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Volume 5 No 1

Venerable Shen-Kai answers

Understanding Buddhism
By Venerable Shen-Kai

Venerable Shen-Kai travelled far and wide to promote the teachings of the Humanity Vehicle Buddhism. Often questions were posed to him covering Buddhism and a wide variety of subjects relating to life. This issue features 10 such questions and answers that focus on the whole purpose of learning and practising Buddhism
…… cultivation.

1. How can I begin to practise Buddhism?

Begin by cultivating the mind.
One should begin by cultivating the mind to purify it. The Humanity Vehicle Buddhism has a song called 'Sweeping'. It encourages people to cleanse the mind, as in sweeping the ground, until it is completely clean. A pure mind produces pure conduct. In learning Buddhism and cultivating pure deeds, we must recognise the need to cultivate the mind. Naturally, all our surrounding is pure when the mind is pure. When you have cultivated your mind well, you are in unison with the Buddha. Otherwise, one is prone to fall into the evil path, or even to suffer in hell. Therefore, learning Buddhism begins with cultivating the mind.

2. How do I practise cultivation?

Purify your actions, speech and thoughts in the course of all your activities.
Many years ago I practised cultivation as a wandering monk. I took four years to cover Taiwan on foot.

Once when I was in Hua-Lien, I was asked why as a monk I wandered about like this instead of living in the monastery to practise sitting meditation, prostrating to the Buddha and to recite the sutras. I replied that I am cultivating my deeds and not cultivating sitting down. He did not understand me. I clarified by explaining that the true meaning of cultivation is to purify our deeds, speech and thoughts while we are engaged in the course of our activities. He still did not seem to understand. I further explained, "Wherever I go, I do not utter nonsense, I do not engage in gossip, I do not tell lies, I do not double-talk, I do not use evil speech, and I do not engage in tale-bearing. Instead, I recite the names of the Buddhas, and I praise, soothe, console and encourage others when I talk to them. Am I not cultivating by purifying my speech? Wherever I go, I do not commit any evil, steal, rob nor kill. Instead, I help people, save them and encourage them to learn what the Buddha taught. Am I not cultivating by purifying my deeds? My mind is not pre-occupied with illusory thoughts, and greed and evil do not arise in my mind. With each step that I take, I recite the name of the Buddha, and I constantly maintain a mind that is bright and pure. Am I not cultivating by purifying my mind? Although I am walking about everyday, I am constantly cultivating the purity of my mind and deeds. If a person practises sitting meditation everyday, and yet his self-serving habits and temperaments are not eliminated, and he is always gossiping, can you consider him to be cultivating?"

1. Dharma-doors: The doctrines of the Buddha regarded as the doors to enlightenment; methods of cultivation.

3. Is it compulsory for a Buddhist to practise sitting meditation?

Sitting meditation is one of the 84,000 Dharma-doors.
There are many practitioners of Buddhism, but not all of them practise sitting meditation. That does not mean that those who do not practise sitting meditation are not Buddhists. Sitting meditation is one of the 84,000 Dharma-doors [1]. If one is not able to practise this, one can still cultivate by prostrating to the Buddha, recite the names of the Buddhas or indeed any of the 84,000 methods. We are Buddhists as long as we conduct ourselves according to the teachings of the Buddha.

4. Some Buddhists limit their practice to reciting the sutras and mantras. They do not understand the contents neither do they practise meditation nor do they cultivate their deeds. Can one become Buddha this way?

One needs to cultivate both the mind and deeds to become Buddha.
The only way that one can become Buddha is through cultivating both the mind and deeds. Reciting the sutras and mantras is one of the many methods of cultivation. For people who recite the sutras but do not understand the contents, as long as they sincerely persist in their recitation, then the conditions will one day mature for them to encounter a Buddhist teacher who can explain these to them. Then they will be able to make further progress in their cultivation.

The conditions leading to the method of cultivation vary for different people. It is hoped that practitioners of the various methods of cultivation, for example, reciting the sutras, meditation, contemplation, promoting the Dharma, do not discriminate against one another.

5. I am rich. I am kind to people and they are kind to me. I live a happy life. Why do I need to learn Buddhism?

A good life needs Buddhism too.
Although you have a good life now, it does not mean that you cannot become ill and die someday. The purpose of learning Buddism and cultivating the mind and deeds is to seek liberation from birth and death, unfold your wisdom, and to practise the Bodhisattva Path. Therefore, we have to learn from the Buddhas and the Bodhisattvas. Although you live a good life now, you are still in the human realm. If you wish to be better than what you are now and seek to live in the realm of heavens, you need to perform the Ten Virtuous Deeds and avoid doing any evils. There, you can enjoy the heavenly happiness resulting from your Ten Virtuous Deeds. But that happiness is only temporary because when the heavenly blessings are exhausted, you will be born in a lower realm again. Therefore, the realm of heavens is not the ultimate. Because all human beings will encounter suffering someday, we all need to cultivate our mind and deeds, seek liberation and practise the Bodhisattva Path until we are enlightened and become Buddha. Only then, have we attained the ultimate.


[1] Bodhi: From budh; knowledge, understanding; perfect wisdom; the illuminated or enlightened mind.


Bodhi-mind: The mind for or of Bodhi; the awakened or enlightened mind; the mind that perceives the real behind the seeming, believes in moral consequences, and that all have the Buddha-nature, and aims at Buddhahood.

6. Why do I still suffer from worries and distresses although I have already embraced Buddhism? How can I be free from these afflictions?

Practise what the Buddha taught to be free of afflictions.
Some people continue to have many worries and distress after they embrace Buddhism because they merely believe that Buddha exists but they have yet to learn and practise what the Buddha taught! If we wish to be free from such sufferings, we should waste no time to emulate the Buddha and follow His cultivation and practices. In this way, the sufferings will gradually begin to lessen. The Buddhas and Bodhisattvas were, in the past, ordinary beings who had cultivated and therefore had transformed sufferings into Bodhi [1]. It is important that we aspire to seek after the Bodhi-mind [2]. With this aspiration we need to work towards realising the Bodhi. It is only then that all our deeds are on the Bodhisattva path. If one has yet to realise the Bodhi then when he performs a good deed, it is only considered that he is cultivating the virtuous path.

In order to transform sufferings into Bodhi, people need to learn and practise what the Buddha taught.

7. How do we lessen the retributions of negative karma?

By learning and practising the Buddha's teachings.
Although there are countless kinds of karma, they can be categorised into three groups; namely, those created by the body, speech and the mind. The negative karma created by the body are killing, stealing and sexual misconduct. Those created by speech are lying, double-talk, coarse language and filthy language and those created by the mind are greed, hatred and ignorance. Collectively these are called the ten evil deeds, and they are the source of retributions and obstructions in life. Once we understand the Buddha's teachings and realise the importance of cultivation, we won't want to commit these ten evil deeds. Instead, we should perform the Ten Virtuous Deeds: abstention from (1) killing, (2) stealing, (3) sexual misconduct, (4) false speech, (5) double-talk, (6) coarse and evil language, (7) filthy language, (8) greed, (9) hatred, and (10) ignorance. When we maintain purity in our deeds, speech and thoughts, then the effects of the negative karma that follow us to this life will gradually lessen or become eliminated.

8. How can I inspire my interest when reading on Buddhism?

Maintain a pure mind.
It is because you treat Buddhism as a subject of study, or you are trying too hard to remember what you are reading, that your interest becomes suppressed. You may wish to take a different approach. It is not necessary that you read page by page according to the contents of the book. You could selectively read those sections that are more interesting to you, or those sections that address your doubts first. Whatever the circumstances, as long as you maintain a pure mind, you will be able to raise your interest.

9. What is 'emptiness'?

There is no room without 'emptiness'.
If there is no emptiness in this hall, then it cannot accommodate so many people. If there is no emptiness in the space, then it cannot accommodate the innumerable planets and stars. In the same way, a person cannot accept the many good advice if there is no 'emptiness' in his mind. If as students of Buddhism we are still deeply attached to what we have learned, then although we hear of even better teachings of Buddhism, we will still not be able to receive and accept them. This is because there is no 'emptiness' in the mind.

10. Is it true that the Heart Sutra reduces anger and resentment?

We are carefree when the Five Aggregates are empty.
People have to cultivate 'emptiness' so as to eliminate anger and resentment. The essence of the Heart Sutra is about emptiness. When people abandon or empty the ill temper arising from anger and resentment, then they are carefree and untroubled. If this is not emptied, then it is not good for us. Essentially the Heart Sutra tells us to empty our heart, i.e. to empty our mind. A mind that is 'empty' naturally does not harbour feelings of happiness, anger, sorrow and resentment. Thus, the 'Five Aggregates are empty' as mentioned in the Heart Sutra, means that the five components of an intelligent being: form, feeling, thinking, mind-acting and distinguishing, are all empty. There is no question about not being able to empty anger and resentment.


Copyright 2002.Jen Chen Buddhism Centre