First of Series of talks on the Pali Canon based on the book “In the Buddha’s Words” by Bhikkhu Bodhi. This book is an anthology drawing primarily of the first four widely available translations of collections of the Buddha’s spoken teachings.
Buddha’s Words (Talk 01 of 13)
By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | September 6, 2005
Transcribed by Murray McGillivray. Abridged and edited by Barbara Byrum.
Bikkhu Bodhi said that religion is “a response to the strains at the heart of the human condition.” I really appreciate that phrase. Buddhism is an active, resolute, strong response. And it’s a response to strains, difficulties, problems that are not extraneous, but are at the very heart of the human condition. The “strain” is the built-in, endemic, and very normal human suffering that we all blame ourselves for – as if suffering were our fault. But it’s actually pretty normal. It is the human condition.
So suffering is not your fault. You didn’t do anything to deserve it; it’s just the ordinary human condition. But to bring suffering to an end, or at least to meliorate it as much as possible in this lifetime, is your responsibility. And it is also your possibility, because you can practice to uncover your human nature, which is also shining and bright. Through the agency of practice we can uncover our shining, luminous, human nature.
The first section of the book is called “The Human Condition.” Our human condition is where practice begins, and it’s where we’ve all begun practice, each one of us, in our personal stories and our personal journeys to practice. Practice begins when we recognize that there is a big problem right in the middle of our life. Some of us might have really strong conditions for suffering, and maybe for some of us, not so much suffering. But one way or the other, we’ve all come to see that there is a big problem right in the middle of our human life. Maybe we think the problem is personal to us, but real practice begins when we see, “No, it’s not my failing, and it’s not my particular circumstances. It’s the human condition that everybody shares, and it just takes this particular shape in my life.”
The first part of the book is divided into four parts. The first part is called “Sickness, Old Age, and Death,” which is, of course, the basic, bottom-line root cause of our human suffering. You could really argue that it all traces back to this: we are born, we die, we grow old, and we get sick. We’re subject to change constantly from outer forces and inner forces. This is confusing and painful, and in the end, literally devastating.
The second section is called, “The Tribulations of Unreflective Living.” It contrasts the two possibilities of how our life turns out if we live consciously with a life of choice and practice, or if we live unconsciously, continuing with what comes naturally – that is, the ongoing, painful denial which is endemic to human life.
The third section is called “A World in Turmoil,” in which the implications for society of the human condition are discussed. So it’s a social view of Buddhist teaching.
The last section is called “Without Discoverable Beginning,” which says that this human condition is beginning-less. It’s interesting that in Western thought there’s automatically the assumption, “There must be a beginning, there must be a first cause.” But Buddha was content to say that there is no beginning; it just goes on and on and on. There is a conceivable ending, when suffering can be ended, but you can’t find the beginning.
That’s a little bit of an introduction to the geography of this section on the human condition. I’m going to take a few of the numerous snippets of the sutra and make some comments. This is the third short sutra under the first heading, “Old Age, Sickness, and Death,” and is called, “The Divine Messengers.”
There are, monks, three divine messengers. What three? There is a person of bad conduct in body, speech and mind. On the dissolution of the body after death, that person is reborn in the plane of misery, in a bad destination, in a lower world, in hell. And there in hell, the bosses of hell seize that person and they hold him in both arms and they take him to Yama, lord of death, and they present him to Yama and they say, “This person, Your Majesty, has no respect for father and mother nor for ascetics and brahmans, nor does he honor the elders of the family. May Your Majesty inflict dire punishment on him.
The idea here is that this list is basically an ancient Indian version of thoughtless and immoral conduct. In other words, this is a person who has not lived an ethical life, not lived a life of careful consideration, but has been living thoughtlessly. So his reward is that when he dies, he goes to hell and the lord of death is invited to punish him.
The Buddha says:
Then, monks, king Yama questions that man, examines him, and addresses him concerning the first divine messenger: “Didn’t you ever see, my good man, the first divine messenger appearing among humankind?” The person replies, “No, I didn’t.” Then King Yama says to him, “But, my good man, didn’t you ever see a woman or a man, eighty, ninety, or a hundred years old, frail, bent like a roof-bracket, crooked, leaning on a stick, shakily going along, ailing, youth and vigor gone, with broken teeth, with grey and scanty hair or bald, wrinkled with blotched limbs? Didn’t you ever see anything like that?” The man says, “Yes, yes, I’ve seen this, lord.” Then King Yama says to him, “My good man, didn’t it ever occur to you, an intelligent and mature person, ‘I too am subject to old age and cannot escape it. Let me now do noble deeds of body, speech and mind.'” And he says, “No, it never occurred to me. “I was negligent, I didn’t see that.”
And then precisely this same formula is repeated over again for the other divine messengers. In other words, the first divine messenger is old age, the second divine messenger is sickness, and the third is death.
So sickness, old age, and death, that are utter disasters from our point of view, are, in fact, divine messengers. The reason they’re called “divine messengers” is the story of the Buddha in which these exact things appear to him. He was spurred on to leave home and practice, because he noticed, “Yes, I too am subject to these things, so this is something that needs to be addressed.” And so the story goes that the old man that the Buddha saw, the old woman that the Buddha saw, and the dead corpse that the Buddha saw were actually gods who had come in disguise to show these things to the Buddha. So they were literally, according to the legend of the Buddha, divine messengers.
They are divine messengers exactly the same way for us, too, because sickness, old age, and death only appear as unmitigated disaster when we don’t wake up. If we are like the Buddha, and we practice and we wake up to how life really is, then we see that these things are not disasters. They are divine messengers, and we can appreciate them, and we can seize them as opportunities.
Now the reality of sickness, old age, and death doesn’t necessarily lead one to the conclusion that since this is inescapable, one should be a good person. In ancient India, in Buddha’s own time, and certainly our own time, people arrived at exactly the opposite conclusion. Since sickness, old age, and death is so disastrous and horrifying and inescapable, and because, fortunately, it happens usually later, we think, “Let’s have a good time now while we can! Why dwell on it? Why don’t we just forget about it and live well and eat well and drink well, and have a good time? Why worry about all this, and why do we think we have to be good, moral people just because we die? It’s not a foregone conclusion, is it, when you think about it. Why would that be the conclusion?”
Now there are a lot of Buddhists who feel that the belief in hells and heavens and past and future lives is an absolute necessity to make practice compelling. Unless you have the motivation to save yourself from bad rebirths, you’ll never practice. I remember when we created a study curriculum for Zen Center years ago, we asked one of our Tibetan advisors, who was one of the most learned Tibetan monastics then alive, “What do you think we should study first?” He said, “The first thing you have to study is the truth of past and future lives, because if everybody’s not convinced of that in the beginning, nobody will practice.” And we said, “This is really good advice,” and we politely explained to him that we didn’t think that that was how we were going to do it, and why.
Although I realize that there are many reports of people who can remember past lives, I will confess to you that I can’t really remember any of my past lives, and most people that I know can’t remember any past lives. So this must mean one of two things: either, number one, past and future lives don’t exist, or, number two, they do exist, but we don’t have any experience of it, so what’s the difference? Either way it seems to me that conventional ideas in Buddhism of past and future lives don’t matter all that much, unless you have grown up in a culture in which the whole way that people think is organized around faith in these ideas, in which case it really does matter to you, because your whole value system is built on it. But that’s not the case with most of us.
So even though I don’t have the experience, really, of past lives, I do have the experience – and it’s very vivid to me – of how painful it is when I act with thoughtlessness, or cruelty, or mean-spiritedness. It’s really painful to me, when I do that. When those actions reverberate back to me in a moment of reflection, or in memory, I can feel a pain that might be the equivalent of burning fires of hell. And the reverse is true. When I do something that is kind or loving or beneficial to others, I feel very directly the ease and joy and happiness that come from this.
One more aspect to the idea of past and future lives that I want to mention is that I think that, in the long run, as we continue to practice, it does become clear that practice is not simply a matter of who we are in this lifetime. If it’s true that meditation practice sensitizes us to the effect our conduct has on our hearts, it also begins to open up for us the feeling that there’s a wider scope and dimension to our lives than we had ever considered before.
When we really enter the breath and enter another rhythm – the rhythm that is really a universal rhythm of coming and going, rising and falling, in and out, and is the universal rhythm of life-when that becomes real and palpable to us, we see the stuff of our daily life. We see our habits and our confusion and our issues against a totally different backdrop. We realize that there’s a dimension to our lives that is much darker, deeper, and wider, than we can see and know.
If you’ve ever attended a birth or a death, you can feel this dimension quite palpably. You don’t have to be a meditator to notice this. You walk into a room where a new life is coming, or an old life is leaving this world, and it doesn’t feel like you’re walking into a baseball game or a tavern. It’s a completely different feeling; it’s very mysterious. If it’s a birth, you ask, “Where did this being come from, so fully formed not only in body but in character and spirit, with a full personality the moment that it comes out of the womb? How did that happen?” And in the case of death, you ask, “Where did this life go? What is death anyway? How could death be possible? How did it come so suddenly? We could say that death just means you become nothing, but what does that mean? What is nothing? What is nothing?”
Now the very first text in the first section is about how sickness, old age, and death are universal. No one escapes them, whether you’re a king, whether you’re a beggar. Whatever you are in this life, whatever your role is, you can’t escape sickness, old age and death. Even buddhas, even arhats, even great sages and wise perfected religious people, also are subject to sickness, old age and death. When you actually take that in, and you reflect on it for a minute, you realize that all human beings, indeed all living beings, are essentially one family, because the thing that is the most salient characteristic of us is that we’re born and we die. Whatever color our hair is or whatever our occupation is are very trivial compared to the fact that we all live and die. In that fact we are all exactly the same, and we face exactly the same challenges. We all share the tragedy of being.
So how is it that we feel alienated from others, that we don’t care about them, or that we think of them as threatening or different from us? How could that be? How could we not recognize ourselves as a member of a very, very, very intimate family that shares so much in common? And when we feel alienated from other people we know, we can just figure, “Oh, that means I forgot what I am! I forgot that I’m mortal.”