Nichiren (日蓮, 1222-1282) is a well-known, though controversial figure in Buddhism because of his strident opposition to other Buddhist sects at the time in Japan, and his assertion of the primacy of the Lotus Sutra. Though some of the controversy has faded over the centuries, Nichiren remains a poorly understood figure outside of Nichiren followers.
Recently, I was flipping through the nyonin gosho (女人御書) a collection of Nichiren’s letters addressed female followers over the years. One letter caught my eye because it was so long, and because Nichiren goes into lengthy detail about his own life, and why he made the choices he did. This is unusual, as most of the other letters don’t really seem to delve into Nichiren’s past. So, I felt it worth sharing here.
The letter in question is a reply to a nun named Myōhō and expresses his condolences over the death of her elder brother. It is dated the 6th day of the 9th month of the first year of the Kōan era (1278?). Initially, Nichiren writes and thanks for the offerings of clothing. Later he talks about himself, and his upbringing. He states that he was born in the province of Awa (implying a remote, backwater province) as a commoner.
Then he writes:
Determined to plant a seed of Buddhahood and attain Buddhahood in this life, just as all other people, I relied on Amida Buddha and chanted the name of this Buddha since childhood. However, I began doubting this practice, making a vow to study all the Buddhist sutras, commentaries on them by Bodhisattvas, and explanatory notes by others. (pg. 182)
I did not intend to study all these sects [of Japanese Buddhism] in detail, but hoped to learn the gist of their teachings. I wandered around to study them. Entering Seichōji Temple on Mt. Kiyosumi [modern day Chiba Prefecture] at the age of twelve and going to Kamakura for further study at the age of sixteen, I studied at Kamakura, Kyoto, the Onjōji Temple, Mt. Kōya and the Tennōji Temple for twenty years until I reached the age of 32.
While visiting most temples in most provinces to study, I discovered a discrepancy: We, the unenlightened, believe that Buddha’s teachings are all the same and if we pray sincerely, we can enter Nirvana regardless of which sect we believe in; however, if we learn Buddhism wrongly we will fall into a large pit for slandering the dharma (pg. 182, 184)
Nichiren clarifies what it means to “slander the Dharma” (謗法, bōhō, lit. “slander/disparage the Dharma”) further in the letter:
Suppose a man was trying to make his way in life by serving a king. Suppose he did not make serious mistakes, but made many mistakes due to carelessness without knowing it. Suppose he approached a queen without any intention, and no co-workers felt it strange. Nevertheless, if his behavior seemed unnatural to the king, he would be punished more severely than a rebel. Not only himself but also his parents, brothers and servants would be punished. It is the same with the slanderer of the dharma; he many not realize what he is doing, and others also may not realize its sinfulness [罪, tsumi, “fault, sin, offense”]. While studying Buddhism because he thinks it is precious, he unintentionally commits the sin of slandering the dharma… (pg. 184, 186)
Thus Nichiren seems to imply that a “slanderer of the Dharma” is one who practices Buddhism incorrectly, or worse, compounds misunderstandings by passing it on to others. He uses the common belief at the time of “Dharma Decline” to explain something that troubled him:
Since this is the time of the Latter Age of the Decadent Dharma, politics grow crude, and society falls into disorder. Besides, Japan declines in prosperity and people grow decadent although Buddhism spreads here. This is contrary to what we expect of Japan where, unlike other countries, Buddhism prospers. The reason for this contradiction is that although Japan has more temples and stupas, most of them are for Amida Buddha. Besides this, each family enshrines a wooden statue or a portrait of Amida Buddha and people chant the name of the Buddha 60,000 to 80,000 times. Also, they cast all other Buddhas away and pray solely to Amida Buddha to the west. (pg. 186)
Nichiren then singles out Kukai and Shingon esoteric Buddhism for their close relationship with the Imperial court, and the court’s dependence on Shingon for its esoteric Buddhist rituals to help protect the State. Next, he talks about the Zen priests “who still kept precepts”, and their close relationship with the current military government. He summarizes by saying:
Buddhism seems to be prospering in this country. But why do we have such strange phenomena in the sky as comments running from east to west and natural calamities on earth that shook that earth upside down just as high waves capsize a ship in the middle of the ocean in a storm? Why is it that grass and trees are destroyed by violent winds, famine continues year after year, plagues are prevalent, and droughts dry up ponds, paddies, and fields? (pg. 186)
Nichiren then goes on to argue that people were led astray from the true Dharma by Pure Land Buddhism, Shingon esoteric Buddhism and so on. For Pure Land Buddhism, he argued that Pure Land teachers encouraged people to “throw away, close, ignore, and cast away all but Amida sutras” including the Lotus Sutra. Thus, but discarding the Lotus Sutra, they disregarded Shakyamuni Buddha in the process as well. For the Shingon sect, he points out that followers worship Vairocana Buddha (e.g. “Great Sun Buddha”) and consider the Lotus Sutra inferior to the esoteric sutras. In the case of the Zen sect, he states that it teaches that all sutras, including the Lotus Sutra, are “like a finger to point at the moon” and thus slandering the Dharma unintentionally.
Thus, Nichiren’s basic argument seems to be:
- Ideally, if a nation propagates the “true Dharma”, then that nation will prosper. This belief was not unique to Nichiren, either. For example Nichiren’s contemporary, Dogen founder of Soto Zen, wrote:
“When the true buddha dharma is spread widely in the nation, the rule of the monarch is peaceful because all buddhas and devas protect it unceasingly.” (pg. 147, The Essential Dogen)
- However, though Buddhism has prospered in Japan, the quality of life has worsened due to political turmoil and natural disasters. Thus, what is being propagated must not be the true dharma. Nichiren lived in the early Kamakura Period when the original aristocratic, 400-year Heian court was overthrown by a new upstart military government run by the new samurai class. The Genpei War had largely devastated the country. Coincidentally, there were several devastating earthquakes near the new capitol of Kamakura in the years 1241 and 1257. The worst one occurred in 1293.
- The “true Dharma” (shōbō 正法) is centered on Shakyamuni Buddha, with the Lotus Sutra as his fullest expression of the Dharma. Again, Nichiren wasn’t necessarily making this up, as the sutra itself tends to assert its status as the ultimate teaching of Shakyamuni Buddha such as in Chapter 10:
But if they hear this profound sutra
which defines the teaching of the voice-hearer,
if they hear this king of the sutras
and afterward carefully ponder it,
then you should know that these people
are close to the wisdom of the buddha.
or on the other hand Chapter 3:
Whether the Buddha is in the world
or has already entered extinction,
if this person should slander
a sutra such as this,
or on seeing those who read, recite,
copy, and uphold this sutra,
should despise, hate, envy,
or bear grudges against them,
the penalty this person must pay—
listen, I will tell you now:
When his life comes to an end
he will enter the Avichi hell,
be confined there for a whole kalpa,
and when the kalpa ends, be born there again.
Interestingly, Nichiren uses the word “unintentionally” several times in the letter to describe how he believes most Buddhists have good intentions, but because they’re practicing the Dharma incorrectly, they are still committing slander even if they mean well. Rather than being evil, they are simply shooting themselves in the foot.
Anyhow, having read and re-read Nichiren’s letter, there’s a few things that trouble me about this logic:
- In the light of modern science, it’s hard to attribute natural disasters to adherence to “false Dharma”. Politics and society may be different, but not natural disasters. Thus, I find Nichiren’s literal interpretations somewhat doubtful.
- Other Buddhist cultures at the time may not have suffered disasters at the time, even though they were not adherents of the Lotus Sutra. To say nothing of other non-Buddhist cultures (Christian Europe, Islam in Arabia, etc).
- The Lotus Sutra’s self-affirming status as the king of sutras and the hightest testing requires some kind of independent verification, which is kind of hard to do with religious texts.
- Finally, I’m reminded of the old Pali Canon sutra, the Sutra of the Simile of the Water Snake, where the Buddha uses the analogy of a raft that should be discarded rather than clung to, when it is done. I think the Zen Buddhists have a good point that the sutras are a “finger pointing to the moon”. I can see the Lotus SUtra in the same light: the physical sutra is just another “raft”, though admittedly what it represents (like other sutra), is important and thus the sutras still have an important place in Buddhism.
On the other hand, I kind of see Nichiren’s point in other ways:
- Nichiren was clearly raging against what he saw as corruption of the Buddhist institutions at the time, which is a well-documented subject. It is possible to be Buddhist in name, but to be internally corrupt (cf. verse 75 of the Dhammapda). Since Shingon and Pure Land Buddhism were prevailing Buddhist sects at the time in Japan, they were likely targets for criticism, especially given their close status to the government. But if other sects had been prominent, Nichiren would probably have criticized them too.
- Nichiren was looking back on a more idyllic time in Tendai and the mother Tiantai sect in China and comparing to his situation where they had both evidentially declined. Hence his motivation to restore the primacy of the Lotus Sutra. It seems he wasn’t trying to assert something new, so much as restoring the Lotus Sutra as the primary teaching in Mahayana Buddhism though adapted for the Age of Dharma Decline. Since the Lotus Sutra is the main sutra that introduces Mahayana Buddhism, it seems like it deserves a revered place within all Mahayana Buddhism. And many traditions and later Buddhists do, such as the example of Hakuin of the Rinzai Zen sect centuries later.
- Nichiren was also raging about the lack of reverence toward Shakyamuni Buddha in other sects, who had replaced him with other, more ethereal Buddhas. This is a tough one because there are valid arguments on either side of that: historical Buddha vs. more timeless Buddhas. I’m kind of torn on that one.
Anyhow, it’s been interesting to read Nichiren’s thought in his own words. I can’t say I agree with everything he says, but I also appreciate some of the things he said too. Usually Nichiren gets portrayed in a pretty negative light, but I am glad I took time to read his writings because it shows that Nichiren is a lot more than a one-dimensional character in Buddhism.