Purpose of Buddhism
Many people often talk about following the Buddha. But why should we follow the Buddha? What is its basic purpose?
This is something that a Buddhist should understand. The significance and purpose of following the Buddha is to attain perfection. If we can understand thoroughly our purpose in following the Buddha and feel confident that it is essential to follow the Buddha’s teaching, then we will tread a true path and learn the essence of Buddhism rather than being side-tracked or practising incorrectly.
What is the purpose of human existence in this world? What is its meaning? We have to begin by observing ourselves to find an answer for this question. This is the only way to grasp the purpose of following the Buddha because Buddhism aims at resolving the problem of human existence. This aim may be common to all higher religions, but Buddhism gives a more complete view to the purpose of life and its meaning.
Birth and death
From the moment we were born to the day of our old age and death, several decades of our life seem to have gone in a split second. Most of us live in ignorance. Where did we come from? Where does death take us to? Nobody can answer these questions. Hence, we can only say that befuddled, we come into being, and befuddled we depart. In confusion we pass our life. More often than not, even our marriage seems a union of accident. Our life career, too, seems often a matter of muddling chance. Seldom is it the result of the execution of a plan carefully designed from the very beginning.
To follow the Buddha is to gain a clear and thorough understanding of this precarious human existence. Without this understanding, we will be like a ship sailing at random in a vast ocean from this shore towards a distant destination and such reckless sailing is extremely dangerous. Buddhism explains where life comes from, and where death leads to. It shows us what we are supposed to do now, in order to land safely on the other shore of light.
As the saying goes: "Life is like a honey-gathering bee, After collecting all the honey from myriad flowers, They age and their labour leaves them with nothing."
The benefit of persisting in doing good deeds
All religions advise people to do good deeds and refrain from doing evil. They all promote that, "we should strive to perform all good acts." But what is the benefit of doing good? What is the value of morality? We often say, "Good deeds bring about good rewards, and evil deeds harsh retribution." This is the Law of Cause and Effect. The Chinese expect kind acts to bring rewards largely to their family. They believe that if the parents do good deeds their descendants will live in abundance. Thus the saying: "House of accumulated good deeds shall be blessed with abundance." This contradicts reality! Because a kind and good family may have very wicked children. And many a wicked parent gives birth to children both filial and loyal. Our ancient Emperor Yao (who lived more than 2100 years ago) was a kind and magnanimous person. But his son Dan Zhu was notorious for his arrogance. Again, Gu Sou the Blind, father of Emperor Shun, was stupid and evil, while Emperor Shun was renowned for his filial piety. These are just a couple of examples.
Individually speaking, the wicked always find it easier to secure social reputation and power. However, more often than not, the good are down-trodden and have to lick their wounds in solitude. Was Confucius not a man of high moral and great erudition? Yet, he was nearly starved to death when he was travelling around the warring states in China. Neither did his political ideals met with appreciation. On the other hand, the notorious robber Dao Zhi had practically everything his way at the time. Then how can we say that there is a inexorable law governing reward and retribution of good and evil acts? What is the reason for us to perform good deeds? We can only answer these questions by the Law of Three Birth (past, present and future lives) and Cause and Effect.
Hence, "All religions advise people to do good deeds." In this, their motives are the same, but Buddhism draws a different conclusion. In following the Buddha, we persist in the performance of good deeds. May be our present circumstances are unfavourable and frustrating, but once our good karma (deeds) ripen, they will naturally bear good fruit. If we can perceive the world in this light, then and only then can we consider ourselves to have grasped the spirit of Buddhism.
There is no peace when the mind is not at rest
This restless mind is indeed a source of great suffering. Our mind is at all times craving for satisfaction from external objects: beautiful sights, music, luxurious commodities, profits, fame and power. Why should it be so? Because we seek contentment.
If we live without food and clothing, we will need to obtain money in order to solve the problem of livelihood. But once we have enough food and clothing, we will still be dissatisfied. This time we will seek for food and clothing of better quality. We will want stylish sedans to drive, and a magnificent mansion to live in. When we have all these, we will still remain dissatisfied. The human mind is just like that, forever seeking, never contented. It runs like a galloping horse, no sooner than its rear feet touch the ground, its fore feet are already in the air. Never will its four feet land at the same time.
A discontented mind always feels that the other person has all the advantages. Actually, it is not so. Scholars are discontent because they always seek more knowledge. Even kings who possess unlimited authority are not satisfied and they too have inexpressible sufferings of their own. If we do not find contentment, we will never have peace and happiness. Thus we say, "We have to be content in order to have peace and happiness." Yet the fact remains that the human mind can never be content. So how can there be peace and happiness? Religions in general try to give people comfort and make them content. Giving comfort may also be considered a common denominator of most religions. Some religions preach salvation through faith and say that salvation will naturally bring contentment and peace of mind. However, they can be seen to treat adults like children That is, they will give "toys" to the children if the latter obey their guidance and refrain from crying. In fact the problem remains unsolved, because a discontent mind cannot be satisfied by external gifts.
Buddhism shows us the significance of birth and death, and what we gain by keeping ourselves busy in our whole life. Buddhism also shows us the benefits of performing good deeds, and how to gain inner peace and satisfaction. We must investigate life from these points of view before we can grasp the core of Buddha-dharma. Only then can we acquire true peace and happiness.
A product of heaven and earth?
The Chinese view of the human position in the universe seems more reasonable than that of some other religions. Chinese claim that heaven and earth give birth to the human, or that we are the product of the union of yin (the negative principle) and yang (the positive principle). Heaven here stands for the metaphysical or spiritual constituents of the human, while earth represents the physical or corporeal elements. Heaven and earth give birth to all beings. However humans are the only ones endowed with the essence of the natural principles, and are called the most intelligent of all beings. Humans are so great that we are sometimes equated with heaven and earth, and all these three are then called the "Three Potentials".
Thus, the human, standing between heaven and earth, is most noble. This concept is quite different from the Western master-servant relationship. However, can all human beings be equated with heaven and earth? No! Only the saints are capable of assisting heaven and earth in the evolution and development of the world. In addition, Chinese also say, "Heaven and Earth evolve without a mind. The saints, however, suffer with the myriad beings." All these statements serve to indicate the greatness of the saints.
It is a spontaneous act for heaven and earth to give birth to myriad beings. It is a natural phenomenon. It differs to God’s creation of the world because Creation is an act of will. Let there be life! And life there is. When we look at the world from a positive perspective, everything is lovely; flowers in blossom, the singing birds, every single plant and every blade of grass is beautiful. However, if we look at it from a negative perspective, we see big worms eat little worms, and big fish eat little fish. Everyone is hurting and killing each other. We see the scenes of mutual destruction. Is mutual destruction also the purpose of creation?
Confucianism says that the myriad beings are mindless. They are mutually destroying and conflicting; and also mutually assisting and complementing each other. The saints cannot disregard all these happenings and want to share the sorrow of the myriad beings. Heaven and earth represent the natural existence, and the saints and sages represent the humanistic and moral forces.
When the saints see mankind engaged in mutual destruction, they would advocate kindness, love and peace. When they see the masses live in ignorance, they would educate them to behave well. When there is no morality in the world, they would advocate moral disciplines. Everything that is bad in this world, the saints would try their utmost effort to improve it and uplift it to eventual perfection. In this way do all saints assist heaven and earth in their evolution and development.
This concept is more logical than that of some religions, owing to the concept that heaven and earth, or yin and yang, give birth to the human. The Chinese religio-cultural system is one of father-son relationship. The family system is patriarchal (i.e. father is the head of the family). Politically, the king considers his subjects his children, and people call the local magistrate as their "Parent-Officer". In a father-son cultural system, sentiments carry more weight than reason. It differs to master-servant system, as law predominates, the world is harsh and relentless.
To follow the Buddha is an advancement in life
In order to understand the basic purpose of following the Buddha, we must first recognise the value of human existence that we are playing a leading role in the universe. Having recognised this value, we can determine the correct direction of the path to head towards. It is ourselves who cause the human suffering and happiness, and the commotion and tranquillity in the world. There is no external authority who govern our lives. Since we possess such a initiative power, therefore we can uplift ourselves to perform wholesome acts.
To be progressive is to perform wholesome acts step by step until we reach the summit of ultimate truth. This is the purpose of following the Buddha. It is human nature for us to look up to the good. Unless we are confronted with failures in our lives and we are losers, then we may be low in our spirits. Once we give ourselves up we might as well be the scum of the community, but there are not many people acting this way, and there are many opportunities lying ahead waiting for us to discover them and improve ourselves.
"Average" people consider that good things in life consist of a happy family with many children, good health, wealth and holding high social positions, and this is certainly true to some extent. But according to Buddhism, these are good fruits, not the good seeds. If we want to continue to enjoy the good fruits then we must not be content with what we have at the time. This is because good times will eventually come to an end. Only by accumulating good seeds (performing wholesome acts) can we maintain and progress towards a better life.
This may be compared to our actions when we see a beautiful flower. Our greed urges us to pluck it so that it becomes ours instead of taking care and cultivating it. In this way, we may have possession of the flower but we will soon lose it as it is impermanent. In addition, it is also a wrong deed.
Although some people acquire wealth and social status within reasonable means, they exploit others’ benefits to their advantage. This is because they lack the understanding of the spirit of progressive life. Worse still, they do not establish the right outlook of progressive life.
Some people say, "I do not want to follow the Buddha nor attain Buddhahood. All I want is to be a good person". This is not a right attitude. As the ancient saying goes: "If we follow the best examples, we may end up as moderately good examples. If we follow the moderately good examples, then we may end up even below these". It is right to start following the Buddha by becoming a good person but if we are content in only trying to be good persons, then we may end up as not being such good persons after all. Therefore, to follow the Buddha is not just to be a good person, but we must set up a noble objective to strive to accomplish. And accomplish we must, if not in this time, then we should realise the objective in the future.
Most people think that it is good enough for them to be good persons. They do not approve of setting goals of uplifting themselves. The mentality of "muddling along" cannot help them to improve themselves and make any progress in their lives. If this is the mentality of the nation or the people, then there is a crisis of degeneration. Most high religions set a long-term promising goal. When we see the goal far in front of us, we will long for it and admire it, and before we accomplish it, we will constantly improve and uplift ourselves. Then these are the real benefits that are yielded when we take up and practise a religion.
The essential practice and understanding in following the Buddha
In practising Buddhism from establishing faith to experiencing enlightenment, there are stages of "understanding" and "practice". The terms "practice" and "understanding" are self-explanatory. But there are infinite numbers and boundless ways of understanding and practising Buddhism. Now I will expound only the two most essential points. Regarding "understanding", we must know two things. Firstly, continuity of birth and death, secondly, mutual accretion of all entities.
Continuity of birth and death explains that the life is impermanent and continuous. This is consistent with the truth that all phenomena are impermanent. From childhood to old age, life is continuously changing. Although it is constantly changing, the state in the future is different to the present, the life forms of the present and future are forever inter-connecting, thus life maintains its seemingly identical and continuous individuality.
In a broad sense, death in this life marks the beginning of the next new life. Death is not the end of all existence. For example, when we go to bed tonight, we will wake up tomorrow morning again. Having understood this truth, then we can deeply believe in the Law of Conservation of Karmic Fruit (conditions of rebirth depending on previous karmic conduct). In terms of present time, the success or failure of our undertakings will depend on whether we receive proper upbringing and schooling. In addition, if we do not make an effort at young age to learn and master a skill, or we are not hard at work, then we will have no means to make a living at older age.
Extending this simple principle, it shows that if we do not behave well and fail to cultivate blessed-rewards in this life, then we will face unfavourable living conditions in our future rebirths. In other words, we have to behave well this life so that in future rebirths we will be better off, more intelligent and happy. This fact of continuity of birth and death, and the truth that every phenomenon is impermanent will help us to make an effort to uplift ourselves.
Now we come to mutual accretion of all entities. Here accretion means strengthening or growth through mutual dependence. No person can live independently in a society, as there must be mutual dependence and support among individuals. For example, young children depend on their parents for upbringing and guidance and when the parents grow old, they in turn, will need the support and care from their children. By the same token, all branches of activities in the society, such as agriculture, industry, commerce, politics, depend on the others for its growth.
According to Buddhism, in the universe we have an intimate relationship with all sentient being residing in all dharma-realms (forms of existence). It is possible that other sentient beings have been our parents, brothers and sisters in the infinite past. Due to the influence of karma, our living existence and circumstances now differ to that of the past, therefore we do not recognise each other. When we gain an understanding of mutual accretion, then we can cultivate the virtue of helping and loving each other. This in turn will lead us to a harmonious and happy co-existence with others. Otherwise, we can never achieve world peace and personal happiness if we harm each other, cheat each other, and kill each other. Thus we can play an active role in this world. If we wish to turn this impure world into a pure land, then it depends on whether or not we can start to lead a harmonious and happy life with our fellow sentient being of this world.
Regarding the methods of practice, although there are many, principally they are: purification of one’s mind and performance of altruistic acts. To follow the Buddha is to hold the Buddhas and the Bodhisattvas as our ideal objective to attain. Our chief aim is the accretion of blessed-rewards, virtues, and wisdom. But we cannot acquire these without practising what the Buddha has taught. The major tenet of practising Buddhism is the purification of our own minds. Since the beginning of time we have deluded our minds with greed, aversion, heterodox views (perverted views), arrogance, and doubt. They all serve as obstacles to prevent us from performing wholesome acts to profit ourselves and others. Thus, to follow the Buddha we must first purify our minds.
The purification of our minds does not require us to abandon all worldly affairs, do nothing and think nothing. We should do and think (i.e. contemplation) anything that is appropriate, however, we should cultivate a wholesome mind to act and think in accordance to the truth so that we can profit ourselves and others. These practices are similar to removing the weeds in a garden. Not only must we totally uproot the weeds so that they will not grow again, but also we must plant flowers and trees for everyone to enjoy and appreciate. Hence, Buddhism states that the practice of concentration (dhyana) alone is not sufficient to solve the problems of birth-and-death. We must cultivate both concentration and wisdom at the same time, and sever the mental defilement to attain the fruits of enlightenment. Buddha-dharma states, "All sentient beings are pure if our minds are pure. The world is pure if our minds are pure." These revelations teach the dharma practitioners to purify themselves first. Then they should extend this purification to the world and other sentient beings. Mind-purification is the essential practice among all schools of Buddhism.
Next we can talk about the altruistic acts. According to the principle of mutual accretion, an individual cannot exist away from the masses. In order to find happiness and security for ourselves, we must first seek security and happiness for the masses. In terms of a family, you are one of its members, and in respect to a society, again you are one of its members. Only when the family is happy and secure can you find happiness and security for yourself. If everyone in society is peaceful and happy, then you will have real peace and happiness. This is similar to the observation of sanitary practices. If you care only for the cleanliness within your home, and pay no attention to the sanitation of the surrounding environment, then such sanitation is not thorough.
Thus, in the view of Mahayanists, practises that emphasis on self-benefit and self-liberation only are not ultimate, they are only expedient paths.
The Bodhisattvas emphasise altruistic acts. Altruism is always the first and foremost intention of their every word, every act, every where and every time. Purification of the mind is common to the two-vehicles (Sravakas and Pratyeka -Buddhas) and to put highest emphasis on acts of altruism is a special feature of Mahayana Buddhism. This is a practice that conformed with the spirit of the Buddha’s teachings.