Although certain modern trends within Asian Buddhism appears to suggest that a Buddhist monastic follows a path that is ‘superior’ to that of the dedicated ‘lay’ Buddhist practitioner – a close and careful reading of the Pali Suttas (and their Sanskrit counter-parts) reveals a very different picture. Yes – obviously a Buddhist monastic leads an infinitely more ‘virtuous’ life than a lay-person who does not follow the Dharma and lives just for sensory stimulation and superficial emotional gratification. This the argument that the ‘morality’ of the monastic is more worthwhile than the ‘hedonism’ of the lay-person. Of course, people are free to reject this analysis and conclusion. The two alternative views are that the ‘hedonist’ is ‘equal’ or at least ‘superior’ to the ‘Monastic’ - but these different interpretations tenable? There is something ‘instinctive’ about the ‘hedonist’ - as if they have not yet evolved the ‘wisdom’ to a) ‘manage’, and b) ‘elevate’ the data received from their sensory-organs to a higher plane of existence!
A ‘hedonist’ is someone who lives in the world of greed, hatred and delusion and see no problem with this natural arrangement. As this is the situation that the Buddha states generates all of humanity’s suffering – he rejects it out of hand. This is the world of the cess-pit of dirty sensationalism that the Buddhist monastic leaves behind and it is in this sense that the lifestyle of the Buddhist monastic is said to be morally and virtuously ‘superior’ to that of the uncontrolled, undisciplined, lazy and selfish ‘hedonist’. Although the human-beings within both categories make use of ‘sensory’ stimulus, the ‘hedonist’ is entrapped by what he or she ‘feels’ and cannot ‘breakout’ of the cycle of pointless repetition – whereas the ‘monastic’ takes exactly the same ‘sensory’ stimulus and uses this data to ‘uproot’ greed, hatred and delusion, and ‘break’ free of the cycle of pointless ‘sensory’ stimulation! This is why it is untenable to suggest that within this context, the ‘hedonist’ (as a lay-person) is the ‘equal’ or ‘superior’ to the Buddhist monastic! From this point of view, it is obvious that the ‘hedonist’ lives an ‘inferior’ lifestyle to that of the Buddhist monastic.
Things are not so clear-cut when devout individuals follow the Dharma with determination and yet still live within the world of everyday concerns. This type of lay-person is very different to the ‘hedonist’ as they apply to their lives the very same Dharma that the Buddhist monastics make use of, with many such lay-people even choosing to voluntarily abide by the Vinaya Discipline to the best of their ability within the circumstances they live within. When Buddhist monastics give Dharma-Talks in China to audiences of robe-clad lay-people, he or she usually takes a humble position as within their ‘cloistered’ life, it far easier to apply the Dharma and to discipline their minds and bodies with the minimum of distractions or cares. For the devout lay-person, however, their life is full of distractions and cares that have nothing to do with the Dharma and often get in the way of its practice! Despite this, these dedicated lay-people persevere with the disciplining of their minds and bodies and apply the Ch’an method within all circumstance, good, bad and indifferent.
Despite these hindrances inherent within everyday life, both male and female lay-practitioners of the Dharma realise full and complete enlightenment! This is even mentioned in the Pali and Sanskrit Buddhist texts, and was a well-known occurrence during the Buddha’s lifetime. Although the worldly use of the senses creates obscuring barriers between the surface mind and the empty mind ground – the lay-person applies the gong-an, hua tou or chanting practice too such a high degree of commitment that the surface mind of obstruction (klesa) is smashed to pieces forever! This suggests that the sheer practice of the committed lay-person became so full of inner potential that it drilled-through the klesic obscuration and achieved full and total comprehension of the empty mind ground! In the Pali Suttas the Buddha clearly states that when the enlightened mind is realised – there is no difference between a lay-person and a monastic.
Although both may occupy very different stations in life that demand certain rules of interaction and polite communication, the essences of each individual’s understanding remain exactly the same! Both the ‘monastic’ and the ‘lay’ person are looking at and integrating with exactly the same empty mind ground so that the only differences in their lives is the social status each occupies. Vimalakirti was a very wealthy Indian who possessed a number of wives and countless children, and yet he ‘saw through’ the obscuring veil if the world and perceived the empty mind ground. Hui Neng – the Sixth Patriotic of Ch’an - was a lay-person when he inherited the Dharma (only ordaining at a later date). The Chinese Ch’an Records record a number of examples of how ordinary men, women and even children achieved full and total enlightenment! As Buddhist monasticism is premised upon humility – many such practitioners believe that the ‘lay’ path to enlightenment is by far the much harder path to take (as everything about it serves to turn away from, and obscure the empty mind ground). This is why many Chinese Buddhist monastics today, habitually place themselves ‘below’ the status of the laity. It may be that such humility contains the inherent power to encourage the ‘hedonist’ to change their lives for the better and follow the Dharma, whilst supporting, empower and ‘lifting-up’ those lay people who are already making good progress in their self-cultivation!
When the muscles of the arm contract so that a heavy weight held in the hand can be ‘lifted’ - nothing in this process grants any knowledge as to how muscles work, or how movements are controlled by the spine or brain, etc. Similarly, when a gland secretes hormones – none of this process (in and of itself) grants any ‘special’ knowledge into the nature of glands or hormones – and yet, when the brain ‘secretes’ thought – it is assumed that this process of secreting ‘thought’ possesses the ability to ‘see into’ the inherent biological nature of a) the brain, and b) the mind, but is this a reasonable assumption? If the functions of other biological processes give no ‘special’ knowledge about the inner workings of a bodily organ – why should the secretion of ‘thought’ from the brain produce any substantially ‘different’ mode of knowledge?
Of course, the brain is not a ‘normal’ bodily organ despite the fact that it does regulate (together with the spine) virtually all other organs (and biological processes) in the body. The brain does this whilst generating the appearance of the ‘mind’ - from which ‘thoughts’ are believed to emerge. This ‘thought’ capacity has evolved to allow the brain to see its own processes (to a certain extent), whilst also being able to perceive processes in the external environment. With regards the perception of ‘inner’ processes, the capacity of the brain is severely limited, with no amount of contemplative thinking producing the exact size and shape of the brain doing the ‘thinking’. To acquire this knowledge, the physical organ of the brain (usually ‘dead’) would have to examined ‘outside’ of its usual skull-casing by another (living) human-being. In other words, a living brain examines the dead brain of a now ‘non-living’ human-being. A living human-being can observe their own arm lifting a weight in a manner which does not apply to the functioning of their own brain – and herein lies the fundamental difference.
The historical Buddha (in ancient India), for example, described the functioning of the ‘mind’ but never envisioned all this as an operation of the brain. I mention this as monastics within Early Buddhism often sat and meditated in graveyards and burning-ghats – and often contemplated the decaying of bodies left to ‘rot’ in the open by families too poor to afford a proper burning and disposal ceremony. Although the skull is often intact for those who have experienced natural deaths, there was probably cases of severely injured individuals where it was possible for the Buddhist monastics to ‘observe’ the brain. This could not have been very common, and certainly the Buddha does not speak of a ‘brain’ as such, despite linking the ‘sensation’ of the environment to specific sense-organs located within the body. This may be because the Buddha defined the ‘mind’ as a sensory organ which ‘senses’ thought – hence the ‘six senses’ found within Buddhist philosophy. Indian philosophy tends to view human consciousness as being various ‘frequencies’ of ethereal energy (perhaps ‘light’ energy). This gives the impression that the external world is constructed of light-energy that also ‘exists’ inside the body. This leads to the interplay of ‘void’ (consciousness empty of greed, hatred and delusion), and ‘form’, or all material stuff. As the Buddha advocated the psychological and physical ‘exiting’ of the world of sorrow – he had no need to develop a sophisticated anatomy and physiology – although he came very close to doing this by default of his ‘logical’ assessment of perception.
Unless we are exposed to the insides of the human-body in a scientific setting – no amount of inner gazing will produce an accurate picture of the ‘actual’ structures of the inner-body – or ‘how’ these structures fit-together and function in a healthy individual. All of this knowledge would slowly emerge in the various medical systems of the world – and very slowly at that. It is only in the last two-hundred years or so, that a reasonably accurate view of the human-body has been developed and utilised in the healing of humanity. Perhaps the Buddha got as far as any reasonably enlightened human-being could get, and in so doing did develop a ‘science’ of perception that was unusually perceptive for the time. Of course, our education systems allow us to ‘see’ much more in a short space of time, but no amount of this kind of study offers a short-cut to realising the ‘enlightenment’ advocated by the Buddha. Even though general education has moved-on, the Buddha’s enlightenment is still very difficult to realise. A well-balanced path would seem to involve a sound academic education coupled with a regular meditative practice. My view is that modern education is very important, but it doesn’t invalidate the path of the Buddha. If anything, I would suggest that modern education actually serves to ‘alienate’ humanity ever more from a perception of its pure spiritual essence. The Buddha’s enlightenment of compassion, loving kindness and wisdom – coupled with the accomplishments of modern science will produce an all-round human-being and effective Bodhisattva!
Using a ‘mala’ - or a set of ‘Buddha Beads’ - can be done in a variety of ways. As each bead is purposely ‘moved’ through the guiding finger and thumb, quite often a mantra is recited, or perhaps a short sentence from a Sutra, etc. Other times, the practitioner may sit quietly and ‘look within’ as the beads proceed. A Buddhist mala is usually made of 108, 54 or 27 beads – which while threaded upon a cord may well be divided at regular points by a smaller ‘dividing-bead’. Sometimes, no dividing-beans are used. The cords are tied so that the mala is held in a permanent ‘round’ shape. The beads can be crafted from wood, glass, jade or various other precious stones. Quite often, mala of differing quality and bead quantity are associated with the various holy places of China and produced locally for famous temples to sell to pilgrims, or for people to present as ‘gifts.
Some of the smaller mala are designed to be easily worn around the left wrist, whilst the larger type is worn around the neck. Generally speaking, the latter is worn only by ordained Buddhist monks and nuns. The way I prefer to use the mala is through the perfection of pure ‘touch’. This uses the sense of ‘touch’ gained between the thumb and finger which forms a thought in the mind of ‘bead’. As ‘bead’ is a word – this word can be ‘returned’ to its non-perception essence (i.e., the empty mind ground). This is how the sense of touch is used as a hua tou using beads. At the advanced level – the word ‘bead’ does not need to be formed – and the bare sensation of ‘touching’ the bead serves as the meditative object ‘returned’ to its source.
When I was a Ch’an monk I was provided with a large (and heavy mala) constructed from beads made of jade. This was a sign of reassurance for the laity (rather like a ‘cross’ within Christianity). As I was permitted to retain my ordained name of ‘Shi Da Dao’ when I was sent out into the world to spread compassionate action – I was also permitted to keep my mala and my ‘black’ robe – which is indicative of the Cao Dong lineage. This large mala spends most of its time hanging on the family shrine nowadays. Although the sense of ‘hearing’ is considered the most efficient and promising sense for humans to return to the empty mind ground, any of the other five Buddhist senses can be used if a practitioner has developed suitable concentrative strength.
As the monks and nuns often lived in isolated areas – or went on perilous journeys that were once plagued by banditry and all kinds of occasional lawlessness – different systems of self-defence were created that did not violate the Vinaya Discipline. Objects such as the walking staff, begging bowl and even mala were often modified for combat usage. The ‘fighting-mala’ that I was shown in China was made of metal beads threaded onto thin metal wire. It also had a ‘weighted’ end similar to a ‘throwing-dart’. This type of self-defence was premised upon a mind stripped clear of greed, hatred and delusion – and physical movements designed to ‘nullify’ (but not ‘perpetuate’) the violence being unjustly inflicted upon the monastics. There is quite literally ‘nothing happening’ in a constructive manner – with all sensation relating to the six senses spontaneously being ‘returned’ to the empty mind ground.
Adrian Chan-Wyles (釋大道 - Shi Da Dao) is permitted to retain his Buddhist Monastic Dharma-Name within Lay-society by decree of the Government of the People’s Republic of China, and the Chinese Buddhist Association (1992). A Buddhist monastic (and devout lay-practitioner) upholds the highest levels of Vinaya Discipline and Bodhisattva Vows. A Genuine Buddhist ‘Venerates’ the ‘Dao’ (道) as he or she penetrates the ‘Empty Mind-Ground' through meditative insight. A genuine Buddhist is humble, wise and peace-loving – and he or she selflessly serves all in existence in the past, present and the future, and residing within the Ten Directions – whilst retaining a vegetarian- vegan diet. Please be kind to animals!
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