Rissho Ankoku Ron

A commentary
by Ryuei Michael McCormick

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The Confucian Nichiren Part 4

The Shinto/Buddhist Mandate of Heaven



                      At this point, Nichiren brings up the fate of the Retired Emperor Gotoba (1180-1239). For Nichiren, this last example held a far greater significance than the brief mention here would indicate. In the year 1275, Nichiren wrote the Shinkoku-o Gosho (Sovereigns of Our Divine Land) in which he stated that the defeat of Retired Emperor Gotoba in the Jokyu Disturbance of 1221 and the earlier death by drowning of the Emperor Antoku (1178-1185) at the Battle of Dan-no-ura had so disturbed him as a boy that making sense of those tragedies had been among the major reasons for his study of Buddhism.


          Pondering these two great events in the history of Japan, I, Nichiren, since my childhood seriously studied both exoteric and esoteric Buddhism as well as all the sutras of various Buddhist schools by either learning from others or reading the sutras and contemplating them. Finally, I discovered the reason for these events. (WNS: D1, p. 176)


                      In order to understand why Nichiren found these events so disturbing, we must briefly survey Nichiren’s understanding of the history and role of the Japanese emperors. Judging from the Shinkoku-o Gosho, Nichiren accepted the beliefs concerning Japanese imperial rule that were common in his day. One belief was that the emperors were all descended from the gods of Japan in an unbroken lineage going back to seven heavenly and five terrestrial gods. The first of the five terrestrial gods was said to be the Sun Goddess Amaterasu Omikami enshrined at the Grand Shrine of Ise. Nichiren would later include her on the calligraphic mandala that he would design to represent the Gohonzon of the Essential Teaching of the Lotus Sutra. After the twelve heavenly and terrestrial gods, the first mortal emperor was Emperor Jimmu (r. 40 BCE–10 CE). The imperial family, therefore, were believed to be a divine dynasty that could not be supplanted or replaced because an unbroken line of succession going back to the gods had to be maintained. When the Japanese began to model their court and bureaucracy on Chinese models, one thing they did not import was the Confucian concept of a Mandate of Heaven that could be withdrawn from one dynasty and bestowed upon another. 


                      In the ninth century, the Japanese identified Emperor Ojin (r. 362-394), the legendary sixteenth emperor, with the Great Bodhisattva Hachiman. Nichiren explicitly affirmed this identification in his Kangyo Hachiman-sho (Remonstration with Bodhisattva Hachiman). Hachiman had started out as a Shinto deity from the southern island of Kyushu. He was bestowed the title of Great Bodhisattva in the year 781 because an oracle had declared that Hachiman would grant his protection to the construction of the statue of Vairochana Buddha at the Todaiji temple in Nara.  In the ninth century, Japanese Buddhists developed the theory of honji suijaku, “root essence and trace manifestation,” in which Shinto deities were identified as the traces or shadows of the buddhas and bodhisattvas who were in turn regarded as the origin or root of the local deities. Based on this theory, Hachiman was sometimes viewed as a trace manifestation of Amitabha Buddha. In the Kangyo Hachiman-sho, however, Nichiren identified Hachiman as a trace manifestation of Shakyamuni Buddha.  Nichiren also included the Great Bodhisattva Hachiman on his calligraphic mandala.


                      During the reign of Emperor Heijo (774-824), an oracle reported to the court that Hachiman had vowed to protect 100 rulers. This was taken to mean that all the Japanese emperors beginning with Emperor Jimmu up to the 100th in line of succession were under the divine protection of Hachiman. This was the Shinto answer to the Mandate of Heaven. Unfortunately for the Japanese desire for continuous direct rule by the descendents of the gods, imperial rule fell before the armed might of the samurai clans long before the time of the 100th emperor, though the new military government did claim to rule in the emperor’s place.


                      In brief, the story is as follows: since 644 the imperial family had become dominated by the intrigues of the aristocratic Fujiwara clan, whose daughters became the wives of the emperors, and whose clan leaders controlled a succession of child emperors, while forcing the older emperors into retirement. Over time, the Fujiwara and other noble families in Kyoto amassed more and more tax exempt private estates, as did the various Buddhist temples. They relied upon local warrior clans to manage and defend these estates. These warriors became the samurai class, and before long the Fujiwara were calling upon them to use their force of arms to help keep order and to settle succession disputes for the imperial throne. The two most powerful clans were the Taira (aka Heike) and Minamoto (aka Genji). These two clans realized that instead of propping up the Fujiwara they could seize power directly. After a two-year war between these clans, the Taira emerged victorious over the Minamoto in 1160 and their leader Taira Kiyomori (1118-1181) became the de facto ruler of Japan. In 1180 the Minamoto under the leadership of Minamoto Yoritomo (1147-1199) revolted and began the Gempei War that lasted until 1185. The Gempei War ended with the total defeat of the Taira and the drowning of Emperor Antoku (1178-1185), the 81st emperor of Japan and grandson of Kiyomori, at the Battle of Dan-no-ura. Yoritomo, wary of the intrigues and the soft and decadent life of the Kyoto aristocracy, created a bakufu or “bivouac government” in Kamakura. In 1192, Yoritomo was given the title shogun or “barbarian subduing general” by Emperor Gotoba, the brother of the drowned child-emperor Antoku. This marked the true beginning of the Kamakuran Shogunate, and a transition from imperial rule to military rule that would last until 1868. The story of the rise and fall of the Heike and the end of imperial rule became the basis of Japan’s epic tragedy, the Tale of the Heike.


                      In his biography of Nichiren, J.A. Christensen provides a useful overview of the political situation during the Kamakuran Shogunate beginning with Yoritomo’s incorporation of the feudal provincial lords known as the daimyo into the new political order:


          Using the daimyo and the samurai as a power-base, Yoritomo reorganized the administration of the entire country. The daimyo, who had previously held their lands by force, were named legal stewards to the land as long as their allegiance remained with Yoritomo. Taxes were levied for military purposes and were paid directly to Yoritomo’s treasury. Yoritomo, himself, was given authority by the reluctant emperor to appoint all constables, judges, and stewards throughout the land.


          Yoritomo’s power did not last, however. He died in 1199 and was succeeded by his two sons, both of them weak and dissolute young men who were eventually murdered. His government might have crumbled had it not been for his strong-willed widow who schemed so cleverly that her father, Hojo Tokimasa, a member of the conquered Taira clan, was named Regent to rule in the name of the Shogun. This brought about a peculiarly confused form of government.


          The supposed head of the government was the Emperor in Kyoto, but his authority was delegated to the retired Emperor who, in turn, delegated authority to the Shogun in Kamakura. And the Shogun, himself, was ruled by a Hojo Regent. Complicated though it was, the system worked very well, and Japan was ruled by Hojo Regents until 1333. (Nichiren, p. 16)


                      At the time the Rissho Ankoku Ron was submitted in 1260 the situation had one more wrinkle, the retired regent Hojo Tokiyori (1227-1263) was the person who actually pulled the strings. The main point, however, was that the actual rulers of Japan were no longer the emperors in Kyoto but the military government in Kamakura run by the Hojo clan. In the year 1221, the Retired Emperor Gotoba and his two sons, Retired Emperor Tsuchimikado (1195-1231) and Retired Emperor Juntoku (1197-1242) made an attempt to overthrow the Hojo regents and restore imperial rule. The forces of Hojo Yoshitoki (1163-1224), the regent at that time, defeated them and all three former emperors were exiled. Gotoba was sent to the island of Oki, Tsuchimikado was sent to Shikoku, and Juntoku was sent to Sado Island. Juntoku’s son, the child emperor Chukyo (1218-1234) was deposed. This incident became known as the Jokyu Disturbance, named for the era in which it occurred.


                      This profoundly disturbed Nichiren, because to him it meant the reversal of the social order, the rulers had become the ruled. It also meant that the vow of Hachiman to protect 100 emperors had not been fulfilled. The world had entered a dark period of chaos and even the gods had failed to save them. The Taira and later Emperor Gotoba had even appealed to the powers of the buddhas and bodhisattvas by having prayer services conducted by the chief priests of the leading Tendai temples in order to defeat their enemies, but their prayers came to nothing. So even the power of the buddhas and bodhisattvas had been unable to prevent the victory of the warrior clans and the tragic death by drowning of the seven-year-old Emperor Antoku and later the ignominious exile of Retired Emperor Gotoba and his two sons. It seemed as though injustice had prevailed and that no power on heaven or earth would or could set things right.


                      Nichiren, however, realized that perhaps things were not as bad as they seemed. Perhaps it was not just armed power alone that allowed the Minamoto and later the Hojo to prevail. Though Nichiren did not use the term “Mandate of Heaven” he effectively proposed the same idea in the Kangyo Hachiman-sho in connection with Hachiman.


          In my opinion, protecting 100 rulers does not mean protecting all rulers from the first to 100th; it is the vow to protect 100 honest rulers. This is because Hachiman’s vow states, “He will reside in the head of honest persons, not in the heart of evil persons.” The moon reflects itself in clear water, but not in muddy water. Also the Great Bodhisattva Hachiman lives in the head of pure and honest men, but not in the heart of impure and dishonest men. The ruler is originally an honest person who does not tell a lie. In this sense, Minamoto Yoritomo and Hojo Yoshitoki were honest men who did not tell lies; they are among the 100 rulers, in whom the Great Bodhisattva Hachiman resides. That is the reason why they were victorious under the protective wings of Hachiman.


          There are two meanings of honesty: first, honesty in the worldly sense and in the second place, honesty in Buddhism. Speaking of honesty in the worldly sense, the Chinese character for king means running through heaven, humanity, and earth. The three horizontal lines stand for heaven, humanity, and earth, which are run through by a vertical line. That is to say, the king is a person who treads the way of honesty throughout heaven, humanity, and earth. The character king also stands for the color yellow. In ancient China, five colors stood for five directions, with the color yellow in the center. As the ruler in the center, the king is also called “yellow emperor.” The lord of heaven, lord of humanity, as well as that of earth are all called the king. Ex-Emperor Gotoba, however, was the ruler in name only; he was a liar, wicked and dishonest. On the contrary, Shogunal Regent Hojo Yoshitoki was a subject in name, but he was worthy of a great ruler without double-talk, in whom the Great Bodhisattva Hachiman vowed to reside. (WNS: D1, p.277)


                      Nichiren saw the fundamental problem as the failure of the emperors to uphold the Lotus Sutra. Nichiren expected not merely integrity in terms of secular values, but also a deep commitment and fidelity to spiritual values, the Wonderful Dharma as taught in the Lotus Sutra. In the Rissho Ankoku Ron, Nichiren lays the blame for the fall of imperial rule on the failure of the emperors to put a stop to the rise of Honen’s exclusive nembutsu movement. In later writings, Nichiren blames the emperors and the clergy of the Tendai temples for turning away from the Lotus Sutra and relying instead on the esoteric practices of the Shingon school in order to defeat their enemies. Either way, the emperors had forsaken what Nichiren believed was the primary responsibility of any ruler: upholding the Wonderful Dharma.


                      Here we find the convergence of Shinto, Confucianism, and Buddhism in the worldview and teachings of Nichiren. For Nichiren, the Mandate of Heaven was a matter of having or losing the protection of the gods, in particular Hachiman; and, as mentioned above, Nichiren believed that Hachiman was the trace manifestation of Shakyamuni Buddha. It should be noted that the Kamakuran Shogunate looked to Hachiman as their patron deity, a god of archery and war. Minamoto Yoritomo even built the Tsurugaoka Hachiman Shrine in Kamakura. In 1280 the Tsurugaoka Shrine burned down, prompting Nichiren to write the Kangyo Hachiman-sho. Nichiren saw the destruction of the shrine as an omen that Hachiman had abandoned Japan and its rulers because they continued to abandon the Lotus Sutra.


                      What can any of this mean for those of us who do not believe in divine emperors or the Mandate of Heaven or Shinto deities or Buddhist bodhisattvas? What can any of this mean for those of us who live in countries where the separation of Church and State is an important value, and where no one would ever seriously suggest that the fate of the nation depends upon upholding Buddhism, let alone a particular sutra within the Buddhist tradition? This is the question we come to again and again in this commentary. And again and again, we see that for pre-industrial people, the rulers were seen as the intermediaries between the natural and human worlds and the divine, whether the divine was the Confucian Heaven, Hachiman and the Shinto deities, or the Eternal Shakyamuni Buddha of the Lotus Sutra. The ruler’s responsibility was to create within themselves and then extend to their domain a harmony between Heaven and Earth by upholding the integral order of all things. There is no indication in Nichiren’s writings that he did not take the existence of these things as anything less than literal. He certainly saw them as more than just literal, but the literal existence of these deities and cosmic functions and mandates was something that he and his contemporaries took for granted. But these are not things that modern people take for granted, and outside of Japan, very few can relate to Confucianism, Shinto, and Buddhism as anything other than foreign religions with no real relevance to modern life. 


                      Perhaps we can relate to the intuition that these agrarian mythic ways of thinking are trying to communicate: that human beings have the responsibility to create a just society that is in harmony with the natural world. If we create a society whose foundation is built on exploitation and conquest, greed and aggression, then we will have a society where every hand is lifted up against another and short-term gain overrules long-term stability. We need to govern our lives and by extension our societies by a higher standard than greed for power and wealth. The power of the gods, buddhas, and bodhisattvas is actually the power of our own wisdom and compassion. We realize this power by following the higher standard of the Wonderful Dharma that Nichiren saw most fully expressed in the Lotus Sutra. The Wonderful Dharma is not a sectarian creed or dogma but the realization that all beings are intrinsically worthy of our respect, compassion, and gratitude; and that the place and time to realize true peace, purity, and awakening is right where we are standing at this very moment. This may sound vague and abstract, but it is only realized in the unfolding of the concrete circumstances of our daily lives – in the way we fulfill our responsibilities, do our jobs, treat our families, spend time with friends, vote, shop, and contribute to various causes that effect the world around us. In this way we each create the integral harmony of Heaven and Earth beginning with ourselves and extending to the whole 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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