Life impelled by karma
When in tranquillity we consider ourselves, the first thing that comes up is the problem of the flow of time. Through time we feel impermanence. Fifty already, sixty already—in these terms we reflect on the past. When we see young people we think how we ourselves were young and how we can never, alas, return to that time. Well then, let us return you to your youth, say about twenty, but under one condition. And it is: that you will have to relive your life once more in exactly the same way. So now we return you to your youth, but with this condition. Well? No! I do like to be young, but to live it all over again, I couldn’t stand it.
When young, life seems like a level flat highway. As the years pass, it is not like that. Diving through waves great and small, assailed by storms, I scrape through up to the slope of the sixties and now to the seventies. To repeat again this life of turmoil, that I should not like. Someone has said that life is a tightrope from cliff to cliff across a valley filled with up-pointed swords. Well, if so, I have just managed to get through the sixties. On that tightrope moreover we have to perform stunts as we go along, and my stunt was to be a Zen priest. I was not much of a priest, but that was the trick I performed.
Performing our various stunts, we have scraped through so far, but it’s a life that makes one shudder at the thought of going through it again. When I how it would have been better not to have done that, and as for this, if I had done it I should have fallen into the sword valley and perished—truly I should not like to live it through again. How do you feel? Never mind going back tens and tens of years, I don’t want to have last year over again. I don’t want to have yesterday again. I don’t want to repeat, and the reason is that my life never had any meaning that was a meaning. If it had had a real meaning, I shouldn’t mind reliving it. But when I think of the life I have lived, in which the Buddha-heart never at all manifested, a life passed pointlessly, I do not want to live it once more.
Then they come and tell us that Paradise is on the Other Side, so perhaps we want to hasten forward to that glorious Pure Land? Here again I don’t feel much like it. What, don’t I want to get to Paradise quickly? No, not too quickly. There is a story about an old woman who used to pray very earnestly in the temple every morning. The abbot overheard her one day: ‘I am getting older and older and the children and the grandchildren are too much of a trial. The family are so quarrelsome and I’ve no more interest in staying in this world. I pray that Your Grace take me to you soon’—all this from the bowed head. He thought he would see whether she really meant it or not, so he hid one day behind the Buddha image. The old lady came as usual and unsuspectingly prayed her usual prayer to be taken soon. The abbot shouted: ‘in answer to your prayer I am going to take you now!’ The old woman shrieked, ‘Won’t the Buddha let me make a joke!’ and fled.
Every day we are making such jokes. If we were taken now, we should be aghast. All the time it is like that. There is a Pure Land, but as to going there, we are not ready yet.
So it is that I do not want to return to the past, nor to hurry to the Pure Land which soon awaits. Not to hurry forward nor yet to go back. Then how should we go in life, day after day? Not merely days, but at each step, let us be neither hastening forward, nor retreating.
Why do we suffer in life? It is just because we are simply being pulled along. Each step is a compulsion. In the Bodhi-heart chapter of the Shobogenzo classic, Master Dogen says: ‘From this body to the intermediate state, and from the intermediate state to another body, all moment by moment are changing. In this way unwillingly impelled by karma, the wheel of birth-and-death revolves without an instant’s rest.’
By force of karma made in former lives all are helplessly going over and over the round and never stopping. The force is karma: irresistibly impelled along, praying to become without-I and yet unable to be without the I, so I am pulled by it.
The world for which we pray is called in Buddhism Mu-ga or without-I. All seek somehow to live without an I, not to have an I in the heart, to live from the bottom of the heart. But there I am, in spite of my prayers, unable to be without the I.