Published on 2024.03.14


The View of Life and Death in Zen Buddhism:
Finding one’s True Self to Become the Buddha and sufferings Come from the Inextricability of Ignorance


The Buddhism believes that the present life is nothing but a severe suffering, and everyone is destined to meet his own “Eight Sufferings” due to ignorance (not enlightened). The doctrines of Buddhism are about how one escapes from these sufferings, that is, to practice himself in accordance with the Buddhism manners, such as leaving home to become a monk or nun and sitting in meditation. After about five or six hundred years since the religion was introduced to China, Buddhism had formed several sects integrated with traditional Chinese culture, among which the Chan sect (禅宗) or Zen Buddhism has the most wide influence.

Monk Huineng (慧能,638-713) in Tang Dynasty is regarded as the real founder of Zen. Its fundamental conceptions lie in the view of life and death featured by “showing one’s true nature then becoming the Buddha”. Huineng regards the Buddhist nature as man’s true nature, and to know man’s true nature is to know the Buddhist nature. Mazu (马祖, 709-788), the master of  Zen in Tang Dynasty, once said: “All of us who trust our own nature are the Buddhas. This nature is Buddhist nature.” So what is the essence of “Buddhist nature”? In the view of Huineng, “Buddhist nature” refers to the inner life of humanity.

If a man could have a control of his inner life consciously, then he could go beyond life and death to reach the state of becoming a Buddha. Then, how to reach this state? The Zen created a Buddhist Method that is easy to practice and named as “Tenet based on no-thought (Wunian, 无念)”. “No-thought”, as its religious purpose, means that man will not be disturbed by any outside influences, instead of “not thinking about anything” or “discarding all the thoughts through the Zen meditation”. Just like Huineng said: “One should not generate any thoughts from the outside.”

Therefore, one could still go beyond the state of life and death to become Buddha by daily routines without staying away from the real life, nor the formal ways such as sitting meditation, Buddhist scriptures reading and Buddha worshiping are compulsory. “Carrying water and chopping firewood can also offer the chances to practice Buddhist doctrines.” The state of going beyond life and death solely depends on one’s sudden enlightenment (Dunwu, 顿悟).  “When a Buddha’s nature is covered, he then becomes an ordinary man; when an ordinary man knows his mind’s nature, he then becomes the Buddha.” This enlightenment happens in a flash and suddenly eliminate the ignorance of Buddhism. This manifests the state of becoming Buddha pursued by Zen Buddhism.

The Chinese Zen Buddhism does not deny the sufferings of birth, aging, sickness and death in life, however, one could go beyond these sufferings if he doesn’t regard them as sufferings. Thus the “sea of sufferings” would turn into “the pure land”, which is totally determined by one’s consciousness. Hence, people should live a natural life and learn from the nature. “In spring, flowers compete to blossom and in autumn, the full moon hangs high in the sky; In summer, the breeze blows and in winter, snow falls down. All the seasons are good enough for one to enjoy if there have no worries in his heart.” When one follows the nature without clinging to anything, then “Every day is a good day” and “Every night is a good night”. No special lives out of our normal life is expected in order to go beyond the state of life and death and obtain the Buddhism. With this consciousness, the normal mind could then become Buddhist mind of exceeding the life and death. In the views of Zen, one’s sufferings lie in his inextricability of ignorance. Thus there would be no suffering if one could overcome the ignorance and confusions.

Professor Tang Yijie

Professor Tang Yijie (1927-2014) was a renowned thinker, historian of philosophy, educator, and leading scholar of Chinese studies. He served as the director of the Research Institute of Confucianism at Peking University, the president of the International Society for Chinese Philosophy, the president of the Chinese Confucius Academy, and the member of China Central Institute for Culture and History. The nine-volume History of Chinese Confucianism edited by Professor Tang Yijie is by far the most informative, informative, and complete general history of Chinese Confucianism. His major works include Guo Xiang and Wei Jin Metaphysics, Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism and Inner Transcendence, Buddhism and Chinese Culture, Harmony and Difference, and so on.

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