Heritage of the Ultimate Law of Life


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Based on many years' experience with dying patients, Mrs. Ross emphatically agrees with the Buddhist concept of karma, that all of our acts are ingrained in our lives and will never disappear. She says, "It's a beautiful thing. I really believe that what you plant as seeds is what you will reap.... It's an absolute law. I know that." She believes in karmic debts only because she has verified that it is true. "It's not really a question of just believing," she says. "All these things can be scientifically verified."

Mrs. Ross is very pleased to know that her thought accords with Buddhism. "People will live a very different quality of life," she says, "if they knew this [concept of karma], if they could understand that they alone are responsible for all the good things and bad things that happen to them."

Ernest Hemingway also experienced such out-of-the-body travel. After he had been badly wounded, he wrote to a friend in his unique style: "I died then. I felt my soul or something coming right out of my body, like you'd pull a silk handkerchief out of a pocket by one corner. It flew around and then came back and went in again and I wasn't dead any more." He used this episode in A Farewell to Arms.

There is a collection of essays on death compiled by Dr. Michio Matsuda, a critic. It contains the essay "Shi no Gen'ei" (Death's Illusion) by Masaru Kobayashi. It is quite a lengthy account of his own experience, so I will give you a summary of it. Kobayashi underwent a critical surgical operation, and his account begins when he was lying on the operating table and the anesthesia began to wear off.

At midnight on the tenth, consciousness returned and with it the pain. It was like raging waves. When they engulfed me, everything before my eyes and inside my head became pure crimson, the color of blood.... When the pain became absolutely unbearable, I felt myself coming apart and beginning to fly away. I clearly saw myself, broken to bits, a black burnt-out chunk of matter, flying at tremendous speed through the vast reaches of space.

I left the warm earth, and felt the cooling atmosphere rush by me. Everything, myself included, was cold. As I went deeper into the universe, the space around me gradually changed from light to deep blue and on to a deeper and deeper black. I felt that death lay at the pitch-black extremity of the universe.

As I felt myself getting colder, I had no emotions at all. I had lost all sense of joy or sorrow for my family, even for myself. There was nothing of loneliness, pain or grief, even though I had parted with many relatives and friends. This was something I had never imagined.

But I did sense one thing that seemed inextinguishable --- an indescribable feeling of frustration. It was not mere frustration at having to part with my life. I had once been a human being and had lived a life which I could never live again. My sense of loss was at having to go away without leaving the slightest mark on history --- history which would continue after my death.

This came as quite a shock to me. I thought I had lived as full a life as I could. I had never imagined that such a feeling would come at the last moment....

Perhaps there is no despair more concentrated than that at the last moment when you realize for the first time that your life has been meaningless, and you plunge toward death with indescribable remorse in your heart.

The one feeling which remained when joy, anger, sorrow, pleasure and all other emotions had gone was the feeling of frustration. It must have been what he felt at the core of his being. The meaninglessness he felt at not having contributed a thing to mankind threw him into a trough of despair on the borderline between life and death, a point of no return. Mr. Kobayashi's account is very precious for its description of a feeling which came from the very source of his being.

Heritage of the Ultimate Law of Life
- Shoji Ichidaiji Kechimyaku Sho -

Lecture 2 of 3 from Selected Lectures on the Gosho, vol. 1.

Eternity in the Moment

Henri Bergson, the eminent philosopher, also believed in an afterlife. After years of contemplation on the human body and mind, Bergson came to agree that life continues after death. Dr. Arnold Toynbee once said that he believed death to be a return to "the ultimate spiritual reality" underlying the universe, the sea of immortality. As a scholar, he sought his answer to the question of life and death in higher religions, especially in the Buddhist concept of ku. He said:

I conclude that the phenomenon of death, followed by the disorganization of the physical aspect of a personality that we encounter as a psychosomatic unity, is, in terms of reality-in-itself, an illusion arising from the limitations of the human mind's conceptual capacity.... I believe that reality itself is timeless and spaceless but that it does not exist in isolation from our time-and-space-bound world....

Does life persist after death? And where does the soul go when the body goes back into the inorganic section of physical matter? To sum up, I believe that these questions can be answered in terms of ku or of eternity, but not in terms of space-time. [Arnold Toynbee and Daisaku Ikeda, Choose Life (London: Oxford University Press, 1976), pp. 259-60.]

Jun Takami, a professional writer who died of cancer, wrote a poem "Kako no Kukan" (Space of the Past) in his work, Shi no Fuchi yori (From the Abyss of Death). In this poem he described how he felt as he lived facing imminent death.

As sand scooped in hands

Falls through the emaciated fingers,

So does time with a gritty sound run out of me,
My time --- so short and precious.
I can only hear the ceaseless sound of time slipping away.

This poem suggests how much the author valued the short time left to him and how he wished he could live for eternity. To value each second more highly than a drop of blood --- this is the true way of life for people born in this world. Most people, however, waste all too much of their time before they are confronted with death. I once heard the story of a gifted free-lance reporter who succumbed to cancer. After being told he had cancer and would soon die, he began to use a daily pad calendar. To him, each day that remained was precious. He could not bear the sight of a calendar which showed all the days of the month or even of the whole year on one sheet of paper, as if every day was just another day. When each day came to a close, he would tear off one sheet from the calendar and tell himself, "Congratulations ! You have lived one more day," relishing the feeling of being still alive.

We do not need Martin Heidegger, or anyone, to tell us that human existence is itself a being-unto-death" in order to know that death underlies life. Indeed, at each moment we meet death and at each moment are revived. It is the consciousness of death which really gives our life a sense of fulfillment. Without the consciousness of death one can neither live humanely nor spend time meaningfully. The question of death is in itself the question of life. As long as the question of death remains unsolved, life cannot be truly substantial.

Four years ago in spring, I went to London at the invitation of Dr. Toynbee for my second meeting with the British historian. After spending five days talking with him, I went to Paris, and from there rode a train for two hours to the Loire. Clear streams washing grassy banks, flocks of sheep, steeples of ancient castles, paths where birds chirped, quiet woods, flowers in full bloom, ageless farmhouses built of stone --- in such surroundings stood the ivy-covered house where Leonardo da Vinci spent his later years. In the bedroom where he ended his life there was a copper plate on which were engraved his words:

A substantial life is long.
Meaningful days give one a good sleep.
A fulfilled life gives one a quiet death.

C. G. Jung said, "From the middle of life onward, only he remains vitally alive who is ready to die with life." [C. G. Jung, The Meaning of Death (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1959), p. 6.] Jung's remark probably originated from his belief that the latter half of one's life is especially important. In a way, however, to be ready to "die with life" may be necessary throughout one's lifetime. Perhaps we can say that only those with such a determination will prove to have lived a truly vital life.

In his study, "The Relation between Life and Death, Living and Dying," Dr. Toynbee wrote: " 'In the midst of life we are in death.' From the moment of birth there is the constant possibility that a human being may die at any moment; and inevitably this possibility is going to become an accomplished fact sooner or later. Ideally, every human being ought to live each passing moment of his life as if the next moment were going to be his last." Although conceding that perhaps it may be too difficult for any human being to live permanently on this ideal level, he went on to say, "What can be said with assurance is that, the closer a human being can come to attaining this ideal state of heart and mind, the better and happier he or she will be." [Man's Concern with Death ed. Arnold Toynbee (London: Hodder and Stoughton Ltd., 1968), p. 259.]

It is also instructive to learn how a natural scientist regards life and death. Dr. Kinjiro Okabe, physicist and professor emeritus of Osaka University, wrote a book entitled Ningen wa Shindara Donaruka (What Happens to Man after Death?). In this book he takes a unique approach, starting with the concepts of modern science, and calling his speculation "scientific inference" about the problem of death. Dr. Okabe's view may be summarized as follows:

In the world of physics, there is a law called the energy ' Never does energy or matter come conservation principle. Never does energy or matter come from nothing. Nor is energy or matter actually lost.

Man's soul is supra-matter and supra-energy; it cannot be felt by the five senses. I, too, must concede the existence of the soul. Matter which composes the human body is completely replaced, through metabolism, by new matter in several years. Materially, one becomes a totally different person from what he was in his childhood, though he may retain some of the physical characteristics he used to have as a child. Therefore, if there is to be identity between what we are today and what we were as children, then we are forced to admit that there must be something which may be called the human soul.

If the soul really exists, the energy conservation principle must also be applicable. In other words, it seems very possible that a human life does not become extinct upon death but continues to exist in some state or other.

I postulate the existence of a "core of the soul." Life is a state during which the core of the soul is inseparably merged with the body and manifests itself in the workings of life. In other words, it is in an active state. Death is a state in which the core of the soul is inactive. It cannot manifest itself in life-functions as it did during the active state. But it still contains the ability to sustain manifest life. When the dormant state passes into the active state, the core of the soul again begins to perform its functions.

Thus, man's life or death depends on whether the core of the soul is in the active or the inactive state. The core itself continues to exist throughout life and death.

I suspect that Dr. Okabe's "soul" or "core of the soul" is different from the meaning usually given the word. The Nirvana Sutra speaks for Buddhism when it categorically denies the concept of the soul as applied in the ordinary sense. I think that what Dr. Okabe calls the core of the soul has something in common with what is called "the self" of life in Buddhism-that which sustains our identity.

Life is the accumulation of all the moments we live. One who cannot live meaningfully today cannot hope to lead a brilliant life tomorrow. No matter what grand plans one makes, if he does not value each moment, they will be just so many castles in the air. All the causes in the past and all the effects in the future are condensed within the present moment of life. Whether or not we improve our state of life at this moment will determine whether we can expiate the evils we have caused since the infinite past and be able to build up good fortune to remain for all eternity. The key is whether or not we have faith strong enough to decide that this may be the last moment of our life. The above passage, therefore, gives us the principle for changing our karma.

"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." This is a sentence in the Kambotsu-hon, the twenty-eighth chapter of the Lotus Sutra. Why do we need the assistance of those Buddhas? Because a life, once inactivated and merged with the universe, can no longer do anything of its own will. It has to suffer the effects of its lifetime, or the state it was in at the time of death, and those effects are strict and absolute. At that time a thousand Buddhas extend their protecting hands. What could be more reassuring!

The passage does not simply mean that Buddhas, literally, "extend their hands." It also means that we will be able to stand on an eternal footing, that we will attain happiness that can never wane with time. Of course, all this becomes possible only when you keep your 0th strong enough to determine that now is the last moment of your life. As the Gosho tells us, "The firmer one's faith, the stronger the gods' protection." It is a serious mistake to expect that those Buddhas will come to protect you if you don't strive for your human revolution. Literally, the passage means that the Buddhas "extend their hands" because an inactivated life is in a latent state of existence. Its true meaning is that we have to strive through our own human revolution to bring forth the protection of a thousand Buddhas who reside within our hearts.

The Buddha's Protection

How can we possibly hold back our tears at the inexpressible joy of knowing that not just one or two, nor only one or two hundred, but as many as a thousand Buddhas will come to greet us with open arms?

This is a denunciation of Nembutsu. The Nembutsu sect preaches that if one dies invoking the name of Amida (Skt., Amitabha or Amitayus) Buddha, he will be able to go to the land where this Buddha is said to dwell. Two bodhisattvas, Kannon (Avalokiteshvara) and Seishi (Mahasthamaprapta), come as messengers riding on a cloud to take him to that land. Most people in Nichiren Daishonin's day believed in Amida. The passage quoted above reveals his indignation at the Nembutsu sect for deluding the people with such a doctrine. Not just one or two Buddhas, much less two bodhisattvas, but as many as a thousand Buddhas will extend their arms to protect us, giving us so much more solace than what Nembutsu preaches. Even if one is destined to fall into the three evil paths, he will escape that fate. The Ongi Kuden says, "One thousand Buddhas signify the teaching of One Thousand Factors of Life." [At each moment, life experiences one of ten conditions or the Ten Worlds. Each of these worlds possesses the potential for all the ten within itself, thus making one hundred possible worlds. Each of these hundred worlds possesses the Ten Factors, thus becoming one thousand factors. In short one thousand factors are the forces and phenomena manifest by one's life essence.] In other words, all the protective functions of the universe will work to guard the votary of the Lotus Sutra.

If there were only one or two Buddhas to save us, all beings in this world would be necessarily subordinate to them --- something akin to absolute monotheism. Such a dogma in effect says that the people are powerless beings who can seek salvation only by beseeching those Buddhas. The Buddhas, on their part, would have to be magnificent looking so that people would seek them out with awe and respect. That kind of teaching centering on the "person" lacks universality. It becomes something like a "cult of personality" and only acts to separate Buddhas from the people.

The Lotus Sutra is very different. It assures that a thousand Buddhas will protect us, which ultimately indicates the Hundred Worlds and Thousand Factors of Life. As a teaching, it centers on the "law." If we abide by that law, the functions of the universe work to protect our lives. Furthermore, what sets those functions in motion is the individual's life force. Thus the Lotus Sutra teaches true independence, and it is a universal teaching. Buddhas need not be august or magnificent in appearance, and we, common people, are able to make all the Buddhas and heavenly gods throughout the universe work for us and protect us, just as we are.

How does this principle apply to our daily life? Suppose a member of the Soka Gakkai dies. Many friends and acquaintances come to his or her funeral and chant daimoku for the deceased. Those who struggled together with that person to accomplish their lofty mission and shared the hardships, joys, winter storms and mild springs, are themselves Buddhas, and they will all be there praying for their loved companion.

The Strict Law of Causality

One who does not have faith in the Lotus Sutra will instead find his hands firmly gripped by the guards of hell, just as the sutra warns, ". . . After he dies, he will fall into the hell of incessant suffering." How pitiful! The ten kings of hell will then pass judgment on him, and the heavenly messengers who have been with him since his birth will berate him for his evil deeds.

This relates a situation, the opposite of the preceding passage. The quoted portion appears in the Hiyu (third) chapter of the Lotus Sutra. It says quite clearly that people who oppose the faith in this sutra will end up in the hell of incessant suffering --- the most terrible of hells --- after they die. And instead of a thousand Buddhas, demons will be there to drag them away. No one would be happy to meet demons. Such is the great difference after death between those with faith in the Mystic Law in their lifetimes and those who opposed it. In life, people may wield unmatched power, accumulate great wealth, or enjoy a good reputation, but all that is nothing after death. Only their worth as humans remains. It is said that a female demon divests them of all their possessions and a male demon hangs them on a tree to determine the weight of their sins. Everything they have done --- that is, their karma --- is revealed just as it is, and they have to face its reward or retribution.

The "heavenly messengers" will censure them for their evil acts, and the "ten kings" will pass judgment on them. The heavenly messengers are the gods who stay with an individual from the moment of his or her birth. Their duty is to report all acts, both good and bad, to King Enma, the lord of hell. In this age they might be something like prosecutors. The ten kings of hell are said to try the dead beginning on the seventh day after death and continuing until the second anniversary of their passing away. King Enma is one of them --- something like the judges in today's courts of law.

It is possible to commit some evil act and get away with it, as far as the morals of society or the laws of the land are concerned. But never with the Buddhist law. The heavenly messengers, also called Dosho and Domyo, are always with their charge and constantly watch him. He can never elude them. This is what Buddhism teaches us, that the law of causality is always at work in the depths of our lives. No lies can go undetected in the world of Buddhism.

It is generally believed that hell is just a fable, contrived to make people rectify their conduct while they are alive. This may be the case with some of the more primitive representations we have from past ages of hell. But whatever the general belief, it is true that hell-like conditions exist in actual life. It is said undeniably that the world is filled with all kinds of suffering --- people anguished by the hardships and losses they must endure, people condemned to frustration because of their surroundings, people suffering terrible afflictions. Life continues through past, present and future, so the situation will not change a bit, even after one dies. Whether dead or alive, one will always have to experience both hardship and joy in the depths of his being.

I mentioned the male and female demons who divest the dead of their possessions. They symbolize the fact that, according to the strict and constant law of causality, vanity is worth nothing after one dies. The only thing of value is the essential reality in the innermost core of one's life. The ten kings and the heavenly messengers are but a figurative way of teaching us that our physical and mental acts at each and every moment invariably become engraved in the karma of our lives. Though they are all fables, they are very enlightening ones indeed.

We can see, then, that a person who refuses to believe in or slanders true Buddhism causes his own life force to weaken with each moment. Eventually he will be completely drained of life force and find himself restrained from accomplishing anything, as if inextricably mired in a swamp. There are many dreadful things in the world, but nothing is more horrible than the hell of incessant suffering. It is said that if one were even to hear a description of that hell, he would cough up blood and die. True, this suggests the horrors of hell, but it also indicates that, in contrast to outward appearances, the misery in the depths of life is terrible beyond description.

Nothing is sadder and more miserable than to find one's very life a prison of agony, without the slightest energy or hope for the future. Such a person will fail in everything he does. The Gosho teaches that those who revile the votary of the Lotus Sutra may seem at first to receive no retribution, but they ultimately end in disaster. When a building is wrecked by a natural calamity of some sort, we can see the damaged parts and repair them. But we see nothing at all when it is rotting from within. If the rot spreads to the point that the house starts to crumble, it is almost impossible to repair. To slander the Lotus Sutra is to cause the palace of one's life to rot from within. This is most dreadful --- perhaps no less horrible than finding one's hands seized by the guards of hell. No matter what hardship or sorrow befalls you, never part with the Gohonzon. If you do, you will only be throwing away all your good fortune and utterly destroying the seed of Buddhahood within you.

Buddhism places strong emphasis on the last moment of life, for in the Buddhist view it contains the sum total of one's lifetime, and it is also the first step toward the future. All phenomena manifest the true entity; all the acts done during one's lifetime, both good and bad, decide the way one dies. It is almost frightening, for nothing can be hidden. The way one dies, whether peacefully or horribly, is a perfect reflection of the life he has led and a spotless mirror of his future. In his Reply to Myoho-ama, Nichiren Daishonin wrote:

Ever since my childhood I, Nichiren, have studied Buddhism with one thought in mind. Life as a human is truly a fleeting thing. A man exhales his last breath with no hope to draw in another. Not even dew borne away by the wind suffices to describe life's transience. No one, wise or foolish, young or old, can escape death. My sole wish has therefore been to solve this eternal mystery. All else has been secondary.

This passage guides us in the attitude we need in order to live our irreplaceable life without any regret, and with total joy.

What are the most important matters? They are one's lifelong objective and the question of life and death. If we let our minds stray from those most basic things, and become enwrapped in trivial affairs, nothing important can be gained. We need not become morose, but we should never forget the necessity to look soberly and sincerely straight at death and strive to live each moment to the fullest. How often today's writers and critics lament that modern humanity and civilization are drowning in "the luxuries of life." A frivolous way of life that ignores the gravity of death cannot bring true fulfillment. The Daishonin's words, "with the profound insight that now is the last moment of life," become all the more significant, now that our society is becoming so hopelessly confused.

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