The Method of Learning Buddhism

The three studies of precepts, concentration, and wisdom are the foundation of Buddhist practice. By cultivating these three studies, one can eliminate afflictions and attain enlightenment.

Why are these three studies considered the foundation of Buddhist practice? Because they are integral to the fundamental teaching of the Buddha, the Four Noble Truths: “suffering, its origin, its cessation, and the path.” The path to cessation, or enlightenment, involves the Eightfold Path, which is comprised of the three studies of precepts, concentration, and wisdom.

The three studies can be further broken down into precept study, concentration study, and wisdom study. Precept study includes the cultivation of right speech, right action, right livelihood, and right effort. Concentration study includes the cultivation of right mindfulness and right concentration. Wisdom study includes the cultivation of right view and right contemplation.

The three studies are also known as the “three trainings without outflows.” Precepts serve as the foundation for concentration, concentration serves as the foundation for wisdom, and wisdom leads to the attainment of enlightenment. These three studies are the basis for Buddhist practice and enlightenment.

1.Discipline: Discipline, also known as precepts, is the standard for cultivating oneself and regulating one’s mind for those who practice the path. Our thoughts and actions in daily life are based on the three activities of body, speech, and mind. These three activities can be used for good or for evil. Therefore, the Buddha established precepts so that practitioners could follow them to refrain from doing evil and do good instead.

The Buddha once said in a sixteen-word verse: “Abstain from all evil, practice all good, purify your mind, this is the teaching of all Buddhas.” Abstaining from evil is to refrain from doing evil, practicing all good is to cultivate goodness, purifying one’s mind is to eliminate confusion. Practicing these three is to cultivate the path.

Our fundamental afflictions, the three poisons of greed, anger, and ignorance, are primarily manifested in the mind. When manifested in the body, they result in killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct. When manifested in speech, they result in lying, frivolous talk, divisive speech, and harsh speech. Therefore, the fundamental precepts in Buddhism, the five precepts, prohibit killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and intoxication. However, the five precepts are only negative prohibitions of external evils. If one wishes to advance further, one must actively cultivate goodness from within. To cultivate goodness means to transform the ten evils, including greed, anger, ignorance, killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, frivolous talk, divisive speech, and harsh speech, into the ten wholesome actions, which are contemplation of impurity, contemplation of loving-kindness, contemplation of dependent origination, releasing captive animals, giving alms, observing the precepts, speaking honestly, speaking kindly, speaking gently, and speaking truthfully.

The five precepts are negative prohibitions of evil, while the ten wholesome actions are positive cultivation of goodness, and both are what lay Buddhists should follow. As for monastic precepts, monks have 250 precepts, and nuns have 348 precepts. The rules are detailed and have become a specialized field of study.

Samadhi: Samadhi, also known as “meditation”, is the practice of calming the mind. By cultivating Samadhi, one can eliminate the scattered thoughts and mental distractions caused by emotions and worries.

The suffering experienced by the body and mind is the result of karma and afflictions. Therefore, in order to free oneself from suffering, one must first eliminate the root cause of suffering. The root cause of suffering is nothing but deluded thoughts arising from the mind. If one observes the mind, it becomes clear that one thought has not yet ceased before another arises, and they arise continuously without end. Deluded thoughts are afflictions, and actions produced by these deluded thoughts in body, speech and mind are karma. Afflictions create karma, and karma leads to suffering. This is the fundamental process of samsara (cycle of birth and death). Therefore, the practice of cultivating Samadhi is aimed at calming the mind, and observing precepts is aimed at abandoning evil karma. One should cultivate Samadhi in accordance with the precepts, and then cultivate wisdom based on Samadhi.

There are many types of Samadhi, which will be further discussed in the section on practice methods.

2.Prajna: Prajna, also known as “wisdom”, is not the worldly intelligence, but the great wisdom obtained through Samadhi, which is the wisdom beyond worldly concerns. Prajna is also called “prajna-paramita”, which means “the perfection of wisdom”. However, the concept of prajna cannot be fully explained by the term “wisdom”.

The Buddha-nature exists in everyone, but it is obscured by deluded thoughts, just as gold is buried in ore or a clear mirror is covered in dust. The inherent nature of gold is not lost when it is in the ore, and the clarity of the mirror is still present when it is covered in dust. If the ore is removed and the dust is wiped away, the true nature of the gold and the clarity of the mirror will be revealed. Similarly, the true nature of the mind, which is obscured by deluded thoughts, can be revealed through the practice of Samadhi, which gradually removes deluded thoughts and restores right mindfulness. This is how one attains prajna.

The three studies of precepts, Samadhi and prajna are the foundation of the Buddhist path. Not only does the Eightfold Path include these three studies, but also the Six Paramitas of Mahayana Buddhism. Therefore, those who practice the Buddhist path must cultivate these three studies, which encompass the six paramitas.

The six paramitas include generosity, precepts, forbearance, diligence, Samadhi, and wisdom. Generosity, precepts, forbearance and diligence belong to the study of precepts; Samadhi belongs to the study of Samadhi; and wisdom belongs to the study of prajna.

Methods of Cultivation:

There are 84,000 afflictions among sentient beings, and there are 84,000 Dharma doors in Buddhism, all of which are established for the convenience of teaching according to the different roots and habits of sentient beings. In fact, “there is only one ultimate truth, but there are many expedient means.” Every door leads to the same nature, and every Dharma is the Prajna wisdom. As beginners in Buddhism, we should hold the view of equality among all methods and avoid clinging to any particular method as superior. Only then can we achieve a comprehensive understanding and realization of the ultimate truth.

In practicing Buddhism, it is not about the abundance of Dharma doors, but about concentration and depth. Among many methods, we can choose one that is close to our own nature and interests as our daily practice, and we will eventually gain realization after a long period of diligent cultivation. Here are a few simple introductions to some methods of cultivation:

  1. Chan meditation: When the Buddha was living, he held up a flower in front of the assembly at Vulture Peak, and Mahakasyapa smiled. The Buddha then said, “I have the treasury of the true Dharma eye, the wondrous mind of Nirvana, the reality beyond all form and characteristics, the subtle Dharma door, which does not depend on words and language, and special transmission outside of teachings. I now entrust it to Mahakasyapa.” This is the origin of Chan Buddhism. During the time of Emperor Wu of the Liang Dynasty, Bodhidharma came to China and transmitted the Dharma to the second patriarch, Huike. Chan Buddhism flourished under the sixth patriarch, Huineng. At that time, the teaching emphasized the direct pointing to the mind and immediate enlightenment. For example, Huike asked Bodhidharma, “My mind is not at peace. Please pacify it.” Bodhidharma replied, “Bring me your mind, and I will pacify it.” Huike said, “I have searched for my mind, and I cannot find it.” Bodhidharma said, “There, I have pacified your mind.” Huike immediately realized enlightenment.

In later generations, due to the dullness of people’s roots and the complexity of their minds, they could not directly realize enlightenment. Therefore, later Chan masters taught the method of using a “huatou” (a phrase or question to focus the mind) to gradually attain realization.

The so-called “huatou” refers to reflecting on a phrase or question that can arouse doubt in the mind, such as “Who am I?” or “What is my original face?” By intensely focusing on this huatou and investigating it thoroughly, one may suddenly break through all delusions and realize the nature of the mind. As the preface to the Yongzheng Imperial Selection Record says, “The student takes a meaningless phrase and places it in the field of the eight consciousnesses. He or she arouses the fundamental ignorance, creates a great doubt, and fiercely investigates it without giving up, even if it means losing his or her life. Eventually, both person and Dharma are empty, and the mind is silent, and all phenomena are extinguished, along with the meaningless phrase.”

In Chan meditation, it is necessary to have a wise teacher to guide the practice. Blindly practicing on one’s own not only makes it difficult to achieve success, but also risks falling into a demonic state. Therefore, the above introduction only briefly outlines the method without going into detail.

Vajrayana Practice: Vajrayana practice involves holding a mantra with the mouth, sealing it with a hand mudra, and visualizing a profound appearance. This practice of reciting mantras has certain rules for the body, speech, and mind. When one recites a mantra, using a hand mudra is considered the “body secret”; reciting the mantra clearly and correctly with each syllable is considered the “speech secret”; and visualizing the seed syllable of the Buddha or Bodhisattva associated with the mantra is considered the “mind secret.” By practicing these three secrets in harmony, one’s delusional thoughts can be eliminated. However, the practice of secret mantra requires transmission from a qualified guru. Without such transmission, it is merely empty talk and difficult to achieve realization.

Mindfulness Meditation: Mindfulness meditation and Zen meditation both belong to the category of meditation practice. Because delusional thoughts constantly arise and cease in one’s mind, it is often described as a monkey mind or wild horse. Therefore, if one uses their true nature to observe their own mind, this is the fundamental method to cut off the root of delusional thoughts. The method of mindfulness meditation is to let go of all delusions and thoughts, not considering right or wrong, and simply observe one’s own thoughts in stillness. Do not attach or reject the arising and ceasing of illusory thoughts, just observe them with a calm mind. When delusional thoughts are illuminated by one’s own mind, they will immediately disappear, naturally dissolving into emptiness. As the Mahayana Mind Ground Sutra says, “Those who can observe their mind are ultimately liberated, and those who cannot are forever bound.”

The method of mindfulness meditation also needs to be practiced under the guidance of a qualified teacher. Each Buddhist school has its own unique method of meditation practice, so those who practice this method must follow the instructions of their teacher.

Recite the Buddha’s name Practice: Recite the Buddha’s name is a method of Pure Land Buddhism, and its practice is accessible to people of all levels of ability. This method is one of the simplest and most practical practices. It involves reciting the six-syllable name of Amitabha Buddha with devotion and visualization. It was founded by the Master Huiyuan of the Jin dynasty and became popular through the promotion of the great masters Zhongjue, Shandao, Yongming, and Yanshou. Because it is easy to practice and widely applicable, it has become a popular practice for many Buddhists, especially in modern times.

Noun Definitions:

Chan meditation

Chan meditation is a type of practice in the Chan (Zen) school of Buddhism. It involves meditating on ancient cases or sayings, either by grasping the key phrase or by following a specific dialog. The method is to hold on to the saying or dialog until one reaches the bottom, and to observe until the very end, seeing the true nature of the mind, which is known as realizing one’s true nature and becoming enlightened.

Vajrayana practice

Vajrayana practice is a type of practice in the vajrayana (Tantric) school of Buddhism. It has many rules and regulations that must be strictly adhered to, including the three secrets of body, speech, and mind. This practice must be personally taught by a qualified teacher, and cannot be learned or practiced independently, as doing so may lead to delusion and negativity.

Reciting the Buddha name

Reciting the Buddha name is a method of practice in the Pure Land school of Buddhism. It is a simple and convenient way of practice, and is widely advocated in modern Chinese Buddhism.