Part 1: Happiness; Chapter 10:
Joy in Both Life and Death [10.3]
10.3 The Buddhist View of Life That Transcends the Suffering of Death
While confronting the fundamental suffering of death, Shakyamuni established a view of eternal life. Through a consideration of Shakyamuni’s enlightenment, President Ikeda explores the essence of the Buddhist conception of life and death.
All living things have an instinctual fear of death. Human beings in particular are afflicted by an indescribable terror when they contemplate what sort of world may await them after departing from the realm of the living.
With tremendous courage, Shakyamuni overcame this primal human instinct to fear death, to refuse to countenance or contemplate its reality, and accepted the suffering that is the true nature of human existence. Then, based on that courageous stance, he deeply pondered the essence of life and death.
Buddhism teaches the eternity of life, but not as a simplistic response to people’s cherished hopes for immortality. The Buddhist teachings of the impermanence of all phenomena and the four noble truths (clarifying the causes and the resolution of human suffering)1 directly expose the reality of the suffering inherent in life, a reality that people try to avoid. Shakyamuni did not seek to whitewash the reality of existence by offering some consoling myth or fiction; he looked at it directly, with cool objectivity. All things that are born will die. He affirmed this as the underlying truth of existence.
Why do we die? Are life and death completely separate from one another? Or are they closely interrelated? Is there a continuity underlying life itself? Reflecting on his own life, Shakyamuni sought the answers to those questions with courage, tenacity, and objectivity. And the truth to which he became enlightened is that life is eternal.
Human existence includes both life and death. It flows on eternally, with a powerful force, repeating a cycle of alternating manifest and latent phases. Shakyamuni saw this in the flow of his own life.
His is not a philosophy of the immortality of the soul, arising from a dogged attachment to life, but a solid affirmation of the eternity of life based on a recognition of the law of cause and effect unfolding within each individual life.
The significance of death in such a view of life’s eternity is that death exists for the sake of life. It is akin to sleep, which provides us with the rest we need to awaken once again. Death is an “expedient means” for life. Death’s purpose is to make life shine brighter, while life is the innate activity of existence. Life and death are not in opposition to one another; death exists for the sake of life. This is the meaning of the Lotus Sutra teaching of “entering nirvana as an expedient means” (cf. LSOC16, 271).2
The essential message of Buddhism is not pessimistic or negative; nor is it unfounded optimism. Buddhism looks directly at the suffering of life and offers a philosophy for living with joy by actively engaging with reality rather than trying to escape from it. There is no true joy to be had in fleeing from suffering. An indestructible, everlasting, and inexhaustible joy is only achieved by accurately seeing the true reality of the suffering we would like to escape and courageously rising to its challenge and overcoming it.
From Seimei o kataru (Dialogue on Life), vol. 3, published in Japanese in March 1974.
The Wisdom for Creating Happiness and Peace brings together selections from President Ikeda’s works under key themes.
- *1 Four noble truths: A fundamental doctrine of Buddhism clarifying the cause of suffering and the way of emancipation. The four noble truths are the truth of suffering, the truth of the origin of suffering, the truth of the cessation of suffering, and the truth of the path to the cessation of suffering. Shakyamuni is said to have expounded the four noble truths at Deer Park in Varanasi, India, during his first sermon after attaining enlightenment. They are: (1) all existence is suffering; (2) suffering is caused by selfish craving; (3) the eradication of selfish craving brings about the cessation of suffering and enables one to attain nirvana; and (4) there is a path by which this eradication can be achieved, namely, the discipline of the eightfold path. The eightfold path consists of right views, right thinking, right speech, right action, right way of life, right endeavor, right mindfulness, and right meditation.
- *2 In the Lotus Sutra, Shakyamuni declares that his life as a Buddha is eternal, but as a means to help living beings arouse a seeking spirit, he appears to enter nirvana, or extinction.