Writings of Nichiren Shōnin Doctrine 2, pp. 129, 137-139, 144, 149
Two Nichiren Texts, pp. 66, 76-79, 86, 92
The Writings of Nichiren Daishōnin I, pp. 355, 359-360, 364, 367
Throughout Kanjin Honzon-shō, Nichiren assumes familiarity on the part of his readers with Śākyamuni Buddha, especially as he is depicted in the Mahāyāna sūtras. Nichiren also relies upon a distinct interpretation of the life and significance of the Buddha and his accomplishments that comes from the T’ien-t’ai school of Buddhism that Nichiren was ordained and trained in from an early age. This T’ien-t’ai view of the Buddha is itself inspired by the Lotus Sūtra. Because Nichiren relies upon this particular understanding of the Buddha and because so much else that he writes about traces back to the life and teachings of Śākyamuni Buddha, I think it is important to go over the basics of the Buddha’s life and teachings and especially to note how Nichiren and his contemporaries viewed the Buddha.
Some scholars, notably Hajime Nakamura (1912-1999), estimate that the historical Siddhārtha Gautama, the young man who would become Śākyamuni Buddha, was born in the year 463 BCE. According to the accounts in the Pāli Canon he left home at the age of 29 to practice yoga and asceticism for six years and then attained buddhahood under the Bodhi Tree at the age of 35. He passed away at the age of 80 in the year 383 BCE. Some scholars might push these dates back as far as a century. Nichiren and his contemporaries, however, going by a text called the Record of Wonders in the Book of Chou, whose Chinese author wanted to set the date for the Buddha’s appearance during the auspicious period of the founding of the Chou dynasty, believed that the Buddha was born on the eighth day of the fourth month of 1029 BCE and died on the fifteenth day of the second month of 949 BCE. Furthermore, Nichiren and his East Asian contemporaries accepted the time line of the Buddha’s life taken from the Treatise on the Great Perfection of Wisdom Sūtra attributed to Nāgārjuna (but possibly written by its ostensible translator Kumārajīva). In that treatise, Siddhārtha left home at the age of 19, spent 12 years practicing asceticism in the Himalayas (counting the year that he was 19) and attained awakening under the Bodhi Tree at the age of 30. He then spent the next 50 years teaching, culminating in the expounding of the Lotus Sūtra. At the age of 80 he passed away (or attained parinirvāna).
According to the basic story, which is to say the pre-Lotus Sūtra story, the Buddha’s path to awakening actually began countless lifetimes before his birth as Siddhārtha Gautama. Up to a certain point, the sentient being that would someday become Śākyamuni Buddha was a wanderer, like us, among the six worlds of rebirth (the hell-dwellers, hungry ghosts, animals, fighting demons, humans, and heavenly beings). In order to escape the round of rebirth, there were three options that could be taken. One way was to encounter a buddha or “awakened one” and become a śrāvaka (lit. voice-hearer) or disciple of that buddha, hear the Dharma from him, practice the Dharma, and thereby extinguish all the defilements that lead to rebirth. A disciple of a buddha who attained liberation in this way would be called an arhat (lit. worthy one). Another way would be to contemplate causes and conditions directly and attain awakening, becoming a pratyekabuddha (lit. private buddha). A pratyekabuddha, like an arhat, is also liberated from the cycle of rebirth. Together, these first two options would become known as the “two vehicles” that lead to liberation from rebirth. The third option was to make the determination to take up the path of a bodhisattva and someday attain buddhahood, thereby liberating not only oneself but also providing the means whereby others could attain liberation.
Three innumerable eons ago, the bodhisattva who would become Śākyamuni Buddha aroused the “awakening mind” (S. bodhicitta) that aspires to attain spiritual awakening for the sake of oneself and others. From that point on, for lifetime after lifetime, he sought wisdom and accumulated merit through countless deeds of compassionate self-sacrifice. One innumerable eon ago, the bodhisattva was a young brahmin (a member of priestly caste in Indian society) named Learned Youth (Skt. Mānava) who encountered a Buddha named Burning Light (Skt. Dīpamkara). In the presence of Burning Light Buddha the bodhisattva made his vow to attain buddhahood and Burning Light Buddha conferred upon him the prediction that he would someday attain perfect complete awakening and be known as Śākyamuni Buddha.
Throughout these eons of accumulating merit and wisdom over countless rebirths, the bodhisattva who would become Śākyamuni Buddha cultivated the six perfections of a bodhisattva: generosity, morality, patience, energy, meditation, and wisdom. Many stories of Śākyamuni Buddha’s virtuous activities in past lives were collected into Jātaka or “Birth” stories of which there are hundreds. Nichiren alludes to several of these in his writings. In addition to the story about Learned Youth and Burning Light Buddha, he also refers to the Buddha’s past lives as Prince Mahādāna, King Śibi, and Prince Mahāsattva. As Prince Mahādāna, the bodhisattva was a prince who gave away all his family’s wealth to help the impoverished and then went in search of the wish-fulfilling jewel (Skt. cintāmani) so that he could conjure enough food clothing, medicine, and other items to meet everyone’s needs. He manages to receive the jewel from the king of the nāgas (dragons who control the waters), but the lesser nāgas steal it back. Prince Mahādāna then tries to empty the oceans with a turtle shell until they give it back. He is helped in his efforts by the gods who are sympathetic to his cause and his earnest efforts to get the jewel back. With the help of the gods the nāga are convinced to return the wish-fulfilling jewel, and so Prince Mahādāna is able to return home and use the jewel for the benefit of all. In his past life as King Śibi, the gods Indra and Viśvakarman took the forms of a hawk and a dove respectively to test the bodhisattva. The dove flew to the king seeking refuge but the hawk demanded he be given his lawful prey. The king offered to give the hawk an amount of his own flesh equal to the weight of the dove. No amount of flesh could equal the dove’s weight on the scales however, and so in the end King Śibi put his whole body on the scale. At this point the gods revealed their true forms and healed King Śibi, praising him for his boundless love and generosity. As Prince Mahāsattva he gave himself once again to be eaten by a hungry tigress and her starving cubs. The point of these rather fanciful tales is that a bodhisattva is motivated solely by selfless compassion and is willing to give even his life countless times for the sake of other beings.
Along with cultivating the six perfections the bodhisattva gradually overcomes what in T’ien-t’ai Buddhism are called the three categories of delusion. First he overcame the delusions of views and attitudes that bind sentient beings to the cycle of birth and death (S. samsāra) amid the six worlds. These deluded views and attitudes consist of the ten following defilements:
- debilitating doubt
- mistaken view of an independent, fixed self
- extreme views of eternalism or annihilationism
- heretical views that deny causality
- attachment to false views
- attachment to non-Buddhist precepts
Having overcome these defilements, the bodhisattva was able to overcome what the T’ien-t’ai school calls “transmigration with differences and limitations”, in other words he was free of compulsory rebirth within the six worlds wherein sentient beings are differentiated and limited by the effects of their positive and negative karma. By overcoming deluded views and attitudes the bodhisattva was able to see that what we regard as the “self” is actually empty of any fixed, independent substance. This is because all phenomena, including our own subjectivity and all mental and physical objects of which we are aware, arise and cease as ever changing conglomerations of causes and conditions with no underlying essence. Knowing for himself the emptiness of the self and all conditioned phenomena, the bodhisattva was able to relinquish all those selfish and deluded habits of mind and heart that bind sentient beings to the ups and downs of the transient, disappointing, and painful conditions of life within the six worlds.
The bodhisattva then overcame the delusions innumerable as grains of sand. Though no longer bound to the six worlds, the bodhisattva still appeared within them in accordance with his vows to save all sentient beings and not abandon them until he had attained buddhahood. He thereby provided teachings that would enable others to liberate themselves from suffering. Delusions innumerable as grains of sand refer to those that obscure a bodhisattva’s ability to deal appropriately with any and every particular situation that may arise. Though the emptiness of self and phenomena has been realized, phenomena still exists in terms of the interdependent flow of causes and conditions. The bodhisattva had to learn to accurately assess and minister to these causes and conditions: knowing when to give wealth, or when to withhold it, knowing when the time is ripe to give instruction in renunciation, knowing what method of meditation to teach particular people in accordance with their abilities and interests, meeting every situation with courage, loving-kindness, and a selfless spirit of compassion. By overcoming delusions innumerable as grains of sand the bodhisattva was able to remain engaged in the world in a positive way for the sake of all sentient beings.
The final delusion overcome by the bodhisattva was fundamental ignorance. Fundamental ignorance obscures the true reality that is the Middle Way that encompasses both the empty nature of phenomena and its contingent provisional existence. The Middle Way is ungraspable and inconceivable, yet it is also the dynamic and spontaneous source of all virtuous qualities. As the bodhisattva progressed, he saw that the empty and provisional nature of phenomena were not two separate things but two aspects of the true reality that is the Middle Way. Emptiness is not a thing but the true nature of phenomena that is provisionally existent in accord with causes and conditions. Provisional existence is thoroughly empty of any fixed, independent substance. The Middle Way is the total mutual implication of emptiness and provisional existence as the liberating and dynamic true nature of reality. By overcoming fundamental ignorance the bodhisattva attained buddhahood and transcended even the “transmigration of change and advance” that characterizes the rebirths taken by the bodhisattvas and even the arhats and pratyekabuddhas (who believe themselves to be exempt from rebirth but in fact find themselves taking up the way of the bodhisattva according to the One Vehicle teaching of the Lotus Sūtra). What this means, in terms of the basic understanding of Buddhism, is that upon attaining perfect and complete awakening the Buddha no longer needed to take rebirth to accumulate merit and wisdom because he had attained the goal that he started out for three innumerable eons before.
Nichiren sometimes alludes to the eight major events of the Buddha’s life. This is the East Asian way of summing up the story of Śākyamuni Buddha:
- Descent from the Tushita Heaven – Before his last earthly rebirth, the future Buddha lived in the Heaven of Contentment (Skt. Tushita) awaiting the right time, place and family for his final rebirth.
- Entering Queen Māyā’s womb – When the right conditions arose Queen Māyā of Kapilavastu had a most singular dream. She dreamed that a six tusked white elephant holding a white lotus flower in its trunk circled around her three times and then entered into her womb. At that moment Queen Māyā conceived the bodhisattva.
- Emerging from Queen Māyā’s womb – Queen Māyā gave birth to him painlessly while standing up and holding onto a sal tree branch while visiting the Lumbinī Garden near Kapilavastu. The legend states that immediately upon entering the world, the young Prince Siddhārtha took seven steps and made the following statement: “I am born for awakening for the good of the world; this is my last birth in the world of phenomena.” (Johnston, part II, p. 4)
- Leaving home – After witnessing an old man, a sick man, a funeral procession, and a religious mendicant, Prince Siddhārtha left his family (his father King Śuddhodana, his wife Yaśodharā, and his son Rahula) and became an forest ascetic.
- Overcoming Māra – After turning away from asceticism, the bodhisattva sat beneath the Bodhi Tree at Bodhgaya and overcame temptations and distractions of the demon Māra.
- Attaining perfect and complete awakening – As the morning star (Venus?) rose in the morning sky, the bodhisattva attained buddhahood and henceforth became known as Śākyamuni Buddha.
- Turning the Wheel of the Dharma – Starting at the Deer Park near the city of Vārānasī, the Buddha began to teach the Dharma and continued to do so for 50 years.
- Entering parinirvāna – At the age of 80, the Buddha passed away beneath the twin sal trees near the city of Kuśinagara.
At this point I would like to elaborate on some of these phases of the Buddha’s life, especially as they pertain to themes that Nichiren takes up in Kanjin Honzon-shō.
After Siddhārtha left the palace and took up the way of the wandering mendicant himself, he studied with two great masters of the yogic meditation tradition that predated Buddhism. The first yoga instructor was Ārāda Kālāma, who had attained a state wherein one experiences freedom from the material world in the state of nothingness. Siddhārtha rapidly achieved this state as well under Ārāda Kālāma’s instruction, but he found that it was not the final end of suffering but only a temporary altered state of consciousness. He then studied with Rudraka Rāmaputra, who was able to enter into a state wherein there is neither perception nor non-perception. This was also a temporary state. Siddhārtha saw that altered states of consciousness brought about by yogic discipline could not change one’s life or provide any meaningful answers to life’s problems. By the same token, the heavenly realms that were supposed to correspond to these meditative states were also only temporary, though those born into them as the fruit of their spiritual practice might reside in those heavens for millions of years in worldly terms. Eventually even the gods must fall back into the evil worlds of the hells, hungry ghosts, and animals when they have exhausted the merit gained from their previous meritorious practice.
Having tried yoga, Siddhārtha then joined a band of five ascetics and lived a very austere and reclusive life for six years. He hoped that a life of self-denial and severe discipline would give him the clarity he needed to find an answer. The ascetics took up such ascetic practices as bathing repeatedly in the Ganges River in cold weather, pulling out one’s hair, jumping off rocks, setting one’s body on fire, and living naked. Siddhārtha took up the practice of fasting, to the point where he was eating only one grain of rice a day. After six years of this, the Buddha was so weakened from fasting that he was close to death and still no closer to his goal. In fact, he passed out by the side of the Nairañjanā River while trying to get some water. A village woman named Sujātā, who was stirred by compassion for him, nursed him back to health with rice-gruel and saved him from death. Siddhārtha realized that the self-denial practiced by many bands of ascetics is as much of a hindrance to achieving spiritual awakening as self-indulgence. It was then that he realized the Middle Way between self-indulgence and self-denial.
Now the time had come for Siddhārtha to realize his ultimate aim. He recalled a day in his youth when he sat beneath a rose-apple tree in a state of calm abiding and clear awareness. He decided to again sit beneath a tree and reflect upon life in such a state of calm centered awareness. After regaining his health he went to the base of a fig tree near the town of Gaya, sat upon a mat made of grass and made the following vow: “Let only my skin, sinews, and bones remain and let the flesh and blood in my body dry up; but not until I attain supreme enlightenment will I give up this seat of meditation.” (Jayawickrama, p. 94) This may sound like an extreme attitude to take, but it was not his intention to return to asceticism or self-torture; rather, it was an expression of his single-minded dedication to achieving his goal.
Now, this aroused the ire of Māra, the Devil of the Sixth Heaven, whose name means “Stealer of Life.” The character of Māra may seem confusing to some people, so a little explanation may be called for here. The title “Devil of the Sixth Heaven” may seem very peculiar for instance, especially to those who associate devils and demons exclusively with hell and the nether world. The Indian conception of Māra, however, is different from the Christian conception of Satan, though there are similarities. In Indian cosmology, Māra is no mere punisher of evil people in an infernal afterlife or a celestial rebel against the true God. Instead, Māra is the being in charge of all existence involving passion and desire; in fact, he is also known as Kāmadeva, the god of desire whose weapons are the flowers of sensuality and longing which keeps sentient beings from realizing liberation. It is his responsibility as a kind of cosmic prison-warden to keep all sentient beings trapped in the cycle of birth and death. He ensures that they are constantly transmigrating through all types of existence from hellish to heavenly, always in pursuit of their desires. Māra is the stealer of life because it is his machinations that rob people of their life’s purpose, which is to achieve liberation.
So it was that Māra was very concerned that Siddhārtha was on the verge of liberation from his realm. As Siddhārtha took up his meditation beneath the Bodhi Tree (as the fig tree he sat under came to be called), Māra summoned his daughters and his demonic armies to prevent Siddhārtha from attaining enlightenment. His first attempt was to send in his beautiful daughters to tempt Siddhārtha back to a worldly life of sensual pleasures. When his daughters were unsuccessful, he turned to brute force by sending his army of demons. Once again, Siddhārtha was unmoved. Even when the demons shot arrows or threw boulders or balls of flame at him, he remained still and the missiles turned into flowers floating harmlessly to the ground. As a last resort, Mara himself appeared and challenged Siddhārtha, saying, “What gives you the right to presume that you can leave my realm of desire?” Siddhārtha’s reply was to place one hand upon the ground, thus calling the earth itself to witness that there was nowhere Siddhārtha had not sacrificed himself in previous lifetimes for the sake of the liberation and awakening of all sentient beings. Māra could do no more, and so fled with his army. Siddhārtha’s compassion and dedication had enabled him to subjugate Māra and overcome all his temptations and threats.
Now that all of the distractions, doubts and unconscious inhibitions symbolized by the demon army were cleared away, Siddhārtha began to gain greater and greater insight into the human condition beginning with his own life. He recollected all of the events in all of his previous lives and reviewed all of the causes and conditions that had enabled him to arrive at the Bodhi Tree. Next, his awareness took in the lives of all sentient beings, and he saw how their lives were also governed by the causes and conditions that they themselves had set in motion. Finally, he contemplated the chain of causation, whereby all things come into existence and sentient beings forge their own destiny. He saw that all sentient beings suffering within the cycle of birth and death are trapped there because of the ignorant pursuit of selfish desires. Siddhārtha realized that all suffering was due to a misapprehension of the nature of reality. As the night came to an end and the morning star rose into the dawn sky, Siddhārtha awakened to the true nature of life; from that point on he was known as Śākyamuni Buddha. The name Śākyamuni means “Sage of the Śākya Clan”; while the title Buddha means the “Awakened One”. “Tathāgata” is another name for the Buddha meaning both “Thus Come One” and “Thus Gone One”. It is a title that refers to the Buddha’s ability to come and go from the realm of Truth.
The Buddha remained in contemplation beneath the Bodhi Tree for several weeks after his awakening. There are two stories told concerning this time that come from the Connected Discourses (Samyutta Nikāya) of the Pāli Canon that I find particularly relevant to Nichiren Buddhism. Both incidents have to do with visitations of Brahmā. In Indian cosmology, Brahmā is believed to be the god of creation and lord of the universe. In the Buddhist perspective this does not make Brahmā superior to the Buddha, since even the gods are caught in the cycle of birth and death and their exalted positions are only temporary states. Because even divine beings such as Brahmā need to be liberated, the Buddha came to be known as the teacher of gods and men. In the first incident, right after his awakening, the Buddha considered, “One dwells in suffering if one is without reverence and deference. Now what ascetic or brahmin can I honor and respect and dwell in dependence on?” (Bodhi 2000, p. 234) Though in many past lifetimes the Buddha did have teachers, in that present lifetime as Siddhārtha there was no one that he could consider as his teacher or superior in terms of virtue, concentration, wisdom, liberation, or the knowledge and vision of liberation. Therefore he concluded, “Let me then honor, respect, and dwell in dependence on this very Dharma to which I have fully awakened.” (Ibid, p. 234) Brahmā then appeared, praised him, and spoke the following verses:
The Buddhas of the past,
The future Buddhas,
And he who is the Buddha now,
Removing the sorrow of many –
“All have dwelt, will dwell, and dwell,
Deeply revering the true Dharma:
For the Buddhas
This is a natural law.
“Therefore one desiring his own good,
Aspiring for spiritual greatness,
Should deeply revere the true Dharma,
Recollecting the Buddhas’ Teaching.”
(Ibid, p. 235)
This is interesting to me as a Nichiren Buddhist because “true Dharma” is equivalent to saddharma or Wonderful Dharma. The Wonderful Dharma is called Myōho in Japanese. To deeply revere and dwell and devote oneself to something or someone is what “Namu” means. So here we have Namu Myōhō, showing deep reverence to the Wonderful Dharma. This is of course the first half of the Odaimoku (lit. “Sacred Title”) of the Lotus Sūtra, and yet even in the Pāli Canon to honor, respect, and dwell in dependence just on the Dharma itself is asserted to be the practice of all Buddhas and all those who aspire to be Buddhas.
The next story involving Brahmā supplies the other half of the Odaimoku. As the Buddha considered how difficult it would be to teach and liberate others, Brahmā appeared again to plead the case of all sentient beings. Joining his hands in reverence before the Buddha he says, “Venerable sir, let the Blessed One teach the Dharma; let the Fortunate One teach the Dharma. There are beings with little dust in their eyes who are falling away because they do not hear the Dharma. There will be those who will understand the Dharma.” (Ibid, p. 232) This plea is also referred to in the Lotus Sūtra, with the difference that other Vedic deities accompany Brahmā.
On that occasion King Brahmā
Heavenly King Śakra,
The four heavenly world-guardian kings,
Great-Freedom God, and other gods [of each world],
And thousands and millions of their attendants
Joined their hands together [towards me] respectfully,
Bowed to me,
And asked me to turn the wheel of the Dharma.
(Murano 1991, p. 45)
Of course the Buddha has already vowed eons ago to work for the liberation of all beings, but it is always best to be invited to speak first rather than to try to impose one’s teachings upon others, no matter how valid or liberating they may be. So here Brahmā is representative of the deepest yearnings of all beings, from the highest to the lowest in terms of wisdom and spiritual maturity. The Buddha’s response acknowledges that some beings would have the capacity to benefit from the Buddha’s teachings and uses the analogy of lotuses in a pond, some of which are able to rise up above the muddy waters they are growing in.
Then the Blessed One, having understood Brahmā’s request out of compassion for beings surveyed the world with the eye of a Buddha. As he did so, the Blessed One saw beings with little dust in their eyes and with much dust in their eyes, with keen faculties and with dull faculties, with good qualities and with bad qualities, easy to teach and difficult to teach, and a few who dwelt seeing blame and fear in the other world. Just as in a pond of blue or red or white lotuses, some lotuses might be born in the water, grow up in the water, and thrive while submerged in the water, without rising up from the water; some lotuses might be born in the water, grow up in the water, and stand at an even level with the water; some lotuses might be born in the water and grow up in the water, but would rise up from the water and stand without being soiled by the water – so too, surveying the world with the eye of a Buddha, the Blessed One saw beings with little dust in their eyes and with much dust in their eyes, with keen faculties and with dull faculties, with good qualities and with bad qualities, easy to teach and hard to teach, and a few who dwell seeing blame and fear in the other world.”
Having seen this, he answered Brahmā Sahampati in verse:
“Open to them are the doors to the Deathless:
Let those who have ears release faith.
Foreseeing trouble, O Brahmā, I did not speak
The refined, sublime Dharma among human beings.”
(Bodhi 2000, p. 233)
So the Buddha does embark upon a 50-year long effort to teach others the Dharma. So with this second story the analogy of the lotus flower is introduced to show the purpose of the Buddha’s teachings, that purpose being to allow the spiritual nature of all beings to bloom so they can rise up above the muddy waters of ignorance, selfish craving, and suffering. In this story from the Connected Discourses it would appear that only a very select few would ever be capable of blooming in this way, just as only some lotuses are able to rise up above the muddy pond water. The Mahāyāna teachings, and especially the Lotus Sūtra, make it clear that all beings have the nature of a Buddha, are therefore capable of perfect and complete awakening, and that all who hear and take faith in the Wonderful Dharma will become bodhisattvas and eventually buddhas themselves. The Buddha says of his bodhisattva disciples, whom he regards as his children and heirs, “They are not defiled by worldliness just as the lotus-flower is not defiled by water.” (Murano 1991, p. 239) As a symbol the lotus flower is used both in the Pāli Canon and in the Mahāyāna sūtras, but in the former it only indicates that a few might be capable of hearing the Buddha’s teachings and putting them into practice so they will be liberated from suffering, while in the latter it symbolizes the blooming of the buddha-nature of all beings.
In Japanese, the Chinese characters for “lotus flower” are pronounced Renge and the character for the Buddha’s teaching or a sūtra (lit. “thread” as in a “thread of discourse”) is pronounced Kyō. So here is the other half of the Odaimoku. I find it interesting that in these two stories the practice of the Buddha is to revere and dwell in dependence upon the Wonderful Dharma and that the teaching of the Wonderful Dharma is for the purpose of bringing to bloom the spiritual capacities of all beings who are likened to lotuses rising above a muddy pond. The Odaimoku that is Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō, “Devotion to the Sūtra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Dharma,” seems to be more than just a phrase praising the title of a single sūtra, but a phrase that expresses themes that run through the entirety of the Buddhist tradition and whose elements are found even in these two stories from the Pāli Canon about what occurred immediately after Śākyamuni Buddha’s awakening.
The T’ien-t’ai School divided the Buddha’s 50 years of teaching into five periods of varying degrees of profundity. The first period being those first few weeks that Śākyamuni Buddha sat beneath the Bodhi Tree. During that time he taught the Flower Garland Sūtra, although Nichiren points out in Kaimoku-shō that it would be more accurate to say that it was the bodhisattvas who were present that actually did the teaching. Starting with the discourse on the Four Noble Truths taught at the Deer Park to the five ascetics who he had formerly practiced with, Śākyamuni Buddha spent 12 years teaching the pre-Mahāyāna (aka Hīnayāna) teachings found in the Āgama Sūtras or the Pāli Canon. After that he spent eight years teaching the preliminary Mahāyāna teachings of the Vaipulya or Expanded sūtras. He taught the Perfection of Wisdom sūtras during the 22 years that followed that. For the last eight years of his life, the Buddha taught the Lotus Sūtra. On the very last day and night of his life the Buddha taught the Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāna Sūtra. It should be noted that even Nichiren points out in other writings that these time spans are uncertain. In any case, modern textual scholarship would dismiss all of this as arbitrary, especially since the Mahāyāna sūtras are now seen as compositions arising after the Buddha’s lifetime. Nevertheless, Mahāyāna Buddhism accepts these sūtras as embodying the word of the Buddha in the sense that they convey the full depths of the Buddha’s insight and compassion. The T’ien-t’ai system of classifying the sūtras into five periods of teaching can still be seen as a useful way of approaching the sūtras in terms of how they build upon one another and lead those who put them into practice into deeper and subtler insights. I will go into this system in more detail in a later chapter.
I think it should be obvious that these stories of the past lives of the Buddha, the eight major events of the Buddha’s life, and these anecdotes from the Pāli Canon are myths and legends. I certainly do believe that there was a historical Buddha and that he did teach the four noble truths and dependent origination and also established the Sangha of monks and nuns. The Śākyamuni Buddha of these stories, however, is not the one we would meet if we took a time machine and visited the historical Buddha in ancient India. The Śākyamuni Buddha of these stories is more of a personification of an evolving tradition of wisdom and practice whose roots go back to the teaching and practice of the historical Buddha. Which Buddha should we be concerned with? I think it should be the personification of the tradition. As modern day Buddhists, we are not directly the followers of an ancient Indian sage. Instead, we are people who are inspired by an ideal of selfless compassion and motivated to take up practices that have been tried and tested over time to help us to awaken to a life of selfless compassion. It is in the living tradition of Buddhism that we encounter those ideals and practices, and it is not the historical Buddha but the Śākyamuni Buddha who personifies the living tradition that I think we truly take refuge in. We meet that Buddha in the sūtras and commentaries like Kanjin Honzon-shō. Especially in Kanjin Honzon-shō, Nichiren assumes familiarity with this traditional view of the Buddha and explores the importance of properly understanding this Buddha that we are taking refuge in and what that means for our own practice and realization.
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