As part of this summer’s Chinese language class at 師範大學 (National Taiwan Normal University), we have had to give two presentations in Chinese; actually the second one we will be giving this Monday. This is one of those assignments that I’m sure we were told about at the beginning of the semester but, given that I understood NONE of the Chinese my teacher spoke then, I completely missed it (she does not speak English during the class at all). So, it has been a bit of a surprise that these presentations are part of our class. I’d like to say a good kind of surprise, but….I can’t…..completely….say that…..with honesty.
During the first presentation, I tried to speak about 法鼓山, or Dharma Drum Mountain. We were able to use PowerPoint, which greatly aided in communication, as I could allow lovely photos to eloquently say what my paltry Chinese couldn’t.
For this Monday’s presentation, I am attempting to speak about the life of the Buddha….in 10 minutes. This is in contrast to some of the other 題目 (topics) of my fellow classmates: their university in the U.S., an organic farm here in Taiwan, pretty places to visit also here in Taiwan, or even why the Japanese love to take baths (quite interesting, I will say).
In searching for helpful photographs depicting the life of the Buddha, I came across a very lovely series of realistic paintings showing some of the famous scenes of the Buddha’s life. Many of them are very lovely and quite moving, but the one below struck me the most.
I do not know for certain, but I believe this painting depicts the meeting of one of the Buddha’s first five disciples, Assaji on the left, with the young man Upatissa, who was later to become one of the Buddha’s two chief disciples, Sariputra. If this is correct, then this scene shows a very beautiful, meaningful, and famous event in the early life of Buddhism.
Upatissa, who was a wandering ascetic under a contemporary teacher of the Buddha, one day approached the serene and noble Assaji, after the latter had finished his daily meal, and asked who his teacher was. Assaji replied that his teacher is Gautama Buddha, the Sage of the Sakyan Clan.
Upatissa, eager to hear more about this Gautama Buddha, asked Assaji for a brief explanation of the Buddha’s teaching. Their exchange that followed is very famous in Buddhism, as the verse Assaji recited in response to Upatissa’s sincere request has been regarded as containing the essence of the Buddha’s teaching and message.
The verse Assaji recited, which has been copied, painted, carved, recited, and etched thousands and millions of times throughout the centuries, is, in one English rendering:
Of all those things that arise from a cause,
The Tathagata speaks of their cause;
And how they cease to be, that too he tells,
Thus is the doctrine of the Great Monk.
(Tathagata is another name for the Buddha.)
For any students of Pali, the verse reads:
Ye dhamma hetuppabhava
Tesam hetumtathagato aha,
Tesañca yo nirodho
In response to hearing just the first two lines, there arose in Upatissa the “dustless, stainless Vision of the Dhamma.” Thus, Upatissa, on the spot, become a Stream-enterer, the first of four stages of awakening.
This verse may not seem like much to the average person, yet for one earnestly seeking a spiritual breakthrough, who is sincere enough in their quest, this verse contains everything necessary. It can take one completely from this shore to the other; by bringing the other shore right here.
The entire story of Sariputra’s life is very beautiful and worth studying. Sariputra ended up to be the Buddha’s “Marshal of the Dhamma,” where he was held by the Buddha to be “foremost in wisdom.” A high honor indeed, and one that has ensured deep and continued reverence for this great disciple.
Sariputra’s early life leading up to the encounter with Assaji, especially, is quite endearing. For those who are interested, here are three different versions, in order of their length of time in reading or listening:
- If you have a few minutes, here is a webpage containing a brief sketch of Sariputra’s life.
- If you have 22 minutes and 30 seconds, here is a very lovely audio story, as spoken by Bhikkhu Bodhi (.mp3 file, taken from the first talk listed found here.)
- And if you have a few hours, or would like to read a full biography of Sariputra, taken from the Pali Canon, you can download and read this .pdf file, written by Nyanaponika Thera.
The account of Sariputra’s early life has always been a great source of inspiration and teaching for me, largely because of the ease in which Upatissa awakens to the truth after hearing just the first two lines from Assaji. The quality of mind, the depth of sincerity, and the ripeness of the person for such a supreme event to take place is truly inspiring, instilling a sense of awe and wonder.
I feel the encounter between Upatissa and Assaji beautifully illustrates what ended up to be the title for this post: “Sincerity evokes a response.” This phrase is actually the title of a Dharma talk, turned into an essay from Master Hsuan Hua, the Founder of the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas in California, who I have mentioned before. I was recently given a collection of his Dharma talks in printed form, and was quite moved by the title of this particular essay/talk. I have been thinking about its meaning over the last couple of weeks, as it has been a source of teaching as I continue to adjust to life as a monk here in Taiwan. Seeing the scene of Upatissa and Assaji the other day brought to vivid life the teaching of this phrase.
This teaching, for me, gently reminds me to calm the mind, relax, take refuge in the Dharma, and trust that everything needed is already present. What is needed, if anything, is a deepening of sincerity.
Sincerity is a tender thing, something easily overlooked, under appreciated, and quickly forgotten. It is simplicity and focus, a calm sense purpose, even when that purpose is not actually identified as a purpose. Sincerity, in part, comes from finding something worth committing to, even when, especially when, it is committing to finding something worth committing to.
Sincerity can also be thought of as the willingness………to move…….in the right direction……… This willingness to move is what naturally brings forth a response. The effort put forth, in a sincere attempt, is what counts, it seems. But who or what is it that responds and who evokes it?
Part of being sincere is also being genuine and wholehearted, or even wanting to be genuine and wholehearted. Sincerity can be cultivated, but its cultivation, it seems, entails more of letting go of what is in its way.
Sincerity is also the natural desire of all beings to do what is good and right, even when we are dramatically and sadly misguided by our own desires and confusion. And because sincerity is also the proper orientation of the mind (proper in the sense of being the mind’s “home”), we can always come back to it time and again. We get ourselves in trouble, so often, largely by trying too hard in a not-so-helpful way.
Ok, well, at least I do.
I’ll see if I can remember all of this on Monday when I give this presentation in Chinese. Easier said than done.
As always, thank you for reading. I hope this finds you well.