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Freeing Ourselves from Habitual Tendencies

September 1st, 2015

Regardless of whether one possesses a good or bad personality, one must always cultivate inwardly through listening to the sublime teachings, and practise outwardly through walking the sublime way, to purify the mind and return to innate tranquillity. Our nature is influenced by the world’s ways and habits, so we need to make a conscious mental aspiration to attain Nirvana, that is cultivating the transcendental Dharma right within the mundane world.

Every layperson has habitual tendencies. Even Buddhist practitioners, who seem worry-free on surface, are not spared, if they still possess a small fraction of emotional afflictions which could lead to habitual tendencies.

Habitual tendencies not only affect this present life, but may also affect future lives the way karma does. Just like the fragrance that persists in the bottle even after the perfume has been used up. It is also like a seed, which may be stored for many years, but as soon as it meets with the right conditions, it will begin to grow, sprout, bloom and bear fruits. Over time, its flowers will produce more seeds which will grow again with the right conditions.

Each of Buddha’s disciples possessed their particular character traits. With respect to Sariputra, the Buddha once exclaimed: “Just as a mountain of rock is unwavering and well-settled, so the monk, whose delusion is ended, is undisturbed like a mountain.”

Being one of the two chief male disciples of the Buddha along with Maudgalyayana, Sariputra was recognized as a modest person, who had respectfully thanked a seven-year-old sramanera (novice monk) for pointing out that his undergarment was trailing. Sariputra was indeed a role model in terms of self-reflection. How many of us could humble ourselves to accept corrections by our juniors?

Habits are tendencies of behaviour, which are perpetuated through repetition. What one repeats becomes habitual and habits can be good or bad. When being held unconsciously for a long period of time, habitual tendencies are shaped and they are usually not easily detected.

Another disciple of the Buddha, Gavampati, understood the Buddhadharma at a very high level, but his name meant “cow-cud”. This is because although this monk was highly accomplished in his spiritual practice, he still had a habitual tendency that was carried over from past lifetimes. What was this matter?

Many, many lifetimes ago, he joined the monastic life at a young age. In the Sangha, there was a bhiksu (a fully-ordained Buddhist monk), who was very old with no teeth, and had a habit of constantly making a chewing motion. The little novice saw this and thought it was funny, so he often imitated his chewing motion; and sometimes, the old monk would also snort like a cow. This little monk would follow him around and always poke fun at him. This was how he began to develop this chewing habit.

The old monk was well-established in the Buddhist practice, so he excused this as actions of a child and did not feel afflicted. However, people around told the novice, “Little monk, you have to respect your elders. Don’t be so naughty.” But he continued to mimic the old monk’s quirk to the other monks. We can imagine how mischievous this novice was but this had become his habit.

Since then, he was born as a cow for 500 lifetimes and had the behaviour and habitual tendencies of a cow. After that, he was born human again, but still brought his bovine habitual tendencies from those 500 lifetimes to his life as a human for another 500 lifetimes. This is truly taxing as 500 lifetimes on top of another 500 lifetimes is 1,000 lifetimes!

The little monk meant no harm with his actions 1,000 lifetimes ago, as he was just playful. But, this had led to karmic retributions. Even after 500 lifetimes being a cow and another 500 lifetimes as a human, the bovine habitual tendencies still remained till the Buddha’s time.

Though he got to meet the Buddha because of wholesome karmic connections, and later joined the Buddhist monastic order, some of those tendencies stayed on. His tendency to ruminate like a cow was not fully eliminated.

The Buddha was afraid that people would disrespect or slander him, and that such people would then have to bear similar karmic retributions. For this reason, the Buddha told everyone that his mouth movement was actually an act of chanting. The Buddha gave him a string of beads to hold as if he was performing recitations.

The Buddha saw that he was well-cultivated, took the Dharma to heart, and attained self-realization. He had no further afflictions, freed from the delusion of existence, and became a breaker of bonds (arhat). However, he was unable to eradicate his habitual tendencies. This Buddhist story truly brings about changing realizations, and reminds us to exercise great reverence and vigilance at all times.

Among the eminent disciples of the Buddha, Subhuti had only collected alms from the rich irrespective of the distance. He felt that for the rich, giving away a portion of their belongings would have only a minimal impact on their level of comfort. For the poor, since they could not even cope with their own basic provisions for a decent living, he was unwilling to add to their burden by collecting alms from them even on an empty stomach.

In contrast, Mahakasyapa never collected alms from the rich. His reasoning was that the rich must already have accumulated merits in their past through their generosity. Why should he bother to allow them to gain even more? Instead, he thought he should direct his attention to helping the poor by providing them with the opportunity to gain merits and escape from poverty.


Their two extremes came to the Buddha’s attention, and he called for an assembly to advise them, “Collecting alms from only the rich or the poor is unbalanced. My teachings are based upon equality. To collect alms from one household to the next implies that we would collect alms impartially without discrimination.”


Both Mahakasyapa and Subhuti are two of the ten great disciples of the Buddha. Mahakasyapa preferred to exemplify the Dharma by perfectly following the life of a Buddhist ascetic. He would select an isolated place for practice, and was aloof to worldly desires and material pursuits. He did not worry about food or clothing, nor did he have any sense of loss or gain. He considered asceticism to be a happy state of life, thus was known as foremost in austere practices.

For Subhuti, when the Buddha discouraged his extreme preference for alms, he subsequently mended his ways. He was always respectful and obedient to the Buddha. In performing acts of charity, he gave freely without self-oriented motivation. In liberating others, he simply helped with ultimate selflessness. He was known as foremost in understanding the doctrine of emptiness, who dwelt free from desires and the delusion of existence.


The Master once said, “Though some disciples have a heart for Tzu Chi, they do not practise the essence of Jing Si. Habitual tendencies need to be corrected in order to bring out an air of spiritual refinement and work together towards establishing ‘one’ home.”


In managing Tzu Chi Foundation, Master hopes that the disciples would reach a common understanding about “establishing one home” and strive for this shared goal. This will ensure the spirit of Tzu Chi and the essence of Jing Si will live on. Otherwise, gifted individuals with a silo mentality will only put tremendous stress on the Master.

This serves as an earnest reminder for Tzu Chi people, who wish to do good deeds only by joining in the activities but have no intention of removing their habitual tendencies by grasping the essence of the Dharma. This will cause considerable distress and hinder the Foundation’s success.

Therefore, regardless of a good or bad personality, one must always cultivate inwardly through listening to the sublime teachings, and practise outwardly through walking the sublime way, to purify the mind and return to our original state of calmness. Our nature is influenced by the world’s ways and habits, so we need to make a conscious mental aspiration to attain Nirvana in the human world, that is cultivating the transcendental

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