Rissho Ankoku Ron
Key Points of the Senchaku
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-taos 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-taos
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 travelers 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 Buddhas 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
Vows 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.
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-taos 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