origination and insubstantiality form the basis of Buddha’s teachings. Shayakamuni attained Buddhahood by virtue of realising the truth of Dependent Origination. What exactly is the difference between Buddhist teachings and other religious teachings or secular philosophies? In general, other religious teachings and secular philosophies propound the existence of a real, unchanging and substantial self-entity for everything in the universe. They think that if such a real self-entity did not exist, all things in the universe would be inexplicable.
However, Buddha fundamentally negated the existence of such an entity and instead expounded the principle of Dependent Origination and “insubstantiality of all things” — everything exists by virtue of interconnected causal conditions. A Buddhist should earnestly grasp and understand this principle of Dependent Origination. Otherwise, he will not be able to achieve true understanding of Buddhist teachings. Moreover, we should seek a clear understanding of this Universal Characteristic — insubstantiality.
Next, I shall explain “insubstantiality” from two aspects, namely “insubstantiality of the person” and “insubstantiality of phenomena”.
2.1 INSUBSTANTIALITY OF THE PERSON
One always regards one’s life form as “self” and clings on to it persistently. Whatever that one does proceeds from “self” as the main consideration or with “self” as the focus. One would do whatever that is of benefit to oneself, but not something that is of no benefit to oneself. Moreover, one will protect oneself by all means. All the disputes and contention in the world are caused by the notion of “self”. Due to this self-concept, people wish to extend and enrich the “self”, for gaining mastery over everything and survival in the world. Therefore, the problems in the world proliferate and become increasingly tougher to be tackled. Little do we know that the more we work for the “self”, the more insatiable the “self” will become. Just as one has gained this, one immediately desires to acquire that. How one wishes that everything in the world belongs to oneself! People bustle here and there all day long. Why? The reason is none other than for the sake of oneself. The power of “self” is so great!
People toil hard for the sake of “self”. If “self” really exists, then all this hard work is, of course, worthwhile. However, the “self” cannot be found at all, so what exactly is everyone busy with?
How do we know that life is devoid of “self”? This is because life is formed from a combination of the Five Aggregates (forms, feelings, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness). None of these Five Aggregates can independently represent “self” at all. The individual aggregates are devoid of “self”. Even the life formed by combination of these Five Aggregates is also devoid of “self”.
The “self” should be an integral whole, but since a lifeform is a combination of causal conditions, it certainly does not qualify to be called a “self”.
The “self” should be eternal, but a lifeform is impermanent, so how could there be an eternal “self” within an impermanent life?
The “self” should have mastery and control over everything. However, a sentient lifeform, be it the physical body or mental spirit, does not possess such a function of mastery, so how could it be grasped as the “self”?
Buddha deeply understood the profound truth of “insubstantiality of the person”, so He specially expounded this truth to sentient beings. We should strive to gain deep understanding of this teaching on “insubstantiality of the person” that Buddha had imparted to us.
2.2 INSUBSTANTIALITY OF PHENOMENA
Everything that exists arises due to causal conditions. That which is causally arisen is devoid of a substantial self-nature and thus said to be “empty”. This is the insubstantiality of all phenomena. Take anything for observation and analysis. Its existence is not simple, but arises due to various causal conditions.
For instance, the flats that we live in are formed from bricks, tiles, wood, as well as through the construction activities of workers. We absolutely cannot find any real entity of flat, whether in the bricks, tiles, wood or construction process. A real entity cannot be found — this is what is meant by “emptiness”, which is also what is meant by “insubstantiality”. However, it does not mean that there is no flat. The flat that is causally arisen exists provisionally.
In general, people do not understand the provisional existence of their flat and its lack of substantial self-entity, so they become deeply attached to their flat, regarding it as a real and substantial property that they can occupy as their own possession forever. If the flat gets damaged or burnt down by a fire, they will be deeply grieved. Actually, this is due to the deluded thinking of people. All things are transient and illusory, yet why do people cling to them, thinking that they have substantial existence?
Sentient beings cling to things, thinking that they have real existence. Some people acknowledge the emptiness of “self”, but think that external phenomena exist. This is still a misconception and in the same way, they cling to external phenomena.
For instance, some people think that even though the lifeform, which arises due to a combination of the Five Aggregates, is devoid of “self”, but the constituent Five Aggregates cannot be said to be non-existent. If these aggregates also do not exist, then what is the basis for the formation of a lifeform? They acknowledge that a flat which is constructed from bricks, tiles and wood has no self-entity, but the constituent materials for constructing the flat cannot be said to be non-existent. If these do not exist, then whence comes the flat?
In Buddhism, this is called the misconception of “acknowledging the emptiness of self but grasping at the existence of phenomena”. In fact, not only “self” is “empty”. All phenomena are also “empty”. This is because all worldly and supramundane phenomena arise from combinations of various causal conditions. That is to say, there is not a single phenomenon that is not empty. It is said in Treatise on the Middle View, “Whatever is dependently arisen, I declare that to be emptiness.” It is further said in Twelve-Gate Treatise, “Whatever arises from causal conditions is devoid of self-nature.” Dependent Origination and insubstantiality form the fundamental tenets of Buddhist teachings.
The truth of insubstantiality of all things, is the most important principle in Buddhist teachings. “Insubstantiality” is the connecting bridge that enables one to progress from the impermanent world of cyclic existence to the supramundane tranquillity of Nirvana. If one does not understand this connection, one will not be able to link the mundane world of cyclic existence to the supramundane state of Nirvana.
In general, people get very troubled as they fail to understand how to transcend the mundane world of cyclic existence and attain the supramundane Nirvana. This is because they do not understand the truth of unsubstantiality. Everything, whether compounded or uncompounded, is “empty” and devoid of self-nature.
When we achieve understanding of the important point that all compounded and uncompounded things are “empty” and devoid of self-entity, we will naturally be able to unify the impermanent cyclic existence with the everlasting Nirvana. Therefore, the realisation of “insubstantiality” is most crucial. Sentient beings circulate in cyclic rebirths and cannot get liberated from the entanglement of suffering in the Three Kinds of Existence (realm of desires, realm of forms and realm of formlessness), because they regard things as really existent and cling to them. This is where the problem lies, if we realise the insubstantiality of all things, we naturally will not be besieged by suffering. We can then attain liberation and freedom.
3. TRANQUILLITY OF NIRVANA
Nirvana is the ultimate goal that a Buddhist aspires for and strives towards. It is only by attaining this ultimate goal that one accomplishes the purpose of becoming a Buddhist and learning Buddhadharma.
First of all, we need to ask ourselves: Why do we want to be Buddhist and learn Buddhadharma? This is because we experience and feel acutely the intense suffering of worldly existence. Therefore, we want to become Buddhists and learn Buddhadharma. There are, of course, multifarious problems in the world, yet the most serious problem is that of cyclic rebirths. Ordinary problems can be resolved using worldly methods, but the immense problems of life and death can be thoroughly eradicated only with Buddhadharma.
Buddhism is concerned with liberation from cyclic rebirths. This does not mean that one can live on forever without dying. Nor does it mean that one will gain a future, eternal life. Instead, the goal of Buddhism is to put an end to the tormenting suffering of cyclic rebirths, so that one will not experience them again in future, as well as enable one to be at ease even amidst the suffering of the present life.
This is the state of Nirvana, which one can attain by one’s own efforts in the present life. One does not have to wait till a future life for the attainment of Nirvana. Venerable Yin Shun wrote in An Outline of the Buddhist Teachings: “The self-realisation of liberation from rebirths can be accomplished either in the human world or the purelands. This ultimate liberation from cyclic existence is called Final Nirvana.”
In general, people do not understand the true meaning of “Nirvana” and wrongly think that “Nirvana” is the same as death, or that it is a state of neither suffering nor happiness. Actually, the basic meaning of “Nirvana” is liberation from cyclic rebirths. The word “Nirvana” literally means “blowing out” or “extinguishing”. It also connotes peace, happiness and freedom. Thus, Nirvana is the cessation of suffering and attainment of freedom, through extinguishing the fires of craving, ill will and delusion.
Some people also wrongly understand the statement: “Nirvana is a state of happiness with no suffering.” After a meal, if you ask them what Nirvana means, they would point at their stomachs and say, “This is Nirvana.” This is a misconception of Nirvana. The “Nirvana” taught by Buddha refers neither to death nor a full stomach.
In Contemporary Discussion on the Middle View, Chapter 3, Venerable Yin Shun gave a clear explanation of Nirvana: “The Nirvana taught by Buddha is a state transcending all that is chaotic, noisy and binding, to reach a state of liberation and freedom that is tranquil and peaceful. This state of liberation and freedom marks the consummation of full Enlightenment in Buddhism. Nirvana is rich in content — being liberated from cyclic rebirths, that are rooted in ignorance and delusion, to gain liberation and freedom is based upon wisdom. Nirvana is also described as “uncompounded”, “non-arising” (non-abiding, non-extinction). This is because Buddha described all that is worldly as compounded, that is, its basic nature is arising and cessation caused by delusion and intentional actions. Such arising and cessation is characterised by chaos, relativity and bondage. Once one has effected a breakthrough from such conditioned arising and cessation that is characterised by vexation, discrimination and bondage, one attains the state that is ineffable and indescribable, but provisionally called the unconditioned Nirvana with no arising and no extinction.”
Yet, what exactly is such a state of Nirvana like? It is indeed very hard to imagine or explain in words what Nirvana is. One who has not attained Nirvana yet cannot fully understand what Nirvana is like. Even one who has attained Nirvana cannot say explicitly what Nirvana is.
Venerable Yin Shun wrote in An Outline of the Buddhist Teachings, “Apart from the complete cessation of all suffering, what else can be said of the attainment of Nirvana?”
Hence, Nirvana can neither be imagined nor explained in words. If we have ideas of what Nirvana is like, we would have fallen into excessive conceptual proliferation, so we have not grasped the truth about Nirvana at all.
According to As It Was Said, “it is a state of ultimate tranquillity and ultimate, refreshing coolness. It is not manifest but hidden, only to be found in those who are pure and do not indulge in conceptual proliferation, it cannot be described as existent, non-existent, ‘both existent and non-existent’ or ‘neither existent nor non-existent’. It can only be said as ‘ineffable, ultimate Nirvana’.” This is the state “beyond linguistic expression and mental speculation”, which is often mentioned in Buddhadharma.
In An Outline of the Buddhist Teachings, Venerable Yin Shun had also given a clear explanation of this point: “Apart from explaining Nirvana as non-arising of defilements, intentional actions and suffering, Shakyamuni Buddha had also described it as ‘immeasurable and countless, deep and vast’. This refers to the ‘tranquillity and emptiness of the nature underlying all things’, which is beyond names, forms and numbers.”
Based on this explanation, it is clear that the “tranquillity and emptiness of the nature underlying all things” is the same as “tranquillity of Nirvana”. The “emptiness” referred to here absolutely is not a passive, inactive void. Instead, it means being liberated from the bondage of all desires in the present moment and thus gaining everlasting freedom. This is the liberation of Nirvana.
Therefore, the “emptiness” taught in Buddhadharma is not passively negative, but has active and positive aspects instead. Once one has attained this state of emptiness (Nirvana), one ought to turn back and do active work to help other sentient beings, attain Nirvana too. This is a special characteristic of the liberation of Nirvana as taught in Buddhism.
I have briefly explained above the Three Universal Characteristics as taught in Buddhism. These Three Universal Characteristics offer an insight into the special features of Buddhadharma that distinguish it from other religious teachings. In terms of explanation, there exist differences among the Three Universal Characteristics. However, in terms of truth, there is actually no difference among them. This is because there is only one truth, but this sole truth is explained from three aspects. Therefore, whatever is impermanent is of the nature of emptiness, whatever is insubstantial is of the nature of emptiness and whatever is non-arising is of the nature of emptiness. Therefore, the Three Universal Characteristics of impermanence, insubstantiality and non-arising (Nirvana) comprise the same principle of “emptiness of the nature of underlying all things”, without any difference among them at all.
These Three Universal Characteristics hold truth and practicality. They may be said to embody the essence of the entire Buddhadharma. The great importance of these Three Universal Characteristics is thus clear.