Buddhism & the Youth
Author : Tuệ Sỹ
BUDDHISM & THE YOUTH
Introduction by Hoa Dam: Ever since a very young age, the rather slim monk with sharply glinting eyes, had many times been at the podium of the Van Hanh Buddhist University (in Saigon before 1975) to lecture tirelessly on topics ranging from Ancient and Modern as well as Eastern and Western philosophical topics, to profound debates on the Original, the Developmental, and the Zen Buddhism.
That same monk had once walked away from the boisterous city life in the capital (of the South) to find solitude in the breezy ocean-side Nha Trang on the Trai Thuy hill, spending quiet teaching days with the young student-monks of Hai Duc Institute of Higher Buddhist Studies, passionately sharing and eagerly passing down his enormous profundity and vast knowledge.
And that monk, in his middle years of life, had proudly walked the steps of an undaunted Bodhisattva into the perilous danger zone to stir up multitude of oceanic tidal waves demanding freedom, democracy, and equality for the entire human race in the midst of this life’s full of interminable ignorance.
Always peaceful and carefree with just his faded brown robe and grey cassock, whether living in the raucous cities or among the serene wooded forests or even during the imprisoned years with inexplicable death penalty (in 1988), that same monk showed an unyielding fearlessness through all occasions and circumstances.
And today, that graceful monk – the Most Venerable Thich Tue Sy – will present to you, the young Vietnamese people in the country as well as those all over the world, this genial discourse about “Buddhism and the Youth”. Certainly each and every one of us will receive this topic in our own diverse perception.
Each of us, with individual thinking and distinctive insight, are somewhat like the bells hung high. The words of Thay are like mallets that could create the beautiful ringing sounds. The bell sounds, whether long strike or short beat, deep baritone or high soprano, shrilling pitch or unhurried pace, if Thay could hear them, he would also agree that they seem to be the sounds echoing from all of us. (There was this one time when Thay heard a friend – probably a young friend – shared about love and eternity, Thay thought that was a sensational talk.)
Today this marvelous discourse on “Buddhism and the youth” by the Reverend Thich Tue Sy is like a steaming hot cup of tea. We shall try to receive the offer and sip the brew to individually taste the wonder of tea. Regardless of how you feel it, we should all agree that this discourse is offered in the light of an Enlightened Religion – liberated from all mundane sufferings; released from the binding of the arcane mind and body; uninhibited by the restricted boundaries of ambitious ideals, of fixed thoughts, or of blinding belief.
In our ordinary life, searching for that enlightenment also means that you are trying to reach the ultimate freedom. And in the sense of this liberation/freedom, the discourse of Master Thay Tue Sy is by no means pushing or forcing any of us into a predetermined mold, nor preset standards of any kind.
“Light your own path”. Each of us has to discover our own true dharma!
My dear friends,
The topic of our discussion today is “Buddhism and the Young people”. Such title tends to create an impression that Buddhism comes in many different forms; and each form caters to certain generation, or certain socio-economic class. But then, one can also believe that there is only one Buddhism, and today’s topic will examine thoroughly the basic characteristics of Buddhism, and extract from them the conclusion as to whether Buddhism in that sense would be appropriate for the young people. Of course, here, all of you are Buddhists, so the answer is probably already available long ago. We are not going to state any definition, nor reference Buddhism in any particularity or trait, no matter what definition we use, or in what side we would see it.
In so saying, it may still be hard for you to grasp the heart of the matter. Many of you probably have read books on Zen Buddhism, or at least have heard of Zen ko-an, which somewhat goes like this. A person asked a master: What is Buddha? His master replied: “three pounds of hemp”. That wasn’t a jokingly replied story, nor was it an intricate statement on the transcendental philosophy microprocessed by the Zen master. But it’s just because here, we are going to search for the significance of life and to discover its worth and benefits. As if defined by a writer or a poet, we are not here to characterize or describe life, because we are not looking for its encyclopedic knowledge, but we are here to explore true qualities of life. Just like a bee seeking a flower, not to find the physical beauty and alluring scent of that flower because the flower’s beauty and scent are only representations of existence. The bee only seeks the flower to extract the sweet nectar deep inside that flower in order to provide nourishment for its own surviving and that of its species.
Young folks are often reminded and advised to learn to live a life worth living. Our proverbs also taught “Be worth the value of the young! As you land in the East, the East would be calm; as you mount the West, the West would be in peace”, and for that, our young people would think that they should perform certain illustrious acts, otherwise their life would be a waste. Some of them have, indeed, succeeded with a brilliant achievement that is worth everybody’s admiration. All of us are in awe of him, too. But just look into his eyes a little bit, had any of us here has a mind to do so. What do we find in those eyes? Would we see a lofty vast firmament, onto which an eagle majestically stretches its wings, or would it be a lost heaven in the regretful reminiscences of his youth as he left behind his most beloved for the conquest of fame?
The answer would be both. One would chase after illusion to search for his own real image. Where is the sweetness of life, on either side? Now we are temporarily leaving the romantic panorama to look into another aspect of it. Could there be any other picture worth more in appreciation? That depends again on the viewer’s artistic standpoint.
Long ago, there was a prince to whom the golden throne was to be expected, and under whom the hoofs pounded on the long march in submission. That night, as the whole royal palace was sound asleep in the deep and quiet night of power, fame, and wealth, the prince ordered his charioteer to saddle the best of his warhorses. But his galloping horse would not trample the battlefield. His powerful dagger would not overthrow the pathetic enemy. From then on, the royal footsteps began gallivanting all through to the ends of mountains and rivers; at times lonesome by the waters, or alone under the treetops. What did he want to find? Let’s hear Him say: “And then, O Bikkhus! While in my youth, with hair still dark, and life full of vitality; despite the disapproval of the parents, their face stained with tears of sorrow… I have left the family, I have shaved and donned the frock, I have chosen the celibate life. Leave behind everything in order to seek something more virtuous, to find a direction guiding toward superiority, to search for trace of an ultimate tranquility.” Thus he left, he searched, and he discovered the way leading to a peaceful realm and perpetual happiness.
So the path that He had taken was then announced and introduced to others. These capable people are like the lotus flowers that only grow in the muddy standing water, but these lotus flowers would bloom upward out of the filthy mud so that they themselves are not tampered by the stench from which they come. However, the path that was announced and introduced was not by any mean an easy acceptance with faith by everyone. The people who protested against it were not in small numbers. When the young Master arrived in Magadha, one of the most powerful nations of that time, several young men from wealthy families like Yasa and his friends, other well-educated men like Sariputra and Moggallana, or young men of royal descendant, princes and noble courtiers took turn to leave behind their own family and denounce their grand social status, to accept the glorious Path to Ultimate Truth. From a certain perspective, their leaving did produce a large vacancy in society, causing a disturbing upheaval to the ordinary life that everyone was accustomed to. So people worried. They started to discuss the situation in whisper at first, then disapproval and disappointment came among them, and at last they even got angry. This opinionated inclination almost initiated a wave of opposition: “Sramana Gautama is causing fathers to lose their sons, wives to become widows. Sramana Gautama disrupts our normal family life.” But the trend in opposition did not last long enough to become real public hostility. Because not for very long afterwards, these fathers and young wives realized that they were not actually forgotten or deserted by their love ones, but that they were finally shown the fantastic taste of love and happiness which was absent in their lives for the longest time.
So from the initial introduction, this rightful way, this pre-eminent and ultimate path that could lead to an everlastingly blissful world, did not materialize by the power conquered with daggers and blades, but by the power that comes from compassion and wisdom; this supreme path was graciously accepted by the young generation of people, the brightest class of society, the ones who would stipulate the future direction of the whole populace.
Maybe we ought to stop right here. That image may seem too farfetched, unreachable and overwhelming for a lot of people. Despite the fact, not a single one of us male or female young person, would not agree, from the deepest of our heart, that we are driven by an unrestrained powerful force. This power is called the desire to dominate. Such as dominating love, conquering fame and attaining status in life. It doesn’t matter from what angle or direction one looks at it, it is like all of us are little children chasing after a butterfly. Once you hold the dead butterfly satisfactorily in your hands, would you ever wonder: what do this conquest and this victory mean to me? No, we don’t ever wonder that, we continue to chase one butterfly after another. In the history of human kind, how many famous conquerors, after each victory, would only see themselves as just small delicate ones in front of the power of gentle human love?
The galloping stallion of Genghis Khan did not stall in front of enemies, but the great Khan’s innermost feelings were not at peace when he knew that there was someone longing for his return at the other end of his conquering road. That was the last enemy to battle with. Khan knew very well that even with the combined power of his ten thousand mighty soldiers, he wouldn’t be able to win over such enemy, or to claim victory over such empire. He sent for an assistant, a wisest and most proficient advisor, to help gather the supernatural power instead. His diplomat went to Zhongnanshan Mountain to seek Qiu Chuji. The Taoist priest left his mountain, crossed over the desert to arrive personally at Khan’s supreme headquarter, to explain his view of living forever and never dying, and to clarify the secret meaning contained in the Book of Tao consisting in 5000-words ascribed to Laozu, the founder of Taoism. At the conclusion of the Holy Book, once all of the riddles of the language had somewhat betrayed their hidden meaning, the great Khan came to the exclusive assertion, that he would be the loser in this very last battle.
So, what is the signification of conquest? Each of us tends to look for something in our life, for certain significance, for the ideal and the reason to live. For the majority, love and happiness are those ideals of life; for others, it could be wealth, fame, or power.
People even agonize themselves mentally or torture themselves physically, in pursuit of what they think the paramount for their existence. But we also know that besides the illusory and precarious happiness of life, there are also far-reaching horizons and a path to altruistic selflessness; but only a handful of us are taking that route, and a whole lot less people reaching its destination. Why is that?
Once there was a literary researcher who, when commented about the poet Li-Po, had no reserve whatsoever in raving this exceptionally brilliant individual with a liberal and extravagant way of life. But then he concluded: we are not of the class of Li-Po, and we cannot live like the way Li-Po lived, because we do have family, wives and children, and many other responsibilities. Be it as it may, could it be that all of us were born predestined with a noose on our neck, but Li-Po was not? Could it be that we are only allowed to admire, and marvel at the outstanding characters and their lives, just like a ragged beggar would only stand from far away to crave and long for the precious jewels worn by an attractive princess? Sure, Li-Po cannot live like us, and of course we do not have to become like Li-Po in order to have the recognition of others. Each of us has within ourselves an endless hidden treasure. There is no need to borrow or steal the attributes of another individual. And no need to inadequately evaluate ourselves.
The Lost Son in the Lotus Sutra wouldn’t think of himself as the only son and heir of the rich proprietor, the one whose power even surpassed that of many high ranking dignitaries of the royal court. This young man even felt happy when he was hired as a lowly servant, and was so proud to become the humble servant of this affluent family. He took pride in cleaning out the latrines, and was pleased to be permitted to sleep in the horses’ stalls. However, deep in his essential nature, in his bloodline, and from an unlikely peculiar destiny, he was the sole inheritor of this wealthy family. He would be recognized as successor only when he himself can trace his own lineage, and can substantiate his own aristocratic significance. Otherwise, one who thought of himself no better than the breeding horse of his boss, cannot have dreams to prove himself the sole heir of the family. Because that wasn’t inheritance, it was more like strategic plans of a usurper.
In that case, definitely would he be punished on account of his extravagant ambition. Here while we cannot ascertain our own noble dignity, and cannot appreciate the precious values of life - the values that are certainly not higher than the rows of social chairs and the steps of social ladders which are instituted in an irreversible order; meanwhile, we call ourselves “Buddhists”, meaning we see ourselves as rightfully legal descendants of the Tathagata’s Holy lineage; is this somewhat contradictory?
Among my young friends, many have tried to ascend and move up in life, establishing their own values; they thought that if needed and when wanted, it is not hard for them to just don the most expensive clothing or sit at the highest position in society; and when not needed anymore, they can just “discard the golden throne just like throwing away some broken shoes”. Those friends, after a time struggling with life in order to prove their self-worth, some of them are even “lucky enough” to climb up these high-profiled chairs, suddenly realize that the importance and value of this life are being painted, decorated, and engraved into these chairs. So from then on, they would fasten themselves firmly onto them, and insist on defending these values at any cost.
Some other friends of mine, after a broken relationship, suddenly realized that happiness, so real in their own hands minutes earlier, was now just pretentious. One came to me after many days wandering around in his miserable sorrow. He came searching for me not to find a consolation, but he came to graciously lecture me on the meaning of love and eternity; and the meaning of true happiness and the supreme cause of life, the ultimate good. While listened intently to his talk, I felt like I have drunk all the drops of sweet dew dispersed from each of his burning teardrops; and I have asked myself whether my friend had realized the meaning of Nirvana? Now that 30 years have passed, I have to confess that I could not forget that marvelous “sermon”. But just a short time afterwards, my friend again threw himself onto new romance. When I asked him why, his answer was that the sweetness of that first love could have never been adulterated with time. It forever resided in an obscure part somewhere in his heart. He only chased after frivolous and fleeting relations, pursued the empty fame; just because he attempted to forget things that was gone, and gone forever, that never could be retrieved. Once in a while, when thinking of this friend, now quite successful in his real life, I often wonder if he had ever thought back to those youthful years, wouldn’t he think he was being so stupid, chasing after illusion? And furthermore, between these two stages of his life, which one is truly illusion?
They say that Young People are standing at the threshold of life, so you have to prepare your baggage to enter life. I want to say it in a different way, by relating to my own youth that has passed. What I want to relay is that you – the young generation – are placed with two questions that demand immediate and confident answers; or that you are positioned at the forked road that requires your decision without hesitation, either Love or Achievements. In front of you is a long winding road that looms in the dim residual light of morning stars. It is not quite dawn so as to easily distinguish where you are standing and where the road you’re taking will lead you. Moreover, are there really two branched out roads for you to choose or is it just one? Which way are you going to proceed? Whether to follow the path of achievements and reputation, just as the saying goes “to have been born in the world, may one’s name be impressed upon the mountains and rivers”; or perhaps to pursue the silhouette of an eternal springtime? Both of them make sense, and I know all of you would understand them clearly.
We do not have to go through lengthy explanation and argument. But there is one thing that I have to stress. Your understanding of the future path ahead of you is not quite what you are seeing by yourself, and knowing yourself which way to take as the first morning light breaks through. It’s rather the remnants left behind from many generations before you. It’s not often that one can just formulate one’s own distinct pathway and not trailing any other pre-existing track. Tracing slowly step by step after other generation’s direction, only then young people can carefully develop their own future roadmap. Among these youthful individuals, many would not step out of the jungle’s darkness to find for themselves, with their own eyes, the roadway that leads out to the future even when daybreak has come and the morning sun brightly shines.
We will now explore in history and find such a youth. The one that came to my mind was not a stranger to any of you, and I want to remind you of the Emperor Tran Nhan Tong. When still young and growing up in lavishly splendid palace filled with joy, this aristocratic young man lived like a recluse amidst the royal kingdom; with a true hermit life of abstention and ascetism. I wonder if the graceful bearings would have been appreciated by anyone in this young royalty, but the King Father – only seeing the dreadfully emaciated body of his own heir - could not help but uttering a cry, wondering if his son would have enough strength and energy to look after the empire, safeguarding its territory.
Nonetheless, that same young man, once enthroned and residing over the entire nation, not only ascertained his own selfworth, but also substantiated the lasting existence of his whole populace. Whether sitting at the towering royal throne, or embarking impressively in the battlefield, or returning home on victorious mounts after triumphant conquests; nights after nights in the serene darkness of history, even now, we can nearly imagine the sound of his repetitive gong strikes and distinctive ritual chanting of this royally majestic king who once viewed the throne like a pair of discarded sandals: “What that is to be produced by conditions should be viewed as a dream, a mirage, a bubble...” How could the one who perceives with his own eyes the whole universe as ephemeral - like dewdrops on the grass blades - nevertheless with supremacy, would be able to make up his own destination as well as that of the entire sovereignty? I hope that all of you young people out there can come up with the answers yourselves. Because when you can provide answers to those questions, you surely can make up your own destination and not worry so much in making erroneous mistakes.
Now we finally come back to the main discussion of our topic. Many of you when hearing the title of this topic would probably have thought that the speaker will present something related to certain Buddhist structural standpoint, and gathering from that viewpoint he will analyze and explore whether it would apply to the young generation, or bring about actual benefits to this young age group. Up until now, I have not introduced any form, any structure yet. Are any of you disappointed? Well, maybe you ought to be a little disappointed. That way, it’s apparent that none of you come to passively listen to me, whatever I say would satisfy you. Rightly so, you should have choices, even though the choices are not up to your own wishes. Beginning with realization, there would undoubtedly be options. When working with the talented capacity of youth, first of all there is the ability to choose. Young people are educated to know how to select options. Determining one’s future plan is making the right choices intelligently.
Furthermore, we should not be too disenchanted if there is not a specific Buddhist structure applying to the young generation. There is only one moon up in the sky. But that moon can be graying with old age and death, or it can be a new moon freshly emerged with youthful innocence; likewise, it can be a bright moon that bears witness to faithful hearts, or it can be an “old moon of spitefulness that maliciously causes the discord between lovers”. Yet other young people come to Buddhism hoping that the blessed water by the compassionate Bodhisattva would revive their wilted heart which was rejected by love. And yet others come to seek Buddhism to wash off “the heel pacing after fame tainted with grey mud, or the face of marquee suntanned by the rays of great changes”. They may find on their own a Buddhist structure that correlates well with them. If Buddhism cannot alleviate their mental sufferings and their weariness of life, it would be just like a doctor refusing to treat sick patients. Therefore, you are advised to find your own viewpoint that corresponds with Buddhism, not taking those that are already being molded by others such as your superiors, your reverend monks, or some other brilliant researchers. A Vietnamese Zen master once said: “Young people should bear in themselves the will of soaring high, and not content with retracing the footsteps of the Buddhas, though. We will walk the path that we select ourselves, no need to drudgingly follow after the trace of others.
This manner of speaking sometimes causes people to feel bewildered. Wouldn’t it be too conceited, too arrogant? Then please, do not create a song with a quick tempo out of those words, but try to compose a gentle sonata like smooth undulating water of a lake, then we can easily comprehend the sound of these words: Be at ease in choosing a direction for yourself, and ready to take on the responsibility for what happens along the path that you have chosen. These are the words of the Buddha that you should remember: “sentient beings are the inheritors of all actions that they have carried out themselves”. And Buddha also taught us: “Be the successor of the Tathagata’s true dharma, and not the heir of material resources”.
All of you are learning to prepare yourselves for worthiness of being heirs: Inheritors to the heirloom of familial ancestors; Inheritors to the traditions of a country’s heritage; Inheritors to the humankind legacy. No matter what position you are placed in, first and foremost, you, the young generation today, have to be the heirs. Victory or defeat in the position of being an heir is the responsibility of each one of you, personally, individually. Be prepared to develop your own wisdom, build your own ground, to cleverly choose the pathway to life, and be ready to accept the responsible actions for what you have committed to for your own self and all other sentient beings.
There is not a universal Buddhism that is broad-spectrum for the entire young generation. Each one of you individual is representative to the dynamic form of Buddhism.
I sincerely wish you would have enough strength to conquer lots of kingdom that are to be conquered and win over the powers that are to be won.
Translated by Upasikā Vien Minh