1998 Keynote Speech: Nature and Life


Greetings everyone! What a great thing it is that so many of us have come together today from so many different parts of the world to participate in this Seventh Annual Convention of Buddha's Light International Association. How fortunate we are to be able to hold our convention in Canada which has been a world leader in environmental protection. Though Canada is one of the world's wealthiest nations in natural resources, the people of Canada know full well that these resources must never be squandered. They treasure what they have and they take care of it. For this reason, Canada is one of the most beautiful countries in the world; both its towns and its cities are renowned for their fresh air and their beautiful natural scenery. In addition to this, the government of Canada has consistently shown that wisdom and the concerns of all of its citizens are the basic principles that guide them in all that they do. Small wonder then that people from all over the world look to Canada as an example of a balanced society that successfully cares for the needs of its citizens without plundering the wealth of its natural resources. Since Canada has set such a good example for the world in these areas, I decided to make "Nature and Life" the theme of this convention. As we contemplate this theme in relation to the fine example that Canada has set for us, let us also consider the ways in which this important topic can be understood from a Buddhist point of view.

When we speak of nature, we mean the expression in this world of certain fundamental truths. Nature is a level of truth that is manifested in the world around us. All around us we can see the cycles of nature: the four seasons, the stages of life from birth to death, the rising and falling of phenomena, the movement of thought from one instant to the next. All of this is natural. All of this is part of the process of life. Life is a condition of nature just as nature is a condition of life. Life is created in nature, it develops in nature and it affects nature in ways that cannot be easily described. When the Buddha became enlightened under the Bodhi tree, he saw that the deepest truth in the universe is the fundamental emptiness of all conditioned phenomena. In his moment of awakening, he saw that all phenomena arise dependent on each other and that all of them are inherently interconnected. The Buddha's insight had much in common with what we mean today when we speak of "nature" or "natural phenomena." In his awakening, the Buddha saw to the very heart of what we call "natural law." Needless to say, the insight of Shakyamuni Buddha was even more profound than what we mean today by "natural law" since the minds and hearts of sentient beings were also fundamental to his awakening. We can appreciate some of the depth of the Buddha's insight by casting our eyes across the pages of human history. Is there a king, or an emperor or a regime anywhere in the world that does not conform to the basic pattern of natural law? Do not nations and eras in their histories rise and fall with the same regularity of all things in nature? And is not the same true for the lives of each and every one of us? When we conform willingly with the imperatives of nature, we experience joy.

When we rebel against them, we experience sorrow. It is good to ask ourselves from time to time, "Am I conforming to the laws of nature in my uses of money? In my uses of language? In my attitudes and emotions?" If we are spending more than we earn, then we are violating the laws of nature. If we use language in ways that hurt other people, then we are not speaking out of a complete and natural integrity. If our attitudes toward our lives and our jobs are producing pain and anxiety around us, then we can be sure that we are willfully turning our backs on the natural course of things in this world.

The tendency for things to find their natural places cannot and should not be resisted. We can see this in our own lives as well as in the history of the world. For example, for centuries women in China were forced to bind their feet. With the dawn of the modern era, this practice was stopped and now no one would think of taking it up again. It was an unnatural thing to do. During the twentieth century, many English colonies regained their independence, while in the last century American slaves were set free. The conditions which produced those states of servitude and dependency no longer exist, and no one in possession of his reason would call for their resurrection again. The consciousness of the whole world has changed since then. This change in attitude is the natural evolution of the human race's appreciation of the laws of nature.

There is an old Chinese saying that reveals a deep appreciation for the interconnectedness of the human mind and the natural world. The saying is, "The wise love the mountains, while the merciful love the water." The world around us is our origin and our home. All of us are products of nature, and just as our bodies come from the elements of this world, so our consciences come also from the deep foundation that underlies all things. We must learn to appreciate this profound interconnectedness as we trace a path toward its center by following our sense both of what is beautiful and what is right.

Buddhism reveres nature by stressing human nature and the human mind above all else. The Eastern and Western Pure Lands described in Buddhist sutras are characterized by the beauty of their natural environments. In them, streams and rivers are clean, the air is fragrant and the trees and flowers are magnificent as birds sing everywhere. The people that live there need only think of what clothing they want or what food they want for it to appear before them. The purpose of these descriptions is to show that there are states of consciousness in which it is possible for human beings to live in perfect accord with nature. When those states are reached, one need only think of what one wants and it will appear. There is no difference between thought and "reality."

Buddha's Light International Association (BLIA) promotes humanistic Buddhism for the purpose of bringing people into a closer communion with their natural origins and with each other. As we progress in our practice of humanistic Buddhism, we cannot but begin to appreciate the importance of having the deepest respect for the natural world. We are that world and we share that world with all other sentient beings. Respect for nature is as fundamental to Buddhism as is compassion. And just as liberation from delusion depends on our having compassion for all sentient beings in the universe, so too does it depend on our having respect for the natural world which governs and conditions all of our lives.

Now that we have briefly discussed nature and its relationship to Buddhism and to this convention, it is time for us to talk about what we mean by "life." To live, human beings must use the things of nature. In like manner, to live as good people each one of us must be willing to be of use to the world and to human society. We only really live insofar as we are contributing to the world and to the people with whom we interact. We do not need to be great, nor do our contributions need to be large for us to live worthy lives. Even a piece of paper or a stone can contribute to the world. If someone draws a portrait of a saint on a piece of paper or carves a poem in stone, for example, those objects will inspire people for years to come. They are simple, but they are capable of making great contributions to the world. In contrast, lofty people with power and money often do nothing for their fellow man. Rather than work to help others, they prefer to dissipate their good karma in vanity and self-aggrandizement. Others waste their time pursuing long life when the value of life can never be measured by its length but only by the degree to which it has benefited others. From a worldly angle, selfish people who pursue nothing more than their own goals may look successful, and yet from the point of view of nature and truth, they are like "stumbling corpses" whose every step only mocks them in their pride.

All around us we can see life and the amazing process of life. Birds call, insects sing, waters burble as the sun shines over the resplendent colors of the earth. All is included, nothing is ignored. Life is everywhere and everywhere it speaks to us if we will but listen. There is a Ch'an poem that well expresses the vibrant fullness and beauty of the world: "The brook sounds like the trill of a long, great tongue.

Mountains lie in forms like living beings." If we pay close attention, can we not see—cannot all of us see—that there is nothing anywhere that does not issue from the very heart of our own being? All is one, all is us. How sad that so many people spend their lives encouraging division, selfishness and turmoil. Rather than enjoy the glory and oneness of this wonderful world, they prefer to carve out self-serving bits of it to the great detriment of all the many beings who must endure their presence here. That is exactly the kind of "life" that the Buddha taught us not to live!

The Buddha taught that the Dharma realm and the mind are one, that the foundation of the phenomenal universe is mind. The transcendent, illimitable being of Shakyamuni Buddha often is praised in this way: "His body is the true Dharma, while pure wisdom is his life." Amitabha Buddha is known as the Buddha of "eternal life" and "eternal light" because his life completely transcends all limitations of time and space. The foundations and the sources of all of life are deeper than the conditions which produce any of its particular manifestations. A mayfly only lives for one day, but after it dies it will be reborn in another form. A human being comes and goes on this earth, but mind and the karma from which his body issues will cause him to be reborn again. A seed dropped on the ground may lie dormant for a hundred years, but as soon as conditions are right, it will germinate and grow into a plant. In recent months there has been some uproar in the world over the cloning of human beings. It all seems so new that people are disturbed by it, but in truth it is not new. Life is produced by conditions. When conditions are right, life will come into being. Cloning is nothing more than an example of new conditions that are capable of producing life. No one has created life through cloning; scientists have only succeeded in finding new conditions within which life may flourish.

The Heart Sutra says, "Form is empty, emptiness is form." The flowing movement of our lives through the material world is an example of "form that is empty," while the connectedness of our lives to the vast world around us is an example of "emptiness that is form." This is why when Buddhism speaks of "this world" it means nothing less than the limitless, infinite world of all phenomena in the universe. When it speaks of "sentient beings," it means nothing less than all sentient beings in the universe. And when it speaks of "life," it means nothing less than the limitless, infinite life that permeates all things everywhere.

Today, the world's problems are more complex and more numerous than ever before. War, terrorism, religious intolerance, environmental pollution, and a general breakdown of morals across the globe has produced conditions in which it can be very difficult for people to live with a sense of peace and security. The theme of this conference—Nature and Life—was chosen to address these problems. If all of us can fully comprehend the natural laws that were taught by the Buddha, and if all of us can work together to build a world founded upon these laws, then we will succeed in creating a Pure Land on this earth; a land in which all people can feel secure within their natural right to a life that is free of fear and the unsettling disturbances that arise whenever sentient beings act in ignorance of the larger truths that govern the lives of all of us.

In the next few minutes, I will add a few more short comments on the theme "Nature and Life." I hope that my words will be of some benefit to this audience. If they are not, please just ignore them.

Natural law and respect for life When Shakyamuni Buddha became enlightened 2,600 years ago, he saw that dependent origination is the central truth that governs the functioning of the entire phenomenal universe. Dependent origination means that no thing and no phenomenon arises out of nothing and that no thing and no phenomenon can exist alone and by itself. The Avatamsaka Sutra says of dependent origination: "Phenomena do not arise independently; they arise dependent on each other." The natural law of dependent origination has the four basic characteristics of an ultimate truth: it is universal, inevitable, true in the past, and true in the future. All natural events conform to the law of dependent origination. From the small to the large, from the intricate details of a single snowflake to the raging fury of a great storm, all things in nature conform to the law of dependent origination. The minor events of a person's life as well as the major events of human history also conform to this law. The brilliance of the Buddha can be appreciated by contemplating his ability to comprehend this natural law and apply it to the minutiae of human life in such a way that each one of us can benefit from his insight. Dependent origination is a natural law that governs everything in the universe, but it is felt most deeply by each one of us within the intimate details of our daily lives. Once we understand this, we will be in a position to appreciate that our lives are not the result of a single cause, but that they issue instead from a complex confluence of causes and conditions. Our lives arise from the karmic seeds that we ourselves have planted in the past. When these seeds grow, they find expression in the Five Skandhas, the Six Senses, the Eighteen Realms and the Twelve Nidanas.

"When we are prepared, there are no disasters." This old saying goes right to the point. If we understand the natural law of dependent origination, then we will be prepared for whatever may happen to us and we will not be afraid. In addition to this, we will also understand how to make this law work in our favor for we will understand that our futures are created by what we do in the present. If we till the land and plant good seeds in the spring, then by autumn we will reap a great harvest and when winter comes we will not be afraid for we will know that our supplies will see us through. In like manner, no one need fear old age for if we use our youth and middle age to work hard, then we will be satisfied with our lives when we grow old. And neither is death something to be afraid of, for if we have lived well and contributed to society, our next incarnations will be good ones. Death is frightening most of all to people who have lived lives that were of no benefit to others. When they come to the end, they can feel how profoundly they have wasted their time on earth as they face the yawning emptiness of an uncertain future.

General MacArthur once said, "Old soldiers never die." What he meant is that due to their positive contributions to their nations, their spirits are eternally bound to the histories of their times. Wen T'ien-hsiang, a patriot who lived during the Sung Dynasty, said, "Who has lived and never died? It is best to do some good for your country." An important part of both of these statements is the message that no one needs to become famous or make immense contributions to live a life that is both valuable and in full accordance with the laws of nature. Wealth and longevity pale beside a life that is lived with honor and respect for there are few virtues that are greater than these. It seems that people in the past were more aware of this deep truth than people nowadays. In the past, many people willingly sacrificed their lives for the good of others and everyone thought that that was the right thing to do. Nowadays it seems that most people are more concerned with living to be very old and dying peacefully than they are with anything else. This kind of thinking is misguided for it is only by living with complete awareness of the natural interconnectedness of all sentient beings that we can truly fulfill the deepest potential of our lives. Buddhists have many ways of describing this interconnectedness: they say, "life and death are one in the same," or "all sentient beings are one," or "the great body is a body of compassion." Death is not something that should be feared, rather life is something that should be lived to the fullest.

All of us should face hardship with courage and thus, by our resolve, plant the seeds of strength for a future harvest. All of us should examine our minds and remove from them seeds of anger and defiled thinking so that we can begin the real work of planting seeds of joy and compassion. And all of us should discard those parts of ourselves that prevent us from cooperating with others, for each one of us must learn to help other sentient beings. No one should ever forget that the well being of others is every bit as important to us as our own well being. When we increase the wisdom of society by our good behavior, we inspire others to live lives of joy and kindness. When we treat our families with the utmost compassion and respect, we teach them how to take the lessons of Buddhism out of the home and into the world where all beings everywhere can begin to benefit from them. Respect for life is as fundamental to the laws of nature as it is to the truths taught by the Buddha.

A natural life in living nature All of life is one and all of life depends on all of its parts. The vast variety and complexity of life is something that all of us should treasure with all of our hearts. Unfortunately, humankind for too long has thought of itself as the "soul of nature" and in this has ceased showing respect and appreciation for the many other species of animals and plants that inhabit this world with us. To satisfy the needs of a mere moment, too many of us are willing to pillage and destroy entire ecosystems. The Dharmapada says, "All beings fear death and they all fear the pain of a club. Think: how do they make you feel? Then do not kill and do not club; live peacefully with all beings and do not add to the violence of this world. Harm no one here and you will pass your next life in peace." In the Diamond Sutra the Buddha says, "I will save all sentient beings by leading them all to nirvana without remainder." Notice that the Buddha left no one out. When we violate other beings by taking their lives from them, we violate the highest laws of nature as well as the most basic precepts of Buddhism. Rather than killing sentient beings, we should be working toward helping them. When we compassionately reach out to all beings in the universe, we not only fulfill the teachings of the Buddha, we also fulfill the highest imperatives of the most profound laws of nature.

Some people who have learned to respect others still cling to the mistaken belief that at least they have the power to control their own deaths. While it is better to be mistaken about oneself than about the severity of violating others, it is not correct to believe that you have ultimate control over even your own life. Life is produced from a complex mixture of causes and conditions and it is maintained by the complex conditions of the societies in which we live. If these conditions are properly analyzed, it will be clear that there is no real "self" at the heart of them.

The very notion of having a self is an illusion. And how could it be otherwise if everything is interconnected? In a sense, you do not belong to yourself and therefore you do not have the right to take even your own life. Life is something that has been produced by the processes of nature and the fundamental laws of the universe, and thus any act that harms life is a violation of nature.

In a very real sense, everything is alive and everything is important. A blade of grass, a small stone—these too have been produced by the vast and complex interworkings of all phenomena in the universe. To violate even the smallest part of this complex web of interconnected causes and conditions is to violate the whole. How much worse is it then when we destroy whole forests, dam the Yangtze River, or tear out the hearts of mountains in a vain search for even more "wealth?" In this context, let us remember the example set for us by Shyamaka Bodhisattva who was so afraid of harming the earth that he always walked with the most gentle of strides. Master Pien Tan San was so concerned with the well-being the plants around him that he ate only chestnuts that had fallen to the ground. The examples set by these two sages are magnificent! Just thinking of their compassion can help us renew our strength! Our interconnectedness with a vibrant and living natural world is something none of us should ever allow ourselves to forget. The world is alive.

Remember, Amitabha's Pure Land is described as having "water and birds that preach the Dharma." When Tao Sheng "spoke the Dharma, the stones all nodded in approval." All of this reiterates the fundamental truth spoken by the Buddha: "Sentient as well as non-sentient beings are replete with ultimate wisdom." We must learn to revere all of life because all of life is interconnected and all of it depends on all of its parts. All life should be seen as having immense value since each and every instance of life is completely unique. Each and every instance is formed from a myriad of causes and conditions and it will never recur in just that way again. This is the reason why the Buddha taught us to follow willingly the conditions that arise around us as we probe for the deep center that is the source of our being. If we can learn to be like this, then we will be able to face all situations peacefully as we successfully blend our small sense of selfhood with the larger reality of the oneness of all of life.

Flowing with nature, finding the eternal Nature is based on harmony and it finds its balance through the harmonious functioning of its many parts. That which obstructs nature brings trouble to itself as it forces the basic harmony of life to decline into discord. The ancients used to say, "To oppose the flow of nature is to be mentally ill." Greed, anger, ignorance, pride, doubt, and jealousy are all mental defilements that run counter to the flow of nature; they always cause more problems than they solve and they usually lead us only deeper into error. Defilements like these are a kind of excess or a mistaken corrective that rebels against the natural flow of life. If we hoard our money, then we will never put it to good use. If we squander it, then eventually we will be left with nothing more than the stale memory of our profligacy. Most of us can understand these foolish uses of money, but is the situation not the same with our life force? If we have a high social position, but we do nothing to benefit society are we not just like a miser who clings to his wealth even as he squanders his best opportunities? Similarly, if we waste our energies in dissipation and self-centered activities, are we not foolishly turning our lives against the natural flow of that which alone is deeply true?

Whenever we fail to flow with the harmonious current of the natural world within us and around us, we bring trouble to ourselves. For example, if we spend our days lying listlessly in bed, we will sap our vitality. If we stand all day long, we will hurt our legs. If we work constantly without ever resting, we will cause ourselves to become seriously fatigued. Whatever we do to excess violates the basic harmony of nature. And if we persist, we eventually will cause ourselves to become seriously ill. In like manner, our treatment of the natural world around us will always cause problems when we are excessive in our desires or lax in our vigilance. In the last few centuries, humankind has learned to manufacture an enormous variety of material goods, and yet still we have not learned how to balance our needs and desires with the imperatives of nature. How much of the earth have we polluted and how many of its ecosystems have we destroyed? The fact that we cannot even accurately measure the totality of our destruction shows full well how much we have violated the harmony and balance of nature. And that violation will return to haunt us for the even more profound balance of the law of karma will never change.

Nature and karma are similar, if not the same. When we do something good for the world, a good reward comes to us. When we do something evil to the world, a painful retribution results. Cause and effect form the spokes on a wheel that turns continuously, without beginning or end. Our very lives themselves are the temporary manifestations of a process of cause and effect that has been going on for eons. Already, each one of us has lived and died a thousand thousand times. Death is the beginning of a new life, while each life is the start of a new death that is yet to come. If this point is properly understood, we should be able to see that death is never an absolute end to anything and that life is never an absolute condition that persists without change. The temporary appearance and disappearance of a body in this world is nothing more than a manifestation that is born of much deeper causes. The mind stream of karma in which a body floats like a leaf is infinitely deeper than the corporal form it upholds. Life is like the fire that consumes one log after another. When we die, it is like changing our clothes. We may look different, but deep down we are the same. Great Buddhist masters of the past all understood completely that life and death are just different aspects of the same thing. Bodhidharma (?-535) faced death with perfect insouciance, as did P'ang Yun (?-808) and the Ch'an master Fei Hsi. The Living Buddha of Chin Mountain (1852-1935) calmly passed away without protest or complaint while taking a shower.

Life is a product of causes and conditions, while death is a product of their dispersal. If we gaze upon life and death from the highest level of truth, we will see that they are fundamentally nonexistent. Nothing is born and nothing dies. The truth is far deeper than that! This is why great Buddhist masters work not so much to overcome the cycle of birth and death, but rather to see deeply into their own basic nature, for this nature already is beyond life and death. Whenever a sentient being can even so much as glimpse his inner nature, he frees himself from immense trouble for his inner nature is nothing less than the mind of Buddha. When sages glimpse the Buddha mind, they change forever. They willingly give their lives to others for they understand completely that all sentient beings are one. The Ch'an master Wei Shan (771-853) vowed that he would be reborn as a mule so he could help others with their burdens. Ch'an master Chao Chou (778-897), similarly, vowed to be reborn in hell so that he could be of aid to the sentient beings trapped there. When the underlying harmony of all of life is truly understood, one no longer lives for oneself, but rather for the good of all sentient beings everywhere. Great masters no longer become lost in the concerns of individual lives for they see individual lives as being like mere stray clouds that dot the great expanse of the sky.

The I Ching says, "The heavens move with constant regularity; the sage improves himself without ceasing." This ancient piece of wisdom tells us that we must not only conform to the natural world, we must emulate it as well. Just as the sun and the rain nurture and produce life in this world, so we must turn our attention to the needs of others. When we act out of compassion and concern for the well being of others, we enter the most profound levels of nature, for in so doing we commingle with the currents of the natural world's deepest resources.

A natural life in accordance with the teachings of the Buddha If we were to replace the word nature with just one word, that word would be "Tao" or "the way." The great master Hui Hai said, "When you are hungry, eat. When you are tired, sleep." Master Yao Shan Wei Yen (751-834) said, "The clouds are in the sky while water is in the bottle."

The Tao of living is simply to live in accordance with the ways of nature. The Buddha said that there were five kinds of "unnatural" people: those who do not smile when they should smile, those who do not feel joy when they should feel joy, those who do not feel compassion when they should feel compassion, those who are not repulsed by things that should repulse them, and those who hear of good things but do not feel glad. People like that are living in a way that is contrary to the deep truths of their natural emotions. Buddhism teaches us that we can avoid being "unnatural" in these ways if we emphasize the positive aspects of life. Living a life in accordance with the Tao means finding and accepting the positive currents that flow through nature. We can discover these currents and immerse ourselves in them through our practice of Buddhism. The Buddha taught morality, meditation, and wisdom to help us live lives that conform positively to the deep laws that govern all of life. His explication of the natural law of dependent origination was designed to help us fully understand the phenomenal world in which we live. The Buddha taught us compassion and generosity so that we would understand how to make positive contributions to the world. By his example, he showed us that a life that is lived for others is the highest form of life; such a life conforms perfectly to the Tao of nature because it raises the awareness of all sentient beings who come into contact with it.

The basic rules of life are no different today than they were in the past. If we want to live well and do our best while we are in this world, then we must live in accordance with the flow of nature as it finds expression both inside of us and outside of us. We must honor the rights and feelings of our spouses, children, neighbors and coworkers. If we want to begin a new business enterprise, we must respect the marketplace and take into consideration all of the many factors that will go into making our efforts pay off. If we want to improve the governance of our societies, then we must pay close attention to the needs of the people as we strive to set an example that is worthy of their natural and heartfelt respect. The imperative that we live in accordance with the natural laws of nature and the human heart is even more important for those of us who call ourselves Buddhists. Above all others, we must strive to set examples that inspire and comfort our fellow beings. Our words must be truthful and our motives must be pure, for this is the only way that we can ever hope to be of lasting value to others. In seeking this way of being, we will find that we are conforming perfectly to the way of nature as well, for the Tao of nature lies as much in our hearts as it does in the world that surrounds us.

No one knows how many great masters have become enlightened through the years, but we do know that all of them understood that the enlightened mind and the natural mind are practically the same thing. Master Liang Chieh (807-869) became enlightened while contemplating his reflection in a river. Master Hsiang Yen (?-898) awoke to his Buddha nature while tilling the soil. Master Hsu Yun (1840-1959) became enlightened when a cup of tea slipped from his hand. There is a Ch'an poem that describes the relationship between the enlightened mind and the natural mind very well. It goes like this: Before samadhi, the mountains were mountains and the streams were streams. In samadhi, the mountains were no longer mountains and the streams were no longer streams. After samadhi, the mountains were mountains and the streams were streams again. The natural world is our great body. We are it and it is us. There is another poem that expresses this point quite well: The jade green leaves of bamboo express ultimate wisdom, while the various flowers around them reveal mysterious truths. To live with the Tao of nature means to live truthfully within whatever circumstances we find ourselves and not to squander our energies by chasing after the false appearances of our delusions. The universe that we see around us is nothing more than a projection of our own minds. The great cosmos that envelops us resides as well within the center of our own hearts. Thus, nature is truth, nature is the Buddhadharma, nature is the inherent goodness that lies within all of us, nature is the fullness and the culmination of the being of all things.

The BLIA has just entered its eighth year since its founding. Though we are a strong organization, we must remember that we are like a small tree; there is a long way to go before we reach the limits of our potential. In the past, our annual conferences have had different themes than the one we are convening under today, and yet each of those past themes is in perfect accordance with everything that I have spoken about today. We have been successful as a group up to this point because everything that we have done has been in accordance with the deep laws of nature. Some of our past themes were, "Joy and Harmony," "Respect and Tolerance," "Equality and Peace," and "Wholeness and Freeness." The BLIA has grown because we have based ourselves on the laws of nature as they were explained by Shakyamuni Buddha. In the future, we must continue on this path for this is the way of the sages. If we continue to follow the example set by Shakyamuni Buddha and by the great masters of the past, we will be assured of facing all hardships with the courage, compassion and resolve necessary for fully overcoming them. When we bring our lives as well as the life of the BLIA into full compliance with the laws of nature, there is nothing that can prevent us from spreading the teachings of the Buddha to all corners of the world.

In closing, I would like to wish on all of you who are present the joy of the Dharma and the enduring wisdom of a life lived within it.