Rissho Ankoku Ron

A commentary
by Ryuei Michael McCormick

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Empowerment and Responsibility of the Buddha’s Disciple

VI Appealing to the Authorities

Having Calmed Down Somewhat, The Traveler Stated:

WNSD1: p. 127, WND: p. 17


                      We might not be able to follow the kind of reasoning found in Confucianism, Buddhism, or Shinto that views the influence of Heaven, or bodhisattvas, or defied emperors of the past as a determining factor in world events, let alone be convinced by it, but Nichiren imagines that the shogunate, as represented here by the traveler, might find this argument worthy of consideration. However, Nichiren anticipates that his own lack of status might become an issue. So at this point the traveler asks the host, “Who are you that you feel qualified to make these criticisms and recommendations? By what right do you take such an unprecedented action upon yourself?” In a democratic society, this would ideally not be an issue, but in a society as stratified as medieval Japan, Nichiren was just a low-ranking Buddhist monk of no standing and was therefore seen as being very presumptuous to present a memorial to the government on his own.



In Response, the Master Declared

WNSD1: p. 127-129, WND: 17-18

                      The host tells his guest that like a blue fly riding on the tail of a thoroughbred horse, or a vine clinging to a tall pine tree, he is a born disciple of Shakyamuni Buddha and a servant of the king of sutras, the Lotus Sutra. This means that even though he is a lowly monk with, as he says, “little ability” he is nevertheless a child of the Buddha who cannot help but he troubled by the decline of the Buddha Dharma. In the expanded Rissho Ankoku Ron Nichiren follows this with several citations from chapters 10, 14, and 23 of the Lotus Sutra wherein the sutra asserts that it supreme among all sutras.  This means that by association those who uphold it are to be valued and respected just as much as the sutra they serve. This is a bold argument to make before the military rulers.


                      The argument is interesting in that it simultaneously presents the votary of the Lotus Sutra as humble but also as having an unparalleled dignity. The votary should be humble because they may have nothing of their own to be particularly proud of. The votary may be poor, ugly, uneducated, homeless, lacking in status, perhaps even simple-minded and unable to grasp the subtle teachings of Buddhism. However, through faith in the Lotus Sutra, they attain a dignity that sets them above those who do not have faith in what the sutra teaches. They have nothing of their own but gain everything from the Lotus Sutra. But what do they gain from the Lotus Sutra? Why should worshipping a book set someone seen as worthless by the world above all others, even shoguns and emperors, five star generals and presidents?


                      The answer is that upholding the Lotus Sutra is not about worshipping a text; it is about upholding the Wonderful Dharma that teaches the supreme dignity of all people. The supreme teaching of the Lotus Sutra is that all beings will attain buddhahood. Rich or poor, famous, infamous, or unknown, Olympic athletes, the mentally or physically handicapped, young or old, educated or uneducated, smart or dull, all races, classes, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, and even creeds are all destined for buddhahood according to the Lotus Sutra. Even those who would be considered incorrigible evildoers like Devadatta or Judas Iscariot (the Christian equivalent of Devadatta) are extended the promise of eventual buddhahood in the Lotus Sutra. The Lotus Sutra is the great equalizer that reveals the hidden depths of unconditioned purity, bliss, and eternity that is the true selfless self of all beings. By upholding the Wonderful Dharma of the Lotus Flower Sutra the most humble person can realize the infinite dignity of all life, and those of great worldly wealth, power, and status can realize their essential equality with all beings. This is the humbling empowerment of the Lotus Sutra.


                      The host then cites a passage from the Nirvana Sutra that Nichiren will cite again and again in order to explain why he feels duty bound to remonstrate with those he believes are destroying the Dharma. The passage reads:


          If even a good monk sees someone destroying the teaching and disregards him, failing to reproach him, to oust him, or to punish him for his offense, then you should realize that that monk is betraying the Buddha’s teaching. But if he ousts the destroyer of the Dharma, reproaches him, or punishes him, then he is my disciple and a true voice-hearer.


                      We might recognize in this a Mahayana reiteration of the Buddha’s statements in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta of the Long Discourses of the Buddha that were cited above in this commentary. According to that discourse the Buddha had told Mara that he would “…. not take final nirvana till I have monks and disciples who are accomplished… able by means of the Dharma to refute false teachings that have arisen, and teach the Dharma of wondrous effect.” (Long Discourses of the Buddha, p. 247) So it is not a Mahayana innovation to assert that the Buddha wanted his monks to be willing and able to refute teachings not in accord with the Dharma as he taught it. This is a theme that appears throughout the canon and in every branch of Buddhism. Nichiren took this to heart and believed that it meant he had a responsibility, as a disciple of the Buddha, to speak out against teachers and teachings that he believed were misrepresenting and even denigrating the Dharma, and particularly the Wonderful Dharma taught in the Lotus Sutra.


                      The expanded Rissho Ankoku Ron follows that citation with two more, one from the 13th chapter of the Lotus Sutra and the second from the Nirvana Sutra. Both of these citations teach that the disciples of the Buddha should be willing to uphold the truth even if it costs them their lives. The Nirvana Sutra compares this to a royal emissary who must deliver his king’s message to a foreign land without changing or concealing the message even if it means he will be killed. Perhaps when the Rissho Ankoku Ron was first submitted, Nichiren did not realize that the consequences of his forthrightness would be a life of persecution, violence, exile, the deaths of devoted disciples, and many near brushes with death himself. By the time Nichiren wrote the expanded version he had survived ambushes, attacks by angry mobs, two exiles, and an attempted execution, and so these passages are a reflection on his own hardships and a warning to those who would carry on his teachings and the Buddha’s commission into the future. A votary of the Lotus Sutra may be possessed of unsurpassable dignity as a messenger of the Buddha, but must also have great fortitude and a noble spirit of self-sacrifice for the sake of all beings. As mentioned before, like a Hebrew prophet of old, the votary of the Lotus Sutra is called to “speak the truth to power” with all the risks entailed by such a calling. 


                      Finally, the host refers to the earlier petitions of Enryakuji and Kofukuji to the imperial court which led to the destruction of Honen’s tomb, the burning of the printing blocks of the Senchaku Shu, and the exile of Ryokan and other leading disciples of Honen in 1227. This was discussed previously as were earlier works by Tendai and Kegon monks critiquing the Senchaku Shu and earlier petitions from Enryakuji and Kofukuji calling for the suppression of the Pure Land movement during Honen’s lifetime. The host does not refer to those earlier critiques and petitions here, but his point is clear: his critique of Honen is hardly unprecedented and earlier petitions against the exclusive nembutsu movement were made by the leading Tendai abbots to the imperial court, and these petitions had been heeded.


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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