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,

Many years ago, when I was either in college or high school my
father was the manager of a theater in Valley Forge Pennsylvania. So
I got to see a lot of broadway plays for free. One of the plays was
called “Stop the World I Want to Get Off.” Unless my memory is
playing tricks on me, what I remember about that play is that the
lead character at different points in the show would shout this
phrase. This is interesting to me as a Buddhist, since Buddhism
refers to the world as the Wheel of Birth and Death (a modernized
version of which is on the opening page of Dharma Flower) and the
purpose of Buddhism is to get off the wheel. Basically, Buddhism is
saying, “Stop the world, I want to get off!”
But really, is that what we are after? I don’t know about the rest
of you, but most of the time I really like it here. I actually heard
a song sung by Marlena Dietrich called Kisses Sweeter than Wine
which kind of sums up what I think of as a kind of healthy embrace
of life’s pains and pleasures. I found the lyrics to a version of
this sung by Jackson Brown and Bonnie Rait in 199:
(Performed by Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt on the Pete Seeger
tribute album Where Have All The Flowers Gone;1998)
When I was a young man I’d never been kissed;
I got to thinking about what I had missed.
I found a girl. I kissed her and then…
Oh Lord, I kissed her again.
Oooooh, kisses sweeter than wine.
Oooooh, kisses sweeter than wine.
He asked me to marry and be his sweet wife;
We would be happy — all of our life.
He begged and he pleaded like a natural man, and then…
Oh Lord, I gave him my hand.
Oooooh, kisses sweeter than wine.
Oooooh, kisses…
I worked mighty hard and so did my wife;
Working hand in hand to make a good life.
Corn in the field and wheat in the bins, and then…
Oh Lord, I was the father of twins.
Oooooh, kisses sweeter than wine.
Oooooh, kisses…
Our children numbered just about four
And they all had sweethearts knocking on the door.
They all got married and they didn’t wait, I was…
Oh Lord! A grandmother of eight!
Oooooh, kisses sweeter than wine.
Oooooh, kisses…
Now we are old and ready to go
Thinking about what happened a long time ago.
We had lots of kids and trouble and pain, but…
Oh Lord, we’d do it again.
Oooooh, kisses sweeter than wine.
Oooooh, kisses…
Oooooh, kisses sweeter than wine.
Oooooh, kisses…
And so there you go: “We had lots of kids and trouble and pain,
but… Oh Lord, we’d do it again.” The song is saying, yes, life is
suffering, but it is also worth it because of all the other things
that it is as well. This is one reason why one of my favorite
sayings of Nichiren is “Suffer what there is to suffer, enjoy what
there is to enjoy. Regard both suffering and joy as facts of life
and continue to chant Namu Myoho Renge Kyo no matter what happens.”
What I hear in that phrase is this: “Don’t expect life to always be
pleasant, accept it all and in the midst of it all see and embrace
the Wonderful Truth that makes it what it is.
But now it would seem we are moving away from what the Buddha was
teaching – getting off the wheel of birth and death. Shakyamuni
Buddha did not deny that life also had its pleasures. But he also
saw that they were impermanent, not capable of bringing permanent
happiness. He also saw that those leading relatively safe and
comfortable lives (like that described in Kisses Sweeter Than Wine)
are few and far between. The vast majority of people lead lives of
want and misery. So for instance, I was just seeing in the news that
there are 25 million people dying of AIDS in Africa today. When you
consider that quite a small percentage have the good fortune of
living above the poverty line in first world countries, and that the
overwhelming majority of people live below the poverty line or in
developing countries, or under oppressive regimes, or in the midsts
of natural disasters and epidemics (like the Japan described in
Nichrien’s Rissho Ankoku Ron – it is no different in many places
today) then one must really consider the reality of the little
bubble of safety, security and relative material happiness that most
of us who are able to read and post here have achieved. What the
Buddha taught was not “there but for the grace of God” but “there
but for the temporary unfolding of your karma, and who knows what
lies in store for the future.” This was not just a scare tactics but
a tactic of waking us up to all the possibilities and to our
solidarity with the misery of all those others that we have only
temporarily escaped. The teaching of karma and rebirth reinforce
this solidarity because together they mean that unless we change our
views and way of living, we will eventually fall into those states
of misery through either complacense or through active wrongdoing.
So I would love to be able to sing Kisses Sweeter Than Wine
wholeheartedly, but then I think of the deaths that are reported
each day due to terrorism, war, disease, and of course old age,
sickness and death, and it turns me back towards “Stop the World I
Want to Get Off.
But Mahayana Buddhism proposes something different than just a naive
embrace of the world or its outright rejection. Mahayana Buddhism
proposes that the bodhisattva should be the ideal. The bodhisattva
is someone who purposely stays in the world and accepts it as it is -
but for the purpose of compassion and not just self-indulgence.
Let’s set aside Buddhist jargon and not call them “bodhisattvas” but
rather “compassionate beings” or “enlightening beings” (in that they
are on the path to enlightenment and strive to enlighten others – so
they are enlightening beings). The compassionate being embraces life
but does not cling to it. Deals with all circumstances without being
lost in them. They flow gracefully into every corner, raise
families, or become monks or hermits, or remain quiet craftsmen, or
maybe engage in politics or who knows. Whatever is needed they
become – like the Bodhisattva Kuan Yin who takes on 33 different
forms to save all beings as described in chapter 25.
The compassionate being does not just want to stop the world to get
off, but neither is the compassionate being fooled into thinking
that the pursuit of personal happiness or any kind of mundane
happiness enough. The compassionate being brings in an all embracing
view and acts on it in the midst of job, family, local traditions,
etc…But it is not an easy balance to find. I think it is this
balance of being engaged but not clinging, loving without
attachment, acting without ego, which is one of the fruits that we
hope to cultivate in our daily Buddhist practice.
Namu Myoho Renge Kyo,

Hi all,
Recently there was a sudden death in our family. My wife’s older sister passed away quite suddenly on July 11 in Japan while my wife and daughter were visiting with her other older sister. My daughter is only six years old (she’ll be seven in August) and she was simply told that her aunt had gone to heaven. Julie attended the funeral and I am sure could not help but have observed that the occasion was very tragic. Nevertheless, when she saw her aunt’s picture on the family butsudan she asserted that this was her aunt who lived in heaven now. As for Yumi, she also wanted to be assured that her sister would find a way to heaven and that our Odaimoku and sincere prayers would reach her and help her. I assured her that this would be the case, and even shared Nichiren’s gosho (parts of it anyway by email and over the phone) “Wu-lung and I-lung” which discusses the story of how even a son’s unwilling transcription of the titles of the eight volumes of the Lotus Sutra saved his late father, an enemy of the Lotus Sutra, from hell and enabled him to be reborn in heaven. If such was the case, how much more effective our sincere prayers and recitation of the Odaimoku and the Lotus Sutra for someone who may not have been a believer in the Lotus Sutra but who was not an enemy and had a simple respect for it.
But this is not the point of this blog. The curious thing is that as this tragedy was unfolding I was reading Brian’s Dr. Science blog and having a discussion with him (yet again) about the meaning of rebirth. I found myself of two minds – the mind of a science minded skeptic who readily admits that there seems to be no medium by which to transmit a “rebirth consciousness” (as the sutras assert) from a deceased person to a newly concieved person. On the other hand, there is the side of me that is more willing to give the “universe” (for want of a better term) the benefit of the doubt and to believe that just because we have not found a way to measure or quantify something doesn’t mean that it is not there – in this case a medium for the transmission of karma and even a type of consciousness so that a person’s karma (good and bad) can continue to unfold until the delusion of self is overcome and buddhahood kicks into high gear.
But with the background of this family tragedy the inner debate within myself between the agnostic/skeptic and the traditionalist/believer became more than just an abstract exercise. It became quite a dilemma – what do I honestly tell my grieving wife and in-laws? What do I tell my daughter when she is back from Japan if she should ask more questions about her aunt? What do I tell myself?
In the end, I find that I can be honest and give the universe the benefit of the doubt for the sake of my loved ones and my own peace of mind. I can honestly say, along with Stephen Batchelor for instance, that I don’t know what will happen to us when we die. Someone asked Zen Master Hakuin what happens when we die. “Why are you asking me?” he said. “Because you are a Zen Master.” said the inquirer. Hakuin replied, “Yes, but not a dead one.” I think that is the honest approach. But alongside that is the hopeful approach. This approach is that traditionally the Buddha asserted that there were other worlds, heavens, hells, and many things in between, and that our karma will unfold, and that while the future bearers of the karma we generate in this life are not identical to ourselves, neither are they totally different. There is not a fixed, unchanging identity, but there is a continuing stream of unfolding activity according to the Buddha. He furthermore claimed to have known this directly for himself and not as a result of “hammering it out” by speculation. That may or may not be the case, but I am willing to give this traditional teaching the benefit of the doubt until it can clearly be proven otherwise while admitting that I don’t know the truth of this for myself yet. In this way I preserve my intellectual integrity but also a heart that hopes that even for the individual there may be more mercy and meaning in this universe than our finite minds are able to conceive of.
I say this because I can not know, but I do hope that for my sister-in-law, and for all those who have passed on and for all those who will, that there is indeed some greater reality which the symbol of heaven, or in the Lotus Sutra the Pure Land of Tranquil Light, points to beyond mere words of conciliation. I hope that there is a shining jewel of limitless light and life which can bring about the healing and even joy that many of us seem to miss here. For those of us who are spiritually mature enough to be able to awaken to it here and now, I also hope that even after death such will continue to unfold without end.
Namu Myoho Renge Kyo,