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Embracing Birth and Death

Most people can relate to the joy of birth, but know little about death. Where do people go after death? How does their soul consciousness leave their physical bodies behind and find their next life? Are we able to embrace death as much as we welcome birth?

Dharma Drum Mountain Buddhist Centre Malaysia held an Embracing Birth and Death lecture on July 6 and 7, a two-day bank holiday. Ven. Chang Chuo, director of DDM Social Care Department, was invited to speak at this lecture, which drew an audience of about 150 participants and volunteers that packed the small meditation hall.

The formation of this life

The venerable started off by introducing the four noble truths and twelve links of dependent origination, and then explained each link in detail to help participants understand the concept of causality spanning the three periods of time, thereby realizing the origin of birth, aging, and death. Our ignorance and mental formation since time without beginning result in our consciousness entering the womb by grasping the four elements of earth, water, fire, and wind—
when the father’s sperm and mother’s ovum are united—thereby giving rise to the link of name-and-form, marking the appearance of this life. In this life, again, our acts of clinging and craving create the karma that lead to the perpetual transmigration of birth and death.

Creation of karma and the karmic force

Karma is a form of energy that dominated the samsara, or the cycles of birth and death. As the venerable said, most sentient beings hold tight to their spiritual ignorance and craving, and thus ceaselessly accumulate the karma in their eighth consciousnesses. With the consciousness attaching to conditions and objects, every change in the environment will trigger fluctuation in our mind, driving our unconscious discriminations, reactions, and actions, and thus giving rise to our pains and pleasures, which is the origin of our inner affliction and distress. Our life comes to an end when the karma for this life comes to an end. If sentient beings fail to see through the process of birth and death, then they will continue to experience this transmigration of birth and death, unable to escape from it and eliminate their affliction.

The venerable further explained that our bodily, verbal, and mental actions are actually controlled by our will. With this willpower, we cumulate our karma. This implicit power underlies our habit patterns, which, when activated repeatedly, will become a mode of our physical actions that affects our current life. If we create further karma in our current life, we will be led to receive further karmic results as a consequence.

The venerable said that karmic results are brought about by karmic forces. When one creates the karma, one will receive its karmic result. Different karmic forces will lead to various corresponding karmic results. When the necessary relationships, conditions, and causes are sufficient, the karmic force will ripen and thus cause one to receive its karmic result. Death marks the ripening of all the due karma one deserves in one’s present life. Therefore, the karmic results experienced in one’s lifetime represent one’s life experiences as a whole.

The venerable also shared that practicing precepts, concentration, and wisdom
helps reduce our chances to do evil and prevents us from creating evil karma, thereby liberating us from affliction and the samsara of birth and death. Precepts are about refraining from evil actions and cultivating wholesome deeds. Concentration enables our mind to focus, and naturally develop wisdom. He urged participants to not feel disheartened when they receive karmic retributions, because Mahayana Buddhism holds that karma is in fact empty in nature, and that we can transform and eradicate our karma by practicing precepts, concentration, and wisdom. The point is to develop correct knowledge, correct view, and correct thought, and view every happening in our life as an opportunity to practice how to face and resolve our affliction.

The process of death

The venerable then explained about the process of death and changes in body and mind in that stage. At death, one will experience eight stages of process, including four stages of internal decomposition and four stages of external decomposition. Experienced in offering care for the dying and the dead, the venerable gave examples to illustrate about the feelings during the decomposition stages to help participants understand more about physiological changes after death, and the fact that we must not measure the conditions of a dying patient from a healthy person’s perspective. The venerable also touched upon the issue of intermediate-state body after death and before rebirth, and looked at ancestor worship from the Buddhist point of view.

In this two-day course, the venerable discussed birth and death, as well as deathbed chanting and end-of-life caring; he repeatedly pointed out the significance of the practices to the dying and deceased. Towards the end, the venerable encouraged participants to set their goals in life to realize the truth of universe and life, and help other people do so, and make a resolution to transcend life and death.

Keen participation at this course showed that birth and death is indeed a major issue in life that concerns every individual. When we understand what death is about we will realize that death is to be embraced without fear; only by exploring birth and death with courage can we experience each moment of life with joy, even though it is impermanent.

Reported by Luo Jianqiang, Pan Fuwei, Huang Xiuyi, and Huang Huimin (羅健強、潘富瑋、黃秀儀、黃慧敏)
Translated by Frances Liu (劉珮如)
Edited by Chiacheng Chang (張家誠)

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