Delivered in a joint assembly of two Catholic high schools
New York, New York
April 10, 1970
According to Webster’s dictionary, religion is “the service and adoration of God as expressed in forms of worship, in obedience to divine commands, and in the pursuit of a way of life.” There can be quite a few definitions of religion, but if the above definition is applied, then Buddhism cannot be classified as a religion because Buddhism does not teach that there is an almighty God who gives commands and whom man should obey.
Buddha is not an almighty God. Buddha was a human being born 2,514 years ago in ancient northern India, today’s Nepal. He was a prince who, at the age of twenty-nine, left his palace in search of ways to liberate human beings from suffering. He achieved complete enlightenment when he was thirty-five. For the next forty-five years, until the last minute of his life, he preached to all kinds of people, beggars and kings, without the slightest discrimination. He preached about his discovery !V the truth of the universe and the meaning of human life.
Buddha, far from being an almighty God, is an example of what human beings can achieve. The image of Buddha that one sees in a Buddhist temple serves as a memorial and as a reminder that every human being can achieve the same enlightenment that Buddha achieved. So in Buddhism such statues are not actually worshipped, but rather are respected as symbols of enlightenment.
In the Diamond Sutra, which is one of the most popular scriptures in China, Buddha made this point clear:
Whoever identifies me by any visible form,
Or seeks after me by an audible sound,
Is walking on a wrong path,
And will not be able to see the Buddha.
What did Buddha discover when he attained enlightenment? To try to answer this question would be to be like a baby tadpole who can only mimic his mother’s words. A mother frog leaves her young swimming in the pond and goes to the bank to enjoy the gentle breeze and warm sunshine of the spring day. When she returns to the pond, her babies crowd around her, yearning to learn of her experience in the great beyond. But try as she may to explain the exquisite feelings and sights on land, the young waterbound frogs cannot manage to really understand what her experience has been. They can repeat her words to themselves and others, but they will only know the true meaning when they have developed their own legs and can leap to the bank of the pond themselves. In the same way, Buddha found that human language is inadequate to describe the state of enlightenment. One has to find enlightenment by one’s own experience.
However, that does not mean that Buddha said nothing. In fact, his teachings are so enormous and rich that no one has yet been able to summarize and condense them into one book. Today I am trying to introduce to you only a few concepts which I hope will provide you with a foundation of further exploration, if you are interested.
Buddha described to us two very fundamental discoveries. His first discovery is that the world which man recognizes in daily life is only a very small section of the whole universe. It is far from complete. Because of this incompleteness, man obtains a distorted knowledge and is very much misled. The second discovery is that the human being does possess the ability to discover the complete and undistorted universe and can therefore liberate himself from all kinds of sufferings, including death, which are the results of distorted knowledge.
Before we go further into such a highly philosophical discussion, may I ask you one question? Is there anything in this open space just in front of me? If you were someone who lived a few hundred years ago, you would most likely reply: “No, it is empty. There is nothing in this space.” Today, however, most of you will have a different view. Some of you will say there is air in the space. One who has studied chemistry will go a step further by saying that there are present, oxygen, nitrogen, and possibly H2O in vapor form. A young girl of seven or eight years will not surprise you if she says: “I know there are also radio waves because the radio talks when I put it there.” A physicist will say much more, referring to atoms, electrons, cosmic rays, and many other scientific names which would puzzle even modern man. Now what does all this mean? It means that this open space is full of things and activities that the naked eye cannot detect. The human eye cannot see the complete universe. It sees a very incomplete world and so the information we are getting is very incomplete.
Let me give you another example. Would you not say that when you look at me, you are seeing a solid physical body? However, your eye is again giving you an incomplete picture. Have you ever thought that this body that stands here is actually a combination of approximately 65% water, more than 10% minerals, mainly calcium, phosphorous, and iron; about 10% gas, plus hydrocarbons and other elements? To use a currently popular term, would it not be more correct to recognize me as a mass of highly polluted water than as a solid body? But your eyes certainly do not give you that impression.
2,500 years ago, Buddha had tremendous difficulty in convincing people that their eyes did not give them a complete view of the universe and that they were misled. Today people are no longer that ignorant. When I delivered a talk (“The Five Eyes”) at the Temple of Enlightenment in the Bronx, New York last year, I presented an electromagnetic spectrum chart and showed that our naked physical eye can only detect the very small portion of the universe that we call visible light. People understood immediately that our vision is terribly limited by our physical eye.
Not only does our eye not perceive a complete picture, but our other sense organs also perform very limited functions. I refer you to my sound reception chart which gives you the range of sound frequencies detectable by various animals, including human beings, dogs, moths, and porpoises. The frequency of a sound is the number of cycles per second of a sound wave. The higher the frequency, the higher the pitch. The first thing which you probably notice is that a dog can hear much more than can a man. A dog hears sounds of frequencies between 15 and 50,000 cycles per second, but man only hears only those between 20 and 20,000. A dog can hear many high-pitched sounds that are silent to man. This is one of the reasons why certain animals have a much better chance of survival in the wild than man does. It is interesting to note that a moth is able to detect very high pitches, up to 150,000 cycles per second, which is 7.5 times the highest pitch man is able to hear. A moth’s (or a porpoise’s) world of sound must be fantastic by human standards. Thus, I believe that we can all agree that the human ear hears only a very small portion of the universe, just as the human eye sees only a very small part of it.
The three other senses of the human being contribute even less information. As a matter of fact, man’s sense organs of taste and smell are much inferior to those possessed by most animals. This is why Buddha said that the world man recognizes in daily life is only a very small section of the whole universe and is far from complete. Man’s information is most likely distorted and he can be fatally misled.
Someone might ask what is so harmful about incomplete knowledge. Some will say that a few hundred years ago men did not have the kind of knowledge about the universe that we have today, yet they survived nevertheless and most probably lived a happier life than we. This statement could well be true, but before we decide that it is, let us consider this story.
There is a famous tale in India called “The Blind Men and the Elephant.” I am sure many of you know it already. A king summoned a number of blind men who had no idea of what an elephant was. The king asked them to stand in circle around an elephant, each man touching a different part of the animal. Then the king said: “This is called an elephant. Now tell me what an elephant is like.” The blind man who touched the side of the elephant said that an elephant was like a wall. The one who grasped the long trunk was frightened and said with a trembling voice: “Oh no, it’s like a giant snake.” The blind man who examined the tail with his fingers said: “Not exactly. I would say an elephant is like a small snake or rather a rope.” Then the shortest man who was only able to hold the leg of the elephant said: “My king, an elephant is just like the trunk of a tree.”
Now may I invite your attention to a very important point: If each of the blind men realized the fact that what each touched was only a part, and not the whole elephant, and that the part each examined resembled something else, then all that the blind men said would be correct. What made them wrong was that each thought he was examining the whole elephant. Thus the findings of each become wrong, his statements incorrect, and his emotional reactions, such as fear of a giant snake, inappropriate.
The incomplete and distorted information perceived by our sense organs can be very dangerous. I can give you many examples, but will mention just a few. Man cannot avoid the flu because he cannot see the viruses in front of him, and just goes ahead and assimilates them. Man creates racial problems because of the slight differences in skin color without knowing that we are all basically the same (we all are about 65% water and are highly polluted). Man fights with others because of the conflict of interest between the subject ‘I’ and the object ‘you,’ without knowing that the distinction between ‘I’ and ‘you’ is a wrong concept which is the result of distorted and incomplete information received by our sense organs and misinterpreted by another organ – the brain.
The point I wish to get across to you is that unless we recognize the fact that we are fooled by our sense organs and by our chief of staff, the brain, we have no chance of changing the course of our lives and liberating ourselves from all human suffering, including the cycle of birth and death. As soon as one recognizes this fact, a single question naturally comes to one’s mind. How can man discover the complete universe?
Buddha, based upon his own personal experience, provided an answer to this question. This answer is the second fundamental discovery of Buddha which I said I would introduce to you. It was realized by Buddha when he reached supreme enlightenment. Records show that Buddha discovered that every man has the same basic ability (which in Buddhism is called ‘buddha-nature’) and is endowed with the capacity to know the complete and infinite universe just as Buddha experienced it. Only man’s ignorance and tenacious attachment to wrong views resulting from incomplete and distorted information prevent his basic ability (buddha-nature) from unfolding fully. However, at enlightenment, ignorance and tenacious attachment to wrong views disappear, enabling man to discover the complete universe.
You might like to ask: What is buddha-nature? Buddha-nature is precisely the very state of enlightenment which cannot be described or discussed but can only be realized by one’s own experience. We know from Buddha’s teaching that every human being, in fact every sentient being, possesses the same buddha-nature. Therefore, all sentient beings are the same. Now this point is extremely vital. Because of this fundamental understanding, Buddha taught that we must not kill. Because of this fundamental understanding, Buddha’s teaching provides a foundation of optimism, courage, compassion, and love for mankind.
Although buddha-nature is indescribable, Buddha’s teaching indicates at least two of its basic characteristics. One is freedom from attachment, and the other is freedom from limitation. Today I will only be able to give you some idea about freedom from limitation. I will say a few words about freedom from limitation in space and freedom from limitation in time.
1. Man’s basic ability has no limitation in space.
Let us examine, for example, man’s ability to hear. One of the farthest sounds man’s naked physical ear can possibly hear is thunder originating in a remote cloud. It could be several miles away. Today our belief is entirely different. We know from biology that there is no essential difference between the human ear and a mechanical or electrical device. So when the telephone was invented, the distance from which a sound could be heard was greatly increased by replacing, so to speak, the physical ear with a combination of ear and telephone. When the first Americans set foot on the surface of the moon, this distance was extended to about a quarter of a million miles by employing certain electronic devices to extend man’s physical ear. It is apparent to everyone now that there is no limit as to how far man can hear. It depends upon what kind of instrument he uses. Thus, man’s basic ability, i.e., buddha-nature, has no limitation in space.
2. Man’s basic ability has no limitation in time.
Man has known for a long time that in dreams we can see and talk with someone who is deceased, but we would say that this communication is a dream and not real life. Today, however, the practice of electrical stimulation of the brain reveals the startling fact that by stimulating certain brain cells with electrical impulses, one not only can see and hear without one’s physical eye or ear, but also can vividly recall events which occurred in the past. Furthermore, the brain cells can be activated in parallel so that a number of events can be revealed at the same time, just as when a number of electric lamps are connected in parallel, all the lamps light up when the circuit is on. Such technology bring man’s understanding a step closer to what Buddha described, i.e., that the past, present, and future can be revealed in one instant. The basic ability of human beings, our buddha-nature, has no limitation in time.
Modern science has already contributed a great deal of information to support Buddha’s discovery that man’s buddha-nature has no limitation and that man does have the ability to detect a much more complete universe than his five unaided sense organs and brain can do. Furthermore, modern science is developing more and more sophisticated theories and devices to enlarge man’s contact with, and understanding of, the universe.
At this point I wish to say a few words about modern science upon which I have so heavily relied in explaining Buddha’s teaching. Would it be possible that future developments in the field of modern science could bring human beings closer to the state of enlightenment? Could science help us to unfold our buddha-nature or basic ability, a feat which Buddha accomplished through meditation? My answer is both yes and no.
I would say yes because scientific knowledge and technological development help man greatly to understand more about the universe. For example, it is much easier for me to explain Buddha’s discoveries today. I would say no because science is still an activity within the boundaries set forth by the physical world which man recognizes. For example, velocity has a limit. Nothing can move faster than 186,000 miles per second, which is the velocity of light or electricity. Another example is absolute zero. No temperature in the universe can be colder than minus 459.7 degrees Fahrenheit. Further, there is another limit which I believe is far more serious than these physical limitations, and that is the fact that scientific activities still work within the sphere dominated by man’s brain, which always provides the concept of self. The human being is the center of all scientific activities. Like the theologians who have to work within the concept of God, the scientists have not gotten rid of the ego. Unless it can break through such limiting barriers, science will only be able to help us understand a little of what an enlightened one like Buddha said, but will not be able to bring us to the state of enlightenment. It is my humble opinion that even with today’s marvelous scientific accomplishments we still have to go through the practices Buddha taught if we wish to achieve enlightenment. However, the help of scientific knowledge is analogous to that of the steamboat by which man can reach the other shore of the vast ocean more easily than by relying on the sailboat of thousands of years ago.
What kinds of practices did Buddha teach? There are in fact, very many. One of the fundamental methods taught by Buddha is ‘dhyana.’ Again there are many variations within this broad category.
The English word ‘meditation’ is almost an equivalent of dhyana. It refers to the state of pure concentration of mind, and involves the cultivation of keen awareness, vigilance, and intuitive observation. Today I wish to introduce to you a simple meditation method. This method is called “counting the breaths.”
We breathe in and out all the time, but we are never mindful of it. When practicing this meditation method, try to count your breathing. When you breathe you sometimes take a deep breath, sometimes not. This does not matter at all. Just breathe in and out as usual without effort or strain. Count only when you breathe in, not when you breathe out. Each inhalation counts as one. When you finish counting to ten, repeat the process starting from one. Try doing this continuously for fifteen minutes every day and gradually extend the time to a longer period as you wish.
Although you may practice this in any posture, such as lying down, I recommend that you sit with your body erect. Don’t be stiff or push out your chest. Preferably you should sit cross-legged, because that is the best posture to achieve physical and mental equilibrium, but this is not a necessity. Put your hands comfortably on your lap, overlapped with thumbs touching each other. You should not lean on a wall or a chair back. You may close your eyes, or you may open them slightly and gaze without effort at the tip of your nose.
At the beginning you may find it difficult to count continuously up to ten. Very often your mind will run away, and you will lose your concentration on counting. Do not worry about it. Count from one again when you regain your awareness of counting.
I can hardly describe the vivid experience you will have on day. For a split second the counting, the breathing, yourself, and the outside world will all vanish. Only pure awareness remains. This moment will be a tremendous experience for you, full of joy and serenity. However, as soon as you regain consciousness of yourself, you will immediately lose the experience. It will take days for you to experience it again. But this kind of experience will be repeated again and again, for longer and longer periods. The clouds will begin to thin and disperse, as the sunshine penetrates here and there. A good foundation is then established, and you are prepared for advanced meditation. Enlightenment may still be far away, but the wind is now with your sail.
I have thus far introduced to you two of the Buddha’s discoveries. First, our sense organs and brain present us with an incomplete, distorted, and misinterpreted view of the universe, resulting in human misunderstanding and suffering. Second, a human being does possess the ability to discover the complete, undistorted, and true view of the universe. I have also introduced to you a practical method which one day may lead you to unfold your original ability to realize the universe completely and truly.
All this is fine, you may say to me, but it is so remote from my daily life that it is hard to comprehend. We are living in this environment no matter how incomplete and untrue. How could such highly sophisticated knowledge help us?
Dear friends, you are absolutely right, but I have one remark to make. In my limited experience, I have found many people who have doubts about the reliability of human sense organs and who have had some experiences of mystical power. Such people are like travelers at a crossroad who suddenly realize that they have found the right direction to take, even with just a little knowledge such as what I have given you today. You could be one of those persons. So try to spend a few minutes each day practicing the counting of your breaths. It is good for your physical health, relaxation, sound sleep, tranquility, and efficiency in your daily work.
In addition to meditation, I would like to give you two further suggestions. These are not the main engine of the ship, but they could be very important auxiliary engines. In fact, you are probably practicing them every day, although on a minor scale in comparison to what I am going to suggest, and you may not be aware that you are doing so.
The first suggestion is called ‘dana’ in Sanskrit, which is usually translated as ‘alms’ or ‘giving,’ but has a much broader meaning. It is very close to the ‘great love’ taught by Christ. In Buddhism there are three kinds of giving: 1) giving of material things; 2) giving of knowledge, that is, imparting proper knowledge to others to free them from suffering due to ignorance; and 3) giving of fearlessness, that is, helping others free themselves from fears, of whatever nature.
The key to giving is not – may I repeat – is not to give to others in expectation of a reward for yourself. For the enlightened ones, giving is a spontaneous action arising from compassion and love; and for us ordinary people giving is self-training aimed at reducing and eliminating our false concept of self which is the root of human suffering. As Buddha said, attachments cloud the buddha-nature, and the concept of self is the worst and most deeply rooted attachment. Egoism, is therefore, the worst hindrance to liberation. Giving is a sharp sword to kill egoism.
It is interesting to note that everyone has a ‘Great Dana’ once in his life. When I say Great Dana, I mean that one has to give up completely everything that one possesses – all power, even if one is the dictator of the most powerful country in the world; all money, even if one is a billionaire; all beauty, even if one is the most beautiful woman in the world; and everything one has, even if one is the most greedy and stingy of men.
Now what is this Great Dana? It happens at the time of one’s death. Not a single thing, no matter how small or how beloved, can we take with us. Unfortunately, very few of our fellow men realize this fact, and so the Great Dana is usually compulsory and painful. Doesn’t it make sense that such compulsion and pain could be greatly reduced if one were accustomed to giving during one’s lifetime?
The second suggestion I have to give you is a hint as to how you can free yourselves from bondage of any sort. This hint is better conveyed to you through a story so that you may make your own interpretation. It happened in China about one thousand years ago, and for better understanding I will give you some background information. At the time this story took place, the social relationships between men and women in China were very strict. You may have heard that girls seldom went out of their houses before marriage. This kind of restriction was especially enforced in Buddhist communities. In one of the sects of Buddhism at that time in China the monks were not allowed to laugh or smile at a woman. They could not touch a woman’s body or expose their chests or legs in front of a woman. If they did, they would be committing a sin. My story is as follows:
There are two monks of middle age, each of whom had had many years of study and training in a Buddhist monastery belonging to the above-mentioned sect, so they knew those precepts very well. One day they were traveling on foot. It was late afternoon when they arrived at a river. There was no bridge or ferry, but the river was shallow and they believed they would have no difficulty in wading across it. Suddenly they saw a young lady who was attempting to cross the river too, but was hesitating to step into the water. She was in trouble. One of the monks went to her and offered to help by carrying her across the river on his back. The other monk was very much surprised by what his brother monk had done. Puzzled and frustrated, he was very unhappy as he followed them to the other shore of the river. The first monk put down the lady, who thanked him and left. The two monks continued their journey. While walking, the second monk could not forget the incident. He wondered how his brother monk could violate the precepts that they had observed for so many years. What a grave sin he had committed, and even in another’s presence! Could it possibly be that he violated other important precepts when he was alone? It was about dark now and they found an abandoned temple. They were tired and went into the temple to lie down. The first monk immediately fell asleep but the second one could not. First he was frustrated, then he felt pity for his brother monk for committing such a grave sin. He tried to pray for him to reduce his sin but he imagined all kinds of things. He tossed fretfully and could not get to sleep. At about dawn, he heard the snore of sound sleep from his brother monk, and he became very angry. He mad a noise which woke the first monk. “What happened to you, my brother? Why aren’t you sleeping?” The second monk answered angrily: “Do you know what you have done? What are our precepts? How could you hold a girl on your back and wade across the river? I would not sleep because I was trying my best to pray so as to minimize your sin, but you simply don’t care and have been sleeping soundly.” The first monk replied, “Oh, you are talking about that lady. I dropped her a long time ago as soon as we crossed the river, but why do you, my brother, still carry her on your back?”
Thank you very much.