Clinging to life
Among the congregation of a country temple was a wife who contracted a very serious illness. She had to go to hospital in a town some distance away and her husband wrote me that his was very ill and wanted to see me. He asked me to visit her. So I made the trip and went in. She said: ‘It’s so kind of you to have come. I had thought I might never see you again, and I wanted to tell you something. I’ve been listening to your sermons in ordinary times and heard your teachings, and I believed that I really had faith in the world of release. But since I have been ill and come into hospital, my usual faith has been killed. I’ve got this illness which they don’t seem to know what it is, and so all the more I ought to be remembering the Buddha with joy every hour and every minute. But I just can’t seem to do it. Instead of thinking about the Buddha I find I can’t help worrying about the house. I’m here in hospital but at home there’s my husband and the three children. Even when I’m there it’s hard enough to manage, but with me away in hospital what will they all do? I keep shutting my eyes and imagining it-the kimonos lying all over the place and the cups in the kitchen put away not washed, and the chopsticks left about and the whole place in a muddle. That’s all I about, when I ought to be thinking about the Buddha. But I never can. . . . Your Reverence, what can I do?’ She said this with great intensity.
I told her: ‘It’s very good that you have found this out. When things around are nice and safe and there’s nothing wrong with them, people think they have acquired peace of the heart. But they haven’t, you know. There’s always the clinging to life and they can’t give up this body. Now you see that you don’t want to die till the children are grown up; you don’t want to die until you feel everything has been settled.
‘Our clinging to life is so strong. Now you have seen that this character of obstinately clinging to life is the character of your self also. Wanting to be happy and yet unable to be happy—that is what self is. It’s very good that you have discovered it. It is through discovering that self is really just this desire and clinging, which can never be satisfied in spite of all efforts, that you come to know the world without conditions, the world of the Buddha’s arms unconditionally open to all. With this you are released.’
With great joy she thanked me for these teachings.
My own small faith and experience is that the Bodhisattva spirit is not reducing life to nothingness and trying to escape completely into some Nirvana-world, but finding a meaning in this futile-seeming life as it is. And that is the real Nirvana.
By the Prajna Paramita . . . to reach Nirvana. What is that state of Nirvana? It is not reducing life to a void. It is the feeling in life of an unburdened heart, of leaving no tracks behind, which is the real Nirvana. That is the attainment, that is the highest Nirvana.
When it is said ‘there is no ignorance nor extinction of ignorance nor any of the rest including age- and-death’, it means that from the standpoint of Emptiness there is no ignorance to be cut off, to be taken away. In Mahayana, if there is ignorance it is no obstacle. And so with the rest. If there is age- and-death, it is no obstacle. There is no extinction of ignorance and no extinction of age-and-death. The true nature of ignorance is Buddha-nature, the passions are the Bodhi, so it is not a question of extinction of ignorance. Birth-and-death is Nirvana, so it is not a question of extinction of birth-and- death. There is no suffering, cause of suffering, extinction of suffering, nor Way. There is no suffering, no cause to be reduced to nothingness. So there is no Way by which to put them away. Still less need there be some world of nothingness called Nirvana.
No wisdom, no attainment. In Hinayana the highest wisdom is realization of the cutting off of delusion and karma-action, but there is no such wisdom and no realization-attainment of some Nirvana-nothingness in which everything ceases to exist.
We have to experience the world of release at each step in life, and live lightly without leaving a track. There is still the present world of ignorance and age-and-death, the world of pain and the causes of pain, but they are no longer impediments. Rather it is just through them that we get the deep experience of being unburdened, and this is the secret of the repetition of the words ‘no, no’.
by Abbot Obora of the Soto Zen sect