Many setsuwa (narratives) and song lyrics liken human beings to travelers. Life is indeed a journey. One year’s journey ends, and the next year’s journey begins. Where have we come from, and whither are we going? We must not be sleepwalkers, oblivious to where we have been and where we are headed.
In early childhood we know only eating and drinking. We are taught to speak, and we learn to think about many things. In time, we take an interest in romance, and marry. Without being taught, we bear children and, after bearing them, bring them up. In this way, babies turn into daughters and sons, brides and grooms, mothers and fathers— and then grandmothers and grandfathers, old people who no longer fit in anywhere.
The way of the world is this:
Girls blossom in beauty as brides,
Wilt and wither as wives,
Scatter and die as crones.
This comic verse points out a human reality that is pitiable, yet undeniable. Whether active or still, we creep ever closer to the grave. On the journey of life, we all are graveyard- bound. Whatever turns we take along the way, that is where the journey ends.
What were we born into this world to accomplish in the meantime? What are we in search of as we work? Some boast, “I was born to build this house.” Others say with a rueful smile, “I was born to have children.” Still others bluster, “I’m here to pile up money and possessions.” Some brag of their honor and status. There are even some who moan that they were doomed to be drunkards.
But can any of us truly say that we were born for such things alone? What becomes of the houses built, the children raised, the money saved? In the end, is not such labor for naught?
We stake our lives on things we believe to be ours, but all in this world will one day disintegrate and scatter. “Having” something means having it by our side for a brief time. Even Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the onetime lord of the realm, wrote in his death poem, “All Naniwa [Osaka] is but the dream of a dream.”
At the moment of death, nothing one has previously relied on, whether wife and child or money and treasure, will accompany one. At the end of the mountain road of death, one must cross the river all alone. Fascicle 1: Letter 11
These words of Rennyo are unerring. All this being so, the start of a new year, a time that marks a fresh stage in our life’s journey, is an appropriate time to ponder the true purpose of our fleeting existence in this world.
A Buried Time Bomb
Late last year, the nation was surprised and terrified by a highway tunnel disaster. Early on the morning of December 2, a 130-meter-long section of the ceiling of Sasago Tunnel on the Chuo Expressway in Yamanashi Prefecture collapsed, crushing three vehicles and snuffing out nine lives.
Hidden in the tunnel ceiling was the time bomb of aging. Some people barely managed to escape, miraculously surviving despite having a concrete panel score a direct hit on their car. “I’ll never go through another tunnel like that again,” they declared, their terror palpable.
Before the crash, any number of cars must have passed through that site at normal speed. The collapsed portion was 3% of the total length, a distance it took only seven seconds to cover. A hair’s breadth separated life from death.
It isn’t only tunnel ceilings that contain hidden time bombs. Experts point out that around the country, aging affects bridges, sewers, and gas lines whose time is running out. Time bombs lurk where we scarcely think to look. No one knows what may happen next, or when, or where; we are surrounded by imponderables.
The ways of dying are without number. Some fall prey to illness and die, some die at the sword. Some drown in water, some lose their lives in fire. Still others die in their sleep, or die crazed by drink. All ways of dying alike are the result of one’s actions in the world before. There is no escaping one’s fate.
Notes on Steadfast Holding
These words of Kakunyo are timelessly true.
Head for the Great Ship that Bears Us Across the Sea of Suffering
People all struggle to secure their livelihood, not realizing that their span of life diminishes by day and by night. They seem unaware that their lives will be extinguished like a candle in the wind. The Six Realms afford no rest and have no fixed end. People cannot yet find deliverance and be liberated from the sea of suffering. Why are they calm and undismayed?
The above words of Shan-tao’s ever rouse Shinran followers to wakefulness. Shinran also proclaims this truth:
Amida’s inconceivable Vow is a great ship that carries us across the sea that is difficult to cross, and his unimpeded light is the sun of wisdom that destroys the mind of darkness.
Preface, Teaching, Practice, Faith, Enlightenment
And he constantly encourages us with these words:
It is a torch in the long night of darkness; Sorrow not that your eyes to wisdom are blind. It is a ship on the vast sea of birth-and-death; Grieve not that your sins and hindrances weigh heavy.
Hymns on the Three Ages
Let us follow the stalwart words of Master Shinran and swiftly enter Amida’s vow-ship of great compassion. Then the swirling eddies of reality will be transformed just as they are into a vast sea of light, and though weeping we will not be gloomy, though laughing not frivolous, though wealthy not proud, though poor not servile, though loved not intemperate, though hated not twisted; enabled to weather lives of resentment and cursing with thanksgiving and exultation, we will be free. This is what we must become.
Year in and year out, our lives repeat themselves, to what end? For Shinran followers, on fire with the mission of believing and sharing with others the teachings of Sakyamuni that cause us to gain everlasting happiness, not a single day of this year must pass without meaning. Let us follow the powerful teachings of Master Shinran and burst into the Wheel of Light*
Wheel of Light: Amida Buddha's Light
by Kentetsu Takamori
Translated by Juliet Carpenter
Source: The Buddhist Village Times #26 | 2013, Taking Stock; Following the Teachings of Light
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