Some people wonder if Buddhism really does help people overcome pain and suffering, and may wonder why their lives are not easy and free of conflict since they have been practicing Buddhism. On the other hand, some may have been told that Buddism is about continually seeking out and overcoming challenges and obstacles. I think both of these approaches miss the point, and so I would like to address that here.

Traditional Buddhism teaches the nature of suffering, the causes of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the way leading to the cessation of suffering. Nichiren Buddhism is no exception to this.
In regard to suffering – there is a difference between pain and suffering. Painful feelings and events continued to arise both in the lives of Shakyamuni Buddha and Nichiren Shonin. Shakyamuni Buddha did in fact get old, experiencing many bodily pains that he spoke of towards the end of his life. In fact, there were times when he had to lie down due to the pain, and he told Ananda that his body had become like a cart that is breaking down and barely holding together. Then there were the premature deaths of his disciples Shariputra and Maudgalyayana (the latter was murdered by jealous brahmans) which prompted him to make the comment that after their deaths the Sangha seemed very empty to him. Towards the end of his life, the Shakya clan was massacred by a rival clan led by King Virudhaka. There were many other such painful occurences in the life of the Buddha. In the end, he died of what may have been liver damage from eating poison mushrooms mistakenly served to him or from a painful condition called mesenteric infarction.

Nichiren’s life was also filled with difficulties. He was continually persecuted, exiled, ambushed, and even came close to being executed. His followers were persecuted (even by family members), arrested, jailed, exiled, and even killed (for instance, the three Atsuhara martyrs). Nichiren faced starvation, exposure to the elements, and many harsh living conditions even at Mt. Minobu which can get quite cold and was a very rugged environment in those days. In the end, Nichiren died of what may have been colon cancer at the relatively early age of 60 and within only a few years his most trusted disciples had turned upon one another.

If we want to judge by worldly health and success and by worldly standards of ease and happiness, then neither Shakyamuni Buddha nor Nichiren Shonin have much to show for their supposed enlightenment. But here is where the difference comes into play. They faced painful situations – but did they suffer? Did they react with distress, fear, despair, and anguish? Or did they react with a cool confidence derived from their infinite perspective on life and death and the conditionality of all things? I believe they faced painful situations with confidence, compassion, and a universal insight that looks through the painful surface to the underlying reality that is Unborn and Deathless. And from that perspective of wisdom and compassion they were able to deal with these challenges in the most productive and peaceful way possible in each moment. In other words, their wisdom enabled them to rise above the pain, and their skillful means based on compassion enabled them to relate positively to life and do what needed to be done or at least to refrain from doing anything to make things worse. They expressed with their lives the serene joy of knowing that all things are working to ultimately express buddhahood – a boundless source of love, compassion, joy and peace.

As Buddhists, do we need to go out and find trouble? Do we need to go out and look for painful situations or further obstacles to overcome – as if Buddhahood were some kind of Olympic event where one must continually find a way to push past previous records and limits? I do not think so. Neither Shakyamuni Buddha nor Nichiren Shonin ever deliberately looked for trouble. Rather, they made themselves available to teach the Dharma, and did not shrink from trouble or challenges when they came in the course of fulfilling that mission. That mission to teach the Dharma was based on compassionate vows to help others overcome the suffering that is the usual reaction and response to life’s inevitably painful realities. They were not motivated by mere ambition or a quest to vaingloriously overcome hurdles and obstacles. Compassionate vows to work for others are at the heart of Shakyamuni Buddha and Nichiren Shonin’s interactions with the world and it is this that caused them not to seek trouble but to face it courageously and grace and wisdom when it did come their way. They did not seek obstacles, but they did overcame them in the course of showing the way to peace and liberation from suffering for all beings. In this they provided and still provide a great model for all of us.

Namu Myoho Renge Kyo,
Ryuei