Teachings in Chinese Buddhism

    (5) Excellence of the Three Birth, & Cause and Effect Theories  

We know that in our modern age humanity lives in fear of mass destruction. Terrors and stresses of every kind threaten us everywhere and impinge upon our freedom. Why has the world deteriorated to such a state? According to Buddhism, the answer lies in the fact that we human beings have lost the sense of purpose in our lives. We deny our own worth and live with hollow and illusory emotions. Our lives have become either malevolent or corrupted. We are either intoxicated with passion and desire for wealth, or maddened by vengeful violence. Material covetousness and emotional negativity lead this world towards the sombre brink of death.

I said: "Human beings have lost the sense of purpose in their lives and renounced their own real worth." What does this statement mean? For this, I wish to give a simple explanation. Human beings view life in three different ways. These are the One Birth, Two Birth and Three Birth Theories.

1. The One Birth Theory

Nowadays, the One Birth theory of materialism has made raids into human hearts everywhere. Human beings have set their eyes on the realm of substances, considering the material world to be the only reality.

Under the influence of materialism people feel that life is nothing but a superficial and inconsequential affair. Birth is merely the result of ones, parents, union. It is purely the result of sexual intercourse and subsequent physical development. Death is merely the decomposition of the bodily organism. It brings the organic process to its end and then vanishes without trace. Life within this cosmos is nothing but that. Materialists recognize only the present, denying everything before birth and rejecting whatever may lie after death. With a life-view that everything ends with death, there is ultimately nowhere for one to go. This leads to extreme emptiness and boundless despair.

Life is toilsome, but what is it really aiming for? For the individual? The individual so lost and alone has nothing to hope for but a senseless life ending in death and annihilation. For his family, his country or the wider world? What kind of relationship does he have with them? The result of this one Birth Theory is to restrict ones, thought to the present and the temporary benefit of oneself only. One becomes selfish. Hence the more learned one is, the more deceitful one becomes. The more good words one speaks, the more evil deeds one performs. One is only thinking of personal benefits. Those of the elder generation strive toward personal desires and lust. Those of the younger generation, having abundant imaginations and vigour of youth fall into temptations and strive toward their aims without considering the righteousness of the means they use. The misdirection of their energies ends up leading us towards a cruel and ruthless world.

The idea of everything ending with death tragically obscures the real value of oneself. This is the One Birth Theory or the life-view of materialists. Society nowadays is being infected with this plague that makes the entire world go insane. Some people think that they are anti-materialist or anti-communist, but do not realise that their own life-views are in fact the same as those of the materialists. They also subscribe to the One Birth Theory and unwittingly succumb to its fatal notion that everything ends with death.

2. The Two Birth Theory

The Two Birth Theory is the general point of view of the polytheist and the monotheist. They believe that there will still be a future after death. As the Chinese of old said: "One dies and becomes a ghost." Those who are virtuous and have accumulated merits ascend to the realms of deities. Those who do evil deeds, or who do not have any descendants, are to become "homeless spirits".

Since the Sung and Ming dynasties non-religious ideology has become stronger. Almost everyone in modern intellectual circles believes in the vulgarised One Birth Theory. The Two Birth Theory has strengthened and sustained the inner-hearts of human beings both past and present. It brightens hope for the future and gives strength to endure and overcome present difficulties. In addition, this view of life has an extraordinarily positive influence leading to the improvement of personality and morality.

The theistic Two Birth Theory is now declining day by day. This is because the Two Birth Theory generally believes that there is an independent soul that existed before ones, birth and will continue to exist after ones, death. It is just like one going into a room through one door and later leaving through another. This explanation of soul or ego as an object which is separate from both body and mind, is difficult for modern scientific thought to accept. As for Western monotheism, it only deals with the present and the future, i.e. the fall into Hell or the ascension to the Kingdom of Heaven. It does not provide a satisfactory explanation for the origin of life.

To say that life is the creation of God, and the obedient reflection of His intention to create this human world, shows clearly and completely nothing but the conflict with the supposedly perfect love and kindness of His nature. Thousands of human beings are born into this world every hour of every day, but in reality how many of them are destined to ascend to the Kingdom of Heaven? If God is omniscient, He will know that a large number of them are going to go Hell. One may say: "God gives mankind free will God likes mankind to obey Him with free will." But mankind is ignorant. Humans are like children. Isn’t it cruel to send masses of ignorant children into unusual danger hoping that one or two of them might be able to rush through? How cruel is this? Does God like this?

If there is a God, and God knows clearly that thousands and millions of people have fallen into misery yet still continues with His creation, He must be either crazy or cruel! Therefore, more and more human beings do not believe in the Two Birth Theory. Their inner-hearts are in a void. They have no spiritual support and become trapped in the One Birth Theory and the materialism of Satans’ realm. This is an important cause contributing to the decline of world civilisation in this century

3. The Three Birth Theory

The Three Birth Theory is a speciality of the religions of India. Among the Indic religions, Buddhism gives the most thorough explanation of this theory. Human beings and all other living beings exist continuously through boundless lives. They are not created by God, nor are they there by chance with meaningless death ending everything. The process is described as being similar to a stream that gives rise to patterns of waves; birth and death being the rise and fall of a certain period, or activity.

In accordance with Three Birth Theory, there is no God seen to be dispensing rewards and punishments. In this view life is seen to be the natural result of ones own deeds. This affirms the real purpose of life. If our thought and conduct in past lives tended towards benefitting oneself and others, that is if our lives were lived positively, then we will be able to enjoy the good fruits of those lives as fortune and happiness in this life. On the other hand, if one does not live this life in a wholesome manner, then, once dead, miseries and darkness will easily befall one.

With faith in the Three Birth Theory and in the Theory of Cause and Effect that is its consort, one will remind oneself of the past and be satisfied that the present life is just. One will not grumble against Heaven nor lay blame upon others. The Three Birth Theory leads one to strive diligently and never to be lazy or extravagant. It enables us to be at peace in our present life and at the same time strive for a better future. This is the supreme excellence of this theory. Furthermore, from the continuum of endless lives we can see that suffering and enjoyment are in fact the ongoing effects of our good and evil deeds.

The causal force of good and evil action is not boundless. Thus suffering or enjoyment cannot be everlasting. Pains and pleasures are but passing phases on the journey of our life. No matter what miserable situation one encounters, even if it is in Hell, one should not be disheartened. This is because once the force of the evil deed is exhausted the being in Hell will be released, that evil then being finished and done with. Conversely, any situation of fortune and happiness that one enjoys, even if one is in the Kingdom of Heaven, should not be a source of self-satisfaction because once the forces of good are exhausted one will descend. Thus, a true follower of the Three Birth Theory is always full of hope and striving diligently in order to progress.

The theory may be extended from "receiving the reward of ones, own deeds" to "receiving together the rewards from deeds done by people together". Throughout history the rise and fall of every family and every country always acts in accordance with the Law of Cause and Effect.

The defects of the Two Birth Theory are clearly highlighted by the Three Birth Theory. Therefore, we should accept the Three Birth and Cause and Effect Theories and invest in them our firm and common belief. In this way we may find refuge from the calamities of materialism and the One Birth Theory.

Translated by Neng Rong, edited by Mick Kiddle, proofread by Neng Rong. (2-6-1995)

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