Teachings in Chinese Buddhism

    (7) The Critical Issue of Life and Death

Life is impermanent. After we come into this world, we may live for ten years, possibly a hundred years, or perhaps even longer. But we grow, and finally we have to die. People normally think of death as the end of everything. There is nothing great about it. But according to Buddhism, our life does not begin only at the moment of birth; and death too, does not imply the end of everything. If life was as simple as this, then this would encourage us to fritter away our time with no purpose. Actually, we existed before we were born, and we will have another life after death. We will be reborn in another place and the cycle of life and death will continue endlessly. The constant rebirth into this suffering world is a bigger problem than the simple death at the end of each life! Constant rebirth is difficult to solve and it becomes a critical issue when we recognize and wish to overcome it.

The situation is analogous to a businessman who starts his business at the beginning of the year. At the end of the year, he has to account for his profit and loss, repay all his debts and get back what others owe him. This process repeats the following year, and every year thereafter. The closing of everything. The businessman plans to accumulate long term profits and increasingly valuable assets year after year. But this is not an easy task to fulfil!.

How should we handle this problem? We can be more confident about the following year’s financial position if the current year’s business is profitable. Everything will run more smoothly next year. However, if this year results in a loss, then next year’s financial position will be tight. We may have to borrow from here or there, causing a lot of frustration, worry, and suffering for ourselves.

Life is the same. When there is birth, there will be death. During this process of life and death, we have to consider our profits and losses. If we do not put in an effort to uplift ourselves, we may lose our human status in the next life, and this will certainly be a loss! If we improve ourselves and become a better person in this life, then we will create good prospects for our future.

Although our "End of Year (life) Account" may show an unfavorable "financial (karmic) position", if we can justify ourselves skilfully, we may still get through the last difficult period. Thus, a practicing Buddhist should pay attention to the moment of their last breath. We should behave well, think positively, and be mindful at the moment of our last breath.

When we talk about life and death, some think that death means the end of everything. Thus, we must first clarify these misunderstandings about "death" before we discuss "life". People normally have a fear of death. In fact, death is nothing to be afraid of. This is analogous to the businessman who runs a good business at all times and manages it well until the closure of the financial year. When the New Year comes he will certainly enjoy a comfortable life. Therefore, as long as we have prepared well during our lives, we should be happy when we are healthy, and should not be frightened when sickness or even death comes. 

The Three Types of Death

According to Buddhism, there are three types of death:

1. The end of life: No matter how long we live, once the life that we obtained from our past karma is finished, we will die. This is like a lamp. When the fuel is consumed, the light will go out. If the "karmic fuel" for our life is for one hundred years, then, at the end of one hundred years, we will die, and there are no alternatives!

2. The exhaustion of merit: We need daily necessities such as food, clothing, and shelter in order to live. Some of us may die before we reach old age because of the exhaustion of our merits. We may die of hunger or cold.

3. Death at a time when one should not die: Some of us may die because of wars, floods, fires, accidents, sickness, lack of care or nutrition, or over-work. This type of death is different to the other two types mentioned above.

With regards to death, a practicing Buddhist should remember two points:

1. Whether we are young or old, we may die at any time. Although humans have an average life span, exhaustion of merits or unforeseen circumstances for any individual may cause us to die at any time. Life is impermanent. So we should be diligent in practicing the Buddha’s teachings, and not wait until the next life, or life thereafter!

2. Do not think or misunderstand that life is determined by our past karma only. In fact, the major influence comes from our actions in the current life. If we always commit wrong deeds, do not take care of ourselves, and are lazy, then consequently we may become poor and may die of starvation while young or middle aged. But death as such does not necessarily imply the end of one’s actual life process.

How Does the Cycle of Life and Death Come About?

What is this cycle of birth and death? How does this cycle of life and death come about? What determines our improvement or deterioration? According to Buddhism, it is determined by our karma. Karma is the energy or influence that is left behind by our actions. Due to our past karma, we are born as human beings in this life. Similarly, the good and evil karma of this life and past lives will also affect our future lives. Many Buddhists think of ‘karma’ as ‘evil karma’ only. This is not true. The energy that is left behind by our actions or thoughts, be it good or evil, is referred to as ‘karma’. Our future is determined by our karma. Thus, the Buddha Dharma says, "We reap what we sow".

Between our past and present, which bad or good karma, will determine our next life? There are three situations as stated in the following:

a) Strong karma

When we are at the brink of death, the good and evil karma we have generated in our life will appear in front of our eyes. Usually we generate a lot of good or bad karma every day. At the moment of our death, if strong good or evil thoughts arise, they will determine our future.

For example, the memory of killing one’s own father is unforgettable. The thought will always be in one’s mind. At the moment of death, this evil scene (karmic action) will appear in front of one’s eyes. Similarly, one who is very filial will see their own filiality and good deeds at the moment of their last breath. This is similar to a debtor. At the end of the year, all creditors will come and chase after the debtor for their money, and the debtor will pay the creditor who applies him the greatest pressure first.

b) Habitual Influence

Some people may have karma that is neither extremely good nor extremely bad. In these circumstances, habitual actions may become the major influence on their fate. Accumulated minor evil actions will produce an evil result. Accumulated minor good deeds will produce a good result. There is a saying;

"Although a drop of water is tiny, it may gradually fill a big container."

The Buddha also gave us an example: If there is a big tree that is leaning to the east, it will certainly fall towards the east when being axed.

The Chinese always say: "At the time of death, the ghosts that feel injustice will come and ask for one’s life." Those who killed pigs and goats will see pigs and goats, and those who killed snakes will see snakes. If we see these, we will have great suffering. We may tremble with intense fear, and lose our minds. In fact, the pigs, goats and other animals that have been killed would have been reborn according to their own karma. However, those who did the killing will tend to continue to act in an evil way. They will accumulate more evil karma. Thus, at the moment of death the karmic action (cows, snakes, pigs, or goats etc. requesting recompense of life for lives taken) will appear in front of us and we will receive retribution according to our karma.

There is a story about a person who robbed and murdered a rich man in the middle of the night. After the incident, he felt that the rich man was always following him asking for his money and life. In time the murderer was frightened to death. Later, it was found that the rich man was only injured and was still alive. This anecdote illustrates that evil ghosts do not come to ask for one’s life. The Buddha’s explanation of karmic action explains the result perfectly. Those who did evil will see suffering at the last moment before death overtakes them, and those who behaved well will be peaceful and happy at that last moment. So we should be careful about the habitual karma that we generate daily!

c) The Last Thought

Some people may not have accomplished great things; perpetrated particularly evil deeds; nor established distinct habitual actions. During the last moment of their lives such people may suddenly think of something. This last thought, whether good or evil, will influence their next rebirth. The Buddha’s teachings encourage those who are seriously ill to remember and to recite the merits of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha and the merits of Dana and of following the precepts. This will help us to have good thoughts. Relying on the energy of these good thoughts, we may have a good rebirth. Some may generate a lot of good karma during normal times, but may be nervous or sad during their last breath. This may cause evil thoughts to arise and hence result in a poor rebirth. This is analogous to a merchant who has done good business throughout the year but who does not manage his business affairs well during the closing period of the financial year and thus causes the whole year’s effort to be wasted.

When someone is about to die, whether they are young or old, we should try not to cry, as this may affect the dying person’s emotional state and cause them suffering. We should advise the person to let everything go and to think about the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, good acts of Dana, and other meritorious deeds that they may have done.

It is as if our business was not very good during the year, but because of skilful management during the crucial end of year period, we may nevertheless have a happy new year. However, we should remember that our daily effort is still important. It is not rendered insignificant compared to the last minute’s effort. If we habitually commit evil deeds it is hardly to be expected that we will have good thoughts at our death. If we habitually accumulate great merits, or have more modest tendency to do good, then with the assistance of others in recalling these merits during the moment of our last breath, we may have a better rebirth.

Other Defilements Necessary for Rebirth

How does rebirth occur after our death? Normally death refers to the moment when one’s breathing and mental activities have stopped, and the body temperature drops. On the other hand, birth refers to the time when the baby is born. However, according to the teachings of the Buddha, our past karma is the main cause of the new life which comes about when the father’s sperm cell combines with an egg from the mother. This is referred to as conception: the initiation of the birth process. Thus, those who carry out abortions are in fact committing the evil deed of killing. Why are we reborn after death? It is not inevitable that everyone will be reborn. Some may be reborn and others may not. Rebirth is caused by one’s karma. With good karma we will produce good fruit. With evil karma we will suffer evil results.

If we generate good and evil karma all the time, does this mean that our cycle of life and death will continue endlessly? In fact, karma alone may not cause us to be reborn. Besides karma, defilements are needed as the secondary cause of rebirth. The major defilement is the ‘love’ of life. Thoughts of greed and attachment to this illusory world, with the foolish wish to live forever, plant in our deluded minds the seeds for continuous life and death.

A practicing Buddhist who wishes to end the cycle of life and death needs to let go of self-centered love and attachment to self-destructive living. This is similar to planting crops. Although we may have seeds, without water and fertilizer, the seeds will not sprout. Thus, even though we may have generated a lot of good or bad karma, without the fertile conditions provided by defilements (i.e. love and attachments), the seeds of our sufferings will not sprout. If we crave for comfort, luxury and wealth, and cling to our life, we will never break the cycle of life and death. In order to end the cycle of life and death, we must let go of our attachments thoroughly, then new life will not emerge.

To achieve this we should remember not to do evil, but to do more good. We should accumulate our merits in order to gain a good repay in the future. We should not attach ourselves to the process of life and death, but to strengthen our determination to leave this deluded, suffering world.

[Recorded by Ming Dao] (Translated by Shi Neng Rong, edited by Ke Rong, proofread by Shi Neng Rong. (8-2-96)

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