In recent years, natural disasters such as earthquake, tsunami and hurricane have occurred more frequently while suicides and mental problems have become more widespread. Increasingly, people come to realize how fragile life is and begin to focus more on the subject of life and death, which everyone must face eventually. To the majority, death is a very heavy topic as it signifies great fear and trouble. But there is no escape from death, no matter what. Understanding what death really is can help us not only quash fear toward death but also find the opportunity to be free from death completely. With this in mind, I’d like to explain to you what life really is.
The explanation covers three parts: I. the nature of life, i.e., what life is; II. the preciousness of life; III. the meaning of life.
I. The nature of life
First, let me introduce an ancient Tibetan text which has been praised by scholars as a must-read for the study of life and death, Bardo Tödröl (the Tibetan Book of the Dead).
1. Bardo Tödröl– a guide for the deceased
A book, titled Impressions of Heaven – 100 orally recorded stories of near-death experience (NDE), published by the Foreign Language Press in Beijing, China made the following comment: Bardo Tödröl has been around for more than 1000 years, but now it is the oldest reference for modern research on death. In the West, scholars who specialize in the study of death all recognize Bardo Tödröl and the Egyptian Book of the Dead as the two most important texts in their field. And by coincidence the description of the intermediate state given in Bardo Tödröl also agrees with the various phenomena found in the study of NDE. Therefore, it can be said that Bardo Tödröl is one of the most valuable contributions from the Tibetan people to the modern world.
Bardo Tödröl was first translated from Tibetan into English by the late Lama Kazi Dawa-Samdup and edited by American scholar Walter Evans-Wentz. The book has been published and reprinted many times in the U.S. and Europe in English, German and other languages, and is highly regarded by the academia in the West. Dr. C. G. Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist, reviewed the book himself and acknowledged its unique input and value to his academic research. He said, “For years, ever since it was first published, Bardo Tödröl has been my constant companion, and to it I owe not only many stimulating ideas and discoveries, but also many fundamental insights.” W.Y. Evans-Wentz believed that the book would not only improve understanding between East and West but also correct the wrong and indifferent attitude of people, especially those in the West, toward mankind’s fundamental question of life and death. But lack of interest in or plain ignorance of this question is also the case with most people in China today.
Dr. Wentz further pointed out that in the field of NDE research, Bardo Tödröl has become a classic widely referred to in the related studies done by scholars all over the world.
Bardo Tödröl has also greatly influenced the Tibetan people’s view on life and death. It is said in Impressions of Heaven, “Among all the races in the world, it can be said that the Tibetans understand death most profoundly, and are the most relaxed about it.” Also quoted from the same book, it says, “Near-death experience, viewed by people in the West as being the most mysterious phenomenon, is only something right and natural in the eyes of the Tibetans.”
There is however one problem with the Egyptian Book of the Dead. That is, they believe the deceased will go back to the previous body and resurrect, hence the mummies. Personally, I don’t think this quite fits the reality.
Bardo Tödröl elucidates the whole process of death, the state of after-death and the process of taking rebirth. The book has received rather strong support in the West mainly because its contents have been validated by many near-death experiences of people who came back to life after a sudden death. The fact that the ancient text of Bardo Tödröl happens to match the clinical findings of modern medicine accounts for its great stature and influence. You should read the book if you are interested in knowing more about it.
A part of this book is actually a guide for the deceased, whereof a sadhana is meant to be read by people around to the dead person. The sadhana tells the deceased, “After you die, you will enter certain state, feel this and that, then you should do such-and-such to face them and so on.”
However, the so-called death experience of NDE is not the real thing because consciousness has not left the body completely in this case. The only text that can truly describe the process of death clearly in its entirety is Bardo Tödröl.
2. Scientific study of life after life
◎ Remembrance of past life
In 1958, Dr. Ian Stevenson, chair of the department of psychiatry at the University of Virginia, became interested in reincarnation and began his research into the subject. He published his first book, Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation, in 1966. His major work was Reincarnation and Biology: A Contribution to the Etiology of Birthmarks and Birth Defects (1997). And in 2003, European Cases of the Reincarnation Type was published. Dr. Antonia Mills, a Harvard trained anthropologist, helped Dr. Stevenson with his research while conducting her independent investigation.
A prominent psychiatrist, Dr. Harold Lief, once described Dr. Stevenson as being very particular about methodology, scrupulous and stubborn. It is safe to say that Dr. Stevenson was a disciplined scientist and his work on reincarnation was not frivolous at all.
Additionally, Erlendur Haraldsson, a professor of psychology at the University of Iceland, has been doing research on parapsychology since 1970. Dr. Jurgen Keil, professor of psychology at the University of Tasmania, Australia, and Dr. Jim Tucker of the University of Virginia are both principal researchers of reincarnation, who have traveled all around the world to collect thousands of cases of reincarnation and published many books and academic papers on this subject.
In the 20th century, psychiatrists and medical professionals in the West unexpectedly discovered when using hypnosis to treat their patients that many patients were able to describe their past lives after being hypnotized. They dared not publicize these findings at the time, but gradually, through many different channels, the information got widely promulgated to the general public. One of the psychiatrists, Dr. Brian L. Weiss, is the author of several books on past life and reincarnation. In the preface of his book Through Time into Healing, he wrote, “For those of you who have not read my book, Many Lives, Many Masters, a few words of introduction are necessary.
Until my incredible experiences with Catherine, the patient whose therapy is described in the book, my professional life had been unidirectional and highly academic. I was graduated magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, from Columbia University and received my medical degree from the Yale University School of Medicine, where I was also chief resident in psychiatry. I have been a professor at several prestigious university medical schools, and I have published over forty scientific papers in the fields of psychopharmacology, brain chemistry, sleep disorders, depression, anxiety states, substance abuse disorders, and Alzheimer's disease.
I was left-brained, obsessive-compulsive, and completely skeptical of "unscientific" fields such as parapsychology. I knew nothing about the concept of past lives or reincarnation, nor did I want to.
But something very unusual happened. Catherine's symptoms began to improve dramatically, and I knew that fantasy or dreamlike material would not lead to such a fast and complete clinical cure. Week by week, this patient's formerly intractable symptoms disappeared as under hypnosis she remembered more past lives. Within a few months she was totally cured, without the use of any medicines.”
In the preface of Many Lives, Many Masters, he wrote, “Years of disciplined study had trained my mind to think as a scientist and physician, molding me along the narrow paths of conservatism in my profession. I distrusted anything that could not be proved by traditional scientific methods.
Then I met Catherine. For eighteen months I used conventional methods of therapy to help her overcome her symptoms. When nothing seemed to work, I tried hypnosis.
In just a few short months, her symptoms disappeared, and she resumed her life, happier and more at peace than ever before. Nothing in my background had prepared me for this. I was absolutely amazed when these events unfolded. I do not have a scientific explanation for what happened. There is far too much about the human mind that is beyond our comprehension.”
In the twenty years after he published these books, he helped more than 2000 patients by way of past-life regression. Based on these real cases, he wrote three books and his works have been translated into 30 different languages.
Because his focus has been on reincarnation, past-life regression, reunion of soul-mates and so on, he became known as a reincarnation specialist, one that is not officially recognized in the medical circles. But Dr. Weiss firmly believes that in fact we take rebirth repeatedly until we have learned what we need to learn. He continues to point out the many historical and clinical evidences to demonstrate that reincarnation is real.
◎ Near-death experience
In his best-selling book Life after Life (1975), Dr. Raymond A. Moody, an American philosopher and psychologist, recorded 150 cases of near-death experience, which completely changed people’s idea about death and thus furthered interest in the research on life itself. Thirteen million copies of Life after Life have been sold worldwide since its publication in 1975. The similarity between the descriptions of near-death experience in this book and that of Bardo Tödröl is astonishing. There can be no explanation of these experiences other than reincarnation does exist or something still remains after a person dies. Since the publication of Life after Life, more books on the related subject have been written by Dr. Moody and other authors in the Western world. Some physicians also indicated that they have run into similar situations but dared not speak up for lack of sufficient knowledge.
Dr. Moody also said those in the book didn’t lie about their near-death experience because they were very serious, emotional, even with tears when telling their stories. And after they came back to life from near-death situation, their attitude toward life and way of living took a completely different direction. Dr. Moody earned his PhD in philosophy and psychology as well as a MD, so he is not likely to be fooled easily by anything seemingly mythical and unexplainable. In fact, even he was skeptical of those phenomena when he first encountered them.
We should not think that anything that is not discovered by science or proven with logic does not exist, as not everything can be measured by hard data. Things like rebirth or soul cannot be checked by scientific instruments, at least not for the time being. However, as science continues to break new grounds, it is entirely possible that one day we might be able to do that. For now, logic, as we know it, is rendered helpless in the field of parapsychology because our sense organs are not equipped to provide us with useful data to do this kind of analysis.
Those who have studied logic should know that a logical form must contain a major premise. For example, to prove that seeing smoke from afar indicates fire is burning there, a consensus must be reached first in a very broad terms: where there is smoke, there is fire. This is called the major premise.
Then the minor premise is: smoke is seen over there.
Based on the two premises, a conclusion is drawn: there is fire over there.
Ultimately, we must rely on our eyes to validate the presence of smoke and thus fire. If we cannot get information from our eyesight, neither of the two premises can be established. Actually, what we experience in life and how the sixth consciousness interprets those experiences are all based on the five sense consciousnesses.
This kind of inference is formal logic in the Western tradition. Tibetan Buddhist logic offers a different kind of inference which is more precise and thorough; it has nothing to do with faith.
Logic is something that must be acknowledged by all. Truth is a conclusion that is accepted by anyone with a right and fair mindset, whether one has faith or not. If logic and truth are formed on the basis of religious belief and debated only among believers, it can hardly be called logic; it would be even further from the truth.
As it stands, we do not yet have a good grip on the process of sleep, let alone that of death. So, on the question of death, as our sense organs are unable to provide any useful information, neither logic nor instruments can help; only through the experience of some extraordinary people or personal practice can we get a sense of it. It is like in order to know what sweetness is, one must personally taste it; it cannot be described or inferred.
Presently, on all the continents except Antarctica, there are children who can remember their past lives. When these children first began to talk, they would say who they were, where they came from; they would give their parents’ names and details of their past lives. Their parents in this life would then check and validate the actual existence and subsequent death of the persons mentioned. Often enough these children inherited very strong habitual tendencies from their past lives—one who loved to smoke in past life would steal his father’s cigarettes to smoke in this life; one who died of a car accident in past life would be too frightened to go near cars in this life, and so forth. Some of them don’t feel close to their parents of this life but take the parents and relatives in the past life as their real parents and family instead. Many parents are unwilling to make this public lest others should think their children are mentally unstable, out of embarrassment, or because it violates their own religious beliefs. Nevertheless, the secret gets out eventually.
This usually happens to kids two or three years old. It is unlikely that someone put them up to this or that they knew how to lie so perfectly. Their memories were brought from their last life to this life. Dr. Stevenson also said that their case studies indicate there is some kind of carrier that brings information, not just memories and emotions, to the next life. In Buddhism, this carrier is called store consciousness.
Other than reincarnation, there is no better explanation for such phenomena.
There is also another actual phenomenon that cannot be explained by science. That is, a person who died of a gunshot wound or car accident in the last life has a scar on the body in this life at the same spot as the previous wound. For example, in a book titled Reincarnation and Biology: A Contribution to the Etiology of Birthmarks and Birth Defects (1997), there are detailed reports on 250 cases along with many pictures of birthmarks. I also discovered similar cases in my own investigation. Even if we already accept the idea of cyclic existence, how did the scar in one’s last life appear on the body in this life when the body that died is in no way related to the body of a brand-new being born in this life?
My answer to that is: when the deceased wakes up from the deep coma after death, a new carrier of consciousness is born, a mental body. Mental body is also considered matter, but we cannot see it. As a carrier, mental body saves and keeps the special body marks of past life, such as a scar, until a new body is born in this life.
I do admire some of the scientists in the West. Once a point is proved to be true, they won’t hesitate to embrace it, treat it fairly and study it with an open mind, instead of stubbornly holding onto the old ways of thinking or defending their own ideas
In my opinion, a view on life that is based on the principle of karma and cycle of rebirth should be a pro-active one. Imagine if we don’t believe in reincarnation but in nothingness after death, wouldn’t it be very sad, passive and meaningless, with nothing to look forward to at old age? At that point, no amount of money or knowledge matters anymore. It is often the very reason why old people choose to end their lives. Besides, if nothing were to remain after the passing of this life, one would feel free to do whatever one pleases without any concerns for morality or conscience, hence commit more evil karma and cause endless suffering for future life.
Conversely, belief in karma and rebirth serves to remind us that the ending of this life is only a stop on life’s very long journey as well as the beginning of the next leg. In different time and space, life exists in different forms. All the success and failure of this life will end as life ends, but spiritual attainment and the seeds of both good and bad habitual tendency will not perish but like data be copied to future life. No matter how old one gets, there will always be hope, as there is always another life to look forward to. This is an idea that evokes positive energy; once accepted, it can only be good for us. Although it is a bit guilty of being practical minded—to give in this life in order to have better return in next life, it is not a serious flaw. Naturally, to be able to give unconditionally would be much better.
◎ Death – the beginning of a new life
By knowing what death really is, we will surely gain a new understanding toward life, and death in particular. At the least we know that death is neither mysterious nor terrifying as we tend to imagine. It is never the end of life but the beginning of life, only in a new body, not unlike copying from one hard disk to another. However, unwholesome actions done in this life will cause bad karma in next life; and if too much evil has been committed, even to be reborn as human again may be questionable. On this, we ought to be concerned about death, but death itself is not so frightening. Death, after all, is just a cycle of life. This is not only a Buddhist idea but also the personal experience of many people.
Like the Milky Way’s cycle, many planets of the solar system have their own cycles as well. Based on the view of Kalachakra in Tibetan Buddhism, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Venus and Jupiter have their respective orbital cycle. Not only the external world but also human life goes through cycle. Besides death, there are many other events in life that are just as cyclical. We may all encounter such events, but we just don’t pay attention to them.
◎ The sign and the process of death
How thanatology defines death varies, but the more authoritative and public sanctioned is the one given by Harvard Medical School: death is when a person is declared brain dead which in turn calls for evidence of unawareness of all stimuli, no spontaneous muscular movement or respiration, no reflexes of any kind, corectasis, absence of papillary light reflexes, absence of heartbeat and a flat electrocardiogram.
However, many real cases have shown that even if some people matched the clinical definition of death, they still woke up some ten hours or a few days later. And more than just waking up, they could clearly describe the conversations between doctors and nurses and some other things during the process of rescue. The reason is because at that point the mind had not stopped working; it was not really death, just a kind of unconsciousness or shock. Therefore, there has not been an absolute, conclusive definition of death up to this day.
Thanatology started as a life science in the U.S. in 1912 and has a history of about 100 years, but man has studied death for a much longer time.
I have personally investigated and interviewed people with near-death experience. What they described to me perfectly matched what their doctors saw at the time. More importantly, their experience with near-death has caused tremendous change in their view on life and values.
I knew a teacher who had near-death experience. After he came back to life, he dedicated all his time and effort to promoting one idea: Do not move or do anything to the body immediately after the person appears to be dead because at this moment the person is still alive; the soul is still with him or her.
Except for accidental death, Buddhist texts usually describe the process of a normal death this way: First, the eyes, ears and other organs will gradually stop functioning. When they are about to stop, one can no longer recognize even the most familiar faces; voices from people around become dim, as if coming from afar; body feels like sinking down in the period leading up to death, although it is impossible to sink when lying on bed. All these just indicate that the organs are about to stop working and life will soon end.
I believe many doctors or nurses have seen near-death patients ask people nearby to raise their pillows or pull them up. This is a sign that death is near.
After real death sets in, most people’s sense organs will stop functioning one by one: first, eyes can’t see anything but darkness in front while ears can still hear; afterwards, ears can’t hear either until finally all five sense organs stop functioning altogether with the exception of consciousness which at this point can still think. As different individual feels differently, some may experience pain or other sensations. Nevertheless, after a few minutes or seconds, consciousness will begin to stop as well.
When consciousness stops, it goes through three stages: consciousness related to anger will stop first, then desire and finally delusion. When they stop, no external light is visible but, internally, a white and red light and darkness will appear, respectively. Lastly, one enters into a state of unconsciousness or nothingness. This is the so-called death. This state of unconsciousness is not the same as passing out in normal times, as this is much deeper, irreversible and impossible to revive. The unconscious state will last from a few hours to a few days. During this time, all sense organs and mental consciousness cease to function while manas and alaya consciousnesses continue. In fact, manas and alaya consciousnesses of all sentient beings, from ordinary people up to the eighth bodhisattva bhumi, do not stop. However, real practitioners are not unconscious during this period but abide in the meditative state instead.
According to the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, after death, the body of a good practitioner should remain untouched for seven days; no announcement of death should be made nor any death ritual performed; just close the door and leave the dead alone. The practitioner may have all the signs of being dead, such as no breathing, no heartbeat, etc., yet the face looks not as pallid as it should be but rosy pink instead. The better skilled practitioners can maintain the seven-point posture of Vairochana and meditate the whole time because his or her consciousness has not left the body at that time. On the seventh day, the practitioner should be awoken from the meditation according to the previously mentioned text of Bardo Tödröl. To those who received this kind of training when alive, just a reminder will suffice. After the ritual is completed, the practitioner’s face will immediately turn to the color of the dead, and the body will no longer stay in meditation posture. This is very common for Vajrayana practitioners. Practitioners of supreme faculty can at this point attain liberation or Buddhahood while those of middling faculty can attain the same in the intermediate state. The marks of attaining Buddhahood are appearance of rainbow, relics, fantastic sounds, etc
The idea of attaining enlightenment in the intermediate state is not unique to Vajrayana. Theravada Buddhism also holds that some who failed to attain arhathood in this life can succeed in the intermediate state.
Ordinary people who have not received any training nor understand what meditation is about will not be able to experience any of these. Once the breathing stops, the deceased is normally sent to the morgue rather quickly, the funeral home next and the crematorium shortly afterward.
In the view of Tibetan Buddhism, such practice is deemed not respectful to life, and is not allowed. At the least, nothing should be done to the body for three days. If the weather is too hot, it can be placed in the freezer at the funeral home to cool down so that it doesn’t decay. After three days, it can then be sent to the crematorium.
I think many people have special experiences in their childhood of this kind: one is filled with great suffering as the whole world turns red in color; there is no physical matter in this world, sometimes it feels like a tunnel. It is like looking west from the seashore at dusk when the sky is red with the evening glow. The sea also appears red from the evening glow, the sky and water united as one. Some children may experience a white world, others a black world. Whatever it may be, there is no physical matter in that world. Some children also dream of other kinds of encounter likened to those in the intermediate state – the residual effect of having just gone through the intermediate state. As they grow up, these memories slowly fade until they disappear altogether.
These are the profound phenomena and secrets of life, which are not mysterious at all and certainly have nothing to do with ghosts or deities.
(Note: Regarding the more detailed explanation of the stages after death, please refer to Understanding Death in this book.)
How Buddhism explicates life is truly remarkable. The phenomena of death, such as the deceased seeing his or her own body and other details, were clearly laid out in not only Vajrayana but also the exoteric Buddhist scriptures two thousand five hundred years ago. These descriptions which happen to agree with research conducted in the West today and real experiences from many genuine practitioners further strengthen our faith in the truth of Buddhadharma.
◎ Dream—a daily dose of samsara and nirvana
Every day, the process of going into deep sleep and waking up from deep sleep is a phenomenon of life very similar to death and taking rebirth; it is also a cycle of life. The three stages of entering deep sleep from the time of waking up, then entering the dream state and finally waking up from dream are very much like the three stages of death: the stage of life entering death with all consciousnesses ceasing to function corresponds to that of entering deep sleep from the waking state; the stage of entering dream from deep sleep corresponds to that of mind waking up from unconsciousness some time after death. At this point, as the physical body looks dead but the mind hasn’t stopped, the bardo body is totally capable of knowing everything around, even the actions, thoughts and words of others. Many people don’t know at this time that they are already dead until they see the family cry with sorrow. The stage of finding the next carrier and taking rebirth from the bardo state corresponds to waking up from dream and coming back to real life.
Nevertheless, we generally cannot feel, let alone describe, how to enter deep sleep from the waking state. The process does happen even if we don’t feel it. At this stage, the five sense organs have stopped working completely, but mind or consciousness still exists and is operating.
In recent years, psychologists in the West have become particularly interested in studying dreams. They used many Tibetan Buddhist methodologies for reference in their work and achieved certain success.
For example, people normally don’t know they are dreaming when they dream; even if some do, it’s just coincidence. But through training, one will know with complete certainty when one is in dream. To those who have not gone through the training, this may sound ludicrous. But the fact is that many psychologists who are not Buddhists have succeeded in knowing if they are in a dream after training in the Tibetan Buddhist methods.
Now merely knowing one is in dream is not all that helpful. On the other hand, if one can be keenly aware of the process of entering deep sleep from the waking state, that is, the process of how the five sense organs cease functioning, how mind stops thinking, enters into an unconscious state and wakes up from that unconscious state again, one will understand death much better.
Perhaps some may think this is all nonsense, but the fact is that this is how life moves from one stage to the next and countless people who undertake the specific training have personally attained these experiences. When one’s practice is linked to the intermediate state, the result from the practice in normal times will become handy when facing death.
◎ Practice of the Six Bardos—gateway to liberation
The practice of the Six Bardos in Tibetan Buddhism is a specific training on death. The Chinese translation of bardo is “zhong yin”: “zhong (中)” means in-between, the transitional period when the body of last life has gone and the body of next life is not yet found; “yin (陰)” is the counterpart or opposite of “yang (陽),” the name for the body in this and future life. The body in this transitional state is also akin to the body in a dream, whose existence can be felt but which has no physical elements—a mental body. This mental body is “yin (陰)." Personally, I think the Chinese translation of bardo is very accurate.
The practice of the Six Bardos divides the life cycle into six stages with a different practice for each of the six stages. Those who have been trained and are proficient in the practice know clearly the detailed process of the six bardos.
Through the power of meditative concentration or special training, one can fully simulate death—artificially entering the state of death from real life and coming back to life from the state of death with ease, the purpose of which is to realize the nature of mind.
What is the relation between death and realization of the nature of mind? Buddhism holds that all sentient beings have Buddha nature but for reason of being obscured by defilement are unable to realize it. During a brief period after death, as all consciousnesses, self-grasping and sense organs cease to function as well as all external disturbances, Buddha nature will thus present itself. It is like seeing the blue sky when clouds are dispersed, or abiding in the absolute quietness on the moon; the nature of mind shall be realized in such state. Realization gained in this state is much purer and clearer than that attained in sitting meditation in real life. Therefore, many Vajrayana practitioners not only do not fear death but also see death as once in a lifetime opportunity to propel the mind to higher level.
The practice of the Six Bardos is unique to Tibetan Vajrayana; it is not found in either Tangmi (Tang Dynasty Esoterica ) of Chinese Esoteric Buddhism or Dōngmì (Eastern Esotericism) of Japan, not to mention exoteric Buddhism, because both Tangmi and Dōngmì are in the division of the Outer Tantras whereas the practice of the Six Bardos is only available in the Inner Tantras.
By learning and practicing the Dharma with devotion and undergoing systematic training, one will be able to personally experience this process and raise the mind to a new ground. However, these practices are usually reserved for serious practitioners and not open to public. Those who are interested may try the internet to learn a bit more about Dream Yoga, its contents and process. Dream Yoga is used as a preparation for death, also one of the practices to simulate death
II. Precious life
We all know our own lives are precious, but what I really want to say here is that we must know all lives, including humans and all other species, are precious.
From man’s point of view, the life of an ant is worthless, and insects such as mosquitoes which are deemed harmful to humans are better dead than alive. But from the standpoint of these tiny beings, even a mosquito would value its life more than all the things in the world.
Human beings are used to being selfish. Our values are the only ones that count and to treat all lives equally is not one of them. Animals’ lives are not our concern; instead, they are no different from vegetables or plants so that we can just use them, eat them, play with them or kill them at will. Through words and actions, the idea of seeing animals as source of food and tasty food at that is instilled into children from very early on such that whenever they see certain animals, very often the first thought is how one might eat them. As time goes on, this habitual thinking tends to make people less kind and tolerant toward one another; sometimes an insignificant issue can balloon into a deadly conflict.
Curses always come home to roost. When this selfish and harmful attitude is not checked, sooner or later it will turn around to destroy mankind. In the Buddhist view, this is infallible karma.
We should never think that we are invincible, what with the advanced technology and sophisticated weapons that we have on hand, that it is reasonable and legitimate to harm, torture and kill other living beings however we please. We breed, feed and kill animals excessively just to satisfy our insatiable desire to please the palate. Animals breed for us, live for us and die for us. What we owe them must one day be paid back! It is only fair that we should learn to respect all lives, not to discriminate or harm other beings; at the least, not to violate their right to live.
Perhaps not too many people know what chicken farms or pig farms are like or how these animals are slaughtered. I can tell you those places are just hellish! In order to produce bigger and fatter animals in the shortest possible time, the way the farms feed is really sick, cruel and disgusting. Animals suffer tremendously while alive and die horribly! Paul McCartney once said, “If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be a vegetarian.” I totally agree, as I have made a point of visiting several slaughterhouses myself and I truly felt this way. It is precisely because people have not witnessed the cruelty of slaughtering live animals and the extreme horror and agony animals suffer before being killed that they can enjoy eating animal flesh with a clear conscience. Let us not consider having sympathy or compassion for the moment. Even to evaluate purely on the basis of self-interest, can we not wonder if eating the toxin-filled meat of animals who have been given harmful feed, killed in a horrible way and died with incredible hatred can really provide sustenance for us?
The Nobel Laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer said in his book Enemies: A Love Story, “As often as Herman had witnessed the slaughter of animals and fish, he always had the same thought: in their behavior towards creatures, all men were Nazis.” We all hate Nazis, but we don’t know we have become Nazis ourselves. Let us be no more!
Whether having faith or no faith, being Buddhist or non-Buddhist, understand equality and have empathy and respect for all lives should be the basic quality of man. Only when all lives on this planet achieve equality through understanding of one another can we hope for a better future.
III. The meaning of life
The meaning of life is none other than giving love and elevating the mind. The true value of life is not measured by wealth and achievement but selfless service and wisdom.
People often think that giving means there is nothing left for oneself. This is actually a wrong view. Mahayana Buddhism holds that one gains more from the process of giving.
It is terrible when people feel no love for others. Such people tend to value money and personal interest more than anything else, and lack discipline. It is hard to say what will become of them in the end.
Although we are all born with the ability to love, this love is generally very limited in scope. How do we foster unlimited, immeasurable love? There are ways in Mahayana Buddhism.
Buddhism defines love as loving-kindness and compassion, and furthermore adds immeasurable to the two words to make it complete, that is, immeasurable loving-kindness and immeasurable compassion. This is to point out that in Mahayana Buddhism loving-kindness and compassion are to be offered to infinite living beings, not just to the ones we like. To those we don’t like, we Buddhists should do even more to show them loving-kindness and compassion. Thus is the intent of attaching the descriptive word “immeasurable.”
Regardless of social status or profession, all of us should cultivate love and elevate our minds as this is the most important objective in life. It is absolutely possible to train and elevate human mind. In terms of specific methods, the most extensive and the most effective are in the Buddhist teachings. When our mind actualizes its fundamental state of wisdom and compassion, then all will be just fine.
I think Dr. Brian Weiss was correct in saying that for hundreds of years, man has mistakenly believed in the power of technological development to resolve myriad human problems as well as in science as a path to lead humans out of wilderness and away from disease, poverty, miseries and suffering. Now we know that science and technology alone do not have answers for our problems. Science can be good science and bad science. The only way that science can really help us is to apply science with a wisdom oriented, civilized and balanced mind. We must find the correctly balanced mind.
By elevating the mind and doing our best to help others do the same, we can give meaning to this life and all future lives until such time liberation is attained. This is the way to create more value in life and truly benefit all mankind.
Through our own effort, however insignificant, the society eventually will become more peaceful, every individual kinder and happier, and our own field of interest more successful. This is not empty talk because compassion and wisdom have the power to help accomplish all these.