I used to write "Casual Thoughts in My Spare Time" for the "Enlightenment Monthly" published by the Shanghai Buddhist Youth Association in the 1950s. I did not keep the manuscripts, and most of the Buddhist publications were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. After the dust settled, a good friend of mine, Upasaka Zhiming Song of Wenzhou, retrieved most of my writings from the debris and put them in print. In the 1980s, these articles were republished in the U.S., in the monthly journal Vajra Bodhi Sea from the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas in California. This helped to make known the virtuous deeds of Buddhist monks, nuns, and laity, as well as various Buddhist anecdotes.
Since that journal deals with both theory and practice, it was appreciated by many of my fellow cultivators. Now that the government has changed its policy on religion, the publication of Buddhist periodicals is blossoming. I was pleased to see the first issue of Buddhism in Zhejiang come off the press. The editor-in-chief also invited me to resume writing "Casual Thoughts" to contemplate on the profound Dharma and to validate the understanding and practice of Buddhism with fellow cultivators in China and overseas.
"All things arise from conditions, but are empty in nature" is the most fundamental concept in Buddhism. It characterizes all dharmas, and nothing in this world falls outside of it. The rise and ebb of the Buddhadharma has its conditions. As it says in the Sutra in Forty-two Sections: "I look upon the prosperity of the teaching as upon a tree during four seasons." There are usually auspicious signs and numerous virtuous cultivators when the Dharma propers. When the Dharma declines, miracles are no longer seen, the virtuous ones suffer, and ghosts and demons are on the loose everywhere. Sometimes people lose faith because those who ruin temples, drive away the monks, and harm the good do not immediately receive their retribution. They wonder: If the Buddhas have transcendental power and vow to enlighten living beings, why would Buddhism be destroyed like this? In fact, the hard times are due to living beings’ collective karma. When there is general prosperity and people have abundant blessings and are able to attain liberation by practicing the Teachings, Buddhism flourishes and the world is at peace. As for people who disbelieve and slander the Dharma, that is their own individual karma on top of the collective karma. If there is general hardship and living beings have scarce blessings, such collective karma will cause Buddhism to decline. If there are those who suffer from severe hardship at that time, it is due to their own fixed individual karma. Yet perhaps Buddhism has already helped alleviate severe retributions. Once they have paid off their debts, things might turn around. Each person's fortune and woes in life are caused by his own behavior. The law of causes and effects is complex yet accurate. It's workings can be long-term, intricate, obvious or unrecognizable. I realized this from my personal experiences and sincerely wish to share it with everyone.
Buddhism can really benefit people a lot! Those who believe and practice are able to do so because of good roots planted in many life times. Yet, the charm of wealth, power, and pleasure can be tempting! If one is born with a silver spoon in one's mouth, one can very easily lose sight of the proper path. Consequently, the merit earned in one lifetime can all be lost in another. I know some examples of this in the Province of Zhejiang.
One is Mrs. Jinli Zhou, who was born in a well-to-do family and married banker Mr. Pinsan Liu from Ningbo after she graduated from the university. One day in her comfortable life, she decided to visit Tiantai Mountain. Two of my acquaintances Cuiping Zhao and Bingchu Zhang went with her. Once Mrs. Zhou stepped into Gaoming Temple, she was as familiar with the building as with her own home. She deeply felt that she had been a cultivator there in a previous life. But she did not know the exact details. After finding out what the temple needed, she donated a huge copper bell worth tens of thousands of dollars. But that was all. Later she lived luxuriously as a famous pianist in Paris, and never followed up on Buddhist practice.
The other example is the grandfather-in-law, Mr. Yangtian Bao, of Upasaka Jialian Yao, who helped me with proof-reading and mailing when I printed Buddhist Sutras in Hangzhou. Mr. Yao's involvement and faith in Buddhism came through what happened to Mr. Bao. Mr. Bao was from the richest and most distinguished family in Shaoxing and was very wealthy all his life. When he visited Jiangtian Temple in Zhengjiang as a child, as soon as he stepped in the gate he felt that he was at home, and he knew the temple inside out. When he walked to a certain spot, he perceived: “Oh, I used to be the abbot here!” His good roots were deeper, and he passed away reciting the Three Refuges in his old age. Although it ended well, still he might not actually have broken free of death and birth.
From these two true stories, we can see how one can easily consume in a lifetime all the merit one earned in another. With the condition of our faculties, the only way to have some accomplishment in this lifetime is to have faith, to make vows for rebirth in the Pure Land, and to practice by constantly reciting Amitabha Buddha's name. This is the Dharma-door for getting out of the Three Realms quickly!