如何进入佛法
济群法师

有幸到丹霞山参加学佛夏令营,能够在这七天内同大家一起探讨佛法,我感到很高兴。学佛夏令营近年来在台湾等地很盛行,台湾的佛光山、圆光佛学院等各个道场,每年都要举办各种形式的夏令营,如小学生夏令营、中学生夏令营、大学生夏令营、教师夏令营等等,以此方式把佛法推广到教育界。但在大陆举办类似的夏令营还属首创,因此我们大家珍惜这次机会,同时我也由衷地希望,通过这次夏令营,能带动起国内知识青年学佛的风气。

学佛夏令营的举办目的是普及佛法,常言道:“禅门深似海,佛法大如天”,对于一个初学者,想进入佛法的殿堂诚非易事,为此,我给大家提供四点意见:

一、从无心进入佛法

大家来这里来参加学佛夏令营,虽然人是到了,对外面的世界可能或多或少还有牵挂之心,或是对家庭的牵挂,挂念父母妻儿;或是对学业的牵挂,暑期作业还没有如期完成;或是对事业的牵挂,公司的发展前景不知如何……如果是带着这些牵挂来的,那就很难保证你在这七天时间没会有多少收获。所以,我要告诉大家,既然到这里参加夏令营,至少在这期间必须把家庭、学业、事业通通放下,不要有任何牵挂之心,也只有这样,才能专心地学习佛法。

其次,不能有是非得失之心。到寺庙里来学习佛法,不能对寺院生活妄加评论,因为我们对寺院的生活、规矩还不了解;更不能对出家人妄加评论,我们要以恭敬的心去对待所有的师父,只有从恭敬中才能增长自己的功德。如果你们因为不了解佛法,不了解寺院生活而妄加评论,就会在无意中产生罪过,结果只会和你们来学习佛法的目的相违背。

另外,我们到山上来是为了学习佛法,不是为衣食住行,所以不能在饮食住房方面存有得失之心。《维摩诘经》记载了这样一个故事:有一次,维摩诘居士病了,文殊菩萨带领百千弟子前去探望。维摩诘居士和文殊菩萨一直讲论佛法,过了中午还没饭吃,这时就有人提议:到你家里来,怎么到这个时候还不招待?维摩诘说:你们是为法来,不是为食而来。同样,你们到山上参加夏令营,也要怀着这样的心情,不能存有是非得失之心,才能学到佛法。

进入佛法大海,最重要的还要消除固有的思想观念。一个人的思想观念与他成长的文化环境有很大关系,解放以来,我国的文化教育,从基础的中小学教育到高等教育,基本都是遵循唯物主义的指导思想,与佛教的某些思想存在一定的距离。现在,你们既然到山上来学习佛法,我希望你们暂时把这些观念放一放,待学习佛法之后,可以再用你们的思想去比较,然后决定如何取舍。

无心就是把自己原有的思想观念空掉,用空灵的心境来学佛法,就像一个杯子,如果里面盛满水,势必无法再往里面倒,只有把杯中原有的水倒掉了,才能往里添水。学习佛法也是这样,如果不能把得失心、是非心、牵挂心以及固有的观念去掉,便学不到佛法。

二、从信心进入佛法

佛法的体系有四大部份:就是信、解、行、证。信是对佛法的信仰,解是对经论的理解,行是依理论产生实践。佛法与哲学的区别也正在于此,哲学但有理论,而佛法既有哲学的理论,又有科学的实证。

但佛法的理论与实践都是建立在信仰的基础上,学佛须先有信仰。因为人的认识能力有限,对于高深的佛法理论,一时难以深入地理解。比如佛教所讲的三世因果,平常人只能看到现世,看不到前生也看不到来世,这种情况怎么办呢?只有以信仰来接受。平时,我们已经习惯于依赖自己的感觉,但我们的感觉是不可靠的:坐飞机时,我们感觉不到飞机的运动,其实飞机跑得很快;坐船时,我们看到两岸的青山在移动,其实是船在跑。正因为我们的感觉常常是错觉,所以我们在学习佛法时,需要靠信仰的力量来接受佛法。佛经里面讲:“信为道源功德母,长养一切诸善根。”也就是说,信仰既是成道的根本,也是成就一切功德的源泉。《大智度论》曰:“信如手”,我们的生活是靠双手来创造,同样的,佛法的学习是建立在信仰的基础上。假如我们没有信仰,那就很难得到佛法的真实受益,就只能入宝山而空手归。所以在佛经里有这样一句话:佛法大海,唯信能入。

但我们需要明确的是,佛法的信仰与基督教、天主教的信仰又不同。基督教和天主教强调的是“信者得度”,但学佛仅仅有信仰还不够。没有解和行,照样得不到佛法的益处。信仰只是我们学佛的契入点,要进一步修行乃至了脱生死,还需要通过解和行,也就是理论和实践的结合。

三、从疑心进入佛法

佛法的学习要靠信仰,但佛教所提倡的信仰并不是一味的愚信,在学佛的过程中,我们还多少要保留一点怀疑的成份,只有带着问题来学习,我们才能够学好佛法。

我们来到丹霞山,会看到很多出家师父在大殿念经或在禅堂坐香,作为一般游客,随便看看也就走过去了,不会有进一步探究的想法。可我们到这里来学习佛法,就要对所看到的现象进行思考:这些师父为什么要出家?为什么要抛弃红尘?为什么要抛弃物质享受?他们的人生目标又是什么?正因为有了这些问题,我们才会去探讨,去学习,去实践。

又如我们学习教理,肯定会对许多问题搞不明白,这就需要向法师们请教,对佛法的认识才能提高。在学习教理过程中,我们会发现,佛教的许多观念与我们以往的认识都是不同的。通常人们认为:人死如灯灭,人死了就没有,可是佛法讲三世因果,既然佛法是这样认为,那它的理论根据是什么?只有勤于提问,勤于思考,我们才能学到更多。如果我们固执己见或对人云亦云,那是学不到佛法的。

禅宗是汉传佛教的八大宗派之一。禅宗的修行就提倡怀疑:大疑大悟,小疑小悟,不疑不悟。也就是说,你的怀疑有多大,你所能够悟到的程度就有多大;如果你什么都不怀疑,麻木不仁,马马虎虎就过去了,那就什么也不懂了。所以禅宗祖师叫人参话头,起疑情,其中有个问题是“父母没生前本来面目是什么?”,这个问题你们有没有想过?我想你们谁也没有想过。而禅师们就将此类话头作为修行的途径,一直参,一直参,甚至参到脸也肿了,脚也肿了,浑身都肿了,突然间碰到一种条件的刺激,一下子就开悟了。这就说明,只有通过大疑才能大悟。

所以,在学习佛法的过程中,需要有一份疑心,没有疑心是不行的。疑心和信心并不矛盾的,怀疑是为了更好地坚定自己的信仰。

四、从悟心进入佛法

凡夫为什么会流转生死呢?原因就是迷。

迷也就是无知:我们不知道我们的生前,我们不知道我们的死后。生从何来?死往何去?我们从来都搞不清楚。正因为我们的迷导致了生死流转,所以要解脱生死痛苦,就要有悟心,也就是彻底的觉悟。佛就是觉者、智者的意思,有了觉悟和智慧才能进入佛法。

佛法在哪里呢?可能有人会认为在寺院里、在经教中。其实这种答案只是对了一半,佛教里有部经典叫《金刚经》。经中讲:一切法都是佛法。禅宗祖师也有过类似的开示:“青青翠竹,无非般若;郁郁黄花,无非中道”,祖师还告诉我们:“平常心是道”。道在什么地方?佛法在什么地方?其实就在日常生活中。但我们如何在日常生活中体验佛法呢?就要有一颗智慧的心。

禅宗里有许多祖师都是在日常生活中开悟的,并不是在大殿里念经念开悟的,也不是在佛堂里拜佛拜开悟的。有位祖师叫灵云禅师,有一次他在房间里用功修行,出来时看到外面的桃花开得火红一片,刹那间就开悟了,他当时还留下了这样一首诗:“三十年来寻剑客,几回落叶又抽枝,自从一见桃花后,直到如今更不疑。”这是见到桃花而悟道,还有位比丘尼是因见到梅花而悟道,这样的例子简直举不胜举。

同学们到这里来参加夏令营,在这七天的时间里,无论是从出坡劳动中,还是从坐禅诵经中,或是从课堂听讲中,都要能够用你们的智慧去观察思考,只有这样,你们才可以进入佛法,得到佛法的受用。

以上是我给大家提供的进入佛法的四点方便,希望同学们通过本次夏令营生活,能够如愿以偿,法喜充满,谢谢。

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You connect with yourself through meditation. You connect with others and humanity through a good heart.

— Orgyen Chowang Rinpoche

欲学无上菩提,不得轻于初学。下下人有上上智,上上人有没意智。若轻人,即有无量无边罪。

— 六祖慧能大师

The Relation between Anger and Arrogance
by Venerable Thubten Chodron

First, let’s discuss the link between anger and arrogance. When we’re puffed up and arrogant, we expect people to treat us very well, exactly as we want to be treated. When they don’t, we get angry. Insecurity feeds both anger and arrogance. When we lack self-confidence, we put on an arrogant show pretending to be so attractive, intelligent, rich, well-connected, talented, resourceful, and so on. We try to make a good impression on others even though we don’t believe in ourselves. There’s the subconscious thought, “If I can convince others how wonderful I am, maybe I’ll believe in myself.” Similarly anger can be based on feeling insecure. When we constantly compare ourselves to others and judge ourselves harshly, thinking we are incompetent, we easily get angry at others and put other people down in an effort to show them how powerful we are.

Another attribute that anger and arrogance share is that they both push people away. Others don’t like being around people who are pretentious and arrogant, nor do they feel comfortable around those who lose their temper and boss others around.

When unpleasant things that we do not like happen, we get angry, because we have an underlying arrogance that such things shouldn’t happen to us because we are so special. Humility recognises that we are ordinary sentient beings who have created negative karma, so there’s no cause to be puffed up and think that bad things won’t happen to us.

Humility is the opposite of arrogance. When we have self-confidence, we can be humble. We are comfortable with who we are, accept our faults and weaknesses, and acknowledge our mistakes. We aren’t afraid to tell others when we don’t know something. When we believe in ourselves, we have no reason to be arrogant; we aren’t so attached to what other people think of us.

Arrogance and low self-esteem go together, and self-confidence and humility go together. Arrogance is an attempt to cover up our low self-esteem. But when we accept ourselves, we don’t need to impress anyone. We don’t need to be the best or to receive the most praise. We’re fine being humble and rejoice at others’ successes. We’re a lot happier than when we create a false image of ourselves and try to make others believe that’s who we are.

Self-acceptance is important for a happy life. We accept that at present we have certain faults. But we still use the Dharma to improve ourselves, to free us from destructive actions, and to create virtuous attitudes and actions. When people point out our faults, we admit them. That’s a lot easier than getting defensive, blaming someone else, or covering it up by lying. Then we do our best to remedy our mistake and try to improve in the future.

Personally speaking, I respect people who are transparent and admit their errors. I feel comfortable working with them. I find it very difficult to trust or work with people who lie in order to hide what we all know they did.

Being honest with ourselves and others requires courage and fortitude. We have so much unnecessary fear, thinking, “Who will I be if I don’t defend myself? If I don’t put on a big show of how great I am to protect myself, other people will run all over me.” We need inner strength in order to dismantle that way of thinking and kick-start the process of cultivating kindness, tolerance, forgiveness, and compassion for ourselves and others. To change and develop virtuous mental states is threatening to self-grasping ignorance and self-centredness. So we go slowly, but surely, and like the turtle we’ll eventually get where we want to go. The Buddha did it; so can we!

学会给自己松绑
法照法师

一、是谁在捆绑着你?

四祖道信禅师还没有悟道时,曾经向三祖僧璨禅师请教。道信虔诚地请教道:“我觉得人生太苦恼了,希望你给我指引一条解脱的道路。”三祖僧璨禅师反问道“是谁在捆绑着你?”道信想了想,如是回答道:“没有人捆绑着我。”三祖僧璨禅师笑道:“既然没有人捆绑着你,你就是自由的,就己经是解脱了,你何必还要寻求解脱呢?”

後来石头希迁禅师在传法时,将这种活泼机智的禅机发挥到极致。有一个学僧问希迁禅师:“怎样才能解脱呢?”希迁禅师回答:“谁捆绑着你?”学僧又问“怎能求得一方净土呢?希迁禅师回答:“谁污染了你”学僧继续追问:“怎样才能达到涅?永生的境界呢?希迁禅师回答:“谁给了你生与死?谁告诉你生与死有区别?”

禅师认为人不快乐,是因为一生太多的绳索捆绑着自己,以致于心灵常常感到窒息。松开身心的捆绑,揭去灵魂的面纱,抛开凡尘的困扰,还人生本?的面目。开放自己的思路,让目光更高远,让生活更精彩,人生就可以无拘无束,自由自在。

二、时时静静独处,智慧才能常常浮现

生活中充当什?样的角色,过着怎样的生活,感受着怎样的幸福,完全是要依靠自己去创造。现代人的脚步总是匆匆忙忙;或许是因为前方有一个美好的目标正等待着大家,若我们放慢脚步,它就会消失呢?那?这样的目标到底是甚?呢?

停止忙碌,不要再烦恼无法完成每一件事,应当给自己多一些空间,不再那?匆忙,这样许多好点子会自动浮现;好的点子不会因为自己陷入忙碌而出现的。相反的,在忙碌的空档,当静静独处时,智慧才能常常浮现。或许我们应该尝试让自己变得比较“悠闲”一点,相信出?的结果一定会让人感到惊喜。该休息时就该休息,即使我们多?没时间,也必须强迫自己这?做。因为处理事情过於长久时,就会感觉事物变得单调,也使自己更容易疲乏。

三 、放慢生活的脚步,欣赏沿途的美丽

况且,长久维持不变的姿势,也不见得对健康有益。与其没有效率地干耗下来,为甚?不起来走走呢?说不定经过活动,思路又活过来了呢。我们不是机器,是无法连续运转的。不管是坐着或站着学习、工作,同一姿势只要超过一个小时,你的身体就会产生疲累现象,精神也会渐渐无法集中,效率就开始下降。如果这时能适时地进行短暂休息的话,休息过後,你的效率会比不休息时?得高多了。你可能和大多数人一样,不到身体支撑不了的地步,绝对不会停下?休息。那么你就得改改这个坏毛病了,当你感到肌肉紧绷、背痛、轻微的头痛、双眼疲累、无法集中注意力等时,一定要休息!

休息并非意味着甚么事也不做。休息的意思,是要你慢下脚步,放松自己紧张的情绪。散步是一种休息;躺到床上也是一种休息;出去看场电影、读一本好书、看电视、听音乐,甚至和朋友打电话聊天,都是一种休息。休息能使您的身体释放紧张情绪,使身心重新回复到一个正常平衡状态。一旦您得到充分的休息,您就会更有活力、更有冲劲。丘吉尔说过:“很抱歉,每天中午我都必须像个小孩儿般上床睡觉,可是睡过午觉以後,我就能一直工作到半夜一两点,甚至更晚。”请放慢生活的脚步,那沿途的美丽景色带给您的,不仅仅是愉悦的感受,还有对人生的思考。

四 、工作,不应该是需要经营一辈子的事

工作,不应该等於是人生,更不应该是需要经营一辈子的事。试问“健康”、“财富”、“自我成长”、“人际关系”和“时间自由”,甚?是您努力工作的动力?相信没有人愿意放弃任何一点。这些正是促使我们前进的动力。十年後,您是提早完成它?还是提早放弃它?看看我们周遭有太多非常优秀的朋友,终日汲汲营营,盲目地投入更多的时间、精神、资源,却没有享受到应得的生活素质,原因无他,努力错方向,找错机会,拒绝机会而己。

任何事物都有我们值得学习和借鉴的地方,只要我们虚心请教,善于观察,相信会找到属于自己的那份功成。现实社会中的市场竞争让我们必须考虑寻求更广的发展。创新的思路、大胆的设想,未必不是一种成功的智慧。生活中只要学会选择,就不会遇到尴尬的困境。学会选择不仅有利于自己个人能力的发挥,同时也有利于家庭、社会的和谐发展。

五 、要自由就不要执著

六祖惠能说过:“心若住法,名为自缚。”一个人如果做到了“于一切法勿有执著”,那?自然整个身心就通畅了,也就是无论何时何地,在我们的工作和生活中都不要忘记某个东西,同时也不要执著于这个东西。

这实际上就是“一行三昧”。一行,即行住坐卧,任何的状况,都保持实相的、智慧的心。三昧,又称“正定”,不强迫、不压抑。就是一切放下,全体放下,对事不要执著,对法也不要执著,若认为有个法妙得很,自己很得好处,舍不得放下,那?这个很妙的法就把你障住了,把你缚住了,也就是自己把自己缚住了。

要自由就不要执著,必须给自己松绑。生活给予我们每个人的都是一座丰富的宝库,但是首先要的条件是必须把捆在自己身上的绳子解掉,才能去拿宝物,而拿宝物时也不能执著,否则解开一根绳索,又被另一根绳索捆乡,因贪婪于宝物而生命难以负载,结果什?也没能拿到。

When karma and its effects are thoroughly analysed, though they do not exist as intrinsically one or many, vividly appearing, they cause the rising and cessation of phenomena. Seemingly real, they experience birth and death of every kind. So within this mere appearance I’ll follow the ethical norms.

— Dharmaraksita

What are the Right Buddhist Teachings?
by Venerable Yen Pei

Friends in the Dharma, today, I would like to discuss with you the following topic: what are the right Buddhist teachings? When we discuss this topic on what constitutes Buddhadhama (Buddhist teachigs), we would be reminded of the existence of “semblance Dharma”, which resembles Buddhist teachings, but is not exactly the same as Buddhist teachings. The co-existence of “semblance Dharma” within Buddhist teachings is an undeniable fact. Shakyamuni Buddha propagated His truth teachings more than two thousand five hundred years ago. Buddhadharma has been circulating in our world for a long time and over an extensive space, so the original Buddhadharma has, of course, undergone significant changes in order to adapt to different times and places. That is to say, some secular elements that do not accord with Buddhadharma have mingled into it. Therefore, there is a high content of “semblance Dharma” in the Buddhist teachings that are circulating in the world today.

If one wants to learn Buddhadharma, one has to be skilful at differentiating true Buddhadharma from “semblance Dharma”. Otherwise, one will mistake “semblance Dharma” for true Buddhadharma, then one will not gain benefits from Dharma-learning, but instead get one’s Dharma-body and wisdom-life jeopardised. It is thus crucial to be able to distinguish between true Buddhadharma and “semblance Dharma”. Yet, this is not simple. There must be a suitable standard to rely upon. Buddha had given us a very clear instruction on how to do so, that is, to verify all Buddhist teachings using the Three Universal Characteristics. Only those teachings that accord with these Three Universal Characteristics are right teachings of Buddhism.

Today, I shall talk to you on these “Three Universal Characteristics”, as this is a very important topic. Once you have right understanding of the “Three Universal Characteristics”, then regardless of whose teaching you listen to, you will be able to distinguish true Buddhadharma from “semblance Dharma” and you will not get deceived by people.

All over the world, there are many people who cannot distinguish true Buddhadharma from “semblance Dharma”. For example, two years ago, I was propagating Buddhadharma at a Buddhist monastery in Saigon, Vietnam, where a ceremony for “Repentance to Ten Thousand Buddhas” was held. Many Buddhists participated in the repentance ceremony. Everyone was chanting the repentance text, but among them, there was an elderly Vietnamese who was chanting by himself a scripture of a heterodox religion. Later on, he came to pay respects to me and asked me whether the religious text that he had chanted was good.

I said to him tactfully, “The religious text that you chanted is not a Buddhist scripture. It is not found in the Buddhist Canon. A true Buddhist absolutely will not recite this text. If you consider yourself to be a true Buddhist, then it is best that you recite orthodox Buddhist texts that Buddhists often recite, such as Diamond Discourse, Discourse on Amitabha Buddha, Chapter on the Universal Gate, Heart Discourse and so forth.”

After hearing what I had said, the elderly Vietnamese said to me very earnestly, “Venerable, your advice is indeed right. However, at the beginning, I did not know that this text does not contain Buddhist teachings. Ever since I embraced Buddhism, I have always been reciting this text. I have been doing this for more than thirty years. Now, it is abrupt and seems unjustified for me to give up reciting this text.”

Seeing that he is so persistent in continuing with his wrong way, I did not speak further with him on the topic. Think of this: if a person treads a wrong path and continues to advance forward, not knowing that he has gone astray, he seems to be pardonable. However, if he clearly knows that he has trodden the wrong path, but he is still reluctant to give up the path, then that will be very dangerous! Therefore, when we learn Buddhist teachings, it is best that we do not tread any wrong path from the beginning. On the path of learning Buddhadharma, if one takes a wrong step, it will not be easy to turn back, so I hope that all of you will pay special attention to this.

The Three Universal Characteristics refer to: impermanence, insubstantiality and tranquility of Nirvana. Many people know these three Buddhist terms, but very few people understand their meaning, so there is a need to explain these Three Universal Characteristics here.

We should examine all Buddhist teachings based on these three major principles of truth. Those teachings that accord with these three major teachings can be acknowledged as right teachings of Buddhism. Otherwise, we should not acknowledge them as Buddhist teachings at all. Every Buddhist should keep this important point firmly in mind and master it well, in order to advance onto the great path of Truth and gain the true benefits of Buddhadharma. In this way, one is unlikely to go astray onto the wrong paths.

By practising along the right path, of Buddhadharma, we will definitely be able to attain liberation from cyclic existence. The important of the Three Universal Characteristics in Dharma-learning is thus clear.

1. IMPERMANENCE OF ALL PHENOMENA

All things in the universe, from as big as the universe, down to as small as a nuclear particle, are changing endlessly in a state of flux. We absolutely cannot find anything that is permanently unchanging.

Why is everything impermanence? This is because all things, whether sentient or non-sentient, that arise will definitely cease to exist. Why? In fact, this is not a sudden change, but rather a gradual progression that is happening constantly. This is true not only of things over a long period of time. Even in a momentary instant, everything is undergoing change — arising and ceasing, arising and ceasing. There is a Buddhist saying, “What is once seen will not be seen again.” In the twinkling of an eye, whatever that we see still seems to be the same, but it has actually undergone multiple changes and no longer the same as before.

Philosophers of both the east and west had, in general, also talked about this truth of impermanence. For instance, the Chinese philosopher, Confucius (circa 551 B.C. – circa 479 B.C.), once stood on a riverbank and could not help lamenting when he saw the water rolling down the river. “The passage of time and constant flux of changing phenomena is just like this river, which is flowing away endlessly day and night.”

Heraclitus (circa 535 B.C. – circa 475 B.C.), a Greek philosopher, had said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.”

The first Greek philosopher, Thales of Miletus (circa 620 B.C. – circa 546 B.C.) also particularly liked to use water to explain the phenomena of change and flux in the universe. He said that change and flux occurring in all phenomena is not temporary, but forever taking place. It is thus clear that Buddha’s teaching on impermanence is indeed an unalterable truth.

Everything in the universe exists by virtue of a combination of the Four Great Elements, namely earth, water, fire and wind. All material things, from the beginning to end, exist due to mutual combination of the elements. They also cease to exist due to changes of the elements. There is absolutely no permanence at all throughout. This phenomenon of impermanence forms an illusory cycle of arising and cessation, without stopping for even a moment at all, just like the cyclic transformations that occur when water freezes into ice which then melts into water again. The principle involved is the same. This is true of the microscopic matter that is not discernible by the human eye.

For instance, the atoms and atomic nuclei discovered by scientists are extremely microscopic, yet there is still incessant motion within them. The “paramanu” (equivalent to what is called “atom” now) mentioned in Buddhadharma is also formed from causal conditions and thus subject to change. When its energy is exhausted it will cease to exist. This fact of impermanence accords with modern scientific theory.

However, in ancient India, there was a group heretics who held the view that the “paramanu” does not have ten-directional attributes, but is round and everlasting. When this entire world gets annihilated in the Final Age, the “paramanu” will still be dispersed in boundless space, as it exists forever without annihilation. This type of thinking is a bit similar to the Law of Conservation of Matter. However, Buddhadharma thoroughly refutes this kind of eternalistic thought. According to Buddhadharma, whatever that exists is definitely subject to arising and extinction. Whatever that is subject to arising and extinction will definitely undergo changes, so how could it be said to be eternal? Everything will cease to exist in the end. Moreover, when something first arises, the cause for extinction already lies latent in it. We may even say that the very moment of arising is the moment of extinction. Therefore, everything in the universe is constantly undergoing the process of formation and annihilation.

Every sentient life is continually evolving, just as the waves in an ocean never pause for a moment. This has already been proved by modern science. For instance, in every instant, new cells are formed in the human body to replace old or damaged cells. Modern science offers clear explanations for the evolution of life. Yet, the words of King Prasenajit in Surangama Discourse are unparalleled in their clear and thorough elucidation of this issue.

When King Prasenajit discussed this topic with Buddha, he was already sixty-two years old and of course, had deep realisation about life. Therefore, his exposition on the reality of life was very convincing indeed. After hearing this elucidation of King Prasenajit, you cannot but become highly vigilant towards the impermanence of life!

First of all, Buddha asked King Prasenajit, “Is this present body of yours already deteriorating gradually?”

The king replied honestly, “My body still looks strong, but actually, it has already started to age gradually. In the near future, this body will certainly continue to deteriorate and finally perish.”

Based on the king’s reply, Buddha asked further, “In fact, your body has not become thoroughly decrepit, so how do you know that it will perish in future?”

King Prasenajit replied, “Yes, this body of mine is not yet decrepit now. However, I have made careful observations and discovered that life is in a constant state of change and flux, with continual metabolism that never ceases, just like things get burnt into ashes and dissipate gradually. Therefore, I know that my body will definitely deteriorate and perish in future. It absolutely cannot maintain in this state forever.”

After hearing these words of King Prasenajit, Buddha asked again, “You are already old now, so how do your present looks compare with that during your childhood?”

The king replied in this way, “My present and past looks cannot be mentioned in the same breath. During my childhood, my skin was very tender, soft, smooth and lustrous, but now, I have aged gradually and my physiological structure has undergone tremendous changes. For example, my face has become very haggard and emaciated, with wrinkles very clearly visible. Half of my hair has already become white. My mental agility is not as good as before. Considering these conditions, I think that my life is most probably already near its end — death. How could my current state be compared with that when I was in the prime of life? I am not the only one who has such a feeling. Anybody who is advanced in age will feel the same way.”

Buddha said, “The changes in your physique and looks have not occurred within a short period of time, right?”

The king replied, “The changes in the body do not occur all of a sudden, but progress gradually in stages. With the seasonal changes and passage of time, before I know it, my body has slowly developed into this state. At the age of twenty, I was a strong and robust youth, but there had already been many changes in facial appearance compared to the time when I was ten years old. At the age of thirty, I was in the prime of life, but there were some signs of ageing compared to the time when I was twenty years old. Now, I am sixty-two years old. Compared to the time when I was fifty years old, I feel that I was much stronger at fifty than now. Yet, when I examine these changes carefully, I realise that they had not occurred over ten years, one month or a single day. Instead they are happening every minute, every second, every instant, in every thought-moment, never stopping at all. Therefore, I think that this life of mine will certainly come to an end in future.”

The evolution of sentient lives — arising and then passing away, as well as the impermanent changes in the non-sentient, material world, are realities of the world. None can deny this truth. If one thinks that the world exist forever, that is certainly an erroneous idea. No matter how we seek among the multitudinous things in the world, we cannot find anything that is real and eternal. Life is always advancing towards death, regardless of our wish. With each day that we live, we get closer to death.

Someone said, “At the beginning of life, everyone receives a lit candle. One does not know how long it is, but knows that with each day that one lives, the candle gets closer to its extinction by one day, until it is all burnt up.” This is the impermanence of life.

As the saying goes, “The seas will transform into mulberry fields while the mulberry fields transform into seas.” The occurrence of great changes with the elapse of time is a common phenomenon in our world. Therefore, Buddha’s teaching on impermanence is indeed a timeless truth.

If we can penetrate into the truth of impermanence of all phenomena, then we naturally will not cling to the world or this fragile life. In general, the fundamental reason for our attachment to this world is lack of understanding of the impermanence of all phenomena. Therefore, regardless of what we see, we would think that they are very good and wish to possess all of them. We seek to gain that which we have not yet acquired and retain that which we have already acquired. With such limitless desires, we thus experience endless suffering. Impermanence is the root source of suffering.

Venerable Yin Shun wrote in An Outline of the Buddhist Teachings: “All happiness and wellness is subject to continual change. One may have one’s wishes gratified, one may live in peace and comfort, yet one will not enjoy these conditions forever. They do not last long and will eventually deteriorate and cease. All compounded things, no matter how stable, will move in this direction. Whatever arises will definitely decline. Hence, we conclude that impermanence causes suffering.” We should earnestly seek a penetrating understanding of impermanence.

2. INSUBSTANTIALITY

“Self” has the connotation of freedom. What is called “self” should have self-mastery and moreover, should also be able to control everything else. If such an entity with self-mastery and mastery over everything else really exist, then we should, of course, acknowledge the existence of “self”. However, in reality, such a “self” cannot be found at all. It is a perversion to regard “self” as existent when it actually does not.

Buddha taught us that everything, whether sentient beings or non-sentient objects, arise due to combinations of various interconnected conditions. Nothing can exist independent of such causal conditions. This is what is meant by “insubstantiality of all things”. All that we perceive before us now seem to exist and Buddhadharma does not deny their existence. Yet, all that exist are causally arisen and provisionally existent only. They do not have any substantial “self”. You could take anything for such an analysis and you will come to the conclusion that everything is devoid of self-nature.

Dependent Origination and insubstantiality form the basis of Buddha’s teachings. Shayakamuni attained Buddhahood by virtue of realising the truth of Dependent Origination. What exactly is the difference between Buddhist teachings and other religious teachings or secular philosophies? In general, other religious teachings and secular philosophies propound the existence of a real, unchanging and substantial self-entity for everything in the universe. They think that if such a real self-entity did not exist, all things in the universe would be inexplicable.

However, Buddha fundamentally negated the existence of such an entity and instead expounded the principle of Dependent Origination and “insubstantiality of all things” — everything exists by virtue of interconnected causal conditions. A Buddhist should earnestly grasp and understand this principle of Dependent Origination. Otherwise, he will not be able to achieve true understanding of Buddhist teachings. Moreover, we should seek a clear understanding of this Universal Characteristic — insubstantiality.

Next, I shall explain “insubstantiality” from two aspects, namely “insubstantiality of the person” and “insubstantiality of phenomena”.

2.1 INSUBSTANTIALITY OF THE PERSON

One always regards one’s life form as “self” and clings on to it persistently. Whatever that one does proceeds from “self” as the main consideration or with “self” as the focus. One would do whatever that is of benefit to oneself, but not something that is of no benefit to oneself. Moreover, one will protect oneself by all means. All the disputes and contention in the world are caused by the notion of “self”. Due to this self-concept, people wish to extend and enrich the “self”, for gaining mastery over everything and survival in the world. Therefore, the problems in the world proliferate and become increasingly tougher to be tackled. Little do we know that the more we work for the “self”, the more insatiable the “self” will become. Just as one has gained this, one immediately desires to acquire that. How one wishes that everything in the world belongs to oneself! People bustle here and there all day long. Why? The reason is none other than for the sake of oneself. The power of “self” is so great!

People toil hard for the sake of “self”. If “self” really exists, then all this hard work is, of course, worthwhile. However, the “self” cannot be found at all, so what exactly is everyone busy with?

How do we know that life is devoid of “self”? This is because life is formed from a combination of the Five Aggregates (forms, feelings, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness). None of these Five Aggregates can independently represent “self” at all. The individual aggregates are devoid of “self”. Even the life formed by combination of these Five Aggregates is also devoid of “self”.

The “self” should be an integral whole, but since a lifeform is a combination of causal conditions, it certainly does not qualify to be called a “self”.

The “self” should be eternal, but a lifeform is impermanent, so how could there be an eternal “self” within an impermanent life?

The “self” should have mastery and control over everything. However, a sentient lifeform, be it the physical body or mental spirit, does not possess such a function of mastery, so how could it be grasped as the “self”?

Buddha deeply understood the profound truth of “insubstantiality of the person”, so He specially expounded this truth to sentient beings. We should strive to gain deep understanding of this teaching on “insubstantiality of the person” that Buddha had imparted to us.

2.2 INSUBSTANTIALITY OF PHENOMENA

Everything that exists arises due to causal conditions. That which is causally arisen is devoid of a substantial self-nature and thus said to be “empty”. This is the insubstantiality of all phenomena. Take anything for observation and analysis. Its existence is not simple, but arises due to various causal conditions.

For instance, the flats that we live in are formed from bricks, tiles, wood, as well as through the construction activities of workers. We absolutely cannot find any real entity of flat, whether in the bricks, tiles, wood or construction process. A real entity cannot be found — this is what is meant by “emptiness”, which is also what is meant by “insubstantiality”. However, it does not mean that there is no flat. The flat that is causally arisen exists provisionally.

In general, people do not understand the provisional existence of their flat and its lack of substantial self-entity, so they become deeply attached to their flat, regarding it as a real and substantial property that they can occupy as their own possession forever. If the flat gets damaged or burnt down by a fire, they will be deeply grieved. Actually, this is due to the deluded thinking of people. All things are transient and illusory, yet why do people cling to them, thinking that they have substantial existence?

Sentient beings cling to things, thinking that they have real existence. Some people acknowledge the emptiness of “self”, but think that external phenomena exist. This is still a misconception and in the same way, they cling to external phenomena.

For instance, some people think that even though the lifeform, which arises due to a combination of the Five Aggregates, is devoid of “self”, but the constituent Five Aggregates cannot be said to be non-existent. If these aggregates also do not exist, then what is the basis for the formation of a lifeform? They acknowledge that a flat which is constructed from bricks, tiles and wood has no self-entity, but the constituent materials for constructing the flat cannot be said to be non-existent. If these do not exist, then whence comes the flat?

In Buddhism, this is called the misconception of “acknowledging the emptiness of self but grasping at the existence of phenomena”. In fact, not only “self” is “empty”. All phenomena are also “empty”. This is because all worldly and supramundane phenomena arise from combinations of various causal conditions. That is to say, there is not a single phenomenon that is not empty. It is said in Treatise on the Middle View, “Whatever is dependently arisen, I declare that to be emptiness.” It is further said in Twelve-Gate Treatise, “Whatever arises from causal conditions is devoid of self-nature.” Dependent Origination and insubstantiality form the fundamental tenets of Buddhist teachings.

The truth of insubstantiality of all things, is the most important principle in Buddhist teachings. “Insubstantiality” is the connecting bridge that enables one to progress from the impermanent world of cyclic existence to the supramundane tranquillity of Nirvana. If one does not understand this connection, one will not be able to link the mundane world of cyclic existence to the supramundane state of Nirvana.

In general, people get very troubled as they fail to understand how to transcend the mundane world of cyclic existence and attain the supramundane Nirvana. This is because they do not understand the truth of unsubstantiality. Everything, whether compounded or uncompounded, is “empty” and devoid of self-nature.

When we achieve understanding of the important point that all compounded and uncompounded things are “empty” and devoid of self-entity, we will naturally be able to unify the impermanent cyclic existence with the everlasting Nirvana. Therefore, the realisation of “insubstantiality” is most crucial. Sentient beings circulate in cyclic rebirths and cannot get liberated from the entanglement of suffering in the Three Kinds of Existence (realm of desires, realm of forms and realm of formlessness), because they regard things as really existent and cling to them. This is where the problem lies, if we realise the insubstantiality of all things, we naturally will not be besieged by suffering. We can then attain liberation and freedom.

3. TRANQUILLITY OF NIRVANA

Nirvana is the ultimate goal that a Buddhist aspires for and strives towards. It is only by attaining this ultimate goal that one accomplishes the purpose of becoming a Buddhist and learning Buddhadharma.

First of all, we need to ask ourselves: Why do we want to be Buddhist and learn Buddhadharma? This is because we experience and feel acutely the intense suffering of worldly existence. Therefore, we want to become Buddhists and learn Buddhadharma. There are, of course, multifarious problems in the world, yet the most serious problem is that of cyclic rebirths. Ordinary problems can be resolved using worldly methods, but the immense problems of life and death can be thoroughly eradicated only with Buddhadharma.

Buddhism is concerned with liberation from cyclic rebirths. This does not mean that one can live on forever without dying. Nor does it mean that one will gain a future, eternal life. Instead, the goal of Buddhism is to put an end to the tormenting suffering of cyclic rebirths, so that one will not experience them again in future, as well as enable one to be at ease even amidst the suffering of the present life.

This is the state of Nirvana, which one can attain by one’s own efforts in the present life. One does not have to wait till a future life for the attainment of Nirvana. Venerable Yin Shun wrote in An Outline of the Buddhist Teachings: “The self-realisation of liberation from rebirths can be accomplished either in the human world or the purelands. This ultimate liberation from cyclic existence is called Final Nirvana.”

In general, people do not understand the true meaning of “Nirvana” and wrongly think that “Nirvana” is the same as death, or that it is a state of neither suffering nor happiness. Actually, the basic meaning of “Nirvana” is liberation from cyclic rebirths. The word “Nirvana” literally means “blowing out” or “extinguishing”. It also connotes peace, happiness and freedom. Thus, Nirvana is the cessation of suffering and attainment of freedom, through extinguishing the fires of craving, ill will and delusion.

Some people also wrongly understand the statement: “Nirvana is a state of happiness with no suffering.” After a meal, if you ask them what Nirvana means, they would point at their stomachs and say, “This is Nirvana.” This is a misconception of Nirvana. The “Nirvana” taught by Buddha refers neither to death nor a full stomach.

In Contemporary Discussion on the Middle View, Chapter 3, Venerable Yin Shun gave a clear explanation of Nirvana: “The Nirvana taught by Buddha is a state transcending all that is chaotic, noisy and binding, to reach a state of liberation and freedom that is tranquil and peaceful. This state of liberation and freedom marks the consummation of full Enlightenment in Buddhism. Nirvana is rich in content — being liberated from cyclic rebirths, that are rooted in ignorance and delusion, to gain liberation and freedom is based upon wisdom. Nirvana is also described as “uncompounded”, “non-arising” (non-abiding, non-extinction). This is because Buddha described all that is worldly as compounded, that is, its basic nature is arising and cessation caused by delusion and intentional actions. Such arising and cessation is characterised by chaos, relativity and bondage. Once one has effected a breakthrough from such conditioned arising and cessation that is characterised by vexation, discrimination and bondage, one attains the state that is ineffable and indescribable, but provisionally called the unconditioned Nirvana with no arising and no extinction.”

Yet, what exactly is such a state of Nirvana like? It is indeed very hard to imagine or explain in words what Nirvana is. One who has not attained Nirvana yet cannot fully understand what Nirvana is like. Even one who has attained Nirvana cannot say explicitly what Nirvana is.

Venerable Yin Shun wrote in An Outline of the Buddhist Teachings, “Apart from the complete cessation of all suffering, what else can be said of the attainment of Nirvana?”

Hence, Nirvana can neither be imagined nor explained in words. If we have ideas of what Nirvana is like, we would have fallen into excessive conceptual proliferation, so we have not grasped the truth about Nirvana at all.

According to As It Was Said, “it is a state of ultimate tranquillity and ultimate, refreshing coolness. It is not manifest but hidden, only to be found in those who are pure and do not indulge in conceptual proliferation, it cannot be described as existent, non-existent, ‘both existent and non-existent’ or ‘neither existent nor non-existent’. It can only be said as ‘ineffable, ultimate Nirvana’.” This is the state “beyond linguistic expression and mental speculation”, which is often mentioned in Buddhadharma.

In An Outline of the Buddhist Teachings, Venerable Yin Shun had also given a clear explanation of this point: “Apart from explaining Nirvana as non-arising of defilements, intentional actions and suffering, Shakyamuni Buddha had also described it as ‘immeasurable and countless, deep and vast’. This refers to the ‘tranquillity and emptiness of the nature underlying all things’, which is beyond names, forms and numbers.”

Based on this explanation, it is clear that the “tranquillity and emptiness of the nature underlying all things” is the same as “tranquillity of Nirvana”. The “emptiness” referred to here absolutely is not a passive, inactive void. Instead, it means being liberated from the bondage of all desires in the present moment and thus gaining everlasting freedom. This is the liberation of Nirvana.

Therefore, the “emptiness” taught in Buddhadharma is not passively negative, but has active and positive aspects instead. Once one has attained this state of emptiness (Nirvana), one ought to turn back and do active work to help other sentient beings, attain Nirvana too. This is a special characteristic of the liberation of Nirvana as taught in Buddhism.

I have briefly explained above the Three Universal Characteristics as taught in Buddhism. These Three Universal Characteristics offer an insight into the special features of Buddhadharma that distinguish it from other religious teachings. In terms of explanation, there exist differences among the Three Universal Characteristics. However, in terms of truth, there is actually no difference among them. This is because there is only one truth, but this sole truth is explained from three aspects. Therefore, whatever is impermanent is of the nature of emptiness, whatever is insubstantial is of the nature of emptiness and whatever is non-arising is of the nature of emptiness. Therefore, the Three Universal Characteristics of impermanence, insubstantiality and non-arising (Nirvana) comprise the same principle of “emptiness of the nature of underlying all things”, without any difference among them at all.

These Three Universal Characteristics hold truth and practicality. They may be said to embody the essence of the entire Buddhadharma. The great importance of these Three Universal Characteristics is thus clear.