In February, we observe our Nirvana Day Service commemorating Sakyamuni Buddha’s passing from this world into the lasting peace of parinirvana. In departing from this world, Sakyamuni embodied the essential truth that all who are born into human life will eventually pass through the gate of death. Given that our bodily form will not last forever, where shall we find meaning and purpose in this life? Observing the world in which we live, it seems that many lives are devoted to the pursuit of fame and profit. Shinran Shonin himself concludes his Hymns of the Dharma-Ages with the following verse:
I am such that I do not know right and wrong
And cannot distinguish false and true;
I lack even small love and small compassion,
And yet, for fame and profit, enjoy teaching others.
The pursuit of fame and profit pervaded life in Shinran Shonin’s time, just as it does in our own time. Reading these words of Shinran Shonin, I recognize how the desire for fame and profit often compels my own life.
In this internet age, we may find ourselves spending considerable time and energy curating an image of ourselves on social media platforms. When our posts accumulate more and more “likes,” we taste the fleeting pleasure of fame and recognition. This is what makes social media platforms so addictive. When our lives are driven by the quest for fame and recognition, it is easy to become preoccupied by how we are evaluated by others. This preoccupation with our own image can cause our hearts to become narrow and self-serving. We may worry that if others receive attention and recognition that we will be forgotten and ignored. We become resentful of those who receive praise, thinking that the recognition they receive signals a lack of regard for our own accomplishments. Rather than leading to peace of mind, chasing after fame and recognition tends to lead to increased stress and anxiety.
When our lives are driven by the desire for profit, we are at risk of losing sight of what it is that makes this human life precious. In our contemporary society, there is a tendency to attribute more value to the lives of those who have the ability to accumulate great profits. As a result, those who dedicate their lives to helping others through vocations like teaching and care-giving often struggle to maintain their livelihood. While recent advances in artificial intelligence raise the prospect of even more efficient and profitable operations for businesses, many workers now have great anxiety that they will no longer be needed in their current job and that their value as an employee will disappear. When the guiding principle of life is maximizing profits, anxiety and fear are pervasive and peace of mind is rare.
Ordinary unenlightened beings fall into confusion and anxiety in their pursuit of fame and profit. In the following verse from Shinran Shonin’s “Hymn of True Shinjin and the Nembutsu,” he expresses his deeply held belief that the true purpose of Sakyamuni Buddha’s life in this world was to provide peace of mind for ordinary unenlightened beings:
Sakyamuni Tathagata appeared in this world
Solely to teach the ocean-like Primal Vow of Amida;
We, an ocean of beings in an evil age of five defilements,
Should entrust ourselves to the Tathagata’s words of truth.
The Primal Vow expresses Amida Buddha’s steadfast commitment to liberate all beings without discrimination. The quest for profit can lead to discriminatory treatment of others if we value them only according to how much they are able to contribute to our own profit. Sakyamuni taught the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha in order to liberate all those who are lost and suffering in this world dominated by the quest for fame and profit.
Our lives are precious not according to how much fame or profit we attain. Our lives are precious because we have the potential to realize liberation from suffering through the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha. The words “Namo Amida Butsu” that I hear are the voice of the Buddha calling out to me, saying “I will liberate you without fail.” The words “Namo Amida Butsu” that I recite are my joyful response saying, “Thank you for liberating me.” Sakyamuni Buddha’s true purpose in life was to bestow upon us the genuine peace of mind that we receive in the Nembutsu.
Namo Amida Butsu