Writing of Nichiren Shōnin Doctrine 2: pp. 109-114

Kaimoku-shō or Liberation From Blindness: pp. 120-125

Writings of Nichiren Daishonin I: 283-287


Choosing the Method

The two methods of embracing and subduing are said by Nichiren to be as incompatible as fire and water. “The way of embracing is as different from the way of subduing as water is from fire. Fire dislikes water. Water hates fire. Those who embrace laugh at those who subdue. Those who subdue feel sorry for those who embrace.” (Murano 2000, p. 122 adapted). Nichiren quotes Kuan-ting (562-632) as saying of Buddhist monks that in regard to the two methods of propagation: “When the world is not peaceful, they should carry staves. When the world is peaceful they should observe the precepts. They should choose one or the other according to the needs of the time. They should not constantly cling to either of the two.” (Ibid, p. 122 adapted) A choice is set up between the two contrasting methods. But how different, really, are the ways of embracing and subduing? Kuan-ting’s statement underscores the matter of the precepts – those who follow the way of embracing will follow the precepts including the precepts against killing and fighting, whereas those who follow the way of subduing are to set aside the precepts and take up arms to defend themselves. From examining the passages cited in the Nirvāna Sūtra and the Lotus Sūtra that are said to exemplify the ways of embracing and subduing it would appear that during a time when embracing is the correct method the laymen should follow the five precepts and the monastics should follow the monastic precepts and avoid violence of any kind. In addition the monastics should stay away from people in power, refrain from criticizing others, practice meditation in seclusion, and only teach when approached by those respectfully seeking the Dharma. On the other hand, during a time when subduing is the correct method, the laypeople should set aside the five precepts (the first of which prohibits killing and violence) and take up arms to defend the True Dharma and the monastics who uphold it, while the true monastics are allowed to keep company with those who can defend them and according to Kuan-ting even take up staves themselves. In addition, the true monastics should publicly roar the lion’s roar by actively preaching the Dharma, denouncing false teachings and corruption in the Sangha, and expound the universality of buddha-nature even to those who refuse to listen and may even react violently. The watery method of embracing is therefore the way of seclusion, meditation, and non-violence; whereas the fiery method of subduing is the way of publicly preaching the True Dharma to those who may be violently opposed to it and it allows for the taking up of arms for defense. These two ways would indeed seem to be contradictory.

The ways of embracing and subduing, however, are not entirely opposed. They both have the same aim: the expounding of the True Dharma. They are both based on the compassionate motivation to teach people that all beings are capable of realizing buddhahood. The exemplar of the way of subduing in the Lotus Sūtra is Never-Despising Bodhisattva and if one examines his practice it becomes evident that he does not actually do anything that would go against what is taught in chapter 14 of the sūtra in regard to the four peaceful practices. Never-Despising did not approach people in power but approached the four kinds of Buddhist devotees (monks, nuns, laymen, laywomen) and bowed respectfully while assuring them of their future attainment of buddhahood. He did not denounce or criticize anyone though his assurance contradicted the beliefs of those he greeted because they did not believe that anyone could attain buddhahood. He did not take up arms or even have armed guards though he did move away to a safe distance when people started to throw things at him. The crucial difference between the practice of Never-Despising Bodhisattva and the four peaceful practices is that he does not seclude himself in meditation but actively expounds the True Dharma to those Buddhists who are, for whatever reasons, violently opposed to it. In addition, the passages in the Nirvāna Sūtra that endorse the taking up of arms also have passages that suggest that this should only be done to defend the pure monks and that one should even then refrain from actually using those arms to kill. I have not myself found passages where it permits monks to take up swords or bows and arrows, nor any passage that would recommend using coercion to force belief or compliance upon others (with the possible exception of the story of King Sen’yo previously discussed). The way of subduing is not about spreading the Dharma by way of the sword. Rather, it is about having the compassion and courage to correct those who are misrepresenting the Dharma, forthrightly giving public witness to the True Dharma, and if violent opposition is aroused to defend against it.

In Kaimoku-shō, Nichiren describes the circumstances that determine which method should be followed, making it clear that in the Latter Age of the Dharma both ways must be applied depending on the circumstances. His concern was which method to apply to Japan at that time.

So, when the land is full of evil and ignorant people, the way of embracing should take precedence as preached in the “Peaceful Practices” (14th) chapter of the Lotus Sūtra. However, when there are many cunning slanderers of the True Dharma, the way of subduing should take precedence as preached in the “Never-Despising Bodhisattva” (20th) chapter.

It is the same as using cold water when it is hot and fire when it is cold. Plants and trees are followers of the sun, so they dislike the cold moon. Bodies of water are followers of the moon, so they lose their true nature when it is hot. As there are lands of evil men as well as those of slanderers of the True Dharma in this Latter Age of Degeneration, there should be both embracing and subduing as means of spreading the True Dharma. Therefore, we have to know whether Japan today is a land of evil men or that of slanderers in order to decide which of the two ways we should use.  (Hori 2002, p. 111 adapted)

Nichiren further clarifies that according to Chih-i (538-597) and Kuan-ting, one must be sure of the conditions of the time and choose which method to use accordingly. So what is the difference between “evil and ignorant people” and “cunning slanderers of the True Dharma”? By “evil and ignorant people” Nichiren means those who are ignorant of Buddhism and who commit unwholesome bodily, verbal, and mental actions without reference to Buddhist teachings. In a letter attributed to Nichiren, the author wrote of these kinds of people: “Paradoxical as it may seem, evil people who have not the least understanding of the principle of cause and effect and who are not dedicated to any Buddha whatsoever would appear to be the ones free from error with respect to Buddhism.” (WND1, p. 173)

Slanderers, on the other hand, are those who have heard the Dharma and in fact have become Buddhists, but they choose provisional teachings over the True Dharma taught in the Lotus Sūtra and even reject the latter. For instance, as we have seen previously, they may reject the idea that all people can attain buddhahood, or may reject the idea that women or seemingly incorrigible people could ever attain buddhahood, or that arhats or pratyekabuddhas could ever take up the Buddha-vehicle. They might insist that one can only begin cultivating the way to buddhahood after death, or that one must first undertake particular esoteric initiations or transmissions. The Lotus Sūtra, however, sets forth no such criteria and opens the way to buddhahood to all beings who hear and take faith in its teaching and this is why it surpasses the more limited views of the other sūtras. In a letter attributed to Nichiren, the following statement is made: “In Buddhism, that teaching is judged supreme that enables all people, whether good or evil, to become Buddhas. (Gosho Translation Committee 1999, p. 156) In Kaimoku-shō, Nichiren cites the widespread popularity of the teachings of Hōnen and Dainichi Nōnin that both reject reliance upon the Lotus Sūtra and the complicity of the Tendai and Shingon schools as evidence that Japan had become a land overrun by slanderers and so the method of subduing evil was called for.

Nichiren’s argument for the need to use the way of subduing is developed further in the Nyosetsu Shugyō-shō (True Way of Practicing the Teaching of the Buddha).

All those who want to practice Buddhism should know that there are two ways of propagation, embracing and subduing. All Buddhist scriptures, sūtras and commentaries must be propagated through these two ways. However, scholars in Japan today, though they seem to have learned Buddhism in general, do not know how to meet the needs of the time. The four seasons differ from one another. It is warm in summer and cold in winter, flowers bloom in spring and trees bear fruit and nuts in autumn. How can we harvest crops in spring by planting seeds in the fall? Heavy clothes are for the cold winter, not the hot summer. A cool breeze is needed in the summer and not in the winter.

The same could be said of Buddhism. There are times when Hīnayāna teachings can be spread effectively, and times when provisional Mahāyāna teachings might be more effective. Still other times might call for the True Dharma to be disseminated for the attainment of buddhahood. The 2,000-year period following the death of Śākyamuni Buddha, namely the Ages of the True Dharma and Semblance Dharma, is the time for the Hīnayāna and provisional Mahāyāna teachings to be spread. The 500-year period at the beginning of the Latter Age of the Dharma is the time exclusively for the pure, perfect, only real teaching of the Lotus Sūtra to be disseminated. This is the time when quarrels and disputes are rampant, the True Dharma is hidden and the difference between the true and provisional teachings is blurred. It is said in the Nirvāna Sūtra: “Arm yourself with swords, staves, and bow and arrows when there are enemies of the True Dharma; it is no use having them when there are no enemies.” Provisional teachings today are enemies of the True Dharma. If provisional teachings stand in your way as you try to spread the One Vehicle teaching of the Lotus Sūtra, you should thoroughly refute them. Of the two ways of propagation, this is the way of subduing of the Lotus Sūtra. Grand Master T’ien-t’ai declares in his Profound Meaning of the Lotus Sūtra, fascicle 9: “The Lotus Sūtra is the teaching of subduing, the denouncing of the provisional teachings.” How true this is!

In spite of this, suppose we perform the four peaceful practices today with the body, mouth, mind, and vows as preached in the “Peaceful Practices” chapter of the Lotus Sūtra, is it not like trying to harvest crops in spring by planting seeds in winter? Roosters crow at dawn; if they crow in the evening, they are like strange ghosts. At the time when true and provisional teachings are confused, are not those who seclude themselves in mountain forests and practice the way of embracing, without refuting the enemies of the Lotus Sūtra, like ghosts who have missed the time for practicing the Lotus Sūtra? Then is there anyone today, in the Latter Age of the Dharma, who is practicing the way of subduing as it is preached in the Lotus Sūtra? Suppose someone cried out loudly without sparing his voice: No sūtra except the Lotus Sūtra is the way leading to buddhahood; others are the way to hell; the Lotus Sūtra alone is the way leading to buddhahood.” Anyone who proclaims these words and challenges the schools of Buddhism, both their teachings and people, will without fail encounter the three kinds of powerful enemies. (Hori 2007, pp. 85-86 adapted)

What it means to say that the provisional teachings lead to hell when they contradict the Lotus Sūtra and the reference to the three kinds of powerful enemies has all been discussed previously in this commentary. So I will not say anything further about those issues here. What is of interest in this passage is that it makes the point that the T’ien-t’ai tradition sees the Lotus Sūtra as the sūtra of subduing evil because it forthrightly proclaims the teaching of the One Vehicle and the eternity of the Buddha’s lifespan, thus revealing the shortcomings of the other teachings. Simply to proclaim the Lotus Sūtra as the Buddha’s supreme teaching is itself to take up the way of subduing because it challenges the claims of the other sūtras that certain people cannot attain buddhahood or that the Buddha is no longer present and active in our lives. In refuting the provisional teaching, Nichiren felt that he was only following the Buddha’s example. In Jissōji Gosho (A Letter to Buzen-kō at the Jissōji Temple), Nichiren wrote:

Whenever Śākyamuni Buddha, the Buddha of Many Treasures, and various buddhas from all over the universe preach the Lotus Sūtra, they first refute the provisional teachings by revealing the true teaching in order to cut off the audience’s attachment to the provisional teachings before leading them into the true teachings. Now, if you call me, Nichiren, who refutes the provisional teachings by the true teaching, blind, is Śākyamuni Buddha, too, blind? Are T’ien-t’ai and Dengyō blind teachers? It is laughable indeed. (Hori 2008, pp. 187-8)

Furthermore, the method of subduing, of refuting the shortcomings of other Buddhist teachings is to be taken up at the time when the other teachings have become preferred to the Lotus Sūtra. In the past, the other teachings were laying the groundwork for what is taught in the Lotus Sūtra, but in the Latter Age of the Dharma they become themselves objects of clinging that distract from the Lotus Sūtra or even turn people away from it. When this happens the time has arrived to use the method of subduing rather than that of embracing.

Nichiren’s Application of the Way of Subduing

At this point I would like to examine how Nichiren personally applied the way of subduing and what he taught his monastic and lay followers about applying it. One issue that I would like to address first is whether Nichiren was encouraging his followers to become belligerent and fight with those who refused to believe in the Lotus Sūtra in the same way they did. The answer is that he clearly did not. In fact, he even told them not to take up arms even if provoked. In response to the persecution of Nichiren’s lay followers in the village of Atsuwara, he sent a letter called Shōnin Gonan Ji (Persecution Befalling Nichiren Shōnin) to his follower Shijō Kingo. In that letter he wrote: “Even if they cause a commotion by taking up arms against my followers, we should not act likewise. If any follower of mine tries to take up arms, please send me his name at once.” (Hori 2008, p. 120) Nichiren was clearly opposed to violence on the part of his followers even in the face of provocation.

Another issue is the tone of Nichiren’s rhetoric. He clearly was not following the peaceful practices of chapter 14 of the Lotus Sūtra in his harsh criticisms of specific monks, both those who had passed away and those who were contemporaries. Nichiren was very conscious of the fact that people found his critical stance and the tone he sometimes took questionable. In Shōmitsu-bō Gosho (A Letter to Shōmitsu-bō) he responds to the following question: Question: Is there any reason for you alone to speak ill of Kūkai and Śubhākarasimha? Answer: I am not criticizing them; I simply intend to clarify any doubts about them. If you get angry with me, I can’t help it. (Ibid, p. 163) People were, and continue to be, put off by Nichiren’s prophetic warnings about the dire fate Japan faced of invasion by the Mongols if the Japanese people did not turn away from the provisional teachings and uphold the Lotus Sūtra. Nichiren was well aware that people thought he was just issuing hateful threats. His motivation was the compassionate one of correcting error so that people would not have to suffer such an invasion. To Shijō Kingo he wrote:

When I say this, the ruler of the country might think that I am issuing threats, but I do not say this out of hatred. I say this out of compassion; I hope to save them from the torment of the Hell of Incessant Suffering in future lives by enduring light retribution in this life. Grand Master Chang-an states in his Annotations on the Nirvāna Sūtra, “To remove the evil of another is to be like a compassionate parent.” According to this I am the mother and father of the ruler of the country and the teacher for all the living beings. (Hori 2010, pp. 128-129)

Nichiren felt that it was compassionate and kind to speak seemingly harsh words if it would get people to reconsider their positions, avoid slander, and embrace a more authentic path, whereas it was actually cruel to say only what is agreeable to the listener. In this Nichiren is in agreement with the Buddha who had advised that one should only speak in a timely manner what is true and beneficial, regardless of whether it is agreeable or not. What is agreeable should not be spoken if it is untrue or not of any benefit. In a letter attributed to Nichiren, the writer says:

Even though one may resort to harsh words, if such words help the person to whom they are addressed, then they are worthy to be regarded as truthful words and gentle words. Similarly, though one may use gentle words, if they harm the person to whom they are addressed, they are in fact deceptive words, harsh words. (Gosho Translation Committee 1999, p. 178)

People may question whether Nichiren was really compassionate or just dogmatic and self-righteous. That is something that no one can possibly judge. Obviously those of us who are his modern day followers give him the benefit of the doubt and take him at his word that his motivation was compassion, and that his denunciation of other monks was rooted in his earnest desire to correct error and proclaim the True Dharma. The important thing for us is to keep in mind that when we discuss Buddhism with others we must always make sure that we are speaking out of compassion and not some lesser and more egotistic motivation.

Another issue to be addressed is the appropriateness of insisting on teaching the Lotus Sūtra to those who do not wish to hear it, or who are not able to really appreciate its significance. Isn’t this unskillful? Wouldn’t it be better to just let people learn and practice those Buddhist teachings that they find meaningful and encourage them in that, as the way of embracing suggests? Then, when they are ready they may come to the Lotus Sūtra on their own, and until then they will not feel any antagonism towards it because it has not been used to challenge their own beliefs and practices. Nichiren also addresses this issue in Kyō Ki Ji Koku Shō (Treatise on the Teaching, Capacity, Time and Country).

Question: How should we comprehend the statement in chapter 3, “A Parable,” of the Lotus Sūtra, “You should not expound this sutra to ignorant people”?

Answer: This applies to wise masters, who are able to discern the capacity of people, not to ordinary masters in the Latter Age of Degeneration.

We should also solely expound the Lotus Sūtra to those who slander the Dharma. This would establish the connection of a poisonous drum between the unfaithful people and the Lotus Sūtra as it is said that the sound of a drum smeared with poison kills a man who hears them. It is like the practice of Never-Despising Bodhisattva preached in the “Never-Despising Bodhisattva” chapter of the Lotus Sūtra.

If a person has the capacity of a wise man, though, we should teach him the Hīnayāna sūtras first of all, then the provisional Mahāyāna sūtras, and finally the true Mahāyāna sūtra, the Lotus Sūtra. If a man is deemed ignorant, however, we should teach him the true Mahāyāna sūtra from the start, as it can plant the seed of buddhahood in both believers and slanderers. (Hori 2004, pp. 97-98)

Nichiren is saying that if one is a truly skillful teacher who is teaching someone who has the ability to understand Buddhism on a very deep level and who is open to learning then certainly Buddhism should be taught systematically starting with the basics taught in the pre-Mahāyāna teachings, proceeding on to the Mahāyāna developments, and finally arriving at the teaching of the Lotus Sūtra. Nichiren assumes a very different set of circumstances, however. He says that those who are not skillful teachers in the Latter Age of the Dharma who is encountering people who are incapable of understanding Buddhism on a deep level or who are even opposed to the Lotus Sūtra because they cling to lesser teachings should simply proclaim the Lotus Sūtra at the start so that people can at least make a connection with it, even if it might initially be a negative one. Otherwise, they would lose their opportunity to hear and connect with the sūtra at all. In support of this reasoning, Nichiren alludes to the simile of the poison drum from the Nirvāna Sūtra. In the Nirvāna Sūtra the teaching of the Nirvāna Sūtra is said to kill the ignorance of even those who are opposed to it, in the same way that a drum smeared with poison will kill those who hear the drum, even if they do not want to hear it. The idea is that the poison smeared on the drum will spread outward with the sound of the drum and kill those who hear it, likewise the sound of the Dharma will ultimately defeat ignorance, even if those who hear it are initially opposed to it. (See Yamamoto, p. 232)

Application of the Two Methods Today

Today, Nichiren Buddhists must decide for themselves whether to apply the way of embracing or the way of subduing and also determine what that means in our own circumstances. Are we living in a time when most people are Buddhists who are actively clinging to the provisional teachings and consciously rejecting the Lotus Sūtra? Or are we living in a time and in places where most people are not Buddhists, and are totally ignorant of any Buddhist teaching let alone the Lotus Sūtra? In fact, even in countries that have a long tradition of Mahāyāna Buddhism I think it could be said that most people are only nominally Buddhists and that far from clinging to one teaching over another they are mostly indifferent and regard all the sūtras and teachings as equally inexplicable and irrelevant to daily life in the modern world whose cosmology is based on materialistic science. Nichiren lived in an age when rival groups of Buddhists were neglecting or even actively rejecting the Lotus Sūtra. Most of us live in an age where Buddhism is itself unknown, neglected, or rejected and where even those who profess to be religious are more often than not those who follow consumerism and capitalism wherein the reigning ideology is to try to get the most while giving the least. This would seem to argue for the use of the method of embracing because if we go by the criteria set in the Kaimoku-shō the majority of people are ignorant of the Dharma while those who use provisional Buddhist teachings to argue for the neglect or rejection of the Lotus Sūtra are comparatively rare.

In addition, in countries wherein church and state are constitutionally separate and there is freedom of religion there is no need to have Buddhist laypeople take up arms to protect pure monks who preach the True Dharma. Many people in democratic industrialized nations enjoy freedom of religion, and are free from oppression by the state. The police are expected to deal with any attacks or hate crimes perpetrated against those who are peacefully and lawfully practicing their religion. So the question of whether or not one should take up arms or abide by the five precepts is rendered moot for most of us fortunate enough to be living in countries where we have freedom of religion. I suppose the question would still be relevant to Buddhists laypeople who are police officers or who have joined the armed forces. If one is indeed maintaining the security of the state and law and order within the state, then the Nirvāna Sūtra would seem to sanction laypeople taking up arms for that purpose. Still, the sūtra also warns that even the armed laypeople should refrain from killing. Certainly there were kings, generals, and soldiers who were lay Buddhists even during the Buddha’s lifetime. The Buddha did not demand that they become pacifists or quit their duties, but they did take the five precepts, and there are occasions in the sūtras wherein the Buddha counsels kings against holding animal sacrifices or from engaging in war of aggression or even administering capital punishment against criminals.

Also, in examining Nichiren’s letters to lay followers and those monks who were helping him with propagation it becomes evident that even though he generally called for the way of subduing he still counseled his lay followers to be circumspect about their faith and he told his monks to refrain from getting into debates indiscriminately and when in a debate to behave with decorum. I think it is very important to review some of these passages of guidance.

In a letter to Shijō Kingo, Nichiren acknowledges that it is one thing for Nichiren, a celibate monk with no family whose whole life is dedicated to studying and practicing the Dharma, to provoke and endure persecution but quite another for laypeople with families to have to face persecution:

I myself may be able to endure attacks with sticks and pieces of wood, withstand rubble and debris thrown at me, vilification, and persecution by the ruler of a country, but how can lay believers who have a wife and children and no knowledge of Buddhism bear these difficulties? Wouldn’t it have been better instead for such people not to have believed in the Lotus Sūtra? I have been feeling sorry for you thinking that if you couldn’t carry through your faith, which is for temporary comfort, you would be mocked and ridiculed. However, it was wonderful that you showed the steadfastness of your faith throughout numerous persecutions including two banishments. Though you were threatened by your lord, you wrote this written pledge swearing to carry through your faith in the Lotus Sūtra even at the cost of fiefs in two places. Words cannot describe your commendable aspiration. (Hori 2010, p. 142)

In light of this, Nichiren advised his lay followers to be circumspect and careful about whom they speak with about Buddhism. For instance he gave the following advice to Lord Misawa:

That all of you are not as versed in Buddhism as is Nichiren, that you are secular, own property, have wives and children, as well as men in your employ must make it difficult for you to persevere in maintaining faith. So being the case, I have long said that you may pretend not to be believers of the Lotus Sūtra. As you all have come to Nichiren’s aid, I will not disown you under any circumstance. I shall never neglect you. (Hori 2002, p. 241)

This does not mean that Nichiren intended for anyone to deny the Lotus Sūtra itself. He was simply saying that lay followers did not need to advertise their faith and so bring trouble down on themselves. To the lay follower Nanjō Tokimitsu he gave the following advise so as to avoid having people harass him and try to talk him out of his faith in the Lotus Sūtra: “I advise you to get to the bottom of the situation and not to show off your faith simply and carelessly.” (Hori 2007, p. 112) He also advises him to “always speak gently” and to tell those who try to destroy his faith to mind their own business. He does not tell him to try to argue back, much less to aggressively proselytize. What Nichiren expected of his lay followers, especially those who were uneducated or who had no deep understanding of Buddhism, was just this: “Therefore ignorant people today should believe in Śākyamuni Buddha as the focus of devotion, and they will automatically be able to avoid being unfilial to the Buddha. If they, moreover, believe in the Lotus Sūtra, they will be able to avoid unknowingly committing the sin of slandering the True Dharma. (Ibid, p. 54)

Nichiren gave the following advice to Toki Jōnin, an educated lay follower: “The debate this time turned out to be victorious for you; however, you should not engage in a polemic debate in Shimofusa Province (northern Chiba Prefecture) again. By defeating such scholars as Ryōshō-bō and Shi’nen in a debate, I am afraid, it would be beneath your dignity to meet with others in debate.” (Hori 2002, p. 279-280) So Nichiren did not discourage those who were able to do so from participating in public debates (a kind of formal event at the time in Japan), but advised against getting involved in useless debates.

Nichiren even advised fellow monks to be circumspect about the particular teachings that he was sharing with them in his writings. In the cover letter to the Hōon-jō (Essay on Gratitude) he said to the monk Jōken-bo: “I want you to remember not to speak about Buddhist doctrines to anyone who does not believe in them, regardless of how close he is to you.” (Hori 2004, p. 64) He also said, “As for the writing of mine, Hōon-jō, it contains deeply significant doctrine, which should not be revealed to those who do not deserve to listen to it. Otherwise, it might bring about unexpected harm to you and to us if its content is revealed to many. (Ibid, p. 65) From this we can see that Nichiren did not intend for his teachings to be pushed onto others who do not care about Buddhism, and that he expected even his fellow monks to be tactful and reserved in regard to the particulars of his teaching and practice. Certainly Nichiren publicly called for his contemporaries to turn away from lesser teachings, uphold the Lotus Sūtra, and to take up the practice of chanting Odaimoku; but he apparently felt that the particulars of his teaching, such as the specific criticisms of other schools, or those teachings pertaining to the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha as the true focus of devotion, or the precept platform of the Original Gate of the Lotus Sūtra, were things to be held in reserve for those who had already taken sincere faith in the Lotus Sūtra of for formal debates.

There were of course occasions when a formal public debate involving monks or even educated lay followers such as Toki Jōnin would occur. In a letter attributed to Nichiren, the writer advises a monk named Sammi-bo about what to say in a debate and just as importantly how to say it: “Say these things mildly but firmly in a quiet voice with a calm gaze and an even expression.” (Gosho Translation Committee 1999, p. 478) At the end of the letter, the writer advises:

When in public debate, although the teachings that you advocate are perfectly consistent with the truth, you should never on that account be impolite or abusive, or display a conceited attitude. Such conduct would be disgraceful. Order your thoughts, words, and actions carefully, and be prudent when you meet with others in debate. (Ibid, p. 483)

Though it is highly unlikely that anyone today would ever be involved in a formal religious debate such as were held in medieval Japan, the advice given would still make sense today whenever there is occasion to discuss Buddhism with friends, acquaintances, or inquirers. The attitude and tone of discussion should always be calm, respectful, and compassionate even when there is disagreement, whether the discussion is face-to-face or online.

Nichiren Shu’s handbook for Nichiren Shu members, also discusses the two ways of embracing (shōju) and subduing (shakubuku). It does not come out and say whether today’s situation calls for one or the other, though it does say, just as Nichiren says in Kaimoku-shō, that which we should use depends on the circumstances. The passage also cautions against using the method of subduing as an excuse for boorish or violent behavior, and states that those who would use the method of subduing should first have great self-discipline. All of this is in line with the passage from Nichiren’s writings cited above.

Faith cannot be forced upon others, nor can we make someone believe through force. It is wrong to resort to intimidation and force, saying it is shakubuku, a means of spreading the Lotus Sutra.

Shakubuku is a strict way of spreading Buddhism to awaken religious feeling in others so that they would be converted. On the other hand, shōju is a gentle way of persuasion according to the individual and circumstance. To resort to shakubuku as a way of persuasion, the person must strictly discipline himself first. By observing the life of our Founder, who risked his life to spread the teachings of the Buddha in order to repent and redeem his bad karma in his previous lives, we should know there are two ways of spreading the Lotus Sutra. Nichiren Shōnin said, “Whether we should use the method of shakubuku or shōju depends in the circumstances.” (Hori 1986, p. 7)

In this and the last two chapters of this commentary I have surveyed what has been said about the ways of embracing and subduing by Śākyamuni Buddha in the sūtras, by Chih-i and other T’ien-t’ai patriarchs and teachers, by Nichiren, and by Nichiren Shū. I would now like to share my own personal understanding of the ways of embracing and subduing. It seems to me that the way of embracing is the way of peacefully minding one’s own business and contemplating the Dharma in private while still being prepared and able to teach others if they ask about Buddhism in a way that will encourage them where they are in their own understanding and according to their own ability. The way of subduing is the way of public witness to the truth, and that may include denouncing corrupt or false teachings and practices that are going by the name of Buddhism. The way of subduing does not cater to limited views and understandings of Buddhism but more forthrightly challenges or even goads fellow Buddhists to aim for the ultimate realization and actualization of buddhahood. It is a way based on compassion and courage that may provoke hostility in those who do not wish to have their views challenged. The way of subduing also allows for the legitimate and lawful defense of those who speak the truth from violence and oppression.

I feel that, going by Nichiren’s criteria, the circumstances of today more often than not require the method of embracing as most people are simply ignorant about Buddhism and are not slanderers of the Lotus Sūtra, which is to say Buddhists who are trying to get people to neglect or reject the Lotus Sūtra. We are all now countries of “evil and ignorant people” who do not know enough about Buddhism to be considered slanderers, I would include countries that have historically been Buddhist but whose populations are nominally Buddhist at most. This is not to say that there are no people who are misrepresenting or slandering Buddhism because there certainly are. Some of these people are hipsters who think they know more than they do, some are atheists who take a reductionist view towards Buddhism (either because they decry it as a religion or because they think they are praising it for not being an atheistic philosophy), some are members of other religions who see Buddhism as a rival or false teaching that must be denounced, and some are Buddhists who are perpetuating some of the same errors and corrupt practices that Nichiren and other reformers before and after him have striven to correct. I do think it is important to address such distortions when they are encountered, especially those pertaining to the teaching and/or practice of the Lotus Sūtra. On the whole however, I feel it is better to not look for controversy or embark upon any reformist crusades but rather to try to exemplify the teachings in one’s own life and to have a positive impact on the people one actually has personal interactions with.

When it comes to teaching the Dharma, I think it is very important to teach on the basis of personal experience with Buddhist practice under competent teachers. Teaching must be used to inform practice and practice is necessary to actualize the teachings. I think this is true whether one is following the way of embracing or subduing. And of course both the ways of propagation are not simply to spread a sterile or abstract teaching but to lead the way to practice. How can we do this if we are not cultivating the practice ourselves?

Also, when teaching I think it is very important to keep in mind what both Nichiren and the Buddha taught: to only speak of what is true and beneficial, and to speak at the appropriate time – when the listener will be the most receptive to the message or at least when a warning must be given even if it will be rejected. While the truth may be agreeable or disagreeable to the listener, it is important that we make sure we are speaking out of compassion and not arrogance, egoism, or some misguided sectarianism. Really, I think the application of the ways of embracing and subduing come down to our own good sense. In the end, it is about embracing what is wholesome in others and in ourselves whenever we can, but also subduing what is unwholesome in ourselves and others when that is called for. It is about encouraging the cultivation of Buddhism until the fulfillment of its highest aim, but also subduing any complacence or other negative attitudes or unwholesome attachments that would prevent the realization and actualization of Buddhism’s highest aim.


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

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Hori, Kyotsu, trans. Shingyō Hikkei: A Handbook for Members of the Nichiren Order. Tokyo: Nichiren Order, 1986.

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

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________________. Writings of Nichiren Shonin: Faith and Practice Volume 4. Tokyo: Nichiren Shu Overseas Propagation Promotion Association, 2007.

________________. Writings of Nichiren Shonin: Biography and Disciples Volume 5. Tokyo: Nichiren Shu Overseas Propagation Promotion Association, 2008.

________________. Writings of Nichiren Shonin: Followers Volume 6. Tokyo: Nichiren Shu Overseas Propagation Promotion Association, 2010.

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

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