Lotus Blossom in McClelland Art Gallery – contrasts to the large sculptures…
With it’s dramatically sombre title, “The Importance of the Moment of Death“, Nichiren tells us exactly what’s on his mind. The text of the letter shows that it was sent to an unknown person to read to the lay nun Myōhō. Presumably she was unable to read… Whatever, Nichiren knew several lay nuns called Myoho and this one’s a widow.
We know he despised the “Pure Land” and other teachings and espoused the Lotus Sutra as being the final version of a lifetime’s work and thought by Shakyamuni, who most know as the Buddha. His outspokenness brought him many enemies in feudal Japan.
He was drawing to the end of his life, being 56, with 4 years to go. In this piece he states exactly what he thought – and did! The sheer poetry when he talks about the transient nature of life, is like majestic magic.
Looking back, I have been studying the Buddha’s teachings since I was a boy. And I found myself thinking, “The life of a human being is fleeting. The exhaled breath never waits for the inhaled one. Even dew before the wind is hardly a sufficient metaphor. It is the way of the world that whether one is wise or foolish, old or young, one never knows what will happen to one from one moment to the next. Therefore I should first of all learn about death, and then about other things.”
So I gathered and considered the sacred teachings of Shakyamuni’s entire lifetime, as well as the writings and commentaries of scholars and teachers.
Which is what Nichiren really did. From a young boy he sought the true nature of existence. And using the metaphors that without white there can be no black, and without life there can be no death, Nam Myoho Renge Kyo was the fruit of his lifetime’s studies.
Nichiren explicitly says (above) that it was from looking at dead people at such an early age that he commenced his life’s work and started studying Buddhism! What a fantastic thing from such a gloomy beginning!
Nichiren encourages the lay nun Myoho that her recently deceased husband is okay.
He also says that she will be (and is currently), okay.
The persistent care and trouble that Nichiren takes over ordinary people is noteworthy; he continually encourages, when things are just pottering on as well as when people are at their darkest hour and are troubled.
How does he say these things? Here?
The key passage for me is here:
One who upholds the daimoku of the Lotus Sutra transforms the black lacquer of the evil deeds of a lifetime, and of countless kalpas of lifetimes in the past, into the great merit of good deeds. All the more so is this true of one’s good roots from the beginningless past, which all take on a golden hue.
And when your deceased husband chanted Nam-myoho-renge-kyo at the end on his deathbed, the evil deeds of a lifetime, and from the beginningless past, changed into the seeds of Buddhahood. This is what is meant by the teachings called “earthly desires are enlightenment,” “the sufferings of birth and death are nirvana,” and “attaining Buddhahood in one’s present form.”
And because you are the beloved wife of such a man, the teaching of women attaining Buddhahood without doubt also applies to you.
The image is that of a huge dying star, the Carina Nebula which is likely to cataclysmically pop. From its remains, new stars will be made, which is the whole point of it all. Nichiren then goes on to finish saying,
…if this were to be a lie, Shakyamuni, Many Treasures, and all the Buddhas of the ten directions, who are Shakyamuni’s emanations, would be liars, great liars, evildoers, and those who deceive all living beings and cause them to fall into hell (…) It would not be Nichiren’s lie; rather it would be the lie of all the Buddhas in the ten directions and three existences.
But consider: How could such a thing ever be?
I will explain this matter in detail when we meet.
I would love to had been at that meeting!
And in Another Letter to the Lay Nun Myoho…
Three years later in another letter to the nun, Nichiren again encourages the nun. Her loneliness has increased as she is shunned by her family – all for chanting Nam Myoho Renge Kyo.
In fact in this letter, we get a clue to Nichiren’s realisation that Buddhahood applies to everyone. He paraphrases Shakyamuni’s disillusionment with the women of his time and at the same time praises the lay nun Myoho, when he says,
I have received your gift of a light summer robe. You have been left behind by your deceased husband in a woman’s situation, and are separated from your relatives, too. You hear nothing from your one or two daughters, who are not to be relied on. Moreover, you are a woman who is hated by others because of this teaching. You are just like Bodhisattva Never Disparaging.
I had therefore thought that, though women would tarnish their names and throw away their lives on meaningless paths, they were weak at following the path to Buddhahood. But now you, born a woman in the evil world of the latter age, while being reviled, struck, and persecuted by the barbaric inhabitants of this island country who are unaware of these things, have endured and are propagating the Lotus Sutra.
She must have been a tough one. She chanted the daimoku, probably just like in this YouTube video.
Nichiren does not explicitly say, to my eyes, what “The Importance of the Moment of Death” is. But his meaning is clear.
The importance of the moment of death is to be chanting The Daimoku of The Lotus Sutra, even if it’s only in your head.
I did this when I had an operation a few years ago, just as I was going under the anaesthetic. Of course I woke up later (like dah…), but my faith was paramount in my thoughts as I drifted off, though weirdly, I almost forgot….. Here’s how.
I was completely empty of thoughts, or a bit shocked, as they prepared my hand for the drugs, maybe my face showed trepidation or something to the anaesthetist, but she said “most people try to think happy thoughts or faces at this time” – it was then that I remembered I’d previously promised myself many times to chant as I went under…. so I did… and just in time.
Clifford to Clarence Worley – Click image for Quote
I have a set drill in my head now that should I feel I’m a goner, to chant, even if it’s just inside my mind.
Is this mad? Not for me.
Will I forget again?
Who can tell? But though I quoted this at the top from Nichiren, I’ll repeat it again here…
It is the way of the world that whether one is wise or foolish, old or young, one never knows what will happen to one from one moment to the next.
I’m often struck when reading the papers or news, to see the coroner’s verdict on someone’s death as:
Ending his own life “while the balance of his mind was disturbed”
Dennis and Flora Milner said they wanted to decide when to die
Well they have to say something, it’s their job, but the phrase is very peculiar. It is also very common, over 110k webpages!
Take this couple, the Milners, who were found dead in their home on the 1st November, 2009. They look quite jolly, don’t they. Would you say that the balance of their mind is disturbed?
Current UK law says that it’s OK to end your own life, but illegal to help anyone do it. I’ve emphasised the word “current”, because not that long ago, when the spoken language of the people of Britain would be comprehensible to us here today, it was actually a capital offence to commit suicide! In other words, if you failed to kill yourself, the State would that ensure you got your wish, by hanging you. This all came from the Catholic and then later Protestant religions’ view of life and the hereafter.
This shows that the view of suicide is highly flexible!
A common view, is as I stated at the top; that someone has a mental problem. This is a tautology, of course. (Statement: ‘All people who attempt suicide are mentally ill.’ Question: ‘How do you know they are mentally ill?’ Answer: ‘Because only mentally ill persons would try to commit suicide.’) But more to the point, what is the mind?
People have struggled since the dawn of self-comprehension about “the mind”. Descartes said “I think therefore I am” which is as good as anything.
Nichiren, the Buddhist monk has said many things, usually by quoting other previous Buddhist scholars and the like, and with an alarming number of references to the concept of “mind“, “self” and “existence“. For instance, quoting Dengyo he states,
“The two phases of life and death are the wonderful workings of one mind. The two ways of existence and non-existence are the true functions of an inherently enlightened mind.” – Nichiren, The Heritage of the Ultimate Law of Life
Which is all fine and dandy if you’re not depressed, isn’t it? If you are feeling down, it’s as dust to the wind, isn’t it?
But the truth of what Nichiren is saying is that it encapsulates one’s concept of “self”, regardless of whether you are up or down with your life.
And surely, by knowing oneself, even if you are suicidal, then your mind is never disturbed because at that point you have a very clear idea of “self”?
There are various forms of suicide, neatly classified on this Wikipedia entry. What is clear to me, is that there are, in essence, only two types of suicide, and they both to varying degrees are to do with a lack of value to life, not a disrespect of it.
Respect is a concept based in honour and subservience.
Value is a concept that is transferable across many human activities and we all have a good idea of it’s meaning that is far removed from any concept of society, duty, kinship and a host of other things based around law and natural justice.
The first is when one perceives no value in one’s own life.
Here, I’m separating life and existence into two different things, much as all the world’s major religions do. (Most religions, in one way or another, have at their core the premise that when you die, in the physical sense, that you “go” somewhere else afterwards). In such a case, a person may be fed up with their lot and end it all for one of the reasons that Wikipedia lists. For example, men with families like myself, when getting their pension statement will jokingly say amongst themselves that “I’m worth more dead than alive!”. The truth is that this is a truly valid reason that many suicides will use and is a far closer statement of the reality of many in the Western World’s lives than they care to admit.
The second is when a person sees no value in other’s lives.
In each of these cases, the potential for that person’s own death is there precisely because they set aside for an undefined period, any value of the person’s life they are going to kill, even though there’s a good chance they too will die.
By doing this they wrap up my first reason within the second. It’s impossible not to!
Of course, they justify their reasons under the flags of patriotism or peace and the promise or expectation of a “better life” either elsewhere for themselves or their families or country.
Nationalism and native land
But what is the point of committing suicide for a country or a belief system like a religion? These are temporary constructs of our human minds. As Nichiren said;
There are not two lands, pure or impure in themselves. The difference lies solely in the good or evil of our minds. – On Attaining Buddhahood in This Lifetime – The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, Volume 1, page 4
It is like the case of a person who in a dream sees himself performing various good and evil actions. After he wakes up and considers the matter, he realizes that it was all a dream produced by his own mind. This mind of his corresponds to the single principle of the essential nature of phenomena, the true aspect of reality, while the good and evil that appeared in the dream correspond to enlightenment and delusion. – The Entity of the Mystic Law – WND1, page 418
So what we have is our own mind.
Who is to say whether it’s mad or bad?
Who is to say that life itself is a true reality, because every single thing we see with our eyes and perceive with our other senses, is actually processed information by, and a product of, our own mind!
This last is pure physics and logic. We live, and see things just like TV. A TV picture is just dots on a screen. Our mind converts them into news, trees, people, porn. But there’s nothing there, only dots.
Similarly with Great Art. It’s just paint splodges. It’s our mind that makes the Mona Lisa enigmatic – not even Leonardo’s – it’s our own mind that does it!!!. Just like the expression, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”.
Life and Love
So who can put any suicide under any form of disdain? Who can dare compare the suicide of a soldier (usually dressed up as medals and bravery, and they are brave, make no mistake) dying for his or her concept of patriotism with the suicide of a spurned lover, dying for their own concept of life and duty?
It takes just as much bravery for a young girl to walk into a market place and blow herself up as it does for a soldier to run across open ground through a field of enfilading machine gun fire.
And it takes the same bravery for a spurned or deceived lover to end their life when they’ve been through all the options in their own mind, using all the logic at their disposal and deduced that a new, different life for themselves in the next existence is a better option than the current life, especially if, as I said earlier, they consider the value of their life to be greater when they are dead!
To go through all these acts of certain death takes the same amount of courage from everybody, in that I see no distinction.
You may pile up dung and call it sandalwood, but when you burn it, it will give off only the odour of dung. You may pile up a lot of great lies and call them the teachings of the Buddha, but they will never be anything but a gateway to the great citadel of the hell of incessant suffering.
Each one of the fuzzy white bits in the photo above is a galaxy containing billions of stars and thus many, many life-forms, all at various stages of evolution. This statement is derived from the work of thousands of intellectuals using the powers of observation and deduction available to us all.
Journey's End (Doctor Who)
Tonight there was a show highlighting bits of the top BBC show, Doctor Who.
It was a reminder, for me, of the most cataclysmic scene, from the final (proper) episode called Journey’s End, where “The Doctor” has to wipe the mind of Donna, his companion, to save herself from going mad. (this was because she’d inherited his Time-Lord powers in the picture here, which are too much for a human).
Flowers For Algernon (S.F. Masterworks) (Paperback )by Daniel Keyes
This scene I can fully empathise with because of my own experience of an under-active thyroid gland which removed my powers of intellect and concentration, and almost removed my concept of “self”, before I was diagnosed. At the time, when I was recovering, I called it my “Flowers for Algernon” experience.
“Flowers for Algernon” is an all-time great science fiction story. Charlie Gordon, the story-telling diarist, like Donna Noble in Doctor Who, and like myself earlier, we were all crushingly aware of the powers we once had, but now were losing, visibly.
In many respects, it’s much worse than death. People sometimes worry about death and try not to think about it, hoping it will go away. Myself, I’ve always pondered it, sometimes to gloomy distraction. It’s like the great unknown.
Ordinary people seem not to realize that those who really apply themselves in the right way to philosophy are directly and of their own accord preparing themselves for dying and death.
With this, I fully agree, and can thus explain away my gloomy dallyings with the words of one of the greatest thinkers of all time.
Nichiren, the Buddhist monk of a later age said;
Life at each moment permeates the entire realm of phenomena and is revealed in all phenomena. To be awakened to this principle is itself the mutually inclusive relationship of life at each moment and all phenomena. – WND page 3, On Attaining Buddhahood in This Lifetime
I think that with this in mind, for my next existence I’ll go somewhere different to this Earth….
Since I’ve been born I’ve always felt ‘old’, as if I’m returning here to ‘fix’ something, a devoir-faire.
Maybe I’ll be in these red centres of creation, a truly glorious image emphasising the hydrogen clouds.
"Mountains of Creation" by Spitzer. These towering pillars of cool gas and dust are illuminated at their tips with light from warm, embryonic stars. The pillars in the Spitzer image are part of a region called W5, in the Cassiopeia constellation 7,000 light-years away and 50 light-years across. In the image, hundreds of forming stars (white/yellow) can seen for the first time inside the central pillar, and dozens inside the tall pillar to the left.
It’s truly a great privilege to be able to go out on an evening and stare at our night sky and the Milky Way, pondering on the gems that must exist, both in front of our eyes and those ones hidden by vast distance.
Our Milky Way by Spitzer Telescope - click for source page with VERY high resolution pictures!
This is the signature tune of a French show which appeared on UK TV in the late 60s. For some interconnected reason, I stumbled on it and realised that I still whistle it now and again when it pops in my head. I have to whistle it as there’s no possible way until the next life that I can hit the notes.
However, I used to be able to sing along with it, and even get the high note, before my voice broke… ;-) I sang it in tune, with the correct expression and the appropriate feeling. Because, as Nichiren said, several times,
The way of attaining Buddhahood is just like this. Though we live in the impure land, our hearts reside in the pure land of Eagle Peak. Merely seeing each other’s face would in itself be insignificant. It is the heart that is important. Someday let us meet at Eagle Peak, where Shakyamuni Buddha dwells.
Masakado was renowned as a brave general who had mastered the art of war, yet he was defeated by the armies under the emperor’s command. Even Fan K’uai and Chang Liang had their failures. It is the heart that is important. No matter how earnestly Nichiren prays for you, if you lack faith, it will be like trying to set fire to wet tinder. Spur yourself to muster the power of faith. Regard your survival as wondrous. Employ the strategy of the Lotus Sutra before any other. “All others who bear you enmity or malice will likewise be wiped out.” These golden words will never prove false. The heart of strategy and swordsmanship derives from the Mystic Law. Have profound faith. A coward cannot have any of his prayers answered.
It’s important to realise that these blue words were written in feudal Japan to a nun, and to a samurai warrior. Nichiren wrote them directly to these people, to encourage them in words most appropriate to them. He did not write them to me. But the core of the meaning is just as important now in the 21st century industrialised West as it was then and I can use them just the same….
“It is the heart that is important” – it really is.
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