by Stephen L. Klick | 37,321 words
These are the Dharma lectures from the early years of the Buddhist Information ministry. The writing style is not as developed as it would later become but the content is wonderful because it is Dharma. Many of these lectures bring back fond memories of the very early days when we were not quite sure of the direction we would take. We often spent f...
“I Believe that it is better to tell the truth than a lie, I believe that it is better to be free than to be a slave, and I believe that it is better to know than to be ignorant.” ~H.L. Mencken
We will begin today’s study with a closer look at Nichiren. You have already received “The Life of Nichiren” in the early part of our ongoing enquiry. If you have not read this work please find it in our library section and read it now.
Religious schools often produce this kind of document when they are writing about the person who founded their movement. I created “The Life of Nichiren” using nothing but the information provided by my school (SGI) but even while I was writing, it was obvious to me that “The Life of Nichiren” is history with the edges smoothed off.
I am an amateur historian, which means that I read and study history because, to me, it’s interesting. Any student of history who encounters a document like “The Life of Nichiren” would be suspicious of this kind of writing. Nichiren is presented in stark black and white, with no gray areas or shadings at all. This is impossible. He is also shown to be a man who had realizations on “The Lotus Sutra” that never changed or developed. His later thoughts were pasted onto his earlier life so that there seems to be no developmental period at all. This is ahistorical.
Very little is actually known about Nichiren’s early life. The era that our teacher lived in is called the Kamakura period. It began in 1185 CE and ended in 1333 CE. This period produced all of the modern schools of Buddhism in Japan. Jacqueline Stone writes, “Among all the leaders of the new Kamakura Buddhist movements, he [Nichiren] alone was of common origins. In later life, he would describe himself as the son of lowly people…’ and [as], ‘the child of a fisherman.’” She adds, “Still, his family may not have been altogether as humble as he indicates. Recent scholarship suggests that his father may perhaps have been a manager or official of the local manor, perhaps in charge of administering the exorcise of fishing rights held by the proprietor.” (See, “Original Enlightenment and the Transformation of Medieval Japanese Buddhism” J. Stone)
In 1233 CE our teacher entered Seicho-Ji temple. This temple can also be referred to as ‘Mount Kiyosumi’ or ‘Kiyosumi-Dera.’ What did Nichiren study there? We can assume that he encountered some form of esoteric Buddhism as well as other Tendai teachings. There is no definite evidence to show where Seicho-Ji ’s affiliation was at that time, so the curriculum remains unknown. However, records show that people and texts from other esoteric traditions were present during the years Nichiren spent there.
There are two kinds of Buddhist teachings, esoteric and exoteric. Esoteric teachings are secret teachings that are given to selected students. Exoteric teachings are never secret. Before you can receive an esoteric teaching you must undergo a special ceremony to empower you to receive it. Esoteric Buddhism is also called tantra, it features symbolic gestures called Mudras, it has mystic syllables called dharanis, and repetitious sounds called mantras. Dainichi Buddha secretly gave esoteric teachings to various famous teachers, one of whom was Nargarjuna. Shakyamuni Buddha taught exoteric teachings openly to everyone.
We are told that our practice is exoteric, based on “The Lotus Sutra” and T’ien T’ai of China’s theory of Ichinen Sanzen. There is no doubt that Nichiren taught “The Lotus Sutra” and adopted T’ien T’ai ‘s concept of three thousand realms in one thought moment. However, we know that dharanis are part of our practice (see, “Inside The Lotus Sutra”). We sit in front of a Mandala called the Gohonzon and practice by chanting a mantra. Dainichi Buddha is on the Gohonzon. If the Gohonzon is based only on the ten worlds of Ichinen Sanzen and “The Lotus Sutra,” why is this Buddha present? What connection does Dainichi Buddha (called ‘Aizen-Myo’o on our modern Gohonzon) have to “The Lotus Sutra”?
As we know, Dainichi was not mentioned in the sutra, but he is always present at any esoteric teaching. In some of the Gohonzon’s Nichiren personally inscribed Dainichi Buddha is even more prominently displayed. However, in the Gosho entitled “The Object of Devotion for Observing The Mind” our Teacher writes: “When he preached the Lotus Treasure World in “The Flower Garland Sutra,” Shakyamuni appeared as Vairochana Buddha seated on the lotus pedestal with other Buddhas surrounding him in the ten directions” so it is obvious that, to Nichiren, Vairochana and Shakyamuni are the same being. Another being that should have no place on this Mandala is named Fudo-Myo’o (or ‘Wisdom King Immovable’). He is also connected to Dainichi and only appears in esoteric writings.
In 1254, after declaring his faith in “The Lotus Sutra” publicly (On April 28, 1253 CE) Nichiren created a document that dealt with Fudo and Aizen. It includes drawings of these two Kings of Knowledge, mantras that deal with them and inscriptions where Nichiren identifies himself “As belonging to the twenty third generation of a lineage directly descended from “Maha-Vairocana Buddha” or Dainichi. (“Criticism and Appropriation” Lucia Dolce, 1999)
This could be very puzzling if you try to fit our teachers Mandala into the mold of classic Tendai thought. However, there were esoteric rituals dealing with “The Lotus Sutra” that were enormously popular in Nichiren's time. If we compare these rituals to the Gohonzon, this confusion is eliminated.
One of these esoteric rituals was entitled “The Kakuzensho,” it states, “Namu Maha-Vairocana Buddha, Namu The Four Bodhisattvas of Wisdom, Namu Shakyamuni Buddha (Three Times), Namu Prabhutaratna Buddha (Taho, or ‘Many Treasures Buddha’), Namu Myoho Renge Kyo (or Namu The Sutra of The Lotus Flower of The Wondrous Dharma), Namu Bodhisattva Samantabadra (or Universal Worthy, in Japan he is called Fugen, and is usually shown riding a white elephant), Namu Bodhisattva Manjushri, Namu Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, Namu Bodhisattva Maitreya, Namu The Two Heavenly Kings Bishamon and Jikoku, Namu the ten female demons…”
If you examine the Gohonzon this same formula is used. Please notice that ‘Nam Myoho Renge Kyo’ was already in use for esoteric Lotus practice. Nam Myoho Renge Kyo was recited in various contexts throughout the Kamakura period. It was (and is) known as the honorific title of the original Buddha. The first time I encountered Nam Myoho Renge Kyo being used before Nichiren’s time has been (so far) the most unusual. A Zen school used the invocation Nam Myoho Renge Kyo every day before eating lunch! Another place I did not expect to find Nam Myoho Renge Kyo was in one of the Amida schools of that period, they chanted the invocation on their deathbed in order to be reborn in the western pure land.
It is obvious that Nichiren used the esoteric formula found in the Kakuzensho for creating the Gohonzon. If the idea were to only express the concept of the ten worlds why would ‘Namu’ appear before some names? Other teachers had created Lotus Mandalas before Nichiren’s time. We know that he considered the Gohonzon a Mandala because he said so in his writings. Nichiren stated, “Because of this, [The Gohonzon] is called a Mandala.” Mandala is a Sanskrit word that is translated as ‘perfectly endowed’ or ‘a cluster of blessings’. (“The Real Aspect of The Gohonzon”)
We also know that Nichiren considered the Lotus Mandalas created by Annen to be ‘fore-runners’ of his Mandala. These Mandalas likewise represented the ten worlds. Nichiren frequently quoted Annen’s writings, and his work made a major impact on the thinking of our teacher. Annen wrote, [The] “hundred worlds, thousand such-ness-ess and three thousand beings, altogether is another name for Maha-Vairocana”
Nichiren wrote, “A single moment of life comprising the three thousand realms is itself the Buddha of limitless joy; this Buddha has forsaken august appearances.” Dainichi was known as the Buddha of Limitless Joy.
It should now be clear that to understand Nichiren, we must also comprehend the era he lived in. Our teacher did not develop his thinking in some kind of social vacuum. Like Shakyamuni before him, Nichiren was a product of his environment.
Buddhism in the ninth century was very different from what Nichiren would experience just a few hundred years later. The Buddhist faith in the Japan of 700-800 CE was a state sponsored religion that had minimal impact on only the social elite. Buddhism was ‘practiced’ for the benefit of the state, which meant the emperor. Prayers and rituals were conducted to extend his life, and to make him (and the country) more prosperous.
Buddhist temples and religious organizations were controlled by the state. As late as 885 I found famous Buddhist teachers petitioning the royal court for land grants to help support their monasteries. The state controlled the number of priests any order could have and approved the candidates beforehand. Monastic officials were court appointed, and promotions with corresponding titles were issued at the pleasure of the ruler. Japan considered itself a Buddhist country, but the religion personally affected few people outside the priesthood.
I don’t mean to imply that all of this changed at once, but the latter part of the tenth century marked a definite change in the type of documents being produced. The monk Genshin produced a book entitled “Ojayoshu” in 985 CE that is very clearly written for lay followers. Buddhism was becoming a religion of the people.
One of the reasons for this change was the arrival of two ‘new’ schools of Buddhist thought. Saicho (B. 767-822 CE), or Dengyo founded the Tendai sect in 806 CE and Kukai (B 774-835 CE), or Kobo founded the Shingon or ‘True word’ school in 809 CE. They had an unusual relationship; Saicho was a student of Kukai’s teaching long after both were heads of their respective schools because Kukai had more exposure to esoteric training when he was in China. Many of the books Saicho used were copied from Kukai’s library.
Both of these teachers were Mahayana students who traveled to China and then returned to Japan. Both men taught that their sect was beneficial to the state and they competed with the older and long established Nara schools for power and prestige.
It is not possible to read very much scholarly work about this period without encountering the ideas of a modern historian named Kuroda Toshio. I was very happy to discover his work. Although there are some similarities, our fields of interest are different enough for him to be a recent discovery of mine. Some of his conclusions are very similar to my own and he even invented a jargon to express these thoughts in a more elegant form.
Mr. Toshio wrote extensively about this period of development in Japanese Buddhism. When examining the schools of this era he concludes that they, “Did not exist alongside each other in a reciprocally opposing, mutually exclusive relationship, as is commonly believed today, but rather comprised a mildly competitive religious order resting on a shared base. This base was composed of thaumaturgic beliefs, practices for pacifying spirits, and (from the doctrinal standpoint) the esoteric teachings. Esoteric Buddhism was thus recognized by all eight schools as the universal and absolute truth, upon which the schools expounded their distinctive doctrines.” (“The Development of the Kenmitsu System as Japan’s Medieval Orthodoxy,” 1996)
The word Mr. Toshio created to describe this development of Japanese Buddhist thought was ‘Kenmitsu’. ‘Ken’ indicates exoteric, rational, ‘revealed’ truth while ‘mitsu’ means something secret and psychological.
The Mixture of exoteric and esoteric into ‘Kenmitsu’ helped bring into being a personalized form of Buddhist practice in the tenth century. The “Ojayoshu” and other devotional works of this period are all Pure Land material written by people who were concerned about personal salvation. Although lay people were becoming interested in Buddhist practice they were not “very Buddhist” in their written thoughts. The goal of these various practices was to be reborn in a heaven realm and the authors obviously felt that there was a soul to be re-born. It takes time to understand emptiness.
The Japanese became interested in Buddhist practice as a result of societal changes and the growing fear that they were quickly approaching the latter day of the law. Pure Land schools were also popular in China but, strangely enough, they developed from different roots. Richard Bowring wrote, “It is, in fact, not until the late tenth century that the Cult of Amida became a serious issue, and when it does emerge it comes not straight from Pure Land practice in China but as an offshoot of Japanese Tendai.” (“Preparing For The Pure Land in the Late Tenth-Century Japan,”1998) The Japanese Pure Land practice can be traced to the Tendai priest Ennin who introduced this teaching on Mount Hiei in 866 CE.
So the ninth century was a time where all the schools of Japanese Buddhism became unified under the banner of Kenmitsu, with, at that time, very little ‘Ken’, it was mostly ‘mitsu’. Oya Takujo wrote, “In the end they all merged into the current of esoteric Buddhism, producing three branches: Tendai esotericism (called Taimitsu), Shingon Esotericism, (Tomitsu) and Nara Esotericism.”
The tenth century saw the growth of personal practice among society members. This practice was the Pure Land teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha. They are wonderful introductory practices that eventually led the Japanese to deeper levels of Buddhist thought and development.
We should examine the Tendai sect if we want to understand Mahayana Evolution anywhere in Asia. As the T’ien T’ai sect in China and (mispronounced as) Tendai in Japan this has been the most influential school in the history of Buddhism. When Saicho (or Dengyo) established the Tendai sect he clearly intended to create a single, unified Buddhism for all of Japan. His emphasis was merging Lotus teachings with esoteric practices.
The monastery at Mount Hiei was the center for Tendai studies; and it eventually became the center for all Buddhist studies in Japan. Every so-called ‘new’ school of Buddhism came from the Tendai sect, which still exists today. Kukai’s Shingon was popular with the nobility at court, but never became a religion of the people. Shingon “mysteries” were secret words that were transmitted from teacher to pupil and were never written down. Although Shingon had some impact on Japanese culture, Kukai must be seen as a minor figure in the history of Mahayana Buddhism.
Saicho was undoubtedly more important but it was three teachers who came from the Tendai lineage who made the biggest contribution to ‘modern’ Buddhist practice. Ennin (B. 794-864 CE) Enchin (or Chisho) (B 814-889 CE) and Annen (B 841-???)
I have already remarked that Annen was important because of the influence his writings had on our teacher. Annen was a student of Ennin and felt that his instruction was formative. However, Ennin died while Annen was still a junior student so all of his advanced training came from direct disciples of his beloved teacher. Paul Groner wrote, “Annen’s writings on doctrine were often based on Ennin’s positions although Annen was not hesitant to add his own views.” (Annen, Tankei, Henj, and Monastic Discipline in the Tendai School”)(1987)
Annen also studied under Enchin, who was the head of the Tendai School for twenty-three years. It is not possible to study under someone and not be affected. Their practice and history gave them some things in common, but Annen and Enchin did have very different views on various aspects of monastic discipline.
Annen owed his advancement to royal connections. When his sponsor died Annen vanished from the pages of history. After 889 CE there is absolutely nothing about the man wrote at least one hundred books, mostly on esoteric Buddhism. Many scholars argue that he died in 889 CE; others suggest that he went into quiet retirement.
The importance of Annen cannot be overstated. Many of the concepts and ideas Nichiren used to create his distinctive school of Buddhism came from this prolific writer and thinker. The Buddhism we practice is “Kenmitsu;” it definitely is not exoteric, but it doesn’t quite fit into esoteric either. Instead, it is a blend of the two. It gives the benefit of esoteric practice to everyone, without secret transmissions, but it is firmly based on exoteric principles.
I have said that Nichiren publicly declared his faith in “the Lotus Sutra” in 1253 CE. This is considered the traditional founding date of the Nichiren sect. Of course, this was never our teacher’s intention. In a work entitled “The Blessings of The Lotus Sutra” he wrote, “I, Nichiren, am not the founder of any school, nor am I a follower of any older school.” He wrote this passage in 1276 CE, so his views must be considered mature. Nichiren realized that ‘schools’ or sects are harmful and divisive. He taught that all the Buddhist sutras were true and that Shakyamuni preached one unified truth that can only be comprehended through understanding “The Lotus Sutra.”
Nichiren wrote, “All the eight volumes and the twenty eight chapters of “The Lotus Sutra,” the first four flavors (or four periods of teaching before the Lotus) that precede the sutra, and the nirvana sutra that came after the Lotus- make an unbroken series of teachings, like one perfect sutra.” If you read Nichiren’s criticisms of Honen (also known as Genku), the founder of the Pure Land School, you will notice that he objects to Honen discarding all the sutras but the Amida teachings. Honen told his students to ignore all the teachings of the Buddha but the introductory Pure Land teachings because the path taught in ‘those other sutras’ was too difficult for people in the latter day of the law.
If we ignore the dualistic thinking, there are only two other things wrong with Honen’s teaching. First, by discarding the other sutras, even “The Lotus Sutra,” he was committing slander against the law. While it is true that Amida vowed to save people who called his name he specifically excluded those who do slander the law, so even if you mistakenly believe these sutras are literal truth, Honen was leading people into difficulty, not salvation. The second mistake was teaching people to depend on an outside power to save them. If you teach the Pure Land doctrine as anything other than introductory material you remove yourself from the Buddhist lineage. Honen went to great length to distance himself from Buddhist doctrine by excluding all but a very small piece of Shakyamuni’s teaching. His message was the opposite of the self-development the Buddha taught to his students.
William E. Deal writes, “Although Nichiren frequently cites some sutras as less important than others he is careful never to say that a sutra is itself heretical or false. However, he does not hesitate to condemn commentaries on sutras and other seminal Buddhist texts as fallacious and therefore heretical. This distinction would seem to be due to the fact that Nichiren is following the Mahayana Buddhist acceptance of all sutras as words of the Buddha, even if some sutras are provisional.” (“Nichiren’s Rissho Ankoku Ron and Canon Formation” 1999)
Nichiren taught that personal salvation was to be gained by transforming not just yourself but the environment of the entire planet. The work we do to establish Kosen Rufu will make us happy and also benefit others.
Our school states that Nichiren left the area immediately after preaching his first public sermon on “The Lotus Sutra.” However, there is some evidence that he stayed in the area for a time. It seems he helped a family friend win a court case against a Nembutsu follower, which caused even worse problems among the factions at Seicho-Ji temple. It at this point that Nichiren moved to Kamakura.
The next few years were Terrible for Japan. A long string of natural disasters inspired Nichiren to write, "On Establishing The Correct Teaching For The Peace of The Land" (“Rissho Ankoku Ron”) in 1260 CE and submit it to Hojo Tokiyori, the most powerful man in the country. This is a document that shows Nichiren at his very best. When my teacher talks about "The Peace of The Land" he did not mean the stability of the political structure, he was referring to all the people who lived in Japan. This is so foreign to that culture that it must be considered a major departure from any other influence. Nichiren’s human development alone was responsible for this realization. Up until this time Buddhism was to be taught and practiced because it protected the emperor and other important officials who were the country. The emperor was supposedly directly descended from the gods, called kami, who founded the Japanese nation. To Nichiren this was not important; he argued that the ruler must protect the Buddha’s law so that the people could live happy, peaceful lives. It did not matter who the ruler was, he must live by the law revealed by the Buddha or be replaced.
Sato Hiroo writes: “In other words, during the medieval period Nichiren was the only one who openly put into question the absolute authority of the divinely descended [ruler] and affirmed the possibility of transfer (through revolution) of legitimate authority as ruler of the nation to other individuals.” Hiroo continues, “Nichiren’s thought, radical as it was with its affirmation of the possibility of revolution, stood out as unique and without par not only in the medieval period, but even up to the pre-modern era.” (“Nichiren’s View of Nation and Religion,” 1999)
Although "On Establishing The Correct Teaching For The Peace of The Land" did not change the attitude of Japan’s rulers it must be noted that this amazing document affected numerous people and is still studied today. The practice of rebuking the state was followed by some leaders of various Nichiren sects for hundreds of years and was not always appreciated by the affected officials. This rebuke usually consisted of submitting a copy of "On Establishing The Correct Teaching For The Peace of The Land" to the emperor, the shogun, or his regional officials, often containing a similar teaching by the abbot doing the ‘admonishing.’ Jacqueline Stone reports that more than forty of these letters of admonition survive from between the years 1285 CE and 1596 CE.” She adds, “Going to Kyoto to admonish the state is said to have been almost obligatory for anyone holding the office of abbot.” (“Rebuking The Enemies of The Lotus,”1994)
In 1261 Nichiren defeated various Pure Land teachers in public debate. The Pure Land teachings had numerous followers so our Teachers criticism of their practice created enemies who did not want to debate Nichiren, instead they wanted to silence him any way they could. On august 27, misguided Pure Land practitioners attacked his cottage and our teacher was forced to flee. This did not satisfy certain highly placed patrons of the Nembutsu school so Nichiren was arrested in May by Bakufu functionaries and was not granted a trial. (Bakufu meant tent government; the Taishogun had moved his headquarters into tents (where necessary) in Kamakura so that he could be far away from the emperor and his court in Kyoto.) Nichiren was sentenced to exile on the Izu Peninsula.
In 1263 the most influential person involved in plotting Nichiren’s exile suddenly died, causing the official who had urged his banishment to petition the government for our teacher’s freedom. Nichiren was pardoned and returned to Kamakura in February.
There were a growing number of middle rank samurai warriors and these men admired the courage and tenacity Nichiren displayed when confronting the Bakufu authorities, accordingly, they came to form the nucleus of Nichiren’s movement.
In 1264 Nichiren was in Awa Province where he prayed for his mother who was sick enough that some people feared she would die. He spent the next few years preaching and teaching his growing number of followers in Awa, Suruga, and other provinces.
In the first month of 1268 a threatening message arrived in Japan from the Khan of The Mongol Empire. Japan was to declare itself a part of his domain and pay yearly tribute or prepare to be invaded. Since Nichiren had predicted outside invasion in his document "On Establishing The Correct Teaching For The Peace of The Land" more people began to listen to his lectures and his movement grew as a result.
However, Nichiren didn’t want the people and country to be destroyed so he started sending copies of "On Establishing The Correct Teaching For The Peace of The Land" to various top officials. Our teacher continued to criticize the Nembutsu Pure Land teachings; he now added Zen and ‘Shingon’ teachings as schools that should be abandoned. Nichiren saw that Japan had many students wanting to practice Buddhism. However he knew from his own extensive studies that the teachings they were receiving would not bring them the benefits they were seeking. He did not say that these early teachings would not bring them any benefit, Nichiren wrote, “I believe that the devotees and followers of the various provisional sutras will undoubtedly be protected by the Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and heavenly beings of the respective sutras they uphold.”
It is clear that sincere seekers who follow other paths will benefit according to the merit of the path they follow. Nichiren never criticized any follower of other schools, but he was very critical of the teachers who he felt, had not done enough research to discover the truth that Shakyamuni taught. Our teacher was opposed to sects because they caused hatred and jealousy between people who should have been working together. He wrote, “The various sects argue with one another, each claiming that it’s sutra contains the true seed of enlightenment. I do not intend to enter the argument.” Nichiren also stated, “Those who seek the truth of Buddhism, however, should reject one-sided views, transcending disputes between one’s own sect and others, and should not treat others with contempt.” (“The Opening of The Eyes” Part Two)
What was Nichiren saying about Zen? In “The Selection of The Time” he wrote, “This sect called Zen claims to represent a ‘special transmission’ outside the sutras, which was not revealed by the Buddha in the numerous sutras preached during his lifetime but was whispered in secret to the venerable Mahakashyapa. Thus the proponents of this sect maintain that, if one studies the various sutras without understanding the teachings of the Zen set, he will be like a dog trying to bite at a clap of thunder or a monkey trying to grasp the moons reflection in the water.”
In the work entitled “A Sage and An Unenlightened Man” (part two) Nichiren wrote, “Zen speaks of transmitting something apart from the teachings. But apart from the teachings there are no principles, and apart from the principles there are no teachings. Don’t you understand the logic of this, that principles are none other than teachings, and teachings none other than principles?” He continues, quoting a commentary on T’ien Tai’s major works, “If one says that we are not to hamper ourselves by the use of verbal expressions, then how, for even an instant in this Saha World can we carry on the Buddha’s work? Do not the Zen followers themselves use verbal explanations when they are giving instructions to others? If one sets aside words and phrases, then there is no way to explain the meaning of emancipation, so how can anyone ever hear about it?”
Even before I became a Follower of Nichiren I had very little interest in the Zen teachings because I was a student of the sutras. The “Maha-Parinibbána Sutta” contains the statement, “What more does the community of Bhikkhus expect from me, Ánanda? I have set forth the Dhamma without making any distinction of esoteric and exoteric doctrine; there is nothing, Ánanda, with regard to the teachings that the Tathágata holds to the last with the closed fist of a teacher who keeps some things back (translation by Sister Vajira and Francis Story). In other words, there were no secret transmissions by the Buddha. He was an ‘open handed’ Teacher who made enlightenment possible for everyone willing to make the effort. The idea of the Buddha only saving one person from his community is absurd. If that were the case then everything else he taught was false.
Nichiren labeled any esoteric practice “Shingon” and criticized it because other sutras were placed ahead of “The Lotus Sutra.” Also other Buddhas were revered instead of Shakyamuni, which displayed a lack of gratitude for the man who came and taught us.
Please remember that at the beginning of this lecture I pointed out that Nichiren came from slightly different circumstances than we formerly believed. This made little difference when he studied in the great centers of learning. He would always be considered an outsider because of the area he was born in, and his accent would mark him as ‘unimportant.’ Nichiren probably became proficient with texts because no famous teacher would have accepted him as a student. If he wanted to learn he had to do it from the books available.
Esoteric practice, when correctly directed, is very powerful. I think it bothered Nichiren that esoteric teachings were transmitted directly from master to disciple and never written down, because that meant that too many people would not have access to a form of practice that would allow them to attain enlightenment. We have already seen that Shingon teachings mostly spread through the upper class of Japanese society but never reached anyone else. This kind of elitism is against the spirit of “The Lotus Sutra” which teaches that all people have value because everyone has Buddha potential.
Esoteric practice is important because that law that runs everything is a mystic law. In the sutra entitled “The Great Discourse On The Lion’s Roar” Shakyamuni states, “Shariputra, when I know and see thus, should anyone say of me, ‘The recluse Gotama does not have any superhuman states, any distinction in knowledge and vision worthy of the noble ones. The recluse Gotama teaches a dharma merely hammered out by reasoning, following his own line of reasoning, following his own line of inquiry as it occurs to him’—unless he abandons that assertion and that state of mind and relinquishes that view, then as surely as if he had been carried off and put there he will wind up in hell.” (Translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)
Nichiren blended esoteric lotus rituals with devotion to, and study of “The Lotus Sutra,” creating a form of practice that is available to everyone. Kukai (Kobo), founder of the Shingon sect wrote, “Those men and women who desire to grasp “The Lotus Sutra” must rely on the meditative practice of mantra recitation, the practice of the path of Esoteric Bodhisattvas.” Kukai died in 835 CE so that idea had been around for 387 years before Nichiren was born.
Nichiren saw that the forms of Buddhism being practiced in his society were distorted, and from the great compassion he felt for everyone, he pointed those errors out. Also, as a student and teacher of “The Lotus Sutra” he was obligated to uphold the sutra, as it tells us in chapter 19. Any student who reads Nichiren’s writings notices the enormous compassion he demonstrated. In “The Letter to Horen” he writes, “All the living beings of the six paths and the four forms of birth are our fathers and mothers,” and, “…These men and women were all our parents at some point in our past existences.” Nichiren also said that if his compassion were genuine, Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo would spread everywhere.
Although his many samurai followers admired his courage some of the people who practiced in the schools he criticized became very angry. A group of hostile monastics issued a complaint to the Bakufu authorities about Nichiren in 1271. He was arrested and held for one month, and then sentenced to exile on Sado Island.
His time in exile was a prolific period for Nichiren. Some of his best writing was done on Sado. He also developed the Gohonzon at this time. In 1272, internal rebellion broke out so that prediction had also come true. Nichiren stated that he was freed because he was innocent of the charges brought against him and because every prediction he made in “On Establishing the Correct Teaching For The Peace of the Land” had happened just as he said it would. For this reason he felt the Bakufu authorities changed their minds and that is why he was pardoned 1274. Various historians have suggested that Nichiren had several followers who could have used their influence to have him freed, but, so far, there is no evidence to support those contentions either, so we are left with a mystery.
For some reason, Nichiren was pardoned in 1274 and he returned to Kamakura area in March. In April the official who had ordered Nichiren’s arrest (Hei No Yoritsuna) met with Nichiren and asked when Japan could expect to be attacked by the Mongols. He was offered Bakufu patronage if he would join with other sects in praying for the nations protection. Nichiren refused because he was not interested in founding a sect. He was concerned that people discover the truth so that they could follow the path that leads to enlightenment.
In May, he visited a follower who lived at Mount Kiyosumi Dera (Kai Province) and discovered he had loyal supporters who were living close by in the Fuji District. Nichiren spent the rest of his life in this area, eventually having sixty or more disciples studying with him.
Nichiren died in 1282, but his “Compassion was truly great and encompassing” because Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo has spread everywhere. The practice he taught has the power to open the blind eyes of every living being” and “Blocks off the road that leads to the hell of incessant suffering.” (“On Repaying debts of Gratitude”)
Nichiren made another prediction about the future of our human race on this planet. He wrote, “The time will come when all people will abandon the various kinds of vehicles and take up the single vehicle of Buddhahood, and the mystic law alone will flourish throughout the land. When the people all chant Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo, the wind will no longer buffet the branches, and the rain will no longer break the clods of soil. The world will become an ideal society. In their present existence the people will be freed of misfortune and disaster and learn the art of living long.” (“On Practicing The Buddha’s Teachings”)
This vision of the future is the goal of all Nichiren students. When Kosen Rufu is established our world will be a Buddhist Pure Land for all living beings.
Nichiren was a teacher who was presented with a large pile of textual abstractions that were intended to lead people to Buddhahood. He spent years studying Buddhist texts and eventually worked out a system of practice that would bring benefit to anyone seeking enlightenment. His goal was to help the people around him, not create some ‘new’ different form of Buddhism.
Many of the things we learn as ‘Nichiren’ Buddhists are still taught and practiced by the Tendai sect. If you have not yet seen a Tendai site please use the link on our Home page (www.buddhistinformation.com) when you have an opportunity.
The “Notes on Thirty Four Items” (an important medieval Tendai text) read, “According to the provisional teachings, delusion and enlightenment are separate. One must first extirpate delusion and then enter enlightenment, thus one does not enter enlightenment from the outset. But in the perfect and sudden teaching of ‘The Lotus Sutra,’ practice, …and enlightenment are simultaneous… all practices and good deeds are skillful means subsequent to the fruit.” (J. Stone “Placing Nichiren in The Big Picture,” 1999) In the Gosho entitled “Wu-Lung and I-Lung” we find a very similar passage, “the benefit of the other sutras is uncertain, because they teach that one must first make good causes and only then can one become a Buddha at some later time. With regard to “The Lotus Sutra”, when one’s hand takes it up, that hand immediately attains Buddhahood, and when one’s mouth chants it, that mouth is itself a Buddha, as, for example, the moon is reflected in the water the moment it appears from behind the eastern mountains. Or as a sound and it’s echo arise simultaneously. It is for this reason that the sutra states ‘If there are those who hear the law not one will fail to attain Buddhahood.”’
As I continue to examine Tendai texts one phrase has been repeated several times, “The assembly on sacred Eagle Peak is still occurring and will not ever cease.” In “Placing Nichiren in the Big Picture” Stone reports it to us as “The assembly on Sacred Vulture Peak is still numinously present and has not yet dispersed.” I have made this statement to Nichiren and Tendai students and even the most conservative of them completely agree. Nichiren wrote, “The Saha World Shakyamuni revealed in the ‘Life Span’ chapter is the eternal Pure Land, impervious to the three calamities and to the cycle of the four kalpas. The Buddha neither has entered into extinction in the past nor will be born in the future, and the same is true of his disciples. This means that their lives are perfectly endowed with the three thousand worlds, that is, with the three realms of existence.”
Various scholars argue that Nichiren absorbed some of the Pure Land teachings and even taught re-birth in the Pure Land of “The Lotus Sutra’s” ‘Eagle Peak’, it is true that Nichiren wrote, “Surely your husband is in the Pure Land of ‘Eagle Peak’ listening and watching over this Saha World day and night. You, his wife, and your children have only mortal senses, so you cannot see or hear him, but be assured that you will eventually be reunited on Eagle Peak”. However in the same work (“Hell Is The Land Of Tranquil Light”) he wrote, “Neither the Pure Land or hell exists outside oneself, both lie only within ones own heart. Awakened to this, one is called a Buddha; deluded about it, on is called an ordinary person. “The Lotus Sutra” reveals the truth, and one who embraces “The Lotus Sutra” will realize that is itself the land of tranquil light”
It now becomes clear that Nichiren understood the Pure Land and all the various hell realms to exist within the mind of the practitioner. Kosen Rufu must be established one person at a time because the true Pure Land is the direct result of human spiritual evolution. My experience has shown me that the average student will see the Pure Land appear in his life after a period of five years, provided he has actually practiced and studied.
This concludes Part One.
(We will take a break and be back in a few minutes)