— 存亡偈 (1)
Peacefully abide on the Buddha’s name (Āmítuófó: 阿弥陀佛), for living well in the present moment, with Faith and Aspiration be mindful, also for a good death.
— Verses For The Living And Dying (1)
There was a Korean talk semi-listened to during a tea session, that was perhaps supposed to present ‘Zen’ (禅). ‘Semi’ because what heard was interpreted and translated, which makes it possibly misinterpreted and mistranslated to some extent. The speaker asked if we believe that we will have future lives. It seemed that he wanted us to say that we are uncertain. We thought he was going to offer reasonable proof for faith in karma and rebirth, but he did not. I thought the talk might dangerously lean towards the one extreme of nihilism (断见) then, which is the delusion that after this life ends, absolutely nothing remains.
When we did not clearly say we are certain, he asked if we knew where we will be reborn in. Was one of the only ones to raise a hand. Since my vow to reach Pure Land is unwavering, that is surely where I will go. Again, it seemed that he wanted us to say we are uncertain. He asked all to clap to congratulate, as I grinned and shrugged, still unsure of his point. He did not ask further on why there was such certainty. He then asked if those with children expect them to bring much happiness in the future. Yet again, it seemed that he wanted us to say we are uncertain.
It seemed that what he really wanted to say is that we should try to live in the moment (活在当下) happily, since there are so many other ‘promises’ of happiness we might be uncertain about. We thought he was going to offer reasonable definitions for what constitutes True Happiness, but he did not. I thought the talk might dangerously lean towards hedonism (享乐主义) then, which is heedless indulgence in sense pleasures. This surely cannot be ‘Zen’, since the Buddha taught that human life’s (人命) duration is ‘that of breathing out and in between’ (呼吸间). How can we simply disregard life’s brevity and impermanence then?
For those who are certain that there is rebirth, he asked if we are sure we have done enough good to ensure good rebirths. Yes again, it seemed that he wanted us to say we are uncertain. Thus again, the ‘only’ certain thing that we can do, seems to be ‘to live in this moment.’ But what about how to live well now, so as to be reborn better later, if yet to be liberated, which will be the case for most of us by the end of this very short life? This was not touched upon. Is life just about sipping and savouring this cup of tea now, and/or about being confused by this ambiguous semi-‘Zen’?
I thought the talk might dangerously lean towards the other extreme of eternalism (常见) then, which is the delusion that after this life ends, absolutely nothing changes. This present nice moment does not self-perpetuate or automatically becomes nicer and nicer. In fact, since our well-being or ill-being changes from moment to moment, depending on how our mix of good, evil and pure karmas unfold, there is need to karmically take care of this moment well, for the next moment, next life and liberation. This is what Dharma learning and practice is for.
How ironical, that although the Zen Door (禅门) is supposed to be an Emptiness Door (空门), ‘against’ clinging to dualistic good and evil (善恶), there was asking about good or bad rebirths. How doubly ironical, that although the Pure Land Dharma Door (净土法门) is supposed to be a Form Door (有门), it ‘transcends’ dualistic good and evil with aspiration for the pure (清净). If equipped with the Three Provisions (三资粮) of Faith, Aspiration and Practice (信愿行), Pure Land practitioners need not worry about not being good enough to secure the best rebirth in Pure Land.
As fruits were offered with tea, the talk reminded of a distorted ‘Zen’ parable misattributed to the Buddha… Fleeing when seeing a tiger, a man reached a precipice, where he held a vine over its edge, at the bottom of which was another tiger. Shivering in fear, there were also white and black mice (representing day and night) chewing at the vine. Just then, he saw a juicy strawberry. ‘How sweet!’, he thought, as he plucked and ate it. Was he wise by making the ‘best’ of his potential last moment(s), or foolish by being greedily distracted, not knowing to be mindful of Buddha for help?
Some might think he was very ‘Zen’, by ‘living in the moment’ fully. Others might think he was very deluded, by forgetting his desperate situation totally. The truth is, it is a false dichotomy that we either live in the moment or prepare for the next life. If there is only and thus too much living in the moment, without any regard for the next moment or life, this becomes toxic, potentially nihilistic and hedonistic, which the Buddha surely disagrees with. It is with living this moment well, with mindfulness of impending death, that we prepare for the next moment well too.
The actual parable was taught in the Sūtra In Which The Buddha Speaks Of Analogies《佛说譬喻经》, which has significantly different and more interesting details. ‘For us to know the faults and suffering (过患) of rebirth (轮回), so as to give rise to revulsed renunciation (厌离), to practise diligently (勤修) without laxity (放逸) for liberation (解脱), the Buddha gave an elaborate but vividly relatable parable with 12 analogies, on the constant and all-directional terrifying threats of our physical lives (身命) and spiritual lives (慧命), that are applicable to all sentient beings (众生), even rich and powerful royalty, who are also trapped in the rounds of rebirth, due to similar deluded greed for the five desires (五欲).’
‘In a way, although easy to understand in essence, this can be said to be one of the Buddha’s first urgent lessons, to wake us up to the reality of life’s impermanence and death’s unpredictability, so as to clearly see that Dharma learning and practice is our only true refuge. Even before he became the Buddha, when he renounced the kingdom in the cover of night, although he was young, he was “fleeing” with a sense of urgency to accomplish his spiritual life. The quest for Buddhahood was, for one and all, a race against time.’ These teachings can be learnt in full with notes at purelanders.com/piyu. (Unlabelled photos above are of some Korean monasteries visited.)
— 存亡偈 (2)
If without profound Faith’s mind, without sincere Aspiration to be born, and without true Practice of mindfulness, how will birth in the Pure Land Of Ultimate Bliss be attained?
— Verses For The Living And Dying (2)
Are You ‘Recycling’ Yourself Every Three Lifetimes?
The Parable Of Two Rivers And The White Path
What Are You Practising Mindfulness For?
The Four Solaces (Or Assurances):
The Buddha On Why It Makes Sense To Believe In Rebirth