Life is suffering
When Shakyamuni Buddha attained enlightenment, he said, "Life is suffering". Not only is human life bitter, but the three domains and the six realms are full of sufferings too.
The Lotus Sutra says the following:
The Three Domains are without peace, like a burning house and full of sufferings. This is most terrifying.
The Earth Treasure Sutra (Ksitigarbha Sutra) says:
Once the blessings enjoyed by the beings in the heaven realm are depleted, the signs of the five decays will manifest themselves, and the heavenly beings may even fall into the three wretched realms.
The Nirvana Sutra says:
Even if one gains rebirth in realms ranging from the Brahma Heavens to the Heaven of Neither Perception nor Non-Perception, at death one still falls into the three wretched realms.
Saddharma-smrty-upasthana Sutra says:
In the endless cycles of life and death, the bad karma we have accumulated is so vast that it pervades the whole universe. (One goes) from the celestial realms to the hell domains, and from the hell domains into the celestial realms.
It is the purpose of Buddhism to uproot sentient beings' fundamental suffering and give them ultimate happiness.
Humans are unable to avoid sufferings, which ShakyamuniBuddha summarizes into eight categories:
1. The suffering of birth
2. The suffering of old age
3. The suffering of sickness
4. The suffering of death
5. The suffering of separation from loved ones
6. The suffering of having to be around with the ones we hate
7. The suffering of not getting what we want
8. The suffering of the burning desire of the five aggregates (five skandhas).
In a nutshell, these are real sufferings beyond time and space. The root of all suffering is death. The fear of war and terminal diseases means the fear of death.
The Buddha said in the Sutra of Infinite Life:
You can’t have love, desires, and worldly splendor forever. They will all be gone and bring no joy.
Amid worldly desires and attachments, we come and go alone; we are born alone and die alone.
After death, we go to either a painful or a joyful place,
experiencing our own karmic consequences, which no one else can bear on our behalf.
The Earth Treasure Sutra says:
A father and son have the closest relationship, but their destinies diverge and each must go his own way. Even if they met, neither would be willing to undergo the suffering in the other’s place.
This illustrates the reality of life.
We came to this world alone; when we die, we move on to our next journey alone.
Being lonely doesn’t only happen during the moments of birth and death. Life itself is one miserable, continuous and lonely journey.
Physically, we may have a partner but, spiritually, we don’t have a soul mate because even the most intimate couple doesn’t understand each other entirely.
Loneliness is one of the reasons why suicide among the elderly is on the rise, causing many social problems. Some people may think that happiness comes from a happy family, or having high social status, fame, or wealth.
But, when life ends, this so-called happiness will vanish in a flash. The journey of death is embarked upon by the lone soul; however close your friends or relatives are, no one is there with you on this journey. You can’t take anything with you, except karma, even if you are worth a trillion. The jailer of hell takes you away. You can only cry alone, kneeling in front of Yama King who reproaches you at his court.
The Infinite Life Sutra says, “When our lives are about to end, fear and regret arise in turn. “
If you have not resolved the major issue of the endless cycle of birth and death during your lifetime, you will regret this in tears when you are dying.
Master Shandao's " In Praise of Pratyutpanna" says:
We have millions of parents, wives, and children in many lifetimes, but they cannot help us on our path to attaining enlightenment,
Longing for and attaching to each other leads us to the wretched realms; we tread our respective journeys of karmic retribution without knowing one another.
Once we fall into hell with great and long sufferings, we begin to remember the good teachers.
We must never forget the sufferings of hell but aspire to go to the Pure Land.
A moment of recalling the extreme suffering of hell makes us unwilling to forget about the Pure Land even for a second.
There is an ancient saying:
The human form is hard to obtain but we have gained it now; the teaching of the Dharma is difficult to encounter, yet we have heard it. If, in this life, we don’t seek liberation from this existence, when will we do so?
It is difficult to be born as a human. The chances of that happening are like the chances that a blind turtle will insert its head through the hole in a piece of driftwood. (The Samyukta Agama).
The chances of falling into hell are as plentiful as all the particles of soil on the entire Earth, while the chances of obtaining human form are as poor as the small smudge of soil in my (the Buddha’s) palm. (Nirvana Sutra)
The difficulty of encountering Buddha’s teaching is like lowering a string vertically from the top of the Himalayas for it to pass through a pinhole at the foot of the mountain.
We have been transmigrating in the six realms for a long time and during this life we have come across the Buddha’s teachings. It is a great opportunity for us to be liberated from samsara and become a Buddha. If we do not grasp this opportunity to achieve Buddhahood in this life, we will forever be stuck in the six realms and have little chance to escape.
Therefore, we must rejoice at having this rare human body and, furthermore, at coming across the Dharma. To be able to do so is a once in a million kalpas chance. It is the happiest encounter. Only in human form can we learn the Dharma. It is the deciding factor over whether we will go up or fall down. It is our opportunity to be liberated from samsara. Yet this opportunity hinges on encountering Buddhism and cultivating the Path according to the Dharma to free ourselves from the cycle of life and death and become a Buddha. This is always the purpose of life throughout human history. We must remind ourselves that, if we do not achieve the purpose of life in this lifetime, we will forever miss the perfect opportunity to be saved, liberated, and then become a Buddha.
When we are born, we are like a fighter jet taking off from an aircraft carrier. The way we flounder in life is like battling many enemy fighter jets in the air. Sometimes we have to struggle with turbulence and storms, other times we find ourselves in a life-or-death air combat with the enemy. Finally, we manage to get out of the intense battle and return, but the aircraft carrier is nowhere to be seen. Hovering in the sky, all we can see is the endless ocean and our plane is running out of fuel. At this point, the previous joy in life from having obtained the precious human form and for the chance to learn the Dharma is gone forever. What is the point of this lifelong battle? We are dumbfounded and lost.
Do we want such an outcome?
It is customary for people to organize all sorts of celebrations at the end of the year: companies’ annual dinners; families’ hot-pot feasts; friends gather in karaoke to get drunk. We toast each other and resolve to work harder next year. The year’s toil ends with sensual indulgences.
However, the truth is that no one is aware that, with each year passing, we are getting closer and closer to our graves. All we do is to graduate from college, get a job, settle down, have children, build a new house, and buy a new car. This is like eating, drinking, and playing on an airplane without an airport to land on. As soon as the fuel is exhausted, we will immediately fall into the ocean. When our lives end, we will plunge into the dark hell. No one realizes that life is but a dream. Nothing is more terrifying than ignorance.
Master Shandao says, "The fires of the three evil realms are burning fiercely and our falling into them is imminent.” It can be said that the fire of hell is burning right under the feet of all of us. How can we not get alarmed?
Everyone will die for sure, but we don’t pay any attention to this hard fact. We only pursue the five desires and live a life of indulgences. We don’t get worried about death and have no fear of hell. Mankind is one vast mass of ignorant and befuddled people who have no idea what awaits them.
We must focus on this reality and see emancipation from birth and death as our only life purpose. We must reflect upon our lifestyle of the five desires and find the real purpose of human life.
Master Shandao says:
As we lead a hectic life of mundane affairs, little do we realize that our times are running out by the day.
Like we can’t predict when the candlelight will go out in the wind, we don’t know in which of the six realms we will end up.
How can we not be shocked and terrified when we haven’t been emancipated from the bitter ocean of samsara?
We must strive to seek the ultimate liberation when we are still young and healthy.
Passing hither and thither, we mustn’t tarry in the lands of delusion;
Over countless kalpas of rebirth, we have experienced all the six realms;
We find no joy anywhere, hearing only sighs of sorrow.
But after this lifetime, we will enter the domain of nirvana.
Death can take place any minute, and we live with the King of Death all the time.
I advise all Dharma practitioners to practice diligently till we attain nirvana.
If we have faith in Amitabha's deliverance, we will be on a path without any obstacles, live a peaceful life, and go to the Land of Bliss when our lives end. We will attain the ultimate bliss of Nirvana and be emancipated from the suffering of death and samsara.
(Translated by the Pure Land School Translation Team;
edited by Householder Fojin)
Faith in, and acceptance of, Amitabha’s deliverance
Single-minded recitation of Amitabha’s name
Aspiration to rebirth in Amitabha’s Pure Land
Comprehensive deliverance of all sentient beings