Upgrade Ourselves: The Significance of Life at the New Year from Master Yin Shun

by Bob Schwartz

“Human beings can avoid evil deeds, perform good deeds and accumulate merits. We can upgrade ourselves.”
Master Yin Shun

Following is an excerpt from the work of Master Yin Shun (1906-2005).

Yin Shun was a Chinese Buddhist teacher and scholar, a primary contributor to the revival of Buddhism in China and the formation of a twentieth century Humanistic Buddhism. He is hardly known in the West because so little of his writing has been translated. About the volume of his work, Mark O’Neill writes:

His writing career started in 1942 with a treatise on Indian Buddhism and his last major academic work was in 1989, on the same topic. He wrote an astonishing seven million characters.

The Buddhism of Yin Shun is difficult to classify and belongs to no one school. His goal was to promote a Buddhism true to original dharma and fitting for the twentieth century and beyond. Western students have become familiar with many teachers with the same goal, each with a distinctive voice. The voice of Yin Shun, rarely heard in English, is among these.

This excerpt is taken from one of the few English translations of his work, Teachings in Chinese Buddhism. (Also available is The Way to Buddhahood.)

From the Miao Yun Collection, Volume 11 by Venerable Yin Shun:

However, to place the significance of life on the family, or nation, or the human race is not one that people like to do willingly. We try to hang on to something because of the fear that our body and mind will degenerate one day. But can we assure that these are the real meanings of life? If the significance of life is on the family, for those who do not have any offspring, does it mean that it is meaningless to live? If the significance of life is on the country, from the perspective of history, there were so many highly prosperous countries and civilizations, but where are they now? They have long vanished and are only regarded as anthropological evidences now! Then, what about living for the advancement of mankind? Human activities rely on the existence of the earth. Although it may still be a very long time to go, it is inevitable that the earth will degenerate one day. What is significance of life when the earth ceases to support the human activities? It seems these three significances of life adopted by most people will eventually become void….

The concept of “a future in the heaven” has been used by most worldly religions, especially religion with God in the Western countries to explain the significance of life. In these religions, the world where we humans now live, is just an illusion. Human beings that live in this world, believe in the God, love the God, and abide by His instructions in order to go to the Heaven in the future. Some religions say, the end of the world is coming, and those who have no faith in the God will be trapped in the hell of eternal suffering; whereas those who believe in the God will get into the heaven and enjoy the eternal bliss. So it would seem, all the faith, morality and good actions people do is motivated by their desire to prepare for their entry into the heaven. But this heaven is something for the future. It is impossible to go to heaven while still living as a human being. Therefore, the concept of a heaven is only a belief. In reality, heaven cannot be proven to exist. It seems rather vague to use the existence of something that cannot be proven as one’s purpose for living!

As mentioned earlier, Buddhism denies that there is any permanent and absolute significance of life, and described life as unsatisfactory (s. dukkha) and void (s. sunyata). However, Buddha acknowledged that there is a relative significance of life, and it is through this relative and conditioned nature of life that we can achieve and realize the universal truth. According to the discourses of the Buddha, our lives, and the world, are nothing but phenomena that rise and fall. It is a process of forming and degenerating. There is nothing that is not subject to change or impermanence. Impermanence indicates that there is no eternal bliss, because even a joyous state will eventually cease and become suffering. Because there is suffering, there will be no ultimate and complete freedom. Hence, the Buddha taught about non-self (‘self’ implies the existence). The Brahmin of the Buddha’s era considered life and the world by conceptualizing that there was a metaphysical entity who has the nature of “permanence”, “happiness” and “self”. This concept was completely refuted by the Buddha and He described it as delusion. The Buddha observed the reality and taught the truth of “impermanence”, “suffering” and “non-self”. From these truths of life, i.e. impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and non-self, how can we establish the significance of our lives?…

From the principle of cause and effect, Buddhism explains that the body and mind activity of an individual, be it good or evil, will not only affect the individual internally, creating potentially habitual tendencies (karma), but also influence others externally. When our body and mind disintegrate and death comes, our habitual tendencies (the karma), with our desire to be reborn and attachment to life as the conditions, propagates into a new composition of body and mind. This is the beginning of a new life. From continuous causes and conditions and their effects, impermanence and non-self, there is an infinite flow of life which continues from one to another. (This is different from the teachings of other religions that there is a permanent soul.) This is like a country, where there is a continuous disintegration of dynasties followed by the formation of new dynasties.

Life is dependent originated. For all the good and evil deeds we do, their results will be experienced in this life, or in our new lives in the future. The Law of Cause and Effect is the axiom. The combinations of mind and body of this life will disintegrate and die. All our actions, the good and evil deeds, will determine our future. The karma of sentient beings is continuous, be it good or evil, has a positive or negative significance which will influence our conditions in the future. Therefore, death is part of the process of life; it is not a sudden disappearance. Every act has its result, life after life, we continue to create new karma. When we experience temporary suffering or downfall, we should not feel disappointed. It will be only a temporary phenomenon. Our future may still be bright. The avoidance of suffering and the attainment of happiness can only be achieved by avoiding evil and doing good according to the Law of Cause and Effect. It cannot be achieved by pure luck nor by the help of any God.

To be able to lead a human life is actually the result of the good karma. The good or evil deeds of this life will determine the higher or lower realms of our future life. The Buddha kept telling us that “It is precious to be born as human”. However, many Buddhists sometimes misunderstand the teaching of the Buddha. They only brood over the suffering of human beings, and do not appreciate that it is precious to be born as a human being!

According to the Sutra, humans have three supreme characteristics. These characteristics are not only better than animals, ghosts and beings in the hells, but they are also better than the Devas in the heavenly realms. What are these characteristics? They are morality, knowledge and steadfast determination. In the human world, we know about suffering and are able to help those who suffer. But morality, knowledge and human determination is sometimes not completely satisfactory. It has its side effects, sometimes including a tendency for humans to self-destruct. But through these three qualities, human beings are able to develop a sophisticated culture. This is a fact that cannot be denied.

During the evolution of mankind, we have come to realize that there is dissatisfaction and incompleteness in life. This prompts us to pursue perfection and completion. Human beings can avoid evil deeds, perform good deeds and accumulate merits. We can upgrade ourselves. According to Buddhism, humans are the only beings that can renounce the world and aspire to the mind of Bodhi (Bodhicitta). Only human beings can transcend relativity and have the possibility to experience the absolute state (which corresponds to the initial state of enlightenment). How precious human life is! We should understand the value of, “It is precious to be born as human”. Then the significance of life can be well understood. We should appreciate and utilize our lives, and do our best not to waste it.