A talk given by the Venerable Master Hsuan-hua
by Bhiksuni Heng Yin
People are born. And once people are born, it's for certain they're going to die. However everyone likes to be born and no one likes to die. The reason people don't like to die is because they don't understand how it was they came to be born and they don't know how it is they're going to die. They don't know what it means to die. Everyone likes to be alive but when it comes time to die, everyone is very grieved. They don't understand the principle behind birth and death, behind the turning wheel of birth and death. Once you really understand, there's nothing really to delight in about life and nothing really to grieve over about death.
In China there was a great poet and scholar named Li T'ai-bai who said,
As to heaven and earth,
they are just a great hotel for
the ten thousand things.
They are just an inn, which welcomes you to come and stay.
Time keeps passing and never stops. Once time passes and is gone there is no way to get it back. We live as if in a dream. Think about human life—do you know what we are all doing here? We are just dreaming. Everything is a dream. What joy is there in this? How much happy time do you have here? You really should not look upon everything that's going on as being so real. Human life is just like acting a part in a play. In the Vajra Sutra are the lines:
All conditioned dharmas
Are like dreams, illusions, bubbles, shadows,
Like dewdrops and a lightning flash:
Contemplate them thus.
"Conditioned" means those things that have shape and appearance, all material things. These lines tell us not to be attached to birth and death. If you aren't born then you will not die. Why is it that you die? It's just because you're born. If you are not born then you won't die. And that place you came from, that you were born from, is the same place that you're going to die in, that same state. It's none other than sexual desire. People are born because of sexual desire and they die as a result of sexual desire. They're born and they're born and they die and they die and they're born. It's all because of sexual desire. If people really want to end birth and be relieved from death, the first thing they have to do is go against the flow. Now what is the flow that you have to go against? You have to go against the flow of the six sense objects that people are caught up in.
What are the six sense objects? They are the objects of the six sense organs: form, sounds, smells, tastes, tangible objects and dharmas. If you are not moved or turned by these six, then you have a chance to end birth and death. This is why people who have great wisdota, who wish to end birth and death, will go against the flow of the six sense objects and they will go with the flow of the Dharma nature of the sage.
If you want to go with the flow of the sage, with the flow of the Dharma nature, then you are going to have to cultivate. If you want to cultivate, you are going to have to know how to go about it. Since you don't know how to cultivate and you just sort of grab at this and grab at that and practice blindly, then you may cultivate for as many great aeons as there are motes of dust, but you won't accomplish anything. You won't end birth and death.
With birth there is inevitably going to be death. Where there is no birth there will be no death. Birth and death are a pair of opposites. Of all the people from ancient times to the present, there are very few who have understood the problem of birth and death. The vast majority of people do not understand. Because the majority of people do not understand birth and death, day by day the number of people who don't understand increases while the number of people who do understand decreases.
People who don't understand birth and death think that when you die it's all over. It's just like switching off the light. After death there's nothing. There is no future life and there's no former life. They think this way because they do not know that even when people are alive they're undergoing birth and death. Today is born and tomorrow, today is dead. The day after is born and the next day it is dead. People live for several decades, but it's not that they actually die after several decades, they're dying from the day they are born. For every day they live, that day is dead. If it isn't dead then why can't they get it back again? So what can you say except that it's dead?
We don't have to wait until our energy goes out of our body to be considered dead. Even while we are living, for every day that goes by in our life, it's a day toward our death. Every day we've died that much more. And you cannot get that time back. You can't hold on to today. When it goes by it's turned into tomorrow. And if you try to get a hold on tomorrow, once it's gone by it will already be the day after. So you should understand that while you are living, you are dying. This is something that nobody can logically contradict. Nobody can argue with this.
You can consider the death of a person as a day gone by. Once a day goes by it's not the fact that everything is over. There is still tomorrow. And after tomorrow goes, there's still the day after. People are the same way. They die and they get born and once they are born then they die again. They are like seeds. As a seed dies it bears another seed. And those new seeds in turn will die and bear other seeds. Birth and death are a continual process. The new replaces tie old and what becomes new replaces what grows old. The old dies and the new is born. If you look at generations of people, a father has a son and this, too, is an example of birth and death, because once the son is born the father just waits to die. Once the father dies his son has a son and the new father waits to die. Passing through generations of birth and death, birth and death, birth and death. This is the kind of birth and death, which is visible and obvious. But there is another kind of birth and death, which is imperceptible. Every person has a spirit within him, a soul. And this spirit or soul is just the Buddha nature. It is identical in every person. A sage doesn't have any more of the Buddha nature than an ordinary person and an ordinary person doesn't have any less. It is a very equal thing. A sage returns to the root and goes back to the source because a sage knows how to use his inherent wisdom. An ordinary person is not able to do this. He cannot go back where he came from. So he runs ahead down a road which turns out to lead to stupidity. The sage, meanwhile, is travelling the road to wisdom. This, too is a kind of birth and death.
If you want to end birth and death, you can turn to the "people" teaching, the "mind" teaching, and the "Buddha" teaching. If you understand these then you can end birth and death. Actually these three teachings are different names for the same thing. No matter what religion you belong to you are living creatures and you have a Buddha nature. The Buddha said that all living beings possess the Buddha-nature and can all become Buddhas. How do we become Buddhas? We do it by understanding birth and death, by getting free of birth and death and arriving at a place where there is no birth and death.
What proof is there that through Buddhism one can end birth and death? Because with Buddhism one can get free of birth and death. Birth and death come to be in your control and not something that controls you. That means if I want to live, then I can live for several hundred years, several thousand years, or seven million years and never die. But if I want to die then I can just sit there and go any time I want. You can even stand and go. You can do it any way you want. You are free. If you want to be born, you're born and if you want to die, you die. That's called having control over birth and death. If you are like that, the hosts in heaven can't push you around and the leaders of earth can't push you around and the hosts of people can't push you around. You are your own master. That's called freedom over birth and death.
There's a public-record, which took place in the Sung dynasty of China. It tells about a Master who cultivated and got free of birth and death so that he could live if he wanted and die if he chose. Not only was he that way, his young attendant was also that way. The Master was the Abbot of Gold Mountain Monastery, the Ch'an Master Tao-yueh. This event took place during the Southern Sung period. At that same time there was a great and famous general named Yao-fei, a.k.a. Peng-chu. His posthumous title bestowed upon him by the emperor was Wu-wang.
At the time of this public-record Yao-fei was in battle against Chi wu-chu and had defeated him so badly that he had retreated with his tail between his legs and his armor flapping. Another contemporary of that Sung period was Ch'in-hui, a traitor who falsified imperial documents. Ch'in-hui arranged that Yao-fei be given some false orders commanding him to return to the capital Ch'in-hui planned by this maneuver to drive Yao-fei into a position where he could defeat him once and for all. But as it turned out, when Yao-fei received the orders, which he took to be true, he was unable to go directly to the capital, but ended up taking a route that led him past Gold Mountain Monastery. Yao-fei was a Buddhist and had taken refuge with the Abbot Tao-yueh, so he took the opportunity to ask his teacher what his future would be. Ch'an Master Tao-yueh said to him, "Don't go back. If you go back to court there is going to be a gre8t misfortune."
But Yao-fei said, "The emperor has ordered me to return and I don't dare go against his orders. I have to go back."
"All right," said Ch'an Master Tao yueh “If you are determined to go back there is nothing I can do about it. But first I will tell you this." And he spoke a verse for General Yao-fei:
When it's not yet the end of New Year's
Protect yourself from heaven's tears.
Under the feng are two dots.
The general is going to spit poison.
Be careful! Be careful!
There's going to be bitterness at Feng-po.
He left it at that without explaining the verses, and General Yao-fei went on his way to the court. When he arrived at Ling-an in Hang-chou, Ch'in-hui the traitor captured him and began to interrogate him, asking him where he was going and where his troops were and accusing him of being a traitor, of deserting the army, and of conspiring with the enemy by leaving his post. Basically Yao-fei could never have done these things, but he was accused and had no way to clear himself. Yao-fei would never have cooperated with the enemy but Ch'in-hui had blood in his eye and so he accused Yao-fei and then prepared to execute him. It happened to be New Year's Eve. The first line of the verse said, "When it's not yet the end of New Year's/ Protect yourself from heaven's tears." On the day of the execution it was pouring down rain. "Under the feng() are two dots." By placing two dots under that character feng one gets the character ch'in(), which was Ch'in-hui's name. So Ch'an Master Tao-yueh thus revealed the actual traitor. "The general will spit poison," refers again to Ch'in-hui. "Be careful! Be careful! There's going to be bitterness at Feng-po." Ch'an Master Tao–yueh had warned him, when you stop at Feng-po a lot of people are going to be suffering for you. There's going to be a lot of grief: It was there that he died. When Yao-fei first heard the verse it made no sense. Now that he understood, it was too late. It was time for him to die. As he thought of his Master's prediction just before he was beheaded, he cried, "Oh, my teacher Tao-yueh, my teacher Tao-yueh, if I'd listened to you would this day have come for me?"
Ch'in-hui had used a man named Ho-li to do the execution and when Ho-li returned to him, Ch'in-hui asked, "What did Yao-fei say before he died?"
Ho-li said, "He said, 'Teacher Tao-yueh, teacher Tao-yueh if I'd listened to you would this day have come for me?"'
"Incredible!" thought Ch'in-hui, "Tao-yueh knew that I wanted to kill Yao-fei. This will never do." And to Ho-li he said, "You will have to go get Tao-yueh'; head and bring it back here to me for an audience." So off went Ho-li to kill Tao-yueh. But Ch'an Master Tao-yueh there at Gold Mountain Monastery already knew all about this and so on that day he mounted the High Seat and spoke Dharma. At the end of his Dharma lecture he said the following verse:
This year I'm thirty-nine.
And there's gossip around here all the time.
What is it all about?
It's just because I opened my mouth.
If the Buddhadharma were not so grand
I would certainly have been killed by another's hand
Ho-li's coming in from the east
And I'm going out towards the West.
In Buddhism the West represents death, for when you die you go to the Western Land, the paradise of Amitabha Buddha. So he said, "Who wants to go with me?"
All his disciples called out, "I want to go!"
"How far can you travel in a day?" he asked one monk.
"Eighty miles." came the reply.
"That's no good," he said, "You won't make it."
"How far can you go?" he asked another.
"I can do a hundred and twenty." came the reply.
"Still too slow. You won't make it either."
Then his little attendant asked, "May I go, sir?"
"How far can you go in a day?" asked the Master.
"How ever far you can go, I can go just as far." was his reply. "I can go all the way."
"Let's go, then." said the Master and he just sat there and died. Both of them died. The Master sat and died and the attendant stood and died. Simultaneously.
Now if he wasn't really free how could he have died right when he wanted to? If his attendant hadn't, been free how could he have accompanied him and died while standing there? There's dying and there's dying. When ordinary people die their bodies get smelly and worms crawl out and they swell up and split open and turn blue. But when a sage dies his body doesn't smell, it doesn't rot. It just stays the way it always was. It's preserved. That shows that they have accomplished their cultivation and are free of birth and death.
So you should all realize that birth and death is not something you can't put an end to. It's not something that's impossible for people to understand. It's just that people don't want to understand it. They don't want to be free and so they never make that level. Ch'an Master Tao-yueh and his young attendant were free of birth and death and in Buddhism there are uncountable stories like this. It's just that in former times they didn't have TV or radio or telephone or newspapers or any mass media so very few people knew about these things when they happened. Besides cultivators don't know anything about public relations. They just have the attitude "Mahasattvas don't watch over other people. Amitabha Buddha, it's every man for himself." Now in the West people are much more intelligent than they were then and they're looking at the problem of death. If you really want to understand birth and death, we have Tathagata Monastery and there are a lot of rooms in it. You can go into seclusion there for ten years and see what happens. You're certain to end birth and death. If you don't have that much time you can go in for five years or three years and try it out. Work really hard and you can all obtain freedom over birth and death.