The Buddha’s first sermon stated the first truth to consider is “Life is dukkha.” This usually is translated “life is suffering.”

That’s how I started my first discussion group as a minister. According to Buddhism, I said, “Life is suffering.” Immediately, a young woman retorted, “I don’t think so!” After class, she never returned.

Later I realized most people probably don’t think “life is suffering.” In our society, people feel “Life is good,” or “Life is comfortable” or maybe “Life is sometimes easy, sometimes hard,” but not “Life is suffering.”

Actually, the Buddha used the word “dukkha,” which more accurately means “off-kilter,” as an ill-fitted wheel on a cart makes it wobbly. Therefore dukkha refers to life that somehow is bumpy, not quite right, somewhat off balance. In other words, life is not always smooth, difficulties appear and problems arise. When things don’t go our way, we get frustrated, angry, sad or depressed. We “suffer.”

Why do you suppose the Buddha began teaching with this simple, common sense observation? Even during his time, people must have thought, “I know that!” or “What are you talking about? My life is okay.”

Imagine if the first Noble Truth were “Life is good.” If this were true, there’s no need for anything else—no questions, no doubts, no spiritual path. A life happy and carefree is free from dukkha.

Alas, this is not the case. We encounter difficulties, there are bumps in the road and some problems seem insurmountable. Family problems, a relationship breakup, a job loss, a debilitating illness, old age and impending death often lead to sadness, depression, anger, frustration and hopelessness. Even worldly success sometimes feels empty with the realization that money, possessions, status and power don’t necessarily lead to happiness.

Besides even if we’re happy, there’s surely dukkha in the world. How close must it come before it affects us: the next town, the next house, the next room? How long can we keep it at bay? A loved one’s dukkha quickly becomes our dukkha.

Facing this truth may seem like the end of the road, a cliff above a deep abyss. Some people certainly feel that way, giving up hope, succumbing to depression, acting in anger or even ending their lives.

The Buddha understood this point in life as a time when the world we think we know crumbles and disappears in darkness. Something went wrong and now we are lost.

Rather than the end of the line, the Buddha calls this the starting point. He encourages us to begin to question life, our assumptions, how we live and what we think we understand. We begin to seek answers. Thus begins our spiritual journey.

This is why I think the Buddha began teaching the First Noble Truth of dukkha. This is the starting point. When we encounter pain and suffering in life, we are forced to ask questions and to seek answers. We begin to see life differently, embarking on a less worldly and a more spiritual path. It is truly the beginning.

Once at a lecture on Buddhism, someone sitting across the aisle recognized me and said, “Sensei, why are you here? Don’t you already know this stuff?”

I don’t really so I welcome the opportunity to learn more. To me, following the Buddhist path is about constantly deepening our understanding of ourselves, and in turn, growing our appreciation for life. It’s a process that continues throughout our entire life. There is no “end.” No one ever becomes an “expert.”

Yet we live in a world of experts. Turn on the TV and you’ll see countless “experts” talking about the economy, politics, sports, health, beauty, food and so forth. Even young people in their twenties already talk as experts about social networking and the Internet. Experts speak with confidence and authority, fiercely defending their positions and rarely backing down or admitting their failings.

We human beings generally are the same. I think almost every one of us would say we are at least experts at knowing ourselves. These feelings come out when we say, “Don’t tell me what to do” and “I know what’s best for myself” and “I’m right and you’re wrong!”

Interestingly enough, I’ve seen a similar phenomenon among karate teachers. Many Americans receive a certain amount of training, feel they know best, and open their own martial arts schools, proclaiming themselves “grandmaster,” which really irks many tradition-bound teachers, who feel these self-proclaimed experts don’t give enough credit to their teachers and don’t follow traditional lines of lineage. If you’ve ever studied tea ceremony, flower arranging, koto playing, Minyo dance, judo, kendo or any other Japanese art, you know about the great emphasis put on the teacher/student relationship.

A student learns from, respects and appreciates his or her teacher, but the relationship doesn’t stop with two people. Even teachers have teachers, someone they studied under and learned from. Those senior teachers also have teachers, and so on all the way back to the founder. In Japanese arts, this lineage typically extends back to a headquarters in Japan, which symbolizes a tradition’s founder.

Jodo Shinshu Buddhism also follows this kind of traditional thinking, but in a deeper and more profound way. We can all look to Shinran Shonin as a teacher who helps us understand Buddhism and ourselves, even though he lived 800 years ago and we have never met him. Our temple represents his teachings and the Higashi Honganj mother temple in Kyoto symbolizes his life and works.

During his lifetime, Shinran expressed gratitude to his teacher, Honen Shonin, who illuminated to him the words “Namu Amida Butsu.” In his writings, Shinran also cited other Buddhist teachers, some of whom lived centuries apart and in different countries: Genshin (Japan), Shantao, Tao-ch’o, T’an-luan (China), Vasubandhu, Nagarjuna (India), collectively they are known as the Seven Patriarchs of Pure Land Buddhism. Shinran credited his spiritual understanding to this lineage, which ultimately traces its roots back to the Buddha in India.

In Buddhism, the teacher/student relationship transcends mere tradition. It is really representative of our state of mind and attitude in life. As long as we are confident in our views, defend our thinking, are attached to our opinions, think that we are right while others are wrong, that only we ourselves know best, then our minds will never be open to a higher wisdom, greater self-knowledge and deepening compassion. We must feel from the bottom of our hearts the emptiness and ignorance deep within that spurs us to find answers. When we come to realize these feelings, we become spiritual seekers and true students.

In this way, we naturally begin to learn from others, because we are seeking answers. We also naturally become humble, viewing others with appreciation and warmth for what they may teach us.

Only when we become true students does a true teacher appear. Only when we begin to have questions do answers begin to appear. This dynamic is symbolized in the sutras in which the Buddha remains silent, until a seeker approaches with a question. Once asked, the Buddha begins to speak. Likewise, once we become a true student, then the sutras begin to make sense, the rituals begin to take on meaning and the Nembutsu begins to touch our hearts. Anyone and everyone can teach us something.

Through the teacher, we begin to discover answers. Unless we become students, no teacher can help us. True students forever seek answers, constantly learning, constantly growing, in a never-ending process that deepens our understanding and appreciation for the rest of our lives.

Imagine a spiritual truth seeker living on a mountain, waking early to meditate, eating the simplest food, practicing the most arduous disciplines and leading a life of severe deprivation. The path leading to higher awareness must be difficult indeed.

Don’t be fooled, it’s really easy!

It’s no joke, if what Shinran Shonin says is true. Allow me to explain.

Awakening to spiritual truth requires us merely to “open our eyes.” This means seeing and understanding life from a perspective different than what we saw and understood before.

I found three interesting anecdotes, which help explain this point in my “Kenkyusha Japanese Language” textbook, which I’ll borrow for the purposes of this essay. Here goes:

-An American student once said he couldn’t understand why Japanese cherry blossoms were such a big deal. He saw pictures of them and the only feeling he had was that they looked nice.

However, when he went to Japan, he saw cherry trees bloom in the spring, their beauty lasting for only a few days. Then, he saw the blossoms flutter to the ground like gentle snowflakes, touching him with a feeling of life’s impermanence. He finally saw what the Japanese saw and understood their feeling.

-A schoolteacher was invited to a friend’s wedding in a neighboring village, so she took the local train to attend. On the ride back home, she looked out the window and saw a mountain that the train had to circle around. She wondered, “What is that mountain? I have never seen it before.”

Suddenly, it dawned upon her that it was the same mountain that stood next to her hometown, but she had never viewed it from the backside. She had looked at this mountain countless times out of her classroom window and felt she knew it well. When confronted with the opposite side however, she realized she had only seen one face of it and wasn’t even aware of the other side until now.

This last story comes from a legend called “Columbus’s Egg”:

-After discovering the New World, Christopher Columbus returned to Spain to much acclaim. His fame aroused the jealously of some officials, who happened to sit near him at dinner. They accused Columbus of being a fraud, that his “discovery” was accidental and that anyone could have accomplished the same feat.

Upon hearing this affront, Columbus asked a servant to bring him an egg. Columbus took the egg and challenged his tablemates to stand the egg on its head. As each person tried, the egg invariably rolled over.

Finally, Columbus took the egg, held it firmly in his hand, and forcefully hit the egg on the table. The shell cracked just enough to flatten its surface, allowing Columbus to make the egg stand.

His accusers laughed and said, “Why anyone could have done that!” To which, Columbus replied, “If anyone could have done it, why didn’t you?”

In each of these stories, we see people who thought they knew the truth about something, but discovered, they really didn’t know. With a simple turn of the mind, they began to see and understand more than they understood before. This is the type of change in perspective that I think Shinran was talking about.

In our everyday experience, we are presented with opportunities to deepen our awareness about who we are and what this life is all about. In dealing with our family, friends, and co-workers; in dealing with our health, our jobs, our personal situations; in dealing with aging and death, the potential to awaken to Truth awaits us.

Just open your eyes and see more than you’ve seen before.

A thousand years ago, a kind of Buddhist last rites in Japan became popular—family members gathered around a dying person, together chanting “Namu Amida Butsu.” These deathbed rituals helped send the person to the Pure Land, they thought.

Maybe it’s time to bring back these rituals.

I’m joking, but calmly contemplating the Pure Land isn’t such a bad idea considering the more common end-of-life scenario—over-reliance on medical technology.

A medical doctor, Atul Gawande, wrote eloquently on the subject in a story “Letting go: What should medicine do when it can’t save your life,” (New Yorker magazine, Aug. 2, 2011): “Spending one’s final days in an intensive care unit because of terminal illness is for most people a kind of failure. You lie on a ventilator, your every organ shutting down, your mind teetering on delirium… The end comes with no chance for you to have said goodbye or “It’s okay” or “I’m sorry” or “I love you.”

Don’t get me wrong: today’s medicine treats what was once incurable, heals many illnesses, re-sets broken bones and offers relief from pain. There is definitely a time and a place for medical treatment and doing all you can to overcome illness. What modern medicine cannot do is provide a cure for death. Understanding that difference is crucial.

Gawande cites a study, which showed that “terminally ill cancer patients who were put on a mechanical ventilator, given electrical defibrillation or chest compressions, or admitted, near death, to intensive care had a substantially worse quality of life in their last week than those who received no such interventions. And, six months after their death, their caregivers were three times as likely to suffer major depression.”

Such findings highlight the problems created by modern medicine, which brings to mind the adage “the cure is sometimes worse than the disease.” In my position as a minister, I regularly make hospital visits, sometimes at this final stage, and have witnessed such suffering, to which there are no easy answers.

Naturally, the end-of-life patient and their families often search desperately for new drugs, treatments and procedures, which according to Gawande, essentially all end in failure. Patients often don’t accept the fact they are dying, which they feel is tantamount to “giving up,” or else, family members insist on radical treatments that inflict even more pain, hoping for a miracle recovery or at least a longer life span down the road.

Almost counter-intuitively, hospice care—forgoing treatment of a disease in favor of just treating immediate symptoms to ensure the best quality of life now—had some surprising results. Hospice care workers also address the topic of death with patients and families, discussing their needs, desires and priorities.

Research found no difference in survival times between hospice and non-hospice patience with certain cancers. In fact, some hospice patients lived longer, anywhere from a few weeks to a few months longer. Gawande wrote, “The lesson seems almost Zen: you live longer only when you stop trying to live longer.”

According to the study, these hospice patients “suffered less, were physically more capable, and were better able, for a longer period, to interact with others. Moreover, six months after the patients died their family members were much less likely to experience major depression. In other words, people who had substantive discussions with their doctor about their end-of-life preferences were far more likely to die at peace and in control of their situation and to spare their family anguish.”

However, even this last peaceful scenario is not guaranteed. The Buddha explained that life flows out of innumerable interdependent causes and conditions beyond our control. Impermanence too is a universal truth, felt most strongly when facing the great change we call “death.”

I think beyond our physical worries lies a greater and more deeply imbedded anxiety. It is a fear we need to confront most, but which we work hardest to avoid. It is the fear of death.

Our Pure Land Buddhist tradition tells the story of a Chinese Buddhist monk T’an-luan, who fell ill and suddenly became afraid of dying. He hurried off to study the secrets of eternal life and longevity with a famous Taoist master. When returning with some scrolls on a path to his village, he encountered the Indian monk Bodhiruci. He asked the teacher about Buddhist practices for eternal life.

Bodhirucci spat, “You fool! If you live 10,000 years, you will die. If you live 1,000 years, you will die. If you live, 100 years, you will die.” The real problem you face is how to live right now, he told the monk. T’an-luan burned the Taoist scrolls.

T’an-luan learned the true meaning of “eternal life.” In understanding this life and the connection to all things and all lives, past and future, he realized that the infinite lies in this moment, for this moment contains the eternity of time. Appreciating your life now is most precious.

Each person’s life is unique, each of our circumstances, karma, is different. There is no one right course to follow. However, if our desires and actions are driven by fear and anxiety, then we assuredly will suffer.

If we can gain a spiritually deep sense of peace, then whatever happens in life we may calmly accept. The Buddha taught that each of us has the potential to gain this peace by awakening to the true meaning of our life. This potential exists as long as we are alive. Consequently, each breath is important, each moment is important. We can fully live this life no matter how long or how short. This is the meaning behind the words: realizing our birth in the Pure Land.

In our society, it’s important to get a return on investment, to make every dollar count, to get something for your money. That’s how we’re taught to think and that’s the capitalist way.

This makes sense and we’d have a tough time if we thought otherwise. But this attitude tends to seep into other aspects of life, giving us a feeling that we are wasting time or expending too much energy on something that doesn’t much affect me or is unnecessary to my personal happiness.

We lose patience with people, sever relationships, abandon responsibilities, and retreat into thoughts of self-righteousness; all for what we believe are good reasons.

The Buddha realized this way of thinking is at its root, self-centered. The world is judged by how it affects me, how it benefits or hurts me. It is a view that is one-sided; it refuses to see value and connection to the world around. This narrow view, which the Buddha called “ignorance,” ultimately causes suffering.

This ignorant view is unable to see how this life is created by innumerable causes and conditions, which flow together beyond any power of my own. “I” live because I was somehow born on this earth, which was created through infinite karmic conditions, fed and nurtured by a world filled by life created by a power beyond my own.

To feel a sense of this truth, try a simple mental exercise which I heard about based on Naikan mental health therapy, which sprung from Jodo Shinshu Buddhism (more information at www.todoinstitute.org). From your birth to age five, think of all the people who helped you live during that time. For starters, there are doctors, nurses, diaper washers, baby food makers, diary farmers, clothing makers, nannies, babysitters, toy makers and teachers. Of course, parents, and probably most importantly, your mother, who changed your diaper an estimated 3,500 to 5,000 times!

We have been receiving all along. All of these causes, conditions and karmic connections have given us life, yet it’s so easy to get lost in the belief that what “I” think is the most important. Great spiritual awakening lies in flipping our perception from this self-centered view, to the view that encompasses all of life as One.

In catching even a glimpse of this truth, our thinking begins to change, our perception starts to turn, and rather than ask, “What’s in it for me,” we start to wonder, “What can I do to help this world? What can I do in appreciation of all the people and things in this world that have given me life?”

At this point, I believe that we truly begin to practice “dana” (pronounced “Donna,” like the girl’s name), the act of charity and giving. We stop asking, “What will I get for my money and efforts?” or “What’s in it for me?” Rather, in our small way, we humbly try to express our appreciation and gratitude through our words, actions and offerings, for the great compassion that has filled our lives all along, This I believe is the meaning of “dana,” the bodhisattva practice of giving.