Deciphering the Secret Code of Cyclic Existence
Most of us believe that nothing will be left after death. However, more and more reincarnate cases and scientific studies prove that the end of the body isn’t the end of you. What is reincarnation? How and why does our life continue? Khenpo gives Buddhist theories on reincarnation in this informative speech.
“No one comes into this world for no reason. Each life does not accidentally spring out from the ground or fall down from the sky. Each of us lives in the world and has our own causal conditions. Such theories of causes and conditions are well explained in Buddhism with its unique perspectives and are also explored in science.”
The End of Your Body Isn’t the End of You
Today, I’m delighted to be here with everyone. The topic of our discussion is about the wisdom of dying and deciphering the secret code of cyclic existence.
No one comes into this world for no reason. Each life does not accidentally spring out from the ground or fall down from the sky. Each of us lives in the world and has our own causal conditions. Such theories of causes and conditions are well explained in Buddhism with its unique perspectives and are also explored in science. I believe that most of you here today, as Thais, have had faith in Buddhism since a very early age and accept reincarnation. The fact that one has past lives, a present life and afterlives should not be new to you and instead widely accepted.
The continuation of life is definitely worth everyone’s attention. If we only care about the short period of this life and have no idea of how we come from the past life and what our afterlife will be, then we may be no different from animals. So it is a big question. I’m not sure how much concern you have about this issue. A lot of people accept that in this life, good has its reward and evil has its recompense. We all agree with that. But when it comes to the karmic mechanism running from this life to the afterlife and from that afterlife to its next, people may not pay much attention.
So as a Tibetan monk, I’d like to talk about the mechanism of reincarnation which is what I’ve learnt from Buddhism through years of study. As we know, almost 95% of Thais are Buddhists. To be a genuine Buddhist, however, one must understand reincarnation, the key point of Buddhism. If you fail to grasp the essential teaching, Buddhism would turn into only a temporary refuge to provide you worldly blessings and lose its ultimate purpose of liberation.
Talking about the wisdom of dying or the explanation of reincarnation, when I lectured on these topics at other universities, I had to provide the audience a lot of scientific evidence, because most of them do not accept reincarnation. In order to convince them, I used a lot of scientific findings rather than the traditional Buddhist teaching. But here, since all of you have a Buddhist background and have no doubt of the existence of past or future lives, just like we Tibetans who follow Buddhism from childhood, so it’ll be easier to understand reincarnation through a brief exposition.
Besides, as many of you are professors and students in Chulalongkorn Hospital you would like to help people during their dying stage. To me, I feel just a few words of consolation may not really help them. Instead, you may better help them accept reincarnation, the cyclic existence of life. If they acknowledge the continuation of life, even while they are going through the dying process, they can still maintain hope for their lives.
In order to accept such truth, we must understand the theory of dependent origination. As the Buddha told us, there are outer dependent origination and inner dependent origination. The former states that a seed produces its sprout, which gives rise to the stem, and consequently, the stalk, the fruit, and the leaves. Just as a tree comes into being under various causes and conditions, such as the combination of solidity, fluidity, temperature and mobility, so too does everything, which is called outer dependent origination.
What is more important for us is inner dependent origination which manifests in the way that every sentient being wanders in samsara in different living forms. A human being in this life may become an animal in the afterlife, and then turn into a heavenly being in the next one. Before achieving liberation, reincarnation from life to life will continue. Such a life process should be well understood by everyone, especially Buddhists.
No one comes into this world for no reason. Each life does not accidentally spring out from the ground or fall down from the sky. Each of us lives in the world and has our own causal conditions. Such theories of causes and conditions are well explained in Buddhism with its unique perspectives and are also explored in science.
The Secret Code of Samsara - Two Links from the Past Lives
In this process, the first point we should know is that there are causes for samsara and for our current state of mind. The primary cause of samsara is self-attachment, or ignorance. That is to say, every living being clings to “I” and “what I have.” This is the root cause of samsara, the first link of the twelve links of dependent origination. If we don’t understand these twelve links, we cannot understand reincarnation, nor can we generate true loving kindness toward others.
Driven by self-attachment, one will create all kinds of good and bad karma through body, speech and mind. This is the second link of the twelve, called formation. We may not exactly be aware of ignorance and formation in this life, but they are the past causes that drive us to come to this world.
Formation gives rise to consciousness, the third link, which carries all good and bad karma. Consciousness continuously exists life after life. Unlike the body, which rots away completely after death, consciousness keeps going on by taking different forms. Dr. Eccles, the Nobel Prize laureate in 1963, claimed that, from a medical point of view, consciousness is independent of the physical body and exists continuously on its own. As we know, patients die every day and nothing is left physically after death. However, when we combine the insights of medical science with Buddhism, we’ll find that the mind exists continuously. Similarly, from the philosophical point of view, the body does not exist forever, yet the mind does. As the famous philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said, although our fleshy body does not survive after death, that doesn’t mean human will also pass away. It stays on. His statement is consistent with Buddhist teaching.
With the first two links I just mentioned, ignorance and formation, consciousness comes into being and it will descend into a womb and gives rise to name-and-form. “Name” refers to the four aggregates of sensation, perception, formation and consciousness. “Form” is the last one of the five aggregates and refers to the physical body before it takes shape. Starting from formation, they are the present effects of the wheel of life. Name-and-form is the fourth link of the twelve.
The fifth one is called “six sense bases”, which means that after consciousness is linked to a womb, the six sense faculties, namely, eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind will gradually take shape inside the womb. So the fifth factor is called “six sense bases”, or “six sense gates”.
The coming together of six sense faculties, six objects, and six corresponding consciousnesses is called contact, and it is the sixth link of the twelve. Six objects include forms, sounds, smells, tastes, touch, and ideas. The seventh link is sensation, resulting from the contact of sense faculties and their respective objects. Thus sensation describes three different mental states. Toward favorable objects, one has pleasant sensations. Toward unfavorable objects, one has painful sensations. And toward neither favorable nor unfavorable objects, one has neutral sensations, which is actually a mental state of ignorance.
These five links result from past causes and are present effects of this life. They consequently lead to the next three: craving, grasping, and becoming, which also belong to this life. Craving means that one is eager to embrace pleasurable sensations and unwilling to experience painful ones, which involves desire, aversion and ignorance. Craving plays a role equivalent to the first link, ignorance, and further develops into grasping, which means actively striving for what is pleasurable and avoiding what is painful. This is the ninth link, equivalent to the second link of formation. Craving and grasping lead to the tenth link of becoming and all three are present causes of the next life, which means one acts with body, speech and mind and creates the karma that determines one’s next birth.
No matter whether one is reborn as a human or other sentient being and no matter where one is reborn, birth is always followed by old age and death. Each of us is destined to age and what we are doing now is conditioning and forming the next life. It keeps going on and on, and the wheel of life will never stop until we attain liberation.
If you have time, I’d like to recommend to you the Buddhist text, Analysis of Dependent Co-arising, in which the Buddha explained the twelve links of dependent origination. Since old age and death are actually rooted in ignorance, it is essential for us to understand the teaching of the twelve links. Otherwise, with a lack of knowledge of the mechanism of reincarnation, we are not qualified to be Buddhists. The essential teaching of Buddhism is based on the acknowledgement of past life, present life and afterlife. If one does not understand the theory behind it, nor practice according to the teaching, then one can hardly be a genuine Buddhist.
To break free from samsara, or to decipher the secret code of reincarnation, the key point is the practice of no ego. Without realizing the emptiness of ego, we cannot eliminate the root cause of samsara, ignorance. So I hope that each of us can make good use of our precious human bodies to achieve liberation in this very life.
The Supreme Way to Break Free from Samsara
I love Thailand very much. It is quite a delight that Buddhism has been flourishing amazingly in Thailand with plenty of beautiful monasteries. People show great respect to monks everywhere and enjoy a peaceful mind and wear warm smiles in their lives. I wish that the people here will not only maintain certain rituals from the outside, but also comprehend the essential teaching of the cyclic existence of samsara from within.
When I came here 14 years ago, people were even happier than now. Yesterday, I mentioned my experience to some professors. At that time, I stayed here for a week or so and wrote an essay to record what I had seen and heard, which is called Travelling in Thailand, with less than 30,000 words. At that time, there were not so many travelers to Thailand, perhaps because the movie Lost In Thailand had not come out yet. Overall, it is amazing to me that there are so many Buddhists here that people have learned about reincarnation since an early age and that dying people receive spiritual care in all aspects. All of these are not so prevalent in other countries where Buddhism is not flourishing.
Although there are different opinions about Thailand from people of different nationalities and different countries, regarding ladyboys, the political situation and so on, for me as a Buddhist, I truly appreciate the fact that the majority of the population are Buddhists, which is very rare in the world. I deeply rejoice in your faith, and in your cultivation of good deeds and abandonment of bad ones.
As I just mentioned, there’s no significant difference between Theravada Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism and Vajrayana Buddhism, which is my tradition. Ultimately they all share the same meaning. Each of us should understand the teaching of the twelve links of dependent origination. Only with that can we recognize that the suffering of samsara is like being trapped in a house on fire and further generate the aspiration of breaking free from samsara. This is the same goal for everyone.
To break free from samsara, or to decipher the secret code of reincarnation, the key point is the practice of no ego. Without realizing the emptiness of ego, we cannot eliminate the root cause of samsara, ignorance. So I hope that each of us can make good use of our precious human bodies to achieve liberation in this very life. Rather than being reincarnated in different forms such as horses or cows, we’d better eradicate the seed of ignorance in this very life and achieve ultimate liberation.
Each of us here faces old age and death. Such is samsara, always associated with birth, old age, sickness and death. When Buddha Shakyamuni was still a prince, he saw birth, old age, sickness and death, which led him to become ordained and eventually cut off the root of samsara. In Thailand, there are so many ordained practitioners in so many monasteries practicing the wisdom of no ego. This can lead to ultimate liberation.
In some places, people tend to regard ordained people as those who don’t have a bright future in their lives and end up with ordination. It is completely different in Thailand. People are sincerely happy for those who choose to be ordained, because it is a journey of enlightenment. Actually this journey is not just for ordained people; lay people can also stay on this journey and keep practicing and will for sure eliminate ignorance with their own wisdom and break free from samsara. I truly wish each of you diligently practices on this journey to cut off the chain of cyclic existence and to achieve ultimate happiness.
The Key to Stopping Wandering in Samsara
Would you please summarize the twelve factors?
To summarize them, ignorance and formation are the past causes. Consciousness, name-and-form, six sense bases, contact and sensations are the present effects of this life. The next three, craving, grasping and becoming also belong to this life. The last two, birth, old age and death are the effects of the next life.
So in terms of three lives, the first two belong to the past life, the middle eight to this life and the last two to the next life. Among the eight links of this life, the first five are the results of past lives and the last three are the causes of future lives. Ignorance is regarded as the first link of the chain but actually it exists in the past, present and future lives and here the first link is particularly referred to as self-attachment in this life.
In almost every Tibetan monastery, there are pictures of the wheel of life in six realms that remind people that one should understand the existence of samsara.
What wisdom is there in your perspective?
If we don’t understand the twelve links of samsara, we are basically not different from atheists, no matter whether we practice for our own sake or for others’ benefit. If we think everything happens independently in this life and has no connection with past or future lives, it is merely a reflection of our ignorance instead of wisdom.
So I really hope Buddhists do understand these teachings. Some Buddhists accept that in this life good has its reward and evil has its recompense, but may have no idea of the karmic process running from life to life. If this is the case, it shows a lack of wisdom. So we’d better cultivate our wisdom through the theoretical study of these teachings.
I think in Pali, Paticcasamuppada is the same thing as you just mentioned. My question is that there are twelve factors, it’s a circle, so which is the best target for us to deal with to cut this circle?
Among the twelve links, ignorance is the key. Ignorance means self and self-attachment. Actually “I” and “what I have” do not exist but ordinary beings regard them as real. If we can eradicate such ignorance, we will stop experiencing suffering in samsara, just like Arhats.
As I just mentioned, the practice of ordained and lay practitioners should be nothing more than the antidote of ignorance. If ignorance is eliminated, the wheel of life will stop. Otherwise, no matter how many worldly merits we accumulate we still have to be reincarnated in samsara.
For people who believe in reincarnation, it’s not difficult for them to accept this idea and to teach them with the Buddhist texts. But for those who do not believe in reincarnation, how should we convince them in order to help them?
Yes, talking about the teaching of the mind, for people who believe in reincarnation, they can easily accept the teaching. While for others, it is difficult. In Buddhism, there is logic inference in the study of the mind. As we know, the mind is completely different from physical materials, so the cause of mind can only be mind instead of the physical body.
For example, there is an eight-year old boy who can speak fluently in eight languages. For those who don’t accept reincarnation, they also have to admit that there is a cause for it from before the boy was born. Otherwise, just within this life we cannot find a good reason for his language ability. So in Buddhism, there is an intelligent way of logic inference to convince people. For those nonbelievers, I feel it is a better approach and much easier for them to accept.
Today’s science has learned a lot about the human body. But as far as the human mind is concerned, science cannot find any evidence to prove there are no causes from past lives. Although it has been highly developed, science cannot draw such a conclusion.
Take the former President of Sri Lanka for example. Many global newspapers had reported about a child who can trace his memory back to his past life as the President of Sri Lanka. Although his family doesn’t have any religious background, the child does have a clear memory of his past life. Scientists don’t have a good explanation for his story and can only keep it as a mystery with no answer.
For the twelve factors, I could not really get the whole twelve factors but I could catch the past, the present and the future lives. Suppose I believe the past life does exist, how does this affect my actions in this very life?
Yes, if you admit the existence of yesterday, you have to admit the existence of today. Then in turn, you have to admit that tomorrow also exists.
Okay. You mean I am supposed to do good things today in order to be good tomorrow. Am I right?
Right. Being a genuine Buddhist, one must understand the twelve links of reincarnation in the six realms. It is the fundamental teaching of Buddhism. If we only know some simple ways of doing good deeds and don’t understand these essential teachings, we may not practice accordingly for liberation. In this case we may only accept some of the Buddhist teachings and refuse others, and as a result, we cannot be authentic practitioners.
Thank you very much for coming here. I feel this story is so difficult and wish you could have a book for us to read.
Yes, it is true that it’s not easy to fully understand. But if we put it aside due to its abstruseness and don’t study it meticulously, we can never cut off the chain of samsara. As I mentioned earlier, I recommend to you the sutra, Analysis of Dependent Co-arising. Not sure if there is a Pali or Thai version, I know there are Tibetan and Chinese versions. This sutra explains very clearly what I’ve talked about today. I’d like you to take a look.
What do you think about the way of dying? In the ICU we try hard to save lives. Sometimes I feel it’s very difficult and impossible to do that. What should we do?
Talking about hospice care, we should not only care for patients’ physical comfort but more importantly, we should calm their minds and bring peace to them. As Plato once said, it is not good to heal the body of disease and to ignore the mind of ignorance because body and mind are connected with each other.
So first of all, it is important to cure the illness. But when the illness is beyond cure, the patients may have different attitudes toward their death. During their dying stage, if patients are Buddhists, they may not feel so terrible because they know it is not the end of life but rather a transition to the next life. In this case, we can remind them not to be sad because the light of afterlife will come soon. At the dying moment we’d better bless the patients with Buddha statues or the mantras of Buddha which is the best guidance for them.
Each of us will face death, but how one faces death varies from person to person. I always think, at my death, I wish to have Buddha statues beside me and people around me chanting the names and mantras of Buddha. And meanwhile, my mind can abide in the state of compassion and wisdom.
Likewise, I hope those who are undergoing the dying process can be taken care of in the Buddhist way, which is the most effective way. As one is dying, any wealth or any words of consolation cannot really help him. He is also aware that he cannot rely on anything in this world. So it’s better to help him stay calm and prepare for death. This is the best thing that people can do for him.
I notice in some hospitals, when patients are at the dying stage there are monks or laypersons who chant Buddha’s names or mantras for them. This is highly encouraged and I hope we can do the same thing to let the dying persons hear Buddha’s names or mantras. This is very essential to everyone.
Should a Dying Man Receive Final Treatment?
Should a Dying Man Receive Final Treatment?
I guess what my colleague wants to ask is that we are doctors and our task is to save lives but sometimes it’s becoming a dilemma. When should we stop saving someone’s life and help them to prepare for their death? Sometimes if you want to save a life, it’ll interfere with the peaceful way. If we want to help them to die peacefully, we have to do the other thing. But it’s very difficult to decide which way to proceed. Can you help us develop guidelines on how to deal with this dilemma?
In terms of the responsibility of doctors, it is necessary to take various measures to save lives. But from the perspective of practitioners, like in Tibet, many people would not choose to die in the hospital because normal rescue measures will destroy their practice.
Therefore, whether a patient needs the final treatment or not should depend on the patient himself and his family. If the family insists on saving the patient’s life, you doctors may have to satisfy their needs. And if there is really no hope, then you’d better let him die in a peaceful way. Sometimes the cases could be a little bit complicated and it’s better to consider both the patient’s situation and the family’s attitude.
I am a nurse. Sometimes when a doctor orders no CPR, I’m very depressed at the last breathing of the patient. From my understanding, the wisdom of dying tells us to help people concentrate on their breathing.
But I am a pediatric nurse. Thinking about pediatric patients, they’re kids and they’re going to die. How should I help them? I don’t know how to teach young patients. Is there any way to help those dying kids? We adults know about death. But I don’t think that children know about death or anything about their future. They don’t know about their coming death.
In fact, Buddhist education is similar to worldly education in the way that neither adults nor children can understand the teaching unless one spends plenty of time learning it.
For children, such teaching is related with how to grow up, how to live life and so on. They need to receive the corresponding education. Only through this way, will one have wisdom to live one’s life. Otherwise, even if one follows religion, a faith with a lack of wisdom cannot help one grasp the true meaning of life.
One of my colleagues took care of his mother who was dying. One day he said that, the more he felt attached to his mother, the more he felt suffering. But he felt he couldn’t control his mind. So how should we advise him?
As stated in the Buddhist sutras, the more we attach to something, the more we feel suffering. No matter whether it is family, wealth or social position, more attachment to it makes us suffer more. So it is necessary for us to reduce any kind of attachment. Likewise, attachment to one’s mother or someone else will bring suffering. Buddhism teaches people to let things go, in this way to reduce suffering. Although it is difficult to completely get rid of suffering, we can at least try our best to reduce it by lessening our attachments.
After a person dies, how long does the mind stay in the dead body and why?
According to Buddhism, after a person passes away, his mind will stay in the body for three or four days. During this period, it’s better not to dispose of the body. The bardo period will normally last for 49 days. After this period, except in some special cases, the mind will be reincarnated into another body.
Is there any explanation of why the mind stays in the body after death?
Talking about the situation of the mind, we mainly rely on the Buddhist texts. In the Buddhist texts there are detailed descriptions of the mind after death. Besides, today some medical scientists are also carrying out research in this area. They examine the body shortly after death and find that the mind still remains. There is a psychology institute in Japan which has claimed that the mind can remain in the dead body for three days, quite consistent with the Buddhist texts.
The mind itself seems mysterious and hard to understand with our conceptual thoughts. But we can still learn about it through the Buddha’s teaching, together with scientific findings. Just like we learn about medicine through medical books, we have to rely on religious scriptures to learn about life and the mind. Each area has its professional knowledge and in terms of the mind and life, the Buddhist philosophy provides authentic explanation. Some related phenomena may not be well explained by science, but we can find good answers in the Buddhist texts taught by the Buddha more than 2,500 years ago. So today’s science would also refer to Buddhism for the study of the mind.
To understand the profound meaning of life, we should extensively study the Buddhist scriptures in Theravada Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism and Han Chinese Buddhism. Within these texts, we will find clear answers to many things that are difficult to explain by science.
I want to share one more thing. Today many people believe in science but science has its own limitations. A few days ago, when I was in Beijing, I had a conversation with Mr. Zhu Qingshi, the former President of the University of Science and Technology of China. I know he once said that, when scientists climbed to the summit of knowledge mountain with all hardships, they found Buddhist masters had already been there for a long time.
So during our conversation, I asked, as a scientist, why he had such comments. He replied that from the Buddhist philosophy, he learned many truths about life which are much more than what modern science can provide. As he had been the President of USTC for ten years, I feel he and many people like him who dedicate most of their life to science can eventually find the answer they are looking for in Buddhism. Mr. Zhu has studied Discourse on the Stages of Yogic Practice and Surangama Sutra and also received many teachings from Master Nan Huai-Chin, so he made this comment about Buddhism and science.
Going back to three and four days after death, is it the same for everyone or does it vary between one and another? If one person has more attachment, would this period be longer or if one person has less ignorance or less attachment, can it be shorter?
According to Buddhism, three or four days is the longest period and it varies from person to person. Some may leave their bodies very soon.
Can the mind know what is going on with the body during the first three days after death?
Basically the mind has different levels, i.e., the gross mind and the subtle mind. When the gross mind has no awareness, the subtle mind may still stay in the physical body or travel in the Bardo state without any physical restriction. The subtle mind won’t stay just in a certain place but can be anywhere in the body. Sometimes we can feel it according to the dead body’s temperature as the body remains warm for a long time. So the subtle mind does exist, and can leave and return to the body after death and there are various situations. Given the fact that sentient beings have different karma, their minds can exist in all different ways.
In Buddhist stories, there are persons whose minds left their bodies and after the mind came back, they felt so sad because the bodies were already gone. There are such stories in Buddhism. Similarly, the American psychiatrist, Dr. Weiss has conducted a lot of research on life and the mind. He has gathered more than 20,000 cases about different situations of the mind. In some cases people had out-of-body experiences and in some cases people recalled past-life memories under hypnosis.
What happens to the mind if the body is burnt during the first three days?
That’s why in the Tibetan tradition, the dead body is kept at least for three days, and otherwise the mind will have no home to return to.
I think most of us have learned very much today. There are some gaps because of the language barrier. But I think we all can touch your compassion and your wisdom that you want to share with us. I wish in the future we can have you here again. Everybody please give a big hand to Khenpo.