Chapter 6 Common Buddhist Misunderstandings ( Suffering/Emptiness/Out Wordly ‘Supra-mundane’ and other misunderstandings) from the Selected Translations of Miao Yun ,Book 1
( Master Yin Shun ’s English translations)
Common Buddhist Misunderstandings
It has been more than one thousand and nine hundred years since Buddhism spread to China. Thus, the relationship between Buddhism and China is very close. The development of Buddhism influenced, and was influenced by Chinese culture. In fact Buddhism became a religion of the Chinese.
Buddhism originated from India, and the special characteristics of the Indian culture were sometimes not easy for the Chinese to understand. The Chinese traditions influenced and modified some of the practices, and these deviated from the teaching of the Buddha. As a result, there are unfortunately many misunderstandings about Buddhism in China among the Buddhists and non-Buddhists.
It is very easy to misunderstand Buddhism if one knows nothing about its origins. Some followers may practice the cultural rituals without ever knowing Buddha’s teachings. As a consequence, those who believe in “Buddhism” may not really be following the Buddha’s teachings, and those who criticise Buddhism may not actually be criticising what the Buddha taught. So I hope this talk may help everyone gain a better understanding!
1. Misunderstanding that arises from the teachings.
The theory of the Buddha’s teaching is very profound. Some people do not understand its meanings and may only know it superficially. After listening to a few phrases, they may start to explain to the others in their own way. As a result, some explanations people tell, may not be accurate teachings of the Buddha. The most common misunderstandings are about the teachings: “life is suffering”, “out-worldly” and “emptiness”. So now lets discuss these terminologies separately:
a) Life is suffering
The Buddha told us that “Life is Suffering”. One who does not understand the Truth of this may think that life is meaningless and become negative and pessimistic. Actually, this theory is commonly misunderstood. People in society and even some Buddhists are trapped in this wrong and gloomy view.
When we encounter phenomena, and have a feeling of dislike, worry or pain, we say that there is “suffering”. This should not be generalised to “all life is suffering”, because there is also a lot of happiness in life! Noises are disturbing but nice melodies bring happiness. When one is sick, poor, separated from loved ones, one has suffering. But when one is healthy, wealthy, together with one’s family, one is very happy. Suffering and happiness exist in all phenomena. Actually where there is happiness, there will be suffering. They are in contrast with each other. If’ we only say that life is suffering when things do not go according to our wish we are rather foolish.
The Buddha says, “Life is suffering”. What does “suffering” mean? The sutras say: “Impermanence therefore suffering”. Everything is impermanent and changeable. The Buddha says that life is suffering because it is impermanent and ever-changing. For example, a healthy body cannot last forever. It will gradually become weak, old. sick and die. One who is wealthy cannot maintain one’s wealth forever. Sometimes one may become poor. Power and status do not last as well, one will lose them finally. From this condition of changing and instability, although there is happiness and joy, they are not ever lasting and ultimate. When changes come, suffering arises.
Thus, the Buddha says life is suffering. Suffering means dissatisfaction, impermanence and imperfection. If a practising Buddhist does not understand the real meaning of “suffering” and think that life is not perfect and ultimate, they become negative and pessimistic in their view of life. Those who really understand the teaching of the Buddha will have a totally different view. We should know that the theory of “Life is suffering” taught by the Buddha is to remind us that life is not ultimate and lasting, and hence we should strive towards Buddhahood — a permanent and perfect life.
This is similar to one who is sick. One must know that one is sick before wanting to seek the doctor’s treatment. Only then can the sickness be cured. Why is life not ultimate and permanent and full of suffering? There must be a cause for the suffering. Once one knows the cause of suffering, one will try one’s best to be rid of the causes, and hence end the suffering and attain ultimate peacefulness and happiness.
A practising Buddhist should practice according to the Buddha’s instruction, and change this imperfect and non-ultimate life to a ultimate and perfect one. Then would come a state of permanent joy, personality, and purity.
Permanent means ever-lasting, joy means peacefulness and happiness, personality means freedom and non-attachment, purity means cleanliness. This highest aim of Buddhism is not only to break through the suffering of life but to transform this suffering life into a life that has permanent peacefulness, joy, freedom and purity. The Buddha told us the cause of suffering and instructed us to strive towards the goal. The stage of permanent, joy, personality and purity is an ultimate ideal phenomena. It is full of brightness and hope. It is a stage that is attainable by all of us. How can we say that Buddhism is negative and pessimistic?
Although not all practising Buddhists are able to attain this highest point of practice, there is still boundless benefit in knowing this theory. Most people know that they have to strive to do good when they are poor, but once they become rich, they forget about everything, and only think about their own enjoyment and hence walk towards the wrong path foolishly.
A practising Buddhist should remember to strive not only when one is poor and in difficulties, but should also be mindful when one is enjoying, because happiness is not permanent. If one does not strive towards the good, they will degenerate and fall very quickly. The teaching of “Life is suffering” reminds us not to look forward for enjoyment only and go the wrong way. This is the important implication in the teaching of “Life is suffering”, taught by the Buddha.
b. “Out worldly” (Supra mundane)
The teaching of Buddha tells us that there is this world and the world beyond this. Many people think that this world refers to the world that we are living in and the world beyond this is some place outside this world. This is wrong. We are living in this world and we remain here even if we become monks or nuns. The Arahats, Bodhisattva and Buddha are saints who have realisations beyond this world but they are still living in this world and giving assistance to us. Thus, “out-worldly” does not mean that one has to go away from this world and go to another place.
What does “worldly” and “out-worldly” mean in Buddhism? According to the Chinese understanding “worldly” has the implication of time. For example, the Chinese regard thirty years as an “age” and in the West, a hundred years make up a century. Anything that exists within the time frame, from the past to the present and from the present to the future, is the “world”.
The teaching of the Buddha is also as such. That which is changeable is called “worldly”. Within this time frame, from the past to the present, from the present to the future, from existence to non-existence, from good to bad, everything is changing continuously. Anything that is changing is called “worldly”. Besides, the word “worldly” also has the meaning of concealment. Normal people do not understand the cause and effect of the past, present and future. They do not know where they come from, how to behave as a human being, where to go after death, the meaning of life and the nature of the universe. They live ignorantly under the influence of the karma of the three births. This is called “worldly”.
What does “out-worldly” (supra mundane) mean? “Out” has the meaning of beyond or superior. One who practices the teaching of the Buddha, has wisdom and is able to understand the truth of the life and universe; has no defilements and is pure in one’s mind; and experiences the permanent Truth is called the “out-worldly” one. All the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are living in this world. They have great wisdom in seeing the Truth and their minds are pure. They are not like the normal “worldly” people.
Thus, the term “out-worldly” encourages all of us who are practising the Buddha’s teaching to progress further and become the man above the men, to improve ourselves from a worldly person to an out-worldly saint. It is not asking us to go to another world. Misunderstanding “out-worldly”, some think that the principle of Buddhism is to run away from reality.
The Buddha says that everything is “empty”. Some think that this is empty, that is empty, or everything is empty. Since everything is empty, and meaningless, one does not need to do either evil or good. These people understand the concept vaguely, and lead an aimless life. In fact, “emptiness” in Buddhism is the most profound philosophy. The Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are the people who have realised the truth of emptiness. “Emptiness” does not mean nothing at all, in contrast, it includes everything. The world is world, life is life, suffering is suffering, happiness is happiness, everything does exist.
In Buddhism, there is clear teaching as to what is right or wrong, good or evil, or cause and effect. One should turn away from the wrong one and redirect to the right one, refrain from evil and do more good. Those who do good will gain good effect, and if one practices one may attain Buddhahood. This is the cause and effect. If we say that everything is empty, then why are we practising the teaching of the Buddha? If there exist the karma, good and evil, worldly people and saint, then, why does the Buddha say that everything is empty? What is the meaning of emptiness?
Things exist due to causes and conditions and do not have a real and unchangeable identity of itself. Thus, they are “empty”. The right and wrong, good and evil, and the life are not permanent and unchangeable. They exist due to causes and conditions. Since their existence is dependent on causes and conditions, they continue to change with the changes of the causes and conditions. They do not have a permanent form, and therefore they are “empty”.
For example, when one is facing a mirror, there will be an image in the mirror. The image is produced by various conditions. It is not a real thing. Although it is not real, it is very clear when we see it. We cannot say that it does not exist. The concept of “emptiness” relies on this truth that things arise due to causes and conditions. Thus, when the Buddha says that everything is empty, he is implying that everything arises due to causes and conditions. A practising Buddhist must realise and experience emptiness and understand the existence of the Law of cause and effect, good and evil. The perfect realisation of the two truths is that emptiness and existence are equivalent.
2. Misunderstanding that arises from the system
Buddhism originated from India. Its custom were different from the traditional customs of China. For example, the understanding of the aspects of renunciation and vegetarianism were different.
a) To renounce (To take the vows of a monk or nun)
To renounce is a custom in Indian Buddhism. In Chinese society, especially for the Confucianists, there are a lot of misunderstandings about this.
In China, we always hear that, if everyone practised the teaching of the Buddha, then this world would become extinct. Why is it so? Because everyone would become monks or nuns (celibate). There would be no husband and wife, nor son and daughter. How then could society survive?
This is a very serious misunderstanding. There is an example: The teachers teach the students. Will they encourage everyone to be a teacher, and therefore develop a world of teachers? In the Philippines, there is not much misunderstanding about this because there are Fathers and Sisters everywhere. They have also taken vows, but they are only the minority among the Catholics. Not all Catholics must be a Father or Sister.
For the Buddhists, there are the renounced ones and the lay people. One can practise Buddhism by renouncing, or as a lay person. One can practise in order to end the cycle of life and death by renouncing, and can also achieve the same aim by practising at home. It is not necessary for Buddhists renounce themselves. It is also not true that if everyone became a Buddhist, the world of the humans would become extinct. The question now will be, if one can attain the aim of ending the cycle of life and death by either practising as a lay person or as renounced follower, then why must one to renounce? This is because, in order to promote and encourage the spread of Buddhism, someone has to take the responsibility. The best person to take charge of this responsibility will be the renounced monks or nuns, as they do not have family responsibilities and are not involved in other work duties. Hence, they can concentrate more on their practice and the spreading of Buddhism. In order to prolong the existence of Buddhism in this world, we need these type of people to take responsibility. This is also the reason for the formation of the Sangha, the community of renounced ones.
How great is the merit of renouncing? The merit of renunciation is very great. However, those who cannot renounce should not force themselves to do so. If one cannot practise in line with the teaching of the Buddha after renouncing, it is worse then a lay follower. The higher one climbs, the worse will one fall. The merit of renouncing oneself is great, but if one is careless, one will deteriorate even more. One should develop one’s mind sincerely, practise diligently and sacrifice oneself for Buddhism. Then renunciation will be worthwhile. The Sangha (the renounced monks or nuns) are the centre members of Buddhism, they are the main force in the motivation of Buddhism.
The practice of not getting married can also be found in the Western religions. A lot of scientists and philosophers also remain single so that they will not be disturbed by the matters in the family, and hence they can concentrate more on their studies and contribute more to the development of science and philosophy.
The practice of renunciation in Buddhism is to get rid of one’s worldly attachment, and hence concentrate more on Buddhism. To renounce is an act of a great person, thus, one must put in extra effort. If one renounces without proper understanding, or without pure aims, one will not gain any benefit but will obstruct the development of Buddhism.
Some people want to renounce just after they begin to practice. They think that in order to practice the teaching of the Buddha, one must renounce. This is not correct and may frighten away the others from stepping into the practice of Buddhism. This kind of thought — that one must renounce in order to practice the Buddha’s teaching, is the thought that all of us should avoid. One should recognise that it is not easy to renounce. One should first practise to be a good lay follower, practise for the sake of the Dharma, benefitting oneself and others. If one can develop one’s mind greatly and sincerely, practise the renounced way, contribute to Buddhism first before one decides to renounce, it will be better for oneself and at the same time will not create any unpleasant influence to the society.
With regards to renunciation, there are two points to mention here:
a) Some people observe the spaciousness, majestic appearance, quietness and beauty of the temples and monasteries, and this arouses their admiration to be renounced. They think that the monks and nuns who live inside there are just waiting for the offerings of the devotees and enjoying themselves. They do not need to do any work. The idioms such as “do not wake up even when the sun has risen up to three metre high”, or “cannot compare with even half-a-day’s freedom of the monk or nun” show the misunderstandings among the general people.
They do not know that the monks and nuns have their own responsibilities, they need to strive hard. When they are practising themselves, they have to “practice diligently before and after midnight”; and in terms of their duty to the devotees, they should go around to preach the teaching of the Buddha. They lead a simple and hard life, striving for the benefit of Buddhism and all beings, benefitting one and another. This is something very great. Thus, they are called the Gem of Sangha. They are not just sitting there waiting for the devotees offerings, waiting for things which are ready and never do anything. May be it is because of too many monks or nuns who are not fulfilling their responsibilities that leads to this misunderstanding.
Some people who are against Buddhism say that the monks and nuns do nothing, they are parasites of society and are useless. These people do not know that it is not necessary for one to be engaged in the work force of agriculture or business in order to be considered productive. If it is so, then are people who choose to be teacher, reporter or other occupations also considered as the consumers of society’s output too?
It is not right to say that the monks or nuns have nothing to do. They lead a simple and hard life and striving diligently everyday. The things that they do, besides benefitting themselves, is to teach others to do good, to emphasise moral values and practices, so that the personality of the devotees can be improved, leading them to the end of the cycle of life and death. They bring great benefit to the people in the world. Thus, how can we say that they are the parasites that are doing nothing?
The monks and nuns are religious teachers. They are profound and respectful educators. Thus, the saying of those who have no understanding on Buddhism, that the monks and nuns are doing nothing and are the parasites wasting society’s money are in fact wrong. A person who really leads a renounced life is in fact not free, they are not mere consumers but are busily repaying their gratitude to all living beings whenever they can.
b) Chinese Buddhism emphasises a vegetarian diet. Thus, some people thought that one who practises Buddhism must be a vegetarian. People who cannot stop eating meat misunderstood that they are not ready to start to learn about Buddhism. If we look around at the Buddhists in Japan, Sri Lanka, Thailand or Tibet and Mongolia, not to mention the lay followers, we find even the monks and nuns have meat in their diet. Can you say that they are not practicing the Buddha’s teaching? They are not Buddhists?
Do not think that one must be a vegetarian in order to learn about the teaching of the Buddha and that one cannot practise Buddhism if one cannot be a vegetarian. To practice Buddhism and be a vegetarian are not the same thing. Some people who become a Buddhist, do not learn much about the teachings but only know how to be a vegetarian. This causes unhappiness among the members of the family. They feel that it is too troublesome to be a vegetarian.
In fact one who is practising the teaching of the Buddha should: – after becoming a Buddhist – first understand the teaching of the Buddha and behave according to the teaching in both the family and the society. Purifying one’s conduct and mind, so that the members of the family feel that one has changed for the better should be the goal. If before becoming a Buddhist, one was greedy, has strong hatred and lacked of a sense of responsibility and loving kindness; and after practising the Buddha’s teaching, one becomes less greedy, less paranoid and shows more care to the others with a stronger sense of responsibility, then the members of the family would see the benefit of practising the Buddha’s teaching. At that time, if one wants to be a vegetarian, the family members would not object to it. In fact, they may also be encouraged to have sympathy towards other living beings and follow one to be a vegetarian. If one only knows to be a vegetarian after becoming a Buddhist and does not learn about others, one will surely encounter obstacles and cause misunderstanding.
Although it is not necessary for a Buddhist to be vegetarian, it is a good moral conduct in the Chinese Buddhism and is something that should be promoted. The teaching of the Buddha says that becoming a vegetarian will cultivate one’s loving kindness and compassion. By not harming the life of other living beings, not eating the meat of the other animals one will reduce one’s karma of killing and strengthen one’s sympathy towards the sufferings of Mankind. Mahayana Buddhism advocates the practice of vegetarianism, and says that to be a vegetarian has great merits in cultivating one’s mind of loving kindness and compassion. If one becomes a vegetarian but does not cultivate the mind of loving kindness and compassion, it is only a practice of no killing in a pessimistic way. It resembles the practice of the Hinayanist.
From the view point of the worldly Dharma, the benefit of becoming a vegetarian is very great. It is more economical, highly nutritious and may reduce illness. In the world at present, there are international vegetarian organisations. Everyone who likes to be a vegetarian may join them. Thus, it can be seen that it is good to be a vegetarian. And as Buddhist who emphasises compassion, we should advocate the practice more to others. However, one thing to note is that, do not claim that a Buddhist must be a vegetarian. Whenever meeting with a Buddhist, some will ask: have you become a vegetarian? Why are you still not a vegetarian after practising the Buddha’s teaching for so long? This will frighten some people away. To regard practising Buddhism and becoming a vegetarian as the same will in fact obstruct the spreading of Buddhism.
3. The misunderstanding that arises due to the observances
When non-Buddhists visit the monastery and see observances such as paying respect to the Buddha, intoning the sutras, repenting and the morning and evening chanting, they cannot understand the meaning behind them and comment that these are superstitious acts. There are many misunderstanding within this category. Now, lets briefly mention some of them:
a) To pay respects to the Buddha
To pay respects to the Buddha when entering the monastery, to offer incense, flowers, candle and light to the Buddha are the observances of the Buddhist. The Theistic followers say that we are idol worshippers and superstitious In reality, the Buddha is the master of our religion, he is the saint who has attained the perfect and ultimate stage by practising from the stage of a worldly being. The great Bodhisattvas are the Buddhas to be. They are our guides and indicators of refuge. We should be polite in showing respect to the Buddha and Bodhisattva just as when we show respect to our parents. When the Buddha was still in this world, there was no problem. One could show one’s respect to him directly. However, now that the Sakyamuni Buddha has already entered final Nirvana; and the Buddha and Bodhisattva of the other worlds are not in our world, we have no way to pay respects. Thus, we have to use paper to draw, ceramic, wood or stone to carve their images, to be the object of our worship. It is because of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas, merits and images that we are paying our respect to them, and not because of they are the paper, earth wood or stone.
It is similar to the way we respect and love our country. We use coloured cloth and make it into a flag. When the flag is flying, we pay respects to the flag. Can we say that this is also a superstitious act? The Catholics also have images in their church. The Christians, have no image of the God, but use the “cross” as the image for them to pay respect to. Some even kneel down and say their prayer. What is the difference between these acts and the paying of respects to the Buddha? To say that the paying of respects in Buddhism is idol worshipping, is just the intentional defamation of some people.
What about the offerings of fragrance flowers, light and candle? During the Buddha time, the Indians offered these to the Buddha. Light and candle represent brightness, flowers represent fragrance and cleanliness. We believe in the Buddha and pay respect to the Buddha. The offering of these things to the Buddha is to show our respect and faith. On the other hand, it means the gaining of brightness and purity from the Buddha. We do not offer flowers and incense so that the Buddha smells the fragrance; or offer light and candle so that the Buddha can see everything.
Some religions, for example the Catholics, also use these things in their offerings. These are in fact the common observances among the religions. When we are paying respect to the Buddha, we should be respectful and sincere and contemplate on the merits of the real Buddha. If one thinks of other things or talks while paying respect to the Buddha, it is not respectful and loses the meaning of the act of paying respect.
b) To repent
The non-Buddhist or free thinkers always feel that it is an act of superstition when they see Buddhists repent or chant. To repent is to admit one’s mistake. Everyone of us, from the past until the present, have committed countless wrong and evil deeds. We have left behind the karma that brings us sufferings and obstructs our progress towards enlightenment and freedom. In order to reduce and get rid of this karma that is obstructing and bringing suffering to us, we should repent in front of the Buddha or the Sangha and admit our mistakes, so that the past evil karma can be reduced. There are methods of repentance in Buddhism and these are equivalent to the confession’ in Christianity.
This practice is very important for us to progress further along the path of Buddhahood. One must repent for oneself with great sincerity. Then this repentance can be beneficial and comply with the teaching of the Buddha.
People generally do not know how to repent. So, what should we do? The great masters in the past thus compiled some procedures and observances that one could follow if one wants to repent. They taught us to chant word by word, contemplate and understand the teaching behind it. The services of repentance teaches us how to pay respect to the Buddha, seeking for the Buddha and the Bodhisattvas, loving kindness and compassionate protection. We should admit our own mistakes, knowing that killing, stealing and adultery are evil deeds, sincerely repenting our past evil deeds and be determined to practice for a better future. These are the procedures of repentance taught by the great masters in the past. However, the most important aim of these services is to develop one’s mind to correcting oneself and repent sincerely for one’s past evil deeds.
Some people cannot even read the readily written procedures, hence, they invite the monks or nuns to lead them during the repentance. As time passes, it gradually turns out to be that these people do not even know that they should repent, and only employ the monks and nuns to repent for them. Some, when their parents or family members pass away, in order to release the past evil karma of the parents and the other family members, invite the monks or nuns to do a repentance service for them. They hope that relying on the merits of the Triple Gem, the death may be relieved from the realms of suffering. However, sometimes they do not understand the real purpose of the teaching and only emphasise on how big the ceremony should be; or do it for the sake of tradition, and spend money to employ the monks or nuns to do the services for them. They do not have faith in Buddhism, and do not show any sincerity in repenting themselves. In this case the purpose of these repentance services will not be achieved.
Gradually, the purpose of the services for repentance becomes vague. The Buddhist devotees do not repent and request the monks or nuns to do everything for them, As a result, the monks and nuns are busy with all these services all day; to do the service for this family today, and the next family tomorrow. And these services become the only activity in some of the monasteries, with the main task of the monks and nuns being neglected. This is one of the causes of lack of faith in Buddhism nowadays.
Repentance has to come from within. If one repents sincerely, even for just an hour, it has better merits than inviting a lot of people and conducting a few days services but not repenting oneself. If one understands this theory, and would like to show one’s filial piety to the one’s parents, the best merit will be to do the repentance oneself. It is not right to regard the services of repentance or other services as the occupation of the monks or nuns, as this will not bring any good to the society, but creates more misunderstanding and defamation for Buddhism.
c) Daily Chanting
Some people who practices the teaching of the Buddha, recite the name of the Buddha and chant the sutras every morning and evening as their daily homework. This is what we call daily chanting (prayer) in Buddhism.
In Christianity, they have morning and evening, and meal time prayer. The Catholic also chants in the morning and evening. There is nothing wrong with these religious ceremonies, but some Buddhists were concerned about these matters and asked: “Maybe it is better not to practice Buddhism. Once one practices Buddhism, problems come. My mother spends at least one to two hours each morning and evening to do her chanting. If all practicing Buddhists are like this, then who is going to do the work at home?”
Among some of the lay people, this is the real situation. They create the misunderstanding that Buddhism is only suitable for the old people and those who are free, it is not suitable for the general people to practice. In fact, it is not necessary that one must chant a specific sutra, or recite a certain Buddha’s name or to intone for a long time. One can practise according to one’s wish. The duration of the practice should depend on the circumstances and the time that one has. The important thing in the daily practices is to recite the verse of taking refuge in the Triple Gem. The “Ten Vows of the Pu Xian Bodhisattva” is also important. The Buddhism sect in Japan, such as the Pure Land sect, the Tien Tai sect and the Secret sect, which originated from China, have the daily practices of their own sect. They are simple and do not require too much time. This was the situation of Buddhism during the Tang and Song Dynasties.
The daily practice in China over the last few centuries varied:
i) In the forest monastery where there were hundreds of people, it took a long time to gather everyone together. In order to adapt to this special environment, the daily practices became longer.
ii) Since the Yuen and Ming dynasties, the different sects in Buddhism merged. Thus, in compiling the procedure of the daily practice, it included the practices of the various sects in order to suit the needs of followers. It is not necessary for a lay person now to follow all these procedures. In the older days, the Indians who practiced the Mahayana teachings practiced the Five Repentances six times per day. It does not matter if the time is shorter. The frequency of the practice may be increased.
In short, to practice the teaching of the Buddha is not to chant only; and for one who is practising at home, one should not neglect one’s responsibilities at home because of long daily practices.
d) To burn paper money after a death
The Chinese in the olden days have the tradition of burning white silk when praying to the ancestors. They burn the silk so that the ancestors may use it. They were then replaced by paper; as it is more economical. Later, they used paper to make money, ingots, notes, and even houses and cars, and burn them for their ancestors. These are generated from the traditional customs of the olden days. They are not the teachings of the Buddha.
However, there are also some good points about this. It allows the children to show appreciation to their parents. When they are drinking or eating, they think of their parents and ancestors. When they are living in good houses and wearing nice clothes, they remember their ancestors, and do not forget the help of their ancestors. This practice has the implication of remembrance. When Buddhism spread to China, in order to adapt to the Chinese culture, and for convenience sake, this practice was merged into the practice of chanting and paying respect to the Buddha. It arouses the criticism of others, and thoughts that Buddhism is superstitious and wasteful. Buddhists should understand this and should not burn paper money as this is not the teaching of the Buddha. If one still wants to keep the tradition and want to show one’s remembrance towards the ancestors, then one may burn a little at home. But do not burn them in the temple or monastery as this will create misunderstanding of Buddhism.
e) To draw lots, to ask for fortune, to divine
In some Buddhist monasteries and temple, there is misbehaviour such as drawing lots, asking for fortune, divining etc. This arouses the criticism and ire of the society, and people say that Buddhism is superstitious. In fact, true Buddhists do not allow this behaviour (whether they are effective or not is another matter). One who is really practising the teaching of the Buddha, should believe in the Law of Cause and Effect. If one has committed evil karma in the past or present lives, one will not be able to avoid the effect of it through any methods.
One who practises good acts will gain good fruit. One who does evil deeds will not be able to run away from the evil effects. In order to gain good effects, one must do more merits. A practicing Buddhist should try to do more good deeds, according to the teaching of the Buddha, and should not try to find short cuts and behave in a bad way.
4. Misunderstanding that arises from the current development of Buddhism.
Many Chinese do not understand Buddhism and its development in the international level. They criticise Buddhism on their own accord and opinion, based on the current situation of Buddhism in China. The following are two commonly heard criticisms:
a) The country will weaken and end if the people believe in Buddhism.
They think that the end of India is due to its people’s belief in Buddhism. They want China too strong and hence subjectively conclude that the people should not believe in Buddhism. In fact this is totally wrong. Those who have studied the history of Buddhism will know that the time when India was strongest was during the time when Buddhism was most popular. At the time of Emperor Asoka, he unified the whole India and spread the teaching of the Buddha to the whole world.
Later, with the revival of the Brahmana practice, Buddhism was destroyed and India became more restless each day. When India was conquered by the Muslims and the British, Buddhism has already deteriorated to the stage of near to non-existence.
Buddhism in the Chinese history also has a similar path. Now that we call the overseas Chinese the “People of the Tang”, and to call China as the “Mountain of Tang”, shows that the Tang dynasty was the strongest dynasty in the history of China. And, that is in fact the time when Buddhism was at its high peak: After the destruction of Buddhism by Emperor Tang Wu Zhong, the Tang dynasty began to deteriorate. After the Tang dynasty, the Song Emperors, Song Tai Chu, Tai Zhong, Zhen Zhong and Ren Zhong were all faithful followers of Buddhism. That was also the peak period of the Song dynasty. For the Ming Emperor, the Ming Tai Chu had had the experience of leading a renounced life, the Tai Zhong was also very faithful to Buddhism. Weren’t these the times when the country was in good order, peaceful and strong?
Although Japan is facing failure at the moment, they became one of the stronger countries in the world sometime after the Ming Zhi Revolution. Then, they were mostly Buddhist. Thus, who says that Buddhism will weaken a country? From the facts in the history, the time when a nation was strong was also the time when Buddhism was at its peak. Why are people wishing that the Chinese nation can become stronger but at the same time condemn the propagation of Buddhism?
b) Buddhism is useless to society
The Chinese this century, see the Catholic and Christians’ contribution in setting up schools and hospitals, but little is being seen to be done by the Buddhists. Hence they feel that Buddhism is pessimistic and does not contribute to the social welfare of the society. This is a wrong concept. The most that one can say is that Chinese Buddhists this century were not hard working and responsible. This is not the attitude that the Buddha taught us to have.
The Chinese Buddhist in the past also participated in the social welfare activities in the society. In Japan, Buddhists are at present setting up a lot of universities and high schools. The monks and nuns are the principals or lecturers of the universities or high schools. The charitable work of the society is also conducted and organised by the Sangha of the monastery or temple. This is especially so in Sri Lanka, Burma and Thailand. The Buddhists in these countries maintain a very close relationship with the development of education and other charitable work in the society.
Thus, one cannot say that Buddhism is not bringing benefit to the society, one can only say that the Chinese Buddhists have not fulfilled their responsibilities or acted as true followers of the Buddha. One should put more effort into these areas of charity in order to fulfil the basic teaching of the Buddha in relieving the sufferings of the world, and hence increase the popularity of Buddhism.
Unfortunately many Chinese do not understand Buddhism well. Today we have discussed some of the common criticisms. I hope this has enabled you to understand better the wisdom of the Buddha’s teachings. I hope too, that you may practise according to the Buddha’s example, rather than allowing yourself to blindly follow meaningless and perhaps, unhelpful rituals.
Translated by Neng Rong, edited by Mick Kiddle, proofread by Neng Rong. (19-6-1995)