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Bodhisattvas Asks for Clarification

Chapter Ten




“And so, why does the Thus Come One accord with their opportunities; why does he accord with their lives; why does he accord with their bodies?  


And so, why does the Thus Come One accord with their opportunities? The Thus Come One accords with sentient beings’ dispositions, whether matured or not yet matured. And in teaching and transforming all beings, he causes those who have not planted good roots to plant them. For those beings who have already planted good roots, he will cause their bodhi seeds to sprout. For those beings whose bodhi sprouts have already come up, who have already planted good roots, the Buddha will cause their good roots to flourish. For those beings whose good roots are already flourishing, the Buddha causes their fruitions of sagehood to ripen. Those beings whose good roots have already reached the fruitions of sagehood, the Buddha causes to attain liberation.

Thus the Buddha “observes the opportunities and dispenses the teaching.” When an opportunity arises to speak the Dharma, the Buddha will not hesitate to do so for the sake of beings. When the time comes for teaching and transforming them, the Buddha will do so. If the appropriate time has not yet come, the Buddha will simply wait. This is how the Buddha “accords with their opportunities.” He recognizes when the conditions are ripe, and he accords with the occasion. But since beings are empty, why does the Buddha still take the time to come to teach and transform them? That is the question being asked by Manjushri Bodhisattva.

And why does he accord with their lives? This refers to life spans. Some life spans are long and some are short. Someone with a long life span needs to be crossed over at some time during his long life, and so the Buddha uses the time during his long life to cross him over. If a sentient being has a short life span, the Buddha comes to teach and transform him during that brief period of time. But since sentient beings are empty, why does the Buddha observe their opportunities and come to teach and transform them? How can this Dharma be explained?

Why does he accord with their bodies? Sentient beings’ physical bodies are of different classes and kinds. People have human bodies; animals have the bodies of animals. And each sentient being within each class and kind further has his own individual body which is different from all the others. The Buddha is able to accord with all those different classes and kinds of sentient beings to teach and transform them.

Our human bodies are a burden to us. That is why Laozi said:

The reason we have great calamities
Is simply because we have bodies.
If we had no bodies,
What calamities could we have?

Great calamities refer to deep distress or serious illness. And why do these occur? It is only because we have this body. Because of this body, we give rise to a kind of selfishness. For the sake of these bodies of ours, we have to find houses to put them in; we have to make clothes to cover them; and, we must find food to nourish them. These three necessities of food, clothing, and shelter must definitely be amply provided. If any one of these is deficient, if one is missing, one’s body will undergo sickness and distress.

“If we had no bodies”—not having a body is just being without a view of a self. Without this “self”, how could there be any distress? In this world there is mutual contention and mutual warfare, killing, stealing, lustful conduct, lying and taking intoxicants. All of that comes about because of the physical body. If you can recognize your body as being empty, if you can see it for what it is, and if you can avoid being greedy, angry and deluded for its sake, then even though you have a body, it will not be a burden to you. You will then be able to cultivate the Way. “Borrow the false to cultivate the true.” We borrow the body, which is false, and cultivate the wisdom-life of our Dharma body. If you don’t borrow the false to cultivate the true, you will not realize Buddhahood.

And so the Buddha accords with the opportune times, the life spans, and the physical bodies of beings in teaching and transforming them. But since they are fundamentally empty, why bother to come to teach and transform them?

This section of the sutra reminds me of a true story. In the past, there were three old men. One was sixty years old, one was seventy, and one was eighty. These three elderly men would often get together to talk over their problems. One day they met together. The topic for investigation was the question of life—that is, the problem of birth and death. What can be done about the problem of being born and dying, dying and being born again?

The youngest of the three, the sixty-year-old, said, “This problem of birth and death cannot be solved through mere discussion. People are muddled coming and muddled going. When we come, we do not know how we came; and, when we die, we do not know how it is we die. When we are born, we do not know how we got here, and when we die we do not know how it is we must die. This day we have met together to feast and drink wine, imbibing spirits and eating delicious food. But it is not known who among us might be absent next year. It is not known whether or not this trio will be less one by the same time next year.”

Then the seventy-year-old said, “How can you be so optimistic as to think you can make it through another year? Your reasoning is not sound; you are being illogical. What you say is inaccurate. How could you say something like that?

“Actually, tonight when I take off my shoes and socks, I do not know if I will be around in the morning to put them back on.”

Obviously his meaning was that he might die by tomorrow, and then he would not be here to put his shoes and socks on again.

Then the eighty-year-old also had his own opinion: “What you just said is also not accurate. You are also being illogical.”

Now the seventy-year-old felt that what he had said was very principled, and he could not figure out why the eighty-year-old gentleman was opposing him. So he asked, “What do you mean by that?”

The eighty-year-old replied, “You do not yet know, but I am eighty years old. As this breath leaves my mouth, it is not known whether I will take in another. As it is said,

Birth and death are a great matter.
Impermanence arrives quickly.

We must take advantage of what time we have left in our old age and apply effort at cultivation. We need to end birth and death now!”

After that, those three old men put all their energy into reciting the Buddha’s name and sitting in chan meditation—vigorously cultivating. 

They ate only one meal a day at noon, and at night they did not lay down to sleep. As a result, the three old men ended birth and death.

While we are here is the world, we people should heed this warning:

Do not wait until you are old to cultivate,
For the lonely graves are filled with the young.

If you wait until you are old before you decide to cultivate the Way to end birth and death, it will already be too late. Just take a look at the markers on the lonely graves in the cemetery, and you will know they are filled with the corpses of young people. So it is said,

On the road to the yellow springs (death),
No distinctions of young or old are made.

We people might die at any time and in any place. Universal Worthy Bodhisattva, in his Verse of Exhortation, puts it very well:

This day is already gone,
And our lives are that much shorter.
We are like fish in an evaporating pool;
What joy is there in this?
Great Assembly! Be diligent and vigorous,
As one whose very life is at stake.
Be ever mindful of impermanence,
And careful to never be lax!

Having passed through another day, our lives are that much shorter. We are like fish in a pool of water that is gradually drying up. From one moment to the next, the water diminishes. When the water is gone, do you suppose the fish will still be able to go on living? Their time is almost up. What happiness is there in this? Great Assembly, you must be attentive and vigorous at all times. You cannot be lazy. You should be like one whose head was about to be chopped off; as if protecting the safety of your own skull. Cultivating the Way is just that urgent a matter.

We must be ever mindful of impermanence, for we do not know at what time it will come for us. Therefore, we cannot slack off in the least. We must at all times take heed. And then when we reach the time of our death, we will have the freedom of control over birth and death. If we want to be born, we can be born; if we want to die, we can die [this does not refer to suicide]. We can have this kind of control, even to the point of being free of any sickness. And so everyone should pay special attention to this. Do not give in to the cycle of birth and death.

Question: I worked in an old folks’ home, and at that time I thought about how a person should prepare himself for death. But in this country, there is not much information about the proper way to prepare oneself for death. This is a new dimension—a new door—that people in America are just now beginning to investigate. I wonder if the Venerable Master would explain a little bit about how common, ordinary people who have reached a very old age and know they are about to die, and who have not become Arhats, can prepare themselves to enter the door of death. Should they try to obtain another body, or should they not try to get another body? What should they look for?

The Master: Where would they go to get a body? Is it possible to go and get another body oneself?

Question: When people make vows to be reborn in whatever form necessary to save sentient beings, it seems to me that they should have some idea of what they are trying to do—obtain a body, or get rid of a body.

The Master: Bodhisattvas know exactly how they come and exactly how they go; they know how they are born and how they die. That is to say, real Bodhisattvas know. Since such is the case with Bodhisattvas, there is no problem in their comings and goings. But how can a common, ordinary person himself get a body? What powers does he have that would enable him to go and get one on his own? Ordinary people can only create karma and undergo the corresponding retribution. They can only succumb to their own karmic obstructions, drifting and drowning in that sea of karma. They basically don’t have any freedom at all. They are not in control. So how could they possibly go and get a body?

A real Bodhisattva comes and goes as easily as a rich person can casually travel anywhere he wishes. But if a poor person wanted to take a little trip, he would not have the means to do it. That is merely an analogy to illustrate the principle being discussed here. Bodhisattvas among people have great power and stature. It is not necessarily the case, however, that Bodhisattvas are exactly like ordinary rich people. Bodhisattvas come with understanding and go with understanding, and they are not at all confused.

This is the first time I have ever heard of an ordinary person being taken as a Bodhisattva. But basically the question is not inappropriate. Ordinary people—in fact all sentient beings—can become Buddhas, not to mention becoming Bodhisattvas. It is just that while on the path to Buddhahood, only one who has reached the requisite level can be counted as a Bodhisattva. One who has not yet reached that level cannot be called a Bodhisattva. Of course, it is possible for an ordinary citizen to become President, but he must be elected by the people first. Were he not elected, he could not become President. By the same token, you could not call him an emperor. If all the people supported him as such, then he could be the Emperor, but if no one supports him, he cannot.

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