Writing of Nichiren Shōnin: Doctrine Vol. 1, p. 188
Writings of Nichiren Shōnin: Doctrine Vol. 3, pp. 96-103, 123, 138-144
The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin I, p. 48-52, 76-80, 538
The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin II, p. 259
Nichiren begins the Senji-shi-shō by stating, “To study Buddhism, first of all we must know the right time.” (Hori 2003, p. 188) Knowing the correct time to propagate and practice a particular teaching is one of the five principles for propagation that should be kept in mind by teachers of the Dharma that Nichiren formulated during his exile to the Izu Peninsula from May 12, 1261 until his pardon on February 22, 1263, when he was allowed to return to Kamakura. In a letter from that period he wrote:
Those who intend to spread Buddhism must correctly understand the five principles for propagation in order to disseminate the True Dharma. They are: (1) the teaching, (2) the capacity of the people, (3) the time, (4) the country, and (5) the sequence of spreading the Buddha’s teachings. (Hori 2004, p. 123)
As far as Nichiren was concerned each of these principles pointed to the necessity to spread the Lotus Sūtra in Japan at the time he was writing and from there to the whole world on into the foreseeable future. The five principles are to properly evaluate: (1) the different teachings of the Buddha, (2) the different capacities of the people to be taught, (3) the correct time for particular teachings to be propagated, (4) the differences between countries, and (5) the correct sequence in which the teachings are to be taught. In this chapter I would like to briefly explain how Nichiren understood and applied these five principles. In the following chapters I will look at each of these in more depth and explore what these five principles may mean today.
The first principle, to know the Buddha’s teachings, means to be familiar with the different ways of classifying the Buddha’s teachings as found in the tripitika or three-part canon consisting of the Buddha’s discourses known as sūtras, the monastic rule known as the vinaya, and the systemization of the discourses called the abhidharma. In Kyō Ki Ji Koku Shō (Treatise on the Teaching, Capacity, Time and Country) Nichiren wrote:
First of all, the teaching refers to all sūtras, precepts and commentaries expounded by Śākyamuni Buddha and his disciples, amounting to 5,048 fascicles in 48 cases. … Among all the sūtras, precepts and commentaries, there are Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna, provisional and true, and exoteric and esoteric teachings. It is best to keep this in mind. The classification is not an opinion of commentaries or teachers that arose after the death of the Buddha but stems from the teaching of the Buddha himself. Everyone should realize this when studying Buddhism. Therefore, anyone who disregards this classification is a non-Buddhist. (Ibid, pp. 96-97)
The practice of classifying the relative profundity of the Buddha’s teachings, especially those found in the sūtras, began around the 5th century of the common era in China and was called panjiao or “tenet classification.” Each of the various schools of Buddhism that survived to Nichiren’s time had its own particular way of classifying the sūtras. It would be an understatement to say that Nichiren favored the tenet classification system of the Tiantai school. In fact, Nichiren believed that the system of Tiantai Zhiyi (538-597) was the only one that actually adhered to statements found in the Mahāyāna sūtras wherein the Buddha remarked upon the relative chronology and profundity of the various sūtras. In his Shugo Kokka-ron (Treatise on Protecting the Nation), Nichiren even provides citations from the sūtras to show that the Tiantai system is correct. (See Hori 2003, pp. 5-21)
In brief, the Tiantai system divides the Buddha’s teachings into four types of doctrine and four methods of teaching, and then into five flavors or periods. The four doctrines are (1) the Tripitika teaching wherein the Buddha explained basic Buddhist concepts and practices such as the four noble truths, the eightfold path, and the twelve-fold chain of dependent origination as well as the vinaya and abhidharma, (2) the Shared teaching wherein the Buddha began to introduce Mahāyāna teachings relating to the emptiness of all phenomena and the cultivation of the six perfections to be shared with those who only aspired to liberation for themselves and also the bodhisattvas who aspired to buddhahood out of compassion for all beings, (3) the Distinct teaching that related more advanced Mahāyāna teachings and practice for the bodhisattvas, and (4) the Perfect teaching found in the Lotus Sūtra and reiterated in the Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāna Sūtra that reveal that all the other teachings are actually forms of the One Vehicle that leads to buddhahood and that buddhahood is not merely extinction but is experienced as the true self that is pure, blissful, and eternal. The four methods of teaching classify the Buddha’s teachings according to whether he presents the Perfect teaching suddenly or builds up to it gradually by using the other doctrinal teachings to prepare his audience; and according to whether some disciples are given more advanced teachings secretly or whether he gives a teaching of indeterminate meaning to all and leaves it up to each disciple to understand according to their individual capacity. The five flavors consist of different ways of drawing upon the four doctrinal teachings, and these five flavors later came to be called the five periods as they became associated with specific sūtras believed to have been taught at different times in the Buddha’s life. The first period was that of the Flower Garland Sūtra wherein the Buddha combined the Perfect teaching with the Distinct teaching. The next period is known as that of the Deer Park, because it excludes all but the pre-Mahāyāna Tripitika teachings that the Buddha began to teach at the Deer Park to the five ascetics. The third period is called Expanded because the Buddha began to teach more expansive Mahāyāna sūtras, utilizing all four doctrinal teachings as they corresponded to the needs of his audience. The fourth period is called the Wisdom period because the Buddha taught the Perfection of Wisdom sūtras that included the Flower Garland, Distinct, and Perfect teachings. Finally there was the period of the Lotus Sūtra and Nirvāna Sūtra wherein the Buddha taught only the Perfect teaching.
In the quote above Nichiren talks about discerning Mahāyāna and Hīnayāna, provisional and true, and esoteric and exoteric. Generally Nichiren viewed the Tripitika teaching and the Deer Park period as Hīnayāna and the other teachings and periods as Mahāyāna, but there were also times when he stated that less profound Mahāyāna teachings that did not extend the promise of buddhahood to all were Hīnayāna in comparison with more profound teachings that did teach that all beings could attain buddhahood. As for the division between esoteric and exoteric, the esoteric sūtras that became the basis for True Word Buddhism had not appeared in China during the lifetime of Tiantai Zhiyi, so they were not accounted for in his writings. Nichiren, however, believed that they should be regarded as falling into the Expanded period, and therefore not even on the level of the Perfection of Wisdom sūtras in terms of profundity. The true teaching he, of course, regarded as the Perfect teaching of the Lotus Sūtra. He wrote, “Thus, only those who thoroughly discern the difference between the Lotus Sūtra and other sūtras can truly be said to have understood the teaching.” (Ibid, p. 100)
The second principle, to know the capacity of those to be taught, means to understand people’s inclinations, ability, and general spiritual maturity. In his Treatise on the Teaching, Capacity, Time and Country, Nichiren relates a story from the Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāna Sūtra wherein Śāriputra mistakenly teaches a blacksmith the practice of contemplating the decomposition of corpses and a launderer the practice of mindfulness of the breath. Neither are able to make any progress and after three months they become icchantika, incorrigible disbelievers in the Dharma. The Buddha then teaches the blacksmith, who works with a bellows, to be mindful of the breath, and the launderer, who washes impurities, to contemplate decomposition. They are then able to understand the Dharma, because they have each been given a teaching and practice that they can relate to in their daily lives. Nichiren concludes, “Even Śāriputra, who was reputed as the wisest man, made a mistake in teaching according to a person’s capacity. Needless to say, it is not easy for ignorant, ordinary, and unenlightened masters in the Latter Age of Degeneration to decipher a person’s capacity. However, such an ordinary master, who cannot discern an individual’s capacity, should solely teach the Lotus Sūtra to his disciples.” (Hori 2004, p. 97) Here, capacity seems to mean a person’s interests, inclinations, and experience. If one cannot judge which particular provisional teaching would be of most relevance to a particular individual, then one should immediately teach the Lotus Sūtra, the highest and most perfect teaching, because it will ultimately be relevant to everyone, even if they cannot understand it at first.
Nichiren also spoke of capacity in terms of ability to understand and practice the teachings and in terms of defilements and karmic hindrances to practice. In Nanjō Hyōe Shichirō-dono Gosho (A Letter to Lord Nanjō Hyōe Shichirō) Nichiren says, “Even those who commit the five grave offences, the ten evil deeds, or immeasurable other sins can attain awakening only if they have superior capacity. Devadatta and Aṅgulimāla fall into this category. Those with inferior capacity who have not committed any sin can also attain buddhahood. Śuddhipanthaka belongs to this category.” (Ibid, p. 140) Here, Nichiren is referring to a fourfold categorization of people’s spiritual capacities from the Treatise on the Great Perfection of Wisdom attributed to Nāgārjuna that was also used by Zhiyi in the Great Calming and Contemplation. The highest category is composed of those who not only understand the Dharma and practice calming and contemplation, but who also commit no evil deeds and therefore have no karmic hindrances. Disciples of the Buddha such as Śāriputra and Maudgalyāyana would be included in this category. The second category includes those who have an ability to understand and practice but first they must repent of their evil deeds and overcome their karmic hindrances. People such as King Ajātaśatru who deposed and murdered his own father and the serial killer Ańgulimāla who both repented and became the Buddha’s followers belong in this category. The third category includes those whose capacity to learn and practice the Dharma is very dull but who live good lives and have no karmic hindrances. The slow-witted Śuddhipanthaka, who finally became an arhat after the Buddha taught him a simple phrase to recite, is an example of such people. The last and lowest category is for ordinary people who have trouble understanding the Dharma, find it difficult to practice calming and contemplation, and who are constantly committing evil deeds and therefore are afflicted by numerous karmic hindrances. (See Donner and Stevenson, pp. 331-333)
Nichiren concludes that the spiritual capacity people of the Latter Age is inferior even to Śuddhipanthaka and that they are deeply infected by greed, anger, and ignorance and commit transgressions just as serious as the five grave offences and ten evil deeds committed by such as Devadatta. His conclusion is that the only hope for his contemporaries is not only to put their faith in the Lotus Sūtra but also to avoid complicity in the slander of the sūtra by denouncing its enemies.
Nichiren also anticipates those who would ask why the Lotus Sūtra should be taught to ignorant people who will only slander it when the sūtra itself warns in chapter three that it should not be taught to the ignorant. Nichiren replies that wise masters who are teaching those with a superior capacity should teach the sūtras in their proper sequence, thereby preparing their disciples and followers for the ultimate truth taught in the Lotus Sūtra. In the Latter Age, however, ordinary teachers of the Dharma do not have the discernment to do this, and there are no disciples of superior capacity in any case. Therefore, it is best to teach the Lotus Sūtra to the unfaithful and ignorant people from the start, so that a connection can be formed with it. Nichiren compares this process to the analogy of the poison drum from the Nirvāna Sūtra, wherein a drum smeared with poison magically kills all who hear it, even if they do not wish to listen. In the same way, all who hear the Lotus Sūtra will be able to attain buddhahood through its teaching, even if at first they reject it. He also equates the expounding the sūtra to those who reject it with the practice of Never-Despising Bodhisattva in the 20th chapter of the Lotus Sūtra.
The third principle, to know the proper time, means to understand how the teaching of the Dharma unfolds over time. This is, of course, the main theme of the Senji-shō. Nichiren shared with his contemporaries the assumption that buddhas appeared periodically in each world system to teach the Dharma, thereby beginning a particular dispensation of the Dharma that would only last for a few thousand years before the Dharma would again by forgotten for large spans of time, perhaps even millions or billions of years, before a new dispensation would begin when the next buddha would appear. In East Asia, the dispensation of Śakyamuni Buddha was commonly divided into three periods: the Former Age of the True Dharma, the Middle Age of the Semblance of the Dharma, and the Latter Age of the Degeneration of the Dharma that would last for the next 10,000 years after which the Dharma would be entirely forgotten.
The three ages of the Dharma appear in the Pāli Canon and in the Mahāyāna sūtras as a way of summarizing the teaching that even the Dharma itself (as a conceptual teaching and historical phenomena) will decline. It fits in very well with the common Vedic motif of the cycle of creation, maintenance, decline, and destruction. According to the teaching of the three ages, the Former Age of the True Dharma begins with the first rolling of the Wheel of the Dharma by the Buddha at the Deer Park. It will continue for a thousand years to be followed by the Middle Age of the Semblance of Dharma. After a thousand years of the Middle Age of Semblance the 10,000 years of the Latter Age of the Degeneration of Dharma will begin. During the first age, those with a strong affinity for the Buddha and the Dharma will be born during the lifetime of the Buddha or soon enough afterwards to be able to benefit from the True Dharma and thereby attain awakening. Those with a weaker karmic affinity will be born in the Semblance Age when the true spirit of Buddhism has been lost and only the outwards forms remain more or less intact. But even they are able to make some progress, and according to Mahāyāna teachings they can be reborn in the pure lands of the celestial buddhas and bodhisattvas after their deaths and thereby attain awakening in those happier circumstances. Those born in the Latter Age of Degeneration, however, have no good roots or genuine karmic affinity for the Dharma, so they are born into an age when even the outward forms are disappearing and rather than practice the Dharma people will only fight over it. It is also taught that the Latter Age will be the time of the five defilements. The five defilements are: 1) the decay of the age due to famine, plagues, and war; 2) the decay of views as people take up wrong views; 3) the decay of evil passions as people’s greed, hatred, and ignorance increase; 4) the decay of living beings as their physical and spiritual strength ebbs; and 5) the decay of lifespan as people live shorter lives.
Furthermore, according to the Great Assembly Sūtra cited by Nichiren in the Senji-shō, the Former Age of the True Dharma could itself be divided into the first 500 years wherein people practiced and attained buddhahood, and the following 500 year period wherein they studied and practiced the Dharma but could not attain buddhahood. The thousand years of the Middle Age of the Semblance Dharma could likewise be divided into the first 500 years wherein people still read the sūtras to increase their knowledge of the Dharma, and the following 500 years wherein they focused on gaining merit by building temples and pagodas. In the first 500 years of the Latter Age, the fifth 500 year period following the Buddha’s passing, there would increasing disputes and quarrels that would lead to the destruction and ruin of the Dharma.
Nichiren also spoke of the Former Age as a time when many received and upheld the precepts, the Middle Age as a time when people still received the precepts but were unable to maintain them, and the Latter Age as a time when people did not even receive the precepts anymore. In keeping with the changing circumstances, people in the Former Age respected and made offerings only to those monastics who received and kept the precepts, in the Middle Age people had to settle for giving offerings to those monastics who at least took the precepts even if they broke them, and in the Latter Age the people made offerings even to monastics who did not even take the precepts. At no time, however, were offerings ever to be given to those who slandered the Lotus Sūtra, regardless of whether or not the slanderers accepted and abided by the precepts. In this way, Nichiren made the point that reverence for the Lotus Sūtra was even more constant and more integral to the true spirit of Buddhism over time than the monastic precepts.
Nichiren’s understanding was that the Buddha taught all the pre-Mahāyāna and Mahāyāna sūtras over a period of fifty years. However, after his passing, the pre-Mahāyāna or Hīnayāna teachings would be propagated first, and then gradually the Mahāyāna teachings would be propagated. As time went on, the earlier teachings would lose their efficacy and only the more profound teachings of the Mahāyāna would be able to help people attain the way to buddhahood. Finally, in the Latter Age, the Lotus Sūtra alone would be able to liberate people and enable them to attain buddhahood. Why this should be will be covered in more detail later in this commentary, as it is the main theme of the Senji-shō.
In East Asia, it was believed that the Buddha lived from 1029 to 949 B.C.E. due to the attempts of Chinese Buddhists to show that the Buddha predated Lao-tzu and the Taoist teachings. Assuming these dates for the life of the Buddha Nichiren and his contemporaries believed that the Latter Age had begun in 1052 C.E. Modern scholars believe the Buddha’s actual dates were 500 years or more later than that. The Japanese Buddhist scholar Hajime Nakamura set the dates as late as 463-383 B.C.E. What all this means is that if the dates of the three ages are taken literally, then Nichiren’s belief that he was living in the Latter Age is completely off the mark since the Latter Age would not actually begin until the 16th or 17th century. In any case, the idea that the world suddenly shifts gears spiritually like clockwork when a particular calendar date comes around should strike us as naive and entirely too arbitrary. Therefore, I do not think it behooves us to take any of the above time periods too literally. The point is that the Buddhist tradition understands that Buddhism itself is a conditioned phenomena that arises and ceases in accordance with changing causes and conditions. Nichiren and his contemporaries in particular felt themselves to be living in a time when the traditional teachings and methods of Buddhism seemed to have lost their efficacy. They believed that a deeper understanding and/or new methods had to be found if people were to be liberated from suffering and attain buddhahood. It was Nichiren’s conviction that he had found such a new approach in the depths of the Original Gate of the Lotus Sūtra and that the time had come to propagate this new understanding and practice.
The fourth principle, to know nature of the country, means that a teacher of the Dharma must understand the unique characteristics of the country where they are trying to teach the Dharma. Things such as climate, geography, size, population, levels of education and moral development, and relations with other countries are all things that Nichiren includes as factors to take into account. However, the most important consideration is what kind of teachings have already spread within the country in question, whether Hīnayāna or Mahāyana, or a mix of both. In Kaimoku-shō, Nichiren also speaks of countries that are immoral and ignorant of the Dharma, and those that actively slander the Dharma once they have heard it by supporting false teachings or promoting provisional teachings over the True Dharma of the Lotus Sūtra. In his explanations about the principle of knowing the country, Nichiren cites several past authorities in China and Japan to establish that the Japanese people had a special affinity for the Lotus Sūtra.
The final principle, to know the sequence of the teachings, means that one should begin with simple and basic teachings and move on to more subtle and profound teachings. One must never try to spread teachings that are less refined than the ones already established, but should instead lead people away from provisional teachings and toward the definitive and true teaching of the Lotus Sūtra. There is not much more to say about this principle as the proper sequence is already laid out in terms of the Tiantai tenet classification system spoken of above.
In the following chapters I hope to explore each of these principles more deeply.