修行之人，Those who cultivate [Dharma] practices,
若无正信，if without right faith,
求生西方，to aspire for birth in the Western Pure Land [of Amituofo],
泛修诸善，[while] broadly cultivating all [kinds of] goodness,
名为第三世冤。are named [as being subject to] grievance in their third lifetimes.
– 清代截流禅师 Qing Dynasty’s Chan Master Jieliu
While those who do great good and evil
have great rises and falls in rebirths,
the average ones rise and fall similarly,
albeit to lesser extremes.
It is often idealistically imagined that the path to enlightenment is a smooth-sailing one, which is ever steadily cumulative in the amassing of merits and wisdom – the perfection of which is Buddhahood. But if this was so, we would have attained emancipation long ago already! The truth is, as long as we have yet to attain stream-entry (a state that guarantees liberation within seven or less lives), we will tend to have spiritual backslides now and then, both within this life and from life to life. Even if we do not do great evil that leads to a sharp descend into the lower realms, or great good that leads to heavenly rebirths, there is another form of less extreme, yet still terrifying form of existential looping. This is illustrated by the problem of three lifetimes.
Imagine this repetitive cycle… In Life #1 (this present life), we do much worldly good deeds. In Life #2 (the next life), we naturally enjoy the positive karmic results of Life #1 in terms of fleeting worldly blessings such as wealth, power, fame and such. However, as being well-off tends to corrupt, we are likely to become spiritually complacent and even begin to do evil. In Life #3 (the life after the next), our positive karma from Life #1 is drained, while the negative karma from Life #2 bears retributive fruit. We might then repent and begin to do good again, which loops us back to a state similar to Life #1… ad infinitum, ad nauseam! We thus trick ourselves into thinking we are advancing on the ‘highway’ to Nirvana, when we take steps backwards every now and then.
Good done in Life #1, when not guided by sustained wisdom can thus ‘become’ one’s spiritual enemies in Life #3 if the merits are not dedicated to a goal that transcends the rounds of rebirth. If we are already so preoccupied by the mundane, why would we ‘naturally’ be more spiritually inclined in the next life? Even worldly skills we have mastered can be forgotten in this life, much more to say of our spiritual lessons ‘learnt’. If you are now horrified by the ‘hamster wheel’ that runs somewhere but nowhere, the good news is that there is a safe and feasible way to break free of this cycle by the end of this life – not by attaining enlightenment directly, which is realistically too challenging for most of us, but by seeking birth in Pure Land, where enlightenment is assured!
[These three lifetimes can be thought of as applicable to three generations of a family too. The first generation (e.g. a diligent father) accumulates wealth and influence, leading the second generation (e.g. a son) to have a leisurely life, who wastes such resources, leaving nothing but ruin for the third generation (e.g. a grandson), having lost all fortune and reputation. This is the meaning of the saying ‘富不过三代’ (Wealth does not cross three generations). Unless wary of it, this phenomenon is generally true. However, the spiritual problem of the three lifetimes refers to that experienced by the same person over three lives. To this effect, for this problem of ‘三世冤’ (Grievance in three lifetimes), we can say ‘福不过三世’ (Blessings do not cross three lifetimes).]
As Amituofo (Amitabha Buddha) realised there is
the problem of three lifetimes (in Samsara),
he provides the solution of liberation within one lifetime (in his Pure Land).
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