Basic Buddhism
Imitating the Buddha and Buddhist Studies
Ven. Houguan
27/03/2012 06:10 (GMT+7)
Font size:  Zoom out Zoom in

Learning by Emulating the Buddha

What is Imitating the Buddha (xue fo)? I think we can refer to Master Yin Shun’s statement for a simple and straightforward definition. Quoted from Master’s book Buddha in the Human World is his statement: “Imitating the Buddha is emulating the Buddha, practicing by taking the Buddha as a model. How the Buddha has completed his practice of Buddhahood and we follow suit.” (p.128)

Many people imitate the Buddha, but their perception of the Buddha and their understanding of the Buddha’s teachings are different, therefore what they imitate and what they achieve are different. Some people worship the Buddha as God and seek blessings for their present life and future lives; some perceive the Buddha as one who has eliminated all afflictions and attained enlightenment, so they aspire to learn and cultivate the Buddha’s wisdom, devote themselves to purifying their bodily, verbal, and mental actions, and seek liberation; some regard the Buddha not only as an enlightened one but also who delivers all beings with great compassion, and thus they emulate enthusiastically to perfect their compassion and wisdom and benefit themselves and others.

                                 Ven. Houguan

Buddhist Studies: the Studies of Buddhadharma and Buddhism

What is Buddhist studies (fo xue)? Maybe people have different ideas about what Buddhist studies really is. Some people think that “studies” is about knowledge and academics, and that Buddhist studies is exclusive of faith and shall be taken from a purely objective perspective. According to Master Yin Shun, history, archeology, physics, biology, philosophy, Confucianism, Neo-Confucianism, and theology, to name a few, all represent different fields of studies, and Buddhist studies is the study of Buddhadharma, the study of Buddhism. Although academic thoughts share some commonalities, each discipline is unique in its own way.

The research methods employed by Buddhist studies range from disciplines such as history, archeology, textual research, linguistics, documentation science and therefore it is easily misunderstood as an ordinary branch of knowledge. However, Buddhism does not merely address substances and the material world; it is a religious faith that involves human thoughts, feelings, and the spiritual aspect, affects people’s attitude toward birth and death, and is related to the issue of practice and liberation. Even an individual bound to the influence of environment can have various emotions, not to mention a multitude of people sharing collective karma. Buddhist studies is an investigation of people’s understanding of Buddhism in different times, and its rise and fall in the course of history. Thus it contains a complex array of subject areas. Buddhist studies includes the study of all the Buddhist doctrines, theories, practices, and results, and covers the sūtra, vinaya, and śāstra, schools of teaching, sangha, evolution in Buddhist history. It is also a study about practice, elimination of mental afflictions, altruism, and the attainment of voice-hearer, bodhisattva, and utmost perfection of Buddhahood.

As previously mentioned, in imitating the Buddha, people will achieve different goals due to the differences in their understanding of the Buddha. It’s the same with Buddhist studies. With differences in their mindset, approach, and focus of research, researchers will inevitably attain different results.

The Principle and Approach in Buddhist Studies—the Three Seals of the Dharma

Master Yin Shun said that he has no objection to Buddhist studies directed in pure objectivity and pure knowledge. However, according to the Master, Buddhism is still a religion that values faith, understanding, practice, realization, as well as wisdom and compassion. By ignoring this feature and conducting Buddhist research without the religious aspect, one is unlikely to be on the right path, even if one has gained great academic achievements.

As Master Yin Shun pointed out, Buddhist studies is a field of study, so the research methodology and motivation should be guided by the principle of studying the Buddhadharma by the Buddhadharma. In other words, it has to be in accord with the Three Seals of the Dharma.

The first Dharma Seal is that all things are impermanent. There is no unchanging nature in all the worldly phenomena; in the history of Buddhism, Buddhist thoughts and codes, among other elements, are all changing and impermanent. Therefore, with the law of impermanence we perceive the causes for the rise and fall, and even the decline of Buddhism. We should consider the inevitable change and evolution due to the conditions of time and space, or else we are very likely to make incorrect conclusions and to think that the more ancient the more authentic, or the later the more perfect and complete, therefore overlooking the integrity in the development of Buddhism. Nevertheless, although all phenomena are changing and impermanent, we should try to identify and explore, in the midst of the interrelated and complex changes, the relatively stable commonality, for example. the shared philosophy of teaching among certain schools and sects, in a given time and place.

The second Seal is that all dharmas are without a self. There is no independent self in all worldly phenomena, because everything is temporary existence of the working of causes and conditions coming together. “No-self” consists of two kinds: absence of self in persons and absence of self in dharmas. Absence of self in persons, in other words, is what most people refer to as objectivity, or conducting research without a preoccupied position or a presumption. When addressing the Buddhist concepts of karma, causality of the three periods, meditative absorption, or spiritual power, a Buddhist researcher with presumptions may judge subjectively the Buddhist teaching of sthana-carya-phala (situation-practice-fruit) as a myth, or some “ideal” beyond our reach.

With regard to the absence of self in dharmas, the phenomena in this world are the results of different causes and conditions coming together and therefore are not exclusive; as phenomena influence each other, there are changes in terms of language, writing, and thought. For instance, research on Buddhist schools or orders should not be limited to a certain single Buddhist school or order, but should also consider the impact it has received within that historical and territorial background, which therefore influences its interpretation of sutras and modifies the practice methods and ritual service. By following the principle of selflessness in dharmas, one is more likely to reveal things as they are.

The third Seal is that in Nirvana is stillness and extinction. “Nirvana” indicates the state of mind free of greed, hatred, delusion, all afflictions and troubles. As pointed out in the early Buddhist scripture Agama, the Buddha came to this world to help all beings solve their problems of birth, aging, sickness, and death, as well as cut off their afflictions in order to attain liberation. In light of this, all our study and research should help sentient beings alleviate and eliminate their afflictions. Missing this principle, we may lose the direction in the process of our research, and fall into a war of words or personal attack. If the debate is about truth, that’s fine in its own right. But more often than not, the process is related to the afflictions of greed, aversion, and arrogance, which is not in line with the principle: In Nirvana is stillness and extinction.

As Master Yin Shun pointed out, Buddhist studies requires studying for the sake of the Buddhadharma. If the research in Buddhist studies fails to incorporate the Three Seals of the Dharma, then it cannot possibly reach the core of the Buddhadharma. On the contrary, guided by the Three Dharma Seals and having the attitude of studying the Buddhadharma by means of the Buddhadharma, we will be able to not only benefit our own life but also help other sentient beings, through our research on Buddhist history, literature, teachings, theory, practice, and results. For instance, the focus of research can be on the subject why in history certain Buddhist philosophy or Buddhist order first thrived and then declined. Was it because of the influence by other Buddhist schools or some other religions or the deterioration of the overall social climate? Was it because of the dying-off of its talent or its eventual secularization and hence loss of the essence of the Dharma as a result? Was it because its teaching was too narrow, stressing philosophical debate but overlooking the application in daily life and real practice? Or was it the consequence of overemphasis on faith and negligence of the practice? When the purpose of a research is to reflect on the past, project to the future, and serve as a reference point for the present and the future, then the research will have significant meaning.

The Limitedness of Worldly Knowledge Versus the Wisdom Encompassed in the Buddhadharma

The learning and knowledge acquired in Buddhist research is limited. In Buddhism, wisdom can be distinguished into wisdom acquired from birth, wisdom acquired through learning, wisdom acquired through comprehension, wisdom acquired through cultivation, and flawless wisdom through realization. Of these five forms of wisdom, wisdom acquired from birth is the basic intelligence from birth, which also includes the knowledge acquired through individual study, guidance from teachers and parents, and inspiration and influence from society and cultures. Some people may regard the sheer act of reading the sutras, hearing the Dharma, and studying Buddhist philosophy as being the same as wisdom acquired through learning. However, volume 42 of the Abhidharma-mahāvibhāṣa-śāstra says, “If one can receive, uphold, read or recite, and thoroughly spread the tripitaka (the Three Baskets) and dvadaśāṅga-buddha-vacana (the twelve-fold division of Buddhist literature genres), one gains the wisdom acquired from birth.” (Taisho Tripitaka 27, 217b12-13) The subject of our research may be related to Buddhism, but if the wisdom we acquire is no more than ordinary learning and knowledge, then it still falls under the wisdom acquired from birth. In terms of the Buddhadharma, apart from hearing, learning, and studying the Dharma, one should act in accordance with the Three Seals of the Dharma, embrace the right views, deeply believe in the law of cause and effect, the Three Jewels, and the Four Noble Truths, and should not waver in faith even when one is slandered and stricken. That is exactly wisdom acquired through learning. In addition to purified faith, one should further speculate and select, give rise to a strong aspiration to wholesome dharma, and transmit it into verbal and bodily actions, shy away from the incorrect and refraining from the evil, constantly nurturing the compassionate mind. This is wisdom acquired through comprehension. Nevertheless, wisdom acquired through learning and wisdom acquired through comprehension still fall under “contemplation performed with a scattered mind.” Wisdom has to go along with meditative absorption before it can be called wisdom acquired through cultivation. Based on wisdom acquired through cultivation that is in line with meditative concentration, one strives forward with the practice and will eventually realize the wisdom that all dharmas have no self, and therefore eradicate afflictions. That is flawless wisdom through personal realization.

There is a story in the Āgama Sūtra. A woman was in great agony and lost her mind because she lost all her sons, one after another. Later she heard an enlightening talk from the Buddha and immediately achieved the first fruit of enlightenment, attaining purification of the Dharma eye. We may have learned Pali, Tibetan, computer skills, and academic rules, but these are all merely knowledge, which is not the same as what the woman in the story had realized at that moment—impermanence, emptiness, and no-self—which is wisdom enabling her to become enlightened. The “first fruit of enlightenment” is the first stage as one enters the level of enlightenment; essentially, it requires one to eliminate three defilements of sakkayaditthi (view of self), attachment to mistaken precepts, and doubt. The difference between an untrained worldlings and Noble ones lies in whether one has attachment to self or not. Even when one obtains a great deal of knowledge, if one hasn’t completely removed one’s attachment to self and realized that all dharmas have no self—one of the Three Seals of the Dharma—then one will always be an ordinary mortal.

Research Motivation and Attitude and Their Relatedness to Liberation Through Wisdom

Before I was going to Japan for study, Master Yin Shun urged me to study for the sake of the Buddhadharma instead of treating it merely as a worldly learning, and to make use of learning rather than becoming a slave of learning. I think the Master meant to remind me that although it’s fine to explore Buddhism in an academic approach, I shouldn’t forsake the motivation to study for the sake of the Buddhadharma, for the sake of purifying my body and mind, for the sake of benefiting other sentient beings, and for the sake of spreading the Dharma in the correct sense. The Buddhadharma is meant for purifying and curing our body and mind; it is not about accumulation of knowledge. We can use the silkworm eating mulberry leaves as an example. There is no point in consuming mulberry leaves and producing the same mulberry leaves. Instead, they are expected to produce silk fiber, which is useful. It’s a never-ending competition to compare who has more learning, as reflected in a Chinese saying, “There is always another mountain that is higher.” Regarding the wisdom acquired from birth, what we can do is to have humility. Maybe we can further examine ourselves to see if we have a sound motivation, the aspiration to transcend the human world, a pristine and pure mind, and, furthermore, a strong and firm Mahayana bodhi mind. This is exactly how we can truly benefit from the wisdom acquired through learning, by studying Buddhist sutras and scriptures.

If one fails to understand the fundamental content and definition and erroneously regards the research he is conducting as wisdom acquired through learning and comprehension, thinking that he is making a significant contribution, without either maintaining a pure mind and a strong motivation to cut off the evil and to practice the wholesome, or possessing the power to resist temptations, then he cannot be said to have entered the door of the Buddhadharma, not to mention the acquisition of wisdom through learning and comprehension. When the words we write cannot move ourselves, how can we expect others to read it? If a person continues like this, his religious life will wither away and lose vitality, and he won’t be able to benefit himself, let alone benefiting others, which will be a big pity .

A group picture taken while Ven. Houguan was earning a Doctor Degree in Japan.

Not just Buddhist research, but any research in other disciplines is expected to do good to humanity; academic research is not done for the purpose of piling up words and phrases. As a Buddhist researcher we should constantly ask ourselves the question: What is our research for? Can the research we are engaged in move ourselves and strike a chord in others? Master Yin Shun’s early work Collection of Wondrous Clouds was once criticized by scholars as lacking the formality of academic writing, such as citation and bibliography, and thus was deemed of little value. Acknowledging such a criticism, the Master then used citation and provided sources of citation in his later works, such as Investigation into Śūnyatā, The Origin and Development of Early Mahayana Buddhism, and The History of Chinese Chan Buddhism. As the Master had done extensive reading of Buddhist cannon, what he needed to do was to write down the sources, which would be easy for him. Later, he was offered a doctoral degree by Rissho University in Tokyo for his book entitled The History of Chinese Chan Buddhism. As the Master had mastered a thorough knowledge about Buddhism, he didn’t particularly need to learn the methodology, for he had universal knowledge at his disposal.

The Master wondered why there was such a huge gap between the Buddhist circles in reality and the Buddhadharma taught in sutras. In order to shorten the gap between the Buddhadharma and the Buddhism in real life, he decided to devote himself to Buddhist research. It is exactly this fundamental research attitude and motivation of knowing the reason for his research so the Master’s works, written in academic style as well, can touch people’s hearts and purify people’s minds better than others. It is of much importance that we stick to some essential attitudes in doing research; otherwise our research results won’t be what these great practitioners like. Take Master Zhiyi of the Tiantai tradition of Chinese Buddhism for example. Known in history for his accomplishment in both teaching and practice, Master Zhiyi was one with real experience in calming and contemplation. As a pure observer and researcher, we may not have to compare ourselves with Master Zhiyi in terms of his attainment of cultivation, but at least we should apply our empathy, so that we are more likely to reflect or experience his state of mind. Failing that, we will only produce something about literary comparison, and I wonder if that is the correct way to understand Master Zhiyi.

The Value of Buddhist Research

Buddhist research can help us acquire correct philosophy and theory, which will also facilitate our practice. Just as in modern medical practice, while the frontline medical doctors and nurses are important, it is equally important to train new hands and pass experience. In order to cope with environmental changes and cure new diseases, we need to continue to conduct medical research, which also lays a ground for medical advancement in the future. It’s the same to walk the path to Buddhahood and enlightenment. While it is important to practice for liberation from the cycle of births and deaths, but we have to ask whether we are practicing correctly. We are less likely to go astray if we can verify our experience with record in the sutras and the experience obtained by ancient great practitioners. Moreover, academic research on Buddhist theory and philosophy is particularly important regarding those seemingly correct arguments and assertions. For example, Hu Shi once did an academic research on Platform of the Sixth Patriarch. If a person believes that Hu Shi’s research did not reveal the fact, he will need to point out the errors by adopting the same approach of textual research.

Making Good Use of the Study Environment, and Building a Broad Affinity

Some students at our Institute expected to learn about Buddhist research methodology and stages of progress. Once they entered our institute, they were often so stressed out with their study of language and other required courses that they started to feel disappointed with academic work and Buddhist research. So they were frustrated, feeling that their study would be of little use in the future or it is not scholarly work at all. In fact, we shouldn’t look at Buddhist research in a narrow view. The teachers at our Institute have their expertise in their specialized areas, so they can help us gain an overall picture of the Buddhadharma in a short period of time. This kind of learning is far better than just blindly practicing on our own without a direction. When we start learning Buddhism, we can easily find answers to our questions by asking those who are more learned than us. As we practice further and reach a certain level, our questions are probably other people’s questions too and few people can answer. In this case, if we are familiar with the research method and know how to use reference books, then we may be able to find the answers to many of our questions in the Buddhist cannon or from recent research results.

As Master Yin Shun pointed out, there are three stages for both research and practice: grasping the outline, going in depth, and incorporating other aspects. First, we should grasp the outline, which is to format the structure, take hold of the essence of the Buddhadharma, and to understand the historical evolution of Buddhism, such as gaining an overall picture of the three major philosophies, and the eight major schools in Mahayana Buddhism. Next is going in depth. After building the framework, you have to add flesh and blood, which is an analogy that you need to continue to delve into the area that interests you most. Lastly, incorporating other aspects. If we go into depth without incorporating other aspects of learning, we may eventually indulge in a narrow, biased view. So apart from going into depth, we need to be able to broaden our learning.

In our institute if a new student does not seek to gain an overall picture in the beginning of his/her study, he/she may, when doing future research, very easily fall into a situation where he/she can’t see the forest for the trees. With an overall structure in mind, you will see clearly what is missing when you are trying to build a beautiful house. When I was in my second year at the Institute, our teacher Chen Rongbo taught the whole class (eight of us in total) to read through the Mahāprajńāpāramitāśāstra (Great Treatise on the Perfection of Wisdom), about one hundred volumes, in one semester. This really opened my eyes. Although I didn’t gain a detailed understanding of it, the experience was a great help to me in grasping the structure of the Buddhadharma. Afterwards I chose Mahāprajńāpāramitāśāstra as the subject of my research, and I would try my best to relate every course I took to Mahāprajńāpāramitāśāstra. When a question pops into your head, you will find that everything is related to the research subject that you are interested in, and the answers you are searching for will pop up here and there too. Then you will find doing research in this way very interesting.

Members of CBETA.


Due to difference in the definitions of Buddhist studies, one’s attitude toward it varies too. The approach to imitating the Buddha is to emulate the Buddha, and therefore religious faith is an intrinsic characteristic. If we go about Buddhist research without this inherent component, our research work will at most add a new title to the library’s collection, and will not bring any benefit to our body and mind, or to others. In light of this, we should keep asking ourselves questions in the course of our study and practice: Are we taking hold of the principle? Are we delving into the matter? Are we incorporating other aspects? We should have a motivation, follow a method, and continuously reflect on issues such as, why I am here. By developing a structure to study the essential Buddhist teachings and theories, and knowing the focus of our research, we become aware of our inadequacies and the areas wherein we lack effectiveness.

Some people study and practice Buddhism for their own sake, and some for others. By studying for our own sake, we can use Buddhist research to help us grasp the essence of the Buddhadharma, as well as the content of precepts, concentration, and wisdom. In order to attain Buddhahood, we have to work hard. If we are studying for the sake of sentient beings, Buddhist research can certainly help us gain wider and more comprehensive understanding. In our treasure box there are many medicines, which may not be right for our own illness. However they may help cure the illnesses of other sentient beings. In just this way there are various Buddhist teachings for people with different capacity to be used at different occasions.

 Go back      Go top        Print view       Send to frinend        Send opinion
Xuân Nhâm Thìn
» Audio
» Photo gallery
» Buddhism Dictionary
» Lunar calendar