The Quandary of Life and Death﹘A Symphony by Chan Masters and Taoists

【Information provided by DDU School of Life and Values】Actions foster thoughts, and thoughts guide actions. Facing the issue of life and death, what kind of inspiration can we derive from Chan teachings and Taoist thinking, which contain much wisdom in their discussion of life and death since ancient times? Mr. Chen Pingkun, a teacher at Dharma Drum University Preparatory Office, used this as the topic of a lecture to over 50 participants at the “Introductory Lecture Series on Chan Culture” on August 20, and engaged in a dialogue with them.

Speaker Chen Pingkun began his lecture by talking about the Taoist definition of life. The Taoists think that life comes from the Tao that existed before the creation of the universe and all things, and are transformed by qi. From birth to death, life entities that originate from the Tao are all in the process of transformation by qi. Although their forms and appearances are different, they are all the natural expressions of the transformation of qi. Therefore, one should be able to be free and at ease while alive, and go along with the transformation of qi when death arrives, instead of feeling joyful or sorrowful. Moreover, the unknown world that death leads to is not necessarily a worse world.

Mr. Chen explained that, in contrast to Taoists, the Chan masters of Buddhism fully perceive that life entities originate from “ignorance,” which causes the individual will to bring forth a series of strivings and actions, and thereby traps them in the cycle of birth of death. “Ignorance” mostly finds its expression in the fact that life entities, unaware that all phenomena of the world are impermanent and ever-changing, are mistakenly convinced that they themselves and other things have a forever unchanging essence or substance, and thus hold on to them and are loath to let go, regarding birth, death and all other phenomena as fully substantial truths of life.

So Chan masters remind us that birth and death are two illusory concepts that we nevertheless firmly believe to exist, and that they do not constitute true and objective bookends of the life process. On the contrary, within the process where life unfolds without limit, there is no fixed boundary that can be delineated as birth or death. This, then, is the true situation of the world of the living. So when facing the issue of life and death, Chan masters put importance on deeply understanding how the phenomena of life come to be created due to false cognition, and how, at the same time, they are led to another round of existence on the basis of false cognition. They further point out that we should diligently try to change false cognition and actions in order to liberate ourselves from the bondage of samsara that brings us all varieties of hardship and suffering.

Before the lecture drew to an end, Mr. Chen raised some related topics, such as “Is life something valuable?” “Is death something bad?” and “Does life continue after death?” asking the participants to share their respective ideas and understanding. The three-hour lecture ended with the last question of “Who is who?” posed by Mr. Chen, inspiring deep reflection about the question of life and death.