2008 Keynote Speech: Bodhisattva and Volunteer


Vice-Presidents, Elders, Directors, Chapter Elder-Advisors, Chapter Presidents, Distinguished Guests, Buddha’s Light Members, greetings to you all!

BLIA is a global organization whose members across all five continents work locally to promote the association. As members gather at the 12th General Conference of BLIA since its establishment seventeen years ago, I would like to use this opportunity to say “Thank you for your hard work!”

The 21st Century is a time of technological advancement. The information, medical, biochemistry and aviation technologies have pushed people forward at a tremendous pace. Nevertheless, an even greater accomplishment of humanity is the volunteers found across the globe. They dedicate themselves to helping people and benefiting society in different corners of the world. They bring warmth, kindness and beauty to society and add an array of light and hope to this world. To show the bright side of human nature is indeed the greatest accomplishment of all.

Speaking of volunteers, the Buddha was indeed the very first volunteer. After attaining enlightenment, he traveled around India and taught the Dharma for fifty years to help bring the human mind to a higher state of being. He also personally brewed medicine and threaded the needle for his disciples; thus served as a volunteer for sentient beings. The Buddha served sentient beings on his own initiative and without any pay. He did not require others to guide him, and even inspired many bodhisattvas and eminent monks to also volunteer themselves for people. Just as the Buddha has said, “I plough the field of merit with my compassion and wisdom, and sow seeds of bodhi wisdom on this field. “The Buddha was a volunteer for sentient beings, and he enabled them to harvest from this field of merit. In virtue of Buddha and these bodhisattvas’ diligent efforts in spreading the seeds of Dharma and serving sentient beings as volunteers, the world thus had its darkness dispelled and became filled with brightness.

As time progresses, human minds and civilization also continue to advance, it has become a trend for members of society to volunteer themselves. The work of a volunteer is different from that of general paid job which expects money and reward. Volunteer work on the other hand, focuses on happiness, joy and establishment of good connections, which is rather different from the former.

The word “volunteer’ in Taiwan is interpreted with two different characters, yi and zhi, whose meanings are actually quite far apart. Yi means volunteering yourself with sentiment and righteousness, a mind that serves others with benevolence and righteousness. Zhi on the other hand, means doing something that you like out of your own will, yet what you are doing may not necessarily be something good. One can ‘will’ something that can either be good or bad. An eminent one may will something great, but a bandit can also will something that harms society. Wan Jing-wei had once said that one either leaves a good name for a hundred generations or leave a bad reputation that will long be remembered. This shows, one can ‘will’ to leave one with a good name for hundred generations or a bad reputation that will be long remembered!

The different between yi and zhi can be explained with the different between prajna wisdom and worldly knowledge as explained in the sutras. Knowledge can either be good or evil, while intelligence can also be obstruct oneself at times. Science, for example, is a form of knowledge that has its advantages and disadvantages. Wisdom, on the other hand, is pure goodness; it is perfection, improvement, virtuous, pure and uncontaminated. Therefore, when you will yourself into doing something, it may not always be something good or kind, while serving others with righteousness will surely result in something good and kind. Without righteousness, the value of life will no longer exist. Therefore, while zhi is a good thing, yi gives an even more legitimate meaning to volunteer work.

Recently, there has been a lot of people working at children’s homes, senior’s homes and hospitals as volunteers. Although their contribution to providing clothing, food and material care is indeed a wonderful way of giving, the best way to be a volunteer is to abide by the four instructions the Buddha had taught to his disciples regarding alms-procession:
1) do no distinguish between the rich and poor;
2) do not choose between coarse or delicate food;
3) do not care for the clean or filthy;
4) do not care for the amount of food given. If a volunteer can be based on these four instructions to serve sentient beings with equality, and help them resolve their problems, one can then be called the wisest volunteer.

Despite all these, some still have incorrect attitudes towards volunteer work, and have only caused more obstructions to the establishment of good causes and conditions. Take Buddhists for example, some go to help out at the temples, but when mealtime comes, they would refuse to stay to eat, because they would feel that they are taking advantage of the temple, which will cause their merits to decrease. However, Buddhism advocates equality between the giver and receiver. If one makes an offering of food, he or she is even required to pay respect to those who accept the offering, because the giver also needs to be grateful to the receivers for giving him a chance to sow the seeds of merit. Thus, every bit of your dedication deserves a share of the offerings made by the devotees.

Furthermore, some also believe that it is wrong to get a paid job at Buddhist temples or organization, because once they accept money from the temple, their merits will also disappear. Due to this idea, many people have been unable to contribute to Buddhism. Even bodhisattvas need to accept people’s offerings, and even oxen and horses need to be given water and food for pulling the carts. Therefore, even if one is doing paid work for Buddhism, they are still considered volunteers. As long as one cares not for the reward of payment, but for serving and helping people, their merits will not be forgotten.

I also hear many well-accomplished Buddhists say, “I will come to the temple to volunteer my service after I retire.” However, if one is really willing to serve others, he does not need to wait until retirement. He can already make a wish to be a bodhisattva who never retreats or stops in this very moment. It is very difficult to be reborn as a human, and even if one already has, the chance to be a human again can be even more scarce. Wouldn’t life be more meaningful if we can grab onto every present minute and second to establish good connections wide and far? Therefore, we do not need to wait to become volunteers in the future; the bodhisattva practice can be realized in the here and now through our spirit of the volunteer. We can already benefit and bring joy to sentient beings through our practices of the Four Embracing Virtues and Six Paramitas.

For a long time, BLIA members have involved themselves in worldly endeavors with world-transcending ideas. They have shown selfless care to other people, to society, and to the earth with unconditional loving-kindness and impartial compassion. They have even vowed to propagate Buddhism and turn the mundane world into a humanistic pureland. Thus they truly deserve to be called “volunteers of the volunteers.” A true volunteer follows the spirit of the bodhisattvas who are compassionate to all beings and benefit them impartially. For this reason, not only do the distressed sentient beings in the Saha World need bodhisattvas to free them from suffering, they are also in dire need for volunteers who bring forth the spirit of the bodhisattva path through their actions.

For all said above, I would like to share the following points on this year’s keynote speech, “Bodhisattva and Volunteer”: 1) A Bodhisattva is a volunteer for sentient beings, while a volunteer is a bodhisattva for the world As said in a sutra, “If you wish to become a dragon or elephanti of Buddhism, you must first learn to serve sentient beings like the horse and ox.” This is a demonstration of a bodhisattva’s kind heart and compassionate vows. Therefore, a so-called bodhisattva is one who is willing to benefit sentient beings and aspires to initiate the bodhicitta that vows to “reach upwards for buddhahood, and backtrack to deliver sentient beings” as a result of becoming awakened to the truths of suffering, emptiness and impermanence. Whether monastic or lay, noble or poor, anyone who fits the above criteria can be called a bodhisattva. On the other hand, once a person has vowed to develop the bodhicitta and is willing to practice the bodhisattva path, he or she will certainly be willing to serve others and be a volunteer for all sentient beings.

The Four Great Bodhisattvas of Buddhism all served sentient beings as volunteers. For example, Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva traced the sounds of cries, relieved the distressed and let them become fearless; thus he was the most compassionate volunteer of all. Manjusri Bodhisattva inspired sentient beings’ minds with wisdom; thus he was the wisest volunteer of all. Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva vowed to “never attain Buddhahood until all beings are freed from hell” and “to delay the attainment of enlightenment until all sentient beings are delivered;” thus he was the volunteer with the greatest aspiration. Samantabadhra Bodhisattva realized his ten vows based on sentient beings, as a cultivation practice for all; thus he was the volunteer with the greatest ascetic practice. Other than the above, many Buddhist masters also dedicated their lives to the continuance of the Buddha’s wisdom and propagation of Dharma. For example, Nagarjuna wrote several sastras and commentaries to propagate Mahayana Buddhism; Aryadeva refuted false views and revealed the righteous Dharma; Asanga changed his brother who like him, transferred from the small vehicle to the greater vehicle; Vasubandhu conquered the heretics with his writings in place of a sword; and Asvagosha voiced the truth with his poems and songs. Their selfless devotion to volunteering to deliver sentient beings also brought a ray of hope into this world, and dispelled its darkness.

The Buddha’s disciples such as Sariputra, Maudgalyayana and Purna volunteered their wisdom, supernatural power and eloquence to help the Buddha expound his teachings. Aniruddha was not afraid of the harsh weathers and traveled to places to resolve disputes and arbitrated between monastics. Bhiksu Tuo-piao received and attended to traveling monastics for decades, and attained an illuminating finger as a result of his volunteer works.

If one takes a look at the Buddhist texts, one will find that many Ch’an Masters had vowed to devote all their lifetimes to serving sentient beings. For example, Ch’an Master Wei-shan Ling-yu vowed to be reborn as a bull so that he can help people pull their carts; Chao-chou vowed to be reborn in hell so that he can save sentient beings from it. Some also dedicated their whole life to labor and ascetic practice without any regret. Ch’an Master Xue-feng served as head of rice cooking under his master Dong-shan; Ch’an Master Xiao-cong served as head of lights and candles under his master Yun-ju; Ch’an Master Ji-shan served as head of firewood under his master Tou-zi; Ch’an Master Yi-huai served as head of latrine cleaning under his master Cui-feng; Master Dao-yuan served in the kitchen of Tian Tong Temple for sixty years, and even laid out mushrooms underneath the scorching sun to dry them. Such spirits of ‘wishing only for the liberation of sentient beings, not for the comfort and happiness of oneself” is a perfect demonstration of a volunteering bodhisattva.

Throughout the many generations of Buddhists, many monastics widely practiced benevolent actions and made tremendous contributions to social welfare. Be it building bridges and paving roads, planting trees and afforestation, digging wells, setting up pavilions that served tea, protecting and freeing life, providing medical treatment to the poor, emergency relief aids, building temples and offering shelters, establishing orphanages and senior’s homes, setting up hospitals, giving charity, setting up free schools, or teaching the proper and true faith, they have done countless good deeds to benefit their community. They had unshakeable belief in the fact that the significance of working lies in broadening one’s horizons, serving people, and even bringing the value of life to a higher plain. Therefore, what else can be better than volunteering one’s work and labor? Not only were bodhisattvas and monastics happy to be volunteers for sentient beings, many rulers and kings also did the same throughout the course of Buddhist history.

Magadha’s Asoka III set up medical storages at all four gates of the city for his people and monastics. Everyday, he would make offerings of one thousand units of money to the construction of stupas and statues, one thousand to senior bhiksus, ten thousand to the monastic community, and ten thousand for purchasing medical supplies. He also planted trees on the sides of the roads and dug wells to enable travelers a place to recover from the hot weather. As the ruler of a nation, King Asoka served his people as a volunteer and enabled them a steady and peaceful life, also allowing his nation to prosper.

The Father of Japanese Buddhism, Prince Shotoku encouraged his people to have faith in the Triple Gem. In Osaka’s Shitennoji constructed by him, he included courts such as the Hiden-in, Kyoden-in, Ryobyo-in, and Seyaku-in to provide free medical consultation, shelter and relief aids to the poor and needy.

Emperor Liang from the Chinese Southern and Northern dynasty was a pious Buddhist. Not only did he study Buddhism intensively and observed the Bodhisattva Precepts, he even served at Tong Tai Temple on three separate occasions despite his noble position as an emperor. Thus he was given the title, “a bodhisattva emperor.” From this, we can see that just as long as one possesses the bodhisattva spirit and is willing to serve others, one can be named a bodhisattva king, or even a bodhisattva minister, bodhisattva doctor, or bodhisattva teacher. Volunteer firefighters and police are also manifestations of the bodhisattva.

I used to urge that “everyone be a police,” so that they can help the police to keep order in a society overflowing with chaos and problems. The best way for a nation or society to improve is for everyone to be a police. A police is like a guardian who also shows the bodhisattva spirit. Therefore, not only are compassion and initiative required to practice the bodhisattva path, one also needs to do so with activeness and bravery.

The BLIA is an organization that strives to realize the bodhisattva path and practice the Buddha’s way. Ever since its establishment, not only have our members volunteered their services at the temples by helping out in the kitchen, answering telephone calls, receiving guests, directing traffic, sweeping and cleaning up, doing paperwork, computer editing, poster design, and publicity and liaising, they have also volunteered themselves in social service across different social strata.

Recently, the kind deeds of the BLIA have been regularly reported by the media; for example, the “Loving Mums” who help school children cross the road were much appreciated by the parents; the volunteers at hospitals who help patients register themselves have assisted countless elders; the “Friendship and Love Service Team” went to remote areas to provide free medical consultation and spared many families from pressures of having to pay for medical treatment; and the Humanistic Buddhist Reading Association has spread the fragrance of reading to many families.

Other activities such as tree-planting, the Seven Admonitions Campaign, Carnival for Special Students, Paper Recycling Activities, and visits to prisons and drug rehabilitation centers have all been actively promoted by BLIA members and volunteers. In particular, the demeanor, manner, speech, sacrifice and contribution demonstrated by BLIA members during their volunteer activities have won much recognition. For example, members of BLIA, Los Angeles received a special request to be the traffic directing volunteers at a United Nations gathering that was held in Los Angeles; many government organizations also made requests to BLIA, Chunghwa to recommend female members to help out at their events as volunteers.

In my opinion, regardless of the type and importance of the event, just as long as it is of benefit to the public, BLIA has the obligation to volunteer themselves. It is also BLIA members’ mission to be volunteers who act like a thread that links all types of good causes and conditions together, and offer their part in establishing a Humanistic pureland. In general, to be a volunteer signifies the dedication of one’s life; it is the offering of one’s strength, time and goodwill. Therefore, a volunteer is a bodhisattva practitioner who integrates both understanding and practice of the Dharma. When confronted with a life of suffering, emptiness and impermanence, people normally pray to buddhas and bodhisattvas to bless them in times of hardship and hopelessness. The truth is, Buddhism’s volunteers are like the thousand-hand-and-thousand-eye bodhisattva who serves on behalf of the buddhas and bodhisattvas. Therefore, there are surely no words that fully match the praise of a bodhisattva to say “a bodhisattva is a volunteer for sentient beings, while a volunteer is a bodhisattva for the world.”