Rissho Ankoku Ron

A commentary
by Ryuei Michael McCormick

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 Competing Systems of Sutra Classification


                      Nichiren’s assessment of Honen is unequivocal. He condemns Honen’s recommendations to ignore all but devotion to Amitabha Buddha and the Triple Pure Land Sutras.


          His is the worst kind of baseless talk, a clear case of defamation. There are no words to describe it, no way to censure it that is too mild. And yet people all put faith in this baseless talk of his, and without exception pay honor to his Senchaku Shu. As a consequence, they revere the Triple Pure Land Sutras and cast all other sutras aside; they look up to only Amitabha Buddha of the Land of Perfect Bliss, and forget about the other buddhas. A man such as Honen is in truth the archenemy of the buddhas and the sutras, and the foe of sage monks and ordinary men and women alike. And now his distorted teachings have spread throughout the eight regions of the country, permeating the ten directions.


In the 1278 expanded edition of the Rissho Ankoku Ron, Nichiren goes so far as to state that Honen’s teaching are worse than the teachings of Tz’u-en, Kobo Daishi, Fa-yun (467-529) or Fa-tsang (643-712) and that Honen was like the Great Arrogant Brahman or Vimalamitra reborn.


                      Tz’u-en was the founder of the Consciousness Only school in China and was a disciple of Hsuan-tsang (596-664). Hsuan-tsang was famous for making an unauthorized pilgrimage to India, but he received great acclaim and official patronage when he returned with many sutras and commentaries from India relating to the Vijnanavada or Consciousness Only school. Hsuan-tsang translated more than 70 texts and his translations were of such quality that scholars consider his work the beginnings of a new period of translation of the Buddhist canon in China.


                      This school taught that it was the One Vehicle of the Lotus Sutra that was actually a provisional teaching, and that in actuality some people only had the nature to become arhats, some only had the nature to become pratyekabuddhas, some had the nature to become bodhisattvas and attain buddhahood, some had an indeterminate nature and could develop along any of the first three lines, and finally there were those incapable of ever transcending the world of birth and death who could only hope to attain rebirth as humans or in the heavenly realm. The three vehicles were therefore totally distinct and not all would transition to buddhahood. The Consciousness Only school held that the One Vehicle was just a provisional teaching taught for the sake of those who had an indeterminate nature and therefore could attain to the bodhisattva vehicle if they aspired to it. This was a very different interpretation than that of the T’ien-t’ai school that held that the One Vehicle was for all people, and that the three vehicles were provisionally taught so that those who did not yet aspire to buddhahood could develop themselves by training to achieve lesser goals until they were ready to arouse the aspiration to attain buddhahood.


                      During the lifetimes of Hsuan-tsang and Tz’u-en, this school overshadowed the T’ien-t’ai school in terms of prestige and royal patronage. It was in turn overshadowed by the Hua-yen or Flower Garland school until the persecution of the Emperor Wu-tsung in 845 that was the end of the flourishing of the great scholastic schools of Buddhism in China. After that, the Zen and Pure Land schools dominated Chinese Buddhism.


                      In Japan, the Consciousness Only school was one of the six schools of Buddhism established in the Nara period (710-794). When Saicho established the Tendai school in Japan, he became embroiled in a debate with a monk of the Consciousness Only school named Tokuitsu over whether the three vehicles or the One Vehicle represented the true intention of Shakyamuni Buddha. Their debate was carried on through letters and treatises and ended with Saicho’s death. The Tendai view based on the Lotus Sutra did succeed in becoming the most commonly accepted one in Japan after the time of Saicho.


                                            Kobo Daishi, known as Kukai during his lifetime, was a contemporary of Saicho. In fact, they traveled to China together in 804. Kukai returned to Japan in 806 after having studied and received the authority to teach esoteric Buddhism. He established the Shingon school on Mt. Koya. Though he and Saicho had started out as friends, their relationship soured in later years, in part over disagreements concerning whether the Lotus Sutra and the Tendai teachings were more important than the Shingon sutras and practices. Not surprisingly, Kukai compared the Lotus Sutra and Tendai teachings unfavorably with the Shingon sutras, teachings, and especially esoteric practices in his writings.


                      After the passing of both Saicho and Kukai, the successive patriarchs of the Tendai school on Mt. Hiei developed Tendai esotericism to bolster the popularity of their school. Ennin, the third chief priest, and Chisho (814-891), the fifth, were particularly responsible for bringing esoteric Buddhism to the fore in the Tendai school and even for making it more important than the Lotus Sutra. Because of this, Nichiren would in his later years accuse them of having turned the Tendai school into the Shingon school in all but name, thus leading to the neglect of the Lotus Sutra within the Tendai school itself. Nichiren would express his critiques of Kukai, Jikaku, and Chisho in his later writings such as the Senji-sho (Selecting the Right Time) and Hoon-jo (Essay on Gratitude).


                      Fa-yun was one of many early Chinese monks who held that the Nirvana Sutra was superior to the Lotus Sutra. Fa-tsang was the third patriarch of the Flower Garland school and through his efforts the Flower Garland school became one of the most powerful schools of early Chinese Buddhism and even after the persecution of 845 it’s influence continued, as its teachings became the theoretical underpinning of Zen Buddhism. The Flower Garland school championed the Flower Garland Sutra as the foremost sutra in the Buddhist canon. The Great Arrogant Brahman appeared in Hsuan-tsang’s travelogue of his journey to India. Apparently the Great Arrogant Brahma believed that his wisdom surpassed that of the Vedic gods and the Buddha but he was bested in a debate with a Mahayana monk named Bhadraruchi. Vimalamitra was a scholar of the Sarvastivadin school who tried to refute the teachings of Vasubandhu, the Mahayana teacher and advocate.


                       In later years, Nichiren would claim that in the Rissho Ankoku Ron he had already refuted all those schools that denigrated the Lotus Sutra. It is not immediately clear upon reading the original Rissho Ankoku Ron that Honen is meant to be representative of all those who would slander the Lotus Sutra by causing its neglect in favor of some other teaching or practice. This passage of the expanded edition of 1278 helps to clarify that connection. Nichiren also states that Honen is the worst of the lot, though in other writings Nichiren seems to see the triumph of Shingon esotericism over the Lotus Sutra within the Tendai school itself as the fundamental error in Japanese Buddhism.


                      This brings us back to the five periods and eight teachings classification that Nichiren believed correctly set out the order and relative profundity of the various sutras. From the point of view of the T’ien-t’ai classification system, Honen and the others all made the mistake of using a provisional teaching to usurp the rightful place of the Lotus Sutra. For their part, Honen and the other founders of the different schools of East Asian Buddhism each had their own method of rating the relative importance of the sutras and each school believed that its own system accorded with both the words of the sutras and their true intent. Today, few scholars or even educated practitioners believe that the sutras are the verbatim records of the discourses of the historical Shakyamuni Buddha. If the Mahayana sutras are, as is generally believed, the product of later generations of Buddhists, then one cannot claim that any of them were accorded any special privileged position by the Buddha. Such being the case, doesn’t this mean that none of the claims of these competing schools has any legitimacy? Even the T’ien-t’ai claim for the supremacy of the Lotus Sutra is rendered moot.


                      I believe that there is more to the comparative classification systems than competing sectarian claims based upon the supposed authority of the Buddha. Each classification system could be viewed as a heuristic device for reconciling seemingly conflicting claims within the Buddhist canon and for discerning, evaluating, and assimilating the insights of Buddhism in a consistent and comprehensive manner. So the different systems should not be evaluated by whether they have the authority of Shakyamuni Buddha or whether they have sufficient proof-texts to back them up. Rather, the systems should be evaluated by how well they allow their respective adherents to develop and put into practice the deepest insights and highest aspirations expressed in the Buddhist teachings.


                      In Nichiren’s case, he believed that there were two distinctive doctrines in the Lotus Sutra that set it apart from any of the other sutras. The first was the teaching of the attainment of buddhahood by the shravakas and pratyekabuddhas because it is taught that all the Buddha’s teachings lead to the One Vehicle of buddhahood. The other sutras taught that the shravakas who had become arhats and the pratyekabuddhas who had attained nirvana on their own would no longer be able to develop the aspiration to attain buddhahood. So their inclusion in the One Vehicle represented the possibility that anyone and everyone could eventually attain buddhahood. This promise of universal buddhahood caused Nichiren to call all other sutras Hinayana in comparison because their teachings tended to exclude or imply the exclusion of certain groups from ever achieving the highest goal. The second teaching was the revelation that Shakyamuni Buddha’s awakening did not occur for the first time under the Bodhi tree but actually occurred in the remote past, a past so inconceivably distant that it is evident the sutra is talking about an unconditioned state that has no beginning or end. Nichiren took this teaching to mean that the Eternal Shakyamuni Buddha is spiritually present even now leading us all to buddhahood and that the world we are living in is this buddha’s Pure Land of Tranquil Light. This means that unlike the other sutras, where buddhahood is a remote possibility or something that can only be attained in another world after death, the Lotus Sutra is teaching that buddhahood is something much more immediate and accessible if one has sufficient faith in the Wonderful Dharma. Nichiren believed that the T’ien-t’ai classification system showed that all the other sutras were leading up to these two teachings and that these teachings expressed what Shakyamuni Buddha had been trying to share with people all along.


                      The T’ien-t’ai sutra classification system, therefore can be understood as a way of highlighting the importance of these two doctrines in comparison with the teachings emphasized by the other sutras. These two doctrines of the Lotus Sutra, the attainment of buddhahood by those in the two vehicles of the shravakas and pratyekabuddhas, and Shakyamuni’s attainment of buddhahood in the remote past, are held to be much more important than the teachings related to rebirth in the pure lands (Pure Land school), or teachings emphasizing esoteric practice (Shingon or Tendai esotericism), the teachings of emptiness by analysis (the so-called Hinayana schools) or intuition (the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras), or the teaching of the total interpenetration of all phenomena (Flower Garland Sutra), or the teaching that all is consciousness (Consciousness Only school). 


Today, it serves no purpose to argue whether one classification system is more authoritative than another, but we can still concern ourselves with which teaching best expresses the fullness of the Buddha’s compassionate insight. Those who adhere to Nichiren Buddhism believe that the Lotus Sutra, even if it did not originate with the historical Buddha, is the sutra that best articulates the Wonderful Dharma that lies at the heart of all the other teachings.

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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