Wondrous Lotus Sutra 靜思妙蓮華
Manifesting Parinirvana to Deliver Sentient Beings
From Dharma Master Cheng Yen’s notes:
>> "Even when we suppose that the Tathagata abides permanently without ever entering cessation, we should realize all the more so how rare it is to meet a Buddha in the world. We must give rise to thoughts full of admiration for the Buddha and full of yearning to cultivate the path. It was for this reason that [the Buddha] manifested Parinirvana as skillful means."
>> In the Lotus Sutra’s Chapter on the Tathagata’s Lifespan, [the Buddha] says, “For the sake of delivering sentient beings, I manifest Parinirvana as skillful means. However, in truth, I never enter Parinirvana, but permanently abide here to teach the Dharma”.
>> "He watches them grow old and feeble. Their hair turns white, their faces wrinkle, their teeth grow sparse and their bodies wither. He thinks, 'They will die before long; I must give them the teachings to help them attain the fruit of the path.'" [Lotus Sutra, Chapter 18 - On Taking Joy in Others' Merits and Virtues]
>> "He immediately employs skillful means and teaches the True Dharma of Nirvana 'There is nothing in the world that lasts forever; it is all like foam, bubbles or flickering light. You all must quickly give rise to a sense of renunciation.'" [Lotus Sutra, Chapter 18 - On Taking Joy in Others' Merits and Virtues]
>> He immediately employs skillful means and teaches the True Dharma of Nirvana: Right away, he teaches them with skillful means to obliterate their ignorance, dust-like delusions and afflictions forever, so that they may enter the world-transcending True Dharma of Nirvana.
>> There is nothing in the world that lasts forever; it is all like foam, bubbles or flickering light: This is an analogy for how this body is impermanent and unsubstantial and will start to decay in the span of an instant. Everything in this world is ephemeral, just like foam, bubbles or flickering light. This body is like the gathering of sea foam; like foam, it cannot be held onto. The body is like bubbles on water, which disappear as quickly as they arise and do not last long. The body is like a hot, flickering flame; it gives rise to desire as if it were thirst.
>> You all must quickly give rise to a sense of renunciation: Worldly matters and appearances are like our dust-like afflictions. Our ignorance and delusions are endless and unrelenting. Once we understand suffering's causation and accumulation, we must quickly distance ourselves from it.
"Even when we suppose that the Tathagata
abides permanently without ever entering cessation,
we should realize all the more so
how rare it is to meet a Buddha in the world.
We must give rise to
thoughts full of admiration for the Buddha
and full of yearning to cultivate the path.
It was for this reason
that [the Buddha] manifested Parinirvana as skillful means."
This is telling everyone to "suppose" that the Tathagata abides permanently without ever entering cessation. From 2000 years ago up to the present, the Buddha has remained here without ever entering Parinirvana or leaving this world. Even when we suppose this is the case, we should realize all the more so how rare it is to meet the Buddha in this world. Since this is a very big world, the Buddha [could be] in a place far away from us. As the Buddha's disciples, if the Buddha were in a faraway place, we would cherish him even more.
We must constantly "give rise to thoughts full of admiration for the Buddha and full of yearning to cultivate the path." Our minds should constantly give rise to thoughts of admiration for the Buddha. From a faraway place, the Buddha is able to guide us through life's confusions so that we might find our way to the right path. There is so much distance between us. Oh, we are so full of admiration. The Buddha is over there. If we could get a bit closer, wouldn't that be great? This causes us to give rise to thoughts full of admiration and yearning for the Buddha. Yet, for those who were actually beside the Buddha during his time, they all felt that the Buddha's teachings were not that great, that they were nothing special, that what they saw and heard was quite common.
So, for a period of time, the Buddha began to express that to transform these people, He had to tell them [He would enter cessation] to get them to give rise to a sense of yearning and feel that this was a rare [opportunity]. So, with skillful means, He revealed that He would enter Parinirvana. If no one needed Him [to remain in the world], the Buddha would enter Parinirvana at age 80. If sentient beings needed Him, the Buddha would remain in this world for one kalpa. But the disciples beside Him at the time, Ananda and the others, remained silent. So, the Buddha felt that sentient beings did not take joy in the Buddha-Dharma anymore, that this was [the end] of their affinity. So, He "entered Parinirvana at age 80," meaning He chose to enter Parinirvana at age 80.
"Even when we suppose that the Tathagata abides permanently without ever entering cessation, we should realize all the more so how rare it is to meet a Buddha in the world." The Buddha did not remain in this world for a very long time, but if He had remained here for a long time, [He would deserve] our reverence all the same. The Buddha should permanently abide in this world; we must have this kind [of reverence for Him]. But we are only human. We greatly revere what is far away from us, but do not see the wondrousness in what is right beside us. This is the way things are in this world. Worldly people are like this. Unenlightened beings are like this. This is very common. The people who were close to Him did not cherish Him very much. So, the Buddha chose to enter Parinirvana. This was a form of skillful means.
In fact, we already read about thisin the Chapter on the Tathagata's Lifespan. "For the sake of delivering sentient beings, I manifest Parinirvana as skillful means. However, in truth, I never enter Parinirvana, but permanently abide here to teach the Dharma."
In the Lotus Sutra’s Chapter on the Tathagata’s Lifespan, [the Buddha] says, “For the sake of delivering sentient beings, I manifest Parinirvana as skillful means. However, in truth, I never enter Parinirvana, but permanently abide here to teach the Dharma”.
This is what the Buddha tells us. On the surface, it seems like the Buddha's life in this world has ended. In fact, He has never entered cessation and abides permanently in this world to teach the Dharma. This is because for the sake of the future world, the Buddha-Dharma still needs to be put to use. So long as the Buddha-Dharma is put to use in this world, this means that the Buddha's Dharmakaya is still here in this world, together with sentient beings.
From this passage, we know that so long as we cherish and love the Buddha, the Buddha will remain beside us and live on in our hearts. He will walk beside us in our everyday life, giving us boundless wisdom and strength. This is the Buddha's lifespan. He abides in our world, and He is part of our lives. Although the Buddha technically said that He would enter Parinirvana, this was just a form of skillful means. In fact, if we sentient beings are sincere, we will engrave the Buddha's wisdom-life into our hearts and bones.
We have said before that if we are sincere, we will take the knowledge that we have and transform it into wisdom. This is "transforming consciousness into wisdom." It is through our consciousness that we are listening and comprehending right now. We start bustling about all day, going about our lives in this world. Conflicts arise and take up space in our consciousness. "I am clearly in the right. I have to fold it this way for it to be neat, but you insist on doing it that way. We have conflicting ways of doing things." So, we are in opposition over this matter. This is an interpersonal conflict.
This is how we unenlightened beings are, despite having just heard the Dharma in the morning. We should be grateful that there is someone else to help us do this, lightening our work load. We work so hard, and when someone shares this burden with us, we should be very grateful. If we see things with this kind of mindset, we will "transform consciousness into wisdom."
If we have wisdom, we will integrate the Buddha's teachings [into our lives] perfectly. How should we listen to the Dharma together? As we listen to the Dharma, we must mindfully seek to comprehend the Buddha-Dharma with deep, heartfelt understanding. Once we listen to it, we should teach the Dharma to others. Once we share it with others, there will be even more people to teach the Dharma. Their teachings might be really great, and they may even teach the Great Vehicle Dharma, which is even more beneficial to sentient beings. So, we must hasten to call people to go listen. This is a very rare opportunity, so we must hasten to listen [to the Dharma]. This is the way we encourage others to listen to the Dharma. Perhaps many have already come to listen; though we might already understand it ourselves, we still ought to take joy in listening to it.
When we sit there and listen and someone new comes in, we must take care of them and hope that after they listen, their minds will become calm. We quickly get up and give away our seats to those who have come to hear the Dharma for the first time. We greet them, "Have a seat. Come relax and listen. A Dharma master is teaching the sutra." It is fine if we have to stand in the back. If another person comes in, we must hurry to greet them. We should have this state of mind and behave very naturally. We must personally cultivate and spread the Dharma. When we hear others teach the Dharma, we must also give rise to Dharma-joy. We must help others to listen to the Dharma with a calm mind. When we see others hesitating to come in, we must quickly go to greet them. When we greet them, they will naturally come in, strengthening their aspiration to listen to the Dharma.
This is taking joy in others' merits and virtues. This requires our knowledge and wisdom. Wisdom is limitless. Wisdom can lead to one good thing after another, continuously inspiring righteous acts and awakening a person's virtuous potential. And what about our consciousness? When we imagine something and try to do it, but fail to do it perfectly, it is because we fail to see the whole picture. When someone else comes to help us, we take issue with them. This is the consciousness of unenlightened beings. When compared with the perfection that arises from listening to the Dharma and taking it to heart, which can benefit infinite number of people who encounter the Buddha-Dharma, this is of course different.
So, we must transform consciousness into wisdom. We have already discussed how people in the world did not take joy in the Dharma. They did not understand the importance of seeking the Dharma so it may abide forever. So, the Buddha had to use His wisdom, employing skillful means to reveal that He would enter Parinirvana. He was already old. His hair was grey, His face was wrinkled, His teeth had fallen out, His vision was poor and His body was not functioning well. He would soon enter cessation. He was about to enter Parinirvana. This is what He told everyone. This is the law of nature in this world. The Buddha transcends the law of nature. Although He followed the law of nature by going through old age and illness, the Buddha's intrinsic wisdom is everlasting; it is one with the universe. How could it ever arise or cease? It neither arises nor ceases.
The true principles of the world's myriad things do not arise or cease. Yesterday was like this, and today will also pass the same way. Whether it is windy or raining, time passes in the same manner. Humans are the same; we are born, and then we die. In fact, this [cycle] is everlasting. We all experience fragmentary samsara. When we first began discussing the sutra, during that period of time, we talked a lot about "fragmentary samsara" and "transformational samsara." As unenlightened beings, we are in fragmentary samsara. This can last a long time or a short time. Because we are subject to impermanence, we do not know how long we will have. When impermanence strikes, we might not be old. We must cherish life. Doing the right thing in life will set us free. How do we find the right direction?
Our body enables us to do this work. If our mind goes astray and we start to go down the wrong path at a young age, once impermanence strikes, we will have never walked in the right direction. We will have never encountered the true principles. We will have died like this. We will bring nothing with us in our consciousness but for our habitual tendencies. Once we leave, we will return again. This kind of life brings unbearable suffering. Suffering comes from "causation." From our past fragmentary samsara, we have accumulated ignorance and interpersonal conflicts. We return with these causes and conditions, accumulating them layer by layer, without ever getting a chance to hear the Dharma, not ever. So, we remain within the suffering of samsara.
We have heard from [our volunteers] abroad that many countries have different living conditions. There are so many people in poverty and hardship. All Tzu Chi volunteers share the same mission to go among people as Living Bodhisattvas, taking up the Bodhisattva mission everywhere. "Bodhisattvas arise because of suffering sentient beings." They see all kinds of different sentient beings in suffering. They are able to go among them and serve them because a Bodhisattva's spiritual training ground is to serve amidst suffering sentient beings and alleviate their suffering. When they return, they all share [their experiences].
No matter how vast this world is, wherever there are people, there will be unbearable suffering. Wherever there are Bodhisattvas, they will alleviate their suffering and hardships. Bodhisattvas have affinities with the Buddha. We do not know how many lifetimes ago the seeds of Bodhisattvahood were sown. The Buddha has already sown the seeds of Bodhisattvas. They are in this place, and no matter where they are, they will have these causes and conditions. They will embrace these causes and conditions for the Bodhisattva-path and go on to transform sentient beings. Then, they will be able to gather together some Bodhisattvas who share the same mission to do good deeds. Every year, they bring people back [to the Abode], guiding them here to form aspirations. Then, they lead them into places where sentient beings are in hardship to witness suffering and realize their own blessings. This inspires them to form aspirations and begin their volunteer training. Once they all share the same mission, they accompany them back here to become certified.
This is like when, [in 2018], they brought people from 5-6 countries here for the Jing Si Lifestyle Camp. They all had the chance to come share about their experiences with me, the causes and conditions that brought them here and how their way of looking at things changed after encountering Tzu Chi. They live a joyful life, happily serving others. They formed aspirations and made vows to do Tzu Chi work from then on.
There was even one young person who said that his mother was also a Tzu Chi volunteer, but he used to hate hearing about Tzu Chi. As soon as he heard people talking about Tzu Chi, he would avoid them. This went on for 10 to 20 years. He did not dislike Tzu Chi; he was just afraid that people would drag him into doing volunteer work. But by this time, he had the affinity, and the causes and conditions were ripe. His little sister asked him, "Brother, will you go with us this time?"
His little sister and her husband had already joined Tzu Chi and were already certified. He really supported their volunteer work. He saw how much joy it brought them. This time, they both invited him, and he happily came with them. He discovered how joyful it was to do Tzu Chi work. He formed aspirations and made vows to give all his co-workers the opportunity to come here [and learn] about Tzu Chi. On his own accord, he was willing to tell everyone about how he finally got involved with Tzu Chi after avoiding it [for so long]. He felt that it had taken him a bit longer, that he had delayed it for such a long time.
There was another person who also said that he had known about Tzu Chi for over 20 years. He had the chance to come across it on his own, when his friend brought him along. Once he went home, though, he stopped coming, and he broke off contact with Tzu Chi. It was not until this year , after 20 years had passed, that his wife told him, "Someone said this Tzu Chi event is really good. Tzu Chi as a whole is pretty great. There will be a lot of people this time. Many businessmen will also attend. Someone invited us; we should go." He figured, "Alright, I will go with my wife."
When he came this time, as soon as they left the airport, they met an orderly group of Tzu Chi volunteers who picked them up and took them everywhere. He was very touched by this. He was so touched, he was practically in tears. He was very moved. "How is this organization so wonderful? Tzu Chi volunteers are so welcoming." This was not a show. Everyone was so sincere. So, he was very inspired. He stood up and said, "I regret that I have wasted the last 20 years. Now, I am very grateful." He turned and said to his wife, "Thank you, I am so lucky to have you." This is also an affinity.
At that time, they got the idea to come learn about [Tzu Chi], and they discovered how sincere everyone in this organization is. This great team took such good care of everyone.
This is also leading people by skillful means! He did not know us, so we led him to walk the path that we have taken. We do not do this for ourselves, but to share in the joy of others. "We have already come to walk this path. Now that you have formed aspirations, you must also walk this path. Come, we will accompany you. This is the path we have taken. So, this is what it means to have a sincere heart. When we spend our lifetime taking joy in skillful means, we will not only be joyful, but we will also be able to transform people with skillful means.
The Buddha also often instructed us to take joy in skillful means. He Himself likewise took joy in skillful means. He came to this world according to the causes and conditions of sentient beings. To suit sentient beings' [needs] for skillful means, He manifested [entering] Parinirvana. The Buddha could have abided in this world for one kalpa.
He had already expressed to everyone, "My lifespan is such that I can abide in this world for one kalpa." But at that time, everyone was silent and listless. So, the Buddha looked around and saw that everyone was unresponsive. Therefore, He began to announce, "I will enter Parinirvana. Everyone must hasten to listen to the Dharma now." The Buddha came to this world for one great cause, to teach the Bodhisattva Way. People must hasten to grasp the Bodhisattva Way. This world is full of so much suffering. There are natural disasters and man-made calamities; life is impermanent. There are all kinds of hardships. Everyone must quickly form Bodhisattva-aspirations to learn the Bodhisattva Way by going among people and forming good affinities with sentient beings. Everyone is capable of attaining Buddhahood.
So, when [the Buddha] said, "for the sake of delivering sentient beings," He hoped to get everyone to realize what a rare encounter this was. To be able to meet a Buddha in this world is a rare [opportunity]. It is rare to live as the same time as the Buddha. The Buddha had already announced that He would enter Parinirvana, and this was the time to quickly heighten their awareness and diligently advance. This was the Buddha's skillful means to lead everyone to hurry and make the most of this time while He was still in the world. "I manifest Parinirvana as skillful means. However, in truth, I never enter Parinirvana." The Buddha's spirit is everlasting and unceasing. He goes and comes freely, never entering cessation. As long as we all keep the Dharma in our hearts, the Buddha's Dharmakaya will be part of our lives. "[I] permanently abide here to teach the Dharma." He lives on forever in our hearts. We only need to "turn consciousness into wisdom," and the Buddha will be part of our wisdom-life and never enter cessation.
The true principles of the universe are ever-abiding, never entering cessation. Everyone must hear this and contemplate it, for we have discussed this previously.
"He watches them grow old and feeble. Their hair turns white, their faces wrinkle, their teeth grow sparse and their bodies wither. He thinks, 'They will die before long; I must give them the teachings to help them attain the fruit of the path.'"
The appearance of aging is already apparent. Their hair had also turned white, and their faces were also wrinkled. They would also lose their teeth. Their bodies would also grow withered and thin. Their time of death was approaching.
So, He had to teach them immediately, for those listening to the Dharma were also growing old. In the Chapter on Faith and Understanding, the four elders requested the teachings from the Buddha. They also said, "We are getting old. We have just come to realize the existence of our everlasting wisdom-life. Buddha, we are actually sons of a rich family. We have always felt that we were so poor. It turns out, we are all very wealthy. The Buddha-Dharma and our wisdom-life is ever-lasting. It turns out that our family has so many treasures."
The "family" they spoke of was in reference to [the parable of the poor son]. [The son's] family had so much wealth. He left his family to wander out in the world. He had nothing to his name and lived a harsh life. His family waited for him, and his father kept searching for his child. When he finally found his child, he quickly told him to come home. This is in the Chapter on Faith and Understanding.
In the next sutra passage, [the Buddha] said,
"He immediately employs skillful means and teaches the True Dharma of Nirvana 'There is nothing in the world that lasts forever; it is all like foam, bubbles or flickering light. You all must quickly give rise to a sense of renunciation.'"
The Buddha began by saying that, in life, due to the law of nature, everyone will grow old. The Buddha told everyone what was on His mind. He used skillful means to teach the Dharma. For over 40 years, He led sentient beings to enter [the Dharma]. Gradually, He led sentient beings, His disciples, toward the Bodhisattva-path. This required Him to use skillful means for such a long time. Now, they had to enter the Bodhisattva Way. There was not much time left now.
So, now He had to tell everyone, "I am about to enter Parinirvana." This was also a form of skillful means. First, He had to bring this life to an end, but actually, the Buddha's life is everlasting. He transcended this body of skillful means and returned to Parinirvana, which is everlasting. Parinirvana is known as "great Nirvana," which is completely free of the shifting forms and appearances of this world; there are none of these.
He immediately employs skillful means and teaches the True Dharma of Nirvana: Right away, he teaches them with skillful means to obliterate their ignorance, dust-like delusions and afflictions forever, so that they may enter the world-transcending True Dharma of Nirvana.
The Buddha came to this world like everyone else. He also went through the stage of infancy and the stage of childhood. He went through youth, adulthood and old age. He manifested in this world with the same way of life as ours. So, He manifested these appearances in the world as skillful means. This body of skillful means could remain for a kalpa, but no one would cherish it or attain awakening. So, He also followed the world's law of nature, and at the age of 80, He entered cessation and everlasting life.
This return to everlasting life is great Nirvana. He is free of the worldly appearances of old age, illness and death. He has none of these; this is everlasting life. He is free of the fluctuations of afflictions and ignorance. He always abides in His wisdom-life, and this wisdom-life never changes with time. This is "innate enlightenment." [By entering] Parinirvana, He also entered His intrinsic nature of True Suchness. This is His eternal, everlasting wisdom-life. [The Buddha] returns lifetime after lifetime. So, this is "the True Dharma of Nirvana." Truly, returning to Nirvana is returning to the True Dharma. It is free of arising and cessation.
This world arises and ceases. Every day, in our body, the new constantly replaces the old. We are changing every day. If we take out an old photo and look at it, we will say, "Wow, I used to look like this. How did I change so much?" Not only are we changing now, we are changing every second of every day. We are not just changing now. This is due to "the aggregate of action." No one born in this world can escape this aggregate of action. So, we all abide within this aggregate of action. To attain true liberation is to realize "the Five Aggregates are all empty." We must empty ourselves of the aggregate of action. Only then will we truly be free and at ease.
Thus, Nirvana is to be empty of all things. Afflictions and ignorance, sight, smell, taste and touch will all be gone. There is no form, feeling, perception, action or consciousness. The Five Aggregates, Five Dusts and Five Consciousnesses will all be gone. This is returning to everlasting, eternal life. There is no arising or cessation. This is "Parinirvana." Parinirvana is returning to the True Dharma. This is the Buddha's wisdom-life. The wisdom-life we sentient beings must seek is right here.
So, "Right away, He teaches them with skillful means." He only comes to this world as a form of skillful means in response to the needs of sentient beings. At this time, He was also responding to what they "did not need." So, it was also as a form of skillful means that He entered Parinirvana. So, because of this, He used this method to teach the Dharma and remind everyone that life is impermanent, and that this is true even for the Buddha. Following nature's law of impermanence, at the age of 80, He also entered Parinirvana.
So, He "obliterates their ignorance, dust-like delusions and afflictions forever." The Buddha entered Parinirvana to obliterate their ignorance, dust-like delusions and afflictions forever. We have many afflictions, as numerous as grains of sand. We all live amidst ignorance and great suffering. So, what makes us suffer? Alas, afflictions make us suffer! There really is so much suffering. Thus, the Buddha entered Parinirvana. He entered Parinirvana by skillful means and came to the world by skillful means as well. So, [He manifested] birth and death as skillful means. This is the state of the Buddha.
Thus, "There is nothing in the world that lasts forever; it is all like foam, bubbles or flickering light."
There is nothing in the world that lasts forever; it is all like foam, bubbles or flickering light: This is an analogy for how this body is impermanent and unsubstantial and will start to decay in the span of an instant. Everything in this world is ephemeral, just like foam, bubbles or flickering light. This body is like the gathering of sea foam; like foam, it cannot be held onto. The body is like bubbles on water, which disappear as quickly as they arise and do not last long. The body is like a hot, flickering flame; it gives rise to desire as if it were thirst.
There is nothing in this entire world that lasts forever. There is no one who does not experience birth and death. There is no magic pill that keeps us from death. There is still birth and death. So, nothing in the world lasts forever. There is nothing in this world that lasts forever without ever entering cessation, nothing. This is an analogy for how the body is impermanent and unsubstantial, and will quickly wither away in an instant. It is constantly withering away and growing old, and it is in a constant state of decay. Even the best wood slowly and imperceptibly rots, eaten away by insects. Iron will also rust over time and decay away. It is the same; this world is unsubstantial. This rot and decay do not come all at once, but moment [by moment]. Every moment in time, every single moment, one after another, passes by in quick succession, as everything ceaselessly rots away.
So, "Everything in this world is ephemeral, just like foam, bubbles or flickering light." Everything fades as quickly as clouds and smoke and is gone. "This body is like the gathering of sea foam; like foam, it cannot be held onto." It is like foam on the water. When we look at flowing water, where there is a stone or something blocking it, it will naturally stir up bubbles. The bubbles arise on the surface of the water. When light shines on the bubbles, there are so many colors. It looks so beautiful, dazzling and bright, and colorful, too. If we try to scoop them up, they burst as soon as we touch them. The principle is the same. So, like bubbles, we cannot [hold onto this body]. As soon as we see [bubbles], they disappear.