True Teaching, Practice and Realization

Thoughts on Original Enlightenment

by Ryuei Michael McCormick

“Sinful deeds are from the outset without substance.
They arise from deluded thoughts and perversions.
Because the mind-nature is originally pure,
sentient beings are precisely Buddha.”
(Original Enlightenment and the Transformation of Medieval Japanese Buddhism, p. 222)

Upon hearing these verses one might be impressed by such a profound and succinct statement of the teaching that at heart all sentient beings are buddhas just as they are, and that all the wrongdoing and suffering of this world are merely ephemeral phenomena that ultimately do not matter. However, these seemingly inspiring and profound verses were allegedly recited by the leader of a band of Tendai warrior monks as they burned down a rival temple according to some early versions of the Tale of the Heike. How could this happen? How could Buddhism’s faith in the buddha-nature within all sentient beings be perverted into a justification for violence and destruction, especially violence between the very monks who above all should be upholding the standard of conduct set forth by the Buddha himself?

Many people outside of Asia have the impression that Buddhism is a peaceful religion of passive vegetarian monks and nuns. Some may be aware of the reputation of the Shao Lin monks who “invented kung-fu” but they may also imagine that those monks only fought to defend themselves; and even then only when they had no other choice. But the reality of Buddhism is no different than the reality of any other religion. Even the greatest ideals can be twisted and turned into a justification for crusades or jihads by unscrupulous and self-serving leaders and teachers. But as with other religions, these self-serving interpretations do not reflect the true intentions of the original founders who would most likely be horrified at the way their teachings are being used and abused.

In Mahayana Buddhism it is taught that all beings have buddha-nature, in other words, the potential to become buddhas. The buddha-nature teaching is also understood to mean that in essence all beings are buddhas or have the qualities of buddhahood but do not realize it. The buddha-nature teachings are very complex and are open to various interpretations. One particularly hazardous interpretation was that all beings are buddhas just as they are. With the rise of this interpretation the distinction between potentiality and actuality disappeared - and therefore all beings were just buddhas and all that they said and did, no matter how unethical, were actually the acts of buddhas.

But is this what Buddhism is really teaching? Is this all the buddha-nature teaching comes to - a Buddhist way of rationalizing anything and everything? Nichiren Shonin did not think so. Nichiren was very critical of those who taught that one could attain buddhahood without the one crucial factor - wholehearted faith in the Lotus Sutra. And what did this mean? Did it mean that as long as we believe in a particular text we are then buddhas and can do as we please? No again. Rather, Nichiren realized that faith in the Lotus Sutra meant being faithful to the Lotus Sutra and to the Buddha who taught it. Faith in the Lotus Sutra meant faith in its teaching that we have it within ourselves to live as the Buddha lived - to follow his example. As for what this meant, perhaps it is best to let Nichiren speak for himself:

“The way to become a Buddha easily is nothing special. It is the same as giving water to a thirsty person in a time of drought, or as providing fire for a person freezing in the cold. Or again, it is the same as giving another something that is one of a kind, or as offering something as alms to another even at the risk of one’s life.” (The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, p. 1086)

Nichiren even went so far as to equate the practice of reciting the Odaimoku with the practice of Bodhisattva Never Despise in the Lotus Sutra.

“He sowed the seeds of Buddhahood with the twenty-four characters, while I do so with only the five characters [of Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo]. Although the ages are different, the process of attaining Buddhahood is exactly the same.” (Ibid, p. 474)

Bodhisattva Never Despise’s practice consisted of greeting everyone he met with the words (twenty-four characters long in the Lotus Sutra): “I respect you deeply. I do not despise you. Why is that? It is because you will be able to practice the Way of Bodhisattvas and become Buddhas.” (Lotus Sutra, p. 286) Nichiren’s practice focuses on expressing faith in (Namu) the five character title of the Lotus Sutra (Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo). Nichiren calls both of these the practice of sowing the seeds of buddhahood. Neither practice asserts enlightenment for the sake of self-satisfaction or self-justification. Rather, both practices are a way of seeing all beings as potential buddhas who should be treated with dignity, compassion and loving-kindness. Both practices aim to enable all beings to break free of self-doubt and self-concern so that they too may reveal the same wisdom and compassion that the Buddha himself displayed in his life. The practice of the Lotus Sutra, then, is to see and treat all beings as buddhas-in-the-making and thereby to act as the buddha himself did. As Nichiren taught:

“The heart of the Buddha’s lifetime of teachings is the Lotus Sutra, and the heart of the practice of the Lotus Sutra is found in the “Never Disparaging” chapter. What does Bodhisattva Never Disparaging’s profound respect for people signify? The purpose of the appearance in this world of Shakyamuni Buddha, the lord of the teachings, lies in his behavior as a human being. The wise may be called human, but the thoughtless are no more than animals. (The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, p.852)

Copyright by Ryuei Michael McCormick. 2001, 2002.

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