Two kinds of faith

In February 1278, The Daishonin wrote a short letter to Nanjo Tokimitsu entitled Two Kinds of Faith. Nanjo Tokimitsu was the steward of Ueno village in Suruga Province. The Daishonin’s relationship with Nanjo Tokimitsu began in 1265 when, upon the death of Nanjo’s father, Nanjo Hyoe Shichiro, the Daishonin had dropped everything to travel from Kamakura to Ueno in the Fuji area so that he could pray over Hyoe Shichiro’s grave.

Nanjo Tokimitsu, at the time aged just 7, was so moved by the compassion shown for his father by the Daishonin, that he became a firm believer in the Daishonin’s Buddhism.

This letter was written to Nanjo when he was about 20 years old and consists of three main sections: the expression of gratitude for offerings received and reward for praising a Buddha, the introduction of the concept of the two kinds of faith, and the expression of deep concern for the health of Nanjo’s family including the offer of encouragement to Nanjo to remain steadfast in his faith.

This lecture will explore the second part of the letter that conveys the concept of the two kinds of faith. It is quite short, and reads:

Today there are people who have faith in the Lotus Sutra. The belief of some is like fire while that of others is like water. When the former listen to the teachings, their passion flares up like fire, but as time goes on, they tend to discard their faith. To have faith like water means to believe continuously without ever regressing. Since you visit me constantly, regardless of the difficulties, your belief is comparable to flowing water. It is worthy of great respect!

As usual, the Daishonin has employed his skill in simile and metaphor to explain to the young Nanjo how important it is to maintain a steady faith, rather than a faith that is erratic or unsustainable. He ends the paragraph by praising his follower for his maintaining a faith like flowing water, and citing it as “worthy of great respect”.

Why is it worthy of respect? Why is a faith like water, more praiseworthy than a faith like fire – and how can we benefit from the Daishonin’s observation?

Have you ever heard people in the west who, having spent less time in church in their lives than they spend watching TV in a week, have suddenly prayed to God when presented with a particular challenge or difficulty? I know I have. I’ve certainly been guilty of this myself in the past.

It’s as if one’s relationship with God only exists when we are in need. Is God more or less likely to answer the prayers of such people? I don’t know – that’s one for Christian theologians.

As Nichiren Buddhists, we pray to the Universal Law of Cause and Effect – or rather we pray to become at one with it – to live our lives in tune with it. If we only practice our faith from time to time, when we feel life is getting us down, then it’s not going to help very much.

Desperation Daimoku is not an effective Buddhist practice. Our human revolution consists of faith, practice and study. It runs through our daily lives like a river. We cannot simply pray for help when we need it and do nothing more – not least because this Buddhism doesn’t rely on a single supreme entity or consciousness to solve our problems. The mystic law of cause and effect makes us all responsible for our karma, and our suffering.

There is a well known story in the Gosho Letter to Nike that I’m going to include. Although many will already have read it, I think it is incredibly relevant. The Diashonin writes:

Deep in the Snow Mountains lives a bird called the cold-suffering bird that, tortured by the numbing cold, cries that it will build a nest in the morning. Yet when day breaks, it sleeps away the hours in the warm light of the morning sun without building its nest. So it continues to cry vainly throughout its life.

Does this sound familiar? It seems such an obvious fable, and many would shrug it off as trite and patronising – childish even. Which is interesting as it’s the subject of an excellent children’s book available from the SGI.

How many have left the leaky roof until the onset of winter? Or only changed their diet when the doctor told them their cholesterol was through the ceiling? Or only told someone how much they really loved them when they were on their deathbed?

The simplicity of this fable betrays a deep underlying wisdom that can be applied in all areas of our daily lives to great effect.

In the last passage, if we substitute “cry vainly” for “complain”, then we can perhaps start to recognise ourselves and those around us who bemoan our own suffering – suffering often caused behaviour that is easily within our powers to remedy. I’m sure we all know people who constantly complain about the same thing, despite the cause of their problem being as plain as the nose on your face. These people are like the cold suffering bird – essentially blind to their own Buddhahood.

The truly great benefit to someone who’s life is in this kind of situation, once Buddhism is properly applied, is that suffering can be transformed into enlightenment. It becomes the very driving force behind our own human revolution. Right here, right now.

Let’s get back to touch on an earlier question, which was why is a faith like flowing water worthy of respect?

A faith like fire at best is transient and short lived, at worst it can lead to fanaticism and corruption. The analogy to fire is an accurate one insofar that fire requires heat, fuel, and oxygen to exist. Anyone who has attended fire safety training will know that heat, fuel, and oxygen make up something called the fire triangle.

I think we can equate the fuel to something that we perceive as making us suffer, the oxygen to our belief in there being a solution (be it the Mystic Law, God, or any other personal belief) and the heat (or spark) to our desire to act to end the suffering. Take any one of these away, and a faith like fire will extinguish itself. Fire also utterly destroys anything it consumes, and the analogy extends itself in this respect too.

Once our immediate suffering is removed, we are left none the wiser (in the true sense of the word wisdom). After the input of so much prayer, suffering, and the desire to end it, we gain no enlightenment. This pattern of behaviour cannot possibly lead us to a genuine lasting happiness. How can it be worthy of great respect?

When we behave in this way, how must it extend into our daily lives? I’m sure we have all had friends or acquaintances who seem only to contact us when in need of help. Their smiles and pleasantries appear for the brief time we assist them, and then once the commotion or crisis is over they drift back into the distance.

Because such people see us only as the solution to their suffering, like the Cold Suffering Bird, they cry to “build the nest” of friendship only when they are in need. At all other times they show little compassion for anyone other than themselves? Such people do not recognise the praiseworthy Buddha inherent in us all. How can this be worthy of respect?

When we have a faith like flowing water – that is steady and constant, unaffected by the short lived wins and woes of daily life, then we maintain a consistent connection with the mystic truth that is, as Nichiren wrote, “originally inherent in all living beings”.

When the Daishonin writes in this letter to Nonjo Tokimitsu “regardless of the difficulties”, like flowing water, our faith should flow unceasingly over the boulders, rocks and shail of life, regardless of the challenges we may face.

When we maintain our daily practice, we constantly activate our Buddha wisdom. This, in turn, promotes our compassion for all living beings, and helps us perceive our own suffering as sources of enlightenment – it reminds us at all times to show gratitude to those with whom we share our lives.

When we have faith like flowing water we manifest Buddhahood and shine like a beacon – we manifest our true entity, our innate self, revealing it and bringing it to shine, illuminating all around us.

By chanting Nam Myoho Renge Kyo twice daily we maintain this river of faith in our lives, and help to reveal Buddhahood in others. As the Daishonin correctly points out, this is indeed worthy of great respect.

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