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The Heritage of the Ultimate Law of Life
By Daisaku Ikeda
World Tribune PressCopyright © 2009 Soka Gakkai
All rights reserved.
The Ultimate Law of Life and Death
Striving in the Spirit of the Oneness of Mentor and Disciple To Open the Way to True Happiness for All Humanity
Life and death are the greatest mysteries, and they form the primary focus of religion. Where have we come from, and where do we go? Why are human beings born? Are our lives just random events or do they have some greater purpose? What is the meaning of death? Are we merely reduced to meaningless nothingness, as so many people in our modern world vaguely believe? Or are we restored to a luminous immortal "soul," as many time-honored religious traditions of East and West maintain? Or, as Shakyamuni Buddha teaches [in expounding the Middle Way], is it neither?
The Wisdom of Buddhism Transcending the Extremes of the Views of Annihilation and Permanence
Nichiren Daishonin's writing "The Heritage of the Ultimate Law of Life" expounds a matter of ultimate importance relating to life and death. The use of the word ultimate suggests the crucial nature of this subject, as it is also the essential purpose of Buddhism and the foundation of religion.
The Lotus Sutra uses the term one great reason to express the ultimate purpose for Buddhas to appear in the world — to enable all living beings to realize the Buddha wisdom and attain enlightenment. The matter of ultimate importance relating to life and death that Nichiren teaches in this writing is closely connected to this ideal of universal enlightenment in the Lotus Sutra.
Based on the Buddhist concept of dependent origination — one of the truths to which Shakyamuni became enlightened — the sufferings of aging and death arise from innate darkness or ignorance within the individual. The Buddha teaches that these sufferings can be overcome by extinguishing this inner benightedness.
The wisdom or insight that enabled Shakyamuni to attain enlightenment represents the wisdom that conquers the delusion and suffering related to death. Based on this wisdom, the Buddha rejected the two most common views of death, which represented two extremes, and both of which he considered erroneous. Neither could fully enable people to transcend the fear and uncertainty of death. One of these was the view of death as the annihilation or complete cessation of self (the view of annihilation), while the other was the view of death as the self continuing in the form of an unchanging immortal soul or spirit (the view of permanence). Both views consider the question of life and death only from the point of birth until one's demise, with life and death seen as opposites. As such, neither view embodies the wisdom that correctly perceives the true reality of life and death.
It seems that most people, conscious as they are of their mortality, hold one of these two views in some form or other. The view of annihilation, however, gives rise to fear and anxiety about death. And the view of permanence, we find, is the product of self-attachment.
Nichiren also indicates that these two views cannot help people gain true happiness. For instance, in "Letter from Sado," he writes that human beings tend to be terrified of death and attached to life: "The most dreadful things in the world are the pain of fire, the flashing of swords, and the shadow of death. Even horses and cattle fear being killed; no wonder human beings are afraid of death. Even a leper clings to life; how much more so a healthy person" (The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 301).
Then, to describe the wisdom of Buddhism, he cites a lesson from Shakyamuni's Lotus Sutra: "The Buddha teaches that even filling the entire major world system with the seven kinds of treasures does not match offering one's little finger to the Buddha and the [Lotus] sutra. The boy Snow Mountains gave his own body, and the ascetic Aspiration for the Law peeled off his own skin [in order to record the Buddha's teachings]. Since nothing is more precious than life itself, one who dedicates one's life to Buddhist practice is certain to attain Buddhahood" (WND-1, 301).
The first sentence in this quote refers to a passage from the "Former Affairs of the Medicine King" chapter of the Lotus Sutra, indicating that using our individual lives — which each of us prizes and cherishes — for the sake of Buddhism is the highest form of offering we can make. Based on this, Nichiren declares that by selflessly dedicating ourselves to Buddhism, just like the boy Snow Mountains and the ascetic Aspiration for the Law, we can gain enlightenment. He says, therefore, that this course of practice is the supreme path for attaining happiness.
In the same writing, Nichiren highlights the folly of a life that mirrors the thinking of the two views, annihilation and permanence. He does so by describing how fish and birds, fearful for their safety, go to great lengths to hide themselves from predators but are nevertheless haplessly tricked by bait or traps and end up losing their lives.
In "Letter from Sado," Nichiren describes the Buddha's wisdom, which transcends the views of annihilation and permanence, as living and taking action with the spirit of selfless dedication for the sake of Buddhism. This is an important point (see WND-1, 301–07).
By its very nature, a view of life and death considered only from the point of birth onward causes people to focus on whether their present self will end at death or continue. Not surprising, perhaps, since human beings, though keenly aware of their mortality, cannot personally experience what death or the afterlife is like while alive. But no matter how we may debate this issue from this perspective, it will not produce supreme wisdom or understanding. The view of annihilation, the complete cessation of existence, for instance, will never free people from fear of or anxiety over death. On the other hand, the view of permanence, which sees the self continuing as an unchanging, everlasting soul, often comes from one's simple desire for immortality; ultimately, it does not constitute the wisdom for elevating one's spiritual state, instead serving only to strengthen self-attachment and to deepen delusion.
Of course, many philosophies and religious traditions of East and West espouse the existence of some eternal spiritual entity that transcends the present self. But even if those doctrines are effective in providing some peace of mind regarding death, they fall short of being the supreme wisdom for elevating the way people live. Rather, as I mentioned earlier, they cause people to be caught up in the delusions of self-attachment and the sufferings of aging and death.
Buddhist scriptures show that when Shakyamuni was asked whether his life would continue after death, he did not answer one way or the other. Because his doing so would not have contributed to helping people elevate their lives and might only have added to their delusion and suffering about death.
In "Letter from Sado," Nichiren taught his followers, who were then struggling bravely amid persecution, the way of selfless dedication to Buddhism (see WND-1, 301–07). In other words, he taught them the spirit of not begrudging their lives and the basic criteria for leading lives that value the Law above all. In this way, he aimed to help his followers break through to the source of delusion and suffering concerning death — their narrow attachment to ego — and cast off that delusion and suffering.
Unless we are free of the suffering of death, we cannot savor true happiness. But liberating ourselves from this suffering cannot be achieved through theorizing or intellectualizing. Life and death make up the great, eternal rhythm of the universe itself. When we come to apprehend the greater self within us that is part of this rhythm — and feel in the depths of our being that this rhythm is the fundamental pulse sustaining our lives — we can overcome the suffering of death. The path of this inner liberation lies in chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo and teaching others to do the same. In "The Heritage of the Ultimate Law of Life," Nichiren explains this fundamental view of life and death.
Life and Death As Functions of the Mystic Law
In this writing, Nichiren Daishonin explains that the Mystic Law (Jpn myoho) itself embodies the phases of life and death: "Myo represents death, and ho, life" (WND-1, 216). He also says that all life, all phenomena, are subject to and undergo these two phases, which are functions of the Mystic Law. He indicates that birth and death are an inherent part of life. In this way, he seeks to prevent people from making the mistake of abhorring life and death or from having a strong attachment to either.
The Mystic Law is the eternal, infinite Law of the universe. This eternal Law embodies the phases of life and death. In other words, the two phases are themselves the rhythm of the eternal Law and appear as the life and death of countless living entities — as the arising and extinction of all phenomena, as all kinds of causes and effects in every dimension, as the harmony and dynamism of the universe as a whole.
This concept of life and death as functions of the Mystic Law constitutes the matter of ultimate importance in our lives, because true happiness can only be found in living in accord with this great rhythm of life and death.
Mentor and Disciple in Buddhism Transmit the Heritage of Attaining Buddhahood
So far I have summed up the meaning of "the matter of ultimate importance concerning life and death," one main theme of "The Heritage of the Ultimate Law of Life." Next, I will confirm the meaning of heritage, another major theme, while going over the essential points of the entire writing.
"The ultimate Law of life and death as transmitted from the Buddha to all living beings is Myoho-renge-kyo. The five characters of Myoho-renge-kyo were transferred from Shakyamuni and Many Treasures, the two Buddhas inside the treasure tower, to Bodhisattva Superior Practices, carrying on a heritage unbroken since the infinite past" (WND-1, 216).
"Myo represents death, and ho, life. Living beings that pass through the two phases of life and death are the entities of the Ten Worlds, or the entities of Myoho-renge-kyo" (WND-1, 216).
"Life and death are simply the two functions of Myoho-renge-kyo" (WND-1, 216).
"Shakyamuni and Many Treasures, the two Buddhas, are also the two phases of life and death" (WND-1, 216).
"Shakyamuni Buddha who attained enlightenment countless kalpas ago, the Lotus Sutra that leads all people to Buddhahood, and we ordinary human beings are in no way different or separate from one another. To chant Myoho-renge-kyo with this realization is to inherit the ultimate Law of life and death" (WND-1, 216).
"For one who summons up one's faith and chants Nam-myoho-renge-kyo with the profound insight that now is the last moment of one's life, the sutra proclaims: 'When the lives of these persons come to an end, they will be received into the hands of a thousand Buddhas, who will free them from all fear and keep them from falling into the evil paths of existence'" (WND-1, 216).
"The heritage of the Lotus Sutra flows within the lives of those who never forsake it in any lifetime whatsoever — whether in the past, the present, or the future" (WND-1, 217).
Nichiren Daishonin begins by saying that the "ultimate Law of life and death" is Myoho-renge-kyo, and that Myoho-renge-kyo is the heritage that Bodhisattva Superior Practices [the leader of the Bodhisattvas of the Earth] received from Shakyamuni Buddha and Many Treasures Buddha.
As mentioned earlier, only through living and taking action with the spirit of selfless dedication for the sake of Buddhism can Myoho-renge-kyo be transmitted as the ultimate Law of life and death. Therefore, Nichiren cites the name of Bodhisattva Superior Practices as the teacher or mentor who takes on the commitment to live and take action with this spirit. He explains that the "heritage of the ultimate Law of life and death" only flows in faith based on the oneness of mentor and disciple.
Next, he clarifies that the Mystic Law embodies the phases of life and death, and that the life and death of all living entities, the arising and extinction of all phenomena, constitute life and death as functions of the Mystic Law. The living beings of the Ten Worlds and the two Buddhas Shakyamuni and Many Treasures embody life and death as functions of the Mystic Law.
Based on this, Nichiren then declares that there is absolutely no distinction among "Shakyamuni Buddha who attained enlightenment countless kalpas ago," "the Lotus Sutra that leads all people to Buddhahood" and "we ordinary human beings" as entities of Myoho-renge-kyo, the Mystic Law (WND-1, 216). And he explains that only through faith and chanting Myoho-renge-kyo with clear belief in this can we inherit the "heritage of the ultimate Law of life and death." Faith — chanting Myoho-renge-kyo with the conviction that Buddhas and the Law for attaining enlightenment are both Myoho-renge-kyo, that Myoho-renge-kyo exists nowhere but within our lives — is the essence of accepting and upholding the Mystic Law, which is the fundamental practice of Nichiren Buddhism.
Nichiren further explains, in terms of life and death, that the essence of faith in the Mystic Law is having the attitude that "now is the last moment of one's life" (WND-1, 216). This means steadfastly upholding genuine faith at each moment of our lives so that even if we were faced with our death, we would have no regrets and would calmly transcend the suffering of death. And when we carry out such genuine faith until the last second of our lives in this existence, we can "accept and uphold" the Lotus Sutra across the three existences — past, present and future. This, Nichiren says, is what it means for the "heritage of the Lotus Sutra to flow within our lives" (see WND-1, 217).
When we uphold correct faith until our last moment in this world, the "heritage of the ultimate Law of life and death" will flow in our lives continually throughout the cycle of birth and death, across past, present and future. This is the epitome of life and death as functions of the Mystic Law.
Therefore, continuing faith throughout our lives, throughout our existence in this world, is crucial. Our remaining steadfast in correct faith until our final moment is itself the attainment of Buddhahood in this lifetime. At that time, death will not signify the cessation of life but the completion of one life and the start of a new, even profounder, existence. Such a death will be totally free of all fear and anxiety. We will savor joy in both life and death.
The Great Vow of Kosen-rufu and the Path of Mentor and Disciple
"All disciples and lay supporters of Nichiren should chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo with the spirit of many in body but one in mind, transcending all differences among themselves to become as inseparable as fish and the water in which they swim. This spiritual bond is the basis for the universal transmission of the ultimate Law of life and death. Herein lies the true goal of Nichiren's propagation. When you are so united, even the great desire for widespread propagation can be fulfilled" (WND-1, 217).
"Nichiren has been trying to awaken all the people of Japan to faith in the Lotus Sutra so that they too can share the heritage and attain Buddhahood. But instead they have persecuted me in various ways and finally had me banished to this island. You have followed Nichiren, however, and met with suffering as a result. It pains me deeply to think of your anguish" (WND-1, 217).
Excerpted from The Heritage of the Ultimate Law of Life by Daisaku Ikeda. Copyright © 2009 Soka Gakkai. Excerpted by permission of World Tribune Press.
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