The Sutra of Learning the Bodhisattva Path through

Examining the Three Periods of Time

 by Ven. Shih Ming-Xing

 

Thus have I heard it said…

Once there was a man so immersed in the three poisons that he had no compassion for any sentient beings.  He did not see Buddha-Nature in anything, so he was filled with hate.  He did not see how he made his own suffering, so he was filled with anger.  He craved wealth above all else, but he could not enjoy his wealth.

At one time during the darkest, coldest part of the year, he went home and sat before a fire, alone and miserable.  There appeared before him on that night, a hungry ghost whom he had known in life.  The hungry ghost warned him that he, too, would become a hungry ghost if he did not cultivate wisdom, compassion and non-attachment.  The ghost said that the Bodhisattvas of the three periods of time were coming to fulfill their vows and help him along the path to enlightenment, that he should learn from them, and that if he heard them and followed their advice he would avoid the terrible consequence of living as a spirit that could not be satisfied.

The hungry ghost then faded away, and the man, though he was at first frightened, became convinced that it was but a dream.  He retired to bed and fell asleep. 

In the middle of the night, he was awakened by a bright light in his room and sat up in bed to see a figure before him dressed in white with a flame springing from its head.

“I am the Bodhisattva of the Past Period of Time,” said the figure.

“Come with me to see how you have planted and nurtured the karmic seeds of ignorance and hate.”

The being touched the man’s arm and they returned to the time of the man’s childhood.  The man saw how he had missed chances for happiness while he clung to his own suffering. He saw how he had missed chances for love while he fostered his own anger.  He saw how he had missed chances for forgiveness while he had turned his mind and heart to amassing material wealth.

He had always felt that his father had abandoned him, and he had blamed his father for his mother’s death at the time of his birth.  He had always felt that his beloved had left him because she didn’t understand how hard he worked to secure wealth for their future. He had always felt that his so-called friends and relatives were jealous of his wealth and so avoided him; and he had avoided them because he thought they would try to take his wealth from him.

After carefully observing his path through the eyes of the Bodhisattva of the Past Period of Time, he began to understand that he had not been abandoned by his father, but that he had rejected his father’s efforts to provide for him because they did not meet his expectations; that he had not been deserted by his beloved, but that he had slowly walked away from her to pursue his dreams of wealth; and that he was not alone because he wanted to be alone, but because he was cruel and thoughtless to people.

 He was very ashamed and vowed to cultivate the wisdom eye so he could see the consequences of his life more clearly.

And with this realization he found his senses fading, and he slept for what seemed a long time.

He was awakened by the ringing of bells and a bright glow of light shining under his door. He opened the door and walked into the light to see a large figure with a staff in one hand and a lantern in the other.  The figure was beckoning to him:

“I am the Bodhisattva of the Present Period of Time” said the figure. “Come with me and see how your past actions have affected those close to you.”

The being touched the man’s arm, and they were transported to the house of the man’s servant who had done his bidding for many years.  He saw how the servant had respected him and labored for him, even though he had been mean and dismissive to the servant.  He saw how the servant spoke well of him even to those in the servant’s family who saw him as cruel and hated him.

Then the man and the Bodhisattva seemed to fly through the air to the house of his own nephew.  Here again, the man saw how his nephew had defended him, even though he had been overbearing and abusive to him. He saw how his nephew spoke well of him to those who were there, even though they saw him as arrogant and disliked him.

And he began to realize that his actions drew hate from others, but that even the worst of actions could be countered by loving kindness. He began to see that his servant and his nephew saw him as a suffering being – which he was – because he did not know how to release his ego.  He saw his servant and his nephew as Bodhisattvas who could teach him to overcome hatred with loving kindness.

He was very ashamed, and vowed to cultivate compassion so he could see how he was connected to all beings and how his actions affected them.

And with this realization he found his senses fading, and he slept for what seemed a long time.

He was awakened again, but this time by an awful silence so deep and dark that his breathing seemed as loud as thunder.  There stood before him another figure draped in black, its face shadowed in a hood.

Uneasily, he addressed the figure: “You must be the Bodhisattva of the Future Period of Time, come to show me the consequences of all that I have spoken, felt and thought.”

The figure did not speak, but beckoned to him to follow.  And so he did.  The dark figure led him to a room where there were gathered many people whom he recognized – people with whom he did business, his nephew, his servant and others he had met and whom he had known casually.  He was able to hear some of their conversations, and they were speaking about him:

“… the old miser…”

“… don’t be unkind, he was lonely…”

“… he was mean, never smiled…”

“… don’t be judgmental, he suffered many losses …”

He wondered what brought them all together and why they spoke of him, of all people. 

The dark figure then led him outside into the cold and dark, through a burial ground and to a particular place.  The man saw, engraved upon a stone, his very own name and the date of his death.  Thus he was confronted with the evidence of impermanence – his very own impermanence.  He was frightened, and asked the dark figure:

“Are you showing me what will happen or what may happen?”

The dark figure did not speak, and the man’s question remained unanswered as the silence again grew around him.  In the next instant, even though he did not know if the figure had spoken to him or if the words arose from his own mind, he heard them very clearly, growing louder in his head after each line:

“Birth and death are the great matter.

Impermanence is swift.

Time does not wait for anyone.

DO NOT IGNORE THIS CHANCE.”

 

He then became aware of his connection to all beings and vowed to cultivate compassion and wisdom so he, too, could become a Bodhisattva and work to save all beings, including himself.

With this realization he found his senses fading, and he slept for what seemed a long time.

And when he woke, he found that the sun had risen and that he was still alive and that there were countless chances to be wise and kind.