Writings of Nichiren Shōnin Doctrine 2, pp. 162-164

Two Nichiren Texts, pp. 111-113

The Writings of Nichiren Daishōnin I, pp. 375-376

As Kanjin Honzon-shō comes to a close, Nichiren cites a passage from Saicho’s (767-822; known posthumously as Dengyō) Outstanding Principles of the Lotus Sūtra, in which that founding patriarch of the Tendai School described the current age as one beset by war and strife. Nichiren agrees, writing, “The time of ‘war and strife’ in this citation refers to two current problems facing Japan: domestic disturbance and the Mongol invasion of western Japan.” (Hori, p. 163) Nichiren had predicted these two calamities in his earlier writing the Risshō Ankoku-ron (Treatise on Spreading Peace Throughout the Country by Establishing the True Dharma). In that work he quoted from The Sutra of Golden Light (or Sutra of Golden Splendor, The Great Collection Sutra (or Sutra of the Great Assembly, The Benevolent Kings Sutra, and The Medicine King Sutra to make the case that natural and man-made disasters would strike a country whose rulers failed to protect the Dharma. From those four sutras Nichiren derived his prediction that Japan would face invasion from without and civil war from within. At the time of writing Kanjin Honzon-shō, Nichiren felt that his predictions had been fulfilled.

On January 18, 1268, envoys from Kublai Khan (1215-1294), the Mongol emperor of northern China and Korea, arrived in Japan with a letter requesting that Japan acknowledge Kublai Khan as the new emperor of China by sending him yearly tribute or else incur the displeasure of the Mongols. The imperial court took this as an invasion threat, but the shogunate refused to respond to it. Nevertheless, panic swept the nation for several months. Over the next several years more envoys came from the Mongol empire. They were also ignored. No one knew when an attack would come, but Nichiren felt that it was imminent. The Mongols did in fact attempt to invade Japan in October of 1274 and in May 1281. Both invasion attempts ultimately failed, but even on his deathbed Nichiren in October of 1282 was not convinced that Japan would ever truly be out of danger until its rulers and people turned away from lesser teachings and put their faith in the Lotus Sūtra.

The prediction of civil war came to be fulfilled in February 1272 when the regent Hōjō Tokimuni had to quell an attempt to overthrow him led by his elder half-brother Hōjō Tokisuke (1248-1272). Fighting broke out in both Kamakura and Kyoto between different factions of the Hojo clan. In the end, Tokisuke and his co-conspirators were all killed. Dissatisfaction within the Hojo regency continued however, especially because the Hojo vassals did not feel adequately rewarded for their efforts against the Mongol invaders, even as the rulers lavished support on the Shingon and other temples that had claimed credit for the victories due to their prayers and rituals. In 1333 the Emperor Go-Daigo (1288-1339) was able to overthrow the Kamakuran Shogunate by taking advantage of this situation.

Nichiren’s ability to predict foreign invasion and civil war was not based upon any form of psychic power to see the future. Rather, it was the result of reading the sūtras and using the process of elimination to see which disasters they predicted had not yet occurred. Nichiren had a total faith in the sūtras, as they contained the word of the Buddha. Furthermore, Nichiren undoubtedly heard reports of the Mongols conquests in China and Korea, and also must have known about rivalries within the Hōjō regency. Nichiren’s role as a prophet was not due to an ability to forecast future events, but rather with his keen understanding of current events and where they were leading.

In Risshō Ankoku-ron, Nichiren spoke of the disasters that had come (earthquakes, drought, famine, plagues, storms, flooding, and ominous astronomical events such as comets) and those that were to follow (invasion and civil war) in order to warn the Hōjō rulers that they must stop patronizing Pure Land Buddhism and put their faith in the Lotus Sūtra. In Kanjin Honzon-shō, Nichiren claims that these are all signs of the coming of the bodhisattvas from underground. In such a time of civil war and threatened invasion he says, “This is the very time when the original disciples of the Buddha should spring up from underground, attend both sides of the Eternal Buddha revealed in the Original Gate of the Lotus Sūtra, and establish in this land of Japan the supreme focus of devotion in the world.” (Ibid, p. 163)  Further on he speaks of the natural disasters.

Now we have had great earthquakes, appearances of comets, and other calamities in recent years. These calamities were not seen in the Age of the Right Teaching of the Buddha or in the Age of the Counterfeit Teaching of the Buddha. These calamities were not caused by garudas, asuras, or dragons. They must be an omen that the four great bodhisattvas will appear [in this country]. (Murano. p 112-113)

Nichiren’s conviction was that all the portentous events happening in Japan in the political and natural realms have reference to the Lotus Sūtra. He wrote, “When the sky is blue, the land is bright, so those who know the Lotus Sūtra can see the reasons for occurrences in the world.” (Hori, p. 164) This view is very alien to us today. Though some might predict national disaster if one or another political party or candidate won a presidential election, few of us would think to blame earthquakes or tornadoes on people’s political, religious, or social views. Of course, there are still religious fundamentalists who would, but in Nichiren’s time the view was much more common even among the educated upper classes. In fact, it was the common assumption among agrarian people that nature and the weather reflected the approval or disapproval of the gods or God, and that the ruler was specifically responsible for keeping the gods or God happy through prayer, morality, and good government. From a Buddhist point of view, the ruler was responsible for upholding the Dharma and it was the gods as well as the bodhisattvas who would ensure that all was well if they did, and the various demons that would take advantage if they did not.

It is a bit disturbing to see that Nichiren is basing his upon the assumption that politics, nature, and even the course of the sun and moon are determined by the ruler’s religious preferences or the imminent appearances of celestial bodhisattvas. The whole argument he makes would seem to be invalidated by modern astronomy, meteorology, and geology. For instance, we now know that the shifting of tectonic plates, not the displeasure of supernatural entities, causes earthquakes. Even in the realm of human activity, modern economics and sociology show that religion is just one among many factors (and not always a major one) that causes wars, epidemics, and famine.

Nichiren had his own rhetorical purposes and worldview, but I think we need to step back and not take the sūtras passages so literally to see if we can find a meaning that speaks to us today. I think if the Dharma really is “the way things are” then to uphold the Dharma is to uphold the truth, to face facts squarely, to see the interdependent nature of the world, to be responsible for one’s acts and the consequences thereof, and to be compassionately motivated by the view of interdependence and the selfless nature of things as they really are. To behave dishonestly, irresponsibly, callously and blindly would be to invite disaster – to turn our world upside down in a manner of speaking. If those who govern a nation act like this – the consequences will be enormous and far-reaching. Many nations and societies have indeed toppled because of irresponsible rulers and a compliant populace. Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, Fascist Italy, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, and others have all come to ruin. Their fate included an impact on the natural world as well. And how many deaths have been caused by famine and earthquakes and flooding because the government mismanaged resources, or refused to uphold certain building codes or maintain a proper infrastructure and emergency system? Human decisions can indeed lead to the exacerbation of natural disasters, and can sometimes cause them in the first place. I would not argue that failing to be a Buddhist will cause an earthquake, but I would say failing to live in accord with what we Buddhists call the Dharma leads to personal and even national or even worldwide disaster in the long run. In this sense, I think the sūtra passages and Nichiren’s conclusions based on them can be taken seriously.

What about the argument that ominous signs and disasters are omens signaling the appearance of the bodhisattvas from underground, who are to fulfill their mission to uphold and propagate the Lotus Sūtra? I think we can take this to mean that trying times are the very times when we all will be called upon to support one another and to think more deeply about our lives and their meaning or lack of meaning. The “bodhisattvas springing up from underground” are the bodhisattvas or compassionate beings of this world. They are no one but us. It is we who must step up and meet the challenge of natural and man-made disasters. It is we who must have the foresight to prevent disasters, mitigate those that are perhaps unavoidable or unpredictable, and cope with them heroically and with compassion and fortitude. Every disaster or potential disaster is indeed a sign or call for us to be those bodhisattvas and to live the spirit of devotion to the Wonderful Dharma. That is how I at least choose to understand Nichiren’s insistence that disasters are omens of the appearance of the bodhisattvas from underground.

Sources

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. Two Nichiren Texts. Berkeley: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, 2003.

Writings of Nichiren Shōnin Doctrine 2, pp. 153-164

Two Nichiren Texts, pp. 97-113

The Writings of Nichiren Daishōnin I, pp. 369-376

In Nichiren’s time it was the conviction of many that the Lotus Sūtra was not needed any longer. Pure Land believers saw it as a sūtra whose teachings and associated practices, such as Chih-i’s (538-597) sudden and perfect practice of tranquility and insight or the practice known as the Lotus Repentance Samādhi, were for advanced practitioners and not for ordinary people in the Latter Age of Degeneration. Zen Buddhists believed that the true teaching was to be found outside of the words and letters of the sūtras. Those who were trying to revive the practice of the precepts were not concerned with the teaching or practice of the Lotus Sūtra but rather with the bestowal of the monastic or bodhisattva precepts. Others believed that tantric Buddhism taught both the same principles as the Lotus Sūtra and also esoteric practices involving mudrās, mantras, and mandalas that the Lotus Sūtra did not teach, so that the Lotus Sūtra itself was superfluous and unnecessary. Nichiren, however, pointed out that only the Lotus Sūtra taught that all three vehicles are but One Vehicle and that Śākyamuni Buddha attained buddhahood in the remote past. Also, the practice of the Lotus Sūtra was not something for only advanced practitioners but was the simple act receiving it with faith and joy and keeping its teachings in one’s mind and heart by chanting Odaimoku, the seed of buddhahood. Finally, Nichiren was convinced that the Lotus Sūtra was not taught just for the Buddha’s contemporaries but was intended precisely for the ordinary people of the Latter Age of Degeneration.

Right after providing his analysis of the Buddha’s teachings in terms of the four sets of three parts, Nichiren presents evidence from passages in the Lotus Sūtra and commentaries by the T’ien-t’ai patriarchs to show that the Buddha intended the Lotus Sūtra should be taught in the Latter Age. For instance in chapter 10 of the Lotus Sūtra, the Buddha says, “Many people hate it with jealousy even in my lifetime. Needless to say, more people will do so after my extinction.” (Murano 2012, p. 180) In chapter 11 the Buddha says, “Good men! Who will receive and keep this sūtra, and read and recite it after my extinction?” (Ibid, p. 198) Throughout the chapters forming the epilogue of the Trace Gate there are passages wherein the Buddha exhorts the assembly to uphold the Lotus Sūtra in the evil world after the Buddha’s passing. Nichiren takes all of this to mean that even the main discourse of the Trace Gate concerning the One Vehicle was intended especially for the Latter Age.

Nichiren then claims that the Original Gate was “preached solely for those living in the beginning of the Latter Age.” (Hori 2002, p. 153) Though the preaching of the Original Gate by Śākyamuni Buddha to his contemporaries enabled many of them to bring to fruition the seeds of buddhahood that had been sown in them previously, the real intention of the Buddha was that the Odaimoku, the seed of buddhahood that Nichiren believed was implied in the 16th chapter, should be sown in the lives of those living in the Latter Age.

The teaching of the Original Gate during the lifetime of Śākyamuni Buddha and that which would spread in the beginning of the Latter Age are likewise absolutely perfect. However, the former is for attaining awakening, whereas the latter is for sowing the seed of buddhahood. While the former is crystallized in the sixteenth chapter, “The Lifespan of the Tathagata,” with half a chapter each preceding and following it, the latter is solely embodied in the five characters of myō, , ren, ge, and kyō, the title of the Lotus Sūtra. (Hori 2002, p. 154 adapted)

Nichiren therefore differentiates between the Buddhism of harvesting, wherein the historical Buddha brought to fruition seeds sown previously, and the Buddhism of sowing, whereby the bodhisattvas from underground led by Superior Practice Bodhisattva will act on the commission received by the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha and sow the seeds of Odaimoku in the lives of the ordinary people living in the Latter Age.

Nichiren points out that in chapter 15, “The Appearance of Bodhisattvas from Underground,” the Buddha actually refuses the offer of the bodhisattvas in the assembly to uphold the Lotus Sūtra after the Buddha’s passing, the very ones that he had previously exhorted to do so. Instead, he calls upon the bodhisattvas from underground to do so. It is to them that he entrusts the five characters of myō, , ren, ge, and kyō in chapter 21, “The Supernatural Powers of the Tathāgatas.” Why did he do this? And why did Nichiren see this as proof that the Odaimoku was intended for the Latter Age? The answer is that only the bodhisattvas from underground are capable of spreading the Odaimoku in the Latter Age. According to T’ien-t’ai Chi-i, many of the other bodhisattvas, such as Mañjuśrī, World Voice Perceiver (Avalokiteśvara), Medicine King, or Universal Sage (Samantabhadra), were all disciples of buddhas in other worlds. They had no deep connection to this world and their activities would interfere with those of the bodhisattvas proper to this world. Other bodhisattvas were relative beginners who had only recently aspired to buddhahood as disciples of the historical Śākyamuni Buddha. The bodhisattvas from underground, however, were the original disciples of the Original or Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha since the remote past. Therefore they were deeply connected to this world and were able to spread the teaching of the Buddha’s eternity.

According to Nichiren, the other bodhisattvas formed the ranks of the four reliances that taught the Hīnayāna during the first half of the Former Age of the True Dharma, the provisional Mahāyāna during the second half of the Former Age, or the Trace Gate of the Lotus Sūtra during the Middle Age of the Semblance Dharma or at the very beginning of the Latter Age of Degeneration of the Dharma. He says this because the T’ien-t’ai list of Buddhist patriarchs includes Buddhist monks who were known to be teachers of pre-Mahāyāna teachings such as Mahākāśyapa and Ānanda, while others who appear later in the list were known as teachers of Mahāyāna who did not focus on the Lotus Sūtra such as Nāgārjuna (cir. 150 – circ. 250) and Vasubandhu (cir. 5th century CE). Those who Nichiren saw as focusing primarily on the Trace Gate would have been the T’ien-t’ai patriarchs of China, such as Chih-i and his teacher Nan-yüeh Hui-ssu (515-577), and Tendai patriarchs in Japan such as Saichō (767-822; aka Dengyō). Nichiren felt that they did not emphasize the Original Gate in their teachings or practices and because the time was not yet right to establish the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha as the focus of devotion they enshrined other buddhas such as Amitābha Buddha, Vairocana Buddha, or Medicine Master Buddha as the focus of devotion. Since the time of the passing of Śākyamuni Buddha, however, none of the bodhisattvas from underground had yet appeared to fulfill their commission to spread the Odaimoku or establish the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha as the true focus of devotion. Therefore, it must mean that they are due to arrive in the present Latter Age of Degeneration.

Nichiren also looks to the Parable of the Physician in the 16th chapter of the Lotus Sūtra as evidence that the Odaimoku is intended for the Latter Age. In the parable the many sons of a physician took poison when he was away. Upon returning the physician found his sons in agony and he quickly compounded an excellent medicine with an enticing color, smell, and taste to cure them. Those sons who had not lost their minds took the poison and were cured, but others were not in their right minds and refused to take the medicine and asked their father to cure them some other way. The physician then went away and as an expedient sent back a messenger to tell those sons that their father had died. Shocked and grieved the sons recovered their right minds, took the medicine at last, and were cured. Nichiren understood this parable to mean that the sons who immediately took the medicine and were cured refers to those who had previously accepted the seed of buddhahood and now upon hearing the Original Gate from the Buddha were bringing it to fruition, whereas those sons who refused to take the medicine refers to those who rejected the seed or later abandoned it and now must receive it again. The messenger who is sent back refers to the four reliances but particularly the bodhisattvas from underground. The excellent medicine, according to Nichiren, “…refers to Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō, which is the essence of the chapter ‘The Duration of the Life of the Tathāgata’ that contains the five profound meanings: the name, entity, quality, function, and teaching of the Lotus Sūtra.” (Ibid, p. 157 adapted) The “five profound meanings” are five major principles used by Chih-i to interpret the Lotus Sūtra in his Profound Meaning of the Lotus Sūtra. He interpreted the sūtra by examining the title to show how it expressed the essence of the sūtra as a whole; the entity or major topic of the sūtra; the quality or essential teaching of the sūtra; the function or influence of the sūtra upon those who hear it; and the teaching of the sūtra in terms of its relation to other teachings. According to Nichiren, the Odaimoku expresses all of these five profound meanings of the Lotus Sūtra.

Nichiren discusses chapter 21 right after comparing the Odaimoku to the excellent medicine containing the five profound meanings. In that chapter, the Eternal Śākyamuni gives the specific transmission of the Dharma to the bodhisattvas from underground led by Superior Practice Bodhisattva in a passage Chih-i called the “four phrases of the essential teaching.” In that passage the Buddha says:

To sum up, all the teachings of the Tathāgata, all the unhindered, supernatural powers of the Tathāgata, all the treasury of the hidden core of the Tathāgata, and all the profound achievements of the Tathāgata are revealed and expounded explicitly in this sūtra. (Murano 2012, p. 300)

The five profound meanings were actually derived by Chih-i from this passage: The profound meaning of the title of the sūtra is about “all the teachings” that the title calls to mind; entity is about the “supernatural powers” that is none other than the true reality of all things; quality is about the “treasury of the hidden core” that is the teachings concerning the One Vehicle and the attainment of buddhahood in the remote past; function is about the “profound achievements” that has to do with the Buddha’s enabling all beings to attain buddhahood; and the teaching is about how everything is “revealed and expounded explicitly in this sūtra.” Again, according to Nichiren, it is the Odaimoku that expresses what was specifically transmitted to the bodhisattvas from underground in these four phrases of the essential teaching.

After discussion the specific transmission, Nichiren quickly summarizes the rest of the epilogue of the Original Gate of the Lotus Sūtra. In Chapter 22, “Transmission,” the Buddha gives a more general transmission to the rest of the assembled bodhisattvas and other beings so that they too could spread the Lotus Sūtra in the future. The Ceremony in the Air then comes to a close and the bodhisattvas from underground, the buddhas from the worlds of the ten directions who are the emanations of the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha, and Many Treasures Buddha all return to their places of origin. Further examples of the activities of the bodhisattvas from other worlds are given in the closing chapters of the sūtra and further instructions on the transmission of the Dharma are given there and in the Nirvāna Sūtra. Nichiren refers to this as a gleaning, like the gathering of leftover grain after the harvest. My understanding of this is that during the lifetime of the historical Buddha he brought about a harvesting in that those who had the seeds of buddhahood sown into their lives in the past were finally able to bring those seeds to fruition upon hearing the Buddha’s teachings up to an including the Lotus Sūtra. Those who were not able to bring the seeds to fruition at that time were able to do so with the help of the bodhisattvas who taught the provisional teachings or the Trace Gate after the Buddha’s passing during the ages of the True Dharma and Semblance Dharma. This is why their work is like a gleaning following the harvest during the historical Buddha’s lifetime.

In exchange 25 the interlocutor asks whether the bodhisattvas from underground ever appeared during the ages of the True or Semblance Dharma. Nichiren says that they did not appear during those ages. The interlocutor asks why not. Nichiren refuses to answer and so the interlocutor repeats the question twice more. Nichiren continues to refuse, but the interlocutor then points out that if Nichiren does not answer then he will be violating the bodhisattva precept against meanness and greed (in terms of sharing the Dharma). Nichiren then relents. So here again we find Nichiren using the pattern of not responding to a question until asked three times and here even refusing to answer until the interlocutor reminds him that he is obliged to answer. Why is Nichiren so coy at this point? Because it is at this point in Kanjin Honzon-shō that he clearly states that the bodhisattvas from underground are due to appear to establish the practice of Odaimoku and enshrine the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha. Of course the implication is that Nichiren and his followers, and I believe in some sense the impending Mongol invaders who were threatening Japan at that time, are these very bodhisattvas. This is quite a radical claim!

Nichiren begins his response by again citing the passages from the Lotus Sūtra and one passage from the Nirvāna Sūtra that he took to be evidence that the Latter Age was the time that the Buddha intended for the Lotus Sūtra to be spread to those who were most in need of it. One passage from chapter 23, “The Previous Life of Medicine King Bodhisattva,” is especially worth noting as Nichiren cites it again further on. In the passage the Buddha says, “Propagate this chapter throughout Jambudvīpa in the later five hundred years after my extinction lest it should be lost…” (Murano 2012, p. 313) The reference to propagating “this chapter” is taken by Nichiren to imply the sūtra as a whole. Jambudvīpa is the name of the southern continent of a Mt. Sumeru world system in Buddhist cosmology and is a way of referring to India and the world as they knew of it. The 500 years are taken to mean the first 500 years of the Latter Age of Degeneration. The Chinese characters translated here as “propagate” and “throughout” actually appear together in the original Chinese text. In Japanese they are pronounced “kōsen-rufu.” Some Nichiren Buddhists to this day refer to the spread of Odaimoku as bringing about kōsen-rufu and thereby establishing world peace.

Based on these passages, Nichiren insists that “…it was not for the sake of those in the 2,000 years  of the True Dharma and the Semblance Dharma, but for those like myself in the beginning fo the Latter Age.” (Ibid, p. 161) Nichiren goes on to say that he sees himself as one of the sick children who had not yet taken the excellent medicine left for them by their physician father, for the sick ones are the slanderers of the Lotus Sūtra living in the time after the passing of the Buddha. Nichiren expresses his feeling on behalf of all of us that the Lotus Sūtra is not concerned with things remote from our lives in some distant time or place but is directly addressing itself to each one of us. Each one of us is a being who has had the seeds of buddhahood sown in their lives in the past but who at some point rejected those seeds and must have them sown in our lives again so that this time we can nurture them and bring them to fruition. This is to say that each of us is a potential buddha but that in our present situation we are people who have turned away from that potential and failed to nourish it and so we must start again by taking faith in the Lotus Sūtra which assures all beings of buddhahood.

Nichiren reviews the present situation in which the different teachings of Buddhism have been turned against one another and how it seems that the gods have deserted the land and the four ranks of bodhisattva-teachers have departed. He speaks of the natural disturbances such as earthquakes, the appearance of comets, and the threats of civil war and invasion by the Mongols. Nichiren claims that all these are omens foretelling the imminent appearance of the bodhisattvas from underground. The four great leaders of these bodhisattvas, in order to subdue evil, will “…appear as wise kings reproaching ignorant kings” and, in order to embrace the good (J. shōju), will appear as “… monks upholding and spreading the True Dharma.” (Hori 2002, p. 162). Here is where Nichiren seems to be saying that the Mongols themselves may be fulfilling the role of the bodhisattvas from underground if they attack and subdue the rulers of Japan who are persecuting the practitioners of the Lotus Sūtra. Nichiren and his disciples would of course be the monks upholding the True Dharma.

Nichiren states that it is in the Latter Age that the bodhisattvas from underground are certain to appear. “Then for the first time those bodhisattvas appear in the world attempting to encourage the ignorant people to take the five characters of myō, , ren, ge, and kyō, the excellent medicine of the Latter Age.” (Ibid, p. 162) He also says, “This is the very time when original disciples of the Buddha should spring up from underground, attend both sides of the Eternal Buddha revealed in the Original Gate of the Lotus Sūtra, and establish in this land of Japan the supreme focus of devotion (J. honzon) in the world.” (Ibid, p. 163 adapted) These two things, encouraging people to chant Odaimoku and revealing Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha to be the true focus of devotion, is what Nichiren himself has been advocating and being persecuted for. This is why in Nichiren may have regarded himself as the appearance of Superior Practice Bodhisattva, though he only ever hints at it or suggests that he is the bodhisattva’s forerunner. In any case, in Nichiren Buddhism he is so regarded.

Nichiren’s argument about the spread of the Odaimoku, that he claims is hidden between the lines of chapter 16 of the Lotus Sūtra, in the Latter Age by the bodhisattvas from underground seems to be based on parables and events that are certainly not supposed to be taken literally. Examined from a rational point of view none of it holds together. There is no clear statement in chapter 16 or anywhere else in the sūtra that says that chanting the title of the sūtra should be regarded as a key practice. Going by the most reliable dates for the historical Buddha’s life (463-383 B.C.E.) the Latter Age, which is supposed to start 2,000 years after the Buddha’s passing, could not have started in 1052 CE as Nichiren and his contemporaries believed but would have started in the year 1617. As for the Ceremony in the Air it has been estimated that the stūpa of treasures that is central to it would be half the diameter of Earth and when the bodhisattvas from underground appear they praise the Buddha for 50 small kalpas (and even a small kalpa is still an almost unimaginably long period of time). So if the events in the Lotus Sūtra had literally happened then they would still be ongoing and visible to us now, so obviously it can’t be taken literally. The Parable of the Physician is a parable and so should not be taken literally either. Of course to say that the Odaimoku is a seed of buddhahood or an excellent medicine is obviously metaphoric. And yet Nichiren has built his whole case upon these parables, stories, and metaphors. What are we to make of all this? How can we take any of it seriously or use it as a guide for our own faith and practice?

All I can do here is offer what this argument means to me. To begin with, I believe that the Lotus Sūtra was composed and written by anonymous Mahāyāna monks hundreds of years after the historical Śākyamuni Buddha’s passing. I believe that these monks, through their own practice and insight, came to the conviction that the real purpose of Śākyamuni Buddha’s teachings was to enable all people to awaken just as he did. This included people who seemed incorrigibly evil, for instance someone like Devadatta. This included even those considered second-class citizens or even as chattel or non-humans in their respective societies such as women, children, or those who lived outside the boundaries of what was considered civilization, such as the tribal people known as Nāgas who live in NE India and NW Burma to this day. This would also include the Buddha’s historical followers like Śāriputra, Ānanda, Mahākāśyapa, and others who were considered to be arhats who would never again be reborn and were therefore incapable of taking up the bodhisattva vehicle and becoming buddhas. These anonymous Mahāyāna monks must have faced derision and persecution for their convictions from other Buddhists who took a narrower and more conservative view. They wrote about the persecutions they faced and the persecutions they believed others who believed as they did would face in the future by having the Buddha speak about them as prophecies concerning the time after his passing. Yes, I am basically saying that the Lotus Sūtra is a literary fiction, but it is one that I believe was created to express the insight of authentic practitioners that the true purpose of the Dharma is to enable all people to attain the same state of selfless compassion as the Buddha.

Furthermore, I believe that in the depths of meditation these monks experienced the dropping away of body and mind and all boundaries and divisions that usually structure our normal way of experiencing life. They realized the true meaning of emptiness that yet embraces the suchness of all things, not a nihilistic nothingness but the wondrous nature of all phenomena. They experienced a state in which there is no self or other, a state of timeless and placeless awareness. They realized that this is what Śākyamuni Buddha must have experienced and wrote about it in terms of the Ceremony in the Air and the eternity of the Buddha’s awakened lifespan. They felt that the reality of the Buddha’s life was not gone but still present to them and within them and with all people. They realized that buddhahood is not something that can only belong to the past life of the historical Buddha or to some other world or the afterlife or the far future of this world, but that it is imminent in all our lives and can be encountered through our own faith, practice, and realization. All of this is what I believe these monks were trying to convey in the Lotus Sūtra.

The Lotus Sūtra is, therefore, the literary expression of the true meaning of Buddhism, and Buddhism is about the true nature of our lives. The Odaimoku that is Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō, then, is not just praising a particular text but is praising what that text is about – the universal and imminent awakening of selfless compassion. To speak of the seed of buddhahood being sown by the teaching of the Lotus Sūtra is to speak of people realizing the true nature, putting it into practice, and helping others to recognize it and put it into practice. However, to tell people right off that they can become buddhas – people of unlimited virtue, deep wisdom, and selfless compassion – might cause them to make the mistake of dismissing the message as unrealistic and foolish or cause them to belittle what it means to realize buddhahood by thinking that it is nothing other than being nice or especially thoughtful. Better to give people time to digest lesser teachings until they can realize the full scope of what it means to be fully and perfectly awake spiritually and yet not reject out of hand that such is the true nature of all people, that in fact all reality (even the insentient) works together to bring about such a way of being awake to life. The other sūtra are then a myriad of ways and means to help people realize this true nature in terms that they can understand, even if it means adopting a way of talking or practicing that is indirect or of a more limited scope so that people can more easily relate to it until they are ready to really hear, accept, realize, and practice the message of the Lotus Sūtra. One could, therefore, say that the primary seed of awakening is this notion that awakening is universal and imminent and that all the different teachings and methods of Buddhism are ways of nurturing and cultivating that seed until it bears fruit as one’s own awakening. If, however, one rejects such a notion or seed, or even gets stuck on a particular teaching or method and closes oneself off to any further maturing of one’s spiritual seed, then one is undercutting the very purpose of all those ways and means. In such a case, no further growth is possible until one becomes open again to this seed-idea that full awakening is possible for all and that awakening is already at work in the lives of all people, an Eternal Buddha helping us to become buddhas.

In our present situation we may feel that we are living in a Latter Age, regardless of the Buddha’s actual dates or the calculation of time periods. The point is that we are living in a time and a world where the message of the Lotus Sūtra is not known or appreciated by the vast majority of people, including even many Buddhists who follow other teachings. The Buddha’s teachings are in the world and easily accessible through print or the internet, at temples or practice centers or seminars, and so on. Yet people are still suffering. People are still enmeshed the world over in greed, hatred, and delusion and there is still poverty, war, drug abuse, crime and so forth, even in so-called Buddhist countries. Many people no longer believe that there is anything but the material world and the epiphenomena of mind created by brain waves that come to an end totally at death. There is no afterlife, no karma, no rebirth, no heaven or hells (eternal or temporary), no God or gods, and therefore no such thing as spiritual awakening except perhaps as a metaphor for being relaxed or at peace or perhaps more insightful or detached. With such a nihilistic outlook really anything is permitted as long as it conforms with one’s feeling, or political or social expedience, and of course so long as one can get away with it without being caught and punished by other people in this life. Other people do believe in God (by whatever name), but see him as a kind of abusive heavenly father, ever ready to punish in this life with natural disasters or disease and condemn those he disapproves of to eternal damnation, a God who demands the conversion or death of unbelievers and is therefore approving of murder, war, and terrorism. There are of course many, both atheists and theists, who are honorable and benevolent, but more often than not it seems that their convictions transcend the limitations and logical implications of the views they may hold or say they hold. We ourselves should not feel that we are exempt from greed, hatred, and delusion. We may even feel that we are as bad or perhaps even worse than the people around us. Of course we may feel that we are better than everyone around us, and this only shows that we are arrogant and egotistical. There is no way to win here because if we are honest we must admit that we are indeed ordinary deluded people living in an age that matches what the sūtras describe as the Latter Age of Degeneration when the Buddha’s teachings have been corrupted and are in danger of being lost altogether as far as anyone actually understanding them and following their true spirit goes.

So here and now, as ordinary people living in a dangerous world during a corrupt age, would be a good time to sow the seed of the Wonderful Dharma in our lives and to the extent that we can share it in the lives of people around us. Now would be a time to open our minds and hearts to the conviction that there is more to life than greed, hatred, and delusion, and that the selfless compassion of buddhahood is a possibility right here and now. It may be very hard to believe this, and the Lotus Sūtra itself says that such a teaching is difficult to believe and hard to understand. Yet this conviction is the starting point for true practice, true reformation of our own lives, and true peace in the world. This message came into Nichiren’s life through the Lotus Sūtra and the teachings and interpretation of it by the T’ien-t’ai patriarchs. He experienced this message as encapsulated in the title itself. He felt that the chanting of Odaimoku, a mantra of praise and devotion to the title, acts like a seed of buddhahood, an excellent medicine taken into the depths of our lives to cure us of the toxins of greed, hatred, and delusion. I don’t see it an irrational or unreasonable to try to express his experience of the Odaimoku as a spiritual practice in these metaphoric terms. What I would say is that the mantra that is Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō is therefore an act of contemplation directed at the message of the Lotus Sūtra that buddhahood, perfect and complete awakening, is a universal possibility; and that the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha, the life of awakening, is already embracing us and within us. All else, all forms of spiritual cultivation and growth, can follow from the simple but profound act of conviction that Odaimoku expresses.

Sources

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. Two Nichiren Texts. Berkeley: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, 2003.

______________, trans. The Lotus Sutra: The Sutra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Dharma. Tokyo: Nichiren Shu Headquarters, 2012.

This is just me goofing off for a bit. I have enjoyed (and hopefully will soon again enjoy) playing Pathfinder, which is an improved version of Dungeons & Dragons 3.5. Pathfinder has come out with an East Asian setting but has so far not come out with a South Asian setting. I hope that will change someday. In the meantime I began wondering what I would do if I wanted to do a scenario using traditional Buddhist cosmology. Does Pathfinder have analogues for the eight kinds of supernatural beings who appear in the sūtras as well as other types of creatures? I know that in Gene Reeves translation of the Lotus Sūtra he decided to translate the names of some of these creatures by delving into a shared etymology with creatures who appear in Greek mythology (that old Indo-European linguistic connection) but I never really liked that as I think that even though there may be a shared etymology the creatures developed in different ways and have different roles. Still it got me to thinking that I could probably find creatures in the (as of this time) four Pathfinder Bestiaries. So as a kind of thought experiment here’s how I would deal with the eight kinds of supernatural beings in Pathfinder.

First of all, I don’t think I would treat each of the eight kinds as individual creatures but more as a class encompassing several different creatures or beings of varying CRs (Challenge Ratings). In fact, in Buddhism each of the kinds of supernatural beings is understood to be a general classification with many different kinds of creatures in each class and of course different countries also understood them differently. For instance, nagas in India are like serpents or humanoid snake like beings but in China they are more like dragons (Asian dragons not Western dragons).

So what are these supernatural beings and what would they be in Pathfinder?

 

The first are the devas or “radiant ones” who are the gods like Indra and Brahma and their cohorts. On Nichiren’s mandala he includes Indra, Brahma, and the gods of the sun, moon, and stars. In Pathfinder the gods are not listed in the bestiaries as they are effectively untouchable in-game (though they can interact with PCs or player characters but usually they do so only indirectly or through intermediaries). Celestials like agathions, angels, azatas, and archons would fit the bill however. In fact, three types of angel are specifically called devas: the Astral Deva (CR 14), the Monadic Deva (CR 12), and the Movanic Deva (CR 10). Anyone who wanted to play a deva as character would have to opt for an Aasimar (CR 1/2) meaning a person who had a deva for an ancestor.

 

Next are the nagas or “dragons.” Pathfinder actually has a whole group of creatures who are called nagas. There are dark nagas (CR 8) who are lawful evil, guardian nagas (CR 10) who are lawful good and who would fit the role of nagas who protect the Dharma and transmit secret teachings to high level clerics or oracles when the time is right, lunar nagas (CR 6) who are chaotic neutral and really into astrology, royal nagas (CR 11) who are lawful neutral and who are described like the many headed naga who supposedly covered the Buddha during a monsoon, spirit nagas (CR 9) who are chaotic evil, and water nagas (CR 7) who are neutral and seem more like the classical nagas who are associated with oceans and rivers. The Imperial Dragons modeled on Chinese dragons that appear in Bestiary 3 would also fit the bill as nagas, but most particularly the Sea Dragon (CR 4-20). Those who might want to play a naga can play a nagaji (CR 1/2), who are a race of serpent like humanoids originally created by nagas to be their servants.

 

Next are the yakshas who are a kind of nature spirit. There are no creatures called yakshas in Pathfinder. The descriptions of yakshas are pretty vague and they are not always benevolent. In fact, this class seems to overlap somewhat with the rakshasas who are fierce and malevolent spirits. Rakshasas (CR 5-20) are actually in Pathfinder already by name. In Japan the yakshas were associated with the birdlike humanoids called tengu (CR 1/2) which is a playable race in Pathfinder. Also in Japan the rakshasas were associated with a kind of Japanese ogre called oni of which there are several in Pathfinder the most typical being the so-called ogre mage (CR 8) though there is also an ogre that takes the form of a tengu called the yamabushi tengu (CR 5). I think it would also be appropriate to associate the yakshas with benevolent or at least neutral fey spirits generally such as dryads (CR 3), nymphs (CR 7), satyrs (CR 4), and many others including genies. Frankly yakshas and rakshasas seem to be rather large catchall categories. I would even say that yakshas encompass elves and dwarves while rakshasas would encompass orcs, and duergar.

 

Gandharvas are male celestial musicians who are part bird or part horse while apsaras are their wives. These beings also do no appear as such in Pathfinder. It is said that the words gandharva and centaur are related and centaurs (CR 3) are in Pathfinder. I think that the azatas called lillend (CR 7) would also be good candidates for gandharvas or apsaras for they are said to be able to fly. Again, aasimars related to gandharvas would be the only playable variety.

 

Asuras, the fighting demons, should, I think, be related to the titans and there are both good (CR 21) and evil (CR 22) titans in Pathfinder. Pathfinder also has a variety of beings of the type called asuras (CR 2-20) of which the upasundas (CR 9) seem most like the ones in traditional Buddhist cosmology. Those wanting to play an asura would have to settle for tieflings (CR 1/2).

 

Garudas (CR 9), the birdlike enemies of the nagas, actually are in Pathfinder. Again assimars would be the only playable type.

 

Kimnaras are another type of celestial musician said to either be humanoids with horses heads or birds with human heads. These sounds like a type of agathion, perhaps avorals (CR 9). Once again aasimars would be the only playable type.

 

Finally there are the mahoragas that are large serpents who live within the earth. Not sure what to make of these. Perhaps they are the more malevolent of the naga types listed above. Perhaps they are neothelids (CR 15) or serpentfolk (CR 4).