Writings of Nichiren Shōnin Doctrine 2, pp. 34-35

Kaimoku-shō or Liberation from Blindness, pp. 13-14

The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin I, pp. 224

In the Buddha’s Words, pp. 75-78, 239-240

As mentioned in a previous chapter, the doctrine of the five comparisons is not explicitly taught in the Kaimoku-shō in those terms. Nevertheless, the five comparisons are derived from it. The first of the five comparisons is between Buddhism generally and non-Buddhism. We have already surveyed the non-Buddhist teachings that Nichiren was aware of and even commented upon how Western monotheism might compare to them using the criteria used by Śākyamuni Buddha and Nichiren Shōnin. Of them, Nichiren says that their sages were like infants compared to the Buddha in that they were ignorant of causality. The Buddha, on the other hand, was able to show the way to liberation from samsāra, the cycle of birth and death amid the six worlds.

Escaping samsāra, the cycle of birth and death, is actually the accomplishment of the arhats and the pratyekabuddhas. These are the people of the two vehicles, the first two of the four higher worlds. The śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas, by following the four noble truths or contemplating the twelve-fold chain of dependent origination respectively, are able to break free of the six lower worlds and attain liberation for themselves. This is considered an advance over those who seek respectability and prosperity in this life or who aim to be reborn in the heavenly realms, because these goals are both considered transient conditioned rewards that leave one enmeshed within the passions and delusions of the six lower worlds. By having a greater insight into causality, those of the two vehicles transcend the six lower worlds by cutting off their delusions of views and attitudes and when they die their bodies are burned to ashes and their consciousness is annihilated so that they are forever beyond the reach of any kind of suffering. In East Asian Buddhism, this is what is understood to be Hīnayāna Buddhism.

I would like to clarify here what is meant by the term “Hīnayāna.” The term means “Small Vehicle” whereas Mahāyāna means “Great Vehicle.” The Mahāyānists referred to those Buddhists who rejected the Mahāyāna sūtras as Hīnayāna Buddhists. The so-called Hīnayāna Buddhists believed that the Buddha’s teachings could only be found in a closed canonical collection called the Three Baskets (S. tripitika) composed of the sūtras that are the Buddha’s discourses, the monastic rules and procedures (S. vinaya), and the “Higher Dharma” (S. abhidharma) treatises that systematized the teachings in the discourses. The southern recension of these discourses is called the Pāli Canon, since it was recorded in the Pāli language. It is composed of five Nikāyas or “Collections.” The northern recension of these discourses was in Sanskrit. They were called the Āgamas or “Sources” and exist now in Chinese translation. Today the Theravādin schools of SE Asia and Sri Lanka continue to uphold the Pāli Canon as the only authoritative canonical collection of the Buddha’s teachings. The Sarvāstivādin and other northern schools that upheld the Āgamas have long since disappeared in India. Because the term Hīnayāna is a disparaging epithet and not the proper name of a school, it is best to use the term Theravāda and not Hīnayāna when referring to the Buddhism of SE Asia. Calling the Āgamas, their teachings, and the schools that rely upon them Hīnayāna, as they are by East Asian Buddhists to this day, is problematic for a couple of reasons. The first is that, as Nichiren points out, those who study these teachings or who belong to these schools may have actually adopted Mahāyāna views. The second problem is that, according to Chih-i, the teachings introduced in the Āgamas can themselves express the perspective of the Mahāyāna if understood more deeply. Nevertheless, the term Hīnayāna can be understood to refer to those teachings and schools that confine themselves to pre-Mahāyāna teachings, perspectives, and motivations, for that is how Nichiren uses the term in Kaimoku-shō.

In Japan, three schools of Buddhism upheld the Hīnayāna teachings: The Kusha and Jōjitsu schools that were based on different Abhidharma treatises, and the Ritsu or Vinaya school that taught, conferred, and practiced the monastic precepts. Even by Nichiren’s time these were not really separate schools of Buddhism but more like curriculums of study taken up by monks and nuns who were actually Mahāyāna adherents. Of these schools, Nichiren said:

The Kusha, Jōjitsu, and Ritsu sects were founded on the Āgama sutras. These sects knew only six worlds, not the other four. They said that there is only one Buddha in the worlds of the ten directions. They did not go so far as to say that there are any buddhas in the worlds of the ten directions. Furthermore, they did not say that all living beings have Buddha-nature. They said that no one other than the Buddha had Buddha-nature. But nowadays they say that there are Buddhas in the worlds of the ten directions, and that all living beings have the Buddha-nature. It seems that some scholars of these sects, who appeared after the extinction of the Buddha, took these teachings from the Mahāyāna and put them into their own sects. (adapted from Murano 2000, p. 14)

In later chapters I will provide a survey of the schools of Buddhism that existed in Nichiren’s time and also address Nichiren’s accusation that these schools misappropriated the Mahāyāna teachings. For now, let us set aside these things and look at what kind of teachings and practices are understood to be Hīnayāna in nature, beginning with the four noble truths that the Buddha taught in his first discourse at the Deer Park in Vārānasī by revealing the Middle Way:

“Monks, these two extremes should not be followed by one who has gone forth into homelessness. What two? The pursuit of sensual happiness in sensual pleasures, which is low, vulgar, the way of worldlings, ignoble, unbeneficial; and the pursuit of self-mortification, which is painful, ignoble, unbeneficial. Without veering towards either of these extremes, the Tathāgata has awakened to the Middle Way, which gives rise to vision, which gives rise to knowledge, which leads to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to nirvāna.

“And what, monks, is that Middle Way awakened to by the Tathāgata? It is this noble eightfold path; that is, right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. This, monks, is that Middle Way awakened to by the Tathāgata, which gives rise to vision, which gives rise to knowledge, and leads to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to nirvāna.” (Bodhi 2005, pp. 75-76)

The Middle Way as taught here by Śākyamuni Buddha is the Middle Way between self-indulgence and self-denial, both of which perpetuate the self-absorption that generates craving for worldly and otherworldly gain and is reinforced by deluded views. The Middle Way is in fact none other than the eightfold path that is the fourth of the four noble truths that the Buddha then proceeds to expound.  Here is the first of the four:

“Now this, monks, is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering; in brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are suffering.” (Ibid, p. 76)

The first noble truth of suffering means that conditioned phenomena are incapable of providing real lasting happiness. This does not mean that there is no happiness at all, but it does mean that even when we do get what we hoped for the happiness never lasts. In terms of the six lower worlds, the worlds of the hell-dwellers, hungry ghosts, animals, and fighting demons are full of pain, ceaseless torment, and strife. Human life is naturally subject to old age, sickness, and death as well as the other sufferings enumerated. Even those who make wholesome causes and find themselves in heavenly circumstances will find that eventually the causes and conditions that put them there will change and they will find themselves forced to take birth into a new situation. In the six lower worlds happiness is rare and fleeting whereas painful circumstances are abundant and insecurity is pervasive.

The Buddha concludes his observations of life’s unsatisfactory nature by stating that, “the five aggregates subject to clinging are suffering.” This refers to the Buddha’s analysis of the five basic components of human life and experience, which Chih-i used as one of the three realms in the doctrine of the “three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment.” In brief, they are form, feeling, perception, mental formation, and consciousness. It is from these five that we derive our notion of existence and especially our idea of selfhood. Unfortunately, none of these components of the self provide a basis for an eternal, independent, or completely fulfilled existence. What seems to be a “self” striving for eternal happiness or final satisfaction is in actuality the constant interplay of these five aggregates that require constant change and stimulation just to continue functioning. Therefore the idea of an independent, changeless, or fully satisfied self is the result of mistaking a process for a substance. Such a self could not be a product of the five aggregates, and apart from the aggregates there is nothing that can meaningfully be called a self. Stated simply, the Buddha’s analysis of life reveals that existence is process, and process provides no basis for an unchanging happiness.

Next, the Buddha taught the causes and conditions which bring about suffering and dissatisfaction:

“Now this, monks, is the noble truth of the origin of suffering: it is this craving that leads to renewed existence, accompanied by delight and lust, seeking delight here and there; that is, craving for sensual pleasures, craving for existence, craving for extermination.” (Ibid, p. 76)

The second noble truth teaches that the true root of suffering is the craving for happiness itself. This craving is the result of the unrealistic expectation that life should be a source of unchangeable happiness as discussed under the first noble truth. Craving is what transforms the occasionally painful process of life into an ongoing cycle of agony and unbearable suffering at worst or a life of subtle agitation and anxiety at best. Thus, while external circumstances can indeed bring about uncomfortable or tragic experiences, it is the internal craving that turns mere pain into suffering. Indeed, craving can even spoil pleasant circumstances with its incessant demands and impoverished outlook on life. All of this is not to deny or denigrate the experiences of those who have or are experiencing affliction, exploitation, or tragedy. The point is that when one lets craving compound painful circumstances with emotional suffering or lets craving spoil even pleasant circumstances, then one has truly given up one’s power and is destined for a life determined by the forces of greed, anger and ignorance which are naturally generated in reaction to suffering.

Looking at the six lower worlds, it is craving to find real lasting happiness that motivates people to commit wholesome and unwholesome acts of thought, word, and deed. The human condition is rife with what Buddhism calls defilements: greed, hatred, ignorance, arrogance, mistaken views and so on. The other five of the six lower worlds besides humanity put a spotlight on particular deluded views and attitudes. Those in the hells put themselves there with their destructive rage and by holding to false views whereby they try to deny responsibility for their actions and blame others for the problems they have created. The hungry ghosts doom themselves with their selfish cravings and addictions. The animals act without thought for long-term consequences. The fighting demons are full of arrogance and ambitions that constantly puts them at odds with others. Even the beings in the heavenly realms are not without fault as they are so engrossed in their pleasures or states of meditative absorption that they become complacent and forget that eventually they will have to leave their heavenly abiding for one of the other five worlds in accordance with their karma.

The Buddha then discusses three particular objects of craving, namely: sense-pleasures, existence, and non-existence. Sense pleasures are a pretty obvious and common way of appeasing craving, so no real comment needs to be made. The craving for existence and becoming refers not only to the desire to extend one’s life into eternity in the pursuit or enjoyment of one’s goals, but it is also a craving for a stable, abiding, and fulfilled self that does not have to undergo change and is self-sufficient. Finally, the craving for non-existence is the nihilistic desire to find peace by destroying the impermanent self and any other entities that one is disappointed or frustrated with. In each case, a means to avoid the impermanence and instability of the five aggregates that make up existence is sought. Since there is nothing that exists apart from the aggregates, the effort is doomed to failure and only leads to increased frustration.

 At this point, the Buddha teaches the possibility of liberation from suffering and incessant craving:

“Now this, monks, is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering: it is the remainderless fading away and cessation of that same craving, the giving up and relinquishing of it, freedom from it, nonattachment.” (Ibid, p. 76)

Once one sees the true nature of life and the futility of craving, the next step is to realize that if craving were given up then one would be free from suffering. This is the true meaning of nirvāna, the extinguishing of the flames of passionate greed or craving. Chih-i spoke of this as the elimination of deluded views and attitudes that puts an end to transmigration within the six lower worlds. From the perspective of the Hīnayāna teachings, the arhats, pratyekabuddhas and even the buddhas who accomplish this are not reborn anywhere after death, not even in a pure land. They are simply gone, beyond the reach of conditioned existence and suffering. In life they attain nirvāna, the extinction of the greed, hatred, and delusion, and upon death they are said to attain parinirvāna or “complete nirvāna” whereby they are no longer even subject to physical pain and infirmity. While there may be śravaks, pratyekabuddhas, bodhisattvas, and buddhas as individuals, they have no lands or worlds of their own, but simply live in the human world (or some of the others in the case of bodhisattvas) until they attain parinirvāna. Then they are gone forever. This is why the attainment of parinirvāna is referred to as reducing the body to ashes and annihilating consciousness and also why the Hīnayāna teachings are only said to expound the six lower worlds and not the four higher ones.

In the Hīnayāna teachings the attainment of buddhahood is not presented as the goal of Buddhist practice, so the bodhisattva vehicle is also not presented as something that can be taken up by ordinary people. The Hīnayāna teachings state that there can only be one buddha on any given world at a time. Furthermore, the time between the appearances of a buddha is vast. Each time a buddha appears they set in motion the Wheel of the Dharma (i.e. they expound the Buddha Dharma), and after a buddha’s parinirvāna the teachings may last for a period of time known as the true age of the Dharma, linger on in a corrupted form during a period of time known as the semblance age of the Dharma, and finally they begin to disappear during a latter age of the Dharma that can last for ten thousand years or more until the Dharma is completely forgotten. There may then be a period of millions of years before another buddha rolls the Wheel of Dharma again. The Hīnayāna teachings do not speak of buddhas in other regions of the universe. The only two bodhisattvas who are recognized are the bodhisattva who became Śākyamuni Buddha, and Maitreya Bodhisattva who resides in the Tushita Heaven awaiting his time to become the next buddha in the distant future after Śākyamuni Buddha’s Dharma has completely disappeared. Bodhisattvas are therefore rare and extraordinary beings. What all of this means is that the attainment of buddhahood is not presented as an even remotely realistic goal. The Hīnayāna teaches that the only feasible way to attain cessation from suffering and escape samsāra is to take up one the two vehicles of the śravaka or pratyekabuddha, with the former being the easier as the śravaks can rely upon the four noble truths and the Middle Way taught by Śākyamuni Buddha.

So how does one live the Middle Way in order to put an end to craving? The fourth noble truth is an outline of the noble eightfold path:

“Now this, monks, is the noble truth of the way leading to the cessation of suffering: it is this noble eightfold path; that is, right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.” (Ibid, p. 76)

As already stated, following the noble eightfold path is to live in accordance with the Middle Way. Basically they are the eight aspects of a life free of self-interest or craving. In each case, “right” refers to the ability to live in a perfect or complete way, so that self-centeredness is extinguished and one lives in accordance with reality in thought, word and deed. The specific meaning of each part of the noble eightfold path is explained by the Buddha as follows:

“Monks, I will teach you the noble eightfold path, and I will analyze it for you. Listen and attend closely; I will speak.”

“Yes, venerable sir,” those monks replied. The Blessed One said this:

“And what, monks, is the noble eightfold path? Right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.

“And what, monks, is right view? Knowledge of suffering, knowledge of the origin of suffering, knowledge of the cessation of suffering, knowledge of the way leading to the cessation of suffering: this is called right view.

“And what, monks, is right intention? Intention of renunciation, intention of non-ill will, intention of harmlessness: this is called right intention.

“And what, monks, is right speech? Abstinence from false speech, abstinence from malicious speech, abstinence from harsh speech, abstinence from idle chatter: this is called right speech.

“And what, monks, is right action? Abstinence from the destruction of life, abstinence from taking what is not given, abstinence from sexual misconduct: this is called right action.

“And what, monks, is right livelihood? Here a noble disciple, having abandoned a wrong mode of livelihood, earns his living by a right livelihood: this is called right livelihood.

“And what, monks, is right effort? Here, monks, a monk generates desire for the nonarising of evil unwholesome states; he makes an effort, arouses energy, applies his mind, and strives. He generates desire for the abandoning of arisen evil unwholesome states… He generates desire for the arising of unarisen wholesome states… He generates desire for the continuation of arisen wholesome states, for their nondecline, increase, expansion, and fulfillment by development; he makes an effort, arouses energy, applies his mind, and strives. This is called right effort.

“And what, monks, is right mindfulness? Here, monks, a monk dwells contemplating the body in the body, ardent, clearly comprehending, mindful, having removed longing and dejection in regard to the world. He dwells contemplating feelings in feelings, ardent, clearly comprehending, mindful, having removed longing and dejection in regard to the world. He dwells contemplating mind in mind, ardent, clearly comprehending, mindful, having removed longing and dejection in regard to the world. He dwells contemplating phenomena in phenomena, ardent, clearly comprehending, mindful, having removed longing and dejection in regard to the world. This is called right mindfulness.

“And what, monks, is right concentration? Here, monks, secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, a monk enters and dwells in the first dhyāna, which is accompanied by thought and examination, with rapture and happiness born of seclusion. With the subsiding of thought and examination, he enters and dwells in the second dhyāna, which has internal confidence and unification of mind, is without thought and examination, and has rapture and happiness born of concentration. With the fading away as well of rapture, he dwell equanimous and, mindful and clearly comprehending, he experiences happiness with the body; he enters and dwells in the third dhyāna of which the noble ones declare: ‘He is equanimous, mindful, one who dwells happily.’ With the abandoning of pleasure and pain, and with the previous passing away of joy and dejection, he enters and dwells in the fourth dhyāna, which is neither painful nor pleasant and includes purification of mindfulness by equanimity. This is called right concentration.” (Ibid, pp. 239-240)

The noble eightfold path has also been restated as the threefold training, consisting of morality, concentration, and wisdom. Morality pertains to the ethical demands of right speech, right action and right livelihood. Specifically, the practice of morality can refer to the five major precepts taken by laypeople, the ten good precepts (i.e. the ten courses of wholesome conduct), the ten novice precepts, or even the full monastic precepts taken by monks and nuns. Concentration refers to the cultivation of the mind covered by right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration. Wisdom refers to the acquisition of right view and right intention. The Buddha taught that when morality, concentration, and wisdom are cultivated together, one is able to shake loose the bonds of craving and ignorance and attain the liberation of nirvāna.

More specifically, the practice of the eightfold path or the threefold training leads to four classes of holiness. These four classes are referred to as “paths” when one first enters such a state and “fruits” when one realizes the benefits from the path attained. Specifically, the benefits of the four classes refers to our progressive liberation from ten fetters which keep us trapped in the ordinary life of birth and death and all the suffering, fear and anxiety which makes up that life.

The first class is that of the stream-enterer who is liberated from the first three of the ten fetters. The first fetter is identity view. This is the notion that there is a substantial, autonomous, unchanging, and independent self that must be protected and appeased. The next fetter is debilitating doubt in regard to the Three Treasures of Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. This does not refer to a healthy sense of doubt that can motivate us to find out the truth for ourselves; rather, it refers to lack of trust, either in oneself or in the Three Treasures, which can prevent one from following the path at all. Finally, there is the fetter of the wrong grasp of rules and observances. This refers to the belief that rules or ritual observances of themselves can bring about salvation or ensure good fortune or safeguard against misfortune. This kind of superstition engenders a false security and a dependency which blocks the way to following the true path to liberation as taught by the Buddha. It should be noted that these three fetters primarily deal with beliefs and opinions that prevent one from following the Dharma. These three fetters keep one preoccupied with one’s own welfare and the maintenance of the status quo, which then becomes a distrust of the Three Treasures. The stream-enterer is firmly convinced that only by trusting the Three Treasures and taking up the five precepts (at least) can they escape from the constant bondage of self-concern and false security and thereby attain liberation. The stream-enterer enters the stream of the true teaching, follows the precepts perfectly and, at most, will only undergo seven more rebirths as a human or heavenly being in the realm of desire before realizing nirvāna.

The second class is that of the once-returner. The once-returner has partially overcome the fetters of sensual desire and ill will. Such feelings may still occur, but they no longer hold sway over them. Not only are the once-returner’s ideas and behavior in accord with the Dharma, even his emotional life has been tamed. As the name indicates, the once-returner will only undergo one more rebirth as a human or heavenly being in the realm of desire before achieving nirvāna.

The third class is that of the non-returner. The non-returner is completely liberated from the fetters of sensual craving and ill will. These negative emotions no longer arise at all. For the non-returner, nirvāna will be attained either within their present lifetime or after being reborn in the pure abodes among the heavens in the realm of form.

The final class of holiness is that of the arhat. The arhat is one who has overcome even the more subtle forms of clinging that are the last five of the ten fetters. The sixth fetter is the desire for a form realm existence. This is the notion of a continued existence in a spiritual body in a refined heavenly existence. The seventh fetter is the desire for a formless realm existence. This is the notion of a continued existence as a pure thought form. Both of these are simply more subtle cases of a desire to immortalize an unchanging autonomous self and show a preoccupation with continued existence. It is still self-attachment, though in a much more refined and sophisticated form. The eighth fetter is conceit, which refers to pride in one’s accomplishments on the path. Though not necessarily craving, this fetter still betrays a lingering self-preoccupation. The ninth fetter is restlessness. Restlessness is the residual need to accomplish something and make one’s mark upon the world. It is the habitual need to assert a self in the midst of the world’s demands and temptations. Finally, there is the fetter of ignorance. This is the fetter that obscures the selfless true nature of reality that is revealed by the Dharma. It is not the mere intellectual ignorance or delusion that is broken through by the stream-enterer. This is the root ignorance that views the self as a substantial reality and gives rise to all the habits, emotions and ideas that stem from the inability to come to terms with the selfless ungraspable nature of reality. The arhat has seen through all this, and has liberated himself from all passions, fixations and false views. The arhat is one who has achieved the freedom of nirvāna.

The Lotus Sūtra states that the Buddha taught the four noble truths for the sake of the srāvakas. “To those who were seeking Śrāvakahood, he expounded the teaching of the four truths, a teaching suitable for them, saved them from birth, old age, disease, and death, and caused them to attain Nirvāna.” (Murano 1991, p. 14) This would indicate that the four noble truths are an Hīnayāna teaching. Chih-i, however, taught that the four noble truths could be understood on increasingly profounder levels as the four noble truths of the arising and perishing of conditioned phenomena, as the four noble truths of the non-arising of phenomena (since they are empty of a substance that can arise), as the four noble truths of the immeasurable variety of provisional existence, and finally as the four noble truths of the uncontrived expression of the inconceivable reality of the Middle Way. I will not attempt to explain what Chih-i meant by all this, but it is good to keep in mind that while the four noble truths are in one sense a Hīnayāna teaching meant for voice-hearers, they are also capable of expressing much deeper perspectives.


Bodhi, Bhikkhu, ed., In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2005.

Gosho Translation Committee, editor-translator. The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin. Tokyo: Soka Gakkai, 1999.

Hori, Kyotsu, comp. Writings of Nichiren Shonin: Doctrine Volume 2. Tokyo: Nichiren Shu Overseas Propagation Promotion Association, 2002.

Murano, Senchu, trans. Kaimokusho or Liberation from Blindness. Berkeley: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, 2000.