A talk given by the Venerable Master Hsuan Hua at the Seminar on Dying held at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas in November 1976

Translated by Bhiksuni Heng Hsien

What we are attempting to do at Gold Mountain Monastery is spread the unsurpassed, profound, subtle and wonderful Dharma doors of Buddhism throughout the entire world and to all mankind, and enable all mankind to escape suffering and attain happiness, to end birth and cast off death. That is why the Buddhism of Gold Mountain Monastery is absolutely not the Buddhism of one given country. The Buddhism propagated by Gold Mountain exhausts empty space and the Dharma Realm, and belongs to all mankind. "All mankind" includes within it both good and evil representatives of the human species. Good is this world's life force, while evil is the world's tendency to death.  If you wish to live forever and never get old, then you should exert yourself to the utmost in doing good. If you wish to die a little sooner, then do evil, and you will die fast. That is why it is said that doing good is the ability to live, while doing evil is the work of death. Because of that, we people should exert ourselves to the utmost in doing good, and not do evil.  As it is said:

Refrain from committing all evil,

Offer up all good conduct.

Establish merit, establish virtue, and

Establish culture.

What is meant by establishing merit? It means to set up in the world all the various kinds of things that can be advantageous to people. To establish virtue is to exhaust one's efforts in acting in ways that benefit people. To establish culture is to study and set down sayings, in order to teach and transform the human beings who are to come. That is to establish merit, to establish virtue, and to establish culture. That is the good side of things, and it is the side of life. However, if all you do is commit offense karma and make a great many mistakes, that is to go along the road of death. Therefore, this question of birth and death hinges upon whether you do good or evil.

Take the person who does evil to excess. It is said of him, "The measure of his wickedness is full," and so he has to undergo the retribution.  For example, if you murder people, people will murder you. If you steal from people, people will steal from you; up to and including if you engage in false speech, sexual misconduct, or the taking of intoxicants, or anything else: when the time comes, you have to undergo the retribution yourself. If it weren't for this law of cause and retribution, reciprocity and the repayment of debts, then people could do evil to their hearts' content. Why is that? It is because there would be no retribution. But because there is retribution, when we people do things, we should be extremely careful and take pains to avoid wrongdoing. Furthermore, that is a method for thwarting birth and death. If you plant good causes, then you will reap good results. If you plant evil causes, then you will reap evil results. That is why it is said that cause and effect are never off by a hair's breadth. Due to the existence of cause and effect, when we people do things we should:

Select the good and keep it.

What is not good, change.

If it's the Way, then go ahead;

If not the Way, retreat.

In that way, in the future, one can reap good results. If you do not act like that, then in the future the results you will reap will be very difficult to endure.

Now, is it the case that there is a Spirit presiding over cause and effect who makes you undergo that retribution? Not at all. Does the Buddha make you undergo that retribution? Not in the least. Do other people force you to undergo that retribution? That's even less the case. How does it happen, then? YOU BRING IT ON YOURSELF. You yourself wanted to go along the path of evil, and so you have to undergo an evil retribution. If you go along a good path, then you receive a good retribution. Therefore it is said:

Good and evil form two roads:

You yourself do the cultivation,

You yourself commit what is committed.

In consideration of the fact that there is cause and retribution, Bodhisattvas fear planting causes, but do not fear reaping retributions. At the time when they are cultivating on the causal ground, they are very careful not to make mistakes of cause and effect. They resolutely accept and undergo the retributions currently received from the mistakes they have made in the past, and are incapable of attempting to avoid those retributions. Living beings, on the other hand, fear reaping retributions, but do not fear planting causes. On the causal ground they do whatever they want, giving themselves over to improper sexual relations, not following the rules, and with full knowledge indulging their sexual desire. They run after their emotions, and haven't the sense to be careful. Then, when it's time to undergo the retributions, and when the difficulties arrive, they feel they can't endure them; but then it's too late. So living beings fear the reaping of retributions, but have no fear of planting causes. They are not careful in the beginning, yet, when they reap a bitter fruit, they find it hard to bear.  Therefore living beings and Bodhisattvas are just the opposite of each other.

Buddhas are identical with living beings, which means that there is even less of a difference between Bodhisattvas and living beings. In what respect do they differ? It's that Bodhisattvas are living beings who have wisdom, whereas living beings are stupid Bodhisattvas. If living beings change their stupidity into wisdom, then living beings are Bodhisattvas. As living beings with wisdom, in every move they make and at the outset of any undertaking, they will be extremely cautious. People who lack wisdom are hasty and reckless. They don't use their reason, and so they do things wrong. Now, our intention in cultivating the Way is to study wisdom and put an end to birth and death, and cease revolving on the wheel of birth and death. What is meant by "the wheel of birth and death"? It means the path of gods, the path of humans, the path of asuras, the path of hell-beings, the path of hungry ghosts and the path of animals. Being a god is not ultimate. When the time comes, gods too will fall. At the time when they fall, if their good roots are mature, they will obtain a good retribution; but if their evil karma has ripened, they will go on to receive an evil retribution. In the heavens, along with the gods, are a kind of being called asuras, who have the blessings of the heavens while lacking heavenly authority. When it is time for them to fall, it is also very pitiable. We human beings are like minute particles of dust: now in the heavens, now on earth. Now up, now down, we're:

Suddenly gods, suddenly asuras,

Suddenly people, suddenly hungry ghosts,

Suddenly hell-beings, suddenly animals,

which is very dangerous. Those are the three good paths.


Participants in the Seminar on Dying listen attentively as the Venerable Master discusses birth and death. In the foreground is Bhiksuni Heng Yin, co-chairman of the Primary Translation Committee of the Buddhist Text Translation Society, who translated.

      The three evil paths start with animals. For instance, take a look at dogs. How did they get to be dogs? It is because in the past all they did was the kind of things that dogs do. Although they were people, all they did was act like dogs; and so this life they are dogs. Also, there are people who feel that it is not very interesting to be human beings, and that it would be very pleasant to be some rich person's dog, and have that rich person always cuddling it or leading it around on a leash. They consider it preferable to be a dog rather than be a person, and so they want to be dogs. Cats wanted to do what cats do. Cows wanted to act like cows; pigs hankered after pig-like activities, and horses were anxious to comport themselves like horses. Each animal became the kind of living being it is because it wanted to act like that particular kind of creature. That is why it is said:

One exits the belly of a horse,

To enter the womb of an ass;

Before King Yama's halls,

On repeatedly promenades.

One goes back and forth in front of King Yama's halls very many times.

Lord Shakra's halls just left behind,

When one has just left the jeweled mansions of the Great Jade Emperor, Lord Sakra,

One plops right in King Yama's pot;

one falls into King Yama's cauldron of boiling oil. So it's really suffering to be an animal.

It's even more suffering to be a hungry ghost. Hungry ghosts are always searching for things to eat, but they never find any. Their bellies are really huge, while their throats are as narrow as needles, so they cannot swallow anything down them. Due to the maturation of the hungry ghosts' karmic obstacles from evil karma, however delicious the food, however exquisitely flavored the delicacies, once they enter the mouth of a hungry ghost, they immediately turn into blazing coals, and scorch the hungry ghost's mouth; just as when one fries bacon or grills a hamburger. The karmic obstacles of hungry ghosts are so heavy that, right on their own bodies, their mouths can become strips of bacon or beef burgers. As to the hells, there are eighteen major hells and five hundred minor hells, and hundreds of thousands more. It is not known how many there are. Each person who has committed an offense has his or her own hell. It is absolutely not the case that Lord God or King Yama prepares the hells in advance. They come into existence through the power of one's own karma. You yourself committed that kind of evil karma, and so you go to that place and undergo that kind of retributions.

      I see that there are people having the false thought in their minds, "The Dharma Master said that he had billions upon trillions upon quadrillions of stories, so why isn't he telling any stories?" Because you've had that false thought, I'll tell another true story. This one, too, is an ancient story, not one of our present day and age. It happened during the T'ang Dynasty in China. At that time there was a person named Tao Ch'ien, who was the attendant for the Abbot of a monastery. It was his usual practice to work hard at his cultivation. However, the Abbot cultivated to the point of being able to come and go at will. Being free to come and go at will, and regarding this world as too filthy, he wanted to get away, leave behind this filthy world, and go to a pure world. That is because our world is as filthy as a latrine and the people in this world reek as badly as bugs in a latrine. If anyone goes without washing for a few days, the stench from his or her body is unbearable, yet you persist in treating it like a precious gem. "Don't let it get cold:" "Don't let it go hungry:" "Don't let it go thirsty;" "Don't make it go without sufficient rest:" That's how you help it out, and yet it's a stinking object. Because the Abbot knew that inside this stinking skin bag there is urine and excrement, pus and blood, all of which are unclean, he didn't want to continue living in this latrine. Now, when I say "latrine," I don't just mean that this world of ours is a latrine: your very body is as filthy as a latrine. He didn't want to hang around in the latrine anymore. He wanted to leave, but his attendant wasn't at the temple." The Abbot's original plan had been to name his attendant Abbot. His attendant was very young, somewhere around seventeen years of age, and what is more he had gone out of the monastery. Now, if the Abbot were to give his position as Abbot to the attendant while the attendant way away, no one would pay the attendant any respect. So the Abbot didn't wait, but died, and left this latrine. When he had left the latrine, the residents of the monastery held an election and chose as his successor the senior monk in residence, the monk whose position in the temple was that of second in Way virtue to the Abbot. After the senior monk had become Abbot, the attendant returned. Now, that attendant was probably quite mischievous, for he said to the new Abbot, "Venerable Abbot, the previous Abbot had three hua t'ou. The first was ‘to go out in a beam of light,' the second one was, 'to go out in the duration of a stick of incense,' and the third one was, 'To go out cold.' Ultimately, what is the meaning of those three hua t'ou, won't you tell us that?" The senior monk told him, "Light a stick of incense." He lit a stick of incense. The senior monk sat there, and, when the incense had burned down to an inch, he died. Sitting right where he was, he completed the stillness. After he had completed the stillness, the attendant Tao Ch'ien called out, "Venerable Abbot, come back: Venerable Abbot, come back: Venerable Abbot, come back” but the Venerable Abbot didn't come back. Then everybody was really upset with the attendant and told him, "You worthless attendant, when our Venerable old Abbot died, you didn't even grieve; and now our new Abbot had just taken his seat when you forced him to die." The attendant replied, "I didn't force him to die. He changed from living into dead. He deserved to die: being able to leave but not being able to come back doesn't count as having kung fu." Then everybody asked him, "Well then, can you leave and then come back again?" "Of course," he replied. '"Let's see you do it, then," they said, to test him then and there. So he lit another stick of incense, and, when the stick of incense had burned down to an inch, he left When he had died, they all got really nervous and said to each other, "Oh no, now he's died too."' and they all called out, "Tao Ch'ien, come back: Tao Ch'ien, come back:" They called it out three times, and he came right back to life on the spot. So you can see, being able to die when one wants and to live when one wants is what is meant by freedom to come and go as one pleases; and it's a small matter. So when everybody saw that he had that kind of skill, they appointed him Abbot and afterwards Dharma Master Tao Ch'ien taught and transformed a good many people. The reason few people know about him is that he didn't go around introducing himself or promoting himself or making himself famous. That is because Buddhists:

Have as if not having, and

Are as if humble.

They have as if they didn't have...those who truly have virtuous conduct still act as if they themselves were very humble. They are incapable of pride or arrogance. That is why although there are people who are like that with respect to the Dharma door of birth and death, still very few people know about them.

I hope that people in the West will be able to investigate this question of birth and death even more clearly, and have even more exceptional and extraordinary Bodhisattvas appear than in the East. The Bodhisattvas have arrived. The Bodhisattvas are arriving. Do you see, from North, South, East and West the great Bodhisattvas are arriving: They are coming here to help propagate the Buddhadharma. So now I've told this little tale for those of you who wanted to hear a story, to grant your wish. And as to whether or not you can grant my wish, I won't pay any attention. 

      Now it seems there again is someone having the false thought, "How is it that they can be free to come and go as they please, being able to live or die as they choose? What's behind this?" Well, first I'll ask, is it the case that someone was having that false thought, or did I see it wrong? (A number of people admit that they were having that false thought.) Then I wasn't seeing your false thoughts wrong was I? So now I'll answer your false thoughts. It's because they have cut off desire. They have cut off desire and eliminated love. They haven't any thoughts of sexual desire, and so they have freedom over birth and death. Anyone who eliminates sexual desire—even the thoughts of it—can gain freedom over birth and death. With "no outflows" you can return to the origin and go back to the source. If you can do it, you are free of birth and death. "I can’t," someone is thinking. Well, then, you can’t be free of birth and death.