The Meaning of Life Is Cultivation
A talk given by Chin Pei She on October 1, 2009
Venerable Master, all Dharma Masters, and all friends in the Dharma: Amitabha!
My name is Chin Pei She. It is my turn to tie dharma affinity with the assembly tonight.
I've stayed in the City for more than half a year now. This is the first time I come up to give a talk. Since it's my first talk, I think I could talk about the causes and conditions for me to study Buddhism and to come and stay in the City, and also some of my experiences studying the Dharma.
It has not been long since I first started to learn Buddhism. Actually, it was not until 2005 that I really got to know Buddhism. Although earlier than that when I was in China I had been to several well-known Buddhist mountains and monasteries, those visits were merely for sightseeing purpose. I liked the peaceful atmosphere and environment of those monasteries; I also felt blissful seeing the adorned Buddha images. After I came to the United States, I’ve missed the mountains and monasteries in China, and I had wished there were comparable mountains and monasteries in America. Back then, I had no idea Buddhism had spread to and flourished in the West.
In January 2005, I moved to Maryland because I got a job in Washing DC. I worked from home most of the time, and my life was not disciplined at all. On the one hand I felt relaxed and settled; on the other hand I felt empty and bored. I stayed up very late as if I were still a student in school, and spent a lot of time watching TV and surfing the Internet. In my spare time, I was also pondering over a few questions: What's the meaning or purpose of life? Why did I come to the United States after all? What had I really learned in school?
I felt sad then that I had almost forgotten the essence of my own culture and I wanted to pick it up. That is, I wanted to teach myself Chinese traditional culture, particularly the teachings of ancient sages. I then went online to search for related materials. Incidentally I read an essay by Great Master HongYi addressed to young Buddhists. I also watched a Chinese video that documents the Venerable Master XuYun's life, titled One Hundred Years of XuYun, and subtitled The Footsteps of a Chan Master. I was deeply moved watching the video, especially by the part about the Master’s three steps one bow pilgrimage to WuTai Mountain.
Later, I found many Buddhism-related websites, with all sorts of information, including many discussion forums. I was very delighted as if I had found a new land; I was also wondering how come I did not come across any of those sites earlier despite the fact that I had spent so much time on the Internet. But before long I realized that was not a proper way to learn Buddhism, for the materials from the Internet are numerous and jumbled, and sometimes contradictory. I also realized I didn't have the wisdom to choose right from wrong, and was often influenced by what I read. In a word, I started to consider it necessary for me to find a genuine good knowing advisor to guide my study.
At the same time, I also started to think about the possibility for me to concentrate on learning Buddhism exclusively. Back then I took it for granted that the best way for me to learn Buddhism was to go back China. I figured I could live in seclusion near some monastery, and read and study the Great Treasury Canon. Certainly that plan was just a good wish on my part. It was almost impossible to carry out.
I then thought about a secondary option – maybe I could look and see if there are monasteries or Buddhist associations in the US that I could turn to. I prayed silently yet sincerely to GuanYin Bodhisattva, hoping that I would be able to go to a proper Wayplace.
Afterwards, I posted a question on a Buddhist discussion forum asking for suggestions about places to go around the Washing DC metropolitan area. Soon some people recommended a few monasteries and associations, including one of the DRBA branch monasteries in the east coast, Avatamsaka Vihara. I searched and found that among all suggested places, Avatamsaka Vihara is closest to where I lived, so I decided to try it first.
It just so happened that the Ullambana dharma session was held during my first visit to Avatamsaka Vihara. That day, for the first time, I met face to face with left-home people, and also for the first time, I bowed in full prostration to the Buddha. I observed what was happening around me with curiosity – all seemed new and strange in one way, yet familiar in another way. The dharma master managed to have a long talk with me despite her busy schedule, and she also answered some of my questions. Because I felt secure about this monastery, I didn't ask about or go to other suggested monasteries. Actually, until I came to CTTB, Avatamsaka Vihara was the only US wayplace that I had been to.
Later when I was better informed of the current situation of Buddhism, I felt fortunate that I have come across the proper dharma smoothly, without a roundabout course. Probably that was due to the secret guidance of GuanYin Bodhisattva. Now about four years later, when I look back on my first visit to Avatamsaka Vihara, I am still very grateful for the dharma masters there who have compassionately guided me to the proper dharma.
After reading the books by and about the Venerable Master, I quickly gained great confidence in the Master, and I felt relieved, believing that the path I was going to follow would lead me to liberation.
I also like to listen to the Venerable Master's talks and sutra lectures. Besides joy and happiness, sometimes I felt sorry and sad, however. I felt sorry and sad that I wasn't able to meet the Master, or to attend his talks or sutra lectures in person. Later, when I was listening to the Master's explanation of the Song of Enlightenment by Great Master YongJia, I heard the Master saying: “It's just the same listening to my recordings.” I felt at ease hearing that. I then made up my mind that I would cherish and study the dharma treasury left by the Master, and cultivate the Way according to his teachings.
While studying the Dharma, I came to realize that in cultivation it is very important for me to bring forth the Bodhi resolve, and that I should try to practice what I learn and understand.
Looking back, at the very early stage of my studying the Dharma, I was arrogant out of ignorance, and I regarded it an easy matter to end birth and death. I had thought with several years of diligent and exclusive cultivation one would be able to end birth and death, just as with a worldly degree, which one could obtain by several years of study. Then some time later, when I got to understand the Dharma a little better, I found cultivation was just way too hard, too difficult. It's a road without an ending. I could not see any possibility of getting enlightened, and believed it would be unavoidable to float forever in the bitter sea of birth and death. I then gave rise to feelings of despair and depression, even thinking about retreating from the Way.
Later I then realized the reason I had such wrong knowledge and understanding is that I didn't bring forth the great resolve for Bodhi, or not a genuine one. As presented in the essay titled Exhortation to Resolve upon Bodhi by Great Master Xing An: “If, in moment after moment, he seeks the path of the Buddhas above; in thought after thought, he transforms living beings below; if he hears that the road to Buddhahood is long and far, yet does not retreat in fear; if he observes that beings are hard to transform, yet does not become weary; if he proceeds as though climbing a ten-thousand-foot mountain, determined to reach the summit; or proceeds as though ascending a nine-storied stupa, fixed upon advancing to the top, then his resolve is true.”
Based on my experience, it is relatively easy to bring forth the Bodhi resolve when I am reciting sutras, when I see others suffer, or when I myself suffer, be it physical pain or mental and psychological distress. But in everyday life, it is not easy for me to always be mindful of my Bodhi resolve, especially when states arise. I think, if in thought after thought, one never forgets his Bodhi resolve, then he would not fight with others, nor would he have afflictions. In a word, continuously bringing forth the big, true Bodhi resolve is very important in cultivation, and it is something I should continue to work on. Only then can I dwell peacefully on the middle way, cultivate vigorously in either favorable or unfavorable situations, and remain unmoving whether I experience joy or pain.
When studying the Dharma, sometimes I could not help but use my conscious mind to think, discriminate, and speculate on what I had learned. However, it was just to make a futile effort trying to fathom the thus come one's wisdom with an ordinary mind. As the Buddha said in The Sutra in Forty-Two Sections Spoken by the Buddha, “Be careful not to believe your own mind; your mind is not to be believed…After you have attained Arhatship, you can believe your own mind.” So when studying the sutras, I try to learn not to reason with my conscious mind. Moreover, I also came to realize it is very important that in cultivation understanding and practice should go hand in hand, and down-to-earth practice is equally if not more important. We should have our feet planted on solid grounds and apply efforts in everyday activities.
The year 2007 is very important for me. In May of that year, the precept transmission committee of DRBA came to the east coast, so that I took refuge and received the five precepts. Taking refuge was very meaningful to me, and it was as if I had started a new life. After taking refuge, I found my state of mind was different than before, the changes including a sense of pride as I formally became a Buddhist and a sense of responsibility to DRBA and to Buddhism.
For my own cultivation, before taking refuge, my focus and interest was mainly on sutras and meditation; after taking refuge and receiving the precepts, I understood at a deeper level the importance of precepts as well as the importance of the dharma door of repentance. I came to clearly understand that precepts are the foundation of cultivation. Without a solid foundation in precepts, one won’t be able to have any real achievement, or worse, one may walk into a dangerous external path. Therefore, studying the precepts, receiving the precepts, and strictly upholding them should be given first priority in cultivation.
In that same year, in August 2007, for the first time, I came to CTTB, attending the GuanYin session and the three days Chan session for beginners. After I returned to Maryland, I started to seriously consider the possibility of moving to CTTB. Moving to the City means that I have to give up my job and leave my family behind. After about one and a half year, that is, at the end of last year, I finally came to stay in the City.
After my resignation, I got rid of all work-related books, materials, and even emails. By doing so, I hoped that I could leave behind all my worldly knowledge and views. I wish I were like a blank piece of paper, on which one could draw something new and meaningful. I also wish I were like an empty container, which could be used to hold new and worthy stuff.
In the Sagely City, time flies. Before I knew it, I have been here for more than nine months now. Thanks to the many opportunities provided here for us to cultivate both blessings and wisdom. Each day, we either attend the ceremonies in the Buddha hall or go to work. Life is simple yet fulfilling here. At present, the answers to the questions that puzzled me back in 2005 become clear. Most importantly, I now know the meaning or purpose of life is to cultivate the Way so as to understand the mind and see through the nature, and to end birth and death. Any worldly pursuit, no matter how high-sounding or how great it sounds, in the end, is just to fulfill people's pursuits on the five desires. Nothing can be more meaningful than cultivation in life.
I am very grateful to the Venerable Master that he had founded CTTB so that we could cultivate the Way together here. The debt of gratitude is as heavy as mountain and as deep as ocean. I am also very grateful to the monastic and laypeople who had worked so hard to make CTTB what it looks like today. Just as it is said that one generation plants the trees under whose shade another generation rests. Because of the hard work of the older generation, we latecomers could reap what we have not sown. To repay even a tiny fraction of this gratitude, we have no choice but to practice according to the Master's teachings, to diligently and earnestly cultivate the Way, and to wholeheartedly protect and support the City.
Finally, I would like to end my talk with a quotation from the Venerable Master. When the Master spoke of the founding of CTTB, he said, “…Since we are Buddhist disciples of the City, we ought to sweat and bleed for the Sagely City. We ought to be sincere and use whatever abilities we have while enduring hardships without fear. We are not fit to be members of the Sagely City if we retreat and refuse to regard this work as our responsibility.” Hearing what the Master said, reflecting upon my own conduct, I feel ashamed of myself. Thus, this is mostly to urge myself on, as well as to encourage the assembly. Amitabha!