Freedom from Suffering

Translated from a Dharma lecture by Grand Master Wei Chueh

從苦中解脫

⏤⏤惟覺安公老和尚開示

The purpose of Zen practice is to help us transcend life and death and attain liberation from suffering.  In order to obtain true liberation, we must first reflect on, examine, and realize what we cannot see through and let go.  If there are attachments in our mind, we must learn to see through them, to let go.  As long as we are the least bit entangled, that is the cause of vexation , the cause of life and death.  

Human life is impermanent and very fragile.  As The Sutra of the Eight Realizations states,

“All the world is impermanent.

The earth is fragile and perilous.

The four great elements inhere in suffering and emptiness.

In the five skandhas there is no self.

All that arise, change, and perish,

Are illusive, unreal, and without a master.

Mind is the root of evil;

Body a reservoir of sin.

Thus observing and contemplating,

One gradually breaks free from birth and death.”

If we constantly reflect upon the words of this sutra and keep in our minds the importance of life and death, like quenching a raging fire, we can transcend our vexations and become at ease and liberated.

To break free from life and death, we must begin right now, using this very mind, this present mind. In order to transcend life and death, we must first understand what is life and death.  Life and death is retribution; it is the result of past causes. Causes that we have sown in the past result in consequences of the present. Causes that are sown now result in future consequences. When there is a cause there is an effect. Without a cause, there is no effect. To transcend life and death, we must work diligently on the cause.

When we cultivate the Way and study Buddhism, we must first realize that life is suffering. Not understanding the truth of suffering is the cause of life and death. If we do not know what suffering is, we can never attain Buddhahood.  Buddhism speaks of ‘suffering.’ We need to understand suffering in order to transcend suffering. We need to understand suffering in order to end suffering. If we do not have a thorough understanding or realization of suffering, our practice is futile.  In China, Buddhism promotes the Greater Vehicle (Mahayana). Yet the foundation of Mahayana Buddhism is Theravada Buddhism. The Noble Eightfold Path, the thirty seven factors of enlightenment, and the Four Noble Truths, these are Theravada teachings. Therefore, if we do not understand the doctrine of the Four Noble Truths, we cannot understand the Mayahana doctrine.

Buddhism speaks of the Four Noble Truths: “suffering, the cause of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the Path.” To cultivate the Way, we must clearly and firmly understand the Four Noble Truths: understand suffering, exterminate the cause of suffering, yearn for the cessation of suffering, and practice the Way.  We must know what is suffering, eradicate the cause of suffering, long for the unending bliss and self-purification of nirvana, and practice the Way. We must eradicate our vexations and work toward nirvana.

Although some people know that life is suffering, they do not understand it thoroughly.  Actually, suffering in life is very real.

Birth

For example, birth is suffering. Everyone is born of the mother’s womb. The newborn child cries lustily; this is because he has arrived into a new world and feels uncomfortable in it; he feels that life in this world is suffering.  The child in the mother’s womb is in one world; after birth he is in another world. The air in the womb is different from that in the outside world. When a child is born into this world, it is as if a person from a tropical climate suddenly went to a chilly climate. The great difference in climate is a kind of suffering.

If a child has sustained bad karma in a previous life, and now has bad parents and is in a bad family with unpleasant surroundings, if his mother has a bad temper, does not understand the meaning of life, the child will suffer in the womb of such a mother. If the mother likes to eat icy foods, the fetus feels as if it were in a chilly climate and suffers intensely. If the mother likes to eat food that is burning hot, the fetus will feel as if it were in a hot burning pan. To the fetus, the mother’s womb is like a prison.  This is called the suffering of fetal-hell.

If husband and wife are ignorant, and maintain conjugal relations during pregnancy, and if the father has an infectious disease, it can be transmitted to the fetus. Some children are born with deformities or other transmissible diseases; some of these are due to past karma, some to present karma. These are all the sufferings of birth. The fetus in the mother’s womb is unable to control its own life. It is totally dependent on the influence of its parents. This is suffering.

The fetus suffers in the mother’s womb; it also suffers after birth. After the fetus is ten months old, it has to suffer outside the womb. When it passes through the birth canal, it is like being squeezed by mountains and the pain is very difficult to endure. If it happens that the mother has a difficult birth and a surgical delivery (Caesarian section) must be made, this is very dangerous for both mother and child. Furthermore, the baby’s skin is extremely sensitive. After he leaves the mother’s womb, anything that touches his skin causes excruciating pain. That is why the infant feels pain and cries. These are all sufferings of birth.

For the mother, birth of the first child causes suffering. At that time she no longer wants to have any more children. But often she becomes pregnant again very soon. This is ignorance. Just like when we are sick, we endure all kinds of suffering, but after our illness is healed, we soon forget all the suffering of illness. This is the same principle. No one can escape the suffering of birth, whether they are noble and rich, or lowly and poor. Everyone is born from the mother’s womb. Everyone must endure this. This is the suffering of birth.

Illness

As soon as we are born we gradually start to age. Before we are old, we are all subject to illness. No one is free from illness. The ancients say, “The hero only fears the clutches of disease.” In Chinese history, during the period of the Three Kingdoms, the great general Chang Fei of the Shou empire,was courageous in battle. However, Kung Ming reminded him by saying, “General Chang! I see that you are not afraid of anything, but there is one thing that you must surely fear.” So he wrote the word “illness” on the general’s hand. When Chang Fei saw this, he immediately broke into tears. Now, even though we are strong and healthy, we cannot escape from the impermanence of life. We may become sick in the near future; then when the suffering of illness besieges us, we will be unable to be heroic or perform great deeds. At that time,  a cultivator of the way cannot even invoke the Buddha’s name, nor can he sit in meditation; he will find it difficult to cultivate.

Therefore, when we are in good health, we should be wary of the suffering of illness and be more diligent in our cultivation. In this world, both the rich and the poor are subject to illness. Illness is a great equalizer. No matter whether rich or poor, when sick, all have to suffer. Therefore illness is suffering.  Now there are many incurable diseases such as AIDS, cancer, diabetes, and so forth ; even money cannot help to heal them. With all the advances in medicine, why are these diseases incurable? This is due to the karma of sentient beings.

No matter how far medical research has advanced, so far it has not been able to find a medicine to cure many present diseases.  After long periods of research to find an effective drug, new diseases still arise.  These take another long period of research to find a cure.  Even after one year, two years, ten years, or twenty years, no cure is found.  According to Buddhism, this is because of the karmic obstacles of sentient beings.  There are people in this world who are paralyzed and lead a vegetative existence. There are also people who have AIDS, cancer, and diabetes. There are no cures for these diseases. It is because these are karmic retributions. It is difficult to eradicate karmic retributions. One needs great vow and great merits to alleviate these.  We can only overcome them and be relieved of the suffering caused by these diseases by diligent cultivation, by eradicating the greed, anger, and ignorance of our mind.

Old Age

As we grow older, we will all experience the suffering of old age.  When people grow old, their backs begins to bend, the eyes lose their acuity, walking and eating all become a burden. The elderly seem very pitiful and the young tend to demean them.   As soon as we are born, we begin to age. No one can evade old age.  Growing old is suffering.

Some people think: I will start cultivating when I am old.  But, when we are old, cultivation is more difficult.  We want to listen to the Buddha Dharma, but we tend to fall asleep during the lecture. Our hearing deteriorates. When we sit in meditation, our whole body aches and we cannot sit for any length of time. We wish to make prostrations to the Buddha, but after we bow down we find it hard to get up.  At this time, we will truly realize that old age is suffering.  Life is impermanent, therefore we must not wait until we are old to start cultivating the Way. We must start working diligently at this very moment.

Death

At the moment of death our suffering is even more intense.   Our body is made up of the four great elements: earth, water, fire, and air.  At the time of death, the four great elements are the first to break up.  If it is the earth  element that breaks up first, the body will become riddled with holes and begin to decay, our perception will be in a dreamlike state, all it sees are visions of  mountains falling and the earth caving in.  If the water element is the first to break up, there will be involuntary bodily discharge, and when dreaming at night,  one will see floods everywhere and feel fright and terror, with no place to hide.  If the fire element is the first to break up, the body will lose its warmth, like sick people whose bodies are cold and clammy. And at the time of death, there will be visions of fire burning everywhere. If the wind element is the first to break up, one will see fierce winds everywhere. If we have created a lot of bad karma in this life, at the time of death we will have frightful visions of hells, beasts, and hungry ghosts. To be freed from the sufferings of death, we must be diligent, perform good deeds, and work hard in  giving rise to good thoughts.

If we practice samadhi until we achieve purity and tranquility of mind, until this mind attains vajra stillness, attains nirvana, and realizes emptiness, when the Bodhi mind manifests, when this mind achieves vajra samadhi, with no thought of life and death, then the four elements of our body will naturally become purified and perfected. Then our physical body will not decay, and we will achieve perfect merits.

If we are not diligent in our daily practice, at the time of death we will not only be plagued by the suffering of illness, but when the four elements of the body break up, the suffering will be intense and difficult to bear.  Therefore the ancients say, “If the ordinary person does not cultivate the Way, at the time of death it will be like peeling the shell off a live turtle.” That is intense suffering.

Those who practice samadhi are constantly master of themselves, always maintaining an awareness that is not deluded. Their six senses are pure. Eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind do not seek things from outside, and do not give rise to defilements. The mind constantly maintains stillness and wisdom. It is this way in the daytime as well as at night, in good times and bad times; it remains this way for one year, three years, or five generations. It can maintain this state even for ten years and twenty years. Thus one can transcend life and death even in this lifetime.

To transcend life and death we must begin with the mind.  We should now practice letting our mind be the master of itself.  If we wait until the time of death, that will be too late.  Many people do not realize that they must constantly be diligent, that they must not waste time.  For example, some people did not study Buddhism, when they hear that the “ten invocations” can help them attain the Pure Land of Amitabha, they do not wish to study any more. They feel that all they have to do at the time of death is make the ten invocations.  This kind of thought is very dangerous.

The meaning of the “ten invocations (recitations) before death” is that we should always maintain right mindfulness and right samadhi, then at the time of death we will remember to invoke the Buddha’s name.  If we did not constantly practice the Way, at the time of death when our perception and spirit are confused, our body is beset by illness, the four elements are breaking up, and we are suffering intensely, it will be difficult for us to have the right mindfulness to recite the Buddha’s name.

Therefore, we should practice the Way at all times. Many people do not understand this and do not practice now, yet they hope that Amitabha will welcome them at the time of death. Actually, the ‘ten invocations’ depend on constant right mindfulness. At the time of death when the four great elements break up, this mind should always maintain right samadhi. Therefore reciting the Buddha’s name is to practice samadhi. When we perfect our practice, arrive at tranquility of mind, then this mind abides in samadhi and wisdom, then we can be liberated from the suffering of life, aging, sickness, and death.

Assisted Reciatation Brings Peace Of Mind

Many people do not understand what “assisted invocation (recitation, chanting)” is.  They think that it something we do for someone after they die. That is not correct. “True “assisted invocation”  should be done before death, while the consciousness is just leaving the body; this helps give rise to the dying person’s right mindfulness. If we recite the sutras, chant the Buddha’s name, ask for blessings after the person has died, this will transfer these merits to the deceased so that their blessings and merits will increase and they will be reborn to a better state.

If we wish to be reborn in the Pure Land, we need to maintain right mindfulness.  “Assisted invocation” is done when a person is near death, when he is still breathing, even though his mind may be in a state of confusion and delusion. At this time, relatives, friends and Dharma brothers, out of their compassion, recite “Amitofo” at his side.  When the mind is in the state of confusion before death, when we hears the sound of people nearby reciting the Buddha’s name, this will awaken right mindfulness, so that we will quickly begin to recite the Buddha’s name.  Whether one recites the sutras or the Buddha’s name, this will help the dying maintain right mindfulness and help him transcend life and death and arrive at the Pure Land.

“Assisted invocation” is to help assist the dying give rise to right mindfulness by reciting the sutras and chanting the Buddha’s name. If one can maintain this mindfulness till the end, then one can transcend life and death. It also depends on the blessings and merits of the deceased. Those who have blessings and merits can be reborn as humans. Therefore think about it carefully, it is dangerous if we only depend on others to perform assisted invocation.

The Amitayus sutras mention the “ten invocations at death.” At the time of death, if we sincerely recite the Buddha’s name, we will eventually be reborn in the Pure Land. But there are four kinds of Pure Land. 1) the land where the ordinary person and saint dwell together, 2) the Pure Land with remainder.  3) The true retribution majestic Pure Land, 4) the eternally peaceful and bright Pure Land.

Our present world is where the ordinary person and the saint dwell together.  If we can be reborn in this world, it means that we are assured of good retribution. If a person has not studied Buddhism or  has antagonistic thoughts about Buddhism, then at the time of death, if he hears the recitation of the Buddha’s name, he will be filled with fear and will discriminate against it.  Then ‘assisted invocation’ will hardly be beneficial. At this time, we can only transfer our merits to him. To the dying, it is like  people in this world who need money. We can obtain benefits for the dying by reciting the sutras,  invoking the Buddha’s name, practicing good deeds and accumulating merits. Through the compassion of the Three Jewels, we can then dedicate our merits to the dying so that they can obtain blessings and benefits.

The method of ‘invocation of the Buddha’s name’ at the time of death is the result of the Buddha’s great mercy and compassion.  He not only wishes to save the living but also to save those who are dying. “When a person is dying, his speech is virtuous.” At the time of death, a person will often feel compunction and remorse for his misdeeds, therefore he will only speak kind words.

For example, at the time of their execution, some criminals will feel remorseful, but they have already been sentenced to death, so remorse really cannot help them. But Buddhism is compassionate and impartial. The Bodhisattva’s mind is all embracing and limitless in compassion. It is truly “Mercy and compassion to all.” It wishes to liberate all beings. In order to insure that everyone will have a chance to repent, to have new hope, as long as the dying is truly repentant, the Bodhisattva will liberate him.

But if a person thinks he can depend on his luck and only begin to repent when he is dying, then this is foolish. We must transcend life and death at all times. We must always work diligently, maintain right mindfulness, and tranform our vexations. If we do not work hard at all times, and only hope that we will find someone to help us invoke the Buddha at the time of death, wait until the last minute before we start working hard and start invoking the Buddha, thus hoping to enter the Pure Land, that is totally unreliable.

Some people think that since they have helped others to recite the Buddha’s name , then at the time of their own death someone will surely be there to help them make invocations to the Buddha.  This seems reasonable from the viewpoint of compassionate assistance. But we should not rely on others. We must be master of our own life and death. There is an old Chinese saying, “Eating satisfies our own hunger; facing life and death is our own business.” We must harbor this concept of life and death at all times, remind ourselves that the world is impermanent, that we must constantly practice diligently.

The ‘ten invocations at the time of death’ is an expedient means that the compassionate Buddha has established to save people from the five deadly sins and ten evils. Yet we have not committed the five deadly sins and ten evils now, so how could we be content just to sink into the evil realms. When we understand this principle, we must not wait until the time of death, we must practice diligently now.

(Life and death is a great turning point in human life.) No one can escape the suffering of death. If we do not practice diligently at all times and only hope to depend on the ‘ten invocations at death’, it would be very dangerous. 

It is like being at the end of a drought when crops are bountiful, and instead of eating white rice and fresh vegetables, we eat dry grass and tree bark. That would be really foolish.

We need wisdom to practice and study Buddhism. Without wisdom it is difficult for our practice to be successful. If one does not usually light incense, but pleads with the Buddha at the last moment, that would be unwise. Therefore, we must constantly be mindful of birth and death, practice diligently as if a raging fire were about to burn us. 

What is life and death? It is our own attachments and vexations. Because of our attachments and vexations, there is the suffering of birth and death. Sentient beings always find joy in small sufferings amid great sufferings. In seeking short-lived joys, we are beset by vexations, ignorance, and face the sufferings of life and death. Therefore we must constantly reflect on the sufferings of life and realize the source of our suffering. Then we can transform vexations and be liberated from suffering. When we understand these principles, we will not wait until the time of death or depend on others to help us at that time. Cultivation should begin at this very moment.

Separation from the ones we love

The fifth of the eight sufferings is “to be separated from loved ones.”

Everyone has many attachments and loved ones. There is the love of parents, of children, of schoolmates, of friends.The ancients say, “Man has sorrow and joy, parting and meeting.  The moon can be clouded or clear, a full moon or a new (partial) moon.” And “there is no feast that never ends.” We can never be always together with those we love. Where there is life there is death. Where there is meeting there is parting. When we part with our loved ones, it is suffering. This is the suffering of “being separated from our loved ones.”  When our love is too intense, vexations can easily arise. Thus “love is hate; the loved one becomes the enemy.” For example, some people become good friends with each other, but before the week is over, they start to hate each other. Why? It is because when they see the other party befriending someone else, they become jealous; hence love becomes hate, loved ones become enemies. Yet when people are neither our friends nor our relatives, when we do not have any affinity with them, they will not easily become our enemies. When we understand the suffering of “love and hate” then we can transform “love.” We must not be bound by the attachment of this “love.” The Bodhisattva has four immeasurable states of mind: loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity.  We should turn our “love” into the mind of compassion, care for and benefit all people, and harbor a mind of equality, without discrimination, without grasping or rejecting.   Having a mind as large as the universe, we naturally will be free from vexations.  The Chinese scholars say, “Care for the parents of others as we care for our own parents; care for the children of others as we care for our own children.” No matter whether we are at home or have left the homelife, we must all have a magnanimous mind; we must not only be merciful and compassionate to our own children, but we must show mercy and compassion to the children of others. We must not only be filial to our own parents, but should be filial to the parents of others. We must treat our peers as we treat our own brothers and sisters.  This is the mind of equanimity. But the truth of Buddhism is more encompassing than the teaching of the ancient scholars. Buddhism speaks of causality. That means all sentient beings are our past relatives.  We have parents in this lifetime as well as parents of previous lifetimes. So we should be filial not only to our parents of this lifetime, but also to our parents of previous lifetimes.   The saying goes, “If one person attains the way, nine generations will ascend to the heavens.” Therefore, in this lifetime, we must aim to attain enlightenment, we must practice diligently. To attain enlightenment is to transcend life and death, to transform vexations, to end the cycle of life and death. We not only should work toward our own enlightenment, but should transfer these pure merits to our parents of all past generations so that they also may be liberated from suffering.

Desiring things that we cannot get

The sixth of the eight sufferings is “desiring things we cannot get.” In this life, there are many things that we cannot get. For example, the student wishes to be at the top of his class. Even though he thinks about it, he cannot always achieve it. Therefore vexations arise.  When we have great expectations in our studies or in our work and they do not materialize, that is suffering. There is no end to the mind’s greed. When we have ten thousand dollars we want one hundred thousand; when we have one hundred thousand we want a million. We even wish that all of Taiwan or the whole world were ours. Yet, even if we get the whole world, we still want to conquer space. So you can see that there is no limit to man’s greed.  This is “desiring things we cannot get.” When we cannot get what we want, that is suffering.

Therefore Buddhism emphasizes “contentment is happiness.” This is not being passive; it means that we should be content, we should abide in peace, work hard from the cause. When we are on top of a mountain, we should not feel that the other mountains are higher. We should not look for the effect (fruit) or compare out lot with others, or let greed fill our mind and suffer because we cannot get what we want.  When we study, we should feel blessed that we have the opportunity to study; we should therefore have the proper attitude and perfect our studies.   We should not be worrying about  future effects. If we are constantly comparing and discriminating, this can only bring us problems and vexations. It is the same with cultivation. The mind should maintain tranquility. Wherever you are, that is where the mind is.   Only think of planting, without seeking the fruit (effect).  In everything there is a cause and effect.  If we can work hard and realistically, we will surely have good results.

“To seek is to suffer; to seek nothing is joy.” (To have desires is to suffer; to have no desires is joy.”) If we are always only seeking for things, when we do not get them or do not get enough of them, vexations will arise.  This is the suffering of “desiring things we cannot get.” Buddhism teaches us, “Enlightenment is simply when the deluded mind rests.” When the deluded mind rests, the pure and lucid mind naturally manifests.  The Chinese scholars also say, “The man of superior character has no desires.”  When our mind is free from desires, our character is naturally perfected.

Some people may ask, if we do not seek anything, wouldn’t  that be pessimistic and passive? When the mind truly seeks nothing, it does not obstruct the desire for things, because desiring is the function,  not desiring is the substance.  When the mind has no desires and is wu wei, desire is the function of this mind.  When the mind abides in right mindfulness, its function is the four immeasurable characteristics of kindness, compassion,  joy and equanimity. We should desire from the cause, desire to have good thoughts at all times, not to give rise to evil thoughts. We should desire to cultivate unceasingly, to make great vow, to do all good, and extinguish all evil. We should seek to liberate all sentient beings. Yet, after we wish for all these, nothing is desired. This is the true Bodhisattva Way, true prajna wisdom.  This way, our mind becomes tranquil.  When the mind is tranquil, our wisdom, samadhi power, and even our blessings and retributions will naturally increase.

If we wish to have no desires, we must be free from seeking fame, wealth, and sex. The mind must be master of itself, not be influenced by external circumstances. After we let go of our attachments, greed, and desires, our mind will become tranquil, our original pure and lucid wisdom will naturally manifest. This is samadhi, wisdom, liberation, and freedom. At this time we can have desires, because this mind is always unmoving, always master of itself, whether seeking or not seeking, one is always mindful.  This is freedom and liberation.

For example, the aim of meditation is to seek liberation, to see the true nature and to become a Buddha. When we have right understanding and perception, we will benefit from our practice of meditation.  But many people who practice meditation do not understand this principle. They only seek for good feelings, for supernatural powers. When one has such thoughts, the supra mundane method becomes mundane.  Thus one not only does not achieve liberation, but can fall into deviant paths.  This is all because one does not have proper perception, because the mind is not pure and lucid.

From this we can see that even though we are practicing the same method, but because the perception differs, the results will be different.  Therefore we must constantly reflect and examine ourselves, make sure that in our daily life and in dealing with external circumstances, our mind does not harbor greed and the fear of gains or losses.  If we have committed offences, we should correct them immediately, return to this mind of no desires and wu wei.  In all things we must work on the cause, and not seek the fruit (consequences). This way we will be free from the suffering of  “desiring things we cannot get.”

Being with people we dislike

The seventh of the eight sufferings is “being with people we don’t like.”  We inevitably run into our past enemies or people we don’t wish to meet. This is “being with people we don’t like.”  For example, when we have quarreled with someone in the past, or wished them harm, we hope never to see them again. But it’s a small world; especially with modern means of transportation, the whole world is our neighbor, so it is hard to avoid seeing these people again.  When we meet them again, we feel uneasy. This is “being with people we don’t like.” In our dealings with others in this world, we should maintain good relationships; this way there will not be any uneasiness if we meet old acquaintances in the future.  The Buddhist teaching says, “Before becoming enlightened, first establish harmonious relationships with others.”  If we have bad relationships with others, when we see them again and cannot avoid them, it will increase our vexations.  Therefore we should always praise others, appreciate their good qualities, not pick on their defects, and not interfere with their endeavors. Some people are very narrow minded. When they see others enjoying good fortune and success, they become jealous. Or, they hold grudges for little things, and sue other people, all because of their own attachments, hatred, and thoughts of revenge.  These are the minds of lowly people, the minds of sentient beings.  These are the causes of entering the evil realms, the causes of future bad karma.  Therefore we should have a magnanimous mind, and not seek revenge or haggle with others.  This way we will not have enemies. Buddhism teaches that we should treat all sentient beings with equanimity whether they are friend or foe.   The ancient Chinese scholars teach the same thing; that is, to treat all people with a magnanimous mind, “Be strict with oneself; be lenient toward others.”  When dealing with others, we must learn to forgive them when they harm us. But when dealing with ourselves, we must constantly reflect, examine, and correct ourselves. This is true cultivation. If we can act this way in our relationship with others, we will not suffer from “being with people we do not like.” If we have faith in Buddhism and follow the practice, we can transcend the mundane and achieve sainthood.  Yet even to those who do not believe in Buddhism and have descended into hell, the Bodhisattva is infinitely merciful and will descend into hell to liberate them. The Earth-Store Bodhisattva vowed that, “If the hells are not emptied, I vow not to attain Buddhahood.” He wished to liberate all sentient beings from hell before he became a Buddha.  If we have this kind of vow, this great capacity of mind, with no discrimination between friend and foe, then all our vexations will transform into purity. Thus, this mind will naturally achieve liberation. Buddhism does not just talk about Zen, or just presents principles. It is a practical teaching.  Whether we put in a one percent effort or a ten percent effort, we will reap the benefits we deserve.  Therefore, in our daily life, we must cultivate the habit of treating friend and foe equally. Then our mind will truly be free from the suffering of “being with people we do not like.” There once was a company chairman who was very generous and made large offerings to build monasteries.  One day, a lay supporter visited the monastery. When he and the chairman saw each other, they were very surprised. Later, in conversation they said to each other “So you are also a student of Buddhism….  So they smiled at each other, shook hands, and became friends.  Actually, these two had an argument in the past.  They never thought they would meet again after all those years. This is “being with someone you don’t like.” So, based on the strength of both being students of Buddhism, these two men immediately ended their enmity and resolved their differences. Therefore, when we have bad relationships with others, it is important that we harbor the mind of ‘not making enemies.’  We must always cultivate good relationships with others. This way, no matter where we go, we will meet with people we like. Thus we will never suffer from “being with someone you don’t like.”

Body-mind Imbalance

The last of the eight sufferings is “body-mind imbalance (mental irritation).”  

A person is both a spiritual and a physical being.  The spiritual is the function of the mind; it consists of feeling, conception, volition, and consciousness. This belongs to the mental dharma.  The physical is earth, water, air, and fire, the four great elements—the dharma of form. Form, feeling, conception, volition, and consciousness make up the five skandhas.  Our body is made up of the four great elements of earth, water, fire, and wind. Hair, nails, and bones, are solids and belong to the earth element. The liquid part of the body such as saliva, urine, and blood belong to the water element. The heat of our body belongs to the fire element. Our breath belongs to the wind element.  We therefore say that our body is the illusive combination of the four great elements, a result of the coming together of causes and conditions. But sentient beings take these four great elements as real, thus resulting in attachments. They think the body is the real “me.”  This is attachment to “me” and “mine.” This is the state of sentient beings.  When there is attachment to the self, discriminations arise, leading to all kinds of vexations. The body and mind cannot be at ease.  In Buddhism this is the realm of the five skandhas, or five aggregates.

The five skandhas are also known as the five aggregates. “Aggregates” means accumulations; that is, our body and mind is the composite of form, feeling, conception, volition, and consciousness.  “Skandhas” has the meaning of “obscuring,” that is, these five dharmas obscure our original nature, that is why this mind is filled with defilements and afflictions. These are the origins of life and death.  No matter how long we live, we are influenced by the five skandhas. 

This is especially true in the teenage years, as this is the time when the body is undergoing physiological changes, and due to the stimulation of these changes, the body and mind cannot calm down; when sitting we are restless; whether sitting or moving, we feel uncomfortable. This is “mental irritation.”  Because the mind is restless, one feels hollow (lacking), prone to vexations, and does not know how to transform or rectify these. When these feelings are strong, people will look for stimulation, create bad karma, and pursue many unlawful activities and pleasures; they run away from home, or skip classes, and develop bad habits. Their studies and character deteriorate. Eventually these will cause problems in family life, in education, and in society.  The cause is not that young adults wish to develop these bad habits, it is due to  physiological and mental forces. This is the suffering of “mental irritation.” Form, feeling, conception, volition, and consciousness are like a raging fire, preventing the mind from achieving peace and tranquility.

There are three fires of the mind: the first is the fire of greed. It is said that “the fire of ignorance is 20 feet tall.” Some people have a tendency to lose their temper.  At school, if they have and argument with their schoolmates, or if they are chided by their teachers, they feel unhappy and take their anger out on their parents, brothers, or sisters when they go home.  The second is the fire of hunger. When people are hungry, but do not have the money to buy the food that they see and cannot eat what they wish to eat, then there is a raging fire in their stomach. Therefore they will steal, or rob, or even kidnap, thus increasing their vexations. This is the endless turning of one’s evil nature.  The Chinese scholars say, “When rich, one should not be extravagant; when poor, one should not be influenced; when powerful, one should not yield; this is to be a superior person.” When the fire of hunger arises in our mind, we must  tolerate it patiently. If a person is not tolerant, when he becomes poor or lacking in good food or proper housing, he will steal and rob.  Buddhism teaches us that to combat the fire of anger or hunger, we should be patient and tolerant, we should recite the sutras often, be remorseful and repentant, then the fire of mental irritation will naturally subside.  The third fire is the fire of desire.  When men see women or when women see men, craving, desire, and lust can arise.  This craving is a fire. When the fire of desire arises, it can burn one’s rational perception, it clouds and deludes the mind so that one will do the wrong thing.  If we transmute our thoughts, immediately feel remorseful, then this fire will not arise.

But most people are lacking in samadhi power and wisdom.  When lustful thoughts arise, they become continuous, they cannot be stopped. Even in dreams, one thinks these thoughts. So the mind becomes more and more confused and deluded. This fire burns more and more intensely until one is bereft of wisdom and is no longer master of the self. This can lead to great disasters. The sexual offences in society are all due to this fire that destroys one’s wisdom; one is no longer master of the self, therefore all these karmic obstacles will manifest.  If we wish to quench the fire of desire, of hunger, craving, and lust, we need to reflect constantly; we need to be remorseful and repentant, recite the sutras and mantras, practice meditation. Developing these good habits, we naturally will extinguish these three fires.  The three fires of the mind are the fires of hatred, hunger, and  desire. These are “mental irritations.” There are many terms in Buddhism. They all contain the true principles.  We need to realize and understand them; we also need to follow the teachings in the sutras, constantly contemplate and reflect on them in our daily life. This is to study diligently, this is to practice the Way, this is to study Buddhism.

The sufferings of the five skandhas: form feeling, conception, volition, and consciousness, are common to all people as well as to all animals. For example, after a calf is born it grows very quickly; due to the expansion of its body, it feels itchy. When it cannot bear it any more, it will rub itself against a rock until its skin starts to bleed.  We humans are the same way. When there are vexations in our minds and we cannot find relief anywhere, we may do irrational things to alleviate them. The wayward youth in society are not born with bad character. But because they do not know Buddhism, they do not understand their parents, relatives, and friends; they did not have a good environment in which to practice, so when they are not careful they will take the wrong road.  If they understand the truth of “mental irritation” and follow the Buddhist teaching to cultivate samadhi and wisdom, recite the sutras, repent, and practice meditation, transform their thoughts by virtuous practice, then the five skandhas of the mind will disperse, and vexations will naturally disappear.  It is a great blessing to be able to study Buddhism and practice the Way. If we do not understand the truth of Buddhism, body and mind will be disturbed by the three fires and we will regress in the end.  Therefore, in studying Buddhism we must persevere, have great aspirations, uphold the precepts, practice meditation, and cultivate wisdom, until we attain Buddhahood. Then we will no longer have any vexations. Then we will transcend life and death.

Most people say, “The fire of ignorance is 20 feet tall.” This is because our past karma, vexations, and habits prevent us from being master of ourselves, and prevent our body and mind from achieving tranquility.  This is the fire of ignorance.  The fire of ignorance is due to past karma. We have this karma from beginningless time. So if we do not rely on Buddhism to regulate our body and minds and practice diligently, when cause and conditions ripen, we will be swayed by our karma.  For example, if we killed someone in our past life, when karmic retribution manifests in this life, even though we are sitting at home, we will suddenly feel restless, our mind cannot settle down, we feel agitated, so we decide to go out for a walk.  However, as soon as we go outside, a car hits us. Our leg may be broken, or we may lose our life. This is “disaster hits us like the wind”  This is karma. The fire of ignorance prevents our mind from settling down. We can only reap the retribution of our karma.  The thoughts of the mind are like an electric current. If we killed someone in the past, the current of the two parties will connect. When cause and conditions come together, we meet the former enemy. Former debts are to be satisfied. When the fire of ignorance flares up, we are no longer master of ourselves and we have to accept the retributions.  When cause and conditions are ripe, when karmic retribution manifests, if we are at home reciting the sutras and mantras, prostrating to the Buddha, and know how to subdue this mind; if we are meditating with no thoughts arising, with clarity and comprehension, with the mind as large as empty space, unmoving, master of the self, without thinking of past friends and foes, we will naturally be free from disaster and adversities.

This mind is as infinite as the vast  space. The vast space is boundless; it contains all things, all dharmas, all forms and colors, yet these  cannot affect the vast empty space.  When we cultivate the Way, sit in meditation, regulate the mind through Buddhism, arriving at no thought, without the fire of ignorance, hunger, or desire, when all these fires are quenched, the mind becomes free of vexations and deluded thoughts, we arrive at an absolute state. This is “The light of purity pervades and illumines the vast space.” When we realize this original nature of the mind, we will realize how immense our mind is, how our mind contains the vast space and all the worlds,  how it contains all things yet is not hindered by all things.  All objects arise from the mind. When the mind is free from hindrances, we will naturally be free from external circumstances.  If this mind can arrive at an unmoving state, when we hear any sound, we can still maintain stillness. Whether we are cold, warm, in pain, or itching, everything remains still. When we see light, see the Buddha, or the mara, we remain unmoved.  This mind is always its own master, clear, lucid, and  always mindful. When we can arrive at this tranquil and unmoving mind, our original supernatural powers and wisdom will naturally manifest.

Meditation helps the mind to be tranquil and still. When the mind moves, delusive thoughts and vexations arise. To have vexations is to suffer. All dharmas are illusive and unreal; they are the illusive coming together of cause and conditions; they are impermanent, so why should we constantly be attached to or cling to them.  We must realize the truth that “all  forms are illusive.” When the mind is still, that is wisdom.  Therefore, if we wish to arrive at this state of stillness, we must practice the Way diligently, increase our understanding, regulate our body and mind, let go of our attachment to the five skandhas.  The sutra says, “Perceive the emptiness of the five skandhas” When we dissolve the five skandhas, we will achieve tranquility and stillness.  If we cannot accomplish this, “mental irritation” will overcome us, and we will only suffer karmic retribution.

The “ego” resulting from the illusive combination of the five skandhas is the result of dharma of form and dharma of mind.  The dharma of form pertains to the material world.  The body is made up of the illusive combination of the four great elements: earth, water, fire, and air.  The mind dharma is the clinging mind, the transformations of feeling, conception, volition and consciousness that result from birth and death.  When we are not master of our mind, we are swayed by the outer environment, cannot abide in peace, and this creates all kinds of vexations.  The Heart Sutra states, “Perceive the empty nature of the five skandhas.” Form, feeling, conception, volition, and consciousness obscure the original nature of our mind. They prevent the manifestation of our pure and lucid wisdom, good deeds, and merits.  So we must transform the five skandhas, see the empty nature of the five skandhas, and turn our consciousness to wisdom.  

Therefore, the 84,000 dharmas help sentient beings transform the delusion of the five skandhas so that we can realize that form, feeling, conception, volition, and consciousness are illusive and unreal. This way we can transcend our vexations and be freed from life and death.  Through our practice of meditation, our samadhi power increases, wisdom and samadhi manifest, we constantly abide in clarity, reflect on our delusive thoughts and attachments, then the vexations of the five skandhas will not manifest.  We should follow the teachings of Buddhism, repent sincerely, diligently cultivate good deeds, recite the sutras, practice meditation, and calm the mind. When this mind reflects and is aware, clear, and lucid, then we will be free from the suffering of “mental irritation.” ⎈