BUDDHISM IN OUR DAILY LIFE
A series of lectures delivered at The China Institute in America
New York, New York
Lecture 1: THE CONCEPT OF BIRTH AND DEATH
In the Christian Bible, in the Book of John, chapter XVI, verse 12, Jesus Christ tells his disciples, “I have yet many things to say unto ye but ye cannot bear them now.” It seems that what Christ did teach his disciples was only a part of what he knew, perhaps because of the level of understanding of his disciples at that time. Unfortunately, Jesus died at the age of thirty-three. Time did not allow him to give his disciples a complete course of teaching. What Christ knew but did not say remains and unanswerable question.
On the other hand, Buddha lived for eighty years. He had forty-five full years after his enlightenment to teach his disciples; long enough to gradually lead them to learn and practice various stages of teaching, starting with a self-centered liberation from human suffering, eventually reaching the most profound supramundane doctrine.
If we can assume that the founders of two of the greatest religions on earth were both persons possessed of profound wisdom, then many teachings expounded by Buddha could have been those known by Christ but which he lacked the time to teach.
With this in mind, it seems to me that the study of Buddhism by Christians can have a special significance, that is, the search for what Christ knew but did not say.
The Buddhist concept of birth and death could be a good example of just such an area of thought. For this reason, I have introduced this talk with some reflections about the teachings of Christ.
Now, let me move to the mysterious question which has occupied the human mind for thousands of years: “What happens to us after the so-called experience of death?”
Practically all systems of political and philosophical thought deal only with the living. For example, as Confucius said, “We do not even know the living, how can we know the dead:” From the practical point of view, it is true that problems concerning the living are more important and relevant to us. However, this approach evades a real answer to my question. The fact of death, and the questions as to what happens afterward, remain. In fact, it could well be that our attitude toward living could change greatly if we knew what happened after death.
It should be noted that Confucius did not say that death is extinction, nor did he say that there is no future life after death. He simply meant that to live as a decent person on earth is more important than to question the nature of life after death.
Most religions, however, do have a teaching on life after death. Two teachings about death predominate among world religions: one is the one-life theory and the other is the multi-life theory. Christianity is one of the religions that teaches the one-life theory. According to this teaching, the life of a physical body begins at birth, but there is also a spiritual entity called the Soul abiding in that body. Death is the destruction of the body, but not the soul. After death, the soul, depending upon the judgement of the Creator, will ascend to heaven or descend to hell. The implication is that each person has only this life on earth and will eventually remain eternally, either blissfully in heaven, or suffering in hell, with no chance of ever leaving. Whether or not this implication represents a complete understanding of Christ’s teaching is unclear. It could be that Christ had much more to teach about birth and death, but did not have time to bring his students to a higher level of understanding.
The multi-life theory says that the birth and death of a being is only one segment in the chain of infinite lives of that being. In various lives the being wanders among five major kinds of existence. The five existences are: heaven-dweller, human being, animal, hungry spirit, and hell-dweller. After death a human being is reborn into a new existence. He or she could be a human being again, or perhaps a heaven-dweller, or an animal or a hungry spirit, or a hell-dweller. Similarly, a dweller in hell can also be reborn as an animal, a human being, etc., and a heaven-dweller also dies and is reborn as a human being, or hell-dweller, and so forth. This change of life form, or existence, goes on indefinitely until and unless the chain breaks, which occurs when the concept of birth and death is no longer significant to a being.
Hinduism and Buddhism hold this multi-life theory, but with a major difference in their views on how the chain is broken. Hinduism sustains the belief that the concept of birth and death becomes insignificant when the being is merged with Brahman-Almighty God. Buddhism says that it becomes insignificant upon enlightenment, when the concept of birth and death is no longer applicable.
To understand the Buddhist concept, we must first understand that Buddhism explains world phenomena at two levels. The first is the enlightened level, that is, the level at which the ultimate truth is realized. The other is the mundane level, which can be further divided into the intellectual level, where most of us here find ourselves , and the common level, to which the majority of people on earth belong.
At the enlightened level, the concept of birth and death is no longer applicable. I shall explain this later. At the mundane level, however, Buddhism holds the multi-life theory and recognizes the individuality of a being, which can then be compared with the soul as taught in Christianity and Hinduism. In Buddhism, the individuality of a being is described as a stream, in which each moment is caused by the previous. The example is given of a string of beads, the movement of each bead determining that of the next. The important point, however, is that there is no string running through these beads; no permanent entity beyond the path of cause and effect.
Thus, in Buddhism the continuation of individuality does not mean that a physical body is transported into the next life, or that everything stored in one’s brain (which is also part of the physical body) will pass into the next life. As a matter of fact, the physical body changes from moment to moment. Just look at the photographs taken some time ago and you will agree with me. What does pass into the next life or future lives, and constitutes the continuation of individuality, is the force of the effects of one’s actions in this present life and in previous lives. This is called, in both Buddhism and Hinduism, the law of karma. I shall explain this principle in my next talk.
At this point you might like to say, “That is fine, but 1) please show me where heaven and hell may be found, and 2) please prove to me that I existed before my birth and will still be in existence after my death.”
To answer the first question, may I ask, “Do you believe that your own eyes are capable of seeing heaven or hell?” If someone did show us heaven or hell, would we not say that it was just a hallucination, or magic, and therefore not believe it? If you have studied the electromagnetic spectrum, you may agree with me that our human eyes can only see an infinitesimal part of the universe, and that there are so many things our eyes cannot see. A few hundred years ago, no one could see the whole bone structure of a living human body, but now we can see it by means of x-rays. We are advancing very rapidly into the microscopic universe and also into outer space. Who know? Maybe in a number of years from now, a new detective instrument will be invented that will enable human beings to see a different wave length from the presently visible light wave, and human beings may discover that the so-called hell is right here on earth; or, space instruments will send back some pictures of outer space that could turn out to be one of the heavens or worlds postulated by the Buddha.
With respect to the second question, sporadic records all over the world indicate that ordinary people have remembered past lives, or that others, like certain high Tibetan lamas, could predict where they would be reborn. But all of these reports do not present enough scientific evidence to convince us conclusively that rebirth does exist.
I am, therefore, using another approach to see if there are some phenomena in our universe that can explain the concept of birth and death, and that may give some clues to this mysterious question. The simple reason which convinced me that this approach has merit is the fact that we human beings are no more than a product of nature and are entirely governed by natural laws such as gravitational force. Therefore, the laws that characterize other natural phenomena may very well be applicable to human beings.
As I study this question, interestingly enough, I find a number of phenomena in the universe which provide good analogies to the multi-life theory of human existence. The simplest and easiest for us to comprehend are the multi-forms of H20.
Do we all know H20? Yes.
H20 is the chemical formula for water, signifying two parts of hydrogen to one part of oxygen. The chemical formula H20 does not change when water turns into vapor at the boiling point or into ice at the freezing point. Nor is H20 different when it appears in the beautiful, white, crystallized form to which people give the name of snow, or in the minute liquid particles suspended in the air that are called fog.
Now a very interesting concept arises. Water disappears when it is changed into vapor or ice. Would you not say that at that very moment, water is dead and vapor or ice is born? Or when snow melts and becomes water, would you not say that at that instant, the snow is dead and water is born? This would be true when water is identified simply as water. However, if water is not identified only as water, but also as H20, then the concept of birth and death does not apply. H20 remains unchanged when its appearance changes from water to vapor or ice or vice versa. H20 has not really undergone “death and rebirth,” although its appearance and physical characteristics may have changed an infinite number of times and people may have given it many different names. Nor will H20 undergo death and rebirth in the future, although its appearance and physical characteristics will change numerous times, until H20 finally disintegrates into hydrogen and oxygen (which phenomenon I will explain later.)
From this analogy we can see that the multi-life theory suggested by Hinduism and Buddhism makes more sense and could be closer to the truth than might have been apparent at first. I therefore draw the following conclusions:
1. We can postulate that there is something in the universe equivalent to H20 and its various manifestations, which I will refer to as
2. ‘X’X manifests as various types of beings, i.e., the heaven-dwellers, human beings, animals, hungry spirits, and hell-dwellers. In Christianity and Hinduism, X is called the soul. In Buddhism, at the mundane level, X can also be called the soul. The five forms of existence are interchangeable. Thus, a human being can be reborn as a heaven dweller, a hungry spirit, an animal, or a hell-dweller. A heaven-dweller can be reborn as a human being, an animal, a hungry spirit, or a hell-dweller. By the same token, a hell-dweller can also be reborn into other forms, including that of a human being.
3. According to Buddhism, one cannot live in heaven eternally, nor will one stay in hell indefinitely. Life goes on, its form changing continuously. This phenomenon of the continuous flow of death and rebirth among the five existences is called samsara.
4. The concept of birth and death is only meaningful if one refers to a specific object. If the reference is shifted to the more fundamental nature of that object, the concept of birth and death is not applicable. Water and H20 are an example: water is the specific object, H20 the more fundamental level. A golden ring, which is a specific object, and the raw gold, which is a more basic material, is another good example.
5) This is important: If one identifies oneself as a human being, then one does undergo death and rebirth. The same applies to water if water is identified as water, or a golden ring if it is identified as a golden ring. But, if one identifies oneself as X, then there is no death, even when the form of X appearing as a human being is destroyed. From the point of view of X, there is only a continuous change of form, while X remains unchanged. Again, the same applies if water is identified as H20 or a golden ring as gold. Therefore, if we wish to be rid of death, or samsara, the first thing we should do is to avoid identifying ourselves as human beings. Unfortunately, this goes entirely against our will. We are strongly attached to our identity as human beings and that is why we are in samsara.
Now the basic purpose of Buddha’s teaching is to enable beings to remove themselves from samsara. Therefore, the essence of Buddhism is to teach how one can identify oneself with X. Furthermore, an important point is that Buddhism does not teach us to treat X as a soul. The soul is not ultimate; it is still subject to death, just as H20 is subject to disintegration into hydrogen and oxygen. Buddhism teaches us to identify ourselves with the X as interpreted at the enlightened level. At the enlightened level we are told that X is something incomprehensible to the human mind and that it can only be realized and recognized by the enlightened consciousness. But if that is so, then how can we comprehend and explain it? Luckily, in modern science I do find something that can probably help us immensely to understand the interpretation of X at the enlightened level. This is energy.
In modern science we learn that everything in the universe is a form of energy. Electricity, heat, light, fire, sound, chemical reaction, matter, all are different manifestations of energy. Energy itself cannot be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, or touched, but all over the universe its manifested forms, infinite in number, can be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, touched, or otherwise detected by the human organs. Energy, therefore, can be considered as the universal ultimate. It should be noted, however that energy is only a name arbitrarily chosen by human beings. The definition of energy has, in fact, been modified since the word was first used. So please do not adhere strictly to the dictionary’s definition of the word. I may interpret the word differently than do some scientists. The word energy, as I use it here, is given to something in the universe that comprises the entire universe, and cannot be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, or touched by human organs, but can manifest itself in numerous forms that can be detected by the senses. Since it fully comprises the entire universe, it cannot be increased or decreased; it has no motion. In short, energy is the universe and the universe is energy.
If you are able to comprehend what I have described above as energy, then you should have less difficulty in understanding X as explained in Buddhism at the enlightened level. Upon enlightenment, according to Buddhism, one realizes that one’s X, and only that X, comprises the entire universe; that X is the universe and the universe is X; that X cannot be increased or decreased; that X has no motion, and that X can neither be defiled nor purified. Because X is so difficult to explain and to comprehend, Buddhists, for over 2,500 years, have given it many different names, in the attempt to clarify the concept. The simplest term, in my opinion, is ‘basic nature’ The word ‘basic’ signifies that all world phenomena are derived from it, rather than being separate. Unlike the concept of soul, basic nature implies no isolation of the individual. There can be no other entity. This X is me, you, everyone, and everything. Therefore how can X die? How can the concept of death and rebirth be applicable to X? This basic nature, therefore, is what one should identify with.
On the other hand, Buddhism makes it clear that unless one is enlightened and one’s basic nature is manifest, one is always subject to the chain of endless death and rebirth that is samsara. Buddhism, therefore, is a teaching that we should look into seriously, because it provides the means for us to realize and recognize our basic nature. In this way we can rid ourselves of the endless and uncontrollable death and rebirth, which is the source of all suffering.
I also wish to emphasize, however, that in our daily life the multi-life theory is even more important than the enlightened vision of X, because we all are not enlightened and are still subject to samsara. It would be a terrible mistake to neglect this multi-life theory and simply think, “I am the universe and there is no death,” for when death comes, one will still be horrified.
As a conclusion to today’s talk, I wish to introduce the following views on two of the most important sociological phenomena in our daily lives:
1. Killing does not mean the elimination of an opponent and the achievement of victory, as one usually thinks. On the contrary, since only the physical human form is destroyed, the victim still exists. It is therefore not a victory, and it could be the beginning of many troubles.
2. Suicide does not mean the end of suffering. The physical human form may be destroyed, but life goes on. The problem could become much more complicated and serious as a result of killing the self.
Thus I have said at the beginning of this talk that the attitude of the living could change very much if we knew what happened after the so-called death that we observe. Political scientists, politicians, and philosophers who ignore this important question could be making a serious error out of short-sightedness. We look into this subject more penetratingly in the following talk, “The Truth of Karma.”