Life Ebbs Away

This is a transcription of a reflection given by Ayya Seri Bhikkhuni, on Friday 19th of September 2014, at Dhammaloka Buddhist Centre, the Buddhist Society of Western Australia.

Namo Tassa Bhagavato Arahato Samasambuddhasa
Namo Tassa Bhagavato Arahato Samasambuddhasa
Namo Tassa Bhagavato Arahato Samasambuddhasa
Buddham, Dhammam, Sangham Namasami.

Good evening everyone. I am Ayya Seri Bhikkhuni, a resident nun from Patacara Bhikkhuni Hermitage. Tonight, I am going to start with a poem:

WRITTEN AT YEAR’S END

The sequence of seasons naturally pushes forward,
Suddenly I am startled by the ending of the year.
Lifting my eyes I catch sight of the winter crows,
Calling mournfully as if wanting to complain.
The light of the sun is chill rather than gentle,
Spreading over the four corners like a cloud.
A cold wind blows fitfully in from the north,
Its sad whistling filling courtyards and houses.
Head raised, I gaze up toward the spring,
But the spring pays no attention to me at all.
Time is a galloping colt glimpsed through a crack,
Death’s knock on the door has its predestined time.
How could I not know, one who has left the world,
And become familiar with the floating clouds?
In my garden grow several trees of flowering plum
Whose sworn pact of friendship helps me get by.

 This beautiful poem was written by a nun called Venerable Jingnuo during 1600-1750 in China (late Ming and early Qing Dynasty)

She was the daughter of a county magistrate from Hangzhou. She entered the monastic life as a young girl and became the senior Dharma heir of the woman Chan master Weiji Xingzhi. Like her teacher, Venerable Jingnuo earned a reputation for compassionate but strict discipline and impeccable behaviour and attracted hundreds of followers.

I have especially chosen this poem for two reasons. First of all, I would like to demonstrate to all of us the existence of well-practised nuns in more recent times. She also wrote some poems about meditations and solitary practices in the book, ‘Daughters of Emptiness’.

The other reason that I have chosen this poem is to set the tone of the sharing of Dhamma tonight.

As the poem said: ‘Suddenly I am startled by the end of the year’; how many times we have said among ourselves that ‘It is the end of year again, Christmas is just around the corner!’ The days and nights come and go, ‘Time is a galloping colt glimpsed through a crack’, and life ebbs away without us noticing it. We went from a child, to a teenager, then to an adult, to become parent, grandparent, old, sick and dying. Time flew past us so quickly, as Venerable Jingnuo said in her poem, ‘Head raised, I gaze up toward the spring, but the spring pays no attention to me at all.’ Time does not stop for a moment for anyone of us, whether it is a happy and fun time or sad and difficult time.

Recently, I was reflecting a lot about life. “Time is a galloping colt glimpsed through a crack”, and life ebbs away without us noticing it. My 98 year old Grandma passed way three months ago. She lived at home and was well before she fell ill and went to hospital in an emergency situation. I went to the hospital in the early morning with Ayya Vayama and Jacky for her emergency surgery and we waited at the hospital until she came out of surgery. After that I was in the hospital with Grandma for the next twelve days while her condition went from stable to unstable and eventually she had multi organ failure and was referred to palliative care. It was there I offered Grandma support and love as a granddaughter as well as a nun. I was sitting next to Grandma by myself when she took her last breath. It had been a distressing time for me as a granddaughter but an insightful journey as a nun, a bhikkhuni. Life ebbed away in front of my own eyes and came to an end, a stop. The life of someone that I am close to and who had been there since I was born. The experience forced me to contemplate again and again about life and death.

As I mentioned earlier, I was at the hospital in the early morning supporting Grandma during her surgery. I met a young medical exchange student from Hong Kong that morning. She asked me which temple I came from. I told her my name, Ayya Seri, and I am from a hermitage in Jane Brook. She told me she had visited the nuns’ monastery in Gidgegannup last year and she was very excited about coming to Dhammaloka that week to Ajahn Brahm’s talk. I looked at Ayya Vayama sitting in the wheel chair next to me and smiled. I wished the young Buddhist well in her practice and we parted.

I am going to ask you, all of you in this hall, do you know the first Bhikkhuni Ordination in the Theravada Tradition took place in Australia at Bodhinyana Monastery in 2009? Do you know who were the bhikkhunis ordained at the ceremony?

Ayya Vayama was the founding abbot of Dhammasara Nuns Monastery. She resigned in 2010 due to ill health. Ayya Vayama and myself ordained in the first bhikkhuni ordination in the Theravada tradition in Australia on 22nd October 2009. The ordination sparked some controversy in the Buddhist world. Ayya Vayama earlier joked with me that when you are a feather duster rather than a rooster, for example, an  ex- prime minister and a retired abbot of monastery, people will not remember you. She also offered me the teaching: ‘It is pointless for us to hold on to the sense of me and mine, the special unique Self. In a few year time no one will remember what we have done.’ Ayya Vayama was right and the Buddha was right. In spite of it being an historical event surrounded by controversy, this young female Buddhist did not know of Ayya Vayama, the founding abbot, and she had never heard of me! Life really ebbs and flows.

Even with the Bhikkhuni Ordination in 2009, most people only focus on Ajahn Brahm. Because of Ajahn Brahm, the Bhikkhuni Ordination was possible. But not many people reflect on the effort the founding abbot, Ayya Vayama, had put into training the nuns and starting the monastery, laying down a firm foundation for the ordination. She was the only nun when the monastery started. Ayya Vayama lived on the land of the Monastery by herself in a caravan for two years before the first building was completed. This rains retreat is Ayya Vayama’s 30th rains retreat since she went forth in Sri Lanka. Not only Ayya Vayama, there were many female monastics and practitioners who put in lots of effort over the centuries. The Bhikkhuni Ordination in Australia at Bodhinyana Monastery in 2009 was the fruits of all these efforts.

I am going to share with you a story that is very popular in Hinduism, Jainism, in Indian and Chinese Buddhism. Some of you might remember the story from Ajahn Brahm. The story is called ‘The Man in The Well’. You can find the story in Avadana Sutra or The Parable Sutra in no. 217 of the Taisho edition of the Chinese Buddhist Canon.

Here is the story:

A man lost in a jungle is being chased by a mighty tusker elephant. Full of fear, he tries to escape and sees an old well with a large tree-root dangling into it. Desperately seeking a refuge, he quickly climbs down the tree-root into the well and hangs on to the tree root. As his eyes become accustomed to the darkness in the well, he sees a huge snake, a python, winding itself slowly towards him from the bottom of the well. Looking sideways, he sees that on each of the four sides of the well there is a poisonous viper threatening to bite him. Terrified, he looks up only to see that two mice – one white and one black – are chewing the tree root he is holding on to. Moreover, a forest fire is burning the tree. The roots will soon be chewed or burned through and he will fall down only to be strangled and crushed by the python. On another root above him there is a wild bees’ nest and the bees, angered by his presence, frequently sting him, making him flinch from the pain. At the height of despair, however, five droplets of honey drip onto his face from the hive. Greedily he licks them up, enjoying their sweetness, and entirely forgets his desperate situation.

The explanation of the story is as follows:

The jungle wilderness is samsara, the round of existences. The lost man is you and me. The great elephant is the destructive power of impermanence. The well is worldly existence, life. The climbing down the tree root is the vain hope and expectation with regard to life. The inevitable strangling and crushing by the huge snake is death. The four vipers are the four elements, full of danger. The two mice: night and day, sun and moon, which chew away life. The forest fire is sickness and old age that keep charring the tree of the body. The angry bees are changing circumstances. The stings are the constant stings of the ups and downs (the eight worldly winds) of life. The five honey drops: the five sense pleasure, which are longed for, loved, thrilling, connected with desire, charming. Licking is indulging in sense pleasures, and forgetting the precariousness of samsara.

This simile is great to demonstrate ‘Life ebbs away’, like the two white and black mice chewing away life. The Buddha has warned of the dangers of the pit of samsara and pointed out that there is an escape, Nibbana. However, most of us pay no attention and continue to indulge in sense pleasures and the distraction of sense pleasures that takes us away from the work we need to do to be free. It is not wrong to enjoy life. However, most of us take the enjoyment of life as the most important thing in life and forget ‘life ebbs away’. We might be lucky like Grandma who had been well most of her life but the forest fire of old age and sickness still overcame her.

Venerable Bhikkhuni Ambapali, in the time of the Buddha, was a beautiful courtesan. She wrote a moving poem comparing her former beautiful body to her old and aged body, reflecting on impermanence. She attained arahatship. The following is her poem:

My hair was black, like the colour of bees, with curly ends; because of old age it is like bark fibres of hemp; not false is the utterance of the speaker of truth.

Covered with flowers my head was fragrant like a perfumed box; now because of old age it smells like a dog’s fur; not false is the utterance of the speaker of truth.

Formerly my eyebrows looked beautiful, like crescents well-painted by artist; because of old age they droop down with wrinkles; not false is the utterance of the speaker of truth.

My eyes were shining, very brilliant like jewels, very black and long; overwhelmed by old age they do not look beautiful; not false is the utterance of the speaker of truth.

In the bloom of my youth my nose looked beautiful like a delicate peak; because of old age it is like a flower-spike of long pepper; not false is the utterance of the speaker of truth.

Formerly my hands looked beautiful, with delicate signet rings, decorated with gold; because of old age they are like onions and radishes; not false is the utterance of the speaker of truth.

Formerly my body looked beautiful, like a well-polished sheet of gold; now it is covered with very fine wrinkles; not false is the utterance of the speaker of truth.

Formerly my calves looked beautiful, possessing delicate anklets, decorated with gold; because of old age they are like sticks of sesame; not false is the utterance of the speaker of truth.

Such was this body; now it is decrepit, the abode of many pains; an old house, with its plaster fallen off; not false is the utterance of the speaker of truth.

Life ebbs away. We are not in control of this body, this life regardless who we are. Whether we are the beautiful courtesan, an enlightened arahat nun, even the Buddha, life will come to an end. There is a verse in Dhammapada in Chapter eleven- DECAY ( Jara-vagga) Verse 147:

Look at this beautiful image, with many plans – A diseased mass of sores that has no permanence.’

 We can have plans and dreams about our future. But we need to recognise and be aware that the plans and dreams can be changed at anytime because life is impermanent and unsatisfactory, suffering. Our circumstances are changeable and unpredictable like the bees in the simile earlier.

I was going through my Grandma’s belongings the other day, looking at some of the photos which were taken when I was in high school with my friends. We looked innocent, fearless, invincible, having the whole world at our feet, full of the pride of youth. Old age, sickness and death never entered our minds. Day by day, hour by hour, breath by breath, life ebbs away. I am no longer the invincible proud young one. Whether we live only one breath or 98 years like my Grandmother, time just flies past us. One of my cousins at my Grandma’s funeral said he wished he had visited Grandma more often, spent more time with his special Grandmother. We need to ask ourselves again and again, ‘What is important to us, what is our priority in our life?’ This is a question that has no right or wrong answer, but only we can answer ourselves. So that at the end of our life, or the life of our loved one, we have no regrets. One of the reflections that monastics do regularly as advised by the Buddha is: ‘The days and nights are relentlessly passing, how well am I spending my time?’ This is a reflection that all of us need to do again and again.

In the Samyutta Nikaya, The Connected Discourses of the Buddha, the Sutta, ‘The Simile of the Mountain’, the Buddha asked King Pasenadi of Kosala,: ‘If people from all four corners of your kingdoms came to tell the King that they saw a great mountain high as clouds coming this way, crushing all living beings, if such a great peril should arise, such a terrible destruction of human life occurs, what should be done?’”

The King replied, “If, venerable sir, such a great peril should arise, such a terrible destruction of human life, the human state being so difficult to obtain, what else should be done but to live by the Dhamma, to live righteously, and to do wholesome and meritorious deeds?”

“I inform you, great king, I announce to you, great king: aging and death are rolling in on you, great king, what should be done?”

“As aging and death are rolling in on me, venerable sir, what else should be done but to live by the Dhamma, to live righteously, and to do wholesome and meritorious deeds?”

The Sutta is a great reminder for all of us, especially the Buddhist practitioners, to live by the Dhamma, the teaching of the Buddha, to do kind, generous and wholesome actions is our priority.

I had been talking to Grandma about death and teaching her some chanting for at least the last ten years, but more often over the last four to five years, just the words of “ Namo tassa bhagavato arahato Samasambuddhasa”, “Homage to the Buddha” or “ Buddham Saranam Gachami”, “ Refuge in the Buddha” . I also repeatedly sat and did lovingkindness meditation in Cantonese with Grandma using words like ‘peace and ease’. Grandma even taught me how to say ‘peace and ease’ in Cantonese, ‘心定神怡’。 Each time when I visited Grandma or when I spoke to her over the phone, before I finished the visit or put down the phone, I would make a point to wish Grandma, ‘May you be at peace and at ease’. Grandma always happily replied, ‘Thank you’. All these were to enable Grandma to have a refuge in time of distress and difficulties. When Grandma was sick in the hospital three months ago, her body was struggling and she was in distress, she put her hands together and started to chant ‘Namo Tassa Bhagavato Arahato Samasambuddhasa.’ herself. When Grandma was very agitated, she calmed down when I chanted ‘Namo Tassa’ into her ear. When I reminded her to be “at peace and at ease” she was familiar with the term and understood what I was talking about. I talked to her about being a bird and being free. She could drop all the baggage of love, hate, likes and dislikes and fly into the big wide sky, following the Buddha and be free. I continuously repeated some of the wholesome actions that she had done in life into her ear again and again. I knew she found lots of comfort in that. When I was tired, I sat meditating next to her. I surrounded her with lovingkindness, peace and ease. I was sitting there, watching her breathing and reflecting that every breath we take is taking us closer to the end of our life.

My grandmother took her last breath with me sitting next to her surrounding her with all my love and good wishes. I conducted her funeral by myself as she requested earlier. It was an honour to have Grandma in my life, it was an honour to be with her in her last days of life.

I was at Grandma’s house sorting out her belongings the other day. When I left the house and closed the door behind me, I felt I was closing the door to a chapter of my life. I felt sad. I reflected on the closing of the door. That particular chapter of my life might be closed, might have come to an end with the death of Grandma. However, Grandma’s love, kindness, her happy face and smile, courage and strength and generous heart are with me, in my heart.

As life ebbs away, old age, sickness and death rolling in on us, what else should be done but to take refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha, to draw the Dhamma close to our hearts, to live by the Dhamma, to do kind, generous and wholesome actions.

Now, I would like to share with you a recollection on death. I invite you to close your eyes and I will read out the recollection. Let the words sink into your heart.

 

RECOLLECTION ON DEATH

I sit before the Buddha and contemplate that He and all who knew Him are now dead. Since His great demise countless beings have come, bided their time and gone. The names and deeds of but a few are remembered. Their many pains, their joy, their victories and defeats, like themselves are now but shadows. And so it will be with all whom I know. Passing time will turn the calamities I worry about, the possibilities I fear and the pleasure I chase after into mere shadows. Therefore, I will contemplate the reality of my own death that I may understand what is true value in life.

Because death may soon come, I will repay all debts for all transgressions and be at odds with none.

Because death may soon come, I will squander no time brooding on past mistakes but use each day as if it were my last.

Because death may soon come, I will purify my mind rather than pamper the body.

Because death may soon come, and separation from those I love, I will develop detached compassion rather than possessiveness and clinging.

Because death may soon come, I will use each day fully, not wasting it on fruitless pursuits and vain longings.

May I be prepared when death finally comes.

May I be fearless as life ebbs away.

May my detachment help in the freeing of the heart.

 

I hope the sharing of this reflection tonight will be of benefit to all of us, may the teaching help us all in our quest for freedom and liberation.

I would like to dedicate the merit of the sharing of this reflection tonight to my Grandmother, Ah Ying Kok, who passed away three months ago on 15th of June. A generous and kind grandmother who touched my life with her unconditional love. May Grandma be at peace and at ease. May she be surrounded by people who love and support her in her next journey. May she have a favourable rebirth where she can practise and listen to the Buddha’s teachings for freedom, and liberation, Nibbana.

Thank you.

Ayya Vayama Bhikkhuni, Ayya Seri Bhikkhuni and Grandma at the End of Rains Robe Offering Ceremony on 26th October 2013 at Patacara Bhikkhuni Hermitage. Photo by Zor Hane

Ayya Vayama Bhikkhuni, Ayya Seri Bhikkhuni and Grandma at the End of Rains Robe Offering Ceremony on 26th October 2013 at Patacara Bhikkhuni Hermitage. Photo by Zor Hane

 

Ayya Seri Bhikkhuni, Grandma Ah Ying Kok and Mother Sau San Teh in April 2014

 

Grandma's memorial, November 2014. Photo by Destiny

Grandma’s memorial, November 2014. Photo by Destiny

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