China Academic Lectures
Sponsored by
China Institute in America, N.Y. USA
By Dr. C. T. Shen
     In the Christian Bible, in the Book of John, Chapter XVI, Verse
12, Jesus Christ tells his disciples, "I have yet many things to say
unto ye, but ye cannot bear them now." That is to say, what Christ did
teach his disciples was only a small part of what he knew, because the
level of understanding of his disciples at that time was such that
they could only absorb so much. Unfortunately, Jesus died at the age
of 33.  Time did not allow him
to give his disciples a complete course of teaching. What Christ knew
and did not say remains an unanswerable question.
     On the other hand, Buddha lived for 80 years.  He had 45 full
years from the time of his enlightenment to teach his disciples: long
enough to gradually lead his disciples to learn and practice various
stages of teaching, from a self-centered liberation from human
suffering to the most profound supramundane doctrine.
     If we assume that these founders of two of the greatest religions
on earth were both persons possessed of profound wisdom, then many
teachings expounded by Buddha could be those which Christ knew but did
not have time to teach.
     With this view in mind, it seems to me that the study of Buddhism
by Christians can have a special significance, that is, the search for
what Christ knew but did not say.
     The Buddhist concept of birth and death could be a good example
of just such an area of thought. That is why I have said these few
words first.
     Now, let me go to the mysterious question which has hung over the
human mind for thousands of years. The question is, "What happens to
one after death?" Practically all systems of political thought and
philosophical ideas, such as Confucianism, deal in
their teaching only with the living. Confucius said, "eve do not even
know the living, how can we know the dead?" From a practical point of
view, it is true that problems concerning the living are more
important and intimate to us, but such an approach evades the search
for a real answer to the question. The fact of death, and the question
as to what happens afterward, remain.  Furthermore, it could very well
be that the attitude toward the living could be very much changed if
we knew what happen ed to one after death.
     It should be noted that Confucius did not say that death is
extinctions nor did he say that there is no future life after death.
He meant that to live as a decent person on earth is more important
than to search for the answer to life after death.
     Most religions, however, have a teaching about life after death.
Two teachings predominate among world religions: one is the one-life
theory and the other is the multi-life theory. The one-life theory
says that birth begins the life of a physical body, wherein a
spiritual entity called the "soul" abides, and death is the
destruction of that body, but of the soul. After death, the soul,
depending upon the judgment of the creator, will ascend to heaven or
descend to hell. Christianity represents this theory. This teaching
ends here, somehow,- and goes no further. The implication is that each
person has only this one life on earth and will thereafter remain
eternally either in heaven, in bliss, or suffering in hell with no
chance of ever leaving. Whether or not this implication represents a
complete understanding of Christ's teaching is unclear. It could be
that Christ had much more to teach about birth and death, but, in his
time, even this limited concept of birth and death was not easy for
people to understand. He did not have time to teach them more and to
bring them to a higher level understanding.
     The multi-life theory says that the birth and death of a being is
only one segment of a chain of infinite lives of a being, who wanders
among five major kinds of existence. The five existences are: heaven-
dweller, human being, animal, ghost, and hell-dweller. After death a
human being is reborn into another existence. He or she could again be
a human being or perhaps would be a heaven-dweller, or an animal, or a
ghost, or a hell-dwelIer. by extension, a dweller in hell can also be
reborn as an animal, a human beings etc., and a heaven-dweller can
also die and be reborn as a human being, hell dweller, and so forth.
This change of life form, or existence, goes on indefinitely until and
unless the chain breaks, which occurs when this concept of birth and
death becomes no longer significant to a being.
     Hinduism and Buddhism hold this multi-life theory, but with a
major difference in their views, Hinduism sustains the belief that the
concept of birth and death becomes insignificant when the being is
merged with the Brahman--Almighty God. Buddhism says that it becomes
insignificant upon enlightenment, because the concept of birth and
death is no longer applicable. To understand this Buddhist concept, we
must first understand that Buddhism explains world phenomena at two
levels: one is called the enlightened level, that is, realization of
the ultimate truth by the enlightened ones, and the other is called
the mundane level. which can be further divided into the intellectual
level, where most of us here find ourselves, and the common level, to
which the majority of the people on earth belong.
     At the enlightened level, the concept of birth and death is no
longer applicable. I shall explain this later. At the mundane level,
however, Buddhism holds the multi-life theory and recognizes the
individuality of a being, which can then be compared with the "soul"
as taught in Christianity and Hinduism. The soul can therefore
maintain its individuality and appear in the form of a human being, or
heaven-dweller, some kind of animal, a ghost, or a hell-dweller in
consecutive lives.
     I should point out, however, that the continuation of
individuality does not mean that a physical body will be transported
into the next life, or that everything stored in one's brain, which is
a part of the physical body, will pass into the next life. As a matter
of fact, the physical body changes from moment to moment. Just look at
photographs taken some time ago and you will agree with me. What do
pass into the next life or future lives, and constitute the
continuation of individuality, are the effects of what one's actions
in this present life. This is called, in Buddhism and Hinduism, the
law of karma, which I shall explain in my next talk.
     At this point you might like to say, "That is fine, but
(1) please show me the heaven and hell where dwellers in those
    existences may be found, and
(2) please prove to me that I existed before my birth and will still
    be in existence after my death."
     To answer the first question, may I ask, "Do you believe that
your own eyes are capable of seeing heaven or hell?" If someone did
show us heaven or hell, would we not say that it was just an
hallucination, or magic, and therefore not believe it?  If you
have studied the electromagnetic spectrum, you may agree with me that
our human eyes can only see an infinitesimal part of the universe. and
that there are so many things our eyes cannot see. A few hundred years
ago, no one could see the whole bone structure of a living human body,
but now we can see it by means of x-rays. We are advancing very
rapidly in the investigation into the microscopic universe and also
into outer space. Who knows? Maybe a number of years from now, some
new detective instrument will be invented that will enable human
beings to see a different wave length from the presently visible light
wave, and human beings may discover that the so-called hell is right
here on earth; or, space instruments will send back some picture of
outer space that could turn out to be one of the heavens or worlds
postulated by Buddha.
     With respect to the second question, sporadic records all over
the world have reported that someone, an ordinary person, remembered
his past life, or that others. like certain Tibetan high lamas. could
tell where they would be reborn. But all of these reports do not have
enough scientific proof to convince us conclusively that rebirth does
     I am, therefore, using another approach to see if there are some
phenomena in the universe in which we live that can explain the
concept of birth and death and that may give some clues to this
mysterious question. The ample reason that convinced me that this
approach has merit is that we human beings are no more than a product
of nature and are entirely governed by all the natural laws such as
gravitational force. Therefore, the phenomena that apply to other
natural creations may very well be applicable to human beings.
     As I studied the question, interestingly enough, I found a number
of phenomena in the universe which provide good analogies to the
multi-life theory of human existence. The simplest and easiest for us
to comprehend is the multi-form of H2O.
Do we all know. H2O? Yes.
     H2O is the chemical formula for water, signifying two parts of
hydrogen to one part of oxygen. The chemical formula H2O does not
change when water turns into vapor - at the boiling point or into ice
- at the freezing point. Nor is H2O different when it appears in a
beautiful, white, crystallized form, which people give the name of
snow, or in minute liquid particles suspended in the air, called fog.
     Now a very interesting concept arises. When water disappears and
is changed into vapor or ice, would you not say that at that very
moment, when the concept of birth and death is applied, that water is
dead and vapor or ice is born? Or when snow or ice melts and becomes
water, would you not say that at that instant, snow or ice is dead and
water is born? This is not only true from your point of view, as an
outside observer; it is also true from the point of view of water, if
water is identified only as water.  However, if water is not
identified only as water, but also as H2O, then the concept of birth
and death does not apply. H2O remains unchanged when its appearance
changes from water to vapor or ice or vice versa. H2O has not really
undergone "death and rebirth," although its appearance and physical
characteristics may have changed an infinite number of times and
people may have given it many different names. H2O will not undergo
death and rebirth in the future, although its appearance and physical
characteristics will change numerous times until H2O disintegrates
into hydrogen and oxygen, which phenomenon I will explain later.
     From this analogy we can see that the multi-life theory as
suggested by Hinduism and Buddhism makes more sense and could be
closer to the truth than might have been apparent at first. I
therefore draw the following conclusions:
     1) Equivalent to H2O and its manifestations, such as water,
vapor, snow, fog, or ice, there is something in the universe, which I
refer to as "X', which is manifested in the five forms of
heaven-dweller, human being, animal, ghost, and hell-dweller. In
Christianity and Hinduism, "X" is called the soul. In Buddhism, at the
mundane level, "X" can also be called the soul.
     2) The five forms of existence are interchangeable. Thus, a human
being can be reborn as a heaven-dweller, or a ghost, or a
hell-dweller. A heaven dweller can also be reborn as a human being, or
an animal, or a ghost, or a hell-dweller. By the same token, a
hell-dweller can also be reborn into other forms, --including that of
a human being.
     3) According to Buddhism, one cannot live in heaven eternally,
nor will one stay in hell indefinitely. Life goes on, with its form
changing continuously. This phenomenon of the continuous flow of death
and rebirth among the five existences is called 'samsara'.
     4) The concept of birth and death is only meaningful if one
refers to a specific object. If the reference is shifted to a more
fundamental nature of that object, the concept of birth and death is
not applicable. Water and H2O are an example: water is the specific
object, H2O the more fundamental nature. A golden ring, which is a
specific object, and the raw gold, which is a more basic material,
constitute another good example.
     5.) This is important: If one identifies oneself as a human
being, then one does undergo death and rebirth. The same applies to
water if water is identified as water or a golden ring if it is
identified as a golden ring. But, if one identifies oneself as "X",
then here is no death, even when the form of "X" appearing as a human
being is destroyed. From the point of view of "X", there is only a
continuous change of form, while "X' remains unchanged. Again, the
same applies if water is identified as H2O or a golden ring as gold.
Therefore, if we wish to be rid of death; or samsara, the first thing
we should avoid is to identify ourselves as human beings.
Unfortunately, this goes entirely against our will. We are strongly
attached to our identity as human beings, and that is why we are in
     Now the basic purpose of Buddhist teaching is to enable one to
remove oneself from samsara. Therefore, the essence of Buddhism is to
teach how one can identify oneself with "X'.  Furthermore, Buddhism
does not teach us to treat "X" as the soul.  because the soul is not
the ultimate and is still subject to death and rebirth, just as H2O is
subject to disintegration into hydrogen and oxygen and reintegration.
Buddhism teaches us to identify ourselves with "X" as interpreted at
the enlightened level. At the enlightened level we are told that "X"
is something incomprehensible to the human mind and that it can only
be realized and recognized by the enlightened ones. If that is so,
then how can we comprehend and explain it? Luckily, in modern science
I do find something that can probably help us immensely to understand
the interpretation of "X" at the enlightened level. This is energy.
     In modern science we learn that everything in the universe is a
manifested form of energy. Electricity. heat, light, fire, sound,
chemical reaction, matter, all are different manifested forms of
energy. Energy itself cannot be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, or
touched, but all over the universe its manifested forms, infinite in
number, can be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, touched, or otherwise
detected by human organs. Energy, therefore, can be considered as the
ultimate existence of the universe. It should be noted, however, that
energy is only a name arbitrarily chosen by human beings. The
definition of energy has, in fact, been modified since the word was
first used. So please do not adhere strictly to the dictionary
definition of the word. I may interpret the word differently than do
some scientists. The word energy, as I use it here, is given to
something in the universe that comprises the entire universe and that
cannot be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, or touched by human organs,
but that can manifest itself in numerous forms that can be detected by
the senses. Since it fully comprises the entire universe. it cannot be
increased or decreased, it has no motion. In short, energy is the
universe and the universe is energy.
     If you are able to comprehend what I have described above as
energy, then you should have less difficulty in understanding "X" as
explained in Buddhism at the enlightened level. Upon enlightenment,
according to Buddhism, one realizes that one's "X", and only that "X",
comprises the entire universe; that "X" is the universe and the
universe is "X"; that "X" cannot be increased or decreased; that "X"
has no motion, and that "X" can be neither defiled nor purified.
Because "X" is so difficult to explain and to comprehend, Buddhists,
for over 2500 years, have given it many different names, in the
attempt to clarify the concept. The simplest term, in my opinion, is
Original Nature. The word "original" signifies that all world
phenomena are derived from Original Nature, rather than being separate
from it.  Unlike the concept of "soul", Original Nature implies no
isolation of the individual. There can be no other entity. This "X"
therefore, is I, myself, is you, is everyone, and is everything. If
"X" is like that, then how can "X" die?  How can the concept of death
and rebirth be applicable to "X"?  This Original Nature, therefore, is
what one should identify with.
     On the other hand, Buddhism males it clear that unless one is
enlightened and becomes Original Nature, one is always subject to the
chain of multi-life and undergoes the endless death and rebirth that
is samsara. Buddhism, therefore, is a teaching that we should look
into seriously because it provides ways and means for us as human
beings to realize and recognize our Original Nature, whereby we can
rid ourselves of the endless and uncontrollable death and rebirth,
which in most cases is the source of suffering.
     At the same time I wish to emphasize that in our daily life the
multi-life theory is even more important than the enlightened vision
of "X", because we are not all enlightened and are still subject to
samsara. It can be a terrible mistake if we neglect this multi-life
theory and simply think, "I am the universe and there is no death,"
for when death comes, one will still be horrified.
     As a conclusion to today's talk, I wish to introduce the
following views of two of the most important sociological phenomena in
our daily lives. They are:
     1) Killing does not mean the elimination of an opponent or enemy,
and the achievement of victory, as one usually thinks. On the
contrary, since only the physical human form is destroyed, the victim
still exists. It is therefore not one's victory, and it could be the
beginning of one's troubles.
     2) Suicide does not mean the end of suffering. The physical human
form may be destroyed, but life goes on. The problem could become much
more complicated and serious as a result of this self-killing.
     That is why I said in the beginning of this talk that the
attitude of the living could be very much changed if we knew what
happened after the so-called death that we observe. Political
scientists, politicians, and philosophers who ignore this important
question could be making a serious error out of shortsightedness. We
look into this subject more penetratingly in my second talk, The Truth
of Karma.
This lecture converted from printed to digital format and included in
the MOUNT KAILAS BBS TEACHING Library with permission from
Dr. C. T. Shen
Copyright and all rights reserved by Dr. C. T. Shen