How Dharma change my life

Meditation class student — J. J.

I first stepped into the Zen Center of Sunnyvale in 2004. A friend has told me about this place and invited me to visit.  I immediately felt at home at the Zen Center and soon enrolled in the beginner class. What I like about the classes offered here is we not only learned about the principles of Buddhism but also learned how to practice meditation. I am so grateful to all Dharma masters at the Zen Center who dedicate their lives to propagate the teachings. Through them, I have learned many teachings which I apply in my daily life.  I would like to share some teachings which helped me most.

Understanding the principle of causality and karma is crucial and should be the foundation of our Buddhist practice. The principle of causality teaches us that all phenomena come into existence when their causes and conditions come together.  When their causes and conditions cease to exist, these phenomena will disappear. From teaching on karma we learned that wholesome actions will bring wholesome results, similarly, unwholesome actions will certainly bring unwholesome results in the future. Since we don’t want to suffer, we must not create causes and conditions which lead to suffering in the future.  This teaching has made me pay closer attention to all my actions. If an action will bring suffering to myself or others, I will not do it.  Conversely, if an action will bring benefits and happiness to myself and others, then I should do it.  However, sometimes we may not be clear if certain actions are wholesome or unwholesome.  Fortunately, the Buddha has established Five Precepts, Eight Precepts, and Bodhisattva Precepts for lay disciples which provide us guidelines on what we should or should not do. Upholding precepts may at first seem like putting more restrictions in our life, but it enhances our mindfulness in everything we do.  By knowing clearly what wholesome actions we should do and what unwholesome we should not do, we avoid suffering and create happiness for ourselves and others.

Correctly understanding the teaching of emptiness will liberate us. “Emptiness” is not an easy concept to understand, probably because we don’t have an equivalent English word for its Sanskrit term “sunyata”.  Emptiness in Buddhist teaching means all phenomena have no independent existence or inherent characteristic. For example, an apple tree does not exist in and of itself.  Its existence is dependent on many other factors, like sunlight, water, soil, etc.  A person is also not inherently pretty or ugly.  What we consider pretty in Asia may not be considered pretty in the United States.  And what was considered pretty 100 years ago may not be considered pretty now. So, the characteristic of a person changes with time and place, it is relative and not inherent in that person.  Understanding emptiness has a huge impact on my life.  It taught me to be less judgmental of people and developed more compassion toward them.  For example, when I see or hear a particular person commit a crime, I do not label them as an evil person.  There are many causes and conditions which lead one to commit a crime.  Moreover, with a different set of causes and conditions, that person could change and lead a wholesome life in the future.  There is no inherently evil person.  Emptiness to me also means infinite possibilities and hopes. Nothing in this world is fixed since they don’t have independent existent or inherent characteristics.  That means everything could be changed.  So, if we are not content with a certain situation in our life, we can change it.  The key is to know what the correct causes and conditions are to achieve the results we want.

Use the teaching of inter-dependence to sever our ego.  We often take ourselves as the center of the universe and believe our success and achievement were all due to our own effort.  However, if we contemplate on the inter-dependent of all things, we soon realize that to accomplish anything, many supporting conditions need to exist.  For example, to go to work daily to earn a living, we need these conditions: having proper education or necessary skills, transportation system, government, companies, co-workers, good health, peaceful country, etc.  If we go deeper and contemplate how each of the supporting conditions could come into existence, we realize each of them also depends on many other factors.  We realize that for anything to exist, it depends on the whole universe.  Inter-dependence contemplation helps me to be more grateful, less egoistic, and more appreciative to everything and everyone, knowing that everything I have done or accomplished will be impossible without them.

Embrace all, but attach to none.  There are many views, theories, or doctrines in the world.  Though we may not agree with some of those views, we should not quarrel or dispute with those who hold those views.  No view can describe the totality of the whole truth, but they can describe a certain part of the truth. It is like when we are hiking on the mountain.  As we stand in various parts of the mountain, the views all look different from one another, but they are all views of the same mountain, but from different angles.  When we interact with people in our daily life, we are certain to encounter views or opinions which are different from us.  I have learned to be more open-minded and accepting of others’ opinions, knowing that all views and opinions may be valid if you look at them from certain viewpoints.

Analyzing events happening around us using Buddhist teachings will deepen our understanding of the teachings.  For example, when I read the news, I would sometimes analyze the story in the news using principles of causality, karma, emptiness, etc to understand why things happen in a certain way, or how things could turn out differently if we apply Buddhist teachings and react differently.  Similarly, in daily life when I am upset or angry about a certain situation or person, I would reflect and analyze it using various Buddhist teachings.  By doing this exercise, over time, my understanding of the teachings deepen, and I am better prepared if and when I encounter a similar situation in the future.  It is also beneficial to memorize key points in Buddhist teachings, so we can always have them at our fingertips.  After all, how can we apply the teachings when we need them most if we don’t even remember them?

Having a calm mind is so important to deal with any situation in our daily life. That’s why meditation is a crucial part of our practice. At the beginning of my practice, I did sitting meditation practice once or twice daily.  Soon I realized that just doing sitting meditation is not enough.  How about the rest of the time when I am not on a meditation cushion?  I realized it is also important to practice mindfulness in everything I do.  So, brushing teeth, cleaning the house, doing laundry, etc are now also part of my meditation practice.  Furthermore, since our bodily and verbal actions arise from our thoughts, I also practice being aware of thoughts that arise in my mind at every moment. If we can observe our thoughts, we can let go of unwholesome thoughts the moment they arise, before they turn into harmful verbal or bodily actions.

Be patient in our practice.  When we start on the path of cultivation, sometimes it is not easy to know if we are making any progress or if the methods we are using are even effective. One way we can check is to observe the frequency and intensity of our afflictions. For example, in the past, we usually got upset 10 times a day on average.  But now after we practice Buddhism, we only get upset 5 times a day.  Yes, we still get upset, but the frequency of the affliction is now reduced 50 percent.  That’s a commendable improvement and you deserve a pat on the back.  In the past, when your affliction arose, its intensity maybe 10 on a scale of 1 to 10, but now the intensity is only 5.  This also shows your practice has improved. Noticing that we make progress in this way, we will have faith that with continuous practice, we can eventually eradicate all the afflictions and achieve liberation.