The Journey of Life (life cycle)
In line with historical Buddhist teachings, the Soka Gakkai see birth and death as essential phases of a ‘changeless force’ that exists eternally, or the fundamental ‘life-force’ around us (SGI-UK 2017: 29). What we know as ‘life’ is the phase in which the life-force is manifest, while what we know as ‘death’ is merely a phase in which the life-force is dormant. Birth and death thus repeat in an endless cycle whilst the fundamental life-force remains unchanged.
This relates to a belief common to most (Mahayana) Buddhists, that all living creatures are part of this cycle of birth and death and will continue to be reborn until they attain nirvana (enlightenment) (Keown 1996: 29). However, Buddhist teachings hold that neither the beginning of cyclic rebirth nor its end can ever be known with certainty. At the same time, it is widely held that the number of rebirths a person can go through is almost infinite. The concept of reincarnation predated the emergence of Buddhism in India and was already associated with the doctrine of karma – the idea that our moral deeds in our present lives would determine the circumstances of our rebirth.
The Soka Gakkai understanding of nirvana and karma is slightly different from that in some other forms of Buddhism, however. The Lotus Sutra teaches that one is already enlightened – “the essential nature of our lives at any moment is that of a Buddha”, a state also known as “Buddhahood” and as “awakening to the greater self” (SGI 2015). When this is realised, life can be lived full of joy and purpose – with the primary purpose being to awaken others to their Buddha nature. The circumstances of our lives, including suffering, “become the means to demonstrate the power of the Buddha nature and form bonds of empathy with others” (SGI 2015). Our lives are not then guided by karma but by this mission.