Critical Issue of Life and Death
Life is impermanent. After we come into this world, we may live for ten
years, possibly a hundred years, or perhaps even longer. But we grow,
and finally we have to die. People normally think of death as the end
of everything. There is nothing great about it. But according to
Buddhism, our life does not begin only at the moment of birth; and
death too, does not imply the end of everything. If life was as simple
as this, then this would encourage us to fritter away our time with no
purpose. Actually, we existed before we were born, and we will have
another life after death. We will be reborn in another place and the
cycle of life and death will continue endlessly. The constant rebirth
into this suffering world is a bigger problem than the simple death at
the end of each life! Constant rebirth is difficult to solve and it
becomes a critical issue when we recognize and wish to overcome it.
The situation is analogous to a businessman who starts his business at
the beginning of the year. At the end of the year, he has to account
for his profit and loss, repay all his debts and get back what others
owe him. This process repeats the following year, and every year
thereafter. The closing of everything. The businessman plans to
accumulate long term profits and increasingly valuable assets year
after year. But this is not an easy task to fulfil!.
How should we handle this problem? We can be more confident about the
following year's financial position if the current year's business is
profitable. Everything will run more smoothly next year. However, if
this year results in a loss, then next year's financial position will
be tight. We may have to borrow from here or there, causing a lot of
frustration, worry, and suffering for ourselves.
Life is the same. When there is birth, there will be death. During this
process of life and death, we have to consider our profits and losses.
If we do not put in an effort to uplift ourselves, we may lose our
human status in the next life, and this will certainly be a loss! If we
improve ourselves and become a better person in this life, then we will
create good prospects for our future.
Although our "End of Year (life) Account" may show an unfavorable
"financial (karmic) position", if we can justify ourselves skilfully,
we may still get through the last difficult period. Thus, a practicing
Buddhist should pay attention to the moment of their last breath. We
should behave well, think positively, and be mindful at the moment of
our last breath.
When we talk about life and death, some think that death means the end
of everything. Thus, we must first clarify these misunderstandings
about "death" before we discuss "life". People normally have a fear of
death. In fact, death is nothing to be afraid of. This is analogous to
the businessman who runs a good business at all times and manages it
well until the closure of the financial year. When the New Year comes
he will certainly enjoy a comfortable life. Therefore, as long as we
have prepared well during our lives, we should be happy when we are
healthy, and should not be frightened when sickness or even death
Three Types of Death
According to Buddhism, there are three types of death:
1. The end of life: No matter how long we live, once the life that we
obtained from our past karma is finished, we will die. This is like a
lamp. When the fuel is consumed, the light will go out. If the "karmic
fuel" for our life is for one hundred years, then, at the end of one
hundred years, we will die, and there are no alternatives!
2. The exhaustion of merit: We need daily necessities such as food,
clothing, and shelter in order to live. Some of us may die before we
reach old age because of the exhaustion of our merits. We may die of
hunger or cold.
3. Death at a time when one should not die: Some of us may die because
of wars, floods, fires, accidents, sickness, lack of care or nutrition,
or over-work. This type of death is different to the other two types
With regards to death, a practicing Buddhist should remember two
1. Whether we are young or old, we may die at any time. Although humans
have an average life span, exhaustion of merits or unforeseen
circumstances for any individual may cause us to die at any time. Life
is impermanent. So we should be diligent in practicing the Buddha's
teachings, and not wait until the next life, or life thereafter!
2. Do not think or misunderstand that life is determined by our past
karma only. In fact, the major influence comes from our actions in the
current life. If we always commit wrong deeds, do not take care of
ourselves, and are lazy, then consequently we may become poor and may
die of starvation while young or middle aged. But death as such does
not necessarily imply the end of one's actual life process.
How Does the Cycle of Life and Death Come About?
What is this cycle of birth and death? How does this cycle of life and
death come about? What determines our improvement or deterioration?
According to Buddhism, it is determined by our karma. Karma is the
energy or influence that is left behind by our actions. Due to our past
karma, we are born as human beings in this life. Similarly, the good
and evil karma of this life and past lives will also affect our future
lives. Many Buddhists think of 'karma' as 'evil karma' only. This is
not true. The energy that is left behind by our actions or thoughts, be
it good or evil, is referred to as 'karma'. Our future is determined by
our karma. Thus, the Buddha Dharma says, "We reap what we sow".
Between our past and present, which bad or good karma, will determine
our next life? There are three situations as stated in the following:
a) Strong karma
When we are at the brink of death, the good and evil karma we have
generated in our life will appear in front of our eyes. Usually we
generate a lot of good or bad karma every day. At the moment of our
death, if strong good or evil thoughts arise, they will determine our
For example, the memory of killing one's own father is unforgettable.
The thought will always be in one's mind. At the moment of death, this
evil scene (karmic action) will appear in front of one's eyes.
Similarly, one who is very filial will see their own filiality and good
deeds at the moment of their last breath. This is similar to a debtor.
At the end of the year, all creditors will come and chase after the
debtor for their money, and the debtor will pay the creditor who
applies him the greatest pressure first.
b) Habitual Influence
Some people may have karma that is neither extremely good nor extremely
bad. In these circumstances, habitual actions may become the major
influence on their fate. Accumulated minor evil actions will produce an
evil result. Accumulated minor good deeds will produce a good result.
There is a saying;
"Although a drop of water is tiny,
it may gradually fill a big container."
The Buddha also gave us an example: If there is a big tree that is
leaning to the east, it will certainly fall towards the east when being
The Chinese always say: "At the time of death, the ghosts that feel
injustice will come and ask for one's life." Those who killed pigs and
goats will see pigs and goats, and those who killed snakes will see
snakes. If we see these, we will have great suffering. We may tremble
with intense fear, and lose our minds. In fact, the pigs, goats and
other animals that have been killed would have been reborn according to
their own karma. However, those who did the killing will tend to
continue to act in an evil way. They will accumulate more evil karma.
Thus, at the moment of death the karmic action (cows, snakes, pigs, or
goats etc. requesting recompense of life for lives taken) will appear
in front of us and we will receive retribution according to our karma.
There is a story about a person who robbed and murdered a rich man in
the middle of the night. After the incident, he felt that the rich man
was always following him asking for his money and life. In time the
murderer was frightened to death. Later, it was found that the rich man
was only injured and was still alive. This anecdote illustrates that
evil ghosts do not come to ask for one's life. The Buddha's explanation
of karmic action explains the result perfectly. Those who did evil will
see suffering at the last moment before death overtakes them, and those
who behaved well will be peaceful and happy at that last moment. So we
should be careful about the habitual karma that we generate daily!
c) The Last Thought
Some people may not have accomplished great things; perpetrated
particularly evil deeds; nor established distinct habitual actions.
During the last moment of their lives such people may suddenly think of
something. This last thought, whether good or evil, will influence
their next rebirth. The Buddha's teachings encourage those who are
seriously ill to remember and to recite the merits of the Buddha,
Dharma and Sangha and the merits of Dana and of following the precepts.
This will help us to have good thoughts. Relying on the energy of these
good thoughts, we may have a good rebirth. Some may generate a lot of
good karma during normal times, but may be nervous or sad during their
last breath. This may cause evil thoughts to arise and hence result in
a poor rebirth. This is analogous to a merchant who has done good
business throughout the year but who does not manage his business
affairs well during the closing period of the financial year and thus
causes the whole year's effort to be wasted.
When someone is about to die, whether they are young or old, we should
try not to cry, as this may affect the dying person's emotional state
and cause them suffering. We should advise the person to let everything
go and to think about the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, good acts of Dana,
and other meritorious deeds that they may have done.
It is as if our business was not very good during the year, but because
of skilful management during the crucial end of year period, we may
nevertheless have a happy new year. However, we should remember that
our daily effort is still important. It is not rendered insignificant
compared to the last minute's effort. If we habitually commit evil
deeds it is hardly to be expected that we will have good thoughts at
our death. If we habitually accumulate great merits, or have more
modest tendency to do good, then with the assistance of others in
recalling these merits during the moment of our last breath, we may
have a better rebirth.
Defilements Necessary for Rebirth
How does rebirth occur after our death? Normally death refers to the
moment when one's breathing and mental activities have stopped, and the
body temperature drops. On the other hand, birth refers to the time
when the baby is born. However, according to the teachings of the
Buddha, our past karma is the main cause of the new life which comes
about when the father's sperm cell combines with an egg from the
mother. This is referred to as conception: the initiation of the birth
process. Thus, those who carry out abortions are in fact committing the
evil deed of killing. Why are we reborn after death? It is not
inevitable that everyone will be reborn. Some may be reborn and others
may not. Rebirth is caused by one's karma. With good karma we will
produce good fruit. With evil karma we will suffer evil results.
If we generate good and evil karma all the time, does this mean that
our cycle of life and death will continue endlessly? In fact, karma
alone may not cause us to be reborn. Besides karma, defilements are
needed as the secondary cause of rebirth. The major defilement is the
'love' of life. Thoughts of greed and attachment to this illusory
world, with the foolish wish to live forever, plant in our deluded
minds the seeds for continuous life and death.
A practicing Buddhist who wishes to end the cycle of life and death
needs to let go of self-centered love and attachment to
self-destructive living. This is similar to planting crops. Although we
may have seeds, without water and fertilizer, the seeds will not
sprout. Thus, even though we may have generated a lot of good or bad
karma, without the fertile conditions provided by defilements (i.e.
love and attachments), the seeds of our sufferings will not sprout. If
we crave for comfort, luxury and wealth, and cling to our life, we will
never break the cycle of life and death. In order to end the cycle of
life and death, we must let go of our attachments thoroughly, then new
life will not emerge.
To achieve this we should remember not to do evil, but to do more good.
We should accumulate our merits in order to gain a good repay in the
future. We should not attach ourselves to the process of life and
death, but to strengthen our determination to leave this deluded,
suffering world. [Recorded by Ming Dao] (Translated by Shi Neng Rong,
edited by Ke Rong, proofread by Shi Neng Rong. (8-2-96))
Immense Teachings on the
Expedient Path of Buddhist Practice
Recollection of the Buddha (s. buddhanusmrti) and the idea of a Pure
Land are skilful means (s. upaya) common among different schools and
different vehicles (s. yana) in Buddhism. However, the most common
practices, particularly in the Pure Land school, involve recollection
(s. smrti) of the Amitabha Buddha and seeking rebirth in the Land of
Ultimate Bliss (s. Sukhamati or Sukhavati).
The practice of the recollection of the Buddha on the Expedient Path is
most completely expounded in Chapter 40 of the Avatamsaka Sutra -
"Samantabhadra's Practices and Vows." This particular practice is
clearly explained therein as
"The Ten Great Vows (s. mahapranidhana) guide one on the path to the
Land of Ultimate Bliss."
(The Ten Great Vows refer to ten vows as well as ten ways of practice.)