What is the Way?
Ven. Master Hsuan Hua
The Way is a path that everyone should follow. What path is that? The path of being public-spirited and impartial.
Today we shall investigate the question: What is the Way? The Way is a path that everyone should follow. What path is that? The path of being public-spirited and impartial. The Explication of Great Unity through the Functioning of Propriety says, “When the Great Way prevailed, the world community will be shared by all.”
This is the theme of the essay. The rest of the essay merely explains the meaning of the Great Way. I often say, “Confucianism is like elementary school, Taoism is like high school, and Buddhism is like college.” Elementary school students cannot understand high school textbooks, and high school students cannot understand university course work.
“What grounds do you have for saying that?” you may ask. After inquiring from Lao Zi about propriety, Confucius praised Lao Zi, saying that he was a dragon that could appear and disappear mysteriously and transform itself in infinite ways. This seems to imply that Confucius did not completely understand the Way of Lao Zi. Was that really the case? Actually, he did understand; it is just that he didn’t talk about it. Why not? Because his students had not yet reached the high school level. Therefore, he could not explain that teaching to them.
Lao Zi also understood Buddhism, but he didn’t talk about it. Why? Because people were not ready for it yet. And so he only talked about the principles of Taoism and didn’t mention the principles of Buddhism.
Confucianism and Taoism paved the way for Buddhism; in general, externalist teachings pave the way for the proper teaching, and non-ultimate sects pave the way for the orthodox religion. They clear the path and make sure there are no obstacles. Non-unlimate sects and externalist teachings stimulate people’s minds, helping them open the door of wisdom so they can accept the sweet dew and ghee [metaphors representing refined and subtle flavor] of Buddhism.
Confucius said, “If I hear the Way in the morning, I can die in the evening without regret!” This expresses the importance of the Way as compared to death. To hear the Way is to understand the principle of being a person, which is more important than death. If you know how to be a person, then you can die without regret. Everyone take note: you should not take the words at face value. He was not saying that if you hear the Way in the morning, you should commit suicide in the evening. What would be the point of killing yourself?
Being public-spirited and impartial simple means not being selfish and not pursuing personal advantage. It also refers to being free of desires--being totally liberated from the five desires for wealth, sex, fame, food, and sleep--and having neither greed nor emotional love. Whoever can truly practice the Six Guidelines of the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas is qualified to be a Buddhist.
These Six Guidelines--no fighting, no greed, no seeking, no selfishness, no pursuit of personal advantage, and no lying--can be explained by means of Buddhist principles, Taoist principles, or Confucian principles. They can be explained in myriads of ways, for they are perfectly interpenetrating without obstruction, and are thoroughly logical.
Then why is it that no one talks about them? I’ll tell you why. This is the Buddhism of the scientific age that I’ve invented the Six Guidelines. These Guidelines encompass the tenets of all religions. They are every practical. Even the precepts of Buddhism do not go beyond the scope of these Six Guidelines.
The Chinese character Đạo (道) “Way,” is made up of the two characters Thủ (首) “head” and Tẩu (走) “walk.” “Head” also has the meaning of “foremost,” and “walk” also means “practice.” That is, the foremost matter is for you to practice. If you do not practice, then no matter how much you talk, your words are all false and you’re just cheating people. It’s said, “Talking a yard is not as good as practicing an inch.”
The Way refers to none other than the Way of being a person. The Way of being a person is more important than life and death. When there is birth, there must be death. Even Sages and great heroes have to die. However, death can be as weighty as Mount Tai, or as light as a feather. If one hears the Way in the morning, then even if one dies that every evening, it would have been worth it. One would be better off than those who die without hearing the Way of “public spirit and impartiality.” The word “hearing” means understanding. After one understands, one knows the principle of being a person.
Let’s consider further: What is the Way? It’s just the truth. The truth is such that no one can overturn it. The truth is absolute, not relative. There is only one truth, not two. The Way is common to all true cultivators. It can be explained in Confucianism, in Taoism, and in Buddhism as well. The Way is the Truth, and any religion can teach it. There is no patent on it. It’s not the case that I’m allowed to speak about it, but you aren’t. But it should be explained within the historical context. You cannot talk about Confucius speaking the Budhadharma, because in his time probably no one had even heard of the name “Buddha.” And so we’d better be clear about history, or else we will become laughingstocks.
A talk given on October 28, 1985.