Wondrous Lotus Sutra 靜思妙蓮華
The Arising and Ceasing of Karmic Conditions
From Dharma Master Cheng Yen’s notes:
>> "We are born from karmic causes and conditions. As craving and grasping lead to becoming, formation and existence occur amidst decay and disappearance. The causes and conditions of our collective retribution are coming to an end. We must contemplate the body as impure, for it is constantly producing impurities. We must contemplate all feelings as suffering, for the pursuit of desire brings endless suffering."
>> "They will attain a pure body like clear crystal, which sentient beings will rejoice upon seeing." [Lotus Sutra, Chapter 19 - On Dharma Masters' Merits and Virtues]
>> "Because their body will be pure, sentient beings of the great trichiliocosm at the time of birth or time of death, whether superior or lowly, pleasant or wretched, or born into good or bad places, will all be reflected within it." [Lotus Sutra, Chapter 19 - On Dharma Masters' Merits and Virtues]
>> The great trichiliocosm encompasses both the internal and the external, both direct and circumstantial retributions. "The internal" refers to our own minds. A single body contains the trichiliocosm; this is the realm of the Skandha of form, wherein sentient beings experience feeling, perception, action and consciousness. They have all kinds of names, such as the Five Skandhas, 12 Entrances, 18 Realms and other names. "The external" refers to the non-sentient realm. The sentient beings of the world have all kinds of names. According to the principles, when a single ignorant thought arises, it will create the Three Subtleties. External states lead to the Six Coarse Marks. The cessation of thought is called death.
>> If we advance toward goodness in all we do, we will be called "superior and pleasant." If we practice all that is good, we will be born into a virtuous realm. If we commit various evils, we will be called "lowly and wretched." We must discern between good and evil. Careful contemplation and virtuous deeds will make us superior and pleasant, whereas evil deeds will cause us to fall into the Three Evil Destinies.
>> Whether superior or lowly, pleasant or wretched, or born into good or bad places: This refers to how sentient beings throughout the superior and lowly realms, whether pleasant or wretched in appearance, will be reborn into either good or bad places.
>> Matters such as loftiness, lowliness, pleasantness and wretchedness, as well as good and evil retributions are all recorded within the sutra text. Presently, it shows that these matters are non-homogenous. Thus, the Buddha said that all will be reflected within.
"We are born from karmic causes and conditions.
As craving and grasping lead to becoming, formation and existence
occur amidst decay and disappearance.
The causes and conditions of our collective retribution are coming to an end.
We must contemplate the body as impure,
for it is constantly producing impurities.
We must contemplate all feelings as suffering,
for the pursuit of desire brings endless suffering."
We must mindfully seek to realize and understand how life's many sufferings first [arise] from "karmic causes and conditions." Each of us comes to the world due to our karma. The karma that drags us along to this world is the karma that we created in our past lives. So, karma is the cause that [has led to our current] conditions. "We are born from karmic causes and conditions."
What is karma? Karma is that which results from "ignorance. An ignorant thought creates the Three Subtleties. External conditions lead to the Six Coarse Marks." These are things that we have often spoken of. When a thought of ignorance arises, greed, anger and delusion are sure to follow.
So, in the beginning, there is "ignorance," which gives rise to "volitional formation." Then, "volitional formation" gives rise to "consciousness, consciousness" gives rise to "name and form, name and form" give rise to "the Six Entrances, the Six Entrances" give rise to "contact, contact" gives rise to "feeling, feeling" gives rise to "craving, craving" gives rise to "grasping, grasping" gives rise to "becoming, becoming" gives rise to "birth" and then our lifetime begins. We are born, grow old, become sick and then die. [Due to our] "ignorance," in our previous lives, we acted [in ways] [which] created karmic causes, right up until the very end of our lives. Then, we did not know where to go.
Those "volitional formations" were the result of ignorance. Depending on our final "consciousness," without our realizing it, we were reborn following our karmic conditions. Depending on the parents with whom we have a karmic connection, we begin life in someone's womb. We constantly hear women say, "I have it! What is it? I'm pregnant!" When we come into existence, we begin with "name and form." When a husband and wife have relations, causes and conditions come together in such a way that the father's sperm and the mother's egg unite to form a human being. It is truly wondrous how we gradually come to have "name and form."
When the genes of the parents combine, something then "comes into existence." In the mother's belly, in her womb, something continuously transforms through the aggregate of action, until it becomes a complete human being. Eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and mind then form, and we are replete with the Six Roots. The normal human body [possesses] all of these. When karmic conditions mature, we are then born. We leave our mother's womb and come into the world. When we first come into the world, the first sensation we feel is pain, so we cry. This is "feeling." [Our contact] with the world [creates] feelings.
In this way, very gradually, we begin to know "craving." When [a baby] is small, if we always keep a pacifier in the baby's mouth, the baby will develop a craving for it, a habit that they crave. Later, we give them toys, as they are curious. To satisfy their curiosity, we give them many kinds of things to play with. This is how they keep growing up, amidst these "cravings" and "grasping." As they slowly grow up, their attachments [change]. After outgrowing their toys, as babies grow up, their desires and attachments also grow. From something they do not have, they become greedy with desirous thoughts, greed for what is not theirs. Then, they begin creating karma, which leads to "becoming" [something]. We earnestly work hard, using every means we can. The [money] we earn is "the becoming" of something. When we use various means or tricks, we may be harming others for our own benefit. This also leads to "becoming." This "becomes" our karma.
Maybe we were reasonable at a young age and know to be kind-hearted and to use our bodies to serve and love our parents. We know the importance of doing good deeds and the importance of helping others. This is also "becoming," the becoming of blessings. If we do evil, we create karma, but if we are loving and good, then we will create blessings. So, suffering and blessings depend on the karma we create in the world. Blessings, as well as evil, are both kinds of "becoming." Both depend on what we do and create.
So, throughout our lives, it is impossible for us to remain forever young. From birth, we grow from childhood into our youth, from youth into adolescence and then naturally into middle and then old age. This is the process [we experience] in life. This is life's process; from childhood to adolescence, into middle age, and then, when we begin to grow old, our body's functions begin to falter, and we fall ill. We fall ill, and then later, we die. These are the 12 Links of Cyclic Existence. And these links [explain how], "we are born from karmic causes and conditions." It is because of the karma we created that we are born from specific karmic conditions. Are these karmic conditions good or bad? When we die, depending on our final consciousness, we will follow the circumstances we see. This is how our karmic causes and conditions lead us along.
"As craving and grasping lead to becoming, formation and existence occur amidst decay and disappearance." When it comes to our human bodies, our attachment to karmic conditions is what causes our rebirth in the world, but what about the world itself? The world is also subject to formation, existence, decay and disappearance. This world, this earth we live upon, did not yet exist at one time. Once the Earth formed, many different things came to be upon it.
Under the sky and upon the earth, countless different kinds of things "formed" upon it and [also] existed at one time. This is why we often hear of archeologists digging up wooden artifacts from the earth, artifacts that are several thousand years old. [For instance], a bowl that was unearthed was shown to be tens of thousands of years old when archaeologists carefully examined it. Clearly, the world has existed for tens of thousands of years before our time. From what they dig out of the ground, they seek to understand history. It seems as if there was prosperity in the past, but what occurred such that only ruins now remain?
Tracing mankind's ancient wisdom, they found clues to help them. Based on those clues, they located this site, "Oh here it is! The site is this vast and expansive area!" Then they start digging! Through deep excavations, they made discoveries. Maybe they found ruins of a structure which contain many items. What did ancient peoples look like physically? This has also changed over time. How did the ancient artifacts look and so on? These all used to exist upon the earth. They had once "formed" and then "existed." When it comes to material objects on the earth, we cannot finish learning about them.
So, [the earth] formed long ago and has now existed for a very long time. When it comes to the course of. [Earths'] formation and existence, it is still really impossible for us to analyze it very clearly. Time has passed to the point where the planet is now in the stage of decay. In history and some other religions, they call this "the end of days." Our Buddha called it the turbid era of Dharma-degeneration.
Nature is being destroyed and mankind is the one who is destroying it. We just keep on destroying the earth. If we keep destroying our world until it becomes exhausted, it will reach the point of "disappearance." It is like a person who grows old and then, at some point, falls ill. When they fall ill like this, they have reached the stage of "decay" and their organs start to fail. It is the same principle. The human body is subject to birth, aging, illness and death, and the Earth is subject to formation, existence, decay and disappearance. The microcosm is the human body, and the macrocosm is the world; that is the only difference [between them].
Even inside our bodies, there are so many living organisms. This is just like how Earth is within the universe. [Likewise], on planet Earth, there truly are many [living] things. This is something we need to understand. As ordinary beings, we cannot explain with words, nor clearly [describe] them all. Even if we wanted to learn, we could never completely know them all. This is why the Buddha often spoke [of things] as being "infinite and boundless." This is especially true of time, [like] when we refer to infinite, boundless kalpas.
Things that have emerged from the earth, whether in the past or in the present, are infinite and boundless. Since ancient times, people who have lived and acted together have received collective karmic retribution. This is what happens to us human beings, and it all starts with a single ignorant thought. A single ignorant thought can affect the course of many people's lifetimes, for as are the causes and conditions, so too are the effects and retributions. We do not know under what kind of circumstances we will again come together or what our collective experience will be. In this era, [in] Humankind's [relationship with] Mother Nature, we are collectively creating karma, feeling [its] effects and suffering the retributions. "The causes and conditions of our collective retribution are coming to an end." All that arises and ceases takes place within this environment. This is what we must mindfully seek to comprehend. There are still many things that are impossible for us to know clearly, that are still impossible for us to understand.
Now, let us look at the previous sutra passage.
"They will attain a pure body like clear crystal, which sentient beings will rejoice upon seeing."
When the Buddha began His spiritual practice, He began with diligence. And we must also begin with diligence if we wish to seek out and know the principles. The Dharma the Buddha taught was preserved by those who came later on, by those who compiled the sutras. The Buddha's Dharma was spread orally [at first], passed on by word of mouth. It was only later that the teachings that had been passed on by word of mouth were eventually written down and recorded. They were recorded, passage by passage, and compiled by those who came later. So, the sutras and the sutra-treasury have been around since ancient times, more than 2000 years ago, during the Buddha's time. The world has changed in these more than 2000 years, and the Buddha-Dharma has risen and fallen several times over that period. So, at this point, the era of Dharma-semblance is over, and the era of Dharma-degeneration has already begun.
During the era of Dharma-semblance, what was in great popularity were sutras, bronze castings, rock carvings, papyrus writings and so on. We can see that it was a time when the Buddha-Dharma still flourished, when the Buddha-Dharma was still prevalent. Since the Buddha's Dharma is so precious, the people then did all they could to preserve it, either through bronze statues or rock carvings, or by printing [the sutras] on paper; but this all [happened in] a different era. Yet, no matter what era it was, [practitioners] left behind so many sutras, so we must promote reading, transcribing, chanting and prostrating to the sutras. To draw near the Buddha-Dharma, we must never deviate from its teachings. So, whether we transcribe, read or recite it, we must always pass it on; we must continue to say, "Thus I have heard." [The Dharma] explains to us how, in terms of the body of the Buddha, there are the Nirmanakaya, the Dharmakaya and the Sambhogakaya.
When He came to the world, He was born to a mother and father, as we all are. Similarly, having engaged in spiritual practice and attained enlightenment, He went on to teach and transform people. Without His Nirmanakaya or Sambhogakaya, He would have had no way to spread the Dharma. After He entered Parinirvana, what He left behind was the Dharmakaya. The Dharmakaya is pure. The Dharma that He [taught] us is a very pure teaching. When the Dharma is taught, it is intangible and impossible to trace. Our understanding of it depends on us to use our Ear-Root to listen. However much of it we understand, we can then further elaborate on it. As we start acting in accordance with the Dharma, we start to apply the teachings to ourselves,
putting it into practice. In whatever we want to do, we start to use the Dharma ourselves. This is when we start being able to apply the Buddha's Dharma to ourselves.
So, the following passage continues,
"Because their body will be pure, sentient beings of the great trichiliocosm at the time of birth or time of death, whether superior or lowly, pleasant or wretched, or born into good or bad places, will all be reflected within it."
This is saying that the Buddha's Dharma remains in the world, and it widely permeates the great trichiliocosm. We just talked about the teachings of the 12 Links of Cyclic Existence. So, the Four Noble Truths and the 12 Links of Cyclic Existence are teachings that we ourselves apply very widely. As sentient beings, these are what teach us about the nature of birth and death. We just spoke of the 12 Links of Cyclic Existence and how the fruits of karma we created in the past result in retributions for us in future lifetimes.
Our present lifetime is also the result of causes that we created in the past, [just as] our next lifetime depends on this one. We call this "the time of birth." Whatever or whenever anything is born, this is always called "birth." Anytime we are reborn, it means we will also die. Lifetime after lifetime, we are reborn and die. Otherwise, why would we Buddhist practitioners refer to the deceased as "leaving for a new life"? Leaving for a new life means we leave this lifetime for the next. It means we are reborn somewhere else. This is what "leaving for a new life" means. So, there will always come a time when we die. When we are born, there will always be a time when we will die.
When it comes to birth and death, where is it that we will come to be reborn? Will we be reborn in the best kind of family, in the best country and under the best kinds of circumstances? Or will we be reborn in inferior places, in poor, ugly or undeveloped places? So, "pleasant" refers to the best [conditions], while "wretched" [refers to the worst conditions], like [those born with birth defects] and so on. In life, we call the most detestable, "wretched," and the most longed for, "pleasant." Whether we are born in a good or bad place is beyond our control and results from our karmic causes and conditions.