What is the meaning of liberation?

The meaning of liberation

It is extremely difficult to talk about the meaning of liberation. Let us cite an example: if a robber has been apprehended and is being tied with a rope, he would struggle vehemently for his freedom. He seeks liberation. We human beings are bound by many invisible ropes that deprive us of our freedom. Yet we don’t know about liberation. Thus, we learn and practise Buddhism to seek liberation. But, we must not think that we are liberated only when we die. We need to understand how to liberate ourselves at this very moment while we are still alive. If, while living we don’t understand even the smallest liberation, then it is not possible to attain the great liberation upon death.

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Let me illustrate with a simple example. During the time of the Buddha, there was a little rascal who felt negative about so many people paying reverence to the Buddha. He therefore cast insults at the Buddha. On hearing him, the Buddha broke into a smile and said unto him, "What you said is very logical, you are right!" He felt encouraged and continued with his insults. When he finally finished, the Buddha asked him if it is a practice in his family to present friends and relatives with gifts on special occasions. He said yes, and the Buddha continued, "What do you do if these friends and relatives refuse to accept your gifts?" "If they refuse then I will take them home with me!", he replied. The Buddha then said, "You consider the insults that you cast on the Buddha today valuable. But, the Buddha has no use for them. Would you please take them back!" At this point the rascal realized he had been disrespectful. He was repentant and immediately sought the Buddha’s pardon. He then took refuge in the Buddha and became his student. Liberation is like this. When we are reprimanded, we should feel thankful. The matter is closed and we are liberated. Some people counter harsh words and sarcasm with their fists. That is not being liberated.

Thus, when we learn and practise Buddhism, at every moment, regardless of where we are, or whatever we are doing, we need to understand the principle of liberation. Then, we will be extremely happy. When we practised liberation whilst alive, then surely we will be liberated when we die. Thus, the principle of liberation is indeed simple; to those who do not know then it is not simple at all.

What happen to human beings after death?

Liberation is for the living too

A Chinese proverb says that "Human beings though intelligent know not about living and dying; monkeys though intelligent know nothing about untying a rope." We consider ourselves intelligent, yet we do not know what happens to us after death. Thus, the Buddha tells us that when we die we transmigrate to one of the six realms of existence: the realm of celestials beings or devas, human beings, asuras, animals, ghosts and hell.

If we perform virtuous deeds and are filial to our parents, our next life may be that of celestial beings where there is an abundance of happiness and blessings. If after death we are still attached and cannot let go of the things that concerned us when we were alive, for example, matters regarding properties, children’s marriage or indeed the many other worldly matters, one type of rebirth will be in the human realm while the other is in the realm of ghosts. The hot tempered, quarrelsome type will transmigrate to become asuras. People who are foolish or ignorant and yet ill-tempered will transmigrate to become fighting cocks or fighting bulls. Doers of evil deeds such as inflicting pain, committing murder or other serious crime transmigrate to the hell realm.

voice-lib3.jpg (6605 bytes) If we can perceive that transmigration in the six realms is one of suffering and misery, we should learn and practise the Buddha’s teachings and seek liberation. Many people think that death is liberation. However, Jen Chen Buddhism also teaches people that not only do we need to be liberated upon death, but also while we are alive and well. For example, when others dislike you or scold you, and you thank them and treat them as your teacher so that you may be awakened and further improve yourself, then you are indeed liberated.

To practise liberation takes great effort. Take another example, you cast your eyes on a stranger and he challenges you to a fight. Again, if you are not attached to your ego, you could say, "I am sorry, I looked at you because you bear great resemblance to somebody I know." When we are liberated in this manner, the matter is closed. If on the other hand, you retaliate because you were challenged, the hostility may lead to a fight and lives may be lost. That is an example of non-liberation.

If we practise liberation, be it at home or in the society, in all aspects of our life, then we will also be liberated when we are die. On the other hand, if in the course of our daily lives we do not conduct ourselves in a proper manner, and we do not cultivate, then it is impossible to attain liberation when we die. Let me tell you a short story about the ability of the Buddha to liberate himself:

After Sakyamuni attained enlightenment and became Buddha, he was widely respected. There was however a little rascal who did not have any regard for Him. One day, he came up to the Buddha and insulted Him. After he has finished, Buddha told him, "You make good sense, what you have said is correct." The rascal was very happy that Buddha agreed with him even though he had insulted Him. Buddha then asked, "Is it a practice in your family to give relatives and good friends presents whenever your family has auspicious occasions to celebrate?" The young man replied proudly, "Yes, indeed. On such occasions I usually help my parents distribute the presents." Buddha continued, "What would you do if they refuse to accept your good presents?" The young man replied, "Well, I will take them home since they are mine." Buddha then said, "That being the case, I feel that what you said earlier about Buddha is a very good present. However, I refuse to accept it. How about you taking it back with you?" The young man was dumbfounded. He realized his mistake, knelt before the Buddha and pleaded Buddha to accept him as His disciple.

Being a well cultured person, the Buddha’s outlook of life is different from others. Even though he was treated in this manner, He remained composed and relaxed, and was able to reverse the situation without hurting anybody. This is an ideal example of liberation. When we truly understand the principle of liberation, then we are able to liberate ourselves in the course of our daily lives. To the extent that wherever we go, whatever we do, we are happy, then we have succeeded in our liberation. This is my answer to the question which at the same time explains the meaning of liberation.

Human beings need only to do good, why do they need to practise Buddhism?

Good people need to liberate themselves too

It is true that human beings need to do good. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. The real problem is that many people want to do good, but they do not know how. In Buddhism there is a standard as to how good or bad a person may be. But, most people do not know what that standard is. Buddhism advocates that we perform the Ten Virtuous Deeds and when we do these, our rebirth may be in the realm of the celestial beings, that is, as devas. This is the standard for rebirth in this realm.

The Ten Virtuous Deeds are
  • refrain from killing,
  • refrain from stealing,
  • refrain from lying,
  • refrain from adultery,
  • refrain from frivolous and meaningless talk,
  • refrain from tale-bearing,
  • refrain from slanderous speech,
  • refrain from covetousness,
  • refrain from ill-will,
  • refrain from pereverted views
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Besides perfoming these Ten Virtuous Deeds, one also has to practise widely the virtues of giving, generosity, and filial piety. With these, we can be assured of rebirth in the celestial realm. There are of course numerous different ways in which one can perform goodness. However, all of these stem from the above ten basic principles.

If we, on the contrary, kill, steal, are promiscuous, lie, indulge in frivolous gossips, use harsh words, make slanderous remarks, crave, habour ill-will and cling to perverted views, we are committing the "ten evils". Furthermore, if we do not show filial piety to our parents and commit many other evils, they all fall within these ten evils. The consequence is rebirth in the three evil realms of animals, ghosts and hell. In fact many religions teach that human beings should avoid doing evil and do more good. Buddhism, besides teaching us to perform the Ten Virtuous Deeds for rebirth in the celestial realm, also teaches us how to develop wisdom, liberate ourselves from our sufferings, emulate the practices of all Bodhisattvas, and ultimately attaining Buddhahood. Hence, it is insufficient to just do good and seek a celestial realm of existence.

Buddhism also teaches us to liberate ourselves from this mundane world and elevate ourselves into the supra-mundane which is nobel and superior. There are four levels of attainment in the supra-mundane : Arahat, Pratyeka-Buddha, Bodhisattva and Buddha. These four levels of attainment are not taught by other religions. Therefore Buddhism is indeed more subtle and profound. Hence, besides advocating the performance of good deeds, Buddhism also advocates the cultivation of the mind - to eradicate all evil thoughts, achieve inner-liberation, and finally attain enlightenment.

Copyright 2001. Jen Chen Buddhism Centre