Liberation and Society: Deliverance through the Buddhadharma

The bodhisattva spirit of entering the world to save it has become the inevitable road that contemporary religions must take. After the Buddha attained enlightenment, with the exception of the three months of the yearly rainy season retreat, the Buddha led his disciples out almost every day to preach the Dharma to people, caring for their sufferings, spreading the word of the liberation path, and encouraging them to work for the benefit of sentient beings. The Buddha spoke on the practices of a bodhisattva as including the six perfections (generosity, morality, patience, diligence, meditation, and wisdom), and four methods of inducement (charity, speaking lovingly, acting beneficially and working well with others). As to the first perfection of generosity, the Buddha said, "Among the higher forms of giving, none surpasses giving the Dharma . . . Among the higher forms of deeds, none surpasses deeds of the Dharma . . . Among the higher forms of beneficence, none surpasses the beneficence of the Dharma."

Nursing the sick and providing care for the dying are now important services of a modern religion. When people these days become seriously ill, they may be hospitalized to receive professional medical care. But on their deathbed, the patients themselves and their family members often fall into panic, apprehension, sorrow, and helplessness. Religious and spiritual care is urgently needed at such times. Therefore, starting in the second half of the 20th century, people in Western societies have been establishing hospice wards to care for the dying.

Actually, similar things were already done in the time of Shakyamuni Buddha. For instance, the Buddha told his monks, "Whoever visits the sick has visited me; whoever takes care of the sick has taken care of me. This is so because I myself want to care for the sick." This means that giving care to the sick is the same as giving care to the Buddha. In one of the scriptures, a monk became deathly ill and had no one to care for him. So the Buddha went to visit him. The sick monk told the Buddha that he felt remorse for not having gained liberation, even as he was dying. The Buddha then gave him a teaching on the conditioned arising of the six sense organs, the six sense objects, and the six consciousnesses. After the Buddha left, the monk died. The Buddha's disciples asked him, "To what realm will that monk be reborn?" The Buddha answered, "When he listened to my teaching, he achieved keen understanding, gained unshakable confidence in the Dharma, and entered nirvana." From this, we can see the importance of giving spiritual support to those approaching death.

The Buddha said that if there is any man or woman who, while facing death, experiences all kinds of physical agony, they need only recollect the meritorious practices they have cultivated in life. Then their minds will hold on to good thoughts and they will be reborn to a wholesome destiny. But still it is best if the dying be accompanied by spiritual friends who can remind them to maintain right mindfulness. From these stories we see that Buddhism places much importance on visiting and caring for the sick, emphasizing especially that we should speak the Dharma to the critically ill. By listening to the Dharma, some can be cured; others will die but can gain insight and be liberated from samsara; and others are at least able to be reborn in a wholesome destiny and avoid falling into the miserable ones.

A Buddhist View of Practice for Today

The traditional Buddhist view of practice focuses primarily on liberation from the karmic cycle of death and rebirth, which means to first understand the Four Noble Truths of suffering, the origin of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and cultivating the path leading to the cessation of suffering. These comprise the fundamental philosophy and function of Buddhism. Cultivating the way leading to the cessation of suffering is the path of liberation. But if one cultivates the path of liberation solely to end suffering for oneself, this is called the self-benefiting practice. If, on the other hand, one follows the path of liberation to help others also achieve the cessation of suffering, this is called the altruistic practice, or bodhisattva path. Buddhists should hold the view that caring for the social problems of humanity is a virtuous practice of the human and heavenly vehicles; seeking to leave behind suffering for oneself through the Four Noble Truths is the path of liberation; and helping others and oneself through the six perfections is the bodhisattva path.

If we do not take liberation as the ultimate goal and merely practice the teachings of the human and heavenly vehicles by caring for society, then such practice is not that different from secular welfare work, inconsistent with the Buddhist aim to liberate sentient beings from samsara, the karmic cycle of death and rebirth. If we just seek personal liberation then we lack kindness and compassion, which is counter to the Buddha's original intention of transforming through Dharma. So we merge the path of liberation, which leads us out of samsara to attain the bliss of nirvana, with the loving concern for society expressed in the teachings of the human and heavenly vehicles. We must then carry out the teachings in the world and share the benefits we gain with others: this is the truly correct approach to practicing Buddhism.

7/5/2010 4:00:00 AM