Life is often compared to a journey. Before reaching the end, we must cross smooth and rough patches in both fair weather and foul. We sometimes require walking sticks to help us over difficult stretches and signposts to guide us through passes. The thought and wisdom of our forebears, reinforced by contemplation and actual practice, serve as our walking sticks and guideposts on the journey of life. True happiness is attained by acquiring wisdom, but it cannot be acquired in a day. The acquisition of wisdom demands sincere effort to learn in all aspects of life, the inspiration of ideals, and the unfailing will to improve.
Learning is more than increasing knowledge or understanding things intellectually. To understand a thing with one's head alone is not to have mastered it. Mastery entails understanding with the whole body, which is possible only after we have repeatedly put into practice what we have learned.
The five practices of teachers of the Law set forth in the Lotus Sutra indicate the importance of practice. The five practices are receiving and keeping the Lotus Sutra, reading it, reciting it, interpreting or explaining it, and copying it. The practical actions of reading, reciting, explaining, and copying the sutra make it possible to master the teachings. And this in turn enables us to receive and keep the sutra with even deeper understanding.
More than merely mastering knowledge or technical skills, true learning includes striving to become the best human being one can, perfecting the self and elevating the personality. The task of learning is often compared to scaling a mountain: the more one learns, the loftier and more distant the summit seems to be.
Probably no one truly believes he or she knows everything and has nothing else to learn, yet people tend to be conceited about their knowledge. Thus it is essential to be sincere about learning, especially when we are young. Mindful of the old saying that lack of effort in youth and the prime of life leads to pain and grief in old age, we must realize it is important to study diligently and enthusiastically while young in order to lay the foundation on which to build a richer later life.
People often have a vague knowledge of a subject, only to discover on being required to explain it to others that they actually do not understand it at all. Of course the degree of one's interest in a subject has a bearing on one's understanding of it. Nonetheless, if one is asked to lecture before a group, instead of shrinking from the task it is better to welcome it as an incentive to study further. Having to explain something to others as well as we can makes us aware of our deficiencies and stimulates us to reflect on the need for additional effort.
People who can explain things so that others understand are usually very experienced at explaining. In addition, they themselves are constantly learning, and discovering and remedying their own deficiencies. In other words, teaching others demands that one learn; and learning qualifies one to teach. To engender wisdom and cultivate a profoundly humane personality, teacher and pupil must learn diligently together.
Both learning and teaching are means of discovering our own deficiencies. Furthermore, teachers must always calmly reflect on their own attitudes and must also make ceaseless efforts to continue learning.
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Learning from the past is important because our forebears have left much that is extremely useful to us today. The history of people of the past and of the events they experienced is a reservoir of wisdom and philosophy. This is why learning about history through books, television, and films enables us to look more deeply at our own way of life and in this way make our lives richer and more meaningful. Moreover, history is rich in lessons for people who are suffering or in despair or are about to make a new start in life.
In history we see the rise and fall of civilizations and individuals, the fortunes of people experiencing the full gamut of emotions. From history's vicissitudes, a single pattern emerges. The beginning of a process is always characterized by vigorous creative energy. Then, as the form being created reaches completion, a period of stability follows. Thereafter, under the influence of inertia and apathy, the initial energy is dissipated, people become dejected, and downfall is inevitable. The history of nations and of the careers of people of the past reveals this, and the same pattern is occurring today in our own lives. Caught up in the maelstrom of events, however, we do not perceive the pattern, even when we are about to err. History enables us to understand our own circumstances and the underlying reasons for our mistakes.
The study of history provides us with many guideposts that can help us avoid foolish repetition of past mistakes. Three principles especially stand out among the things I have learned from such study. First, do not become obsessed with proximate phenomena, but always take the longest possible view of affairs. Second, do not become obsessed with one aspect, but always take a broad, multifaceted view of affairs. Third, do not become unduly absorbed in details, but always observe fundamentals. Examining events and considering them deeply in this way enable us to acquire wisdom and formulate guidelines based on experience gleaned from the past.
History is not confined to books. Each of us has an individual history extending from birth to the present. Our own histories and those of all the people we meet contain many important lessons and much nourishment for our further development.
Among the many things older and more experienced people can teach us is the kind of consideration for others that is gradually disappearing from modern life. Because our society has become increasingly urbanized, most people have no experience with farming and know nothing of the hardships of a farmer's work, and therefore are not thankful enough for their food. This is just one example of the way in which consideration for others has tended to languish as life has become more comfortable.
Through experience and learning from our forebears, we should to try to cultivate consideration for others, since such consideration enriches life and is important in maintaining social harmony. History should not be approached as a subject to be learned by rote, but as a guide to living. If we adopt this approach, we will always comprehend the wisdom that history bequeaths us.
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We are diligent in daily religious discipline in order to perfect our character, that is, to become people who are naturally in harmony with the time, the place, and those around them. Such people are always aware of the essential self, even in the face of ceaseless change, and they try to improve not only themselves and those around them but also their surroundings. We can become such ideal people only through earnest efforts to master the principles of right living, advancing step by step.
In mastering the principles of kendo, or Japanese fencing, there are three stages of progress. The first is sticking to the principles, and the second is deviating from the principles. But since merely deviating from the principles can lead to recklessness and injury, trainees must proceed to the third stage, that of transcending the principles. At this stage, they have reached a higher level, where they are free to be creative and original, suiting their technique to time, place, and opponent, while never forgetting the principles.
We experience similar stages in perfecting the personality. First we must study and master the principles of right living. After this we are free to make full use of our own abilities. Repeated efforts to master the principles of right living ultimately enable us to react appropriately in all circumstances without ever losing sight of the essential self.
Although various stages precede the attainment of the ability to react in this way, the most important is mastery of the principles of right living. Learning the principles of right living means first of all sincerely accepting and following the advice of more experienced people and of leaders. Next, it is important to be always ready to examine and master the import of traditional wisdom implicit in such principles. It is of course desirable that people at this stage of learning be supported by older people of greater experience and development.
Since ancient times the Chinese have considered the well-rounded person to be one whose personality combines the gentle warmth of spring, the fervent enthusiasm of summer, and the severity of autumn and winter. Such a person will sometimes embrace younger people with warmth and will sometimes guide them with severity, and will always be ardently oriented toward the achievement of ideals. With the aid of the stern love of such a person, younger people can develop wholesomely and can cultivate in themselves the essential virtues. Furthermore, outstanding older people set examples that inspire younger people to further self-improvement. In short, leaders and people of greater experience exert a very strong influence on young people.