"Why Do We Live?"

Master Shinran’s Answer

The NHK show “Present Times Close- Up” has recently picked up the issue of elderly Japanese people committing repeat offences. Across Japan, the average age of the prison population has been going up at an increased rate. There are now five times more people aged 65 or above than there were 20 years ago, and up to 70% of them have some sort of illness. Because of this, prison staff must tend to these people, which hinders them in their duties.

The roots of this problem lie in the fact that so many elderly people are socially isolated, and that even after being released from prison, elderly people quickly reoffend. There was an attempt to keep this problem in check by creating a place where elderly people feel they belong in hopes of saving them from social isolation, but it seems in the end this was found to be too difficult.

One lecturer from Ryukoku University’s Graduate School gave comments, but said only vague things. As I watched the program, an imprudent yet simple question was boiling within me. Why do we live even if we’re in prison and having to wear diapers? Why is it that people must keep living even when they reach that point? If you were asked, “What is it that you are living for?” what kind of answer would you give?

You might say you are living to gain money, to gain prestige, to work, to have your own house, to travel, to eat good food, to set new records, or to have a family, amongst other things. These things can all be life goals and ambitions. However, say you become bedridden, leaving you completely unable to work or amuse yourself, and your family even becomes burdened with the tasks of feeding you and taking care of your bodily waste. For what reason must you keep living even in this kind of situation?

At present, the population of Japan is rapidly aging with a declining birth rate, and the death rate is increasing. Is there any meaning in toiling so very hard to prolong and maintain a life that is devoid of joy and will soon end anyway? No doubt this is a question that is thrust not only before health care providers but also before many families. On what grounds can one keep saying that “human life is heavier than the earth” even when a person develops dementia?

If you accomplish great things while you are healthy, will you be able to die feeling satisfied with your life? The Japanese warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537–1598) ruled over the entire country and managed to attain things most people could only dream of, yet even he died a lonesome death, forlornly saying with his last breath that his life had been merely “a dream within a dream.”

The Nobel Prize is the most prestigious in the world, and there are probably people who say that winning it is the purpose of their lives. However, Nobel Prize winners Kawabata Yasunari (1899–1972) and Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961) both committed suicide — so what does this tell us? These contradictions and questions arise because the one fundamental issue of human life is not being made clear. “Why do we live?”

It is this question that is the greatest and most difficult issue for all humanity throughout time and space, and which politics, economics, science, medicine, the arts, literature, philosophy, and thought have been unable to answer. However, Master Shinran vivaciously clarified the answer to this enormous mystery of human life at the very beginning of his magnum opus, Teaching, Practice, Faith, Enlightenment:

“Amida’s inconceivable Vow is a great ship that carries us across the sea that is difficult to cross.” Life is a sea of ceaseless suffering, yet there is a great ship that will carry us across it cheerfully and radiantly. To be brought aboard this ship is the very purpose of life. What a powerful declaration this is. The great ship is “Namu Amida Butsu”, which was made by the master of all the countless Buddhas of the ten directions, Amida Buddha. Feeling there was no way he could just abandon the sentient beings drowning in an ocean of endless suffering, Amida Buddha created his Primal Vow with his mind of immense compassion, promising to make all people be born into his Pure Land of Utmost Bliss without fail. In order to carry out his Vow, he made the great ship, “Namu Amida Butsu.”

Master Shinran also taught this in plain words in one of his hymns:

“The painful sea of birth and death knows no bounds. Long have we been sinking in its waters. Only the ship of Amida’s universal Vow will take us aboard and carry us across without fail.” (Hymns on the Masters)

We have long been adrift in the ocean with its ceaseless waves of suffering. It is only the great ship of the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha that takes us on board and carries us without fail to the Pure Land. No-one can escape death. What will become of us in the next world, in the afterlife? This is a major issue that we will inevitably have to face.

As the ardent wish of all people is to be in the glistening Land of Infinite Light rather than in a pitch-black world, the ultimate purpose of life must then indeed be to be brought aboard Amida’s great ship in this lifetime. Master Shinran described the shining scene that greets us once we are aboard the ship in this way:

“Now that I have boarded the ship of Amida’s great compassion, now that I am afloat on the vast ocean of brightness, the breezes of supreme joy blow softly and the waves of all woe are transformed.”

(Teaching, Practice, Faith, Enlightenment, “On Practice”) Paraphrased, this means, “Lifted aboard the ship of Amida’s great compassion, I look on the sea of suffering that is my life and see a vast ocean of dazzling brightness with a gentle breeze of utmost bliss. Waves of misery are even turning into joy. Oh, what a wondrous scene!”

Master Shinran was teaching of a marvellous world in which suffering turns to joy. Once we enter it, in favourable times we will be grateful and in times of adversity our tears will become seeds of happiness and joy. Salvation by Amida takes place in an instant. Even if a person is in a desperate state and on the verge of death, it still will not be too late. Master Shinran, who had himself been brought aboard the great ship instantaneously, marvelled,

“How genuine, the true words of Amida that embrace us and never forsake us, the absolute truth that is peerless and transcendent!”

He was exclaiming, “It was true! It was true! The Great Ship of Amida is no lie!” Alongside this cry of wonder and immense joy, he also implored us,

“Listen and believe without hesitation or delay.”

This means, “The Vow-ship of great compassion has been right before our eyes since the distant past. We can be brought aboard the ship just by listening. Do not dawdle; hurry along this one and only path of listening to Buddhism!”

Indeed, he is the light of the world. We Shinran Followers do nothing other than believe in the teachings of Master Shinran, who explicated “why we live” to all humanity, and pass them on to others. In this year too, we must only hurry along the great path of benefiting one and all and move towards the light.

Source: The Buddhist Village Times #49 | 2015, "Why Do We Live?"

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