Q: People are all equal, we are told, but I don’t believe it. Someone born into a wealthy family who excels at athletic and academic pursuits is clearly different from me, since I am poor and have no special talents. Must I simply accept these differences as quirks of fate? What did Shinran say about it?
A: Fukuzawa Yukichi (1834-1901), the Japanese educator and enlightenment thinker, made this famous pronouncement on the equality of all human beings: “Heaven never created a man above or below another.” Whether black or white or in between, rich or noble or homeless, we are all human under the skin and so exactly the same. But how vast our outer differences are! Innate discrepancies in intellectual ability, looks, and strength, as well as differences in the wealth we are born into and the events that befall us along life’s way, are unfathomably multifarious and complicated. Some are born into great wealth while others must live from hand to mouth. There are clever people and dullards, healthy people and sick. Graduates of the same college include professors, company executives, family business owners, and jacks of all trades. Still others fail in business and commit suicide, or lose a spouse, or die in a traffic accident. Lives unfold in all sorts of ways. Sometimes we act thinking we know exactly what the result will be, only to have something so devastatingly unexpected happen that we are dazed and at a loss. Honest endeavor is no guarantee of success, nor does evildoing necessarily end in failure. On the contrary, good people fail in business all the time and bad people often succeed. A disciple of Confucius named Yan Hui was a man of sterling character, yet he lived in dire poverty and died young. The thief Dao Zhen abandoned himself to every kind of vice but enjoyed lifelong wealth and pomp. Comparing their lives, Confucius (c. 551–479 B.C.) lamented, “Heaven has destroyed me!” We are surrounded by similar inequities. Some people react with bitterness. “Only a fool would stay honest!” they say. “The hell with it, might as well do as you please.” Others show stoic resignation, referring to “inexorable fate.” When misfortune hits, most of us look for a scapegoat, declaring "It's all that guy's fault!" or "Society's to blame."
Certainly our efforts and precautions have a great impact on our fortunes, as do our environments and social structures; and by tinkering with social mechanisms we can minimize some tragedies if not eliminate them entirely. But our personalities and intellects are largely innate and unchangeable. Why was I born with a handicap? Why was I born when and where I was? Why did I have to have this particular set of parents? Why did I have to give birth to a child like this? We search in vain for the cause of our misfortune, only to admit that in the end we don’t know. Here Buddhism points to the existence of three temporal worlds—the past, present, and future—and to the great law of cause, condition, and effect that runs through them. Human reality is built on an infinity of space and time that continues from past to present to future according to the dictates of that law; but as we know only the present world, our view is extremely curtailed. By looking only at outcomes in this life, we cannot hope to lay hold of their true causes. But one thing we can be sure of: a seed never planted bears no fruit. Any given outcome always has a cause and conditions that made it possible.
Rai San’yo (1780-1832), the famous Confucian-oriented historian and writer, drew a painting of Śākyamuni losing a wrestling match to Confucius and invited the Buddhist monk Unge-in Taigan (1773-1850) to write an inscription. Taigan thought for a moment and then wrote, “Confucius, knowing nothing of the three worlds, causes Śākyamuni to collapse in laughter.” People who are focused solely on this temporal world and only stress the importance of leading a moral and ethical life are, from the perspective of Shinran’s teachings, benighted ignoramuses.