Four Sufferings of Birth, Old Age, Illness and Death

Four Sufferings of Birth, Old Age, Illness and Death

“No one likes to be sick but when we consider it from the perspective of “Birth and Death are Nirvana,” sickness, as it is, becomes nirvana or security in this lifetime....”

The cycle of life and death is a fundamental concept that encompasses the essence of existence itself. In this timeless cycle, every organism emerges anew from remnants of the past, passes through the stages of growth, maturation and eventually death. This intricate web of existence, with its profound mysteries, defines the journey of one’s life.

As common mortals, we are bound to experience different kinds of suffering throughout our life. Even in our mother’s womb, we are already susceptible to them. In Buddhism, it is taught that these sufferings are the causes each person created in his or her past life. This is known as karma. These sufferings may appear in the form of sickness of the body or mind which is due to the attachment of earthly desires. And in the teachings of Buddhism, to attain enlightenment and peace, one must eliminate all earthly desires from one’s body and mind. However, in these modern times’ way of living and habits, it is very difficult for us to do so. Does this mean we cannot attain enlightenment and peace in this present age then?

Let us learn from Reverend Kato’s guidance below on the cycle of life and death, where we can learn about the benefits of the single practice of faithfully embracing the Gohonzon of the Mystic Law.

Understanding the Cycle of Life and Death
Reverend Shingaku Kato
Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism Introduction Meeting, November 2022

Question: The Four Sufferings of Birth, Old Age, Illness and Death are life stages that every living being has to undergo. How can we be free from the cycle of birth and death?

The Japanese Buddhist word "soku" of "shoji soku nehan" means that different things are, in essence, one. This is mystic. This principle teaches that although "the sufferings of birth and death"(shoji) and "nirvana"(nehan) are different, they are, nevertheless, essentially one.

First, let us consider "the sufferings of birth and death." Buddhism teaches that living beings experience eight kinds of suffering associated with "birth and death." The first four are the universal sufferings of birth, old age, sickness and death. Additionally, suffering due to separation from loved ones, suffering from being with those we hate, the suffering of not getting what we desire, and lastly, the suffering which arises from the five components which constitute our bodies and minds. There are many more varieties of suffering in our lives, however, these eight sufferings broadly represent them all.

Next, let us think about “nirvana,” which means enlightenment, in other words, “the state in which one extinguishes all earthly desires or sufferings forever.”

In Hinayana Buddhism, it is taught that common mortals repeat birth and death in the six paths (Hell, Hunger, Animality, Anger, Humanity and Rapture) of the Ten Worlds and suffer from karmic hardship. For example, one is born in the world of Hell, Hunger, Animality or Anger because of one’s negative karma accumulated in the past, and suffers various pains, and when he finishes “suffering karma,” he goes on to the worlds of Humanity and Rapture. But if one cannot advance to the four noble worlds, Learning, Realization, Bodhisattva and Buddhahood, he will again be born in the six paths and repeat this cycle.

It is also taught that the cause for suffering in the six paths of the threefold world (the world of desire, the world of form and the world of formlessness) is attachment to earthly desires. And if one cuts off all earthly desires, he can escape the “world of suffering” and immediately enter the state of comfort, nirvana.

The state in which one tries to eliminate earthly desires to attain nirvana, but still retains his body (the effect of his karma from earthly desires) is an imperfect enlightenment and is called “incomplete nirvana” (uyo-nehan). Therefore, the next step to completely extinguish earthly desires of both body and mind is to eliminate one’s body too. This is called “destruction of the body and annihilation of the mind – for the attainment of nirvana” (keshin-mecchi). By doing this, one will be able to attain “complete nirvana” (muyo-nehan), the ultimate objective of the people of the two vehicles.

Hinayana Buddhism teaches that suffering people will attain Buddhahood by means of keshin-mecchi. In reality, this is impossible. Mahayana Buddhism teaches that nirvana is the Dharma nature or eternal Law and is the same as the Dharma body of the Thus Come One.

In either case, pre-Lotus Sutra teachings take “the sufferings of birth and death” and “nirvana” dualistically and teach that one first eradicates sufferings and then attains Buddhahood. Common mortals will never attain Buddhahood with these Theoretical teachings.

Compared with this, the Lotus Sutra revealed the ultimate reality of all phenomena. The way to Buddhahood for all living beings of the Ten Worlds was taught based on this principle. It is also revealed that living beings in the six paths also possess Buddha nature and that common mortals can attain nirvana without changing their present form. Based on these principles, “the Sufferings of Birth and Death are in Themselves Nirvana” was revealed. Nichiren Daishonin states this in his Gosho, “Oko-Kikigaki,” as follows:

The heart of the pre-lotus sutra teaching is detesting “birth and death” by getting rid of earthly desires and seeking nirvana and enlightenment in another place. But the heart of the Lotus Sutra is “Sufferings are Nirvana,” and “Earthly Desires are Enlightenment.” (Gosho, p. 1835)

However, even in the Lotus Sutra’s Theoretical Teaching (Shakumon) ichinen sanzen is still theoretical (the theoretical three thousand realms in a single life-moment) and the Buddha’s appearance is still expedient. When actual ichinen sanzen (the actual three-thousand realms in a single life-moment) was taught in the Honmon Teaching, it was first revealed that all living beings’ earthly desires, as they are, become enlightenment and that a body with the “sufferings of birth and death” becomes Buddha’s body of nirvana.

Common mortals in the Latter Day of the Law do not know the source of life, and do not know how to properly cope with earthly desires, karma and sufferings. Therefore, the people’s agony becomes deeper and deeper. The True Buddha, Nichiren Daishonin, states in his Gosho, “The True Object of Worship,” as follows:

Showing profound compassion for those ignorant of the gem of ichinen sanzen, the True Buddha wrapped it within the single phrase Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, with which he then adorned the necks of those living in the Latter Day. (Gosho, p. 662)

Nichiren Daishonin, the Eternal Buddha of Absolute Freedom of time without beginning (Kuon Ganjo), aroused infinite compassion and inscribed the Gohonzon of Myoho-Renge-Kyo for common mortals to attain Buddhahood, thereby making it possible for us, living beings in the Latter Day of the Law, to receive the benefit of “Birth and Death are Nirvana.” We can do this with the single practice of faithfully embracing the Gohonzon of the Mystic Law without having to practice for long periods of time, eliminating earthly desires and reducing our bodies to ashes.

Then, how should we interpret the principle of “Birth and Death are Nirvana” in terms of our practice? Let’s focus on the suffering of sickness from the eight sufferings mentioned above.

No one likes to be sick but when we consider it from the perspective of “Birth and Death are Nirvana,” sickness, as it is, becomes nirvana or security in this lifetime. It is often said that those who have one disease might live longer than healthy people because they learn to protect their health more than others. As far as faith goes, we can say that sickness is not a bad thing and it is, rather, a good thing because we can gain a lot of realization from sickness.

Nichiren Daishonin states in his Gosho, “Beneficial Medicine for All Ills,” as follows:

From illness arises the mind that seeks the Way. (Gosho, p. 900)

As Nichiren Daishonin says, one of the best benefits is to be motivated to take faith in Gohonzon and to practice this Buddhism more sincerely because of the suffering of sickness.

Secondly, we will learn how much pain other people who are also sick suffer and how difficult their situation is. If we didn’t experience sickness for ourselves, we would never be sensitive to the hardships of others. This knowledge is precious and helps us grow as living beings.

Thirdly, we can build conviction in the power of the Buddha and the Law in the Gohonzon. In “The Daimoku of the Lotus Sutra,”

Myo means to revive, that is, to return to life. (Gosho, p. 360)

Thus, even if one is down with a serious illness, if he prays to the Gohonzon with utmost sincerity, he will definitely defeat the sickness and realize the truth of the sutras' words and deepen his conviction in this practice.

Moreover, to become ill is a good opportunity to eradicate one’s negative karma and to realize the importance of health and the value of life. The ability to change our life condition into a much more wonderful one through the experience of sickness, is the true aspect of “Sufferings of Birth and Death are in Themselves Nirvana.”

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