February is the month when we observe our annual Nirvana Day memorial service marking Shakyamuni Buddha’s passing from this world of suffering approximately 2,500 years ago at Kuśinagara in Northern India.
The Buddhist sutras teach us that when Shakyamuni Buddha departed from this world of suffering, he entered the state of final peace that is called parinirvana.
Shortly before realizing parinirvana, Shakyamuni laid out a set of guiding principles for those who would continue their study of the Buddha-Dharma after he departed from this world:
“From this day on, rely on the Dharma, not on people who teach it. Rely on the meaning, not on the words. Rely on wisdom, not on the working of the mind. Rely on the sutras that fully express the meaning, not on those that do not.”
— CWS, Page 241
These four principles remind us where to look to see the true light of the Buddha’s wisdom shining in our lives.
Rely on the Dharma, not on people who teach it. The Dharma is the truth to which the Buddha awakened sitting under the Bodhi Tree. Parents, friends, elderly relatives, small children, and even pets can serve as teachers who help us to see the truth of the Dharma in our lives.
Teachers of the Dharma can help us to deepen our understanding and appreciation for that truth, but in the end, the Dharma is only meaningful to us when we apply it in our daily lives and feel its benefits for ourselves.
Rely on the meaning, not on the words. Shakyamuni Buddha explains the meaning of this teaching, saying, “ … words may indeed have meaning, but the meaning is not the words. Consider, for example, a person instructing us by pointing to the moon with his finger. (To take words to be the meaning) is like looking at the finger and not at the moon. The person would say, 'I am pointing to the moon with my finger in order to show it to you. Why do you look at my finger and not the moon?' Similarly, words are the finger pointing to the meaning; they are not the meaning itself. Hence, do not rely upon words.”
We treasure the words of the Buddha because they are a guide for us on our journey through this world of confusion and strife. The scriptures point us in the direction of true reality, but are not true reality itself. The Buddha teaches that true reality is formless and transcends the limitations of words and ideas. The important matter is not the words themselves, but rather the meaning that they express.
Rely on wisdom, not on the working of the mind. Sometimes we hear people say, “My mind was playing tricks on me.” This probably happens more often than we realize. The basic function of our mind is to seek pleasure. However, it is often in seeking pleasure that we create suffering for others and ourselves.
Wisdom is what we know to be true through our experience. Our minds work very hard to rationalize harmful thinking and actions even when we know better from our experience. The challenge of living guided by the Dharma is to embrace the life changes that Buddha’s wisdom guides us to.
Rely on the sutras that fully express the meaning, not on those that do not. The sutras are records of Shakyamuni Buddha’s Dharma talks. It is said that he taught 84,000 Dharma Gates, through which we can enter into understanding of the truth.
In seeking the path to awakening, the important matter is not to read and master all the sutras, but rather to recognize which sutras speak the circumstances of your own life and to take those sutras as your guide.
In the Jodo Shinshu tradition, we revere the teachings of Amida Buddha and the Nembutsu expressed in the Three Pure Land Sutras as our guide to realizing the liberating peace of Nirvana.
Namo Amida Butsu