Liberation from Suffering

6) Contemplating the Suffering of Birth and Death

Sentient beings revolve in the cycle of Birth and Death, along the Six Paths, life after life. These are the paths (realms) of celestials, human beings, asuras (titanic demons), animals, hungry ghosts and hell-dwellers. The Eight Sufferings, while common to all sentient beings, concern humans in particular.

Although the celestial path is blessed with more happiness than our world, it is still marked by the Five Signs of Decay and the "things that go against our wishes." The path of the asuras is filled with quarrelling and acrimonious competition. The path of animals, such as buffaloes, cattle, donkeys and horses, is subject to heavy toil. Other domestic animals, such as goats, pigs, chicken and ducks, are subject to violent, untimely death. Still other animals suffer from stupidity, living in filth, and killing one another for food. On the path of hungry ghosts, sentient beings have ugly, smelly bodies, with bellies as big as drums and throats as small as needles, while flames shoot out of their mouths. They are subject to hunger and thirst for incalculable eons. As to the hellish paths -- the sufferings there are so great no words can describe them.

These last four paths (realms) are referred to in the sutras as the "Four Paths of Misery." The degree of suffering, from the path of the asuras downward, is multiplied manyfold for each path. Within these realms, sentient beings revolve in Birth and Death through one realm after another, like a spinning wheel, with neither beginning nor end.

In general, rebirth on the celestial or human paths is difficult and rare, while descent onto the four lower paths is easy and common. For this reason, the ancients lamented:

Born and reborn endlessly along the Six Paths, 
When impermanence strikes, we must let go of everything.

Once while he was still alive, Buddha Sakyamuni scratched a tiny bit of soil with his finger and asked his disciple Ananda, "Where is there more dirt, on my fingertip or in the whole wide world?" Ananda replied, "Great Master, of course there is infinitely more soil in the big, wide world than on your fingertip; it is beyond all possible comparison." The Buddha then said, "Likewise, Ananda, the sentient beings who are reborn on the celestial and human paths are like the dirt on my fingertip, while those who descend onto the lower paths are like the soil in the whole wide world." This example should ring like a bell in the morning calm, waking up cultivators.

In short, as stated in the Lotus Sutra:

The Triple Realm is impermanent and conditioned dharmas bring no happiness.

Those who recite the Buddha's name should seek rebirth in the Western Pure Land to escape the cycle of Birth and Death and gradually attain Buddhahood. They should not seek the false blessings of this earth. Only in this way is Buddha Recitation consonant with the goal of liberation and with the compassionate Mind of Sakyamuni Buddha.

To achieve this aim, the practitioner should constantly meditate on the Eight Sufferings of the human condition, including the untold sufferings of the Six Paths. Otherwise, the determination to escape Birth and Death will not easily arise and the vow to be reborn in the Western Pure Land will not be in earnest. How, then, can he step upon the "other shore" [of liberation] in the future, and, with his wisdom, save all sentient beings?

Buddha Sakyamuni once sighed:

In the Dharma-Ending Age, my disciples will always chase after worldly blessings; very few will pay attention to the major question of Birth and Death.

This is so because they lack wisdom and do not meditate realistically on the suffering in the world. They are not only ungrateful to the Buddhas, they are also ungrateful to themselves. Is it not a great pity?

7) To escape suffering, follow the Pure Land method

Some Buddhist followers, preferring mysterious and transcendental doctrines, at times misunderstand the Pure Land method. Little do they realize that Pure Land is the wonderful gateway to the depth of our Buddha Nature, that it is the "guaranteed boat" to escape Birth and Death. Even persons of the highest capacity sometimes do not understand Pure Land and therefore, continually tread the path of delusion. On the other hand, there are instances of ordinary people with merely average capacities who, through the Pure Land method, have begun to step swiftly towards emancipation. I will cite a few examples here for your consideration.

In T'ang Dynasty China, in a temple called Fragrant Mountain in the district of Loyang, there was a Buddhist monk named Mirror of Emptiness.

He came from a destitute family, and, though diligent in his studies, was a mediocre student in his youth. As an adult, he used to compose poems, few of which are quoted or remembered. He would travel throughout central China seeking support from local leaders, without much result. As soon as he would accumulate some savings he would fall ill, exhausting all his funds by the time he recovered.

Once, he travelled to a neighboring district, which at that time was struck by famine. He was thinking of reaching the Temple of the Western Land to eat and regain strength, but on the way, felt too hungry to go further. He decided to rest by a snow-covered spring, reciting verses of self-pity and despondency.

Suddenly, an Indian monk appeared and sat down beside him. Smiling, he asked, "Elder Master, have you already exhausted the sweet dew of distant travel?" He answered, "I have indeed exhausted the nectar of travel; however, my name is ... and I have never been a high-ranking Buddhist master." The Indian monk replied, "Have you forgotten the time you were preaching the Lotus Sutra at the Temple of ... ?" -- Answer: "For the last forty-five years, since I was born, I have always been in this vicinity. I have never set foot in the capital and therefore cannot have preached at the temple you mentioned." The Indian monk answered, "Perhaps you are starving and have forgotten all about the past." Thereupon, he took an apple as big as a fist from his bag and gave it to the famished poet, saying, "This apple comes from my country. Those of high capacities who eat it can see the past and future clearly. Those of limited capacities can also remember events of their past lifetimes."

The poet gratefully accepted the apple, ate it, and proceeded to drink the spring water. Feeling suddenly drowsy, he rested his head on the rocks and began to to doze off. In an instant, he awakened and remembered his past life as a high-ranking Buddhist monk, preaching the Dharma along with fellow monks, as clearly as though everything had happened the previous day.

He wept and asked, "Where is the Great Abbot Chan these days?" The Indian monk replied, "He did not cultivate deeply enough. He has been reborn a monk in Western Szechuan." The starving poet asked further, "What has become of the great masters Shen and Wu?" "Master Shen is still alive. Master Wu once joked in front of the rock monument at the Fragrant Mountain Temple, 'If I cannot attain Enlightenment in this life, may I be reborn as a high-ranking official in the next one.' As a result, he has now become a top general. Of the five monks who were close in the past, only I have managed to escape Birth and Death. The three others are as described ... and you, the fourth and last one, are still plagued by hunger in this place."

The starving poet shed a tear of self-pity and said: "In my previous life, for forty long years I took only one meal a day and wore only one robe, determined to rid myself of all mundane preoccupations. Why is it that I have fallen so low as to go hungry today?"

The Indian monk replied: "In the past, when you occupied the Dharma seat, you used to preach many superstitions, causing the audience to doubt the Dharma. In addition, you were not entirely faultless in keeping the precepts, resulting in today's retribution."

Having finished, the Indian monk took a mirror from his bowl, with flawless reflection on both sides, and said "I cannot undo what happened in the past. However, If you want to know your future destiny, whether you will be rich or poor, have a long or short life, even the future ups and downs of the Dharma, just have a look in the mirror and all will be clear." The poet took the mirror and gazed into it for a long time. Returning it, he said, "Thanks to your compassionate help, I now know causes and retribution, honor and disgrace."

The Indian monk put the mirror back in his bowl, took the poet by the hand, and started to walk away. After about ten steps, he disappeared.

That same night, the poet entered the Order at the Temple of the Divine Seal, and was given the Dharma name "Mirror of Emptiness." After receiving the complete precepts of a Bhikshu, he travelled throughout the country practicing the Way, his high conduct and ascetic practices being praised by all.

Later on, Zen Master Mirror of Emptiness once met with a certain layman from the Temple of the Western Land. Telling the latter about his past, he said: "I am now 77 years old, my Dharma age is 32. I have only nine more years to live. After my death, who knows if the Dharma will still exist as it is now?" The layman, puzzled, tried to inquire further. The Master did not reply. He just requested a pen and began scribbling some lines on the north wall of the tower which housed the Tripitaka (Buddhist canon).. The words represented the prophecy of Zen Master Mirror of Emptiness, the gist of which is as follows:

The Dharma will experience a decline. There will be ruthless persecution of Buddhism, the period of persecution beginning in the 840's. However, the Dharma will survive; the light of the Dharma will not be extinguished.

This prophecy is consonant with the destruction of Buddhism under the Chinese Emperor T'ang Wu Tsung, who ordered the razing of some 47,000 temples and forcibly returned hundreds of thousands of monks and nuns to the laity.

Around the year 1330, there was a long period of famine in China. In the town of Hangchou, the bodies of those who had died of starvation could be found everywhere, cluttering the streets. Every morning, corpses were dumped in a mountain cave behind the Pagoda of Great Harmony.

Among the dead was the body of an old woman, which did not decompose for ten days. Each day, her body would somehow rise above the others and lie on top of them all. Surprised at the sight, the people lowered a rope and dragged her body up. They found a small pocket on her robe containing three sheets of paper, decorated with a picture of Amitabha Buddha, and recording the number of her daily recitations. This became known to the local magistrate, who ordered that her body be placed in a coffin and cremated. As flames engulfed the coffin, people reported seeing images of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas emitting brilliant rays. Thanks to this event, many people began to take up Buddha Recitation.

Through the first story, we can deduce that the monk Mirror of Emptiness, had been, in his previous life, a high-ranking master lecturing on the Dharma; he had reached a certain level of achievement and had expended a fair amount of effort in his practice. However, because he had not attained the Way[10] and still had some minor flaws, he was reborn as a hungry, destitute scholar. Of the five Buddhist monks, only the Indian monk had managed to escape the cycle of Birth and Death.

In addition to Zen Master Mirror of Emptiness, we may also read a) the life story of a great Elder Master whose rebirth as a buffalo was due to his greed for money and his stinginess with the Dharma, b) the story of a Master of high repute who, because he improperly accepted offerings, was reborn as a daughter in the household of his disciple, c) the story of a monk who led an illustrious life but, because of the reappearance of evil karma accumulated from time immemorial, had to undergo rebirth as a person lacking intelligence and resentful of cultivators, d) the story of a well-known Master who, having seen the Way through meditation, was reborn as a monk praised and respected by all, but then, swayed by his blessings, forgot all about the path of liberation, e) the story of the disciple of a great master who became enlightened to the source of the Mind, but who, because he had not yet attained the Way, was reborn as a brilliant monk. He could not, however, control thoughts of power and arrogance, and from then on, there was no evil karma he did not commit.

There is also the story of a nun who had recited the Lotus Sutra for thirty years, but because she had not rid herself of attachment to form and sound, was reborn as a beautiful courtesan with a most alluring voice and lotus fragrance emanating form her mouth.

We can read of many such instances in books and commentaries. The lesson we can derive is that if we rely only on our own strength (self-power) to cultivate without having extinguished evil karma and severed greed, anger and delusion, we are bound to be deluded upon rebirth. Out of ten cultivators, as many as eight or nine will fail. On the other hand, take the case of the old woman mentioned earlier, who merely practiced Buddha Recitation, ignorant though she was on questions of doctrine and knowing nothing about this school or that teaching. Because she earnestly recited Amitabha's name, many extraordinary events occurred after her death, pointing to her rebirth in the Pure Land.

Thus, the Dharma doors of Zen, Sutra Recitation and other methods are all praiseworthy schools to be encouraged. however, in this Dharma-Ending Age, we should practice Buddha Recitation in addition, dedicating all merits to rebirth in the Pure Land, to ensure escape from the cycle of Birth and Death. If we do not take the Pure Land as our goal, the virtues gained from practicing other methods can only provide good roots, merits and blessings, and serve as causes and conditions of liberation in the future.

This being the case, we should fear the prospect of being deluded during rebirth, and mired for a long time in the wasteland of Birth and Death. How many of us have as much intelligence as the Great Master Wu Ta? He was a high-ranking Zen monk for ten lifetimes; in his last lifetime, before attaining Enlightenment, he was able to lecture in depth on the Great Nirvana Sutra when barely fourteen. However, because of one delusive thought of pride [over the sandalwood throne offered to him by the Emperor as a symbol of loftiness], his past karma reappeared as a sore, in the form of a human face, on his lap. He was finally saved and reborn in the Pure Land through Buddha Recitation. Those who would rely solely on their own wisdom, discoursing on lofty and profound principles, respecting only self-power and belittling Buddha Recitation, should pay heed to this example and reflect upon it.