Composed February, 2008
Unlocking the Mysteries of Birth and Death
By Daisaku Ikeda
from UNLOCKING THE MYSTERIES OF BIRTH AND DEATH
CHAPTER 1: BIRTH
A merciful rain falls everywhere, equally, moistening the earth’s vast expanse and bringing forth new life from all the trees and grasses, large and small. This compelling image from the Lotus Sutra, depicted with the sutra’s characteristic vividness, grandeur and beauty, symbolizes the awakening of all people touched by the Buddha’s Law. At the same time, it is a magnificent tribute to the rich diversity of human and all other life, sentient and insentient. Each living thing manifests its Buddha nature; each contributes its harmony to the grand concert of symbiosis.
The Buddhist term dependent origination describes this symbiotic nature of life. As Goethe, speaking through Faust, wrote: “Into the whole, how all things blend, each in the other working, living,”1 Buddhism explains that nothing and no one exist in isolation. Each individual entity shapes its environment, which affects all other existences. All things are mutually supportive and interrelated, forming a living cosmos, what modern philosophy might call a semantic whole. This is the conceptual framework through which Mahayana Buddhism views life and the natural universe.
Consider the concept of causation. When viewed in terms of dependent origination, causal relationships differ fundamentally from the mechanistic idea of cause and effect that, according to modern science, holds sway over the natural world. The scientific model often seems divorced from subjective human concerns. When an accident or disaster takes place, mechanistic causation can identify how it occurred. It is silent, however, on why certain individuals and not others should be caught up in the tragic event. Indeed, the mechanistic view requires the deliberate dismissal of existential questions.
In contrast, the more broadly defined Buddhist understanding of causation takes into account human existence and directly addresses poignant uncertainties. In the early formulation of Shakyamuni’s teachings, the following exchange is said to have occurred: “‘What is the cause of aging and death?’ ‘Birth is the cause of aging and death.’”2 This emphasis on relatedness and interdependence may seem to suggest that individual identity is nullified or obscured. But Buddhist scripture addresses this in a passage that reads: “You are your own master. Could anyone else be your master? When you have gained control over yourself, you have found a master of rare value.”3 Another passage records Shakyamuni’s putative last words as: “Be lamps unto yourselves. Be a refuge unto yourselves. Rely on yourselves. Hold fast to the Law as a lamp, do not rely on anything else.”4
Both passages urge us to live independently and true to ourselves. The self referred to here, however, is not the “lesser self” caught up in the snares of egoism. Rather, it is the “greater self” in harmony with the life of the universe through which cause and effect are interlocked over the infinite reaches of space and time.
Similar to the unifying and integrating self that Carl Jung perceived in the depths of the ego, the term greater self in Buddhism expresses the openness and expansiveness of character by which we can embrace all people’s sufferings as our own. The greater self always seeks to alleviate pain and to augment the happiness of others here amid the realities of everyday life. Furthermore, the dynamic, vital awakening of the greater self enables each individual to experience both life and death with equal delight.
The Significance of the Treasure Tower
Nichiren wrote: “We adorn the treasure tower of our being with the four aspects [of birth, aging, sickness and death].”5 The treasure tower referred to here is first mentioned in the eleventh chapter of the Lotus Sutra, “The Emergence of the Treasure Tower.” That chapter as a whole can be interpreted as a metaphor for birth and human life. The text describes a massive tower emerging from beneath the earth and hovering in mid-air. It stands at the center of the universe, and its immense size represents how the life of each person is as vast as the universe. The tower is adorned with seven kinds of treasure — gold, silver, lapis lazuli, seashell, agate, pearl and carnelian — indicating that each person’s life is a cluster of jewels. Seated inside the tower is Many Treasures Buddha, who comes from the world of Treasure Purity.
Though interpretations of the significance of the treasure tower vary widely, Nichiren explained that it “refers to our individual bodies.”6 Likening the appearance of the treasure tower to one’s emergence in birth, he wrote, “The Treasure Purity world is the mother’s womb,”7 and, “the process of emerging from this womb is called ‘coming forth and appearing.’”8
The “world of Treasure Purity” denotes neither some special land nor an idealistic world. As no treasure is more valuable than life, the mother’s womb, in which life takes form and from which it is born, is itself this most sacred Treasure Purity world.
The treasure tower illustrates that our lives and the universe are one. Yet this profound truth often eludes us. To realize it means to see ourselves as the treasure tower, or to awaken our Buddha nature.
What Causes Life?
Even with the poetic metaphor of the treasure tower, we are still left to question: Where does life come from? What causes it?
Since ancient times, human beings have been fascinated by the mystery of life’s origin, by questions of why we are here on earth just as we are and what has caused us to be this way. In our quest, we have stretched the limits of our spirits, plumbed the depths of our minds and conducted endless laboratory experiments. All this work has yielded no definitive answers but rather an assortment of religious and philosophical hypotheses.
Buddhism views the universe as one life entity. The universe is imbued with life, and wherever conditions are right, life will emerge.
In the most conventional sense, of course, we are born from the union of our mothers and fathers. At the joining together of the spermatozoon and the ovum, an embryo is formed. As the embryo develops, so do the various functions of body and mind.
Something about the development of a new life, however, cannot be explained simply by the spermatozoon and ovum union. The embryo’s development based on the genetic information it has received and the environmental influences it experiences cannot be ascribed merely to chemical reactions. Something much more profound must cause life to emerge.
Buddhism explains that there are four stages of life: existence during birth, existence during life, existence during death and the existence during the period between death and rebirth, or the “intermediate existence or stage.” Life is understood to repeat the cycle of these four stages eternally.
Birth, like death, is a process. Some sutras describe conception as the appearance of an “entity of intermediary existence,” or the introduction of consciousness. Conception is the moment when this intermediary existence is wedded to its new human form.
Life in all its forms and at all times contains the urge to create, is inherently active, and possesses the positive power of self-generation. Indeed, life is a grand and eternal pulse that constantly seeks to become manifest throughout the universe whenever conditions are right. The power and functions that work within life to promote its self-manifestation can be called “internal causes.” Buddhism tells us that internal causes (including, as we shall see, the karma carried through the intermediate stage) interact with external causes to bring about the circumstances and conditions of birth.
Western science generally considers the spermatozoon and ovum the sole essentials for conception, maintaining that only fertilization of the female gamete is a necessary prerequisite. By contrast, the Buddhist view is that not only the spermatozoon and ovum but also life itself — in the state of intermediate existence and with karma that matches the conditions of conception, heredity, family and social conditions into which the life will be born — are each necessary for human life to come into being and develop. Conception results from the union of all three.
To illustrate, a couple has intercourse and fertilization is about to take place. Due to the combination of DNA from both parents, their potential child will inherit the genes for a birth defect. Conception cannot take place, however, without the “availability” of a life entity in the intermediate stage of existence that has made the causes to experience the effects of being born with and suffering from that birth defect. The life and karma of the mother, father and child — all must align.
Destiny, Heredity and Environment
How is it that children can take after their parents and yet differ in both character and appearance from all the other members of their family?
Gregor Mendel partially answered this question in the 1860s when he proposed the basic laws of heredity, which were then widely ignored. Further studies in genetics have led scientists to believe that genes play the central role in the inheritance of traits, enabling hereditary information to be passed from parent to child at the moment of fertilization, as male and female gametes fuse.
Is our character the result of heredity or of environment? This is a difficult question, shrouded in controversy. Perhaps it cannot really be decided. Today, many believe that genes largely dictate one’s nature. Yet, obviously, character is so complex that it cannot be entirely determined by heredity.
Two major theories address the shaping of character: the inborn, which emphasizes hereditary factors, and the empirical, which stresses environmental influences — views generally known as “nature” and “nurture.” One’s character is likely formed by the interaction of both. Moreover, human beings — unlike animals, whose behavior is largely instinctual — can initiate action, another character-shaping factor that must be taken into account.
Whatever the case, although we are all born into this world in similar fashion, no two of us develop in exactly the same way or in exactly the same circumstances. Some are born rich, others poor, some clever and others not so. Why such widely varying circumstances and diverse destinies? Buddhism gives a clear-cut answer based firmly on the law of cause and effect. As one sutra states: “If you want to understand the causes that existed in the past, look at the results as they appear in the present. And if you want to understand what results will appear in the future, look at the causes that exist in the present.”9 Rather than focusing on the past, Buddhism emphasizes the present and future. We are encouraged to face reality no matter how tough it may be, and to realize that by our actions from this point on, we can alter the influence of our past causes.
Understandably, we may wish to ascribe everything to hereditary and environmental factors not of our own making. Ultimately, however, it is only our determined, constant efforts to improve ourselves, to tap our innate capacity to reach beyond inner limitations that will empower us to enjoy the full range of our abilities and achieve what otherwise we could hardly conceive.
The Buddhist View of Transmigration
Since the beginning of history, people have sensed the presence of some spiritual force, the continued existence of which lies at the core of all things. In India, the concept of transmigration — the passing of an individual’s essence from one life to the next — has been accepted since very early times. Ancient Greeks, too, believed that something continues on after an individual’s death, something that undergoes a continual cycle of birth and death. In about the seventh century B.C.E., a religion called Orphism advocated purification of the soul achieved through a cycle of reincarnation. Later, around the fifth century B.C.E, the Pythagoreans advanced the concept of metempsychosis, or the transmigration of the soul.
Buddhism teaches instead that what transmigrates is karma. Karma is a grammatical variation of the Sanskrit karman, which means act or action. Karma refers to potentials in the inner, unconscious realm of life created through one’s actions in the past or present, which, respectively, after being activated by external stimuli, manifest as results in the present or future.
Sometimes the manifest effects are positive, what we might consider rewards; and sometimes they are negative, what we might term as retribution. As we will discuss further in chapter four, potentials that do not come to fruition continue to exist even after we die. They will accompany one into the next lifetime and so on until encountering the external cause that will bring forth the effect of the potential.
According to Buddhism, life takes on no physical entity after death, nor does a “spirit” or “soul” continue to exist as a fixed entity. There is no fixed self that lives on as an unchanging entity. Shakyamuni concluded that it is karma itself that continues. Our circumstances in this present lifetime are the effect of our past actions (karma), and our actions in the present determine the circumstances of our lives in the future. In other words, the influence of our actions carries on from one existence to the next, transcending the life and death of the human being.
The Meaning of Karma
Each of us creates our own karma. Our past thoughts, speech and behavior have shaped our present reality, and our actions (and thoughts and speech) in the present will in turn affect our future. The influence of karma carries over from one lifetime to the next, remaining through the latent state between death and rebirth. The law of karma accounts for the circumstances of one’s birth, one’s individual nature and the differences among all living beings and their environments.
The idea of karma predates Buddhism and had already permeated Indian society well before Shakyamuni’s time. The pre-Buddhist view of karma, however, contained an element of determinism. It served more to explain people’s lot in life and to compel them to accept it rather than inspire hope for change or transformation.
Buddhist teachings further developed the idea of karma. Shakyamuni maintained that what makes a person noble or humble is not birth but actions taken. Therefore, the Buddhist doctrine of karma is not fatalistic. Karma is viewed not only as a means to explain the present but also as the potential force through which to influence our future.
Good karma, then, means actions born from good intentions, kindness and compassion. Conversely, bad karma refers to actions induced by greed, anger and foolishness (or the holding of mistaken views). Some Buddhist treatises divide the causes of bad karma into ten acts: the three physical acts of killing, stealing and sexual misconduct; the four verbal acts of lying, flattery (or idle and irresponsible speech), defamation and duplicity; and the three mental acts of greed, anger and foolishness.
Buddhism teaches that the chain of cause and effect exists eternally; this accounts for the influence of karma amassed in prior lifetimes. The influence of such karma resides within the depths of our lives and, when activated by the moment-to-moment realities of this lifetime, shapes our lives according to its dictates. Some karmic effects may appear in this lifetime while others may remain dormant. “Fixed karma” produces a fixed result at a specific time, whereas the result of “unfixed karma,” of course, is neither fixed nor set to appear at a predetermined time.
Some karma is so heavy, so profoundly imprinted in the depths of people’s lives, that it cannot easily be altered. For instance, suppose someone deliberately makes another person extremely unhappy or even causes that person’s death; whether the guilty party escapes apparent accountability or is arrested and dealt with according to judicial procedures, either way, that person has created heavy negative karma. According to the strict law of causality, this negative karma will surely lead to karmic suffering far beyond one’s ordinary powers to eradicate it. Such grave karma usually exerts its influence at death, and the most influential karma at the time of death will determine one’s basic life-condition in the next lifetime.
The influence of particular karma will be extinguished after its energy is unleashed in one’s life. This is similar to a plant seed that sprouts and grows to blossom as a flower or bear fruit. After fulfilling its function, the same seed will never repeat the process.
Bad karma can be erased only after it “blossoms” in the form of our suffering. According to pre-Lotus Sutra teachings, the influence of severely bad karma, created through numerous actions, could only be erased through several lifetimes; and one could attain Buddhahood only by accumulating good causes in lifetime after lifetime. But the Lotus Sutra teaches that the principal cause for attaining Buddhahood is the Buddha nature inherent in each individual life, and that faith in the Lotus Sutra opens the way to that attainment. It is not required that we undergo lifetime after lifetime of austerities. Through our diligent practice of faith in the Lotus Sutra, we can instantly tap our innate Buddhahood and extricate ourselves from the effects of our bad karma in this lifetime. Moreover, the transformation of an individual’s life-condition can evoke a similar transformation in others. As this process ripples outward, similar transformations become possible throughout entire societies, all humankind and even into the natural world.
Karma and Medical Technology
By changing our genes, can we change our karma? This, too, is a difficult question. While it may be possible to overcome a particular illness by genetic alteration, thereby technically solving our problem, this will not, according to Buddhism, change the influence of our karma. Without changing our life-condition on the deepest level, we are destined to experience the anguish resulting from whatever causes we have made in the past.
In keeping with Buddhism’s regard for the sacredness of life, we must demonstrate extreme caution in applying technologies capable of manipulating life itself. If genetic therapy can provide solutions for certain problems, it should be considered as an option, but first it must be carefully and seriously examined. All possible precautions must be taken to prevent therapy from degenerating into the genetic manipulation of people for nontherapeutic ends.
With regard to genetic “defects,” distinguishing the normal from the pathological is not easy. Many who suffer from genetically transmitted defects or severe illnesses consider their lives happy and worth living. In defining quality of life, we must not draw boundaries and designate everything beyond those boundaries as unlivable. Instead we must do everything in our power to build a broad-minded society in which people with disabilities do not have to consider themselves “handicapped” and can realize their full potential.
No one would dispute that humanity has benefited greatly from the discoveries of medical science. For example, thanks to modern medicine, fetuses come successfully to term that until recently would have certainly miscarried. Also, prenatal tests allow us to monitor the very early stages of fetal development and identify a growing number of congenital and hereditary disorders.
Recent technological progress, however, which has been made at a dizzying speed, raises ethical questions. For example, if a congenital deformity is detected, the decision whether to carry the fetus to term is often left to the parents. Providing equipment for prenatal testing is important, but we must also create a social system that can support and advise parents in such situations.
Medicine treats the relatively superficial causes of life’s miseries. Ultimately, causes of health problems lie far beyond the realm of medicine, in the area identified by Buddhism as karma. Buddhism pursues these profound, ultimate causes so that a secure and happy future can be assured.
In other words, while medical science pursues health, Buddhism seeks the purpose for which people are born into this world, thus enabling them to lead lives of the highest possible value. The Lotus Sutra defines this world as the place where “living beings enjoy themselves at ease.” To be born on this earth and to enjoy every instant of living until the last possible moment — this is the purpose of practicing Buddhism.
The Oneness of Life and the Environment
Nichiren once wrote: “Environment is like the shadow, and life, the body. Without the body, no shadow can exist, and without life, no environment. In the same way, life is shaped by its environment.”10
The environment and the living body are seemingly separate phenomena that mutually influence each other, yet both are, in essence, embodiments of the ultimate reality of life. They are “two but not two,” or essentially one. Buddhism refers to this principle as the oneness of life and its environment.
The significance of this oneness principle lies in the fact that, rather than being at the mercy of our turbulent and ever-changing environment, we human beings can instead influence our environment from the inside out. As we cultivate our Buddha nature, our actions increasingly accord with our deepest wisdom and compassion. As we become indestructibly happy, that happiness is echoed in our environment. This principle urges us to bring forth our innate Buddha nature so solidly that we can build indestructible happiness within us regardless of what adversity or ease our environment presents.
Increasingly, people are seeing the world as made up not just of separate things but of interrelated phenomena, a view that accords with the Buddhist concepts of dependent causation and oneness of life and its environment.
Goethe’s unified view of nature, of life phenomena, is also being rediscovered. As he wrote: “The time will inevitably come when mechanistic and atomic thinking will be put out of the minds of all people of wisdom, and instead dynamics and chemistry will come to be seen in all phenomena. When that happens, the divinity of living Nature will unfold before our eyes all the more clearly.”11
The Universe is Life
Josei Toda once said:
We use the word self, but this word actually refers to the universe. When we ask how the life of the universe is different from the life of each of you, the only differences we find are those of your bodies and minds. Your life and that of the universe are the same.
Toda’s thesis on the philosophy of life states that the universe is life itself, and that life, together with the universe, is eternal and everlasting. He said, “Just as we sleep and wake and then sleep again, we live and die and then live again, maintaining our lives eternally.” And: “When we wake up in the morning, we resume our activities based on the same mind as the previous day. In the same way, in each new existence we are destined to live based on the result of the karmic causes created in our previous lives.”
Toda also explained that if we liken the universe to an ocean, our lives are like the waves that appear and disappear on the surface of that ocean — the waves and the ocean are not separate entities. In other words, the waves are but part of the ocean’s ongoing activity.
This is similar to a remark by the twentieth-century British philosopher Alan Watts: “There is no separate ‘you’ to get something out of the universe.… As the ocean ‘waves’ so the universe ‘peoples’.… What we therefore see as ‘death,’ empty space or nothingness is only the trough between the crests of this endless waving ocean of life.”12