We could consider the day we took refuge as our birthday, and start counting the stages of our cultivation from there.
In one year, there are the four seasons of spring, summer, fall and winter-that's common knowledge. But does everyone know that the journey of life is also divided into the four stages of birth, old age, sickness, and death? Since no one can avoid death, we should seriously be thinking about where we will go when our life ends. That means we have to cultivate the Way. Cultivation can also be divided into four stages: study, practice, attainment, and full realization.
The period from ages one to twenty can be considered the period of studying the Way. During this interval, we should be diligent in our academic studies or in our study of the Buddhadharma. This is equivalent to "illumining the bright virtue" spoken of in The Great Learning. At this time we should have a clear understanding of our bright inherent virtue. From the ages of twenty-one to forty is the period of practicing the Way. We should put what we have learned, what we have understood, into practice, in order to extensively save living beings and reform the world. In The Great Learning, this is called "renewing the people.''
From the ages of forty-one to sixty is the period of "attaining the Way." This is spoken of in The Great Learning as "resting in the highest excellence." However, what Confucius called "resting in the highest excellence" still isn't the end, for it doesn't reach the state of true emptiness and Nirvana. It's not ultimate. Therefore, we still have to achieve the full realization of the Way. After attaining the Way, we must still return to the state of Nirvana, which is more all-encompassing than the three Confucian principles of illumining virtue, renewing the people, and resting in the highest excellence.
Maybe some people will say, "When I was between the ages of one and twenty, I wasn't a Buddhist yet. Since the period for studying the Way has already passed, does it mean I have no chance to study, and that I don't need to study?" Well, you should understand that the ages for the four stages mentioned above are just ideals, not rigid definitions. So we could consider the day we took refuge as our birthday, and start counting the stages of our cultivation from there.
Some people say, "I took refuge four or five years ago, but I haven't learned any Buddhadharma at all." Actually, if you took refuge four or five years ago, you're merely a four or five year-old child in Buddhism. So there's no reason for us to lament that we're useless or that the Buddhadharma is too deep and abstruse. After you take refuge, if you diligently study the Way for the first twenty years, and diligently practice the Way for the next twenty years, won't you have achievements just the same?
Perhaps the older generation of laypeople will sigh, "I'm already eighty, and may not live for that many more twenty years!" You are absolutely right, for "As time gets shorter, life is slipping away." Indeed, there's not much time left, so you can shrink the time. For example, you can study the Way for two months, practice the Way for two months, and so on. As long as you are sincere and determined, growing younger with the years, proceeding step by step with vigor and courage, you can also succeed, so work hard!