The Impermanence of Dharma

Excerpts from an article by Mr. Chen Chur-chen 
Translation by Johnson Sumpio

The Chinese term (shou-shing) means cultivation-and-practice, and it involves a series of realizations. It starts with an interest on the value of life, an exploration for a meaning in life. The process is initially without any lead and procedure. We gradually come to our senses, when we start to explore and meditate during our race for vanity and fame in life. We begin to correct ourselves and discard what is improper. We learn how to improve ourselves and treat others with respect.

In so doing, we may have become a good person to many people. We know, however, that this form of cultivation-and-practice has its limitations. We are unable to answer the many questions in life. We are also still ignorant of the Way of the universe.

Through other people's introduction, we might join a religious group which we hope will help us cultivate and find reconciliation. This happens because we know that we cannot find what we have been looking for on our own efforts. For this reason, there are innumerable religious groups in the world catering to those who seek enlightenment.

To many people, finding a spiritual sanctuary is enough. This is why many of them remain faithful to their religious affiliations. They do not abandon their religious group and belief so easily.

If what we believe in, what we are cultivating and practicing can truly enlighten us, then our faithfulness is worthwhile. On the other hand, if our belief and practices cannot liberate and enlighten us, then our faithfulness is a hindrance.

Ordinary religious affiliations can give us spiritual guidance and philosophical advice, but because they do not preach the True Dharma (from the Pali word dhamma, literally, the supporting element) and do not represent the right lineage; they are unable to solve the important issues on life and death, and they cannot emancipate us from the miseries of samsara (the continuity and mutual relationship of all forms of life in the cycles of births and deaths) and the six paths of existence. So what we are doing with them is simply planting seeds of goodness. Our deeds have nothing to do with the crucial issues on life and death, with ultimate enlightenment. In our next lives, influenced by various karmic forces, we shall again enlist ourselves with other religious affiliations and repeat history. We will not be able to accomplish our mission in life. This endless process of moving from one religious affiliation to another in every lifetime is tragic.

The all-compassionate Living Master has told us about the impermanence of the dharma. His purpose is for us to differentiate between the True Dharma and the off-centered teachings. Many practitioners can readily comprehend the impermanence of riches, power, and skills; but they are untrained to recognize the deficiency of their own practice, leave it, and find the one true Way. The feat requires exceptional wisdom and courage.

The Meaning of "Off-centered" or Heterodox Teachings

The term "off-centered" or heterodox teachings originated from Shakyamuni Buddha; it referred to teachings outside that of Buddhism. Many concepts of the heterodox teachings during his time were totally erroneous. The six masters of these teachings rejected the law of karma and believed in nihilism. Since they refused to accept the fundamental principles of karmic forces, their practices were quite eccentric. They preached ascetic austerity and deliberately tortured themselves. For example, they burned their bodies, took falls from high places, and even ate animal manure believing that these techniques could liberate them. They did not consider killing and eating flesh consequential; they, therefore, rejected Buddhist discipline and vegetarianism.

Since their beliefs and practices were irrational and contradictory to principles of the Way, they are called off-centered or heterodox teachings. In addition to this consideration, however, there is also the issue on the duration of the dharma.

The flow of the Way in the world is divided into three eras: green, red, and white. During the Red Era, the Way was with Buddhism. To attain liberation and enlightenment in this period, one had to follow Buddhism. According to Buddhist records, countless practitioners attained enlightenment and emancipated themselves from samsara when Shakyamuni Buddha was preaching the True Dharma.

When Shakyamuni Buddha was alive, it was only proper for him to call the other teachings off-centered or heterodox. Today, if we are going to embrace the idea that "Buddhism is the Way and the Way is Buddhism," then it is a big mistake. Why? It is because dharma, religion, and the Way are different from one another. Of the three, the Way is always superior. Dharma and religion are simply instruments for us to learn the Way.

Relationship of Dharma and the Way

The profundity of the Way is beyond our comprehension. The existence and purpose of the different dharmas are to help us live closer to and experience the Way. Enlightened beings like the Buddhas use characters or languages to expound the perfection of the Way to help us understand, cultivate, and practice It.

What is dharma? A dharma is a means of understanding the Way; it is a medium, tool, and procedure. We use it as a convenience for achieving the paragon. But do all dharmas correlate with the Way? Not so. Some dharmas can only help us get in touch with the surface of the Way and not Its essence. Some dharmas only encourage people to perform good deeds; the practitioner cannot liberate himself from samsara with them. Some dharmas are even the antithesis of the Way; they preach falsity to deceive people.

There are so many dharmas in the world, but not all of them are the True Dharma. We must know the characteristics, functions, and echelons of the dharmas. We must also know the relationship of the dharmas and the Way so that we will not become disconcerted in our cultivation and consequently mislead other people.

The Buddha Dharma is a method to help us attain Buddhahood, but it is neither the Buddha nor the Way. People do not seem to readily comprehend this. Many practitioners persist in retaining the dharma but they are ignorant of the Way within all of us. They do not understand the principle that all dharmas are temporal manifestations of interactions between karmic conditions. This is why Shakyamuni Buddha reiterated the impermanence of dharma in the sutras. He wanted the practitioner to recognize the meaning, applications, and limits of all dharmas.

The Buddha is the Supreme Guru. The True Dharma comes only from a living Buddha. After the Buddha passes away, the Dharma becomes a mere manifestation of the True Dharma or a form of expired Dharma. A stubborn or deluded practitioner can retain it, but he can no longer know the Way with it.

The Dharma changes with time. This is the reason why we continue to stress the importance of the Right Time Element. When taught in the wrong period, even the words of the Buddha will be mere wise sayings which cannot emancipate the practitioner from this samsaric world. In other words, if a Buddha wants to free sentient beings from samsaric miseries, He has to come to our world and free them himself. He cannot just leave dharmas with them. This is the reason why we also continue to stress the importance of a Living Master.

The True Dharma helps the sentient beings to learn about the Way, to experience the Way, and to be one with the Way. Our Buddha nature is the reason why we want to be with the Way, and the True Dharma is one of the most powerful instruments helping us.

The wisdom of the practitioner is not manifested in his intelligence, capability, and verbal skill. It has nothing to do also with extraneous achievements. His wisdom is in his spiritual reasoning power and judgment over things related to self-cultivation; such as: perceiving the identity of the Living Master, being aware of the existence of a Heavenly Mandate, understanding impermanence and recognizing the importance of the Right Time Element, and knowing the Right Lineage. Such is the Supreme Wisdom of the practitioner.

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Note: The original Chinese article of The Impermanence of Dharma appeared in a Tien Tao publication. Tien Tao is a religious group that most traditional Buddhists would consider a cult (for instance, the belief on the green, red, and white eras).  Hence, this is only a translation based on my interpretation of Mr. Chen's idea on the impermanent nature of the Dharma. 

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Lama Anagarika Govinda: The law of Dependent and Simultaneous Origination (pratityasamutpada), proclaimed by the Buddha, is far more than the proclamation of a mere mechanical law of causality, as superficial observers are apt to think. The quintessence of the Buddha's teaching, according to Asvajit, is summed up in:

Ye dharma hetuprabhava, hetum tesam Tathagato hyavadat, Tesam ca yo nirodha, evamvadi mahasramanah.

"The causes of all cause-originated things have been revealed by the Tathagata (the Buddha), and also their cessation. This is the teaching of the Great Ascetic."

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I believe that the doctrine of pratityasamutpada (paticcasamuppada in Pali, yuen-chi in Chinese, or engi in Japanese) or doctrine of dependent origination is the foundation of the Buddha Dharma. Essays by Jim Wilson, Ven. Mahasi Sayadaw, Christina Feldman, and P. A. Payutto can elucidate the subject.

Through the years, I have found that enlightenment cannot be achieved simply by understanding the subject or being able to expound on it. Intellectual insight, in this case, cannot deliver a practitioner to nirvana. Recently, I came across this relevant information: 

"It is not through conceptual, discursive thought that Enlightenment can be realized. Intellectuality (including philosophy...) cannot offer a perspective on Enlightenment; only direct or immediate experience, among others on the meditative level, whereby the activity of the ego-forming consciousness (manas) is neutralized, offers access to absolute truth, which in turn stands for nirvana."  

That excerpt was taken here.


Visit my other pages:

Paticcasamuppada: Dependent Origination

Fundamental of Dependent Origination: Conditions

Prajna Paramita Hridaya Sutra (The Heart Sutra)


Johnson Sumpio

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