Types of Buddhist students

I am very fortunate to be born in a country (Singapore) where authentic Buddhist education from various Buddhist traditions are easily accessible. Many great masters and lineage holders had visited Singapore and taught those who are ready to learn and more importantly, have the good karma to meet them. Since Singapore’s educational system requires bilingualism, I was further blessed with the ability to understand Dharma talks in English and Chinese, plus Hokkien (for talks by Taiwanese monks)

In my quest for authentic and powerful Buddhist practices that bring swift results, I had hopped from traditions to traditions. I was shopping for enlightenment and it was a mind boggling journey; from Thai Mysticism (Dharmakaya) to Sri Lankan Anapanasati meditation, from Zen Buddhism to Pureland School and finally to Tibetan Buddhism. In my earlier years in practice (1980s), all the messages from the different Buddhist schools seemed to clash. The Theravadin would disparage the Mahayana as fake, whereas the Mahayana would critique the Theravada as lesser or incomplete. The Zen would say Pureland school is hocus pocus superstitious that dulls the mind from Prajna and the Pureland would claim that in our dharma ending age, Zen Prajna is no longer possible and thus, a lost cause. Then we have the Vajrayana system claiming to be the best for delivering the swiftest results and we have some Chinese monks warning that Vajrayana may lead to Vajra hell with one misstep.

As you can see, the competition was fierce. That was before the internet and everybody was protecting their own “turf”. When all these were happening, I was only eighteen years old and very impressionable. However, I was never caught in a predicament or discouraged by these conflicting messages. This is because I am more interested in their practice and how those practices and techniques can help me. When I learn a new technique, I do not denounce the previous. I strongly believe that Buddha will never self-contradict, therefore authentic Dharma do not contradict.

If our unenlightened mind is like a sickness, then all these various techniques advocated by the different Buddhist schools are like different types of medicine. Which is the best medicine for us? Well, that depends on how “sick” we are and here’s a simple logic based on the scriptures.

All Buddhist knows the story of Shakyamuni’s Buddha turning the wheel of Dharma right? After Buddha decided to teach mankind enlightenment, He used his enlightened mind to “scan” the world for students with the best potential for enlightenment. Once He identified them, He travelled to their location to teach them (first five disciples) the Four Noble Truths.

This sacred teaching resulted in one of His first five disciples gaining enlightenment on the spot! Now, we have all read the Four Noble Truths, right? What was your first impression and reaction? Well, for me it was, “Okay, that was very logical. Is that all to it? what’s next?” See, no enlightenment for me at all…..

Why? Simply because my “sickness” is more severe. Therefore, Paracetamol is not a good enough medicine for me.

Next, let us swing to the other extreme end. According to scripture, a King wanted to become enlightened after seeing Buddha and his entourage of monks flying through the air (ding ding ding, that is the 1st clue) The king was motivated by his desire for superhuman power! He invited Buddha to the palace and guess what he said to Buddha?

“I want to be enlightened, just like you, but I do not want to become a monk. I cannot renounce my riches, ladies and luxuries, do you have a method that can make me enlightened?” Bingo! Vajrayana was taught and in its iconography, Buddha is having sex with a consort! Yah, when I first encountered that Yab-Yum picture during my earlier days in Chinese Mahayana; I thought to myself, “What kind of sexual pervert invented that? Such a great excuse for monks huh?”

However, Vajrayana teaching lead that King towards enlightenment. This is because it was the best medicine for him. I can imagine many people asking the same question as the King. If enlightenment is only possible for people who can become monks, then what about the rest of humanity? Having said that, not everyone is as lustful and power hungry as that King. If we do not have cancer, do we need Chemo medicine?

A Buddhist teacher who is wise and compassionate is an ethical doctor. They will prescribe the best medicine according to our “sickness”. Naturally, Chemo has its risk and side effect. Thus a very experienced doctor is necessary for that kind of treatment.

Unfortunately, ignorant Buddhist like myself are egoistic. When I encountered Vajrayana, I went around with that “smugness” in my mind. “I have just received the profoundest teaching on Earth!” “Oh, you have not received empowerment? This HIGH teaching cannot be shared with you.” Mentally, there is this “I am better than thou” positioning. Oh, I finally qualified to hold the vajra and bell, imitating the way my lama sit and ringing my bell with zest! ‘ding’, ‘ding’, ‘ding’……

Reflecting back, it is like a Chemo patient being proud of his chemo drip? Of course not all Vajrayana practitioners are cancer patient. Some are doctors learning Chemo Therapy so that they can treat others. I am that horrible self-deluded student in the group.

Now back to our topic. What kind of students are we, and more importantly, which Buddhist technique is best for us? If I teach Pureland to a superstitious Chinese elder, they would probably be in distress and want to stop talking to me. Instead of Amitabha (death), I would have to teach Amitayus (long life) or perhaps the more popular Guanyin and lotus sutra – Chapter 25 . If meditation and “non-self” sounds like torture and heresy, then Anapansati would probably make someone give up Dharma.

The point is, The best Dharma is the one that benefit us the most. More importantly, what kind of students are we?

I guess we need to be confident and truthful with ourselves, just like that King who was not afraid to tell Buddha who he was. If we wish to be enlightened, we must be a good patient when we meet our doctor. No lies and take our medicine faithfully.

May all be well and happy.

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4 replies »

  1. Wow, Jamyang that was a deep and full packed post , filled with great wisdom of Budha’s teachings and your insights, thank you for that. What I stumbled about is ” I can not renounce ladies and luxury” …. just questioning what has one to do with the other? I just can’t put it both together, or I can’t even understand what the meaning of it is. Have a great and happy weekend Jamyang.


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