Dharma Education in TMBS

By Culture Sub Com translation team 

1) Introduction

Buddhism has flourished in the last hundred years. For the Mandarin speaking Buddhists, it has never been better since the turn of the century. Nevertheless, the state of Buddhism as a whole is still not ideal. Let’s assume these 2 scenarios. The day when we are able to unite and assemble tens of thousands of devotees to celebrate Vesak Day just like the Islamic pilgrimage. Or when we take the initiative to support and encourage fellow devotees just like Christians do. It is until devotees of Buddhism achieve such practices that we may say Buddhism has shown some revival. Devotees are constantly reminded to practise compassion and the 6 harmonies.

The Buddha expounded that all phenomenon arises out of its causes and conditions; as such, nothing is permanent. The rise and fall of Buddhism had its causes and conditions. Buddhism will flourish when there are more positive conditions, and vice versa. Amongst these essential conditions, Dharma education and an organised system are the two crucial components for the revival of Buddhism.

TMBS has been emphasizing Dharma education and Buddhism system since its founding in December 1985. Propagating the Buddha Dharma to benefit sentient beings is its mission. Buddha Dharma education (software) is the key to the rise and fall of Buddhism. Buddhism system (hardware) has an important part to play in the rise and fall of Buddhism too. Both are equally important. However, from experience, Dharma education is more critical than the system. A common misconception exists among some devotees who after attending Dharma classes, but without taking refuge in the Triple Gems, regarded themselves as a ‘learned’ buddhist. Truth is – one who does not take refuge in the Triple Gems is not a buddhist. Education has its methodology and philosophy. It is wide ranging. Over here we are only discussing about TMBS’s Dharma education.

2) The objectives of the Buddha Dharma Education
The broad definition of education encompasses the learning and spreading of knowledge, skills and experience. The narrow sense of education refers particularly to school’s education, i.e. systematic education. In addition, there are informal learning through reading, browsing the web and life experience. Generally the objectives of education should be: to inspire human’s rationality, enrich our mental well-being, transfer societal culture, correspond with social needs and achieve self actualization.

Lecture and propagation of Buddha Dharma could be seen as the generalized definition of Dharma education, while running Dharma classes is like the narrow sense of Dharma education. These are just some of the approaches to Dharma education. The objectives of Dharma education is:
to promote the Right Faith in Buddhism, to cultivate the values and philosophy of the Buddha Dharma, to have compassion with people, and to have awareness of our intention and action.

What is the Right Faith in Buddhism? It means in addition to the proper faith, one should also seek refuge in the Triple Gems. Only then can one
manifest the essence of seeking refuge. It is like: Faith and homage to the Triple Gems, faith in Dependent Origination and to disregard non-Buddhist philosophies (Determinism, Randomness and God’s will), practise the Middle Path, adhere to the Dharma (not the person) and passionate in spreading Buddhism.

What are the core values and life philosophy expounded in Buddha Dharma? For example, some believe that love is more worthy than money.
Buddha Dharma said ‘to think and act like enlightened Buddha’ is more valuable. The Dharma also expounds that samsara is affliction. As such,
one shall strive to abandon affliction and achieve liberation, to transform ignorance to wisdom. This is the right philosophy of life as expounded in
the Dharma.

How to cultivate compassion? The Dharma expounds: all sentient beings can attain Buddhahood. Buddha was one of the sentient beings who attained enlightenment. Sentient beings are the yet-to-become Buddhas. Yes, there are temporary differences and disparity between each of us. However in essence, we are equal. Given the opportunity to follow the Buddha Dharma, we will possibly become enlightened in due time. One
must have this unshakable faith. One shall then cultivate and develop compassion on this basis. With this we are to treat others with mutual respect and love. We could then see beyond the mistakes of others, and to distinguish right from wrong. We would be able to refrain from harsh words and demeanour when interacting with people.

What is awareness of intention and action?
One of the (worldly) objectives of education is to achieve self actualization. Like, understanding of reality and life philosophy, surrounded with family and friends, etc. Buddhism teaches us to get ourselves liberated or attain Buddhahood. As such, in addition to the worldly objectives, dharma education is to guide us to attain the state of non-self or being awakened.

3) The challenges in running Dharma classes.
Venerable Hou Zhong came to Singapore alone in 1982. Venerable, ordained in Fuyan Vihara – a place that emphasized the importance of Dharma education and propagation, noticed that Buddhists back then were mostly only involved in ritualistic chanting and praying without much understanding of Buddhism. This troubled Venerable immensely. As a monk with a sense of mission and responsibility, Venerable wanted to propagate the true spirit of Buddha Dharma so as to revive Buddhism. Besides being invited to lecture in some monasteries, Venerable started
Chinese Dharma class in July 1983. There were about 18 devotees who registered for the class. Thereafter the number of students grew steadily with several batches before 1991 having more than 200 students. As with most worldly pursuits, it was not smooth sailing initially.

Running Dharma education classes was unprecedented at that time. This was especially so as the lay people were the target group; most of whom were senior citizens and females. Many devotees were still adapting from their usual ritualistic praying. Some were puzzled about the need to attend class. There were opposing camps, and some just bystanders. Well, to successfully run Dharma classes, the external environment was not the main concern.

It’s these 3 aspects affecting the enrolment, viz people, work and place. In terms of people, it was difficult to have qualified Teachers to teach The Dharma. They were either too busy or unwilling, and some were just not qualified. As such, Venerable conducted the classes personally. Getting students wasn’t easy in those years. As mentioned, most devotees were aged and some younger ones didn’t see the need to attend classes. Some were being dissuaded by their precept master.

Talking about work, besides the Teacher’s issue, next came volunteers – volunteers who would serve resolutely, not forging divisive cliques or forming splinter groups. Interactions between devotees and monastics arise and cease; with human dynamics at play, occasional awkward
situations like misunderstanding would arise. An example would be some traditional “Buddhist” practices that are not in line with the Buddha Dharma, but for practical matter, continued being done. As educationist we held a different view; so we became misunderstood and was labelled haughty. Of course these were misinformed and self conjured deductions. Although it was a small issue, it did affect the faith of some students as well as enrollment. Certainly, escaping was not the solution, but it was not easy dealing with it.Regarding place, traditional monasteries were mostly engaged in ritualistic praying, neglecting Dharma education. As such not much space was left available to run Dharma classes. To add irony to reality, temples with bustling activities were worried their devotees would be converted and leave after attending classes.

4) About Chinese Dharma Class
Conducting Dharma lessons was to form a foundation for propagating the Buddha Dharma. To ensure its continuity, Venerable founded The Mahaprajna Buddhist Society (TMBS) in December 1985. The class from 1983 was the first batch of Chinese Dharma class. It was a 2-years course. Classes after 1984 were 3-year course. Thereafter we discovered that some students lacked the basic understanding of the Buddha Dharma. As such since July 1986, new students would begin with Introductory class. It became a 4-year Dharma course divided into Introductory, Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced Dharma class. During Introductory class (first year), students read and learn some basic lessons on Buddhism and the Dharma so as to get acquainted with basic terminology and concepts. The main teaching material was “The Way to Buddhahood” authored by Dharma Master Venerable Yinshun.

In Beginners (second year) Dharma class, Venerable would cover “The Dharma Common to the Five Vehicles” and other relevant sutras and articles selected by Venerable. Subsequently, “The Dharma Common to the Three Vehicles” and The Distinctive Dharma of the Great Vehicles were being taught in third and fourth year respectively.TMBS based its Dharma education syllabus on “The Way to Buddhahood” as we identified with its systematic and progressive approach in teaching, contents and concepts. It is comprehensive on both breadth and depth. At a time when many were confused with Buddhist doctrines and emphasis on self idolization, the teachings were timely in guiding the devotees towards the right path.

5) Other Dharma classes
Dharma class and lectures were conducted in Chinese initially. We realized that there were English educated devotees who preferred classes and
lectures to be conducted in English. As such, the first batch of English Dharma Class was formed in 1986. Time flies and devotees grew old or got married and have children. Knowing the benefits of Dharma education, they would bring along their children to attend Society’s activities. It was heartwarming and encouraging that we started the Children Dharma Class in July 1995. P1 and P2 would learn  the The Dharma Common to Human and Deva Vehicle. P3 and P4 would learn about Theravada Buddhism and P5 and P6 on Mahayana Buddhism. Graduates from alumni volunteered to teach in the children class. With the grandchildren settled, the grandparents could enrol for Senior Citizen Dharma class (started in July 1995). It is a 3-year class progressing from Basic, Intermediate to Advanced. Similarly, the main text was “The Way to Buddhahood”. Again, graduates from alumni were the teachers. The target audience of the Society’s Dharma classes encompass four generations namely the seniors, middle age, youth and children. We try our best to propagate Buddha Dharma as a Buddhist, adhering to the practice of Middle Path and promoting the Human-Realm Buddhism.

As people started to get busier with work, family and other continuing education, the four-years Dharma course became too time-consuming for
many of them. In view of this, from July 1995 we decided to scrap the foundation class. Both the Chinese and English classes were shortened to three years. In addition, we also set up a 3-year Senior Citizen Dharma Class for those who do not prefer the full rigours of the normal Chinese or English Dharma class.

6) The influence of Chinese Dharma Class
As mentioned, the target audience are laypeople. Over time, our growing number of graduates have an impact on the local Buddhist’s scene. We
can briefly discuss from two aspects. On the positive aspect: Lately there is an increasing number of relatively younger and better educated devotees. Communication between young and old devotees are more robust and devotees at large have better understanding of the Dharma, and could distinquish between right and wrong practices. Devotees accorded one another with mutual respect. This level is close to the dedication of the believers of other religions. On the negative aspect: There are still those who could not adhere to the Dharma or eliminate unwholesome practice. Some stopped revisiting the Dharma after graduating, thinking they had learnt sufficiently. This resulted in some misunderstandings as well as undesirable comments. TMBS owes it success to the collective positive conditions of all the devotees.

Seeing the success of TMBS, some monastries started to run similar Dharma class too. It resulted in some vicious competitions but more ironically, devotees started to get confused with multiple and ambiguous schools of thought. Some could not digest the Dharma, misunderstanding solitude as cold and letting go as giving up. There were a handful of students who had gone through TMBS’s Dharma
class but were not able to reap the intended benefits. A classic example – after completing the course with TMBS, some continued Dharma
classes with other monasteries. This is commendable. But what was both shocking and unbelievable to Venerable was the feedback that these
graduates were asked to retake “four refuges” as the traditional “Three Refuges” was taught as incomplete and inferior! This sounded similar to
the view that “those who submit shall live; those who resist shall perish”!.

Venerable felt that this is ridiculous! Is this saying the Theravadins are not Buddhist? What about past Reverends and Venerables as they did
not take “four refuges”? Is “four refuges” superior to Nagajuna, Asanga, Shariputra and Master Venerable Xuanzang? Many devotees were taken away by this teaching. Sadly, quite a few are graduates of TMBS. I think this is their blind spots. The emphasis on “four refuges” is manifested from an overly enlarged self ego and self proclamation of unsurpassed teachings. Gradually and unconsciously, incorrect thoughts were formed and this resulted in slandering non believers. Apparently they did not learn the lesson when Dalai Lama and thousands of Rinpoche exiled to India in March 1959. Self proclaiming of unsurpassed teachings and “four refuges” could not shield them from collective unwholesome karmic conditions that is evident in Tibet.

7) Possible issues of Chinese Dharma Class in future
Attending Dharma class is one of the best ways to learn and practise Buddhism. Some of the issues are:
1) Many graduates could not grasp the basic understanding of Buddha Dharma.
2) Some missed too many lessons.
3) Many lacked the comprehensive view of Buddha Dharma.
4) Some misunderstood the Buddha Dharma.
5) Some stopped learning the Dharma after graduation.

We are in need of solutions to address these issues. Times have changed. Most younger Singaporeans are more comfortable with English than Chinese (read and write). The syllabus and teaching materials should be bilingual for easy reference. Of course an improved and enhanced English Dharma Class will be a more straight forward approach. Some challenges that would impact the running of Dharma Class in future could be: finding suitable candidates to teach and enrolment of new students. Shortlisting of suitable candidates to teach has always been  hallenging. Traditionally, nurturing talent for higher education was not the main focus in most monasteries. Some felt that self practice should be the way to go, hence neglecting the need to study and propagate The Dharma. Some would “hire” external speakers occasionally when needed to. Nurturing of competent Teachers is an arduous and enduring task. Some may still choose to leave the organization, citing conflict of personal deals.

Enrolment of new students is another area of concern. Prospective new students have many options to contend with today. Of course to the new students the classes are all the same outwardly. Moreover, many would prefer English Dharma Class. We would see fewer new students taking up Chinese Dharma Class in future. This could be reversed however, as China has been asserting its presence and influence in the region. So we hope our graduates will encourage their family, relatives and friends to attend Chinese Dharma Class. This should introduce positive proponents into the running of Dharma Class.

8) Conclusion

Both western and Japanese education system were greatly influenced by religious organizations. In Japan, school was the conducive place to nurture youths that aspire to study Buddhism and The Dharma. Yes, Japanese monastic order allows monks to get married. This may be in conflict with the monastic precepts. However the intended objectives of their system is Buddha Dharma education which could be something
we can consider. As mentioned, organising Dharma class is for Dharma education. It is for the propagation of the Dharma. It is not to equate attending Dharma class as being cultured and educated buddhist. One must learn, digest and apply the Dharma in their daily lives; be aware and eliminate one’s afflictions gradually. To come forward and support Buddhism physically or financially. These shall be the deeds of all Buddhists.