Letter 14 – All Conditioned Dharmas are Like Dreams, Phantoms, Bubbles, Shadows!

Many years have passed since we last met but I have thought of you often. Last autumn, when your esteemed brother took the regional civil service examination, he brought your letter to P’u T’o Mountain. Only then did I learn about your cultivation in recent years.

I recall that you had met with great misfortune, having lost your beloved son, and that you were grieving day in and out, seldom at peace. I wanted to write to you in detail about Cause and Effect at that time, but, because of time constraints, I could only send you a short letter.

Today being the last full moon of the year, Master Ch’e Ch’uan visited our mountain. During our conversation, he discussed your plight, as well as the deluded comments of some ignorant people who claim that wholesome deeds bring only misfortune while cultivation brings no benefits. Hearing this, I could not help feeling deeply grieved, lest as a result of your experience, the intelligent grow lax in their cultivation while the dull and ignorant lose all qualms about committing transgressions. I therefore decided to put aside the reservations stemming from my humble background to share some plain, straightforward thoughts to share with you.

In the sutras, the Buddhas always teach that a) the consequences/requital of our actions encompass three lifetimes, while b) the birth of a child is generally association with four causes.

a) The consequences/requital are:

  • current requital;
  • birth [next lifetime] requital;
  • future requital

“Current requital” refers to the misfortunes and blessings we receive in this very lifetime from the transgressions we commit and the wholesome deeds we perform. As an example, we have candidates for the civil service who study hard, pass their examinations and are appointed to high positions. Such occurrences can be seen by our ordinary eyes.

“Birth requital” means committing transgressions and performing wholesome deeds in this lifetime but only obtaining the results, good or bad, of such actions in the next lifetime. Take the case of a family patriarch who stressed education and refinement but who only achieves success through his children and grandchildren. Such occurrences cannot [always] be seen with our human eyes, but those endowed with the Celestial Eye can perceive them.

“Future requital” means committing transgressions or performing wholesome deeds in this lifetime but not obtaining the results until the third, fourth or thousandth lifetime, or, indeed untold eons in the future. This is the case of some royal dynasties which only flourish and reach their apogee several generations down the line …

The Celestial Eye can see events three or four lifetimes away but is powerless with respect to events several hundred thousand lifetimes away. The Eye of the Arhat, however, can see them clearly. As to events occurring untold eons ago or hence, only the perfectly enlightened Tathagata Eye can see them clearly. Such realms are not even in the domain of the Arhat’s Eye, much less those of celestial or human beings.

Knowing that requital spans three generations, you should realize that the words of the sages concerning Cause and Effect have never been wrong and that wealth and poverty, honor and disgrace, longevity and early death are all the results of past actions—where is the discrepancy between cause and effect? A mirror reflects beauty and ugliness as they are. The wise know that it is the object before the mirror that should be changed while the dull and ignorant waste time and effort hating and resenting the image in the mirror! To bear adversity is to know your limitations Only by not resenting heaven and earth can you succeed in life.

b) Children are born from four causes:repaying past kindness;

  • repaying past wrongs;
  • repaying past debts;
  • claiming past debts

“Repaying past kindness” means that the child incurred a debt of gratitude to the parents in a previous lifetime. To repay it, he or she has come to be born in the parent’s household and will attend painstakingly to their needs throughout life. He will ensure that they are well provided for while alive and receive decent burials and offerings after death. The child may even perform great public service, helping the country and the people, his name being remembered in history. Thus, when future generations honor him, they will extend their respect and admiration to his parents. Devoted children and virtuous grandchildren, nowadays, generally belong to this category.

“Repaying past wrongs” means that in a past lifetime, the parents committed some wrong toward their present children. Therefore, the children have come to be born in their household seeking retribution. Thus, when still young, the children will be unruly and when grown, they will create misfortune and calamities implicating their parents. In old age the parents will be left in want, while their treatment after death will not only dishonor them, the shame will extend to their ancestors as well. At times, when holding key government positions, the children may even engage in criminal acts, causing the family’s assets to be seized, the lineage exterminated and the graves of the ancestors dug up and desecrated. Thus, when future generations abuse and revile them, they will also hate and despise their parents.

“Repaying past debts” means that the child has come to be reborn in his parents’ household because, in a previous lifetime, he incurred a debt toward them. If it is a great debt, repayment can take the parents’ entire lifetime. If the debt is modest, repayment can cover part of the parents’ lifetime … Thus, for example, some children assist their parents in business, only to die suddenly as the enterprise become profitable.

“Claiming past debts” means that, in a past lifetime, the parents incurred some obligation toward their child, who has now been born in their household in order to claim payment. If the debt is small, the parents will merely have to spend money to feed and clothe him, attend to his health and education, find him a spouse and train him to establish himself in the community. Once the debit is paid, the child will die suddenly. If the debt is sizable, the child may sometimes deplete all of the parents’ assets before dying.

It would seem to me that your son comes under the last category. Fortunately, because your debt is modest, he has passed away suddenly at an early age. You should therefore repent your previous bad karma and strive to cultivate earnestly. Even the great sage Confucius lost his only son when the latter was in mid-life. The great sage Yen Yuan had but a short life. Another ancient sage was destitute, always in want, while yet another died as a martyr … Do you perhaps think that sages and saints are punished by the heavens for cultivating virtues? Or is it because life and death, wealth and honor are determined by past karma?

Thus, you should only deplore the fact that your virtues are still wanting and not waste time pondering misfortunes and blessings! If you are repentant and strive to cultivate earnestly, the god of blessings will come your way while misfortune and calamity will bypass you—naturally.

During their lives, people are subject to all the Eight Sufferings. Even if they are reborn in the heavens, they cannot escape the Five Signs of Decay. Only the Western Pure Land of Ultimate Bliss is all joy and no suffering. Who knows, perhaps it is precisely thanks to your work in spreading the Pure Land Dharma that the deities used the premature passing of your beloved son as an awakening needle to prick the top of your head. You may thus clearly realize that the Triple Realm knows no peace; it is like a burning house, filled with frightful suffering. The lot of humans is subject to the god of impermanence, as we are born and die in the space of a bolt of lightning. When our time has come, no one can save anyone else.

All conditioned dharmas are like dreams, phantoms, bubbles, shadows. If, even now, you have not awakened, and do not strive earnestly to practice Pure Land, you are no more alive than wood and stones! How can anyone with grit and determination bear to be a mere mass of flesh running hither and yon, a walking corpse while alive, and once dead, decaying along with the weeds and trees! How can you have the heart to consign yourself to the world of the ordinary and the deluded while always extolling the realm of the saints? If after encountering such an eye-opening circumstance [as the death of your son], you still do not redouble your efforts, if after hearing the True Dharma, you still do not follow it, are the Buddhas turning their backs on sentient beings or are sentient beings turning their backs on the Buddhas?

As you are someone of intelligence and wisdom, I hope you will think carefully about what I have just said.