"The sea of suffering is boundless; a turn of the head is the other shore." Taking refuge is the first step. Right at the first step you must advance forward vigorously. Do not turn around and retreat. This is the way to Buddhahood. If you turn around and retreat, you will still fall into the three paths, and wander among the eight difficulties. Therefore, it is said,
The Master brings you in the door,
But you yourself must cultivate.
You yourself must eat to get full;
You must put an end to your own birth and death.
Do not say, "I have taken refuge, so I can depend on the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha." Although the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha have awesome spiritual power, they cannot help you cultivate to realize Buddhahood. They cannot help you to fathom the Buddhadharma, or help you to understand the path of cultivation. It is the Sangha which must propagate the Dharma and cause it to circulate in the world.
Although you have taken refuge with the Triple Jewel, you must still work hard to make progress. Do not kill, steal, engage in sexual misconduct, engage in false speech, or take intoxicants. Then you will have truly received the five precepts. If you continue to kill, steal, engage in sexual misconduct, speak falsely to cheat people, and take intoxicants, then you have taken the five precepts, but you have not really received them.
If you receive the precepts and fail to uphold them, your offenses are increased threefold, because you are fully aware that you are committing them.You know that it is wrong, and yet you do it. You are breaking the precepts, and eventually you will fall. You cannot say, "Oh, I've taken refuge with the Triple Jewel and I've received the five precepts, so I have protection. It doesn't matter if I kill people, or steal things, or commit sexual misconduct. It's all right if I tell lies or take intoxicants."
Someone is thinking, "When we laypeople take the five precepts, the retribution is so severe if we violate them. What about the left-home people who violate their precepts? How do you explain that?" Let me tell you, you should have this attitude:
Mahasattvas do not pay attention to others.
Amitabha Buddha looks after himself.
You should watch over yourself all day long and be mindful in movement and stillness. Turn the light around, and reflect within. Seek within yourself. Every day, ask yourself, "Am I holding the precepts? Have I violated the precepts? After taking refuge with the Triple Jewel, have I been a true Buddhist disciple? Or have I gone over to Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism, Islam, or other religions? Do I study the teachings of external paths?" Didn't I just say that after you take refuge, you should think, "Even if someone said he would kill me if I believed in the Buddha, but would let me live if I didn't, I still wouldn't believe in the external paths."
External paths refer to the demons of the Heaven of Self-Mastery and to all the other demons from the heavens. The demons from the heavens all have spiritual penetrations and psychic powers. They can manifest endless transformations, and they possess the wonderful use of spiritual penetrations. They are always showing off their spiritual penetrations. Buddhist disciples do not show off their spiritual penetrations. If they have them, they will not reveal them or talk about them. Anyone who claims to have spiritual penetrations, such as the penetrations of the heavenly eye and the heavenly ear, belongs to the retinue of the fifty skandha demons and the external paths of the demons from the heavens.
Buddhist disciples must have the Dharma-selecting Eye and not be greedy for easy rewards. If you are greedy in your quest for the Dharma, today you hear people say that the Manifest School is good, so you study it. Tomorrow you hear that the Secret School is not bad, so you go study that. You study your whole life, but because you did not stick to your principle and concentrate on one thing, you have just wasted all that time.
Now that you have taken refuge, you should not break the five precepts. You should practice vigorously according to the Triple Refuge, and strictly uphold the five precepts. The five precepts are the basis for attaining Buddhahood. The laypeople have five precepts, and left-home people have two hundred and fifty precepts. Bhikshunis have three hundred and forty-eight precepts. These precepts are very troublesome and very many, but you have to truly uphold them without transgressing any of them. Basically, precepts are rules for restricting and regulating people's behavior. If you do your best to follow the rules and to avoid making mistakes, then you are upholding the precepts. On the other hand, if you receive the precepts but fail to keep them, then you are still a common person.
The Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha are fair and equal. If men cultivate, they can have attainment. If women cultivate, they can also have attainment. If you don't cultivate, you won't have any attainment. Therefore, all of you should be "generals who do not dismount, but just advance on the journey."
Let's see which of you walks all the way to Buddhahood first and reaches the Land of Ultimate Bliss. By means of the merit of the five precepts, or by leaving the home-life and cultivating the Way, you can be reborn in the Land of Ultimate Bliss. When you reach the Land of Ultimate Bliss, don't just stay there and forget about living beings. You have to come back to save living beings. You should bring forth the Bodhi resolve to vastly save all living beings.
Some people say they want to save living beings now, but if you have not even saved yourself yet, you are like "a clay Bodhisattva crossing the ocean, who has difficulty saving himself." How can you save other living beings? You should first save yourself. If you hope to save living beings before you have saved yourself, that is "renouncing the root to pursue the branchtips" and "overlooking the near to seek afar." If you neglect your own field and plow others' fields, you are making a great mistake.
Therefore, everyone should work hard. Don't rely on your teacher, saying, "My teacher has such and such wisdom." Your teacher cannot give you a little bit of his wisdom. Even if your teacher has attained the Way, you still have to cultivate. If you don't cultivate, then even if the Buddha appeared, he still might not be able to help you.
A talk by the Venerable Master Hua on January 17, 1993, at the Taipei County Stadium in Banqiao, Taiwan