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).

Writings of Nichiren Shōnin Doctrine 2, pp. 149-153

Two Nichiren Texts, pp. 93-97

The Writings of Nichiren Daishōnin I, pp. 367-369

In the 21st exchange the interlocutor asks to hear more about Nichiren’s innovative idea that the true focus of devotion (J. honzon) should be the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha. Nichiren responds by presenting a system of analyzing the Buddha’s teachings into “four sets of three parts” (J. shishū-sandan), the four sets being (1) all of the sūtras collectively, (2) the Threefold Lotus Sūtra, (3) the two sections of the Threefold Lotus Sūtra, and (4) the true Dharma, while the three parts of each of these teachings are the preface, the main discourse, and the epilogue. The preface section is for the purpose of establishing the context and preparing people to hear, understand, and put into practice the main discourse. The main discourse is where one finds the main point and purpose of the teaching. The epilogue deals with the benefits gained from hearing and upholding the main discourse and with its transmission to others. This analysis is for the purpose of establishing that all the teachings were preparing the way for the propagation of Odaimoku in the Latter Age.

Nichiren’s division takes for granted the T’ien-t’ai system of classifying the Buddha’s teachings and also takes for granted that the sūtras were all taught by the historical Śākyamuni Buddha in the particular chronological order given in the T’ien-t’ai teaching of the five periods that was derived from statements given in the sūtras indicating the time and location of the Buddha’s discourses.  Nichiren provides some of the sūtra the citations for all this in his Shugo Kokka-ron (Treatise on Protecting the Nation). (See Hori 2003, pp. 6-10) Today, scholarship has shown that the Mahāyāna sūtras developed over a period of several centuries. Even the Pāli canon that was first written down in Sri Lanka in 29 BCE shows signs of development since the time of the Buddha’s passing. Given that we cannot naively accept that the sūtras are not verbatim records of the Buddha’s discourses, what does this mean for Nichiren’s analysis? I think that the way to approach this is to see Nichiren’s system of four sets of three parts as his way of understanding what the sūtras are leading up to and thereby evaluating the importance and purpose of various teachings. This understanding of the role the various sūtras and parts of the Lotus Sūtra play does not depend on whether they were actually spoken by the historical Buddha or whether they were given in the order that Nichiren understood them to be given in. What matters is whether this approach to the sūtras can help us to better appreciate, understand, and deepen our practice of Odaimoku.

My plan for this chapter of commentary is to not simply explain Nichiren’s four sets of three parts but to also discuss how we might best study Buddhism to better understand the Lotus Sūtra and our own practice. Buddhism can seem very difficult to understand but I think that if it is approached in a step-by-step way instead of a haphazard way or in a way almost deliberately intended to mystify then it can be seen that Buddhism is not, after all, as opaque as it might seem to be at first. I also hope to show that Buddhist teachings are not about making dogmatic metaphysical claims but rather are about helping us observe life’s realities directly. The teachings are really about our life and how we can best develop our own practice and realization. So what I hope to accomplish is to use this discussion of the four sets of three parts to clarify how the teachings of Buddhism and the Lotus Sūtra developed over time and how we might familiarize ourselves with these developments through our own study and hopefully put them into practice.

Three Parts of the Collection of All the Sutras (J. ichidai sandan)

The first set that Nichiren analyzes into preface, main discourse, and epilogue is the set of all sūtras taken as a whole.

The Lotus Sūtra consists of eight fascicles and twenty-eight chapters. Four steps of teaching (sutras of the first four tastes) were preached before the Lotus Sūtra was, and the Nirvāna Sūtra after it. This lifetime preaching of the Buddha can be bound in one sūtra. Those preached before the Lotus Sūtra, from the Flower Garland Sūtra, which was preached upon his attainment of buddhahood at Bodhgaya, to the Great Wisdom Sūtra, comprise the preface. The Sūtra of Infinite Meaning, the Lotus Sūtra, and the Sūtra of Meditation on the Universal Sage Bodhisattva, ten fascicles in all, serve as the main discourse while the Nirvāna Sūtra constitutes the epilogue. (Hori 2002, p. 150)

Here Nichiren refers to the T’ien-t’ai teaching about the five periods of the Buddha’s preaching. The first four periods were the periods of (1) preaching the Flower Garland Sūtra, (2) the discourses contained in the Āgamas that were Sanskrit sūtras from Northern India that were translated into Chinese and contain material that corresponds to the Pāli canon or Nikāyas, (3) the Expanded (S. vaipulya) sūtras that comprise all those Mahāyāna sūtras that don’t fit into the other four periods, and (4) the Perfection of Wisdom (S. Prajñā-pāramitā) sūtras. The fifth period includes both the Threefold Lotus Sūtra and the Nirvāna Sūtra. A lot of this material has been translated into English, though not everything. Even trying to read what has been translated, however, would take years. But is that really necessary? I am not convinced that for the average Buddhist practitioner it is necessary to do that. In any case, Nichiren is suggesting that all this material in the first four periods is just an introduction to the Lotus Sūtra while the Nirvāna Sūtra is just a reiteration. So why bother with any of it? Why not just concern oneself with the main discourse that is the Threefold Lotus Sūtra? Perhaps it was Nichiren’s intention that the average practitioner, as opposed to his monastic disciples who were expected to be specialists in Buddhist study and practice, need not bother with these other sūtras.

For my part, I had been practicing a form of Nichiren Buddhism for about two years when I finally found and quickly read The Threefold Lotus Sutra translated by Bunnō Katō, Yoshirō Tamura, and Kōjirō Miyasaka. I soon saw that the group I was with had been making claims about what was taught in the Lotus Sūtra that were not true. I also saw that the Lotus Sūtra is very difficult to understand without some kind of guide or commentary to explain references and unfamiliar terms, but I could no longer trust the people who I was practicing with at that time. They themselves had not read the sūtra, and once I had read the sūtra for myself I could see that the teaching did not match what the sūtra actually said. Nichiren’s writings provided commentary on what the sūtra is supposed to mean but there was no chapter-by-chapter commentary and Nichiren’s writings themselves needed a commentary due to his own use of unfamiliar references and terms. In addition, Nichiren himself cited the Nirvāna Sūtra that taught people to “follow the Dharma and not the person.” This meant that one should primarily go by what the sūtras themselves have to say rather than to trust commentaries if one wants to know what the Buddha taught. To me, all this meant that if I wanted to understand the references and terms in the Lotus Sūtra then I would have to read the other sūtras that the Lotus Sūtra seemed to assume its reader was already familiar with. By reading the other sūtras I would be, in effect, letting the Buddha explain the terms and references contained in the Lotus Sūtra. So, for instance, if I wanted to know what the references to the four noble truths and the eightfold path or dependent origination were about I should go and read the discourses where the Buddha explains those very things. Over more than two decades since that time when I first read the Threefold Lotus Sūtra I have read literally a bookcase full of sūtras (and the suttas of the Pāli canon) in English translation and have even made attempts to translate a few things for myself from classical Chinese. This effort has indeed enabled me to understand for myself what the Lotus Sūtra is talking about, or at least to understand its references and terminology. I am no longer dependent on some other person’s opinions or particular point of view but can make up my own mind about what the Lotus Sūtra does or does not mean for my practice and my life. I have also learned that reading a whole bookcase of material was not really necessary, at least not for understanding the Lotus Sūtra. Much was redundant, much was irrelevant, some of it went into details and particulars that seemed of negligible importance, but nevertheless I had to wade through it all to find what was important and relevant. I also found that in a few cases there were some very early commentaries or secondary literature that did provide useful and non-sectarian summaries of longer and more complex sūtras, though I did read the sūtras those were based on as well to double check them. I would now like to share what I think is essential background reading for understanding the Lotus Sūtra on its own terms.

First of all the Lotus Sūtra assumes that one is familiar with the life and teachings of the historical Buddha, in other words the Buddha as he appears in the Āgamas or the Nikāyas. Unfortunately the Āgamas have not been translated into English, but since the late 19th century the Nikāyas have been, and new translations have recently been published by Wisdom Publications since the late 1990s. This by itself is thousands of pages of reading, and a couple thousand more if one includes the translation of the Pāli Vinaya texts that include not just the monastic precepts and ordinances but also records of the Buddha’s early years and the formation of the Sangha. Is it necessary for the average practitioner to read all this? I don’t think so, but there are some key discourses that I think should be read. Everything that is relevant that would explain all the references in the Lotus Sūtra to pre-Mahāyāna teachings such as the workings of karma and rebirth, the four noble truths, dependent origination, or the Buddha’s problems with his cousin Devadatta can be found in the book The Life of the Buddha by Bhikkhu Ñānamoli. I highly recommend that book as it is composed of passages translated from the Pāli canon and arranged in such a way as to not only tell the Buddha’s life story but also cover all his most important discourses. Another excellent anthology of the Buddha’s discourses in the Nikāyas is In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pāli Canon by Bhikkhu Bodhi, the main translator of Wisdom Publications new translations of the Nikāyas. The only problem with that book is that it does not tell the story of the Buddha’s life in full, nor does it talk about the formation of the Sangha or the troubles with Devadatta which all figure into the Lotus Sūtra. I would also recommend that beginners in Buddhism read a translation of the Dhammapada, of which there are several good translations. The Dhammapada is a collection of verses that provide a fairly short and accessible overview of the Buddha’s teachings as they are to be found in the Pāli canon. The translation I have found to be the most helpful and reliable is the one done by John Ross Carter and Mahinda Palihawadana.

The Lotus Sūtra also assumes that the reader is familiar with basic Mahāyāna teachings about emptiness and the six perfections. There are also later Mahāyāna developments that came after the Lotus Sūtra such as the teachings concerning buddha-nature and the three bodies of the Buddha that later commentators used in explaining the Lotus Sūtra. So there are a few Mahāyāna works that I think should be read to understand both what the Lotus Sūtra itself is referring to and how later Buddhist traditions, particular T’ien-t’ai and Nichiren Buddhism, came to interpret it. The classic Mahāyāna treatment of emptiness can be found in the Diamond Sūtra and the Heart Sūtra and there are several translations and commentaries on these two sūtras available, for instance Buddhist Wisdom: The Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra by Edward Conze. For an excellent survey of the bodhisattva-vehicle and its six perfections I would recommend the Bodhicaryāvatāra by Śāntideva, of which I can recommend the translation by Kate Crosby and Andrew Skilton, though there are others available. It may not be a sūtra but it is a beautiful and fairly short work that summarizes what some very long and more complex sūtras do say about the six perfections. I think the Bodhicaryāvatāra can be seen as a kind of Mahāyāna counterpart to the Dhammapada. To understand Mahāyāna teachings about non-duality and also to see how harsh Mahāyāna condemnations of the two vehicles could get (to better appreciate the One Vehicle taught in the Lotus Sūtra) I would recommend reading the Vimalakīrti Sūtra. I found the translation by Robert A. F. Thurman called The Holy Teaching of Vimalakirti: A Mahayana Scripture very helpful, and there is also a translation by Burton Watson that is also pretty good and very readable. Teachings concerning buddha-nature are most easily approached through two treatises that attempt to summarize what late Mahāyāna traditionally taught as the sūtras that deal with it tend to be either long (like the Nirvāna Sūtra), difficult to understand (like the Lankāvatāra Sūtra), or hard to find (like the Tathāgatagarbha Sūtra) and in any case the treatises bring together and summarize what is said in these other sūtras. One treatise is called the Mahāyāna Uttaratantra Śāstra (also called the Ratna-gotra-vibhāga) that is translated by Rosemarie Fuchs in Buddha Nature: The Mahayana Uttaratantra Shastra with Commentary. That treatise also deals with the three bodies of the Buddha. The other treatise is The Awakening of Faith in the Mahāyāna of which I can recommend the translation by Yoshito S. Hakeda called The Awakening of Faith: Attributed to Aśvaghosha. This treatise was very important in the development of East Asian Buddhism. I will grant that there are passages in some of those texts that might be daunting but on the whole I have found that the above texts are not particularly difficult and none of them are excessively long. I personally feel that those sūtras and treatises are just enough to cover the major developments of Mahāyāna Buddhism that a reader and practitioner of the Lotus Sūtra would need to know to better understand and more deeply appreciate what the Lotus Sūtra is teaching.

There is one other book that I should mention here. It is called Buddha-Dharma: The Way to Enlightenment and is published by the Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research. The revised second edition came out in 2003. The Numata Center is attempting to translate the entirety of the 100-volume Taisho Tripitka that was published in Japan from 1924 to1934. The Taisho Tripitika collects all the Chinese translations of sūtras, vinaya, abhidharma as well as including important commentaries and other writings by Indian and East Asian writers. The book Buddha-Dharma is an anthology of excerpts from this collection as well as from the Pāli canon and is put together in such a way as to tell the life story of the Buddha and relate his most important teachings from both the Nikāyas and the Mahāyāna sūtras. There are places within it where I would quibble with the translations of some terms and where the translation becomes more of a paraphrase and summary so I prefer to rely on more scholarly translations of individual works. Still, it is a very helpful book to have and if one doesn’t want to track down all the other books I listed above this one handy volume will serve as a good introduction to general Buddhist and Mahāyāna Buddhist teachings. It also includes selections from the Lotus Sūtra as well.

Before moving on to the next section I would like to note the fact that Nichiren himself frequented cited other sūtras besides the Lotus Sūtra whenever he needed to clarify minor points about Buddhist teachings (minor as far as Nichiren was concerned anyway) or to make a point about current events or the position of the Lotus Sūtra in comparison to other teachings. For instance, in the Rissho Ankoku-ron (Treatise on Spreading Peace Throughout the Country by Establishing the True Dharma) Nichiren cited several sūtras besides the Lotus Sūtra that were relevant to his case that Japan was heading for civil war and foreign invasion if it did not turn away from false teachings and embrace the Lotus Sūtra. Nichiren also frequently cites the Nirvāna Sūtra throughout his writings, especially since much of that sūtra deals with hardships faced by practitioners of the true Dharma during times of persecution and the practice of subduing evil by righteous monks and civil authorities.

Three Parts of the Threefold Lotus Sūtra (J. ikkyo sandan)

The second set that Nichiren analyzes into preface, main discourse, and epilogue is the Threefold Lotus Sūtra.

The ten fascicles of the main discourse can be further divided into three parts. The Sūtra of Infinite Meaning and the first “Introduction” chapter of the Lotus Sūtra constitute the preface. The fifteen and one-half chapters of the Lotus Sūtra from the second chapter on “Expedients” to the nineteen-line verse in the seventeenth chapter, the “Variety of Merits”, mark the main discourse. The eleven and one-half chapters of the Lotus Sūtra from the last half of the “Variety of Merits” chapter, where the four stages of faith during Śākyamuni’s lifetime are preached, to the twenty-eight chapter of the sūtra, plus the one-fascicle of the Sūtra of Meditation on the Universal Sage Bodhisattva make up the epilogue. (Ibid, p. 150)

Here I will discuss the formation of the Threefold Lotus Sūtra and reserve a survey of its contents for my discussion of the third set of Nichiren’s analysis. Scholars believe that the earliest parts of the sūtra are the verse portions of chapters 2-9, and that these were probably written in the first century BCE. Over the course of the first century CE the prose portions of those chapters were written to clarify and elaborate on what was in the verse portions. These early chapters deal primarily with the historical Śākyamuni Buddha teaching his śrāvaka disciples and bodhisattvas are barely present. These early chapters also do not talk about reading or copying the sūtra, so this shows that they may have been based on an earlier oral transmission. Chapters 10-22 with the exceptions of chapters 12 and perhaps 18 (that may have appeared earlier) were probably added next around 100 CE. In these chapters the attention shifts to the bodhisattvas and the fantastic imagery of the Ceremony in the Air. The first chapter may have been added at this point or an earlier version revised to incorporate the presence of the bodhisattvas and other fantastic beings. Chapter 22 may have been the original ending with the chapters 23-28 being added over the course of the 2nd century as a kind of appendix relating the activities of various bodhisattvas endeavoring the share the teachings of the Lotus Sūtra. Sometime before the middle of the 3rd century the 12th chapter was added. Senchu Murano points out there are several discrepancies between that chapter and other parts of the sūtra betraying its late addition to the text. There were also other late additions to the text, such as a parable being added to 5 and the verse portion of chapter 25.

In China the Lotus Sūtra was translated no less than six times, with the earliest being done in 255. Only three of those translations are still extant. The earliest being the Sūtra of the Lotus Flower of the True Dharma (J. Shōhokke-kyō) by Dharmaraksa (n.d.) in 286. The most popular translation and the one used in T’ien-t’ai and Nichiren Buddhism for study and practice is the Sūtra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Dharma (J. Myōhō-renge-kyō) by Kumārajīva (344-413) that was done in 406. There is also the Supplemented Sūtra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Dharma (J. Tenbon-myōhō-renge-kyō) done by Jñānagupta (523-c. 600). The translations by Dharmaraksa and Jñānagupta used later version of the Sanskrit Lotus Sūtra that contained additions to the text not found in the Kumārajīva version that used an earlier version of the Sanskrit text. In fact, Kumārajīva’s original translation did not include chapter 12 and that was inserted translated in 490 by someone named Fa-i and inserted into the Kumārajīva translation in the early 6th century. Jñānagupta and Dharmagupta (d. 619) are credited with translating and inserting the verse portion of chapter 25 into the Kumārajīva version between 561-601. The Kumārajīva translation was originally divided into seven scrolls, but by the first half of the 8th century it came to be divided into eight, which is the form that we have it in today.

Dharmamitra (356-442) allegedly translated the Meditation on the Bodhisattva Universal Sage Sūtra between 424-442. This sūtra refers explicitly to the Lotus Sūtra and is really a kind of practice manual expanding on chapter 28 of the Lotus Sūtra. For that reason it came to be regarded as the epilogue to the Lotus Sūtra. Dharmajātayaśas (n.d.) allegedly translated the Innumerable Meanings Sūtra in 481. This sūtra does not refer to the Lotus Sūtra but in the first chapter of the Lotus Sūtra it says that the Buddha expounded the a sūtra by this name and so it has come to be seen as the preface to the Lotus Sūtra. There are no Sanskrit copies extant of either of these sūtras and some believe they may actually have been composed in China. In any case, since at least the time of T’ien-t’ai Chih-i (538-597) these two sūtras along with the Lotus Sūtra proper have been regarded as the Threefold Lotus Sūtra.

Three Parts Each of the Two Divisions of the Threefold Lotus Sūtra (J. nikyo rokudan)

The third set that Nichiren analyzes into preface, main discourse, and epilogue is actually two sets that both have a preface, main discourse, and epilogue. These two sets being the division between the Trace Gate or the first half of the Lotus Sūtra and the Original Gate or latter half of the Lotus Sūtra. Sometimes these sets are considered as two different sets and then this system of analysis is referred to as the five sets of three parts (J. gojū sandan).

Furthermore, the ten fascicles of the Threefold Lotus Sūtra can be divided into two sections, the Trace Gate and the Original Gate, each of which contains a preface, main discourse, and epilogue. First, in the Trace Gate, the Sūtra of Infinite Meaning and the first “Introduction” chapter of the Lotus Sūtra compose the preface; the eight chapters of the Lotus Sūtra from the second chapter on “Expedients” to the ninth chapter, “Assurance of Future Buddhahood” inclusive, represent the main discourse; and the five chapters from the tenth chapter, “The Teacher of the Dharma”, to the fourteenth chapter, “Peaceful Practices”, comprise the epilogue. (Ibid, pp. 150-151)

Moreover, fourteen chapters in the Original Gate can be regarded as one sūtra with three parts: the preface, the main discourse, and the epilogue. The first half of the fifteenth chapter, “Appearance of Bodhisattvas from Underground”, is the prologue. The second half of the fifteenth chapter, the sixteenth chapter, “The Life Span of the Buddha”, and the first half of the following chapter, the Variety of Merits”, (a chapter and two-halves in all) make up the main discourse. The remainder constitutes the epilogue. (Ibid, pp. 151-152)

Two early commentators on the Lotus Sūtra, Tao-sheng (d. 434) and Fa-yün (467-529), regarded the first half of the sūtra (chapters 1-14) as the realm of cause and the second half (chapters 15-28) as the realm of effect. Later, Chih-i regarded the first half as the Trace Gate that dealt with the teaching of the One Vehicle by the historical Śākyamuni Buddha and the latter half as the Original Gate that dealt with the teaching of the unquantifiable nature of the Buddha’s lifespan by the Eternal or Original Śākyamuni Buddha to his original disciples the bodhisattvas who spring up from underground. Nichiren’s analysis follows that of Chih-i in his Profound Meaning of the Lotus Sūtra, except that Nichiren includes the Innumerable Meanings Sūtra and the Meditation on the Bodhisattva Universal Sage Sūtra as part of the Trace Gate and Origin Gate respectively.

The preface section of the Trace Gate includes the Innumerable Meanings Sūtra and the first chapter, “Introduction,” of the Lotus Sūtra. The main discourse of the Trace Gate begins with chapter two, “Expedients,” and ends with chapter nine, “Assurance of Future Buddhahood of the Śrāvakas Who Have Something More to Learn and of the Śrāvakas Who Have Nothing More to Learn.” According to Chih-i in his Profound Meaning of the Lotus Sūtra, like a lotus flower whose flowers open to reveal the fruit inside, the Buddha in these chapters is teaching is about “opening the provisional and revealing the true” (J. kaigon-kenjitsu). This means that he opens up or discards the provisional teaching that those following the two vehicles of the śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas cannot attain buddhahood and reveals that in fact they can attain buddhahood. It also means that he discards the three vehicles to reveal that there is in fact only the One Vehicle of buddhahood. It also means that he discards the provisional teaching that separates the ten worlds from hell to buddhahood and reveals their mutual possession, at least in principle. The principle doctrine of the Trace Gate, according to Chih-i, is that of “opening the three vehicles and revealing the One Vehicle” (J. kaisan-ken’ichi) that is at first stated concisely in the first part of chapter two, from the beginning to the end of the fifth set of verses (See Murano 2012, pp. 24-32). In this part the Buddha speaks of the reality of all things (J. shohō-jissō) in terms of ten suchnesses (J. jū-nyoze) or factors at the end of the first prose section. These ten suchnesses are integral to Chih-i’s concept of the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment and they are recited three times to this day by Nichiren Buddhists to show that all ten factors are empty, that all ten are aspects of the provisional existence of the diverse phenomena of the ten worlds, and that all ten are aspects of the Middle Way. Because all ten worlds share these ten factors of the reality of all things, none of the ten worlds are truly separate from one another and so the world of buddhahood embraces all the others and is contained by them and therefore all beings in principle can attain buddhahood. Following this section, from the moment the Buddha responds to Śāriputra’s insistent inquiries to the end of chapter nine, the Buddha gives an expanded explanation of opening of the three vehicles and revealing the one. According to Chih-i, he does this in “three cycles of preaching” (J. sanshū-no-seppō). In the first cycle the Buddha gives a direct explanation in the rest of chapter two of the One Vehicle teaching that only disciples of superior capacity such as Śāriputra are able to take faith in. As a result he predicts the future buddhahood of Śāriputra in the beginning of chapter three, “A Parable.” In the second cycle the Buddha uses parables such as that of Parable of the Burning House in chapter three or the Parable of the Herbs in chapter five to help the disciples with intermediate capacity understand and take faith in his teaching. These disciples receive the prediction of their buddhahood in chapter six, “Assurance of Future Buddhahood.” In the third cycle the Buddha speaks of past life relationships to show that there are strong causal links between him and even the disciples of inferior capacity in order to help them overcome their doubts and take faith in the teaching of the One Vehicle. Specifically in chapter seven, “The Parable of the Magic City,” he speaks of the time three thousand dust-particle kalpas in the past when he sowed the seeds of buddhahood by teaching the Lotus Sūtra to them. Their buddhahood is predicted in chapter eight, “The Assurance of Future Buddhahood of the Five Hundred Disciples.” The epilogue of the Trace Gate runs from chapter ten, “The Teacher of the Dharma,” to chapter 14, “Peaceful Practices.” In those chapters the Buddha shifts his attention to the bodhisattvas and is primarily concerned with the propagation of the Lotus Sūtra into the future. In these chapters the Ceremony in the Air begins in chapter 11, “Beholding the Stūpa of Treasures,” and the assurance of buddhahood for evil men such as Devadatta and for women, children, and even the non-human, represented by the eight year old daughter of the dragon king, occurs in chapter 12, “Devadattva.”

The preface of the Original Gate is the first half of chapter 15, “The Appearance of Bodhisattvas from Underground.” In that chapter countless numbers of bodhisattvas and their attendants spring up from underground, coming from their dwelling place the “sky below the Sahā world.” Maitreya Bodhisattva asks who these bodhisattvas are as no one has ever seen them before. Here the preface ends. (Ibid, pp. 234-240) The main discourse begins in that same chapter as Śākyamuni Buddha explains that they are his own disciples. This leads Maitreya Bodhisattva to ask how it could be possible for the Buddha to have taught such a multitude of ancient bodhisattvas in the short span of time since he attained buddhahood beneath the Bodhi Tree. The response to this leads into the Buddha’s revelation of the actual extent of his lifespan as a Buddha in chapter 16, “The Duration of the Life of the Tathāgata.” In chapter 17, “The Variety of Merits,” the Buddha tells Maitreya Bodhisattva of the benefits gained by all those who heard and believed in what he taught in chapter 16. Maitreya’s response in prose and in verse ends the main discourse consisting of one chapter (16) and two halves (the latter half of 15 and the first half of 17). (Ibid, pp. 240-260) According to Chih-i’s Profound Meaning of the Lotus Sūtra, in the main discourse of the Original Gate the Buddha’s teaching is for the purpose of “opening the near and revealing the distant” (J. kaigon-kenmon) In other words, the Buddha is opening or discarding the idea that he only attained buddhahood in the near past some forty years before and is revealing that he actually attained buddhahood 500 dust-particle kalpas in the distant past. This is first revealed concisely, which is to say implied, in his response to Maitreya Bodhisattva’s initial inquiry about the identify of the bodhisattvas from underground in chapter 15 and revealed in a more extensive or expanded way in chapter 16. The epilogue of the Original Gate consists of the second half of chapter 17 through to chapter 28 and includes the Meditation on the Bodhisattva Universal Sage Sūtra. In chapter 21, “The Supernatural Powers of the Tathāgatas,” the Buddha gives a special transmission of the Dharma to Superior Practice Bodhisattva and the rest of the bodhisattvas from underground. In chapter 22, “Transmission,” there is a general transmission of the Dharma to all the other bodhisattvas present. At that point the Ceremony in the Air comes to a close and presumably Many Treasures Tathāgata and his stūpa of treasures, all the Buddha’s emanations in the ten directions, and the bodhisattvas from underground that appeared in chapter 15 all take their leave. Nichiren in particular underscored that the preaching of the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha during the Ceremony in the Air above Vulture Peak to the bodhisattvas from underground was only told in the eight chapters from 15-22. The other chapters from 23-28 deal with the practices of bodhisattvas like World Voice Perceiver Bodhisattva and Universal Sage Bodhisattva and the protection and support they vow to provide to those who uphold the Lotus Sūtra.

Three Parts of the True Dharma (J. hompon sandan)

The fourth set that Nichiren analyzes has to do with the True Dharma of the five characters of the Odaimoku that is preceded by all else including the Lotus Sūtra itself.

There is another triple division culminating in the Original Gate. Innumerable sutras beginning with the Lotus Sūtra expounded during the time of the ancient Great Universal Wisdom Buddha, those preached by Śākyamuni Buddha during fifty some years of his lifetime – including the Flower Garland Sūtra, fourteen chapters of the Trace Gate of the Lotus Sūtra, and the Nirvāna Sūtra – as well as those preached by Buddhas in all the worlds in the universe in the past, at present, and in the future are the preface to the great Dharma of five characters hidden in the lines of the 16th chapter of the Lotus Sūtra, “The Life Span of the Buddha.

Compared to the one chapter and two-half chapters of the Lotus Sūtra that which comprise the main discourse according to this division, all other sutras may be called Hīnayāna teachings, false teachings, teachings that do not lead to buddhahood, or teachings in which the truth is not revealed. Those who listen to these “expedient” teachings have little virtue and much illusion; they are immature in thinking, poor in heart, and solitary, like birds and beasts, they do not know the existence of the Eternal Buddha, who is their father. (Ibid, p. 152 adapted)

The five characters hidden in the depths of the 16th chapter are of course the title of the Lotus Sūtra: myō, , ren, ge, and kyō. With the addition of na and mu to indicate praise and the taking of refuge, one has the seven character Odaimoku or sacred title whose chanting is to directly contemplate and take to heart the teaching of chapter 16 that the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha is with us always leading us on to our own buddhahood. In comparison to this, all other sūtras, even the other parts of the Lotus Sūtra, are providing only provisional teachings that are meant to lead to and encourage the practice of Odaimoku. Nichiren says that these other teachings are in fact Hīnayāna, even the Mahāyāna sūtras and other parts of the Lotus Sūtra, because they do not clarify the full scope of the Buddha’s awakened life. From their perspective the Buddha enters parinirvāna or “total extinction” like the arhats and pratyekabuddhas who, upon entering parinirvāna themselves, “reduce the body to ashes and annihilate consciousness.” This would mean that the final end of the Buddha is the same kind of extinction as that aimed for in Hīnayāna Buddhism. Only in the one chapter and two-halves does Śākyamuni Buddha reveal that he will always be present and that he does not enter into extinction except in terms of a skillful method to keep people from becoming complacent and over reliant on the Buddha rather than cultivating their own awakening. This means that the ultimate goal of buddhahood is not annihilation but to always be present leading all living beings to buddhahood. The Buddha says in chapter 16: “I am always thinking: ‘How shall I cause all living beings to enter into the unsurpassed Way and quickly become buddhas?’” (Murano 2012, p. 255) The Buddha does this by praising and sharing the Lotus Sūtra, so wherever the Lotus Sūtra is praised, shared, and upheld there one will find the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha. That is why Nichiren saw the Odaimoku, the seven characters that mean “Devotion to the Sūtra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Dharma,” as the expression of the true meaning of the one chapter and two halves revealing the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha.

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