My Journey as a Buddhist, from Diamond Sutra to Diamond Sutra

 My first memory of something related to Buddhism was the sound of sutra-chanting where I heard in a Zen monastery in Lantau when I was a young child. Though neither of my parents was Buddhist, my mother a Protestant Christian and father a freethinker, they were nevertheless sympathetic to Buddhism. My father, beside being a philanthropist who always busied himself with various charity projects, was much interested in Buddhist teachings. During the summer vacations, my father would bring me to some of the remote monastery in Lantau Island or New Territories for meditation sitting and to live with the monks. Those early morning chanting had always held a special fascination for me. It was like sound of waves washing into my whole being, awe-inspiring and exhilarating at the same time. Later I found out that it was called the Diamond Sutra.


In my childhood days, I had always had my hair trimmed very short and the monks would tell me jokingly that I look just like a novice. An old nun even once remarked that I had been a yogi in my past live which I only half-believed. When I sat for meditation as a seven years old child, the monks took it nonetheless very seriously and would give me a bat if I was dozing away. The beating I received, which was harder than necessary, left me a very negative impression which lasted for years. Little did I know at that time that the monk who delivered the blow would become my first Buddhist teacher years later.


It was not until my university years when I started to take serious interest in Buddhism. At that time, I gave up my studies in science and turned to linguistics with a specialization in Sanskrit. I was fascinated by the ancient religious texts and in particular, the Indian religions which Buddhism was a part of. My multilingual bookcase was soon filled with books like the Bible, Bhagavadgītā, the Japji of the Guru Granth Sahib, the Yogasūtra and also the Diamond Sūtra. As a linguistic student, though I could read through the Diamond Sutra in Sanskrit, its meanings completely escaped me as it was so unlike anything I had read. For over years, this Buddhist sutra remained an enigma to me.

It was almost ten years after I first started reading the Diamond Sutra when I finally found the need to understand it completely. The reason why I could understand only the surface meaning of the text but not its true meaning was that, as I thought at that time, because I was not a Buddhist. After all texts were all written for specific audience in mind and without proper context and background knowledge, they could not deliver the intended message. Thus with this desire to gain the “insider’s view” I decided to learn more about the religion and eventually, became a Buddhist.

With my years of training in science, I had always been a diehard skeptic and religious conversion was not an easy one. Unlike Christianity where there were churches with open doors and priests and missionaries ready to answer every single one of your religious queries, the Buddhist door was an iron door tightly shut. It was a tortuous process, but thanks to my father’s Buddhist friends and other Buddhist teachers whom I came across one after another, the Buddhist faith gradually became clear to me. At a more personal level, I began to understand that Buddhism was a path of self-cultivation. Though I did not aspire to become enlightened, it became apparent to me that the Buddhist path was a well-trodden one, praised by the wise ones and made people only into better persons.

My life was gradually becoming surrounded by everything Buddhist. After years of exciting but rather uninspiring work, which inflated my asset and my ego, I took the very humbling path of resuming my Buddhist studies once again at Hong Kong University. I also took the time to explore and find out for myself what the Buddhists and the Buddhist communities were doing, to experience for myself whether the practice lived up to the theories. Perhaps most importantly, I started to gain many Buddhist friends. It was due to the positive influence of these kalyānamitra-s that a certain Buddhist identity took root in me. In my mind, they were the embodiment of wisdom and compassion and I too want to become one of them. Looking around in our society, it is hard to believe that there are truly people who are wise and yet kind and friendly at the same time, tolerant enough even to people who do not share the same faith – these are the Buddhists.

After I took my refuge in the Three Jewels and my lay precepts from my first Buddhist teacher who was from the Zen tradition, the chanting of Diamond Sutra thus became my daily homework. As my understanding of the Buddhism at both levels of intellect and faith deepened, I began to appreciate the beauty of the Sutra. In retrospect, it was a very liberating experience to shed with “thunderbolt wisdom” all the false identities I had built up for myself, which was defined by labels such as career, wealth or even trivial things like education or clothes one puts on. In a place like Hong Kong where everyone seemed to be trapped in a rat race for wealth and status, unable to see their existence beyond what they possessed materially or nominally, leading the imaginary life of pleasure they created in their own minds, the Sutra breathed a fresh air, bringing peace, kindness, understanding and other human virtues to a world of madness.

My Buddhist identity became something I treasured very much and something I took a special pride of. In the following years, due to my academic pursuit, I had to travel around the world, first to mainland China, then Germany and Japan. It was my encounter with other Buddhists in these countries which made me constantly reflect on this identity I had created for myself. Little did I expect that such encounter led to a great transformation within me, both in terms of my identity as a Buddhist, as well as my understanding of Buddhism as a world religion at large.

My Journey as a Buddhist, from Diamond Sutra to Diamond Sutra (Part 2)

Buddhist faith in the Land of Atheists

It was a very special time for Buddhists in China when I first arrived in Beijing as a somewhat mature student. Buddhism was enjoying a kind of revival, unimaginable for a country who still held on to the Communist ideology, which once asserted religion to be the opium of the people. Buddhism, which was practically obliterated during the Great Cultural Revolution, revived itself and grew at an unprecedented speed, reaching all levels of society to become a kind of elite religion on one hand, as well a grass roots religion for the pious but religiously illiterate. Buddhist societies sprang up in universities, Buddhist workshops were attended by Party officials and Buddhist seminars were held everywhere, some of which the noveau riche aspiring to become culturally enlightened would pay a fortune to attend. The temples were crowded with incense-wielding worshippers whose understanding of Buddhism might be very different from mine. Nonetheless, it was clear that Buddhism was becoming a major force, if not an enterprise, in Communist China.

Knowing the history of religious persecution and the negative labels Buddhism had been branded with in China, I was initially hesitant to identify myself as a Buddhist, especially in front of the non-Buddhists. It was a pleasant surprise when I found out that being a Buddhist carried little negative connotation, at least to the younger generation. In fact, amongst the Buddhists I knew, many were philanthropists and social activists, people who were interested in the welfare of the society, if not at least their own betterment. Perhaps years of Communism left the people with a spiritual vacuity which Buddhism was only too ready to fill. The connection between Buddhism and the traditional Chinese culture was revived, drawing huge crowds who sought a sense of pride in their cultural heritage.

The Communist government took notice of the rapid development and identified Buddhism and Buddhists as an “invaluable social resource”. In 2005, the government organized the First World Buddhist Forum with a million-dollar budget to draw Buddhist leaders from all over the world. The government’s stance was clear, the State and the Religion should collaborate with each other to realize the Communist vision of “Harmonious Society”, with the subtext of battling the negative influences of the evil cults and religions of foreign influences. It was curious to note that Buddhism was not seen as a foreign religion due to the long history of its indigenization.

All in all, my experience as a Buddhist was overwhelmingly positive. There were times of course not without chagrins, especially when one encountered the occasional faked monks in the government-run temples which functioned solely as tourist attraction than a place of worship, all the superstitious powwow which seemed to be making a major comeback, or the cultish and sectarian tendency of certain Buddhist groups. Last but not least, the opiate use of religion as “social harmonizer” by the government was something of suspect, if not at least ironic. Nonetheless, as most Chinese would not hesitate to admit, it had already come a long way from how things were ten, twenty years ago. Opportunities come with all kind of risks and it is time for Chinese Buddhists to make themselves heard and to exert their positive influences over the society through social engagement.

The Mystery of Western Buddhism

The experience I had in China brought me a sense of belonging, that is to say, a sense that I belonged to a group of people who were striving for the common and greater good of society and for themselves as well. Whenever I met another Buddhist, I immediately felt a kind of closeness and security, and there was an urge to exchange ideas and thoughts. That was however not the case when I arrived in Germany, where the majority of Buddhists I met were indifferent, if not hostile, especially for the self-professed Tibetan Buddhists who found out that I was Chinese.

For the Tibetan Buddhists, there was little to share because their tantric practices were often guarded as secrecy to start with. On the campus of Hamburg University, one sometimes encountered one or two Western monks or nuns, whom I always felt like approaching. After all, as a lay Buddhist, I felt it was my duty to support the Sa?gha who devoted themselves to the preservation of Buddhist teachings. I was rather discouraged however by their aloofness which I sometimes told myself, was merely a hard shell carry a soft heart.

My perception of the Western Buddhists changed rapidly as I developed closer contacts with some of them, which given the freedom and individualism emblematic of Western societies, came in a great variety. In the first place, there were the self-declared Buddhists who considered themselves Buddhists because they were sympathetic to the teachings of the Buddha. Some interpreted it as a philosophy which they saw as superior to others, while other saw it a lifestyle, a teaching which advocated a form of liberalism which I never encountered in any Buddhist text I ever came across. These Buddhists did not belong to any Buddhist organization, never took the Refuge or percepts from a monk which they saw as unnecessary. They felt they had access to the knowledge of the “Scripture” far advanced than the technologically backward monks and nuns, thanks to the Western scholarship on Buddhism and the Internet. By “lifestyle”, I meant that Buddhism was interpreted by some as an attitude or outlook of life which carried no implication to one’s actual day-to-day life. One could as if lead any kind of life and be justified by a line or two found in one of the s?tras in the ocean of Buddhist literature. It was always a moment of embarrassment when we discovered that there seemed to be more differences than similarities in terms of what our worldview, belief or our stance on certain ethical issues were, after the initial “oh I am Buddhist too” euphoria.

Then there were the Zen Buddhists and the Tibetan Buddhists who seemed to practice a form of Buddhism which was so foreign to me that it was almost mysterious, if not completely unfathomable. Zen Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism were the two major forms of Buddhism brought to the West and had prospered especially since the 1960s. The Western adherents I encountered interpreted their faith as the Absolute Faith, absolute in the sense not only among other religions, but also among other forms of Buddhism. Many took offense when I pointed out that both Zen and Tibetan Buddhism were developed centuries after the historical Buddha passed away and their teachings absorbed many elements from the culture where they were born. For the Western Tibetan Buddhists, the Dalai Lama was Buddha incarnated, deemed worthy of the highest form of worship and it was considered nothing less than blasphemy if the Holy One was ever commented on. Because of the antagonism between the Tibetan lamas in exile and the Communist Chinese government, there was a distinct and indiscriminate sense of hostility against the Chinese or anything resembling or connected to the Chinese, amongst the Western Tibetan Buddhists. Once I explained to a young m?l?-wearing German Tibetan Buddhist who confronted me with the Tibetan Problem, that I was partial to neither side except my wish for all conflicts to be resolved in a peaceful manner. The young Buddhist then continued to challenge me, “But you are Chinese, right? Of course, you are against Tibetan Separation.” First of all, I am only Chinese by ethnicity and I have no connection with the Communist government or its policy on Tibet, furthermore I saw no connection between my being Chinese and my stance on the Tibetan Question, or for that matter, my relation with another person – thanks to Diamond S?tra’s teaching of No-Self who asked us to see things beyond their labels. But there was no chance of winning the trust and friendship of this fellow Buddhist because there was a Holy War going on in his mind.

I trust that there are decent, reasonable Buddhists whom I unfortunately missed during my sojourn in Germany, but my experience there prompted me to reflect more deeply into my own faith and my own identity as a Buddhist. Was such disparity in beliefs envisioned by the Buddha Himself? For the Western Buddhists, there seemed to be an obsession with Enlightenment, which was interpreted to be a Mystic Experience one may bring about by some esoteric practices, be it mantra-chanting or visualization of union with some truly terrifying-looking deity, justifiable by metaphysics incomprehensible even to the brightest mind (or indeed not intended to be comprehensible at all!). Was that really what Buddha taught and what being a Buddhist is about? Somehow in the back of my mind, the Western form of Zen Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism reminded me of Protestantism and Catholicism respectively, which were in rapid decline in the West. Was it out of dissatisfaction with one’s native religion that Westerns turned themselves to Buddhism and in the process adapted Buddhism into what their hearts felt most inclined? How about my own form of Buddhism? Was it not too an adulterated mix of beliefs and values which I sought to gratify my inner needs of some kind?

My Journey as a Buddhist, from Diamond Sutra to Diamond Sutra (Part 3)

The Two Sides of the Buddhism in the Land of Rising Sun

The year I spent in Germany left me with many questions unanswered concerning my identity as a Buddhist. When I arrived in Japan, it was yet another landscape, and a truly bewildering one.

Buddhism seemed to be present everywhere in Japan. Elements of Zen and Pure Land Buddhism had been absorbed into traditional Japanese culture and many Japanese saw their form of Buddhism as the most refined type (and incidentally, also other cultural traits it absorbed from other cultures). In a place like Kyoto, there was hardly a corner where one would not find a temple, or at least a statue of o-jiz?, the ubiquitous Bodhisattva K?itigarbha who vowed to save all suffering souls even in hell. Because of my research and study, I came into contact with many Buddhological scholars, researchers and students in Japan, many of whom were themselves Buddhist priests, or o-b?san. But when I declared myself to be a Buddhist, no one seemed to understand what I meant. To say the least I was no less confounded than my Japanese colleagues.

It is perhaps well-known to many that in Japan, the total sum of people declaring to be belonging to a particular faith (atheist included) is greater than the total population of Japan. But in reality, very few people actually claimed themselves to be Buddhist as far as personal, religious belief is concerned. Many considered themselves Buddhist with a certain affiliation because of one’s ancestors buried in the ground of a certain temple, or in the case of the married priests, it was a family lineage. The concept of lay Buddhist as well as that of the traditional precepts as understood from the Buddhist text had all together disappeared in the long course of evolution of Japanese Buddhism.

It was a revelation to me that in a country where Buddhism had such a strong presence, the concept of a “Buddhist” hardly existed in the mind of the Japanese. Whereas in the West, being a Buddhist at least meant to have a certain set of beliefs or values, individualistically tailored to one’s own taste might it be, the word Buddhist brought about a medley of ideas and associations in Japan. In fact, many of these associations were alarmingly negative as most modern Japanese prided themselves as a free-thinking civilized and advanced people, who revered Buddhism only for its cultural value. Few except the scholars would take it seriously as a philosophy and no one would expect Buddhism to be adopted as a way of life, not to mention a religious faith. People with religious convictions were often viewed with suspect given the history of corruption and abuse of certain religious groups in Japan, Buddhist included. Recent incidents of harmful religious cults further added to the negative imagery of anything “religious”.

Once I was met with a group of young Buddhist priests who tried to revive Buddhism among young university students. To them, my identity as a lay Buddhist was irrelevant since the concept of Sa?gha was very different for them, who saw themselves as professionals taking care of the welfare of only those belonging to their temple. By the word welfare, it meant some form of services which entailed financial transactions such as purchase of a tomb, rendering memorial service to the ancestors or aborted fetuses and so on. When asked why they tried to revive Buddhism when Buddhism was already so well established in Japan, they explained to me that they tried to create a new image for Buddhism in the mind of the public, that it was a religion of life, full of vitality and that it was “fun and cool”. When I saw their pamphlet showing Buddhist priests making grimaces or enjoying beers partying with girls, I could not help but frown, not because of certain moral high ground, but at the apparent lack of taste in trying to appeal to the mass. But after further investigation, I discovered that the unconventional behaviors of the Japanese monks or priests (which were not distinguished in most cases) were, rather than an “expedient means”, in fact a reality which had evolved to its present state under extremely complicated circumstances. A married monk/priest once sipping a glass of beer, blowing cigarette smoke into my face to which I coughed in indignation explained to me that in Japanese Buddhism, the traditional moral percepts had been transcended. He did not bother to give me the explanation as if either he was not in the mood to explain or that I was incapable to comprehend. I hope only the former was true.

Later as a shocking revelation, I discovered that the Japanese Buddhists indeed had a record of moral transcendence during the militarist period. While in retrospect, many expressed their dismay at how religious institutions failed to voice their concerns in view of the atrocities in Nazi Germany or the Japanese invasion of China, it might be come as a surprise to many that not only did the Japanese Buddhists (except Soka Gakkai which most Japanese Buddhists considered to be non-Buddhist) and notable Zen priests not try to stop the war or voice out on the matter, they in fact supported actively the war. Some priests even went into military service as they saw no conflict between the act of murdering one’s adversaries and their percept of non-violence. War criminals were honored not only in the infamous Yasukuni Shrine, but also Buddhist temples and it was only until as recent as 2003 when the Rinzai Sect issued a public apology for its participation in war time efforts during WWII, after a book on the matter was written by the American scholar Brian Victoria, causing an uproar in the West. The esteemed Zen Master Nakajima Genj?, head of the Hakuin branch of Rinzai Zen who claimed to have been enlightened, at the age of 80, lamented in his tearful autobiography, shockingly, not for the victims of the war, but only his dead comrades who had sacrificed themselves, for a war that was poorly engaged. It was with a heavy heart that I came to realize these examples were in fact the norm rather than exception. In fact, there was a history of close connection between the xenophobic and nationalist Right Wing and the upper echelon of Buddhist hierarchy in Japan. It was no wonder that some of my more liberal Japanese friends looked at me with a wide eye when I declared myself to them as Buddhist.

Under such circumstances, there was no point for me to maintain my identity or label as Buddhist, at least not in Japan, as it projected an image, unintended and seemingly unalterable. While in China, I and my co-religionists often discussed the importance of identifying oneself as Buddhist in public as it served the twofold purposes of setting an exemplar of Buddhist values to others and strengthening one’s own conviction. But my experience in Japan shattered my image of the ideal Buddhist.

At this point, I must mention the Diamond Sutra once again. As I shed my former identities, I built up for myself a new identity as a Buddhist. Perhaps it was time for me to shed that Buddhist identity too altogether, an identity which I held dearly to and helped me to win friends and to gain access to knowledge and understanding which I continue to treasure at heart. But if Buddhist is only called a Buddhist and not a Buddhist, how is Buddhism going to live on and how can those sharing the Buddhist faith unite to transform our troubled world into a better place? How can positive values be built on such vacuous principle of Emptiness which poses the constant threatens of auto-deconstruction?

My experience in Japan was an important lesson for me. Though I heed not to sound overly disparaging as if I am condemning others whom I do not see as living up to the Buddhist standard as I understand, the hard truth is that everywhere in the world people acquire labels for themselves for reasons that are not. It could be a means for survival, an aura one tries to project to impress others or even a political tool that entails manipulation and all forms of abuse of power. On the positive side, there are always people who value human kindness and are touched by the humanistic teachings of the great souls of the past and the Buddha just happened to be one of such illuminating sources.

Ultimately, being a Buddhist indeed has little to do with whether one calls oneself a Buddhist or whether what one practices is labeled as Buddhism at all for that matter. Though many answers are still left unanswered and the journey goes on, with this new understanding, I begin to see the Buddhist in everyone and Buddhism everywhere. It is not a label that I superimpose onto anyone or anything that comes into my field of cognition, but rather it is a recognition of the potentiality for goodness ready to blossom everywhere and in everyone when given the right circumstances and when the right factors ripen. In this sense, being a Buddhist is about how one may develop such insight, inspire others and benefit everyone including oneself from the wonderful and wise teachings of someone who had a profound understanding of human nature and the human condition.

Dr. Bill. M. Mak graduated from Peking University and is currently based in the Department of Indological Studies at Kyoto University.