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Volume 5 no 4

Venerable Shen-Kai Answers

Compass for a Blissful Life

The puzzles and doubts of life that people face are endless. For those who seek, the teachings of Buddhism are an infinite treasure of answers. In the following Q & A, Venerable Shen-Kai clarifies and in the true spirit of Buddhism, provides the compass to a blissful life.

1. "Causes are predetermined by nature; conditions are determined by man". Is this correct?

Do not be superstitious about fate.

1. Causes and conditions: colloquially thought of as fate; primary causes and secondary causes - for example, a seed is a primary cause; rain, dew, sunlight and farmer are secondary causes, or conditions, resulting in a plant.

The Law of Causality, or causes and conditions [1], is not well understood by many people. It is perceived that all causes are predetermined by nature. Such a perception is quite natural. However, we need to know that if we had not activated the causes, then it is not possible for them to be decided by nature. For this reason, we need to understand what 'causes and conditions' are, and not to be superstitious about them. When good causes are aided by good conditions and the combination matures, then it is as if they were predetermined by nature. Take friendship between two persons as an example: if, in the past good causes and conditions for friendship between them had not been predetermined by nature, and today they form a good cause between themselves and become good friends, then this event is determined by man.

2. It is said that fixed karma cannot be changed. Yet, it is also said that all phenomena are created by the mind. Are these statements contradictory?

Bear the retributions of karma according to the conditions, but do not create new misfortunes.

Whether a person ascends to heaven or descends to hell, the conditions are created by his mind. This is because all our actions in deeds or words are initiated by our thoughts. Good or virtuous thoughts beget good deeds, or karma, that eventually recompense rebirth as a human being or in the heavens. Evil thoughts, on the other hand, lead to evil karma that responds by rebirth in the animal, hungry ghost or hell realm as retribution.

Fixed karma cannot be changed; it is already fixed that at a particular time one definitely has to bear the consequence either as a retribution or reward. It is like a vine bearing sour grapes, it is impossible to change that. Only by sowing good seeds can one expect the grapes to be sweet. To change the fixed retribution due to fixed karma is not an easy thing to do. It can only be changed after receiving the due retribution. Therefore, one should bear the retributions of the karma according to the conditions, but must not create new misfortunes.

3. What is negative speech karma and how do we get rid of them?

It is the use of words to hurt others. The way to get rid of negative speech karma is to recite the Buddha's name, praise, encourage, console and speak well of others.

All our actions are called karma, regardless of whether they are good actions or evil ones. Because our actions or deeds are innumerable, they are categorised into those created by the body, speech and the mind.

Actions such as killing, stealing or sexual misconduct are evil body karma.

False speech, flirtatious speech, double-tongues or tale bearing and harsh or abusive words are evil speech karma.

Thoughts of greed, anger and ignorance are evil mind karma. All forms of craving for more and more are greed, including the greed for wealth. Anger includes the ill will arising from wickedness, vengeance, hatred, rage, jealousy, resentment and so on. Ignorance includes all forms of deviation from the truth, superstition and unenlightened. Everything that a person does when he should not have done so is considered ignorant, foolish and unenlightened.

Negative speech karma refers to the actions of the mouth to abuse, tell lies, or to instigate others, to create misunderstanding or to cause dissension between two parties. All these are evil karma created by the mouth, i.e. speech. To get rid of such karma, one could practise reciting the name of the Buddha, praise others when they are deserving, speak well of others, use words to encourage and console others. If we had instigated others before, now we ought to help them to cooperate. If we had been abusive before, from this day we should not use abusive language again. When we transform our speech karma from evil and undesirable to good and virtuous, we are cultivating the morality of speech. In this way, we can transform hell into heaven.

4. Where do our habits and temperament come from?

They accompany us from our many past lives.

Buddhism subscribes to the cause and effect of the three periods (past, present and future), and transmigration in the six realms of existence (heavens, human, asura, animals, ghosts and hell). Thus, it is said, "To know the causes created in the previous life, look at what one has to bear with in the present life; to know what the future life holds, look at the actions committed in this life." The retributions of cause and effect follow us like our shadow; they are as certain as the echoes that will come from a sound, precise and tally in every detail.

A particular type of Chinese teapot, which after having been used for a long time, does not require tea leaves to serve tea which is just as fragrant and tasty. It is extremely difficult, if at all possible, to rid the teapot of the residual tea. In the same way, sentient beings are tainted by their habitual behaviour and karma (actions of the body, speech and mind) for aeons of their many past lives and they are difficult to eradicate. As sentient beings transmigrate in the six realms, they develop many good or bad habits and temperament associated with a particular realm if they had existed for a long time in that realm. For example, they have habits or temperament of heavenly beings, asura, human, animals, ghosts and hell beings, if they had been in the respective realms for a long time.

Within each realm, these habits and temperament can be further differentiated by various categories, for example, in the human realm these are dependent on the professions that they are in. In the animal realm, for example, cows, horses, camels, donkeys, pigs, goats, dogs and apes have different habits and temperament. When they transmigrate in the six realms, then these habits and temperament accompany them.

As human beings, the purpose of cultivation is to eliminate whatever self-serving temperament and habits accumulated from aeons of our many past lives so as to uphold the qualities of human beings. We must avoid all evil deeds and perform all good deeds, purify our mind and seek liberation, so as to attain a life of wisdom and brightness.

5. I don't have the time to cultivate; what should I do?

Cultivate in the midst of your activities.

Let me teach you a method of cultivation that does not require time.

According to the Humanity Vehicle Buddhism this method of cultivation is called "cultivating while in the midst of your activities". For example, while we are talking we can also cultivate at the same time. A teacher can also cultivate while teaching in the classroom. If, for instance, your wisdom presents itself when you are teaching, your lecture will become more interesting and you will be able to attract the students' attention. Regardless of what you are doing, you can always cultivate at the same time, even when you are in the toilet, walking or driving. Isn't it dangerous to drive and cultivate at the same time? No, it is not, because cultivation means cleaning your mind until it is spick-and-span, maintaining illumine awareness and not being pre-occupied with wild thoughts. In this way, you are fully aware of the traffic around you and hence there is no danger at all.

Therefore, with this method of cultivation, it is so convenient because wherever you are, whatever you are doing you can cultivate in the midst of your activities. Not only is it possible to cultivate while in action, people can also cultivate while sleeping. Maintaining cultivation while sleeping is also an important practice because in this way people can be liberated even if they should die in their sleep.

1. Unenlightened: darkness without illumination, the ignorance that mistakes
seeming for being, or illusory phenomena for realities.
2. Six realms: realm of Heavens, Asura, Human, Animal, Ghost and Hell.
3. Light-sound heaven: Abhasvara, the 3rd level of the heaven of Second Jhana in the World of Form. According to the Sutra, this is where the ancestors of human beings came from.
4. Three planes of existence: world of sensuous desire, form and formless world of pure spirit.

6. How did the greed, anger and ignorance of the human race arise?

Greed, anger and ignorance originate from the unenlightened mind since time immemorial.

Greed, anger and ignorance originate from an unenlightened [1] or unillumined mind, which is the basis for transmigration in the six realms [2]. The human beings on earth came from the light-sound heaven [3]. The celestial beings of the light-sound heavens are in one of the six realms of existence, and therefore are subject to transmigration in the six realms. Since they are sentient beings of the six realms in three planes of existence [4], then naturally the unenlightened mind existed before the beginning of time.

7. How should we deal with our distresses?

Remove them via the same way that they appear.

First, examine how the distresses came about. Then remove them by means of the same way that they had come. That is all that needs to be done.

1. Five Precepts: abstention from
a. killing,
b. stealing,
c. lying,
d. sexual misconduct,
e. consumption of intoxicants

8. Live stocks such as chicken or ducks are commonly slaughtered as offerings to the Gods and deities during the New Year or other festivals. Such acts of killing break the precept of Buddhism. How can this be remedied?

Killing is an act of ignorance.

If one knows about keeping or observing the precepts [1] and yet commits such killings, then he is breaking the precept. Generally people do not know about keeping the precepts. If they commit such acts of killing because they do not know about the precepts, then that is ignorance. It is an act out of his ignorance. It is only through the promotion of the truth of Buddhism that people will come to know about this truth and abstain from killing.

9. In this world many babies are born every second. Why do they all have different encounters in life?

The causes of the past life determine the state of the present life.

All sentient beings transmigrate in the six realms, one after another. Whether their lives are desperate or promising, poor or rich, honourable or disreputable, good or bad, it all depends on the deeds that they have committed in the past. Therefore, those who have planted good causes will be reborn in good places. On the other hand, those who have planted evil causes will be reborn in adverse places. This is the iron rule of the universal law of cause and effect.

10. My husband and I are not well to do and we live a difficult life. We realised, after learning Buddhism, that this is because in our past lives we were stingy. We did not practise giving and also we did not cultivate blessings. Is it because our son was like us in his past life that he is born in our poor family?

Adverse conditions are in fact favourable conditions.

There is no need to worry for our children. They have their own blessings. Children born into poor families, quite often derive the strength and determination from the difficult conditions to strive and outshine others. Now that both of you are learning Buddhism, cultivating good deeds and building a Buddhist cultured family, this is a great help to your son's prospects.

11. What should we do if there is no harmony among family members?

Amongst people, there must be co-operation.

When using chopsticks, it is essential that both chopsticks are properly coordinated so that we can feast on a sumptuous meal. Similarly, when both husband and wife respects and cooperates with each other, it enables them to succeed in their careers and live a blissful life. Now, if you have your son to team up with you, then that is like putting three chopsticks together to stand up steadily like a tripod. In this way, your family is bound to be prosperous.

12. Some people think that they should become enlightened first before treading on the Bodhisattva Path; is this correct?

It is necessary to tread on the Bodhisattva Path to become enlightened.

Without treading on the Bodhisattva Path one cannot become enlightened. When they ceaselessly tread on the Bodhisattva Path they will become enlightened.


Copyright 2002.Jen Chen Buddhism Centre