The Life-Wheel

The Bodhisattva Kannon, having practised the profound Prajna Paramita, penetrated to the true world of Nirvana in the midst of life, the life which cannot be evaded however we try. In Buddhism another word for life is the wheel of birth-and-death. A wheel once set going continues to turn, so it is a symbol of life. ‘Turning’ is an important idea in Buddhism, and there is no Sutra which does not refer to it. Our heart turns, impelled by some force, and that impelling force is very mighty. In a great flood, bridges, houses and everything are carried away, and the vaunted human strength becomes a tiny thing in the face of the power of nature. Admittedly in a certain sense man does conquer nature, but really the word ‘conquer’ is a complete misnomer. Man boasts that he conquers a mountain or something by his human strength, but in fact he is the conquered one, he is always subdued.

How ridiculous to speak seriously of conquering a mountain! Idle good-for-nothings use such phrases, but far from being conquerors we find them nothing but a nuisance to the world. The impelling force of which we spoke is the force of nature, and against it our human strength can at most offer a limited check or resistance, for the time comes when its might is irresistible. That force is turning the wheel all the time, and this is called revolving in the six worlds.

The wheel has the heart at the centre, which is the heart of clinging attachment to selfhood. Self does not exist, but clinging to a non-existent self is the centre on which the six worlds are upheld.

Of the six, the worlds of the Asuras, the heavens and the worlds of men are the good and the worlds of the animals, hungry ghosts and hells are the bad. We speak of our allotted place, but the truth is that it is not allotted to us by any God or Buddha. Buddhism does not speak of position as allotted by a God or Buddha. An allotted state is spoken of, for want of a better figure, but in fact there is no allotted state. Buddhism does not teach that God created the world or created man. This life, which cannot be got out of however we try, is not imposed on us by God or Buddha. Our present state has been raised up by each one of us on the delusion of the mind called sticking attachment to self, thinking what is not self to be a self. The worlds are created, and they are self-created. The six worlds are upheld by the delusion that something exists which is non-existent.

Even those called good are good worlds but still based on sticking attachment to self. Good and bad alike are all relative states upraised on attachment to what is called self. Good which is based on attachment to selfhood is a state which still leaves considerable track of impurity. And of course evil leaves a great track. While illusory clinging to self is not completely destroyed, the worlds of illusion, whether good or evil, are upraised thereon. So the good is not complete good, it is ail with the idea of getting something out of it. ‘If I do this then I shall get this, and if I do that then that . . .’ It is in the expectation of results. It is a good, but with oneself at the centre. For example, I set out to take some cakes as a present to a neighbour, which is a fine thing to do. All would be well if I made the heart empty and forgot the fact that I am doing a good action. But I wont do so. ‘Here I am carrying sweet cakes and by and by there be a return . . .’ That’s the way the thoughts go.

People these days talk about sacrifice, about self-denial, about service, but as it is ail based on attachment to self, quite soon they are expecting to see some result. So it is a mean impure good, though good it may be called. After all, then, what is regarded generally as good is still a mean thing, and what to say of the evil which leads to the evil states? Until attachment to self at the centre melts, while the heart deluded by an I is not completely negated, good itself is an illusion and evil also. While the illusion remains unbroken, the so-called good, founded on self as it is, only by chance does any real good. We do some good, but by accident. Suppose, in the role as a priest, one is teaching people. Because the role in which he finds himself happens to be good, he is doing some good. We say he does the good, but in fact, because of the part he is in, he has to do good whether he wants to or not. Again they say of a religious man that he’s conscientious. But that conscientiousness of his is nothing. It’s just that the part requires it and so he has to be like that. The kindly and devoted teacher is in a role where he has to be kindly and devoted, and so he is kindly and devoted. Anyway, a bit.

What I always say to schoolteachers is this: ‘You are teachers and I’m a priest; kindly and devoted both of us. We have got to be. But if the conditions were unfavourable we’d quite likely be manifesting as demons or hungry ghosts or animals. We ought to find some other condition which is not moved under any circumstances, don’t you think?’ While the illusory clinging to self is not negated, while the so-called without-I or Mu-ga is unattained, then it just depends on the environment whether we happen to be doing good or happen to be doing evil. In Buddhism the eternal meaningless round, always on the basis of illusion, is called the six worlds. Isn’t that our life, the round of the worlds, happening to do good, happening to do evil—again and again the same things? Perhaps we are good now, but when the evil associations chance to rise, We begin to do wrong. Where is there security? If we just follow the associations, doing good or evil as chance has it, how can our footsteps ever be firm? Isn’t it just a pointless circling round the circumference of the wheel? The other day I saw in a newspaper that a graduate of the Women’s Teachers’ College had killed her stepchild. She was quite a figure in education, and yet when for a moment she met with bad associations she did that terrible thing.

So however much we try we can never escape from the worlds of good and evil which are constructed on our attachment to self, unless we smash this wrong clinging. The worlds are built by ourselves, and so we cannot escape from them. This inescapability is called the Wheel. The wheel of birth-and-death is to be caught, turning in pointless repetition, forced to move though reluctant, impelled by the great and terrible force which Buddhism calls karma. We are driven by the force of our previous actions; our whole life is impelled by that karma. Suppose I go to the house next door determined to keep calm and exchange a friendly greeting. But I find the neighbour’s attitude insulting and shameful, and finally the karma bubbles up and I have become angry. Where does it bubble up from? However I try to suppress it I can’t. By that great force is our life moved each instant.

Someone presses a banknote on one—‘Go on, take it!’ It’s not altogether an unpleasant feeling. Of course one ought not to take it, but in a poor priest like myself there is a little impulse to stretch out the hand. The karma of receiving bubbles up. All of this is from the heart; on the heart are constructed the worlds of good and ill and the karma which has built those worlds, past and present, is moving them However I resolve not to be greedy, my greediness appears. However I resolve not to be angry, my anger rises. Our human life is such that however we resolve not to weep over things, we come to the state of weeping.

We can’t finish with this life. The spirit of Mahayana is to find the truth in each step of it, in anger itself to see Emptiness, in the very complainings over our lot to know the profound Prajna Paramita.

by Abbot Obora of the Soto Zen sect

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