I won’t pray. I will hope.
These are words I recently heard, and it made me wonder how a person who was raised in a religious family give up believing at a later point in life.
I usually don’t write about religion, or religious topics for that matter. Since these musings serve as a documentary of my thoughts and feelings, I thought I’d share a little for my children to read in case I’m no longer walking this earth at some point.
I was born and raised in a Buddhist family. At the time, our religious influence came mostly from Taoist practices as that was all my parents knew about. Buddhism comes in many forms, just as Christianity and Islam have different Gurus, who may differ slightly in their teachings. Of course, the base of the teachings all come down to the same point: Be kind. Do good deeds. Love all life. Then there are the extremists who go beyond what human nature is, which in my opinion is not worth discussing at all.
There was a regular routine at home. In the morning, we will light incense to offer to Jade Emperor of the Heavens, then Avalokitesvara Boddhisatva, or otherwise more popularly known as the Goddess of Mercy, and lastly to the Earth Deity. On the 1st and 15th day of the lunar calendar, we will offer additional fresh flowers and fruits as part of our prayer routines. And what do we pray for? Or hope or wish for? Good health and safety to be bestowed on the family. Maybe my father prays for good opportunities in his business. My mother will always say a prayer for everyone else. On special occasions, we visit temples and make donations as well as light incense to offer to the majestic Buddha statues. We deliver our secret wishes in our prayers as we kneel down, palms together in humility, and eyes closed.
So do all of us who religiously make offering or “pray” get our wishes granted?
I never thought about how our wishes or prayers may come true for the longest time. It wasn’t until I met my husband, then boyfriend, and was introduced by his family to the True Buddha School of Grandmaster Sheng-yen Lu, that I began to learn more about the why’s and how’s. It wasn’t easy, considering most of Buddhist schools,dharma talk and literature are in Mandarin. It took me six years to get exposed, understand, accept, and finally take refuge myself into the school.
I believe that cultivating a religion truly is a journey. One cannot expect to reap the benefits just because someone asks you to do this and that. It takes deeper understanding, deeper faith, and dedication to the practise. Why do I use the word practise? Well it’s just like going to school. There are routines, and there are rules. This is how we discipline our mind and body. Same goes with religion. The Muslims adhere to a strict prayer routine 5 times a day. Christians dedicate their weekends to go to church and listen to teachings from a pastor. Buddhists are the same. Of course, one cannot blindly just follow routines without understanding them. That is why some people tend to give up half way, thinking that it is a waste of time, or it is mindless activity.
When my cousin lost his wife during labor, he asked this question, “Why did God take her away? We religiously prayed. So what did we do wrong?”
It is very sad, but we may never know the answer until we stop blaming others, including God for what has happened.
In Buddhism, all life born into the human world comes with karmic hindrances from past lives. This includes animals and insects too. The life and birth cycle is a karmic occurence, and to be born into the human realm is to go through suffering again. The only way out of it is to work your way up, just like in anything we do. Avoid the ten deadly sins and practise good deeds. When you have a pure mind and heart, you will gain true happiness and peace, which is known to be the state of nirvana.
There are many things I never understood about Grandmaster Lu when I first encountered him. Why is he adorned in so many jewels? Why does he wear a golden rolex? Is he a fake? And the news on the Internet about him sexually harrasing one of his female disciples? What was all that about? Yet this Guru has millions of followers all over the world.
It is natural for anyone to question his authenticity. Through time, instead of dismissing him without further contemplative thoughts, I started to look at the bigger picture. If he really is a crook, he would be punished by nature’s law already for cheating so many innocent disciple’s lives. Yet he is still living. Healthy and happy at the age of 70. He has not been overcomed by the evil side if he truly has bad intentions. It would be terrible karma for him to uphold the name of Living Buddha and cheat his students using this to get fame and power. Yet all he is doing is spreading his teachings, far and wide, no matter how tired he is. His videos of dharma talks are accessible for free on Youtube! Nobody has to pay to listen to them. Anyone is welcome to join in weekly puja ceremonies at the temple. You don’y have to pay to go in. In fact, even if you register your names to get blessings for a ceremony, you are free to donate however much you like. It is at your heart’s will. If you meet him personally, you will understand what I’m saying. When I first saw him, he was a few feet away from me, being escorted to his ride. Everyone scrambled around him to try and receive a blessed touch by him on the head. I don’t know why, but I was overwhelmed when I saw him. So overwhelmed that I began to cry. He was as radiant as the sun, and the aura coming from him was just indescribable. This could be one of the reasons I decided to study the religion and his teachings deeper.
In a modern world like this, any holy society including Buddhist schools will not be able to thrive without funding. So there will be administrative management that goes into the maintenance and expansion of the school. Of course, if there are monks or volunteers who are found to be abusing their power, strict action is taken to remove the person from the school immediately.
Sure, then I began to question, is he really that genuine? I wouldn’t be able to answer this until I met my mother-in-law. She personally learnt and volunteered at the temple where she met and took lessons from Grandmaster himself. She explained to me that there will always be people misjudging you, even Grandmaster who genuinely is a sage, but often mistaken as a crook. It is only when you see with your own eyes, you can meet the truth. In any situation in life, there will be naysayers and skeptics. But what we must understand is the ultimate truth, and only you, yourself … your own personal journey through the cultivation of the practice, can bring you there.
I’ve been a disciple of the True Buddha School for almost 5 years now, and there’s still so much to learn and practice. I find the hardest part is finding the time. The time to quiet the mind, and contemplate daily affairs, meditate and chant sutras. Whoever said the road to happiness is easy? This is when I had a moment of truth. You have to work hard to enjoy its rewards. We may offer incense and pray for all good things, but if we do not practise good deeds, lead a healthy and kind life, how can we expect the goodness to only come to us? If we offer fruits and food to Buddha, hoping to be blessed more, but throw the abundant food away after prayers, what blessings will really come to our lives? We can visit many holy House of God and follow its etiquettes and rituals, but without truly applying the knowledge and concepts in our daily undertakings, we are no different than we were yesterday.
I’ve learnt that to chant mantras and sutras is to purify our speech. To visualize enlightened Buddhas is to purify our mind. To form mudras in our hands is to purify our touch. Our speech towards others can hurt or exhibit ignorance. Our thoughts can be easily tainted by negative influences. Our hands we use to do everything, it can be gentle yet it can be harsh. All of these realizations were not overnight. It is through attending ceremonies and listening to dharma talks by Masters. Sometimes if I have time I will tune in to Grandmasters dharma talks on Youtube. I read all the English editions of his dharma books. I seek clarification with an open mind from monks and my mother-in-law.
I believe when the true nature of any religion touches your heart to be kind, to be less angry, less greedy and less ignorant, you’re already half way in your journey to ultimate wisdom. And it doesn’t matter anymore who is criticising you for what you are believeing in because you know in your heart itself, you are cultivating a Buddha’s heart. Like Grandmaster says. Buddha is you. You are Buddha. You just haven’t realized it yet. Offering fruits or jewels you possess to the Buddhas is not just to seek blessing in return. It is to learn to let go of our attachment to items we treasure in this world. By sincerely doing so, Buddha’s blessings will come naturally to you. Just as you would willingly donate time and money to help the needy in this human world.
My mother-in-law once told me you can measure your blessings by looking back at how smooth-sailing your life has become since you’ve started practising and having faith. Buddha won’t come knocking on your door, “Hello! I’ve granted your wish you made that day!” How nice it would be if Buddha or God could speak to us this way. The people you meet, the opportunities that come your way, all happen for a reason. When I reflected back on her words, I realized whenever I’m faced with an obstacle, and I sincerely pray for guidance during my practice, I end up with some form of help. It may not be direct, but it is a form of improvement.
I have also learnt to make vows whenever I pray earnestly for a wish to come true. Making vows and adhering to them is one of the many generous qualities of Buddhas, who make strong vows to save sentient beings from suffering. I remember a time when I felt at lost with my father’s mental health problems, I made a vow during my prayer to only dedicate merits of my practice to everyone else, except me; be it chanting sutras or mantras or performing good deeds. I do not need to claim the merits for myself. All I wish for is the safety and well-being of my parents, my loved ones, and my children. Making vows also disciplines oneself when it comes to making choices. Through time, all of this little things I do during my practice, which may seem routined and boring, eventually teaches me to be more thoughtful of my speech, actions and thoughts. I am less angry. I learn to control my emotions better. I learn to forgive easily. And I’m learning still. I learn to appreciate every new acquaintance I meet, and every new opportunity that comes my way. I learn to take better chances and make better choices, deciding between what’s right and wrong.
There’s a whole other world out there who do not believe in the existence of God. All I can say is from my own experiences, be they encounters with nasty spirits of the underworld or getting my prayers answered, I have learnt to believe it. And through this belief, I developed faith and yearn more to understand how to be a better human, more importantly how to free myself from the sufferings of human life. I strive to teach my children what I know from my cultivation too. At the end of the day, I have to let go if they decide to choose their own religious paths one day, but it will never stop me from praying for their safety and well-being. That’s what being a mother is.
I worry about today’s generation of youth, who bow at the very feet of technological advances. Yes the Internet is a wealth of knowledge. Anything can be found on there. But is it the truth? Have we forgotten how to use our own judgement to evaluate? The virtual world is a scary place. Sometimes we forget how much more wisdom we can get from just living in the real world, just sitting quietly and listening to the sounds of the Earth; the wind, the trees, the birds … just taking time to reflect on life itself. We can read as many good articles or books or facts, but at the end of the day, they are all still written by man himself. Without contemplation, the information and knowledge cannot advance. It’s just like photocopying, we’re not creating. I’m beginning to sound like Pocahantas, haha. Truth is, most of us have truly lost touch with ourselves a long time ago. May we find our true path back again.