The Four Graces According to
You should promptly convert your wrong faith to the belief in the true and one vehicle at once. Then the triple world of the unenlightened will all become the land of the Buddha. Will the land of the Buddha decay? All the worlds in the ten directions will become the "treasure land." Will the "treasure land" be destroyed? When the land does not decay and is not destroyed, your body is safe and your heart tranquil. Believe these words and revere them!2These convictions would bring Nichiren into conflict again and again with the Buddhist establishment of his day, as well as with the other Buddhist reform movements and even the military government of Kamakura. Nichiren, however, would often appeal to the teaching of the four debts of gratitude, saying that only by upholding the Lotus Sutra, would he be able to repay them. In this way, he explained that his seeming audaciousness and obstinacy was actually the sincerest form of gratitude.
After his enlightenment, the Great Master read extensively from scriptures and sutras of other religions. Upon reading the Diamond Sutra he said, "Shakyamuni Buddha is really the sage of all sages. Although I attained the Truth through self-instruction, I have discovered many coincidences between my own motives for following the religious path and those of the old Buddha, up until the time I myself attained Enlightenment. For this reason I will regard the Buddha as the antecedent of my Law." He concluded by saying, "In the future, when I intend to establish my great and perfect religious Order, Buddha Dharma should be the central principle."3In 1919, Sot'aesan and some of his closest disciples moved to Pongnae Cloister, a Buddhist monastery, and for the next five years he worked out his doctrinal system in consultation with the monks there. It was there that he systematized the teachings of Won Buddhism, which included his own unique formulation of the Four Graces as one of the most important and distinctive. Sot'aesan, however, did not use the Four Graces as a justification for confronting the religious and secular authorities (coincidentally the Japanese government once again) as Nichiren did. Instead, he used them as a way of grounding the complexities of Buddhist doctrine into a practical way of life.
Worldly and transcendent debts of gratitude are of four kinds. There is the debt of gratitude to one's father and mother. There is the debt of gratitude to all sentient beings. There is the debt of gratitude to the ruler of the country. [Finally] there is the debt of gratitude to the Three Treasures [Buddha, Dharma and Sangha].6
According to the Shinjikan Sutra, the first of the four debts is that owed to all living beings. Were it not for them, one would find it impossible to make the vow to save innumerable living beings. Moreover, but for the evil people who persecute bodhisattvas, how could those bodhisattvas accumulate benefit?8In this passage, Nichiren again states his gratitude to all those who have made it possible for him to live as a bodhisattva. One might even suppose from this passage that their value is solely instrumental in that they enable the bodhisattvas to fulfill their vows and accrue benefit by providing subjects for the bodhisattva's compassion and patience. This passage also does not mention any of the secular benefits provided by one's fellow beings. However, it must be remembered that the purpose of the four debts of gratitude is not to teach their intrinsic value or their secular benefits; rather, its purpose is to help the bodhisattva recall that even their bodhisattvahood would not be possible without the presence of others. The grace of all living beings, then, is not their secular or instrumental value, but rather, their contribution to the life of the bodhisattva in an interdependent process of mutual benefit and assistance. Just as with all other phenomena in Buddhism, the bodhisattva's existence depends upon causes and conditions, namely the existence of sentient beings in need of bodhisattvas. In terms of the bodhisattva in the process of expounding the Buddha's teachings or undergoing persecution for the sake of others, the proper attitude should always be one of gratitude to others who have made it possible for one to accomplish such acts and never one of condescension, frustration or anger. Nichiren himself states that his persecutions have filled him with immense joy but also intense grief, because while his suffering has enabled him to fulfill the prophecies of the Lotus Sutra, they have also brought about a situation whereby his persecutors have planted the seeds for even worse suffering for themselves. In this case, the teaching of the debt to all living beings has enabled Nichiren to be both grateful and compassionate to others, even to his enemies.
The 3,000 scrolls of Confucian writings can be boiled down to two: filial devotion and loyalty to the ruler. Loyalty also stems from filial devotion. To be filial means to be high; heaven is high but not at all higher than being filial. To be filial also means deep; the earth is deep but not any deeper than being filial. Both sages and wise men also come from filial devotion. How much more should students of Buddhism realize the favors they receive and repay them? Disciples of the Buddha should not fail to feel grateful for the Four Favors (received from parents, people, sovereign, and Buddhism) and repay them.According to Nichiren, filial piety is the highest secular and religious value. Patriotism, loyalty and all other relationships are subsumed by it. Even within Buddhism itself, it separates the narrow-minded and self-concerned Hinayana from the broad-minded and compassionate Mahayana. In fact, even the value of the various Mahayana teachings can be gauged by the degree to which they enable one to help one's parents attain Buddhahood. As one of Nichiren's most important works, it is remarkable how much of the Kaimoku Sho is devoted to the question of how to practice true filial piety and repay the debt of gratitude to one's father and mother. This shows how important Nichiren himself considered this particular debt. Throughout all of his letters and treatises, Nichiren extols the Lotus Sutra as the highest teaching of Buddhism and the one that should be upheld at all costs. In the Kaimoku Sho, Nichiren explains why the Lotus Sutra is superior to all other Buddhist and non-Buddhist (Confucianism and Brahmanism) teachings in terms of its ability to allow one to repay the debt to one's father and mother:
Moreover, such men of the Two Vehicles as Sariputra and Kasyapa kept 250 Buddhist Commandments, lived a life of dignity in accordance with 3,000 rules, progressively mastered the three steps of meditation, completely studied the Agon Sutras (Hinayana scriptures), and won liberty from all delusions and evil passions in the world of unenlightened people. They should be examples of people who know the Four Favors and repay them. In spite of all this, the Buddha condemned them for not realizing what they had owed. The reason for this is that it is for the purpose of saving parents that a man leaves his parent's house and takes a Buddhist vow, but those men of the Two Vehicles, who free themselves from delusions and evil passions, do not save others. Even if they help others to a certain degree, they are still to be blamed for not repaying what they owe their parents so long as their parents are left wandering on the path with no possibility whatsoever of obtaining Buddhahood.12
Filial devotion preached in Confucianism is limited to this life. Confucian sages and wise men are such in name only because they do not help their parents in their future lives. Brahmans know of the past as well as the future, but they do not know how to help parents. Only Buddhism is worthy of being the way of sages and wise men, as it helps parents in future lives. However, both Mahayana and Hinayana sutras expounded before the Lotus Sutra preach Buddhahood in name only, without substance. Therefore the practitioners of such sutras would not be able to obtain Buddhahood even for themselves, not to talk about helping parents obtain Buddhahood. Now coming to the Lotus Sutra, when enlightenment of women was revealed, enlightenment of mothers was realized; and when a man as wicked as Devadatta could attain Buddhahood, enlightenment of fathers was realized. These are the two proclamations of the Buddha in the "Devadatta" chapter, and this is the reason why the Lotus Sutra is the sutra of the filial way among all the Buddhist scriptures.13Nichiren is referring here to the instantaneous transformation of the Dragon King's daughter into a buddha (the only such "contemporary" attainment of buddhahood by anyone other than Shakyamuni Buddha in the sutras) and to the Buddha's prophecy of buddhahood for his treacherous cousin Devadatta in the "Devadatta" chapter of the Lotus Sutra. Since no other sutra provided such "guarantees" of buddhahood for all men and women, Nichiren felt that no other sutra could enable one to repay the debt of gratitude to one's parents. With the teaching of the Lotus Sutra, however, one could enable one's mother and father to realize buddhahood for themselves, thus repaying one's obligation to them.
The retired eighty-second emperor, Gotoba, was robbed of his power by the Kamakura government despite Bodhisattva Hachiman's oath to protect one hundred successive rulers. This misfortune was solely the result of the prayers offered by eminent priests who followed the three Shingon priests - Kobo and the others - on behalf of the imperial court. These evil prayers "returned to the originators."16Nichiren clearly saw that while the legitimate ruler, the emperor, was still regarded as the ruler of the country, he was so in name only. The failed bid for real power and subsequent exile of Gotoba in 1221 proved beyond a doubt that the emperors were at the mercy of the military government. Faced with this, Nichiren seems to have been willing to recognize the ruler as whoever was actually holding the reigns of power. This did not resolve the dilemma however, for the new rulers were not governing according to the principles of the Lotus Sutra either, so they too forfeited the right to be regarded as the protectors of the nation. Again in the Letter to Misawa he states:
Because the Kamakura shogunate attacked the evil doctrine of Shingon and its evil men, it might have ruled our land for eighteen generations more, in accordance with the oath of Bodhisattva Hachiman. However, it has now turned to the men of the same evil doctrine it once opposed. Therefore, as Japan no longer has a ruler worthy of protection, Bonten, Taishaku, the gods of the sun and the moon and the Four Heavenly Kings have replied to this slander by ordering a foreign country to invade Japan. They have also dispatched the votary of the Lotus Sutra as their envoy. The ruler, however, does not heed his warnings. On the contrary, he sides with the evil priests, thus creating chaos in both religious and secular realms. As a result, he has become a formidable enemy of the Lotus Sutra. And as his slander has long continued, this country is on the verge of ruin.17The reference to the invasion by a foreign country refers to the threat of the Mongols who had attacked in 1274 and were still threatening to send an invasion force. The votary of the Lotus Sutra is a reference to Nichiren himself. So, it would seem that both the legitimate and the actual rulers were in Nichiren's view leading the country to destruction rather than maintaining peace and prosperity. In this case, Nichiren took heart in the fact that he was nevertheless able to take faith in the Lotus Sutra and live by its teachings. In fact, as stated above, Nichiren was not only willing to forgive the rulers for persecuting him, but he was even grateful for their role (albeit a negative one) in helping him to fulfill the prophecies in the Lotus Sutra and thereby fulfill his mission as a votary of the sutra.
Shakyamuni Buddha, our father and mother, who is endowed with the three virtues of sovereign, teacher and parent, is the very one who encourages us, the people driven out by all other Buddhas, saying "I alone can save them." The debt of gratitude we owe him is deeper than the ocean, weightier than the earth, vaster than the sky... we could never repay a fraction of the debt we owe to this Buddha!"20In line with traditional Mahayana Buddhist thought, Nichiren regarded Shakyamuni Buddha as possessing the qualities of mastery, teaching authority and parental benevolence and compassion. In fact, while one's biological parents are able to bring one into the world of birth-and-death, Shakyamuni Buddha is able to cause one to awaken to the birthless and deathless liberation of nirvana. In this sense, Shakyamuni Buddha can be regarded as the supreme benevolent parent from whom all beings are able to inherit complete and perfect Buddhahood.
When Shakyamuni Buddha was a prince, his father, King Suddhodana, could not bear losing his only heir and therefore would not allow him to renounce his royal station. The king kept two thousand soldiers posted at the city's four gates to prevent him from leaving. Nevertheless, the prince eventually left the palace against his father's will. In general, it is the son's duty to obey his parents, yet on the path to Buddhahood, not following one's parents may ultimately bring them good fortune. The Shinjikan Sutra explains the essence of filial piety as follows: "By renouncing one's obligations and entering nirvana one can truly repay those obligations in full." That is, in order to enter the true way, one leaves his home against his parents' wishes and attains Buddhahood. Then he can truly repay his debt of gratitude to them.22The picture of the four debts of gratitude that emerges in Nichiren's teachings should now be clear. According to Nichiren, the four debts of gratitude are actually different modes of filial piety. In the secular realm, one's biological parents are the most natural and immediate sources of filial obligation, all living beings (especially one's teachers) are viewed as part of an extended family, while the ruler is viewed as the parent of the country as a whole. In the transcendental realm, however, the Buddha takes on all of these roles and so becomes a supramundane source of filial obligation. Furthermore, devotion to the Three Treasures are shown to be the only means of fulfilling the other forms of obligation because only they can bring about true happiness and liberation from suffering. It becomes evident that Nichiren uses the four debts of gratitude in two ways. The first is to clarify the proper motivation for the practice of Buddhism, namely a very universalized sense of filial piety. Secondly, Nichiren uses the four debts of gratitude to show that secular values only find their fulfillment when they are subordinated to transcendent values, symbolized by the Three Treasures. In Nichiren's own life, this meant devoting himself to the propagation of the Lotus Sutra in the face of all opposition, so that all people could awaken to their own Buddhahood and transform this world into the Buddhaland.
By awareness of Graces and Requital of Graces is meant that one should be aware of, and feel deeply, the way in which one is indebted to Graces of Heaven and Earth, Parents, Brethren and Laws; when following the way of being indebted, one is to requite these Graces. Even if one is confronted with a case in which one is forced to bear a grudge, one is to find a source of Grace and, by changing resentment to gratitude, one may be able to requite Graces.25In his system, the Four Graces also served to bring the abstract notion of the Dharmakaya Buddha (which is called IIrwon or Unitary Circle in Won Buddhism) and the teaching of dependent origination back into the realm of the concrete, the practical and the ethical. In a discourse to his disciples, Sot'aesan says:
The way is to believe in the Truth of Won as our object of faith and to pray for all blessedness and happiness from the Truth. Il-Won-Sang is composed of the Four Graces, and the Four Graces comprise all beings in the universe. All things that we see in the universe are nothing but Buddhas. Therefore, at all times and in all places we must be very respectful and cautious toward all things, keeping a pure mind and a pious manner as if we were before the real Buddha. You are also to try to practice Offering Worship to Buddha directly in all things with which you are involved, thereby creating blessedness and happiness in your real life. In a word, this is the way to turn a partial faith into a perfect one, and a superstitious belief into an actual one.26In Sot'aesan's teaching, the Four Graces have become the manifest embodiments of the Dharmakaya Buddha. What was once an abstract personification of Emptiness, is now made up of the various entities of the Four Graces who exemplify the interdependent nature of life itself. Now, instead of paying homage to a mere statue or mandala representation of the Buddha, Won Buddhists are encouraged to view all of their daily activities in the world as interactions with the actual Dharmakaya Buddha whose body is the dependently arising nature of life itself.
One of the most salient features of Sot'aesan's new religion is the tenet of beneficence. In Confucianism, filial piety is the most important moral duty. In Won Buddhism, the idea of this Confucian moral duty has been extended beyond one's own parents. By beneficence is meant that which is the source of one's life.27As for the actual composition of the Four Graces, though they may have originally been inspired by the four debts of gratitude, there is not a one-for-one correspondence with the four debts of gratitude. Sot'aesan's explanations of them are also far more detailed than anything found in Nichiren's writings in regard to the four debts. A more detailed analysis of some features of the Four Graces will reveal the possible reasons for the differences.
If one wishes to know how much one is favored by Heaven and Earth, then one has only to reflect on whether one can have one's being without Heaven and Earth. However stupid and slow-witted one may be, one soon realizes that life without Heaven and Earth is an impossibility. Therefore, if that is so, what greater Grace can one know than that of Heaven and Earth?The need for air to breathe, earth to walk on, water to drink and sunlight to warm ourselves makes this Grace pretty obvious. Sot'aesan also points out various qualities of Heaven and Earth which can serve as metaphors for a virtuous and enlightened way of life. In his view, Heaven and Earth can inspire us to become wise, wholehearted, righteous, authentic, impartial, peaceful, responsible and humble. Requital of the Grace of Heaven and Earth consists of modeling one's life on these qualities and benefiting from their cultivation, whereas ingratitude and ignorance of these qualities will result in a self-destructive way of living due to one's lack of cultivation. In terms of the Grace of Heaven and Earth, virtue modeled on the workings of Heaven and Earth is its own reward.
It is a general truth that there are ways and virtues in Heaven and Earth; that the automatic motion of the great organs of the universe, is the way of Heaven and Earth; that the results from the operations of their ways are virtues of Heaven and Earth. The ways of Heaven and Earth are extremely bright, sincere, righteous, proper and natural, vast and immeasurable and eternal, containing neither good luck nor bad, and no pride abides in their offering of benefits. All things retain their lives and their shapes owing to the great virtue that results from their operations of the great ways.28
If one wants to know easily how much one is indebted to the Grace of Parents, one should try to imagine whether birth is possible without parents, and whether one could manage one's own helpless infancy; one will recognize that one cannot. If one cannot be born or develop without parents, what Grace could be greater?Whereas the Grace of Heaven and Earth discusses the impersonal forces of nature which give us life, the Grace of Heaven and Earth moves into the biological sphere of nurturing and care taking. It would seem that Sot'aesan also viewed the primary relationship of children and parents as the basis for human morality. In describing the ways to requite the Grace of Parents, Sot'aesan taught that one should train oneself according to the various methods and systems that he developed for the cultivation of a happy and moral way of life. The Threefold Training of Prajna, Sila, and Samadhi of traditional Buddhism are also included with those items; so once again, filial piety has become the motive for following the Buddha Dharma.
One might say that human birth and death are the principle of nature, and the infinite capacity of Heaven and Earth; however, it is by indebtedness to the Grace of Parents that helpless life is nurtured and learns the way to live.32
If one wants to know easily how one is indebted to the Grace of Brethren, one should consider whether it is possible to live at a place where there are no human beings, no birds and beasts, no trees or grass; then one will realize that life without them is impossible. If one cannot live without the help of these brethren, without relying upon them and without their supplies, what Grace could be greater?The Grace of Brethren is equivalent to the debt of gratitude to all living beings, however there is a difference. Sot'aesan does not even elude to the existence of others as a necessary condition for the existence of bodhisattvas. In fact, his discussion of the Grace of Brethren remains totally within the realm of the everyday world of ecology and economics. Though Sot'aesan describes the world in terms of the Confucian analysis of society, his main concern is that everyone appreciate the mutual benefit that is brought about when everyone within a society performs their own duty well and simultaneously appreciates the work done by others. This principle of mutual benefit translates well into any given society. Furthermore, Sot'aesan does not restrict the Grace of Brethren to human society alone, for he explicitly includes animals and plants as well. It would seem then, that Sot'aesan was not concerned with the bodhisattva's mission of saving others, so much as in pointing out the mutual indebtedness of living beings as the economic and ecological realization of the Buddhist teachings of interdependence.
Generally, there are in the world four categories of occupations among the living, i.e., scholars and officials, farmers, artisans and merchants. These people are helped by, or are indebted to one another by the principle of mutual interest when they exchange all of their goods and skills, while remaining in their respective categories.33
If one tries to know easily how much one is indebted to the law, one must think whether it is possible to live in peace and order without the law of moral training for the individual, the law of household affairs, the law with which to govern a society or a nation and international law with which to govern the world. One will recognize without fail that no one can live without these laws. If one cannot live without them, what Grace could be greater than these laws?Sot'aesan's Grace of Law is very different from the debt of gratitude to the Three Treasures. The only link between the two is that one of the Three Treasures is the Law (Dharma) and one of the many connotations of the Grace of Law is the moral or spiritual Law (which again would indicate the Dharma). Now, it could be said that of the Three Treasures, it is the treasure of the Law or Dharma which is the most fundamental, since the Buddha is a Buddha only by virtue of realizing and teaching the Dharma and the Sangha is such only insofar as it transmits the Dharma. The Dharma, however, remains the Dharma even if there is no Buddha or Sangha to teach or practice it. Furthermore, the Dharma as taught in the Buddhist sutras do contain teachings that relate to economics, politics, social conditions and family life. Viewed in this way, the debt of gratitude to the Three Treasures could be reduced to the debt of gratitude to the Dharma alone and could be interpreted as including the other categories of law that Sot'aesan discusses under the Grace of Law.
Generally, the law means equitable rule for human justice by which individuals, families, societies, nations and the world, will be helped if this equitable rule for human justice is applied to them.36