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Conversation with Venerable Hai Tao on Life, Karma and Life Liberation

Born in Kaohsiung, Taiwan in a family with traditional Chinese faith in 1958, Venerable Master Hai Tao path to Buddhism is an interesting one. Master Hai Tao first encountered Christianity when he was in middle school and was a pious Christian till his years in university. After which, he started a family and become a businessman, and during that time, he also encountered Taoism. In 1992, attracted to the wisdom and philosophy of Buddhism, Master Hai Tao took the Lay Bodhisattva Precepts at Nanzih Tsuyunszu, Kaohsiung under Venerable Master Liao Zhong. Subsequently, Master Hai Tao was ordained as a Buddhist monk under Venerable Zheng Hua at Fu Yan Temple in Xinzu where he continued to practise under the guidance of Venerable Master Ru Xu till 1994 when he took the Full Ordination under Venerable Master Jie De at Miao Tong Monastery in Liouguei, Koahsiung. From then, he continued to propagate the Dharma to benefit all sentient beings, especially using technology and information communication media to engage and reach out to more people using Life TV and other Buddhist activities.

Through Life TV and its network, Master Hai Tao has been able to better integrate Buddhism into the practical daily life of everyone, promoting vegetarianism and life liberation, nurturing compassion, love and understanding as well as purifying one’s past karma to improve spiritual qualities. Known for his humorous and down-to-earth approach in integrating Buddhism into daily life, For You Information had the privilege understand more about living a Buddhism-inspired life, accepting ripening karma and to practising life liberation.

On Living a Buddhism-inspired Life

May we ask what it means to live a Buddhism-inspired life and what made you decide to be a monk?

For me, being a monk is a relief as the "home" is full of feelings, desires, money, material pursuits and the constant troubles too. 

However, with determination to become a monk, I have learnt to transcend these world's feelings and attachments and also stopped contact with both ex-wife and child. There is also a purpose of being a monk, that is to practise compassion – to love all life, to do some things for the sentient beings and in Mahayana teachings, it is to “go out of selfish home into the homes of the sentient beings”.

I think the meaning of life is to lead life with Buddha’s teachings and in the interests of all sentient beings. Also, I know that I because of my decision to be a monk, my ex-wife experienced pain. However, that is only because she thinks the moments (with me as a householder) are happy. But, this happiness is fragile, selfish feelings and possession is bound to cause pain.

And I am fortunate and blessed to have a child who was since young inclined to learn Buddhism. In fact, my decision to be a monk was inspired by him after his visit to Lingyan Temple where he saw how happy the young monks lived in the mountains. After that trip, he became a changed young boy – he wouldn't eat meat, play with toys and he even asked me to become a monk. And because of my affinity with him (and perhaps Dharma seeds ripening), his words meant a lot and I pondered on his words seriously. At the same time, my mum was seriously ill then and I thus, also dedicated the merits of my monkhood to my mother. I was immensely encouraged and my confidence increased too when my mum also miraculously recovered.

Everyone is born with dukkha and I think monkhood provides the opportunity to be liberated from worldly dissatisfaction. Unfortunately, people today are often the pursuit of worldly knowledge, status, rather than the pursuit of truth. Therefore, whether at home or a monk, one should have a monk's heart – to always have compassion and love for all sentient beings.  

On Practice

2. Is there a way to best integrate exoteric and esoteric Buddhism and how can one achieve that?

In Buddhism, there is actually no separation between exotericism and esotericism. And also, there is the commonly mistaken simplistic categorisation that Chinese Buddhism is exoteric and Tibetan Buddhism is esoteric. According to the Buddha’s teachings which is mentioned in the Lotus Sutra《法华经》, it is said there are many types and methods of teachings but they are all the same, belonging to the same teaching (一乘). Thus, the classification of the teachings is in fact arisen because of people’s perspectives, motivations and understandings.

Mahayana teachings explicitly emphasise compassion and removal of anger and ego by advocating emptiness, equality and compassion – this actually refers to the exoteric practice of systematically and explicitly cultivation, either through chanting, practice or acts of service. However, what seems to be mysterious and secret is actually one of the simplest inner esoteric mindfulness, understanding and practice of practice one’s Buddha nature. So, even if there is the exoteric display of practice on the surface and if the heart is "closed" this is only superficial acts and the essence of Buddhism is lost. Most of the differences and conflicts today is derived from lack of understanding. Instead, one should remember to have compassion – if we regard the people around us as the future Buddha – we respect and learn, there will be no problem. 

On Karma – Good vs. Bad, Fake vs. Real

3. When in stressful situations, how does one keep good control of emotions and state of mind?

The reason why we practice is to get rid of dukkha, more commonly referred to as suffering or pain due to dissatisfaction and anger from the pursuit of desire and so on. But we cannot use the external environment to create the peace of mind, rather it should come from the heart and emptiness. We must always remind ourselves that "where all exists, are false". If the fate of one’s own happiness depends on others or outside, one will be in constant state of fear and worry. On the contrary, if you know everything has two sides, there is impermanence, and non-self (anatta), there will not be disappointment and painf. Just as our flesh has a day of destruction, we cannot expect it to be eternal, and it is for this reason that we have to be discerning and wise to spend time on meaningful things.

4. Is there such as thing as good and bad karma – and are they real?

The cause-and-effect principle tells us that the good fortune encountered as a result of past goodness, and wickedness is the result of the evil. 

Therefore, although we talk about emptiness, but cannot exclude karma. When we are faced with evil, we must repent and understand the consequence of the past. Not only should we not blame others, but also try our best to make up for it as karma is not eternal, and through repentance, there is remedy for one to change. It can be said that the good and evil in the world are the help of our practice, just as we have to learn the wisdom of the Buddha, but also to help the criminals become merciful, to learn to see the joy of the Buddha, and not to ignore or despise them. All karma is our teacher. All the good and bad that we experience in life can help us with our Dharma practice in developing tolerance and emptiness. For example, the Buddha explained that sickness, distress and rebirth in different hell and heaven realms are all because of karma and more should take time to listen to the Dharma to break the vicious cycle.

On Life Liberation

5. Life Liberation can be sometimes be seen a type of consumerism. What are your thoughts?  

Life liberation is on many historical records and widely practised. But now, it has been criticised due to factors many factors. That said, there is much improvement needed in ecological and environmental protection but these should not be a deter life liberation as it is one of the swiftest ways to remove obstacles in one’s life and to accumulate merits.

6. What sort of attitude should one adopt when practising life liberation?

It is said that “saving one life is more supreme than building a seven-tiered pagoda or Buddha offering”. Life liberation is not only about trying to eliminate one’s obstacles or purify evil, it is about nurturing compassion – remember that all living beings have once been past parents – give them a chance to survive and hear the Dharma. Buddhism teaches us to proceed from negative non-killing, gradual transition to positive vegetarianism and release. Thus, do not be misguided by selective representation of information on life liberation or be judgemental of those who seek better condition in life. In fact, Buddhism is about hoping that one and all be more fortunate and thus, the compassionate life-loving Bodhisattva attitude should be adopted.

7. There are some problems associated with life liberation: destruction of ecology, unsuitbale place of release, unscrupulous businesses and so on. What do you think about these issues?

Unfortunately, there may be unfavourable misrepresentation and there will also be problems as such, but they are still limited to a few as most of the release of the people are very wise. So, as a Buddhist, one should be wise to use the Dharma and with discernment, carry out life liberation responsibly. Also, one should not blindly follow as practices that would cause more damage and harm to ecological environment and life. For businesses trying to profit, we need to adopt the understanding that the objective of life liberation is to liberate innocent lives and to prevent others from killing them for food or other merchandise. Lastly, life liberation create more positive energy than negative and what is there not for people to consider?

On Modern Learning​

8. Today, many people tend to adopt "selective Buddhism" attitude, picking and choosing what they like, especially from the Internet. What are your thoughts?

The content on the network can be regarded as a kind of knowledge, but practice still depends on oneself and one also needs to have good knowledge and blessings. It cannot be denied that the network for the positive promotion of Buddhism but its negative effects cannot be ignored. It must be noted that there is a lot on the Internet but it is only a fragment. Practitioners tend to think about the purpose and motive of learning what Buddhism is. But in reality, it more than that, the hearing and learning of the Dharma is essential to Enlightenment.

9. Lastly, what advice do you have for the Buddhist in Singapore?

First, I think Buddhists believers in Singapore are very blessed, because there are many traditions that co-exist, like "a hundred flowers bloom". But there may be a problem as they may get too busy running from one place to another, forgetting to quiet down to hear and think of the Dharma. Also there is very good education in Singapore and Buddhist should enhance knowledge with Buddhist teaching and also learn to go out of Singapore to spend quality time in foreign monasteries to visit, learn or even live for a short period of time to get in-depth understanding and practice.

Lastly, there shouldn’t be any attachment to the construction of the "spiritual temple". Every Buddhist, regardless of sectarian and heritage, must have compassion and learn not to have too much blame for the mistakes of others.

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Venerable Master Hai Tao

“All karma is our teacher. All the good and bad that we experience in life can help us with our Dharma practice.”

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