The cycle of rebirths (saṃsāra)
The idea of all beings as wandering from rebirth to rebirth, as determined by the mental orientation and ethical quality of their action (karma) is fundamental to Buddhism. Passage *L.15 explains how the Buddha is seen to have directly remembered many of his past lives, and seen how beings are reborn according to their karma. This was on the night of his awakening, after meditatively calming his mind to a state of profound stillness and sensitivity.
Th.55 An ultimate beginning is not discernible
This passage introduces the idea of saṃsāra – the cycle of rebirths through which beings have been ‘wandering on’, accompanied by the spiritual ignorance (not a lack of information, but a misperception of the nature of reality) and craving which fuel this process, with no known beginning to all this. Buddhism thus lacks any idea of the ultimate creation of the universe and beings.
Monks, this cycle of wandering on is without a discoverable beginning. Of living beings running around and wandering around in the cycle, a first beginning is not discerned. Just as, monks, a man in this Jambudīpa286 cuts the grass, sticks, branches, and foliage of this Jambudīpa and having brought it together carries it away making it into bundles of four inches, saying (successively) ‘This is (represents) my mother; this is my mother’s mother …’, the mothers of that person would not come to an end even though the grass, sticks, branches and foliage of this Jambudīpa became exhausted and came to an end. What is the reason for this? It is because this cycle of wandering on is without a known beginning. The first beginning of beings that run around and wander around hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving is not evident. Thus, for a long time monks, you have experienced severe suffering, experienced disaster, increased instances of death, so much so that it is appropriate to be disenchanted with, unattached to, and liberated from all conditioned things.
Tiṇakaṭṭha Sutta: Saṃyutta-nikāya II.178, trans. P.D.P.
Th.56 The reality of rebirth and karma
This passage emphasizes the error and danger of denying a future life, that how one is reborn depends on one’s conduct, and that the awakened directly know the truth of such matters.
Now, householders, of those renunciants and brahmins with this doctrine and view: ‘There is no (worth in a) gift, an offering, or (self-)sacrifice; there is no fruit or ripening of actions (karma) well done or ill done; there is no this world, no further world (i.e. this world is unreal, and one does not go to another world after death); there is no mother, no father (there is no worth in respecting one’s parents: those who establish one in this world); there are no spontaneously arising beings (there are no worlds of rebirth in which certain kinds of heavenly beings come into existence without parents); there are in this world no renunciants and brahmins who are faring rightly, practising rightly, and who proclaim this world and a world beyond having realized them by their own higher knowledge (spiritual development is not possible; people cannot come to have direct meditative knowledge of rebirth into a variety of kinds of world)’ – of them it is to be expected that they will avoid these three wholesome things: good conduct of body, speech and mind, and that they will practise these three unwholesome things: bad conduct of body, speech and mind. Why so? Because these honourable renunciants and brahmins do not see the danger, degradation and defilement of unwholesome states, nor do they see in wholesome states the advantage of transcending sensual desires, and the aspect of cleansing.
Because there actually is a further world, the view of one who thinks, ‘There is no further world’ is his wrong view. Because there actually is a further world, when he is resolved that ‘There is no further world’, that is his wrong resolve.
Apaṇṇaka Sutta: Majjhima-nikāya I.402, trans. P.H.
Th.57 Believing in rebirth and karma is a ‘best bet’
While rebirth and karma are seen as realities confirmed by the Buddha, unless a person has also directly confirmed their existence, they remain for them beliefs. This passage argues that such beliefs bring benefits whether or not one has experienced knowledge of their truth.
When, Kālāmas, this disciple of the noble ones has thus made his mind free of enmity, free of ill-will, undefiled and pure, he has won four assurances in this very life. The first assurance he has won is this: ‘If there is a further world, and if there is a fruit and ripening of well done and ill done deeds, it is possible that, with the dissolution of the body, after death, I shall arise in a good destination, in a heavenly world’. The second assurance he has won is this: ‘If there is no further world, and if there is no fruit and ripening of well done and ill done deeds, still right here, in this very life, I will live happily, free of enmity and ill-will’. The third assurance he has won is this: ‘Suppose evil befalls the evil-doer. Then, as I do not intend evil for anyone, how can suffering afflict me, one who does no evil deed?’ The fourth assurance he has won is this: ‘Suppose evil does not befall the evil-doer. Then right here I see myself purified in both respects (neither doing evil nor experiencing any evil results)’.
Kesaputta (or Kālāma) Sutta: Aṅguttara-nikāya I.192, trans. P.D.P and P.H.
Th.58 The main rebirth realms
This passage briefly enumerates the five main kinds of rebirths, though a sixth, as an asura, or demi-god, is sometimes added.
And what, monks, is the diversity of action (karma)? There is action (whose fruit) is to be experienced in the hells, or in the animal realm, or in the sphere of ghosts, or in the human world, or (as a god) in the heavens. …
And what, monks, is the ripening of action? Action, I say, has a threefold ripening: in this life, in the next life, or subsequently.
Nibbedhika Sutta: Aṅguttara-nikāya III.415, trans. P.H.
Precious human rebirth
Th.59 Rebirth as a human as a rare opportunity
In this passage, it is affirmed that many more beings are reborn other than at a human level, such that heedfulness of the nature of one’s actions is vital. Of course the number of land animals, birds, fish and insects greatly outnumber the human population of our planet.
Then the Blessed One took a little bit of soil with the tip of his fingernail and addressed the monks: ‘Monks, which is more, the little bit of soil I have taken with the tip of my fingernail or this great earth?’ ‘… compared with the great earth, the little soil the Blessed One took with the tip of his fingernail is not even the minutest part.’ ‘In the same way, monks, it is only a few living beings who are reborn among humans,287 whereas a much larger number of living beings are reborn as other than human. Therefore, monks you should train yourself thus: “We shall live heedfully”.’
Nakhasikhā Sutta: Saṃyutta-nikāya II.263, trans. P.D.P.
Th.60 Being born a human who can hear the Dhamma is rare
This passage makes clear that to be reborn a human, especially when the teaching of a Buddha is available, is a rare and precious opportunity. Humans have greater freedom of action than those in the lower rebirths, and the mental capacity to be able to fathom the Dhamma.
Difficult is it to attain the human state; difficult is the life of mortals.
Difficult is it to come to hear the good Dhamma; difficult is it for Buddhas to arise.
Dhammapada 182, trans. P.H.
Th.61 Remember, one’s life is short, so practice now, while you can!
As a great flood sweeps away a sleeping village, death carries away a person of distracted mind who is only concerned with life’s flowers.
Dhammapada 47, trans. P.H.
Our world in the context of the universe
Th.62 Clusters of worlds throughout the universe
This passage shows that Buddhism has never seen our world as the only physical world, or at the centre of the universe. It is seen as part of a thousandfold288 cluster of worlds, with a thousand of these clusters forming a higher-level galactic cluster, and a thousand of these galactic clusters forming a yet higher-level super-galactic cluster. The Buddha is not seen to have created any world, but he is seen to be able to contact beings throughout this third level. Each of the individual worlds referred to have their own beings, including their own set of heavens.
Ānanda, a thousand times the world in which the sun and moon revolve and illuminate the directions with their brightness: this is called a thousandfold minor world-system. There, there are a thousand moons, a thousand suns, a thousand kingly central mountains, a thousand … [set of four continents] and a thousand four great oceans; a thousand of (each of the heavens) of: the Four Guardian gods, the Thirty-three gods, Yāma, the Contented, Delighters in Creating, Controllers of Others’ Creations, and the brahmā worlds.
Ānanda, a thousand times the minor world-system: this is called a thousand-to-the-second-order middling world-system.
Ānanda, a thousand times a thousand-to-the-second-order middling world-systems: this is called a thousand-to-the-third-order great world-system.
Ānanda, the Tathāgata can convey his (radiance and then) voice as far as he wants within this.
Abhibhū Sutta: Aṅguttara-nikāya I.227–228, trans. P.H.
Th.63 Cycles of cosmic eons
It is said that worlds go through four huge phases: coming to an end, remaining dissolved, developing again, and remaining, till again coming to an end. These four make up an eon (Aṅguttara-nikāya II.142). The passage below illustrates the huge length of an eon, and the incalculable number that have passed during which beings wander from rebirth to rebirth.
Suppose, monk, there is a great stone mountain seven miles long, seven miles wide, and seven miles high. … one solid mass of rock. At the end of every century, a man would stroke it once with a piece of fine cloth. That huge stone mountain might be worn down and eliminated by his action, but an eon would not yet have come to an end. So long is an eon, monk. And of eons of such a length, we have (from life to life) wandered through so many: so many hundreds, thousands and hundreds of thousands of eons.
Pabbata Sutta: Saṃyutta-nikāya II.181–182, trans. P.H.
The idea of karma in Buddhism is that intentional actions (Pāli kamma, Skt karma) naturally produce certain results: good actions lead to pleasant results and good character-traits, and bad ones to unpleasant results and bad traits. The results are not ‘rewards’ or ‘punishments’, as there is not seen to be any God handing out the results. Nor are the results set up as ‘lessons to learn’, though a person may hopefully develop insights by reflection on life events as possible results of prior behaviour. Karmic results are seen simply as natural results, arising from a kind of law of nature. A common simile is that a karma is like a seed, and its results are like the fruits that develop from the seed. A term for a good action and its potency to bring good karmic fruits is puñña Pāli, Skt puṇya), often translated as ‘meritorious action’ and ‘merit’. This, however suggests karmic results are some merited or deserved reward, rather than natural results. Hence puñña is better translated ‘karmically beneficial action’ and ‘karmic benefit’ or ‘karmic fruitfulness’.
Th.64 Karma is volition
In Buddhism, things which happen to one are not ‘karma’, but they may be the consequence of previous bad or good intentional karma (action) done by one. The nature of an action is seen to reside in the volition or intention that is expressed in the action, and actions include not only overt ones of body or speech, but also sustained thought.
It is volition, monks, that I call karma. Having willed, one performs an action by body, by speech, by mind.
Nibbedhika Sutta: Aṅguttara-nikāya III.415, trans. P.H.
Th.65 Your bad actions will catch up with you sooner or later
As long as an evil deed has not ripened, the fool thinks it as sweet as honey.
But when it does ripen, the fool meets with suffering. …
An evil deed is not like (warm) milk that goes off in a day; it is like a smouldering fire covered in ashes, and follows the fool.
Dhammapada 69 and 71, trans. P.H.
Th.66 One’s actions and thoughts determine one’s rebirth, not the rituals of others
This passage emphasizes that how a person is reborn is a natural result of their actions, not something that the prayers and rituals of others determines.
Then Asibandhakaputta the headman went to the Blessed One, and having gone there, he paid respect to him and sat on one side. Seated on one side, he said to the Blessed One: ‘The brahmins of the western lands, lord, those who carry water pots, wear garlands of water plants, who resort to water (for purification), and worship fire to improve the lot of a dead person, inform them (of their destiny), and send them to heaven. But is the Blessed One, the arahant, the perfectly awakened Buddha capable of doing what would make every person in the world to be born, at the dissolution of the body, after death, in a good destination, a heavenly world?’
‘Very well, then, headman, I will put the question back to you on this matter. Answer as you see fit. What do you think, headman, here there is a person who destroys life, steals, misconducts himself in the enjoyment of sensual pleasures, speaks untruth, engages in divisive speech, harsh speech and idle chatter, has intense desire, is malicious in thought, and holds to wrong views. Then a great crowd of people, coming together and congregating, would pray, praise, and circumambulate with their palms put together saying, “May this person, at the dissolution of the body, after death, be reborn in a good destination, a heavenly world!” What do you think? Would that man, because of the prayers, praise, and circumambulation of that great crowd of people, at the dissolution of the body, after death, be reborn in a good destination, a heavenly world?’ ‘No, sir.’
‘Headman, suppose a person were to throw a hefty boulder into a deep lake of water, and a great crowd of people, coming together and congregating, would pray, praise, and circumambulate with their palms put together saying “Rise up to the surface, O hefty boulder, come floating up, O hefty boulder, float up to the shore, O hefty boulder!” What do you think? Would that hefty boulder, on account of the prayers, praise, and circumambulation of that great crowd of people rise up to the surface, come floating up, or float to the shore?’ ‘No, sir.’
‘So is it with any person who destroys life, … [etc.] Even though a great crowd of people, coming together and congregating, would pray, praise … still, at the dissolution of the body, after death, he would be reborn in a woeful state, a bad destiny, the abyss, hell.
Headman, what do you think? Here, there is a person who refrains from destroying life, from stealing … is not greedy, bearing no thoughts of ill-will, and holding right view. Then a great crowd of people coming together and congregating would pray … saying “May this person, at the dissolution of the body, after death, be reborn in a woeful state, a bad destiny, the abyss, hell!” Would that person at the dissolution of the body … on account of the prayers, praise, and circumambulation of that great crowd of people be reborn in a woeful state, a bad destiny, the abyss, hell?’ ‘No, sir.’
‘Suppose a person were to throw a jar of ghee or a jar of oil into a deep lake of water and break it. There the grains of sand and jar-fragments would go down, while the ghee or oil would come up. If a great crowd of people, coming together and congregating, would pray, praise … saying, “Sink, O ghee and oil, submerge O ghee and oil, go down, O ghee and oil!” What do you think? Would that ghee and oil, on account of the prayers, praise … sink, submerge, or go down?’ ‘No, sir.’
‘So is it with any person who refrains from destroying life … [etc.] Even though a great crowd of people, coming together and congregating, would pray … saying “May this person, at the dissolution of the body, after death, be reborn in a woeful state, a bad destiny, the abyss, hell!” still, at the dissolution of the body, after death, he would be reborn in a good destination, a heavenly world.’
Asibandhaka-putta Sutta: Saṃyutta-nikāya IV.312–314, trans. P.D.P.
Th.67 How past actions lead to differences among people
This passage explains how various bad and good actions lead respectively to rebirth in a hell or a heaven, or to various kinds of bad or good fortune in a future human rebirth. This should not be taken to mean that past karma is the only cause of differences amongst humans, but that it can have a definite influence.
‘Good Gotama, due to what cause, dependent on what condition are worse and better states to be seen among those who have become humans, although they are (all) humans? We see humans with a short life-span and with a long life-span, with many ailments and few ailments, ugly and beautiful, weak and powerful, poor and wealthy, of low social class and high social class, foolish and wise. Good Gotama, why are these differences seen among humans?’
‘Young man, beings have their actions (karma) as their own, are inheritors of their actions, originate from them, are related to them, have them as their refuge. Actions divide living beings into having worse and better states. … Here young man, a certain woman or man destroys living beings, is cruel, is with bloody hands, engaged in destroying and hurting living beings without compassion for any beings that have come into existence. That person, on account of that action, performed and undertaken, is born after the dissolution of the body, after death in a woeful state, a bad destiny, the abyss, hell. Instead, if that person comes to the human state, wherever born, he or she has a short life. Young man, destroying living beings, being cruel, having bloody hands, engaging in destroying and causing hurt to living beings without compassion to any beings that have come into existence is a path conducive to a birth with a short life-span.
Young man, here a certain woman or man gives up and abstains from destroying living beings, throws away stick and weapon, is conscientious, compassionate and abides with sympathetic concern for the welfare of all living beings. That person, on account of that action, performed and undertaken, is born after the dissolution of the body, after death in a good destiny, a heavenly world. Instead, if that person comes to the human state, wherever born, he or she has a long life. That path, young man is conducive to having a long life-span.
Young man, here a certain woman or man is of a kind that hurts beings with hands, clods, sticks or weapons. On account of that action, performed and undertaken by that person, … after death he or she is born in … hell. Instead, if that person comes to the state of humans, wherever born, he or she suffers many ailments. Young man, this is the path conducive to having many ailments.
Young man, here a certain woman or man is of a kind that does not hurt beings with hands, clods, sticks or weapons. That person, on account of that action performed and undertaken, … after death, is born in a good destiny, a heavenly world. Instead, if that person comes to the state of humans, wherever born, he or she has few ailments. Young man, this is the path that conduces to having few ailments.
Young man, here a certain woman or man is angry and given to irritability. Even at the slightest remark he or she curses, becomes angry, becomes malicious, reacts with anger, shows hatred, anger and displeasure. That person, on account of that action performed and undertaken, … after death is born in … hell. Instead, if that person comes to the state of humans, wherever born, he or she is born ugly. Young man, this is the path conducive to becoming ugly.
Young man, here a certain woman or man is not angry, is not given to irritability. Even with many (adverse) remarks that person does not curse, does not become angry, does not become malicious and does not react with anger, does not show hatred, anger and displeasure. That person, on account of that action, performed and undertaken is born … after death … in a heavenly world. Instead, if that person comes to the state of humans, wherever born, he or she becomes beautiful. Young man, this is the path conducive to becoming beautiful.
Young man, here a certain woman or man has an envious mind, is one who envies, resents and begrudges the gains, respect, honour, veneration and offerings received by others. That person, on account of that action performed and undertaken … [is reborn in hell or if reborn human] … becomes less powerful. This is the path conducive to becoming less powerful.
Young man, here a certain woman or man does not have an envious mind, is not one who envies, resents and begrudges the gains, respect, honour, veneration and offerings received by others. That person, on account of that action, performed and undertaken … [is reborn in a heaven or if reborn human] … becomes powerful … This is the path conducive to becoming powerful.
Young man, here a certain woman or man is of a kind that does not make donations to renunciants or brahmins, of food, drinks, clothes, carriages, flowers, scents, ointments, beds, dwellings and illuminations. … [is reborn in hell or if reborn human] … becomes a person of little wealth.
Young man, here a certain woman or man is of a kind that makes donations to renunciants or brahmins [is reborn in a heaven or if reborn human] … becomes a person of great wealth.
Young man, here a certain woman or man is stubborn and conceited and does not revere one who is worthy of reverence, does not stand up with respect for a person whom one should stand up with respect for, does not offer a seat to one who is worthy of a seat, does not give way to one who is worthy of giving way to, does not honour one who is worthy of honour … [is reborn in hell or if reborn human] … becomes a person of low social class.
Young man, here a certain woman or man is not stubborn and conceited and reveres one who is worthy of reverence… [is reborn in a heaven or if reborn human] … becomes a person of high social class.
Young man, here a certain woman or man does not approach a renunciant or brahmin and ask. “Venerable sir, what is wholesome and what is unwholesome? What is wrong and what is right? What should be practised and what should not be practised? Doing what will be for my good and wellbeing for a long time? Or doing what will be for my harm and suffering for a long time?” … [is reborn in hell or if reborn human] … becomes one of faulty wisdom.
Young man, here a certain woman or man approaches a renunciant or brahmin and asks. “Venerable sir, what is wholesome and what is unwholesome …?” … [is reborn in a heaven or if reborn human] … becomes one of great wisdom.
So then young man …, beings have their actions as their own, are inheritors of their actions, originate from them, are related to them, have them as their refuge. Actions divide living beings into having worse and better states.
Cūḷa-kamma-vibhaṅga Sutta: Majjhima-nikāya III.203–206, trans. P.D.P.
Th.68 Experiences, and good and bad actions, are not all due to past karma or a God, but nor are they causeless
This passage emphasizes that it is important to take responsibility for one’s actions, and not blame them on one’s previous karma/actions, or a God, or say that they occur causelessly, such that one has no way to control them.
Monks, there are these three systems of religious teaching which, when closely dealt with, taken up for close scrutiny and discussed thoroughly, finally end up leading to non-(responsibility for action. What three?
There are some renunciants and brahmins who hold the theory and are of the view, ‘Whatever this person experiences, whether pleasant, unpleasant or neither unpleasant nor pleasant, all that is on account of actions done in the past.’
There are some renunciants and brahmins who hold the theory and are of the view, ‘Whatever this person experiences, whether pleasant, unpleasant or neither unpleasant nor pleasant, all that is, on account of creation by a supreme being.’
There are some renunciants and brahmins who hold the theory and are of the view, ‘Whatever this person experiences, whether pleasant, unpleasant or neither unpleasant nor pleasant, all that is on account of no cause or condition.’
Here monks, I approach those renunciants and brahmins who hold the (first) theory and … ask them. ‘Venerable ones, is it true that you hold this theory …?’ When asked, they admit it. Then I tell them: ‘Venerable ones, then it is due to their past actions that people become destroyers of life, takers of what is not given, engagers in sexual activity,289 liars, those who use harsh speech, divisive speech, idle chatter, those with intense desire, malicious minds, and wrong views? For those who fall back on actions done in the past as the essential reality, there is neither interest, nor effort regarding what ought and ought not to be done. When in truth and reality what ought to be done and what ought not to be done are unobtainable by these people who live with lost mindfulness and unprotected, and even the personal designation ‘renunciant’ is inappropriate (for them). [The same is then said with respect to the other two theories.]
Titthāyatana Sutta: Aṅguttara-nikāya I.173–176, trans. P.D.P.
Th.69 Feelings and illnesses are not all due to past karma
This passage critiques the idea that all unpleasant feelings (and illnesses) arise due to past karma. Karma is one possible cause, but the other causes are physical, environmental, or one’s own present inept action or over-exertion. Hence taking the idea of karma in a fatalistic way is wrong.
Sitting on one side, the wandering ascetic Moliya Sīvaka said to the Blessed One: ‘Good Gotama, there are some renunciants and brahmins who declare in this way and who hold this view: “Whatever a person experiences, whether pleasant, unpleasant or neither unpleasant nor pleasant, all that is on account of actions (karmas) done in the past.” What has good Gotama to say about this?’ ‘Sīvaka, here certain feelings arise on account of disturbance of bile. It should be understood by oneself that certain feelings arise on account of the disturbance of bile. It is also commonly agreed
by people of the world that some feelings arise due to the disturbance of bile. Sīvaka, the renunciants and brahmins, who declare this theory and hold this view, “Whatever feeling this person experiences, whether pleasant, unpleasant or neither unpleasant nor pleasant, all that is due to past actions”, miss what they themselves have known, and they miss what people of the world commonly accept as the truth. Therefore, I say this is a wrong view of those renunciants and brahmins.
Sīvaka, certain feelings arise on account of disturbance of phlegm … wind … the coming together of these … the change of seasons … use of things in wrong ways … exertion290 … or born as results of karma.291 …
Sīvaka Sutta: Saṃyutta-nikāya IV.230–231, trans. P.D.P.
Th.70 A good character can dilute the karmic results of a bad action
This passage explains that the same bad actions do not always have karmic results of the same intensity, for the nature of a generally bad person amplifies the result of a particular bad action, while the nature of a generally good person dilutes the result of the same kind of bad action (cf. *M.41).
Monks, someone says: ‘In whatever manner a person does an action, in that respective manner he will experience its consequence.’ Monks, if that be so, there is no point in living the holy life and there is no room for a complete making an end to suffering. Monks, someone says: ‘In whatever manner the (consequence of an) action done by a person is to be experienced, in that respective manner he will experience its consequence.’ Monks, if that be so, there is a point in living the holy life and there is room for a complete making an end to suffering.
Here monks, a trifling bad action done by a certain person leads him to hell. Here monks, a similar trifling bad action is done by another person, but (its consequence) is experienced in this life itself: nothing of it is experienced in the life that follows, and the question of any further consequence does not arise.
For what kind of person is it that even doing a trifling bad action leads him to hell? Here monks, a certain person is of uncultivated character, uncultivated ethical discipline, uncultivated mind, uncultivated wisdom; he is petty, of a narrow self, and abiding in suffering due to something small. It is in the case of that kind of person that doing even a trifling bad action leads him to hell.
For what kind of person is it that doing a similar trifling bad action has (a consequence) experienced in this life itself, but nothing of it is experienced in the life that follows and the question of any further consequence does not arise? Here monks, a certain person is of cultivated character, cultivated ethical discipline, cultivated mind, cultivated wisdom; he is not petty, has a great self, is abiding in the limitless.292 In the case of such a person that doing a similar trifling bad action has (a consequence) experienced in this life itself, but nothing of it is experienced in the life that follows and the question of any further consequence does not arise.
Suppose monks, that a person took a pinch of salt and put it in a cup of water – don’t you think, monks, that the little water there would be salty and undrinkable?’ ‘Precisely so, sir, and for what reason? There is little water in the water cup, and with this pinch of salt it will become salty and undrinkable.’ ‘Suppose, monks, that a person threw a pinch of salt into the river Ganges – would you think, monks, that the river Ganges would become salty from this pinch of salt and become undrinkable?.’ ‘Not so sir, and for what reason? In this river Ganges there is a great mass of water, and with this pinch of salt it would not become salty and undrinkable.’
‘In the same way, monks, a trifling bad action done by a certain person leads him to hell ... and a similar trifling bad action is done by another person but its consequence has the tendency to be experienced in this life itself, and nothing of it is experienced in the life that follows, and the question of any further consequence does not arise.’
Loṇakapallaka Sutta: Aṅguttara-nikāya I.249–250, trans. P.D.P.
Th.71 Self-determination of one’s rebirth
This passage explains that a person, through the cultivation of virtue and wisdom and a firm resolve, can gain the kind of good rebirth that they aspire for.
‘Here monks, any monk lives endowed with faith, learning, liberality, wisdom, and it occurs to him, “Oh, may I be born among the rich men of the ruling class after the dissolution of the body, after death!” He strengthens that thought, he makes it his resolve and develops it, and when his mental activities and ways of living are developed and increasingly cultivated in that manner, it conduces to birth there. This, monks, is the path, the way that conduces to birth there.
Also monks, any monk lives endowed with faith … and it occurs to him, “Oh, may I be born among rich brahmins … or among rich householders … after death.” He strengthens that thought … This, monks, is the path, the way that conduces to birth there.
Also monks, any monk lives endowed with faith … and it has been heard by him that the gods of the Four Guardian Kings are long lived, possessed of beauty and abundant happiness. It occurs to him, “Oh, may I be born among the gods of the Four Guardian Kings … after death.” He strengthens that thought … This, monks, is the path … to birth there.293
Saṅkhāruppatti Sutta: Majjhima-nikāya III.99–104, trans. P.D.P.
Th.72 Karma can mature slowly, and one’s view and attitude at the end of one’s life is important
The first passage comes after a section which says that those with meditation-based supernormal vision, who see how beings are reborn, should be careful not to over-generalise from their experience. Bad people are often, but not always, reborn in a bad rebirth in their next life; sometimes their rebirth may happen to be a good one. Good people are often, but not always, reborn in a good rebirth in their next life; but sometimes their rebirth may happen to be a bad one. Hence one should not dogmatically assert that all bad people have a bad next rebirth, all good people have a good next rebirth, nor that a person’s conduct is irrelevant to their future rebirths. Then this is explained: there may be an opposite kind of past karma that will be what determines a person’s next rebirth, or they may change their view of things as they approach death. A bad person may regret their bad actions and resolve that good actions are important – a kind of ‘death-bed conversion’ – or a good person may meanly regret their good actions – a kind of ‘death-bed dis-conversion’. One’s bad and good actions will still have their results, but in a life after the next one.
The second passage is given by the Buddha to a banker, who has been a little mean in his offerings and is embarrassed about it. The Buddha reassures him that all acts of goodness and kindness bring results, however small they seem, and that he should not be embarrassed or think that it will not have a good effect in the future.
Now Ānanda, the individual here who destroys living beings, takes of what is not given, misbehaves with regard to the enjoyment of sensual pleasures, tells lies, engages in divisive speech, harsh speech, and idle chatter, has intense desire, a malicious mind and is of wrong view – he, after the dissolution of the body, after death, is born in a woeful state, a bad destiny, the abyss, hell. He may either have (also) done an evil deed earlier that has the potential to bring about painful feeling, or he may have done such later, or he may have entertained and observed wrong views at the time of death. Due to this he is born after the dissolution of the body in … hell. Since he has destroyed living beings, … and been of wrong view, he will experience their consequences either here and now or in the next birth, or at some later time.
Now Ānanda, the individual who here is a destroyer of living beings … is born in … a heavenly world. He may have (also) done a good deed earlier that has the potential to bring about a pleasant feeling, or he may have done it later, or at the time of death he may have entertained and observed right views. Due to this … he is born in a … heavenly world. Since he has destroyed living beings, … and been of wrong view, he will experience their consequences either here and now or in the next birth, or at some later time.
Now Ānanda, the individual who here abstains from destroying living beings, … and is of right view is born after the dissolution of the body, after death in a good destiny, a heavenly world. He may have (also) done a good deed earlier that has the potential to bring about a pleasant feeling, or he may have done it later, or at the time of death he may have entertained and observed right views. Due to this … he is born in a … heavenly world. Since he has abstained from destroying living beings, … and been of right view, he will experience their consequences either here and now or in the next birth, or at some later time.
Now Ānanda, the individual who here abstains from, destroying living beings, taking what is not given … and is of right view after the dissolution of the body, after death is born in … hell. He may either have (also) done an evil deed earlier that has the potential to bring about painful feeling, or he may have done such later, or he may have entertained and observed wrong views at the time of death. Due to this he is born at the dissolution of the body in … hell. Since he has abstained from destroying living beings… and been of wrong view, he will experience their consequences either here and now or in the next birth, or at some later time.
Mahā-kamma-vibhaṅga Sutta: Majjhima-nikāya III.214–215, trans. P.D.P.
Do not disregard karmic benefit and think ‘it will not come to me’.
Even by the falling of drops of water, a water pot is filled.
Just so the wise man is also filled with karmic benefit,
Even though he gathers it little by little.
Dhammapada 122, trans. P.H.
The implications of karma and rebirth for attitudes to others
Th.73 You too have experienced this
This passage emphasizes that, in some past life, one must have experienced similar things to the bad and good experiences that others now have. Hence fellow-feeling for those who suffer, and non-attachment to good experience, is wise.
Monks, this wandering from life to life is without a discoverable beginning. Of living beings running around and wandering around in the cycle, a first beginning is not discerned. When you see someone who has fallen on hard times, overwhelmed with hard times, you should conclude: ‘We, too, have experienced just this sort of thing in the course of that long, long time.’ …
When you see someone who is happy and fortunate, you should conclude: ‘We, too, have experienced just this sort of thing in the course of that long, long time.’ …
Duggataṃ and Sukhitaṃ Suttas: Saṃyutta-nikāya II.186–167, trans. P.H.
Th.74 Meeting again with those who have been good to one in past lives
This passage emphasizes how one has been parted from relatives in countless past lives. Hence one should not want any more rebirths. It also implies that most beings one meets have probably been good to one, as a close relative, in some past life, so that one should be good to them now – even if they now cause one suffering.
Monks, this wandering from life to life is without a discoverable beginning. … . It is not easy to find a being who has not been your mother at one time in the past, ... a being who has not been your father ... your brother ... sister... son... daughter at one time in the past. … Long have you thus experienced pain, experienced anguish, experienced disaster, and the swelling of cemeteries – enough to become disenchanted with all conditioned things, enough to become dispassionate, enough to be released.
Six suttas on relatives: Saṃyutta-nikāya II.189, trans. P.H.
This life and all rebirths entail ageing, sickness and death
Th.75 Nothing that is conditioned is permanent
This verses is said to have been uttered by the god Sakka on the death of the Buddha. It is often cited at Buddhist funerals.
Impermanent indeed are conditioned things,
Their nature is to arise and decay.
Having arisen, they cease:
Happy is their stilling.
Mahā-parinibbāna Sutta: Dīgha-nikāya II.157, trans. G.A.S.
‘Monks, you may hold on to whatever object of grasping which is permanent, everlasting, eternal and having the nature of not changing. Monks, do you indeed see such an object of grasping?’ ‘No, venerable sir.’ ‘Good! I do not see one either.’
Alagaddūpama Sutta: Majjhima-nikāya I.137, trans. P.D.P.
Th.76 The frailties of human life
In this passage, an arahant who had come from a wealthy family illustrates to a king the frailties of human life.
‘Great king, there are four expoundings of the Dhamma expounded by the Blessed One … The first is that the world is unstable and is moving towards its end. The second is that the world is lacking
in any protection or an overlord. The third is that the world cannot be owned by oneself, and one has to go leaving behind everything. The fourth is that the world is deficient and enslaved to unfulfilled craving.’
‘Venerable Raṭṭhapāla said that the world is unstable and is moving towards its end. How should the meaning of what was said be understood?’ ‘Great king, was there a time when you were twenty or twenty-five years old when you were expert in riding elephants, horses, chariots, (in handling) the bow and the sword, having strong legs and arms, able and skilled in warfare?’ ‘Yes, Venerable Raṭṭhapāla. I was like that, and I was even inspired at times and did not see any one comparable to my strength.’ ‘What do you think, great king, are you the same now?’ ‘Not indeed Venerable Raṭṭhapāla, now I am worn, old, have reached the end of life and have lived my life-span. I am now eighty years old. On some occasions, thinking of stepping in one direction I step in another direction.’ ‘It is on account of this that the Blessed One has said that the world is unstable....’
‘Venerable Raṭṭhapāla, in this royal family there are squadrons of elephants, horses, chariots and infantry. They would come to our help in case of any emergency. Venerable Raṭṭhapāla says that the world is lacking in protection or an overlord. How is the meaning of this to be understood?’ ‘Great king, what do you think? Do you have any chronic illness?’ ‘I have, Venerable Raṭṭhapāla. Sometimes friends and ministers, kith and kin stand round me thinking, “Now the Kuru king will pass away”.’ ‘What do you think about this, great king? Could you have the expectation: “Let my friends and ministers, kith and kin come together and share my pain so that my pain will become lighter or do you yourself have to experience that pain?”.’ ‘Venerable Raṭṭhapāla, I myself have to experience that pain.’ ‘It is on account of this that the Blessed One has said that the world is lacking in any protection ….’
Venerable Raṭṭhapāla, in this royal family is found plenty of gold coins and gold both in the ground (below) and in the sky (above). But Venerable Raṭṭhapāla said that the world cannot be owned by oneself and one has to go leaving behind everything. How should the meaning of this that was spoken be seen?’ ‘What do you think great king? Now you move about having fulfilment in the five strands of sensual pleasure and endowed with them. Will you be in a position to say later also, “I am moving about having fulfilment in the five strands of sensual pleasure and endowed with them”, or will others take over this wealth, and you will pass on (at death) in accordance with your karma?’ ‘I will not be in such a position Venerable Raṭṭhapāla. Others will take over this wealth and I will pass on in accordance with my karma.’ ‘It is on account of this that the Blessed One has said that the world cannot be owned by oneself, and one has to go leaving behind everything.’
‘Venerable Raṭṭhapāla said that the world is deficient and enslaved by unfulfilled craving. How should the meaning of this that was spoken be seen?’ ‘What do you think, great king? Do you dwell in this Kuru (land) which is prosperous?’ ‘Yes Venerable Raṭṭhapāla. I dwell in Kuru which is prosperous.’ ‘What do you think, great king? Supposing a person who is trustworthy and reliable should come to you from the eastern direction and should tell you, “Great king, please know that I come from the eastern direction and that I have seen there a huge settlement of people, wealthy and prosperous, densely populated and full of people … and it is possible to conquer it with such and such a force. Great king, conquer it.” What would you do then?’ ‘Venerable Raṭṭhapāla, I would conquer and dwell in that region too.’ ‘Great king, it is on account of this that the Blessed One has said that the world is deficient and enslaved by unfulfilled craving.’
Raṭṭhapāla Sutta: Majjhima-nikāya II.70–73, trans. P.D.P.
Th.77 Accept the inevitability of death
This passage emphasizes that death is known to be inevitable: so what is the use of grieving when it arrives?
The life of mortals here is unpredictable and uncertain.
It is difficult, short, and also mixed with suffering.
There is no means by which those who are born would not die.
They come to decay, and then death. Living beings certainly are of this nature.
Just as for ripe fruits, there is fear of fall in the early morning,
Likewise, for one born mortal, there is constant fear of death.
Just as all clay pots made by the potter get destroyed in the end,
so it is with the life of mortals.
Children and the grown up, fools and the wise,
Everyone, goes under the sway of death, everyone is overcome by death.
To those destined to die when going to the next world,
neither the father protects the son, nor a relative, (other) relatives.
Look how, as relatives look on and lament,
one by one mortals are led away like cattle for slaughter!
Thus the world is afflicted with death and decay.
Therefore the wise, knowing this nature of the world, do not grieve.
Whose path of arrival or departure is not known,
Not seeing either end, one laments for him in vain.
If a deluded person’s wailing were to obtain any benefit,
inflicting injury on himself, a wise person would do it too.
By crying and grief he does not attain to peace of mind.
It would lead to exceeding sorrow for him and inflict harm on the body.
Inflicting self-harm, he becomes thin and of bad appearance.
By it the dead are not protected and wailing is futile.
A person, who does not abandon sorrow, comes to more suffering.
Bewailing the dead, one comes under the sway of grief.
Look at others too, on their journey (to death), who reach according to their actions.
Living beings coming to the sway of death here do indeed tremble.
Through whatever one seeks an identity (for oneself), it becomes something other than that.294
Loss is like that – see the nature of the world.
Even if a young man lives a hundred years or more,
he suffers the loss of the circle of relatives, and he gives up his life here.
Therefore, having listened to the words of the arahant, seeing a dead departed person, put away the wailing (and think) ‘He is unobtainable by me’.
Just as a house on fire is put out with the help of water, likewise the wise, insightful, learned, skilled person would quickly dispel the grief that is born, like the wind a tuft of cotton wool.
Wailings and longings and one’s unhappiness are (like an) arrow (sticking) in one; these should be drawn out by one who seeks his own happiness.
The arrow withdrawn, unattached and having gained peace of mind,
having overcome all grief, one becomes free of sorrow and (with the fire of craving) quenched.
Salla Sutta: Sutta-nipāta 574–593, trans. P.D.P.
Th.78 How the search for sensual pleasures leads to suffering
This passage, after talking of the greater joy and happiness in meditative calm, points out the perils and disadvantages of chasing after sexual and other sensual pleasures, as laypeople often do: the stresses of making a living, of failures in this, of loss of the products of one’s labour, quarrels and wars over possessions, robbery and the punishments that may lead to, and a bad rebirth arising from misconduct prompted by attachment to sensual pleasures.
Mahānāma, even though it is clearly seen by a disciple of the noble ones as it has really come to be with proper insight that sensual pleasures have little satisfaction, but much suffering, much distress and that the dangers therein are many, until they attain joy and ease apart from sensual desires and apart from unwholesome states, or something more peaceful than that,295 they do not cease reverting to sensual pleasures. … Mahānāma, what is the satisfaction in sensual pleasures?
There are these five strands of sensual pleasure. What five? There are visible forms discernible by the eye, likable, lovely, pleasant, beautiful, associated with sensual desires, and enticing ... sounds discernible by the ear … smells discernible by the nose… tastes discernible by the tongue … tactile sensations discernible by the body. Whatever pleasure and happiness arise on account of these five strands of sensual pleasures, that is the satisfaction in sensual pleasures.
Mahānāma, what is the danger in sensual pleasures? Here a child of good family would have to make a living by some occupation296 … undergoing cold and heat, suffering from harm resulting from contact of gadflies and mosquitoes, touch of the wind, heat and snakes, risking dying of hunger and thirst. This is a danger of sensual pleasures here and now, a bundle of suffering owing to sensual pleasures, springing from sensual pleasures, on account of sensual pleasures and due to nothing but sensual pleasures.
This child of good family, though striving and exerting, may (sometimes) not produce wealth. Then they grieve and lament, cry beating the chest, and come to bewilderment thinking, ‘My effort was useless, my endeavour was fruitless.’ This too is a danger of sensual pleasures … (Sometimes) when this child of good family strives and exerts, wealth is produced. They experience suffering and mental distress on account of the need to protect their wealth thinking, ‘May my wealth not be taken over by kings, carried away by thieves, consumed by fire, washed away by flood-water or taken by unliked heirs.’ As they guard and protect their wealth, it is in this manner taken over by kings … Then they grieve … thinking ‘Whatever I had, even that is no more for me’.
Again Mahānāma, owing to sensual pleasures … kings dispute with kings, those of the ruling class dispute with those of the ruling class, those of the priestly class dispute with those of the priestly class, householders dispute with householders, a mother disputes with a son, a son disputes with a mother, a father disputes with a son, a son disputes with a father, a brother disputes with a brother, a friend disputes with a friend. In this case they engage in quarrels, conflicts, disputations, and attack one another with hands, clods, sticks, and weapons. There they meet with death and deadly pain … Again Mahānāma owing to sensual pleasures they take sword and shield, arm themselves with bow and arrow and two sides advance towards battle. When arrows are shot, javelins are thrown, and swords are flashed like lightening, they get pierced by arrows, pierced by javelins, and they cut heads with the swords. There they meet with death and deadly pain.
Again owing to sensual pleasures … robbers break into houses, plunder, rob, stay in ambush, go to others’ wives. The kings catch them and punish them in various ways. They get them caned and whipped, flogged with the jungle rope, flogged with the soiled stick. Their hands are chopped off, legs are chopped off … immersed in boiling oil, they are given to the dogs to be eaten, raised on a pike alive until death, and their neck is cut with the sword.297 This too is a the danger of sensual pleasures here and now, a bundle of pain owing to sensual pleasures
Again, Mahānāma, owing to sensual pleasures … they misbehave in body, in words and mind, and having done so, after death they are born in the woeful state, in a bad destiny, in the abyss in hell. This is a danger of sensual pleasures hereafter, a bundle of suffering.
Cūla-dukkha-kkhandha Sutta: Majjhima-nikāya I.91–92, trans. P.D.P.
M.39 A vision of the universe
This passage gives a vision of the universe as a vast array of world-systems, in some of which dwell Buddhas. At that time, bodhisattva Samantabhadra addressed the assembly of bodhisattvas, ‘Children
of the Buddha, these oceans of perfumed water, as numerous as the specks of dust in innumerable Buddha-fields, spread out like Indra’s net, are established in the oceans of the world-systems arrayed in an orderly manner in the shape of the calyx of a lotus.
Children of the Buddha, in the innermost centre is the ocean of perfumed water named the Infinite Light of the Wondrous Lotus. In its depths lies the treasure which is the King of Jewels, in which the images of all bodhisattvas can be seen. A great lotus called the King of All Fragrant Jewels emerged from this ocean. On this lotus is the world-system called the Light of the Blazing Treasure Which Illuminates Everything in the Ten Directions of Space, which is composed of all kinds of adornments. As many worlds as there are specks of dust in innumerable Buddha-fields are arrayed there. Beneath it there is the world-system called Supreme Radiance Which Illuminates Everything, surrounded by a glorious ring of vajras298 and resting on lotus flowers made of various kinds of precious substances. It is shaped like a precious jewel, and covered by clouds of lotus flowers made of precious substances. It is surrounded by as many worlds as there are specks of dust in a Buddha-field, and all are appropriately arrayed and adorned. A Buddha called Spotless Lamp of Pure Vision dwells there.
Above it, as many worlds away as there are specks of dust in a Buddha-field, there is a world called Adorned with Many Different Kinds of Wondrous Fragrant Lotuses. It is surrounded by all kinds of adornments, and rests on a network of lotuses made of precious substances. It is shaped like a lion-throne, and covered by clouds of multi-coloured jewelled canopies. It is surrounded by as many worlds as there are specks of dust in two Buddha-fields. A Buddha called Lion of Blazing Light dwells there. … [descriptions of seventeen other marvellous world-systems follow, with a Buddha dwelling in each, and each surrounded by an increasing number of other worlds.]
Above that again, as many worlds away as there are specks of dust in a Buddha-field, there is a world-system called Flame of the Wondrous Jewel. It is surrounded by Jewels of the Universal Radiance of the Sun and the Moon, and rests on the ocean of the King of Jewels in the Form of All the Gods. It is shaped like a precious jewel, and covered by a network of precious jewelled lamps and clouds of banners adorned with precious substances. It is surrounded by as many worlds as there are specks of dust in twenty Buddha-fields, and it is completely pure. A Buddha called Radiance of Beneficial Karma and Virtue dwells there.’
Avataṃsaka Sūtra, Taishō vol.10, text 279, pp.42b23–c09, trans. T.T.S. and D.S.
M.40 Death does not end the influence of karma
The first passage criticises the view that, as it sees a phenomenon as existing separately for a time, then ‘causing’ another such phenomenon, actually denies causal continuity, so as to wrong imply that present phenomena have no causal effect, including actions (karma) having no effect on the future. The second emphasizes that one’s karma produces results in the future.
Mahāmati, there are some renunciants and brahmins who believe that things arise after not having existed. They claim that an object is a manifestation of cause and effect, that it exists in time, that the categories of existence, the elements, and the sense-bases arise and continue to exist on the basis of conditioning factors, and they believe that having existed, they cease to exist. They say, Mahāmati, that causal connections, the arising of actions, the breaking down of actions, the existence of actions, nirvana, the path, the fruits of actions, and truth are all destroyed and come to an end. Why is this? It is because these things are not directly perceptible and because their origin cannot be seen.
Mahāmati, a broken bowl cannot function as a bowl, and a burnt seed cannot sprout. In the same way, Mahāmati, if the categories of existence, the elements, and the sense-bases appear to exist, to cease, to be made to cease, or to be destined to cease, one is only seeing the conceptualizations of one’s own mind. There is no causation, only the uninterrupted flow of conceptualizations.
Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, ch.2, trans. from Sanskrit by D.S.
I always teach emptiness, which eludes eternity and destruction.
Saṃsāra is like a dream, an illusion – but actions do not disappear.
Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, ch.2, v.135, trans. from Sanskrit by D.S.
M.41 The flexible workings of karma
This passage explains that gifts to those who are more spiritually developed,299 to one’s parents, or to the sick, bring greater benefits as a karmic effects than gifts to others. Moreover, a person can reduce the karmic results of unwholesome actions by discerning wisdom (as in *Th.70). The negative karmic effects of actions performed by a wise person come in this life, in a lighter form, rather than in a later life and in a more weighty form. The wise even go beyond the limitations of beneficial karma, as without deep wisdom, even beneficial karma keeps one within saṃsāra. Karmic effects do not arise in a fixed, mechanical way that identically matches the nature and situation of the actions which generated them, but arise more flexibly, due to a subtle interaction of factors, which allows for the spiritual development of the holy life. Moreover, the Buddha, when he was a bodhisattva, even chose to be reborn in hell, to teach beings there.
Siṃhanāda said to the Buddha, ‘… What does it mean, Blessed One, when it is said in the sūtras that the karmic fruit that comes from giving to an animal is a hundred times greater than what was given; that the karmic fruit that comes from giving to someone who is overpowered by desire300 is a thousand times greater than what was given; that the karmic fruit that comes from giving to someone who observes the precepts is hundred thousand times greater than what was given; that the karmic fruit that comes from giving to a non-Buddhist who has rid himself of the defilements is incalculable; that the karmic fruit that comes from giving to the four kinds of individuals who practise the path or who have attained its fruit,301 up to a solitary-buddha, is even more abundantly incalculable; that the karmic fruit that comes from giving to irreversible bodhisattvas, to bodhisattvas in their final existence, or to a Tathāgata, a Buddha, is beyond measure, without limit, incalculable and inconceivable. When does someone who acquires such measureless, endless karmic benefit attain unsurpassed perfect awakening?
Blessed One, it is also said in the sūtras, “Anyone who acts in wholesome or unwholesome ways will undoubtedly experience the fruit of those actions in his current existence, in his next existence, or in the existence after that. Perform wholesome actions with respect, Cunda. These actions will undoubtedly have an effect.” If they have an effect, how can someone who performs such actions attain unsurpassed perfect awakening? How can he realize his Buddha-nature?302
Moreover, Blessed One, it is said in the sūtras that the karmic fruit of giving to the sick, to one’s parents, or to a Tathāgata is inexhaustible. Again, Blessed One, it is stated in the sūtras that the Buddha said to Ānanda that any being who did not act within the realm of sensual desire would attain unsurpassed perfect awakening. The same applies to actions performed in the realm of form and the formless realm. Blessed One, as it is said in the verses of the Dharmapada: 303
Not in the sky, nor in the ocean, nor inside a mountain cave,
there is nowhere one can escape from the effects of one’s actions. …
If this were so, how could anyone realize their Buddha-nature, and attain unsurpassed perfect awakening?’
The Buddha said, ‘Excellent. Excellent, son of good family. There are only two kinds of people who acquire the benefits of wholesome actions, benefits which are immeasurable … benefits which can … set in motion the unsurpassed Wheel of the Dharma of the Tathāgata. The first such person is one who asks good questions, the second is one who gives good answers.
Son of good family, among the Buddha’s ten powers, the power of karma is the most profound. Son of good family, some living beings who do not think clearly do not have faith in the causal nature of action. In order to rescue them, I formulated this saying: Son of good family, all actions are either light or weighty, and each in turn has either a fixed result or a variable result. Someone might say, “unwholesome actions do not yield fruit. If unwholesome actions always yield fruit, how could Aṅgulimāla304 have attained liberation?” This is why you should be aware that the fruit of actions which have been performed can be either fixed or variable. It is in order to eliminate this kind of wrong view that it is stated in a sūtra, “No action which has been performed fails to yield fruit.” Son of good family, there may be weighty actions that appear light; and there may be light actions that appear weighty. It is undoubtedly the case that all people are either wise or foolish. Therefore, you should know that not every action undoubtedly yields fruit, and that the fruit of actions may be either fixed or variable.
Son of good family, all living beings fall into two categories: the wise and the foolish. The wise, by the power of their wisdom, might be able to transform a weighty action which would have led them to hell into an action with a light result in this life. The foolish may transform a light action performed in this life into one with a weighty result, leading to hell.’
Siṃhanāda said, ‘If this is the case, one should not aspire to the holy life and the fruit of liberation.’ The Buddha said, ‘Son of good family, if all actions definitely yield fruit, then of course one should not aspire to the holy life and the fruit of liberation. However, because this is not definite, one can aspire to the holy life and the fruit of liberation.
Son of good family, someone who can discard all unwholesome actions will acquire beneficial karmic fruit. If one does away with wholesome actions, however, the outcome will be bad. If all actions definitely yielded fruit, one could not aspire to follow the noble path. If the noble path were not followed, there would be no liberation. The noble ones follow the path because they intend to turn actions with fixed results into those which result in light karmic fruit, and because actions which do not have fixed results will not yield fruit. If all actions yielded fruit, they might not follow the noble path. Yet if anyone were to fail to practise the path, there is no way they could attain liberation; and someone who has not attained liberation cannot enter nirvana.
Son of good family, if the results of all actions were fixed, wholesome actions that had been performed throughout one’s entire life would result in a permanent experience of peace. Every unwholesome action too, no matter how small, that had been performed throughout one’s entire life, would lead to great and ceaseless suffering. If that were the meaning of action and its fruit, there would be no practice of the path, no liberation, no nirvana. If one acted like a human being, one would end up as a human being. If one acted like a brahmin, one would end up as a brahmin. There would be no lower classes, no lower people. Common people would always remain common people, brahmins would remain forever brahmins. Actions performed at a younger age might only bear fruit at an early age. Actions performed in old age might only have their effects in old age. Unwholesome actions that led to hell performed in old age might not affect a young hell-being until he became old. If people did not kill in old age, they could not expect to experience the result of longevity whilst they were still young. If there were no expectancy of a long life in youth, how could people reach old age, because one cannot change the results of actions? If actions were unchangeable, how could one practise the Path and reach nirvana?
Son of good family, there are two kinds of actions, fixed and not fixed. There are two kinds of fixed actions, one yields a fixed kind of fruit, the other yields its fruit at a fixed time. There are certain actions that yield a fixed kind of fruit, but not at a fixed time. They yield their fruit whenever the conditions are favourable. Some yield their fruit at three times: in the present life, in the next life and in the one after that.
Son of good family, if someone performs unwholesome actions or wholesome actions with a resolute mind, if he believes profoundly in what he has done and is pleased with it, or if he takes a vow as an act of worship to the Three Jewels: these actions are said to be fixed.
Son of good family, the roots of the wholesome actions of the wise are deeply fixed, and hard to move, so that they can transform weighty actions so that they yield a light karmic fruit. The wholesome roots of the foolish are not deeply fixed, so they might transform their light actions such that they yield a weighty karmic fruit. For this reason, not all karma is not considered to be fixed.
The bodhisattva, the great being, performs no actions which will lead him to hell. He only takes a vow to be reborn in hell in order to help living beings there. Son of good family, in the distant past, when people lived as long as a hundred years, innumerable living beings suffered the results of their actions in hell. When I saw this, I immediately made a vow to be reborn as a hell-being. At that time, the bodhisattva had in reality performed no unwholesome actions. He only suffered the fruit of hell in order to help living beings. I spent countless years in hell, where I expounded and explained the twelve divisions of the sacred scriptures to the hell-beings. When they heard the Dharma, they shed the horrible results of their previous unwholesome actions, and hell became empty, apart from those who were overpowered by desire.
Mahā-parinirvāṇa Sūtra, Taishō vol.12, text 374, ch.38, p.549b29–50b18, trans. T.T.S. and D.S.
M.42 How to reduce bad karmic results
This passage offers hope for change.
Someone who trains their body, trains themselves in ethical discipline, trains their mind in meditation, trains themselves in wisdom, and who knows that wholesome or unwholesome actions will undoubtedly have an effect, may be able to transform weighty actions into light ones, and even alleviate the effects of light unwholesome actions. If they are fortunate enough to meet a spiritual friend, a field of karmic fruitfulness,305 who practises the Path and who performs wholesome deeds, they might be able to transfer the effects of weighty actions, effects that would ordinarily be experienced in one’s next life, such that they are experienced in their present life.
Upāsaka-śīla Sūtra, Taishō vol.24, text 1488, ch.24, p.1070c13–16, trans. T.T.S. and D.S.
Precious human birth
M.43 The rarity of a human rebirth, and meeting with the teaching of a Buddha
Monks, it is difficult to encounter a Buddha in the world. It is difficult to be born as a human being. … It is like searching through sand for gold, or searching for the uḍumbara flower.306 Monks, now that you have all attained a human form, and avoided the eight kinds of unfavourable circumstances,307 now that you have seen me, do not let your lives pass by in vain.
Mahā-parinirvāṇa Sūtra, Taishō vol.12, text 374, ch.3, p.376b16–20, trans. T.T.S. and D.S.
When a young man thinks about harming others, when he denounces them, criticises them, defames them, insults them, ridicules them and slanders them, he should feel ashamed, and should immediately make a public apology with no ill-will, bearing the following in mind, ‘I have obtained a human body, something which is difficult to obtain. How can I cultivate such evil, and waste this wonderful opportunity?’
Mahā-prajñāpāramitā Sūtra, Taishō vol. 6, text 220, pp.731c25–732a01, trans. T.T.S. and D.S.
(Supportive spiritual) circumstances such as these, in which people can achieve their goals, are very difficult to obtain.
If one does not reflect on the benefits they bring, who knows when one will encounter them again?
Bodhicaryāvatāra I.4, trans. from Sanskrit by D.S.
M.44 The ephemeral nature of things
This passage sums up the insubstantial, impermanent nature of things that we grasp at. Life is short, and soon flashes by.
You should see what is conditioned as
a shooting star, a defect of vision, a lamp,
an illusion, frost, a bubble,
a dream, or a thunder-cloud. 308
Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra, section 32, trans. from Sanskrit by D.S.
M.45 No permanent material elements
This passage criticises non-Buddhist ideas of impermanence, which hold that material elements are eternal, and that only the forms composed of them are impermanent. Further than this, it sees reality as mind-only, such that even the idea of impermanent material elements is a mental projection.
Those who hold the view of impermanence which is known as ‘the cessation of external forms’ state that the elements are not destroyed when dissolution occurs. According to this view, Mahāmati, when one examines things at the atomic level, dissolution does not involve the destruction of the elements, but of their external forms, which can change to become, for example, long or short. At the atomic level, nothing is destroyed – only the external forms cease to exist. This is the wrong view which the (Hindu) Sāṃkhya school has fallen into. …
For me though, Mahāmati, there is no permanence and no impermanence. Why is this? Because I do not concede that external objects exist, because I teach that the triple world309 consists only of the mind, and because I do not teach that things possess a variety of different characteristics, no distinction between the states of existence of the great elements310 arises or ceases in me. No dualism characterised by perceiver and perceived, and involving the conceptualisation of the existence of elements, arises in me. …
It is said that:
118. Deluded non-Buddhists form mental constructions of impermanence as origination and cessation, as changes in external forms, as existence, and as form.
119. Things are not really destroyed, the elements themselves remain. Enveloped by a plethora of wrong views, non-Buddhists form mental constructions of permanence.
120. For these non-Buddhists, there is no destruction or origination. The elements themselves are permanent, so how can one form a mental construction of impermanence?
121. There is nothing but the mind itself. All dualism in the mind arises because of the existence of perceiver and perceived. There is no essential self, and nothing which possesses an essential self.
Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, ch.3, trans. from Sanskrit by D.S.
Precious human birth
V.14 The precious nature of human life
The first thing to be known about human life is that it is a rare opportunity to practise the Dharma. The pains of human existence along with recognition of its impermanence are sufficient, for the discerning, to induce disillusionment with saṃsāra, while they are still moderate enough (compared to those of the lower realms) to allow for engagement with the spiritual path. The following passage from the second chapter of ‘The Jewel Ornament of Liberation’ of Gampopa (1079–1153) presents the factors constituting a ‘precious human life’.
One may ask, ‘If all sentient beings have the Buddha-nature,311 then can the five types of beings other than humans312 – such as hell beings, hungry ghosts, and so forth – attain Buddhahood right away?’ The answer is no, because it is only a person having a ‘precious human life’ that is endowed with both freedom (to practise) and connection (with the Dharma) as well as the three types of faith313 who is in a good position to attain Buddhahood. ...
Freedom means being free from the eight kinds of unfavourable circumstances, which are listed thus in the ‘Recollection of the Sublime Dharma Sūtra’: ‘Being born as a hell-being, a hungry ghost, an animal, a barbarian, or as a long-life god, or among people with wrong views, or in a world without a Buddha, or as someone with a learning disability – these are the eight unfavourable circumstances.’ ‘Why are they unfavourable?’ one may ask. It is because hell-beings experience constant pain, hungry ghosts are tortured by insatiable craving, and animals are generally too stupid, and none of those three types of beings have any shame or inhibition, and so they have no opportunity to practise the Dharma. So-called ‘long-life gods’ abide in an unconscious state,314 and because the continuity of their consciousness has ceased upon entering that state, they have no opportunity to practise the Dharma. Furthermore, neither do gods of the realm of sensual desire have that opportunity because compared to a human’s, the life of a god is long. Moreover, all divine births are unfavourable because, due to (their inhabitants’) attachment to their temporary pleasures, they do not lend any opportunity for striving at what is wholesome. That is why there is so much virtue in this trifling human pain of the present. (Wise reflection on) it arouses disenchantment with saṃsāra, pacifies our arrogance, generates in us compassion for sentient beings, and makes us shun unwholesome action and find pleasure in doing the wholesome. That is also what is said in (Śāntideva’s) ‘Engaging in the Conduct for Awakening’ (Bodhicaryāvatāra, BCA VI.21), ‘Furthermore, the virtues of pain are that it dispels haughtiness through disenchantment, generates compassion for sentient beings in saṃsāra, makes us avoid what is unwholesome and delight in the wholesome’. Thus we have explained why those four types of beings do not have freedom to practise the Dharma.
Although a human birth, being born as a barbarian is unfavourable because it makes it very difficult for one to meet with a holy person (who could teach the Dharma). Having wrong views is unfavourable because they do not see the wholesome as something that causes one to attain higher rebirth and liberation. Being born in a world which is without a Buddha is unfavourable because there is nobody to tell one what is to be done and what not to be done. And a person with learning difficulties cannot by himself tell the difference between teachings well-explained and badly explained. Thus, when one is free from all of those eight unfavourable circumstances, one has what is called ‘perfect freedom’ (to practise for Buddhahood).
There are ten kinds of connection (with the Dharma) – five from one’s own side and five from the side of others. The five connections from one’s own side are, as said, ‘Being born as a human, in a central country, with one’s senses intact, not having committed wrong action, and having correct faith.’ What do these mean? Being born as a human means sharing the fate of a human being having either male or female sexual organs. Being born in a central country means being born in a place where one can rely on holy persons. Having one’s senses intact means not being dumb or stupid, and so having the opportunity to practise the wholesome Dharma. Having correct faith means having faith in the Dharma and Vinaya315 taught by the Buddha as a foundation of all wholesome qualities. Not, in this lifetime, having committed wrong action means not to have committed any of the acts with immediate bad karmic consequences.316
The five connections from the side of others are the arrival of a Buddha into the world (where one is born), his teaching of the holy Dharma, the sustained presence of his teachings, the existence of the teachings’ followers, and their compassionate activity for the sake of others. Thus, someone having all those ten connections from both one’s own side and the side of others has what is called ‘perfect connection’. Thus, a ‘precious human life’ is one in which both the freedoms and the connections have been assembled. And why is it called ‘precious’?, one may ask. Because it is similar to a precious wish-fulfilling jewel, which is called ‘precious’ due to its being difficult to find and due to its being highly beneficial.
‘The Jewel Ornament of Liberation’, pp.17–20, trans. T.A.
V.15 The difficulty of finding a precious human birth: an example
This passage speaks for itself. A similar idea is also expressed in Theravāda texts (Saṃyutta-nikāya V.455–57).
The Blessed One has said that to obtain a human birth is even more difficult than for a turtle to put its neck from below through the opening of a yoke floating on the ocean stirred up by enormous waves ... Nāgārjuna expresses this in his ‘Advice to King Gautamīputra’: ‘Ruler of Humans! It is far more difficult for an animal to attain human rebirth than for a turtle to hit the opening of a yoke floating on the ocean. So reap the fruit (of human birth) by practising the holy Dharma!’
‘The Words of My Perfect Teacher’, pp.47–8, trans. T.A.
V.16 Quintessential Elixir: life is short, so do not neglect compassionate practice!
This text is a concise formulation of the entire path, made in terms of ‘parting from the four attachments’, a principal teaching of the Sakyapa school of Tibetan Buddhism. It belongs to the genre of ‘mind training’ verses to be recited on a regular basis in order to purify one’s motivations and mental attitudes. It was authored by Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo (1829–1870), a prominent nineteenth century representative of the Sakyapa school, founder of the non-sectarian Ri-may movement. Its full title is ‘Mind Training: An Experiential Song of Parting from the Four Attachments’.
Through the blessings of the noble Guru Mañjughoṣa,
May all beings throughout space practise the holy Dharma,
May they clarify their confusion by enjoying the path of Dharma,
And may all their delusions arise (as empty) in the expanse of Dharma!
Though we have attained a precious human life so difficult to find,
If we cling to this life, we are not Dharma-practitioners;
Since nothing lasts for a moment and we are going to die,
Let us try to avoid evil and perform wholesome actions!
Though our minds may have turned towards the holy Dharma,
If we cling to the three realms, we lack determination;
So let us develop an uncontrived wish to break free
From saṃsāra which is basically nothing but suffering!
Though we might seek our own peace and ease through the Dharma,
If we cling to our own well-being, we are not bodhisattvas;
So let us practise loving kindness, compassion, and awakening-mind317
For sentient beings’ sakes, who have all been our kind parents!
Though we may have developed relative awakening-mind,
If we have grasping, we do not have the view (of emptiness);
So let us carry on to the sphere of freedom from conceptual obsession,318
In order to uproot our belief in Self!
By the virtue of composing this song of experiencing
The elixir of instruction given by the Noble Mañjughoṣa
To the glorious and benevolent Sachen Kunga Nyingpo,319
May all sentient beings, my mothers, quickly attain awakening!
‘Mind Training: An Experiential Song of Parting from the Four Attachments’, trans. T.A.
The pains of saṃsāra
V.17 A warning against being infatuated with your youth
This passage on the pains of ageing, sickness and death form part of Milarepa’s admonishments to a physician called Yang nge and his circle of friends.320
All of you friends, who are here, please listen to these words.
When you are young and vigorous, you never think of getting older, but ageing approaches slowly and steadily, like a seed growing underground.
When all the five elements of the body flourish, you never think of getting sick, but sickness descends on you firmly and forcefully, like something that shatters your mind.
When the appearances of this life seem so solid, you never think of your impending death, but death may strike you down suddenly, like a thunderbolt.
The three pains of ageing, sickness and death are always within reach, like your hand and mouth. Like a watchman over a mountain-pass, the Lord of Death lies in wait, to hit you with the arrow of a sudden accident.
The three stages of this life, the next one, and the in-between321are arranged in line, like blind birds following one another. Given the presence of those three inseparable guests, are you not afraid of your evil actions?
The three lower realms of hell-beings, hungry ghosts, and animals are waiting in ambush like powerful archers. Given the presence of those three immutable perils, are you not frightened off by the pain you have already had?
Are you not apprehensive of the pain you have now? Pain is like ripples on water – before one is over, the next one arises. Is it not time to stop them?
Happiness and sadness are like two road-companions – now they are there, and now they are not. Is it not time to part with them?
Comfort and safety are like warming in the sun. Do you not know that impermanence, like a snow-storm, arrives suddenly? Think about this, and practise the divine Dharma!
‘Biography of Milarepa, Great Lord of Yogis’, p.777, trans. T.A.
V.18 The pains of saṃsāra in general
This passage presents the Buddhist conception of saṃsāra as ‘circling around’ between the higher and lower realms of rebirth. It is from ‘The Words of My Precious Teacher’ by Patrul Rinpoche (1808–1887), a standard handbook of the Nyingmapa school of Tibetan Buddhism on the stages of the path.322
As we have already explained,323 we have got a life endowed with freedom and connection which is so difficult to find. But rather than lasting for long, it will be subjected to impermanence and death. If death was something like the dying out of a fire or the drying up of water, then that would be it and nothing else would follow. However, when we die, we do not come into nothing but must take rebirth. And as long as we take rebirth, we cannot escape the realm of saṃsāra.
In a general way, the term saṃsāra means ‘circling around’ like a potter’s wheel, the wheel of a water mill, or a fly within a jar circling from one place to another.324 If we put the fly into a jar and close the lid, the fly may fly all around – it will never escape from the jar. Similarly, whether we are born in a high place or a low place, we cannot escape from the realm of saṃsāra (without recourse to the Dharma). The upper part of the jar is like the higher realms of gods and humans, and the lower part like the three lower realms. Driven by our wholesome and unwholesome actions with intoxicating inclinations, we keep taking rebirth in one after another of all these six realms of beings, and it is due to this ‘circling around’ that we talk about ‘saṃsāra’.
We have been wandering in this realm of saṃsāra since time without beginning, and there is none among all these beings who have not been each other’s parents, or who have not been hostile, friendly, and indifferent to each other. A sūtra says that if someone were to count the number of his successive mothers (in his previous lives), representing each with a pellet of earth rolled to the size of a juniper pit, the whole earth would be used up before he could finish counting just how many times each sentient being had been his mother. This has been expressed by Lord Nāgārjuna as: ‘We would run out of earth trying to count our mothers with balls of clay the size of juniper berries.’325
In that way, through beginningless saṃsāra until now, there is not any kind of rebirth that we have not taken.326 So, we have had our head and limbs cut off innumerable times for the sake of desire, and if we could hoard together all the limbs of the ants and other small insects we had been born as, they would reach higher than Sumeru, the King of Mountains. If we could gather all the tears we have wept from the suffering of cold, hunger and thirst when we had nothing to eat and nothing to wear into a lake that would never dry up, it would be larger than the great ocean surrounding the world.327 Even the amount of molten copper we have drunk while we were born in the hells would be vaster than the four great oceans of the cardinal directions. And yet those who are still bound by desire and attachment in this realm of saṃsāra without even a moment of disillusionment will have to experience even more suffering in endless saṃsāra.
Even if, by a little fruition of some wholesome action that is karmically beneficial, we manage to obtain the long life and perfect body, wealth and glory of a deity like Brahmā or the Chief of Gods (Indra), in the end we could still not escape from the realm of death, and after death we would go through the painful humiliation of the lower realms. If that is so, then for a few years, months, or days we may be deceived by whatever little happiness we derive from the power, wealth, and freedom from sickness we have in this lifetime, but once the happy fruition of the higher realms is exhausted, we will have to experience immense poverty and misery or the almost unbearable pain of the lower realms against our will. So, of what significance is the happiness of the present, which is like a dream that you awaken from as it develops?
Even those who presently seem to be comfortable and happy, due to some small fruition of wholesomeness, are powerless to stay (like that) even for a moment once the action that propelled them into that state is exhausted. Even the rulers of gods sitting atop their precious thrones spread with divine silks, at the peak of satisfaction in the five sense-objects of desire, are going to experience pain, falling headlong down to the burning metal ground of hell in a split second once their lifespan is completed. Even the (deities of the) Sun and the Moon who light up the four continents can end up being reborn in between the continents, in darkness so deep that they cannot see as much as their own limbs stretching out or bending in.
So do not trust in the apparent joys of saṃsāra. Make up your mind that in this life you must do everything in order to liberate yourself from saṃsāra, the great ocean of suffering, and attain constant happiness, the rank of complete Buddhahood. With this thought in mind, make preparations for practising the Dharma, do the actual practice, and bring it to a conclusion.
‘The Words of My Perfect Teacher’, pp.88–92, trans. T.A.
V.19 The suffering of the human realm
The following passages (V.19 to 21) from ‘The Words of My Precious Teacher’ are solemn contemplations on the painful nature of human existence. Focussing on the ‘dark side’ of life but not lacking in irony, they are meant to induce a sense of disillusionment with saṃsāra.
Human suffering include the three types of great suffering fundamental to humans; the four great streams of suffering – birth, ageing, sickness and death; the dread of meeting hated enemies; the fear of losing loved ones, the suffering of encountering what one does not want, and the suffering of not getting what one wants.328
‘The Words of My Perfect Teacher’, p.120, trans. T.A.
V.20 The three fundamental types of suffering
This passage explores similar idea to that of *Th.152.
The suffering of change is what we feel when some kind of happiness we experience in the present moment suddenly turns into suffering. For example, having eaten a nourishing meal, fully satisfied, we may just feel fine, but then we get stricken by a violent stomach disease due to a worm developing in our belly. Or, presently we may feel just fine, but then our livestock are driven away by enemies, our home burns down, we get attacked by a terrible disease-spirit (virus), or receive some bad news from the outside, and our happiness suddenly turns into suffering. Since, in general, none of the pleasures, comforts and renown we may seem to enjoy in this realm of saṃsāra have even a tiny bit of permanence and reliability, and are eventually nothing but suffering, grow disillusioned with them. …
The suffering of (repeated) suffering is when, before one suffering is over, we are inflicted by another one. For example, we have leprosy, then we get an ulcer, and then, on top of the ulcer, we break out in sores. Or, upon our father’s death, our mother also dies. Or, we are pursued by an enemy, and on top of that, someone dear to us passes away. Wherever we are born within this realm of saṃsāra, we merely spend our time experiencing one kind of suffering following on top of another, without even a momentary chance for happiness. …
Most of us, who presently pride ourselves on being happy, do not actually seem to experience any suffering, but are really just creating the causes of suffering. The food we eat, the clothes we wear, our homes and riches, our ornaments and festivals are all produced through wrong-doing. Since all our actions are nothing but sinister machinations, they can only result in suffering329 ... As the end result of all these, we will have to go through the endless suffering of the bad destines. So everything that appears to be our well-being now is actually the suffering of suffering in the making.330
‘The Words of My Perfect Teacher’, pp.120–4, trans. T.A.
V.21 The sufferings of conception to birth, ageing, sickness, and death
This graphic passage outlines the pains involved in the short human life-span, and urges people to practice Dharma – living ethically and developing wisdom – as the best protection against these and their repetition.
Human beings in this world are born from the womb. The grasping consciousness of the gandharva enters into the mixture of the seminal fluid of the father and the uterine blood of the mother,331 and then goes through the pain of turning into a quivering mass, then a creamy mass, an oval mass, then solidifying and rounding etc.332 When his head and limbs with all their parts are completely developed, he feels pain as if he was thrown into a prison in that tight and smelly, pitch black dark inside the mother’s womb. When the mother eats hot food, he feels pain as if he was being burned by fire. When she eats something cold, he feels pain as if he was thrown into cold water. When she lies down, he feels pain as if he was crushed by a mountain. When she is full, he feels pain as if he was squeezed between rocks. When she is hungry, he feels pain as if he was falling into an abyss. And when she walks, sits down, or moves around, he feels pain as if he was being carried by the wind. When he is ready to come to birth after the number of months has been completed, and the wind of karma (the force of past action) turns his head downwards and pushes him through the birth canal, he suffers so much pain as if he was being held by his legs by a strong giant and banged against a wall. As he emerges from between the pelvic bones, he feels such pain as if being pulled through a hole in a drawplate.333 If the birth exit is too narrow, he cannot come to birth but dies on the spot; or indeed, both mother and baby may die, and even if they do not, they feel pain as if they were going to die ...
After coming to birth, as he falls on top of the bed he feels like falling into a thorny pit. As the amniotic sac is removed from his back, he feels like being flayed alive. As the slime is rubbed off his body, he feels like being beaten with a studded whip. As he is taken to his mother’s lap, he feels like a baby bird carried away by a hawk. ... Whenever he suffers from the pain of hunger, thirst, or any kind of sickness, he can do nothing but cry.
[Ageing:] Then, as we grow up, we still seem to be developing for some time, but our life is actually diminishing each day, and we are getting closer and closer to death. We are busy looking after the affairs of this worldly life as they occur one after another, like ripples on water, never coming to an end. And since all they have to do with is just wrong-doing, we are in the extreme pain of creating the causes of the lower realms. …
While we busy ourselves with those pointless and never-ending affairs of saṃsāra, we are caught unawares by the pain of ageing. As all our bodily strength gradually weakens, we can no longer digest the food we like to eat. As our eyes lose their strength, we can no longer see forms that are too small or distant. As our ear-faculty diminishes, we can no longer hear well. As our tongue-faculty weakens, we can no longer taste our food and drink, nor articulate properly what we want to say. As our mental faculty deteriorates and our memory gets clouded, we become terribly dull and forgetful. As our teeth fall out, we can no longer chew solid food and our words turn into mumbling. As our body heat is slipping away, we are no longer kept warm by the clothes we put on. As our physical strength dwindles, we cannot lift anything heavy. Though we would still like to enjoy what we want, we no longer have the power to act. As the energy system of our body is wearing out, we become irritable and impatient. Scorned by everyone, we feel depressed and miserable. As the body’s elements get deprived of balance, our health problems multiply. Having to walk, sit down, or make any movement, becomes an almost insurmountable difficulty ...
[Sickness:] This human body is composed of the four elements (earth/solidity, water/cohesion, fire/heat, and wind/movement). When they are out of balance, we suffer from the pain of sickness associated with wind, bile or phlegm.334 We may be an exuberantly healthy person in the prime of our youth, but when we are struck by the pain of sickness, we immediately feel like a little bird hit by a stone. Our strength suddenly slips away, we sink into our bed, and we find it hard even to move. Even when somebody asks us ‘What is the problem?’, we are not able to give them a quick reply – we can only speak with an expiring voice from deep within. Whether we lie on our right side, on our left side, on our belly, or on our back, we always feel uncomfortable. We lose our appetite, and can no longer sleep at night. During daytime, the day seems long; during night-time, the night seems long. Willy-nilly, we have to put up with the bitter, hot or sour taste of medicine, and the pain of bloodletting, cautery, and so forth. We are terrified from the thought that we might even come to die of this sickness. Under the power of demons335 and poor integrity, we may lose control over our body and mind, and have even more deluded perceptions than our usual saṃsāric delusions. Some people even kill themselves or jump down from a precipice. People suffer from (such terrible diseases as) leprosy and epilepsy, so even whilst living it is as if they were dead. Expelled from human society, they are left on their own.
Usually, sick people cannot look after themselves. As sickness eats them away, they become short-tempered and find more and more fault with everything done by others. If their sickness lasts too long, then people get tired of looking after them and do not listen to them any more. They are in constant pain of suffering from the pangs of sickness. …
[Death:] Your body falls into bed and cannot get up. You can see your food and drink but have no appetite for them. Terrified by the premonition of death, you feel deeply distressed. Your confidence and self-assurance have vanished. You start having delusory visions and hallucinations. Your time has come for the great moving on. You may be surrounded by relatives and friends on all sides but they cannot keep you back. You have to go through the pain of dying all alone. You may have had countless possessions but you cannot take them with you. You cannot let go of them and yet you cannot keep them. As you recall your former wrong-doings, you start feeling remorseful. You are reminded of the pains of the bad destines, and you are terrified. As death suddenly arrives, you feel dread. As the appearances of the living fade away, you feel cold.
When a wrong-doer dies, he beats his chest on the verge of dying, and dies full of nail-marks on his chest. Remembering his former actions of wrong-doing, he is terrified of being reborn in a bad destiny. He feels regret at not having practised the Dharma while he was free to do so, which would have helped him in the moment of death. Feeling tremendous pain in his heart, he clutches at his breast, and dies full of nail-marks on his chest. As the saying goes, ‘Watch a wrong-doer dying – he is a teacher demonstrating the workings of karma.’ Even before they die, such people are haunted by omens of the lower realms. They have all sorts of terrifying visions, and all their sensations become painful. When their bodily elements start to disintegrate, they breathe hard, and their limbs twitch. They become confused, then their eyes roll up and they pass beyond this life. They are met by messengers from the Lord of Death, and as the visions of the intermediate state start to appear for them, they have no protector or refuge.
[The Dharma as ones refuge:] You have no assurance that the moment of leaving this life naked and empty-handed will not come as soon as today. At that time, the only thing that can certainly help you is the holy Dharma – no-one else can give you refuge. As said, ‘Think of the Dharma as soon as you are in your mother’s womb. As soon as you are born, be mindful of death!’ Since death can hit suddenly both the old and the young, we have to practise the Dharma that can help us in the moment of our death since the day we are born. Yet we have not thought of death up to now, but have been busy fighting our enemies and protecting our family, taking care of our home and possessions. As all this time has been spent in attachment, hatred and bewilderment for the sake of friends and relatives, we have committed a great error.
‘The Words of My Perfect Teacher’, pp.124–132, trans. T.A.
V.22 The pains of being parted from who and what we love and like
This passage from Nyingma master Longchen Rabjampa (1308–1364), is quoted by Patrul Rinpoche in the section on ‘the pain of encountering what one does not want’.
We would like to stay together with our spouse and family forever, but we are certain to part from them. We would like to stay in our nice home forever, but we are certain to leave it behind. We would like to enjoy a happy life of abundance forever, but we are certain to lose it. We would like to keep this precious human life of freedom and connection forever, but we are certain to die. We would like to keep studying the Dharma with our wonderful teacher forever, but we are certain to let him go. We would like to stay together with our nice spiritual friends forever, but are certain to separate. ‘From this very day, put on the armour of perseverance, and get ready to cross over to the Land of Great Bliss (of Awakening) without separation.’ This is what I the ‘Beggar without Dharma’336 advise to all my companions who are deeply disillusioned with saṃsāra.
‘The Words of My Perfect Teacher’, p.139, trans. T.A.
V.23 An admonition by Milarepa: do not waste any opportunity to practise the Dharma!
In a similar vein, Milarepa admonishes his students not to waste the opportunity presented by ‘the precious human life’.337
Even though I may teach the Dharma, only a few people put it into practice.
Though I may teach the Dharma to engender disillusionment with saṃsāra, the ocean of suffering, very few people are revolted with it.
Though I may tell them that there is no time to wait, for the rest of their lives is fully petering out, very few people are mindful of death.
Even though it is a rare opportunity to keep steadfast ethical discipline when you have a precious human life with freedom and connection (to the Dharma), very few people can keep even the one-day precepts.
Though I may tell them about the good qualities of the higher realms (of humans and gods) and liberation, as well as the shortcomings of saṃsāra, very few people do actually enter the gateway to the Dharma.
Though I may teach the most profound oral instructions of the whispered lineage338 without reservation, only a few people do put them into practice.
Though I may give them guidance and introduction to the holy Dharma of Mahāmudrā,339 very few people do recognize the nature of the mind.
Though I may always try to inspire them to go on a mountain retreat, the guru’s heart-wish, very few people are actually willing to do the practice.
Though I may freely instruct them on the profound path of means taught by Nāropa, very few people do exhibit the sign of heat.340
If you want to do something meaningful while in this precious human body of freedom and connection, then follow me!
‘One Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa’, pp.260–61, trans. T.A.