Chan in Life and Death 

* A Dharma talk by Master Sheng Yen on November 6,2001. It was translated by Rebecca Lee, transcribed by David Slaymaker, and edited by David Berman.


Yesterday, I talked to a woman at the Chan Center. This woman's husband worked on the 106th floor of the World Trade Center; he died on September 11th. Since the death of her husband, this lady has been coming to the Chan Center very often. So I spoke to her yesterday and asked her how things were going at home, and she told me she was living with her mother-in-law. I asked her if her mother-in-law knew that her son had died, and she said that it seemed she knew, but that they hadn't really told her because she was really afraid of death, so they thought it was better not to tell her. So I asked her, "How old is your mother in law?" And she said, "Well, she's already 94 years old, and she's been looking very hard for a way to immortality, finding a way that she can live forever."


I'd like to ask you: What this old woman is searching for, is it something she will be able to find? Is it possible to find immortality? I believe most of you would answer, "No, it's impossible to live forever." But is it also possible that deep down in your heart you've been hoping that maybe you could? That if there were a way you could live longer, or maybe not die at all, that would be great? So far, I haven't found such a method; if I find it I will use it myself. Actually, in all human experience, throughout human history, we know of no human being that has not died. Therefore, a Chan practitioner should have the understanding and awareness that death can happen at any time. Wherever there is life there is going to be death. And for some people death may come sooner than for others, but it will happen to everybody. So this evening I'd like to talk about two main topics--one is the issue of life and death, and the other is Chan and it's relationship to life.


So what is life? Life is the boundless extension of limitless brightness. Most people think of life as beginning when a baby's born and ending when a person dies. But that is not an entirely correct understanding of life. The existence of the physical body is actually only the expression of the function of life. So one should understand life as having two components, the physical and the spiritual. Without the physical body, the spiritual aspect of life would have no way of expressing itself, but the physical body does not represent the entirety of life. The physical body exists for some limited period of time, but the spiritual component of life exists forever.


There are a couple of interesting analogies some Buddhists use to describe the relationship between the spiritual and physical aspects of life, which make a certain kind of sense though they are not entirely correct. In one of these analogies the spiritual aspect of life is seen as a traveler who goes all over the place, taking a bus, driving a car, staying at hotels with different kinds of accommodation, and the cars and hotels are seen as the physical aspect of life. The idea is that the spiritual aspect of life is invisible and intangible and is always there, whereas the visible, tangible, physical aspect of life exists only periodically. Another such analogy is that the physical aspect of life is like the clothes we put on--the clothes get old and dirty so we take them off and put on new ones. The body that wears these clothes is still the same body, so again the idea is that spiritual life is continuous and eternal while the physical aspect exists only periodically. These analogies illustrate how the physical aspects of life are like manifestations of different stages of spiritual life. Also you might have heard that in Tibetan Buddhism there is a belief in reincarnation, that for example his holiness the Dalai Lama is believed to be in his fourteenth reincarnation. So the idea is that this is the same person in his 14th body.


This one time I met a Tibetan Rinpoche, so I asked him, "Are you a reincarnated rinpoche?" He said, "Yes, everyone is a reincarnated person." I asked him, "Am I the reincarnation of somebody?" He said, "Yes, of course you are too. You are probably the reincarnation of a great practitioner from the past."


Here, I'd like to ask you, do you think you are the reincarnation of someone in the past? I think so, probably. It's just that last time you had a different name, and no one can verify who you were, so no one can say that you are the reincarnation of such and such a person. So that's the idea of reincarnation. One's re-incarnation in the present life can be based on one's karma or on the power of one's vows. The difference between the two is that if one's reincarnation is based on karma, then it is not free--one has no choice--whereas if one's reincarnation is based on one's vows then one is free to choose. So here's a question: If you are reincarnated based on the power of your vow, does it mean that the person you are in this life is exactly the same as the person you were in your past life? Exactly the same? So are the two exactly the same? No they are not exactly the same.


I asked the Tibetan Rinpoche, "Since his holiness the Dalai Lama has been reincarnated 14 times, is he the same person as he was 14 lifetimes ago?" The Rinpoche replied, "No. They are not the same person. Actually, in 14 lifetimes, they are 14 different people." "So there have been changes from the first to the fourteenth reincarnation?" And the Rinpoche replied, "What's changed is his wisdom and merit."


So, for the Dalai Lama, from his first life to his fourteenth reincarnation his wisdom and merit has been changing, and it has been growing. The same is true for everyone, however, if one does not practice, one's merit and wisdom can change in the opposite direction, going downhill.


Earlier I mentioned that life is the boundless extension of limitless brightness. If one practices and makes good use of every lifetime that one has, then one will be adding to this brightness, and that is the boundless extension. That is what I mean by life being the boundless extension of limitless brightness.


What I mean by making good use of one's life is doing things that can benefit oneself and others. So if each physical lifetime is likened to a piece of clothing or a house that one has, then when one is in possession of the house, one makes good use of that house, and then while one is wearing a piece of clothing, one takes good care of it so it can perform its proper function. Of course however well one takes care of a house or piece of clothing, it will still get old and deteriorate in the end. But in the process of one's taking good care one is adding to the brightness of life, and if one can do so life after life then one is enhancing the limitless brightness of life.


Recently when I was in Taiwan there were quite a few serious natural disasters happening there; there was serious flooding. I went to an area where a lot of people had died. The family members of the victims suffered greatly, and many were unable to accept the reality of the deaths. A lot of people were asking me, "Shifu, in our family, nobody does any bad things, why do we have to suffer such a punishment?" "There are much worse people than my relative--why does my family member have to die, and those people don't die?" "There are people who are much older and they survived, they're still alive--why does my family member have to die so young?" I was bombarded with these questions. Their thinking was that it's wrong for their relatives to die in a disaster, wrong that older people, like me, should still live. Of course that's not really what they meant, but they were suffering greatly from what had happened.


I have another student who has come to many retreats and four years ago her twenty-year-old son went out to buy bread in the morning and was killed by a car. For this woman this is a very difficult reality for her to accept. She simply could not face that just a moment ago her son was fine and then a moment later her son was dead. So for a few years this woman has been coming to my seven-day retreats, and every time she asks me, "Shifu, where's my son?" Every time she asks me this question. I've been telling her the same answer: "Everybody comes to this life with a mission, and once that mission's accomplished, then that person leaves. Even though you do not want to let go, it is impossible to keep this person around. The next mission in the next stage of life is waiting for him, so he has to move on to accomplish the next mission. He has already moved on to the next lifetime, so you should give him your blessing instead of suffering so much."


Now, after more than three years of meditation practice, this woman has gained a deeper understanding of the nature of her body and mind, and begun to understand that life and death are separated by a very fine line. She also understands that if her deceased son is still around, and if there's still a connection, she will be able to feel his presence. However, if she can no longer feel his presence, then that just means that he's already moved on, and there's no reason to be so attached. Finally she has begun to understand and so is willing to let go. So she no longer asks me the question again and again, "Where's my son?" It's kind of like we were traveling on the same bus, but her son got off this bus and got on another bus. Even though you want to see him or want to communicate with him, it's not that easy, because he's already riding on another bus. So if we understand the separation between the living and the dead in this way, then it will be easier for one to handle these matters in life. Of course when it happens, when we have to be separated from our loved ones either living or dead, it is not easy to accept right away. But with the practice of Chan and the application of the correct concepts one will become more capable of coming to terms with whatever happens.


I'd like to ask you another question: Have you thought about why you ended up in this room listening to me giving this talk? How are we related to each that you would come and listen to me talk? Let me tell you this--we have a connection not just from today's meeting, we have a connection from way back when. We have been connected in some way from a long time ago, and even though we don't remember it, our connection brought you all to this room to listen to this talk this evening.


More then fifty some years ago there was a man living in mainland China, but because of the war he had to leave, which meant that he would never see his family again in this life. You can imagine how sad this separation was. But years later he ran into his family again, just totally by accident, so this kind of thing happens, though of course not often. I actually experienced something like this when I was in my thirties. I had accepted a disciple, who was taking refuge with me, and then I never saw this person again until twenty-some years later here in New York in the subway. I didn't recognize him anymore because he looked very different after twenty years, but because I'm a monk, I kind of look the same, so he recognized me right away and ran up to me and said, "Shifu, I'm so glad to see you again." I thought, "Who is this person, why is he calling me Shifu?" It is actually the same for us here. You may think you don't really know me, we haven't met before, but regardless of the time that has passed and the changes we may have been through--new name, new body--we find ourselves together again.


About six years ago I gave a talk and two of the people who were at that talk are here this evening; one of them is Lindley, who organized this event. She came to that talk and since then she's been following me. So I believe we had a very deep connection before, otherwise why would she come to my talk and follow me after that? There's another person from that talk who's here this evening, and a third person too. It's not like they went crazy, like they didn't know me at all and just suddenly started following me around. It must be because we had a deep connection from before, and causes and conditions were such that we meet each other again now. So despite separations while we are alive, or between the dead and the living, we will see each other again. Someone gets off this bus and gets on another bus, but at some other time, in some other world, we may find ourselves on the same bus again. If one can use this perspective to look at life and death then one may not suffer so much.


Next I'd like to talk about how the practice of Chan can show us that life and death are actually two sides of the same thing. Through Chan practice one will experience firsthand that the physical phenomena of the body are undergoing constant changes, and that one's mental state is also constantly changing, with phenomena arising and departing continuously. Thus one will come to understand the reality of impermanence and come to see that life and death are really inseparable, really the same thing.


If one applies the method of sitting meditation to pursue the experience of Chan, then one will go through three stages. The first stage involves the relaxation of the body and mind, and as one relaxes the body and the mind, the burden of the body and mind will lessen. As a result one's attachment to the body and the mind will lessen as well. When the body and mind are unified, then the burden of the body and the mind will disappear, at which point one will experience a very comfortable, very joyful state. Once one has this experience, the second stage, one may want to return to it, because in our ordinary daily life we often experience our bodies as great burdens. At this point one can really appreciate the value of putting down the attachment to the physical body. However, rather than becoming stuck in the comfort of this stage, one should proceed to the next stage, where one also puts down the attachment to this blissful state of unified body and mind. At this third stage one will be able to go back into daily life and feel neither aversion nor attachment to the physical body. One's view of the physical body will be that having one is good, that it should be cherished and used well, but that when it has to go that's OK too. Of course it takes time in one's practice to get to this stage. One cannot just start thinking, "Oh, wow, Chan practice is so good, I can just go straight to stage three!" But before we get to the stage of feeling at ease with the body and the mind, or the stage of feeling liberated from the body or mind, is sitting meditation useful? Yes, it is useful, because the practice of meditation helps one's mind remain stable, and clear, and peaceful, even as one confronts the danger of death. As I said at the beginning, Chan is about living a life of wisdom and peace.


I'd like to give you another example, actually this person is also here, sitting at the back there. Her practice of meditation is not that good yet, but it's already been quite useful to her. On the morning of September 11th, Ann was practicing sitting meditation in the morning before she went to work. After her meditation she made three interesting decisions. She usually wears contact lenses, but that morning she decided to wear glasses. She also decided to go to work in pants and instead of wearing high heals she decided to wear flats. Then she went to her job in a building near the World Trade Center. When the attack occurred, she didn't panic. She escaped from the building, and because she wasn't wearing her contact lenses, the dust didn't affect her vision very badly--by the time she got out of the area she was completely covered with dust--and because she was wearing pants and low shoes she was able to move quickly. So for her, sitting meditation was quite useful that day. We'd like to invite her to stand up so we can give her our blessings; we are happy for her. So Ann, make sure you practice sitting more often.


With practice, when one encounters danger, one will be able to minimize the harm that may occur, because one's mind will remain calm and clear. And even when the situation is such that one cannot escape death, then one will not panic. Instead one will understand that it's time to get off the bus, and that there is this other bus one has to get.