How Death Hinders Progress To Liberation

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The thoroughly unenlightened
manifest confused rebirths
which further confuse themselves.

— Stonepeace | Get Books

There is a phenomenon called ‘confusion from separation (from previous lives) by death’ (隔阴之迷), which is the forgetting of the past life experiences due to dramatic changes of physical and mental states during rebirth, as one moves from one life to the next. This effect is due to lack of clear mindfulness. However, if one is a genuine Bodhisattva, who resolutely aspired to return to Samsara to help more beings, this period of confusion will be overcome. Generally, the greater the Bodhisattva is in realisation, the more swiftly will one recall one’s original purpose. Lesser Bodhisattvas, however, might take years or even decades to recollect their mission, often incompletely too. Thankfully, Buddhas and greater Bodhisattvas will compassionately and skilfully do what they can to guide them. True to this phenomenon, there are great Dharma masters, who were born to be very intelligent and blessed due to their abilities and merits carried over from past lives. However, due to the above ‘confusion’, some might not receive the Dharma well initially, before being guided by good-knowing advisors (spiritual friends) to realise the need to better learn, practise, realise and propagate the Dharma.

There are ‘two kinds of death’ (二死). The first is called ‘fragmentary (life and) death’ (分段生死), which applies to ordinary (unenlightened) beings, who are karmically forced to repeatedly relinquish their bodies to take on new forms after death in the rounds of rebirth. Their lifespans are karmically limited, interrupted and divided by time (分) at moments of death, which makes continual and steady learning and practice of the Dharma difficult due to the existential ‘confusion’ mentioned. Their forms are karmically differentiated, limited and divided by space (段) from life to life too. Next is the opposite, the second kind of death – called ‘transformational (life and) death’ (变易生死), which refers to Arhats (Sravakas), Pratyekabuddhas and greater Bodhisattvas, whom, despite being liberated from the rounds of ‘fragmentary life and death’, are yet to be fully enlightened like the Buddhas. Yet, out of compassion (based on Bodhicitta: the aspiration to guide all to Buddhahood), they are able to manifest births in the rounds of rebirth to guide beings to liberation. Their forms are not constrained by time and space like ours, although the Buddhas are the ones who are truly unlimited in manifestations.

The above reflects the dangers of being stuck in Samsara (rounds of rebirth), and its difficulties for cumulative progress towards Buddhahood. Even beginner Bodhisattvas experience ‘confusion from separation by death’ and ‘fragmentary death’ before they realise ‘transformational life and death’. In the Vajrayana tradition, there is the tradition of recognising tulkus, or reborn masters, some of whom, in their previous lives, were able to prophecize their place and time of birth for easier recognition by other living masters. This is seen as Bodhisattva practice itself, the act of deliberate returning for the welfare of others. However, recognition of a tulku does not mean one is surely or already a qualified or realised teacher. In case there were disruptions from ‘fragmentary (life and) death’, there is the custom of extensive ‘re-education’ under other teachers to help the tulku swiftly learn and recall the learnt. Existential interruptions can be so severe that there are cases of reluctant tulkus who take some time to reconnect to their roots. As most of us are not Bodhisattvas or tulkus, we lack the blessings to be discovered and systematically nurtured, which is why many backslide from the path to Buddhahood!

My Mother told me that she lacked appetite for meat when I was in her womb, and rejected cow milk as a baby. Perhaps I was already vegan in my past life? This might explain how I could suddenly turn full vegetarian (and later vegan) overnight 20 years ago, after a one-time facing of the harsh truths behind animal products (when researching for a Dharma discussion on environmentalism)? Yet, if it really was a habit carried over, due to ‘fragmentary death’, I grew up unmindful of it for many years, until ‘accidental re-education’ was available, which quickly urged me to pick it up (again). I shudder at the horror of how it could have been, if I was reborn amidst less conducive conditions, possibly backsliding from conscientious living of a more harmless life. Recognising how samsaric rebirth easily allows spiritual backsliding, this is a reason why Buddhas, with their perfect compassion and wisdom, created Pure Lands, where we can be empowered by their blessings to recollect past lives. Although we keep losing precious Dharma memories here, all will be regained when reborn there! Along with direct tutelage under them as the ideal good-knowing advisors, any confusions from fragmented rebirths will be easily overcome for liberation!

The thoroughly enlightened
manifest compassionate rebirths
which further illuminate others.

— Stonepeace | Get Books

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