Living Rissho Ankoku Ron

A commentary
by Ryuei Michael McCormick > Historic Buddha > Mahayana > Lotus Sutra > Blog

The World’s Suffering – Causes and Solutions

I. The Cause of the Disasters

A Traveler Came to Lament

WNSD1: pp. 107-108, WND: pp. 6-7


Between the years 1256 and 1260, Japan saw numerous catastrophes, including fire, storms and flooding that destroyed vital crops, famine, epidemics, and violent earthquakes. Nichiren wrote the Rissho Ankoku Ron in response to the horrendous suffering faced by the Japanese people at that time. From 1258 to 1260 he secluded himself at Jisso-ji Temple, a Tendai temple with an extensive library of sutras and commentaries. There he tried to find out whether Shakyamuni Buddha’s teachings in the sutras could provide any guidance in averting or dealing with such anguish and uncertainty. During that time, he wrote many preliminary versions, including the Shugo Kokka Ron (Treatise on Protecting the Nation) in 1259, and other works. The final product he submitted to the retired regent Hojo Tokiyori, who was still the de facto ruler of Japan.  In the Rissho Ankoku Ron, the host represents Nichiren Shonin, while the traveler who becomes a guest of the host represents Hojo Tokiyori. Thus, the whole work is an imaginary dialogue in which Nichiren presents his findings and recommendations to the military government, the Kamakuran Shogunate, that rules Japan and controls even the religious establishment of Japan.


The Rissho Ankoku Ron opens with a traveler lamenting the famine and pestilence that has swept the land.


          In recent years, there have been unusual disturbances in the heavens, strange occurrences on earth, famine and pestilence, all affecting every corner of the empire and spreading throughout the land. Oxen and horses lie dead in the streets, and the bones of the stricken crowd the highways. Over half the population has already been carried off by death, and there is hardly a single person who does not grieve.


Today, we face similar problems with drug & alcohol abuse, AIDS, SARS, violent crimes, terrorism, political and social injustice, including genocide, and of course wars and famines and natural disasters that continue to sweep through the world. Basically we have just as many reasons or more to lament as the traveler. As I write this in the supposedly wealthy and civilized USA, I can hear the crack addicts shouting at each other in the street outside, the drunkards hooting and hollering outside their clubs, and at the moment I hear no sirens, but almost every night they are signaling that somewhere nearby is a fire or people dying of either disease, disaster, or foul play. This is dukkha, the Buddhist term for the suffering, anguish, or even simple discontent that characterizes life in this world, and not just for individuals but also on the level of the whole society, the whole world. Dukkha is part of a self-perpetuating system of suffering that Nichiren explored in the Rissho Ankoku Ron.


                      The traveler goes on to enumerate the many ways in which people try to overcome suffering. Nichiren believed that many of these methods actually made things worse, but for now they are simply listed. The worship of celestial Buddhas like Amitabha (Infinite Light) or Bhaisajyaraja (Medicine Master) who are looked upon as saviors is mentioned. Reliance on ceremonies, rituals, and appeals to Buddhist and Shinto deities of various types are mentioned as well. Today, in the USA, people look to Jesus Christ to save them, or to the sacraments of the Catholic Church, or various New Age or Neo-pagan rituals for healing or liberation. But rituals or appeals to divine saviors have yet to bring about a peaceful world, and it should be noted that one of the first obstacles to enlightenment overcome through Buddhist practice is the false belief that rites and ceremonies can bring about liberation from suffering in and of themselves. Buddhist practitioners who really begin to enter the stream of the Dharma come to realize it is a change of heart and genuine insight that brings about liberation and not just pious gestures or a complacent reliance on some deity or savior to do the inner work for us. 


                      Zen style meditation, which is understood by the traveler as an attempt to perceive the emptiness of all things, is also mentioned. Various forms of silent sitting meditation and/or yoga are very popular even today among those with the time, money and education to participate in such practices. Though silent sitting practices focusing on mindful observation of all phenomena starting with the breath would appear to be easy enough, it is actually a very difficult task for many people to approach and sustain, and even more difficult for people to actually attain any real insight without hours of dedicated practice. This kind of meditation often involves a support system of retreats, practice halls, access to good teachers, a fair amount of leisure time, and the ability to pay for such things. As a result only a small portion of people are ever drawn to or even exposed to this kind of meditation. The practice of sitting meditation is indeed a healthy one that can lead to greater concentration, peace of mind, mindfulness and even great insight. It is not meant to be an indulgent "abiding in emptiness." It is in fact taught as a supporting practice in some Nichiren Shu temples and is a part of Shodaigyo meditation. The Nichiren Shu does not, however, promote it as an end in itself, or even as the primary practice of Buddhism.


                      Benevolent government and the tradition of Confucian humanism are also mentioned among the many solutions the traveler's contemporaries used to rectify or at least ameliorate the tremendous suffering they were facing. Unfortunately, even the most powerful and wealthy of governments only has finite resources, and not only natural disasters but also the deep anguish that fills life are far beyond the scope of what any government can ever prevent or adequately deal with.


                      The solution then must be something that strikes deeper than any of the supernatural or humanistic methods the traveler observed. All of the above methods of dealing with suffering are shown to be partial and limited in their scope. Even the practice of sitting meditation does not necessarily resolve people's suffering because the practice of silent sitting can also lead to getting lost in one's own random ruminations or perhaps stuck in a mental blankness which is not the same thing as the Buddhist understanding of emptiness (though often mistaken for it by those without good teachers).


                      The traveler cites the existence of the three treasures of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha for the eradication of suffering and a prophecy which seemingly guaranteed the secure and prosperous rule of 100 emperors, and yet people were still suffering and the emperors had been overthrown by the military. Like many of us, the traveler seems to think that suffering is an anomaly and not the normal state of affairs. And so he laments: "Then why is it that the world has already fallen into decline and that the laws of the state have come to an end? What is wrong? What error has been committed?"


The Master Answered

WNSD1: p. 108

WND: p. 7


                      Now the host responds and invites the traveler to lament and investigate the problem together. The host does not set himself up as a guru or as someone who knows any better himself. Rather, he sees himself as someone who is just as concerned and perplexed as his guest, with the only difference that he has been pondering the problem a little longer and has had time to consult the teachings of the Buddha. What the sutras have to say comes later, but in this section the host talks about the futility of his own attempts to move the gods and buddhas. He voices his naive but unfounded trust in religious teachers, as well as his resentment and anxiety. All of this should be very familiar to us as well, since we also are faced with religious institutions, teachings, teachers, and methods that are ineffective at best and absolutely corrupt and dehumanizing at their worst.


          When a man leaves family life and enters the Buddhist way, it is because he hopes to attain buddhahood through the teachings of the Buddha. But attempts now to move the gods fail to have any effect, and appeals to the power of the buddhas produce no results. When I observe carefully the state of the world today, I cannot help wondering whether a man as ignorant as I will ever be able to attain buddhahood in the future. So I look up at the heavens to calm my anger, or gaze down at the earth and sink deep into despair.


                      In the end, the host concludes that what is wrong is that, "The people of today all turn their backs upon the right Dharma; to a man, they give their allegiance to false Dharmas." Because of this, the host believes, deities and sages leave the country and demons, devils, disasters, and calamities enter in their place.


                      The word "Dharma" means many things, "Truth," "Reality," "Law," or "Teaching." Its implications are vast, but basically the host is saying that the problem is not that the gods don't care or don't exist, or that people aren't benevolent enough or mindful enough. Rather, the problem is that people have taken a false view of reality and have committed themselves to points of view that perpetuate suffering for themselves and others. They may not even be aware they are holding any particular point of view, but everyone does and the trick is to become conscious of the unexamined assumptions we base our lives on so we can determine if they are helping or harming us. By claiming that disasters and suffering are brought on by holding to false Dharmas, the host is saying what Shakyamuni Buddha himself taught - suffering is caused by ignorance and the selfish craving stemming from ignorance; and the way to end suffering is to examine and change one's life starting with right views.

Copyright by Ryuei Michael McCormick. 2004.

More Articles by Rev. Ryuei

Life of Nichiren
Life of the Buddha
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Mahayana Sutra Commentaries
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