Human Form is Difficult to Obtain

A Famous Japanese Shogun who had a Habit of Having Humblest of Meals on His Birthday

How do you spend your birthdays? Maybe you have a party with your friends, receive presents from your loved ones, and other such fun things. We know that a birthday is special, but why exactly is this so? Let us examine this question.

The famous Shogun Tokugawa Mitsukuni is said to have eaten humblest of meals on his birthday.

“Isn’t today my birthday?”

“Yes, my lord.”

“Why then have you prepared such a feast?”

“Fresh fish and festive rice have been prepared for this special occasion.”

“You have forgotten again. I’ve told you all I need on my birthday is a bowl of rice gruel with a single pickled plum.”

“It had slipped my mind, my lord.”

The retainer took away the meal in a flutter. This mistake was common at first, for there’s only one birthday in a year. But Mitsukuni’s love for his mother gradually seeped into his followers’ hearts and none of them forgot about it again.

After his mother Hisako’s death, Mitsukuni only ate rice gruel with pickled plums on his birthdays. If asked the reason for doing so, he would probably answer in this way: “A birthday is indeed a special occasion to be celebrated. It is the day one was brought into this world. But it is also the day in my life I tormented my mother the most. Knowing this, I simply cannot celebrate such a day with various feasts. When I think about my mother and the pain I must have caused her, I want to express my gratitude to her at least once a year on this day with a simple meal.”

What do you think about your having been born human? The fact that we were born human seems like nothing in our eyes. In fact, when times are hard, we even regret and resent having been born human. However, Śākyamuni Buddha taught that we must be very grateful for it.

“Human form is difficult to obtain; now I have already obtained it.” These words were famously said by Śākyamuni Buddha. It is an expression of great joy for life that makes us exclaim, “To be born as a human being is a rare blessing, a blessing that is mine!”

One day, Śākyamuni Buddha asked his disciple, Ānanda, “How do you feel about having been born human?” “I am very happy about it,” replied Ānanda. Then the Buddha told the following story. This is known today as the Parable of the Blind Turtle and the Floating Log.

“In the depths of the endlessly wide ocean, there is a turtle that cannot see. This blind turtle rises to the surface of the ocean only once every hundred years. Floating on the surface of the ocean is a single log, which has a small hole in the middle of it. The wind pushes this log north, south, east, and west. Ānanda, what do you think the chances are that this turtle, which comes to the surface only once every hundred years, would put its head directly through the hole in the log upon rising?” Ānanda was taken aback. “Such a thing is unthinkable!” he answered. “Are you saying that it could never happen?” the Buddha asked.

“Perhaps if a billion or trillion years were to pass, there may be a chance of the turtle putting its head through the hole, but it is so unlikely, one could call it impossible,” replied Ānanda. “Listen, Ānanda. To be born as a human being is even more unlikely than the turtle putting its head through the hole in the log. It is a rare blessing indeed,” said the Buddha. In Japanese, a “rare blessing” is denoted with the word ‘arigatai’, which is written with the characters for ‘to exist’ and ‘difficult’, so ‘arigatai’ means ‘something that rarely happens has happened.’ Śākyamuni Buddha said, “To be born as a human is such a rare feat, and so we must be grateful for it.” But are we that grateful about having been born human?

In reality, some people even lament, “Why was I born? If only I hadn’t been born human, I wouldn’t have to suffer like this.” This is because they don’t know why they were born human, for what purpose they are living, or why it is that they must keep living no matter how painful life is. They don’t know the purpose of life.

Only when we are made aware of the purpose of being born human and we attain the purpose of life will we be filled with great joy for having been born human that makes us shout, “To be born human is a rare blessing―how glad I am that such a blessing that is mine!”

So what is the purpose of life? Some people say we live in order to find that out, while others say we just live for the sake of living. While it seemed a real answer to the question was nowhere to be found, Master Shinran alone taught the purpose of life with utmost clarity and urged others to achieve it.

The universal purpose of life is to have one’s darkness of mind (the root cause of suffering) eliminated, and know the joy of life that exults, “How glad I am to have been born human!” No matter how hard your life may be, keep going until you accomplish this purpose.

The nine decades of Master Shinran’s life were focused single-mindedly on this message. Anyone who learns this purpose as he laid it out will understand why his life and teachings continue to move and inspire so many people. It was Master Shinran who clarified the true purpose of life, which is the greatest concern for all human beings.

Source: The Buddhist Village Times #45 | 2014, Human Form is Difficult to Obtain

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