Zen & the Lotus Sutra

Ryuei and Maylie at the Berkeley Zen Center

A Series of Seminars at the
Berkeley Zen Center ~ 1999
by Ryuei Michael McCormick

Table of Contents

Dedication to the memory of the late Zen Master, Kushin Seisho Maylie Scott (1935-2001)

Session One ~ April 1

  • Opening Verse and Statement (Ch.1)
  • Zen and the Lotus Sutra (Ch.2)
  • Parables of the Lotus Sutra (Ch.3-4)
  • Overview of the Seminar
  • Q&A from Session 1
  • Session Two ~ April 8

  • Overview of the Lotus Sutra
  • Bodhicitta (Ch.3-4)
  • Parables of Encouragement (Ch.5,7)
  • Parables of Buddha-nature (Ch.8,14)
  • Absolute and Relative Bodhicitta (Ch.10,14)
  • Q&A from Session 2
  • On the Odaimoku
  • Session Three ~ April 15

  • Appearance of the Precious Stupa (Ch.11-14)
  • The Emergent Bodhisattvas of the Earth (Ch.15)
  • The Eternal Buddha (Ch.16)
  • The Merits of the Single Moment of Faith and Rejoicing (Ch.17-19)
  • The Transmission of the Wonderful Dharma (Ch.21-22)
  • Q&A from Session 3
  • Session Four ~ April 22

  • Analysis of the Lotus Sutra
  • Bodhisattva Medicine King (Ch.23)
  • Bodhisattva Wonder Sound (Ch.24)
  • Bodhisattva Regarder of the Cries of the World (Ch.25)
  • Dharanis (Ch.26)
  • King Resplendent (Ch.27)
  • Encouragement of Bodhisattva Universal Virtue (Ch.28)
  • Q&A for Session 4
  • Session Five ~ April 29

  • Q&A for Session 5 after Shodaigyo Practice

    Appendix A: Verses for Opening the Sutra
    Appendix B: Practice Questions
  • Appendix C: The Seven Parables of the Lotus Sutra
    Appendix D: Zen Masters on the Lotus Sutra
    Appendix E: Recitation Passages
    Appendix F: Shodaigyo Meditation

    Q&A for Session 5 after Shodaigyo Practice

    Q: Can you chant Namu Myoho Renge Kyo to get things? Is it supposed to work?

    M: It's supposed to work but...You know how they talk about different levels of zazen? Philip Kapleau goes on about this. You can sit to improve your health but that is non-Buddhist sitting. You can sit to attain altered states of consciousness, and while that is a little more religious it is not really Buddhist zen. You can sit in order to attain your own peace of mind but that is Hinyana zen. You can sit in order to cultivate enlightenment for the sake of all beings, and that is Mahayana zen finally. Then there is zen which is abiding in buddha-nature just as it is right here and now and that is the ultimate zen. Some other people, like my friend Taigen, would say forget about that - just sit. I think there is a good point to that. I bring these five ways of sitting in zen up because the daimoku is the same way. You can chant daimoku to get stuff but that is not really Buddhism. That is a form of magick, witchcraft. Not necessarily bad, depending on what you are chanting for, but it is not Buddhism. You can chant for your own peace of mind, you can chant for the sake of all beings or you can chant as a direct expression of buddha-nature. That is the kind of chanting that I try to do.

    But I will tell you another thing, at night when I do my daily practice and in the morning, I try to think of all the people who are in need, people that I should be more mindful of, more caring about and it opens me up more. Sometimes my parents or somebody else will ask me to pray for this person or for that person and I will do that. On one level, it makes me more aware of others, it helps me to be more compassionate but even beyond my own mind it creates a response from the Dharma Realm, the Dharmadhatu. It's coming from the Dharmadhatu and going back into it. I really think that it is beneficial to others to do that.

    Q: It seems like the chanting creates an ecstatic state of mind. Kind of like what we seek in zazen. It blows you right out the door. It is orgasmic. The chanting raises all that energy. It's very exciting. I wondered if that practice originally came from Siberia or from a shamanistic culture. You know shamanism was very strong in Siberia so maybe some of that influenced this practice.

    M: I think Shinto was actually the direct influence. The apartment I live in is in Japan-town right next to the Japanese community center and every other night it seems that they are practicing the taiko drums over there. It has that same kind of ecstatic rhythm. I have seen a lot of Kurasawa movies, and in them you see the peasants drumming and dancing. Just like the native Americans, and the Siberians, they are trying to mimic the sound of the thunder to bring the rain for the crops that they needed. I think that Nichiren, and maybe other Buddhists before him, tapped into that and made it a part of their way of doing Buddhism. I'm glad you experienced it that way. Because that is the way I experience it. It's quite remarkable.

    One thing though, this shouldn't be wild energy going out all over the place. In the Lotus Sutra there is ecstasy too. In the third chapter it says that Shariputra felt like dancing with joy because he was so happy after hearing the prediction of his buddhahood. We are reproducing this. But this isn't a wild punk-rock thrashing around kind of ecstasy. I say this because when I was chanting the sutras one time with my sensei that same kind of rhythm was causing me to move with it, and without even looking at me he just reached over and touched my shoulder with one hand to remind me to contain the energy, keep it. Raise the energy but harness it, focus it, don't just let it get wild. So feel it, yes. I can't even pretend to be able to explain this well. I am just a beginner to this kind of practice. I am glad that you experience that.

    Q: We talked about Hinayana and I wondered if Hinayana came from Hinduism, and what language it is and what does it mean?

    M: I think the Greeks came up with the name Hindu. There was a river called the Sindhu, and it means the people beyond the Sindhu river, the Hindus.

    Q: Where Alexander stopped.

    M: Right, so the people beyond that were the Hindus. Originally it was an anthropological term and then it got applied to the religion. There is no such thing as Hinduism. There is the religion of the Vedas, and within that there are different cults. Not in a pejorative way, but in the sense that there are different ways of following the Vedas and different philosophies. So there is no such thing as Hinduism.

    Hinayana means Small Vehicle. Hina means small and yana means vehicle. You can use yana for a lot of things. Mahayana is the Great Vehicle. Then there is Mantrayana, which we did a little of tonight, the vehicle of using sound. Mantra actually means to protect the mind. So when you chant you are protecting the mind from defilements.

    I do want to say one more thing about Hinayana. People mistakenly apply the term to SE Asia Buddhism, to the Theravadins. That is not really the right way to use it. When Mahayana first arose in the 1st century B.C.E. or C.E., it was those groups of monks who were compiling the Mahayana sutras or traditions who used that term as a pejorative way of referring to the sectarian Abhidharma schools. It was a way of disparaging the sectarianism and pettiness of the Abhidharma scholars. The idea was that they were so wrapped up in analytics and in pursuing their own enlightenment that they had forgotten about everyone else. The Theravada is one of the last surviving schools of those sectarian Abhidharma schools of ancient India. But when you read the Pali canon, they are not really Hinayana, because in them the Buddha clearly says to his disciples, "Go out for the sake of compassion and preach to others." To those monks who wanted to commit suicide he said, "No, that is not real nirvana. Nirvana is staying here and helping others by sharing this teaching. It is not just annihilating yourself." It is not really right to say that they are Small Vehicle Buddhists or Hinayana. They are just the School of the Elders. They are more conservative, but they have their teachings of compassion as well. I would venture to say that a lot of so-called Mahayana Buddhists, in Tibet, China and Japan are very small-minded themselves. I think of these terms Hinayana and Mahayana not as sectarian designation but as states of mind. In one case, one that we should be careful not to fall into, the small minded way, and the other is the great-minded way to aspire to.

    MS: Is there a monastic tradition in the Nichiren Shu?

    M: That's a tricky thing. It drives me crazy. Up until the 19th century, with the exception of the Jodo Shinshu, all of the Buddhist schools in Japan had celibate vegetarian priests. There were exceptions, but officially they were supposed to be celibate and even vegetarian. But in the 19th century when Japan opened up, they decided to set up Shinto as the religion of the state. It was their version of the American civil religion. They also decided to get rid of this foreign Indian superstition, Buddhism, that they believed they had harbored for far too long and they destroyed temples, confiscated land, and forced many of the clergy to return to lay life. This happened to the Soto, it happened to Nichiren Shu, it happened to everybody.

    Stephen: Wasn't one of the ways that a temple could retain it's land was if a monk married he would be awarded a certain amount of land. So the more monks there were of a temple who married, the more land that temple was able to have.

    M: I hadn't heard that, but that is probably the reason for what you have today where the father, who is a priest, hands the temple down to his son. This is the case with all of the schools since the 19th century. They still go by the titles that they used as monks and nuns, but since that time they have not been monks or nuns. Only the Jodo Shinshu has a doctrinal reason for doing this, and the rest are just fudging on the precepts as far as what they are supposed to be. It is a real difficulty. Not just for our schools but for all the Japanese Buddhist schools.

    MS: The Soto Shu has Eheiji and large training monasteries. Is that true in Nichiren Shu?

    M: Yes. We have the Kuonji, which is the main temple at Mount Minobu where Nichiren spent his last years in retirement. That is where the 35 day final training for priests happens. I don't know if they hold any other kinds of retreats or regular year round practice there, but I imagine that they do.

    Then there is Nakayama Hokkekyoji in Tokyo where they hold a 100 day ascetic practice where those priests who are up to it practice asceticism for a 100 days by sitting in seiza so long that their knees bleed, pour freezing cold water on themselves, only eat rice and daikon, and chant the whole day through and only sleep 4 hours a night.

    There is also the Nipponzan Myohoji. Maybe some of you might have seen them on a peace march. They wear orange robes and chant with the drums. They are a monastic order. Their founder was a friend of Gandhi and he spent WWII in India because the Japanese government wanted to get him away from them. He was quite an embarrassment. He used to sit across from the Imperial Palace and beat his drum and try to remonstrate with the Emperor for relying on Imperialism instead of the Lotus Sutra. So the authorities said, "Please go somewhere else." So he went to India and when he was there he wanted to bring his form of Nichiren Buddhism back into the mainstream of Buddhism and so he took up the Theravadin monastic robes and led a celibate life. He was actually one of the instructors at the 35 day training when my sensei was there, so my sensei was taught by him.

    Q: I don't think the Buddha had a drum and I don't think he chanted. I've always loved chanting and I have done a lot of drumming...I wondered how it arose...[and how it connects with the Buddha's practice?]

    M: In other words, why do people who are following the Buddha, who attained enlightenment by sitting quietly under a tree, trying to attain enlightenment by banging drums and chanting?

    Q: I think I know what it's about myself, but I was wondering what inspired it?

    M: It's a very good question. First, the Buddha may have taught chanting to his monks. There are several passages in the Pali canon which are explicitly for reciting and chanting. They are protective spells which call upon the Vedic gods and goddesses. So at least on the popular level, from a very early period though it may not have been Shakyamuni Buddha himself who taught them, chanting has been used to create certain mind states or give practitioners a sense that someone up there is looking out for them so they could relax and just sit, or relax and practice. Of course, reciting the sutras before they were written down was the only way they could be passed on. Also, they were not merely reciting them to remember them and pass them on. By reciting them it would etch them in their hearts. The Metta Sutta on loving kindness is a good example of this.

    As far as chanting a single phrase, that started with the Pure Land Buddhists in China from a very early period. I think maybe the second or third century. In the early period of Buddhism there were six ways for people who had trouble just focusing on the breath. These were six forms of recollection. So you would sit and recollect all the wonderful qualities of the Buddha or you would recollect how deep and profound the Dharma is, or you would recollect the merits of joining the Sangha, or you would recollect how good it is to lead a virtuous life and follow the precepts, or recollect the heavenly realms to lift your mind up above ordinary concerns, or the merit to be gained from being generous. So there were these six recollections. By the time you get to Mahayana Buddhism in China, the recollection of the Buddha had become a full blown visualization exercise accompanied by reciting passages from the Pure Land Sutras. Then some Chinese monks thought, "If Mahayana Buddhism is supposed to be for everybody and not just professional monks, then how are we going to pass this on to the ordinary lay person, the peasant in the field, the scholar or judge or soldier. Let's skip all these visualizations and recitations of long passages and get to the essential thing, chanting the name of the Buddha, to bring the Buddha to mind." So that is how you get Namu Amita Buddha.

    By the time you get to Nichiren's day, that simple practice had eclipsed all the rest of Buddhism. Sitting meditation, precepts, the insight of the sutras, "emptiness is form, form is emptiness." People thought, "Forget all of that! We will figure it out when we are born in the Pure Land after we die." So this recollection of the Buddha in order to cultivate the same qualities in oneself had become, by the time of Nichiren, "recite the name of the Buddha so that when you die you will be reborn in the Pure Land and then you can practice Buddhism. Then you can learn Buddhism." So Nichiren was trying to steer things back to the Lotus Sutra, back to the mainstream of Tendai Buddhism and he did that by recognizing that people do need a simple practice. So he recommended reciting the title of the sutra in order to direct them back to the sutra, and back to what the sutra teaches: that this is the pure land.

    Now you could still say, "Alright, but that is still not how Buddha got enlightened. He sat under a tree. He did zazen." True. Nichiren, as well as many others in his day, based upon a prophecy found in the sutras, believed that they were living in the Latter Age wherein people were so far removed in time and space from the original spirit of Shakyamuni Buddha and his disciples that they could no longer on their own practice Buddhism the way it was meant to be practiced. So Nichiren had to figure out, as did the Pure Land Buddhists before him, how we can try to live it today if we don't have the kind of discipline or merit or karmic connection that those past disciples did. They figured that the best way is to just plant the seed of faith within ourselves. To recognize it within us. All that discipline and all that merit is there. We just need to pull it out. So by chanting we are trying to put ourselves in that same state of mind that Shakyamuni had which was that deep faith that he would be able to figure it out, that when he left the palace and his wife and child and family and went out in the woods he would be able to succeed. He didnÕt know how to practice at that time. He didnÕt know that he would eventually sit beneath the Bodhi Tree. He had to try everything. But the one thing he had from the moment he left the palace to the moment he sat under the Bodhi Tree was this great aspiration, this great faith that "I will be able to figure this out. The wisdom is there." So when we are chanting Namu Myoho Renge Kyo we are not doing what the Buddha literally did, but we are trying to bring about that same state of mind. That same iron faith and aspiration that he had. So in a way we are emulating him, but we are doing it in a way that can be done now. Recognizing our own limitations and our own removal from the circumstances that Shakyamuni Buddha had when he sat beneath the tree.

    I'm still trying to work this out in my own mind. But that is how I experience it and that is how I understand it so far.

    Q: How many Nichiren sects are there?

    M: Too many. It's like Highlander, there should be only one. Here's the trick to Nichiren Buddhism: The main school is Nichiren Shu, the one I belong to. They have the most temples and the lineages of Nichiren's < ahref="SixDisciples_01.html">six major disciples. Each of them had gone out and started their own temples and lineages. Each of the temples was kind of it's own independent franchise. There actually was no such thing as the Nichiren Shu until the 19th century. There were just different branches, like the Minobu branch or the Ikegami branch, or the way out in the boondocks branch. In the 19th century, after the persecutions stopped, the government fell back on plan B which was "If we can't stamp them out then at least let's consolidate them and keep our eyes on them." So they forced all of these branches to become the Nichiren Shu. But there were still some branches that said "We don't want to have anything to do with them. They are too open-minded and we only want to concentrate on the last chapters, or this or that." Due to petty political differences a few remained separate, but even they were consolidated by the time of WWII. Now I think that a few have gone independent again. But Nichiren Shu is so big that for any of those schools outside of Nichiren Shu that have a certain point of view, you will find those within Nichiren Shu who have the same point of view. The sectarian stuff really doesn't matter.

    The only one that matters is Nichiren Shoshu, and its former lay organization the Soka Gakkai. All of the other schools of Nichiren Buddhism follow Shakyamuni Buddha, and the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha. All the other schools recognize the Dharma is what we are living and not a thing. All the other schools recognize Nichiren as the preeminent bodhisattva that we are following, and that we are all the sangha, all the Bodhisattvas of the Earth. Nichiren Shoshu alone believes that Shakyamuni has been replaced by Nichiren as the true buddha of this age. Nichiren Shoshu alone insists that you can not become enlightened unless you have a connection with a wooden mandala Nichiren supposedly made, which is idolatry. Nichiren Shoshu alone says that only their successive High Priests embody the third jewel of the Sangha. They alone teach these things. Soka Gakkai, their lay organization, which started in the 1930's as a teaching organization and after WWII had become the lay branch of Nichiren Shoshu, spread this kind of teaching to America and the rest of the world. Since then, the Soka Gakkai, which is a kind of personality cult centered on Daisaku Ikeda, split with the priesthood of Nichiren Shoshu in 1991. They are now fighting like cats and dogs. Some people compare it to a bad divorce. Nichiren Shu does not recognize them as legitimate Nichiren Buddhists. In fact, we would not even recognize them as Buddhists at all, because of how they have tried to turn Nichiren into the Buddha, gotten rid of Shakyamuni and turned the Dharma into this plank of wood.

    Q: Did Nichiren Shoshu split off from Nichiren Shu after the war, or was it never connected?

    M: Taisekiji is their main temple at the base of Mount Fuji and they have always been separate. Even when the consolidations happened, they were able to take their related temples and remain separate. The were called the Fuji School at first, then they changed their name to Nichiren Shoshu in the early part of this century. Until maybe the 15th or 16th century they were doctrinally not that different from Nichiren Shu, but because they were this little temple that nobody visited much, they started producing these documents saying that "We are the only real successors to Nichiren. We have this mandala that nobody else has." It is a situation comparable to those churches in Europe which claimed to have pieces of the true cross in order to attract pilgrims. It sounds harsh, what I am saying, but it is the truth and independent scholars would agree that this is the true story.

    Maylie: Thank you very much Michael. This has been a wonderfully wide ranging and deep class.

    Session One | Session Two | Session Three | Session Four | Session Five

    Copyright by Ryuei Michael McCormick. 1999. 2002.

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