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the eternal rhythm of birth and death

The eternal rhythm of birth and death

 

 "Why do I do this? The Thus Come One perceives the true aspect of the threefold world exactly as it is. There is no ebb or flow of birth and death, and there is no existing in this world and later entering extinction. It is neither substantial nor empty, neither consistent nor diverse. Nor is it what those who dwell in the threefold world perceive it to be. All such things the Thus Come One sees clearly and without error."

(excerpt from the Life Span chapter of the Lotus Sutra, translated by Burton Watson from the 3rd century Chinese translation by Kumarajiva)

 

As I write this, I am sitting in a hospital with my dear mother who is very near the end of her life. I am a Nichiren Buddhist and have been a member of SGI for over 20 years. Shakyamuni Buddha, who preached the Lotus Sutra at Rajagriha - Eagle Peak in Northern India, probably in the 5th century BCE, is said to have begun his initial search for the truth as a result of witnessing for the first time the four sufferings of birth, sickness, old age and death. When a dear friend or a member of one's family becomes seriously ill and dies, the question of the meaning of life and death comes into one's mind strongly. So it is with me now as I face the passing of the person who gave me life in this world. The above quote is Shakyamuni's attempt to dislodge the pain and despair which often accompanies the death of a loved one. I'm going to look at it in depth in the light of other writings by Nichiren Daishonin and Buddhist writer Daisaku Ikeda and try to explain the Buddhist view of the eternity of life.

 

A good place to start is a commentary on this extract by Nichiren from 'The record of the Orally Transmitted Teachings' again translated by Burton Watson and originally transcribed by Nikko Shonin at Mount Minobu in Japan. I'll start with the whole extract and then look at it in more detail.

 

"Point Four, regarding the passage "The Thus Come One perceives the true aspect of the threefold world exactly as it is. There is (u) no (mu) ebb or flow of birth and death, and there is no existing in this world and later entering extinction."

 

The Record of the Orally transmitted Teachings says: The "Thus Come One" is the living beings of the threefold world. When we look at these living beings through the eyes of the "Life Span" chapter, we can see and understand the true aspect of these beings who in their original state possess the Ten Worlds.

    The aspect or characteristics of the threefold world are birth, ageing, sickness, and death. But if we look at birth and death in terms of their true nature, then there is no birth or death. And if there is no birth and death, then there is no ebb or flow. Not only do birth and death not exist. To look on birth and death with repulsion and try to escape them is termed delusion, or a viewpoint of acquired enlightenment.* Seeing and understanding the originally inherent nature of birth and death is termed awakening, or original enlightenment.

    Now when Nichiren and his followers chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, they realize the originally inherent nature of birth and death, and the originally inherent nature of ebb and flow.

    We may also say that nonexistence (mu) and existence (u), birth and death, ebbing and flowing, existing in this world and entering extinction, are all, every one of them, actions of the eternally abiding inherent nature.

    "Nonexistence" indicates that the actions of Myoho-renge-kyo are none other than the Dharma-realm. "Existence" indicates that hell, just as it is, is the total entity of the Wonderful Law originally endowed with the Ten Worlds. "Birth" indicates the Wonderful Law appearing as birth in accordance with changing circumstances. "Death" is death as seen through the "Life Span" chapter, in which the Dharma-realm is at the same time the true aspect of reality. Because there is "ebb," there is "entering extinction," and because there is "flow", there is "existing in the world."

    Thus [in terms of the three truths], nonexistence, death, ebbing and extinction represent the truth of non-substantiality or emptiness. Existence, birth, flowing and existing in the world represent the truth of temporary existence. And [the true aspect of the threefold world that] the Thus come One perceives exactly as it is, is the truth of the Middle Way.

    [In terms of the three bodies], nonexistence, death, ebbing and extinction represent the eternally endowed reward body. Existence, birth, flowing and existing in the world represent the eternally endowed manifested body. And [the true aspect of the threefold world that] the Thus Come One perceives exactly as it is, is the eternally endowed Dharma body.

    These three bodies are our own single bodies. This is why [Words and Phrases, volume nine] says, "The single body is none other than the three bodies, a statement that is secret." And this is also why it says, "The three bodies are none other than the single body, a statement that is secret."

    Thus the Buddha of the Lotus that is the entity of the Law (chapter eleven, point six), who is eternally endowed with the three bodies, is Nichiren and his disciples and lay supporters. That is because they embrace the title of honour, Nam-myoho-renge-kyo.

 

*"Acquired enlightenment" is used in contrast to "original enlightenment." According to the doctrine of original enlightenment, enlightenment is not something that one acquires through religious practice but something that exists in one's original state of life. From this viewpoint, "acquired enlightenment" falls into the category of delusion, not true enlightenment.

 

The first interesting point in this reading of the sutra by the deep enlightened wisdom embodied by Nichiren Daishonin, is his interpretation of the phrase 'Thus Come One', this is an honorific title of the Buddha in its normal use but Nichiren says it is: " the living beings of the threefold world." and continues to clarify: "When we look at these living beings through the eyes of the "Life Span" chapter, we can see and understand the true aspect of these beings who in their original state possess the Ten Worlds."

 

A few things to clear up for those not used to Buddhist theory : 'threefold world' is the worlds of desire, form and formlessness. Those who dwell in these realms represent everyone who is bound by desires like food, drink and sex, those who have transcended most desires except those forced on them by having a body and those who are free from desire completely because they no longer possess a body. So in other words Nichiren is equating words usually associated with the Buddha and all beings whether bound by earthly desires or not. The next sentence is saying that the profound philosophy of the Life Span chapter of the Lotus Sutra sees all people as inherently possessing the buddha-nature from time without beginning as well as the other nine worlds from Hell to Bodhisattva.

 

The philosophy of the Ten Worlds is at the centre of much Buddhist philosophy so I'll explain the basic principles here for those new to Buddhism. (Those who are familiar please skip this section.) Originally in Theravada Buddhist traditions the Ten Worlds were seen as actual worlds where living being would spend time until they transcended the tendency expressed in that world and advances to a higher yet still unenlightened world to learn its lessons and transcend that gradually progressing over billions of years and lifetimes to the state of buddha. Mahayana traditions and particularly the school founded by Chinese Buddhist scholar and philosopher T'ien t'ai, saw the Ten Worlds rather as states of mind shared by all human beings which we move between in ordinary waking life from moment to moment. The ten are: Hell, Hunger, Animality, Anger, Tranquility, Rapture, Learning, Realisation, Bodhisattva and Buddha. T'ien t'ai also taught that each of these worlds contained potentially all the other ten and therefore , most importantly, the buddha state exists potentially in all the other nine worlds, thereby transforming their negative attributes to positive ones. 

 

This philosophy has profound implications for living in a way which defeats the sufferings of birth and death. Being able, through Buddhist practice, to bring an enlightened perspective into our anger or our study or our desire or our depression can have an amazing transformative effect on the way we live. Happiness based on our own inner life at one with the eternal law of life cannot be destroyed unless we weaken in our faith and practise. Happiness based on some transient thing like a relationship or object of wealth or status is susceptible to failure as change and decay are inevitable in this world of material things. An awareness of the true nature of life can raise our lifestate out of depression or rapture into a lifestate where we exercise our innate wisdom and compassion towards those around us.

 

Part of this innate wisdom of the buddha, or awakened one is understanding the true nature of the cycle of birth and death or the eternity of life. Lets return to the text of Nichiren's commentary on the quote from the life Span chapter:

 

The aspect or characteristics of the threefold world are birth, ageing, sickness, and death. But if we look at birth and death in terms of their true nature, then there is no birth or death. And if there is no birth and death, then there is no ebb or flow. Not only do birth and death not exist. To look on birth and death with repulsion and try to escape them is termed delusion, or a viewpoint of acquired enlightenment.* Seeing and understanding the originally inherent nature of birth and death is termed awakening, or original enlightenment.

 

So this is getting to the heart of the matter. The four sufferings of birth, ageing, sickness and death are characteristics of human life in the world but seeing birth and death as original and exclusive things is to misunderstand them. Birth is the end of a phase of latency and the beginning of a phase of action. Death is the end of a phase of action and the beginning of a phase of latency. So both birth and death are merely recurring phases in a constant stream of life which continues eternally. In other words what people imagine to be the reality of birth and death is in fact incorrect. Moreover as Nichiren points out, great suffering can come from a delusive "repulsion" of death. Some Theravada schools of Buddhism taught that the aim of enlightenment was to escape the cycle of birth and death but Nichiren is saying here , by using the term 'acquired enlightenment' that such thinking is deluded as the viewpoint espoused in the Life Span chapter is that enlightenment itself is originally inherent in all living beings since the beginningless past. Awakening to the true nature of birth and death is to remember ones true eternal nature, akin to the universe itself which pulses with eternal rhythms yet always remains true to a Law of Life which operates through an infinitely complex interaction between countless interconnected causes and effects proliferating endlessly to the pulse of compassion and harmony.

 

Do we look on birth and death with repulsion? Well coming from a Protestant Chapel background I'd say yes, it's in me to get repulsed and that's what I've got to work on. I say to Mum, your life is eternal, I whisper it into her ear, as she lays in front of me with her eyes closed and her mouth open, breathing fast, fast, slow, not at all then starting again. It's OK to let go because you've had an amazing life, bringing up four sons to believe in good, in helping others, in putting others first. You wrote letters of encouragement to young people all over the world. You encouraged and supported our creativity. What a legacy of good causes you set in motion. Now its time to let go, regenerate your energy and return with fresh vigour to a new life, new challenges. The world needs your spirit. This is what I say, but the negative side wants to cry, to shut it all out and hide away, so I chant and I pray for your eternal happiness and somehow I return to optimism, to energy, to the truth of the eternity of life.

 

Now when Nichiren and his followers chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, they realize the originally inherent nature of birth and death, and the originally inherent nature of ebb and flow.

 

Originally inherent, means that enlightenment has always been at the core of human life. Birth and death and ebb and flow as seen through the filter of the wisdom of the Life Span chapter or through the consciousness of one who chants Nam Myoho Renge Kyo : are understood to be part of an eternal cycle. Understanding this is what gives me strength to face the trial of my Mum's passing with hope and optimism. Preparation for when my own death comes too, as it surely will. The theory is perfect but the actual fact has much more power. It has an emotional level which can't be ignored. My Dad has been gone for 6 months now and I am still dealing with emotions of grieving even though I really feel that he has found peace and rest and will return when he is ready. Maybe him and my Mum will be reborn together with a relationship or connection, maybe they will be in awareness of each other in the world beyond this one where there are no bodies or substance,  just energy and spirit. We cannot really apply the words and ideas of the world of material reality to a world of no substance, just being but we have no choice but to try.

 

We may also say that nonexistence (mu) and existence (u), birth and death, ebbing and flowing, existing in this world and entering extinction, are all, every one of them, actions of the eternally abiding inherent nature.

    "Nonexistence" indicates that the actions of Myoho-renge-kyo are none other than the Dharma-realm. "Existence" indicates that hell, just as it is, is the total entity of the Wonderful Law originally endowed with the Ten Worlds. "Birth" indicates the Wonderful Law appearing as birth in accordance with changing circumstances. "Death" is death as seen through the "Life Span" chapter, in which the Dharma-realm is at the same time the true aspect of reality. Because there is "ebb," there is "entering extinction," and because there is "flow", there is "existing in the world."

 

Jose Toda, second president of the Soka Gakkai used to use the analogy of radio waves when trying to explain the Buddhist concept of non-substantiality or 'ku'. Many transmitters from different directions send out invisible signals to a room which can be picked up by a receiver and heard. The room is never too small nor do the number of signals get too great. The Dharma-realm or the whole universe is like this. The world of hell has its characteristics which pervade the entire universe as potential until a living being acts as a receiver and starts to broadcast its particular characteristics. The word 'receiver' in this analogy might wrongly suggest that being in hell state is something which manifests as a result of external causes but in reality though there may be external triggers it is the inner tendency to react with deep suffering which plays just as big a role. The analogy here is the glass of water with sediment at the bottom; if the glass is shaken (external cause), the sediment (internal tendency) is activated causing the clear water to appear cloudy.

 

From one perspective, whether the tendency activated by the external cause is hell or heaven, anger or learning is not important. All things without exception are manifestations of the Mystic Law. This passage is telling us that while birth and death are realities in terms of 'temporary existence' or 'ke', in terms of both non-substantiality ('ku)and the middle way ('chu' or perspective uniting the 'real' and 'latent'): they are phases in an eternal rhythm of life. All possible phenomena and conditions conform to the Law of Nam Myoho Renge Kyo.

 

Thus [in terms of the three truths], nonexistence, death, ebbing and extinction represent the truth of non-substantiality or emptiness. Existence, birth, flowing and existing in the world represent the truth of temporary existence. And [the true aspect of the threefold world that] the Thus come One perceives exactly as it is, is the truth of the Middle Way.

 

This clearly shows how the principles of the three truths are reflected in the Law which is life itself. 'Myo' means death and non-existence, 'ho' birth and existing, and 'Myoho' the oneness of death and birth. All life is buddha, whether in a latent state (death) or a manifest state (birth). Awakening to this truth and then living according to its implications with joy, strength, compassion and courage is the way of emancipation. It is to teach this way that all buddhas come into this world.

 

 [In terms of the three bodies], nonexistence, death, ebbing and extinction represent the eternally endowed reward body. Existence, birth, flowing and existing in the world represent the eternally endowed manifested body. And [the true aspect of the threefold world that] the Thus Come One perceives exactly as it is, is the eternally endowed Dharma body.

    These three bodies are our own single bodies. This is why [Words and Phrases, volume nine] says, "The single body is none other than the three bodies, a statement that is secret." And this is also why it says, "The three bodies are none other than the single body, a statement that is secret."

    Thus the Buddha of the Lotus that is the entity of the Law (chapter eleven, point six), who is eternally endowed with the three bodies, is Nichiren and his disciples and lay supporters. That is because they embrace the title of honour, Nam-myoho-renge-kyo.

 

The concept of the 3 bodies is less well known and perhaps needs some clarification here. The idea grew up within Mahayana Buddhism in order to discuss and compare the differing characteristics of Buddhas which appeared in the various sutras. The three bodies are; 1) The Dharma body or body of the Law - this is the truth to which the Buddha awakens, 2)The reward body - said to be attained as a reward for completing various Bodhisattva practices, 3) the manifested body - the actual physical body a buddha uses in the real world in order to help living beings find emancipation from sufferings. After the time of T'ien t'ai (quoted above from his book 'Words and Phrases'), Buddhists of the Lotus school interpreted Dharma body as the Law, reward body as wisdom and manifest body as compassionate actions. This made the above interpretation that a true Buddha possesses all 3 characteristics or bodies possible. 

 

Nichiren here is saying that ordinary people who embrace Nam-myoho-renge-kyo also possess the three bodies, in other words they are buddhas who are eternally endowed with the ability to comprehend and act upon the Mystic Law or the truth of Life. When we have a body we can carry out positive actions that will resonate in both the physical and latent realms, when we are dead the ability to take action is gone so we can only passively reflect the wisdom of the universe within us. In both active and passive phases the Dharma or Wonderful Law of Life is eternally active encompassing all things and all beings equally and impartially. When we truly awaken to this Law we are filled with a great joy which is not dependant on any transient phenomena. Our life is one with and in exact accord with the totality of the great Universe. We have energy and resources far beyond our wildest imagination. The buddha nature and the life force which pulses through us are one and the same as the life of the universe itself!

 

The nine consciousnesses and death

 

So it seems that the great Law to which the buddhas awaken encompasses the idea of the eternity of life, the idea that all phenomena possess the latent potential to manifest the buddha-nature and that ordinary people just as they are can reveal the buddha-nature by following the practise of chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. These ideas fit together seamlessly along with the idea of the nine consciousnesses. The first five comprise the 5 senses; seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching and an integrative sixth consciousness which discerns which sensory input is significant and doesn't need to be filtered out of consideration. Then we have the seventh or 'Mano'-consciousness, This is said to be the seat of the ego, the place of judgement or moral evaluation, the capacity for repentance and self-reflection as well as arrogance and delusion. It is free from external influence and to an extent includes some unconscious characteristics like the strong desire my mother now has to live. The external signs are that she cannot feed herself or protect herself yet the mano-consciousness is figthing strongly to keep her 'self' alive and marshalling the body's organs to continue working.

 

To explain the workings of both karma and the eternity of life Buddhist theorists from the 'Consciousness Only' school postulated the existence of an eighth consciousness which they called 'alaya'-consciousness. The Sanskrit word 'alaya' means a dwelling or a receptacle, and it is here that our every thought , word and deed are stored as latent energy which will produce effects at a later time when the correct conditions are in place. This karmic storehouse consciousness is full of seeds for both positive and negative effects which may surface from our unconscious as personality traits or good fortune or tendencies to react with anger or compassion depending on the karma laid down by our actions beforehand. 

 

It is here at the level of our karma that our life continues after death. The eighth consciousness does not  cease to exist when our bodies fail and the first seven consciousnesses can no longer function. All the causes we made in life, both positive and negative and our general lifestate whether it was anger or learning or tranquility will continue as our consciousness into the latent phase which follows earthly death. For my mum I know this lifestate will be 'bodhisattva' (a lifestate where compassionate action is bestowed freely on those surrounding one), since she spent her life encouraging and supporting everyone she came into contact with. The likelihood is that she will not remain long in a latent phase since her lifestate is so high and positive. Soon she will return to this Saha world to continue the struggle of life and bring support and happiness to the lives of those around her.

 

In his book, Unlocking the Mysteries of Birth and Death: Buddhism in the Contemporary World, Daisaku Ikeda, president of the lay Nichiren Buddhist group, SGI writes:

 

"The alaya-consciousness is sometimes called 'non-vanishing' because the karmic seeds stored within it do not disappear at death. Our individual lives, in the form of this eighth consciousness, continue even after death, in the state of 'ku', or latency, carrying with them the whole of our karma. However the first seven consciousnesses, all of which function actively while we are alive, recede at the moment of death into a latent state within the alaya-consciousness. We can say that all of the memories, habits and karma stored in this consciousness as the moments tick by during our lives form the individual self, or the framework of individual existence that undergoes the cycle of death and rebirth. This consciousness may be thought of as the realm that interweaves all of the causes and effects that comprise each person's individual destiny."

 

So a theory which explains how being bitten by a dog when we were young can lead to repeated fear when we see dogs in later years can also provide us with a logical mechanism by which our personality traits continue into latency and eventually to a new existence which from the start has certain unique tendencies which cannot be explained by genetics alone. But what of the ninth consciousness? Our exploration of the ten worlds showed us that buddha-state is potentially present in all the lifestates, our theory of consciousness so far doesn't tie in with this. That's where the ninth or 'amala'-consciousness comes in. The Sanskrit word 'amala' means pure, stainless or spotless suggesting that this deepest of all conscious levels is completely untainted by karmic accretions, as Daisaku Ikeda explains:

 

"The amala-consciousness is itself the ultimate unconditioned reality of all things, and thereby is equivalent to the universal Buddha nature. At this most profound level of the mind, our individual existences expand without limit to become one with the life of the Cosmos. In the light of Buddhist thought, we may regard the amala-consciousness as the 'greater self', which is eternal and immutable: by awakening to and developing this fundamental pure consciousness we can resolve the ceaseless strife between good and evil represented by the alaya-consciousness and at the same time enable our other consciousnesses to function in an enlightened way."

 

The courage and compassion of the world of Bodhisattva which my mother showed all her life. This must have been because even without Buddhist practise the amala-consciousness was exerting an influence of all other levels of her consciousness so that even when she lost her ability to remember and use the right words due to her dementia, she still exerted a positive and uplifting influence on those around her. Even now, as she lays in a deep coma in a hospital bed she is causing me to deeply meditate and study to gain liberating knowledge of the nature of existence. Clearly the amala-consciousness is still very much at work in my mother's life.

 

The following words of Nichiren Daishonin, from the Gosho "Hell Is the Land of Tranquil Light" are often quoted at Nichiren Buddhist funeral services:

 

"The men with whom you have exchanged marriage vows over the course of all your previous lifetimes must outnumber even the grains of sand in the ocean. Your vows this time, however, were ones made with your true husband. The reason is that it was due to his encouragement that you became a practitioner of the Lotus Sutra. Thus you should revere him as a Buddha. When he was alive he was a Buddha in life, and now he is a Buddha in death. He is a Buddha in both life and death. This is what is meant by the important doctrine called attaining Buddhahood in one's present form."

 

I can honestly say that it was because of the early encouragement and moral example of my mother that I was able to take faith in Nam Myoho Renge Kyo. Therefore I revere her as a Buddha, now in life, soon to be in death. She caused two of her sons to embrace the Buddha way and the karmic seeds she planted will cause her great good fortune in all her future existences. 

 

In the Gosho, Heritage of the Ultimate Law, Nichiren writes:

 

For one who summons up his faith and chants Nam-myoho-renge-kyo with the profound insight that now is the last moment of his life, the sutra proclaims: "After his death, a thousand Buddhas will extend their hands to free him from all fear and keep him from falling into the evil paths."

 

As I write this it is two o'clock in the morning and I have just returned from the hospital where my mother passed away peacefully a few hours ago. I did gongyo with her just after she stopped breathing and her beautiful presence filled the room. I felt great gratitude to her for her kindness to me and her great example of selfless encouragement and support for others. Although my mother didn't chant she supported me and my brother in faith, she attended many special Buddhist meetings with my father and enabled myself and my brother Howard to develop strong life-states through our practice of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. The thousand Buddhas in the above quote refer to the one hundred worlds and one thousand factors of life or in other words the protective functions of the universe. I know that many people will be chanting for her as her mano-consciousness merges into her alaya-consciousness and she passes into a latent phase of Myoho-renge-kyo from the active one she has lived for these 83 years.

 

I am going to end this study now and get some sleep. Have no fear, develop a high life-state and end your life in triumph like Thelma. A Buddha in life and death, eternally repeating the cycle of birth and death. Her life was a great victory and now after a period of time in 'ku' she will return to work for the happiness of all living beings. Thank you mum.

Comments Section

Schön, aufschlussreich, hervorragend. At grundlegende Minuten unsere Buddha-Natur-Shows. Viel Dank für die gemeinsame Nutzung. Bitte siehe mein Blog Kamagra http://www.dragonapotheke.com/
Beautiful, wise, wonderful. At seminal moments our Buddha nature manifests. Thank you for sharing x
 

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