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How Can One Be Free from Birth and Death?


Most of us were born into this world not knowing what we are supposed to be doing; we were born in a muddle, and we shall die in a muddle. In the time in between our birth and death, we are deluded by the desires for fame, profit, sex, good food, and pleasure. Why are we deluded? Because we don't recognize our human obligations. Consequently, suddenly we are in the heavens, and suddenly we fall into the hells. From the time we are born until we die, we never attempt to truly understand the fundamental meaning of our human existence. Instead, we spend our time catering to our senses, blindly seeking to gratify our desires for music, women, fame, and profit. Every day we seek to make money to maintain ourselves, but we don’t know ultimately what we’re living for. What‘s the value of living if it’s only for the sake of eating, wearing clothes, and sleeping? Because people don‘t care to be clear on this question, they live in a muddle and die in confusion. When they die, they are still attached to this and that, to their sons and daughters, and to their wealth; they can’t bear to let go of these things. However, even though they can‘t bear to let them go, there is nothing they can do. When it’s time to die, they have to die!  

We study Buddhism in order to understand the process of birth and death, and then we cultivate to liberate ourselves from it. Before we understand the matter of birth and death, whatever we do is meaningless. Therefore, all students of Buddhism should clearly recognize this fundamental issue. You should understand how you were born and how you are going to die. You should also  understand your human obligations. If you understand these obligations, you will not be so confused.  

The ancients said,

            Coming in joy and leaving in sorrow,

            We make a round through the world in vain.

            It would be better neither to come nor to go,

            For then there would be no joy and no sorrow.


“Coming in joy”: People are generally very happy when a new baby is born. “Leaving in sorrow”: At the time of death, everyone weeps and feels sad. People smile and laugh when someone comes into the world, and cry when someone leaves. However, babies come into the world crying, and they also leave crying. We are joyous when babies are born, but we cry when people die. We cry when children die; we also cry when old people and middle-aged people die. Husbands cry when their wives die, and wives weep when their husbands pass away. What’s the use of crying? This is just being muddled.  

"We make a round through the world in vain.” In this life we haven’t understood anything. We came with nothing, and we’ll also leave with nothing. We haven‘t gained anything, and we may even have suffered a loss. What kind of loss? If people create wholesome merit while they are in the world, they will ascend; if they create evil karma, they will descend. Those who have not created any wholesome merit or any evil karma will neither ascend nor descend. They will neither go up to the heavens nor fall into the hells, but will continue turning in circles in the “chemical factory” of the human realm.  

Each person is a miniature chemical factory. Whenever you add something into your mind, it becomes a bit of data. If you add wholesome merit and virtue, you might ascend to the heavens to become a heavenly being, or be a person in the human realm, or become an asura. If you create evil karma, you will fall to the hells or become a hungry ghost or an animal. If you neither ascend to the heavens nor fall into the hells, you will live an ordinary life in the world. In this life, you have consumed a substantial amount of food and clothing and slept quite a bit, but what have you really gained? You came empty-handed, and you will leave empty-handed. That‘s why the verse says, "We make a round through the world in vain.”  

“It would be better neither to come nor go.” What point is there in living the kind of life just described? It‘s pretty meaningless. Therefore, it’d be better if we neither came nor went.  

“For then there would be no joy and no sorrow.” If we didn‘t come in the first place, there wouldn’t be any cause for happiness or sadness. Wouldn't that be peaceful? However, people cannot stay quiet for long. Even if there is nothing to be done, they will find something to do. Therefore, they transmigrate back and forth in the six paths, being born and dying, dying and being born again, always muddled. If you say they have some understanding, let me ask you: What do they understand? I don’t think they truly understand. All they understand are the illusory and transitory phenomena of the world. That’s why they are constantly afflicted and upset. Would you say such people have any purpose for living? If we can realize that there is no meaning in our lives, we should find out what the true meaning of human existence is.  

My view of the matter is: "Life is transitory. It may end between one breath and the next." A long time ago, there were three old men. One was ninety years old, another eighty, and the third seventy. These three old fellows got together for a banquet. The seventy-year-old said, "We are all here for the banquet this year. I wonder who might be missing next year?" His meaning was, “This year the three of us have gotten together to have a good old time eating and drinking, but who knows which one of us might be gone by next year?”

The eighty-year-old said, "You’re thinking too far in the future. When I take off my shoes and socks tonight, I’m not even sure if I’ll be around to put them on tomorrow.”  

The ninety-year-old said, “You’re also looking too far into the future. When I exhale this breath, I don’t even know if I’ll be able to inhale the next breath!” He said that because he was already ninety. Let’s reflect on what these three old men said. Can we be sure that we will not die?  

Once there was a middle-aged man who went to see King Yama after he died. He said, "I’m still young, strong, and healthy. Why did you send for me? There are still plenty of things that I can do. Why didn't you give me any prior notice? You didn’t even send me a telegram or a letter letting me know so I could get ready. You just went ahead and got me. It’s not fair!"  

King Yama said, "I sent you several letters, but you ignored them."  

The middle-aged man said, "When?"  

"The first letter I sent you was when your neighbor had a new baby who died the next day. Did it occur to you that you might die too?"  

The man said, "Oh! That letter was for me? Well, I didn't recognize those words and couldn't read the letter. What about the second letter?"  

King Yama said, "You saw people about your own age die too. That was the second letter."  

"But it didn’t occur to me that I would die too. And the third?"  

King Yama said, "You saw old folks’ ears go deaf, and their teeth fall off. Why didn’t it make you careful and think that your turn would come in the future?" The middle-aged man was crestfallen and speechless.  

Every one of us receives these letters, but no one pays attention to them. What’s the use paying attention to them anyway? What can we do about them? We have to diligently study Buddhism and learn how to end birth and death. We want to be able to control our birth and death, have freedom over birth and death. The freedom that most people talk about is false. To have freedom over our birth and death means that if we want to live, we can live as long as we wish; if we want to die, we can die at any time. In short, we know where we came from and where we are going. The purpose of studying Buddhism is to be able to come and go freely. We are in control of our birth and death. King Yama cannot lay his hands on us. No matter what telegrams or letters he sends us, we can ignore them.  

Where do we begin if we want to gain freedom over birth and death? It’s very simple. There’s nothing esoteric about it; we don't need to recite some mantra to King Yama every day. I have here the Six Guidelines. If you take these Six Guidelines as your foundation and discipline your body and mind, you will gain freedom over birth and death. What are the Six Guidelines?  

1. Do not contend. Not contending means not losing your temper. You must not have any anger at all. You cannot lose your temper with anyone. When you don’t get angry, your ignorance and affliction will also decrease. When affliction is cut off, wisdom will come forth and you’ll be able to treat people with kindness and compassion.  

2. Do not be greedy. Don’t crave wealth, sex, fame, or benefit. Don’t be greedy for anything. Your attitude should be: “Whatever you want, I’ll give it to you.”  

3. Do not seek. Don’t seek outside. If you aren’t meant to obtain something, you should definitely not covet it.  

4. Do not be selfish. Our selfishness is what prevents us from realizing Buddhahood and causes us to fall into the three evil paths. If we didn’t have selfish thoughts, we wouldn’t have any offense karma.  

5. Do not pursue personal advantage. We should not recklessly do things that are illegal or harmful to others just for the sake of benefiting ourselves.  

6. Do not lie. We should always speak the truth. We should never try to deceive people by saying things that sound true but are actually false.  

These are the Six Guidelines of the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, which I spoke for the monks who are doing the Three-Steps-One-Bow pilgrimage. However, so far they have not done much. At the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, all we talk about is these Six Guidelines. Whoever can completely practice these guidelines will be able to leave the Triple Realm and realize Buddhahood. If you cannot practice them, you should not blame others for not helping you. All I understand is these Six Guidelines. Whatever you do, as long as you can follow these Six Guidelines, you will not create any karma. These are the most basic conditions for realizing Buddhahood. If we can practice them, the world will be at peace. When people don’t contend among themselves, won't the world be peaceful? When people are not greedy for others’ possessions or for unexpected wealth, everyone will live together in harmony. If no one is greedy, seeks outside, fights, is selfish, pursues personal advantage, or tells lies, the world will spontaneously be peaceful and free of contention forever. Students of Buddhism should first gain a good understanding of these fundamental conditions, for they will be of great help in your study of Buddhism.


A talk given on June 13, 1987


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