Rissho Ankoku Ron

A commentary
by Ryuei Michael McCormick

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The Confucian Nichiren Part 3


The Buddhist Appropriation of Confucianism



When Buddhism and Confucianism encountered each other after the entry of Buddhism in the first century the Confucian elite were not impressed. They viewed it as a foreign superstition whose teachings about rebirth and karma were outlandish. They could see no reason to bow down to this foreign god, the Buddha, especially since he was so unfilial as to abandon his family to become a vagabond in the forest. They were especially scandalized by Buddhist monasticism. The teaching that one should leave home and abandon all one’s filial duties in order to pursue the ephemeral goal of enlightenment struck them as appalling. Buddhists in China from the beginning have had to defend the validity of the Dharma and also show that it was not trying to undermine Confucian values but rather supported them even as it claimed to transcend them.


One of the ways this was done was though the claims of apocryphal sutras, like the Practicing the Pure Dharma Sutra cited by Nichiren in the Kaimoku Sho, that the Buddha himself had commissioned three bodhisattvas with the task of appearing in China as the three sages Confucius, his favored disciple Yen-hui (511-480 BCE), and Lao-tzu (6th century BCE?) the legendary founder of Taoism. He did so to ensure that secular virtues and civilized arts would be taught to the Chinese so they would be receptive to the Dharma. In particular, the five major precepts that can enable one to be reborn as a human being were taught in terms of the five constant virtues. One example of how Chinese Buddhists identified the five precepts with the five constant virtues can be found in the 9th century work Inquiry Into the Origin of Humanity by Tsung-mi (780-841): “Not killing is benevolence, not stealing is righteousness, not committing adultery is propriety, not lying is trustworthiness, and, by neither drinking wine nor eating meat, the spirit is purified and one increases in wisdom.” (p. 117) Nichiren accepted this story as fact, and summarized it in the Sainan Koku Yurai, considered a trial essay for Rissho Ankoku Ron:


Prior to Buddhism being introduced in China sage rulers such as the Yellow Emperor governed their kingdoms by means of the five virtues. After the introduction of Buddhism we can see these five virtues are the same as the five precepts of Buddhism prohibiting killing, stealing, adultery, lying, and drinking liquor. Ancient Chinese sages such as Lao-tzu and Confucius are the three sages whom the Buddha dispatched to China in order to propagate a Buddhism adapted to suit the land in the distant future. Therefore, the loss of kingdoms by such rulers as King Chieh of Hsia, King Chou Hsin of Yin, and King Yu of Chou through violating the five virtues equals violating the five precepts.


Also, to be fortunate in being born a human being and becoming a king is due to the merit of having observed the five precepts and the ten virtuous acts. Although non-Buddhist scriptures are superficial in teaching, not preaching the cause-and-effect relationship between merits in the past and rewards in the future, those who observed the five precepts and ten virtuous acts became kings. Accordingly, when people transgress the five virtues, heavenly calamities and terrestrial disasters will occur in succession. (WNS: D1, p. 82)


                      As far as Nichiren and other East Asian Buddhists like Tsung-mi, or the T’ien-t’ai patriarchs Chih-i and Miao-lo were concerned, the Mandate of Heaven was not the collective will of the ancestors or the inscrutable workings of nature, but the unfolding of cause and effect. Cause and effect operate according to the nature of one’s deeds for better or worse. In Buddhism wholesome and unwholesome causes have been taught in terms of the five major precepts or the ten courses of wholesome conduct: not killing, not stealing, not committing adultery, not lying, not using divisive speech, not using harsh speech, not speaking irresponsibly, not giving in to greed, not giving in to anger, not giving in to false views. The five constant virtues and the Mandate of Heaven taught by Confucianism is just another way of presenting these precepts but without the explanation of the subtle workings of karma. Confucian teachings and values therefore are still upheld, but now they are subsumed within the skillful methods used by the Buddha and the bodhisattvas to prepare sentient beings for the Wonderful Dharma.


                      As far as Nichiren was concerned, after the introduction of Buddhism to China, the Chinese rulers became accountable for protecting and upholding the Buddha Dharma itself. Failure to do so on the part of the ruling emperors would mean the loss of their mandate. Naturally the Confucianists and Taoists did not see things this way, and argued that the introduction of Buddhism to China had proven to be a disaster, an enervating influence that contributed to the short-lived nature of the various dynasties in China after the fall of the Han. Confucianists and Taoists had even succeeded in bringing about three major persecutions of Buddhism in 446 by Emperor Wu of the Northern Wei dynasty (386-535), 574-577 by Emperor Wu of the Northern Chou dynasty (557-581), and 845 by Emperor Wu-tsung of the T’ang dynasty (618-907). In the persecution of 446, Emperor Wu and the chief instigators of the persecution were all dead within 5 years and the persecution itself never amounted to much due to opposition within the court. The persecution of 574-577 only lasted 3 years and ended with the death of Emperor Wu in 578. The third persecution was the most devastating to Chinese Buddhism but only lasted a year and ended with the death of Emperor Wu-tsung in 846. Given this record, it is perhaps understandable why many Buddhists like Nichiren would conclude that persecuting Buddhism is not a recipe for longevity.  


                      This brings us back to the third incident that Nichiren relates by citing a passage from Jikaku’s Account of a Pilgrimage in China in Search of the Dharma. Jikaku, the third chief priest of the Tendai school, was in China from 838 until 847 and witnessed the persecution of Emperor Wu-tsung as well as the events leading up to it and the aftermath. In the passage, Jikaku also mentions that prior to the persecution Emperor Wu-tsung had commissioned a monk named Ching-shuan to propagate the nembutsu, but this seemingly meritorious act was followed by Uighur invasions, the revolt of a regional commander, and the insubordination of Tibet. “In the same year a Buddhist monk, Hsuan-hsuan, claimed that he could defeat the hated Uighurs (a Central Asiatic people) by a magic sword, but when he was put to the test, he was found to be an imposter.” (Buddhism in China, pp. 227-8) Disillusioned with Buddhism, exasperated with the corruption within the Sangha, and incited by Taoists and Confucian ministers, Emperor Wu-tsung initiated the persecution of 845. Throughout China, monasteries and temples were destroyed, their wealth and lands confiscated, and the monks and nuns returned to lay life.



          The suppression itself was of short duration. Within a year, in the third month of 846, Wu-tsung died, his health probably affected by the longevity potions which he had been taking, and the imperial scepter was taken up by Hsuan-tsung, who immediately initiated action to call off the anti-Buddhist movement. To start with, the Taoists, Chao Kuei-chen and Liu Hsuan-ching, along with eleven others, were executed because they had incited the previous emperor to extreme measures against Buddhism. (Ibid, pp. 232-3)


                      It would seem that Emperor Wu-tsung could not win. If he propagated Buddhism it led to unrest and even war. Persecuting Buddhism, on the other hand, seemed to result in the deaths of the emperor and all those who had instigated the persecution. Of course the invasions, revolts, and unrest most probably had very little to do with the propagation of nembutsu in China and everything to do with various internal and external enemies of the declining T’ang dynasty probing for weaknesses and taking advantage. Likewise, the Emperor’s early death was most likely due to an ill-founded faith in dubious recipes for immortality. Nichiren, however, saw it as a clear indication of cause and effect. As we have seen in his critique of Honen, Nichiren believed that supporting Pure Land Buddhism was to support an otherworldly form of Buddhism that denigrated other forms of Buddhism including those that would give hope and practical guidance for this life and not just in the afterlife. In effect, it meant slandering or misrepresenting the Dharma and therefore inviting all the disasters predicted in the sutra passages Nichiren cited previously. The attempt to suppress all forms of Buddhism only made things worse.


                      In the view of Nichiren the fall of the Chou and Chin dynasties was the result of a failure to uphold the five constant virtues that were the equivalent of the five major precepts of Buddhism. The death of Emperor Wu-tsung was the result of his failure to propagate the correct Dharma and later his attempt to destroy Buddhism in China. The Mandate of Heaven therefore depends upon the ruler’s ability to protect and uphold the Dharma.


                      So again the issue is raised, can we really say that the fate of a nation or at least its government is dependent upon Buddhism? Throughout the history of Confucianism in China, the Mandate of Heaven has been given various interpretations. Some interpretations depended more heavily on the intercession of heavenly powers, while others took a more naturalistic position. Mencius, for instance, seemed to equate the Mandate of Heaven with what we would call the “will of the people.” It is not too hard to make a case for the view that virtuous rulers will govern wisely, gain and maintain the respect and trust of the people, and will not act against the public good for private gain. Such a government will be more stable and better able to weather a crisis than a corrupt government that does not have the people’s support and which weakens or even sells out the nation for short-term personal gain. Such a government will enjoy the trust and confidence of the people; it will therefore enjoy the Mandate of Heaven.


                      Does it make sense, then, to claim that one can receive the Mandate of Heaven by supporting a particular religion, in this case Buddhism? In fact, the example of Emperor Wu-tsung shows the opposite. He patronized Buddhism in the beginning of his reign and still had to contend with rebellion and war. So could one say the Mandate can be gained or loss depending on what kind of Buddhism was supported or suppressed? Such a claim seems a very far-fetched and more than a little self-serving when made by Buddhists who are trying to win the patronage of the rulers and/or convince them to suppress rivals. But let us suppose that the issue is not Buddhism but the Dharma. The Dharma is not just the ideas or teachings, much less the opinions, of the Buddha and his followers. The claim of Buddhism is that the Dharma is the true nature of reality and the way of life and methods of spiritual practice that lead to an awakening to that true nature. Fidelity to the Dharma is really supposed to mean fidelity to the Truth and not just to a religious system. The real issue should not be framed in terms of which religion will bring about a successful government. Rather, the real issue is what kind of a vision will guide any given government: expediency and self-interest, or fidelity to the truth and compassion action? In this the Confucian and Buddhist traditions of good government can find common ground. 


                      We cannot leave it at that however. Benevolent government, the main theme of Confucianism, has already been mentioned in the very beginning of the Rissho Ankoku Ron as one of the many methods proposed to end the suffering of the Japanese people. But even at its best, the benign paternalism of Confucianism proved to be no match for the uncertainties at the core of human life, let alone the natural disasters that were then and still are largely beyond human control. In addition, the Confucian tradition has often fallen short of this ideal, and has ended up being nothing more than an authoritarian ideology on the side of an oppressive status quo. So something more is needed. For this reason, Nichiren saw the Buddha Dharma as addressing the deeper concern of the universal suffering of all sentient beings and its causes in greed, anger, and ignorance. The Buddha Dharma, and esp. the Wonderful Dharma of the Lotus Flower Teaching, shows the way to overcome this suffering by proposing that all beings in fact have the Buddha-nature. In this view, we are not just potential noblemen or commoners in need of governing as the Confucian tradition teaches. Rather we are potential buddhas and we should regard each other with great compassion and treat each other with dignity befitting the precious and interdependent nature of all life. This is the aim of Buddhism – not merely to foster good government and benevolence, but to enable all people to cultivate a deeper vision of what life itself is in order to overcome delusion and selfishness and instead realize this world as a pure land in which enlightenment is an ever-present possibility. In our age, government can no longer be expected to patronize Buddhism or even directly support it, but government can be expected to create the conditions wherein such a grand vision of interdependence and universal regard for the dignity of life can become the basis for a truly just and peaceful world.



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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