Boundless Joy of Living

In this world as fleeting and unstable as a burning house, inhabited by human beings beset by worldly passions, all is idleness and foolishness, utterly devoid of truth. Only the nembutsu is true. (Tannisho, Epilogue)

Shinran’s statement above is sweeping. Truly, everything in this world is idle and foolish, without a particle of truth. Tannisho repeatedly offers statements that deny the value of all human enterprise—antisocial, anti-moral statements that violate common sense. But all reveal true faith.

Some nonreligious people are disgruntled by the word “faith,” feeling that it has no connection to them. But we all have faith. Broadly speaking, “faith” does not apply only to belief in the supernatural. We have faith in our life, for example, believing we will live to see tomorrow, or in our health, believing we have years of healthy life ahead of us. Husbands and wives, parents and children have faith in one another. People place faith in wealth and possessions, or in honor and status. Marxists are people who believe in the ideal of a Communist society. What each of us believes in is up to us, but life is impossible without believing in something. Since living is believing, no one can be completely lacking in faith.

The betrayal of faith brings swift pain. Loss of health means physical suffering; a sweetheart’s betrayal means the agony of a broken heart. Men and women crushed by the death of a spouse, parents anguished by the loss of a child, people whose wealth and good name lie in ashes—all alike exist in a dark vale of tears where the light of faith has gone out. The stronger our faith, the more we suffer and rage at its betrayal.

Our lives are a daily struggle, yet we were not born into this world to suffer. That is not why we live. Ultimately, the sole and universal purpose of our lives is to seek lasting joy and make it ours. Surely, then, we ought to look with the greatest of care into the genuineness of what it is we place our faith in. To what extent do we in fact ponder whether the things we trust are worthy of that trust or not?

Earthquakes, typhoon, lightning, fire, murder, injury, theft, illness, accidents, the deaths of loved ones, failure in business, layoffs: we live in a fragile world where anything may happen, any time. “The prosperous must decline,” remind the magisterial opening lines of the medieval epic The Tale of the Heike. All at the summit of glory are heading for a fall. Likewise, the Buddhist saying “those who meet must part” reminds us that the joy of meeting is always followed by the sadness of farewell. Even if we overcome one trouble, we still live in an unsteady world where hopes and trust are endlessly betrayed. In vivid language, Shinran warns us that we inhabit a “world as fleeting and unstable as a burning house.”

Though we may manage somehow to escape natural disasters and sickness, no one can escape the finality of death. What happens when we stand at death’s door? Wealth and fame fade as swiftly as a flash of lightning. In the face of death, the greatest ruler is stripped of all authority, and no undying light meets the eye. To those who still persist in the delusion that what they believe in will last forever, Shinran’s words resound like mighty thunder: “All is idleness and foolishness, utterly devoid of truth.” There are no exceptions.

Time and again it has happened that a respected community leader, someone who counsels others on the dignity of life and exhorts people not to die but to live on with strength and courage, sends shock waves through society by suddenly hanging himself. The suicides of the famous, meanwhile, tend somehow to be glamorized. But unless the solemn purpose of life is understood, even debates over the right and wrong of suicide are themselves mere “idleness and foolishness.”

Living in a world such as this is like dancing on a live volcano. The impulse to escape the anxiety of such an existence by choosing death is not incomprehensible. Against this background, Shinran’s grand pronouncement stands out all the more:

“Only the nembutsu is true.” His voice calls to us: “Everyone! Gain the endless joy of life found in being firmly clasped, never to be abandoned, and say the nembutsu: there is no ultimate reason why you have been born as a human being but this.”

Enormous effort and many tears went into the writing of Tannisho, solely to transmit this one message that Shinran preached throughout his ninety years of life.

UNLOCKING TANNISHO Part 2, chapter 18

Source: The Buddhist Village Times #04 | 2011, Boundless Joy of Living

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