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Volume 7 no 3

The Bliss Compass
Beyond 3-steps-1-bow
Buddhism has many graceful rites and rituals. To those who are not knowledgeable, they may seem absurd. But, in fact they are all methods of cultivation and if we understand the true purpose of learning and practising Buddhism, then we will appreciate that these are means to becoming awakened from our illusions or in other words, to becoming enlightened, like Buddha. In short, they are means to help us unfold and develop our innate wisdom so that we know how to avoid suffering and live blissfully. While one may or may not have performed the 3-steps-1-bow, it is nevertheless useful to know that a free and unattached mind that the practice advocates, helps us to unfold this wisdom. Let the Bliss Compass illustrate.

1. Who is the Manjusri Bodhisattva and why do Buddhists perform the 3-steps-1-bow [1] in his reverence?

Manjusri Bodhisattva is foremost in wisdom.

The teachings of Buddhism centre on wisdom. Among all the Bodhisattvas, Manjusri is the Bodhisattva who symbolises the foremost wisdom. Therefore we cultivate the 3-steps-1-bow in reverence of this great Bodhisattva. The 3-steps-1-bow in reverence of the Manjusri Bodhisattva is not only to eliminate our karmic hindrances, but also to unfold our wisdom. Not only do we unfold our wisdom, but we also hope that our descendants will also unfold their wisdom. And, not only does our wisdom unfold in this lifetime, but also in lifetime after lifetime.

2. What is the significance of cultivating the 3-steps-1-bow?

It has broad significance. In simple terms, it is to eradicate pride and ego.

The 3-steps-1-bow is a very good method of cultivation. In cultivation we seek to let go of the Three Minds [2] and eliminate the Four Forms [3]. At the time of practising this method, the mind of the past, the present and the future does not exist. Furthermore, the ego-form, human-form, sentient being-form and time-form are also non-existent. When we cultivate the 3-steps-1-bow in reverence of the Manjusri Bodhisattva, we only have the Manjusri Bodhisattva in our mind.

As Buddhism practitioners, we demonstrate our reverence of the Buddha by, for example, bowing or prostrating before the Buddha. There is yet a very important purpose in paying reverence to the Buddha in this way, and that is to eliminate our pride and ego. If, as practitioners of Buddhism, we continue to harbour pride and ego, then it shows that we have not cultivated enough.

When we practise in this way, we will begin to experience changes in our lives. For example, people who used to be egoistic and conceited will become mellowed with humility and modesty. It is only when a person has become humble and modest that he gradually finds changes and progress in his conduct as a person and in his dealings in all matters. At the same time, his wisdom will begin to grow.

In the past, in China, many of the well-cultivated monks cultivated the 3-steps-1-bow method. They did not perform the practice just for an hour or a day, but they could take years at a stretch. Each day, they cultivated the 3-steps-1-bow method, and the pilgrimage might take 2 or 3 years or even longer. Hence, when we aspire to become Buddha, we have to learn and cultivate like them, with such determination. This would hasten the goal of Buddhahood. However, not many people can do the same.

[1] 3-steps-1-bow method: Practitioners take three steps as they recite the name of a Bodhisattva or Buddha and then prostrate their body in reverence.

[2] The Three Minds: (i) the past is gone and cannot be grasped. (ii) After this moment, the present becomes past and also cannot be grasped. (iii) The future is not here yet and therefore cannot be grasped too.

[3] The four forms:
Form – Characteristics; (i) Everybody has an ego, this is the ego- form. (ii) When we see another person, we arise in our mind the human-form. (iii) When thoughts arise in our mind, we produce the sentient being-form in our mind. (iv) The continuity of these thoughts through time gives rise to the time-form.

3. How often should we cultivate the 3-steps-1-bow?

As often as we are able to.

If in our lifetime we are able to practise the 3-steps-1-bow as many times as we can, then so much the better. Even if a person under normal circumstances does not perform good deeds, his merits are still immense if he cultivates the 3-steps-1-bow.

A few years ago, there was a report of a man who turned over a new leaf after having committed many evil deeds. Subsequently he renounced the worldly life and became a monk. Still, many people made offerings to him in reverence along the way as he practised the 3-steps-1-bow in various parts of Taiwan. If we are good people and we practise the 3-steps-1-bow, not only are we righteous but we would have gained as much merits as we have cultivated as such.

4. Can cultivating the 3-steps-1-bow help to fulfil our wishes?

Yes, but it also means being humble and creating virtuous conditions with others.

If we wish for peace, safety and prosperity by cultivating the 3-steps-1-bow, such wishes can also be fulfilled. Of course, as practitioners of Buddhism we cannot set terms and conditions for the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, for instance, by asking to be blessed with earning a certain sum of money for each bow that we make. We cannot have such thoughts in our mind. But, if we are always humble, polite, harmonious and accommodating in our interaction with others, and always maintain an excellent attitude regardless of whom we are dealing with, then we create virtuous conditions with others. Virtuous conditions lead to positive interpersonal relationships and as a result, there is no jealousy and there are no obstacles. Thus, if you are working on a business deal or any other plan for that matter, other people will look you up and strike deals with you. In this way, you can also reap big profits. Jen Chen Buddhism advocates to begin cultivation not only by paying respects to the Buddha, but also by being a better person.

5. Some people despite having embraced Buddhism still do not do well in their lives. Why is this so?

We need to correct our outlook in life and inspire our own wisdom.

There are people who pay their respects to the Buddha all their lives and yet find their businesses (or careers) deteriorating. Perhaps, to them it suffices to pay respects to the Buddha but in business they adopt an indifferent “take-it-or-leave-it” attitude. Such a notion is incorrect. When we wish to cultivate the 3-steps-1-bow, particularly in reverence of the Manjusri Bodhisattva, and aspire to unfold our wisdom, then we need to correct our outlook in life and inspire our own wisdom. But, human beings brought with them many undesirable habits and self-serving temperament from aeons of their many past lives. Therefore, it does not mean that all of these habits and temperament can be corrected instantly. When we are devoted in aligning ourselves with the Buddha, and we are devoted in cultivating the 3-steps-1-bow in reverence of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and constantly subdue our pride, arrogance and ego, it would have achieved its objective (of being closer to unfolding our wisdom and a better life).

6. Many of our distresses in life stem from the environment, in which we live and work. How we can live and work happily?

Be principled, accommodating and harmonious.

An important point about being a practitioner of Buddhism is to be rounded and accommodating, and that is to be harmonious. We would have failed as practitioners of Buddhism if we do not understand the principles of accommodation and harmony, and are rigid in our ways wherever we go. On the other hand, there are those who can accommodate and harmonise, but they are lacking in the correct principles. This is also not the right way. We need to be principled, accommodating and harmonious; then will we be all-rounded and complete. If a person understands these principles, then as a practitioner of Buddhism, he will be very happy and very bright.

7. What are the other methods of cultivation besides reciting the name of the Buddha?

There are 84,000 methods. Reciting the name of the Buddha is one of them.

Many practitioners of Buddhism feel that it suffices to cultivate by reciting the name of the Buddha and disregard the other methods. Although this is a very good method of cultivation, in the teachings of Buddhism there are many other methods or “Dharma-doors”. Speaking of reciting the name of the Buddha, in general, people recite Amitabha Buddha. Actually, this method is not limited to reciting Amitabha Buddha. We can recite the name of all the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas of the ten directions and the three periods (8 directions of the compass, the zenith and nadir; the past, present and future), for example, Sakyamuni Buddha, Manjusri Bodhisattva, Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, Samantabhadra Bodhisattva, and many others.

If we seek to be reborn in the Western Pure Land, then we need to recite Amitabha Buddha frequently. However, there is no guarantee that a person who only recites Amitabha Buddha will definitely be reborn in the Western Pure Land. It is stated in the Amitabha Sutra, “It is not possible through conditions lacking in virtuous roots, blessings and merits to be born in that land (i.e. Western Pure Land).” This means that besides reciting the name of the Buddha, we must also cultivate our blessings and wisdom, and until the fulfilment of many, many conditions relating to our blessings and merits, is it possible to be reborn in the Western Pure Land. For example, cultivating the 3-steps-1-bow is also a method of cultivating blessings and lessening our sickness, sufferings and misfortunes.

The teachings of Buddhism are not limited to reciting the name of the Buddha. There are 84,000 methods or Dharma-doors through which we can enter, and all of them are equally reliable. The 3-steps-1-bow is one of them.

8. Where do our sufferings come from and can we eliminate them?

Sufferings are created by the actions of the body, speech and mind. We need to purify them.

In life we have to face many obstacles and sufferings. These are created by our own actions, speech and thoughts, because they are not pure. These three karma’s refer to the mental culture of the general masses of the society, the words said in our speech and the various unwholesome deeds committed by our body. They transform the world into one that is perpetually crying out in pain and suffering, thereby turning it into a sea of suffering.

If we wish to leave this sea of suffering for the purity and calm of other shore (happiness and bliss), we have to embark on the compassionate ferry of the teachings of Buddha. As practitioners of Buddhism, we are already on board this ferry. Thus, from the day we board this ferry, we have to cultivate diligently and genuinely, so as to purify the three karma’s.

9. What causes our 3 karma’s to be impure and how can we purify them?

Emulate the Bodhisattva who is foremost in wisdom – Manjusri Bodhisattva.

Among all the Bodhisattvas, the Manjusri Bodhisattva is the foremost in wisdom. It is because people do not have wisdom that they commit unwholesome karma’s through their actions, speech and thoughts. These kinds of negative karma’s produce many sufferings.

The most important point about paying our reverence to the Manjusri Bodhisattva is to lessen and eliminate all these three kinds of negative karma which we have been committing since the aeons of our many past lives, so that our actions, speech and mind are pure. When we are in accord with the Manjusri Bodhisattva, then our wisdom will blossom. With wisdom, we can be hopeful that our friends and relatives will also learn and practise Buddhism so that they, too, could unfold their own wisdom. Then, by so doing, we would have attained purity in action, speech and mind for a start.

10. Is there a difference between wisdom and intelligence?

Wisdom and intelligence are not the same.

It is commonly misunderstood that reading books attains wisdom. In reality wisdom and intelligence are not the same. A person can become cleverer by learning from books. However, unfolding our wisdom is not like this. What does being clever mean? It means that our ears and eyes are sharp and we quickly understand what we hear or see. But, at times, we may be unwittingly fooled by our own cleverness. There many clever people who ended up committing many evil deeds. If people were wise, then they would not commit such wrongdoings. Buddhism is the only religion that advocates wisdom.

11. How does the 3-steps-1-bow in reverence of the Manjusri Bodhisattva help in unfolding our wisdom?

It puts the principle of letting go of the Three Minds and eliminating the Four Forms into practice and thereby allowing the wisdom to arise.

In the process of cultivating the 3-steps-1-bow, we have no other thoughts in our mind, except the Manjusri Bodhisattva. With only Manjusri Bodhisattva in our mind, then our mind resonates with the Manjusri Bodhisattva. At the same time, when we do not engage in other verbal activity besides reciting “Manjsuri Bodhisattva”, then the speech karma that we create resonates with the Manjusri Bodhisattva. When we prostrate ourselves once every three steps, we are paying reverence to the Manjusri Bodhisattva and the action of our body thereby resonates with the pure actions of the Manjusri Bodhisattva.

Thus, while we are cultivating the 3-steps-1-bow, we have actually let go of the Three Minds and eliminated the Four Forms. We are not thinking about the past, the present and the future. We do not have the ego-form. If we have, we wouldn’t be able to prostrate ourselves. That would mean that we have not subdued our pride, arrogance and ego. Many people, including senior government officials, wealthy tycoons, teachers, professors, have been able to perform the 3-steps-1-bow. This shows that they have already “put down” their own pride, arrogance and ego-form.

When we are able to recite “Manjusri Bodhisattva” and prostrate ourselves, and not perturbed by onlookers, this constitutes non-arising of the ego-form and the human-form. Normally wild thoughts constantly arise in our mind, giving rise to the inner sentient being. But, when we are cultivating the 3-steps-1-bow, our mind is pure. Except for reciting “Manjusri Bodhisattva” wholeheartedly, we have no notion of any other forms. Therefore, we do not have the sentient being-form. Because our sentient being-form does not arise, it makes no difference whether or not there are people looking at us. Moreover, as we continuously recite “Manjusri Bodhisattva” and prostrate ourselves without notion of the past, present and future, then we are free from the time-form. This means that there is no age-form. Thus, we have already accomplished the letting go of the Three Minds and eliminating the Four Forms.

When we achieve the state of not having the Three Minds and Four Forms, we gradually unfold and develop wisdom.

12. What is the relationship between wisdom, liberation and distancing from suffering and being happy?

It is through wisdom that we know about liberation, distancing from suffering and being truly happy.

The 3-steps-1-bow in reverence of the Manjusri Bodhisattva is a method to unfold our wisdom. With wisdom, we can truly distance from suffering and attain happiness in the course of our daily lives. “Distance from suffering and attain happiness” is the objective of learning and practising Buddhism. If we truly understand this, then when we cultivate the 3 steps-1-bow we can also attain liberation and true brightness. When we are cultivating the 3-steps-1-bow we do not bear thoughts of how others treat us. If someone had scolded us yesterday, and today we pay our reverence to Manjusri Bodhisattva, and we let go of the Three Minds and eliminated the Four Forms, then naturally, we are liberated. If, somebody had suggested that we go and try our luck in a lottery game, but we let go of the idea and instead chose to practise the 3-steps-1-bow, then we have become liberated. If we extend this practice (of letting go of the Three Minds and eliminating the Four Forms) widely, then we will become liberated. When we are liberated, our frame of mind will be different and our wisdom will unfold.

When we have unfolded our wisdom, we will know what are the appropriate things to say or do, and what are not. With wisdom, our actions henceforth are known as “Practising the Bodhisattva Path”. When we walk the Bodhisattva Path without stopping, then we expedite our aspiration to become Buddha.


Copyright 2002.Jen Chen Buddhism Centre