After understanding the goals and principles of the Buddha’s teachings, we need to deepen our understanding of the Dharma. What is the Dharma? It is the true reality of life and the universe, all the teachings of the Buddhas, which are included in sutras. These ancient textbooks documented all of the Buddha’s teachings and were recorded by his students. The most basic one of Mahayana Buddhism is the Original Vow of Earth Treasure Bodhisattva Sutra. It can be regarded as a textbook for first grade students, within which, the truth was clearly explained, not with spoken language but with emissions of light. The sutra, as told by Buddha Shakyamuni, begins with his emitting infinite bright lights called:
1. Great Perfection Brightness Cloud,
2. Great Compassion Brightness Cloud,
3. Great Wisdom Brightness Cloud,
4. Great Prajna Brightness Cloud,
5. Great Samadhi Brightness Cloud,
6. Great Auspicious Brightness Cloud,
7. Great Good Fortune Brightness Cloud,
8. Great Merit Brightness Cloud
9. Great Refuge Brightness Cloud,
10. Great Praise Brightness Cloud.
Although ten kinds are given, it does not mean that there are only ten. The number ten is regarded as a symbol of perfection, a complete cycle symbolizing infinity.
What is called perfection in the Earth Treasure Sutra is called infinity in the Infinite Life Sutra. Not only can life be infinite, everything can be infinite! However, of all the infinities, that of life is the most important. We may have boundless wealth and immeasurable good fortune, but how can we enjoy them if we do not have sufficient lifespans? Therefore, the Pure Land School uses “infinite life” to symbolize all infinities. In the Earth Treasure Sutra, the ten Brightness Clouds represent this concept. “One is all, and all is one” clearly explains the infinite cosmos and life.
Upon what did the Buddha base his teachings of life and the universe? First is the Great Perfection Brightness Cloud. The great perfection of Esoteric Buddhism is the true self-nature in Chinese Buddhism. The true self-nature is great perfection. The following nine clouds of compassion, wisdom, etc. are perfect, everything is perfect. This great perfection is our own innate, true self-nature. It was from this initial point that the Buddha imparted the infinite teachings to us, thus revealing the true nature of all phenomena in the universe. Everything that the Buddha taught is innate to us. It is the original true self-nature within each of us. The purpose of his forty-nine years of teaching was to help us to learn how to live happy and fulfilling lives. This unique and complete education is for all sentient beings and is much more vast and extensive than our modern educational system.
People work hard everyday. What drives them to get up early in the morning and work long hours before coming home? It is the pursuit of prestige and wealth, especially wealth. Would people continue to work if they could not receive money or some degree of prestige after having worked for a whole day? It is most unlikely. Most would become listless and unwilling to work. Therefore, for most people, the driving force in our society is wealth, followed by prestige.
Buddhas and Bodhisattvas desire neither wealth nor fame yet they work harder than we do. What is the driving force behind this conscientious teaching while expecting nothing in return? It is the second Brightness Cloud, the Great Compassion Brightness Cloud. It is like a mother’s love for her children, especially her newborn baby, but it is more profound in depth. A mother does so out of natural love and compassion, asking for nothing in return. This love is called a heart of compassion. The compassion of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas towards all sentient beings is boundless, unconditional and universal. It is the eternal driving force that compels them to help all sentient beings. Therefore, the Great Compassion Brightness Cloud follows the Great Perfection Brightness Cloud.
In order to teach others, we practice cultivation as well as encouraging others to do likewise. We do so to sincerely introduce Buddhism to other people. What is our driving force? Compassion. But if we do so for wealth or fame, then it is purely business and this is totally wrong for it totally violates the very spirit of Buddhism.
In fact, the circulation of the teachings, including sutras and reference works should be unconditional. Copyrighted materials do not accord with the true spirit of Buddhism. Every time I am presented with a Buddhist book, I first check for the copyright page. If it says “This book is protected by copyright; any unauthorized printing of this book shall lead to punishment”, I will not read the book. If asked why I do not want to read it, my answer is that any true and good knowledge should benefit others unconditionally and that reprinting should be allowed. It would be a waste of time and energy to read copyrighted books. Only the writings of those who are broadminded and kind-hearted and who sincerely practice what they teach deserve to be read and studied. How can we expect a narrow-minded, profit-seeking person to write good things and conclude them with the great perfection?
Compassion is built on rationale and is free of emotions. To be otherwise, it is delusion and therefore is wrong. There are two Buddhist sayings, “Compassion is the essence; accommodating means are the way to guide people with different capacities”. The other seemingly says the complete opposite, “Unwise compassion often incurs misfortunes and accommodating means often leads to immorality”. The reason behind this apparent contradiction is that if we ignore rationality and instead yield to emotion, compassion then often results in misfortune while doing favors for someone gives rise to immorality. Hence, this is followed by the Great Wisdom Brightness Cloud, the third of the ten great perfections. Perfect wisdom gives rise to perfect compassion. Wisdom is the method of convenience. Only by wisely utilizing various methods of wisdom and compassion, can we help sentient beings be enlightened and freed from sufferings.
The next brightness cloud is the Great Prajna (Intuitive Wisdom) Brightness Cloud. What is the difference between intuitive wisdom and wisdom? The Great Wisdom Sutra states, “Prajna innocence, knowing everything”. It is intuitive wisdom without knowing and yet knowing everything. Without knowing is intuitive wisdom; knowing everything is wisdom. In other words, one is essence and the other is function. From a different perspective, wisdom is the knowledge of things and the realization of truth. Intuitive wisdom, our original wisdom, is that which can free people from worries and afflictions. Acquired wisdom is that which can interpret all phenomena in the universe. It arises from the original wisdom. If we cannot completely attain the great perfection of the universe, how can we teach about it to others?
When worries are completely eradicated and ignorance dispelled, we can attain our own great perfection and restore our original ability. From that point on, we are in a state of total awareness and capable of doing everything, we are omniscient and omnipotent. The brightness clouds of wisdom and intuitive wisdom contain profound meanings and are the perfect complete wisdom.
How do we attain wisdom? It is innate to our self-nature, but it is now covered. Where is it? The Buddha told us that it is not permanently lost just temporarily lost. When we reach enlightenment, we can uncover this wisdom. Then how can we free ourselves from delusion and recover our original ability? One method taught by Buddha Shakyamuni is deep concentration, which is also called the Great Samadhi Brightness Cloud. Samadhi is another transliteration from Sanskrit meaning the proper enjoyment, which has the same meaning as deep concentration.
Buddhism emphasizes cultivation or correcting our thoughts and behavior. It is to correct everything that arises from our body, mouth and mind, the three karmas of erroneous behavior, speech and thoughts. To correct the three karmas, we start from the mind as the Zen School teaches, “cultivation should start from the root”. What is the root? The mind. If our mind is proper then our thoughts, speech and behavior will likewise be proper.
In Buddhism, there are innumerable methods of practice. All of these methods are ways for concentration in cultivation. Not only the Zen School emphasizes concentration in cultivation. All the schools do, although they may not all use the term meditation.
Pure Land Buddhism calls it One Mind Undisturbed or purity of mind. Esoteric Buddhism explains it as Three Mystic Practices, the three karmas of body, speech and mind corresponding to those of the Buddha. Used here corresponding means concentration. We can see that various schools emphasize the same principles. They simply use different terms to describe it. Therefore, since all lead to the same goal, all methods are equal and no one method is better than another.
We can choose whichever method best fits our manner of living and level of achievement and understanding. The most important point is to concentrate on just one method. The more methods we try to follow, the more confused we will become. The more confused we are, the more difficult it is to succeed. This is very important, as samadhi or deep concentration, is the key to success in our learning and cultivation. We explain these as the Three Learnings of precepts or self-discipline, deep concentration and wisdom. Self-discipline leads to deep concentration. From deep concentration arises wisdom. Therefore, intuitive wisdom arises from deep concentration. This deep concentration in our self-nature is called the Great Samadhi Brightness Cloud.
Of the ten brightness clouds, the first five explain fundamental principles and the latter five explain the methods. The fundamental principles are the basis of Buddha Shakyamuni’s teachings. The following are the five methods.
First is the Great Auspicious Brightness Cloud. What does auspicious mean? For most of us, auspicious means to get what we deserve. If we obtain what we do not deserve, then it is not auspicious. The meaning of auspicious in Buddhism is much more profound: throughout the universal existence, nothing is beyond our knowledge and experience. This is great auspiciousness. For example, when we are mindful of Buddha Amitabha and vow to be born into the Western Pure Land, we will attain birth into the Western Pure Land. If we vow to be born into the Flower Adornment World, we will attain the stage of awakening of Buddha Vairocana. This is the original meaning of auspicious.
In our world, Buddha Shakyamuni taught different methods for different levels of understanding and this is the utmost auspiciousness. First, the Buddha’s teachings never contradict the true reality of life and the universe. Second, the Buddha always adapted his teachings to fit the audience’s level of comprehension. His teachings would be a failure if they proved to be incomprehensible for the listeners or if they were too simple and boring. Neither of these would be auspicious. Therefore, the appropriate teaching is most auspicious. The Buddha conveys all he wishes to: we hear all that we can understand and absorb. This is the utmost, the greatest and perfect auspiciousness.
Nowadays, people pursue wealth, knowledge, health and long life. This is called good fortune. If the Buddha asks us to learn and practice Buddhism but we do not receive what he said we would, then we will reject the teachings. Why? If we cannot get what we wish for now, how can we believe we will receive what is promised to us for the next life? It is all too distant and uncertain. When will we get to enjoy the promised great reward? However, if we can receive benefits now, we will be much more likely to believe in the promise of even greater rewards in the future. By truly practicing Buddhism, we will attain all that we wish for.
This is similar to a tree blossoming and bearing fruits. Only when we see the beautiful blossoms, will we believe there will be good fruits. If the flower does not bloom, how can we believe there will be fruit? Therefore, we have the Great Good Fortune Brightness Cloud following the Great Auspicious Brightness Cloud. We must cultivate the cause before we can attain the effect.
The next guiding principle is represented by the Great Merit Brightness Cloud. All Buddhas spent a long period of time, one hundred eons, cultivating good fortune after attaining Buddhahood. Why? A Buddha cannot help sentient beings if he himself does not have good fortune. People will not believe in a teacher who talks of good fortune but obviously lacks it. However, when the teacher has good fortune and explains that it comes from cultivation, then people will listen and follow his or her teachings. Therefore, only if the teacher has good fortune and virtue in addition to wisdom can he or she help sentient beings. Thus, the Buddha taught us to cultivate both good fortune and wisdom. However, good fortune is different from merit in that merit helps us to transcend the cycle of birth and death. We accumulate merit by practicing the Three Learnings of precepts or self-discipline, deep concentration and wisdom.
In our practice, we need to rely on the next principle of The Great Refuge Brightness Cloud. This is not what is usually thought of as taking refuge in the Triple Jewels of the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. Rather, it is to return to and rely upon the Triple Jewels, the great perfection of our self-nature.
The Great Praise Brightness Cloud symbolizes educating others about Buddhism, praising the perfect and infinite merits and virtue of the self-nature. What does Buddhism teach us? To attain our perfect self-nature. Zen Buddhism often says that we should search for the original state of our perfect self-nature.
In summary, Buddha Shakyamuni emitted light at the beginning of the Earth Treasure Sutra. This light has many more infinite, boundless meanings than the ten brightness clouds discussed. The first five brightness clouds are the Great Perfection of self-nature and the last five are the function of the self-nature. These ten comprise the basis of the Buddha’s teachings and are to be found in many sutras, often represented by emissions of light. Many people read of the brightness clouds without any real understanding of the profound meanings within. Not only this sutra, but also all sutras start and flow from the Great Perfection.
The sequence of practice in Mahayana Buddhism is represented in China by the four Great Bodhisattvas: Earth Treasure of Jiuhua Mountain; Great Compassion of Putuo Mountain; Great Wisdom of Wutai Mountain; and Universal Worthy of Emei Mountain.
Earth Treasure means stored treasure of the great mother earth, which represents our mind. Without the earth, nothing could survive. So, the Buddha used the earth as a metaphor for our mind, which is the Great Perfection. It encompasses infinite compassion, wisdom, intuitive wisdom, auspiciousness, good fortune, merit and virtue. Therefore, all that the Buddha told us in the sutras is infinite, is the Great Perfection. Understanding this will enable us to find the boundless meanings within.
The Earth Treasure Sutra explains that we begin our learning and practice by being filial to our parents and respectful to our teachers and elders. Buddhism is an education of honoring teachers and revering their teachings, which is based on the foundation of filial piety. How can we expect a person who is not filial to his or her parents to respect his or her teachers? A teacher, regardless of learning and capabilities, cannot impart knowledge to a student who does not respect or listen.
Therefore, only when we honor teachers and revere their teachings can we truly succeed in our learning of Buddhism. The Original Vow of Earth Treasure Bodhisattva Sutra is the sutra of the filial piety, which is the very heart of the Great Perfection. All other perfections arise from it. From here, we extend this loving and caring for parents to respecting teachers and elders.
We keep expanding from here until we respect and care for all sentient beings without discrimination or attachment. This is the enhancement and extension of Earth Treasure Bodhisattva and is the teaching of Great Compassion Bodhisattva. Therefore, without filial piety, there would be no great compassion. This is similar to building a house. The second floor must be built upon the first floor. In being filial to parents and showing compassion for all other beings, we should not use emotions. Rather we need to base this compassion on rationale and wisdom. Only in this way can we attain positive results.
Next is Great Wisdom Bodhisattva, who symbolizes wisdom and Universal Worthy Bodhisattva who symbolizes the practice of filial piety, respect, compassion and wisdom in our daily lives. If we practice these principles when interacting with others, handling matters and objects, then we ourselves are Universal Worthy Bodhisattva.
The teachings of Universal Worthy Bodhisattva are perfect. As the Flower Adornment Sutra tells us, we cannot attain Buddhahood if we do not follow this teaching. Why? This Bodhisattva is perfect in every thought, every vow and every deed. Without true wisdom, the great vow of Universal Worthy Bodhisattva cannot be fulfilled.
These four great Bodhisattvas exemplify this understanding and represent the perfection of Mahayana Buddhism. Therefore, from Earth Treasure Bodhisattva, we learn filial piety and respect, from Great Compassion Bodhisattva, we learn great compassion, from Great Wisdom Bodhisattva we learn great wisdom and from Universal Worthy Bodhisattva we learn the great vows and conduct.