The Wheel of Rebirth
A Talk by Venerable Master Hsing Yun
on November 21st, 1982
at the CKS Cultural Center in Kaohsiung, Taiwan.
III. Evidence of rebirth
Dear Venerables and Dharma Friends,
Today, I am going to discuss with you a very important, but difficult to affirm, topic of rebirth. When we talk about rebirth, some people laugh at the idea. They consider such belief passed and obsolete in the technologically advanced 20th Century. Others may think that the question of rebirth belongs strictly in the arena of religion. After all, the issue of what happens after death seems remote from everyday living. The saying, "If I don't even know about living, why ask about dying?" reflects how some people may feel. To them, the question of rebirth is not a pressing concern. Indeed, in the ambience of this grand lecture hall, the subject of rebirth may not seem an appropriate lecture topic. If we were to discuss this question on a battlefield, where we are face to face with death, then we would be more earnest to approach and study this very important and serious question of death and rebirth.
Sometimes we may hear young people make scornful remarks about their not believing in rebirth. By not recognizing the existence of rebirth, they are simply limiting their understanding of life. If there were no rebirth, there would be no past [lives] and, moreover, there would be no future [lives]. Without future [lives], existence would be short and without meaning; the outlook of life would be forlorn and uncertain! When we are going through tough times, we often encourage ourselves by saying, "Everything is going to be alright. Just wait and see how I will be doing in ten years." Even death-row inmates facing execution would stick out their chests and declare, "In twenty years, I will be back." With rebirth, human existence has maneuvering room. With rebirth, unfulfilled wishes can materialize one day. With rebirth, there will always be the next train of life for us to board.
All phenomena in this world cannot escape the workings of the wheel of rebirth. It is because of the workings of rebirth that we are reborn into a blessed or suffering realm of existence, of which there are six. The life processes of being born and dying are examples of rebirths. Changes in nature are also manifestations of rebirths. There is the change of the four seasons. There is the time cycle of past, present, and future. There is the cycle of day and night. These are temporal types of rebirths. The change of directions and the movement from one place to the next are spatial types of rebirths. In short, everything around us is the result of rebirth. The wind blows and gathers the clouds; clouds turn into rain, which falls to the ground. The rain evaporates into the sky and becomes clouds again. This continuous process of the water cycle is a form of rebirth. When an automobile burns gasoline, it generates energy and produces carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide is absorbed by plants. When the plants die, they decompose and become natural oil deposits many years later. This is another form of rebirth. A light can be turned on, off, and on again. This is rebirth, too.
The wheel of rebirth is not only found in changes in the universe, it is also evident in the many changes that one experiences during one's lifetime, from the time one is born to when one dies. According to scientific research, there is not one single cell in our body that has not changed in seven years. In other words, our body is totally renewed every seven years. The cellular structure, perception, and cognition of all living creatures, from simple organisms to advanced humans, are constantly moving, changing, living, and dying. This constant state of flux, renewal, and metabolic change that we experience physically (birth, old age, sickness, and death) and in our minds (the forming, existing, changing, and ceasing of thoughts) is what we call the wheel of rebirth. This can be compared to the cyclic motion of the wheels of a car. The wheel of rebirth is also at work in family relationships; at one time we are the children of our parents, and yet in another time we become the parents of our children. The changes in our economic welfare and the ups and downs of our emotions are also examples of rebirth.
Of all the above examples of rebirths, the one that we must thoroughly understand in Buddhism is the wheel of rebirth within the six realms of existence. According to the Buddhist teachings, we humans are constantly going through cycles of rebirth. It is just that we refer to the slow and gradual changes as "forming and ceasing" or "changing and transforming," and we reserve the term the "cycle of rebirth" to those changes that are rapid and sudden. These cycles are the direct consequences of karma. Karma is the force that is created as a result of our actions and thoughts. The force of karma is what perpetuates the cycle of cause-and-effect, giving rise to the endless and beginningless flow of life in which different variations of life forms, such as celestial beings, humans, spirits, and animals are manifested. In Buddhism, this is referred to as the "wheel of rebirth within the six realms of existence." Master Sheng An in his piece Inspiration to pledge the Bodhicitta said, "All beings and I have been trapped in the cycle of rebirth from time eternal and cannot be liberated. Heaven and earth, here and there, we live in many forms, rising and falling." Yet, this profound and important law of rebirth is not accepted by the many who are ignorant of it. No wonder ancient masters would sigh and lament, "Only the sutras can reveal such truth; only the Buddha can speak on such matters." Rebirth is not a religious theory; it is not an escape or a psychological comfort when the unforgiving moment of death befalls us. It is a precise science that explains our existence from the past into the future. We should develop a thorough understanding of rebirth, not because we are expected to do so in Buddhism, but because this understanding can help us examine our life intelligently. Next, I will discuss the Buddhist perspective on the cycle of rebirth in four sections.
I. The Value of Understanding Rebirth
What value does rebirth bring to our lives? What meaning does rebirth add to our existence? With rebirth, our existence has continuity; life is no longer limited to a short span of a hundred years or so. With rebirth, life is unlimited in hope and possibilities. Within the cycle of rebirth, death is the beginning of another existence. Living and dying, dying and living, existence continues uninterrupted while possibilities are unbounded. This can be compared to a torch. When one stick of wood is exhausted, it is replaced with another. Each stick may be different in its components, yet the flame continues to burn. Rebirth is also like an oil lamp. When one oil lamp is exhausted, another is lit. These lamps, burning one after another, serve to shatter the darkness of the world. As we go through the cycle of rebirth within the six realms, our bodies can take on many forms, as a Henry or a Jack, as a celestial being or as an earthbound human being. While the forms are different, the flame of life is inextinguishable and the lamp of wisdom never stops burning. Rebirth is what gives our existence universality: we exist from antiquity to now and our existence is timeless. Rebirth gives meaning to existence.
Although we may say that everyone is equal under the law, some people still manage to evade the law. In contrast, Buddhism teaches us that the cycle of rebirth treats everyone equally. Regardless if one is a noble or a commoner, everyone must face the cycle of rebirth. This was well-said by the poet Tu Mu, "The only true fairness in this world is gray hair; it does not overlook the heads of the rich." Time is the most objective judge. Birth, age, sickness, and death are the most impartial jury. Cause and effect, as well as the cycle of rebirth, are not controlled by a yama (underworld) king nor a god-creator. Our circumstance, be it good or bad, is determined by one's past deeds or karma. Our stored karma interacts with ripened conditions and manifests in varying types of painful or blessed effects. Therefore, it is written in the sutra, "Millions of millennia may pass, but karma does not vanish. When the condition is ripened, one must bear the consequences of one's actions." Our circumstances in the cycle of rebirth within the six realms, whether we are intelligent or dull, rich or poor, are all products of our past deeds. Take the example of the six-year-old child prodigy, Nai-Ch'ing Wang. His talent in mathematics surpasses the capabilities of many college professors and experts. His talent is not a product of this lifetime; it is the culmination of learning from previous lifetimes. This, too, is a form of rebirth. Rebirth liberates us from the hands of a divine power, for it is our own karma that controls rebirth. Heaven and gods cannot give us fortune or bring us disaster; we are our own masters. From the viewpoint of rebirth, every being is free and equal. Happiness and fortune are the products of our own doing. Misery and tragedy are also of our own creation. A creator cannot protect us from the consequences of our own crimes; gods cannot take away our merits, either. In front of rebirth and cause-and-effect, there is no such thing as luck. We are the creators of our own future.
We should lead our life like a wheel, always moving it forward. Only then can we keep our life refreshed. Repenting for our transgressions is like putting a wheel in the reverse motion; with time and remorse, we can eventually make amends. Rebirth gives us unlimited hope. Although the cold winter may be long, the warm spring will come one day. Rebirth is not a word game for argument and it is not just a question of whether we believe it or not. Even if we stubbornly refuse to believe in rebirth, we can see that the cycle of rebirth is all around us. In all the phenomena of society, nature, the universe, and even between you and me, everything is within the swirl of rebirth. Therefore, the wise action for us to take is to intelligently understand rebirth, to be freed from rebirth, to transcend the three realms, and ultimately to transform the wheel of rebirth into the Dharma wheel of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.
II. Some questions regarding the subject of rebirth
Although rebirth has such a profound meaning and importance, many people still have many questions regarding its existence, its manifestation, and its purpose. Here are some commonly asked questions regarding the subject of rebirth.
A. Is the existence of rebirth good or bad for us?
Some people find anguish in the thought of being reborn again. To them, it is best if death is the final chapter of their lives. Buddhism does not believe that death is the finale, but is, in fact, the beginning of another life. Our present life is one of our many lives, and we must learn to treasure each life so that we do not waste it. With rebirth, our lives do not just end with this one, and we have the chance to again build a better future. Without rebirth, death is the ultimate end. Would it not be tragic if we go to our graves with our hopes and dreams unfulfilled? How can [life without rebirth] be considered desirable?
B. Why am I not aware of rebirth?
One may ask: If rebirth really exists, how come I cannot recall anything in my past life? It is said in the sutras, "Humans are pitiful; a grandson marries the grandmother." Why are we so ignorant? What makes us so forgetful of our past lives that we would even marry our grandmother? In Chinese folklore, it is said that before one is reborn, one has to drink a concoction that erases all memory of the previous life. Plato believed that the soul, in its journey of rebirth, had to first cross an extremely hot and arid desert before coming to a river of cool running water. With a thirst that was simply unbearable, one drank from the river without realizing that the water would wipe out all bits and pieces of the memory from previous life. Likewise, Roman folklore has a similar story of why one's memory of previous life is lost after rebirth.
Buddhism teaches that people lose all memory of previous life because of the "confusion of rebirth." After one dies, one passes through the stage of "intermediate being." The intermediate being possesses all the six senses and looks like a three foot tall child. It has supernatural power, can go through walls, and is able to travel at incredible speed. Nothing can stand in its way except for a mother's womb and the Buddha's diamond throne. The intermediate being lives and dies in seven-day increments. After it dies, it can be reborn again. It can at most live for seven seven-day periods or a total of forty-nine days. Some may only live for two or three seven-day periods. At the end of this stage, it will be reborn into one of the six realms. It is because of this intermediary state that we forget our previous lives, not even recalling what realms we lived in previously. Some of you may say, "How regrettable, wouldn't life be wonderful if one could have the power of knowing one's past and future lives, and be free of the confusion of rebirth?" Do you really think that supernatural power can make us happy? Do you think it is pleasant to recall that one was a cow or a pig in a previous life? If one can know the future and know that one only has three more years to live, can one still live a carefree life? If one can read others' minds and finds the smiles of others are only facades of ill intentions, will one not feel hurt and angry? In the absence of supernatural power, everyday is a great day, and everywhere is a great place. How free and pleasant life is! Thus, there are rules of nature by which the universe and life operate. When everything settles into its respective place and evolves in due order, then all can be truly at ease. We may have forgotten our past lives, but by the same token, we have a new body with all the unpleasant experiences of the past behind us. Is this not indeed a very wonderful thing, too?
C. Do prayers for the deceased have any impact on his or her rebirth?
Now that we know rebirth is real, does the saying of prayers or the reciting of sutras have any impact on the rebirth of our loved ones when they pass away? Can these actions help them to become liberated from rebirth? According to the Ksitigarbha Sutra, only two- to three-tenths of the merit from the reading of sutras is transferred to the deceased, while the rest of the merit accrues to the one reading the sutra. Therefore, it is best if we ourselves recite the sutra when we are alive; it is like saving for a rainy day. In this way, we do not need to impose on others to recite the sutra for us after we have passed away. After all, the merit that can be transferred to the deceased is limited. How, then, does the reciting of sutras benefit the deceased? It can be compared to the situation of one sharing in the glory of a wealthy and famous relative. It is like the passport that one needs to take on a trip; the merit can help one to be reborn into the land of the Buddhas. When a rock is thrown into a river, it quickly sinks to the bottom. If the rock is placed on a ship, it can arrive at the other shore safely. The heavy karma of our sins is like this rock; we can use the compassionate merit from the reciting of the sutras as the ferrying vessel so that we will not be left to sink in the sea of rebirth. If a wheat field is full of healthy and strong seedlings, a couple of weeds would not have any material impact. The merit of reciting the sutra can promote the seedlings of our good karma to grow, and prevent the buried seeds of our misdeeds to germinate.
D. Does feng shui and fortune telling have any impact on rebirth?
In Chinese culture, it is common for people to hire a soothsayer to check the time and location for weddings, funerals, and special occasions. The feng shui master may tell you that the house alignment is not right and that it may hinder the future of your descendents. The fortune-teller may tell you that the couple's horoscopes are conflicting and that they should not be married. When we have to check the calendar of the stars to pick a good day for our weddings or to consult soothsayers for a time and place to bury our loved ones, then our life is controlled by superstition and the belief in divine power. In reality, of the many weddings that take place on an auspicious day, some may end in divorce while others remain happily married. Therefore, having a wedding ceremony on a chosen day is not important for a happy marriage. Instead, learning to get along and being committed to each other is the foundation for a blissful union. Actually, the foundation of so called feng shui and auspicious timing should be built on relationships and mental attitudes. If we want favorable feng shui and auspicious timing, we need to direct our efforts toward helping others and building good causal relationships with others. In so doing, we will find everywhere is a perfect location and any time is an auspicious moment. Therefore, if we believe in rebirth, it makes sense that we should diligently cultivate our virtues and accumulate our merits, for our virtues and merits can be reborn with us. We should also form good causal relationships with others, for good causal relationships can be reborn with us. Indeed, accumulating merits and building good causal relationships with others is the ultimate source of happiness in life.
E. Are there some examples that can illustrate the meaning of rebirth?
As there is no way for one to know the past and future, are there some real life examples that can substantiate the existence of rebirth? Take the example of the silk clothing that we wear. It is made by silkworms. Silkworms spin cocoons from which silkmoths emerge. Silkworms, cocoons, and mothsóthey are three entities, yet they are also one being. On the one hand, it is inaccurate to say that a silkworm is not a silkmoth; on the other hand, it is just as inaccurate to say that a silkworm is the same as a silkmoth. We are just as correct to say that a silkworm is a silkmoth, or a silkworm is not a silkmoth. Is this not a living example of rebirth?
Once, there was a man who stole some coconuts. While he was savoring the taste of the coconuts, he was caught red-handed by the rightful owner of the coconuts. The owner grabbed him and yelled at him angrily, "How can you steal my coconuts!"
"I did not steal your coconuts!"
"How can you deny it? I planted the coconut tree," the owner fumed.
With an air of indignation, the man argued, "Well, the coconut you planted is the seed in the ground, and I am eating the fruit on the tree. What does that have to do with you?"
The coconuts on the tree grow out of the coconut seed in the ground; they are connected by rebirth. Like the growing process of a coconut [from a seed], or the lighting of a torch by another, life goes on and on. The wheel of life turns and turns, without a moment of respite.
F. Is the idea of rebirth in conflict with the concept of selflessness?
One of the fundamental teachings of Buddhism is that "All dharmas do not have a substantial self." If this is the case, how can there be rebirth? Are they in conflict with each other? Selflessness does not mean that there is no life. It means that our physical bodies are the illusive combination of the five aggregates (form, feeling, perception, mental formation, and consciousness) and the four great elements (earth, water, fire, and wind). This combination exists as long as the right causes and conditions are present. Thus, our physical bodies do not have a substantial self, and this is what is meant by selflessness. The idea of rebirth is not in conflict with the concept of selflessness. Take the example of a piece of gold. It can be molded into rings, earrings, or bracelets. The forms may vary, yet the nature of gold is unchanged. This is the same way with our existence. In a perpetual flux through the wheel of rebirth, we wander between the heaven realm and the earth realm. We may be a Henry or a Jack, a donkey or a horse. What really goes through the wheel of rebirth is not the physical body, but a "compelling force" that is within everyone of us.
G. What is at the core of rebirth?
If it is not the physical body that is reborn, then what is this "compelling force" that is at the core of rebirth? In Buddhism, the core of rebirth is described as the alaya-vijnana (storehouse consciousness). In the sutras, the alaya-vijnana is described as follows:The vast Tripitaka cannot describe [the alaya-vijnana] completely.Alaya-vijnana is the basic source of life. As it comes into contact with different conditions and circumstances, it gives rise to various mental formations and actions, hence karma. The seeds of karma are [in turn] stored in this giant warehouse of alaya-vijnana. The relative abundance of the good or bad karma in this giant warehouse then determines the direction of the next rebirth. When a being dies, the alaya-vijnana is the last to leave the physical body. When a being is reborn, the alaya-vijnana is the first to arrive in the next body. It is the core of rebirth.
Impacted by the wind of circumstances, the seven abysmally deep waves arise from it.
Through the effect of contact, it holds seeds for sense organs, entities of beings,
and the world of receptacle.
The first to come and the last to go, it acts as the master [of existence].
H. What is the relationship between rebirth and the force of the good or bad karma that we have?
Given that the alaya-vijnana is the core of rebirth, what then determines the circumstances of our rebirths? Everyday, we create endless karma of action, speech, and thought. Some of these karma are wholesome, while others are unwholesome. They form two dominating and competing forces, much like the situation in a tug-of-war. If the force of the wholesome karma dominates, we will be reborn into one of the three good realms of celestial, human, or asura existence. If the force of the unwholesome karma predominates, we will be reborn in one of the three suffering realms of animal, hungry ghost, or hell. Thus, it is the goodness or badness of karma that decides the future of our rebirths. From this, we can conclude that if we want to prepare for our future well-being, it is critical that we do good and refrain from evil.
I. What do different religions say is the final goal of rebirth?
Almost all religions accept the idea of rebirth. What do they say is the final goal of rebirth? Taoists seek everlasting life and permanent youth. Christians believe that the final goal is to enter into heaven to be with God and achieve eternal salvation. Even most folklore religions espouse everlasting life. This is in contrast to the Buddhist teachings which teach us that the ultimate goal is to realize the state of birthlessness. What this means is that we should strive to become liberated from rebirth. From a Buddhist perspective, a long life, an everlasting life, or an undying life is still in the thick of the agony of rebirth. Only birthlessness can emancipate us from the suffering of existence. It is the ultimately serene, everlasting joyous pure-living!
III. Evidence of rebirth
There are many well-documented records of famous scholars in history that will dispel any remaining doubts regarding the unmitigated truth of rebirth.
Yang-Ming Wang, a famous Confucian scholar of the Ming Dynasty, once visited the Gold Mountain Temple to pay his respects. While at the temple, he had a feeling of déjà vu, as if he had been there before. As he toured the temple, he came across a room with a door that was locked and sealed. It somehow seemed to him that he had lived in that room before. His curiosity eventually got the better of him, so he requested the reception monk to show him the inside of the room. The monk replied apologetically, "I am very sorry. This room was where one of our founding masters passed away some fifty years ago, and his body is still kept inside. He had left word that this room was not to be disturbed. I hope you can understand why we absolutely cannot unseal the door."
"Since the room has a door, it cannot remain shut forever. Please kindly indulge me and let me go inside to take a look."
After repeated pleadings from Yang-Ming Wang, the monk realized that this guest would not leave unless he got to see the inside of the room, so the monk finally let him in. Under the dim light of dusk, he saw an old monk, who had long since passed away, sitting timelessly straight up on a mat. When he took a closer look, he was taken aback. How could the face of this master look so much like his own? He lifted his head and saw a poem written on the wall. It went as follows:Yang-Ming Wang, fifty years later,As it turned out, the old monk was none other than Yang-Ming Wang in his previous life. As he himself had closed the door in bygone days, he returned to open it that very day. As a testimonial for future generations, he wrote the following poem.
The person who opens the door is the one who closed it.
When the consciousness once left is now back,
It then believes in the Ch'an teaching of the indestructible being.The Gold Mountain awakened me like the strike of a fist;Among the public records of Hsiushui county of Kiangsi Province was a report of a woman reborn as a renowned scholar named Shan-Ku Huang. He became a county commissioner at the tender age of twenty-six. One day, he dreamt that he had walked to a place. There, he saw a silver-haired old lady preparing and making offerings in front of her residence. On the altar was a bowl of noodles and celery. The bowl of noodles smelled so appetizing that, without any hesitation, he picked up the bowl of noodles from the altar and began eating. When he woke up, he could still taste the celery in his mouth. Shan-Ku Huang thought it was all just a dream and did not think much about it. The next day when he took an afternoon nap, he had the same dream again. He became very unsettled and decided to see if he could find the place he saw in the dream. After some walking, he came upon a house in front of which was the same old lady in his dream. With three incense sticks in her hands, she was praying quietly. Even more incredible was the freshly prepared bowl of noodles and celery on the altar. The noodles smelled delicious. Shan-Ku Huang was very curious, so he walked up and asked the lady, "Madam! What are you doing?"
I see through the sky under Weiyang Lake.
While enjoying the moon above the balcony,
The playing of the flute awakens the dragon within me.
"Yesterday was the twenty-sixth anniversary of my daughter's passing. I am making her an offering."
Her words surprised and shocked Shan-Ku Huang. Strange! Why was it the same as his age? So he asked further, "What did your daughter usually like to do?"
"When she was alive, she was a devoted Buddhist and liked to read Buddhist sutras. She vowed not to get married and was especially fond of noodles and celery. Therefore, I specially made a bowl of noodles to offer her."
With many unanswered questions in his mind, he asked, "Would it be possible for me to look around her room?"
The lady agreed and showed him inside. The room was full of many books and sutras that he had once read. In the corner, there was a giant chest. Shan-Ku Huang asked inquisitively, "What is inside the chest? May I open it and take a look?"
The old lady replied that she did not know what was inside the chest or where the key was. Shan-Ku Huang thought hard for a moment. Then, as if remembering something, he quickly found the key and opened the chest. He was dumbfounded when he realized that the chest was full of his essays and writings from each of the prior government examinations he had taken a few years earlier. He finally realized that the lonely, elderly lady was the mother of his previous life. He fell to his knees and sincerely pleaded, "Madam! I was your daughter. Please come home with me and allow me to take good care of you."
He then welcomed the old lady into his home and wrote a poem to mark this turn of events.Like a monk with hair, like a layman free of worldly dust,What the poem says is this: Although he was a layman, he aspired to the life of a monk. Although he led a secular life, he was not hindered by worldly temptations. Life is like a dream; beyond life there is another existence. He could very well identify with the saying, "In dreams, vivid are the six realms of existence. Upon awakening, empty is the universe, without substance."
Having a dream within a dream, I see existence beyond existence.
The Fifth Patriarch of the Ch'an school, Hung Jen, also had a well-known story regarding his rebirth. It was said that Hung Jen was an old gardener in his previous life. He had very high regard for the Fourth Patriarch, Tao Hsin, and wanted to become his disciple. Tao Hsin thought that he was too old and would not be able to sustain the rigors of travel to propagate the Dharma. He therefore consoled the old gardener, "If you were to be reborn now, I might be able to stay on a few years longer to wait for you."
The old gardener bid the Fourth Patriarch farewell. He went by a creek and saw a young lady washing cotton yarn. He asked, "Lady, may I stay in your house for a while?"
"You should ask my parents. I cannot make such a decision."
"I must have your permission, or else I would not dare to ask further."
The young lady saw that as it was getting dark and the poor old man needed a shelter for the night, she nodded. Strangely, this unwed lady became pregnant upon her returning home. The family was very upset and disowned her. Later, she gave birth to a nice chubby baby boy. She was distraught and threw her ill-fated baby boy in the river, but miraculously, the baby flowed up-stream against the current. Without any means of livelihood, she became a beggar to support herself and the baby. Since no one knew who his father was, he was called the "Nameless Kid." Six years went by and the boy grew to become a very lovable and intelligent young boy. One day, when Master Tao Hsin was preaching in the area, the young boy went up to him, tugged at the Master's robe and would not let go. He earnestly asked the master to take him as a disciple. When the Master saw that he was only a young boy, he patted the youngster on his head and said gently, "You are too young, how can you renounce your household life and become my disciple?"
Speaking like an adult, the "Nameless Kid" demanded an answer, "Master, you complained that I was too old in the past; now, you say I am too young. When are you going to accept me as your disciple?"
These words seemed to have jolted something in Master Tao Hsin's memory. He quickly asked, "Child, what is your name? Where do you live?"
"They call me the 'Nameless Kid.' I live on Ten Mile Lane."
"Everyone has a name. How could you lie and say that you have no name? Come on, tell me what is your family name."
"Buddha nature is my family name, so I do not have a last name."
Tao Hsin was very pleased that a young child could have said such impressive words. The Master believed that this young child would one day achieve greatness and make significant contributions to the Buddhist religion. Later, the Fourth Patriarch passed his robe and bowl to the "Nameless Kid" who then became the Fifth Patriarch of the Ch'an school. The Fifth Patriarch had many disciples, and the Ch'an school really blossomed because of him.
In 1942, in the Pin County of Shensi Province in China lived a man named San-Niu T'ien. He made his home in a cave. During a storm, the cave collapsed and buried him alive. While feeling suffocated, he felt himself climbing out of the mound of dirt. Once out, he saw his family huddled together crying. He asked his family what had just happened, but no one paid him any attention. Annoyed and irritated, he decided to "walk away" from his family. His walk took him to Mingyu Pond. There he saw a narrow door, so he decided to squeeze through the doorway. Suddenly, he heard someone remark over the din, "Congratulations! You have a new son."
Unknowingly, San-Niu T'ien was reborn as a son of the Chang family; he was named Sheng-Yu Chang. As soon as he came out of the mother's womb, he saw that the midwife was looking all over the place for a pair of scissors. He asked her, "Isn't the pair of scissors hanging on the wall?"
All those present were shocked speechless. They thought he was some sort of demon and suggested that they drown him in the river. The mother felt sorry for him, and he was spared. For seven years, he did not dare to speak one word, yet he remembered everything of his past life. Somehow the news of San-Niu T'ien's rebirth as the son of the Chang family reached the T'ien family. One time, the T'ien family had a land dispute with their neighbor, but they could not find the deed to the land. In desperation, they asked the Chang's son to come to their house to look for the deed. Amazingly, the young boy was very familiar with the affairs of the family. He located the deed in no time and thereby resolved the argument. This story was told by the Assistant Director of Social Services of Taiwan, Mr. Nai-Huang Mou. It was verified by the Deputy Minister of Finance, Mr. Fu-Chou Wang. In this modern age of science, there are still many unexplainable true stories of rebirth.
Tung-Po Su, the famous Chinese poet, always had a close and deep relationship with Buddhism. He was very close to a few monks and often called on them. In the Record of Lamp Passing for Laity, it was documented that he was the Precept Master of the Fifth Patriarch of the Ch'an school in his previous life. When his mother was pregnant with him, she dreamt of a small-eyed thin elderly monk. She later gave birth to Tung-Po Su. Many years later, through his brother Ch'e Su, who was a government official in Kaoan, Tung-Po Su became friends with three monks, Chen Ching, Wen Sheng, and Shou Ts'ung. They often got together to discuss Ch'an and the Dharma. One day, the three monks all dreamt of a visit from the deceased Precept Master of the Fifth Patriarch. When they were discussing the dream, it just happened that Tung-Po Su called on them. They told Tung-Po Su their dream. Tung-Po Su told them in return that when he was about seven, he once dreamt of himself as a monk traveling and spreading the Buddhist teachings in the Shanyu area.
Master Chen Ching immediately added, "The Precept Master was also from the Shanyu area. He traveled to Kaoan in his twilight years and passed away fifty years ago in Tayu." Pursuing further, they found that Tung-Po Su was forty-nine years old. It then dawned on all of them that Tung-Po Su was the Precept Master in his previous life.
There is a famous Chinese proverb, "A relationship is destined to last three lifetimes," which signifies the depth and extent of a relationship. Actually, there is a moving story of rebirth behind the proverb. Tung-Po Su, in his book titled The Legend of Monk Yuan Tse, described a friendship between master Yuan Tse and scholar Yuan Li. Both of them had planned to travel to Omei Mountain together, but they could not agree which route to take. Yuan Tse wanted to travel by land, but Yuan Li insisted on going by river. Master Yuan Tse sighed, "Everything is determined by cause and conditions, not by the wish of a person." They finally decided to take the water route. While passing by Nanp'u, they saw a pregnant woman with a clay jug, who was fetching water along the river. Yuan Tse heaved a long sigh and said, "It is precisely because I was afraid to run into this woman that I suggested to use the land route. She is from the Wang family, and I am supposed to be her son. For three years, I have been hiding from her. Consequently, she has been pregnant for three years and cannot give birth. In three days, you can go over to her house to visit me. I will acknowledge you with a smile. In thirteen years, we can meet again outside the T'ienchu temple in Hangchow."
That evening the master passed away painlessly. Three days later, Yuan Li paid a visit to the lady's house. The newborn baby indeed gave Yuan Li a very warm and innocent smile upon seeing him. Thirteen years later, he traveled to the T'ienchu temple. There, he saw a young herder riding and singing on top of an ox:An ancient apparition sits atop the boulder of the past, present, and future,When Yuan Li heard the song, he called out, "How is Ch'an master Yuan Tse doing?"
Enjoying the scenery and not wanting to argue.
I am happy a sentimental friend has come to visit from afar.
This body is different, but the nature is eternally the same.
The young herder waved backed and replied, "Mr. Li indeed keeps his promise." He kept playing his flute and slowly rode off into the horizon.
IV. How can we transcend rebirth?
Now that we have understood the significance and veracity of rebirth, we should go a step further and find out how we can transcend rebirth. The right understanding of rebirth is only a process, a means to the ultimate end of how to transcend rebirth. Some people find the Buddhist tenet regarding rebirth and cause-and-effect superstitious and ludicrous. Actually, all of the Buddha's teachings are nothing more than marvelous methods for liberating ourselves from the shackles of rebirth. Since the ultimate purpose of Buddhism is to transcend rebirth, Buddhism is indeed the sensible and credible religion that can shatter the wheel of rebirth.
If we want to transcend rebirth, we must first know the reason for rebirth. The reason for rebirth is our clinging, while the circumstance of our rebirth is determined by the nature of our karma. Since the karmic forces of each of us varies in terms of whether they are wholesome or unwholesome, or whether they are severe or mild, the respective effects and results are all different. It is written in the sutras, "Cutting down a tree without taking out the root, the tree will grow once more. Severing our desires without eradicating the root causes, we will have to experience repeatedly the pain of rebirth. It is like making an arrow and striking oneself with it. The arrow of flesh is also the same; the arrow of desire hurts all beings." The thirst and craving of our greed and desires is the arrow. This arrow causes us to rise and sink in the sea of rebirth. How painful! We must apply the fire of diligence to incinerate the forest of desires. We must use the radiance of Prajna to pierce through the darkness of ignorance and unwholesome karma. We must wield the sword of wisdom to sever the chains of rebirth. These are our hopes and directions. The Buddha once said, "This is my last rebirth." With the eighty-four thousand Dharma methods the Buddha has taught us, we can all surely break through the wheel of rebirth and live in the realm of total freedom.
Understanding rebirth, transcending rebirth, the next step is not to be afraid of rebirth. We can then live in rebirth and not be corrupted by rebirth. Unenlightened beings are led by the force of their karma into rebirth; sravakas and pratyekabuddhas are keen on being liberated from rebirth. In contrast, Bodhisattvas make great vows and pledge to be reborn to help others. Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva steers the vessel of compassion to re-enter the world to deliver all beings. Similarly, Venerable Tzu Hang promised himself to come back at a certain time. In the Annals of Pure Land Holy Practitioners, it is recorded that many masters wish to be reborn in the Pure Land so they may come back to our world to help others. Many Tibetan lamas are reborn into this world after passing away. The Dali Lama and the Panchen Lama are some of the more well-known examples. These masters truly live in accordance with the Bodhisattva's vow of compassion. Their spirit is captured in the saying, "We wish for the liberation of all beings from pain, but will not seek comfort just for ourselves." They are not deserters of humanity; they are perfectly willing to be lifeboats in the sea of misery. They can be compared to lotus blossoms that sprout out of the mud, yet remain pure. They are reborn into this suffering saha world, yet they are free of the pain of rebirth. They choose to re-enter the wheel of rebirth without any hesitation, and they are not afflicted by the sufferings of rebirth. These are true acts of compassion that speak volumes. They are true holy masters who have transcended the wheel of rebirth. Indeed, we can also look into the Jataka tales of the Buddha to find that the Buddha had been reborn as a deity, an animal, a monk, and as royalty. Without shying away from cycles of rebirth, the Buddha diligently practices the way of compassion and wisdom. The Buddha is always working to deliver all sentient beings and manifesting the way of the Buddha.
When the founder of the Wei Yang school, Ch'an Master Wei Yang Ling Yu, was about to pass away, his disciples gathered around him and asked, "Master, with your level of cultivation, where are you going to be reborn after passing away?"
"Oh! I will be reborn as a water buffalo in a nearby farm."
His disciples were shocked and puzzled, so they asked, "Master, you are such a great practitioner. How can you possibly be reborn as an animal?"
"If you do not believe me, you can find the words "Wei Yang Ling Yu monk" under the buffalo's left front leg. You will then know that is me."
His disciples were grief-stricken by his passing. After the funeral, they did discover a buffalo calf born in a farm nearby. They also discovered their master's name on the buffalo. When they saw the buffalo, which was their previous master, toiling under the blazing sun, they quickly bought the buffalo so they could take care of it in the temple. Every morning they fed him fresh green grass. Strangely enough, the buffalo refused to eat or drink. Helplessly, they took the buffalo back to the farm. There, the buffalo would work and then happily chew on its hay.
Master Wei Yang Ling Yu's act of compassion is an illustrative example of the saying, "If one wishes to become a great sage of Buddhism, one must first be willing to be a servant for all beings." This supreme level of compassion is beyond the shallow understanding of his disciples. It is only when one is able to practice the Buddhist teachings amid the sea of rebirth and can be at ease within the bounds of reincarnation that one truly understands rebirth. Such a cultivator is a Bodhisattva who is truly liberated from rebirth.
Today, I have talked with you about the Buddhist perspective on the wheel of rebirth. My main goal is to hope all of you would face life and the future with confidence and radiance. We must believe in the indestructibility of life. Death is like the disintegration of a dilapidated house; we just have to move to another comfortable and sturdy house. Death is like the fraying of worn clothing; we just have to change into beautiful and new attire. In the beginningless swirl of life, all of us should work to first complete the majestic temple within us; we should work to first finish the magnificent Dharma robe within us. I wish all of you will transcend rebirth, be liberated from rebirth, and realize the life of wisdom and bodhi within the endless swirl of rebirth.