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One Dharma, part 1: Theravada Buddhism
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One Dharma, part 1: Theravada Buddhism (34 min.) MP3
Transcript of a talk delivered by Brother ChiSing
March 4, 2012 - Dallas, Texas

Thank you, dear friends, for your beautiful practice tonight. I so enjoyed hearing everyone chanting, "Namo tassa bhagavato arahato samma-sambuddhassa," which is actually probably the most ancient Buddhist chant in existence.

So tonight we are going to start our One Dharma series and talk about the four most popular or most prominent schools of Buddhism: Theravada Buddhism and then the three Mahayana schools of Pure Land, Zen, and the esoteric school, which is very strong in Tibet—and so many times the esoteric school is called Tibetan Buddhism. But the esoteric school also exists in other countries as well, such as China and Japan and elsewhere.

So I'm not going to be able to talk about the entirety of Theravada Buddhism tonight, so I'm just going to talk about a few points and also share a little bit about their mindfulness and meditation practices, because as always, I like to emphasize the practice side of anything. So, you can take a semester or two on all of this sort of thing and get a more scholarly approach, but here at the Awakening Heart Community of Mindful Living, we teach things that are more practically oriented, things that you can apply in your everyday life. So I will not be able to talk about all of the theory of the differences between schools, but I would just like to point out a few things for you to consider and perhaps something that you can apply in your own practice.

So first of all, the Theravada school of Buddhism, they consider themselves the original school of Buddhism. Now whether that is true or not, it is hard to say. But their name means—Theravada. "Vada" means the way, and "Thera" means the elders. So, Theravada means the way of the elder. In other words, the Buddhist path that is the oldest and the truest, right? So they believe that their form of Buddhism has been passed down all the way from the Buddha pretty much intact, and the scriptures or writings that they look at are the Canon of the Buddha's teachings in the Pali language, and so—now, in reality, of course, nothing was written down until a few centuries after the Buddha passed away. So it is hard to say if this is really the case that the Pali Canon is the actual, exact words of the Buddha. Because it was three centuries before anything was written down.

Back then of course, many people had a very excellent memory. In fact, Ananda, who was the Buddha's assistant, was the very one who recited the entirety of the Buddhist teachings for all the years that he taught, the one that was always there with the Buddha, and for some reason, if he wasn't there when the Buddha gave the teaching, he would always ask someone to repeat back to him what was taught or even asked the Buddha himself what was said so that he could memorize it, because he had the best memory of all.

So, there were many monks that would pass down all of these teachings, memorize and chant them, and then generations would just memorize them and pass them down. And then finally, they wrote everything down, and it was written in the Pali language, which is very closely related probably to the Buddha's original language in this book. We don't know what exact language or dialect he spoke, but of course it was related to Sanskrit in some way. Pali is also related to Sanskrit. Magadha and a few other local dialects are all related in India.

So everything is based on the Pali Canon, whatever they teach, and so there are three parts of the Canon. It is called in Pali language, Tipitaka, which means the three baskets. Now in Sanskrit, the Mahayana schools call it Tripitaka. Okay? Now, some other examples of the very similar and slight differences between the Pali and Sanskrit language, let's say, for instance, you all know the word karma. That is Sanskrit, but in Pali, it would be kamma. And then so you all know that the dharma, the word dharma, meaning the teachings of the Buddha or the truth or the principles of the universe or the phenomenon of everything as it is. It has many meanings. But in Pali, it is dhamma, D-H-A-M-M-A. So, you know, it is very similar, but also slightly different. Okay.

Now, the Pali Canon is composed of the suttas, the vinaya, and the abdhidhamma. Now of course in Sanskrit, you call that the sutras, the vinaya, and the abhidharma. Okay. So, what are these three baskets of teachings? And they called them baskets because back then when they wrote it down, they put them in baskets, a big basket. So, the suttas are the teachings of the Buddha. The vinaya are the instructions of the Buddha on how to live the monastic life. So it is sort of the rules and the code of conduct for monks and nuns.

And then abhidhamma was actually a later development, but they considered it as part of the full tipitika, Canon, of teachings, because the abhidhamma was the development soon after the Buddha, amongst the monks and nuns—the development of the Buddha's teachings as applied to human mind and psychology. So it is still based on the Buddha's teachings, but it kept developing a century or two after the Buddha passed away into parinirvana or -nibbana, as they would say in Pali. So, the abhidhamma is a very, very detailed teaching on what is the mind made of and how to meditate and all the psychology, psychological aspects of the Buddha's teachings, a little bit more developed. Okay.

So now, in the Theravada tradition of Buddhism, the most fundamental teaching of the Buddha is the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. And the First Noble Truth is the truth of suffering, that there is suffering, and the Second Noble Truth is that suffering is caused. So in other words, no one is suffering just because of the whim of some universal joke or divine wrath or something. There are causes to our suffering, karmic causes. And the Third Noble Truth is the good news, that there is cessation of suffering by this cessation of the causes of suffering. So in other words, if you have the cessation of the causes of suffering, then you also have cessation of suffering itself. It is a very logical, scientific kind of way of looking at things. And then the Fourth Noble Truth is that there is a path to the cessation of the causes of suffering, and that path is the Noble Eightfold Path.

And the Noble Eightfold Path is composed of—you could categorize it into three parts: wisdom, the wisdom aspect, the ethical aspect, and the meditation aspect of the path. So right view and right intention—sometimes it is translated other ways—would be the wisdom aspect. Right speech, right action, right livelihood would be the ethics aspect of how we relate to others, and right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration would be the meditation aspect.

So, the Buddha taught that we need to have all three of these aspects in our spiritual cultivation. Otherwise, our spiritual path is incomplete. So if you're trying to realize true wisdom in your life and you're living a life of lovingkindness and ethical responsibility, but you're not practicing meditation, it is wonderful what you are doing, but it is just slightly incomplete. Your path is slightly incomplete. And the same goes for a lot of Americans who just want to meditate. They don't care a lot about the teachings, and they don't really care about the ethics. They just want to meditate, but that is also incomplete, so just be careful of that.

So all three are necessary according to the Theravada tradition for a complete path of enlightenment. And basically cessation here, you know, basically leads to what is called nibbana or nirvana. Nibanna means extinguishment of suffering or extinguished, and therefore the fire of suffering no longer burns you. So that is one way of looking at the word nirvana. Okay.

Now, I wish I had more time to go more in detail. Maybe I do. Okay. So what are the causes of suffering? Well, various teachers say different things. The primary cause always spoken of is desire, but of course desire has its twin, which is aversion. And by the way, I don't really like using the word desire. I like to use another translation, craving. It is a little bit more descriptive. So craving and aversion are kind of two sides of the same coin, because when you're craving something, you are wanting pleasure, but you are also rejecting the unpleasant. So you want the pleasant, but you want to reject the unpleasant, right? So both of those energies are twins. They come together.

So you know it says craving is the cause of suffering, but actually it is craving and aversion, and of course both of them are rooted in delusion. And so you might also hear that all three are actually co-causes of suffering: delusion, craving, and aversion. Okay? Sometimes you just hear craving, but because craving involves aversion and delusion, it is kind of all technical. Okay.

So, what are we deluded about? This teaching, it is like—

Audience Member: Everything.

ChiSing: Yes. We're—so, what are we deluded about? Well, there are three fundamental things we are deluded about according to Theravada Buddhism, or four if you're learning from the Tibetan or Zen tradition. Anyway, we will just do three today. So there are three things that we are deluded about that cause suffering, that cause us to crave that which we should not crave and push away that which we should not push away. So one is that we are in ignorance and deluded about impermanence. And the second is we are ignorant and deluded about nonself. And the third is that we are ignorant and deluded about the nature of suffering. Okay.

I probably don't have time to go to all three of those, but I will just give you an example about the first one, impermanence. Now, this seems rather simple and obvious, but actually, this teaching is not just about giving you a fact. It is giving you something to practice with. So everything the Buddha taught was primarily to help us in our practice, in our cultivation. Okay? The Buddha was not interested in giving a lot of theories about the universe and full explanation on the philosophy of the nature of reality.

In fact, one time, the Buddha was walking through the forest, and he picked up a handful of leaves that had fallen from the trees, and he asked his students, "Dear students, which has more leaves, the whole forest, or that which is in my hand?" And they said, "Well, of course, teacher, the leaves in all the forest are much greater in number than those you have in your hand." And the Buddha said, "Well, the same is true with all the knowledge of the universe. It's like this forest with all these leaves, but what I teach is the number of leaves in my hand. I only teach you just enough for your liberation."

And that is what the Buddha focused on, because the Buddha knew he did not have a lot of time on earth to deal with all these people's questions on speculation and everything because even if you know, for instance, how many stars are in the universe, does that really help you with suffering and the causes of suffering and the cessation of suffering and the path? No. So the Buddha was not concerned about all of that. He just wanted to say enough and teach enough and share enough that you get on the path of enlightenment and liberation so that you can be free, and that is what the Buddha focused on.

And so these practices are not—if you are starting to philosophize too much about these, you're going on the wrong track. What you need to do is you take it as a practice. So impermanence then becomes a practice, and what that means is, oh yeah. Of course everything changes, but see, you have to practice with it. Let us breathe with that. Everything changes, including my face. And there are wrinkles that are happening, and I'm losing the hair on my forehead, and there is a receding line. Oh, there are a few gray hairs now. You know? Then you start to investigate how it is that you are clinging to permanence rather than flowing in harmony with the truth of the impermanence. Do you understand?

So as you practice with these, you start to see where you are causing yourself suffering, because any time you're going into ignorant delusion about reality, you might say in your mind, in your conscious mind, "Sure, of course everything changes," but in your emotional mind, that is another matter. In your emotional mind, you are resisting change. You are resisting aging. You're resisting impermanence, and that resistance, that aversion will cause you suffering. So when you practice, look at how you may be deluded, how you may be craving, and how you may be pushing away—in what ways you are doing that. And then see how it directly correlates to suffering.

But that takes practice because, you know, sometimes we make a split-second reaction, and it suddenly causes something, but we don't see it because it happens so fast. That's why if you become a regular, meditation practitioner, that meditation practice over time will make you more sensitive to the minute, slight reactions within your mind that snowball and spiral into suffering. And I've noticed that with my own practice in life. You know, now versus 10 years ago, I notice a lot more. And I'm not perfect. I still sometimes, even in the space of knowing what I'm supposed to do, I might do the opposite still, but that is habit energy, right? But now I see what I am doing a little bit more, and I can catch myself a little bit better.

So, impermanence, you know? This includes your loved ones are impermanent. Your relationships are impermanent. Your car is impermanent. Your house is impermanent. The brand-new carpet you just installed in your living room is impermanent. Your children are impermanent. They will not stay the same. Nothing stays the same. Everything always changes, and so we need to take this truth out of our just superficial mind and bring it into our practice so that we can start looking through all the cracks and crevices of our being, our emotional mind, our beliefs, our reactivities, all the places where we cling, where we don't need to be clinging or push away where we don't need to be pushing away or are completely deluded about the nature of reality or we need wisdom.

So as we practice, we start to like uproot all those things that we are deluded about, for example, impermanence. And when we truly start practicing this reality of impermanence, we start being less clingy to things. You know, I am hitting the early stages of midlife. I'm 42 now. It is really interesting to notice—

Audience: (Muffled laughter).

ChiSing: That's funny you're laughing, because, you know what? I've been meditating for over 10 years, and meditation, they have scientifically proven that it does slow your aging process. It is a little encouraging. It is an incentive to meditate more, right? Okay. But anyway, at midlife, I'm noticing that I'm thinking a lot more about okay, what was the point of a lot of what I did in my life? You know? What was the point of some of these relationships I had or some of these interests I pursued? You know, did they really matter in the long run? And what am I going to do for the next half of my life? Am I ready to die, and what kind of legacy am I going to leave behind?

So, these are thoughts that have been happening a lot more often now than they did 10 or 20 years ago, so I'm just noticing how interesting that it is. But thank goodness I'm not alone, right? Someday if I get through this midlife stuff, maybe in a few years from now, maybe I will write a book called, Moving through Midlife Mindfully. And maybe it will be on Oprah. I don't know. Or something.

Anyway, these are things to practice with, okay?

Now, I would like to talk just a little bit more, 5 more minutes of teaching, on some of the practices in Theravada Buddhism tradition. Now in the Theravada tradition, these sort of things are very, very important. Dana, metta, shila, punya, and karma—kamma, sorry—and bhavana. Okay. These are very, very important in Theravada Buddhism, and for Theravadan Buddhists, the practice is a step-by-step approach. They are very, very—they like to be more linear. Okay? First you take this, and then you get this, and then you do this. You know? So it's a little bit different from the Zen approach, you know? Everything is just this now, you know? But in the Theravadan tradition, it is very step-by-step.

So, first of all, you have to realize that you have created actions, kamma, in your past lives, okay, and there's a very strong understanding of past life existence for every being. And so in this present life, you are experiencing some of the fruit of some of your past actions because every action creates a consequence, and sometimes the consequence is not felt immediately. Sometimes it is way later. So anyway, so we have these consequences of all this kamma that we have created through our actions, positive and negative, and so a lot of the negative kamma starts to hinder us in our path of enlightenment and liberation from suffering. So, there has to be these preliminary practices that can help us to purify that negative kamma.

So, some of the practices are dana, which means generosity, and of course, there are all kinds of ways you can practice generosity, but a very major way to practice generosity in the Theravadan Buddhist tradition is to give food to monks and to offer medicine or clothing to monks—so anything that monks need basically to live a monk's life. When you give to them, you are creating an enormous amount of punya. Punya is another word. Here, it means merit. You might think of merit as positive energy, okay? Kind of like positive kamma, but it's not quite the same. Anyway, positive energy, merit, that will help to cleanse away some of the debris of your negative kamma and help you to be more steady and sure on the path of enlightenment.

You know, how many of you have tried to meditate and try to get on the path, but you find impediments and obstacles, right? Well, that is because we have a lot of baggage from the past, and so we need to clean it up a little bit so that it makes it easier for us. And I really want to encourage you—by the way, I went to the Theravada Buddhist temple today, because I figured, well, I'm talking about Theravada Buddhism. I should go to a temple today. So there's a new one just 5 minutes south of here off of 75 and Forest on Stults Road. They just finished their beautiful Thai temple. I believe it is the first authentically Asian architectural Buddhist temple in this area of Dallas. I don't remember seeing another one.

It is the very first, and they're having their grand opening just a couple of months. But it is already pretty much finished, and they're going to celebrate Thai new year in April, and then they are going to celebrate the grand opening in May for Wesak, Buddha's birthday, enlightenment, and parinibbana, which basically means the Buddha's birth, the Buddha's enlightenment, and the Buddha's passing from this physical existence. But Theravadans don't like to say that the Buddha died. He passed into parinirvana. Okay.

So, I hope that we can all go down there and join some of their celebrations, and please do wear something white. In the Theravada tradition, all lay people wear white, and that is actually what was the custom even in the Buddha's day. So that custom actually goes all the way back to the Buddha's time, which is why I like to encourage all of us to wear something white. If you can't wear all white, you can just wear a white khata or something, but just to sort of like symbolize our solidarity with the original community of the Buddha's disciples. Anyway, you don't have to of course, but I like to at least.

So, metta is lovingkindness. And for those of you who feel that some of the more developed kinds of meditation practices are still difficult for you, there is an easier kind of meditation practice called lovingkindness meditation, metta meditation. So the Buddha actually recommended for those whose mind just wasn't quite able to do Vipassana or other things like that that later developed as Zen meditation. You know, it's a little more difficult, so the Buddha did recommend to people, well, do lovingkindness meditation. Just think kind, loving thoughts to yourself, and also spread that love to someone else. Just do lovingkindness. And I don't have time to go through the whole step-by-step process of metta meditation, but you can always Google it and find out. It is a wonderful practice.

So, for those of you who just can't stand how crazy your mind is driving you with all of the thinking—and there's nothing wrong with thinking, by the way, but if you just don't know that and you just feel kind of driven mad by all your thinking, then instead of trying to not think, just have positive thoughts. So do lovingkindness meditation. Start directing your thinking to something positive and, you know, with positive words, positive messages to yourself, and spreading that out to others. In the Western spiritual traditions, we call that prayer, right? You just pray for yourself and pray for others, and that kind of practice will actually help you develop concentration so that later it will be a lot easier to practice some of the more advanced kind of meditation. Okay.

Another important thing in the Theravada tradition is shila, which means precepts. Basically, the precepts, the mindfulness trainings, the ethical conduct, you know, the things like not killing and not stealing and practicing sexual responsibility, not lying, and not becoming intoxicated. Now, there are different translations for that, and some people translate it in such a way that you just should never be intoxicated. Some people translate it in such a way that you should just never even touch or even sip anything that could lead to intoxication, even though you're not getting intoxicated, and then others translate it as you should never get so intoxicated—it is okay to be intoxicated a little bit, but not so intoxicated that you start to break the other precepts, right?

Anyway, we will leave it up to you to decide, but for Theravada Buddhists, it is so important to build a strong foundation in your practice of generosity especially to the monks and nuns and to any dharma centers, such as here, and practicing lovingkindness and compassionate actions amongst the community. And to practice the precepts, to really be mindful of our conduct and how you affect other people and how we cause suffering or happiness through our actions, and of course through all this, to create good merit so that we can alleviate some of the heavy baggage of some of our past kamma. And when we do all this, then by the time we practice bhavana, which means spiritual cultivation—it basically refers to meditation but a few other things as well—anyway, our spiritual practice like meditation and other things that we do… Then when we do our spiritual practice, there's not so much heaviness and obstruction in our practice. We can flow onto the path of enlightenment much more freely.

So, that's the Theravadan perspective. Now, unfortunately, I think this step-by-step approach got a little bit too literal in some people's minds. Unfortunately in many Theravadan countries in Asia, what you see is everyone is doing dana, metta, shila so they can alleviate kamma and produce good punya, but they hardly ever meditate because they think they're not good enough. They're still trying to get all this positive merit going and they're focusing on that and they leave the bhavana to the monks. I think that's incorrect. I believe you should be doing all this simultaneously. Just make sure that as you're practicing meditation, your also doing these things as well. I don't think it's either-or and I don't have to be worthy before you practice. I really believe it should be kind of simultaneous. That's one thing that I hope will change. It actually is changing more and more in Asia now. There's a lot more people practicing the meditations and they're seeing that, oh, that was the missing part. No wonder I was still suffering, you know? It's like, OK, now we can start transforming the mind which is the source of the suffering.

OK. I think that's probably enough. One more thing maybe just to explain what we did in the meditation. We focused on the breath. Then we went to the mantra "Buddho," which is Theravadan mantra which means "Buddha" basically or "enlightenment." Then we just labeled our thoughts and this is something the Theravadan tradition is really good at, talking about and teaching. Just like instead of being bothered by your thoughts—"there's a thought"—and some people go specific—"shopping thought [laughs], bless thought, future thought, past thought"—you know, just include it in your meditation, just acknowledge and let it go. Right? And same with sensation or sound—"oh, burning sensation"—but be careful when you label your thoughts or sensations or feelings. Don't say, "annoying itch." You've already judged it and you're making it worse. Just be curious like a child. What is this? Oh, it's like a pulsating sensation, kind of a hot sensation, a cold sensation, a tingly sensation. So, if you can just meet every experience just as it is, then you take away the interpretive part that actually is part of the cause of your suffering. Right? So this is very important to do.

Ok. I've talked a long time and I just want to say thank you very much for listening.

Transcribed by Jessica Hitch

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