Sermons that Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha, delivered at the end of his forty-five-year teaching ministry are gathered in the Lotus Sutra. In chapter 16 of this sutra, "Revelation of the [Eternal] Life of the Tathagata," the Buddha says:
I, ever knowing all beings,
Those who walk or walk not in the Way,
According to the right principles of salvation
Expound their every Law,
Ever making this my thought:
"How shall I cause all the living
To enter the Way supreme
And speedily accomplish their buddhahood?"
It is vitally important that all of us remember always that each phenomenon and each person we encounter represents one of the Buddha's means of expounding the Law, his teaching. Unless we do this, the least setback or frustration can cause us to lose faith. Furthermore, without true faith we may miss opportunities to improve ourselves as human beings.
All the phenomena and people we come upon are essential. We may find some situations unpleasant, and we may have to associate with people we would prefer to avoid, but by overcoming unpleasantnesses one by one and taking the experience of hardship and failure to heart, we grow spiritually and can develop affinities for people we previously thought incompatible.
Ordinarily people shy away from disagreeable situations and seek ways to escape them. Eager to justify themselves, they all too readily criticize and find fault with others. But such an attitude can never lead to solutions to problems. It is most important to examine our own thoughts and deeds to discover the underlying causes of problems, and to see in each trying circumstance the Buddha's profoundly compassionate wish to help us improve.
Each phenomenon is simultaneously the result of a cause and a contributory cause of another result. As long as we are obsessed with results, we find it difficult to alter circumstances and move ahead. Moreover, we tend to overlook beneficial phenomena.
For instance, when a child gets poor marks on an examination despite having tried very hard, the child's parents might suspect that he or she has not been studying properly. A mere scolding is apt to discourage the child. While advising the child to change his or her approach to studying, the parents ought to praise the child's efforts and the improvement he or she has made. A child treated this way is inspired to persevere and can use poor marks to stimulate further improvement.
By being humble and conscientious, we can come to understand fully the things that happen to and around us, enabling us to make them contributory causes of our development and improvement. The attainment of such understanding cultivates in us an awareness of the Buddha's great compassion, brings peace of mind, and reveals precious qualities in the people around us that we may not have been aware of earlier. When we achieve this awareness, we become deeply grateful for others' existence and desire to be considerate of them. We should all strive diligently to become generous people who are consistently responsive to the will of the Buddha.
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People who are always cheerful and brimming with vitality whatever hardships they encounter have a refreshing influence on everyone around them. Although we all would like to be this kind of person, disappointments and setbacks often frustrate and dishearten us.
Yet even people who always seem vigorous and composed, who seem to live a constantly blessed life, cannot always avoid difficulties and sufferings. The difference between those people and us is that when confronted with trying circumstances, instead of giving in and becoming despondent they make a fresh start by considering other possibilities.
To start afresh - without trying to flee, envying others, becoming discouraged over prospects for the future, or faltering - it is important to resolve our difficulties by trying to identify and analyze the causes of our current suffering. Moreover, we must not try to find momentary consolation by blaming other people or society for our difficulties, but must be prepared to reflect deeply on our own shortcomings. Inner effort of this kind makes it possible to undergo a spiritual transformation.
It is also important to cultivate interest in sports or hobbies in which we can lose ourselves when we feel discouraged. Having a confidant who is willing to admonish us as well as sympathize with us also helps greatly.
On a deeper level, firmly establishing aspirations and beliefs and never losing sight of worthwhile goals are of the utmost importance in enabling us to avoid being overwhelmed by transient phenomena in our environment. To achieve such stability, we must constantly, diligently train and improve ourselves and whenever possible reflect on ourselves in the light of the Buddha's teachings.
Humbly accepting the Buddha's teachings enables us to see that every problem offers an opportunity for the growth and improvement that permit us to approach the human ideal more closely. When we understand this, a mighty energy wells up from the depths of our being, providing a true vitality that instead of failing us at the first sign of trouble abides no matter what befalls us. We should strive to be the kind of person who manifests true vitality that is a lasting source of creative power and action.
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Some time ago I was deeply impressed by a television program about the experiences of a physician named Hideo Yonezawa, a sincere believer in the Jodo Shin sect of Buddhism. In a long series of letters, Yonezawa patiently explained the Buddha's teachings to the anguished mother of two handicapped children.
This troubled woman's spiritual evolution was characterized by repeated advances toward understanding followed by relapses into grumbling and complaining about her lot. At last, however, her mind was opened to the truth that her handicapped children, instead of being burdens, were the cause of her having acquired the comforting knowledge of the Buddha. Commenting on this woman's experience, Yonezawa said that we must pay dearly for true faith. Of course, he meant that without suffering, people never know truly deep faith.
Undeniably, it is through hardships and suffering that little by little we come to understand the existence of the Buddha and the precious nature of his teachings. Daily sufferings and life's other trials stimulate spiritual development and lead gradually to enlightenment. When forced into a corner, people often demonstrate startling powers and energies that in many instances inspire the blossoming and maturation of great talents.
The average person looks for the easiest way to achieve a life as free of trouble and effort as possible. Certainly nothing seems nicer than a life of tranquillity and security. But settling for a peaceful life cannot foster personal improvement or true spiritual contentment. The person satisfied with a peaceful life may be completely unable to cope with sudden adversities and the suffering they bring.
Suffering comes inevitably if people try to live life to the full, exerting all their might in their undertakings. Instead of running away in the face of suffering, we must accept suffering for the opportunity it gives us to reflect, change our attitudes, and discipline ourselves for further growth.
As the statement that we must pay dearly for true faith indicates, if we want to have faith and to be truly considerate of others, we must rid ourselves of the habit of putting our own interests first and of blaming others or circumstances for our misfortunes. In all things, we must humbly reflect on and repent our own shortcomings and strive to improve ourselves. When we adopt this approach to life, we come to understand that all beings sustain us and contribute to our spiritual progress. This understanding in turn inspires in us profound gratitude for the Buddha's being and his supreme compassion, which are our guides to true faith.