Part 1: The Pure Land of Utmost Bliss
In time Renchō recovered from the illness brought on by his practice of the Gumonji-hō. Dōzen-bō had been most anxious that Renchō be given the best of care. Gijō-bo, Jōken-bō, and other monks watched over him day and night. They chanted dhāraṇīs, burned paper amulets and had Renchō drink the ashes in water, and also moxibustion – the burning of dried mugwort cones at several key acupuncture points to stimulate the circulation of blood and spiritual power so that his body’s balance of yin and yang energy would be restored. Dōzen-bō himself checked in on Renchō as often as he could. He would sit by him and thumb his juzu murmuring the nembutsu as he watched over his young and overzealous disciple. “You took it too far,” he would say to Renchō. “You did too many hours in a day. You tried to do in a quarter of the time what others would spend months practicing. You recklessly endangered your health. I should have said something to you earlier. I blame myself for not telling you to pace yourself. Remember, Śākyamuni Buddha taught us the Middle Way, to forego both luxury and painful austerities. Furthermore, he taught us to hope for rebirth in the Pure Land through nembutsu. We do not have to kill ourselves trying to attain awakening in this life when we have been assured of rebirth and attaining buddhahood in the next by simply calling Amitābha Buddha to mind while chanting his name.”
Renchō considered this. After taking up the Middle Way the Buddha abandoned the practice of painful austerities. Pain and hardship did not need to be sought out. They came of themselves. Between the time he set out from the Bodhi Tree to teach the Dharma until his final nirvāṇa under the twin śāla trees the Buddha experienced several ordeals: there were occasions when he was offered spoiled food by servants and mocked for it by the priestly caste; there were times when the only available food was horse fodder; there was a time when a local ruler forbade his subjects from providing offerings or listening to the Buddha’s teachings; there were times when the Buddha and his monks had to endure bitterly cold winter winds blowing down from the Himalayas clad only in their patchwork robes; those who felt hatred and jealousy towards the Buddha convinced a woman named Sundarī to slander him by claiming to be his paramour; for similar reasons the Buddha was later maligned by a woman named Ciñchā, who tied a tub to her belly and claimed he had impregnated her; and towards the end of his life many members of his family were massacred by King Virūdhaka, who bore a grudge against the Śākya clan. The Buddha faced all of these hardships and tragedies with equanimity.
There were many, even among the monks and nuns, who found that they were not yet able to maintain their own equanimity and peace of mind when life showed itself to be unstable, callous, and cruel. For those followers who were still householders, immersed in worldly desires, pressures, expectations, and ambitions, it was practically impossible to cultivate a stable and serene mind with which to view conditioned phenomena and overcome attachment and aversion. They were unable to obtain the light of the Buddha’s wisdom to penetrate the darkness of old age, sickness, and death compounded by the indifferent fury of the elements and the calculated cruelty of the ruthless and ambitious princes, kings, and warlords who stalked the land.
Queen Vaidehī of the city of Rājagṛha, the capital of the kingdom of Magadha, was one of those who despaired of the world. She and her husband, King Bimbisāra, were dedicated followers and supporters of the Buddha. She had believed her life was blessed, the result of past good karma, and that her support of the Buddha would guarantee further protection and good fortune in the years ahead. This belief was shattered because of the jealous scheming of the Buddha’s cousin, Devadatta, and the ruthless ambition of her own son, Prince Ajātaśatru.
Devadatta had joined the Sangha along with several other Śākya nobles back when the Buddha had first returned to Kapilavastu. For a long time, Devadatta was a respected member of the Sangha. Unfortunately, the jealousy and envy he felt prevented him from attaining any genuine insight or liberation, and his arrogance only increased as he cultivated meditation and austere living. For a time Devadatta split the Sangha by convincing several monks to practice more stringent forms of asceticism under his guidance, forms that the Buddha had refused to make mandatory or had rejected outright. This ended when the schismatic monks heard the teaching of the True Dharma from Śāriputra and Maudgalyāyana and they returned to the Sangha of the Buddha. After that Devadatta turned to the patronage of Prince Ajātaśatru. The Buddha then publicly denounced Devadatta. He made it clear that Devadatta’s actions were his own, and not condoned by the Buddha or the Sangha. Soon after that Devadatta prompted Prince Ajātaśatru to overthrew King Bimbisāra. The prince imprisoned his father in the palace dungeons, and ordered that he be starved to death.
After the palace coup, Devadatta, with the help of the newly crowned Ajātaśatru, tried to have the Buddha killed so that he could take over the Sangha. First he sent assassins, but in the actual presence of the Buddha they found they could not lift their weapons against him, instead they ended up taking refuge in the Three Treasures. Devadatta then attempted to kill the Buddha himself by rolling a boulder down upon him. On that occasion the boulder split in half as it rolled down the hill and only a shard flew off and injured the Buddha’s foot, causing him to be bedridden for a time. When the Buddha had recuperated and resumed his morning alms rounds, Devadatta made another attempt on his life by convincing King Ajātaśatru to release a drunken elephant upon the street the Buddha was walking down in the hopes that it would trample him. The Buddha, however, tamed the elephant with his calm presence. These incidents occurred when the Buddha was 72 years old and had been teaching the Dharma for 42 years.
Back in the palace, Bimbisāra’s wife, Vaidehī, had found a way to keep her husband alive. She smuggled food and drink to him by mixing honey with flower and roasted barley and smearing it on her body and by filling hollow ornaments that she was wearing with juice before visiting him in the dungeon. Eventually, the usurper Ajātaśatru caught on to what was happening and was enraged to the point of drawing his sword to kill her. The physician Jīvaka, a lay follower of the Buddha, and another minister dissuaded him from such a heinous act. They told him that no on would follow a man so dishonorable that he would murder both his father and his mother. Ajātaśatru relented but he confined Vaidehī in a private palace so that she could no longer smuggle food into the dungeon to keep Bimbisāra alive.
In the hopes of receiving consolation Vaidehī desperately called out to the Buddha who was staying outside the city of Rājagriha on Eagle Peak. In response to her plea, the Buddha himself came to visit her. In anguish Vaidehī tore away her necklace and flung herself down upon the floor weeping miserably. She cried out, “O World Honored One, what bad karma did I commit in former lives that I have given birth to such an evil son? I wonder what karmic relations could have made you a relative of Devadatta? I beseech you to reveal to me a land of no sorrow and no affliction where I can be reborn. I do not wish to live in this defiled and evil world where there are hells, realms of hungry ghosts, animals, and many vile beings. I wish that in the future I shall not hear evil words or see wicked people. I now kneel down to repent and beg you to take pity on me. I entreat you, O sun-like Buddha, to teach me how to visualize a land of pure karmic perfection.”
For Vaidehī and other suffering people whose lives had become so broken, the Buddha provided a skillful means whereby they could see that their suffering and pain was itself impermanent and ephemeral. He taught them that they were each encompassed by an infinite light and life that could overcome all evils, even those within their own hearts and minds. He gave them a vision of hope by describing a land free of suffering where it would be easy to attain buddhahood. He told them they could be reborn into that Pure Land of Utmost Bliss merely by being mindful of the name of its presiding buddha: Amitābha, the Buddha of Infinite Light and Life. For prior to attaining buddhahood, Amitābha Buddha had made 48 vows that had indeed come to fulfillment and the 18th of these vows stated: “If, when I attain buddhahood, sentient beings in the lands of the ten directions who sincerely and joyfully entrust themselves to me, desire to be born in my land, and think of me even ten times, should not be born there, may I not attain perfect complete awakening. Excluded, however, are those who commit the five grave offenses and slander the True Dharma.” Later Buddhists regarded this 18th vow as the most important of all 48 vows. It came to be known as the Original Vow.
In Amitābha Buddha’s Pure Land of Utmost Bliss there was no pain but only pleasure of the purest kind. Men and gods dwelled there among gardens filled with ponds, pavilions, and decorative nets adorned with precious gold, silver, beryl, crystal, sapphire, rose pearls, and carnelian. The ponds were filled with fragrant lotuses radiating red, white, blue, and yellow lights. The ground itself was gold and there were no mountains or valleys nor any rivers to obstruct travel. Six times a day māndārava flowers rained down from above. These were gathered by the people of that land and offered to the buddhas of the ten directions. Always the air was filled with the melodious singing of rare and beautiful birds. These birds were not born as animals as the effect of past misdeeds but were manifested by Amitābha Buddha so that their songs could proclaim the Dharma and cause the people to be mindful of the Three Treasures. Even the soft breezes wafting through the trees and jeweled nets produced a heavenly music to accompany the singing of the birds. In that land no one was ever reborn as a hell-dweller, hungry ghost, or animal. Nor was anyone so unfortunate as to be born in a female form, for a woman’s freedom was always restricted because she had to obey her father in youth, her husband in marriage, and her sons in old age. Furthermore, a woman could not become a powerful deity like Brahmā, Indra, or Māra, or an emperor like the wheel-turning kings who were able to peacefully unite the world, and most importantly they could not attain buddhahood. This is what was taught in both Buddhist and non-Buddhist teachings. The men and gods of the Pure Land of Utmost Bliss were not born from the womb but suddenly appeared upon lotus pedestals with beautiful and unblemished golden bodies. They were free of any hindrances, able to study and practice the Dharma with ease. In that land they were able to attain the stage of non-retrogression in their cultivation and quickly attain buddhahood.
Bimbisāra eventually died in the dungeons and Vaidehī died shortly afterwards. According to the Sūtra of Meditation on the Buddha of Infinite Life she died assured that she would be reborn in the Pure Land of Utmost Bliss. As for King Ajātaśatru, he began to realize the enormity of what he had done and became deathly ill. His physician Jīvaka convinced him to talk to the Buddha. Upon hearing Śākyamuni Buddha’s teachings on the law of causation he acknowledged his misdeeds and repented. From that time on he disavowed Devadatta and instead took refuge in the Three Treasures and became a supporter of the Buddha. Devadatta, however, only became worse. Furious upon learning he had been barred from the palace, he beat to death a nun named Utpalavarnā who was walking out of the palace gates. This nun was an arhat and by murdering her Devadatta had committed yet another grave offense. He had previously caused a schism in the Sangha and injured the Buddha. By killing an arhat as well he had committed three of the five grave offenses, crimes so heinous that the doer is inevitably drawn into the Hell of Incessant Suffering upon dying. The other two were killing one’s father and mother. Devadatta had not done this, but had influenced Ajātaśatru, who had killed is father and had come close to murdering his mother as well. People like Devadatta came to be considered icchantika, “incorrigible disbelievers” who refused to believe in the Buddha Dharma and rejected all moral authority. These were people who were shameless and were utterly lacking in integrity or empathy for their fellow beings. Such people were said to be forever incapable of attaining buddhahood no matter how many lifetimes they spent wandering amidst the six paths of the cycle of birth and death. More often than not they would be reborn in the three lower worlds as hell-dwellers, hungry ghosts, or animals. Occasionally they might accrue enough worldly virtue to be able to be reborn as an asura demon, human, or god, but always their egoism prevented them from breaking free of the shackles of samsāra.
Renchō wondered what teaching could save even the icchantika? And was it true that women could only attain buddhahood if they were first born as a man in a pure land? And could the Buddha’s disciples such as Śāriputra and Maudgalyāyana and the nun Utpalavarnā ever attain buddhahood if in becoming arhats they would never be reborn anywhere and so could not spend incalculable lifetimes as bodhisattvas cultivating wisdom and merit or even be reborn in a pure land themselves?
To resolve his doubts, Renchō resumed his studies soon after his recovery and undertook no further strenuous practices other than those that were part of the daily routine at Seichoji. His master gave him permission to begin reading and copying more esoteric writings, even those that were to be held in the strictest secrecy and not passed on to any who were not qualified. In this, Dōzen-bō showed his confidence in his young protégé. These texts, however, raised further questions for Renchō. They promised that one could attain buddhahood in one’s very body, in other words in one’s present lifetime. One need only awaken to the reality that one’s true nature and the nature of the buddhas was no different. This could be realized through the practice of mantras. And yet, all the monks and nuns of Japan, not to mention the laity, entrusted themselves almost without exception, to the vows of Amitābha Buddha and aspired to rebirth in the Pure Land of Utmost Bliss after death, assuming that it was unlikely if not impossible to attain buddhahood through one’s own efforts in the present. Then again, the Tendai school taught that Śākyamuni Buddha’s highest teaching was expressed in the Lotus Sūtra, so how did one come to realize the truth of that teaching? In their daily services the Tendai monks recited dhāraṇīs taken from various sūtras, the Heart Sūtra that affirmed the emptiness of all phenomena, and the Amitābha Sūtra that described the wonders of the Pure Land of Utmost Bliss. They also recited several chapters from the Lotus Sūtra: the second chapter wherein Śākyamuni Buddha taught the reality of all things in terms of ten suchnesses and spoke of the One Vehicle whereby all beings are led to the attainment of buddhahood, the 14th chapter on the peaceful practices of bodhisattvas, the 16th chapter wherein Śākyamuni Buddha revealed the incomprehensible duration of his life as a buddha, and the 25th chapter that spoke of the miraculous assistance and protection one could receive from World Voice Perceiver Bodhisattva, who was one of the attendants of Amitābha Buddha. That last chapter was especially revered, and there were many who chanted the name of that bodhisattva, though the practice was not as popular as the chanting of Amitābha Buddha’s name. In all of this, what was the Buddha’s true intention? What should be the real focus of study and practice?
Renchō thought about the gem he had been given. Of course he had found no physical gem in his sleeve. The old monk and the gem must have been a vision sent to him by Space Repository Bodhisattva. The bodhisattva appeared in that guise to give him, in the form of the wish-fulfilling gem, the wisdom to discern the truth. With the clarity he had received, Renchō took to heart the ancient Indian teaching that knowledge is arrived at by means of the testimony of a trusted authority (in this case the Buddha’s words in the sūtras), clear headed reasoning, and most importantly the evidence of actual events. These “three proofs” would enable him to distinguish the true teachings from the false ones and to discover which sūtra is superior and which is subordinate. Renchō also realized that the Buddha had left clear instructions in the Nirvāṇa Sūtra, his final teaching, concerning what one can rely upon in one’s search for the truth. The “four reliances” were that practitioners should rely on the Dharma as taught by the Buddha and not the opinions of ordinary people, rely on the inner meaning of the Dharma and not the words used to express it, rely on the wisdom of the Buddha and not on discursive knowledge, and rely on the sūtra that is definitive and not those sūtras whose meaning is indeterminate. Armed with the three proofs and four reliances, Renchō renewed his determination to study the Buddhist canon both in breadth and depth to find out for himself what the true teaching was. To do that, he would have to leave Master Dōzen-bō and Seichōji.
Part 2: The Exclusive Nembutsu
In the spring of the first year of En’ō (1239), Renchō made the journey to Kamakura in order to further his study of the Pure Land and Zen movements that had taken root there. He hoped to hear from the exponents of those schools why they believed that their practices were the best or perhaps even the only way to attain buddhahood. Kamakura was a natural fortress surrounded by mountains on Sagami Bay. The only way into the city was either by sea or through one of a small handful of easily blocked passes. Within boundaries formed by the mountains and the sea lived tens of thousands of people, perhaps as many as a hundred thousand. Renchō, who had grown up in a small fishing village and a mountain monastery thought that it must be one of the largest cities in the world. Here he found merchants, artisans, craftsmen, and scholars all plying their various trades along the twisting avenues and pine-clad hills under the watchful eyes of the samurai. There were also visiting nobles from Kyōto in their brocade robes and silk caps carried along in lacquered palanquins by sweaty bearers dressed only in loincloths while bands of armed retainers cleared the rabble out of their way. Down along the beach samurai raced up and down on horseback firing their longbows at straw targets, honing their skills at mounted archery to be ready for the next conflict between rival houses and political factions. At the eastern end of the beach was a small artificial island built of stone that served as the harbor for Kamakura. Here hundreds of porters worked as beasts of burden to load and unload trading vessels. Those who could not even work such menial jobs wandered through the city begging for alms or starved to death in the streets or in tiny shacks built in the narrow valleys of the wooded hills around the main city. At the western end of the beach were those even worse off than the beggars, condemned criminals arrested for such heinous crimes as murder, arson, or treason. These convicts were sealed up behind wooden bars in caves where they could only stare in resignation at the execution grounds on the beach called the Dragon’s Mouth where they would be decapitated and their heads displayed on pikes outside the prison as a lesson to others. Truly it seemed as though all the hells and heavens and everything in between that Renchō had read about in the Buddhist sūtras and commentaries could be found elbow to elbow in Kamakura, the seat of power of the Hōjō regents who were the true rulers of Japan.
As a Buddhist monk, Renchō was able to gain access to the sūtra repository at the Tsurugaoka Shrine of Hachiman, which was also a temple complex of the Tendai school. The shrine was located at the northern end of “Young Prince Avenue,” the sacred road that ran through the heart of the city, starting at the beach and ending at the shrine. Young Prince Avenue was 100’ wide, lined with pine trees, and flanked by deep canals. At the southern end by the beach one entered the avenue by passing beneath the Great Beach Torii, a large vermillion ceremonial gateway composed of two enormous pillars crossed by a curved lintel. Moving up the avenue one came to a bridge crossing over a river where those on horseback had to dismount and proceed on foot towards the shrine out of deference to the Great Bodhisattva Hachiman. A second torii gate would be passed at the midpoint between the beach and the shrine. A third torii gate marked the entrance to the main shrine complex itself. Common traffic was not permitted upon Young Prince Avenue, as it was used only for sacred processions and the visits of important dignitaries. To the east of it were the mansions of the Hōjō regents, their chief vassals, and important government buildings. To the west were the homes of those of lesser standing. Only the mansions of the Hōjō rulers were able to have entrances facing the avenue. The Tsurugaoka Shrine of Hachiman, the tutelary deity of the shogunate, and the sacred avenue leading to it were clearly the centerpiece of Kamakura, and all roads led there.
Nichiren found that the people of Kamakura were greatly concerned about the life to come and the nembutsu was chanted by nearly everyone, whether noble, samurai, merchant, porter, prostitute, or beggar. Pure Land piety filled the streets like clouds of incense spilling out from the various temples and practice halls dedicated to Amitābha Buddha. At the Pure Land temple called Kōtoku-in, a giant wooden statue of Amitābha seated in meditation was being carved and put together inside a vast hall. When it was finished it was said that it would be well over 40’ tall. They had begun work on it the year before Renchō’s arrival and would continue working on it for several more years. At Kotoku-in they taught the practice of the exclusive nembutsu. These were the teachings that Renchō was eager to hear. All of his life Renchō had practiced nembutsu and he wished to gain a deeper understanding of how it could enable him to attain buddhahood and resolve the great matter of birth and death.
One day, a monk who was a preacher of the Pure Land way said to Renchō, “Your diligence in reciting the Lotus Sūtra and practicing the mantra teachings is indeed admirable. I too used to do these practices, but unfortunately I seemed to have no good roots from past lives and I was unable to get any benefit from them. Then I came across a treatise entitled A Collection of Passages on the Nembutsu Chosen in the Original Vow written by the sage Hōnen about 40 years ago in which he advocated only the practice of the nembutsu for ignorant people like myself in this Latter Age. After reading his words I realized that the Tendai practices based on the Lotus Sūtra and the esoteric sūtras are like a gateway to awakening for the holy but they are too profound to be suitable for these times and for those like us whose spiritual capacities have not yet developed. I learned that all these many difficult practices should be cast aside in favor of the Pure Land gate of the easy and correct practice of nembutsu preached in the three Pure Land sūtras: the Buddha of Infinite Life Sūtra that tells us of Amitābha Buddha’s Original Vow, the Meditation on the Buddha of Infinite Life Sūtra that contains Śākyamuni Buddha’s teachings to Queen Vaidehī, and the Amitābha Sūtra that describes the Pure Land of Utmost Bliss. Those who mire us in practicing sūtras that can no longer help are like bandits trying to tempt us to leave the safe path to rebirth in the Pure Land. Śākyamuni Buddha states in the Buddha of Infinite Life Sūtra, ‘In the future, the Buddhist scriptures and teachings will perish. But out of pity and compassion, I will especially preserve this sūtra and maintain it in the world for a hundred years or more. Those beings who encounter it will attain deliverance in accord with their aspirations.’ According to this passage, it is clear that in this Latter Age, when the holy way teachings taught by Śākyamuni Buddha in the other sūtras are no longer able to help us, the teaching of the nembutsu alone will remain responsive to our prayers. Truly, the sage Hōnen was an emanation in this world of Great Power Obtainer Bodhisattva, Amitābha Buddha’s attendant, sent to teach people like ourselves in this Latter Age to let go of our own futile self-powered efforts to attain buddhahood and to take hold of the Other-power of Amitābha Buddha so that we can be assured of rebirth in the Pure Land of Utmost Bliss.”
“I have never heard of such a thing before!” exclaimed Renchō in surprise. “Certainly many sūtras recommend rebirth in Amitābha Buddha’s Pure Land of the West because it is relatively close to this Sahā world and accessible even to the most ignorant. Also, since the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, it is most natural to think of the west as the abode of the dead. Even the great patriarchs of the Tiantai school in China, the Great Master Tiantai and the Great Master Miaole, preached this teaching on occasion. In India, the patriarchs Nāgārjuna and Vasubandhu also believed in such rebirth. Never yet, though, have I heard that we should abandon all other teachings and practices, even the Lotus Sūtra and the mantra practices, and only chant nembutsu. Surely Hōnen’s teachings could not be in accord with the True Dharma.”
“Ah but this is not a new doctrine preached only by Hōnen. This is the same doctrine preached in China by the three masters of Pure Land Buddhism: Tanluan, Daochuo and Shandao. Again, it was not an arbitrary idea of these Chinese masters; it stemmed from the previous teachings of the Indian patriarchs Nāgārjuna and Vasubandhu. It is not that we are denigrating sūtras such as the Lotus Sūtra, which were preached primarily for wise bodhisattvas and only secondarily for us, the ignorant. We are just saying that while it is true that those sūtras preach profound doctrines to eliminate defilements and attain awakening, if we, the ignorant in the Latter Age, attempt to practice them, none of us will have the capacity to understand or practice the doctrines they teach. Besides, many lay people are illiterate, so how could they be expected to even know of the teachings let alone understand them? Do you have no compassion for them? Under the circumstances, the Pure Land school maintains that if only we, the ignorant, chant the six-character nembutsu of Amitābha Buddha, the Buddha will dispatch bodhisattvas to this Sahā world to protect us, the practitioners, surrounding us thick and fast as the shadow follows the body. Therefore, so long as we chant the nembutsu, we will be free of disasters and gain ease and happiness before we die. At the last moment of life Amitābha Buddha will never fail to welcome us, taking us upon the lotus pedestal of World Voice Perceiver Bodhisattva promptly to the Pure Land, where lotus flowers bloom according to our karma. There we can listen to the Lotus Sūtra and become awakened to the truth of all phenomena. Why should we bother with paths that are difficult to practice in this impure world? What good could come of it? Instead, we should concentrate on calling the name of Amitābha Buddha, putting aside everything else.”
Not quite convinced but eager to learn more Renchō devoted himself for a time to the nembutsu and studied Hōnen’s A Collection of Passages on the Nembutsu Chosen in the Original Vow. In that work he found citations from all the past teachers of Pure Land Buddhism and Hōnen’s understanding of what they meant for the benighted people of the Latter Age. Again and again he considered a few key passages that seemed to sum up the teaching of the Pure Land school according to Hōnen:
“Now the reason why Daochuo, in his Collection of Passages on the Land of Peace and Bliss set up the distinction between the two gates of the holy way and the Pure Land way was to teach people to reject the gate of the holy way in favor of entering the gate of the Pure Land. There are two reasons for this preference: one is that the passing away of the Buddha has now receded far into the distant past, and the other is that the ultimate principle is profound while man’s understanding is shallow.”
“First the gate of the holy way is divided into two parts: one is the Mahāyāna and the other is the Hīnayāna. The Mahāyāna is further divided into exoteric and esoteric, as well as the provisional and the true teachings. In the Collection of Passages on the Land of Peace and Bliss only the exoteric and provisional teachings of the Mahāyāna are treated. Hence the holy way teachings refer to the circuitous or gradual forms of practice, which require many kalpas to attain buddhahood. From this we can infer that the holy way teachings also include the esoteric and the true teachings. It follows then that the teachings of all eight contemporary schools – the Mantra, Zen, Tiantai, Flower Garland, Three Treatises, Dharma Characteristics, Ten Stage Discourse, and Summary of the Mahāyāna should all be included in the holy way, which should be discarded.”
To begin with Meditation Master Tanluan, we see that he stated in his Commentary on the Treatise on Rebirth in the Pure Land: ‘Let us reverently reflect on what Bodhisattva Nāgārjuna said in his Treatise Explaining the Ten Stages. He declared that there are two ways by which the bodhisattva may seek the stage of non-retrogression: one is the way of difficult practice and the other is the way of easy practice.’ In this context, the way of difficult practice is the gate of the holy way, and the way of easy practice is the gate of the Pure Land.”
“He who would learn of the Pure Land school should first of all understand the import of the above passages. Even though a man may have previously studied the gate of the holy way, if he should feel an inclination toward the gate of the Pure Land, he should set aside the holy way and take refuge in the Pure Land.”
“Shandao says in the fourth book of his Commentary on the Meditation Sūtra: ‘As to establishing faith in practice, we should first note that practice is of two kinds: right and miscellaneous. The right consists in performing only the kinds of disciplines derived from the sūtras on rebirth in the Pure Land, hence the name ‘right practices.’ …Further within these right practices there are two types. The first is to concentrate single-mindedly and wholeheartedly on the name of Amitābha Buddha, whether walking or standing still, whether seated or lying down, without considering whether the time involved is long or short and without ceasing even for an instant. This is called the ‘rightly established act.’ It is so called because such a practice agrees with the intent of Amitābha Buddha’s vow. Other practices, such as doing reverence to Amitābha Buddha and chanting the Pure Land sūtras, are called the auxiliary acts. Besides these two – the rightly established and the auxiliary practices – all other good practices are collectively called miscellaneous practices.’”
“I believe that anyone who reads these words ought to cast aside the miscellaneous and take up the exclusive practice. Why should anyone cast aside the exclusive and right practice, by which a hundred out of a hundred attain rebirth, and stubbornly cling to the miscellaneous practices, by which not even one out of a thousand attain rebirth? Practitioners ought seriously to ponder this.”
One ought to clearly understand that Śākyamuni Buddha first opened the gate to the two ways of practicing meditation with a concentrated mind and performing meritorious deeds with a scattered mind in response to the wishes of the people. He later closed this gate in accordance with his own wish. The only gate that, once opened, will remain unclosed forever is that of nembutsu. Practitioners should know this is the intent of Amitābha’s Original Vow and of Śākyamuni’s act of entrusting it to Ānanda.”
“In the Meditation on the Buddha of Infinite Life Sūtra it is said: ‘If there are sentient beings who desire rebirth in the Pure Land they must awaken in themselves the three kinds of mind. Then they will be reborn. What are the three minds? The first is the sincere mind; the second is the deep mind; the third is the mind that is determined to transfer all merits toward rebirth. If one possesses these three minds, one will unquestionably attain rebirth in the Pure Land.’”
Hōnen then cited a long passage from the Commentary on the Meditation on the Buddha of Infinite Life Sūtra in which Shandao explained the three minds. He taught that the sincere mind is the truly authentic mind that does not “outwardly appear to be wise, good, and diligent while inwardly nourishing falsehood.” He taught that the deep mind is the mind of deep faith with two aspects. “The first is firmly and deeply to believe that now in this present body one is an ordinary sinful being who has been for countless kalpas always sunk tumbling in the stream of samsāra, unable to find the karmic conditions for escape. The second aspect is firmly and deeply to believe that Amitābha Buddha’s 48 vows enfold sentient beings in their embrace and that those who without doubt or apprehension entrust themselves to the power of these vows will certainly attain rebirth in the Pure Land.” He taught that the mind that is determined to transfer all merits towards rebirth is the mind that desires rebirth in the Pure Land above all else and mentally dedicates all meritorious deeds performed by themselves or even others to that end. Shandao also provided a response for Pure Land practitioners to give to those who might criticize them. They should say that each person should practice that teaching with which they have a particular affinity and that in this way everyone will attain liberation from suffering. He then told a parable of a traveler who comes upon a river blocking his way. It was a singularly dangerous river in that flames roared in from the south and wild rapids poured in from the north, the fire and water crashing into one another directly before the traveler. Only a narrow white pathway stretched across to the other shore between the surging waves and roaring flames. The traveler was then alarmed to see a band of robbers and a horde of wild beasts coming after him. He knew he must cross, even though he was afraid of falling off the path into the flames or rapids. The traveler then hears a voice on his side of the river encouraging him to cross and another voice on the other back calling him to come over. The traveler resolves to cross over and continues on even though the bandits tell him they mean no harm and that if he continues on he will surely fall into one or the other side of the river and thus drown or be burned to death. The traveler maintains his single-minded resolve and refuses to turn back. In the end he reaches the safety of the far shore. Shandao explains that the traveler is of course ourselves, the flames and rapids are our greed and anger, the white path is the pure mind that seeks rebirth in the Pure Land, the voice on the near bank represents the teachings of Śākyamuni Buddha while the voice on the other shore represents Amitābha Buddha expressing his intention to save all beings through his Original Vow, and the bandits and savage beasts represent defilements and wrong views that tempt one to leave the path.
In his concluding chapter Hōnen wrote: “When I consider the matter carefully, I wish to urge that anyone who desires to escape quickly from the cycle of birth and death should decide between the two types of the excellent Dharma, lay aside the holy way for awhile, and choose to enter through the gate of the Pure Land. If such a person should desire to enter through the gate of the Pure Land, he or she should decide between the right practices and the miscellaneous practices, abandoning for a while the various miscellaneous practices, and choose to take refuge in the right practices. If one desires to exercise oneself in the right practices, one should decide between the one right practice and the auxiliary right practices, setting aside the auxiliary practices and resolutely choosing the act of right assurance and follow it exclusively. This act of right assurance is uttering the name of Amitābha Buddha. Those who utter the name will unfailingly attain rebirth because it is based on Amitābha Buddha’s Original Vow.”
In the end, however, Renchō found that he could not give himself wholeheartedly to the nembutsu. He found Hōnen’s teaching to be too extreme. And despite all their talk of being assured of rebirth in the Pure Land through the exclusive practice of nembutsu, Renchō did not see that the deaths of any of the nembutsu devotees that he knew of our heard about was necessarily any gentler or less anguished than that of those who did not follow Hōnen’s teachings. Furthermore, why should one have to wait until after death to take up the study of the Lotus Sūtra or the practice of the mantra teachings that claimed it was possible to attain buddhahood in one’s very body, in this very lifetime? Didn’t Śākyamuni Buddha say in the 16th chapter of the Lotus Sūtra, “In reality I shall never pass away. I always live here and expound the Dharma.” Surely this meant that the Buddha was still present and still providing a way for the suffering people of the world to attain perfect and complete awakening in their present lives? Though he felt great sympathy for their aspirations, Renchō felt that Hōnen and his followers were greatly misled and were even grossly misrepresenting the Buddha’s teachings. Therefore he left them to see if the Zen practitioners of Kamakura could provide a more direct way to resolve the great matter of birth and death and attain buddhahood.
Part 3: The Way of Zen
At that time the Zen teachings that had recently been brought over from China had aroused the interest of the Hōjō regents and the samurai class generally as it provided them with a new form of Buddhism that seemed simple and direct and not involved with the court intrigues of the Tendai school and Mantra school establishment back in the imperial capital of Kyōto. There was a saying at that time that, “Tendai is for the imperial court, Mantra for the nobility, Zen for the warrior class, and Pure Land for the masses.” The samurai needed more than just an assurance of rebirth in a pure land in the afterlife. They required a more immediate way to attain liberation so they could serve their lords selflessly and maintain their resolve even in the face of certain death. One of the first of the Hōjō clan to become a patron of the Zen teachings was the Nun Shōgun, who had received the precepts for nuns from a leading disciple of Eisai. Eisai had been a Tendai monk who had travelled to China and there received authorization as a teacher in the Rinzai lineage of Zen. As a memorial for her late husband the first shōgun, the Nun Shōgun established the temple Jufukuji in Kamakura and made Eisai its founding abbot in the second year of Shōji (1200). Officially it was a Tendai temple, but it was also a place where one could go to learn and practice Zen as it was currently being taught on the mainland in China and Korea. Kamakura had also become the home to the elderly disciples and the younger grand-disciples of another Tendai monk named Dainichi-bō Nōnin who had preceded Eisai in teaching Rinzai Zen in Japan. Unlike Eisai, Dainichi-bō had not gone to China or studied under a Zen master. He claimed to have self-awakened without a teacher, though he later dispatched two of his disciples to China with a letter expressing his realization to a Zen master of the Rinzai lineage in the fifth year of Bunji (1189). That master sent back a certificate authorizing Dainichi-bō as a teacher. Also, unlike Eisai, Dainichi-bō did not teach Zen as one among many practices of the Tendai school but rather established what he called the Bodhidharma school, named after the first patriarch of Zen in China. Until that time, Zen in Japan had been part of the Tendai school, as its founder Great Master Dengyō had received transmission of the teachings of the Ox-head lineage, but now Zen as taught by Dainichi-bō and his successors was being established as a separate school in its own right. Its popularity, at least in Kamakura, threatened to eclipse the Tendai and Mantra schools.
Renchō, curious to find out for himself what Zen had to offer, sought out one of the successors of Dainichi-bō Nōnin and asked, “Since I became a monk I have studied the sūtras in an attempt to discover the Buddha’s true teaching. Some regard the Lotus Sūtra as the highest teaching of Śākyamuni Buddha but others say it is too profound and that we should entrust ourselves to the Other-power of Amitābha Buddha by chanting nembutsu as is taught in the three Pure Land sūtras so we can be reborn in the Pure Land of Utmost Bliss and only there will we be able to awaken to the truth. What is the view of the Zen school?”
The Zen master shook his head and smiled. He said, “All the sūtras are like a finger pointing to the moon, which is useless after seeing the moon. Those who attach themselves to mere words are like a hunter who once caught a rabbit when it collided with a stump and who then keeps watch over that same stump hoping that it will happen again. Instead of being caught up in words you should look directly into the mind. Such things as heaven, earth, the sun and moon all stem from the mind’s delusions. The pure lands throughout the universe are just shadows of your greedy mind. Śākyamuni Buddha and his emanations manifested in the worlds throughout the universe are just variations of your awakened mind. Our Great Master Bodhidharma, without using words or other skillful means, transmitted this Dharma of Zen which is ‘A special transmission outside the sūtras, not founded upon words and letters; by pointing directly to mind it lets you see into the true nature and thereby attain buddhahood.’ Even sūtras such as the Lotus Sūtra, to say nothing of the Pure Land sūtras, do not reveal the true intent of the Buddha. If you want to truly awaken to the truth, do not cling to mere words and doctrines.”
Renchō still had doubts however. “Do you really mean to say that I should disregard the sūtras, even the Lotus Sūtra?”
“Even the Lotus Sūtra is a no more than a finger pointing to the moon while Zen is the moon itself. After grasping the moon there is no need for the finger to point it out. Zen is the heart and mind of the Buddha while the Lotus Sūtra is merely his words. When the Buddha finished preaching all the sūtras, including the Lotus Sūtra, he held up a flower and Mahākāśyapa alone understood and smiled in response. The Buddha said, ‘I have the treasury of the eye of the True Dharma, the wondrous mind of nirvāṇa, the gate of the Wonderful Dharma that in its true form is formless. Without setting up scriptures, as a separate transmission apart from the teachings, I pass it on to Mahākāśyapa.” As proof of this transmission of the Zen teaching the Buddha further entrusted Mahākāśyapa with his kesa, which was then handed down through the twenty-eight patriarchs of Buddhism in India and to the first six patriarchs of Zen in China.”
“28 patriarchs? I had heard there were only 24 patriarchs in India. The last was Āryasimha. Why do you say there were 28?”
“Oh yes, there were actually four others. Bodhidharma was the last Indian patriarch, and it was he who came to China in order to bring the practice and teaching of Zen during the reign of Emperor Wu of the Liang dynasty.”
“Well, that may or may not be, but still, I do not understand how you can presume to be a teacher of Buddhism if you reject the sūtras. Apart from the sūtras how else can you come to know and practice the teachings of the Buddha? If you reject the sūtras you are rejecting Śākyamuni Buddha.”
“It is not that we reject the sūtras, for we too recite and study the Descent into Lanka Sūtra brought to us by Bodhidharma, as well as the Diamond Sūtra, the Heart Sūtra, the Heroic March Sūtra, the Perfect Awakening Sūtra, and others. However, we know that all they can do is indicate the truth. Mere words and letters cannot hope to contain it. Trying to grasp the truth through words, thinking that the answer is in some verbal formulation, is as futile as a dog barking to drive away a thunderstorm or a monkey trying to grasp the reflection of the moon in a pond. Without the guidance of a Zen master the sūtras will only mislead you. The words of the Buddha are like a wisteria vine hanging on the branch of a pine tree. What happens after the pine falls and the wisteria withers away? Śākyamuni Buddha entered nirvāṇa more than two millennia ago and his teachings are disappearing and have long been misunderstood. What then shall people do? What we can do is look into the direct source of the Buddha’s words, this very mind and body that are none other than the One Mind of the Buddha.”
“So you are saying that the Buddha’s teachings can no longer help us, that Śākyamuni Buddha is no longer present to assist us?”
The Zen master chuckled and gestured to a statue of Mañjuśrī Bodhisattva in the center of the meditation hall before which were offerings of water, rice, incense, and candlelight. “We practitioners of Zen also take refuge in the Three Treasures and present offerings to the buddhas and bodhisattvas, we recite the sūtras, dhāraṇīs, and mantras, but we do not look to these things for awakening. We do not look to anything or anyone but our own direct realization of mind, for that alone is the way to meet the true Buddha. To come to know the true Buddha behind all the appearances of Buddha one must be able to walk on the head of Vairocana Buddha, the Dharma-body.”
More than a little put off by such irreverence, Renchō nevertheless continued to question the Zen master. “Very well, let us say I wished to learn the Zen teaching. How should I begin?”
“Well, if you are a practitioner of the highest capacity then you would know that there is nothing to seek, nothing to cultivate, nothing to gain, and nothing to lose. You could abide in non-abiding and know the true nature of mind, which is no-mind. Most, however, are of lower capacities or they are beginners who have not even fully cultivated virtues such as generosity, morality, and patience, let alone the ability to sit still and allow, even if for a moment, the delusions of their own false thinking to subside. For these, such as many of the samurai who come here to take the precepts and become lay practitioners, we use the words of the sūtras and provide straightforward instruction in how to sit upright and maintain awareness of the breath. For those of intermediate capacity who have progressed beyond such preliminary guidance or who have some innate ability, we advise them to contemplate one of the kōans or precedents of the past Zen masters. By contemplating these stories one can get beyond all words and false thinking and awaken to one’s true nature. For instance, a monk once asked Zen Master Zhaozhou, ‘What is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming to China?’ Zhaozhou responded, ‘The oak tree in the garden.’ There, you may sit with that one in fact and so begin your own practice.”
Renchō was nonplussed. “That’s ridiculous. You say the sūtras cannot communicate the Buddha’s teaching, but then you say I should contemplate ‘the oak tree in the garden’? Why should I cling to those words instead of the words of Śākyamuni Buddha? I am sorry, but I do not think this can be right. I do thank you for your time.” Renchō bowed and hastened away from the presence of the Zen master. The strange riddles and outrageous impieties of the followers of Dainichi-bō Nōnin could not possibly be the right way to discover the true meaning of Śākyamuni Buddha’s teachings.
Part 4: Studies in Kyōto
Renchō returned to Seichoji in the spring of the third year of Ninji (1242). It was a relief to be back home, away from the frantic crowds of Kamakura. He would not miss the stench of so many people and animals crowded together and the constant haze of thousands of cooking fires. With joy he breathed in the clean clear air of Mount Kiyosumi with its scent of spring blossoms and sandalwood incense from its halls and shrines. At the first opportunity he found Master Dōzen-bō to tell him that he had returned.
“Did you get a chance to study the teachings of the Sage Hōnen?” inquired Dōzen-bō after the initial pleasantries and small talk were out of the way.
“I did, but I am convinced that he must have been possessed by a devil to teach the things he did, and the people who follow him have become devils as well. He led people away from all the Buddha’s teachings, both Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna. They seek a pure land apart from this world and an awakening apart from this body and mind, ignoring the fact that the Lotus Sūtra and mantra teachings assure us that this world is the true pure land and that we can attain awakening in our own bodies.”
“That is quite a harsh condemnation. I think you had better keep such views to yourself so that you do not needlessly antagonize others. Don’t forget that even the patriarchs of India as well as the patriarchs of the Tiantai school in China and the Tendai school here in Japan have all aspired to rebirth in the Pure Land of the West. I know you have read the Essential Collection Concerning Rebirth in the Pure Land by the Venerable Genshin, who was a revered monk of our Tendai school on Mt. Hiei. He too advocated nembutsu as the easy practice for ignorant people such as us in the Latter Age.”
“Yes, I have read that work. Yet even the Venerable Genshin never taught that the other sūtras should be discarded in favor of the nembutsu. On the contrary, it seems that it was entirely for the purpose of spreading the Lotus Sūtra that he produced many works. Even in the Essential Collection he taught that while the nembutsu was the most reliable of all practices leading to rebirth in a pure land, a single moment of faith in the Lotus Sūtra was still tens of thousands of time more meritorious than the practice of nembutsu. So Genshin’s true purpose for writing the Essential Collection was to guide people to take faith in the Lotus Sūtra. Twenty years later he wrote the Essentials of the One Vehicle Teaching and in that work he expressed his faith in the One Vehicle of the Lotus Sūtra.”
Dōzen-bō nodded. “That is true. You should remember, however, that the Venerable Genshin was humble enough to admit that he himself did not have the wisdom or diligence for more difficult forms of practice, and that is why he relied upon the nembutsu as a practice within the One Vehicle. So, what is your intention now?”
“If you please, Master Dōzen-bō, I would like to continue my study of the sūtras and cultivation of the mantra practices. I do not know if I have even a sixteenth of the wisdom or determination of someone like the Venerable Genshin, but how can I give up on my studies now before I have barely begun?”
Dōzen-bō chuckled. “Yes, that is a good attitude to have. I see that you are quite an earnest student. I will see if I can make arrangements for you to visit Enryakuji on Mt. Hiei so that you can deepen your studies there, at the head temple of our Tendai school.”
In the year of Kōji 2 (1243), at the age of 22, Renchō made his way to Kyōto to begin a decade of study at the oldest and most prestigious temples in Japan. He studied the exoteric and esoteric doctrines and practices of Tendai Buddhism at Enryakuji on Mt. Hiei and at Onjōji, head temple of the Jimon branch of Tendai. He also studied the mantra teachings of the Great Master Kōbō at Kongōbuji on Mt. Kōya. He further studied the doctrines of all the various schools at other temples throughout Kyōto and the central provinces, but these studies did not serve to clear up the doubts in his mind. In fact, what he saw was unsettling. Hundreds of years before the court had established these temples so that the monks therein could pray for the spirits of the deceased emperors, the longevity and happiness of the current emperors and the imperial family, and for the tranquility and peace of the nation. The ranking official monks who had received full ordination upon the precept platforms at Enryakuji, Onjōji, Tōdaiji and elsewhere were almost all members of the imperial family or other noble families. They studied the teachings, practiced the esoteric rites, and managed the extensive estates granted to the temples by the court. Their concerns certainly did not extend to the anguish and misery of the common people such as Renchō’s family and the villagers he grew up with. Besides the aristocratic monks were the so-called “evil monks” who were really just warriors in clerical garb. They wore helmets and armor and wielded sword, spear, staff and bow to defend the temples and their estates. Bands of warrior-monks from rival temples were even known to fight with each other and even commit arson against the temples and dwellings of their perceived enemies. They were even known to march into the capital bearing portable shrines to intimidate the effete and superstitious court into doing their bidding. The warrior-monks of Mt. Hiei were so unmanageable that a former emperor had been known to say, “Three things refuse to obey my will: the floodwaters of the Kamo River, the fall of backgammon dice, and the monks of Enryakuji.” Renchō was a person of no consequence in the eyes of the aristocratic monks and the warrior-monks who served them. He lacked courtly manners, had no connections with the nobility, and his provincial accent instantly set him apart. Renchō considered himself lucky to even be able to secure a space in the back of the lecture halls. The lectures and debates, however, did not provide the definitive answer he was hoping for. Again he was faced with a bewildering array of claims and counterclaims concerning the true meaning of the Buddha’s teaching and how best to realize the truth in practice. It began to dawn on Renchō that in the Latter Age of Degeneration the only “good friend,” in the sense of a wise mentor or guide, that one could find would be the sūtras themselves, wherein one could approach the words of the Buddha directly.
There were many sūtras, however. Which expressed the most direct way to buddhahood for all beings? Which taught the most efficacious practice? He knew that the greatest sages of the past, particularly those in the Tiantai lineage, had regarded the Lotus Sūtra as the true king of sūtras. The patriarch Nāgārjuna had taught, “The teaching of the Lotus Sūtra enabled the men of the two vehicles, voice-hearers and private-buddhas, to attain buddhahood even though they had been regarded as those who had no chance to do so. It is like a great physician who knows how to turn poison into medicine.” The patriarch Vasubandhu had likened the Lotus Sūtra and the Nirvāṇa Sūtra to ghee, or clarified butter, the most refined of milk products. The Great Master Tiantai Zhiyi had based his teachings on the Lotus Sūtra. The Great Master Miaole, the sixth patriarch of the Tiantai school in China, wrote commentaries on Great Master Tiantai’s teaching further developing them and emphasizing the primacy of the Lotus Sūtra. When Great Master Dengyō established the Tendai school in Japan on Mt. Hiei he wrote the Outstanding Principles of the Lotus Sūtra to make it clear that there should be no doubt that the Lotus Sūtra was the Buddha’s supreme teaching that opened the gate to buddhahood for all people. Who would dare to contradict these teachings of the great sages of the past? And yet, many did, arguing instead for the greater profundity and power of other sūtras such as the three Pure Land sūtras, the Flower Garland Sūtra, the Nirvāṇa Sūtra, or the three most important esoteric sūtras: the Mahāvairocana sūtra, the Act of Perfection Sūtra, and the Diamond Peak Sūtra. Renchō, however, had already vowed before Space Repository Bodhisattva to be guided directly by the sūtras and not mere commentaries. As the Nirvāṇa Sūtra taught, he would follow the Buddha’s Dharma and not the opinions of scholars. So he looked to what the Buddha actually said to determine if the Lotus Sūtra was indeed the king of sūtras.
Part 5: The Sūtra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Dharma
Śākyamuni Buddha had taught the Lotus Sūtra on Eagle Peak outside the city of Rājagṛha during the last eight years of his life. As King Ajātaśatru was present among the assembled hosts of bodhisattvas, arhats, gods, spirits, demons, monastics, and householders, the teaching must have begun sometime after the usurper had repented of his misdeeds, disavowed Devadatta, and taken refuge in the Three Treasures. Before the Lotus Sūtra itself was taught the bodhisattvas present had asked how they should practice in order to quickly attain buddhahood. In response, the Buddha taught the Infinite Meanings Sūtra, in which he explained that all phenomena are tranquil and empty and without duality; but in order to respond to the innumerable desires of living beings the buddhas and bodhisattvas expound the Dharma in infinite ways with infinite meanings in order to enable them to realize the truth so that their suffering will be removed and they can know true happiness and joy. In the course of that teaching the Buddha said, “For more than forty years I have expounded the Dharma in all manner of ways through adeptness in skillful means, but the core truth has still not been revealed.” He recounted how he taught the four noble truths for the voice-hearers and the twelve-fold chain of dependent origination for the cause-knowers beginning with the teaching at the Deer Park; and how he then taught the kalpas long bodhisattva practices in the Expanded sūtras, the Perfection of Wisdom sūtras, and the Flower Garland Sūtra – to put them in order of increasing profundity. In response the bodhisattvas praised the Buddha’s teaching of the “infinite meanings” and stated that it was the great direct way to awakening whereas those who have not heard it would be unable to attain perfect and complete awakening even after innumerable kalpas. The Buddha agreed saying of that teaching, “Because of it all living being will travel the great direct way with no hardships to detain them.” He then entered into a state of samādhi or deep concentration. Flowers rained down from the sky, the earth quaked, and all assembled put their palms together and bowed to the Buddha; who then emitted a ray of light from the white curls between his eyebrows and illuminated all the worlds before him in the east, from the lowest hells to the highest heavens and all those within from the most miserable hell-dweller up to the buddhas of those worlds and their own assemblies. Maitreya Bodhisattva asked Mañjuśrī Bodhisattva the meaning of this and was told that the Buddha was about to expound the Sūtra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Dharma.
The Buddha then emerged quietly from his samādhi and said to Śāriputra, “The wisdom of the present buddhas is profound and immeasurable. The gate to it is difficult to understand and difficult to enter.” He told Śariputra that the wisdom of the buddhas was beyond the understanding of any but buddhas, and that he, like all other buddhas, had resorted to various skillful means in order to guide living beings. “Only the buddhas attained the highest truth, that is, the reality of all things in regard to their appearances as such, their natures as such, their entities as such, their powers as such, their activities as such, their causes as such, their conditions as such, their effects as such, their recompense as such, and their equality as such despite these differences.” He also said, “As a rule, the world-honored ones expound the true teaching only after a long period of expounding expedient teachings.” Śāriputra wished to hear more but had to ask three times before the Buddha consented to continue teaching. Even then the Buddha waited for 5,000 arrogant monastics and householders to leave the assembly, for they believed they had nothing more to learn from the Buddha. Once those people had gone the Buddha taught the one great purpose for which the buddhas appear in the worlds. “The buddhas, the world-honored ones, appear in the worlds in order to cause all living beings to open the gate to the insight of the buddha, and to cause them to purify themselves. They appear in the worlds in order to show the insight of the buddha to all living beings. They appear in the worlds in order to cause all living beings to obtain the insight of the buddha. They appear in the worlds in order to cause all living beings to enter the way to the insight of the buddha. This is the one great purpose for which the buddhas appear in the worlds.” The Buddha further stated that buddhas really only teach One Vehicle leading to buddhahood. The previous teaching that there were separate vehicles for voice-hearers, private-buddhas (or cause-knowers), and bodhisattvas were just expedients, skillful means used to develop those who might otherwise turn away from the lofty goal of buddhahood if presented with it at the start. In the One Vehicle, even those who for a time believed they followed the two vehicles for voice-hearers and private-buddhas would obtain buddhahood through the Buddha’s teachings. The Buddha said, “If I lead even a single man by the Hīnayāna, I shall be accused of stinginess,” and “I am now joyful and fearless, I have laid aside all expedient teachings. I will expound only unsurpassed awakening to bodhisattvas.”
Next the Buddha began giving predictions of buddhahood to Śāriputra, the other arhats, his aunt who had been his foster-mother, his wife, and his son. Ultimately all in the assembly were assured of buddhahood simply by virtue of having heard and taken faith in the Lotus Sūtra. In order to make sure that everyone was able to understand and trust in his pronouncements the Buddha told several parables to get the point across. He told a parable about a wealthy man whose children were playing in a burning house. In order entice them out of the house he promised them sheep-carts, deer-carts, and ox-carts according to their inclinations. When they came out he gave all of them something better than he had promised – a great white ox-cart. In the same way the Buddha taught the three vehicles for voice-hearers, private-buddhas, and bodhisattvas but really he bestows the One Vehicle leading to buddhahood upon all his disciples. In response, the four arhats Subhūti, Mahākātyāyana, Mahākāśyapa, and Maudgalyāyana told a parable of a boy who ran away from his father and became desperately poor. Many years later the father saw and recognized his son but the young man was too afraid to approach and did not realize the wealthy man was his father. The father then sent his servants to hire the young man to perform menial labor for him. In time the son was given greater responsibilities and became more dignified and at ease. When the son had sufficiently matured in his outlook and aspiration, the wealthy man revealed that the young man was in fact his heir. In the same way the Buddha teaches using skillful means those who aspire to lesser vehicles but in the end he reveals that his purpose all along was to help them develop their ability to attain buddhahood. The Buddha responds to this parable with another in which he compares his teachings to a cloud that rains upon a variety of grasses, herbs, and trees which each benefited from the water in a way appropriate to itself. The Buddha also told his disciples that in a past life, more than 3,000 dust-particle kalpas ago, he had been one of the 16 sons of a previous buddha. At that time he had begun teaching the Lotus Sūtra to those who, in the present life, were now his disciples. So in actuality the Buddha had been teaching those present in the assembly the One Vehicle of the Lotus Sūtra for an immensely long period of time, though they had doubted the teaching, forgotten it, and had to be reminded once more. The Buddha followed this with yet another parable. He compared himself to the leader of a caravan traveling a long and dangerous road. When the merchants became discouraged and wished to turn back the leader conjured an illusory city where they could rest. After the merchants had rested they were able to go on and reach the place of treasures that they had been seeking. In the same way the Buddha taught the attainment of the nirvāṇa of the two-vehicles for the timid who needed to rest halfway into their spiritual development, but the true goal was buddhahood itself. In response to receiving predictions of buddhahood, 500 arhats compared themselves to a poor man whose rich friend revealed that he had once placed a priceless jewel inside his clothes when they were drinking. The poor man had forgotten about the gift but was overjoyed to discover that he had been carrying a fortune around all along. In the same way the Buddha had given them all the jewel of buddhahood but they had neglected it and were filled with joy to discover it once again.
The Buddha recognized that this new and unprecedented teaching whereby all could obtain buddhahood would not be immediately accepted. He said, “I have expounded many sūtras. I am now expounding this sūtra. I also will expound many sūtras in the future. The total number of sūtras will amount to many thousands of billions. This Sūtra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Dharma is the most difficult to believe and the most difficult to understand.” Even Śāriputra confessed to being frightened and confused, thinking, “The Buddha troubles me. Isn’t he Māra in the form of a buddha?” To those who refused to trust his teachings in the Lotus Sūtra the Buddha warned, “Those who do not believe this sūtra but slander it will destroy the seeds of buddhahood of all living beings of the world.” The awful punishments and retributions such slanderers would suffer for denigrating the Lotus Sūtra, turning people from it, and persecuting its devotees were then recounted, starting with falling into the Hell of Incessant Suffering. Slander of the Lotus Sūtra was clearly a transgression even worse than the grave offenses committed by Devadatta and Ajātaśatru.
But what would become of icchantikas, like King Ajātaśatru and Devadatta? Here the Lotus Sūtra resolved the questions Renchō had about their ultimate fate. The Buddha said to Medicine King Bodhisattva that anyone in the assembly, which included King Ajātaśatru, who rejoiced even for a moment at hearing even so much as a verse or phrase of the Lotus Sūtra would be assured of attaining buddhahood. Devadatta, however, was absent from the assembly. Probably he had already died and fallen into the Hell of Incessant Suffering by the time the Buddha was teaching the Lotus Sūtra. Nevertheless, a whole chapter was named for him. In it the Buddha revealed that Devadatta had been his teacher in a past life and had enabled him to hear a previous version of the Lotus Sūtra. In the future, Devadatta would eventually be able to obtain buddhahood as well. In the latter half of that chapter the eight-year old daughter of the Dragon King Sāgara emerged from the ocean in the company of Mañjuśrī Bodhisattva. The bodhisattva attested that this young girl, the daughter of a dragon and not even a human being, was capable of quickly attaining buddhahood. A bodhisattva named Accumulated Wisdom and Śāriputra found this hard to believe but the dragon girl demonstrated her ability and transformed herself into a buddha presiding over a world to the south leaving the entire assembly speechless. So the sūtra provided proof that even the most evil of men like Devadatta and Ajātaśatru, could attain buddhahood; and even women, like the dragon king’s daughter, could attain buddhahood. It had already been said that even arhats like Śāriputra, who had supposedly cut off any possibility of returning to the world and taking up bodhisattva practice, were to attain buddhahood. The Buddha’s teaching in the Lotus Sūtra made it explicitly clear that all beings could attain perfect and complete awakening.
To assure those who might still harbor doubts, a buddha of the past named Many Treasures Buddha appeared within a stūpa of treasures that sprang up from underground and hung in the sky. From within the stūpa Many Treasures Buddha said, “Excellent, excellent! You, Śākyamuni, the World Honored One, have expounded to this great multitude the Sūtra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Dharma, the Teaching of Equality, the Great Wisdom, the Dharma for Bodhisattvas, the Dharma Upheld by the Buddhas. So it is, so it is. What you, Śākyamuni, the World Honored One, have expounded is all true.” Śākyamuni Buddha explained that Many Treasure Buddha had vowed to appear whenever the Lotus Sūtra is taught so that he can praise the buddha who is teaching it. Those assembled wished to see Many Treasures Buddha. In order to open the stūpa, however, Śākyamuni Buddha had to purify the Sahā world and recall the buddhas in the worlds of the ten directions, who were actually his emanations. With the world purified and all the buddhas assembled, Śākyamuni Buddha rose up into the sky and opened the door of the stūpa to reveal Many Treasures Buddha. The latter buddha then invited Śākyamuni Buddha to enter the stūpa and sit beside him. Once seated inside the stūpa, Śākyamuni Buddha enabled the whole assembly to rise up into the air as well. So began what would be known as the Ceremony in the Air.
Śākyamuni Buddha then asked who among the assembly would be able to uphold the Lotus Sūtra after his final nirvāṇa. He warned them that it would be very difficult but those who did so could attain buddhahood. He told them, “It is difficult to keep this sūtra. I shall be glad to see anyone keeping it even for a moment. So will all the other buddhas. He will be praised by all the buddhas. He will be a man of valor, a man of endeavor. He should be considered to have observed the precepts and practiced austerities. He will quickly attain the unsurpassed awakening of the buddha. Anyone who reads and recites this sūtra in the future is a true son of mine. He shall be considered to live on the stage of purity and good. Anyone, after my extinction, who understands the meaning of this sūtra, will be the eyes of gods and men. Anyone who expounds this sūtra even for a moment in this dreadful world, should be honored with offerings by all gods and men.”
The chapter concerning Devadatta actually followed the chapter concerning the appearance of the stūpa of treasures, and was then followed by a chapter wherein the bodhisattvas vowed to uphold the Lotus Sūtra in the world after the Buddha’s final nirvāṇa despite all the hardships that would have to be faced, and then a chapter in which the Buddha instructed them on the peaceful deeds, words, thoughts, and vows they should cultivate in order to teach the sūtra. The Buddha also told another parable in which he compared himself to a king who bestowed all manner of gifts upon his soldiers for their service but withheld the brilliant gem in his top-knot until he was able to give it to a soldier of extraordinary merit. In the same way, the Buddha had reserved the Lotus Sūtra but now was at last ready to bestow his most excellent and profound teaching upon those who had shown themselves ready to receive it.
Ultimately, however, the Buddha declined the offer of the bodhisattvas already assembled. He told them that there were other bodhisattvas-mahāsattvas (great beings) who would protect, keep, read, recite, expound, and copy the Lotus Sūtra after his extinction. To the amazement of all present the ground of the Sahā world quaked and cracked and innumerable bodhisattva-mahāsattvas and their equally countless attendants sprang up from underground from where they had lived in the sky below the world. Their bodies were golden, possessed the thirty-two special marks of great men and gods, and rays of light shone from them. They had four leaders named Superior Practice, Limitless Practice, Pure Practice, and Steadily Established Practice. It took fifty small kalpas for them to emerge and praise the Buddha, but to the assembly it only seemed to take half a day. On behalf of the whole assembly, Maitreya Bodhisattva asked who these bodhisattvas were. The Buddha explained that he had been teaching these bodhisattvas who lived in the sky beneath the Sahā world for innumerable kalpas. Maitreya Bodhisattva asked how this could be since the Buddha had only attained buddhahood some forty years prior beneath the Bodhi Tree. What the Buddha was saying was as strange as a young man of 25 claiming to be the father of an old man of 100. Maitreya Bodhisattva said to the Buddha, “Those who doubt this sūtra and do not believe it will fall into the evil regions. Explain all this to us now! How did you teach these innumerable bodhisattvas in such a short time, and cause them to aspire to awakening and not falter in seeking awakening?”
In chapter 16 of the Lotus Sūtra, the Buddha responds saying, “Listen to me attentively! I will tell you about my hidden core and supernatural powers. The gods, men, and asuras in the world think that I, Śākyamuni Buddha, left the palace of the Śākyas, sat at the place of awakening not far from the City of Gayā, and attained perfect and complete awakening forty-some years ago. To tell the truth, good men, it is many hundreds of thousands of billions of nayutas of kalpas since I became the Buddha.” The Buddha then gave an analogy to convey the inconceivable span of time since he attained awakening, a period of time simply referred to as the 500 dust-particle kalpas by later commentators though it was in fact an unquantifiable period of time. The Buddha explains that in his view his awakened life span has no beginning or end, and neither does anything. “All that I say is true, not false, because I see the triple world as it is. I see that the triple world is the world in which the living beings have neither birth nor death, that is to say, do not appear or disappear, that it is the world in which I do not appear or from which I do not disappear, that it is not real or unreal, and that it is not as it seems or as it does not seem. I do not see the triple world in the same way as the living beings of the triple world do.” The Buddha, therefore, has been the Buddha all along, and though it seems as though he will soon enter final nirvāṇa, he will actually remain in the world expounding various teachings to all living beings in a way most fitting for each. He compares himself to a physician whose many sons become sick from accidentally drinking poison. In order to cure the sons he made an antidote for them having a good color, taste, and smell. When some sons refused to take it the physician left them and had a messenger tell his sons that he had died so that out of desperation those who were holding out would finally take the medicine. In the same way, the Buddha seems to enter final nirvāṇa but in reality never passes away but always remains compassionately engaged with the world. The Buddha states, “I am always thinking: ‘How shall I cause all living beings to enter into the unsurpassed way and quickly become buddhas?’”
The Buddha proceeds to speak of the incomparable merits of those who take faith and rejoice, even for a moment, in what he just taught about his attaining of buddhahood in the remotest past. He also speaks of a time when he was a bodhisattva known as Never Despising whose sole practice was to bow to all the monastics and householders he met and praise them saying, “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.” He did this even when the people refused to believe him and became abusive and even attacked him with rocks and sticks. The bodhisattvas who sprang from underground then promised to expound the Lotus Sūtra in the ages after the Buddha’s apparent final nirvāṇa. In response, the Buddha and all his emanation buddhas who had gathered from the ten directions of the universe displayed their supernatural powers by stretching out their tongues to touch the heavens of Brahmā and emitting rays of light with an immeasurable variety of colors by way of verifying that all that had been said was true. Thereupon the Buddha specifically transmitted the Wonderful Dharma to Superior Practice Bodhisattva and all the bodhisattva from underground saying, “To sum up, all the teachings of the Tathāgata, all the unhindered supernatural powers of the Tathāgata, all the treasury of the hidden core of the Tathāgata, and all the profound achievements of the Tathāgata are revealed and expounded explicitly in this sūtra. Therefore, keep, read, recite, expound and copy this sūtra, and act according to the teachings of it with all your hearts after my extinction! In any world where anyone keeps, reads, recites, expounds, or copies this sūtra, or acts according to its teachings, or in any place where a copy of this sūtra is put, be it in a garden, in a forest, under a tree, in a monastery, in the house of a person in white robes, in a hall, in a mountain, in a valley, or in the wilderness, there should a stūpa be erected and offerings be made to it because, know this, the place where the stūpa is erected is the place of awakening. Here the buddhas attained perfect and complete awakening. Here the buddhas turned the wheel of the Dharma. Here the buddhas entered into final nirvāṇa.” After that the Buddha gave a more general transmission to all present in the assembly. Many Treasures Buddha and the emanation buddhas all returned to their places, the assembly rejoiced, and the Ceremony in the Air came to close.
Even then the Lotus Sūtra continues on for six more chapters dealing with the transmission of the Lotus Sūtra for the future. It was in chapter 23 that the story of Medicine King Bodhisattva setting himself ablaze out of devotion to the Dharma in a past life was told. In that chapter the Buddha said, “The person who keeps this sūtra is superior to any other living being. Just as bodhisattvas are superior to voice-hearers and private-buddhas, this sūtra is superior to any other sūtra. Just as the Buddha is the king of the Dharma, this sūtra is the king of all the sūtras.” The Buddha also specifically said that chapter (and by implication the sūtra as a whole) should be propagated throughout the world in the Latter Age so that it would not be lost. In chapters 24 and 25 the miraculous powers and transformations of bodhisattvas Wonderful Voice and World Voice Perceiver were are featured. In chapter 26, dhāraṇīs were offered by Medicine King Bodhisattva, Brave-in-Giving Bodhisattva, two of the four heavenly kings, and the reformed Mother-of-Devils and her ten daughters for the protection of the teachers of the Lotus Sūtra. In chapter 27 the past life story of the bodhisattvas Medicine King and Medicine Superior’s efforts to convert their father King Wonderful Adornment was told. Finally, in chapter 28, Universal Sage Bodhisattva appears and promises to assist and protect the teachers of the Lotus Sūtra and he too offers a dhāraṇī.
The Buddha’s expounding of the Lotus Sūtra was followed by a discourse known as the Meditation on Universal Sage Bodhisattva Sūtra. This was taught at the Great Forest Monastery in Vaiśālī three months before the Buddha’s final nirvāṇa. In this discourse the Buddha taught a method of repentance involving the recitation of the Mahāyāna sūtras, by which it was understood that the Buddha specifically meant the Lotus Sūtra that he had just taught. By doing this practice one would be able to see and contemplate Universal Sage Bodhisattva, Many Treasures Buddha within the stūpa of treasures, the emanation buddhas of the ten directions, and Śākyamuni Buddha who is stated to be none other than Vairocana Buddha of the Pure Land of Eternally Tranquil Light. This sūtra was understood to be the final part of the teaching of the Lotus Sūtra. In it the Buddha said, “This expansive teaching is the buddha eye of the buddhas, it is the means by which buddhas perfect the five kinds of eyes, and, from it, the Buddha’s three bodies arise.” Renchō knew that the five kinds of eyes meant the physical eye of ordinary people, the heavenly eye that can sees the deaths and rebirths of all beings in the triple world, the wisdom eye that sees the emptiness of all phenomena, the dharma-eye that sees the attainments of noble beings and bodhisattvas, and the buddha-eye that sees the true nature of all things. The three bodies were the three bodies or aspects of buddhahood: the Dharma-body that is reality itself, the enjoyment-body that is the buddha’s own enjoyment of the fruition of their merit and wisdom that can only be perceived by advanced bodhisattvas, and the transformation body that interacts with and teaches ordinary people in the world. The Meditation on Universal Sage Bodhisattva Sūtra, the closing part of the threefold Lotus Sūtra, was asserting that all the powers and aspects of buddhahood originated in the teaching of the Lotus Sūtra.
In the Nirvāṇa Sūtra the Buddhia himself declared, “The many benefits accruing from the fruit realized when this sūtra appears in the world means peace and joy for all, enabling living beings to see their buddha-nature just as the 8,000 voice-hearers were able to realize the fruit of their received predictions of buddhahood in the Lotus Sūtra. In the fall one harvests and in the winter one stores, as nothing more is produced at that time.” In other words, the teaching that all can attain buddhahood had already been given in the Lotus Sūtra, and the Nirvāṇa Sūtra that followed it was simply restating that teaching for those, like the 5,000 arrogant people who had left the assembly, who had still not heard it. The Nirvāṇa Sūtra was like the gleaning that occurs after the main harvest.
Part 6: The Three Thousand Realms in a Single Thought-Moment
It seemed obvious to Renchō that Śākyamuni Buddha, as well as Many Treasures Buddha and the buddhas of the ten directions that were the emanations of the Original and Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha, was asserting that the Lotus Sūtra was indeed the king of all sūtras and that one attained buddhahood only through this teaching. But what did it mean? Certainly it taught the One Vehicle whereby the people of the two vehicles could obtain buddhahood, but neither Renchō nor anyone he knew considered themselves followers of the vehicles for voice-hearers or private-buddhas in the first place. Certainly it clarified that Śākyamuni Buddha had attained buddhahood in the remote past and was in some way still present teaching, but neither Renchō nor anyone he knew had encountered this Eternal Buddha as anything other than a brief vision or a dream, so how did it help to know this? To find the answer Renchō delved into the three major writings of the Great Master Tiantai: Words and Phrases of the Lotus Sūtra that was a line-by-line commentary on the Lotus Sūtra, Profound Meaning of the Lotus Sūtra that used the five Chinese characters of the title of the Lotus Sūtra (myō, hō, ren, ge, and kyō) as a framework to expound the true meaning of all the Buddha’s teachings, and Great Concentration and Insight that described the way of meditation based on the Lotus Sūtra. He also studied the annotations and further commentaries written on those three works by the Great Master Miaole. In studying these writings in-depth, Renchō was most impressed by the teaching of the “three thousand realms in a single thought-moment” that Great Master Tiantai only fully expressed in the seventh and final chapter of the Great Concentration and Insight. According to Great Master Miaole, this was Great Master Tiantai’s ultimate and supreme teaching. Great Master Zhanan, the successor to Great Master Tiantai, wrote in his preface to the Great Concentration and Insight that it explained the approach to the Dharma that Great Master Tiantai practiced within his own mind. It seemed to Renchō that the “three thousand realms in a single thought-moment” truly expressed the inner meaning of the Lotus Sūtra.
According to Great Master Tiantai the Dharma-realm consisted of ten Dharma-realms. There were the six paths or realms of suffering within samsāra and then there were the realms of the voice-hearers, the private-buddhas, the bodhisattvas, and the buddhas. All of these realms had in common the ten suchnesses enumerated by the Buddha at the beginning of chapter two of the Lotus Sūtra: appearance, nature, entity, power, activity, causes, conditions, effects, consequences, and the unity of all phenomena. The ten realms were, therefore, not substantially distinct or separate from one another. Each realm embraced within itself the other nine. Each realm made itself felt in terms of three categories: the five aggregates of beings (forms, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness), the interrelations of all sentient beings, and the environments of those beings. All of these realms are always to be found within a single moment of thought. Great Master Tiantai taught, “A single moment of thought contains ten realms within itself. Each realm also contains ten realms within itself. Therefore, there are one hundred realms altogether in one thought. Each realm has thirty aspects (the three categories multiplied by the ten suchnesses). Therefore, there are actually three thousand included in one hundred realms. These three thousand realms are in a single thought-moment. Where there is no thought, there is nothing. Where there is any thought at all, there are three thousand realms altogether therein. But we cannot say that a thought-moment comes first and that all phenomena comes after, nor can we say that all phenomena come first and that the thought-moment comes after. It is just that thought is all phenomena and all phenomena is thought. … That is why one thought-moment is called an area beyond our comprehension. This is what I mean to say.”
According to Great Master Tiantai’s exegesis of the Lotus Sūtra, the first half of the sūtra comprised the Trace Gate, in which the transformation-body or historical aspect of Śākyamuni Buddha, the trace of the Original Buddha, taught the One Vehicle. In this half the beings of the ten realms assembled to hear the Wonderful Dharma and the Buddha expounded on the ten suchnesses and the true reality of all phenomena. In this half through direct teaching, parables, and past life stories the historical Buddha revealed that in principle all beings contain within themselves the realm of buddhahood. The latter half of the sūtra comprised the Original Gate in which Śākyamuni Buddha revealed in chapter 16 that he was the Original Buddha whose awakened lifespan had no beginning or end. The Original Śākyamuni Buddha, according to Great Master Tiantai, was not just representative of one or another of the three bodies of a buddha but embodied all three aspects of buddhahood and all other types of buddhas were his emanations. The teaching of the Original Buddha in the Original Gate was that his buddhahood did not reject the lower nine realms of the unawakened but continued to embrace them. His buddhahood was the actualization of the three thousand realms in a single thought-moment. Unlike unawakened beings, the Original Buddha fully realized the workings of all the three thousand realms in every thought-moment and skillfully utilized them to awaken others. The Trace Gate and Original Gate of the Lotus Sūtra, therefore, showed that the nine realms all contain at least the seed of buddhahood and that the realm of buddhahood always embraces the lower nine realms.
Renchō now wondered how he could practice Buddhism in accordance with the actuality and not just the principle or theory of the three thousand realms in a single thought-moment. Just as importantly, how could the common people with no wisdom or education practice it? From the time of its founding there were too methods of practice taught at Mt. Hiei. One method was the practice of the perfect and sudden contemplation and insight as taught in the Great Concentration and Insight. This was the way of contemplating the three thousand realms in a single thought-moment while practicing one of the four kinds of samādhai or meditative concentration: silent sitting, walking while chanting nembutsu and visualizing Amitābha Buddha and his pure land, engaging in repentance ceremonies involving both walking and sitting, or by maintaining mindfulness of one’s thoughts in the midst of all activities regardless of whether or not one was sitting or walking.
The other method was through the mantra practices as taught in the three esoteric sūtras. After the time of Great Master Dengyō the mantra practices had eclipsed everything else. It had even been taught by the successors to Great Master Dengyō at Enyrakuji that while the esoteric sūtras were equal to the Lotus Sūtra in terms of the principles they taught they were superior in terms of the efficacy of esoteric practice involving the use of mudrās, mantras, and mandalas. Renchō now questioned this. Upon reading the Mahāvairocana Sūtra and the other esoteric sūtras he found nothing that guaranteed that even the arhats could attain buddhahood. Neither did these sūtras reveal that Śākyamuni Buddha had actually attained buddhahood in the remote past and therefore had been a buddha all along while traversing the triple world, thereby showing that buddhas do indeed retain the nine realms within their lives and can manifest them to teach others. Aside from the mantra practices the principles taught in these sūtras did not seem to go beyond those taught in the other sūtras of the Expanded period of the Buddha’s teachings, taught prior to the Perfection of Wisdom sūtras. The mantra teachings were also very complex. They required a lot of time and dedication to learn and practice and so were not the kind of practices that common people could perform, including most samurai or other busy officials. Could such an exclusive way of practice truly be the Mahāyāna way that would enable all beings to attain buddhahood? Another thing that disturbed Renchō about the mantra practices were that some of the initiations involved the initiate entering into mandalas by walking and sitting on mats with images symbolizing Vairocana Buddha and his emanations. Wasn’t this symbolically to walk upon the head of Vairocana Buddha? The Zen Buddhists had said this as a kind of kōan to contemplate, but the mantra teachings actually had one do it, at least symbolically. More and more Renchō began to doubt whether the mantra teachings were really the practices that were in accord with the Lotus Sūtra.
Despite Rencho’s misgivings about the mantra teachings there were esoteric practices that did make a deep and lasting impression on him, such as the esoteric rites based on the Lotus Sūtra. These held much in common with the exoteric Repentance Ritual of the Lotus Samādhi based on the Meditation on Universal Sage Bodhisattva Sūtra. The Lotus Samādhi was one of the ways of meditation practice described in the Great Concentration and Insight that involved alternating between periods of sitting silently and walking while chanting the Lotus Sūtra for 21 days. Both the exoteric repentance ritual and the esoteric rites involved enshrining a copy of the Lotus Sūtra, though sometimes a mandala depicting Śākyamuni Buddha and Many Treasures Buddha sitting together in the stūpa of treasures and surrounded by concentric rings of bodhisattvas, protective deities, and other beings from the sūtra would be used instead. These rites would also, like the Lotus Samādhi, involve the invocation and praise of the buddhas, bodhisattvas, and other beings in the sūtra, including the daimoku or sacred title of the sūtra itself in the form of “Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō” meaning “Devotion to the Sūtra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Dharma.” The esoteric Lotus rites even featured a mantra expressing the gist of the Lotus Sūtra. This mantra had come from an iron stūpa in India and had been found and transmitted by the masters of the mantra teachings in India, China, and Japan.
Nōmakusammandabodanan samyak sambuddhānām
on a an aku
sarubaboda kino sakishubiya
satsuridaruma fudarikya sotaran
ja un ban koku bazara rakishaman
Hail to the all-pervading three-bodied buddhas!
Open, show, cause all living beings to obtain, and enter the way to
The insight of the buddhas!
Like the crisp-clear sky be rid of all delusions and defilements!
Accept the teaching of the Sūtra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Dharma!
Live with joy, firmly upholding the teaching!
After ten years, Renchō decided that he had learned what he could at Mt. Hiei and the other temples of the various schools of Buddhism in and near Kyōto. He had studied the Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna sūtras, sūtras expounding the provisional teachings and the Lotus and Nirvāṇa sūtras expounding the True Dharma, and exoteric and esoteric sūtras. He had practiced the contemplation of the three thousand realms in a single thought-moment according to the Great Concentration and Insight and the esoteric rites of the Lotus Sūtra. He had thought deeply about the true intention of Śākyamuni Buddha and considered what could be the most efficacious practice for all people in the Latter Age of Degeneration. Now it was time to repay his debts to his parents, his teachers, the sovereign, and to the Three Treasures. Now it was time to return home and declare the True Dharma of Myōhō Renge Kyō, the Sutra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Dharma.