Nichiren

Great Teacher Series @ Theosophy Trust


NICHIREN


Turn your minds and entrust yourselves at once to the singular Truth of the Righteous Way. Then you will see that the three realms of existence are the Kingdom of Buddha, which is in no way subject to decay, and that the worlds in the ten quarters are all lands of treasures, which are never to be destroyed. The kingdom is changeless and the lands eternal. How, then, shall your life be other than secure and your mind other than serene in Enlightenment?

Rissho Ankokuron NICHIREN
>

Japanese Buddhists were concerned with mappo, the period of degeneracy in which buddhadharma, the Teaching of Buddha, was thought to be obscured and even lost. As the ancient imperial ideal was enervated by the rise of samurai who held effective power, Japan almost seemed to many thinkers to become illustrative of mappo. Whilst Japanese Buddhists could revere China and aspire to journey to India, they knew that the Buddhist tradition had degenerated amongst the Chinese and had virtually disappeared in the land of its founder. Although some devotees were content with laconic pessimism, others nurtured a variety of desultory responses to mappo. The traditional schools of Japan tended to view their work as holding operations, keeping the flame of truth alive in the growing darkness. Zen schools, whatever the attitudes of their founders, drifted towards concerns with personal attainment at the expense of the whole, and this tendency was reflected in their lack of appeal for the general populace. The people turned towards Pure Land teachings.

Pure Land belief holds that Amitabha – known in China as O-mi-t'o and in Japan as Amida – is the Buddha of Infinite Light who vowed whilst still a mortal to create a pure land for other aspirants to enlightenment. When Amida attained the highest degrees of spiritual omniscience, he created out of his own meditational energies Sukhavati, the Western Paradise or Pure Land. Those who would not otherwise be able to gain enlightenment may call upon his name with unreserved faith, and if they do, they will be reborn in Sukhavati, a realm so pure and sweet to the consciousness of human beings that they will be able to attain supreme enlightenment from that land. Although such ideas can be traced back to the Chinese teacher Hui-yuan, who lived in the fourth century, they were transmitted to Japan with Tendai doc trines and came to form a distinct school under the priest Honen at the end of the twelfth century. Pure Land faith is expressed in the nembutsu, the invocation of the name of Amitabha Buddha – "Namu Amida Butsu."

One monk, however, rejected all these responses to mappo, teaching that the age of degeneracy was the time when the Truth could be taught anew. Nichiren summoned all Buddhists to a renewed faith and effort centred upon the Lotus Sutra. Born in 1222 in Awa province, Nichiren was said by his later followers to be of aristocratic parentage, though he pointed to fishing as his father's profession. His village was an estate of the Ise Shrine, and Nichiren believed that it was the home of Amaterasu, the sun goddess. Although Nichiren's early education is unknown, he was an intense thinker who, by the age of twelve, had formulated two questions, the answers to which would dominate his life. The first question centred upon the destiny of the imperial family. How could the kami, the indigenous Japanese gods and goddesses, abandon Japan and the imperial family by allowing usurpers – specifically the Hojo regents – to rule de facto and even force Emperor Go-Toba into exile? Since the kami were protectors of the nation, the disgrace suffered by the imperial family must have some cause, and Nichiren sought to discover it. The second question arose out of the large number of diverse Buddhist schools and the many sutras they studied. If buddhavachana, the Word of Buddha, is one, Nichiren reasoned, then there should be one fundamental sutra and one true school. He took a vow to Bodhisattva Akashagarbha (Kokuzo in Japanese) to become the wisest man in Japan in order to discern the one sutra and the one school.

Nichiren entered a monastery at Mount Kiyosumi which had close ties with Mount Hiei. There he studied the Tendai school and especially nembutsu practices. In 1239 he went to study at Kamakura. Aside from suspect legends, little is known of Nichiren's study of Pure Land teachings, but he came away from them with a deep-seated revulsion and the conviction that Pure Land followers were doomed to perdition. He was convinced that the concessions older schools had made to popular belief were unacceptably compromising and reduced buddhadharma to little more than superstition. Faith in the Western Paradise was, for him, a delusion and a snare. When he returned to Mount Kiyosumi in 1242, he wrote a brief treatise which reflected his desire to reform Japanese Buddhist thought and practice. He argued that the secret doctrines of the Shingon school were closer to the truth than the exoteric teachings of the Lotus Sutra, but that the Lotus Sutra, properly understood, was the epitome of truth. Although his views were to evolve, he never wavered in his loyalty to the Lotus Sutra. Soon he went to Mount Hiei, where he studied Tendai thought and encountered the idea of hongaku homon – the teaching of original enlightenment – which would colour all his own teachings.

During his stay at Mount Hiei, Nichiren studied various schools of thought and made journeys to other centres to study their views. It was during this time that his own fundamental beliefs took shape. He came to believe, for example, that Tendai as a school came closest to a pure expression of divine Truth. But perceiving that it had fallen far from the spirit of Saicho, its founder, he determined to reform Tendai radically. The Lotus Sutra alone, he decided, was perfectly suited to the age of mappo, and through it alone could one expect redemption from ignorance, bondage and suffering. These insights answered the questions he had raised when he was twelve. If an ideal Tendai was the one school, then the Lotus was the one sutra. The imperial family had suffered ignominy and indignity because the people had failed to pay proper homage to the Lotus Sutra as the source of salvation in the age of mappo. This failure caused the kami to withdraw their protection from the emperor and the nation. These views when combined made a volatile mixture, impelling Nichiren to denounce most Buddhist practices, on the one hand, and the social and political system, on the other. He joined the two in shakubuku, conversion, a method of shocking his opponents and attracting people by a public display of supreme confidence.

In 1253 Nichiren decided that the time had come to share his teachings with the nation, and he began at Mount Kiyosumi with an attack on the efficacy of the nembutsu. His first public discourse was before a distinguished audience which included Dozen, his former teacher, and Tojo Kagenobu, a nembutsu follower. His declamation was so uncompromising – apparently including the assertion that nembutsu followers were destined to perdition in avitchi – that Tojo decided to ambush Nichiren and kill him. Dozen heard of the plot, however, and managed to help Nichiren escape, even though he was shocked by his disciple's views. Sometime later, Nichiren was invited to the dedication of an Amida hall. He enraged his host by asserting that Amida was master of the Western Paradise and not this world, and so Shakyamuni alone should be venerated. The angry responses Nichiren received were counted by him as successes, because he believed that in the age of degeneracy they were proof that his message had an impact. A polite response was for him a sign that he had not communicated his message.

Nichiren's first converts were his parents, to whom he gave the religious names Myoren and Myonichi. He then took part of each name and made it his own – Nichiren. Nissho, who had been his senior at Mount Hiei, became the first monk to join him. Whilst he taught and gained a few disciples, a series of natural disasters struck Japan. In 1260 Nichiren wrote the Rissho Ankokuron (Treatise on Establishing Righteousness for the Nation's Peace), in which he claimed that Japan's misfortunes were due to the withdrawal of the protecting gods to heaven as a result of the spread of nembutsu practice. He submitted his work to Hojo Tokiyori, the real power behind the throne, calling for suppression of the nembutsu and warning that if his advice was ignored, foreign invasion would be inevitable. When the contents of his tract became public, he was attacked and had to flee. Hardly had he returned to Kamakura than he was formally charged under the feudal code and exiled to the Izu Peninsula. When Hojo Tokiyori died in 1263, Nichiren was pardoned.

In 1264 the warlord Kudo Yoshitaka invited Nichiren to his residence. En route, he was ambushed and wounded by Tojo Kagenobu, his old enemy. Kudo rushed to his aid but was killed in the struggle, along with two of Nichiren's disciples. Rather than frightening him, however, this event reinforced his conviction that his mission was divine and he redoubled his efforts to reform the religious life of the nation. When Kublai Khan, the Mongol emperor of China, demanded tribute from Japan in 1268, Nichiren reminded the imperial court that he had predicted foreign invasion. Whilst such reminders made Nichiren more popular with the common people, the court was not pleased. By 1271 the samurai court had found his pro-imperial declamations sufficiently threatening that charges were brought against him and he was exiled to Sado Island. In fact, the government determined to execute him on the way to his place of exile. Just before the secret sentence was to be carried out – Nichiren having been forced to dismount and face the sword – a reprieve arrived from the regent and he was taken to Sado. Nichiren found his brush with death a great regeneration, strengthening his convictions and leading him to see himself as the agent of destiny.

Although he was at first treated harshly on Sado, he found the strength to write and to win new disciples. There he took his great vow:

I will be the pillar of Japan.
I will be the eyes of Japan.
I will be the ship of Japan.

Nichiren came to see himself as the embodiment of the Bodhisattva Vishishtacaritra (Jogyo in Japanese), who protects the Lotus Sutra, and he devised the Daimandara or great mandala, which depicted the essence of his thought. In its centre were the five characters of Namu Myohorengekyo, the name of the Saddharma Pundarika or Lotus Sutra in Japanese. It would become the basis of his teachings.

In 1274 he was pardoned by the regent and he returned to Kamakura. Now the government listened politely to his views and enquired when a Mongol invasion might be expected to occur. Nichiren replied that although the Lotus Sutra did not specify dates, his own reading of the sutra and various celestial phenomena led him to expect an invasion within a year. The government took his prediction seriously, but it did not accept his solutions to the impending danger. Nichiren decided to retire from the public arena and allow events to prove his views. He went to Mount Minobu, where he taught his disciples and awaited the disaster which would reveal the truth of his words. Later in the year, the Mongols did attack Japan, but after an initial success the expedition was forced to withdraw with heavy losses. Undaunted, Nichiren warned that the invasion was only a foreshadowing of worse to come.

Turning to writing down his teachings in a systematic way, Nichiren ignored the larger political world outside Mount Minobu. He transformed his hermitage into a community which reflected Buddha's Vulture Peak, and laid the groundwork for the Kuonji Temple. When in 1281 the Mongols launched a much larger invasionary force, Nichiren remained silent. He had been in uncertain health since 1278 and did not have the strength to take a vigorous public stand. The second invasion failed as miserably as the first, largely due to a sudden typhoon which destroyed most of the Mongol fleet. When his opponents ridiculed his dire predictions and took credit for the salvation of the country, Nichiren maintained his dignity and did not bother to reply. He became gravely ill in 1282 and died on the way to a hot spring to relieve his symptoms. As he wished, he was cremated and his ashes were placed in a shrine on Mount Minobu. Although his predictions regarding the future if Japan did not turn solely to the Lotus Sutra were not fulfilled as dramatically as his followers had hoped, they found in the vitality of his teachings a lasting inspiration which has sustained them to the present day.

Nichiren founded an independent school, but he saw it as a radical reform of Tendai tradition and rooted his doctrines in two Tendai principles: the idea of original enlightenment and the interpretation of the Lotus Sutra. Hongaku shiso, the theory of original enlightenment, can be traced back to very early sources. It is the view that human beings could never hope to achieve enlightenment if they did not have it originally. Whilst most schools hold that all human beings – even all sentient creatures – possess the Buddha- nature, for many this conviction means that a human being has the potential to become enlightened. For them, the Buddha-nature is an as yet unrealized potential in all, save the Buddhas. For Nichiren, however, the doctrine of original enlightenment means that every human being is originally enlightened, and the effort to become enlightened is not the realization of a potential, but rather a recovery of one's true nature. Everything that obscures the human being's original and natural state is, in this sense, accidental or contingent. The Absolute – that which is realized in the Enlightened One – is the ground of one's being, not a goal to be attained. Such a view carries a number of significant implications.

For Nichiren, this standpoint highlights the illusory nature of time. There was a point when each human being experienced the Buddha-nature within. Put more accurately, perhaps, time is the psychological experience of successive states of consciousness, equivalent to the loss of the experience of original enlightenment. Thus Nichiren had no patience with the long-standing debate over sudden and gradual enlightenment. To believe that enlightenment is achieved gradually over time is to succumb to the very psycho- spiritual illusion which marks the loss of original enlightenment. Nichiren taught the doctrine of sokushin jobutsu, attaining enlightenment in this body, which is in line with the sudden- enlightenment perspective. For him, the metaphysical truth of original enlightenment makes it clear that adherents of nembutsu practice are doomed, for they believe that through this expressed faith in Amida they will be elevated to an intermediate realm from which the ascent to enlightenment will be possible. Such gradualism, he thought, is a virtual spiritual prostitution of the truth, since enlightenment is the Buddha-nature within. This is why, he said, followers of the gradualist way of thinking so readily fall into talking about enlightenment but accomplish little. Expediency has to be renounced and the Absolute approached directly. Given the doctrine of original enlightenment, attainment is possible for all beings; if they choose it, he held, the world of samsara – illusion, ignorance and relativity – can be transformed collectively into the world of truth. Thus, Nichiren's spiritual standpoint readily encompassed his wish for social reform.

Nichiren taught that the Lotus Sutra provides the lever for moving aside all that obscures one's original enlightenment. He refined an idea that can be traced back to Vasubandhu, who first concentrated on the full title of the sutra. The five Chinese characters constituting its title are open to numerous interpretations, and in time people saw in them the quintessence of the whole sacred text. Invoking the title could be equivalent to chanting the scripture, if one reflected rightly on it. The Chinese translation of the sutra, made by Kumarajiva, contains twenty-eight chapters. Chih-I divided these into two sets, the first of which refers to the manifest Buddha of history known as Shakyamuni. The second set, however, speaks of an Eternal Shakyamuni, who has always existed, who was manifest for a time in the historical Buddha and who has so manifested numerous times. The Eternal Shakyamuni is pure buddhadharma, absolute Truth. For Nichiren, the second half of the sutra was the most important, and it is quintessentially epitomized as the title.

Properly understood, the Lotus Sutra consists of five inter related aspects. There is kyo, the teaching of the sutra, and ki, the object of the teaching. For Nichiren, the object is all those who harm buddhadharma by misunderstanding and misusing it. Then there is ji, timing, for unless the time is right for reception of the teaching, it cannot be successfully imparted. Just as the time was right when Buddha delivered the sutra, Nichiren concluded that the moment in mappo had come for its full reception. In contrast to the pessimism that the doctrine of mappo created in many Buddhists, Nichiren was joyous in the belief that the time of redemption was at hand. The fourth aspect is shi, the master who can teach the sutra, and Nichiren was confident that he was the master pointed to by the sutra. Finally, there has to be some locale or country in which the first four components are present, and Nichiren was convinced that Japan was that place. Although he sometimes seemed to defend the imperial throne against the samurai government at Kamakura, he was in fact seeking to make Japan the heart of a new world-community illumined by the Lotus Sutra. His vision had no more room for narrow nationalist notions than it had for compromising approaches to enlightenment.

Nichiren taught that the five characters forming the title Myohorengekyo contain the three worlds. Chanting the title constitutes the link between the Absolute, which dwells within humanity, and humanity in its present, time-bound ignorance. Chanting is the awakener which shakes off the temporal encrustations so that one's original enlightenment may be recovered. As the Absolute is realized within each individual, their evil and suffering diminish; as they are lessened in individuals, they shrink away in society. As original enlightenment is recovered by the individual, he or she becomes one with the Original Buddha, and collectively society becomes the body of the Original Buddha. Self-transformation is nothing but self-recovery of self-regeneration and such renewal or re-orgination leads to the transformation of the whole world. For Nichiren, the Pure Land is not the Western Paradise: it is an ideal condition waiting to be realized on this earth.

Paradoxically, the idea that humanity had entered the age of degeneracy and decay – which can easily lead to a sense of limit and even futility or despair – brightened Nichiren with the conviction that it was precisely in such times that the Buddha-land could appear. The strength and power of his conviction is reflected in the fact that millions today are faithful to it and seek its realization. Seventy-six years after Nichiren died, the emperor bestowed on him the title Daibosatsu, 'Great Bodhisattva', and in 1922 he was given the posthumous name of Rissho Daishi, 'Master of the Establishment of Righteousness'.

>