Writings of Nichiren Shōnin Doctrine 2, pp. 137-143
Two Nichiren Texts, pp. 76-85
The Writings of Nichiren Daishōnin I, pp. 359-363
The 18th exchange between the interlocutor and Nichiren is actually a series of questions wherein all his doubts concerning the teaching of the mutual possession of the ten worlds and specifically how it can be possible for the Buddha to be residing within our minds. Kyōtsū Hori’s translation breaks this part of the dialogue into seven questions. At this point, just before the seven questions are asked Nichiren says, “Keep what is said hereafter confidential and do not reveal it to others.” (Hori 2002, p. 137) In his cover letter for Kanjin Honzon-shō written to Toki Jōnin, Nichiren also cautioned secrecy.
This is of utmost importance to me, Nichiren. You should keep this a secret unless you find someone with unshakeable faith in the Lotus Sūtra, to whom you may show it. Concerning the ultimate teaching of the Buddha for those in the Latter Age, this writing contains many difficult questions with only short answers. Since this is a doctrine never heard of before, it may startle those who hear it. Should you decide to show it to others, you should not have several people read it together sitting side by side. (Ibid, pp. 168-169)
Nichiren goes on to say in the cover letter that in the more than 2,220 years since the Buddha’s passing no one has ever explained what he has written about in Kanjin Honzon-shō, whose full title is Nyorai Metsugo Go-gohyaku-sai Shi Kanjin Honzon-shō (A Treatise Revealing the Contemplation of the Mind and the True Focus of Devotion for the First Time in the Fifth 500-year Period After the Death of the Tathāgata). Why all this secrecy? What is Nichiren writing about that is so radical and unprecedented that he cautions his followers to show the utmost discretion in regard to it? Obviously from the title itself what is unprecedented and must be kept secret concerns the method of contemplation of the mind that should be practiced and the focus of devotion that should be revered in the present age. Up to exchange 17, Nichiren restricted himself to discussing the T’ien-t’ai doctrines of the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment and the mutual possession of the ten worlds, but in exchange 18 the questions themselves suggestively point to Nichiren’s new understanding of contemplation of the mind and the Eternal Buddha as the focus of devotion, and that is the reason why Nichiren inserts this caution at this point in the text.
Taken in the order that they are asked, the seven questions are as follows:
- How can the great virtue of the Buddha and all his activity as a bodhisattva be inherent within the minds our minds?
- How can the virtue of the Eternal Buddha be inherent within our minds?
- How can all the other nine worlds be within our minds?
- Other sūtras besides the Lotus Sūtra and the Buddhist patriarchs since the time of the Buddha teach the purity of Buddhahood and Buddha-nature so why should we believe T’ien-t’ai Chih-i’s (538-597) teaching that the Buddha contains all the other worlds within himself?
- Even in the Lotus Sūtra the Buddha says, “I have eliminated all evils” (Murano 2012, p. 38) so it would seem that the Lotus Sūtra also teaches that the Buddha is purified of the lower nine worlds?
- Even Vasubandhu (c. fourth or fifth century) and other important teachers who commented on the Lotus Sūtra and taught about the buddha-nature said nothing about the mutual possession of the ten worlds, so why should we believe it?
- It seems to be a mistaken view of T’ien-t’ai alone. So why should we believe it?
Nichiren does not respond to these questions in order so this part of the Kanjin Honzon-shō can be a little difficult to follow. Instead of responding to the first three questions he moves on to a discussion of the provisional nature of the other sūtras in comparison to the conclusive teaching of the Buddha in the Lotus Sūtra. Then he responds briefly to the sixth question as to why Buddhist patriarchs such as Vasubandhu did not teach the mutual possession of the ten worlds. Then he falls back to the fifth question as to why the Lotus Sūtra seems to agree that the Buddha has eliminated all evil and is therefore purified of the nine worlds. Then he responds to the first question, and by implication the second and third, by reiterating what he said earlier about the difficulty of believing the Lotus Sūtra. Finally he responds to the seventh question with an assertion about the credibility of Chih-i. The interlocutor then asks his 19th question, asking again why Nāgārjuna (c. first or second century) and Vasubandhu did not teach the mutual possession of the ten worlds. Nichiren responds to this in more depth than he did previously, and then responds again to the first question about how the virtue of the Buddha can be within our minds by talking in a general way about the seed of buddhahood. In the 20th question the interlocutor, still not satisfied, asks again how the world of buddhahood could be within our minds.
To make this a little less convoluted, I want to briefly comment on Nichiren’s responses to the last four questions of exchange 18, esp. insofar as the issues raised and references made in them have already been discussed previously in other chapters of this commentary. In the next chapter I will focus on what Nichiren has to say about the practice the way in which the Buddha can be said to be within our minds and the practice of Odaimoku that begins in the latter part of his response to question 19 and continues on to the first part of his response to question 20.
I have already mentioned in the previous chapter about buddha-nature that Nichiren saw an overemphasis on the purity of buddha-nature in the teachings about it that the interlocutor cites in his fourth question of exchange 18. The interlocutor cites passages from the Flower Garland Sūtra, the Benevolent Kings Sūtra, and the Diamond Wisdom Sūtra. For example, the Diamond Wisdom Sūtra states, “The Buddha has nothing but pure good.” (Ibid, p. 139) He then cites the Awakening of Faith in the Mahāyāna attributed to Aśvaghoṣa (c. first or second century) and the Discourse on the Theory of Consciousness-Only (a commentary on Vasubandhu’s teachings) that also teach the elimination of all but the pure qualities buddhahood in the mind of the Buddha. In response to this, Nichiren replies that the other sūtras do not reveal the whole truth while the Lotus Sūtra does. This was discussed in more detail in the previous chapter on the sūtra classification of the T’ien-t’ai school. Here I will just briefly explain the three reasons Nichiren gives for the Lotus Sūtra’s preeminence.
In the first place, Nichiren cites the approval given by Many Treasure’s Buddha and the buddhas gathered from the ten directions to the teaching of the Lotus Sūtra by Śākyamuni Buddha in contrast to the lesser testimonies given to the Buddha’s teaching in the other sūtras. This is kind of peculiar since the testimony is given in the Lotus Sūtra and is a part of the Lotus Sūtra’s preaching. We might find this a very circular argument: the Lotus Sūtra is the final word of the Buddha because the Lotus Sūtra itself says that it is. For my part, I view the Mahāyāna sūtras not as verbatim accounts of actual events or word-for-word records of the historical Buddha’s discourses but as the writings of anonymous Mahāyāna practitioners as they reflected upon the deeper implications of the earlier discourses of the historical Buddha and the fruits of their own practice. I see the testimonies given in the Mahāyāna sūtras by heavenly beings, bodhisattvas, and buddhas of other worlds as rhetorical flourishes to underscore the immense wonder and profundity of the Wonderful Dharma as the compilers of these sūtras had come to understand it, especially in contrast to what they saw as the more limited visions conveyed in other sūtras. So I take this first reason that Nichiren gives to mean simply that the Lotus Sūtra itself is saying that its teachings transcend what was given in other sūtras and that one should therefore mark the difference and hopefully take faith in the grander and more hopeful vision of what the Buddha’s teaching is actually about.
The second reason Nichiren gives is that only in the Lotus Sūtra are the practitioners of the two vehicles, the śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas, guaranteed buddhahood. This is according to the teaching of the One Vehicle stressed in the Trace Gate or first half of the Lotus Sūtra wherein the Buddha reveals that all his teachings, whether for bodhisattvas or those of the two vehicles, are actually intended to lead all beings to buddhahood and not to any lesser goal. In terms of the mutual possession of the ten worlds, this means that the practitioners of the two vehicles and all other beings have the world of buddhahood within and that the Buddha’s teachings are to help them realize it.
The third reason Nichiren gives is that only in the Lotus Sūtra does the Buddha reveal that his awakening occurred in the remote past and not just within the present lifetime while sitting under the Bodhi Tree. This is the teaching concerning the Eternal Buddha given in the Original Gate or latter half of the Lotus Sūtra. In terms of the mutual possession of the ten worlds, this is taken to mean that the Buddha, even after attaining buddhahood, retains or embraces the lower nine worlds and that is why he was able to continue his work awakening all beings in those worlds during all those previous ages before manifesting as the present Śākyamuni Buddha.
The interlocutor, however, points out in his fifth question that the Lotus Sūtra does not explicitly teach the mutual possession of the ten worlds and itself seems to agree with the other teachings when it says that the Buddha eliminates all evil. Nichiren says that in this case the Lotus Sūtra is simply restating the earlier understanding and is not endorsing it as its own teaching. Nichiren cites again the passage in the Lotus Sūtra wherein the Buddha speaks of the “one great purpose” for which the buddhas appear in the worlds and again cites T’ien-t’ai Chih-i’s (538-597) comments about the passage to show that what the Lotus Sūtra is really teaching is that all beings do have the world of buddhahood within and therefore can attain buddhahood through the Buddha’s teachings.
In regard to the sixth question as to why the great Mahāyāna patriarchs Nāgārjuna and Vasubandhu did not teach the mutual possession of the ten worlds, Nichiren cites Chih-i who wrote in the Great Concentration and Insight that in regard to the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment, “Vasubandhu and Nāgārjuna acknowledged it privately, but pretended not to have been aware of it; and they preached provisional teachings to suit the time.” (Ibid, p. 141) Chih-i went on to say that later scholars took up limited and one-sided views ended up getting into quarrels and going against the Buddha’s teaching. Nichiren also cites Chih-i’s disciple Chang-an Kuan-ting (561-632) who wrote that Chih-i’s teaching surpassed that of Vasubandhu, Nāgārjuna, Aśvaghoṣa, and Sāramati (c. fourth or fifth century) who did not teach the profound doctrines that Chih-i did because the “time was not ripe.” (Ibid, p. 141) Note that Vasubhandhu is credited with writing the Buddha-nature Treatise, Nāgārjuna is credited with writing the Great Perfection of Wisdom Treatise often cited by Chih-i, Aśvaghoṣa is credited with writing the Awakening of Faith in the Mahāyāna mentioned above, and the scholar-monk Sāramati is credited with writing On the Treasure Vehicle of Buddha-nature. So these are all monks whose works deal directly with buddha-nature or were a big influence on Chih-i’s own teaching. I think it is for this reason that Chih-i felt that they understood in their hearts what Chih-i was trying to make explicit by teaching the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment and the mutual possession of the ten worlds, all in the context (it should be remembered) of the threefold truth of the empty, provisional, and Middle Way nature of reality.
This brings us to the seventh question, which is why should we believe Chih-i in regard to the mutual possession of the ten worlds? I think it should really be appreciated that what Chih-i was advocating by expounding the mutual possession of the ten worlds was not just that the world of buddhahood exists within the minds of deluded sentient beings, an assertion made by those who emphasized the teachings concerning buddha-nature, but also the more radical idea that the Buddha continued to retain the lower worlds as part of his nature even after his perfect and complete awakening. This is the controversial idea that “evil inherently exists in buddha-nature.” In an article entitled “T’ien-t’ai Chih-i’s Theory of Buddha Nature – A Realistic and Humanistic Understanding of the Buddha,” Heng-ching Shih writes of the T’ien-t’ai reinterpretation of the buddha-nature teachings:
Traditionally, the nature of the Buddha represents absolute goodness and purity. The radical departure of the theory of inherent evil from this traditional view caused great controversy in China, and elicited criticism not only from other schools, such as Hua-yen, but also from certain T’ien-t’ai Buddhists as well.
The theory of inherent evil or impurity in Buddha Nature was first taught by T’ien-t’ai Chih-i (538-597 CE) in his Kuan-yin hsüan-i (The Profound Meaning of the Sūtra on Kuan-yin). He maintained that the icchantika is devoid of empirical good but endowed with the inherent nature of good, while the Buddha is devoid of empirical evil but replete with the inherent nature of evil. In Chih-i’s holistic view of mind and reality, this view of Buddha Nature is a natural development from the basic T’ien-t’ai doctrine. (Heng-ching Chih, p. 154)
The icchantika, as discussed in the previous chapter on buddha-nature, are the incorrigible disbelievers who are supposed by some Buddhists to be devoid of buddha-nature. According to the Nirvāna Sūtra, however, they do have buddha-nature but they seem to indefinitely put off ever realizing it. In Chih-i’s teaching they are those beings that cling tenaciously to the six lower worlds and reject Buddhism but they too have all ten worlds within themselves and will someday realize that this is so. Buddhas, on the other hand, completely understand all ten worlds. Though they can, out of compassion, relate to the lower nine worlds, due to their wisdom and merit they no longer fall back into the limited views of those nine worlds and all their actions are spontaneously and unselfconsciously for the benefit of those within the nine worlds.
Heng-ching Shih points out that this was controversial and even later T’ien-t’ai Buddhist apparently balked at the implications. The reason was that in the view of many the lower nine worlds are too impure to be retained as part of the inherent nature of the purified buddhas. Therefore they should be totally eradicated as merely illusory upon attaining buddhahood. For Chih-i, it was more important to emphasize the completely embracing nature of buddhahood rather than some idealistic purity. The Buddha’s retention of the lower nine worlds was indispensable for the Buddha to be complete in embracing the suchness of reality that always contains the possibilities of all ten worlds and by virtue of that completeness to remain active as a compassionate presence in the world.
Though this teaching was controversial, Nichiren points out that many teachers of others schools did come to accept his views in time. In fact, Nichiren accuses the founding teachers of the Flower Garland School and the True Word School of misappropriating T’ien-t’ai’s teaching as their own. I have already discussed that in a previous chapter of this commentary and so will not go over it again here. This does not, of course, prove that Chih-i was correct, but it does show that many other Buddhist teachers including the founders of other important East Asian schools of Mahāyāna Buddhism to come to embrace the teaching of the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment.
As far as Chih-i’s credibility, Nichiren basically just asserts that he was one of only three sages in the past that truly understood the Lotus Sūtra. Along with Chih-i in China, Nichiren says that the other two sages are Śākyamuni Buddha in India, and Saicho (767-822; known posthumously as Dengyō) in Japan who established the Tendai School. In Kembutsu Mirai-ki (Testimony to the Prediction of the Buddha), Nichiren declares that because he has received and upheld the teaching of these three sages he can be included in their company as one of the “four masters in three lands.” (Hori 2002, p. 178) This is quite a bold assertion, but Nichiren’s point is that only these three teachers of the past and himself have clearly expounded the doctrine of the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment and the mutual possession of the ten worlds with all its radical implications regarding the mutual embracing of buddhas and deluded beings
Gosho Translation Committee, editor-translator. The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin. Tokyo: Soka Gakkai, 1999.
Heng-ching Shih. “T’ien-t’ai Chih-I’s Theory of Buddha Nature – A Realistic and Humanistic Understanding of the Buddha” In Buddha Nature: A Festschrift in Honor of Minoru Kiyota, ed. Paul J. Griffith and John P. Keenan, pp. 153-170. Reno: Buddhist Books International, 1990.
Hori, Kyotsu, comp. Writings of Nichiren Shonin: Doctrine Volume 2. Tokyo: Nichiren Shu Overseas Propagation Promotion Association, 2002.
Murano, Senchu, trans. Two Nichiren Texts. Berkeley: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, 2003.
______________, trans. The Lotus Sutra. Tokyo: Nichiren Shu Headquarters, 2012.