Part 1: Happiness; Chapter 10:
Joy in Both Life and Death [10.5]
10.5 Savoring Joy in Both Life and Death
Referring to his observations on the Buddhist view of life and death presented in “Mahayana Buddhism and Twenty-First-Century Civilization,” the lecture he delivered at Harvard University in 1993, President Ikeda asserts that those who dedicate their lives to kosen-rufu and build a state of absolute happiness can advance along a path in which there is joy in both life and death. Excerpts from the lecture also appear at the end of this section.
I have been invited to speak at Harvard University, one of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning in the United States, on two occasions (in 1991 and 1993). In my second speech, I addressed the Buddhist view of life and death, in which we can experience joy in both life and death.
Dr. Harvey Cox, then chair of the Harvard Divinity School’s Department of Applied Theology, commented that I had presented my audience with a completely new perspective on death.
Death is not the end of everything. Birth and death are both aspects of the eternity of life. The cycle of birth and death grounded in the Mystic Law is a drama unfolding on a great stage of life existing eternally. By striving for kosen-rufu, we can firmly establish a state of absolute happiness in this existence. People who achieve that can advance along the path of joy in both life and death.
This planet Earth is not the only place one can be born. In this vast universe, many scientists believe, there are innumerable planets where life exists. The Lotus Sutra presents a grand and expansive view of the universe, teaching that the number of realms in which living beings reside is infinite—a view that is widely supported by contemporary astronomy. There may be some planets where all the inhabitants are good and virtuous, and others, like our Earth, where there are also many who are selfish and devious. There may also be planets where everyone lives happily, in fine health, enjoying long lives, and listening to beautiful music from morning to night.
When the functions of our hearts and minds and the functions of the universe are in synch, we can be born wherever we wish and in any form we desire. The Lotus Sutra speaks of “freely choosing where one will be born” (cf. LSOC10, 202). This is the essence of Buddhism.
President Toda often likened death to sleep. Just as we awake refreshed and energized after a good night’s sleep, those who pass away having chanted Nam-myoho-renge-kyo throughout their lives will, after a period of rest, be reborn to once again join the ranks of those striving for kosen-rufu, he used to say.
Nichiren Daishonin repeatedly offers guidance about the moment of death in his writings. For example:
“How can we possibly hold back our tears at the inexpressible joy of knowing that [at the moment of death] not just one or two, not just one hundred or two hundred, but as many as a thousand Buddhas will come to greet us with open arms!” (WND-1, 216–17)
“Without fail, I will be with you at the time of your death and guide you from this life to the next.” (WND-1, 965)
“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 that most important doctrine called attaining Buddhahood in one’s present form.” (WND-1, 456)
A belief in the eternity of life has been shared by many of the world’s great writers and thinkers. Their view of life has much in common with the perspective of Buddhism.
Leo Tolstoy was one such individual. In 1907, when he was 79 years old, a few years before he passed away, Tolstoy wrote: “Living is joyous, and death, too, is joyous.”1 These words express the unshakable state of mind that Tolstoy had reached after a life of great vicissitudes.
The eminent British historian Arnold J. Toynbee was also deeply impressed by the Buddhist view of life.
We have faith in, are practicing, and are sharing the supreme teaching of Buddhism, eagerly sought by the world’s leading thinkers. There is no life more wonderful.
From a speech at a joint training session, Nagano, August 19, 2005.
It was the Greek philosopher Heraclitus who declared that all things are in a state of flux and that change is the essential nature of reality. Indeed, everything, whether it lies in the realm of natural phenomena or of human affairs, changes continuously. Nothing maintains exactly the same state for even the briefest instant; the most solid-seeming rocks and minerals are subject to the erosive effects of time. But during this century of war and revolution, normal change and flux seem to have been accelerated and magnified. We have seen the most extraordinary panorama of social transformations.
The Buddhist term for the ephemeral aspect of reality is “the transience of all phenomena” (shogyo mujo in Japanese). In the Buddhist cosmology, this concept is described as the repeated cycles of formation, continuance, decline, and disintegration through which all systems must pass.
During our lives as human beings, we experience transience as the four sufferings: the suffering of birth (and of day-to-day existence), that of illness, of aging, and finally, of death. No human being is exempt from these sources of pain. It was, in fact, human distress, in particular the problem of death, that spawned the formation of religious and philosophical systems.
It is said that Shakyamuni was inspired to seek the truth by his accidental encounters with many sorrows at the gates of the palace in which he was raised. Plato stated that true philosophers are always engaged in the practice of dying, while Nichiren, founder of the school of Buddhism followed by members of the SGI, admonishes us to “first of all learn about death, and then about other things” (WND-2, 759).
Death weighs heavily on the human heart as an inescapable reminder of the finite nature of our existence. However seemingly limitless the wealth or power we might attain, the reality of our eventual demise cannot be avoided. From ancient times, humanity has sought to conquer the fear and apprehension surrounding death by finding ways to partake of the eternal. Through this quest, people have learned to overcome control by instinctual modes of survival and have developed the characteristics that we recognize as uniquely human. In that perspective, we can see why the history of religion coincides with the history of humankind.
Modern civilization has attempted to ignore death. We have diverted our gaze from this most fundamental of concerns as we try to drive death into the shadows. For many people living today, death is the mere absence of life; it is blankness; it is the void. Life is identified with all that is good: with being, rationality, and light. In contrast, death is perceived as evil, as nothingness, and as the dark and irrational. Only the negative perception of death prevails.
We cannot, however, ignore death, and the attempt to do so has exacted a heavy price. The horrific and ironic climax of modern civilization has been in our time what Zbigniew Brzezinski has called the “century of megadeath.” Today, a wide range of issues is now forcing a reexamination and reevaluation of the significance of death. They include questions about brain death and death with dignity, the function of hospices, alternative funerary styles and rites, and research into death and dying by writers such as Elisabeth Kübler-Ross.
We finally seem to be ready to recognize the fundamental error in our view of life and death. We are beginning to understand that death is more than the absence of life; that death, together with active life, is necessary for the formation of a larger, more essential, whole. This greater whole reflects the deeper continuity of life and death that we experience as individuals and express as culture. A central challenge for the coming century will be to establish a culture based on an understanding of the relationship of life and death and of life’s essential eternity. Such an attitude does not disown death, but directly confronts and correctly positions it within the larger context of life.
Buddhism speaks of an intrinsic nature (hossho in Japanese, sometimes translated as “Dharma nature”) existing within the depths of phenomenal reality. This nature depends upon and responds to environmental conditions, and it alternates between states of emergence and latency. All phenomena, including life and death, can be seen as elements within the cycle of emergence and latency, or manifestation and withdrawal.
Cycles of life and death can be likened to the alternating periods of sleep and wakefulness. Just as sleep prepares us for the next day’s activity, death can be seen as a state in which we rest and replenish ourselves for new life. In this light, death should be acknowledged, along with life, as a blessing to be appreciated. The Lotus Sutra, the core of Mahayana Buddhism, states that the purpose of existence, the eternal cycles of life and death, is for living beings to “enjoy themselves at ease” (LSOC16, 272). It further teaches that sustained faith and practice enable us to know a deep and abiding joy in death as well as in life, to equally “enjoy ourselves at ease” in both. Nichiren describes the attainment of this state as the “greatest of all joys” (OTT, 212).
If the tragedies of this century of war and revolution have taught us anything, it is the folly of believing that reform of external factors, such as social systems, is the linchpin to achieving happiness. I am convinced that in the coming century, the greatest emphasis must be placed on fostering inwardly-directed change. In addition, our efforts must be inspired by a new understanding of life and death.
From a lecture at Harvard University, “Mahayana Buddhism and Twenty-First-Century Civilization,” U.S.A., September 24, 1993.
The Wisdom for Creating Happiness and Peace brings together selections from President Ikeda’s works under key themes.
- *1 Translated from Japanese. Leo Tolstoy, Torusutoi zenshu (Collected Works of Tolstoy), vol. 21 (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1931), p. 408.