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.
Jeff and myself hardly spoke for over 20 years yet I find I miss his presence on the planet more than I’d have thought possible.
I think that at the root of it all is the unrequited wish by myself that somehow things would be alright between us, that in the end, maybe we’d collaborate again, but of course, there’s no chance of that, certainly in this lifetime.
All that I can say, on this day (is it really two years), is that I hope that wherever your spirit is, it fares well.
In Buddhism, there’s a saying that Buddhas meet time and again, lifetime after lifetime, which I hope (although I believe ) that this is so.
Jeff’s interests, when I knew him and when we lived in each other’s boots, were wide, and included pure physics, astrophysics, metaphysics, much research into the paranormal, out of body experiences and the like. On top of this were ancient civilisations, their habits, myths and religious activities, plus literature & music (e.g. The Crawling Chaos) of which he had broad eclectic tastes, not always, but more often than not, keyed to my own.
So what’s to be said, what’s to do? How I wish you were here.
I know! Play some music where Jeff and myself had some connection.
The Hell of Incessant Suffering and the Land of Tranquil Light
Note: This was originally published here on Sunday, September 24th, 2006 at 4:28 pm and filed under Buddhism.. The link has been dead for quite some time, looks unlikely to re-appear, so I’m showing the words here as they are so wonderful because they deserve to be preserved. The material is straight from Google’s cache as it isn’t in the Wayback Machine. Use the contact page if you think this is unreasonable.
Through enlightenment we escape the confines of the physical and realise the unlimited potential of the human spirit. Just as the sun that dries the newly hatched butterfly’s wings, the compassion of the Lotus Sutra allows us all to soar from our pitiful cocoons and look out over the landscape of infinite possibility.
The potential for enlightenment exists within all human beings, just as an ungainly chick has the potential to become a great eagle, the single roe egg to become a great salmon, or the young cheetah to become faster even than antelope. Why then, do human beings endowed with the capacity for intelligence and great understanding constantly fail to fulfil their potential?
Physical confinement refers not only to tangible barriers, like walls, or borders, but also by those barriers caused by our lesser consciousnesses. Our lesser consciousnesses often serve to withhold our true potential, making us feel trapped within the lower life states of hell, hunger, animality and anger. We constantly fall into the three evil paths of greed anger and foolishness, and we commit the ten evil acts – all serving only to deepen our suffering and further delude us from our most true and pure nature.
This one moment of insight transformed Mr Toda’s life, and catalysed the growth of the SGI in post war Japan, and subsequently revitalised the cause for Kosen Rufu throughout the world.
It surprises me not in the least that given such a supreme teaching, and aware of his inability to directly influence the affairs of the world outside his cell, that the causes inherent in Mr Toda’s experiencing the Lotus Sutra ultimately led to such profound effects upon so many people today.
Trapped in a prison cell one is all too aware of his physical confinement. Given such an environment, and removed from every day affairs, even the ignorant would have much time to ponder. Many great people of compassion have suffered this kind of confinement – not just such great names as Mandela and Terry Waite, but the countless common people who have found their lives curtailed by cruel regimes bent on every kind of domination.
A prison cell is a relative confinement. The insects that must have occupied Josei Toda’s prison cell were most likely unaware of the rest of the prison, far less so the existence of the country of Japan, it’s people’s anguish, or the needless suffering being delivered upon countless millions of people due to the war. Those insects surely went about their daily business, oblivious to these facts. Spiders would spin their webs, and flies, being such, would daily find themselves trapped therein.
Josei Toda although knowing his mentor and friend Tsunesaburo Makiguchi was also in prison, must have felt a terrible sense of isolation from the world outside, and finally upon learning of Makiguchi’s death a year after his last brief meeting with him, he wept in his devastation all night. For a time he must have felt as isolated as a single ant in the middle of a great desert.
The hell of incessant suffering is indeed realised in this life due to our ignorance of our true nature and the way of the Lotus Sutra. Josei Toda’s prison cell provided him with the opportunity of transcending his own difficulties, realising within himself the Buddha nature which in turn blessed him with the vision that this world and all life within has the potential for buddhahood – that the potential existed for the land of tranquil light to be experienced in this life.
The relative confinement of the prison cell is no different from our confinement upon this planet. To live on a world the size of a grain of sand, human beings would be too small to see even under a powerful microscope. Imagine now that this grain of sand upon which billions of human beings depend may be more than 16000 miles from the nearest grain of sand which may also be inhabited by sentient life. It is impossible for common people to comprehend our isolation.
Surely then, humanity is more physically alone within the vast reaches of the universe than Josei Toda was within his prison cell. Yet, like the flies in Mr Toda’s cell, we are ignorant of our physical isolation and the darkness in our hearts. Why does humanity, more isolated in the universe as was Josei is his cell, not see it’s salvation in the compassion and supreme law of the Lotus Sutra? It is not unheard of for a person to exhibit great wisdom. People [pluraly] on the other hand, have never been recorded with the possession of a collective wisdom to match.
It is because people are amused by meaningless trinkets, misled by the poisonous machinations of our rulers, deluded by jealous and vengeful doctrines, and hungry for power that humanity has successfully delivered itself into a time where the great mystic forces have delivered the hell of incessant suffering before our very eyes.
Nichiren stated “those who stay long in privies forget how foul the smell is”, and so it is with humanity and the three evil paths. Our task as votaries of the Lotus Sutra and disciples of Nichiren is to make the great Law as irresistible to humanity, as the copy of the Lotus Sutra in Mr Toda’s cell was to him.
The movement for Kosen Rufu must make the Law accessible to all and to propagate it at every opportunity. True votaries of the Lotus Sutra see our worldly attachments for the illusions of smoke and dust that they are.
It is not enough simply to become comfortable exchanging our views with fellow believers at regular meetings. This time calls for shakubuku to be practiced with great wisdom, courage and compassion. To provide demonstrable proof to all those around you – your employers, employees, family and friends – is paramount if this world is ever to be transformed into the land of tranquil light. This world may not be transformed in my lifetime, but if we are to take true faith in kosen rufu then we will surely be reborn in the land of tranquil light.
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.
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