(A layman’s house was burned to the ground and everything was lost. His wife, distraught, became seriously ill. The man then lost all sense of right and wrong, as though insane. Master Yin Kuang sent this letter to console and counsel him.)
The Lotus Sutra (Chapter 3) states:
There is no peace in the Triple Realm. It is like a burning house, full of suffering. It is frightening indeed.
Nevertheless, individual at times achieve awakening through such circumstances as misfortune or blessing, conflict or harmony, suffering or joy, etc. … The means of achieving awakening are not fixed. To the wise, who know how to adapt flexibly to circumstances and are at peace with their lot, there is no suffering that is not joy, no conflict that is not harmony, no misfortune that is not a blessing.
Therefore, the wise man is at peace with himself and others, understands human destiny, does not resent the heavens or blame his fellow beings and is always even-tempered, peaceful and calm, regardless of circumstances. The ancients had a saying:
In circumstances of wealth and nobility, he is at peace with wealth and nobility; in circumstances of poverty and deprivation, he is at peace with poverty and deprivation; in circumstances of rudeness and vulgarity, he is at peace with rudeness and vulgarity; in circumstances of adversity and misfortune, he is at peace with adversity and misfortune …
Although you enjoy performing good deeds, you do not yet understand the essence of Confucianism and Buddhism and are thus confused and frightened after a single instance of adversity. Let me cite a few examples to clarify your understanding.
There is nothing in the universes vaster, higher or brighter than Heaven and Earth, the sun and the moon. However, once the sun has reached its zenith, it begins to set; once the moon is full, it wanes. Even the high mountains will in time give way to deep ravines and the vast oceans will be replaced by fields of mulberry. The human condition is the same: the advance and decline of our fortunes, as well as other changes, are merely the norm.
From ancient times to the present, who could surpass Confucius in morality and virtue? Nevertheless, even he was once surrounded by enemies, his life threatened. On another occasion, he was down to his last reserves while at yet another point he was getting nowhere in his efforts to travel and disseminate his teachings throughout the various kingdoms. Worse, his only son died suddenly at the age of fifty.
Confucius and others like him were great sages and saints, yet they could not escape adversity. However, they knew how to live in harmony with their circumstances and so managed to keep their minds calm and at peace.
During our lives, we make all kinds of plans and perform all kinds of tasks but, in retrospect, they essentially revolve around the issues of food, clothing and the desire to leave some legacy behind for our children. Yet, as far as food is concerned, a bowl of soup and some fresh vegetables should suffice; why seek exquisite seafood and mountain delicacies? As for clothing, a few simple garments should cover our bodies; what use is a wardrobe filled with brocade and satin? As for our children, they can study, till the fields or engage in small business; what is the use of wealth running into the millions?
Besides, who in the history of China can surpass the Emperor Ch’in Shih Huang in scheming for fame and fortune for his descendants? This brutal ruler subdued six kingdoms, burned books, buried scholars alive and confiscated all weapons converting them into bells, all for the purpose of keeping the population ignorant and powerless and thus preventing insurrection. However, with the uprising of Ch’en She, heroes sprang up everywhere. The Emperor’s unification scheme did not last even thirteen years before collapsing, and all his direct descendants were put to death. The Emperor intended that his children be honored, but, in the end, they were defeated and lost everything.
Think about it: how many can be as exalted as the Son of Heaven (Emperor), his wealth extending over the four seas! Yet even he could not ensure lasting wealth and happiness for his family and clan—not to mention ordinary beings who, throughout eons, have committed evil karma as thick as the earth’s crust and as deep as the oceans! How can they guarantee that their families will flourish forever, always blessed, never encountering setbacks?
You should know that all things in life are intrinsically false, like dreams, illusions, bubbles, shadows, dew or lightening, the moon reflected in a pond, flowers in the mirror, flickering mirages in the blazing sun, Gandharva cities—nothing is true or real. Only the Mind-Nature is everlasting and immutable, encompassing all past and present. Although it neither changes not dies, it always follows causes and conditions.
If conditions are consonant with awakening and purity, we become Arhats, Pratyeka Buddhas, Bodhisattva or Buddhas—the level of achievement is dependent on the depth of our virtues. If conditions are consonant with delusion and impurity, we stray into the realms of gods, humans, asuras, animals, hungry ghosts and hells. The length of our suffering or happiness depends on the weight of our transgressions or merits.
Those who are unaware of the Buddha Dharma cannot be faulted, but as a devout Buddhist, why do you not profit from this painful experience to see life clearly, abandon delusion for awakening and single-mindedly recite the Buddha’s name seeking rebirth in the Pure Land—thus escaping Birth and Death and reaching the four levels of sagehood? Would that not be turning a small misfortune into a great blessing?
The way out of your predicament is as described. Why do you remain troubled and confused, daydreaming as though you have lost your mind? If you lose your life through excessive worry, you will not only wallow in Birth and Death for many lifetimes, your sick wife and orphaned children will have no means of support. Thus, all you will do is harm yourself while hurting others at the same time. How can you be so deluded?
The sutras teach:
Bodhisattvas fear causes, sentient beings fear results.
To avoid the result of suffering, Bodhisattvas destroy evil causes in advance. Thus, evil karma is eliminated and virtues are accrued in full, up to the time they become Buddhas. Sentient beings constantly create evil causes but wish to escape the suffering that results. They are no different from those who fear their own shadows but continuously run for cover under the glare of the sun. How can they escape their own shadows?
Many persons expect huge blessings after performing a few good deeds. When they encounter adversity, they immediately think that “to do good is to meet with misfortune; there is no law of Cause and Effect.” From that point on, they regress from their newly awakened state, turn around and vilify the Buddha Dharma. These persons do not understand the truths that “Cause and Effect encompass three lifetimes” and “the mind can change the environment for the better.”
How do Cause and Effect encompass three lifetimes? As an example, in this lifetime we may perform wholesome or evil deeds, as a result of which we receive benefits or suffer vicissitudes. This is a case of current requital.
If we perform wholesome or evil deeds in this lifetime and receive benefits or suffer vicissitudes in the next lifetime, it is a case of birth [next lifetime] requital.
If we perform wholesome or evil deeds in this lifetime but only receive benefits or suffer vicissitudes in the third or fourth lifetime, or even the tenth, hundredth or thousandth lifetime, or countless eons in the future—it is a cause of future requital.
The time frame of future requital is not fixed. However, to create “causes” is to create “effects and consequences.: This is a natural occurrence.
In what way can our minds change the environment for the better? Take the case of a person who has performed evil deeds and should be condemned to the sufferings of the hells for untold eons. Suppose that individual suddenly becomes extremely frightened and utterly ashamed, develops the Bodhi Mind, changes his ways, recites sutras and the Buddha’s name, cultivates personally and enjoins others to do likewise, seeking rebirth in the Pure Land. Thanks to this change of heart, the previous karma of hell is dissipated and transmuted into a lesser karma in the current lifetime. Thus, for example, he may be subject to contempt by others, suffer a bout of illness, become destitute or meet with unhappy events. After enduring such minor retribution, that person may escape Birth and Death and enter the “stream of the sages,” transcending the ordinary world. As the Diamond Sutra states:
If there is anyone who received and keeps this Sutra but is maligned by others, such a person has created evil karma in previous lifetimes and should have descended upon the Evil Paths. As a result of this calumny, however, his past karma is instantly extinguished and he will attain Supreme Enlightenment.
This is precisely the meaning of the mind changing life and the environment for the better.
When ordinary beings meet with disaster, if they do not resent the heavens, they blame their fellow-beings. Very few think of repaying their karma and developing a mind of repentance and reform. You should know that “if you plant melons you reap melons; if you plant beans, you reap beans.” This is the natural course of events. Having sown thorns, do not expect, when the harvest comes, to have wheat and rice. If those who create evil still enjoy blessings, it is because in previous lifetimes they amassed great blessings; if not for their transgressions, their blessings would have been much greater.
It is as if the scion of a wealthy family were to lead a dissipating life, lusting and gambling, squandering money like so much dirt, without suffering hunger and cold immediately because of his great fortune. Yet, if he were to continue in this manner day and day out, even with a family estate in the millions, one day he would surely lose all his property and suffer a premature death.
If those who perform wholesome deeds customarily meet with misfortune, it is because they planted the seeds of transgressions deeply in past lifetimes. If not for their good deeds, their misfortunes would have been much worse.
This is similar to the case of a condemned prisoner who manages to perform a small public service while waiting for his sentence to be carried out. Because of the limited impact of his contribution, he cannot yet be pardoned; therefore his sentence is merely commuted to a lighter one. If he continues to contribute to the public good and the sum total of such contributions becomes sizable, not only will his previous transgressions be wiped away, he may even receive honors, high position and noble rank, with his descendants inheriting honors for generations!
A superior person should transcend ordinary events and not allow external circumstances to damage his very life. Suppose his storeroom is overflowing with gold and jewelry. When renegade solders and outlaws come to steal them, he should abandon his house and escape, rather than risk death in order to hold on to his riches. This is because gold and jewelry may be precious, but they cannot be compared to life. If we cannot safeguard both, property should be abandoned and life preserved.
Now that your wealth and property have been reduced to ashes, it is useless to worry excessively or cry over their loss. You should adapt to conditions, carry on and strive to recite the Buddha’s name, seeking rebirth in the Pure Land, so that you may be spared suffering and enjoy only happiness until the end of time. Thus, thanks to this catastrophe, you will ultimately attain Buddhahood. Why continue in delusion—suffering and grieving.
I hope that you will consider my words carefully. You will then get over your grief, clearing the sky of dark clouds and revealing its brightness, finding happiness in calamity and exchanging intense heat for a cool, joyous breeze. Otherwise, it you continue to dwell on your loss and fail to awaken, you will not escape insanity. Once the Self-Mind is lost, demons will enter. At that time, even if a thousand Buddhas were to appear on earth, they would have no way of saving you!