Nurturing the Five Merits


Translated By Andrew Yang

A key to practicing Buddhism is generating a bodhicitta, that is, initiating a solemn vow that inspires oneself and others to attain Buddhahood. Specifically, developing a mind aimed at awakening by following the way of bodhisattvas benefits not just oneself but others as well by affording peace and joy through altruism.

Thus, in Buddhist language, cultivating a bodhicitta is seeking a path to Buddhahood and liberating all sentient beings. To achieve this goal, all bodhisattvas with the aspiring vow should strive to nurture five merits: faith, abstinence, hearing teachings, charity and wisdom.

To begin with, faith is firm belief and full confidence, and followers approach Buddhism foremost through faith in The Three Jewels of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. The Mahayana Awakening of Faith lists four kinds of belief. “One is a belief in the root, rejoicing in thoughts of the true nature of things. The second is a belief in Buddha’s immeasurable merit and virtue, being mindful that one should always think of him and stay close in support and veneration, to plant good roots and aspire to seek all wisdom. The third is a belief in the Dharma’s great benefit, always remembering to practise the various paramitas. The fourth is a belief that the sangha behaves righteously in all its practice to benefit itself and others, while keeping close to the bodhisattvas and practising what is learnt from them.” Only by faith along with perfect sincerity may practitioners devote themselves to cultivation with single-minded diligence. At the beginning of one’s practice, it is normal to have doubts or a poor understanding of the principles. What one needs to do is gain correct knowledge and experience through listening, thinking and practice, and resolve and remove doubts. Once the doubts are eliminated, a firm belief may be established, and thus it is said that elimination of doubts creates faith. As Treatise on the Great Virtue of Wisdom points out, “The great ocean of the Buddhist Dharma may be entered by faith. It may be crossed by wisdom”, indicating that faith is the gateway to Buddhism while wisdom is the means of liberation.

The second merit is abstinence, which is observing precepts to prevent wrongdoing, stop evil, do good and increase blessedness. To observe precepts is to protect the purity of the mind, as only with a pure mind can we prevent wrongdoing and stop evil. Lay practitioners, too, must strictly follow the five Buddhist precepts: no killing, no stealing, no sexual misconduct, no lying and no consuming intoxicants. They are a foundation of human ethics and morality, with which individuals, families and society may follow one standard of behaviour, enabling all to live in peace and harmony. Furthermore, the five precepts coincide with the five constant virtues codified in Confucian ethics, i.e., benevolence, righteousness, propriety, wisdom and sincerity. Much like the two sides of a coin, the five precepts focus on stopping evil whereas the five virtues emphasize doing good. As one obeys the five precepts, the five virtues will follow and grow in the meantime.

The third is the merit of hearing. Practitioners with sincere faith and virtuous conduct have secured a prerequisite for cultivation. To continue, one must be exposed to the Dharma through hearing it, to be able to tell apart good and evil and grow an insight to rectify their way of thinking. Further, one must learn extensively the sacred teachings of the supramundane, understand the Dharma principles and practise them earnestly, to gain the so-called right knowledge, right view and right thinking. Scriptures say, “Through hearing, know what is good, what is evil and what is Nirvana.” Hearing teachings helps one know the Dharma, keep away from sins and immorality and attain Nirvana.

The fourth is the merit of charity. The foregoing three merits of faith, abstinence and hearing advocate self-help for the practitioner, but to cultivate Buddhism is to benefit others at the same time, and so one must practise a routine aimed specifically at this goal. The merit of charity uses generosity through sharing wealth, learning and spiritual support to achieve altruism.

The fifth merit is wisdom, known as prajna in Buddhism. It is pure wisdom free from defilement and is hence distinct from worldly intelligence. Mundane intelligence is defiled with an unwholesome differentiation between opposites such as good and evil, right and wrong, merit and demerit or advantage and disadvantage, and is entangled with agony and affliction. In contrast, Buddhist prajna is true and transcendent wisdom that does not increase with the sage nor decrease with the lay. It casts off all confusion, ignorance and delusional discrimination, enabling the cultivator to attain the true nature of all things in the universe. In order to bring forth this prajna through cultivation, one must start with hearing the Dharma and proceed with right thinking and right practice. With such amazing wisdom, one may attain bodhi, end the cycle of death and rebirth and free sentient beings from samsara.

Ladies and Gentlemen, if those who follow Buddhism assiduously practise and live up to these five merits of faith, abstinence, hearing, charity and wisdom, they may indeed grow into cultivators with a near-perfect character.

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