Over the course of practising Buddhism and cultivating our mind, we must keep in mind that cultivation is akin to treading on thin ice. This description is fitting, as the path of cultivation is difficult, and we must remain vigilant throughout. Novice Buddhist practitioners are easily led astray, and all the efforts of veteran practitioners can come to nought with the slightest negligence. This isn’t just a reminder for new practitioners, but also to every Buddhist friend. It is through constant self-reflection that we can triumph over the various demons that lurk within and around us, to achieve our goal in practising Buddhism.
Only our minds can perceive barriers, obstacles or temptations. It is our minds that draw inferences and conclusions, and it is also our minds that determine the course of action in response to them. Thus, innumerable dharmas stem from the mind.
Practising Buddhism is about cultivating the mind. Changing our behaviour complements this process and is relatively easy compared with cultivating the mind. Within their capacity, everyone can perform tasks such as reciting Buddhist scriptures, doing good deeds, accumulating merits and virtues, practising generosity, correcting behaviour and so on, albeit to different extents. Although the foundation of changing our behaviour is determined by our varying states of mind, all in all, it has fewer risks. Cultivation of the mind is constantly laden with risks.
What is the objective of cultivating the mind? In truth, we are cultivating our knowledge and understanding that we base our choice of path on. It includes our knowledge and understanding of the universe, the law of cause and effect, the heavenly principles, the various spiritual realms, the suffering in Hell, the rules governing the survival of the primeval community of our shared life, the fact that there is nothing in this world we can bring along upon death except for the karma we have created, etc. Moreover, it is very important to have knowledge and understanding of the Buddhist practice that you are following. Collectively, this is the makeup of our knowledge and understanding of the foundation of Buddhism.
The greater knowledge and understanding we have about the truths, the closer we get to the truths themselves. With a clearer mind, there will be fewer detours to make in life, and our state of mind will be broadened as well.
The more we understand these principles, the more we are able to purify our minds, as we come to realise how trivial worldly afflictions are and how fame and wealth in this world are fairly short-lived. With better understanding of the law of cause and effect and heavenly principles, we appreciate better the need to cultivate a benevolent mind. Any evil thoughts will only breed negative karma and give rise to negative karmic affinities, not to mention the time required to eventually eliminate them. The greater our understanding of the suffering endured in hell, the more we become deterred from committing bad deeds, for what goes around comes around. The more we understand karma, the more steadfast our faith becomes in practising Buddhism. This is because we are aware that Buddhism can liberate us from suffering and allow us to eventually attain happiness. The greater the accuracy of our understanding of a Buddhist practice, the more effective our cultivation will be and the less likely we will be to deviate. The deeper our understanding of the underlining principles of how our primeval community of share life survive, the more we can give rise to compassion, for every soul originates from the same spiritual source.
The hindrances and obstacles that appear while we cultivate our minds stem from our attachments. Only when our mind is pure can we overcome them. What is an ‘attachment’? It stems from the failure to establish a comprehensive and proper understanding of the truth of life in this universe. When a person’s knowledge and understanding is unable to provide an answer to their problem or explain their current predicament, they will still attempt to search for a solution based on their existing conception. This will ultimately result in either ‘awakening’ or ‘attachment’.
In our everyday secular life, we often give rise to afflictions when we have been unfairly treated. For example, when at work, we may have done more than our share but our abilities have gone unrecognised, hence we don’t get promoted. When at home, we might have contributed a lot towards our children and family members, but we are not appreciated. Some people might think to themselves, “I want to practise Buddhism and cultivate my mind, but all the worldly afflictions are interfering with my ‘inner tranquillity’. How can I be free of afflictions and practise Buddhism? Does Pure Land not exist in this world?” If you work at the hospital, you’ll see suffering wherever you go. Doctors and nurses have already grown accustomed to it. This can cause negligence that results in tragedies. This is turn may cause them to seek withdrawal or seclusion, and so forth. Such examples are countless. Even amongst fellow practitioners, due to variations in their levels of insight, there will be differences regarding how they perceive matters and the approaches they use in managing interpersonal relationships. Therefore, they are frequently misunderstood, criticised, and even defamed by others. Such cases are extremely common in our lives. Such injustices, be it subjective or objective, are forms of obstacle that hinder our cultivation of the mind in the secular world. Such a mentality then becomes deeply-rooted inside our minds and seems to be invincible. Every day we question ourselves repeatedly, ingraining in us that sense that our perceived reality is absolutely right and there is no other explanation for it. As a result, we become ‘attached’ to our misconceptions, which in-turn hamper the progression of our understanding. Over the course of cultivating our mind, the attachment matures and becomes an inner demon.
Under such circumstances, if we practise and apply our understanding and knowledge of the Buddha-Dharma, we will realise that such worries and injustices are insignificant. For example, a person may feel that his manager is incapable but was promoted to general manager based on a number of years of diligent service to the company, whereas his competence (self-proclaimed) was not given due recognition. You have to face the fact that your lack of recognition in the workplace and your failure in job searches had nothing to do with others, as you are trapped in your karmic obstacles, like a thoroughbred horse that isn’t appreciated. To attain an uncomplicated life, first and foremost you have to eliminate your karmic obstacles. Irrespective of the manager’s capability, the fact of the matter is that he has a bright future and is benefitting from the help of benefactors, as he may have practised kindness by taking care of a lonely elder in his previous lifetime. With such knowledge, you will naturally understand the doctrine of cause and effect, thus seizing the day and eliminating karmic obstacles and performing virtuous deeds. You will only cease to be in a state of bewilderment upon recognising this point.
In the past, Buddhist practitioners had to study Buddhist literature and scriptures rigorously and obtain affirmations from other Buddhist friends before they were able to verify the accuracy of their knowledge and understanding of the Buddha-Dharma. We can imagine the hardship that they had to endure. With the advancement of information technology, we can now search for information with ease. However, the overwhelming amount of information that can be easily acquired also poses tremendous difficulty for us in our discernment and decision-making process. This clearly shows that the process of learning and understanding Buddhist teachings has never been an easy task.
Why is it that when the mind is pure can we overcome our attachments? A pure mind doesn’t mean entering into a state of a perpetual emptiness, but rather attaining a transcendental level of spirituality that is detached from the dissensions of the secular world. Only by doing so can we prevent our mind from becoming defiled, drawn into the issue and deluded. With a pure mind, we can see beyond the different forms of the world. This is a pre-requisite that enables us to realise the absolute truth of the Buddha-Dharma.
Therefore, regardless of your future progression in your cultivation, anyone who wishes to learn about Buddhism should start by acquiring this basic knowledge. The Buddha-Dharma should be treated as a discipline which imparts knowledge on fundamental principles that is similar to mathematics. Under the Master’s guidance, learn to infer other things from one fact, apply the Buddha-Dharma in your everyday lives, see through afflictions and rise above the inconstancies of the world. Gradually you will be able to cope with the ups and downs in life with serenity. Once you have gained an understanding of a particular level of the Buddha-Dharma, there will be higher levels to pursue. This is because the Buddha-Dharma and its principles are boundless.