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On Nichiren

 

How Nichiren came to treasure the Lotus Sutra above other Buddhist teachings and why he wrote his famous treatise "Rissho Ankoku Ron" –"On Establishing the Correct Teaching for the Peace of the Land."

NichirenNichiren

Around 1258, a solitary monk made his way from Kamakura to Suruga (in present-day Shizuoka Prefecture). He had a look of deep sadness in his eyes. The monk's name was Nichiren. He visited Jisso-ji, a Buddhist temple of the Tendai school located at Iwamoto in Suruga, which possessed a complete set of the Buddhist scriptures.

In the temple library, Nichiren carefully perused the texts of each scroll of those teachings. He was determined to find documentary and theoretical proof that would unmistakably show that the fundamental cause for the continuing onslaught of natural disasters, epidemics and famines lay in the confusion of the religious realm, the basic spiritual foundation of human society. Day after day, he stayed in the library poring over the sutras. When he came to the Daijuku Sutra (Sutra of the Great Assembly), his eyes gleamed an intense light: there before him was a detailed description of the kinds of natural disasters that would occur when Buddhism was in decline. It exactly matched what he had witnessed since the great earthquake of 1257.

"It is just as it says!" he exclaimed inwardly.

Nichiren himself was keenly aware of and deeply regretted the decline of Buddhism. Because Kamakura was filled the temples of many Buddhist schools, it seemed that Buddhism was flourishing. But neither the genuine Buddhism that Shakyamuni taught nor any vestige of its spirit was to be found there.

The sutras were clear as to what Shakyamuni's true teachings were. For example, in the Muryogi Sutra (Sutra of Immeasurable Meanings), which serves as a prologue to the Lotus Sutra, Shakyamuni Buddha declares: "In these more than forty years, I have not yet revealed the truth." This clarifies that, of Shakyamuni's five decades of preaching, the first forty-or-so years were devoted to expounding preparatory teachings in which he had not yet revealed the truth. Whereas the Lotus Sutra teaches the true nature of life in its totality, these pre-Lotus Sutra teachings are merely provisional, employing examples and parables that elucidate a partial view of life's reality. In addition, the "Simile and Parable" chapter of the Lotus Sutra insists on "not accepting a single verse of the other sutras," indicating that the Lotus Sutra alone is the most fundamental Buddhist teaching.

At Jisso-ji temple, Nichiren gave himself over totally to reading one sutra after another to the exclusion of all else. His study of these texts clearly convinced him that the disasters and misfortune presently befalling Japan were caused by virtually the entire population turning its back on the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha's true teaching.

Beliefs have a great influence on our lives. For example, suppose we befriend someone we believe to be a good person, who is actually disreputable. If we associate with that person, we, too, may be led down the path toward evil before we even realize what is happening.

This is all the more a problem where religion is concerned, because religion shapes the way people think and act at the most basic level. Belief in an erroneous religious teaching can cloud people's minds and make them fall victim to their desires; it can even rob people of their will to live. This naturally will affect society, which is a product of human behavior, inviting conflict, confusion and stagnation. According to the principle of the oneness of life and its environment and the doctrine of three thousand realms in a single moment of life (ichinen sanzen), disharmony in people's hearts and minds and disorder in society are one and inseparable. Such disharmony also affects the natural environment. Buddhism teaches that the universe is essentially a single living entity, and that human beings and the natural world, which includes our physical environment, are mutually dependent and interrelated.

Nichiren concluded that the only way for people to free themselves from suffering was to abandon all erroneous teachings and base their lives instead on those that are true and correct. Furthermore, from his reading of the sutras, there was also every indication that two of the three calamities and seven disasters described in the scriptures that had not yet occurred--internal strife and invasion from abroad--would soon descend upon the country with a vengeance.

It occurred to Nichiren that priests of the other Buddhist schools must have read these sutras. Yet they had not succeeded in identifying in these teachings the fundamental cause of the misfortune plaguing society. This only served to underscore the fact that they failed to rely on the sutras as they should have and had lost the spirit to directly confront, or seek a way to relieve, the people's sufferings.

The Tendai, Shingon, Kegon, Ritsu and other schools of established Buddhism merely contented themselves with being officially designated by the government to offer ceremonial prayers for the protection of the nation. The newer schools such as Zen and Pure Land Buddhism cared only about gaining favor with leading members of the government. All of them strenuously avoided any discussions or debates on the validity of their teachings.

In other words, priests with fundamentally differing beliefs, whose most basic religious tenets were at odds, had come to overlook these important differences and together latched on to the government as their means of support, drinking deeply from the well of official patronage. They had completely forgotten the true mission of religion: the salvation of the people.

The government, in exchange for the support it lent them, required these Buddhist schools to cooperate with its policies; as a result, government and religion had become inseparable.

*   *   *

Nichiren wrote his treatise "Rissho Ankoku Ron" ("On Establishing the Correct Teaching for the Peace of the Land") out of a desire to put an end to people's suffering. On July 16, 1260, he submitted the work to the retired regent Hojo Tokiyori [(1227-63)--the fifth regent of the Kamakura shogunate], still the most powerful figure in Japan, through the offices of Yadoya Nyudo, a Kamakura government official who served Tokiyori.

Tokiyori had come to power as regent in 1246, when he was twenty. He quickly fended off all opposition and consolidated the power of the Hojo clan. He was an innovative governor and worked to root out corruption among the warrior class. He was also a practitioner of Zen Buddhism, and at the young age of thirty he retired as regent, citing health reasons, to enter the Zen order and take up residence at Saimyo-ji temple of the Rinzai school.

Even though he was no longer officially regent, he remained as influential as before, though now from behind the scenes. Moreover, ever since the great earthquake of 1257, Tokiyori had shown that he was seriously concerned about the natural disasters, famines and epidemics striking the land in recent years. He is said to have once lamented, "Is it the fault of the government? Is it because those who rule think only of personal gain? What error have we committed that has so angered both heaven and earth? What kind of offense could it be that the people must suffer so deeply?"

Nichiren had probably heard reports of Tokiyori's disquietude. He had also met and spoken with Tokiyori some time before presenting him with the "Rissho Ankoku Ron." What Nichiren had heard and seen no doubt contributed to his selecting Tokiyori as a fitting recipient of his formal remonstration with national authority.

This sorry state of society and the suffering of the people motivated Nichiren to compose the "Rissho Ankoku Ron," which begins:

Once there was a traveler who spoke these words in sorrow to his host: In recent years, there are unusual disturbances in the heavens, strange occurrences on earth, famine and pestilence, all affecting every corner of the empire and spreading throughout the land. Oxen and horses lie dead in the streets, the bones of the stricken crowd the highways. (MW-2, 3 [3])

Such very real human suffering is the starting point of Buddhism, which takes as its goal relief from such suffering.

In the "Rissho Ankoku Ron," Nichiren most frequently chose to write the word land or nation using a Chinese character formed of the pictograph for "the people" surrounded by a rectangular boundary. He did so in preference to more common Chinese characters for land, which have the pictograph for "sovereign" or a hand holding a lance symbolizing the protection of a territory or border, both similarly surrounded by a rectangular enclosure. Of the seventy-one times the word land or nation appears in the "Rissho Ankoku Ron," fifty-six, or about eighty percent, are written using the Chinese character formed of "the people" enclosed in a border. This symbolizes the importance that Nichiren gave to the people throughout his thought and writings.

*   *   *

In the "Rissho Ankoku Ron," Nichiren adopts the form of a dialogue between a guest who laments the state of the world and a host who upholds Buddhism. This format illustrates that Buddhism is spread by inspiration and agreement born of personal dialogue founded on sound logic, and not through coercion or pressure.

Nichiren addressed his treatise of protest not so much to Tokiyori the powerful political figure as to Tokiyori the human being--a leader with sufferings and sorrows like everyone else--out of a sincere wish to teach him the genuine tenets of Buddhism. Nichiren hoped that this would enable Tokiyori to awaken to the correct path of humanism and begin to govern in a way that would be most beneficial for the people.

Nichiren never sought support or patronage from the government. For instance, after his pardon from exile on Sado, Nichiren's prediction of impending foreign invasion seemed about to come true. Fearing imminent aggression by the Mongols, the government offered to build Nichiren a temple on the condition that he pray for the nation's protection and safety. Had he wanted to ingratiate himself with the political authorities, there would surely be no better opportunity. But Nichiren refused the offer point-blank.

The "Rissho Ankoku Ron" contains the following exchange: The host declares that to bring order and tranquillity to society without further delay, it is vital to put an end to slander of the Buddhist Law that fills the country. The guest then inquires whether this means condemning to death those priests and others who slander the Law and violate the prohibitions of the Buddha. The host responds by clarifying that ridding the world of those who slander the Law means simply to cease giving alms to wicked priests.

Nichiren made this point to urge the government to cease its protection and patronage of Zen, Pure Land and other Buddhist schools and sever the corrupt ties existing between government and religion. In contemporary terms, what Nichiren was talking about accords with the principle of "separation of Church and State." He rejected the idea that the fate of religion should be dependent upon the whims of the state. With this conviction, Nichiren strove to spread the True Law by examining the validity of each teaching through debate and dialogue among the different Buddhist schools.

When a given religious order seeks the patronage of the state, it is a clear sign of its degeneration.

Nichiren also warned in the "Rissho Ankoku Ron" that the two remaining calamities--internal strife and invasion from abroad--were bound to occur if erroneous Buddhist teachings were not rejected. This was not a mere prediction of impending catastrophe. It expressed the deep wisdom gleaned from contemplating the Law of life as recorded in the scriptures. It was a caution based on his enormous compassion and sincere resolve to prevent any more suffering being inflicted on the people.

*   *   *

Nichiren expresses his conclusion in the following passage of the "Rissho Ankoku Ron": "Therefore you must quickly reform the tenets that you hold in your heart and embrace the one true vehicle, the single good doctrine [of the Lotus Sutra]" (MW-2, 40 [45]). What is the surest way to "bring peace to the land" and transform a society that is weighed down with misfortune and suffering? Nichiren stresses here that it begins with one person "establishing the truth" in his or her heart. The "one true vehicle, the single good doctrine," of which he speaks, is the Lotus Sutra, the true Mahayana teaching that espouses life's supreme worth and dignity and instructs that all living beings are essentially Buddhas. When each individual awakens to and reveals his or her inherent Buddhahood in accord with this Mystic Law, the place that person lives becomes a shimmering Buddha land.

The goal of Nichiren's Buddhism is to create peace and prosperity in society by equipping individuals--the prime movers of that society and shapers of the times--with the inner requisites to triumph in all endeavors. The "Rissho Ankoku Ron" reveals the underlying principle for achieving this. Because Buddhism regards all beings as Buddhas, it finds absolute dignity and limitless potential in each individual. These same ideals constitute the unshakable philosophical basis of democracy.

Moreover, as we bring forth our inherent Buddha nature, we develop compassion for others. "Embracing the one true vehicle, the single good doctrine [of the Lotus Sutra]" means, in one sense, abandoning all prejudiced and partial views of life and humanity and returning to a respect for the supreme dignity of life; it means doing away with egoism and living by the rule of compassion, basing ourselves on true humanism. Here we find the universal principle that provides the key to humankind's prosperity and peace on earth.

The "Rissho Ankoku Ron" was thus submitted, but Hojo Tokiyori ignored it. According to one account, when Tokiyori was about to read the treatise, a retainer told him that Nichiren was a proud and arrogant priest who disparaged others and sought only to establish his own school of Buddhism; this, he was told, was the sole motive behind the treatise. Hearing this, Tokiyori is said to have decided not to read it. Whatever the actual circumstances might have been, it is clear that Tokiyori did not take Nichiren's message seriously. To make matters worse, officials close to Tokiyori twisted and reviled the content of Nichiren's work to the priests of the Pure Land and other Buddhist schools. The priests of Kamakura were already quite annoyed at Nichiren's efforts to point out errors in their teachings. Their anger reached a boiling point when they learned that Nichiren had dared to set down those criticisms in a treatise of protest to Tokiyori.

Nichiren was very much aware that if he presented the "Rissho Ankoku Ron" to Hojo Tokiyori, he would become the target of harsh persecution. Yet, prepared for this eventuality, he went ahead and admonished the rulers of the land. It was an act arising from profound empathy for the people's suffering, which he felt as if it were his very own.

Genuine empathy goes beyond simply sharing another's troubles and lamenting over them together--beyond mere words of sympathy and consolation. Those who truly empathize with others act with daring and strength to find ways to help people overcome their misery. Such individuals possess a fearlessness rooted in profound compassion as well as unyielding faith and conviction.

On the evening of August 27, forty days after Nichiren submitted his "Rissho Ankoku Ron," his modest dwelling at Matsubagayatsu in Kamakura was attacked by a band of Nembutsu followers in what came to be known as the Matsubagayatsu Persecution.

Nichiren's prediction had come true. The deluge of persecutions that would assail him for the rest of his life had begun.

--SGI President Daisaku Ikeda

Excerpted from The New Human Revolution Vol. 4 (SGI-USA, 1996)

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