Despite the numerous and obvious differences in rituals and customs, the supreme aim of all the world's great religions is similar.

3.87 Relative Difference

Original Text in Chinese

Literal Translation

    Then, completely freed from defilement, must know that defilement and purity are relative, do not have own characteristics. Because everything from origin is not matter not mind, not wisdom not knowledge, not being not non-being, ultimately cannot describe their characteris¬tics. Nevertheless, language is used. Should know the Tathagata skillfully employed expedient means, used language provisionally, to guide sentient beings. Those who understand can free from thoughts, return to Zhen Ru. If think of any thoughts, can cause life-death, cannot enter real wisdom.


In order to be completely freed from defilement, besides freeing ourselves from attachment to self and attachment to phenomena (which has been explained in the previous two chapters), we must know that defilement and purity, i.e. phenomenal world and transcendental reality, are actually relative, and not absolutely different.

This is because everything from the beginningless origin is neither matter nor mind, neither infinite wisdom nor finite knowledge, neither being nor non-being, and is ultimately indescribable.

Nevertheless, in order that people may understand Cosmic Reality, language is used to explain it. The Buddha skilfully employed expedient means to explain Cosmic Reality, and used language provisionally to guide sentient beings. Those who understand the teaching, can free themselves from thoughts, thereby attaining purity, and return to their original state of Supreme Reality. If they think of any thoughts, it will cause them to remain in the cycle of birth and rebirth, with the result that they cannot acquire the real wisdom to enter Cosmic Reality.


Here Asvaghosha elucidates a basic difference between the Mahayanist and the Hinayanist concept of nirvana. In the Hinayanist concept, where nirvana is interpreted as an extinction of suffering, lust and sorrow, it is fundamentally different from samsara, where suffering, lust and sorrow are typical characteristics. To attain nirvana, a Hinayanist strives to eliminate all suffering, lust and sorrow.

In the Mahayanist concept, nirvana and samsara are not absolutely different. The difference is relative: it is a matter of perspective. What is samsara to an unenlightened person is nirvana to an Enlightened being. The Mahayanist does not strive to destroy suffering, lust and sorrow, for the dharmas that cause them cannot be destroyed because these dharmas are an integral part of Cosmic Reality.

Then, what happens to suffering, lust and sorrow? In nirvana, they simply do not exist: the same dharmas that cause these differentiated phenomena become undifferentiated in transcendental reality. Let us look at a very crude analogy. When you are asleep, you dreamed of something sorrowful or fearful, and you tried to eliminate your sorrow or fear in your dream. Another way is to be awakened. Once you are awakened, whatever that causes sorrow and fear disappears.

One should not be mistaken to think that nirvana is merely a psychological shift of perspective, though such a shift is involved. Nirvana is the ultimate aim in all schools of Buddhism. In Mahayana Buddhism nirvana is never extinction or annihilation, because fundamentally there is nothing to be extinguished or annihilated. Nirvana is experiencing reality. At a lower level, nirvana is seeing reality as it ultimately is, not just its conditioned manifestations in the phenomenal world. At its highest level, where it is usually termed Buddhahood, nirvana or Enlightenment is becoming the Buddha, the actualizing of the Supreme Reality!

It should be remembered that the Supreme Reality is beyond description and beyond explanation: it has to be experienced directly. To say that the Supreme Reality is indescribable and inexplicable does not mean we cannot use words to describe and explain it, but our description and verbalization and the resultant perception, despite our best and sincere effort, will be far from accurate. Indeed, for those who have not developed to the necessary spiritual level for a direct experience, some form of description and verbalization, though imperfect, has to be attempted.

Description and verbalization represent two levels of distortion. Even if we presume that language is perfect, the resultant description will still be distorted, because the listener (or reader), and sometimes the speaker (or writer) lack the experience upon which the description is based. A Londoner, for example, may describe London perfectly (which is doubtful, and the fault does not necessarily lie in the use of language), but a person who has no experience of London still will not have a perfect picture of it.

But, of course, language is imperfect: it is at best an imitation of what it verbalizes. The fault again is not necessarily in how words are used, but in the nature of words themselves. The word "wife" or "husband", for example, may mean someone you hug and cuddle, or someone you habitually throw abuse at.

A third distorting factor, which is fundamental but which many people may not be aware, is what Buddhists call the "six entries", or the six sense organs (eyes, ear, nose, tongue, skin and intellect) through which we perceive our surrounding. Not only we cannot see the countless micro-organisms floating all around us, we also cannot perceive the range of sounds a bat hears or the various scents a dog smells.

3.88 Three Kinds of Cultivation

Original Text in Chinese

Literal Translation

    Analyzing the Tao to Enlightenment, the Tao of all Buddhas, the path of all Bodhisattvas in their spiritual cultivation. Generally speaking, three kinds of cultivation. What three? One, cultivation through faith. Two, cultivation through understanding. Three, cultivation through insight.


Analyzing the Tao or way to Enlightenment, the Tao taken by all Buddhas in their attainment of Enlightenment and the path taken by all Bodhisattvas in their spiritual cultivation, there are generally speaking three kinds of spiritual cultivation. What are the three kinds? One, there is the cultivation through faith. Two, there is the cultivation through understanding. Three, there is the cultivation through insight.


As in other religions, there are three main approaches to spiritual cultivation, namely through faith, through understanding, and through insight. Most people follow their religion because of dogmatic belief, sometimes turning into fanaticism. Others, who are more intellectually developed, accept a religion because they agree with its philosophy. The spiritually advanced, including masters and high priests, devote themselves to their religion through intuitive experience.

The word "Tao" ("Dao" in Romanized Chinese) is sometimes used in Buddhist literature, suggesting the close philosophical affinity between Buddhism and Taoism. Both Buddhism and Taoism explicitly aim to attain the realization of Cosmic Reality.

There are many ways to Enlightenment. Buddhism never insists that its ways are the only ways. The three main approaches in Buddhist practice through faith, understanding and insight correspond to bakti yoga, jnana yoga and raja yoga of Hinduism, with which, like Taoism, Buddhism also shares the explicit aim of realizing the Supreme Reality.

Historically, the main philosophical difference between Buddhism and Hinduism is that while Hindus believe an aspirant frees his atman (or soul) to join Brahman (God or the Universal Spirit), Buddhists believe that the aspirant's consciousness (or soul) is already an inseparable part of the Eternal Buddha (or Universal Consciousness).

Personally, I think this philosophical difference is superficial, caused by a difference of emphasis and the limitation of language. Hindu philosophy makes it unquestionably clear that Brahman is the Absolute, the Ultimate, beyond which nothing exists. On the other hand, as explained in Chapter 18, the Buddhist doctrine of anatman (`anatta' in Pali) or non-soul, does not mean the soul does not exist, but is an expedient mean to free followers from the attachment to the individual soul. In Christianity and Islam too, God is the Absolute and Ultimate, inclusive of everything there is. Hence, to say that one is united with God or return to God, is the same as saying the individual consciousness attains Universal Consciousness. Despite the numerous and obvious differences in rituals and customs, the supreme aim of all the world's great religions is similar.

3.89 Cultivation through Faith

Original Text in Chinese

Literal Translation

    Regarding cultivation through faith, suitable for whom, how to cultivate, how does aspiration arise? Among the undetermined, there are sentient beings with purity permeation and good roots, who believe in karma, are capable of the ten percepts, abhor the suffering of life-death, desire the supreme bodhi. Able to meet the Buddhas, worship and serve them, cultivate the faith. After ten thousand kalpas, faith will be perfected. The Buddhas and Bodhisattvas teach them to awaken their spiritual aspiration, or teach them out of great compassion, or out of preservation of the teaching. If the faithful succeed to develop their aspiration, enter the ranks of the upright, will never retrogress. Named to be abided to the seeds of the Tathagata, being in correspondence with the right cause.


Regarding the cultivation through faith, for whom is it suitable, how to cultivate it, and how does spiritual aspiration arise?

Among people who are still "undetermined", i.e. those whose spiritual path fluctuates forward and backward, there are sentient beings who have been permeated by the purity of the Supreme Reality, and who have good spiritual roots, i.e. they are spiritually matured. They believe in karma, are capable of practising the ten precepts (abstinence from killing, stealing and robbing, sexual license, telling lies, being double-tongued, slandering, false flattery, being greedy, being hot-tempered, and being ignorant), abhor the suffering of samsara, and desire the benefits of the highest teaching of the Buddha.

They have the good fortune to come into contact with buddhas, worship and serve them, and cultivate the faith. After a very, very long time covering many, many reincarnations, their faith will be perfected. The Buddhas and Bodhisattvas teach them to awaken spiritual aspiration, or teach them out of great compassion, or out of the preservation of the teaching. If the faithful succeed to develop their aspiration, and enter the ranks of the upright, they will never retrogress, and thus attain the stage of the "determined".

This stage is called to be abided to the seed of the Tathagata, being in correspondence with the right cause for Enlightenment. In other words, if they persist in their spiritual cultivation, they will certainly attain Cosmic Reality eventually, because in them is germinated the seed for Enlightenment.


Cultivation through faith implies that the devotees practise the religion because they strongly, but usually arbitrary, believe that their religion is right and true, often without intellectual understanding nor intuitive experience. As in other religions, most Buddhists follow theirs through faith, although the Buddha himself and other great teachers have emphasized that they should base their acceptance of Buddhism only on their understanding and experience.

Nevertheless, Buddhist teachers realize that not many people are sufficiently developed intellectually and intuitively for cultivation through understanding and insight. Cultivation through faith, therefore, is often an important preliminary stage.

In Buddhist philosophy there is a stage in a devotee's spiritual development when he will be certain of progress towards Enlightenment. A devotee who has reached this crucial stage is said to be "determined". Before this stage, when his is still "undetermined", he may sometimes progress and sometimes retrogress depending on his merits or demerits. When he is "determined", he will only progress, the rate of which depends on his cultivation.

Of the three main kinds of cultivation, the cultivation through faith is specially meant for those who are still "undetermined". But among the "undetermined" are found the spiritually ready who have the good fortune to come into contact with spiritual teaching. If they have faith, after a very long time through spiritual contact, their spiritual aspiration will be awakened, which means they will develop a strong desire to work towards Enlightenment. With this spiritual awakening, they join the ranks of the "determined".

3.90 Weak and Good Roots

Original Text in Chinese

Literal Translation

    There are sentient beings whose good roots are slight, since a long time, defilements deep and thick. Although pray to the Buddhas, and support and honour them, abided to the seeds of humans or heavenly beings, or Hinayanist seeds. Say cultivate for Mahayana, roots uncertain, may progress may retrogress. Or those who honour the buddhas, before ten thousand kalpas, meet favourable conditions on the way, will awaken aspiration. Aspiration may arise on seeing the material forms and characteristics of the Buddha, or may arise on honouring the community of monks, or may arise from instructions from Hinayanists, or may arise from examples of other people. All these arisings of aspiration is not stable, if meet adverse circumstances may relapse to Hinayanist level.


There are sentient beings whose spiritual roots are weak. Since a long time ago, their defilements have become deep and thick. Although they may pray to Buddhas, and support and honour monks and religious teachers, they are only abided to the seeds of humans or heavenly beings, or to Hinayanist seeds. In other words, the good karma they gather is sufficient only to enable them to be born in the human or heavenly realms, or to be born as Hinayanist followers (who may attain a lower state of nirvana, but lack the higher wisdom to attain Buddhahood). They may cultivate for Mahayana achievement, but since their spiritual roots are still uncertain, they may progress or retrogress in their spiritual path. In other words they are still "undetermined".

However, those who honour the Buddhas and practise their teaching, if they meet favourable conditions on the way, they may develop aspirations towards Buddhahood, even though the ten kalpas (or the very, very long time) normally needed for developing strong spiritual roots, are not over. Such aspirations may arise on seeing the material forms and characteristics of the Buddha, or may arise on account of honouring and serving the community of monks, or may arise from instructions taught by Hinayanists, or may arise from good examples of other people. But all these arisings of aspiration are not stable; if the followers meet adverse circumstances, they may relapse to the Hinayanist level where they lack the higher wisdom to attain Cosmic Reality.


The "undetermined", i.e. those whose spiritual Enlightenment has not been assured because they have not reached a critical level, can be divided into two main groups, namely those with weak spiritual roots, and those with strong spiritual roots.

Some people have weak roots because since their numerous past lives long, long ago, their Buddha nature or the divine spark in them have been shrouded by thick and deep layers of defilement. In this human life, they may be very pious and pray to the Buddha, but because of their spiritual ignorance, the good karma derived from their piety and other merits can only enable them to be reborn to a higher station in the human realm.

At the most they may be reborn as dewas or gods in various heavens, or as Hinayanists capable of only a lower level of nirvana. However, if they meet favourable circumstances, they may awaken their spiritual aspiration and have a chance for attaining Cosmic Reality, though the aspiration may not be stable. Nevertheless, as they continue to develop spiritually, they will eventually have good spiritual roots.

People with good roots are spiritually aware, but their spiritual progress is not yet guaranteed. If they are unwise enough to abuse their knowledge or ability, they would build up bad karma and relapse to having weak roots, which means retarding their spiritual growth by many life times. They also have better contact with spiritual teaching and teachers, and hence more chance to awaken their spiritual aspiration for cosmic reality. If they persist with their development they will eventually become "determined", which means they are sure of progress towards Enlightenment.



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