We are grateful for the opportunity today to meet each other and discuss Buddha’s words. We are so blessed that this is a rare opportunity that we are going to talk about the first and most important issue in life: birth and death.
Every day, we work hard for material wealth and a happy life. What is a happy life? Traditionally, a happy life meant a life of good health, financial freedom, good morality and virtues, and natural death in peace. Nowadays, most people are busy to make a living or only to make lots of money. Some better-off people pursue fame and good health. Few people would aim at developing good moral qualities or think much about preparing for a natural death in peace. For Buddhist believers, this is the most important thing in life. And it should also be the most important issue for every human being.
To develop good morality is learning how to become a good person, how to behave, to do good for oneself and for others. Only good people with kind hearts and good behaviors can die a naturally good death. This is a simple reason. It’s the rule of law of the universe. And it’s the true meaning of life. Everyone should be educated to become a good person, by their parents, by our schools, and by society. People with great virtues shall be honored. People who die a natural death shall be honored.
To die a natural death is not an easy thing. Every year, millions of lives die of abortion; millions of kids die of hunger; millions of people die of cancer and other illnesses; millions of people die of traffic accidents and natural disasters; millions more die in prisons, in wars, and all kinds of conflicts. How many people can die a natural death? Very few; one out of ten thousand maybe, or even less; who knows? And whoever cares?
What is a natural death? According to Buddhism, every person has a natural lifespan; a person shall end his life in peace without suffering from illnesses; we should be able to predict the coming of our death, weeks, months or even years before that; we shall have rebirths into good realms. But look at this world around us, who can achieve these? or how many?
Some or most people think, when we die, everything is over. But it’s not over, brothers and sisters. According to Buddhism, there are six realms of existence. Christianity calls that reincarnation. We humans are only one form of existence. Animals are another. Hungry ghosts are another. Lots of people do believe that. Some people just put it as superstitious. Nowadays, people don’t care about causes and effects; for some people it’s even difficult to talk about reasons.
People say: seeing is believing; when they don’t see it with their own eyes, they won’t believe. Although Buddhism also talks about supernatural powers, Buddhism is not a superstition. To practice Buddhism means to gain enlightenment. Buddhism is an education. Buddhism teaches us the facts about the earth, the universe, the world we live, and our human life. It tells us the truth of everything so that we can get rid of the bad, and keep the good. Buddhism is a science and philosophy, and more than that. It teaches us how to live a better life, what’s the true meaning of life, what we should live our lives for, and how to avoid sufferings and hardships. The truth of life might be out of our comprehension; the facts of the world might not be the same as what we see with our eyes or what we think might be like. But still, they are the facts, the truth. And we cannot deny that; no matter we believe or not.
Buddha tells us that when we look at a thing and try to find out its actual existence, we shall at least look at eight aspects: causes, conditions, and effects; intrinsic nature, appearance and usages; images and reasons. For example, this is a flower vase. Is it truly a vase? No, it is made of ceramics. And ceramics are made from earth of different elements. When we break a vase, it’s no longer a vase. So when we talk about a thing, it might not be that thing in its true existence.
So when we cannot see other realms of existence with our human eyes or other senses, we cannot say they do not exist. When Buddha says there is an incarnation, there is life after life, we believe that there is. When we actually do our practice, one day we might come to realize that there are truly other forms of existence in this world. This is like a scientific analysis. In Buddhist writings, we read words like, “a cup of water is a cup of worms”. At a time when the microscope was not yet invented, the Buddha could see thousands of little worms in a cup of water. Buddhist sutras also say “there are tens of thousands of suns and moons” in the universe. Now with technological advancement, we truly believe that there are that many suns and moons and stars in the universe. But people a thousand years ago might not believe that was true.
In fact, there are other forms of life existence on other planets but we still don’t know anything about. We have a physical body and need oxygen to survive; other forms of existence may not have a body and they don’t need oxygen to survive. Our human eyes have very limited visionary abilities; we cannot even see the existence of ghosts, how can we see the existence of other forms of life, not to mention Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.
As you sow, so you reap; Buddhism tells the same reason. When you do good, good things follow; when you do bad, bad things follow. This is the truth of the universe.
Every day, there are many deaths in our world, and there are many new births. Man’s life, some fifty or sixty years, some eighty or eighty years, long but also short. Where are we going after death? And where do new lives come from? Few people know. Birth and death, this is a very important issue. The purpose of Buddhist practice is to reveal the fact of this.
Few people would like to spend a time to study their own life. Most people are busy making money and think of how to live a comfortable life. Only a few wise people would like to stop and think, of life, the truth of it. They would study where do we come from, where are we going after death? What actually is the truth? The wise man is a philosopher. He knows what the most important issue of life is.
Life is not without suffering; to live is to suffer. At birth, we suffer; growing old, we suffer; in sickness, we suffer; in death, we suffer. We all forget how we suffer at birth, the moment when we were pushed hard out of our mothers’ womb. It is warm inside, but the outside is cold. The moment a baby is squeezed out, he cries loud, because he feels the pain. The mother also feels the pain. When we grow old, our eyes become blurred, cannot see things clearly; our ears become deaf, cannot hear clearly; most of our teeth have fallen apart, or not strong enough for eating. Our body is deteriorating; we need other people to support us. We may have sickness, cancers of many kinds. We are not free from pain and sufferings. When you visit a hospital or a scene of natural disasters like earthquakes, we see how people are suffering. We all live to suffer. Death is also another great suffering, although we do not have the experience yet. According to Buddhism, our human body is made up of four key elements: the soil, the water, the fire and the wind. Flesh and bones are the soil; our body is 70-90% water; our body temperature of 36-37 degrees is the fire, and our breath circulation, the wind. When a patient dies, the soil collapses first, and we feel the weight. The body is getting dry, then, with water lost, the dying body feels the cold. Then the fire element leaves, the dying body is losing its temperature. Finally, the wind element fails to function; the dying person is feeling the difficulty in breathing, only air out but no more air in. After holding the last breath, a patient dies. So life is suffering.
In Buddhism, there are sutras revealing the truth of death, and ways to rebirth. There are answers to life questions, ways to gain longevity and free from the reincarnation of the six realms of existence. Life is but a dream. Why are some people born rich whole others poor? Why have we such different appearances? Why some people have long lives while some people’s lives are short? How can we know about our own fortune, live a healthy life and die a natural death? Buddhism provides all the answers.
In Surangama Sutra, the Buddha tells this story. Once Buddha asked the King of Persia, “Is your body deteriorating and you are going to die one day?” The Persian King answered yes, sadly. And the Buddha asked again, “Do you know there is something inside you, which I call the real you, that never deteriorates and never dies?” The king was very much delighted when he learned he should never die. He was very happy to know that his death and rebirth was just like the changing another piece of clothes.
Buddha says all physical existence has a life span. It has birth and death. Even the earth we live on has its birth and death. People feel the happiness at the time of birth, but sadness at the time of death. But actually birth and death are only our illusion. There is in truth no such thing as birth and death. When we have come to realize that the real me is not going to die, we should never be afraid of death. How delightful could that be?
Ordinary people are scared of death; they are scared of the pain and of the unknown ahead. They are scared of going to hell. People may hear of ghost stories and think ghosts would be coming to haunt them, as debt collectors, or even to kill them, tear them off, cut them into pieces. Will this happen? Yes, they will. If you do bad, bad things follow. But if you never do any evil, these miserable things would not happen. And if you have achieved enlightenment, all those bad things would not follow you along.
According to Buddhism, we do have a bardo that is wandering around after death. This bardo is our transitional state of life existence, the soul or supernatural consciousness of our spirit after death and before rebirth. After this bardo leaves our physical dead body, it wanders about, looking for attachments. It would see three cliffs: one red, one white, and one black. This is actually illusions of greed, hatred, and ignorance. Our greed is like fire, red in color; hatred is white and ignorance is black. Ordinary human all carry greed, hatred, and ignorance in their lives; that’s why most people would encounter these cliffs of different colors. It’s like a horror movie we would watch after death. A Buddhist practitioner with enlightenment would know they are just illusions and won’t be afraid of them.
After death, our spirit shall be illuminated and our bardo would see lights of different colors. Our human body has 5 kinds of lights: water light (our eyes are watery with tears), vibration light (movements of arteries), heart or mind light, the light of intrinsic nature and universal light (Our whole body is a small universe). These are lights within our inner existence. Outside our body, there are also five kinds of lights: sunlight, moonlight, electrical light, water light and darkness. Darkness is also a kind of light. Our inner lights interact with outer lights. A monk or Buddhist practitioner of great achievement might turn into a torch a light and disappear into the universe at the time of time. A monk with lesser achievement might have a very small and shortened body after death. The remains of a monk can be many numbers of shining relics like gems. After death, only our physical body is rotten, our soul or spirit is immortal.
What about rebirth? According to Buddhism, a human body can be formed and born to earth only when these three factors are complete: the father, the mother and the bardo. When the father and mother are having an intercourse, a bardo goes in and finds its abode. That bardo or intermediate form of existence is the real “you”. If you are a boy, you show a love for the mother and hatred for the father; if you are a girl, the opposite.
Within the 9 to 10 months in your mother’s womb, you would suffer a lot, as countless living beings would beat you, fight against you or trying to eat you. If you were a good person, you would make you and your mother suffer less; if you were a bad guy, you would make you and your mother suffer a lot. If you are a Buddhist practitioner with a pure mind, you would have the blessing from all beings that you are going to have a blessed rebirth.
This is what would happen if you are to have rebirth into a human being. Unfortunately that is not often the case. There might be more chances that ordinary people would have rebirth into lower realms of existence, like hungry ghosts and animals, or even hell. So salvation is necessary to save you from rebirth into lower levels of existence. A Buddhist way gives a good answer for this salvation. At the time of bardo, the transition state between death and rebirth, the help of an enlightened person is an ideal solution for ordinary people.
Most people are ignorant of the truth of life and death. But this issue is so important that it relates to everyone of us, not just for one life, but for many lives. We have other lectures to teach related topics on salvation. We are only giving you the points here, a knock at the door; we are not going into detail of how they work and what you should do with your practice. A wise person would think about this question over and again, and decide what to do next.
We remember our gratitude to the Buddha.