Rissho Ankoku Ron

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by Ryuei Michael McCormick

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Nichiren’s Critique of the Senchaku Shu Part 1:
Honen’s Slanderous Recommendations


                       After reviewing Honen’s Senchaku Shu, Nichiren launches into his own critique of that work. He points out that Honen has lumped together all the sutras, teachings, and practices of Buddhism outside of the Triple Pure Land Sutras and recommended that they be “abandoned, closed, set aside, and cast away.” Looking back over the passages from the Augustine and Tessho translation of the Senchaku Shu, Nichiren’s four-word summary of Honen’s intent seems to be justified. Honen does indeed say to “reject” and “set aside” the Holy Path that would include the teaching and practice of the Lotus Sutra; to “cast aside” and “abandon” the Miscellaneous practices which would again include the teaching and practice of the Lotus Sutra. Honen also asserts that the Buddha “closed” the gateway to all teachings and practices other than the nembutsu. So it would appear that Honen does indeed use the phrases that Nichiren accuses him of using in reference to the entire Buddhist canon and the teachings and practices of Buddhism outside the exclusive practice of nembutsu. To add insult to injury, Honen even brands the scholars and teachers of other schools of Buddhism who would disagree with this approach as a “band of robbers” in his interpretation of Shan-tao’s parable of the white path.


                      In the Shugo Kokka Ron, Nichiren remarks that the distinctions between the holy way and the Pure Land way, and between the way difficult to practice and the way easy to practice, and between the correct and miscellaneous practices taught by the Pure Land patriarchs in India and China did not include the Lotus Sutra, Nirvana Sutra or even the esoteric teachings of Shingon in their categorization of the Buddha’s teachings. In this passage of the Rissho Ankoku Ron, Nichiren makes it a point to say that the Lotus Sutra and Shingon sutras were included by Honen in these categories with the implication that they should not have been. As we saw in the above review of Senchaku Shu, Honen stated that he believed the categories of holy way, difficult to practice way, and miscellaneous practice definitely included all sutras other than the Triple Pure Land Sutras including the Lotus Sutra and esoteric sutras even if the previous Pure Land patriarchs had not specified this. So it would seem that Honen was introducing a new twist to the Pure Land teachings of his predecessors that would exalt the vocal nembutsu at the expense of the Tendai and Shingon schools that had become the pillars of Japan’s religious establishment and the arbiters of orthodoxy and orthopraxis. Nichiren, who at this point in his career seems to be calling people back to Tendai orthodoxy, does not hesitate to point out the radical nature of what Honen was advocating.


Nichiren, however, does not stop with Honen’s extreme recommendations and denigration of other Buddhist teachers. Nichiren even calls into question the scriptural interpretations of T’an-luan, Tao-ch’o, and Shan-tao that Honen relied upon by calling them “false interpretations.”  By referring to the interpretations of the Chinese Pure Land patriarchs as false, Nichiren calls into question the validity of the categories themselves, and not just whether or not they should include the Lotus Sutra, Nirvana Sutra and esoteric sutras of Shingon. Nichiren does not spell out exactly why these categories or illegitimate. Perhaps Nichiren viewed the Pure Land categories as illegitimate because they contradicted the T’ien-t’ai categories of sutra classification; but this begs the question as to the legitimacy of the T’ien-t’ai systems, such as the five periods of the Buddha’s teaching, that Nichiren relied upon in his assertion that the Lotus Sutra is supreme among all the sutras. Nichiren will return to this issue of the proper classification of the sutras later in Rissho Ankoku Ron, and so this question will be dealt with then.


Instead of comparing and contrasting the T’ien-t’ai and Pure Land divisions of the canon, Nichiren appealed directly to the sutras. This is in keeping with the four standards for judging the relative merits and profundity of Buddhist teachings that Nichiren believed Shakyamuni Buddha set forth in the Nirvana Sutra: “Rely on the Dharma and not upon persons; rely on the meaning and not upon the words; rely on wisdom and not upon discriminative thinking; rely on sutras that are final and definitive and not upon those which are not final and definitive.” The first statement, “Rely on the Dharma and not upon persons,” Nichiren took to mean, “Rely directly on the teachings of the Buddha (Dharma) and not upon the commentaries of later persons.” With this in mind, Nichiren bypassed all commentarial traditions and went right back to the primary sources of the Buddhist tradition – the sutras.


The first sutra passage that Nichiren looks at is the 18th vow of Amitabha Buddha as given in the Sutra of the Buddha of Infinite Life. It has already been pointed out that the 18th vow contains an exclusionary clause that specifically excludes those “who abuse the Wonderful Dharma” from being reborn in the Pure Land. Nichiren took this to mean that anyone who abuses the Wonderful Dharma of the Lotus Flower Sutra would be excluded. Nichiren follows with a passage from the third chapter of the Lotus Sutra that asserts that not only will anyone who slanders the Lotus Sutra not enter the Pure Land; they will instead fall into the Avichi hell, a hell of unceasing torment wherein one is bound to spend millennia until the unwholesome karma of slandering the Dharma is expiated.


We should probably pause here and consider what “abusing” or “slandering” the Dharma could possibly mean. The answer is actually provided in the very passage from the Lotus Sutra that Nichiren cites only a part of. The whole passage reads:


Those who do not believe this sutra

But slander it,

Will destroy the seeds of Buddhahood

Of all living beings of the world.


Some will scowl at this sutra

And doubt it,

Listen! I will tell you

How they will be punished.


In my lifetime or after my extinction

Some will slander this sutra,

And despise the person who reads or recites

Or copies or keeps this sutra.

They will hate him,

Look at him with jealousy,

And harbor enmity against him.

Listen I will tell you how they will be punished.


When their present lives end,

They will fall into the Avichi Hell.

They will live there for a kalpa,

And have their rebirth in the same hell.

This rebirth of theirs will be repeated

For innumerable kalpas.


(The Lotus Sutra, p. 81)


So it would appear that slander or abuse refers to looking down upon the sutra and doubting it, or despising, hating, being jealous of, and bearing enmity towards those who uphold the sutra. In chapter 13 after the 20-line verse describing the future enemies of the practitioners of the Lotus Sutra, it states that they will accuse the practitioners of having “made up the sutra by themselves” and of “expounding the teaching of heretics.” It also says: “They will speak ill of us, or frown at us, or drive us out of the monasteries from time to time.” (p. 208, Ibid) In chapter 20, Bodhisattva Never Despise’s assurances of the future buddhahood of all he meets is disbelieved and he is both verbally and even physically abused in just the way that chapter 13 describes.


In his letter the Ken Hobo-sho (A Clarification of Slandering the True Dharma) Nichiren relies upon the definitions of T’ien-t’ai and Vasubandhu in responding to the question, “What does slandering the Dharma mean exactly?” Nichiren writes:


Grand Master T’ien-t’ai explains in his Commentary on the Brahma Net Sutra, “the term slander means to go against.” We may say slandering the True Dharma means to go against the teaching of the Buddha. Vasubandhu’s Treatise on the Buddha-nature preaches, “Hate means to go against principle.” It means that to slander the True Dharma equals to cause people to abandon it.

(WNS: D3, p. 115)


It is Nichiren’s contention that Honen’s recommendation that all the sutras, including the Lotus Sutra, be “abandoned, closed, set aside, and cast away” in favor of nembutsu and that those who would argue against this view are “a band of robbers” constitutes exactly the kind of abuse and slander that both the Sutra of the Buddha of Infinite Life and the Lotus Sutra are warning against. Honen’s exclusive nembutsu, therefore, is going against both the Lotus Sutra and even the Triple Pure Land Sutras themselves.


As has been discussed, Nichiren and his contemporaries believed that the sutras were the actual words of Shakyamuni Buddha. So if one sutra says that you cannot be reborn in the Pure Land if you slander the Wonderful Dharma and another says that you will fall into the Avichi Hell for doing so then that was all that needed to be said. Furthermore, the Pure Land and the Avichi Hell were taken to be actual places where one could be reborn, though they were also understood more metaphorically as well. But since most modern Buddhist do not believe that these sutras were verbatim discourses of the Buddha and many do not believe in literal heavens and hells and some seriously question even the doctrine of rebirth, it must be asked what possible meaning any of this has for us.


As discussed earlier, the Mahayana sutras were the inspired products of later followers of the Buddha who felt that it would be better to express the true intent of the Buddha’s teachings through myth, poetry, and paradox. So the question is – what was really intended by these passages in Triple Pure Land Sutras and by the Lotus Sutra?


The Triple Pure Land Sutras express a Mahayana development of an early pre-Mahayana practice called buddhanusmrti, or “recollection of the Buddha.” This practice, common to all forms of Buddhism, involves the recollection of the Buddha’s meritorious qualities and even physical features in order to arouse devotion and make merit that could help one to attain enlightenment.


The concept of a pure land wherein conditions were conducive for the attainment of buddhahood may also have been a Mahayana development of the earlier idea that a Buddhist, whether lay or ordained, who attained the stage of “non-returner” through their practice would be reborn in the very highest of the heavens of the realm of form called the “pure abodes” wherein they would proceed to cut off any remaining cognitive and emotional fetters and attain nirvana. In addition, Mahayana developments concerning celestial buddhas, bodhisattva vows, and the bodhisattva’s transference of merit for the sake of sentient beings all came together with the practice of recollecting the qualities and merits of a buddha. All of this resulted in the inspiring myth of a bodhisattva who makes vows to create the best of all possible pure lands for the sake of all beings and that upon becoming a buddha he enables all those calling him to mind to be reborn there and attain buddhahood.


What was even better, because the focus was on a celestial buddha residing in another realm, this buddha, Amitabha Buddha, could even be considered an active presence in the lives of his devotees, unlike Shakyamuni Buddha who had entered parinirvana. A devotee of Amitabha Buddha could then be considered to be taking refuge in and recollecting a living Buddha. All of this was a way to encourage those who wished to embark upon the Mahayana path to raise their aspirations, have faith that their efforts would be aided by celestial buddhas and bodhisattvas, and to constantly recollect the merits and characteristics of a buddha. In this way they could be assured that their practices would come to fruition, if not in this lifetime than most certainly in the next.


The Triple Pure Land Sutras are not, however, recommending that the rest of the Dharma be neglected in favor of rebirth in the Pure Land, and in fact the whole purpose of rebirth in the Pure Land is so that one can awaken to the Wonderful Dharma. The exclusionary clause makes it clear that the 18th vow was not conceived as a loophole by which one could avoid the Dharma and automatically become a buddha through the practice of another on one’s behalf.


The Lotus Sutra’s main themes concern the One Vehicle whereby even those who would seem to be excluded from attaining buddhahood are promised its attainment and the revelation that Shakyamuni Buddha had in fact been the Buddha since the primordial past even before his awakening beneath the Bodhi Tree. Women, evildoers like Devadatta, and those disciples who were believed to have become arhats who would no longer return to the world after their passing, are all told that they will in fact return to the world and attain buddhahood. This was in seeming contradiction to the earlier teaching that only a very few could aspire to and attain buddhahood. The revelation of the attainment of buddhahood in the remote past means that even during the Buddha’s innumerable past lifetimes as an ordinary human being, or an animal, or some other form of sentient being striving to attain buddhahood the Buddha had been a buddha all along. And now even though the Buddha is going to appear to pass away for good, he asserts that he will still be present. In light of these two themes, buddhahood should be understood as inclusive of all beings, all time, and all space. It is a constant and active presence even when it is not apparent or seems to be absent in the lives of those who strive for it. Throughout the Lotus Sutra these ideas are put forward as the fullest expression of the Dharma and to embrace them with faith and joy is to embrace the Wonderful Dharma and to reject them is to reject the Wonderful Dharma. The Wonderful Dharma is held to be even more worthy of respect and offerings than the Buddha himself because it is through the Wonderful Dharma that one attains buddhahood. It is for this reason that rejection means a total alienation from what is truly of value in life, and therefore leads to rebirth in hell. It is for this reason that a single moment of faith and rejoicing in the Wonderful Dharma of the Lotus Sutra is said to bring unequalled merit, rivaled only by the merit brought by the perfection of wisdom itself which is none other than buddhahood itself.


So it would seem that the most important thing is to revere the Wonderful Dharma and to awaken to its full significance. The Triple Pure Land Sutras make a point of excluding any who would slander it, and the Lotus Sutra describes the vast demerit incurred or merit made by those who slander or praise it respectively. Whether the Buddha directly taught these sutras or not, and whether or not there are literal rebirths in a Pure Land or an Avichi Hell, the point seems to be that we create our own misery to the extent that we deny the Wonderful Dharma whereas we can attain awakening through upholding the Wonderful Dharma. And what is this Wonderful Dharma? It is not simply a formula, text, or even a creed that one must believe without evidence. It is none other than the true nature of all existence, the reality of all things. This is what all buddhas awaken to, praise, and point out to all sentient beings using many skillful methods so that they too may realize that they are buddhas as well.


The Triple Pure Land Sutras’ intent is to provide people with a way to be reborn in a Pure Land where they can then awaken to the Wonderful Dharma. The Lotus Sutra directly expounds the fullness of the Wonderful Dharma that can be encountered here and now in terms of the One Vehicle and the unborn and deathless nature of buddhahood. So does it make sense to embrace the indirect way of hoping to encounter the Wonderful Dharma only after death while excluding the possibility of taking faith in and rejoicing in the Wonderful Dharma here and now? Does it make sense to claim that the Triple Pure Land Sutras should be used to turn people away from the expounding of the Wonderful Dharma in the Lotus Sutra? That would not seem to be the intent of the Triple Pure Land Sutras. This is what Nichiren was trying to point out in his critique of Honen’s Senchaku Shu. That the Pure Land teachings should not be used to overshadow the direct expression of the Wonderful Dharma is a critique that I believe still holds up today.

Copyright by Ryuei Michael McCormick. 2004.

More Articles by Rev. Ryuei

Life of Nichiren
Life of the Buddha
Overview of Buddhism
History of the Hokke Shu
Pali Canon Commentaries
Mahayana Sutra Commentaries
Six Senior Disciples of Nichiren

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