Buddhism teaches rarity
of human life
"Hard it is to be born into human life; now we are living in it. Difficult it is to hear the teachings of the Blessed One; now we hear them. If we do not gain emancipation in this present life, we may not be free from ill-faring in the ocean of births and deaths for kalpas (eons). Let us reverently take refuge in the Three Treasures."
With these words intoned by the minister, we encounter a fundamental principle of Buddhism which is the center of attention as we enter into the new year. Buddhism stresses the preciousness and rarity of human life in the world of sentient life and its changing, impermanent nature. It is in this life that we have the rare opportunity to discover the truth and meaning of life itself.
As a student, I spent two New Year's celebrations in Japan. In contrast to the revelry and raucous inebriation of Western societies, midnight in Tokyo and Kyoto was more solemn. While thousands of people flocked to Shinto shrines in search of good fortune, among many Buddhists there was thoughtful reflection on our life bound by 108 passions.
I also recall the grandeur of the temple bells in Kyoto, ringing out the year with their sonorous, reverberating tones. Most impressive was the tolling of the bell in Nanzenji, which was broadcast through the city, stimulating reflection on the passingness of time and life.
In our local Hawaii temples, following a final service of the year at the moment of midnight, there is the striking of the temple bell by parishioners to ring in the new year.
Marking the onset of a new year is called in Japanese "joya-e." Joya means the division of the night, the point when the old year ends and the new begins. It is also called "shusho-e," a gathering to correct or alter one's ways. It is a time of renewal and reflection on one's deeds.
Buddhists do not make New Year resolutions as is done in the West because we recognize that we are constantly buffeted by our passions. As long as we live we are "bombu," foolish beings, entangled in our passions and attachments which stick like molasses. However, reflection and awareness in meditation will reduce their power in our lives, and we will be enabled to grow spiritually.
Buddhism speaks of 108 passions. These are not 108 discrete, separate forms of passion, but the complex of karmic heritage that we carry with us in our daily lives. The figure 108 is arrived at by noting our six awarenesses or sensations, produced from our sense organs, plus consciousness. These are marked by three judgments of the nature of experience such as pleasant, unpleasant or indifferent, which make 18. Each of these awarenesses is attached to pleasure or detached from pleasure, making 36. The 36 occur in the past, present and future, for a total of 108 passions.
Beyond the mathematics, the 108 passions symbolize the breadth and depth of our passionate involvement in life. They are the dynamism of life. Rather than simply repressing them, they are to be directed toward greater ends than simply fulfilling our ego interests and endow the New Year with a hope for peace and justice for all.
Alfred Bloom is a retired Honpa Hongwanji minister and a professor emeritus in the University of Hawaii Department of Religion.