A Conversation between Venerable Master Sheng Yen and Cardinal Paul Shan Kuo-Hsi
Catholic Cardinal Paul Shan Kuo-Hsi and DDM Founder Venerable Master Sheng Yen spoke on the matter of life and death - a subject that has always been inquired and explored greatly within religious context. Though both religious leaders are patients of critical illness, they are able, with religious practices and compassion, comprehend both life and death in completeness, and even transcending and embracing such matters with great ease and joy.
In this conversation, Cardinal Paul Shan Kuo-Hsi, a cancer patient himself, revealed humorously that he had even prerecorded his farewell sermon - "and when the time comes, it is all set to play!" Venerable Master Sheng Yen, on the other hand, had refused to perform kidney transplant (he suffers from kidney failure), stating that - "I am old, wasting a new kidney on me is just not compassionate". With great vows, the latter have been able to overcome critical moments in life.
Here are the excerpts of their conversation and interview:
Q : How would you like people to remember 'you' in the future?
Ven. Master Sheng Yen (Ven. Master) : I have not thought of such issue. There are certain people who like to put me on pedestal, and state that I could be part of history. But the fact is this - there are not many historical figures one could well remember. While one is still alive, there could never be a conclusive appraisal; such judgment is only reserved when one is dead. But after death, does it matter anymore on how people remember and perceive us?
Cardinal Paul Shan Kuo-Hsi (Cardinal Paul Shan) : I am not an important person in anyway, and would not expect anyone to remember me. My life is but to spread the Love of God. Hence, it does not matter how I were to be remembered. My life is meaningful as long as my actions reveal God's wondrous Love.
Q : As recognized religious Masters, it is frequent to come across myriads questions from both believers and non-believers alike. Do you really have answers to all these questions? Would not there be questions that cannot be answered?
Ven. Master : There are many questions that remain unanswered. I am just a normal human being, and even all my life's experience, there are still many questions that could not be resolved. Even Shakyamuni Buddha could not answer and solve all questions. For example, where does human originate? How did the Universe come to be? Certain questions can never ever be answered, they are inconceivable.
To those questions that could not be answered, I would normally ask in return "What do you think?" Interestingly, this would normally lead to answers!
Sometimes they already have answers in their mind, and are merely hoping to reaffirm those answers by getting me to agree with them. Other times, people who raise such questions are not clear within themselves. They become clearer when being challenged and question in return.
Yet there are times people continue to pursue on questions that they clearly know have no answers! One example is the question that was raised to me before the election - "which candidate will win the election?" How could I ever know?
Cardinal Paul Shan : I am not almighty, I would admit this and I could never provide satisfactory answers to everyone. For example, there are many people who like to treat religious believe as science, and insist on finding evidence of God existence, and that of Heaven and Hell. However, it is very difficult to seek answers from our limited wisdom. Evidence of God cannot be found with naked eyes - God is not a kind of material. Nevertheless, we could deduce with our wisdom to believe Its existence.
Q : Cardinal, we understand that you were shocked when you were diagnosed with cancer in 2006. You revealed that you regained calmness after praying to God for half an hour. What exactly was in your mind when you prayed to God then?
Cardinal Paul Shan : I was very shocked when the doctor informed me of lung gland cancer. I did not smoke or drink, why is it me? However, there is a little voice in me that raised this question "Why would others deserve this then?"
I knelt down and prayed for half an hour. I asked God : "What would You like me to do?" I am old and sick, and if He feels that such an old person is still worthy, then by all means please make use of me! I prayed and said : "God, please allow me to understand what you have in mind." I pled for Him to enter my heart, praying that i understand his decree.
Death is process, a process for me to enter God's eternality. Such understanding is for those who have faith. Some raised the question "Would you not be bored and tired with Eternality - something that would never change and remain the same forever?"
To me, there would only be joy and happiness when there is Love. How could there ever be boredom? Time is just our imagination. The earth orbits around the sun. A complete orbit is known to be a year, 365 days. If there were to be no sun, no earth, what then is time? There is no word to describe Eternal.
I have been a priest for 60 years, and yet I have not done anything for myself. I once thought I could be free and do whatever as I wish after my retirement, but God now says : "Hold on, I have other plans for you." He is using this opportunity to give me yet another mission.
There are many out there who are infected with cancer. Some lost their will to live. Many doctors shared with me that similar cancer patients would only have an average lifespan of four months. However, one third of such patients died of fear. Last year, all three friends of mine who had such illness passed away in less than 4 months. Well, I think my illness is planned by God, and I accept it. I treat this as my 'little angle', who reminds me : The race is ending, you have to exert yourself every single second, in helping others to go beyond death. I have been living for a year and a half since then.
Q : Ven Master Sheng Yen, you are also very much at ease with your illness. How do you treat such personal pains and sufferings?
Ven. Master : Shakyamuni Buddha's helped and delivered sentient beings, and all his life was full of challenges and sufferings; Venerable Hsuan Tsang left for India in pursuit of Buddhist studies, and he had to overcome more than eighty obstacles. These great teachers made their way through great difficulties. Another recent example is the late Venerable Master Yin Shun in Taiwan. Throughout his 100 years life, he had never been able to live without medications and needles, yet his achievements in Buddhist studies and research is unparallel.
As for me, I have always been ill throughout my life. Many had little confidence and hope in me, and thought that I could never live long. I only began to speak at the age of 5 or 6, and it is not until I reached 8 or 9 years that I attended school. I lived through war times and endless challenges and sufferings. I had never attended high school or university, yet quite surprisingly I managed to complete PhD in Japan. This required much hard work. I thank Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in tempering me with these challenges and sufferings, for they gave me the strength to serve and contribute. Throughout the years, I was able to write a few books every year. This has cumulated to slightly more than 100 works.
Do I see these as my retributions and karma? No, I see them as missions given to me by Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, and also the fulfillment of my early years' vow; the vow to popularize and share Buddha Dharma with more people. This is inspired by what I observed too, that the wondrous and delightful teachings of the Buddha are only known by a few. It is this vow that led to such achievements.
I lived with, and survived through needles and medications through the years. Continuing to live on in this manner, I feel that I have certain obligations myself. Three years ago I had problems with my kidneys. The left one had a tumour and was removed. As a result, I was left with only the right kidney, which does not function well. This then requires me to receive dialysis treatment every week. Throughout these years, I had been through critical moments. It is because of my unfulfilled wish; building DDM University; that I managed to pull through and returned from the edges of death.
I once prayed to Buddhas and Bodhisattvas that "I would leave anytime only when I complete my duties and responsibilities. However, if there are still undone works, please allow me to live on". With these in mind, I revived. Such is the strength of vow.
Q : Was it depressing when the doctor declared that you need to receive long-term dialysis treatment? How did your change your mindset then?
Ven. Master : I did not feel depressed or fearful. I could actually live happily and healthily even as a patient. I do not feel that receiving dialysis treatment is a painful burden. I am also aware that it is quite difficult for patients to remain optimistic in this manner. The moment I was infected, I did not raise questions such as "Why did I fell ill?" or "What had I done to deserve this?". Neither did I complain to Bodhisattvas that "This is so unfair!". Rather, I faced and accepted them.
I simply have to face it. Being a meditation practitioner, it helped me to accept the pains. In the past 3 years, my health condition fluctuated - sometimes good, yet sometimes bad. As for me, I treated them with an ordinary and equanimous mind, leaving my life to Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, and my body to doctors. I coorporated fully with whatever treatments the doctors recommended.
I lived and survived, without seeking death, without anticipating death, and without having fear of death. If I were to passively wait for my final moment, day after day, it would be so irritating! It is very rare that I find myself disturbed emotionally. It seems that meditation practice of tens of years does has its benefits.
However, I could understand the patients' fear. I will like to sugget that we practice to handle them with these four steps: face it, accept it, dealing with it, and let go of it, so as to regulate and calm ourselves. Even if we cannot be totally succesful, we would, the very least, be able to reduce our mental sufferings. Faith is a very powerful element. If we could achieve serinity within our mind, we would eventually experience peace.
Q : Having conducted innumerable funerals, and encountered countless births and deaths, how would both Reverends arrange the final journey?
Cardinal Paul Shan : Right after the diagnose of cancer, I have been working in my best manner to complete my works, while leaving my fate to God. I am one very cooperative patient! I leave my illness to the doctors, while I take care of myself. When I have passed away, my contribution to Taiwan is simply this - my body as organic fertilizer!
I have prepared my will to have a simple funeral with the thinnest coffin. There is no need for flowers and elegiac couplets, just a bible on top of the coffin will do.
I have even prepared my final sermon! I have to do it myself because I am uncomfortable and afraid of receiving only praises, and no one remember of my own wrong doings and the need to seek for forgiveness! I have recorded my own sermon, and when the time comes, it is all set to play!
I am a homeless person, just like Ven. Master Shen Yen. I do not own anything, any property. The most precious thing is Faith, that "God is Love". I share such faith of Love to all my friends, and leave my life and soul to God. This, to me, is complete.
Ven. Master : My thoughts are very similar. I have earlier prepared and notarized my will with lawyers and official courts. I have no property - everything belongs to our organization. What I have is only this physical body, to be cremated in a simple thin coffin. After cremation, there would be no pagoda, no tomb and memorial. When I am gone, I will disappear from this world.
The normal practice in our society is to stress on preparing a solemn funeral, and a good memorial. Perhaps there would still be people who come to pay respect within a decade or two. But soon after that, very few people will remember you. This is a fact. In line with advocating the protection of social environment, I wish we could reflect on this and change our attitude.