(6) THE ROOT CAUSE OF SUFFERING

When Master Shinran was 4 years old, his father died. Later, when he was 8 years old, he became an orphan and strongly felt the impermanence of life. At 9 years of age, he decided to enter the priesthood. He felt like he might be the next to die, and wanted to know what would happen after death. Upon being told to return the next day for the ordination ceremony, he wrote the following poem.

 
"For him who counts on tomorrow,
Like the fragile cherry blossom,
Tonight, unexpected winds may blow."

 

Then, he explained: "The flowers, now in full bloom, will blow away with a single gust of wind. I've heard that human life is more fleeting than the cherry blossom. Please, don't say tomorrow. Can't I be initiated today?"

Life is a journey toward the future that ultimately ends in death. We worry about getting sick, aging, earthquakes, hurricanes and traffic accidents. In order to protect ourselves from these misfortunes, we pay huge amounts of money to insurance companies. Unfortunately, insurance companies cannot protect us from the ultimate misfortune, death.

People don't die just because they are sick or old. They die when the wind of impermanence blows upon them. With the exception of those who take their lives, death catches people by surprise. A person wakes up in the morning, takes a shower, brushes his teeth, and looks in the mirror; never does he think, "Today might be the last day of my life." However, his last day will come and he will not suspect that he won't have another tomorrow. Countless people have died unaware that their last days were, indeed, their last.

Master Shinran was nine years old when he told his uncle about his decision to enter the priesthood: "When I think that I'll be the next to die, I'm frightened. I must know what will happen to me in the after life. Please give me your permission."

"He who counts on tomorrow" refers to all who are certain that they'll be still alive tomorrow. His preoccupation with the fleeting nature of human life made Master Shinran decide to devote himself to learning about the afterlife, thus clearing his dark mind.

Sakyamuni Buddha spent 45 years of his life teaching people to understand and thus eliminate the root cause of suffering, the dark mind.

We suffer from disease, loss of family member, and friends, joblessness, bankruptcy, divorce and violence. We struggle to overcome these difficulties. When we eliminate one of them, another replaces it. Life is a continuous battle with these difficulties. Actually, what we have been doing is like pruning a tree. When we cut off a branch, the nutrients that the branch was receiving go to other parts of the tree and new branches grow to replace it. That's because the root of the tree is still alive.

The dark mind is the root cause of our suffering. Just as the root of a tree is a conduit for nutrients for the rest of the plant, so, too, the dark mind is the conduit bringing suffering to our lives. Just as the branches, leaves and flowers of a tree die when the roots are destroyed, so, too, our suffering is eliminated and we achieve true happiness when we eliminate our dark minds. On the other hand, no matter how many leaves, flowers, or fruits we cut from the tree, more leaves, more flowers, and fruits replace them. When we eliminate the difficulties we face, it is like we are merely cutting the flowers or the leaves off a tree. Soon, other problems and sufferings replace them. Only by solving the problem of our dark minds, we will encounter true happiness.

Everybody has his dark mind, and sooner or later he will come face to face with it. This happens at the moment of death. Since no one can escape death, everyone will eventually become aware of his dark mind. People depart from this life without knowing where they are going; their minds are dark. Thus, the dark mind is also known as "darkness toward death." Our dark minds come from the infinite past, long before we were born. If we don't eliminate this darkness while we are still alive, it will remain forever.

Our lives in this world began when we were born. However, our true selves flow from a distant past with no beginning and continue toward the eternal future. Our dark minds are as old as our true selves.

In the same way that the present is an extension of the past, the future is a continuation of the present. Likewise, unless saved by Amida Buddha, our minds will drag us into the dark world of suffering after death. Buddhism calls this the great problem of falling into the dark world after death, the Gosho no Ichidaiji.

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