Rissho Ankoku Ron

A commentary
by Ryuei Michael McCormick

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Have the Gods Abandoned Japan?

IX Establishing the True Dharma

Kneeling on the Floor and Adjusting His Robe, the Traveler Respectfully Said to the Master:

WNSD1: pp. 137-138

WND: p. 23


                      At this point the guest is finally convinced by the argument of the host. While confessing to his doubts in the face of the complexity of the many Buddhist doctrines, he concedes that Honen’s Senchaku Shu did indeed recommend that “all the Buddhas and sutras [including Shakyamuni Buddha, Lord Preacher of the Lotus Sutra,] bodhisattvas, and gods [such as Goddess Amaterasu and Bodhisattva Sho-Hachiman, Protectors of Japan] should be ‘abandoned, closed, set aside and cast away. This is clearly stated in it.” The guest now acknowledges the radical nature of the Senchaku Shu and how it dismisses the entire Buddhist tradition and by implication all other religious teachings and practices except for the nembutsu alone.


                      The guest goes on to say “As a result, sages and protective gods have abandoned our country, causing famine and epidemics to spread all over it.” This statement would become one of the sources of great controversy within Nichiren Buddhism after Nichiren’s passing. According to this statement, one can no longer appeal to the Shinto kami because they have abandoned the country that slanders the True Dharma. In other writings, however, Nichiren continues to appeal to the kami and other deities in his prayers. In the Kangyo Hachiman-sho, Nichiren identifies Hachiman as a manifestation in Japan of Shakyamuni Buddha and explicitly states that the kami are still available to those who uphold the Lotus Sutra.


Now, the Great Bodhisattva Hachiman’s original substance, Shakyamuni Buddha, expounded the sole, true, Lotus Sutra in India. As he manifested himself in Japan, he summarized the sutra in two Chinese characters for honesty, and vowed to live in the head of a wise man. If so, even if Hachiman burned his palace and ascended to heaven, whenever he finds a practitioner of the Lotus Sutra in Japan, he will not fail to come down to reside where this practitioner is and protect him. (adapted from WNS:D1, p. 279)


                      Later generations of Nichiren Buddhists would be divided by the question of whether Nichiren intended them to cease to venerate the kami because they were no longer available in a country that neglected and slandered the Lotus Sutra, or whether they could continue to have confidence in and pay respects to the kami at their shrines because they were still protectors of the Lotus Sutra and those who uphold and practice it. Considering that Nichiren included both Amaterasu and Hachiman on his calligraphic mandala, perhaps it can be said that Nichiren believed the kami could still be respected and appealed to, but only within the context of the practice of the Lotus Sutra.


                      Of course the whole idea that there may be Shinto deities at all is very far fetched to people in the modern world, especially those who have not grown up in Japan and who may have trouble believing in even one God, let alone a whole pantheon of gods from another culture such as the Shinto kami or the Vedic devas that Nichiren seemed to take for granted as actual beings who could be prayed to or even taken to task for not fulfilling their vows to protect the practitioners of the Lotus Sutra. Furthermore the idea that epidemics or famine are caused by the influence of divine beings must seem very quaint at the least, if not outright ridiculous. Even today, however, there are those who believe that there may be such things as guardian angels or other ineffable but benevolent forces at work in and through the circumstances that make up our lives. This may be an authentic intuition or a delusion to stave off our insecurities, nevertheless the existence of such benevolent spiritual beings was the common sense of people in past ages and even the Buddha asserted their existence.


Today, famines and epidemics can be traced back to purely natural causes, not to the presence, absence or interference of supernatural beings. Still, perhaps the quality of our human decisions and interactions with each other and with the forces of nature can be personified in terms of such beings. Maybe we should consider approaching our fellow beings and the natural world with the same respect and even humility that people once approached the gods. Epidemics, famines, and other disasters may not be caused by divine wrath, but certainly the impact of human greed, carelessness, and even cruelty can contribute to natural disasters or exacerbate their effects. When wars and pollution devastate the environment, or shoddy construction standards bring about unnecessary deaths when earthquakes strike, or inadequate health care leads to epidemics, then it can be said that we have neglected the natural forces at work in the world and thereby brought disaster upon ourselves. Buddhism, on the other hand, teaches people to approach other beings and the natural world with a greater awareness of the complexity of causes and conditions and the need to consider the far-reaching consequences of our actions. In this way, we can work with, rather than against the forces of nature.


                      The guest then says, “Now, you have clearly shown me what is right and what is wrong by quoting many passages from a wide variety of sutras. Thanks to you, I am now free from my earlier prejudices, and can see and hear things clearly.” This is undoubtedly the response that Nichiren was hoping the Rissho Ankoku Ron would get from Hojo Tokiyori, the retired regent and head of the Hojo clan that were the de facto rulers of Japan. Nichiren hoped that his presentation of the teachings of the sutras would help them to see that something must be done about the state of Buddhism in Japan. Nichiren believed that only a return to the true spirit of Shakyamuni Buddha’s teachings as found in the Lotus Sutra would restore peace and prosperity to the land. The guest then proceeds to agree with the host’s call to withhold support from those who slander the True Dharma and to bestow it instead on the good monks and nuns in order to bring peace and stability to the land. By getting rid of the slanderers he even hopes to bring about a new golden age comparable to that enjoyed by China under the mythical sage-rulers Fu Hsi, Shen Nung, Yao and Shun.


Copyright by Ryuei Michael McCormick. 2004.

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