In the course of one’s life, everyone must go through the four great sufferings of birth, old age, sickness and death. No one can escape these four kinds of suffering, unless they cultivate the Way and end birth and death-then it’s another story. But ordinary people all have to undergo these four sufferings.
Birth is like being sandwiched between two mountains. That’s why the first thing babies do when they are delivered is cry. Crying indicates suffering. When there is a birth, relatives and friends are moved by the event and all come to celebrate. Although people think of birth as a cause for celebration, it’s actually suffering.
In old age, the eyes become blurred, the ears grow deaf, teeth fall out, hair turns gray. The limbs are out of control; they go on strike and can’t move. That state is very painful.
During sickness, the four elements are imbalanced and uncooperative, sometimes to the point of causing one to be bedridden. If poverty is added to sickness, the suffering is aggravated. At that time, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. What do you say: Is that not suffering?
The agony of death is beyond words. It is as great as that of a cow being flayed alive. Deluded by the seven emotions and the six desires, you worry about the children and cannot let go of your attachments. Death is something we must go through. What need is there to rejoice at the time of birth and mourn at the time of death? Unfortunately, most people are too foolish to break through those attachments.
Where do we come from at birth, and where do we go to at death? We must investigate that question until we understand; then we can leave the Three Realms and avoid further transmigration.
Shakyamuni Buddha renounced his home in order to pursue that question. For six years he sought the Way and undertook ascetic practices, yet he still found no solution to the problem of birth and death. Finally, he sat in meditation beneath the Bodhi tree for forty-nine days, saw a bright star one night and got enlightened. He thoroughly understood the wheel of lifehe twelve causal conditions.
Why do I tell you this today? When I first arrived in Hong Kong in 1949, the first person who took refuge with me was Upasika Luo Guoming. This year she turned eighty-one years old. She passed away yesterday morning, and that brought some thoughts to my mind. All her life she was oppressed by circumstances, but she never gave up. She bore suffering and hardship patiently, and brought up five children. Her sons and daughters all have considerable achievement. Therefore, she ought to be able to rest in peace, or be reborn in the Land of Ultimate Bliss.
A talk given on September 4, 1983