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Sunday, Feb. 15, 2009

The meaning of life through its purpose


By STEPHEN MANSFIELD
YOU WERE BORN FOR A REASON: The Real Purpose of Life, by Kentetsu Takamori, Daiji Akehashi and Kentaro Ito. Ichimannendo Publishing, 224 pp., $16.95 (cloth)

When it comes to religion, there are two types of rational minds: those who believe that faith is all smoke and mirrors, and those who, though rejecting that which is miraculous or supposition, see in the teachings of prophets, saints and other holy figures, incomparably valuable kernels of truth.

Believers in an afterlife hold that the only mechanism for admittance into paradise is faith. And the transmission of doctrine is the basis of the religious mission. The three authors of this book contend that between the swaddling clothes of birth and the cerements of death, there is a higher purpose, if we could but identify it. That purpose, according to the teacher Shinran, is to "destroy the root of suffering and gain joy in being alive, so that we can "rejoice at having been born human and live on in eternal happiness."

Born in the 12th century, Shinran, the founder of Shin Buddhism (the True Pure Land School) taught, in the words of the authors, that "tragedies arise out of the darkness of mind that cannot make sense of life." The argument assumes, of course, that we are not just pixels in a senseless universe. This itself requires an act of faith many in the modern world are incapable of.

Shinran's ideas are introduced through engaging narratives and parables. As with the very best religious writing, an almost transcendental prose akin to literature, is attained.

Quoting from Shinran's great work, "Teaching, Practice, Faith, Enlightenment," is the pithy couplet: "Circling among the houses of the birth-and-death cycle / Is caused by one thing alone: the doubting mind."

Here in two lines is the difference between science and faith, the former inveighing us to question and doubt everything, the latter to accept scripture without reservation. This is how our world is divided. Who then, is suffering from the greatest delusion — the atheist or the believer? This, perhaps, is the great question.

At the denouement of our lives, "having found no deep-seated satisfaction or peace of mind," the authors warn darkly, "we fall at last into the arms of death." Identifying a "clear and compelling reason to live" is no easy task. Feasible short-term goals are what most of us settle for. The writers differentiate between goals that are temporarily satisfying, and purpose, which is consistent, sustaining. In their view, this is where Shinran's message, eschewing esoteric musings for plain speech, is all the more valid. To counter unvarying routine, to experience enduring fulfillment, "only those with a clear sense of direction and purpose can stay the course with vigor."

The authors cast their net far and wide for supportive testimony, invoking voices not just from the Buddhist opus, but the likes of Nietzsche, Rilke, Seneca, Tolstoy, Viktor Frankl, and novelist Joan Didion. Even the words of Jack Nicholson's character in the film "About Schmidt," are quoted.

The book's investigation into social crimes, from a sledgehammering in Connecticut to the murder of homeless people in England, is sobering. To their credit the authors do not shy away from the uncomfortable facts of life in contemporary Japan: the inordinately high suicide rate, a decapitation in Kobe, the stabbing and bludgeoning of parents, the gas attack on a Tokyo subway. The authors take an objective but ultimately compassionate view of social disorders, compulsions and addictions.

The skeptical would say that the miseries of life, from wars and ethnic cleansing to decimating illnesses and death, are staged in a world utterly devoid of meaning, a wilderness whose horror is kept at bay with material distractions and desperately dreamed up goals. The authors take the more hopeful view that life's tragedies and disappointments "arise out of the darkness of mind that cannot make sense of life." The implication is that this can be corrected.

Spiritual convictions are often seen as a source of consolation, of insulation in an inconsolably troubled world. The message of this book, however, is that a sense of the spiritual in our lives is not simply a comfort, but cause for great jubilation.

The work leaves us with an affectionate impression of Shinran countering unbelievers with his absolutes, but also, as an exponent of joy, "dancing on heaven and on earth."



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