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by Ryuei Michael McCormick

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Should One Refrain from Arguing the Dharma?

VII The Means to Prevent Calamities

The Traveler Spoke in a Mild Manner

WNSD1: p. 129

WND: p. 18


                       The traveler now admits that it is true that Honen urged his followers to “abandon, close, set aside, and cast away” all the buddhas and teachings of Buddhism except for Amitabha Buddha and the practice of nembutsu. However, he also says that it is hard for him to blame Honen alone for abusing fellow monks and casting aspersions on other sutras. The implication is that if Honen is at fault then so is the host. In addition, the traveler accuses the host of harping on a “slight flaw in jade,” in other words of nitpicking. He states that between Honen and Nichiren it is hard to distinguish who is right and who is wrong, who is being foolish and who is being wise. 


                      Like many modern people, particularly those attracted to Buddhism for its tolerance and nonviolence, the traveler feels that doctrinal disagreements are unbecoming and unedifying. He assumes that Buddhists should not argue among themselves; they should not be critical but rather accepting and open to any and all views and methods based on the belief that they all ultimately lead to an enlightenment that transcends all conceptual views. Therefore, disagreements should be set aside and everyone should work together for the sake of peace. The One Vehicle teaching of the Lotus Sutra would seem to confirm this view. According to the One Vehicle all the different teachings given by the Buddha ultimately lead to buddhahood and are therefore a part of the One Vehicle. This view that all views are relative and therefore not worth arguing about also seems to be the point of three parables told by the Buddha in the Pali Canon: the parable of the blind men and the elephant, the parable of the snake, and the parable of the raft. However, a closer examination of these three parables shows that their point is not that all views are relative and therefore acceptable from some ultimate point of view. Rather, their point is that some views or viewpoints are better than others and that how one handles and applies views also matters.


                      Let us start with the well-known parable of the blind men and the elephant from the Udana. The Buddha told this parable to his monks after they had observed the members of other schools of thought arguing with each other about the nature of the Dharma. The Udana says of these disputants that “they lived quarrelsome, disputatious and wrangling, wounding each other with verbal darts, saying: ‘Dharma is like this, Dharma is not like that! Dharma is not like this, Dharma is like that!’ “ The Buddha comments that these sectarians are blind and argue because they do not actually know what is or is not Dharma. He then tells the story of a king who, for his own perverse amusement, summoned several men who were blind from birth to his court and had each of them feel a part of an elephant and then asked them all to say what an elephant is like.


Those blind people who had been shown the head of the elephant replied, “An elephant, your majesty, is just like a water-jar.” Those blind people who had been shown the ear of the elephant replied, “An elephant, your majesty, is just like a winnowing-basket.” Those blind people who had been shown the tusk of the elephant replied, “An elephant, your majesty, is just like a ploughshare.” Those blind people who had been shown the body replied, “An elephant, your majesty, is just like a storeroom.” Those blind people who had been shown the hindquarters replied, “An elephant, your majesty, is just like a mortar.” Those blind people who had been shown the tail replied, “An elephant, your majesty, is just like a pestle.” Those blind people who had been shown the tuft at the end of the tail replied, “An elephant, your majesty, is just like a broom.”


Saying “An elephant is like this, an elephant is not like that! An elephant is not like this, an elephant is like that!” They fought each other with fists. And the king was delighted (with the spectacle).


Even so, monks, are those wanderers of various sects blind, unseeing…saying, “Dharma is like this!...Dharma is like that!”


Then on realizing its significance, the Lord uttered on that occasion this inspired utterance:


          Some recluses and brahmins, so called,

          Are deeply attached to their own views;

          People who only see one side of things

          Engage in quarrels and disputes.

          (adapted from The Udana, pp. 91-94)


                      Many who have heard a version of this parable assume that the point is that we all should admit that we have only a partial grasp of the truth and so should be humble and open-minded or at least tolerant of different views and not argue about them like the blind men fighting over their partial understanding of what an elephant is. But in the original context, the Buddha’s is saying that unlike himself the disputatious sectarians are like blind men because they do not know what is beneficial or what is Dharma, and that is why they are arguing about it. We know from the Buddha’s other discourses that he did claim to know what is beneficial and to know what the Dharma is. In other words, the Buddha is like the king who can see the whole elephant. So his point is not that no one knows the truth and therefore we should all adopt agnosticism. Rather, his point is that those who do not accept the Buddha Dharma will end up clinging to partial truths and these partial truths will be contradictory, will not enable anyone to overcome egoism, and will lead to the kind of arguing and fighting the monks witnessed. The Buddha, however, claims that he and his disciples hold “right view” which is not one-sided or biased but whole and complete.


                      Two parables from the Alagaddupama Sutta of the Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha further elucidate the Buddha’s attitude towards the teaching of views and methods. In that discourse a monk named Arittha clings to the pernicious view that what the Buddha taught are obstructions to gaining enlightenment are not actually obstructions. The monks try to correct him, but he refuses to back down. They take their dispute to the Buddha, who reprimands Arittha in no uncertain terms: “Misguided man, to whom have you ever know me to teach the Dharma in that way? …But you misguided man, have misrepresented us by your wrong grasp and injured yourself and stored up much demerit; for this will lead to your harm and suffering for a long time.” (Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, pp. 225-226). The Buddha then asks the monks if Arittha had kindled even a spark of wisdom and of course the monks deny that he could have.  At this point the Buddha introduces the parable of the snake and the parable of the raft.


                      In the parable of the snake, the Buddha speaks of those who incorrectly learn the Dharma:


          Here, monks, some misguided men learn the Dharma – discourses, stanzas, expositions, verses, exclamations, sayings, birth stories, marvels, and answers to questions - but having learned the Dharma, they do not examine the meaning of those teaching with wisdom. Not examining the meaning of those teachings with wisdom, they do not gain a reflective acceptance of them. Instead they learn the Dharma only for the sake of criticizing others and for winning in debates, and they do not experience the good for the sake of which they learned the Dharma. Those teachings, being wrongly grasped by them, conduce to their harm and suffering for a long time. (Ibid, p. 227)


                      He compares these people to someone who wrongly grasps a snake by its tail or middle, thereby allowing the snake to turn around and bite him, causing either death or deadly suffering from the snake’s venom. If, however, people were to study the Dharma, wisely examine its meaning, and gain a reflective acceptance of it instead of just using the Dharma to criticize others or win debates, then they will “experience the good for the sake of which they learned the Dharma. Those teachings, being rightly grasped by them, conduce to their welfare and happiness for a long time.” (Ibid, p. 227) This is compared to a snake handler who uses a cleft stick to pin the snake down so he can pick it up safely just behind the head so that it cannot turn around and bite. The point is that it is not enough to learn the Dharma. One must learn it carefully, think it through, understand the true meaning of it, and then put it into practice. One must not study it half-heartedly or use it for self-serving ends as the monk Arittha did.


                      In the parable of the raft, the Buddha asks the monks if it would be appropriate for a man who had made a raft to cross to the other shore of a great expanse of water to continue to carry the raft around with him wherever he goes. Of course the monks acknowledge that this would not be appropriate and agree with the Buddha that the correct thing would be to leave the raft once one has crossed over. The Buddha teaches the monks that the Dharma is also like a raft, in that it is for the purpose of crossing over from the shore of birth and death to the other shore of liberation and not to be clung to for its own sake. “So I have shown you how the Dharma is similar to a raft, being for the purpose of crossing over, not for the purpose of grasping. Monks, when you know the Dharma to be similar to a raft, you should abandon even good states, how much more so bad states.” (Ibid, p. 229)


                      The last statement is important but easily misunderstood. The Buddha is not saying that one should seek a state or an amoral stance beyond good and evil. In the context of his remonstration with Arittha, the Buddha is pointing out that even the otherwise good states of meditative bliss should not be clung to, let alone the sensual pursuits that the Buddha taught were obstacles to attaining enlightenment, particularly for celibate monastics. It also reiterates the point that the Dharma is to be practiced and then let go of once it has served its purpose and enabled the practitioner to attain liberation. The Dharma was not intended to be a fetish for intellectual self-gratification or a weapon to be used in disputes with others. The Buddha taught the Dharma as a practical means for attaining liberation and not as something of value in and of itself. Of course, this is in reference to the Dharma as a teaching or method, and not the Dharma as the true nature of reality that is realized through such teachings and methods. The Dharma in the latter sense is not an object that can be grasped in the first place.


                      These three parables of the Buddha show that the Buddha did not want people to cling to or argue about one-sided, partial, or biased views. He did not want people to learn the Dharma is a shallow or self-serving way. Nor did he want people to argue about the Dharma instead of putting it into practice. Nor did he want people to turn the Dharma into a set of dogmas to cling to, defend, and fight over. But this does not mean that he did not want people to refrain from correcting false views or correcting those who held even right views wrongly. In an earlier part of this commentary we cited the Buddha’s statements in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta to Mara that he will not pass away until he knows that he has instructed his lay and monastic disciples to competently teach the Dharma so that they “shall be able by means of the Dharma to refute false teachings that have arisen, and teach the Dharma of wondrous effect.” In that spirit, the Buddha taught the parables of the snake and the raft in the context of correcting a monk who held wrong views and was stubbornly misrepresenting the Dharma. In other words, the Buddha was purposely refuting a slanderous view and at the same time teaching the Sangha about the right and wrong way to learn and handle the Dharma. In the parable of the blind men and the elephant he was making the point that Buddhists should not be satisfied with the partial, one-sided, or biased views put forth by those without a clear and direct knowledge of what they are arguing about, but rather should seek out the correct and complete view of the Dharma that the Buddha claimed was a product of direct knowledge and insight.


                      It was Nichiren’s conviction that Honen’s exclusive nembutsu was a one-sided, partial, and biased view resulting from a misapprehension of the Dharma that had poisoned Honen and his followers and become an object of clinging that no longer served any purpose but rather was causing people to abandon the Lotus Sutra. In Nichiren’s view, the Buddha taught the Lotus Sutra to express the whole meaning of the Dharma that the other teachings were leading up to. In other words, the Lotus Sutra expresses the whole elephant whereas the nembutsu is just a small part of it. Putting one’s faith in the Lotus Sutra is the correct way to apprehend the Dharma, whereas the exclusive nembutsu is like a snake wrongly grasped that bites and poisons the unskillful snake-handler. The awakening to the Unborn and Deathless nature of the Buddha’s enlightenment taught in the Lotus Sutra is the other shore, whereas the nembutsu and other teachings were just rafts to relinquish once one has crossed over. Nichiren Buddhism, therefore, does agree that one should not cling to partial, one-sided, or biased views, that one should not learn the Dharma in a shallow or self-serving way, and that one should not cling to the teachings dogmatically. At the same time, Nichiren Buddhists do believe that one should take up the whole and correct Dharma taught by the Buddha, carefully examine its meaning, and put it into practice in the correct way so as to come to same awakening as the Buddha himself. In this way, false views can be relinquished and right view can prevail and accomplish its purpose.


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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