While the universe is vast and eternal, with no known beginning or end, human life is so brief. Maybe only one person in a million lives to be a hundred. Many are those who do not live our their natural life spans. There’s a saying: “Don’t wait till you’re old to practice the Way; the lonely graves are mostly those of young people.” Not all the corpses lying in the graves are old people. Humans born into the world are like ephemeral insects on an old tree, like a drop of water in the ocean. How could their life span compare with that of the universe? How can they think that their present youth will last? An old proverb says, “The 36,000 days in a hundred years are no more than a passing spring in a butterfly dream.” If one wastes this life in vain, then when the dream is over, one leaves the world empty-handed and undergoes indescribable suffering in the endless cycle of rebirth. When will one have another chance to liberate oneself? It is extremely difficult to obtain a human body. Since we are fortunate enough to be humans in this life, we should cherish the limited time we have and work diligently to do something that will last forever. Then our life will not be in vain. If we are merely infatuated with wealth, or busy making a living so we can have three meals a day, how are we different from plants and animals? If we foolishly spend our days creating countless offenses, the retribution we suffer in lives to come will have no end. What kind of work can we do that will last forever? How can we go about doing it?
In the final years of the Song Dynasty in China, the Yuan troops under the leadership of Yuan Shizu (the future emperor of the Yuan Dynasty) defeated all the cities and towns in their path; there was no stopping them. Those who saw what was happening either went over to the winning side and shamelessly served the new leader, or else gave up their cities and surrendered in order to preserve their lives and homes. Those who had some sense of honor changed their names and went into seclusion in the countryside. The only one who wasn’t afraid of death was Wen Tianxiang, who did what he knew was impossible, being foolish like a rooster that didn’t stop crowing even in the storm. He took all his family savings and used it to organize an army of volunteers to save the country and protect the king. At first the army had some success, but in the end the Song Dynasty still came to an end and he was captured and imprisoned. Out of love and respect for him, Emperor Yuan Shizu exhorted him to surrender. But Wen Tianxiang was “not tempted by wealth and honor, not intimidated by military threats.” He would rather die than surrender. The well-known “Song of Righteousness” was composed when he was in prison. Right before his execution, he magnanimously and proudly declared, “What have I learned from reading the books of sages? From today onwards, I have no cause for remorse!”
Although we are born with different karmic retributions, capabilities, and resolves, we should certainly be determined to work hard and excel our own limits. Even if our capabilities and resolves are slight, we should at least cultivate ourselves so we can free ourselves from the cycle of rebirth. Those with intermediate capabilities and resolves should work for the good of society and the world. Those with great capabilities should enlighten themselves as well as others, so that all can reach sagehood together. Then when we die we can say, “What have we learned from reading the books of sages? Now I can say that I have no cause for remorse!” Then we can truly say that we have not lived this life in vain. That is the kind of work that lasts forever. To do this kind of work, we need limitless zest and energy. And where does this limitless zest and energy come from? It starts with the habit of getting up early and going to bed late. We have to train ourselves starting from the small matters of daily life, such as household chores and social etiquette.