Lectures by the Venerable Master Hsuan Hua in 1979
Living beings are born without a beginning, and die without an end. Without beginning and without end, they transmigrate, revolving in birth and death.
Living beings revolve and turn in this beginningless and endless transmigration like dust motes: suddenly up in the heavens, suddenly down on the earth. Just as suddenly they are born as hungry ghosts, or humans, or animals, or hell-dwellers, or asuras. Ah! There is no time at which it all begins, and no time when it ends.
It is only when you realize the fruition and become a Buddha that you stop transmigrating in birth and death. Before you become a Buddha, you keep revolving in transmigration. It is said, "Even Bodhisattvas get confused after having gone through rebirth; even Arhats become muddled after having dwelt in the womb." Even if you are a great knight of the Dharma body manifesting in this world, sometimes you may be confused by the current of birth and death and not know how to stop it.
Our birth and death, being born and dying, dying and being born again, is birth and death on a great scale. We also have birth and death on a small scale. There is the day we are born. Although we are born, we will have to die. The day of our death is already set the day we are born. Therefore, our life is birth and death on a great scale. Each passing year brings the death of that year. Thus if we are born one day, we will have to die one day, because once there is birth, there is death. If there is no birth, then there is no death.
As to the "beginningless," most people explain it as there being no beginning and no end. It refers to time without beginning; it started at a kalpa in the beginningless past, and goes to a kalpa in the endless future. What is without a beginning anyway? And what is without an end? This refers to something we all recognize; in English it is called zero, and in Chinese it is called O (ling). This O has no beginning and no end. It is the Absolute, without beginning or end. The beginningless is just the O.
If you cut this O open, it becomes a " 一" (the Chinese character for 'one'). This is the beginning. Once there is a one, there is also a two: when you add one to one, that is two. Adding another one makes three, and adding more ones makes four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten. From ten, a hundred is produced, and a hundred brings forth a thousand, a thousand transforms into ten thousand, ten thousand further transforms into one hundred thousand, one million, ten million, and a thousand million, up to infinity. That is the beginning of numbers.
In our modern scientific era, we can use rockets to launch satellites into space. The satellite revolves in its orbit in space without stop. That is a beginning. With the help of numerical calculations, we are able to send rockets into space. That is the function of a beginning; it's a kind of mathematical transformation. Then is there an end? We don't know yet when the end will come. The end corresponds to the stage of emptiness in the four stages of formation, dwelling, decay, and emptiness. The kalpa (eon) of formation is a beginning. Formation lasts for twenty small kalpas. Then there is dwelling for twenty small kalpas, decay for twenty small kalpas, and emptiness for twenty small kalpas. One could say that this is a beginning and an end.
Where would you say all these living beings that have appeared since beginningless kalpas come from? Let's investigate. Take human beings, for example. Did man exist before woman, or woman before man? If you say man appeared before woman, then without a woman how could there be any men? If you say woman appeared before man, then without a man how could there be any women? This is the "beginningless"--we don't know where it started.
Chickens are another example. Would you say the chicken came before the egg, or the egg before the chicken? For beginningless kalpas there were no chickens. Then how did one come into existence? We may say it was born from an egg. Well, if there were no chickens, how could there be eggs? Our investigation cannot provide a clear understanding of this principle; it comes from the beginningless. People also came from the beginningless, from the O.
This O is beginningless and endless; it has neither inside nor outside; it is neither big nor small. In its minutest aspect, the O equals a dust mote. If we expand it, it is equal to the Dharma Realm. To the ends of the empty space, throughout the Dharma Realm, nothing is beyond this O. If the empty space throughout the Dharma Realm is smashed into dust motes, not a single dust mote is apart from this O.
Therefore, the O is the source of the myriad births and transformations. It is the principle of true emptiness and wonderful existence without beginning or end. When this O is expanded, it becomes empty space, the Dharma Realm. That is true emptiness. When it is shrunk, it becomes a dust mote. Though a dust mote is tiny, it is wonderful existence.
Therefore, beginningless kalpas have no beginning. This O is true emptiness, and it is wonderful existence. All of you, think about this! If you can understand this principle, you understand the true Dharma. If you can't understand this principle, you're still a confused person, having no real wisdom.
If you have attained enlightenment, this O is great bright wisdom. If you haven't attained enlightenment, then it's ignorance. Ignorance is just the O, and great bright wisdom is also the O. Thus the O is beginningless and endless; it has neither inside nor outside; it is neither big nor small. It's so big there's nothing outside of it, nothing is bigger. When you draw this O, you can make it as big as possible, or as small as possible.
Therefore, it is so big there's nothing outside it, and so small there's nothing inside it. Its bigness transforms into the pure and clean fundamental source, the wonderful true nature. Its smallness and hiddenness is the single initial thought of your ignorance. This is how I explain "beginningless."
Transmigrating in birth and death is the O. The so-called transmigration in the six paths is just revolving within the O. Before this circle is broken, living beings are born and die, die and are born again, revolving in the O for countless great kalpas. This is called eternally revolving in birth and death. Don't you think this word "eternally" is horrifying? It is! You keep turning 'round and 'round in transmigration. Why do you revolve eternally? Because your thoughts are produced and extinguished one after another.
When you give rise to one defiled thought, you become an animal, or a hungry ghost, or fall into the hells. If you incline toward purity, you may be born a human or an asura, or ascend to the heavens. All this transmigration is caused by your mind. Because our mind has created the corresponding karma, we receive the retribution of transmigration.
Such karma does not start when we receive the retribution. In reality, you had lots of false thoughts in the past. With false thoughts about the heavens, you are born in the heavens; with false thoughts about asuras, you are born an asura; with false thoughts of being human, you are born a human; with false thoughts of animals, you are born an animal; with false thoughts of hungry ghosts, you are born a hungry ghost; with false thoughts of hells, you fall into the hells.
If you always create offenses, you fall into the three evil paths; if you always establish wholesome merit and virtue, you ascend to the three good paths. This is just a general explanation. If I were to explain this in detail, I wouldn't be able to finish to the end of time. In short, this world is created from living beings' false thoughts. If no one had any false thoughts, then this world would be empty.
Living beings don't understand this Dharma of the real appearance of true emptiness, the Dharma of the real appearance of true suchness, the Dharma of true emptiness and wonderful existence. All of these are called actual Dharma. The Dharma of true emptiness and wonderful existence is just the O mentioned above. The great heaven and earth are produced from the O; so is this vast world, the numerous living beings, and all other things.
Because the O does not fall into the category of numbers, it is not within numbers. It is beyond numbers or reckoning. It has no beginning or end, no inside or outside, no big or small. "When released, it fills the six directions. When rolled up, it retreats and hides away in a secret place." The actual Dharma is just this Dharma of true emptiness and wonderful existence. True emptiness is not empty. Why? Because it contains wonderful existence. Wonderful existence does not exist. Why? Because it encompasses true emptiness.
It is said, "True emptiness does not obstruct wonderful existence; wonderful existence does not hinder true emptiness."
This principle resolves the question of whether the man came first or the woman came first. It also resolves the question of whether the chicken came first or the egg. The O can solve all problems. Why? Because the O is true emptiness. From it, wonderful existence and the myriad things manifest. Yet this wonderful existence is not separate from true emptiness.
Without having attained the Dharma of the mind-seal of the Buddhas you cannot understand this state. If you understand the mind-to-mind-seal Dharma-door of the Buddhas, you will understand this Dharma. Therefore, it is said, "The actual Dharma is not understood."
Living beings are forever adding a head on top of a head, or looking for the mule while riding on one. They all run around seeking outside, and don't know that they should reflect upon themselves. This true Dharma is inherent in the self-nature, it abides constantly and originally in the self-nature. One doesn't need to seek outside for it. If you go outside to try to find it, you can spend eighty thousand great kalpas and you still won't be able to find it.
However, if you can return the light and look within, it's there instantly. It is said, "The sea of suffering is boundless, but a turn of the head is the other shore." That is to say, when you seek outside, just that is the boundless sea of suffering; when you reflect within and work on your self-nature, just that is the other shore you find upon turning your head.
We people are all upside down. From morning to night we pursue false conditions, follow the six sense organs and the six defiling objects, and do not understand the actual Dharma. In the eternal still light, the Buddhas enter samadhi in full lotus posture. They come to this world in their samadhi. Why? Because they see how truly pathetic we foolish living beings are, forgetting the real and clinging to the false. We don't know how to turn from delusion and return to enlightenment, how to turn from the false and return to the real, how to use the false to facilitate the cultivation of the real, and how to reflect upon ourselves. We are truly pathetic.
Therefore, in their samadhi, all the Buddhas give rise to a greatly compassionate mind and come to this world to point out our confusion. However, we seek false conditions and don't recognize this actual Dharma. The more the Buddha speaks Dharma to us, the more we keep retreating. The Buddha shakes his head in frustration; he is at a loss. What can we do if the Buddha is at a loss? Well, you can turn around. When you do so, the Buddha will come face to face with you, to teach and transform you. Therefore, it is said, "Thus all Buddhas appear in the world."
This actual Dharma cannot be destroyed by any externalist ways. If you understand the actual Dharma, you know it encompasses everything throughout empty space and the Dharma Realm. Buddhas, demons, heavenly demons, and externalist ways are all included in this true Dharma; nothing is outside the Dharma Realm. Therefore, even the heavenly demons and those of externalist ways should follow and accord with the proper Dharma. Why? Because they are unable to destroy it. The proper Dharma cannot be destroyed by anyone. If one were able to destroy it, it wouldn't be the actual Dharma. The actual Dharma is indestructible.
The great brightness of self-mastery is just this O. When you have perfected your cultivation, the great bright store will manifest, the great awesome spiritual power of self-mastery will appear. This great bright store pervades empty space and the Dharma Realm. Thus the Buddha comes to universally guide all living beings in this world through the Dharma-doors of leaving birth and death, of reflecting upon oneself, and of returning to the source. Your great bright wisdom can shatter ignorance and reveal the inherent Dharma nature.
If you don't believe what I say, just go ahead and try it out. When the time is ripe, you won't be able to disbelieve it. You'll believe it even if you don't want to. Because that's the way it is. How can you not believe? This great bright store is originally your own, it's not given to you by other people, nor is it given to you by the Buddhas. It is inherently yours.
The Wonderful Function of the Zero
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