Teachings in Chinese Buddhism

    (9) Dharma About Lay People for Lay People

A talk given at The Lay People Organization (Ju Shi Lin), Manila

Your Lay People Organization "Ju Shi Lin" asked me to give talks for three days. Because it is difficult to have the opportunity to listen to the Dharma, I feel very happy to give some talks. There is a saying, "When you meet a male, you should talk about something that interests the male; and when you meet a female, you talk about something that interests the female". Likewise Dharma should be expounded in concordance to the occasion. This place is the Lay People Organization, and those of you who are present here are also lay people. Thus I will use Dharma about lay people as the theme for the talk.

Let’s start with the Lay People Organization (Ju Shi Lin). What is a lay person (Ju Shi)? What is an organisation (Lin)? A lay person is a "Kulapati" in the Indian language. India has four different castes. There are the "Ksatriya" which are the royal caste, and "Brahmana" for those who perform religious ceremonies. The lowest caste are the slaves ("Sudra"). The other caste is the "Freemen" ("Vaisya") whose members work in agricultural, industrial or business sectors.

The "Freemen" gradually obtained their status in the Indian community. They are similar to the middle-class in the modern world. The name "Freemen" refers to the strata of lay people at that time. The teaching of the Buddha sees all sentient beings as equal and discourages stratification of beings. The term "laypeople" refers to people who live in a family in Buddhism. When Buddhism arrived in China, "laypeople" became the terminology that referred to the people who practised Buddhism at home. In the Philippines, the term "laypeople" is seldom used. In my country, China, all males and females are called lay people. Thus "laypeople" has become a general term that refers to Buddhists who practise at home.

"Lin" means forests which imply plural. When there are many trees in the same location we term it a forest. In the olden times, many monks and nuns stayed in the monastery and thus they called it "Chong Lin" i.e. "the thickly populated monastery". The thickly populated monastery was not a temple. It merely referred to the assembly of monks or nuns. Nowadays we call the lay people who set up the Buddhist organization as "Ju Shi Lin" i.e. "the thickly populated organisation." Thus "lin" implies an association or organization.

The history of the Ju Shi Lin is short. It started up in the time of about the tenth year of the Republic of China. At that time, Buddhists in Hu Ling and Hu Hang set up a Buddhist organization called The World Buddhist Ju Shi Lin. This was how the word came into being and subsequently Buddhists in other parts of the world came to use it.

Two Groups of Buddhists

Buddhists can be broadly categorized into two groups, namely the lay people and the monastic community. The assembly of monastic community is the Order of Monks and Nuns (s. Sangha). The organization for those who practice Buddhism at home is the Lay People Organization. What is the difference between these two institutions?

In terms of faith, they both take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. From the perspective of attainment and enlightenment, there is not much difference. According to the Sravakayana, lay people can attain the third Supramundane Fruitions (s. phala) i.e. the Non-Returner (s. Anagamin), whereas the Sangha can attain the fourth Fruition i.e. the Holy One (s. Arahat). The difference is only one stage.

On the other hand, according to the Mahayana tradition, many Bodhisattvas are lay people. Among the great Bodhisattvas such as Manjushri, Samantabhadra, Avalokitesvara and Kshitigarbha, only Kshitigarbha presents himself as a member of the Sangha. The others all present themselves as lay people. Thus do not misunderstand that lay people will not achieve profound enlightenment and think that it can only be attained by the members of the Order.

If there is not much difference, what exactly is the distinction? The Sakyamuni Buddha was born in India. He then renounced his family life and later attained Buddhahood. When he spread the Dharma initially, his followers voluntarily followed his footsteps to lead a monastic life. The Buddha assembled these followers together, and formed the Order.

The members of the Order are forbidden from dealing in business or holding government positions. The only aim of the Order is to spread the Dharma. The teaching of the Buddha is then propagated from generation to generation with the Order as the backbone of this continuity. In the past, the preservation of Dharma was the emphasis of the responsibilities for the Order.

Let’s draw an analogy from a political party. It must first have an ideology. The party members must have faith in the ideology and hence implement and transform the party ideology into reality. As well, it requires some party members to not only have faith, but to also concentrate on running the party and make it their profession.

This is not to say that lay people do not need to spread the Dharma. As we all know, lay people have parents, spouses and children at home to look after. They are also busy in their pursuit of their occupations. They are unable to concentrate solely on propagating the teaching of Buddha. Hence it is important and necessary for the Order of Monks and Nuns to carry out this duty.

The monastic community do not have the troubles and worries of family and occupation. Their environment is more conducive to practicing and spreading the Dharma. This is the minor difference between lay people and the Order of Monks and Nuns.

One should not think that lay people are tied down and hence cannot practise and propagate the Dharma. It is actually to the advantage of lay people. Buddhism is not only observances such as chanting in the monastery or giving Dharma talks and meditation. It should involve in changing and directing the world, leading the inhabitants of this world in upgrading themselves day by day. In this way we may all bathe in the goodness of the Buddha, and pave the way for each other to attain enlightenment.

Since lay people are dispersed in all walks of life, it provides Buddhism with the strength and the vehicle to disseminate to every corner of the world. The monastic community generally preserves the sravakayana tradition of maintaining a certain distance from the general public. Some even practise on their own in seclusion. They may, temporarily sever their ties with the community. However, the monks or nuns of Mahayana tradition have all sentient beings as their target of practice. Thus they choose to reside in villages, towns or cities where they spread the Dharma and actively become involved in the community.

The relationship of lay people and the community may be very intimate, which makes the task of spreading the Dharma easier. From this we can see the importance of lay people in Buddhism. Lay people should particularly learn about the aspects of the Dharma that emphasize how to live in peace with others in the community. In this way, they may help those who are in need, and look after and enhance the well-being of other sentient beings. They should rejoice in the goodness of others.

They should abstain from over-indulging in the pessimistic and selfish issue of death and dying. There should be co-operation and distribution of tasks between the Order of Monks and Nuns and lay people to promote the spreading of the Dharma. If the Lay People Organization functions in a similar way to a monastery, then it will lose its significance as an institution for lay people.

The Five merits

One should learn to be a Mahayana layperson and learn to follow the path of the Bodhisattvas. That is one who aspires to attain Buddhahood and wishes to pave the way for all sentient beings. In order to achieve this aim, one has to practice the Five Merits. These Five Merits were expounded by the Buddha especially for lay people. We should ask ourselves whether we could gain all the Five Merits, or just a portion of them. Just as a human needs to possess all five sensory organs to be complete, a lay person should try to develop these Five Merits.

1. Faith: Is the faith we have in the Triple Gem strong and firm? If we have doubt and hesitation, shifting between belief and disbelief, then it would still be a far cry from the real merit. Therefore, we should first have firm faith in the Triple Gem.

2. Precepts (s. Sila): Lay people should have faith in the Triple Gem. As well, they should strive to observe the Five Precepts because precepts are the basis for all human morality. A Buddhist should try to perfect his personality by becoming a "gentleman" or "lady" of the human race.

3. Listening: Having faith and good moral conduct is not enough. One should try to approach the Noble ones and listen to the Dharma. In this way, one may acquire the right views and deepen one’s understanding of the Dharma. Practising the Dharma can be developed from listening, thus:

"From listening one knows good.
From listening one knows evil.
From listening one gets away from unworthiness.
From listening one may attain Nirvana."

4. Giving (s. Dana): The above three merits are mainly for one’s own benefit, thus these merits are incomplete. One should contribute oneself and helps others financially or physically.

5. Wisdom: The listening merit mentioned above is close to general knowledge. The teaching of the Buddha deals with detachment, the overcoming of life and death and the liberation of suffering for all sentient beings. But one requires real wisdom. One has to listen, contemplate and put into practice the Dharma. Then one may gain wisdom, and realize the truth.

Some Buddhists have profound knowledge; some have very high morality; some have compassion, loving-kindness, sympathetic joy and equanimity. Every Buddhist has their own strength. For a lay person to perfect his practice, he has to learn to gain the above five merits. Only with the perfection of the five merits, can one develop the characteristics of the Bodhisattva.

A lay person aspiring to be a Bodhisattva, to help all sentient beings, should also learn to acquire the Four All-Embracing Virtues. To influence others’ thinking and hope that they accept our view points, we must be skilful. We should not look down on ourselves, as though we would not be able to bring about any effect. A student can lead his fellow students; parents can guide their offspring; a shopkeeper can direct his workers; teachers can teach their students. In every walk of life, there are people who are successful. As long as we have the right means in attracting and directing them, we may encourage all people whom we meet in our daily lives with the teachings of the Buddha. We can teach them and help them. So what are these Four All-Embracing Virtues?

The Four All-Embracing Virtues

1) Giving (Dana)

Giving is practised when we help others either financially, career-wise, or in thinking constructively. Those who have received your help will spontaneously have good impressions of you. They will listen to your advice, follow your guidance; and some may even obey your instruction although the instruction may be unreasonable.

Someone once asked me, "The teachings of some other religions are quite superficial, but why do they flourish?" I replied, "The flourishing of a religion is not due to its teaching only. They may have done a good job in terms of giving. For instance, they may build schools or hospitals. There are thousands who have benefitted. With gratitude, regardless of whether there is a heaven or not, or whether the divinity will help them, these people will believe in what they say."

For Buddhism to prosper, Buddhists should start with the practice of giving by organizing welfare activities such as education and helping those in need. Mahayana Buddhism followers who want to help all sentient beings must practise giving.

Bodhisattvas should take the perfection (s. paramita) of Giving (s. Dana) very seriously. Sometimes one may not believe in what is said by person A but believes in the same words spoken to him by person B. What is the reason? This is because he has a very special karmic relationship with person B. Whenever we give, we will establish a karmic relationship with the receiver. This makes the transmission of the Dharma easier. Therefore, giving is an essential virtue in the spreading of Dharma.

2) Loving Speech

Loving speech means to communicate and discuss with pleasant speech. There are three types of loving speech:

a. Comforting speech: We should communicate in a warm manner when seeing one another. When we meet people who are sick, or suffering from major disaster or live in fear, we should encourage and provide them with psychological support. Even though we might not give them great help through gentle speech and compassionate attitude, they will appreciate our efforts.

b. Rejoicing speech: Every individual has his own strength. Even a bad person might have his good aspects. Whenever there is good point, we should rejoice, encourage and inspire him to do more, so as to encourage him to do more good. For example, there was once a European philosopher who was very ordinary initially, but with the encouragement from his wife, he strove diligently and eventually became a well-known philosopher. If we want to teach others, we should start praising them in order to give them confidence in their strength and virtues. They will not only be appreciative towards us but will soon be walking on the path of goodness.

c. Inspiring speech: This helps others to progress one step ahead. For example, for a person who is practising giving, we should guide him to observe the precepts. We should not restrict the usage of our speech to those of pleasant and gentle words. Sometimes we may have to use firm and wrathful words to urge someone to progress. With a sincere attitude and honesty, we will be accepted by others.

3) Beneficial Acts

Parents who look after and guide their children will have the respect of their children. A teacher who cares and teaches his students whole-heartedly will have the confidence of his students. A superior who cares about the welfare of those who work under him will have the support from them. Therefore, for those people that we would like to teach and help, we should carry out actions that will benefit them so that they will listen to our advice and follow our guidance willingly.

In Europe, there was an animal trainer who was with the tigers and lions all the time. Some people asked him as why the animals did not harm him. He replied by saying if the animals knew that he wouldn’t harm them, they would follow his instructions. If that is the response from the animals, what about human beings? If one always perform beneficial acts and consider the welfare of the others, the one who benefitted will trust us, and follow our guidance.

4) Working Together

Working together is to share responsibilities, especially to share hardships with friends and those who work under us. Even though our individual ability is very minor, if we work together with others, they will come to help us and follow us. If we want to advise others, we should learn together with them, and do the same job with them. During the war, there was a group of youths who formed a choir and drama group. They went to villages to perform with the aim of encouraging the villagers to support them in the war. They achieved a certain degree of success but it was far short of their expectations. They analysed various causes and found out that the reason for the shortcoming was the vast discrepancy of the attitude to life between them and the villagers. Because of the gap, they could not come to a consensus on the war. This is reason why the Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva appear in thirty-two different forms, in order to help and guide the uncountable number of characters of sentient beings.

The Four All-Embracing Virtues discussed above are the basic means of attracting and guiding others. They represent the principles of the mundane world. When we apply these virtues in the spreading of Dharma, we will achieve a better response. If we are practising Dharma and guiding others but fail to lead more people into the Dharma, it is probably because we have not perfected these Four All-Embracing Virtues. If we can act according to the Four Virtues properly, it will bring about an enormous effect. We should take up the responsibility of a Buddhist lay person, and do our best to guide others towards the path of Buddhahood, so that the luminosity of the Buddha will spread even further.

[Recorded by Ming Dao] (Translated by Mok Chung, edited by Ke Rong, proofread by Shi Neng Rong. (6-7-96))

1. "Ju shi" means a secular Buddhist devotee which is translated here as lay person. Literally, "lin" means forest and its meaning is further explained in the main text.

2. Literally, "chong" means thicket. "Chong Lin "refers to a Buddhist forest monastery.

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