Archive: Shallow Interpretation of Life and Death

The Emperor Has No Clothes

Comments on Jisei Nagasaka’s lecture, “Myo Means Revival,” posted 3/29/2005.

Powerful questions should lead to insightful answers.  Unfortunately, Jisei Nagasaka’s response to his questions, “What is birth and death? What is life?” lacks intellectual rigor, integrity, and the spirit of Nichiren Buddhism.  Instead, as will be seen in this commentary, it hinges on prejudice, plagiarism, and pointlessness.  Its shallowness clearly shows that this emperor wears no clothes.

It took Dante three volumes of poetry to explore a theory of birth and death from a Christian perspective.  In his blanket one-paragraph dismissal of Christianity JN ignores the intellectual struggles of Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and many others who sacrificed dearly to expand religious horizons.  He ignores more modern thinkers such as Tillich, Barth, Nieburh, Merton and Dr. King.  He is clueless about the current debate between Christian fundamentalists and progressives.  What right does he have to denude the religious advances of so many people throughout history?  Why is JN unable to see nuance, growth, evolution, and synthesis?

If Christian viewpoints about life were as vapid as implied by JN, how could they have inspired art that touches the soul of people even to this day?  The poetry of Milton and Shakespeare?  The music of Bach, Beethoven, and Verdi?  The art of Michelangelo, Raphael, and DaVinci?

Plagiarism

JN next turns his attention to scientific explanations of birth and death with a long paragraph about DNA reproduction.  Even in this sliver of commentary the narrowness of JN’s understanding of Buddhism is quite evident.  Talking about the doughnut-type of DNA found in bacteria JN states:

With this type of DNA, since every new cell is an exact copy of the old one, they (sic) can never improve or develop their condition of life.  They must stay in a very low condition of life forever.

In complete contrast to JN’s thinking, Buddhism views every speck of life as being endowed with the potentiality of the law of the universe.  There is no such thing as a living entity being in “a very low condition of life forever.”  This defies the very core concepts of Buddhism such as ichinen sanzen or, more specifically, the Ten Worlds.

JN’s statement reveals a predisposition towards a static and uncreative understanding of life.  Yet, as revealed in the study of evolution, life is dynamic and creative.  JN’s lowly bacteria that never change actually did develop their potentiality and evolve into a plethora of life forms.  They continue to evolve to this day, witness the newly appearing strains of bacteria that are resistant to medications.

With this perspective on life it is no wonder that JN has created a temple with two tiers of membership.  There are the exalted priests (i.e., “dual staircase DNA”) and lowly lay believers (i.e., “doughnut type of DNA”) who have only the mission of serving.  Following his DNA analogy, lay members are not capable of evolving to the extent of priests.  For example, JN has not deemed even his two highly intelligent lay leaders, both practicing for 37 years, qualified to post a study piece on his website.

Perhaps most alarming is JN’s shoddy and unethical plagiarism in his speech.  Without providing even the courtesy of a reference, JN lifts lines of his sermon from the Merck Manual of Health and Aging (www.merck.com:/pubs/mmanual_ha/sec1/ch01/ch01c.html):

“Telomeres are used to move the cell’s genetic material in preparation for cell division. Every time a cell divides, the telomeres shorten a bit. Eventually, the telomeres become so short that the cell can no longer divide.”

Pointlessness

On the last lap of his sermon about the significance of birth and death JN implies that the point of human life is not much more than recycling and eradicating sins that humans create by eating plants and animals:

Our lives are recycled throughout the three existences of past, present and future….However, the reality of killing the plants and animals we need to survive still exists in this world.  The Buddha has great compassion regarding this killing and encourages us to eradicate the inevitable negative karma we are creating in our daily lives through our serious practice to the Gohonzon.

Such a mechanical interpretation of life!  How can any thinking person abide with JN’s implication that the grand drama of our lives is not much more than a recycling plant?  He states, “We all have accumulated negative karma from our past lives and because of it we must endure many sufferings and misfortunes in this life.” According to this thinking, our sufferings are just accumulations of negative karma from past lives; there is nothing here about problems as great invitations for us to reveal our inherent humanity.  Likewise, “Nichiren Daishonin guarantees great good fortune to those of us who seriously embrace Myoho-Renge-Kyo according to His (sic) instruction.” This statement implies a practice in which bad karma is simply rinsed away by a mysterious process; no scrubbing is necessary.

How can JN ask “What is birth and death? What is life?” without discussing the purpose of life?  The purpose of living is not just so “our lives are recycled throughout the three existences of past, present and future.” Rather it is to lead happy and valuable lives amidst harsh realities.  Inherent in each of us is a struggle against the sufferings of birth, old age, sickness, and death.  Happiness does not mean an absence of difficulties but rather a spirit of remaining undefeated despite our problems.  Tsunesaburo Makiguchi once stated, “To transform your life into a happy one, you need courage.”  Courage is the very path to happiness.

Yet JN does not spend much time in his sermons probing the virtue of courage.  Instead, as can be seen in this sermon, JN attempts just the opposite of breeding fearfulness:  “Almost all people in this world fear and have an aversion to death.” “Our strong attachment to our egos.” “We are not able to perceive the true meaning of birth and death.” “We are only able to sustain our lives by killing and sacrificing billions of cells of other living beings on a daily basis.” “The inevitable negative karma we are creating in our daily lives.”

Great thinkers throughout time would reject JN’s outlook.  Eleanor Roosevelt stated, “Courage is more exhilarating than fear.”  Shakespeare stated in King Henry VI, Part 1, “Of all base passions, fear is most accursed.”  Simon Bolivar insisted, “Evils are conquered through courage.”  Gandhi stated, “First of all…shed your fear.  Do not be afraid.”

JN hides from his congregants that courage is the very core of Nichiren Buddhism.  A proliferation of Gosho references about courage makes this contention indisputable:

  • “You must grit your teeth and never slacken in your faith.  Be as fearless as Nichiren when he acted and spoke out before Hei no Saemon-no-jo” (Letter to the Brothers).
  • “The lord of Kamakura [the regent] twice exiled me, and I nearly had my head cut off.  Because I have persevered without fear, there are now people who think my teachings may be true” (WND, 489).
  • “None of you who declare yourselves to be my disciples should ever give way to cowardice” (WND, 764).
  • “If [those followers facing persecution] say they are frightened, explain to them that a pheasant sighted by a hawk, or a mouse stalked by a cat, is as desperate as they are” (On Persecutions Befalling the Sage).
  • “I have never once thought of retreating.  But there are those among my disciples and followers who are cowardly; such people invariably regress in their faith or abandon it altogether” (GZ, p. 1224).
  • “Since my heart believes in the Lotus Sutra, I do not fear even Brahma or Shakra” (WND, 303).
  • “Nichiren’s disciples cannot accomplish anything if they are cowardly” (WND, 481).

I have to question why JN emphasizes fearfulness instead of fearlessness.  Perhaps fearful followers are easier to manipulate than fearless independent people.  Perhaps JN cannot extricate himself from a long tradition of fearfulness within the priesthood.  Josei Toda once reflected on the priesthood’s behavior during World War II: “The priesthood was thrown into a state of panic [at our arrest].  I heard about it later.  It was laughable and shameful.  President Makiguchi, myself and all the members of our organization were prohibited from making pilgrimages to the head temple, and the whole country called us traitors to the nation.  Even given the times, it was ridiculous.”

There is no fear in Buddhism.  Even death, according to Nichiren, is a challenge that can be transformed into a joy.  Encouraging a wife whose husband was battling illness during a time of persecution, throughout displaying courageous faith, Nichiren Daishonin states:

“If [your sick husband] were to go right now to Eagle Peak, he would be as delighted as if the sun had come out and he were able to sees in all ten directions. He would rejoice, wondering how an early death could be so happy a thing” (WND, 938).

This is the spirit behind birth, living, and death that JN should have conveyed.

Excerpts taken from April 15, 2005 World Tribune, pages 2-3.

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