September 2002 (Part 1)
SELECTION OF QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
I'm currently reading your “Complete Book of Zen” for the second time and I was wondering why you didn't go into detail about parinirvana. You mentioned it several times, but usually only when describing a Zen master's last words. I was wondering whether your not going into detail because it could only be experienced and there was no way to explain what it was like because everyone who had experienced it is dead? I'd really like to know more, because the transition seems very interesting. It seems as if the masters chose when they were going to die.
— Vincent, USA
I did not write much about parinirvana because I did not know much about it. As giving false teaching is a serious sin in Buddhism, I am particularly concerned that whatever I teach is true to the best of my knowledge and conviction.
Actually all Buddhist teaching is based on direct experience. For example, when the Buddha teaches that our phenomenal world is an illusion, or the cause of suffering is carving, the teaching came about not from some philosophical reasoning but from the direct experience of the Buddha seeing the illusory nature of the phenomenal world in his deep meditation, and from the experience of people who suffered due to failure to satisfy their desires.
Parinirvana means final nirvana. In an ordinary sense you are right to say everyone who had experienced parinirvana is dead, and therefore no one lived to tell their direct experience. In a higher sense, this view is not correct. Parinirvana is not death; it is beyond life and death.
When a person dies, he will be reborn, and in some special situations he may in future tell of his death experience. In the case of parinirvana, there is no more rebirth. The person attains Buddhahood. In other words, he actualizes cosmic reality, the undifferentiated united whole without differentiation.
Yet — and here I am not definitely sure — parinirvana may not be final nirvana. The term “final” is used provisionally. Even after attaining Buddhahood, the being may return to phenomenal worlds to help others. The great Bodhisattva Guan Yin is a shining example. Guan Yin attained Buddhahood many aeons ago, but out of great compassion she has returned numerous times to the phenomenal realms to help others.
But I am not sure whether such attainment of Buddhahood is parinirvana, or whether the term parinirvana refers only to the last attainment of Buddhahood, after which the “being” never returns. I would think this is the case, but complications in the use of the term may arise when the “being” in the distant future wishes to return to the phenomenal realm. Hence, in Buddhist philosophy terms are sometimes called “false-names”; they are merely convenient labels used provisionally.
It is true that great masters not only can choose when they are going to die but also where they will go to in their next life. They can do so because of their wisdom concerning rebirths, and the tremendous power of their mind. According to the Buddha's teaching, three factors decide a person's next birth: his karma, his cosmic knowledge and his last thought.
A great master has clear knowledge of various heavens or other places of existence, and his good karma qualifies him to go to any of these places if he wishes. Hence, when the time is suitable, he goes into deep mediation, focuses his mind intensely on the next plane of existence he wishes to go to, discards his physical body on earth — a process his earthly observers call death — and transport himself (his spirit) to the new existence.
In one of my latest books published this year, “Sukhavati, the Western Paradise — Going to Heaven as Taught by the Buddha”, there is a whole chapter on the process of being reborn as well as information on various heavens.
Along with “The Complete Book of Zen”, I've read “The Complete Book of Taijijuan”, “The Art of Shaolin Kung Fu”, and “The Art of Chi Kung”. Since you know a lot about Taoism and Buddhism, have you ever considered writing a book about Taoism in as much depth as “The Complete Book of Zen”?
I was lucky because my Shaolin master, Sifu Ho Fatt Nam, was an accomplished Taoist master before he devoted himself to Zen, which is Buddhist. From him I learned a lot about Taoism. I also have access to some invaluable Taoist classics.
I am also very lucky for being educated in both English and Chinese. There is a tremendous amount of wisdom written in Chinese still unknown to the West, not only in Taoism and Buddhism but also in many other fields. Yes, I hope that I shall write in some depth about Taoism as well as some other fields like Shaolin and Chinese medicine in which I have spent much time in their study and practice, so that wisdom hidden in ancient Chinese sources can be shared by more people.
Not many people really realize how much benefit our modern world can obtain from the ancient wisdom locked in these Chinese sources. Many people may agree that there is much benefit to be gained, but not many really realize the tremendous depth and scope of this benefit.
Let us put it this way and perhaps we may have some idea of the treasure involved. The Chinese sources represent the written record of the wisdom and accomplishment of the largest population of the world for the longest period of known history. In terms of number, one out of four people in the world is Chinese. In terms of time, the continuous Chinese civilization is ten times the length of modern western civilization.
Many people would be very surprised, for example, to find out that virtually all the great discoveries in modern science, ranging from Galileo's bold exclamation that our earth is not the centre of the universe to quantum physicists' assertion that there the so-call external world has no objective reality, including all the mysteries of mind and atom and multi-dimensional universe, have been described in some details in ancient Buddhist texts! The Diamond Sutra, for instance, explains why cosmic reality is devoid of all phenomena — a concept our latest scientists are only beginning to realize.
I'd like to know more about the four levels of enlightenment, mostly from your personal experience, because I'm confused when you say that in Zen a practitioner tries to attain enlightenment in an instant, but sometimes you mention about awakening. Is there a difference and how do the four levels of enlightenment come into play?
In talking about enlightenment I cannot talk from my personal experience because I am not yet enlightened, although I may be awakened. I have to depend on the teachings of great masters in the past who were so compassionate to record their personal experiences of enlightenment for us.
There are quite a lot of such writings in classical Chinese which would otherwise be unintelligible to most people (even though they understand classical Chinese) if not for the commentaries and explanations of other great masters. The three works that have helped me tremendously, for which I am forever grateful, are the Heart Sutra of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (known as Guan Yin Bodh Satt in Chinese), the Platform Sutra of Hui Neng, the Sixth Patriarch, and “Awakening of Faith in Mahayana” by Bodhisattva Asvaghosha.
The term “enlightenment” as used in Buddhism is different form the meaning of “enlightenment” as it is normally used in English. In ordinary English usage when we say a person is enlightened, we mean that he has an intellectual understanding of the situation or topic in question. In Buddhist context, an enlightened person discards all intellectual activities and directly experiences that he is actually the whole cosmos.
For convenience of understanding, Bodhisattva Asvaghosha classifies enlightenment into four levels. At the first level, called “enlightenment of the initiated”, a highly cultivated person or being realizes that the so-called objective world is an illusion and he earnestly cultivates to attain perfect enlightenment. At the second level, “enlightenment of similarities”, he realizes that phenomenal worlds and transcendental cosmic reality are the same, but for some reasons he remains in the phenomenal realm. At the third level, “enlightenment of convergence”, he can attain or has attained cosmic reality, but due to his great compassion he chooses to remain at or return to phenomenal worlds to help others. At the highest level, “perfect enlightenment”, he is the infinite and eternal.
It is significant to note that all realization of enlightenment, or of any spiritual attainment, is experiential, not intellectual. In other words, now you know that the so-called objective world is actually an illusion. Your knowledge is only intellectual. You know this great cosmic fact because you learn it from the masters and you accept their teaching. But you do not have any direct experience of this fact.
To all intent and in all circumstances, you experience that the chair you are sitting on is solid, that the person you touch is made of flesh and bones, although intellectually you know and can accept the fact that all the atoms that make up the chair and the person are actually empty. Therefore you have not attained the first level of enlightenment. You are not even awakened, although you may be intellectually informed.
Awakening and enlightenment are different. When a person is awakened, he realizes that the phenomenal world in which he has hitherto been deluded to regard as absolutely real, is actually an illusion of transcendental cosmic reality. This realization comes from direct experience, not from theoretical learning or intellectualization.
An enlightened person at the first level also has similar experiences. The difference is one of degree. An awakened person has had glimpses of transcendental cosmic reality, whereas an enlightened person at the first level experiences transcendental cosmic reality for longer periods.
The ultimate aim of all Buddhist cultivation is to attain enlightenment, called variously as nirvana, bodhi, Buddha Nature and Original Face. There are many different approaches, and it takes a long time, usually countless lifetimes. But in Zen, which is one of the main approaches, cultivators may attain enlightenment in an instant.
But for most people that instant of sudden enlightenment may take a very long time to ripen. Hence, not everyone is suitable for Zen cultivation. For those people other approaches, like cultivating blessings, reciting Buddha's name, or vispasana meditation, may be more appropriate.
Before a person devotes time and effort to his cultivation, he must be very sure that the teaching he accepts is true and the methods he uses are effective. Consistent direct experiences of the truth will disperse his doubt and confirm his faith. Such a direct experience is an awakening. But there may be a long way between awakening and enlightenment.
How did you progress in your spiritual cultivation? I read a story about your master hitting you on the head to awaken you. Does that mean you became perfectly enlightened or initiated, or did the initiation start when you reached a certain level of meditation?
I progressed through study, hard work, and daily practice, and it was well worth all my time and effort. You have mis-understood me in the story of the master hitting the student to awaken him. The “I” in the story referred to the student, not to me personally.
I have not even attained “enlightenment of the initiated”, which is the first level of enlightenment. Perfect enlightenment, the final level, is far, far away — but I will strive for it.
The kind of “initiation” in “enlightenment of the initiated” is different from, and of a much higher level than, all other kinds of initiation, such as being initiated into an arcane art or being initiated into monkhood. Yes, the initiation suggested in “enlightenment of the initiated” starts only after one has reached a very high level of meditation.
Do you have any students who have been “converted” to Zen from another religion other than from another sect of Buddhism or from Taoism? I don't mean to imply that Zen is like some of the other major religions of the world because you make it clear in your book that it isn't'. But I was raised a Christian, and since I was very young I had a decent understanding of the religion and its practices, and just recently I have begun to practice it more intimately.
No one is “converted” into Zen or any sect of Buddhism in the sense that one is converted into Christianity or Islam. A Buddhist believes that a Christian, a Muslim or a follower of any religion is already on a spiritual path. There is, therefore, no necessity to “convert” him into Buddhism.
Indeed, whenever I have to touch on Buddhist or Taoist teachings during my kungfu or chi kung classes, I am particularly careful not to hurt the feelings of Christians, Muslims or followers of other religions. For example, in my Sinew Metamorphosis, Dan Tian Breathing and Shaolin Kungfu classes which I just had in Andorra, a small beautiful country on the Pyrenees, when I gave instructions like “if you are ready you may have a glimpse of your Original Face” or “a glimpse of Tao” in order to lead my students to have some beautiful spiritual experience of the Supreme Reality, I always added “or, in Western terms, a touch with God”.
One becomes a Buddhist not by conversion but by free choice. Many of my students practise Zen and other Buddhist teachings without distracting from their own faiths, including Christianity. A Buddhist is one who voluntarily practises the teachings of the Buddha, which can be summed up in the Buddha's own words as follows: Avoid all evil, do good, and cultivate the mind. Reciting scriptures and saying prayers are two of numerous ways to cultivate the mind. Hence, all true Christians are also Buddhists at the same time.
And when you describe returning to the Kingdom of God in your book I have a feeling you were wrong. But I'm also very new to Christianity. In the Bible I've interpreted it as follows: when a being ascends to heaven God would be tangible in the spiritual realm.
You failed to understand the truth of my statement because you failed to understand the concept of Trinity. The concept of Trinity is very important in Christianity, and its understanding helps to overcome some apparent contradictions in Christian teaching. For example, Christians believe, as you have mentioned, that when a being ascends to heaven, he will meet God. They also believe that God is omnipresent.
When you examine these two beliefs, which are fundamental in Christianity, you will find an apparent contradiction. If a being meets God in heaven, then the being and God are separate entities, and both the being and God are in heaven. If this is true, then God cannot be omnipresent.
If God is omnipresent, which means God is everywhere, then there cannot be any being outside God, and God cannot exist in heaven. If there can be another being outside God, God cannot be omnipresent. If God exists in heaven, then heaven must be bigger than God to contain Him.
But if you understand the concept of Trinity, then the apparent contradictions disappear. Basically, the concept of Trinity states that God exists in three aspects, namely God the Holy Spirit, God the Father, and God the Son.
God the Holy Spirit is everything there is. God the Father is the One you meet when you ascend to heaven. God the Son was manifested in Jesus Christ, and is also manifested in everyone of us. In other words, every being has a spark of God in him.
When Christians believe that God is omnipresent, they refer to God the Holy Spirit. When they say a being meets God in heaven they refer to God the Father. When I mentioned returning to the Kingdom of God, I referred to God the Holy Spirit.
But why does God exist as the Holy Spirit, the Father and the Son? Are there three Gods? No, there is one, and only one, God. The fault is not with God, it is with human beings. Let us take an analogy. It is not an accurate analogy, but it gives us some idea. Take the Arctic Ocean. There are countless eddies in the ocean. There are also icebergs. The eddies and icebergs are each separated from another, yet actually all of them are the one ocean.
I want to practice Zen, and to very high levels also, but I think I'm going to have trouble accepting it as “real” because from what I understand, returning to the Kingdom of God isn't the same as parinirvana.
You must not accept any Zen teaching or any other Buddhist teaching if you have any doubt. This is the Buddha's advice. The Buddha took the trouble to tell his followers not to accept any teaching based on faith alone or on the reputation of the teachers, but to assess the teaching based on their understanding and experience.
Returning to the Kingdom of God is not the same as parinirvana, if you regard parinirvana as death. But parinirvana is not death; it is beyond life and death. As mentioned earlier, I do not know enough about parinirvana to talk about it.
But returning to the Kingdom of God is the same as nirvana. It is also the same as returning to the Tao, or union with Brahman. Due to various factors, different peoples use different terms to describe this highest spiritual attainment. But it is different from going to heaven. Going to heaven is still in the phenomenal realm; returning to the Kingdom of God, nirvana, returning to the Tao, or union with Brahman is in the transcendental.
My last question concerns chi kung. What I want to know is why haven't I heard of any phantasmal stories of masters in America being able to do what you say? And how is it that a man in China can summon rodents from all over a city to him and no one in the West could know about it? And other things you speak of like ESP and distant chi transmission I don't doubt them, but I want to know why these powers can't be present in Western societies, or why if they are so uncommon, more people don't know about this?
There are many other things you haven't heard of. For example, you probably haven't heard of a prince named Parameswara who founded a settlement called Malacca, although this is a historical fact every school child in Malaysia knows.
There may be some people in the West who know about the man in China who can summon rodents. But the reason or the manner why most people in the West do not know about it is the same as why most people in China do not know about the man in the West called Casey who could see events happening miles or years away.
Extra-sensory powers are present in Western societies. Although you do not know about them, many other people do. The reason you and all other people do not know everything is that the spread of information is not perfect.
After reading an article you wrote about Kungfu students, or even masters, resorting to Karate or Taekwando, and not even being able to use their Kungfu techniques in a real combat situation, I have concern about the lessons I am soon going to take.
— Andrew, USA
Teaching kungfu that cannot be used for real combat is the norm today. There are two main categories.One, the kungfu students can fight, but they use karate, taekwondo, kickboxing or other martial art techniques instead of kungfu. Two, the students cannot fight at all; they merely perform beautiful kungfu forms. The second group include all modernized wushu schools, particularly those taught by wushu masters from modern China. As a rough estimate, I find that less than 10% of kungfu schools teach their students to use typical kungfu techniques to fight.
Is there any warning I should look for before signing up? Any questions I should ask the master, maybe to see how legitimate he is. And how do I know whether or not I shall be taught kung fu “dance”. What should I ask to know how his class is structured?
Yes, the first warning is to realize this situation of kungfu today as mentioned above. Most people learn kungfu gymnastics or dance without knowing it, because they do not realize that more than 90% of kungfu taught today, including modernized wushu, consist of kungfu forms and non-kungfu sparring, or consist of kungfu or modernized wushu forms without sparring. If you wish to learn kungfu that can be used for real combat, you must learn kungfu forms with kungfu sparring.
The best is to ask the master politely and directly, like “Shall I be able to use the kungfu forms for sparring, instead of using karate or taekwondo techniques?” and “When your students spar, do they use typical kungfu stances or do they bounce about as in Western Boxing?”
If the instructor says that his students do not practise kungfu to fight, but for health, you can safely conclude that he teaches kungfu dance and not kungfu for real combat situation. To know how his class is structured, ask him politely.
I truly hope the one I intend to go to is a good Shaolin Kungfu school. It is nearly 20 miles away, and is the closest kungfu school to me.
Statistically speaking, the chance that you will find a kungfu school in your area or anywhere in the world where the students can use typical kungfu techniques for combat is about 1 in 10. The chance of finding a genuine Shaolin Kungfu school where internal force training and combat application are systematically taught is 1 in 100.
As far as I know, traditional Shaolin Kungfu is not taught in the Shaolin Temple today. Modern Shaolin monks who have migrated overseas also do not teach traditional Shaolin Kungfu but modernized wushu which does not include internal force training and combat application.