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Volume 9 Issue No. 4

Everyone should realise and awaken to impermanence
by Venerable Master Shen-Kai

Unenlightened worldly people do not know of impermanence. Thus, whenever they have to part with things or people who are dear or when misfortunes befall, they become vexed and tearful. They are oblivious of the ever changing conditions that govern all things. On the other hand, enlightened people have already awakened to the truth that nothing in this universe is permanent and even the universe itself is impermanent. All things come and go according to ever changing conditions. Thus, whenever they encounter mishaps, they remain calm, are at ease and are without grief. We are part of the universe; therefore we need a better understanding of impermanence and know how to live with it.

During the time when Buddha was at Jetavana Vihara, there was a Brahmin in Rajagrha who had heard that the citizens of Sravasti were very compassionate and caring people who were filial to their parents. They had taken refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, and respectfully received the teachings and practised accordingly. So he went to Sravasti, hoping to learn from the good prevailing customs there.

One day, while touring outside the city of Sravasti, he saw that out in the farmlands were a father and his son ploughing the fields. Suddenly, a poisonous snake slithered into the field, bit and killed the son. However, having seen this, the father remained unperturbed. Showing no signs of distress, he continued to till the land.

The Brahmin was astonished to see this! He went down to the edge of the field, pointed at the dead body and asked the father, "Whose son was he?"

"He was my son." answered the father.

He asked again, "Since he was your son, why aren't you trying to find out what happened? Why aren't you crying? Rather, you just accept his death?"

"When there is birth, there will be death; when there is formation, there will be decay. Virtuous ones receive virtuous retributions, while evil ones receive evil retributions. My son has already died today. What is the use of grieving and crying?" the father answered. "It is now approaching noon. Could you please go to my house in the village and inform my wife that our son is dead, so she only needs to send lunch for one person?"

Upon hearing this, the Brahmin thought, "How unbelievable it is that a father would not be heartbroken by the death of his own son! I think this person is unkind and immoral. I have heard that amongst the citizens of Sravasti, there has always been kindness in fathers, filial piety in children, care and respect between siblings, justice between the ruler and his subjects, and trust between friends. So why have I witnessed such contradictory behaviour in this farmer today?"

In order to better understand how the bereaved family made funeral arrangements, he went to the farmer's house to investigate. When he met the farmer's wife, he said to her, "Your son was killed by the bite of a poisonous snake in the field. When your husband saw this, he paid little notice and asked me to come into the village to bring you a message. He would like you to send lunch for one, enough for just himself. I find this very weird. With the death of his son, why isn't he grieving?"

The farmer's wife explained with a metaphor, "My son came on his own accord to be born into my family, without my calling him here. Today, my son has died on his own accord. This is not a situation that I can reverse. Just like the overnight guests at an inn, coming and going freely and on their own accord, it is beyond my capacity to control. He has his own past karmic transgressions to sort out. Today, a negative retribution has manifested itself. Grieving and weeping won't help!"

Hearing this, the Brahmin felt utterly stunned. He asked the sister, "Your younger brother has died. Why aren't you sorrowful?"

The sister replied, "My brother and I are like a pair of woodcutters who had gone into the forested mountains to cut wood. We bundled the chopped wood together, brought it down the mountain and made a raft with it, which we placed onto the river to cross to the opposite shore. Suddenly came a strong wind. It capsized the raft. The two people were separated and pulled away by the currents. One lost sight of the other and they forever parted from each other. My brother's sudden death is similar to this. By the aggregation of causes and conditions in this life, we became brother and sister. However, birth and death are impermanent. If there is aggregation, there will be separation, each going with his past karma and bearing his karmic retributions accordingly. How could we possibly force him to stay? Our sorrow and tears are of no help to the deceased!"

As the Brahmin listened to her words, he was perplexed. Then he saw the farmer's daughter-in-law standing on the side, with no sign of distress on her face. So, he asked her, "Your husband is dead. Why aren't you grieving and crying?"

She answered, "As man and wife, we were like birds perched on a branch, resting. Despite being very loving, and sharing the same bed and pillow, when suddenly the day breaks, the birds fly their separate ways in search of food. When conditions allow, they will meet again. When the conditions disperse, they will part. Each according to his own karmic forces, will receive his respective karmic effects. One cannot save the other. How could crying and feeling sad benefit the deceased?"

Upon hearing her reply, the Brahmin reflected, "I thought that on the path of matrimony, the wife is supposed to follow her husband in everything he does, and they should accompany each other till their old age. How come she has lost her husband today, and yet she neither grieves nor weeps?"

As he was puzzling over this, he noticed a servant carrying some hot tea into the living-room. He asked the servant, "Your young master has been killed by a poisonous snake. Why aren't you sad?"

"Due to our past causality, today I am a servant to my master, like a calf following the cow, obeying the calls of its mother," the servant told the Brahmin. "Today the cow is slaughtered by someone. Although the calf is just beside her, it can't rescue the cow. Would crying, worrying, being distressed and unhappy do the deceased any good?"

The Brahmin felt very perplexed with what he was hearing. He could not understand. He thought, "I've heard that in this country, people are filial and respectful of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Thus, I've travelled here from faraway in hopes of learning from their fine customs. Who'd have thought that having come here, all I've seen are citizens who are unfeeling, unrighteous and lacking in moral principles, not to mention other things? What an utter disappointment!"

While he was sighing with regret, he suddenly thought of Buddha who was presently in the country giving teachings. Hence, he enquired of a passer-by, "Where is Buddha now?"

"Buddha is now at Jetavana Vihara," was the reply.

Thus, the Brahmin journeyed towards Jetavana Vihara. When he arrived there, he paid his respects to Buddha and then backed himself away to the side. Quite troubled, he lowered his head and would not utter a single word.

Knowing the purpose of his visit, Buddha deliberately enquired, "Why are you silent and sullen?"

"Sigh! Having come to this place, I've been deeply disappointed," the Brahmin replied. "Things have not been up to expectations. That's why I am unhappy."

Buddha then asked again, "What has disappointed you so much to make you this depressed?"

The Brahmin answered, "To be honest, I have come from Rajagrha hoping to learn from the etiquette and customs of the people here. However, shortly after my arrival, I have already met people who behave contrary to basic moral principles and etiquette."

"In what ways have they behaved so?" Buddha asked.

The Brahmin said, "When I began touring outside the city, I saw a father and son tilling the land. Suddenly the son was bitten and killed by a poisonous snake. Not only did the father dismiss this matter, all he did was to ask me to go to his home in the village to inform his wife that his son had died, so she need only deliver lunch for one person. The entire household, young and old, expressed no sorrow upon hearing of the mishap. They appeared calm and at ease. Their kind of cruel and unfeeling ways lack morality and truly violates any good etiquette by a long way."

Buddha then explained, "The five people whom you refered to have all attained enlightenment. They have surpassed and liberated from worldly emotions and thoughts. Therefore, upon hearing of the mishap, they remained calm, at ease and without grief. Unenlightened worldly people do not know about impermanence. Whenever they encounter misfortunes, they are vexed and tearful. They cannot help themselves. It is like a person who is burning up with a fever. His mind is confused and he speaks nonsensically without knowing it. If he happens to meet a good doctor who applies the appropriate medication for the illness, the fever will subside and he will no longer talk nonsense. If unenlightened worldly people have the opportunity to meet with an enlightened one who gives them advice and guidance for their delusions and ignorance, they will awaken to the impermanence of life and realise that it is not something that can be solved by worrying, distressing and crying. Thus they will be able to see through the illusion and let go, never to worry again. Like a sickness that has been cured, they will no longer be deluded by illusory appearances and phenomena of our world."

After hearing this, the Brahmin understood the Truth. No longer was he upset. Bowing respectfully to Buddha, he said, "Listening to your guidance today is like meeting with a good doctor. My fever has been cured. It is as if I'm seeing brightness, as if my blind eyes can see. No longer am I confused and perplexed. This is a gift that Buddha has bestowed upon me. I am truly overjoyed."

After having said that, he attained enlightenment and never again grieved over the separations that result from births and deaths in the world.

Seeing that the Brahmin had attained enlightenment, Buddha told him, "After returning to your country, you must guide and awake others to this principle of impermanence of all worldly situations and phenomena. If people have lost their love ones, they mustn't cry piteously beside the deceased, because that does not help matters. Instead, they ought to reverently invite a highly cultivated member of Sangha to act according to the Dharma to help the deceased transcend."

The Brahmin listened to Buddha, prostrated himself with highest respect and departed after having received the teachings.


© Copyright 2002.Jen Chen Buddhism Centre