Rissho Ankoku Ron

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by Ryuei Michael McCormick

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Key Points of the Senchaku Shu
Part 4: The Band of Robbers in the Parable of the White Path


                      Next, Nichiren turns back to chapter 8 of the Senchaku Shu that almost entirely consists of a very long citation from Shan-tao’s Commentary on the Sutra of Meditation on the Buddha of Infinite Life. The passage cited elaborates on the meaning of the three kinds of faith needed to attain rebirth in the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha: sincere faith, deep faith, and the faith that aspires to rebirth in the Pure Land. In the course of this explanation Shan-tao tells his famous Parable of the White Path. This parable came to have a great impact on the popular understanding of East Asian Pure Land Buddhism, and its imagery can still be seen in popular entertainment in East Asia to this day. For this reason, it is worth quoting the parable in full along with Shan-tao’s explanation of it:


          Now I should like to say something for the sake of everyone who desires Rebirth. I wish to relate a parable in order to protect the faith in their minds and defend it from foreign and heretical views. What is this?


          Imagine a man intending to travel hundreds and thousands of miles to the West. Unexpectedly he comes upon two rivers blocking the roadway. The one to the south is a river of fire while the north is of water. Each is a hundred paces across, bottomless in depth, and stretches endlessly to the north and south.


          Exactly between the two streams of fire and water, there is a single white pathway about four or five inches wide which extends a hundred paces, from the eastern to the western shores. The waves of the water river surge over and submerge the path; the flames of the fire river rise up and sear it. Both the water and the fire continually surge over the passageway without rest.


          The man, upon reaching this faraway deserted place, finds no one there except a large band of robbers and savage beasts. Seeing the man alone, they come racing after him intending to kill him. The man, fearing that death is imminent, turns and runs straight toward the West. But suddenly he sees those great rivers, and he says to himself, “I see no shore of these rivers, either to the north or south, but between them I see a single white path. It is extremely narrow. The distance between shores is not great, but how shall I cross? Surely I am doomed to die today! If I try to turn back, the band of robbers and savage beasts will close in for the kill. Certainly if I try to avoid them and flee to the north or south, there too savage beasts and poisonous insects will come racing to swarm upon me. If I go West and try to flee along the path, in all probability I shall fall into the stream of fire and water.” At this point, his fear is too great to be described. He reflects further, “If I turn back, I shall die. If I stay here, I shall also die. If I go forward, I face the same fate. Since there is no escape from certain death, I had better go straight ahead over the narrow path that lies before me. Since a path exists, one must surely be able to cross over on it.”


          While he is thinking in this way, from the eastern bank he suddenly hears someone encouraging him saying, “Oh traveler, simply make up your mind firmly to try to cross on this path and you will surely escape the pangs of death! If you linger here, you will surely die!” Then he hears someone else on the western shore calling and saying, “Oh traveler! Single-mindedly and with full concentration come straightforward. I can protect you! Do not worry about the horrors of falling into the fire or the water.”


          Hearing one voice urging him on and the other beckoning him, he is able to steel his own body and mind properly, and he firmly resolves to cross over the path. He goes straight forward, allowing no doubt or uncertainty to arise in his mind. But after a step or two, he hears the gang of robbers on the eastern shore shouting, “Turn back, traveler! The path is dangerous! You cannot possibly pass over it. You will surely die! Our band means you no harm.” But the traveler, even though he hears the voices calling him, does not go back or even glance behind him. Single-mindedly he moves straightforward concentrating on the path before him. Soon he reaches the western bank, free forever from all possible dangers. Then in the company of good friends who have come to greet him, he rejoices greatly forever.


          This is the parable. Now let me explain what it means. The eastern bank corresponds to our Saha world that is like a house on fire; the western bank is the Treasure Land of Supreme Bliss. The gang of robbers pretending to be kind-hearted and the pack of savage beasts represent the elements that make up all human beings: the six organs of sense, the six forms of consciousness and their six objects, the five aggregates, and the four elements. The barren and uninhabited marsh corresponds to [our condition] in which we are always tempted by evil companions and are never able to meet a true and good teacher.


          The two rivers of water and of fire are like greedy love that floods the hearts of all sentient beings and their hatred which burns like fire. The white path only four or rive inches wide between the two rivers corresponds to the awakening of the pure mind that desires Rebirth in the midst of the evil passions of greed and anger. Because such greed and anger are strong, they are likened to fire and flood, whereas the good mind, being delicate, is like the white path. The surging waves that always wash over the path are like the covetousness that constantly arises to defile good hearts. The fire ceaselessly sending its flames burning over the path is like the anger and hatred of our hearts whose flames threaten to devour the Dharma treasury of merit and virtue.


          The traveler turning directly to the West to cross over the paths is like the practitioner turning straight to the West to transfer all his meritorious practices toward Rebirth. The fact that the traveler heard the voice on the eastern shore urging him to go forward and follow the path directly toward the West refers to people who, even after Shakyamuni has passed away, are able to follow the teaching of his Dharma, which still abides even though they no longer see the Buddha. The words of his teaching then are like the voice.


          The traveler being called back by the band of robbers after taking only one or two steps shows that those followers of other doctrines and practices, or men with evil views who confuse others by their views and opinions, themselves commit sin and fall away from the path by teaching their views and opinions. By themselves committing sins, they regress and lose what little they had. The person on the western shore calling out to the traveler is Amida expressing his intent to save all beings through his Vow.


          The traveler’s quick arrival on the western shore, joining his good friends and rejoicing in their company, is like sentient beings when they reach their final destination after having long been submerged in the sea of birth and death, deluded and bound by their evil passions, transmigrating for endless kalpas without knowing how to emancipate themselves. Favored by Shakyamuni who kindly encourages them by pointing to the West and turning them in that direction, and blessed with Amida Buddha’s compassionate heart inviting and beckoning them, they now trust in the intent of the two honorable ones without even taking notice of the two rivers of flame and water.


          Remembering without fail the Original Vow, they take the path of the Vow’s power. After death they can attain Rebirth in that Land, where they will meet the Buddha and where their joy will know no bounds.” (pp. 78 - 82)


                      Towards the conclusion of chapter 8 of the Senchaku Shu, Honen makes it clear who he believes are the band of robbers who try to call back the traveler.


          Further, the passage above that refers to “all other interpretations, other practices, differing teachings, differing views” is speaking about the various interpretations, practices, and views of the Gateway of the Holy Path. (p. 84)


                       In the Samyutta Nikaya there is a tale called the “Simile of the Vipers” (Connected Discourses of the Buddha, p. 1237) in which a man flees four deadly vipers and six murderous enemies and escapes them by taking a raft across a great expanse of water to the safety of the far shore. In this parable the vipers and the murderers also represent the elements of human life, the great expanse of water also represents cravings and delusion, the raft represents the eightfold path, the far shore represents nirvana, and attaining the far shore represents attaining the state of an arhat - the liberated person who is free of the world of birth and death. Shan-tao was most likely familiar with this parable or some version of it and adapted it to illustrate the Pure Land teachings. It is in many ways a very encouraging and easily adaptable parable that could be applied to many spiritual paths.


                      Honen, however, used the parable in such a way that he effectively branded all those who followed the more traditional schools and teachings a “band of robbers.” Honen clearly identifies the Gateway of the Holy Path with the band of robbers in Shan-tao’s version of the parable and as we saw before, the Gateway of the Holy Path according to Honen is definitely inclusive of the Tendai school and the teachings and practice of the Lotus Sutra.

Copyright by Ryuei Michael McCormick. 2004.

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