Random Thoughts Over Brewing Tea


Translated By Andrew Yang

Life and death matter, as impermanence will strike soon

When the poet Chen Zi’ang (661-702) of the Tang dynasty (618-907), in Youzhou of northern China, stood on the gold platform built by King Yanzhao (335 BC-279 BC), he saw a boundless expanse of land below, and said a poem born on the spot out of overwhelming emotion:

“I see none of the ancients coming before,

Nor those coming after.

Thinking of the vastness of heaven and earth,

I burst into tears, alone and sombre.”

He feels humans are so insignificant that we no longer see the saints, sages and wise monarchs of yesteryear, nor righteous warriors who will make phenomenal contributions tomorrow. Right then, thinking of the immenseness of the universe and depth of history and wondering how many heroic figures have passed on and how much great merit and achievement have faded, the poet is deeply saddened and cannot help tearing up.

Of course, the lifespan of a human is indeed minimal in the enormous backdrop of space and time. Entangled by our own self-generated karmic force from one life to the next, we go through the suffering of life and death transmigrating in the six paths of existence, and receiving retribution by nothing but karma. And being fortunate enough to have reincarnated into a human body in this life, humans occupy a mid-level status among the ten Dharmadhatu realms. But human life lasts only a matter of decades and is gone in the blink of an eye, hence the saying “To miss one breath is to be a life apart”. Let me ask you, then, for these mere decades living helter-skelter in a mortal world full of the rat race, what is the point? And upon death eventually, where does one go?

Admittedly, however, there is something critical in human existence that most people ignore, that is, the issue of life and death. We must get to know it, understand it and see through its nature so as to transcend it. When the Chan master Yongjia Xuanjue (665-712) first met Sixth Patriarch (638-713), he said, “Life and death matter, as impermanence will strike soon”, meaning to say that since a human’s life and death count hugely, everyone should follow Buddha’s teachings in their practice to be freed from their shackles as soon as possible, as impermanence may come calling any moment. Impermanence here means the day of dying. However, most sentient beings have misunderstood the meaning of life, trying their best to focus on food, clothing and shelter and whiling away the days of their existence. The desire for wealth, fame and fortune has corrupted so many heroes that ancient sages hence warn us, “Only when one day impermanence arrives does one realize they have lived in a dream, but then nothing can be taken with them except karma”. When someone is about to die, of all material objects in their possession including money and assets, we wonder, what one single article could they take with them?

Ordinary people spend their entire lives focusing on the rise and cessation of conditioned dharmas, and have no interest nor time to probe or discuss their own spiritual awareness and inherent Buddha nature that has neither rise nor cessation. In fact, Sakyamuni Buddha tells us that all sentient beings can become Buddhas. When they have gone through the practice to eliminate all karma resulting from confusion, the impact of their immortal svabhava, i.e., Buddhahood, which neither arises nor ceases, will be revealed. By then, they could avert reincarnation among the six paths of existence, and transcend the suffering of life and death to reside in eternal joy.

Ladies and gentlemen, this immortal, permanent svabhava lies deep within your own mind, which, in Buddhist scriptures, is variously known as the real mark of the dharmas, the true mind, the wonderful mind, Buddhahood, the empty mark of the dharmas, and real mark prajna. It is awaiting you to explore, discover and personally experience. Have you, yet, cherished its existence and tried to give play to its incredible power?

Cultivating the mind

What is the true meaning of life? Why are people born into the world? And why does one have to go through the suffering of sorrow, joy, separation and reunion as well as of birth, sickness, ageing and death? Buddha tells us that once you attain your so-called permanent true mind, that is, your absolute svabhava, all the confusion and suffering in life will be completely annihilated.

Because of their mind and consciousness being wrongly applied to the inception and dissolution of dharmas, human beings confuse truth and illusion, commit karma and receive retribution. And they find themselves then in transmigration between life and death among the six paths of existence. Surangama Sutra says, “All sentient beings are in successive life and death, all because they do not know their permanent true mind. Their nature is pure, and their essence clear, and yet, when applied to illusion, their thinking becomes false. Hence, the transmigration.”

What is an illusory mind? Well, it is your on-going non-stop, never-ending mental activity. Since before the beginning, this mental consciousness has existed in the universe inseparably from you. You have been confused by it to do evil that induces karma and renders you plenty of suffering. It has also taught you to do good that produces reward and brings you a good deal of consequent happiness. All your past, present, and future encounters, whether adversity or fortune, are driven by it.

For those who practise Buddhism, therefore, their first priority would be to understand their own mind.

Human beings continue to seek knowledge in science and technology and advance material civilization by leaps and bounds, whereas their understanding of their own inner spiritual world is becoming increasingly inadequate. Psychologists are supposed to take the study the mind as their calling, but in general, their objective is analyzing the minds of other people, not their own, and thus they tend to fixate on the consciousness of an illusory mind, neglecting the supra-consciousness, independent-of-phenomena human mind. Ignoring the unconscious, how could they explore the amazing significance of the true mind?

The value of the modern man’s life lies in material enjoyment and the rule for that is safeguarding one’s own interests. For this reason, most people focus on the appearance at the expense of the merit of their inner spirituality. As a matter of fact, however, the essence of the human mind is the Buddhahood inherent in all sentient beings and is the root of genesis and rise of all dharmas in the universe.

Straight Talk of the True Mind says, “What the Buddhas in one’s three lives all attain is this mind. What the one teaching of the Tripitaka expounds and reveals is this mind. What all sentient beings are confused about is this mind. And what all practitioners gain enlightenment on is this mind. Reach this mind, and all is proper and transparent. Get confused over this mind, and everything is upside down and all thought gets crazed.” Indeed, what the Buddhist scriptures all attempt to do is persuade us to understand our own mind and not let it slip into illusion. Remember that an illusory mind leads to evil karma resulting from greed, anger and delusion, as well as killing, theft and lust, which causes endless suffering. Therefore, practitioners must rid themselves of illusory thought and bring their mental activity back within the parameters of the true mind.

Master Muso’s fortitude

The Zen master Muso Soseki (1275-1351) once took a boat to cross a river. Shortly after the boat left the bank, a sabre-carrying general brandishing a long whip shouted, “Hey, wait a minute, Boatman! I want to cross the river too!”

All the folk in the boat advised in unison, “Our boat is already sailing. Don’t turn back.”

And the boatman replied loudly, “Just wait for the next one!”

To that, Master Muso said, “Boatman, our boat is not yet far from the shore. Do him a favour and go back to pick him up!” Seeing that the monk looked kind and solemn like someone with high morals, the boatman listened to his suggestion and turned the boat around.

When the general boarded, he happened to be standing next to the Zen Master. Still in a rage, he whipped the monk on the head, demanding, “Move away, Monk! I want to sit in your place”. With the whipping, blood was oozing from the monk’s broken head. Yet, he stood up without saying a word and gave up his seat.

Seeing that the general was so vicious, everyone was too frightened to say anything, except some who whispered, “Look, the monk kindly urged the boatman to go back and pick him up, and for his kind gesture he got a whipping. Being kind is not rewarding”. Overhearing it, the general thus realized that the monk was the one who had made the boatman turn back and let him board.

Before long, the boat arrived and Master Muso followed others in disembarking. He then stepped to the water’s edge and quietly held up some water with both palms to wash the blood off his forehead. Feeling embarrassed, the rude general walked over and said, “Master, I’m so sorry”.

Calmly, Master Muso replied, “It’s OK. People on the road are often moody.”

This made the general even more ashamed. Not only did the master not tell him off for his assault, he even amiably comforted him. He felt genuinely remorseful to the patient, gentle monk, and knelt before him by the waterside to apologize.

My friends, what in the world has the greatest power? It is forbearance. Other things such as foul language, curses, fists, swords or guns may scare people but do not subdue them. Only forbearance could bring an aggressor to his knees.


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