Here are two short excerpts relating
to death and eternal life that best explain the Shin and Mahayana position on this subject. The first is from T. Nhat
Hanh’s talk on the Diamond Sutra and
the latter is by G.R. Lewis is a talk on Infinite Life.
Dharma Talk given by Thich Nhat Hanh
December 4, 1997, Plum Village, France
“…We have a perception that our life span is 70, 80 or 100
years. We think we exist from the time we were born to the time we die, and that this is our life span. That is another notion,
a perception, a concept that we need to overcome and liberate ourselves from. According to that notion, before we are born
we do not exist and after we die we are nothing. This is a very wrong notion. It is said in many sutras that when conditions
are sufficient our body is formed, and when conditions are not sufficient then our body does not manifest. We are caught by
the idea of birth and death, the idea of existence and non-existence, and the idea of life span. The notion of life span is
the basis of the notions of birth and death, coming and going, existence and non-existence, permanence and annihilation. All
of these pairs of concepts have their foundation in the concept of life span. Therefore when we can destroy the notion of
life span we can destroy the other notions.
Permanence vs. Annihilation
The notions of permanence and annihilation are a contradictory pair of
opposite notions. What is the belief of permanence? It is seeing that everything has an existence that never ceases. What
is the opposite notion of annihilation? It is seeing that nothing exists. This is one pair of contradictory opposites. When
we look deeply in all dharmas we see that everything changes, that everything has
the nature of impermanence. But impermanence doesn't mean annihilation, so we have to liberate ourselves from both notions
of impermanence and annihilation, they are both erroneous. They both bring about suffering, fear, and anxiety. For example
when we love someone, we think that that person will live with us for our whole life. We do not see his or her impermanent
nature and when that person passes away we suffer, because we are caught by the notion of permanence. It is the same for ourselves.
Now we are living, we exist, but one day we cannot exist anymore, we will die. We have a great fear of being cut off from
life, a fear of nothingness. This is why the philosopher Descartes said: "I think therefore I am." We say it loud to overcome
our fear. If we are caught in the notion of permanence or in its opposite, annihilation, then we suffer in both cases.
Existence and Non-existence
The same thing is true for the notions of existence and non-existence.
Descartes said: "I think therefore I am." He was caught in a notion of existence, clinging to it to overcome the fear of non-existence.
Because he did not look deeply enough, he was fearful of being nothing especially when he was confronted with the death of
someone, or with his own death. If we are caught in the notion of being we will also be caught in the notion of non-being.
From the perspective of life span, we think we start to exist at the point of time we call birth; and we think we continue
to exist until the point of time we call death, after which we think we cease to exist. Thus, the notions of birth and death
form the basis of the notions of being and non-being. Both of these notions have their roots in the fundamental notion of
life span. The Buddha has taught that when conditions are sufficient things manifest, but to label that manifestation as being
is wrong. Also when conditions are not sufficient, things do not manifest, but to label that as non-being is also wrong. Reality
is beyond being and non-being, we need to overcome those notions. Hamlet said: "To be or not to be, that is the question."
We can see that he was caught by these notions. But according to this teaching, "to be or not to be", is not the question.
Because reality is beyond the notion of being or non-being, birth or death, coming or going. Where do we come from and where
do we go to? Those are philosophical questions. But if we understand suchness (Oneness of Reality) then we know that we don't
come from anywhere and we don't go anywhere.
Buddha’s Life Span
The Tathagata (Buddha) doesn't come from anywhere and he doesn't go anywhere.
That is the definition of Tathagata. Therefore, the Tathagata is called the Tathagata. So all the notions, the notions of
coming, going; being, non-being; birth, death; permanence, annihilation, all have their origin in the fundamental notion of
life span. Therefore in the Lotus Sutra we learn that the life span of the Buddha
is infinite. Our life span is the same, and we are the future Buddha, and we have an infinite life span. We do not begin to
exist at the point of birth and we do not cease to exist at the point of death. We overcome and go beyond the notion of life
span as the time between when we are born and when we die.
See and Experience Reality as Reality
When we can see x as x, reality as reality, then we can overcome all the notions. When we do walking meditation in autumn we see dead
leaves, and we have a feeling of sadness. We call them dead leaves instead of yellow or red leaves. But if we look deeply
at those leaves we see that each is a manifestation that pretends to die, but actually the leaf is not dead. We are caught
in the notion of being born and being dead; birth and death; being and non-being; where does it come from, where does it go
to; permanence, annihilation. The true nature of a leaf also goes beyond all notions. We are like the leaf. The leaf becomes
the soil in order to later become another leaf or a flower. So if we can understand the leaf and go beyond these notions,
then we can understand and can see the suchness of a leaf. To practice means to meditate so that we can see the suchness of
a leaf, we can see the suchness of ourselves. We have to look deeply at being young and being old; at being born, dying; coming,
going; being, non-being; and then all of our suffering, our afflictions will be transformed…”
Touching Infinite Life
talk given in by Sensei G.R. Lewis,
January 2007, Middletown, Connecticut, USA
“In terms of the ultimate dimension, our life span is immeasurable
and infinite. The Buddha gave us the spiritual vehicle to see and experience this infinite life through the practice
of the Nembutsu. Now it is up to us to deeply hear the dharma and practice diligently so that we too may be
touched by the ultimate dimension and recognize our true nature of no birth and no death.
When we live the Nembutsu
Way, we exist at the juncture of the ultimate and historical dimensions. By practicing deep hearing
mindfulness, we begin to notice everything a little more differently that everything is the true manifestation of our
deepest nature of no coming and no going. Our life is like the waves, so we cannot
go anywhere but to Nirvana itself which is like the infinite ocean that accepts all waves; waves and ocean are one and are
beyond the notions of birth and death, permanence and annihilation. Through deep hearing mindfulness, we can touch the “wave”
nature of everything much more intensely and at the same time we necessarily become touched by and entrust in the unborn and
undying boundless ocean of infinite life and light, symbolized as Amida Buddha.
By living the Nembutsu, the immeasurable suchness of all things appears
to us more clearly. Whether we are cleaning the house, driving the car or talking to friends, practicing deep hearing mindfulness
allows us to touch the phenomenal dimension of existence so deeply that the ultimate dimension begins to reveals
itself as Namu Amida Butsu.
What is Namu Amida Butsu? Hozen Seki explained it like this: “Namu is
our side, Amida Butsu is the Other Side.
But these two are oneness. Namu Amida Butsu, the Nembutsu, is oneness between
me, limited “subject,” and Amida, infinite “object.” There is no separation between me and Amida.
We are in Amida’s compassion; so the Nembutsu is an expression of gratitude for the universal compassion (and life)
called Amida Buddha….Nembutsu belongs to Amida Buddha, and it’s through Amida’s compassion that we will
truly say Namu Amida Butsu….”
By living the Nembutsu in
this way, our truest nature touches us and we begin to see reality as reality - historical and ultimate are oneness. When we deeply voice Namu Amida Butsu,
we deeply experience the Buddha’s unborn and undying nature which is exactly the same as ours….”