We all desire happiness, and yet happiness seems to be just beyond our reach. However many "how to be happy" books might appear, human beings are still largely beset by the same problems as their ancestors. The poor seek wealth, the sick yearn to be healthy, those suffering from domestic strife crave harmony, and so on. Even if we secure wealth, health and a happy home life, we find ourselves confronted by problems in other areas.
Furthermore, should we somehow fashion circumstances that apparently satisfy all the conditions necessary for happiness, how long can we maintain those circumstances? Obviously not forever. None of us can avoid the illnesses and slow weakening of the body that accompany aging, and still fewer of us can escape death.
Problems Are Not The Cause of Unhappiness
Problems, however, are not in themselves the fundamental cause of unhappiness. According to Buddhism, the real cause is not just that we have problems, but that we lack the power and wisdom to solve them. Buddhism teaches that all individuals innately possess infinite power and wisdom, and it reveals the process whereby these qualities can be developed.
In addressing the issue of happiness, Buddhism focuses not so much on eliminating suffering and difficulties, which are understood to be inherent in life, as on how we should cultivate the potentials that exist within us. Strength and wisdom, Buddhism explains, derive from life force. If we cultivate sufficient life force, we can not only withstand life's adversities but transform them into causes of happiness and empowerment.
Removing Suffering Will Not Bring Happiness
If this is to be our goal, however, we must first identify the principal sufferings of life. Buddhism describes four universal sufferings -- birth, aging, sickness and death. No matter how much we would like to cling to our youth, we age with the passage of time. Try as we might to maintain good health, we will eventually contract some disease or other ailment. And, more fundamentally, though we abhor the thought of dying, any moment could be our last (although, of course, it is beyond our power to know when that moment will come).
We can recognize various causes -- biological, physiological and psychological -- for the sufferings of sickness, aging and death. But ultimately it is life itself, our birth into this world, that is the cause of all our mundane sufferings.
In Sanskrit, suffering is called duhkha, a word implying a state fraught with difficulty in which people and things do not accord with our wishes. This condition derives from the fact that all phenomena are transient. Youth and health do not continue forever, nor can our very lives themselves. Here, according to Buddhism, lies the ultimate cause of human suffering.
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Buddha & The Four Worldly Sufferings
Shakyamuni, or the historical Gautama Buddha, renounced the secular world after encountering these worldy sufferings in what's known as the four meetings, a story found in many Buddhist scriptures. So that the young Shakyamuni, known as Prince Siddhartha, would be shielded from worldly suffering, his father, King Shuddhodana, essentially confined him to the palace.
Emerging from the east gate of the palace one day, however, he encountered a withered old man tottering along with a cane. Seeing this man, Shakyamuni deeply recognized how life inevitably entails the suffering of aging. On another occasion, leaving the palace by the south gate, he saw a sick person and realized that sickness, too, is a part of life. A third time, leaving via the west gate, he saw a corpse; this "meeting" led him to grasp the reality that all which lives must eventually die. Finally, exiting the north gate one day, he encountered a religious ascetic whose air of serene dignity awoke in the prince a resolve to embark on a religious life.
Eventually, after dedicating himself for many years to various religious practices, ascetic and otherwise, Shakyamuni attained enlightenment, gaining freedom from the sufferings of birth, aging, sickness and death. Determined to lead other people to this enlightenment, he set about preaching and came to be known as the "Buddha," a Sanskrit term meaning an "enlightened one" -- a person whose wisdom encompasses the ultimate truth of life and the universe.
The Four Noble Truths & Eightfold Path
It is generally held that, immediately after his enlightenment, Shakyamuni preached the doctrines of the four noble truths and the eightfold path. The four noble truths are:
- the truth of suffering
- the truth of the origin of suffering
- the truth of the cessation of suffering
- the truth of the path to the cessation of suffering
The truth of suffering is that all existence in this world entails suffering, as represented by the four sufferings we have noted as being inherent in life. The truth of the origin of suffering states that suffering is caused by selfish craving for the ephemeral pleasures of the world. The truth of the cessation of suffering is that the eradication of this selfish craving ends the suffering. And the truth of the path to the cessation of suffering is that there exists a path by which this eradication can be achieved. That path is traditionally interpreted as the discipline of the eightfold path. This latter is composed of:
- right views, based on the four noble truths and a correct understanding of Buddhism
- right thinking, or command of one's mind
- right speech
- right action
- right way of life, based on purifying one's thoughts, words and deeds
- right endeavor, to seek the true Law
- right mindfulness, always to bear right views in mind
- right meditation
The four noble truths and the eightfold path were directed chiefly to those disciples who had rejected secular life and were wholly engaged in Buddhist practice; they reflect the basic attitude and approach that underlie Shakyamuni's early teachings, which concentrated on predominantly negative views about life and the world so that he could awaken people first to life's harsh realities and then to the inexpressible spiritual experience of nirvana. If carried out to the letter, these teachings, which encouraged the negation of all desires, would inevitably lead to the negation of the desire to live.
The fundamental solution to human suffering in this world, accordingly, lies in the eradication of earthly desires -- that is, all manner of desire, impulse and passion arising from the depths of people's lives. By following these teachings, people could allegedly sever their ties to the cycle of birth and death and attain the state wherein rebirth in this world is no longer necessary -- that is, they could attain the state of nirvana.
Leading Every Human Being to Happiness
While these teachings may have been applicable and beneficial to monks and nuns, they were extremely difficult for lay people to follow. Shakyamuni's original determination, however, was to lead every human being on this earth to happiness. For this reason, he traveled back and forth across the Middle Ganges region, expounding his philosophy.
But lay people, even if they wanted to achieve nirvana, must have found it not just impracticable but actually impossible to abandon all earthly desires. They had families to support, jobs to do, and other everyday affairs that demanded their attention. While nirvana might have been an ideal, it was in no way an attainable goal. Somehow, though, Shakyamuni's wisdom and compassion always reached the ordinary people who, obviously, had many problems that they lacked the means to solve.
Had this not been the case -- had Buddhism been unable to help ordinary people -- then it would never have achieved a status higher than that of an intellectual pursuit. Shakyamuni counseled people and inspired them with hope and courage so that they could overcome their sufferings and enjoy the prospect of a brilliant future. For example, he spoke about a pure land far from this world where, by following his teachings, people could be reborn free from all desires and strangers to any suffering or fear.
Just as he encouraged his monks and nuns to observe his many precepts and follow the eightfold path in order to attain nirvana, Shakyamuni taught his lay believers to be faithful to his teachings so that they could be reborn into the pure land. But, in actuality, neither the eradication of desire nor rebirth in the pure land is attainable. It is impossible to blow out the fires of desire and interrupt the cycle of birth and death because desire is inherent in life, life is eternal, and birth and death are the inescapable alternating aspects of life. Nor is it possible to reach a pure land that does not in fact exist. Both nirvana and the pure land were metaphorical devices employed by Shakyamuni to develop his followers' understanding.
Accepting The Cycle of Suffering Is The Key To Happiness
From another perspective, the teaching concerning nirvana was directed toward personal emancipation through the realization of ultimate truth, and the pure land teaching was directed toward the emancipation of the people at large. These teachings are representative of the two major streams of Buddhism -- Hinayana (the lesser vehicle) and Mahayana (the great vehicle), respectively -- and were later integrated in the Lotus Sutra, which we shall discuss at some length in this book. The Lotus Sutra makes it absolutely clear that two aspects of Buddhist practice are indispensable if we are to attain enlightenment. One is directed toward perfecting ourselves, in the sense that we realize the ultimate truth and develop our inherent potential, and the other is the practice of leading people toward that perfection.
The Lotus Sutra also reveals the true meanings of nirvana and the pure land. According to the sutra, we do not have to stop the cycle of birth and death in order to enter nirvana. Rather, nirvana is the state of enlightenment in which, as we repeat the cycle of birth and death, we come to terms with that cycle and it no longer is a source of suffering. Similarly, we do not have to abandon all desire in order to attain nirvana because we can transform earthly desires into causes of happiness and, further, of enlightened wisdom. Moreover, the pure land does not necessarily lie beyond death. We dwell in the pure land here and now if we believe in the Lotus Sutra, which reveals that we can transform this world -- filled as it is with suffering and sorrow -- into a pure land full of joy and hope.
People Are Not Grappling with Fundamental Problems
At no time in the past has science been in a state of such rapid advancement. As a result, humanity has adopted a blind belief in the powers of science and technology, regarding the problems inherent in life less from the viewpoints of philosophy and religion. Observing the global state of affairs today, I cannot help feeling that people are not grappling hard enough with fundamental problems.
From the perspective of ultimate truth, earthly desires and the problems of life and death are not seen as obstacles that must be eradicated. Instead, earthly desires can be transformed into enlightened wisdom, and the sufferings of birth and death are means to attaining nirvana. The Lotus Sutra takes this one step further, setting forth the principles that earthly desires are enlightenment and that the sufferings of birth and death are nirvana. In other words, there can be no enlightenment apart from the reality of earthly desires and there can be no nirvana without the concomitant sufferings of birth and death. These pairs of contrasting factors are innate in all our lives.
T'ien-t'ai, the great sixth-century Chinese teacher, employed an analogy to explain the above principles. Suppose there is a bitter persimmon. By soaking it in a solution of lime or buckwheat chaff, or by exposing it to sunlight, we can make the persimmon sweet. There are not two persimmons, one bitter and the other sweet -- there is only the one. The bitter persimmon has not been sweetened with sugar; rather, the inherent bitterness of the persimmon has been drawn out and its inherent sweetness allowed to emerge. The catalyst, the intermediary that assisted the transformation, was the solution or the sunlight. T'ien-t'ai likened earthly desires to the bitter persimmon, enlightenment to the sweet persimmon, and the process whereby the sweetness was brought out to Buddhist practice.
To fully benefit from these important doctrines in our daily lives, we must comprehend some basic Buddhist teachings, which illumine life's multifaceted dimensions. Instead of negating desire and life in this world, they accept the realities of life as they are and reveal the way to transform them into causes of enlightenment. We should not try to eradicate desires or regard them as sinful, but should elevate them toward achieving a nobler state of life.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Middleway Press.
©1988, 2004. www.middlewaypress.org
This article was excerpted from:
Unlocking The Mysteries Of Birth & Death
by Daisaku Ikeda.
Ultimately, this is both a work of popular philosophy and a book of compelling, compassionate inspiration for Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike that fosters a greater understanding of Nichiren Buddhism. Provides Buddhists with the tools they need to fully appreciate the connectedness of all beings and to revolutionize their spiritual lives based on this insight. Also explored are how suffering can be transformed to contribute to personal fulfillment and the well-being of others and how modern scientific research accords with ancient Buddhist views.
About the Author
DAISAKU Daisaku Ikeda is president of the Soka Gakkai International. In 1968, Mr. Ikeda founded the first of many nonsectarian schools --kindergartens, elementary, middle and high schools as well as Soka University in Japan. In May 2001, Soka University of America, a four-year liberal arts college, opened its doors in Aliso Viejo, California. He received the United Nations Peace Award in 1983. He is the author of numerous books, which have been translated into dozens of languages, including The Way of Youth and For the Sake of Peace.