Impermanence Can Be a Shock: Master Cheng Yen’s Personal Story

National Headquarters  |  March 29, 2019
Photo Credit: Peter Lin

The Buddha taught that impermanence is a universal mark of existence, and that everything in this world is undergoing constant change and is never fixed or lasting.

With regard to the nature of life, even by our own examination, we can come to understand that everything that’s born will eventually die, including ourselves.

This realization can lead to existential questions. And yet, as we busy ourselves with the demands of family, career, goals, and so on, such ‘whys’ can end up on the back burner. Often, it takes an unexpected tragedy to shake us back to attention and force a re-evaluation of what is ultimately worth pursuing in life.

Much insight can be drawn from reflecting on Dharma Master Cheng Yen’s advice, as she shares the following account of her father’s sudden death.

As a human being in this world, we don’t really know how we came to be here or what we are here for. Looking at other people, we compare and think, “How come they have such good fortune while I don’t?” We have many ‘whys’ about life. We all want a perfect life. We want everything to be ideal. But, is that possible? Even the very wealthy can’t always have what they want or have things turn out as they wish. So, in life, there are many things we cannot control.

Why is life the way it is? When I was young, I had many questions, especially after I was confronted with life’s transience in the experience of my father’s sudden death. He was a hearty, healthy man, but suddenly one day, he had a stroke, and within twenty-four hours he was gone from the world. Just the day before, he was still enjoying a wonderful life, surrounded by family who loved him. But less than two days later, he was lying in the ground in the cemetery.

I remember the day we returned home from the cemetery having buried him, it started raining hard. There was thunder and lightning. There he was, all alone in the cemetery amidst the fierce storm no matter how many people had just attended his funeral and how well-respected and influential a figure he was in the community, he was now all alone there in the cemetery, everyone all gone. 

At that time, as it rained and thundered and the sky flashed with lightning, I was hit by the thought why? Why is life like this? What is this thing called life? What are we here for? Where do we go after we die? 

Such a stark incidence of impermanence stunned me and overwhelmed me with questions. I started searching. I persisted with these questions. I was determined to find the answers to life. So, now when I keep talking about how one second can set the course of our life that actually comes from my experience from that time in my life. That one second when I was hit by the deep shock of impermanence and compelled to know the answers to life that was the turning point that determined my life’s direction and changed the trajectory of my life.

It was that which made me search and find the Buddha’s teachings, and then start walking on another path, the enlightened path. The more I learned of the Buddha’s teachings, especially after I became a monastic, the more I started to appreciate how real and boundless the Buddha’s wisdom is. The Buddha really knows the workings of the universe and the laws of life and existence. His teachings point out life’s correct course and help us have the right direction.

He has allowed us to know that our current good and bad fortune are results of the karma we created in the past. So, we only need to look at our present life to know whether we created good or bad karma in our past life. To know how our future life will be, we only need to see what we’re doing now in this life. If in this life, we are giving of ourselves and making positive contributions that benefit others, then in our next life we will certainly have a life of blessings and wisdom.

So, let’s walk the Bodhisattva Path now, in this life, and cultivate blessings and wisdom. Don’t wait until a future life to do it. If we don’t plant the seeds now, how can we reap the conditions to do so in our next life?

By taking the truth of impermanence deeply to heart, we can gain a powerful incentive for embarking on the spiritual path. In our next blog on the topic, Master Cheng Yen offers further insight on how we can use this universal truth as a spur for spiritual cultivation and motivation to be of service to others.

Life is so short, and is as transient as dew or lightning. But one can do many good deeds in one's very short life. A little kind act can make a great impact; a little evil act can bring great disaster to the world.

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