Electronic Journal from Sakyadhita USA
Issue No. 11, SPECIAL COMMEMORATIVE ISSUE
Ven. Bhikkhuni Sudinna, Theri
A Sri Lankan by birth, Ven. Bhikkhuni Sudinna was ordained as a samaneri in 1999 by Bhante Gunaratana at the Bhavana Society. She received the higher ordination (Upasampada) in 2002 in Sri Lanka. In lay life, Ayya Sudinna served as a teacher in government schools and as a lecturer in English at the Government Teachers Training College, Maharagama, and later under the Higher Education Ministry in Sri Lanka. She has an honors degree in English and an MA in Buddhist philosophy. She is the author of three children’s storybooks titled Delightful Tales, Precious Tales I, and Precious Tales II. Ayya Sudinna currently resides at the Carolina Buddhist Vihara and Meditation Center in Greenville, South Carolina, USA.
If birds are trapped in a net only a few will ever escape.
In this world of illusion
only a few see their way to liberation.
*A Dhammapada for Contemplation, A rendering by Ajahn Munindo, Aruna Publications 2006.
Friends, I would like to tell you about two things that are important to understand regarding this verse (gatha). One is death and the other is stream entry. The Buddha said that in this world most people are blindly running up and down on this side of the shore. He compares this samsara, this round of birth, death, birth, death to a river. And if it is a river, there are two banks, this bank and the bank on the other side. People in this world are running up and down on this side of the bank, on this side of the shore, but most do not try to cross over to the other side. The Buddha said that this Dhamma is a raft. After you go across you don't need the raft anymore. You don't need the Dhamma once you have crossed to the other side. When you have gone beyond samsara, when you have attained arahantship, you don't even need the Dhamma, because you have done what had to be done in this world.
Now let us look at this idea of death. Most people are scared of death. They don't want to think about it. How can we overcome this fear of death? We don't have to be afraid because it is something that we have brought with us when we came into the world. We have gone through this cycle of birth and death innumerable times, and have suffered accordingly. In fact, we have suffered enough to be weary of life. But we are not weary. Why? Because we don't remember. We don't remember even what happened yesterday, so how can we remember what happened in past lives?
When we think of rebirth there are two benefits we can consider. One is that we have faced it many times and therefore we don't have to be afraid. The second benefit, the more important one, is that is we will be motivated to find a way out of this cycle. It is not the length of time that we live that matters, but the way we live. The quality of our life is what is most important.
So, meditation on death can have many benefits. It is not necessary to be morose and frightened or worried or depressed when you think of death. It’s not necessary. Instead we can use our contemplation to enable us to live more wisely than we have lived before. We can be more compassionate, we can do things for others, and in this way we can compensate for any former selfishness.
Through meditating on death we can learn to be more tolerant of other people's faults. We can be more patient, kind, and gentle. Furthermore, through contemplating on death we become less attached to our material possessions, because we don't know when we are going to leave them and go. All these worldly things are conditioned and all conditioned things end when the conditions end. So we become less attached and also we learn to share, to share our things with others, and to enjoy the sharing.
Now when I say this, you might think we should not collect things, we should not be wealthy, but the Buddha never said that we shouldn't be wealthy or we shouldn't earn money. The Buddha said when you are young you must work and earn and get enough wealth for you and your family, and to share with others. But the earning should be righteous and it should not harm yourself or others. The way that you collect your wealth should be such that it is so righteous that nobody can say anything to you, so that when you have wealth you can share it with others joyfully. That is how you can have spiritual balance in your life between what you earn and what you spend and the way you earn.
Another very important word is samvega. Samvega is what can result when you contemplate death. When you think of death you can feel samvega. What is samvega? It is an energy, that sense of urgency, that before we die we can do whatever good we can. Having a sense of samvega is very, very good in life.
There is another way of looking at death. We experience death from moment to moment. Every moment we are dying, with the intake of the breath, we live, with the out-breath we die. So in, out, in, out—every moment we are living and dying again. If we are unable to breathe in, that means death. Total death. But that is not the only way of explaining it. Now when you think about your consciousness, what about that? It changes so much. In one second you get so many thoughts and ideas and in the next second they all go away, so it is a case of being born and dying, birth and death, birth and death in each moment of consciousness.
When you think of the body, that is also dying. I think you might have heard of the fact that every seven years every cell in our body has changed, so that you are a different person every seven years. So you can see how many times you would have changed in your lifetime. To see this change you have only to look at photos of yourself as a small baby up to now. If we look, then we will see how much we have changed, and all this change we never saw, but it has taken place. So you see, that is birth and death.
Now, let us look at another important topic: stream entry. A stream entrant (sotapanna) is one who has cut off the first three fetters (of the ten). What are the three fetters? Identity view, sakayaditthi; adherence to rules and observances, silabbhataparamatta; and the third is doubt, vicikiccha. Those are the three things that a sotapanna destroys. A sotapanna will never be reborn in a lower realm. Now isn't that a great thing? Lower realm means one of the four realms, the four apayas (lower realms) according to the Buddha's psychology. One is the hell realm, one is the animal world, which we can see, the other is the peta world, the realm of hungry ghosts and the other is the asura, or the world of demons. Those are the four lower worlds. So a sotapanna will never be born in any of these lower worlds. The most important thing is that a sotapanna is definitely headed for enlightenment. A sotapanna, he or she, is definitely headed for enlightenment. There is no backing out–they definitely will be enlightened.
There are many positive qualities that a sotapanna would have. Unwavering confidence in the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha is one. Now we might wonder, was the Buddha actually enlightened? Is this Dhamma actually true? Were the arahants at that time really enlightened? This sort of thinking is a kind of doubting, but once a person becomes a sotapanna, that person will never have doubts, all doubts will be gone. Doubts about the Four Noble Truths have also gone—that person will experience the four noble truths. And also the five precepts that you normally take as laypeople, these five areas of possible misconduct a sotapanna will not fall into at all. A sotapanna will have the four foundations of mindfulness, definitely. Such a person will look for kalyanamittas, that is, people who are more developed or at least equal to them. Such a person will possess the eight factors of the Noble Eightfold Path and such a person will know what's fit for attention and what's not fit for attention, what should be cultivated and what should not be cultivated. Such a person will not get what is unwished for, that is, what is undesired, what is disagreeable, such things will diminish. On the other hand such a person will get what is wished for, that is, what is desired, and what is agreeable will increase. We should all try to attain sotapanna in this life—that should be our aim in life. Of course it would be good if we became arahants. But to become a sotapanna is something very, very great, and is something we should all aim for.