All Who Are Born Must Die
Nichiko Niwano, President of Rissho Kosei-kai
Shakyamuni's Experience of Impermanence
February 15 is the date on which Rissho Kosei-kai holds the ceremony marking the day when, some 2,500 years ago, Shakyamuni entered nirvana. This observance of Shakyamuni's entrance to nirvana is, along with the anniversaries of the day of Shakyamuni's birth and the day of his enlightenment, one of the three important annual events for Buddhists, and while we praise his virtues on this day, we also take the opportunity to again reflect upon what matters most in life.
In this regard, as Zen Master Dogen (1200–1253) declared, "The most important matter for a Buddhist is to be completely clear about the meaning of birth and the meaning of death." In other words, we should clearly understand the reality of life and death. The fact that all who are born must die, that death comes equally and indiscriminately to one and all, should be etched on our hearts.
We need to be clear in our minds about this fact because it lets us know the preciousness of the life we now have and makes us aware of the value of our being alive.
Incidentally, during morning recitation not long ago, I suddenly thought, "Shakyamuni used his physical existence to tell us these things." As I have said before, Shakyamuni was no superhuman; he was born a flesh-and-blood human being, and he entered nirvana at the age of eighty. Shakyamuni, who expounded the truth of impermanence, himself lived out the very truth of what he taught: not only illness and death, but before that, sorrow at being confronted with the ruin of his country—accepting such dire circumstances. Therefore, when I was reciting chapter 16 of the Lotus Sutra, "The Eternal Life of the Tathagata," and read, "The words of the Buddha are true, not false," I was struck by the thought that what the Buddha told us is the truth, not meaningless words. I then pondered anew the importance of accepting the truth of life and death as the highest priority in our existence.
Shining Light into Hearts and Minds
Everything that is born will someday die—that is the essential course of nature, which is preordained and necessary. Yet when we hear this, the thought of death often captures our attention and makes us feel gloomy. However, without life there is no death, and so by being clear in our minds about death, we cast light on life. Life and death are essentially part of the same thing: one cannot exist without the other.
To take a personal example of something close at hand, I had to meet a deadline to finish the text you are now reading. Sometimes, I wished I could forget the date of the deadline, but if my time were unlimited, I might not ever have set to work on the text. Isn't this something all of us do too often?
In Essays in Idleness, one of the classics of Japanese literature, Yoshida Kenko (1283–1350) tells us, "If we had the ability to live forever, how colorless our lives would be. Because we are impermanent, our lives are rich with color." Precisely because we know that our lives are limited, we lead purposeful lives and can concentrate on the matters before our very eyes. We may forget the truth of life and death, as Zen master Ikkyu (1394–1481) described in this humorous poem: "'Tomorrow is another day,' my mind was eased by this. I whiled away today doing nothing." Conversely, when we lead our lives supposing that tomorrow may never come, we fully experience each and every moment of life.
When we can accept the fact of death in this way, we need not uselessly fear it or find the thought of it abhorrent. Furthermore, by doing so we can cherish the memory of those who have gone and our perspective becomes richer and deeper.
We feel sad when those close to us die, but when we have been overcome by this sadness in our whole being, the strength to once again face life positively wells up within us, meaning that such sadness is an essential part of life. At the same time, being able to accept that life and death are parts of one thing allows us to reflect more deeply on the legacy of those who have passed away, learn from and praise their positive traits, and vow to lead our lives as they led theirs. This is just like our learning from Shakyamuni and looking up to Founder Nikkyo Niwano as our guide, thereby gaining renewed power to conduct our lives.
By doing so I want each of us to lead a life that can shine light into the hearts and minds of other people.
From “Kosei” Translated by Kosei Publishing
Read past Guidance messages from President Niwano.