Don’t Wait Till You’re Thirsty
to Dig a Well
by the Venerable Master Hsuan Hua
Who told you to act so recklessly and brashly when you were free of sickness, instead of taking care of yourself?
A talk given on the morning of June 17, 1958
Only after being sick do you realize
that the body is a source of suffering.
Only after dying do you realize
you applied your effort wrongly.
Living beings all have this problem. When you are not sick, you think the world is a happy and satisfying place. But when you get sick, you cannot move about, eat, or have the freedom to do what you want, and you endure all kinds of unbearable pain and misery. That’s when you discover that this body actually causes us a lot of suffering, but it’s already too late. As it is said,
When the horse is on the edge of the cliff,
it’s too late to draw in the the reins.
When the boat is in the middle of the river,
it’s too late to patch the leaks.
Who told you to act so recklessly and brashly when you were free of sickness, instead of cherishing and taking care of yourself? This is true not only with sickness, but also with the great matter of birth and death.
“Only after dying do you realize you applied your effort wrongly.” During ordinary times, you failed to examine and rectify yourself. But when you see King Yama, you realize that everything you have done in your life, and all your intentions, were improper. When you saw people reciting the Buddha’s name, you slandered them, called them superstitious, and laughed at them for being fools. But now it’s too late for regrets. You have brought the suffering of the Mountain of Knives and the Cauldron of Oil upon yourself. As it was said above, “When the horse is on the edge of the cliff, it’s too late to draw in the the reins. When the boat is in the middle of the river, it’s too late to patch the leaks.” Who told you not to prepare ahead of time?
So Zhuzi said, “Make preparations before it rains. Don’t wait until you’re thirsty to dig a well.” Long before it starts to rain, we should consider the problems that might occur when it rains. For example, in northern China we use paper windows. Before it rains, we have to make sure the paper windows are pasted up well, so the rain will not wet the things inside the house. If we wait until it rains and then rush to paste up the windows, it’s a bit too late. Also, in poor villages where there is no running water, you have to consider the water source when you build a house. If you wait until you’re thirsty to dig a well, isn’t it too late?
When we study Buddhism, we understand that all things are impermanent and death is inevitable. So why don’t we first spend some time to look into the problem of our own death? It’s said,
If you don’t want to die,
You must first work “dead hard.”
Working “dead hard” is just like joining this session to recite the Bodhisattva’s name. We are holding this session first of all to pray for world peace, and secondly, to prepare for our future after this life. This is just making preparations before it rains.” We should participate in this session every year. Don’t skip a year. Then we will have great affinities with Amitabha Buddha and Guanyin Bodhisattva. We should recite until we see Amitabha Buddha as our teacher and Guanyin Bodhisattva as our close friend. If we can be the Buddha’s disciple and the Bodhisattva’s friend year after year, month after month, and day after day, we will naturally become old pals. Then when our life is about to end, the Buddha and Bodhisattva will surely come to lead us to the Pure Land in the West. No one should have doubts about it. It is said,
Cultivators should be careful not to doubt.
Once they doubt, they will be lost.
When we listen to a Good and Wise Advisor, we should not be the least bit skeptical. For example, if the Good and Wise Advisor says that cultivation requires arduous effort, you should truly believe it. If you believe completely, you will surely be able to understand the mind and see the nature, return to the origin and go back to the source. Therefore, we should always listen to the instructions of a Good and Wise Advisor. If he tells you to recite the Buddha’s name, you should follow the instruction and recite. If he tells you not to be stubborn, then don’t be stubborn. This is the essential secret of cultivation.
Earlier we said, “Only after being sick do you realize that the body is a source of suffering.” If people don’t go through some pain and suffering, they will not want to cultivate, because they don’t know what pain is if they have never been sick.
It’s also said, “It’s hard for the rich and honored to cultivate.” If a person is wealthy, he can have everything the way he wants, so why should he want to cultivate? So poverty and illnesses are all aiding conditions to our cultivation. When we get sick, there’s no need to be depressed. If we’re poor, there’s no reason to be worried. There’s a verse which goes,
When I see someone die,
My heart burns like fire.
It’s not burning because of him,
But because I know it will soon be my turn.
If we are poor or sick ourselves, of course we should quickly resolve to cultivate. If we see others who are poor, sick, aging and dying, we should also take it as a warning. Life is like a succession of waves. If we can make a vow to be reborn, then we will be prepared in advance. We won’t be in a frantic scramble when it comes time to die. It is just like if a country hasn’t passed through times of disorder, the people will indulge in pleasures, and not know that they should be patriotic and defend their country. That’s the situation Buddhism is in right now. Currently no one is working to make Buddhism prosper, so Buddhism seems to be on the decline.
We should realize that it is not only the Bhikshus and Bhikshunis who are responsible for promoting Buddhism. It is the responsibility of every Buddhist. If each and every one of us can take up the responsibility, how can we worry that Buddhism will not thrive? But now, there are some Buddhists who think Buddhism is not as fashionable as other religions, so they don’t dare to tell anyone they are Buddhist. In fact, they even agree with others that Buddhism is mere superstition. Isn’t that pathetic? For example, there’s a non-Buddhist group at Daofeng Shan in Jiulung ( Hong Kong) which specializes in accepting Buddhist monks and nuns. After they become adjusted, they forget their roots and actually slander Buddhism.
People who truly believe in Buddhism would rather die than change their faith. We should pluck up our courage, and not let our resolve waver even if others make fun of us or tempt us. If every Buddhist remembers that he is a Buddhist, Buddhism will naturally prosper again.
Although other religions may experience temporary prosperity, the way of Heaven is a cycle, and when one extreme is reached, things turn around. No one should let their resolve be influenced by superficial signs of prosperity or decline. The truth is never extinguished. The flourishing of Buddhism depends on everyone’s hard work!