The highest life5 min read

In Buddhism there are the Six Paths, which are worlds. And among them the world of humans alone is the noble one. These are the words of Master Dogen: ‘A human body is hard to attain, the holy doctrine is rarely to be met with. Now, by our accumulated merit we have attained human form which is hard to attain, and met the holy doctrine which is hard to meet with—in all the worlds this is the best life, this must be the supreme life.’ We must rejoice exceedingly at having been born in the world of men. For the Bodhisattva path of incalculable glory is only among men. Again he says: ‘In the heavens taken up with pleasure, in the four lower worlds sunk in suffering, there is no opportunity for spiritual practice, and the aspiration of the heart is not fulfilled.’ In the world of heaven they are obsessed with pleasure, and in the four lower worlds of hell, hungry ghosts, animals and demons they are sunk in pain. In these worlds the Buddha-heart does not manifest and spiritual training is very difficult. The reason in the case of the last four is that they are overwhelmed by their sufferings. Instinctive grasping in the world of hungry ghosts, instinctive blazing up in hell, instinctive grumbling among the animals, instinctive resentment of others among the demons. These four are all merely driven by their karma and among them the Buddha-heart does not manifest. We at present are not to be slaves driven by karma. The Bodhisattva path is not for a slave instinctively clutching or instinctively flaring up.

I give a frivolous example. The monkeys which perform in the traditional monkey theatre, however well trained they are, at the slightest thing reveal their true instinctive nature. Once I saw a fine performance depicting the famous tragic scene (from the Forty-seven Ronin cycle) centring round the ceremonial suicide of the Lord Hangan. From one side came the monkey representing him, and as the singer chanted the words ‘My retainer Yurannosuke not come yet?’ the nobleman appeared to be expectant. From the other side now came Yurannosuke, and at the words of the narrator: ‘He seems to be lost in thought,’ somehow the monkey gave that very impression. Animals they might be, but they created feeling in one. Suddenly a spectator threw a bit of his fried potato between the Lord Hangan and his retainer Yurannosuke, paragon of loyalty. And Hangan forgot he was the Lord Hangan, and the loyal Yurannosuke forgot he was Yurannosuke, and they fought furiously over the potato. That was their world—at the smallest thing there they were driven by instinct after all.

Our lives are like this too. What sort of a home is it where the people instinctively clutch at things, storm over things, resent things all the time? It is the life of being impelled by karma, piling up sins. In such a world the reflection on self which they call the Buddha-heart will not manifest. There is never a hint of meditation on self Parents wrangle and children squabble, old and young alike, and that’s all.

The wisdom of ultimate Emptiness means to recognize what self is. It is not such a difficult thing. But those who have no power of wisdom are just pulled along, and are born in the four lower worlds, from which it is not easy again to return to this world of men. Because there all the time they are playing the role of suffering and fighting, so Master Dogen teaches us. What about the world of pleasure in heaven? This too is no case for congratulation, for they are entirely taken up with pleasure; all the time it is pleasure and pleasure. No inner reflection can come about. They have no chance to consider what the self is. The man who is singing drunkenly does not reflect on self. And these days there are many in such case.

Once I was returning from Nagoya station to the temple when it began to pour and I took a taxi. The driver was a young man. With as his assistant was a young girl who was not his wife. On the way he began talking: ‘We’re not young twice. However much you worry you can’t help the way things are, so let’s keep bright and cheerful.’ And the girl said: ‘That’s right, we shouldn’t bother about all these things; we’ll keep bright and cheerful together.’ This is dangerous. People these days often like to talk about keeping bright and cheerful, but that cheerfulness has its perils. So many think just to snatch enjoyment from each passing moment is all; they believe momentary pleasure is the meaning of life, that the thing is to live in some amusing or unusual way. They are people who think life is to satisfy the instincts. For such there is no self-reflection. The so-called heaven is a state in which the various human desires are satisfied, and since in such states there is no meditation on self, the Buddha-heart never stirs. And yet the Buddha-heart is not something which has to be sought afar. The turning of the thought in tranquillity on to the character of the self is the real Buddha-heart.

An abbot whom I knew was given charge of the education of the son of the local lord. He put him into a State school, thinking that the boy must get to understand a bit how others live. He used to tell me how the boy had no idea of doing the simplest things, nor any notion of the value of money, nor how to look after his own clothes. As a result for some time he found it difficult to get on at school.

From this we can see how when the desires are all satisfied there is no self-examination. It is not a particularly enviable condition. In the four lower worlds their role is to fight over the instinctive drives, whereas in the heaven the instinctive desires are satisfied. But satisfied or unsatisfied, they are simply worlds of instinct without self-reflection. For this reason we are taught that human life is of far greater nobility than those others.

by Abbot Obora of the Soto Zen sect