Those who cultivate [Dharma] practices, if without right faith, to seek birth in the Western [Pure Land of Amituofo, while] broadly cultivating many [kinds of] good, are named [as those subject to] grievance in their third lifetimes.
– Qing Dynasty’s Chan Master Jieliu
(Pure Land Tradition’s 12th Patriarch Great Master Chewu)
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 both being Buddhahood attained. But if this is so, we should have attained complete liberation long ago!
The truth is, as long as we have yet to attain stream-entry (a state that guarantees at least self-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 descent 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 and fame. 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 gets drained up, while the negative karma from Life #2 bears retributive fruit.
We might thereafter 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 ‘expressway’ 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 in this life, why would we ‘naturally’ be more spiritually inclined in the next life? Even worldly skills we have mastered can be forgotten within this life, much more to say of our spiritual lessons ‘learnt’.
If you are now horrified by the ‘hamster wheel’ that seems to run to 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 Amituofo’s (Amitabha Buddha) 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. with 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 generally repeats.
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 ‘三世怨’ (Grievance in three lifetimes), we can say ‘福不过三世’ (Blessings do not cross three lifetimes)!
As Amituofo 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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