Long for the wakeful is the night. Long for the weary, a league. For fools unaware of True Dhamma, samsara is long.
Lately, during my vacation in Japan, I somehow got to thinking about milestones in people’s lives. I met so many friends and relatives of my wife’s family (all eager to see my daughter once again 😉 ), so many people from different walks of life and ages, that I was able to see so many stages of life in such a short time and place. We have lots of milestones: birth, adolescence, youth, adulthood, parenting, grand-parenting, old age and death to name just a few. But then I got to thinking about all the day to day stuff we do from the point of birth until death, and how much of it revolves around things like eating, amusing one’s self, contending with people, and so on. So few of our actions have any real lasting substance. The existence we live today is the culmination of all our past actions and intentions, while the future is culmination of the past + present, but so much of these actions have only temporary value. What really felt like a big deal two years ago seems utterly forgotten now, more so 20, 30 or 40 years ago.
I think this is what the Buddha describes as Samsara (rinné 輪廻 in Japanese): the aimless wandering that defines our existence. The Venerable Bhikkhu Thannisaro writes on the subject of Samsara very nicely here, but to sum up what he writes:
Instead of a place, it’s a process: the tendency to keep creating worlds and then moving into them. As one world falls apart, you create another one and go there. At the same time, you bump into other people who are creating their own worlds, too.
The play and creativity in the process can sometimes be enjoyable. In fact, it would be perfectly innocuous if it didn’t entail so much suffering. The worlds we create keep caving in and killing us. Moving into a new world requires effort: not only the pains and risks of taking birth, but also the hard knocks — mental and physical — that come from going through childhood into adulthood, over and over again. The Buddha once asked his monks, “Which do you think is greater: the water in the oceans or the tears you’ve shed while wandering on?” His answer: the tears.1
That sense of running in the wrong direction, or aimlessness is one’s life is nothing other than a vague realization of samsara. People who spend their lives working until they die to succeed, strive to be the best at what they do, get the right girl, and so on inevitably have those moments of introspection or vague feelings of unease deep in the night when no one can hear their thoughts but themselves, that all that they’ve struggled for is empty of any substance, and that too is a vague realization of samsara. Even those who succeed no doubt must feel lonely and uneasy at times, and ask themselves if their lives are a sham.
The Buddha’s genius was in articulating this and explaining its cause and resolution.
This aimless wandering from one moment to the next really sucks sometimes. It’s great in that moment when things are going well, and you feel like you’re making progress in life, but that momentum never lasts and you have to “get out and push again”, like moving a dead car up a hill. Like the ancient hunter-gatherers who followed the animal herds, but never really migrating with any long-term sense of direction, so too do we pursue life the same way.
I think this is why the Pure Land of the Buddha is such an indelible part of the Buddhist culture. It provides a kind of “fixed point” in the Buddhist “landscape” that gives us a sense of direction as opposed to the aimless wandering. The Buddha’s Pure Land is perhaps only a temporary manifestation, an attempt to symbolize or conceptualize the full beauty of the Buddha’s truth, or it may be something else even more wonderful. Interpretation doesn’t really matter so much, but having the Pure Land as a point fixed in one’s mind, one inevitably stops wandering aimlessly and moves in its direction. From day to day, we may still wander, but over time one can definitely feel a sense of “direction” at last.
I am always inspired by a verse from the 16th chapter of the Lotus Sutra:
Throughout the countless eons,
I have always lived on Holy Eagle Peak
And in various other places.
When the living witness the end of an eon,
When everything is consumed in a great fire,
This land of mine remains safe and tranquil,
Always filled with human and heavenly beings.
It is for this reason that a follower of the Buddha seeks to cross over to the Other Shore, rather than flounder in the ocean like so much debris following one current or another. The problem begins and ends with the mind; one who awakens and fixes their mind on the Pure Land and adopts whatever means to get there, will by degrees achieve a sense of direction at last.
As Honen once wrote to a dying nun:
The fact is that we are in danger of becoming foolishly attached to these earthly bodies of ours. No matter who it is, no one stays forever here in this fleshy body. The only difference is that either I myself or someone else must be left behind while the other goes ahead. Then if we think of the period of time that will separate us, that too is uncertain. And even though they may call it long, at the longest it is only like a short dream or vision. So no matter how many times I think it over, the more I am convinced that the thing to do is to think only of our meeting in the land of Amitabha Buddha [The Pure Land].
–(Quoted from “Traversing the Pure Land“, page. 56)
Namu Amida Butsu
“People of the world, being weak in virtue, engage in strife over matters which are not urgent. In the midst of abject wickedness and extreme afflictions they painstakingly toil for their living. Whether noble or corrupt, rich or poor, young or old, male or female, all people worry about wealth and property. In this there is no difference between the rich and the poor; both have their anxieties. Groaning in dejection and sorrow, they pile up thoughts of anguish or, [274c] driven by inner urges, they run wildly in all directions and they have no time for peace and rest.