Rissho Ankoku Ron

A commentary
by Ryuei Michael McCormick

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Should Slanderers Be Executed?

VIII Outlawing the Slanderers

The Traveler Then Asked the Master:

WNSD1: pp. 134 – 136

WND: pp. 22 – 23


                      The guest is horrified by the implication of the sutra passages that the host has just cited. They seem to be suggesting that those monks who, in the opinion of the host, slander the True Dharma should be put to death just as King Sen’yo put to death the brahmins who slandered the Mahayana teachings. The guest points out that this would be just as bad as the violence of the false monks and any who do this would also have to suffer the karmic consequences of putting others to death.


                      The guest then cites a passage from the Great Collection Sutra wherein the Buddha states that he regards those who shave their heads and put on monastic robes as his children, even if they do not receive the precepts or violate them after receiving them. In the expanded Rissho Ankoku Ron, several other passages are cited from this sutra and also one passage from the Benevolent Kings Sutra that also state the grave crime of persecuting or injuring monks, even those who violate the precepts. The passages state that it is a worse offence than injuring the Buddha, and that any king who does this will lose their throne and fall into the Avichi Hell.


                      The guest concludes, “According to this scriptural statement we have to give offerings to monks regardless of whether or not they are good ones or whether or not they keep the precepts. How dare you beat and insult the children of the Buddha to make their father sad?” He then cites the examples of the brahmins who murdered Maudgalyayana and of Devadatta who murdered the nun Utpalavarna. Both the brahmins and Devadatta fell into the Avichi Hell for their deeds. Clearly the sutra passages regard one who is a monk or a nun as sacrosanct, not because of their personal qualities, but because they represent, however imperfectly, the monastic Sangha that the Buddha instituted so that the Dharma would remain in the world.


                      Obviously these passages contradict the ones the host cited that argue for the ruler’s responsibility to discern the difference between the false monks and the true monks and to withhold support from the former and protect the latter. The guest presses the host on exactly this point, “You speak of punishing those who slander the Dharma, but to do so would violate the Buddha’s prohibitions. I can hardly believe that such a course would be right. How can you justify that?”


The Master Stated in Response

WNSD1: pp. 136 – 137

WND: p. 23


                      The host expresses astonishment that the guest is not convinced by the citations from the Nirvana Sutra that declare that slanderers must be punished. Remember that according to the T’ien-t’ai classification scheme, the Nirvana Sutra is classified as the Perfect Teaching and an expression of the Buddha’s final teaching whereas the Great Collection Sutra and the Benevolent King Sutra are both considered provisional teachings from an earlier period of the Buddha’s life. The Nirvana Sutra, from the point of view of the T’ien-t’ai school, carries more weight since it is held to be more definitive than the earlier teachings.  Aside from that, Nichiren points out that the intention of the passages he cited is not to punish or persecute the Buddha’s disciples, but rather to punish the act of slandering the Dharma.


                      In the 1278 version of the Rissho Ankoku Ron, Nichiren makes a further clarification. According to his interpretation, the passages from the Great Collection Sutra and the Benevolent Kings Sutra are referring to monastics that hold right views and should be supported even if they have not received the precepts or are imperfectly keeping them. The Nirvana Sutra, on the other hand, is referring to the punishment of those who hold wrong views, regardless of whether or not they uphold the precepts. The passages are therefore not contradictory. Rather, they are talking about two different situations. Taken altogether, the Buddha seems to be teaching that supporting those who hold right views and preventing the ascendancy of wrong views is the most crucial issue, even more important than whether the monks and nuns are able to observe the rules and regulations of monastic life.


                      Nichiren was far from unique as a teacher in East Asian Buddhism who did not view the observation of the rules and regulations of the monastic precepts as a high priority. This was because the monastic precepts had been formulated in a time and culture very different from that of medieval China or Japan. In China, very few monastics took the full monastic precepts. The vast majority of Chinese “monks” and “nuns” in Nichiren’s day were content to take only the more generalized, and therefore more adaptable, 10 novice precepts. Four centuries before Nichiren’s time, Saicho, the founder of the Tendai school in Japan, established a Mahayana precept platform at Mt. Hiei where the bodhisattva precepts of the Brahma Net Sutra (a sutra possibly originating in China rather than India) replaced the full monastic precepts for monks and nuns. It is only natural that Nichiren would be more concerned with the upholding of right views rather than monastic standards from India, an attitude that contributed to his later criticism of the Ritsu or Precept School and it’s attempted revival by monks like Ryokan (1217-1303) of the Shingon-Ritsu school at Gokurakuji Temple in Kamakura.


                      At any rate, Nichiren’s concern was to reign in the activities of Buddhist teachers holding wrong views, people like Honen who were turning people away from the Lotus Sutra. Nichiren believed that the solution was for the government and the people to withhold their patronage from them, and to instead support those who did uphold the True Dharma as found in the Lotus Sutra. He states that while King Sen’yo and King Possessor of Virtue may have killed slanderers of the Dharma in the past, since the appearance of Shakyamuni Buddha the correct method is to simply deny them offerings. The Nirvana Sutra told those stories of the previous lives of Shakyamuni Buddha in order to emphasize the gravity of slandering the True Dharma and the great virtue of defending the True Dharma but resorting to violence is not being advocated in the present. Instead, it is Shakyamuni Buddha’s actual guidance to Chunda regarding who should or should not be given alms that should now be followed.


                      Nichiren’s 1278 addition to this section of the Rissho Ankoku Ron are, however, more troubling. Referring to the killing of slanderers he wrote:


Nevertheless, this is a special method applicable only to certain occasions. King Shiladitya of ancient India was a sage who protected Buddhism. Punishing only the ringleader, the king spared the lives of all other members who rebelled against him, banishing them from his kingdom. Emperor Hsuan-tsung of T’ang China was a wise ruler who protected Buddhism. He executed 12 Taoist masters, eliminating enemies of the Buddha and restoring Buddhism. These examples in India and China are of non-Buddhist and Taoist masters trying to destroy Buddhism. Their sins were comparatively light. On the contrary today in Japan, a disciple of the Buddha is about to destroy Buddhism. His sin is extremely grave; he must be strictly punished without delay.


                      Nichiren seems to be saying that there are occasions when capital punishment in defense of the True Dharma is justified, calling it a “special method applicable to certain occasions” and then cites two historical examples from after the time of Shakyamuni Buddha. The first is King Shiladitya (r. 606-647) who conquered much of northern India and later converted to Buddhism. The other is Emperor Hsuan-tsung (810-859), the last emperor of the T’ang dynasty who helped Buddhism revive somewhat after the persecution by his predecessor in 845. As Nichiren mentions, he executed several of the Taoists who had instigated that persecution. Nichiren insists that what is currently happening in Japan is even worse than what those rulers were opposing, because it is not non-Buddhists slandering the True Dharma but those who are disciples of the Buddha who are doing it. In the Senji Sho, Nichiren referred to a declaration he made on the night of his arrest prior to the Tatsunokuchi Persecution and the Sado Exile, September 12, 1271, to Hei no Saemon, the Kamakuran government’s police commissioner and head of military affairs, that revealed who Nichiren had in mind: “Unless all the temples of the Pure Land and Zen schools such Kenchoji, Jufukuji, Gokurakuji, Dabutsu-den, and Chorakuji are burned down and their priests all beheaded at Yuigahama Beach, Japan will be bound to be destroyed.” (WNS:D1, p. 243) Taken together with this later attempt in the 1278 version of the Rissho Ankoku Ron to justify the execution of slanderers as a “special method applicable to certain occasions” it seem evident that this statement to Hei no Saemon was made in earnest and that Nichiren in fact saw this as a matter of national security. In his view, Japan’s welfare depended on the forceful and even violent suppression of the kind of slander of the True Dharma that he believed would be the ruin of the nation.


                      This is very troubling, because if Nichiren’s suggestion to Hei no Saemon, (a person in position to act on those suggestions and who in fact that very night attempted to have Nichiren beheaded) was serious, and if his 1278 addition to the Rissho Ankoku Ron is in fact a justification of the death penalty in the name of the True Dharma, then Nichiren had himself committed a serious breach of the both the monastic precepts and even the bodhisattva precepts of the Brahma Net Sutra. Deliberately bringing about the death of another person, for any reason, even through a third party, is considered an offense classified as a “defeat,” wherein a monk or nun is permanently expelled from the monastic Sangha; and a bodhisattva can no longer be considered as such if they kill or encourage others to kill until they have repented and renewed their compassionate aspiration. Here is the wording of the bodhisattva precept against killing from the Brahma Net Sutra:


The Buddha said, “Disciples of the Buddha, should you yourself kill, willfully cause another to kill, encourage someone to kill, extol killing, take pleasure in seeing killing take place, deliberately wish someone dead, intentionally cause death, supply the instrument or means for killing, cut off a life even when sanctioned by law, that is, participate in any way in killing, you are committing a serious offense warranting exclusion. Pray, do not intentionally kill anything whatsoever which has life. As a Bodhisattva, awaken within yourself a heart that is unending in its mercy and compassion, respect and dutifulness, and use your skillful means to help and protect all sentient beings. Hence, should you act from a selfish, indulgent, or reckless heart and thereby intentionally and willingly take a life, you are a Bodhisattva who is committing a serious offense warranting exclusion.” (Buddhist Writings on Meditation and Daily Practice, pp. 127-128)


                      It has already been pointed out, however, that Nichiren was not concerned with the precepts, but only with right views. In his view, upholding right views is more important than upholding any of the precepts. But is that view itself a right view or a wrong view? Is the value of upholding the True Dharma and suppressing slander of the True Dharma more important than the value of human life, and particularly when the True Dharma is itself concerned with the supreme dignity of life? It seems to me that, if nowhere else, the precept against killing is where right views and right actions intersect. It seems to me that someone who holds the view that all beings can attain buddhahood and in fact are in some sense even now embraced by the Eternal Buddha would not ever kill or endorse killing. This is especially true in regard to human beings who are capable of reflection and growth and who might slander the Dharma at one point in their lives but later might repent of their earlier views or actions. Killing someone or otherwise bringing about a person’s death is a final irretrievable act. Putting someone to death, whether a cold-blooded murder or a government sanctioned execution, is to irrevocably deny any possibility of change or growth on the part of the other person. As such, it is an act of monumental presumption. It is tantamount to the denial of the other person’s buddha-nature or capacity for enlightenment that can never be taken back.


                      Fortunately, Nichiren’s recommendations to Hei no Saemon were never acted upon. So even if Nichiren had been making a serious suggestion, it would only be considered by the monastic rules an act of wrongdoing that must be acknowledged as such and not a full-fledged defeat requiring expulsion because no deaths actually resulted. The bodhisattva precepts against killing is stricter because it does not say that an actual death must result from requesting or encouraging killing, but it also leaves the door open for the offender to later repent of their actions, statements, or intentions, and then to renew their compassionate aspiration to work for the benefit of all beings. One could also give Nichiren the benefit of the doubt and regard his statement to Hei no Saemon as metaphorical, or sarcastic, or an expression of exasperation and frustration in response to the many attempts on his own life and not a recommendation to be taken seriously. Likewise the 1278 addition to the Rissho Ankoku Ron could be considered an attempt to underscore the gravity of the offense of slandering the Dharma and not a justification for executing slanderers. Regardless of Nichiren’s intentions however, those of us who follow him today should not make the mistake of using his words to rationalize the use of force or violence, let alone killing, in the name of the Dharma.


                      Whatever Nichiren’s intention in bringing up the examples of King Shiladitya and Emperor Hsuan-tsung, he does end his response to the guest by calling for a boycott rather than for executions:


Therefore, if all the countries in the world and the four kinds of Buddhists (monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen) all stop giving offerings to the evil priests who slander the True Dharma, putting all their faith instead in the defenders of the True Dharma, how can anymore calamities arise or disasters confront us?


                      In this Nichiren shows that he is neither a nationalist nor an advocate of violence but a voice of reason calling all the people of the world (not just in Japan) to simply boycott those who are slandering and misrepresenting the True Dharma and instead to lend our support to those who uphold the True Dharma. In Nichiren’s time, the government was the primary patron and sponsor of the Sangha, so it was the government’s responsibility to discern who was worthy of patronage. In Japan and the USA and many other countries, the separation of church and state means that government is no longer in a position to endorse particular religious teachings and practices over others. Instead, it is the responsibility of each of us to courageously and peacefully take a stand against that which threatens the dignity of life. Sometimes this can mean boycotting the product of a company that exploits others or harms the environment, or voting for candidates who will work to reform the government, or taking part in non-violent demonstrations to protest war or injustice. More positively, we must decide for ourselves how to wisely and compassionately invest our time, energy, money, and other resources in worthy causes in order to create a world where all beings can live in peace and dignity and even more importantly have the opportunity to awaken to life’s true potential. By living in this way, we bring to life the true intention of the Rissho Ankoku Ron, which is to make wise and compassionate choices that will enable all sentient beings to live in peace and prosperity and achieve enlightenment together.



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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