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1) What is Humanistic Buddhism?

Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Order and its Los Angeles branch temple, Hsi Lai Temple, practice Humanistic Buddhism. Humanistic Buddhism is not new. Humanistic Buddhism is the teaching of the Buddha. It affirms that the Buddha was born in this human world, cultivated himself in this human world, was enlightened in this human world and taught human beings in this human world the way to experience Nirvana (freedom from suffering) in this human world and not apart from this human world.

The Buddha taught that it is through our humanity that we will attain Buddhahood - full Enlightenment. As the Vimalakirtinirdesa Sutra says, "The Dharma is found amongst people." Hui Neng (638-713), the Sixth Patriarch of Ch'an (Zen) Buddhism said, "The Dharma is to be found in this world and not in another. To leave this human world to search for the Dharma is as futile as searching for a rabbit with horns." Humanistic Buddhism teaches that one can live fully in this human world and practice Buddhism at the same time. The two endeavors are not separate but support each other perfectly by enabling one to cultivate the wisdom that clearly understands the true nature of reality. Venerable T'ai Hsu once said, "When you become fully human, you will become a Buddha (who we are already). That is the living meaning of truth." Thus, Humanistic Buddhism encourages one to integrate the Buddha's teachings of tolerance, loving-kindness, compassion, joyfulness, and equanimity into our lives for our benefit and for the benefit of all beings.

2) What are the steps to become an official Buddhist?

The first step of a Buddhist is to take refuge in the Triple Gem. The triple gem refers to
(1) Sakyamuni Buddha the founding master,
(2) the Dharma, the teachings of the Buddha, and
(3) the Sangha, the congregation of monks and nuns who have renounced the world and have devoted their effort to a lifelong practice of the Dharma.

Taking refuge in the triple gem affirms our spiritual strength by empowering the confidence and rational in us during times of adversity and confrontation. It steers us in the right direction of living our lives in a more meaningful way.

3) Why does Buddhism advocate a vegetarian diet for practicing Buddhists?

A vegetarian diet is good for the health. Moreover, it inculcates the mind to be more compassionate toward all living beings. Buddhism advocates the love for all animals and respects their right to live. Under extenuating circumstances, Buddha did allow early disciples to consume meat with the three pure qualities:
(1) the animal's slaughter is not witnessed by the consumer,
(2) the sound of the animal's slaughter is not heard by the consumer, and
(3) the animal is not slaughtered for the consumer.

However, to be a Buddhist one does not have to be a vegetarian.

4) Why learn Buddhism?

There are two aspects in looking at this subject. First, by his display of charisma, wisdom and compassion in delivering the word, the Buddha was an exemplary role model. He had attained the supreme enlightenment and revealed the universal truth for emancipating life's suffering. As human beings, we have the potential to accomplish the same achievement due to the inherent Buddha nature within us. Second, studying the teachings of the Buddha fills the void of philosophy and science, in particular, it solves the doubts and suspicions about the meaning of life and existence.

5) Why do people join their palms?

Joining the palms is a graceful gesture and a dignified way of greeting which originated in ancient India. By bringing the ten fingers together, we symbolically make all ten Dharma realms become one are are reminded of the Buddha nature within every being. By folding the palms, we show respect to and concentrate our minds and our hearts upon the teachings of the Buddha.

6) Why do Buddhists bow and prostrate to the Buddha?

Bowing and prostration are humble expressions of respect and appreciation for the historical Buddha, our Teacher, who understood the Truth of the universe and our nature. Based upon his kindness and compassion to liberate all sentient beings from suffering, the Buddha serves as an excellent model for humanity. Therefore, in bowing before the Buddha, we are also reminded of our own Buddha nature. We humbly examine our mind, and renew our vow to remove any obstacles from our mind and life which prevent us from become a fully enlightened Buddha, manifesting the kindness compassion and wisdom our Teacher has shown to us, in order to benefit all sentient beings.

7) What is the purpose of prayer beads?

Prayer beads are used as a method of counting while chanting the names of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, or the Dharani (mantra). Our sincerity in chanting while relying on prayer beads will help eradicate our random thoughts and purify our minds. Today, Buddhists wear prayer beads as an emblem of their dedication and belief in Buddhism.

8) What do lotus blossoms signify?

Lotus blossoms symbolize how we rise above the mire of life to become pure through our practice. Yet just as the lotus blossoms grow out of, but are not independent of the mire, we should never remove ourselves from the suffering or ignore the world in the name of practice. Just as lotus blossoms grow in the heart of the summer, we need to turn the bothersome troubles and defilement of our lives into opportunities to further our practice and cultivation.

9) Was the Buddha a God?

No, the Buddha was a man who through his effort, practice and cultivation, attained enlightenment. He subsequently helped others by directing them to the path of liberation.

10) Why do monks and nuns shave their heads?

Monastics need to renounce all the mundane desires and longings in order to more readily achieve purity, be free from delusions, remove hindrances, and enter the way of practice. Once they shave their heads, they can easily be distinguished from those who have not joined the sangha.

11) Do all the monastics have incense marks?

The custom of burning incense marks is unique to Chinese Buddhism. It did not exist in the earliest Buddhism and is not practiced in other countries. When Buddhism first reached China, in about 65 CE, the monastics were held in high regard by the society. During the Tang Dynasty (618 CE - 907 CE), the imperial court ordered that incense mark burning to be incorporated in the precept ceremony in order to prevent people from impersonating the monastics. This custom has been preserved to the present day.

12) What is the role of Hsi Lai monastics?

A Hsi Lai monastic devotes his/her life to spread Buddhist teachings and benefit all sentient beings. Buddhist lectures, classes and activities are organized on a regular basis for people to learn Buddhist teachings, experience the monastic way of life, and apply the teachings to their daily lives. These teachings will liberate people from anxiety and stress helping them to examined the source of their troubles.

13) How do we practice Humanistic Buddhism at Hsi Lai?

Because sentient beings have different spiritual capacities and inclinations, the Buddha taught at different levels using numerous methods in order to help everyone understand the joyful liberation of the Dharma (his teachings). The Sutras (Buddhist scriptures) speak of 84,000 different methods, i.e., an infinite number that can be used to help the listener understand and integrate the teachings in his or her life for the mutual benefit of all sentient beings.*

Throughout history Buddhist Masters have categorized Buddhist methods into those based on self-effort (self-power) and those that rely on the help of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas (other-power). However, when one looks more closely one sees Truth as indivisible: Self-power is other-power, and other-power is self-power. *

Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Order and all of its international branch temples emphasize the integration of Ch'an Buddhism (self-power) and Pure Land Buddhism (other-power). Venerable Master Hsing Yun says, "Ch'an and Pure Land enhance each other when practiced together... they become like a tiger with horns." Practiced together, they enable the practitioner to increasingly understand that "our" happiness is not separate from "others'" happiness because our heart is nothing less than the universe itself. Thus, to save all sentient beings from suffering is not to put our own happiness above the needs of others but in all ways, to create those conditions which give others confidence, hope, happiness and convenience. Acting in such a self-less manner, the illusion of the boundaries between self and other which seems so real, gradually dissolve within our mind and experience. The result is the gradual creation of the Pure Land, a state of mind and tangible reality on earth in which all sentient beings, human and other, can live in harmony, relating to each other with ever increasing compassion, joy and wisdom as the awakening Buddha's we all are.

In the Diamond Sutra the Buddha says, "All sentient beings, whether they are born of eggs, wombs, moisture, or transformation, whether they have form or no form, whether they have thoughts or no thoughts, I will lead them all to Nirvana without remainder. I will save them all and not one of them will be left behind." It is through the integration of these two great Buddhist traditions that Fo Guang Buddhists, through their present daily activities, vow to embody the future fulfillment of the Buddha's great vow.

(*Pure-Land Zen, Zen Pure-Land, Letters from Patriarch Yin Kuang, Translated by Master Thich Thien Tam, Forrest Smith, editor.)

14) What is Ch'an Buddhism?

Ch'an is a Buddhist tradition which originated in China. It was later transmitted to Japan where it became known as Zen, the name that Westerners are most familiar with. The goal of both Ch'an and Zen is the realization of one's true nature and the manifestation of that realization in our daily thoughts, words and actions. And what is one's true nature? It is nothing less than waking up and realizing we are Buddha by nature ¡Vthe embodiment of wisdom and great compassion.

Our Order's founding Master, Teacher and the 48th Patriarch in the Lin-chi (Japanese Rinzai school) line of Ch'an says of Ch'an, "Ch'an is the abbreviated form of the Chinese transliteration of the Sanskrit tern dhyana; it means quiet contemplation. But to describe Ch'an is not any easy task, for Ch'an is something that can not be talked about nor expressed in written words. The moment language used we are no longer dealing with true spirit of Ch'an which is beyond all words, yet, Ch'an cannot be left unexpressed. Ch'an is life. When life is complemented by the flavor of Ch'an, the meaning of life will be grasped all the more clearly. As one poet says, "The moon outside the window is always the same, but it looks more brilliant when the plum flowers are in bloom."

Living in our bustling, intense, turbulent, and chaotic contemporary society, we need to find something that can set our impetuous minds at ease. Ch'an is undoubtedly such a force; it can free us from anxiety and misgivings, as well as exert a calming effect on our minds and souls. Ch'an reflects wisdom, humor, and compassion. It can prevent the formation of wishful and vexing thoughts. Guided by the ease, humor, profundity, and liberating nature of Ch'an, one will not be bother by unkind words, awkward behavior, or painful memories of the past. They simply vanish like mist and smoke. Ch'an raises life to a level of art. It manifests the perfection of life by revealing the original nature that underlies all phenomena. (Ch'an) belongs to every family and to every human being. Everyone is in need of its wisdom, spontaneity, freedom, and ethics in his or her daily life."

15) What is Pure Land Buddhism?

Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Order and its Los Angeles branch temple, Hsi Lai Temple, practice the integration of Ch'an Buddhism (self-power) and Pure Land Buddhism (other-power) which, as one looks more deeply, one begins to understand and experience that self-power is other-power and other-power is self-power. This is so because Truth is divisibly one.

After the death of the historical Buddha, the teachings of the Buddha spread in two basic directions: southward and became known as the Theravada tradition, and eastward to China, Vietnam, Korea, Japan and became known as the Mahayana tradition. In East Asia, the Buddha's teachings developed into ten different schools or approaches to practicing the teachings. Several of these schools have remained important to this day: Ch'an (Zen), Tantric and Pure Land. Pure Land is by far the most widespread form of Buddhism in East Asia.

Through the development of Mahayana thought, there developed a more flexible spiritual tradition and practice that combined self-power with other-power; it is called Pure Land Buddhism. The main practice of Pure Land Buddhism is reciting the name of Amitabha Buddha, cultivating one's single-minded vow, diligent practice and the development of a strong faith for the purpose of attaining rebirth in the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha through the power of Amitabha's 48 great vows. However, as D.T. Suzuki has pointed out, the psychological effects of the repetition of Amitabha's name are close to the effects in Zen (Ch'an) meditation: calmness, deep concentration and wisdom.

The Western Pure Land, as it as also called, is a perfect training ground in which to attain Enlightenment and Buddhahood. One is no longer subject to retrogression because he or she has left the cycle of birth and death behind forever and can now freely, without obstruction, focus his or her efforts to attain Buddhahood. Amitabha Buddha exemplifies the Bodhisattva ideal within the Mahayana tradition.

(See Pure-Land Zen, Zen Pure-Land, Letters from Patriarch Yin Kuang, Translated by Master Thich Thien Tam, Forrest Smith, editor for further information.)

Strongly influenced by the reformist teaching of the Mainland Chinese monk, Venerable Tai Hsu, our teacher, Venerable Master Hsing Yun teaches that the Pure Land is a fundamental aspect of our minds and is our highest standard and our highest ideal. And how can we begin to establish the Pure Land in this world? Major changes don't happen overnight. However, as any community learns how to function with kindness, compassion and ungrudging support for its members, then that community can be said to have established a piece of the Pure Land in this world. Insofar as any family can establish respectful and harmonious relations among its members, that that family can be said to have planted the seeds of the Pure Land in this world. Insofar as any individual can base his or her thoughts and motives on selflessness, compassion and mutual benefit, then that individual has done his or her part to bring the Pure Land here to us on earth.

Venerable Master Hsing Yun teaches that the Pure Land will be built in this way, piece by piece, heart by heart, home by home. We will not establish a Pure Land here if we place our hopes in some other world that can only be attained after death. In the deepest levels of reality, the Pure Land is not something separate from us. It is properly, part of our minds. How can we ever expect to establish it, then, if we do not establish it in our minds?

Our selflessness will lead our families toward harmony, our communities toward cooperation, and our nations toward compassion. In the end, the entire world will be bathed in the light of Buddha's wisdom and his illimitable concern.

16) What is the Origin of Ch'an?

It originated in India. Legend has it that during an assembly on Vulture Peak, the Buddha picked up a flower and held it up to the assembly without saying a word. The millions of celestial and human beings who were gathered at the assembly did not understand what the Buddha meant, except for Mahakasyapa, who smiled. Thus Ch'an was passed down without utilizing any spoken or written language, but was transmitted directly from mind to mind. Later, Ch'an was introduced into China. During the time of the Sixth Patriarch, Hui Neng, Ch'an flourished and developed into five schools which became the mainstream of Chinese Buddhism.

17) How is Ch'an Practiced?

In the Ch'an school, what is important is the direct experience derived from actual practice and not reliance on the written or spoken language. One practices Ch'an through varying forms of meditation. Our teacher, Venerable Master Hsing Yun comes from the Lin-chi school of Ch'an, which has as its practice the use of the Koan. The koan is a word or phrase, which is used as a tool for cultivating awareness of and living from the realization of our Buddha nature. Although not excluding the traditional koan practice which would have the practitioner contemplate on such phrases as, "What was one's original face before being given birth by one's parents?, or "Do dogs have Buddha nature? And "Who is reciting Buddha's name?", Venerable Master Hsing Yun teaches the integrative and challenging practice of "daily life". Therefore, Ch'an involves:

Investigating Ch'an through doubt
In other religions, there is no room for doubt; one has to believe unconditionally. But Ch'an encourages one to start from doubt. A little doubt will lead to a little realization. A great doubt will lead to a great realization. Without doubt, there will be no realization.

Seeking realization through contemplation
Once doubts are aroused, one needs to contemplate them in order to attain realization. Diligent contemplation and investigation of our doubts will eventually lead to realization.

Studying Ch'an by asking
When contemplating our doubts, however small or large, the most important thing is to keep asking until one attains realization. It is like trying to catch a thief; one has to keep pursuing without letting up. For example, when contemplating "Who is reciting Buddha's name?" one can ask, "Is it the mind that is reciting?" "Who is the mind?" "If the mind is me, then is the mouth that is reciting Buddha's name not me?" "If the mouth is me, then is the body that makes prostrations to the Buddha not me?" "If the body is me, then are the eyes that pay respect to the statue of the Buddha not me?" Final realization will be attained, if one keeps on questioning like this.

Realizing Ch'an by personal experience
In order to practice Ch'an, one has to start with doubting, contemplating and questioning, but the final and most important stage is the personal experience of Ch'an. Ch'an is not something that is spoken with words nor contemplated with our hearts and minds; in fact, we have to let go of all these to experience Ch'an. Realization is a state of mind that cannot be expressed by words. Ch'an can only be experienced by those whom have attained it.

Have you ever listened to a rippling brook? That is the sound of Ch'an! Have you ever looked at the green leaves of a willow? That is the color of Ch'an! Have you ever seen the heart of a lotus blossom? That is the mind of Ch'an!

18) Why do Buddhists Wish to be Interred in or Near a Pagoda?

Pagodas originated from pre-Buddhist traditions and were originally burial mounds marking the graves of religious and political leaders and reminding people of the leader’s power. They were integrated into Buddhism after Shakyamuni Buddha’s final passing or parinirvana as symbols for his continuing presence in the world. Although their early hemispheric shape was sometimes interpreted as a symbol of the cosmos or of the mythical Mount Meru, the center of the Buddhist understanding of the cosmos, they gradually became reminders of his teachings which intended to stimulate spiritual progress among the living toward liberation.

Equally if not more importantly however, the pagoda universally remains as both a place where spiritual progress can occur for the living and the deceased and as a symbol architecturally of that progress. As a cross is often placed upon the grave of a Christian as a symbol of the assurance of his resurrection upon the Second Coming of Christ, the pagoda is a symbol for the Buddhist of the stages of spiritual progress leading to Enlightenment and ultimate freedom symbolized by the pinnacle of the pagoda. In the Mahayana tradition, while enlightenment is a personal goal of one’s spiritual practice, it is also a cosmic process that benefits all sentient beings. The pagoda is a symbol of that individual and cosmic liberation.