Knowing When To Stop
“Knowing when to stop” means knowing our limits or boundaries. When we walk down the road, we know where the sidewalk ends and the road begins, and if we exceed this boundary we will end up on the road, or in the gutter. The boundary is very clear. We cannot walk off too far to the right or left. We can also say that, here “to stop” also means a standard. Every thing, person or action has its own boundaries or standards. Some of these limits or standards are normal, other are special. For example, laymen and women have their standards, while monks and nuns have their own; a teacher has his or her own special professional boundaries, as does a government official.
If we look back to the time before we began studying Buddhism, we may discover that our lives were rather confused. In regards to which things were and were not acceptable to do, our hearts were confused. At least, this was true in my case. Before I met the Dharma, my own heart had no guide, no boundaries. My life resembled a car driving down a road that was not clearly demarcated, sometimes drifting far off in one direction, and at other times far off in the other. However, if we want to practice Buddhism, we cannot continue to live this way. The first step is to know what are the fundamental, acceptable standards of behavior for a disciple of the Buddha. In Buddhism, these standards of behavior fall under the category of ethics, which includes receiving vows. We do not want to wait until after having received the vows to know what they mean. Before we receive the vows, we need to understand them. Having acquired a human birth was dependent on our practice of ethics in past lives. So now that we have obtained a human birth, we are in possession of many precious things that we need to hold on to. These things are the freedoms and privileges of having a human life that beings who have taken rebirth in other realms do not have, such as being able to meet with and practice the Dharma, as well as the material conditions necessary for even that to be possible. So there are some fundamental standards that are necessary to abide by to fully make use of this life, and to attain another human birth.
In Buddhism, Shakyamuni Buddha gave his lay disciples five basic guidelines for what is acceptable behavior. These guidelines we call the “Five Disciplines.” The first is to not kill, the second to not steal, the third to not be licentious, the fourth is to not lie and the fifth is to not drink alcohol. If we are very clear in our minds about these five vows, we can then keep close watch on ourselves and our behavior, thus creating less suffering and more happiness for ourselves and others. If we find that we are unable to keep one particular vow for a short period of time, for example abstaining from alcohol, then we can at least demand of ourselves that we keep the other four.
The first vow is to not kill. Not killing means to not cause harm to another’s body, whether human, animal or insect, to not cut off that existence. Under ordinary circumstances, we would never take the life of another human, but we may think little of harming animals or insects. If we do not have a clear, well defined awareness, if we have no self-restraint, do not know when to stop, have no boundaries, no clear understanding of the relationship between humans and other living beings, then being led by our ignorance and delusion we will often perform acts that cause great harm to the lives of other beings. It says in the Buddhist teachings that causing harm to other sentient beings’ lives will have very severe consequences for us. Everything we do rebounds back onto us. Whatever it is we have sent out is exactly what we will receive. It is wrong to think that everything we do, say or think has no relationship to us once the deed is done. We have to take responsibility for all the things we do.
The result of taking someone’s life will be related in some way to our own well-being. Worst-case scenario, it will be something directly connected to life or death. Something of smaller magnitude would be related to our health or lifespan. The karmic causes of any threat to our safety, existence, or life and death are all related to killing. It is easy for those who like to kill to be reborn in a time of war, in a nation that is at war, or to easily encounter war. Generally speaking, people who often take life are easily sick, have a shorter lifespan and lack a sense of safety. They lack a sense of safety because they deprive others of it. They also have few friends because they have harmed other sentient beings. Because they are already used to harming others, humans or animals will, of course, be afraid of them. So these peoples’ friends will be fewer and fewer. If they have friends, they will attract other people who also like to take life. The remaining vows are the same. People who like to steal will encounter many people who also enjoy stealing. People who are unscrupulous in their relations with the opposite sex will run into others who promote degenerate environments and behavior. Those who like to drink will always have many friends who like to drink.
The second vow is to not steal. Not stealing concerns others’ property. Of course, most of us would never pry open someone’s door and break into his home. But the meaning of “not stealing” in Buddhism is much more wide-ranging. Since certain items like clothing, food and money are used for maintaining life, so stealing others’ property is also related to and influences others’ existence, like killing. Besides something obvious like breaking and entering, this vow also refers to our duties and responsibilities at work. If we are in a position of authority, and we appropriate something that does not belong to us, and the other party does not agree, regardless of the circumstances it is also considered stealing. Making an unauthorized phone call on the company phone, taking a piece of notepaper, using a public vehicle for private use, all belong to the category of “theft.”
If we do a good job living by these vows, our disposition and behavior will slowly change, keeping the vows will become easier and easier, and others will notice the change in our character. Those who keep this vow of not stealing give others a special feeling of trust. If you maintain this vow, then the people you do business with will feel at ease. When they negotiate with you, they will not worry about being cheated, and when the two of you reach an agreement, the other party will not care if you have signed a contract. They will feel that you definitely do not harbor any ill intentions. The vow has this kind of influential power.
Not stealing has even more subtle implications. For example, besides personal property, there are also abstract things that can be stolen. We now live in an information age, and what counts as theft is not always about personal property. Stealing a piece of information, like passwords from a website, is also stealing. Another kind of theft, one not of knowledge or physical property, is taking credit for something you did not do, like plagiarism, or even making fake brand name products. Faking a brand is actually very serious. A brand name can actually be an international economic interest, a source of all kinds of wealth. The name itself is being stolen in order to steal the profit. Perhaps in the past this was not a big problem, but I think that this particular kind of theft is rather widespread right now.
The third vow is to not be licentious. This means that the relationships between men and women in the home of a Buddhist, specifically with one’s own partner, operate within what is permitted by the limits of the law and ethics. The breaking of this vow not only affects the people directly involved in the act, but also the children, the families and society. The harm created by the breaking of this vow radiates outward in an all-encompassing manner. Children who grow up in troubled or broken homes usually have many problems when they are older. Children are very impressionable, and one that is not given sufficient love, or shown sufficient concern, grows up filled with hatred and dissatisfaction towards society and life. Of course, this is not an absolute, but it is certainly true for the vast majority. If someone has accumulated a lot of good karma from past lives, then, although when young they did not receive much care or love, after growing up they are still able to love others. There are some people like this. However, the overwhelming majority of people will give back to society whatever kind of treatment they received from others while young, whether it was love and care, or anger and abuse, but multiplied.
Sometimes I think it is truly sad that today’s society has so many means of communication. Most of the things promoted by the mass media seem aimed at encouraging people to act in an unrestrained manner. The media plays upon people’s emotions, and the example it provides for relationships is one without standards. It tells us to be careless, and to do whatever it is we feel like doing without consideration for the consequences of our actions. We are seduced and drawn in this direction, it is very dangerous. Science and technology are flourishing right now, it is so easy and convenient to communicate and spread ideas. While all of these technologies bring us certain material benefits, it is also very easy for us to use them to negative ends. What is especially strange is that now we often hear of “internet romances,” relationships that develop over the internet and result in two people who already have commitments running off together. I have heard that the results of these “internet romances” are usually pitiful because those who meet on the internet do not truly know each other. These kinds of strange events are all a sign of a society not knowing when to stop, a society without limits or boundaries.
Licentiousness, this kind of negative behavior, is not something that happens suddenly, out of the blue. It is the result of many causes, and is usually foreshadowed. So in our daily lives, as Buddhist lay practitioners, how are we to avoid these problems? Of course, we first need to know that, in terms of our behavior, some lines are not to be crossed. Additionally, we should take many different aspects into account when building a relationship, not only money or attraction. Some couple’s relationships have already been ruptured; they have already drifted apart, and are very cold and distant to each other. There is a barrier that neither side wants to acknowledge. They avoid it, feign ignorance, and the gulf between them slowly widens, and their relationship easily worsens. Sometimes people seem very complicated, but actually they are very simple, there is usually just a simple explanation like this one.
The fourth vow is to not lie. The main point is to not cheat others. For a practitioner of Buddhism, within his or her own boundaries of practice, one just needs to maintain honesty.
The fifth vow is to not drink alcohol. Alcohol damages our reason. Drunken peoples’ characters are utterly ruined by alcohol. One whose reason has been damaged will do all kinds of foolish things, like killing, stealing, being sexually irresponsible and cheating others. The vow of abstaining from alcohol also includes taking narcotics. Furthermore, in addition to physically addictive substances, there are also psychologically addictive things. Some kinds of writing, movies and television programs are psychologically addictive. We need to stay clear of these things because they make us unable to pay attention to reality, or exert ourselves. We lose touch with reality under their influence, and they damage our intellect.
“Knowing when is enough” refers to our material possessions. This point might seem to be out of step with this day and age, as we now live in a market economy. But what does a market economy depend upon? It depends on the continued swelling of our desires. A market economy hopes that after we drink one can of cola, we drink another one, and the next time we drink three, then eight cans; only then will businesses be happy.
Here, what I mean by “knowing when is enough” is a kind of contentment in regard to acquiring things. When we are offering gifts and practicing generosity, we do not want to think this way. However, when we are receiving gifts, or demanding or acquiring things, we need to know when we have enough. The contentment of “knowing when is enough” expresses that we value or cherish the things we have. If we do not cherish all the things we possess, they are not worth a cent. Only by truly valuing something will its real worth be considered. If we do not cherish the things we possess, then today this piece of clothing is my favorite, but tomorrow it is another, and yesterday’s favorite piece of clothing, or book, or CD is forgotten. Sometimes, if there is something we have used for a long time, it becomes an indispensible part of our lives. We really cherish it. It becomes like a friend. However, without contentment we will be fickle and capricious, indifferent towards things, and always abandoning our old friends and looking for new ones. “Knowing when is enough,” being contented, nourishes our spiritual life. It allows us to experience a kind of happiness. This happiness is not the same as that derived from an extravagant lifestyle. Happiness derived from extravagance is very tiring. It makes us want to run about wildly, continuously seeking more and more. But by cherishing all the things that we have, as well as the resources at our disposal, our spiritual life is enriched, and a special significance is brought to all the things we possess.
Of course, wealthy people have their own happiness. I have no personal experience of that kind of happiness. I imagine the happiness of riches is to be able to go out and do whatever it is your heart desires: whatever you want to buy, you buy; wherever you want to go, you go. However, I think that this kind of life demonstrates a lack of appreciation of the abundant material goods one is so fortunate to have. Do we cherish the soil on the Earth? No, we do not, because we can go and grab a hand full of it anytime we please. When one has wealth, and is able to just do whatever one wants to do, whenever one feels like it, I reckon one may also be happy, but it cannot last long. That kind of happiness does not bring a sense of safety to the heart. The happiness of the poor is real happiness. Do you know why? For example, if you only have a few dollars, and you use it to by a sandwich and a soda, when you eat that sandwich and drink that soda, you will be extremely thankful and appreciative. This is a totally different attitude from that of the rich. There is joy in this, the joy of the poor. If we are poor, we will always find many kinds of clever ways of getting the most out of the things we own, we will not carelessly discard things. Even if it is just a simple tin can, we will find a use for it, like a pencil holder, or flower vase.
“Knowing when is enough” implies not consuming the whole of our lives in the pursuit of material things. Of course, I am not advocating poverty as a way of life, but only to cherish all the things we have. I am not saying that we should give away all our wealth to others and live in poverty. I am only saying that, in regards to the things we already have, we treasure them. We usually tend to think that we really do not have many possessions. We rarely think that we already have enough. So, another meaning of “knowing when is enough” is to recognize that what we already have is sufficient. We need to maintain an awareness and balanced knowledge of this truth.
The life of a Buddhist monk, if lived according to Shakyamuni’s requirements, is extremely simple. This kind of unadorned life has its own special flavor. If you look at pictures of the great monk Empty Cloud when he was older, you will see his outer robe was covered in patches, patches upon patches. It is said that when he went to Beijing to attend the Asian Pacific Peace Conference, because he would see many foreign monks of high status as well as foreign diplomats, the Chinese government hoped that Empty Cloud would change his clothes and wear better-looking robes. But he did not wear the nice robes given him. When he arrived he was still wearing the same old patchwork robes. Some of the officials were very upset. But Empty Cloud was a true practitioner; he did not pay any attention to such vain concerns. He was content with what he had. It was sufficient.
Knowing One’s Refuge
Besides needing to eat, clothe ourselves, marry, start a family and raise children, human life has one other extremely important issue. In Buddhism, this problem is called “The Great Problem of Birth and Death.” Where does our human life come from? Where do we go when we die? Ultimately, what is the meaning of life? Most of us, from our birth to our death, resemble a leaf blown about by the wind: sometimes it is blown onto a roof, sometimes blown into a gutter. We live this passive sort of existence, and are unable to find the calm and quiet necessary to reflect on the meaning of life, or to question what its actual value is.
Belief is a universal human need, but there are, of course, some who have not awakened to it yet. “Knowing one’s refuge,” according to Buddhism, is to know one’s place of refuge. By knowing our place of refuge, our hearts have a spiritual home and a spiritual support. With a refuge, we have a standard of judgment towards all the things in our life. We are able to make informed decisions and choices. We will also we have more power and confidence when confronting all the various circumstances encountered in our human lives.
Taking refuge in the Three Jewels is the first step to becoming a disciple of the Buddha. The ceremony of taking refuge indicates that we already understand that the Three Jewels, the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, are things we can truly rely on. So now we have passed through the ceremony, and have accepted the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha into our heart. Perhaps, before having done this, we resembled that leaf carried about by the wind, but after we have the Three Refuges we resemble a mighty tree with deeps roots, firm and stable even during a storm. The comfort we derive from having a refuge is similar to the comfort felt from the knowledge of having a home to return to. The hearts of Buddhists that have already taken refuge and entered the door of Buddhist practice are usually very peaceful and serene. Their hearts are very quiet, and so their lives are correspondingly stable. The happiness that comes from having a refuge, and faith, is different from the happiness of material comforts and that derived from the physical senses. Spiritual happiness comes from the depths of our hearts. It does not rely on the external conditions and material things. Spiritual happiness resembles a mountain spring, steadily flowing outward from the deep places in our hearts. Regardless of how society changes, no matter what our world is like, the faith in our hearts continuously supports us, continuously furnishes us with joy.
Only people who have found their place of refuge have power, are able to help other sentient beings, and be of benefit to them. People without a place of refuge are just homeless wanderers. Before we have found our true refuge, oftentimes our wish to help others remains just that, a wish. When trying to help, we discover that we usually go astray and in the end do not bring any real benefit to the person. Helping and benefiting others is, in fact, not a simple thing. It requires wisdom to be done properly. Without wisdom, not only will we be unable to offer any real kind of help, but we will just cause more problems. Mr. Yangxun, a wealthy philanthropist and Buddhist layman from Hong Kong, said, “We who want to study Buddhism first need to learn how not to cause trouble for others. Second, we need to help others lessen the difficulties they face in their lives, as well as use our abilities to help society and those near us have fewer problems. That is the practice of a Bodhisattva.”