Home » Features » How A Great Master Overcame Great Suffering From Sickness 大师如何克服大病苦

诸佛菩萨,
念念念众。  
众虽不念,
仍慈悲念。

不弃偈 (1)

All Buddhas and Bodhisattvas,
from thought to thought are mindful of all sentient beings.
Sentient beings although not mindful of them,
with loving-kindness and compassion, they remain mindful of them.

Verse On Non-Abandonment (1)

Record: When he was 56 years of age, the posthumously conferred Pure Land Tradition’s 9th Patriarch Great Master Ǒuyì (净土宗九祖澫益大师) (1599-1655) manifested sickness (示疾), and wrote this in a letter to the author and poet Qián Mùzhāi (钱牧斋) (1582-1664), ‘This summer, I was two times with great sickness and near death. In the season of autumn, I then completed studying the scriptures.’「今夏两番大病垂死,季秋阅藏方竟。」

Note [1]: This speaks of the impermanence of health, unpredictability of life and eventuality of death. Even after being ill once, the next moment of being ill again can still arrive swiftly, with little respite in between. Even life-threatening sickness can come suddenly and repeatedly. Despite these health challenges, the Great Master persevered and concluded his study of the Buddha’s teachings in the sūtras.

Record: ‘In the second month of winter, once ill again, it became extremely serious. For seven days and nights, I was not able to sit or lie down, not able to drink or eat, and it could not be cured, with no method to resolve it. I could only cry bitterly while reciting Buddha’s and Bodhisattvas’ names, only seeking to be born in Pure Land.’「仲冬一病更甚,七昼夜不能坐卧,不能饮食,不可疗治,无术分解,唯痛哭称佛菩萨名字,求生净土而已。」

Note [2]: Being already a Great Master with much meritorious virtues, such incidents of serious sicknesses are usually seen as skilful manifestations to teach us important lessons; not being actual karmically manifested sicknesses. However, even if they are skilful manifestations, again, being a Great Master, with great compassion and wisdom, they are sincere manifested to remind us of crucial aspects of the Dharma. As we are far from being Great Masters, all the more are we likely to have such serious ripening of actual negative karma, which is why we should all the more be sincere and diligent in practising mindfulness of Buddha (念佛).

Note [3]: As mindfulness of Buddha is able to connect to Buddha’s blessings for healing, why is it that the Great Master still had much suffering from sickness, if actual? As he taught in his ‘Essential Explanation On The Amitābha Sūtra As Spoken By The Buddha’《佛说阿弥陀经要解》—

‘It should be known that accumulated transgressions [from many lifetimes], if with physical form, exhausting the realms in empty space, they will not be able to contain or receive them. Although for a hundred years’ days and nights reciting Amitābha Buddha name [i.e. 阿弥陀佛: Āmítuófó] ten thousand times, with each recitation eradicating 80 koṭis [i.e. 10 million each] of kalpas’ [i.e. world cycles of about 1.3 trillion years each] births’ and deaths’ transgressions, however, the eradicated transgressions are like earth in one’s fingernails, [while] yet to be eradicated transgressions are like the great Earth’s earth.’「当知积罪假使有体相者,尽虚空界不能容受,虽百年昼夜弥陀十万,一一声灭八十亿劫生死,然所灭罪如爪上土,未灭罪如大地土。」

Note [4]: Even though mindfulness of Buddha is able to eradicate much negative karma with each recitation, the bad news is that we have much negative karma to clear. The good news is that each ‘set’ of negative karma requires specific conditions to ripen, which means not all negative karma will ripen at once, but bit by bit. However, this might still seem ‘unbearable’, especially when a heavy ‘set’ ripens, or when many ‘sets’ ripen at once or consecutively. Thus, we should practise diligently in everyday life to eradicate negative karma; not just when very sick or dying, to clear as much negative karma as we can now. With the efficacy of mindfulness of Buddha, even if yet to be fully eradicated, there will be otherwise ‘heavier retribution, that is lighter received’ (重报轻受), as less pain and suffering.

Note [5]: With so many physical discomforts for an entire week around the clock, and inability to be mindful of Buddha calmly, the Great Master could only practise in tears, with deep repentance and sincere aspiration to reach Pure Land. With this ‘extreme’ case of karmic sickness, why should we complain of our comparatively less suffering now, as being too ‘unbearable’ to continue practice? As demonstrated by the Great Master, when with serious sickness, there should only be sincere practice with aspiration to reach Pure Land. If pining for healing here, not only might it not be possible due to heavy negative karma not cleared in time, Pure Land will not be reached too. Yet, if healing is possible, it will be swift.

Note [6]: How should we handle obstacles that hinder our practice? Simply by ‘stepping on the gas’, to be even more sincere and diligent in pressing on. This is how we can transform even great obstacles into even greater blessings. As the Pure Land Tradition’s 13th Patriarch Great Master Yìnguāng (净土宗十三祖印光大师) wrote in his second reply letter to layperson Dèng Bóchéng《复邓伯诚居士书二》

If not able to focus, you must will it [i.e. your mind] to focus. If not able to be mindful, you must will it to be mindful. If not able to be wholehearted, will it to be wholehearted. There is also no special or mysterious Dharma [principle], only with the one word of “death”, “pasted” up upon your forehead, hanging up upon your eyebrows. With the mind constantly mindful, “I, so-and-so, from beginninglessness, up till this life, of those created evil karma, it is immeasurable and boundless. If my evil karma has physical form, [all of] the ten directions’ empty space, is not able to contain or receive them. With which past life’s good fortune, have I now attained this human body, also able to hear the Buddha’s teachings? If not wholeheartedly mindful of Buddha to seek birth in the Western Pure Land, with one breath not coming, I will definitely towards hell’s cauldrons boiling with coal, sword forests and knife mountains within go, to receive suffering, not knowing passing of how many kalpas…”‘「不能专,要他专。不能念,要他念。不能一心,要他一心等。亦无奇特奥妙法则,但将一个死字,贴到额颅上,挂到眉毛上。心常念日,我某人从无始来,直至今生,所作恶业,无量无边。假使恶业有体相者,十方虚空,不能容受。宿生何幸,今得人身,又闻佛法。若不一心念佛求生西方,一气不来,定向地狱镬[huò]汤炭剑树刀山里受苦,不知经几多劫。」

Record: ‘Completely bound ordinary beings might harm themselves when benefitting others, but with others not necessarily benefitted, with harm of self like this. In ordinary days, having truly only upon the mind-nature exerted myself, am still not competent, moreover so for those merely upon text exerting themselves? Exiting from the cycle of birth and death, to accomplish Bodhi [i.e. enlightenment], is especially not an easy matter. If not in the Abbot’s room [to witness my suffering], who will know these as true words?’「具缚凡夫损己利人,人未必利,己之受害如此。平日实唯在心性上用力,尚不得力,况仅从文字上用力者哉?出生死,成菩提,殊非易事,非丈室谁知此实语也。」

Note [7]: We are fully tied to the Three Poisons of attachment, aversion and delusion now. Thus, while trying to benefit others imperfectly, we might harm ourselves physically to some extent, with strenuous efforts of learning and practising for sharing the Dharma. Yet, despite these efforts, others might yet to be genuinely helped. If those who focus on practice to realise their Buddha-nature might still have inadequate efforts, how much more so will those who only focus on study of theory be? As such,liberation from rebirth with only Self-power (自力) in this way is the Difficult Practice Path (难行道). Speaking from his personal experience, as one who exerted himself as above, the Great Master knew that this is so.

Record: The Great Master manifested sickness and recognition of the limits of Self-power, to focus upon connecting to the Buddha’s Other-power (他力) to be rescued. For those overly self-confident and proud (自负高慢), this is like, right above their heads, delivering a strike and shout (当头棒喝) to awaken them. 

Note [8]: Being a Great Master previously awakened with Self-powered meditative practice, the Great Master clearly had much Self-power already. Yet, by manifesting debilitating sickness, he was warning the masses, including his study focused friend, of Self-power’s limitations in the face of heavy negative karma manifesting as obstacles. This is when there should be connecting to Other-power for crucial support, so as to walk the Easy Practice Path (易行道). The Dharma Door Of Mindfulness Of Buddha (念佛法门) is the only path that enables this. Prideful as one might be of one’s Self-power now in the absence of sicknesses due to karmic obstacles (业障病), one will be humbled when it is proven inadequate, especially when dying with serious sickness.

Record: When he was 57, the Great Master again manifested illness, and willed his body to be cremated, to have his bones’ crumbs mixed with flour, distributed and given as food offerings to fish in the water and animals on land, for creating affinity to be reborn in the Western Pure Land. Seated in lotus position, facing West while reciting the Buddha’s name, he raised his hand and departed.

Note [9]: When sick one last time, out of compassion, the Great Master instructed his ashes to be made into food to connect animals with Pure Land. This also expressed his confidence of reaching it personally, which he finally exemplified with ease in practising mindfulness of Buddha upright. He was able to do so without suffering from sickness as he had previously eradicated enough negative karma in time. When connected firmly with Buddha, there will be peace and bliss too. Even if mindfulness of Buddha helps to alleviate suffering, due to the nature of life in this world, we will still have to depart. And the best place to reach is the Land Of Ultimate Bliss, where there is total and lasting healing, with freedom from all pain and suffering.

诸佛菩萨,
不弃众生。  
唯有众生,
弃佛菩萨。

— 不弃偈 (2)

All Buddhas and Bodhisattvas,
never abandon any sentient beings.
Only having sentient beings,
who abandon Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.

— Verse On Non-Abandonment (2)

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