(5) The Two Distinctive Characteristics of Buddhism

Buddhism is not limited to the two salient characteristics discussed here. The purpose of highlighting these two characteristics is to illuminate the difference between Buddhism and other religions or worldly philosophies. Generally speaking, practices in Buddhism may include following the Buddha; having faith in the Buddha and Bodhisattvas because of their virtues, wisdom, loftiness and greatness; and understanding the profound teachings of the Buddha Dharma. However, these Buddhists practices are just aimed at showing us the path of Buddha Dharma, which can lead us to understanding the significance of life, and ways of elevating ourselves, grounding our lives in true morality. In following the way of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas we can attain the state of supreme realization.

Efficacious religions, irrespective of their relative merits and demerits, can guide us to a smoother and more expansive state of being. Religion thereby becomes an essential part of every human life. We have to be positive about this fundamental facility for acquiring actual benefits from religion and honor the essence and values expressed in humanity’s religious variety.

The Unification of Faith (s. sraddha) and Wisdom (s. prajna)

People are of varying natures and types and thus have different temperaments, worries, demands and passions. In general, one who has stronger feeling and sentiment is more likely to be compassionate and is more capable of developing strong faith in one’s belief; while an intellectual person tends to have greater powers of discernment and lucid comprehension. The biased development of either faith or intellect results in protracted, cumulative, negative and harmful effects. For example, if an emotional person has strong faith without counter-balancing wisdom, he may sink into ignorance and superstition due to his fanatical faith. The lop-sided attitude of discriminating against rationality and wisdom is not acceptable in Buddhism. On the other hand, if we over-emphasize rationality and doubting everything, we will lose our faith and belief. This induces us to ignore moral values and to deny the existence of Universal Truth, saints and sages. One would thereby finally become anti-religious. Such perversity would lead us astray and prevent us from establishing truly moral behavior, eventually threatening the very fabric of our society! Thus, there is a saying in Buddhism,

“Faith without wisdom will develop ignorance;
wisdom without faith will develop a perverted view.”

Buddhism advocates the unification of faith and wisdom. How can we bring faith and wisdom together? Is it possible to unify them? In the first place, we need to understand the Buddhist perspective of faith and wisdom. Faith is characterized by the sentiments of respect and of inspiration by an ideal. Faith is a common experience amongst the followers of any religion. Faith without intellectual comprehension and discrimination cannot be regarded as a rational faith. Faith in Buddhism is developed through contemplation and investigation so that the characteristics of truthfulness, righteousness, and efficacy of the ideal in which one develops faith, can be understood and revealed. This is the way a Buddhist develops faith and respect toward Sakyamuni Buddha. Sakyamuni is understood rationally to have existed in this world as a historical figure. He has supreme wisdom and great virtues and he has boundless compassion working towards the liberation of sentient beings. In Buddhism, faith is rooted in rational intellectual comprehension. As faith is strengthened and sharpened by the assessment of the intellect, it is further confirmed by the direct insight of wisdom. When understanding of the Buddha Dharma is developed further, faith becomes more intense. This faith will motivate us to elevate ourselves and ground our lives in true morality. It will enable our lives, guided by the ideals to which we have responded with faith. Faith is not merely an appreciation of the ideal but a desire to move towards it.

Although some intellectuals possess a vast knowledge of Buddhism, and have strong reasoning ability, they commonly lack faith in Buddhism. Therefore, Dharma can not take firm root and grow in their hearts. Because of this, Dharma cannot really benefit them. Studying Buddhism in this barren manner contradicts the teaching of Buddhism because the Buddhist way of life necessarily contains the element of faith. When we have confidence, we will be able to purify our minds and free them from defilements i.e. greed (s. raga), hatred (s. pratigha) and ego-conceptualization (s. atmamana). Confidence is like an alum; it purifies muddy water. Similarly, a strong faith will purify your mind. The reality of life is full of distress and misery, but faith can transform a mental state of emptiness and anguish into joy, peace, calm and contentment. This is like an innocent child who wanders around the streets, lost, hungry, thirsty, cold, worried and not knowing what to do. While he is anxious and filled with despair, he suddenly finds his mother. He will immediately feel secure and happy because he deeply believes that he will obtain food, warm clothes and the consolation of his mother’s love. Similarly, a life of faith is filled with joy, peace, security and contentment.

If our faith is not developed through open thinking and reasoning, then we are just following what others lead us to believe. A blind religious faith becomes fanatical when it is carried away by wild enthusiasm and the deprecation of wisdom. Buddhist faith develops through the cultivation of wisdom. Since it espouses a faith wedded to wisdom, Buddhism avoids the viciousness of that religious fanaticism which espouses faith devoid of deeper understanding and divorced from wisdom. The development of Buddhist faith involves several stages. The evolving faith displayed by some Buddhists does not therefore necessarily reveal the true, ultimate meaning of faith in the Buddha Dharma.

The most outstanding characteristic of wisdom is free thought and its operative functions include understanding and cognition. The wisdom of humanity extends through space to the farthest reaches of the Universe. Our knowledge is continuously changing, improving and progressing. Therefore traditions may not necessarily be reliable. This is due to the fact that when humans develop knowledge acquired through their own perceptions of the external world, much unreliable information is accumulated in the process. Such empirical knowledge is vitiated because the pieces of information from which it is derived are in turn derived from sensory perceptions of the external world, and both the ordinary mind and the external world are comprised of, and compromised by, a certain degree of illusion. For example, when we are perceiving the external world we cannot know our minds at the same moment. Therefore, we are tempted by the external world and our minds are controlled by the material world. Since we lose control of our minds, greed, hatred and ignorance arise. In Buddhism it is acknowledged that the knowledge gained by human beings is far superior to that gained by other beings. We humans almost try to know everything, yet we do not know ourselves. This is a cognitive bias of ours. When we try to understand the external world we lack the ability to have a complete overview of it. Everything in the phenomenal world is impermanent and constantly changing, but we are always subjectively inferring about the nature of objects that this is their absolute existence and that they will be as they are forever. As a result, human knowledge generally harbors many illusions.

Some people think that Truth lies outside the mind, and they therefore seek it in the external world. Others consider that there is an external metaphysical entity which properly serves as their religious ideal, and the focus of their faith. In fact, all the external worlds are like mirages, unreal and constantly changing. The wisdom which Buddhism teaches starts with self-contemplation and an experience of insight. Truth cannot be simplistically derived from observation of the external world. Rather, Truth requires us to understand ourselves and to grasp our inner nature. Just as a person who has sharp senses and a bright and discerning mind does not need to seek help from others in order to clearly comprehend Truth, we should develop from the inside out so that we can project this luminous understanding and contemplation of ourselves into the dimness of the external world. This is the only way to unify wisdom and faith.

In fact, wisdom and faith are not really in opposition to one another. Conflict will only arise if we practice prejudice against either wisdom or faith. Wisdom without faith is biased towards that which is material. This positivistic emphasis is inimical to religion. Faith without wisdom is biased towards a sentimental faith which is inimical to reason. Buddha Dharma is a unification of wisdom and faith; a faith which is grounded in wisdom, and a wisdom which emphasizes human life and self-effort. Faith is thereby kept away from illusion. Wisdom and faith are mutually grounded. If we can understand, experience and practice this path, life will be filled with infinite brightness and cheer.

The Cultivation of Faith and Wisdom

The cultivation of faith involves several stages. Although the depth of practice involved in each stage is different, the common purpose of all the various stages is ultimately the unification of faith and wisdom. These stages include:

1. Faith without prejudice — This is faith based on understanding devoid of any prejudice. Such an open faith is important because if one has a prejudiced mind it will make it difficult to understand others’ views, or to accept the Truth. For a simple example, suppose A and B did not get along well. If B makes some mistakes and A then gives B some honest advice, not only will B reject A’s advice but he will further misconstrue it as malicious slander against him. Conversely, if A and B do not have any prejudice against each other, or if their relationship is very close, B will be willing to follow any of A’s advice even if A uses strong language in expressing it to him. Therefore, one can only learn and have faith in the Truth if one first frees oneself from prejudice. This is the way to develop and to purify confidence and faith. (This is consistent with the first of the three ways that Buddhism teaches that one may acquire wisdom i.e. by listening and learning (s. srutamayiprajna).)

2. Faith with profound understanding — After establishing faith without prejudice, one is required to develop a profound understanding of the valid grounds for faith, and by such reasonable means to acknowledge its authenticity. The deeper the understanding of the valid grounds for faith, the stronger the faith that will arise. The valid grounds for faith are learnt and authenticated by listening, by seeing, and deepened by incisive thought in order to gain a systematic understanding. (This correlates with Buddhist teaching on the second of the three ways to acquire wisdom i.e. by thinking (s. cintamayi-prajna).)

3. Faith with endeavor — After exercising one’s reasoning and coming to understand the grounds for faith, one will make every endeavor to achieve it. The process is analogous to oil mining. One must first examine the ground and be very certain that petroleum can be found under a certain spot. One then starts to drill an oil-well at that spot, persevering until its riches are brought to the surface. (This corresponds to the third of the three ways to acquire wisdom i.e. by meditation and contemplation (s. bhavanamayi-prajna).)

4. Faith with realization — By continuous practice and contemplation, one comes to realize that there is no difference between the ultimate truth and what one believes in beginning. It is like a miner who procures a large quantity of petroleum by virtue of his effort in drilling oil wells. (This corresponds to the realization of prajna.)

In Buddhism, faith is not antagonistic towards wisdom, and conversely wisdom is accomplished only in consort with faith and confidence. The ultimate achievement is the unification of wisdom and faith. The meaning of faith in Buddhism is thus very different from its meaning in other religions.

Wisdom in Buddhism is attained through the mental culture of self-contemplation. Since the main issue in the accumulation of true knowledge is the quest to learn all about human nature, we can consequently understand the Truth only by understanding our lives and by grasping the wisdom of life. We may then clearly contemplate the Universe and the phenomenal world, thereafter being able to penetrate to the Truth. If one believes that wisdom is to be gained through the external world, one can only arrive at a superficial knowledge of the Truth and cannot dwell in the heart of Dharma.

In Buddhism, the cultivation of wisdom does not hinder faith. For example, through His own exertions the Buddha realized that there are infinite number of different planes of existence, and that the ranks of sentient beings are likewise limitless. When science is not well developed, people always doubt this. But in these modern times, by using scientific instruments, we can prove that there are indeed an infinite number of planets in this universe. As science further develops, it may become even easier to prove the correctness of the teachings of Buddha, which of course will help further reinforce faith. On the other hand, the cultivation of faith does not hinder wisdom either. We have faith in the teachings of the Buddha, and at the same time we can easily be learning the reality of such profound teachings as dependent origination, impermanence, non-self etc., and experiencing the application of these Buddhist teachings in our daily lives. The teaching of the unification of wisdom and faith is a distinctive characteristic and an emphatic feature of Buddhism. When we make a relevant comparison with other religions we can see that in this regard Buddhism is unique.

The Union of Compassion and Wisdom

A common saying in Buddhism, “to develop and practise both compassion and wisdom,” indicates that compassion and wisdom are inseparable and integral elements of the path of Buddha Dharma. The contents and functions of ‘loving kindness and compassion’ are similar to those of ‘benevolence’ in Chinese thought, and of ‘love’ in Western philosophy. However, loving kindness and compassion do not entirely and exclusively consist of sympathy and caring. They must also move in parallel with the Truth. Therefore, boundless compassion cannot be accomplished without wisdom. Moralities originate from loving kindness and compassion and they cannot be established without these two elements. Their presence constitutes the main criterion for moral evaluation. Whether or not an action is truly ethical depends on whether there are elements of loving kindness and compassion present amongst the actor’s motives.

Compassion is having sympathy for someone. For example, when we know that someone is facing difficulties, the feelings of care and concern for them will arise naturally. This will help motivate us to make every effort to assist and to comfort them. This is the practice of loving kindness and compassion. However, most of us only direct our loving kindness and compassion toward our loved ones, but do not extend loving kindness and compassion to other beings lying outside the circle of our affections. For instance, parents are normally very worried and anxious when their children are sick, and they are willing to suffer for their children. For most of us, this loving kindness and compassion is directed only to our own children and cannot be extended to the children of others. This is due to the fact that our love is reserved for a small number of people and does not go beyond this limitation. There is a saying in Confucianism,

“to take care of one’s own aged parents first,
then extend the same care to aged people in general;
to take care of one’s own young children,
then extend the same care to young people in general.”

Buddha teaches us to cultivate perfect equanimity as the rightly mediate state of mind in which we can further develop and extend our loving kindness and compassion.

In order to cultivate boundless compassion we need to deepen our understanding of the true meaning of life by applying the wisdom attained through contemplation. For instance, all-encompassing compassion has its own lucid logic when we see the facts of our lives from the luminous perspective of the Buddhist teaching of dependent origination. Consider how we human beings gregariously live together, and how the necessities to support our individual lives are provided through the efforts of other people in all areas of society, such as scholars, farmers, workers and merchants. Our lives and properties are protected by our governments and their laws. The feeling of sympathy for someone will of course arise when we properly understand that we are mutually dependent, and complementary to each other. Furthermore, in view of the continuum of endless rebirths, in past lives we have had an infinite number of parents and relatives who have now been reborn and who surround us in our present lives. Therefore, we should requite the debt of love we owe our parents in this life as well as the debt we owe our parents from former lives. According to the Sutra,

“All men are my fathers; all women are my mothers.”

Our loving kindness and compassion should therefore not be limited to only one family, one particular race, one country, or just one species (viz. mankind), but should extend to all sentient beings in the Universe. This is the main reason why Mahayana Buddhism emphasizes vegetarianism and abstention from killing. In Buddhism, loving kindness and compassion are not purely and simply expressions of humane generosity. They also justly requite our very real indebtedness to others. The union of wisdom and compassion thus coincides with the Truth exemplified in the Buddhist teaching of dependent origination with its grand vision of universal interdependence and interrelationship.

Even though most religions do emphasize universal love devoid of discrimination and prejudice, the content of that love still tends to be skewed toward egocentricity. For example, the sectarian slogans

“Long live the believers; down with the unbelievers.” and

“He who believes will have life everlasting and
he who does not believe
will be cast into the lake of fire forever”

both exhibit a fiercely monopolistic exclusiveness. All outsiders have to be destroyed. Behind this inbred, partisan ‘love’ one can see that there lies a culture of cruelty and hatred! Compassion in Buddhism is extended equally to both enemies and loved ones. Although we may not at the moment be able to give the Dharma to our enemies, or to those who do not believe and will not accept it, we may be able to help them later when favorable karmic conditions for presenting the gift have matured.

According to the universal Law of Cause and Effect, we reap what we sow, and there is no higher authority who wilfully rewards deeds that are good and punishes those that are evil. It is a similar situation to a person walking up a staircase, who may fall down if he is not careful enough, and thus will be responsible for any painful outcome. According to Buddhism, wholesome deeds naturally produce pleasant results and unwholesome actions naturally produce unpleasant consequences. Those who do not understand the working of this natural Law of Cause and Effect may think that the teaching regarding it is mere utilitarianism. In fact, the fundamental criterion in Buddhism for distinguishing wholesome from unwholesome actions, by reasonable means, is the character of their impact upon human relationships. Those actions which are in accord with the law of morality, and which will generate good results, are regarded as wholesome. Those actions that are unreasonable and harmful to ourselves and to others, and which sow seeds for a bitterly fruitful harvest of suffering, are regarded as unwholesome. This is not mere utilitarianism, but is the natural law by which our society necessarily abides. Such natural law can motivate and encourage people to act positively and to promote the life we truly share, honoring the morality which truly serves our common life.

Most religions in general lack wisdom, and therefore the love they preach is limited. In Buddhism, wisdom is the core of the teaching, and compassion is the core of the practice. Boundless compassion can only be found amongst those who have attained ultimate wisdom. As the saying in the Sutra,

“The heart of Buddha is boundless loving kindness and compassion.”

Since Mahayana Buddhism emphasizes the characteristics of the Buddha’s land and helping of all sentient beings, these practices of the Dharma cannot be accomplished if one lacks great compassion.

Human beings are of differing habitual characteristics. Those who emphasize wisdom tend to be eccentric and usually are not keen to associate with other people. Those who are sentimental tend to be more egocentric. Both of these personality types cannot be regarded as the ideal models for approaching life. In Buddhism, the right purpose for life is grounded upon the unification of wisdom and faith, and upon the union of compassion and wisdom. Faith, wisdom and compassion constitute the three core teachings in Mahayana Buddhism. By cultivating these three components in a balanced way and by following a proper sequence in our practices we may ennoble ourselves and progress from our original state of limited personhood to the final achievement of supreme Buddhahood.

Our life span is only a few short decades. We should make good use of our precious time, and seize the opportunity life represents. Making this Dharma our ideal, and our perfect template for living, hence dignify our lives whilst ascending the pinnacle of their potential.

[Recorded by Yin Hai] (Translated by Tan Beng Tiong, edited by Ke Rong, proofread by Shi Neng Rong. (5-10-96)