Let’s Talk About Ourselves
by Venerable Yen Pei
1. SENTIENT BEINGS FORM THE BASIS OF THIS WORLD
Our world is very chaotic nowadays. We must propagate orthodox Buddhism and promote the development of Buddhism, to enable more people to benefit from learning and practising the Buddhist teachings. So, what exactly do the Buddhist teachings make clear? In other words, what is the basis of our world according to the Buddhist teachings?
The content of Buddhist teachings is multi-faceted, but all based upon sentient beings as the starting point. The diverse things in the world are countless. In the Buddhist teachings, these are categorised into two major groups, namely sentient beings of the biological realm and non-sentient beings of the natural realm. The former is called the sentient world, while the latter is called the non-sentient world.
Sentient beings form the basis of these two groups. This can be explained in terms of space and time. In terms of space, we know of this place and that place, here and there. Such cognisance arises due to the continual activities of sentient beings in space. In terms of time, we know of the past, present and future; we know of yesterday, today and tomorrow. Such cognisance arises due to perpetuation of sentient beings in time. Therefore, in the Buddhist teachings, sentient beings are regarded as the basis of our world.
When we discuss or propagate the Buddhist teachings, it has to be based upon sentient beings. Only then can we grasp the core of Buddhist teachings. Otherwise, no matter how profound or abstruse our talk is, we cannot penetrate the essence of the Buddhist teachings. Every doctrine and religion has its central thinking, which is the anchor point from which it offers an explanation of the world. If its explanation of the world is based on objective, external microscopic substances, it is founded upon materialism. If its explanation of the world is based on subjective, inner, mental activities, it is founded upon idealism. In the domain of philosophy, even though there are diverse schools of thought, these can be distinguished as two main factions — idealism and materialism.
Viewed from the Buddhist perspective, the doctrines that emphasise either matter or mind all cannot offer a complete solution to the problems of mankind. The Buddhist teachings explain everything with sentient existence as the starting point. A sentient being comprises a causal combination of matter and mind. It is neither purely matter nor purely mind. A Buddhist practitioner should grasp this point earnestly, in order to understand the truth of Buddhist teachings correctly.
The noun “sentient beings (Sanskrit sattva, Pali satta)” is often mentioned in Buddhist discourse and commentaries. What does “sentient” connote?
“Sentient” has two connotations, namely emotions and deluded consciousness.
In terms of emotions, “sentient” connotes craving, attachment and clinging. A sentient being with emotional activities has three main types of attachment:
1. Attachment to one’s body
Every sentient being, be it a complex lifeform or a simple lifeform, has deep love for its own body. Therefore, in the Five Precepts observed in Buddhism, the First Precept is to refrain from killing. We have deep attachment to our own bodies and we are not willing to let others end our lives. Putting ourselves in others’ shoes, we can understand that other people also have deep attachment to their own bodies and they certainly are not willing to let us end their lives. Therefore, every sentient being has very strong attachment to its body. Without completely overcoming the self-cherishing thought, none can be freed from this kind of attachment to one’s body.
2. Attachment to external conditions
Living in this world, we cannot survive if we are isolated entities. To sustain our lives, we need the support of external factors. Therefore, we become attached to external conditions that are related to our lives and cling on to them.
3. Craving for future lives
A sentient life will disintegrate after a certain period of time. No lifeform can endure forever. However, when this life ends, it does not mean that everything comes to an end. A second life will follow. Even though we cannot know in advance whether the ensuing life will be good or bad, or whether it will be filled with suffering or happiness, yet those who believe in an afterlife will invariably crave for the future life and hope to gain a good rebirth. This is called ‘craving for future lives.”
“Consciousness” connotes cognisance and discernment. Sentient beings race with their deluded consciousness in all direction incessantly, overflowing with enthusiasm and obscured cognisance, thus manifesting various activities. The philosophers of ancient India described the deluded consciousness of sentient beings as joyful, lively, brilliant and enthusiastic, which together mean that the vibrant life stream is constantly exuding warmth and enthusiasm in the world, being joyful active all the time.
Unenlightened worldings and enlightened bodhisattvas are the same in such “activeness”. The difference is that bodhisattvas transform their emotions with wisdom, so that their lives improve contiunually and they attain a state in which they do not get moved by worldly emotions, hence they are called “enlightened beings”. On the other hand, unenlightened worldlings lack wisdom to overcome their emotions. They only pursue sensual pleasures all day long and they are driven by their emotions in everything, so they are “unenlightened sentient beings”. Sentient beings thus have emotions and deluded consciousness. Our world is centred upon sentient beings. The Buddhist teachings are also taught with sentient beings as the starting point.
2. WHAT ARE THE PROBLEMS ENCOUNTERED BY SENTIENT BEINGS?
Our world is based upon sentient beings. Then, what are the problems sentient beings encounter in the world that required Buddha’s appearance in this world to resolve them?
To understand the problems encountered by sentient beings, we must first understand the sentient lifeform, which arises due to causal combination of mind and matter, so it has both mental aspects and material aspects. Such a lifeform experiences various internal and external restrictions; hence many problems arise due to lack of freedom in its activities. Amidst these diverse problems, what is the most fundamental and major problem then?
Buddha put forth “suffering” as the core of all problems. With birth, there will be suffering. We cannot possibly avoid suffering. It is human nature to be averse to suffering and seek happiness. Even though sentient beings live in constant aversion to suffering and quest for happiness, yet the more we loathe suffering and try to stay away from it, the more it gets near us. The more we hope to gain happiness, the further it goes away from us. Therefore, the problem never gets resolved. All doctrines and religions in the world have arisen for the purpose of resolving this big problem of suffering. In the absence of life, or absence of suffering in life, there would be no need for any religion or doctrine in our world.
Life is suffering. This is the reality of our world that none can deny. Then, what exactly is the internal and external suffering which sentient beings are afflicted with? According to the Buddhist texts, there is immeasurable suffering, but this can be summarised as three or eight types of suffering.
Now, I shall explain the eight types of suffering in three categories.
1. Suffering in the biological realm
This refers to the suffering of birth, old age, sickness and death, which everyone experiences due to changes in the mind-body. Which sentient being can be an exception to this? Even though there is an enormous disparity of social class in the world, yet everyone is equal in having to experience old age, sickness and death. We will not be spared just because of high social status, high intelligence or great wealth. We absolutely cannot escape from old age, sickness and death, just by relying upon our authority or meritorious virtues. We must try to overcome such suffering. Most doctrines are intended to get rid of the suffering of mankind, but contemporary medical science, psychology and other disciplines can only help people reduce some suffering. They cannot root out all the suffering of mankind completely.
2. Suffering in the social realm
This refers to suffering due to separation from one’s loved ones and suffering due to association with people and things that one dislikes. One is absolutely not alone in this world, as one cannot avoid contact with people in society. Even if one lives in the deep mountains, one cannot isolate oneself from people completely. If one alienates oneself from others, one cannot survive at all. However, it is absolutely impossible for everyone in society to get along with one another in perfect harmony. One will certainly distinguish those who are on friendlier and closer terms, apart from those whom one bears grudge or enmity against.
For those whom we resent or hate, we hope that we will never meet them again. Yet, as the saying goes, “enemies are bound to meet on a narrow road”. We often meet people whom we have enmity or resentment against. We want to stay away from them but cannot do so. What an agony this is!
As for those with whom we are friendly and close, we hope that we will never be separated from them. Yet, it often turns out that it is our closest children and good friends who leave us. How distressful it is when we can neither see them nor meet up with them!
Politics, law and other secular doctrines are intended for the resolution of such suffering. Even though many human-inflicted suffering can thus be reduced, disputes still exist in society.
3. Suffering in the natural realm
This refers to suffering which arises when desires are not gratified. What are the prerequisites for survival in this world? Our clothing, food, accommodation and means of transport come from the natural world. As long as we have enough materials sustain our lives, we should be contented. However, we invariably hope to surpass others in enjoyment of life pleasures. With limitless desires, we seek to acquire material things which are limited. When we cannot get what we want, we experience suffering. Even if we gain what we want by chance, we need to do everything possible to preserve them. The suffering that we experience when we lose them is also a form of “suffering which arises when desires are not gratified”. Since everyone is seeking these materials for sustenance, disputes will arise if there is unequal distribution of these materials.
All secular theories and doctrines are intended to seek solutions for the three categories of suffering mentioned above, but they can only resolve human suffering partly, not completely. They can resolve the minor aspects, but not the root of the problem. Only Buddha’s teachings. which unifies practice with wisdom, can enable us to overcome suffering thoroughly at its root.
Buddha found the root source of suffering and eliminated it thoroughly, so He was able to overcome all pain and difficulties.
What is the root source of suffering? In other words, where does all suffering come from? All suffering arises in dependence upon the lifeform. Sentient life is a combination of the Five Aggregates, namely forms, feelings, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness. The Five Aggregates flourish in sentient lives like a blazing fire, causing us to experience agony and pain. in the Buddhist texts, this is described as “suffering due to flourishing of the Five Aggregates”.
As long as one exists in a lifeform comprising the Five Aggregates, one cannot be freed from suffering. As it is said in Heart Discourse, one must be able to “gain penetrative insight into the emptiness of the Five Aggregates”, before one can truly “overcome all suffering and pain”. Buddha discovered that the root of the problems of sentient beings lies in themselves. He further guided sentient beings how to work on themselves, in order to overcome the problems of life, get liberated from suffering and attain happiness.
3. SENTIENT EXISTENCE IS CENTRED UPON HUMAN BEINGS
The term “sentient beings” refers to beings with the capacity for sensation and mental activities of the deluded consciousness, such as craving and clinging. In the Buddhist discourses and commentaries, it mentioned sentient beings in the “Five Destinations” and “Six Realms Of Rebirth”.
The “Five Destinations” refer to the realms of celestial beings, human beings, hell beings, hungry ghosts and animals. The “Six Realms of Rebirth” include an additional realm of demigods. In either classification, we belong to one type of sentient beings — human beings. Even though there are countless types of sentient beings, sentient existence is centred upon human beings. Therefore, we must not live this human life in vain.
Sentient existence is centred upon human beings, not only because the realm of human beings is in the midst of the Five Destinations but also because only human beings have the possibility of progressing towards Enlightenment. Celestial beings are in a higher state of rebirth than human beings, but celestial beings in the heavens in Realm of Forms and Realm of Formlessness indulge in the bliss of meditative concentration, so they cannot practise spiritual cultivation in accordance with Buddha’s teachings. The celestial beings in Realm of Desires are overwhelmed with sensual pleasures and they often forget the Buddhist teachings, so they cannot practise spiritual cultivation in accordance with the Buddhist teachings too. For instance, Sakra, the ruler of Trayatrimsa Heaven, once invited Buddha to expound His teachings. Buddha imparted His teaching on impermanence to Sakra, who was touched by the edification at that time. However, once Sakra returned to Trayatrimsa Heaven, he was preoccupied with enjoyment of sensual pleasures again, thus totally forgetting about impermanence and spiritual cultivation. It is clearly impossible to learn and practise the Buddhist teachings in the heavens.
Then, let us look at sentient beings which are inferior to human beings, namely animals, hungry ghost and hell beings. They are constantly threatened and distressed by diverse suffering. They have to endure all kinds of suffering and pain all the time, so would they have any time to learn and practise the Buddhist teachings at all?
According to the Buddhist teachings, there is more suffering than happiness in the human world. Some people may claim that human beings live in absolute suffering, yet sometimes we also enjoy some happiness. Some people may claim that human beings are absolutely happy, yet sometimes we are besieged with a lot of suffering. It is the presence of suffering that arouses renunciation in us, impelling us to learn and practise the Buddhist teachings, so as to transcend the mundane world.
Now that we have gained this precious human form, as well as heard the rare Buddhist teachings which enable us to be liberated from suffering and gain happiness, then how should we make good use of this human life without living in vain? It is only through earnest spiritual practice based on the Buddhist teachings that we will not waste this human life or live in vain in this human world.
When one has this human form, one may not treasure it, but once this human form is lost, it may be very difficult to regain the human form again in future lives. Therefore, as Buddhist practitioners, we must never forget that “this human form is rare and hard to come by”.