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Chinese Buddhists understand that there are two kinds of enlightenment:

1. Enlightenment through wisdom(慧解脫)

2. Enlightenment of the heart (心解脫)

Three decades ago, when Professor Li Heng Yeh was still the headteacher of my Buddhist organization (WMBA), he told us about these two kinds of liberation. I remember this clearly because I published an article on enlightenment in the early 90s. Talking about enlightenment has always been some kind of taboo within the Chinese Buddhist circles. Therefore, when I published my understanding of this semi-taboo topic, some members became uneasy. …


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My Buddhist group had a meeting last night. It was a discussion of Nirvana. That was a bold attempt in itself. In the Buddhist tradition, there is a common understanding that Nirvana is not something we can talk about. Yet, the realization of Nirvana is also the ultimate goal of Buddhist practice. I, therefore, proposed the topic and hoped that our group could explore the idea of Nirvana together.

My presentation was titled Nirvana and the Cessation of Dukkha. The simplest way to understand Nirvana is to put it in the context of the Four Noble Truths. The Third Noble Truth is that there is emancipation from dukkha(commonly translated as “suffering,” but Thanissaro Bhikkhu translated it as “stressfulness”). …


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Courtesy: Jon Tyson

A common misconception about self-love is that it is all about the ego and selfishness. Nothing is further from the truth. In his book, The Art of Loving, psychologist Erich Fromm made this observation:

“.. it is a widespread belief that, while it is virtuous to love others, it is sinful to love oneself. It is assumed that to the degree to which I love myself I do not love others, that self-love is the same as selfishness. This view goes far back in Western thought…”

(Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving)

What exactly is self-love? It is the nurturing of our souls. It is the caring actions we take to enhance our well-being and cultivate our personal growth. Part of self-love is eating right, exercising right, resting right, thinking right, and giving ourselves enough space to ponder about life and understand ourselves. The nurturing and caring of oneself in no way means that we have to be uncaring of others. In our modern capitalist society, there is a tendency for us to think that we are in a zero-sum game, that other people’s gain is my loss, and vice versa. …


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Courtesy: Ankhesenamun

The Spanish novelist, Carlos Ruiz Zafón, once said, “Every book, every volume you see here, has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens.”

The word “soul” has many different meanings, depending on the context. When Carlos Ruiz Zafón said that every book has a soul, we know that he did not mean the “soul” that Christians believe we have. It is important to distinguish the religious notion of “soul” from the secular notion of it. For a Christian, the mere mention of the term “soul” brings up images of heaven, hell, salvation, and the afterlife. But “soul” also has a secular meaning. In Jungian psychology, the “soul” is understood in contrast to “spirit.” While the spirit strives for transcendence, the soul clings to the Earth. I did not have a good understanding of the secular meaning of “soul” until I read Thomas Moore’s book, The Care of the Soul in the late 80s. The subtitle of the book helps — A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life. The secular use of the word “soul” has everything to do with what is earthly and ordinary. It has to do with the cultivation of depth in the mundane. Yet, there is something extraordinary in that ordinariness. Modern life has become too busy. In our rush to accomplish more and more, we have somehow forgotten to live and lost the ability to cherish what is right in front of us. While the mind has to do with our ability to think, the soul has to do with our ability to imagine and feel. …


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In the teaching of Buddhism, most dharma teachers run into a dilemma — they wonder if they should teach about Nirvana.

In the mid-90s, I was privileged to be appointed as the lecturer of Buddhism at a Buddhist temple in Manhattan’s Chinatown. That was my first teaching job ever. I told the abbot what I wanted to cover. I said all I will be teaching is foundational Buddhism — the basic ideas such as the Four Noble Truth. I used Walpola Rahula’s book, What the Buddha Taught, as reference material to base my lectures on. I also used Master Yinshun’s book, An Outline of Buddhism. As it turned out, teaching basic Buddhism is by no means easy. Teaching the First Noble Truth is manageable. Teaching the Second Noble Truth is manageable. Teaching the Fourth Noble Truth is not too difficult either. But I was stuck when I got to the Third Noble Truth, which is about Nirvana. It is commonly believed that Nirvana cannot be talked about. There is nothing “basic” in Buddhism. I ended up spending every Saturday preparing my lecture so that I would have something reasonable to present on Sunday, which was when the Buddhism class met. My audience were all adults. While most of them were common folks, there were occasionally wise elders who asked challenging questions. …


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What is Buddhism? In Chinese, the word Buddhism is literally “the teachings of Buddha.” I like that meaning better than the alternative meaning of “the Buddhist religion.” Buddhism is not a religion in the Western sense. If we understand its founding spirit, based on what Buddha taught in the Kalamas Sutta, it is a form of education. Such education is not indoctrination. It is not the transmission of dogma because free inquiry, debates, and questioning are encouraged in Buddhism. …


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Many Buddhists are not familiar with Buddha’s teaching of Anatta. To them, it is an abstruse concept that is not important to Buddhist practice. This is a gross misunderstanding. Anatta is the key to decode the deep meaning of what the Buddha taught. It is also the key to enlightenment.

There is a Zen anecdote, which is also a Zen koan, that is worth pondering. It is from the Blue Cliff records:

Emperor Wu of Liang asked Great Master Bodhidharma, “What is the ultimate meaning of the holy truth?”

Bodhidharma said, “Vast and void, no holiness.”

The emperor asked again, ”Who is the one facing the emperor?” …


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In his book, What the Buddha Taught, Walpola Rahula has a chapter on the Third Noble Truth — Nirodha. There, he discussed the notion of Absolute Truth in Buddhism:

Now, what is Absolute Truth? According to Buddhism, the Absolute Truth is that there is nothing absolute in the world, that everything is relative, conditioned and impermanent, and that there is no unchanging, everlasting, absolute substance like Self, Soul, or Ātman within or without. This is the Absolute Truth.

This is a relativist position, one that many conservatives detest. The problem with this position is that it could be self-contradicting. Rahula made this statement: “The Absolute Truth is that there is nothing absolute in the world.” But if this is an absolute statement, then the statement refutes itself — since it is a statement of absolute truth. It would be the same as saying, “The Absolute Truth is that there is no Absolute Truth.” Many Christian thinkers, especially Christian apologists, love to use this charge of self-contradiction to refute the Buddhist position and the moral relativist position. By refuting the no-Absolute-Truth position, they conclude that there must be Absolute Truth. But that is a non sequitur. For it presumes a false dichotomy — that there is either Absolute Truth or there is not. No everything in life is binary. Take the statement that “Francis is a boy.” If we establish that Francis is not a boy, then is it necessarily true that Francis is a girl? Today, we know that gender is not binary. In fact, many people identify their gender as “non-binary.” What if the Absolute cannot be classified as either existent or non-existent? A binary classification is not appropriate in many situations. For example, is a table male or female? Clearly, the male versus female classification is inappropriate for a table. It is a big assumption to take for granted that Absolute Truth has to be either existent or non-existent. …

About

Kenneth Leong

Published author, Zen teacher, professor, scientist, philosopher, social commentator, socially-engaged human

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