《Buddhism as an Education》

Venerable Master Chin Kung (淨空法師)

 

CHAPTER FOUR:THE METHODOLOGY AND SYMBOLISM OF THE   BUDDHIST EDUCATIONAL SYSTEM

The Continuing Education System for Teachers   

The continuing education system for teachers was first established by Buddha Shakyamuni. Many   of his students were well accomplished under his instruction. Every year, these students were assigned   to teach at different places for nine months. In India,   the rainy season runs from mid-April to mid-July.   Since it was inconvenient to travel and teach during   those three months, all the students would come   back to meet with the Buddha to receive additional   teachings and to learn from each other in class discussions.

This was called the summer retreat and it   parallels what is currently known as continuing education for teachers. The modern continuing educational system is necessitated by the advancement in   technology. However, twenty-five hundred years   ago, Buddha had already adopted this idea in   bringing his students back for additional teachings.

The Artful Buddhist Teaching  

Buddhist teaching is full of artistic expressions. It   was originally an education, which combined what  was equivalent to today's museum and school system. Therefore, the "Si" combined the traditional   school, library and museum. In ancient China, the   traditional school system was not universal. Most students went to a "Si" to study because it usually had a   complete collection of books, similar to today's library. The collections included not only sutras, but   also almost every kind of publication. The monks   were familiar with Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism   and ancient Chinese texts. They were capable of   answering questions and were well versed on various   subjects. Consequently, Buddhist institutions began   to take over the educational mission for China.

Typical Buddhist buildings are expressions of art,   which are called "Expressions of Buddhism." However, Buddha and Bodhisattva statues do not repre  sent polytheism(多神論), the worship of more than one god.   Each statue serves to inspire wisdom and awakening   in each of us. They also represent certain aspects of   Buddhism, which remind practitioners of the particular topic of teaching.

For example, Guan Yin    Bodhisattva(觀世音菩薩), the most popular Bodhisattva in China,   represents Infinite Compassion. When we see this   statue, it reminds us to apply compassion when   dealing with the world, its people and surroundings.   However, people nowadays worship Guan Yin Bodhisattva as a god and pray for the relief of suffering   and to eliminate obstacles. This is a superstitious view   and misconception because people forget the fact   that the statues are expressions of concepts in Buddhism.

Buddhist architecture is also an artistic expression, with the temple's main cultivation hall being   similar to a large meeting or teaching hall. From the   exterior, it appears to have two stories, but there is   only one story inside. The external two stories represent "absolute truth" or the true reality of life and the   universe, and "relative truth" or worldly views still   clouded with delusion. The interior single story illustrates that both are the same truth. To the deluded,   the two appear distinct and different; however, to   the enlightened, they are one and the same.

In the center of the main cultivation hall, there   are three statues, one Buddha and two Bodhisattvas.   Buddha represents the true nature of the universe   and human life, which is called "Buddha nature(佛性)" or   true mind. "Buddha" is translated from Sanskrit(梵語), and   means someone who is totally enlightened. The   Buddha statue represents our original enlightenment   and the Bodhisattvas statues represent the application of our original enlightened mind. All the representations and applications are infinite and can be   classified into two categories: wisdom and practice.

For example, the Pure Land School pays respect to   the Buddha and two Bodhisattvas of the Western   Paradise. Amitabha Buddha(阿彌陀佛) (Infinite Life and Infinite   Light 無量壽、無量光) represents the infinite enlightenment that is an   intrinsic part of our nature. Bodhisattvas Guan Yin (觀世音菩薩)  and Da Shi Zhi(大勢至菩薩) (Great Strength or Mahasthamaprapta) respectively portray compassion with   kindness(慈悲) and great wisdom(智慧). We should be compas sionate and kind toward all beings. Our thoughts,   views and behavior should be rational rather than   emotional, for emotional behavior spells trouble.   

Therefore, we should not treat the Buddha and Bodhisattvas as gods. But will they help us? Yes, they will   by providing us with the knowledge of how to protect ourselves from delusion, thereby obtaining release from suffering. Once we have learned the   background of the artistic components in Buddhist   architecture, music and statues, we will gain an enriched experience when paying a visit to a traditional Buddhist temple.

However, nowadays many people do not understand the meaning and teachings of Buddhism. They   mistake the multi-representations of Bodhisattvas as   a sign of polytheism. What people fail to  understand   is the fact that the statues in Buddhism are teaching   aids and not statues of gods. All Buddhas and Bodhisattvas represent our nature and cultivation of virtue.   We have infinite capabilities within our true nature    that cannot be expressed by just one single term.    Therefore, we have multiple representations; for instance, a capable person today may have many   titles on his/her business cards to show his/her positions and accomplishments.

The Buddha and Bodhisattvas are actually representations of the nature   within ourselves: Buddha, as in our true nature of   mind, and the Bodhisattvas, in our virtue of cultivation. We all possess these  qualities. Not until we   come to realize the meaning of Buddhist symbolism,    will we appreciate the sophistication and complete ness of its education.

Typical "Si" buildings are rare today. The first hall    of a "Si" is the hall of Heavenly Guardians(天王殿), also   known as Dharma Protectors. Situated in the center   of the hall, facing the front door, is Mi Le Pu Sa(彌勒菩薩)(Maitreya Bodhisattva) who is represented by the image   of the historical monk Bu-Dai(布袋和尚). Mi Le Pu Sa has a big   smile that conveys the idea that in order to truly learn   Buddhism, one should learn to be cheerful and courteous to all. He also has a huge belly that represents   fairness, flexibility, impartiality, patience and tolerance.   

Standing beside Mi Le Pu Sa are the four Heavenly Guardians(四大天王或四大金剛) or Dharma Protectors(護法神). They are symbolic guardians of the practitioners of the Buddhist   way. Whom do they protect? They protect us by   reminding us to educate ourselves and to safeguard   the proper knowledge, which we should learn. Each   guardian portrays a different aspect of thought or   action.

The Eastern Dharma Protector (東方持國天王)(holding a lute)    symbolizes responsibility and safeguards the territory,   which means that all of us are responsible for ourselves, our family, society and the country as a   whole. If each of us performs our duties well, fulfilling   our obligations, we support each other and ourselves   as well.

The Southern Dharma Protector (南方增長天王)(holding a   sword) symbolizes progress and teaches us diligence.   He emphasizes the importance of constantly cultivating and advancing our virtue, wisdom and   knowledge, and to improve performance in ourselves and our duties. This is similar to Confucian   ideas of daily self-improvement.

The Western Dharma Protector (西方廣目天王)(holding a   dragon or snake) symbolizes comprehensive vision   and knowledge gained through exposure to the   world. He represents the need to open our eyes to   observe nature and men, to refine what we see and   learn, and to distinguish good from ill.

The Northern   Dharma Protector(北方多聞天王) (holding an umbrella) symoolizes   comprehensive study and learning. Both teach ways   of practice and how to achieve the goals in responsibility fulfillment and self-improvement. As the ancient Chinese have said: "To read ten thousand   books and to travel ten-thousand miles."(讀萬卷書,行萬里路)We read to   gain more knowledge and travel to observe more   effectively. We will then be able to improve our selves and to perform our duties most effectively.

Today, people visit the Hall of Dharma Protectors   to burn incense, prostrate and offer flowers and fruit   praying for protection and safety. This is superstition All the facilities, images of Buddha and Bodhisattvas   and any offerings made are teaching tools designed   to inspire our mind and wisdomThey also serve to   remind us of the importance of being enlightened   instead of deluded, virtuous instead of deviated,   pure instead of polluted. These are the three principles of Buddhist teaching and practice.

Methods of Practicing Buddhism

The ways in practicing Buddhism are numerous,   about eighty-four thousand. Each path is different   from the others but ultimately leads to the same   goals: enlightenment, proper thoughts and view   points, and purity. As such,    all paths are equal with  out one being superior to the other. People have   different abilities and levels of accomplishment. Furthermore, they are from different environments and   should choose a path most suited to them. We can   choose any one of the three goals to concentrate   our practice on. When we achieve any one of   them, the other two will come naturally.

There are ten schools of practice in Chinese   Buddhism. Zen stresses the pursuit of the perfect   clear mind or enlightenment. The Pure Land and Ti betan Buddhism or Vajrayana school stress obtaining   the pure mind. Other schools concentrate their   practice on proper thoughts and viewpoints. Regardless of which method or school one chooses,    they all lead to the same outcome. In other words,   once we become expert in one method, we will be   come an expert in all methods.

The purity of the world comes from an individ ual's inner purity. With a pure mind, a mind without   discrimination or attachment, a higher level of wisdom arises in which the world around us  naturally   comes into harmony. By reciting the Buddha's    name, meditating, reciting sutras or mantras, and   practicing in accordance with Buddha's teaching,     one will attain enlightenment, proper thoughts and   viewpoints, and purity of mind thus becoming void of   all deluded thoughts.

On the other hand, one is totally on the wrong   path if one chants Buddha's name in the hope of   gaining a promotion or wealth. That is religion and   superstition, and it goes against the teaching of   Shakyamuni Buddha.

How Buddhist Terminology Illustrates that   Buddhism is an Education

Buddhism is the teaching of Buddha Shakyamuni   as he was its founder. We call Him the "Original   teacher," just like the Chinese call Confucius the   "Greatest sage and teacher." The relationship between Buddha and ourselves is a teacher-student   relationship, which is not religious in nature. In relig  ion, there is not a teacher-student relationship but   that of parent-child or master-servant.

About twenty years ago I gave a series of lectures in Fu-Ren Catholic University and taught in the   Thomas Monastery for one semester. I told my students, who were mainly priests and nuns, to take refuge in the Buddha and to learn Buddhism well.

There is absolutely no conflict between Buddhism   and religion, for one is teacher-student and the other   father-son. If the priests and nuns were to practice   Buddhism and in turn abandon their own religion, I   believe that even Buddha would not accept them,   for it is against human ethics to discard the parent for   the teacher. Therefore, religious followers will benefit   if they practice Buddhism. As we practice, we will   attain the true wisdom to know exactly what Heaven   is like and will be able to decide when and how we   want to go there. Thus, Buddhism is a way of teaching as it teaches us how to regain our true wisdom.

When a monk is called "He-Shang(和尚)," he is   equivalent to the principal in today's school, for he is   the director of educational strategies. All other faculty members are teachers who execute the principal's educational strategies and act as role models   for the students' behavior and speech.

My late   teacher, Professor Fang constantly assured me that   Buddhism is an education. Later in my studies of the   sutras, I reaffirmed his statement that Buddhism is the   pinnacle of the world's wisdom. It provides the   greatest enjoyment for humankind. I have experienced the unsurpassable joy of being free from af  flictions, delusions and wandering thoughts. My   body and mind are clean and pure, totally at ease. I   am the happiest person in the worid.

Therefore, I feel   indebted to Professor Fang, for without him, I would   not have learned Buddhism nor would I have such   complete happiness derived from practicing Buddha's teaching.

 

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