Towards Right Understanding

- Kenneth Phua

I always thought that I had decided Buddhism was to be my life long religion during my second year in Junior College. Little did I know that so many changes took place from that day until today that I can hardly relate to that statement I made during my Junior College days. We keep changing, especially when we do not have a perfect understanding of what the Buddha is trying to tell us. Often we would cling on to the religion for various reasons: to be trendy, to look intellectual, to raise the status and image of Buddhism in Singapore and the likes. Those were my exact thoughts before I underwent a 'transcendental conversion' (exact words used by Ven Dhammika) which I am going to relate to you now.

I was pretty much overwhelmed by the amount of compliments I was getting from friends in BS with respect to my diploma in Buddhism so much so that I think I became very swell-headed and conceited. I felt I knew everything and nothing was beyond reasoning. I was prepared to receive no criticisms from anyone. To make matters worse, I denied myself that such feelings of insecurity was within me. I 'acted' as humble as I could so as to receive the respect from others as well as live up to the reputation of a president of the NTUBS. And I thought I was doing very well, handling my emotions and being an example to many.

I was very wrong. What happened during the Christmas of 1996 changed my life and practice totally. My mom had organised a Christmas party for my relatives at our place. Though not Christians ourselves (I wondered why, then) I was actually playing Christmas carols and gospel pieces on the piano to the awe and praises of my relatives who are all Christians. As I enjoyed playing music to an audience very much I did not bother much about the kinds of feelings arising in me. But as the emotions grew stronger, due to my practice of being mindful, I began to sense a creepy feeling of being very insecure. The fear that I had been denying the need be a Christian all my life became apparent (I was educated mostly in churches and mission schools, you see). From that day onwards, I became very sad and consulted many friends, both Buddhist and Christians, to help reason out my fears. None of them gave a satisfactory answer. Little did I know, it was to be a major turning point of my spiritual life; a beautiful one.

One Christian friend whom I consulted told me that he knew a friend who whilst being a Christian, also searched other religions when he was in doubt. I thought about it and decided to give that a try. I started to ask myself what parts of the Christian faith was I actually interested in. The answer: the fellowship and the music. What parts of Buddhism did I not like? The fact that all my Buddhist friends were very Chinese-speaking and that I did not fit into their group very well was the answer.

Of course, above is just the gist of my full experience which most of it is impossible to elucidate.

I broke all my pride in the Buddhist knowledge I owned and humbled myself to learn from any Buddhist source I could find, be it Chinese Mahayana, Japanese Zen, Chinese Zen, traditional Thai forest meditation or even the Pure Land teachings of Amitabha Buddha. The common thing about these teachings was that I used to look upon them with much scepticism.

The first book which I began reading with much concentration was the Sutra of Hui Neng. Suddenly, everything I read made so much sense to me. I was so overwhelmed, I asked myself if I had attained Sotapanna. No one could answer that of course. Then I picked up a CD called A Path to True Happiness, a translated talk by Venerable Jing Kung, a renown Pure Land Master. Though initially I found the practice of Buddha recitation a little contradictory to the Theravada practice I was used to, I nevertheless listened on to the talk he gave on What is Buddhism. Each time I listened to it, each time I gained a little more insight. By the 20th odd time listening, I was actually able to relate to the words completely from my own experience. By then, the final exams were just round the corner, and with this newfound freedom and happiness, I trotted off to do my exams, leaving discussions to after the exams.

The afternoon after the final exams, I spent a whole day discussing the Pure Land teachings with the drink stall holder in Canteen A. He is a very wise man and a fervent practitioner of Pure Land. When he saw me, the first thing he asked me was, "So, have you awakened to the path yet?" I was surprised and yet excited to tell him about my experience but decided to be restraint and ask him some questions first. After some discussion, I related to him my whole experience. He smiled and said that I was now ready to practice the Dharma. I was surprised. I thought that this experience was all I had to attain as a Buddhist. But he said that it was just the start, a very good start to a whole lifelong of learning and practice.

From that day onwards, I was more selective of the Buddhist books I read. The little time we have here as human beings should not be wasted on gaining knowledge but on practice. Of course, reading the right materials would strengthen our understanding and enable us to practice better. Ultimately, we should be a more understanding person.

With regard to what I experienced and the stages towards Sotapanna, I have decided not to attempt to classify it. Doing that would only shift the objective of my life, ie, to gain a better understanding of the Universe and myself, and also arouse thoughts of attachment.

8 months have passed since experiencing that awakening and I can say that I had never been happier being myself. There is no need to deceive myself anymore. There is no need to pretend to be someone I am not anymore. No one is telling me that I look different either, primarily because the transformation is from within and is genuine. I am happy and fully aware of myself without feeling constraint. I do not feel as if I have to put up a shield of protection around me as happiness is simply living without attachment. Of course, this does not mean I am a saint. I still have my defilements, like anger, selfishness, egotism, sexual desires etc, but I feel capable of identifying them whenever they arise. That by itself serves as a check for me.

I have begun reading various books by meditation as well as Pure Land Masters and I actually found that in both, there lies no conflict at all. One book that especially strikes me is by Jack Kornfield entitled A Path with Heart. Get it! It's a sure classic. The other book which is essentially a collection of letters between many laypersons and Venerable Master Yin Guang, a renown Pure Land practitioner from old China, is a book which I supplement my own practice. Its a translated version entitled Zen Pure Land, Pure Land Zen. Try it, it may appeal to you.

There is ultimately, no difference in the goals of all the orthodox Buddhist schools, except in the method which they propound. All of them lead to enlightenment and caters to the many dispositions of us humans. Take the Pure Land practice for instance, reciting the Buddha's name is more than just meditation and recalling our Buddha Nature. It is also about building faith, an essential quality for those who do not trust themselves to think lucidly in their low moments, eg, dying. You will also need faith when when you are lonely, right? Now, how many people can honestly claim they are not afraid of dying or have never experienced loneliness? It's times like this that you wish that somewhere in the Theravada Sutta it is stated that Buddha exists and is just a recitation away! Now, It doesn't matter whether Buddha really exists right? Because what is important is really enlightenment. Buddha recitation is hence an expedient means to an end. But that means must be practiced with all its strings attached to be effective, ie, the belief in the Pure Land and the ability for the Buddha to take you there! Have you ever heard of anyone practicing engineering without the belief that mathematical formulas will help him specify his theories? He needs them! But that does not mean we do not question the teachings. All the more we should and in great depth too (See Kalama Sutta).

I cannot say that my life is now one smooth silky ride. It still has its many ups and downs. As long as I choose to remain a lay person, I would have to succumb to all these 'unsatisfactoriness'. There is no way that these 'dukkha' can be eliminated from our lives, and no religion in the Universe has the capability to remove it the way any mundane person would like it to be removed, ie, to be attached to the world and yet live a life of total happiness and freedom. The happiness and freedom as far as the Buddha knows and experiences is one of detachment. And detachment is a trait that many would never dare to practice for fear that they would lose everything in their lives! So, how would it be easy for anyone to experience what enlightenment feels like if they are not willing to talk about detachment much less practice it? My advice to anyone willing to tread the spiritual path is to maintain an enquiring mind in conformance with the Kalama Sutta and to search with the objective of finding true happiness in their lives. What is true happiness? It is realising your Buddha Nature, you'll know what that means when you experience it.


Return to Encounters