Interview with Dr Chung-kwong Poon

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Dr Chung-kwong Poon served as president of Hong Kong Polytechnic University for 18 years, member of The Legislative Council and member of The National Committee of The Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. Since retiring in 2009, he has been actively involved in charity and dedicated himself to promoting Buddhism and personal cultivation in Pure Land. In the following interview, we ask him about some of the milestones in his life and his personal experience in practising Buddhism.

Dr Poon, how did you walk into Buddhism as a scientist and become a serious practitioner?

Hong Kong is such a unique place, with its prestigious schools dominated by either Catholicism or Christianity. While studying at Christian schools in my childhood, I accepted Christian doctrines and found that the teachings of Jesus are very good, but I was not baptized.

After getting married, I followed my wife to become a Catholic, and we went to church with our family every week. But fate is often amazing. Although I knew that the truth of the Bible is great, it’s a pity it did not click for me.

Then, in my second year as president of the Polytechnic University, one night, out of sheer curiosity, I attended a Buddhist lecture given by Dr Ka Po Chan. I was shocked to learn that Buddhism was completely different from what I had always imagined, and so I became interested. I went on to visit Fo Guang Shan in Taiwan and participated in a short-term monastic retreat. Once back in Hong Kong, I continued to read about Buddhism. I found it was clicking with me well and I liked Buddhism more and more. Later, I went to Hebei and visited Bolin Temple to formally seek refuge in the Three Jewels with Master Jinghui. So you see, my whole journey has been pulled by strong karmic force.

During your tenure as president of Hong Kong Polytechnic University, you established organizations such as Prajna Paramita Charity Association and Centre of Buddhist Studies to promote the Buddhist Dharma. Please tell us about that.

When I became a Buddhist in the early 1990s, the news had quite an impact in Hong Kong. I realized that many intellectuals wanted to learn about Buddhism, and so in 2000 I started Prajna Paramita Charity Association with my friends, to serve as a platform for intellectuals and professionals to learn Buddhism. As it is not meant to be a dojo or place of worship in itself, we hope that members will go and seek their own master when the opportunity rises for them. By now, quite a few Buddhists in Hong Kong originated from this association became influential, and through it many Buddhists came to know more fellow practitioners. Apparently, Prajna Paramita Charity Association is the first gateway of its kind in Hong Kong for people to approach Buddhism.

I heard that Dr Poon has a new goal for promoting the Dharma to benefit sentient beings in your retirement. Please share with us the latest.

Since retirement, I have mainly divided my time into four parts. First, I am giving myself more time to study and practise Buddhism. Second, I am involved in several charity projects. For example, setting up Virya Foundation in early 2005 to help poor students in the Mainland’s rural areas to go to university. Third, engaging in the teaching and spread of the Dharma. The main target audience is again young people in the mainland, especially college students. As well, I preside over Buddhist lectures and sutra chanting sessions in Guanyin Lecture Hall every Sunday. Fourth, as my commitment, I also perform the duty as an independent, non-executive director or consultant for several listed companies. As for affairs of Hong Kong Polytechnic University, or those of other public offices, I am no longer involved any more.

Having had studied Buddhism for many years, recently you have devoted yourself to promoting the Pure Land approach. What was the impetus?

After I formally took refuge, I had hoped to strengthen my spirituality through meditation. Until one day seven years ago when I was meditating, I suddenly asked myself, “If I go on meditating like this, donating copies of scriptures and doing good deeds, will I be able to get rid of reincarnation in this life?” There was then a clear answer in my mind, “No”.

The Infinite Life Sutra clearly points out that as long as the practitioner has a deep conviction and makes a sincere vow, and as long as he chants Amitabha Buddha’s name ten times, the Buddha will guide him to the Pure Land. This is Amitabha’s greatest promise to us. The Sutra also says that as long as we do sincerely commit ourselves, vow and chant the Buddha’s name, we will not have to wait until the deathbed to reach the Pure Land. That is to say, although we have not yet reached the end of our lifespan, and our body has not yet departed while we are still living in the world, our spirituality has passed on into the Pure Land, where there is already a lotus flower of our own with our reservation done there. Further, the lotus will grow and evolve as we go on chanting the Buddha’s name in this world and creating more good karma. As we reach the end of our life, the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas will hold their own lotus flower to welcome us into the Pure Land of Bliss. And since we are already, fundamentally, Pure Land residents now, reciting the Buddha’s name is not so much to seek to die there as to repay the Buddha’s grace which has taken us there. Again, since we are Pure Land inhabitants, we must assume our responsibility as such. Pure land folks should nurture the Three Blessings, that is, the worldly blessing with filial piety and cultivation of ten wholesome deeds, the blessing of precepts by following them and the blessing of action by implementing the Bodhicitta to enlighten oneself and other sentient beings. In this way, blessed by the Buddha’s power, our destiny will improve, our life will grow happier and we will be able to help more people.

The Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha is so wonderful, but alas! As Sakyamuni Buddha our mentor says, it is a pity that in this Dharma ending era, very few people do believe in Buddhism!

Could you share with us the techniques you use in chanting the Buddha’s name?

Different masters have different methods of chanting the Buddha’s name. Some emphasize the number of times it is chanted and they set a number they need to reach every day. Of course, the more times they chant, the more it strengthens their concentration. I am, however, more inclined to the quality of the chants. One needs to close his eyes, concentrate on each devout chant, and clearly hear it or hear it in his mind even if he is chanting silently. That is, one’s eyes, ears, mouth and mind are all focused on the Buddha’s name. Give up all one’s trouble and all his life to the Buddha, and his mind will be at ease.

What is the biggest thing you have learned through your personal cultivation?

Being in the Dharma ending era, our roots and merits for benevolent karma are not sufficient, while our collective evil karma is certainly overwhelming, and it is very difficult to achieve enlightenment with our own ability. If we want to end transmigration in reincarnation, we will have to rid ourselves of many demonic barriers. It is not enough to practise with our own capability alone. Therefore, we need to rely on extra assistance from chanting the Buddha’s name. The blessing and power from the great compassion of Amitabha are the most effective, most reliable and easiest to cultivate. Indeed, that’s why Buddha says that chanting the Buddha’s name is the most potent means in a Dharma ending era.

A person has limited energy or time available. I now adopt an in-depth approach, specializing in Pure Land Buddhism single-mindedly, and I am having a great response.

Everyone agrees that studying Buddhism should start at an early age. To help the younger generation benefit more from the Dharma, what advice do you have for us?

To preach Buddhism to young people, I don’t believe it’s advisable to use complex-sounding principles with tons of scripture quotations, because then they will find it difficult to understand them and therefor resist. What we need is to use very simple everyday arguments and proofs to help them comprehend and become accepting. The most urgent need right now is to help young people who are simply drifting through life without any purpose or direction. To help these youths get in touch with Buddhism, it is necessary to humanize the faith. One should not use too much Buddhist terminology, but needs to “repackage” Buddhist theories and contents with contemporary language and up-to-date illustrations, to let young people first take it in, and only then to start introducing some of the key sutras at appropriate times. It will simply not make much sense to preach to them the Heart Sutra or the Diamond Sutra very early on.

I use Virya Foundation as a portal to contact young college students and talk to them about human life and morality. The discussions often centre around traditional Chinese culture, personal conduct and ethics through Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. If it works, I will expand further on Buddhism.

Sometimes lectures are also held on the wisdom of living, on issues having to do with birth, ageing, sickness and death, or on dealing with adversity. I use such varying topics to share the Dharma with college students.

To the lay practitioners, what would be your advice?

There are indeed too many temptations for lay practitioners, and many opportunities to break the precepts. Advancement in science and technology certainly benefits us in many ways, but it also continuously pushes people towards greed, anger and delusion. There is just such an overwhelming force of collective karma, especially through the lure of the opposite sex, which is the hardest to resist. So, it is rather challenging for lay members to practise at home.

Most people are afraid of death, but they may not necessarily believe in reincarnation. Buddhists believe in causality and transmigration. Because they are afraid of the suffering with reincarnation, they are willing to follow the Dharma, trying their best to do good and avoid evil. Of course, it is very difficult to practise while relying solely on one’s own capacity and concentration. Therefore, it is necessary for fellow practitioners with common beliefs to cultivate together to increase the effectiveness and impact.

You have indeed succeeded in life and have a happy family. Your wife has also taken refuge in Buddhism together with you and become your Buddhist companion, making you both such enviable models. Please share with us your perspective in this regard.

Thank you. I think at every stage in life, one should play an appropriate role. People suffer because they like to compare, be it skin color, physical appearance, body shape, wealth etc, all of them sources of pain. Life is unfortunately brief, and while facing what is to come, enjoying worldly comforts should not be one’s ultimate goal in life. You see, I am now over seventy years old, and I am still making good use of my remaining time to devoutly pursue Buddhism, so that I can go to the Pure Land at the end of my life and eventually be free from samsara.

I understand not everyone thinks the same way, but life is indeed impermanent. Since retirement, I have completely shed all the burdens so I can do what I want to do. In addition to nurturing my own mind, for me it is helping more people follow Buddhism and together practise the Pure Land approach. I hope that everyone will be reborn in the Blissful Paradise.

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