2000 Keynote Speech: One Truth For All


Vice President, board members, honored guests, chapter leaders, and representatives of the BLIA, best wishes to all of you!

Buddhism first entered China almost 2,000 years ago, during the reign of Emperor Ming (58-75 CE) of the Han Dynasty. This year, for the first time, the birthday of Shakyamuni Buddha was celebrated as a national holiday in Taiwan. This recognition is something that should gratify all of us, as should the fact that today delegates have come to Fo Guang Shan from all over the world to participate in this Eighth International Conference of Buddha's Light International Association. As we reflect on the rarity of these conditions, I hope that we will all turn our minds toward the next millennium. Let us make this occasion today the start of a new and wonderful age of Buddhism.

Today, we live in a time when science and economics have produced so much wealth and so many marvelous inventions it is hard to imagine what will come next. As we enjoy the benefits of our age, however, we must wonder how these material achievements are affecting the moral behavior of the world's people. The world has become so complex, individuals are now more able than ever to select their own realities, and to make decisions based on personal feelings or personal assessments of what is true and false. When people choose for themselves what is right and what is wrong, they too often are led into making decisions that have harmful consequences for both their own lives annd the lives of others. In order to address this problem, I thought that I would use the occasion of this gathering to speak on the subject of "One Truth For All." I hope that my words will inspire others to find within themselves the courage to live in accordance with the truth, and to establish within society rational and objective standards that must form the basis of any healthy group activity.

Deep truths are universal and they transcend the individual. Rational minds find solace in the truth because human reason itself is a reflection of deep reality. The proverb, "I love my teacher, but I love the truth more," affirms that life has both a rational and a universal basis. There is but one truth and it applies equally to all of us. No one can stand above this truth, and no one can escape the consequences of turning away from it. Each one of us must discover this truth in our own way, but this does not mean that the truth can be changed or that we are free to reinterpret it as we like. When the Buddha said, "Follow the Dharma, not people," he was saying that we must learn to base our lives on the eternal truth and not on someone's momentary interpretation of it.

The modern world seduces people into believing that they have the competence to interpret truth in any way they like. People know more today than ever before, but what they know is usually little more than a collection of facts about one area of study or another. Each area of human endeavor is important to all others, but few areas of inquiry can really be said to have major bearing on our understanding of who we are as people, or what our place in the universe really is. When the Buddha first became enlightened, he entered into an awareness that reflected a truth that is deeper than any other. He said, "How wonderful! All sentient beings possess Buddha nature, and one day all of them will become Buddhas!" This is a universal truth. It is not a subjective truth or a convenient reworking of ideas to serve some selfish purpose. The Buddha's insight is as true today as it was 2,500 years ago. When we base our lives on his teachings, we begin to see that "all sentient beings are one" and that selfish desires always run counter to the truth.

The Buddha taught dependent origination to help us begin to understand universal truth. He said that all phenomena and all laws in the universe can be explained in terms of dependent origination. He said, "All phenomena arise due to causes, and all phenomena decline due to causes." There is nothing that is not caused, and thus there is nothing that is not dependent on something else for its origination. "Dependent origination" means that no phenomenon arises on its own, but that all phenomena arise from other phenomena. This truth clears the mind for it prevents us from becoming lost in the transient intensities of life. Dependent origination provides us with a basic standard that helps us see beyond the confusing delusion of individuality to the universal oneness of the Buddha nature which inheres in all things. Coupled with the Buddha's teachings on emptiness and impermanence, dependent origination helps us understand why we are born, why we grow old, and why we must eventually sicken and die. When we understand this process, we are no longer so frightened by it. Rather than cling to forms that must inevitably be extinguished, we learn to base ourselves on the much deeper truths of the Dharma that transcend all form, all loss, and all gain.

Universal truth is beyond duality, beyond pleasure and pain, beyond the selfish interests of the individual who sees only himself and no one else. The Buddha's teachings on cause and effect tell us that karma is a law that applies to the workings of all conscious minds. No one can escape this law. When we behave with bad intentions, we create conditions that we ourselves one day will have to endure. The selfish person thinks that no one is seeing him, or that no one knows his thoughts; this is the logic of subjective "truth." The Buddha taught that our thoughts are precisely what make us who we are. He taught that our thoughts are always producing the conditions that will come to prevail in our lives; this is the universal truth of the Dharma. This truth applies to all because it is an objective truth that cannot be changed by our subjective interpretations of it. Good intentions produce good effects, while bad intentions produce bad effects. This truth applies equally to all of us. "When a prince does wrong, his karma is no different from that of a commoner."

In ancient times, powerful people often had gold and jewels, and sometimes even slaves, buried in their tombs with them in the mistaken belief that these things would follow them into the next life to serve them there. Their thinking was based on the false notion that future conditions of their lives could be arranged in accordance with the transitory customs that happened to obtain at the times of their deaths. The simple obviousness of their grandiose misconceptions should serve as a reminder to all of us that the truth is not something that we can simply wish into existence. The future conditions of our lives are based on nothing other than the intentions we act upon today. The Vinaya says, "When the fruits of retribution have ripened, there is nowhere you can hide."

Though there are many people who understand that truth is universal, there are still far too many who do not. Vast numbers of people use force to get their way. They cheat, lie, and frighten others only to bring some low benefit to themselves, or to their mistaken notion of what the "self" is. A self based on greed and anger is a complete delusion. It is a self-generated parody that mocks its inventor at every turn. Contrast such unbridled selfishness to the enlightened awareness of Chang Tsai (1020-1077), who said, "Base your mind on heaven and earth. Base your life on the needs of the people. Study to attain deep wisdom. Bring peace to all things." This sensibility is the basis of a social ethic in which the one lives for the many and takes its sense of worth from the contributions it makes to others and not on the benefit it receives from them. Chuang Tze said, "The truth already is clear. Reward and retribution simply follow in accordance with it." He also said, "Heaven and earth were born with me. All things are one with me." When Galileo refused to repudiate what he knew to be true, he stood for the truth in the face of considerable danger.

In a perfect society, each citizen would understand the universality of truth and honor the rights and needs of others. A good society must be based on democratic principles, and yet when a democracy loses sight of the rights of its minority members and allows the wishes of the majority to control everything, there will always be problems. The rights of those who voted for the losing side of an election are fully as important as those who voted on the winning side. Objective standards of law and behavior must be respected at all times, and all members of any given society must be equal within those standards. When one group seizes power from another and flouts the basic rule of law, chaos inevitably follows. A good thing cannot come from a bad intention. Sun Yat-sen meant essentially this when he said, "We must all work for the good of this world."

In Buddhism, leadership within a lineage is passed on from one master to the next. This system has provided Buddhism with a rational and orderly way to preserve its traditions. If we were to ever lose respect for this tradition, Buddhism would quickly decline into a system wherein "people were respected, but not the Dharma," or wherein "masters were respected, but not the truth." When the Diamond Sutra speaks of "not clinging to any idea of a self," it is speaking of humbling ourselves before an objective standard of truth that is greater than any idea we can form about it. When we have truly abandoned all tendencies to act selfishly or to "cling to any idea of a self," we will have entered upon the deepest layers of truth taught by the Buddha, for transcendental truths can only become a living part of us when we have utterly abandoned all thought of clinging to any of them.

When we base our lives on universal truths, we learn to face life's problems with a more productive attitude. All things depend on both causes and conditions. If the cause is present, but conditions are not, then there cannot be a result. Some people have a lot of talent, but they never get the chance to use it. Other people have little or no talent, but since conditions have been right for them, they are given a chance to use their limited abilities to the fullest. Nelson Mandela spent thirty years languishing in jail until conditions were right for him to become president of South Africa. He had great talent, but he was not able to use it until conditions were right for it to flourish. Sun Yat-sen tried to overthrow the Ch'ing Dynasty many times before he at last succeeded. All human activities depend on both causes and conditions. This is a universal truth and it is a great help to recognize it as such. When we fully understand this truth, we will not feel so frustrated and we will not feel that there is something unfair about the way our lives have proceeded. Just as a flower requires sunlight, water, and good soil to bloom, so human talents require many external conditions before they can be fully expressed.

It is important to have a clear recognition of the rarity of all events. The environmental movement has made us all more aware of the preciousness of out natural surroundings, but I wonder sometimes if it has not also had the effect of making us think that human life should proceed in the same way as the lives of animals? I hope not, for in the animal realm, the strong rule the weak, and the ruthless prevail. It would be a tragedy to interpret life in the human realm in terms of the lives of animals. Our human realm is precious most of all because it provides us with the opportunity to study the Dharma and to practice compassion.

There is one truth for all of us, and this truth is the truth taught by Shakyamuni Buddha. The Dharma is true on every continent and in every realm of existence. As we move into the next millennium I hope that all of us will do our best to make this world a place wherein the deep moral principles of the Dharma become the one truth that governs us all. May the Buddha bless all of you and lead you toward those things that will be of the greatest benefit to you. I hope that this conference will be a great success for all of us!