Rissho Ankoku Ron

A commentary
by Ryuei Michael McCormick

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 The Question of Nationalism Part 1:

Should the Dharma Serve the State?


                      The guest then insists that there is a higher priority then the problem of Honen’s exclusive nembutsu:


After all, world peace and tranquility of a nation is what both the sovereign and subjects alike desire, and all the people of a nation wish for. Now, the prosperity of a nation depends on the Dharma, which is revered by all people. When the nation is destroyed and its people perish, who will revere the Buddha and who will put faith in the Dharma? Therefore, we should first pray for the peace and tranquility of the nation before trying to establish the Buddha Dharma. If you know the means to prevent calamities and disasters, I would like to hear about it.


                      The guest believes that these relative disagreements concerning doctrine and practice between Buddhist monks is unimportant and that the priority should be for all people to come together to pray for the peace and welfare of the nation. This statement of the guest assumes that the primary purpose of Buddhism is to secure peace and tranquility for the nation. In other words, Buddhism should serve the state first, and only then concern itself with the propagation of particular doctrines and practices among the people.


                      This may seem like a very strange assumption to those of us who grew up with the very different assumptions that church and state are constitutionally separate and furthermore that religion is something that is the business of the private life of the individual and should not be a community affair outside whatever place of worship or religious community one belongs to. On the other hand, these assumptions are not even shared by everyone even in the 21st century, even in the United States of America. All over the world there are countries with a state sponsored religion, such as the Church of England, or with a religiously based constitution and system of law such as in the theocracy of Iran. Even in the USA, there are those who believe that while no denomination should be favored, Christianity should nevertheless be the ideological basis of our society. The concept of the separation of church and state is in fact a very new idea, begun by the predominantly Deist founding fathers of the United States who wanted the United States of America to be free of the tyrannical power of the clergy, the inquisitions, and the holy wars of Europe. They wished to create a state founded upon the democratic, secular, and rational values of the European Enlightenment as opposed to authoritarian claims based on divine revelation. Again, to this day, even in the USA, there are those who believe that it is presumptuous to subordinate the “divinely revealed” doctrines and morals of the sacred scripture to secular values and an empirically grounded rationalism. The separation of church and state, therefore, is not something that can be taken for granted, even at the beginning of the 21st century, even in the USA.


                      It was the common sense of Nichiren’s time that Buddhism existed to serve the state. Starting in the Asuka period (552-710), Buddhism had been sponsored by nobles such as the Soga clan and then established as the state religion by Prince Shotoku because it served as a vehicle for bringing in the high culture of China and more remotely India, and so its more sophisticated forms of prayer, esoteric rituals, and appeals to the protection and blessings of the buddhas, bodhisattvas, and protective deities could bring health, wealth, and happiness to the rulers and the nation. In fact, it was even illegal to attempt to spread it among the common people, and monks and nuns were restricted to service within the temples and were viewed as a part of the court bureaucracy.


For all practical purposes, Asuka Buddhism functioned as a mundane instrument of the ruling classes. In other words, it was utilized as a superior form of magic and shamanism to enforce the roles of the Imperial family and aristocracy. Prior to the introduction of Buddhism, the indigenous faith had used prayers, divination and other practices as a means of relating to the powers of nature believed to be kami. When Buddhism entered the early society it was immediately viewed as another form of theurgy, in fact a more potent variety in view of its acceptance by Japan’s powerful civilized continental neighbors. The Buddhist images, having no counterpart in the native faith, were regarded with awe and gained popularity among certain court factions as having powerful efficacy in promoting material prosperity, the cure of illness and aversion of calamities… At this period the image itself was believed to possess powers and the philosophical significance tended to be disregarded. (p. 17, Foundations of Japanese Buddhism Vol. I)



                      Earlier in this commentary we covered the acceptance of Buddhism as the state religion by Prince Shotoku who incorporated the threefold refuge in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha into Japan’s first constitution. Two years after his death, in 624, the Empress Suiko instituted a Bureau of Priests in order to oversee the Sangha and prevent misconduct by the monks and nuns.  In 645 the Taika Reforms were initiated in order to create a centralized government modeled after the Chinese T’ang dynasty. This included the creation of a civil and criminal law code known as the Ritsuryo code, the first version of which was promulgated in 701. The Ritsuryo code included rules and regulations governing the Buddhist monks and nuns known as the Soniryo code. In this way, Buddhism became an official part of the Japanese imperial bureaucracy. In the Nara period, the Emperor Shomu (r. 724-749) instituted a system of national temples for the protection of the nation in 741, culminating in the creation of Todaiji temple in 757. Kazuo Kasuhara’s A History of Japanese Religion provides a helpful account of how this was done and the motives behind it:


After about 732, relations with the Korean kingdom of Silla became strained. Year by year they worsened, and the court began to fear an invasion from the Korean peninsula. In addition, an epidemic disease, possibly smallpox, that had broken out at Tsukushi, on Kyushu, in 735 began to spread throughout western Japan. In 737 the disease reached Nara, where it claimed many victims among the aristocracy, including the minister of the left, Fujiwara no Muchimaro (680-737), and his three brothers. In March 737, with the country torn by crises at home and abroad, Emperor Shomu (r. 724-49) decreed that each province should make images of Shakyamuni Buddha and two attendants, as well as one copy of the Daihannya-kyo (Great Perfection of Wisdom Sutra; in Sanksrit, Mahaprajnaparamita-sutra). In light of the turmoil at the time, it is clear that the intent of Shomu’s decree was not simply to encourage Buddhism in Japan but also to enlist the aid of Buddhism in helping that state overcome the crises it faced.


In 740, Shomu commanded that each province make ten copies of the Lotus Sutra and erect a seven-story pagoda. In March of the next year, he ordered each province to erect another seven-story pagoda and make ten copies each of the Golden Light Sutra, and the Lotus Sutra. In addition, a copy of the Golden Light Sutra transcribed in gold ink by the emperor himself was to be placed in each pagoda, with prayers to various buddhas for the protection of the nation. Finally, two provincial temples (kokubunji) were to be erected in each province: a monastery (kokubunji) to be called Konkomyo Shitenno Gokoku no Tera (Temple to Seek the Protection of the Nation by the Four Heavenly Kings, housing a copy of the Golden Light Sutra) and a nunnery (kokubunniji) to be called Hokke Metsuzai no Tera (Temple for the Elimination of Sins Through the Lotus Sutra, housing a copy of that sutra). This decree of 741 established the provincial temple system.


The Golden Light Sutra promises that four heavenly kings will protect the nation and people that reverence and propagate this sutra. The heavenly kings will fend off sovereign enemies and bestow prosperity and happiness on the sutra’s devotees. The Golden Light Sutra had long been esteemed in China as a powerful spiritual protector of the nation from calamities. Shomu’s imperial decree specifically mentions the intended recipients of the sutra’s blessings. Prayers were offered for eternal happiness of the spirits of deceased emperors and loyal officials from the Fujiwara and other major families; for the happiness and well-being of the reigning emperor and his family and of the Fujiwara, Tachibana, and other great clans; and for the defeat and destruction of wicked, rebellious subjects. Clearly the provincial temples were not intended primarily as places for religious practice leading to enlightenment and salvation. They were institutions committed to the protection of the state and the preventing of national calamity through the quasi-magical powers of Buddhism. The provincial temple system cannot be idealized as a model achievement of Buddhist culture during Shomu’s reign. (pp. 65-66)


                      The provincial temples begun by Shomu fell into disuse during the Heian period, but the assumptions behind them did not. In Nichiren’s day, the Tendai and Shingon schools formed the backbone of the government sponsored and controlled Buddhist establishment. Like the national temple system instituted by Emperor Shomu, the main duty of the Tendai and Shingon establishment and other Buddhist temples was to offer prayers for the welfare and protection of the nation: warding off natural disasters like earthquakes and plagues, bringing timely rains to prevent draught and famine, and ensuring the security and prosperity of the rulers. The Kamakuran shogunate was not interested in doctrinal controversies, or even in the question of which teaching or practice would provide an accessible and efficacious way to enlightenment for the people. Their concern was that the temples perform their duty to the nation and do their part to preserve the status quo.


                      In a society where the separation of church and state is valued, no religion is or can be supported by the state. While prayers for the nation may be offered by individual denominations or congregations this is not assumed to be their primary duty.  In fact, it is assumed that the purpose of religion is to address the spiritual needs of the individual, and spiritual or religious beliefs and practices are largely, though not entirely, compartmentalized from one’s public life. For instance, religious beliefs are a topic felt to be best avoided at work or in most other public gatherings in order to avoid contentious and rancorous debates. In a public school environment the introduction of prayer or religious values or worldviews is something that quickly leads to litigation, as people do not want their children to be indoctrinated by particular religious beliefs that may conflict with their own beliefs or lack thereof. When religions do seek to address the society at large or to share their beliefs and win new converts, it is understood that they cannot appeal to the coercive power of the state but must win people over by the merits of their arguments and/or personal example. In cases involving the repeal, amending, or enactment of laws touching on moral issues like the death penalty, abortion, euthanasia, reproductive rights, the rights or lack thereof of the unborn, the definition of marriage, or civil rights where the values of those holding particular religious commitments are at stake, the religiously motivated understand that their opinions will be weighed on their own merits and that they must follow the same democratic processes as everyone else. They cannot appeal to religious authorities to enact their wishes, but must make arguments appealing to values that they hope are held by those of other religions and those with no religious commitments. Sometimes the universality of certain values must themselves be argued.


                      Things were very different in Nichiren’s day. The guest in the Rissho Ankoku Ron, who represents the rulers of the Kamakuran shogunate, assumes that the primary responsibility of Buddhism is to enlist the spiritual powers of the deities, buddhas, and bodhisattvas on the side of the rulers and the nation they rule.  The clergy among themselves and in official academic debates can argue the minutia of teaching and practice, but the rulers will ultimately decide what ideology will be publicly supported or even allowed. Nichiren does not necessarily disagree that Buddhists should pray for the safety and wellbeing of the nation, but as we shall see in his response, he does believe that discerning the truth and promulgating it among the people is a higher priority than simply supporting the national status quo.



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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