The ancients had a saying:
We should wait until old age before writing books, because by then we will have fuller knowledge and experience, and the books will be more accomplished.
This author has not yet reached old age and his experience and knowledge must therefore have deficiencies. Nevertheless, because of his urgent desire to be of benefit to others, and not knowing when the ghost of impermanence may strike, he has reluctantly taken the liberty to offer the reader some preliminary thoughts. Although this book is meant to be an original manuscript, most of the ideas contained therein are taken from Buddhist sutras and commentaries. Thus, the author believes that it could still bring some benefit to the reader.
In his seventies, an Elder Master once remarked sadly:
Although the human life span is supposed to be one hundred years, seventy is already a ripe old age. However, when I look back and examine my past actions, I discover that they were all fraught with mistakes.
If even an Elder Master of high repute judged himself thus, how many more mistakes must common mortals like ourselves commit? Therefore, at times this author feels ashamed and perplexed, reluctant to write anything, as he realizes that he is still full of transgressions, unable to save himself, let alone counsel others. However, he has decided otherwise, just as a fellow traveler in the sea of Birth and Death may remind others to escape from it along with him. Hopefully, he can gather some merit through such action, and lighten his own heavy karma somewhat.
In this connection, he recalls a certain poem, composed in a bygone era:
Hurriedly, painstakingly, we hope and seek,
Spending spring and autumn in the rain and sun;
Day in and day out we attend to our livelihood,
Forgetting that our hair has taken on the color of snow.
We should sever thoughts of right and wrong,
Afflictions and sorrows, as well;
The Way is so clear and distinct,
Why do so many refuse to cultivate?
These lines, while deceptively simple and seemingly lacking in depth, clearly describe the various activities and karmic obstructions of the human condition. Only those who stand outside the framework of this poem, and strive to cultivate, can be said to be treading the path of liberation.
The author of the poem wrote these sad words as he realized how easy it is to drown in the ocean of suffering and how difficult to tread the path of liberation. In the Sutra in Forty-two Sections, Buddha Sakyamuni said:
People encounter twenty kinds of difficulties:
It is difficult to give when one is poor.
It is difficult to study the Way when one has power and wealth.
It is difficult to abandon life and face the certainty of death.
It is difficult to encounter the Buddhist sutras.
It is difficult to be born at the time of a Buddha.
It is difficult to resist lust and desire.
It is difficult to see good things and not seek them.
It is difficult to be insulted and not become angry.
It is difficult to have power and not abuse it.
It is difficult to come in contact with things and have no [attachment to] them.
It is difficult to be greatly learned [in the Dharma].
It is difficult to get rid of self-satisfaction [pride and conceit].
It is difficult not to slight those who have not yet studied [the Dharma].
It is difficult to practice equanimity of mind.
It is difficult not to gossip.
It is difficult to meet a good knowing advisor.
It is difficult to see one's own Nature and study the Way.
It is difficult to [save sentient beings with means appropriate to their situation].
It is difficult to see a state and not be moved by it.
It is difficult to have a good understanding of skill-in-means [and apply it well].
(Hsuan Hua, A General Explanation of the Buddha Speaks the Sutra in Forty-Two Sections, p. 28-29.)
I shall merely cite a few instances of these twenty difficulties. For example, it is difficult to practice charity when we are poor and destitute because, under such conditions, even if we have the will, we lack the means. To force ourselves to practice charity must entail sacrifices. Likewise, it is difficult to study the Dharma when we are wealthy and eminent, because under such favorable circumstances, we may have the means, but we are pulled away by opportunities for enjoyment and self-gratification.
The difficulty of being born during the lifetime of a Buddha is elaborated in the Perfection of Wisdom Treatise: in the town of Sravasti, India, out of a total population of nine hundred thousand, only one-third had actually seen and met Buddha Sakyamuni, another one-third had heard His name and believed in Him but had not actually seen or met Him, while the remaining one-third had not seen, heard or even learned of His existence. Sakyamuni Buddha taught in Sravasti for some twenty-five years, yet a full one-third of the town's population were completely unaware of His existence. Is it any wonder, then, that those who were born during Sakyamuni Buddha's time but did not reside in Sravasti, or those who happened to be born before or after His time, would find it difficult to learn of Him or hear the Dharma?
However, even though we may not be able to meet Sakyamuni Buddha, cultivating according to the Dharma is tantamount to meeting Him. On the other hand, if we do not follow His teaching, even while near Him, we are still far away. Thus, Devadatta, Buddha Sakyamuni's very own cousin, as well as the Bhikshu Sunaksatra who attended Him personally for twenty years, both descended into the hells because they strayed from the Path. There is also the case of an old woman in the eastern quarter of Sravasti who was born at exactly the same moment as Buddha Sakyamuni, yet, because she lacked causes and conditions, wished neither to see nor to meet Him. Thus, not everyone can see the Buddhas and listen to the Dharma. Extensive good roots, merits, virtues and favorable conditions are required. Although Buddha Sakyamuni has now entered Nirvana, good spiritual advisors are taking turns preaching the Way in His stead. If we draw near to them and practice according to their teachings, we can still achieve liberation.
Nevertheless, those who possess only scant and shallow roots must find it difficult to meet good spiritual advisors. Even when they do so and hear the Dharma, if they do not understand its meaning, or merely grasp at appearances and forms, refusing to follow it, no benefit can possibly result.
According to the Brahma Net and Avatamsaka Sutras, we should ignore appearances and external forms when seeking a good spiritual advisor. For example, we should disregard such traits as youth, poverty, low status or lack of education, unattractive appearance or incomplete features, but should simply seek someone conversant with the Dharma, who can be of benefit to us. Nor should we find fault with good spiritual advisors for acting in certain ways, as it may be due to a number of reasons, such as pursuing a hidden cultivation practice or following an expedient teaching. Or else, they may act the way they do because while their achievements may be high, their residual bad habits have not been extinguished. If we grasp at forms and look for faults, we will forfeit benefits on the path of cultivation.
Thus, when Buddha Sakyamuni was still alive, the Bhikshu Kalodayin was in the habit of moving his jaws like a buffalo; a certain Bhikshuni used to look at herself in the mirror and adorn herself; another Bhikshu liked to climb trees and jump from one branch to another; still another always addressed others in a loud voice, with condescending terms and appellations. In truth, however, all four had reached the stage of Arhatship. It is just that one of them was a buffalo in a previous life, another was a courtesan, another was a monkey, and still another belonged to the Brahman class. They were accustomed to these circumstances throughout many lifetimes, so that even when they had attained the fruits of Arhatship, their residual habits still lingered.
We also have the example of the Sixth Patriarch of Zen. Realizing that the cultivators of his day were attached to a literal reading of the sutras and did not immediately recognize their Buddha Nature, he took the form of an ignorant and illiterate person selling wood in the marketplace. Or else, take the case of a famous Zen Master who, wishing to avoid external conditions and concentrate on his cultivation, took the expedient appearance of a ragged lunatic, raving and ranting. As a result, both distinguished Masters were criticized during their lifetimes. The Sixth Patriarch was faulted for ignorance, while the Zen monk was called insane and berserk. Therefore, finding a good spiritual advisor is a difficult task indeed! Students of the Dharma should realize this, to decrease the habits of attachment and grasping -- thus avoiding the mistake of maligning monks and nuns.
As for other kinds of difficulties, fellow cultivators can draw inferences from the above discussion and understand for themselves.
Nevertheless, the words "difficult" and "easy" belong to the realm of opposing dharmas; in difficulty there is simplicity, in simplicity there is difficulty. If we truly understand and are determined, difficult things are not necessarily impossible to accomplish.
During the lifetime of a certain transhistorical Buddha, for example, there was a couple so destitute that husband and wife had but one robe between them. When the husband would leave their shack to seek work, his wife had to shut the door and stay home, nude, and vice versa. However, upon hearing wandering monks teach that charity would extinguish the sufferings of poverty and want, husband and wife discussed the matter between themselves. They decided to donate their only piece of cloth by passing it through the window, determined to remain in the shack, completely nude, resigned to death. This resolute good action came to the attention of the local ruler, who then showered them with garments and riches. From that time on, through each succeeding lifetime, they never again were in want for the necessities of life, and ultimately attained complete liberation.
Thus, although it may be difficult to practice charity when we are destitute ourselves, we should understand that the cause of such poverty and want is our own past stinginess. If we are determined to endure deprivation and suffering, charity is something that can still be accomplished.
There is also the case of a well-known Chinese Emperor of the Ch'ing Dynasty, who acceded to the throne when barely six years old and abdicated at the age of twenty-four to become a Buddhist monk. To occupy the exalted position of Emperor, first in power and wealth throughout the entire realm, dwelling in magnificent palaces, surrounded with luxury beyond imagination, attended by a harem with many thousands of the most beautiful women in the land, his power extending over one and all -- how could such wealth and honor be surpassed? Yet, if we understand the dreamlike, evanescent nature of worldly blessings and pleasures and the true joy of the realm of everlasting True Thusness -- and if we are resolute and determined -- practicing the Dharma in such extraordinary circumstances, however difficult, is a realizable undertaking. Likewise, although cultivation under conditions of extreme poverty and deprivation may be difficult, if we are resolute, it is not something that cannot be done.
An example that comes readily to mind occurred during the lifetime of Buddha Sakyamuni. There was a destitute old woman who had been working as a maid since the age of thirteen, and was still toiling at the age of eighty. She worked without rest all day long, pounding rice until past midnight, waking up again at the crow of the cock to busy herself with mortar and pestle. Cultivating under such trying conditions, with not a single moment of leisure was difficult, to say the least! However, thanks to the teaching of the Elder Mahakatyayana, a senior disciple of the Buddha, each night, when she had finished pounding rice, she would wash up, change her clothing, cultivate well into the night and transfer the merit to all sentient beings before retiring. As a result of her determination and effort, she was reborn as a deity in the Yama Heaven.
Dear fellow cultivators! It is difficult to be reborn as a human being, while the Dharma is difficult to encounter. Today you have a human body and the opportunity to read this commentary. Thus, you have already met with a wonderful method to achieve Buddhahood. Even if you should face difficult circumstances, I urge you to recognize the sufferings of this dreamlike, evanescent world and to cultivate resolutely -- so that the precious lotus blossoms of the Pure Land may give birth to many more beings of the highest virtue!