Translated by Andrew Yang
Many people assume monastic Buddhists lead an idle life. “They live in tranquil and solemn temples. They do not go to work but have what they need for food, clothing and shelter. How comfortable! Don’t Zen practitioners often say, ‘Eat if hungry and sleep when tired?’ All one has to do is sitting and walking in meditation, and worshiping or chanting. What an easy life! No wonder many monks are chubby.” This, alas, is a misunderstanding of what happens within the monastic order.
In fact, the monastic life not only requires ones diligence but also willpower and perseverance to overcome the many hurdles frequently encountered in his practice. Throughout the Chinese history, we see many venerable monks cultivate their virtuous and compassionate deeds through enduring hardship and misfortune. Take the master Hanshan Deqing (1546-1623) in the Ming dynasty as an example. He suffered devastating events such as framing, torture, imprisonment and penal servitude which spanned over a decade. But he was unruffled and was as tough as a rock. No matter how harsh the circumstances, he remained unwavering in his righteous pursuit of the Dharma with singular tenacity.
Master Hanshan acutely realized the fleeting nature of the mortal world, a world full of rat race and trickery, which often makes honest people suffer and lures the cunning to sin. He devoted much of his writings to warning readers and providing them with guidance, which not only resonate with Buddhist practitioners but also heighten their vigilance. Among them the best known is Rhymes of Exhortation to the World. Below, let us try to enjoy some of them.
“Red dust and white caps are nebular.
Perseverance and pliability are an amazing way.
To enjoy days and years to come, just take what that comes.
Then all his life, one is settled and does not stray.”
“Red dust” floating in the air refers figuratively to the bustling mortal world, while “white caps”, billowing in the mighty flow of time, symbolizes its passing and transience. As sentient beings transmigrate through death and rebirth within the universe’s space and time, they need both perseverance and pliability to confront suffering and adversity of all kinds. Specifically, perseverance means staying silent to swearing and using silence to subdue verbal abuse. Keeping calm in the face of challenges and using reason to eliminate mental suffering. Being tolerant to jealousy and using compassion to conquer hatred and resentment. And being forgiving to smearing and using non-self to overcome disaster. According to Yugacarabhumi Sastra, perseverance denotes no anger, no resentment or no animosity. It is one of the six cardinal virtues leading to Buddhahood. The others being generosity, morality, vigour, meditative concentration and prajna.
A Buddhist saying goes, “Take whatever that comes to end retribution, and commit no more evil.” If Buddhist practitioners take this as their life-long motto, they will be able to focus their practice well in accordance with the Dharma. Therefore, the master says here, “To enjoy days and years to come, just take what that comes. / Then all his life, one is settled and does not stray.”
“Do not lose your own conscience.
Expose not anyone’s failings.
In dealing with people, use prudence.
And always act with plenty of patience.”
The mind of sentient beings, like a field, stores seeds of good and evil. Good seeds stem good sprouts and evil seeds stem evil sprouts when given certain conditions. Master Hanshan warns us not to lose our conscience. Thoughts that lead to greed, anger and delusion as well as killing, theft, sexual misconduct, lying, swearing, boasting or double speak, are all seeds of evil and none should be planted in the mind. As one reaps what he sows, remember that karmic reward and punishment are never wrong by an iota. Thus, to avoid tribulation, in no case should a practitioner do things against his own conscience. In the vanity fair, it is very easy to commit evil verbal deeds, especially slandering. That is why early on in his exhortations the master urges people to “Expose not anyone’s failings”.
“With a hard bow the string snaps first.
Of a knife a sharp blade is easier to crack.
Gossiping brews trouble foremost.
A ruthless mind leads to conflict.”
A crossbow is a stringed weapon for shooting an arrow, and the stiffer it is, the more likely its string snaps. Similarly, the sharper a blade is, the easier it is to crack. In dealing with people, likewise, a sharp tongue brings trouble more often, whether with gossiping, chastising, scolding, or sweet-talking while backbiting. Why do people suffer bad karma? In most cases it is because they do not mean well in the first place.
“Do not argue between you and me, who is right.
No wrangling with people and do not try to win.
In many ways, the world has always been imperfect.
So no permanence the phantom body ever lives in.”
It is because of their clinging to the self that mortals transmigrate between life and death. But what is clinging to the self? Sentient beings’ body and mind are made up of the five aggregates, that is form, sensation, perception, mental activity and consciousness. Form refers to the body, which is the sole physical constituent and the rest are all mental functions. Hence, the five aggregates form the combination of the physical body and the mental functions constituting the self. The self comes into being when conditions aggregate and finish off when conditions disperse. However, mortals cling to the self, assuming that it is all real and constant, not realizing it is temporary and impermanent and that it arises only dependent on conditions. This clinging to the self leads to four types of self-centred mental afflictions: self-love, self-view, self-conceit, and self-delusion. Where there is clinging to the self, naturally there is the corresponding clinging to others. What Master Hanshan persuades us to do here is to remove clinging to both the self and others to achieve a way of life based on perseverance and pliability.
The world indeed has too many imperfections. Aside from natural disasters, there is human warfare. Besides, no one can escape the eight kinds of sufferings in life: birth, sickness, aging and death, separation from that which we love, association with that which we hate, inability to fulfill our desires, and the suffering from the instability of the five aggregates. Just think, who can avail his own body from the agony of death?
“It matters little to take a beating.
And giving in to a compromise is not a problem.
Soon enough after willows turn green in spring,
A breeze greets yellow chrysanthemums, come autumn.”
For those prone to recklessness and desperation in their pursuit, it is easy to suffer physical as well as mental damage. Quite often, if they gently slow down and take a step back to think, many unnecessary disputes and afflictions would vanish. Great masters have taught us to “Step back and one sees a high sky and broad ocean. Put up with things so life has plenty of ease and leisure”. A humble life is not one of idleness, but of cultivating perseverance through humility.
Having just watched in spring green willow twigs flowing in the wind, one soon comes upon a rush of yellow chrysanthemums blooming in autumn. How quickly time passes!
“Fame is indeed a midnight dream,
And fortune, the September frost.
In one’s sickness or death, who stands in for him?
Be it bitter or sweet, one tastes life at his own cost.”
No fame and fortune last forever, as they are apt to change in transience. The Diamond Sutra has this to say, “All things worldly are like dream, illusion, bubbles and shadows, like dew and lightning, and they should be viewed as such.”
Ever since times immemorial, no one can disentangle himself from the vicissitudes of birth, sickness, aging and death. All things that happen to him are a consequence of karmic effects which he must take them all by himself. “Be it bitter or sweet, one tastes life at his own cost.” Master Hanshan points metaphorically that one bears all karmic effects caused by his own acts be it good and evil. No one else could take them in his stead. Volume Four of The Bright Boy Nidana Sutra reminds us, “All the karma produced by sentient beings, even after a hundred kalpas, will not be forgotten. At a certain time, when causes and conditions converge, the one who commits the karma must endure the fallout.” It is important to note here that no one could replace another individual in enjoying wholesome karmic effects, let alone evil karmic effects. Thus, The Original Vows of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva Sutra points out, “No sentient being should take a minor sin lightly, thinking he is not sinful. There will be reckoning after death, and whatever karma is duly administered, it is down to one iota. People as close as father and son will end up in separation, and even if they do meet later, each could not substitute the other.”
“When alive, one may rack his brains numerous times,
Although after death, two bare hands is all there is.
Every day emotions turn life into pantomimes.
All along, for prince or pauper, it is all a rat race.”
The greedier someone is, the busier he gets, trying to benefit from other people at their expense, and his desire could be limitless. Buddha’s Bequeathed Teachings Sutra states, “One comes into life without a penny, and neither does he leave taking one.” Craving personal fame and gain, mortals go through vicissitudes of life being rich or poor. In the end, though, all there is left is a pair of empty hands.
“Shall not fight to see who is the stronger.
All the by-gone century is theatre and drama.
Now the drum and gong is no longer.
No one knows where home is thereafter.”
If that is the case, then why all the vying and battling? Even if one lives a hundred years, his life is still something of a play, where mortals, in act after act, keep performing on the stage, as they cycle between death and rebirth through transmigration. And when the orchestral music in the pit comes to a stop, it signifies someone’s current life is over, the being moves onto a next life with the force of his accumulated karma. This has been a pattern for sentient beings since time immemorable. One wonders when they can leave the suffering of transmigration altogether and where they can find nirvana, their ultimate land of home.