In learning Buddhism, we must clearly understand how we came to this world and where we will go after death. However, this is not easy. So, the Buddha guided us with his wisdom, highlighting to us that we must first learn to calm and settle our minds.
If we can do this, we will be able to clearly perceive everything in the world. Then we can reflect on ourselves and gain insight into our lives. If we can get over our problems and afflictions in life, we will naturally be able to let go of our attachment to life and death and feel at ease with it.
Attachment is ignorance
During the Buddha’s time, the Buddha and his monastic disciples often stayed at the Jetavana Monastery in Sravasti. As there were a great number of disciples, a group of them stayed at Vulture Peak, where they were led and guided by Sariputra. When the monks had any questions or doubts, they would consult Sariputra, who was foremost in wisdom among the Buddha’s disciples.
One day, when one of the monks, Mahakausthila, was sitting in meditation, a thought suddenly arose in his mind: “How did I come to this world? Why do people have ignorance and afflictions, losing themselves in the cycle of life and death?”
As he could not solve these questions, he got up and walked to Sariputra’s meditation chamber, and asked him respectfully, “Venerable, I have some questions. The Buddha often said that living beings are born from the accumulation of ignorance. Where exactly is ignorance? How does it arise and how can we break free from it?”
Sariputra replied, “Ignorance comes from a lack of knowledge of the Truth. Because of that, one does not understand the Truth of life. In fact, living beings are born because they do not realise that the Five Aggregates* of form, feeling, perception, impulse and consciousness are actually illusory and unreal. This is because we are not mindful. Life is inseparable from matter. Everything that is perceptible to the eye is matter, which is subject to creation and destruction.
But people do not understand this principle, which underlies all material things. That’s why they are often attached to things. Such is ignorance. And, people also do not understand the nature of feelings and emotions. When they see, hear about or come into contact with a person, matter or thing, they will give rise to various feelings and emotions. When they see something that pleases them, they will feel happy, but when they see something that displeases them, they’ll get angry. As they cannot perceive the illusory and transient nature of feelings and emotions, they give rise to afflictions. This is also ignorance."
He added, “Ordinary people will develop thoughts and views after they experience something. If they are still attached to the memory of the thing or event after it has passed, it is because of their ignorance, too. Why is there birth and death? It comes from people’s attachment to things. In our minds, we judge and discriminate things we feel and experience in the external environment. Then we commit a lot of wrongs and feel regret afterwards.
All this is a result of our ignorance. If we do not have a clear and thorough understanding of the Five Aggregates of form, feeling, perception, impulse and consciousness, we will not be able to free our hearts and see past problems and afflictions. This is also due to ignorance.”
*In Buddhism, the Five Aggregates are the elements that constitute a human being.
Seeing past the outer form
The reply given by Sariputra sounds quite abstract. How should we practise Buddhism in order to gain a complete and clear understanding of the Five Aggregates? It depends on how mindful we are.
Things in nature, such as rocks, soil, grass, trees and even our physical body, are all part of the “aggregate of form”. How does a stalk of grass grow out of the earth? It will grow when its seed comes into contact with the elements, soil, air, water, and sunlight. After that, it still needs soil, water, air and sunlight to stay alive. But after sometime, it will turn yellow and wither. This is how all things undergo the process of change, constantly arising and ceasing, always ever-changing.
Likewise, life undergoes change constantly. After a baby is born, he grows and becomes a child, and then a youth, before he reaches middle-age, and finally old age. How exactly did we grow up? I believe that no one is able to fully understand the workings of his own body. Not only that, but we are also unable to completely understand how our thoughts and feelings arise and cease.
In a hospital, we can see various kinds of patients, each with a different outlook on life. Some people are very frightened of death. Once they fall ill, they would think about the horror of death. So, some people did not pass away due to illness, but due to their own terror. It was the fear and despair in their hearts that aggravated their illness, which eventually caused their death. But there are also patients who are very optimistic and upbeat, and they usually recover faster.
Once, a patient suffering from liver disease expressed his wish to donate his body to the Tzu Chi hospital (in Hualien) for anatomy research after he passed away. He said that he had not done much in his life to contribute to humanity, so he would feel very happy to be able to donate his body for medical education.
Such a carefree and optimistic person as him would have already seen through the aggregate of form. He had seen past death, so it did not matter whether he understood the other four aggregates of feeling, perception, impulse and consciousness.
As long as we can see past the outer form of things, we will be able to see past all our afflictions in life. Hence, we must mindfully reflect on ourselves. When our minds are calm and settled, our body and mind will not be blighted by ignorance.
Source: Tzu Chi Taiwan website
Translated by the Tzu Chi Singapore translation team