The Pure Land and Nichiren Debate in Buddhism

Coincidentally, a few days before this post, I was reading a debate in 1272 between the Buddhist monk, Nichiren, and a local Pure Land priest named Benjō.1 Nichiren is known for his strong criticism of the Pure Land teaching, some of which reflect Jokei’s criticisms, but also some of which are uniquely arguments by Nichiren himself, who maintained the Tendai tradition that the Lotus Sutra was the highest teaching.

Nichiren provides two arguments overall attacking Benjō’s belief that it’s beneficial to set aside all other Buddhist teachings, and focus on rebirth in the Pure Land:

  1. There’s nothing in the Buddhist scripture to suggest that one should set other teachings aside just for the sake of rebirth in the Pure Land.
  2. Chronoligically, the Buddha taught Lotus Sutra after the Pure Land sutras, and thus it supersedes them.

If you’re interested in the debate, it’s well-worth reading. Nichiren is a pretty sharp fellow, and a good debater, so you can see how he undermines Benjo’s argument. Apparently, they both signed the document at the end, which demonstrates the accuracy of the contents of the debate. Whether Benjo was won over by Nichiren is not clear from this document.

Anyhow, #2 is interesting because it reflects a very real belief at the time that all sutras in the Mahayana canon were preached by Shakyamuni Buddha, and in a certain order. The idea was started by the Chinese Tian-tai master, Zhiyi (智顗, 538–597). Zhiyi was one of many early Chinese Buddhists who had inhereted a huge volume of Buddhist sutras, freshly translated from India, but had no idea how the teachings related to one another: which were the earliest teachings, which were the later teachings, which were the highest teachings? So, early Chinese Buddhist schools developed competing theories about the order and hierarchy of the sutras, Zhiyi’s was the most accepted and the one most frequently cited by Buddhists in East Asia.

Zhiyi’s system had five stages of teachings (cited here):

  1. The Flower Garland period – taught immediately after the Buddha attained Enlightenment, lasting 3 weeks. No one understood the teaching and so Shakyamuni Buddha had to start over with more “basic” teachings.
  2. The Agama Period – taught at Deer Park, and lasting 12 years. This is equivalent to the Pali Canon in the Theravada tradition.
  3. The Correct and Equal Period – lasting 8 years. This includes some “fundamental” Mahayana sutras such as the Virmalakiri Sutra.
  4. The Wisdom Period – lasting 22 years. This includes such Mahayana Sutras as the Heart Sutra, Diamond Sutra, Pure Land sutras and many others.
  5. The Lotus and Nirvana Period – lasting 8 years. These are supposed to be the highest, and most final teachings.

Modern archeology and historiography has totally debunked this system because we now know that the Mahayana Sutras were written 400+ years after Shakyamuni Buddha.2 In some cases, such as the Heart Sutra and the Meditation of Amitabha Sutra, they were composed in China, not India. Also, in the case of the Lotus Sutra, the chapters were not written all at the same time, with later author adding tacking on additional chapters at the end. So, Zhiyi’s system (or any medieval) system for the sutras is pretty suspect.

But of course, Nichiren wouldn’t have possibly known that, so he was using the best arguments he could at the time.

However, #1 is still a reasonable argument. Nichiren points out that nothing in the Sutras suggests that one abandon all other teachings and practices to focus only on the Pure Land, and this is true. From what I’ve read, there’s nothing in the sutras to suggest this. In fact the opposite. For example, the Immeasureable Life Sutra, one of three foundation sutras, implies that the more you can do to be reborn in the Pure Land, the better.

The concept of “exclusive” focus on the Pure Land was devised by Honen a generation earlier, but was shaped by a persistent belief at the time of Dharma Decline (mappō in Japanese 末法) which taught that after 2,000, the Buddha’s teachings would be so obscure, and society so corrupt, that no one could put them into practice anymore. So, for Honen, the last resort is rebirth in the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha. Nichiren also subscribed to this idea of Dharma Decline, but his solution was to focus on devotion to the Lotus Sutra instead. Both the Immeasure Life Sutra (Pure Land) and the Lotus Sutra both imply that someday the the Buddhist teachings will be obscure and society will crumble, but the specific, formulaic chronology is mentioned in neither one. It’s mentioned in a more obscure sutra called the Mahasamnipata Sutra (大集經).

But anyway, the notion of Dharma Decline is pretty subjective, and the major Mahayana sutras don’t state that after 2,000 years, no one will be able to practice Buddhism anymore. Also, when you look at modern examples like the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh, among others, it’s pretty hard to take Dharma Decline seriously. Yes, Buddhism has changed and evolved since the time of the Buddha, and maybe isn’t “pristine” anymore,3 but it’s hard to say no one can practice it anymore. Also, when I hear Buddhists say “I am too foolish to put the teachings into practice”, I disagree.

It’s like learning a language. Westerners say Japanese is too difficult, Chinese characters are too hard to learn, etc. But the problem isn’t the language or the person. They just don’t know how to learn a language. Once you know that part, the language learning is straightforward. In the same way, if you struggle to put Buddhist teachings into practice, it’s not Buddhism’s fault, and it’s not because you’re stupid. Either you’re not in a good environment, or you haven’t learned how learn.

So, looking at this debate as a 21st century Buddhist from a Western culture, I think neither side entirely won. I think Nichiren was closer to what we would consider “orthodox” Buddhism (from our 21st-century, subjective perspective) though and won the debate mainly on from argument #1, but argument #2 shows that he was product of his time too just like Benjo. 😉

Interesting debate though.

P.S. Not every Buddhist at the time agreed with Dharma Decline. The founder of Soto Zen, Dogen, acknowledged the theory in such documents as the Eihei Kōroku (永平廣録) but felt it was no excuse not to practice Buddhism anyway because it was such privilege to even encounter the Dharma, no matter what the circumstance.

P.P.S. Another long post. ;p

P.P.P.S. Another criticism that Nichiren had in general toward Pure Land Buddhism was that it replaced Shakyamuni Buddha with Amitabha Buddha. Nichiren was critical of Shingon Buddhism for the same reason because they replaced Shakyamuni with Vairocana. There’s arguments for and against this, and it’s much to large to get into here. Shan-tao’s parable of the White Path is a clarification of how Shakyamuni and Amitabha relate in a Pure Land context, if you’re curious though. Also, the argument where Nichiren says Pure Land Buddhists will be reborn in Hell isn’t as controversial as one might think. A number of Buddhist writers at the time, including Zen masters, frequently threatened their opponents with being reborn in Hell. Nowadays, this seems pretty harsh, but back then the religious was very competitive and a schools’ survival dependended on government endorsement.

1 Not to be confused with Honen’s disciple, Benjō who was the 2nd patriarch of Jodo Shu. Apparently Benjō was a popular monastic name at the time. :p

2 To be fair, the Theravada Pali Canon was also written down centuries later. The text closely matches the Mahayana Agamas though, so we can be fairly certain that both reflect what the Buddha said and taught. Sadly, the Agamas are not translated into English, so it’s difficult to compare and contrast with the Pali Canon. The point is, the Mahayana sutras that came after the Agamas are purely within the Mahayana tradition only. My take on it, having read a number of them, is that they were often attempts to re-hash or summarize earlier teachings into a single narrative that was more contemporary and pertinent to the times. But because of the writing style (Buddha as narrator), this lead to confusion in different cultures and time periods so people believed these were the authentic words of the Buddha and had to reconcile them, hence they greater variety of schools and traditions in the Mahayana branch.

3 A lot of modern purists are obsessed with so-called “Pure Buddhism”, but good luck finding it. Also, as a reminder you are not a 5th-century BC Indian person, so even if you find it, you may not like what you find.

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Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

5 thoughts on “The Pure Land and Nichiren Debate in Buddhism”

  1. Great post. One thought comes to mind in reading this. Amida replacing Shakyamuni Buddha. I, personally, don’t see it this way. I think of Amida as more Dharmakaya. Shakyamuni Buddha’s story of enlightenment. Amida as the Dharma aspect of the triple jewels, rather than replacing the Buddha gem. More of experiencing the teachings in everyday life.

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    1. Hi Michael482,

      I’ve often felt that way too with regard to Amitabha and Shakyamuni, and I know some Jodo Shinshu Buddhists who think that way too. Shinran vaguely hints at it a little bit, and so on. However, at times, I feel that if people focus too much on the abstract Dharmakaya and not enough on the concrete, historical Buddha, they may lose sight of what Buddhism is about. This is what I would tell to Shingon Buddhists as well given their emphasis on Maha-Vairocana Buddha, so I’m not singling out Jodo Shinshu Buddhism here.

      So, I guess I’ve always felt a bit conflicted about it.

      Re: sutras, I also prefer the Larger and Smaller sutras. In general, the Amitabha Sutra has a lot going for it: short like the Heart Sutra, but chock full of Buddhist things. Ou-I’s commentaries on the Amitabha Sutra are good read, though it’s a somewhat different interpretation compared to what you might see in a typical Japanese Pure Land community, where there’s less division between Pure Land and Zen teachings. 🙂

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  2. I also focus more on the larger and smaller sutras, translated from the sanskrit, due to the very reason you mentioned. Cleary’s translations of Avatamsaka sutra and others are good too.

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