Mother's Day Sermon
In Nichiren Buddhism, it is considered very important to be
aware of and to repay the four debts of gratitude. These four
debts consist of all sentient beings, ones parents, the
sovereign (in our day our constitutional rights or perhaps
democracy itself might be substituted for the sovereign), and
finally the Three Treasures of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Since
today is Mothers Day, I would like to talk about the
importance of repaying our debt of gratitude to our parents and
especially our mothers. There is a sutra called The Sutra
About the Deep Kindness of Parents and the Difficulty of
Repaying It. I believe that it was written in China and not
India, nevertheless it provides a very graphic description of the
kinds of sacrifices that our parents, especially mothers
make for us. At this time, let me just share the summary of the
ten types of kindness bestowed by a mother on her child according
to the sutra:
The first is the kindness of providing protection and
care while the child is in the womb.
The second is the kindness of bearing suffering during the
The third is the kindness of forgetting all the pain once the
child has been born.
The fourth is the kindness of eating the bitter herself and
saving the sweet for the child.
The fifth is the kindness of moving the child to a dry place
and lying in the wet herself.
The sixth is the kindness of suckling the child at her breast
and nourishing and bringing up the child.
The seventh is the kindness of washing away the unclean.
The eighth is the kindness of always thinking of the child
when it has travelled far.
The ninth is the kindness of deep care and devotion.
The tenth is the kindness of ultimate compassion and sympathy.
It should go without saying that our relationship with our
parents sets the tone for our whole life. In fact, many sutras
use the parent-child relationship as a model for the ideal
attitude that one should have in ones relationships with
others. They do this for two reasons. The first is that it is
assumed that the bond of affection between parents and their
children is the most powerful, natural and selfless possible for
the vast majority of human beings. The second reason is that in
the context of the Buddhist teaching of rebirth, it is very
likely that one has actually been in a parent-child relationship
with any given sentient being at one time or another. In fact,
the Brahma Net Sutra which Nichiren cites in his writings
describes the outlook of the bodhisattvas in the following
He takes all sentient beings to be his father, mother,
brother, and sister, and for their sakes he voices the Dharma
for as much time as is needed for them to realize the fruits
of the Way. For the sake of all sentient beings he reveals
all lands and looks upon each person as a father or mother
would. Maras and non-Buddhists, as well, he looks upon as a
father or mother would.
Viewing things in this manner, one can see how the debt of
gratitude to ones father and mother can easily include the
debt to all living beings as well, since they can all be
considered former or future parents. Naturally this exaltation of
filial piety as the supreme basis for ethics in Buddhism comes
very close to Confucianism. Nichiren also makes this connection
in his major work, the Kaimoku Sho, wherein he observes
that filial piety is the most important value that unites
Confucianism and Buddhism:
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.
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 parents 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.
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 ones parents attain
Buddhahood. As one of Nichirens 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 ones 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 ones father and mother:
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.
Nichiren is referring here to the instantaneous
transformation of the Dragon Kings daughter into a buddha (the only such contemporary attainment of buddhahood
by anyone other than Shakyamuni Buddha in the sutras) and to the
Buddhas 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 ones parents. With the teaching of the
Lotus Sutra, however, one could enable ones mother
and father to realize buddhahood for themselves, thus repaying
ones obligation to them.
How can the Lotus Sutra enable our parents to achieve
Buddhahood? I would say that through our deep faith in the Lotus
Sutra we gain confidence and trust in the Buddhas
teaching that we can attain Buddhahood. This allows us to gain
peace of mind and the ability to create a stable and happy life
for ourselves, and our families. This alone will bring our
parents peace of mind and even joy, because parents worry the
most about their childrens happiness and well being, and if
their children are happy, most parents are also very happy. More
importantly, by demonstrating the value of a life centered on
faith in the Lotus Sutra, we are able to engender a
spiritual awakening or even a rebirth in others, even our
parents. At the very least we plant the seed of the Wonderful
Dharma in their lives and give them something to reflect upon and
from which to gain hope. Our parents gave us birth, so it is up
to us to repay them by planting the seed for a spiritual birth
through our own sincere efforts and faith in the Lotus Sutra.