Superstition, doubt, reason and investigation

Here’s a typical quote from Daisaku Ikeda (New Human Revolution Vol 17):

Doubt is the source of fundamental delusion in life; it is what Buddhism calls fundamental darkness. It gives rise to anxiety and drags us into the depths of despair. Faith, meanwhile, is the struggle against the doubt that resides within our hearts. The power to win in that struggle comes from chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. A true champion is therefore someone who puts prayer first.

Before I go any further I should make it clear that I do not doubt the benefit of practicing Nichiren Buddhism, but I do have to question some of the dogma associated with it and perpetuated to this day. For a long time I have felt almost guilty for harbouring what might be called doubt regarding some of the dogma of the SGI. Then, two things happened – an aircraft needed inspecting, and I listened to the Dalai Lama.

First, the microlight aircraft I share with a friend is due it’s annual airworthiness inspection today. Aircraft designers are clever folk. And so are the people who inspect them for safety. One could say I have faith in them. Once the inspection is completed next week, would I then fly the plane without doing my own thorough daily inspection? Hell, no. How foolish would I be to entrust my life to a contraption the integrity of which I have not personally investigated?

Second, I listened to the Dalai Lama talk about doubt, scepticism and investigation, and how these states of mind were important in Mahayana buddhism;

Unless you find something through investigation, you do not want to accept it as fact.

Even Daisaku Ikeda talks about;

Faith in Buddhism is not blind faith that rejects reason. It is in fact a rational function, a process of the cultivation of wisdom that begins with a spirit of reverent searching.

I have a seeking mind. A great interest in “why” as well as “how”. When Nichiren writes that something is so, I have to know why and how he arrived at that conclusion.

Doubt that is not acted upon becomes nagging. This is negative and distracting to clarity of thought. Doubts must be acted upon and investigated to obtain clarity and satisfaction. This is the basis for reason. Doubts that are ignored or, through religious practice or causal fallacy, erroneously rationalised are the basis, I would argue, for perverted faith and superstition.

For example. Nichiren says only the Lotus Sutra should be practised. He also recommends chanting Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo. If I chanted and my leg got better, would it be right to preach that only the Lotus Sutra should be practised. What if I had chanted Abracadabra – would the same hold true?

A teaching for me has to be like the aircraft. Investigated, with great reason and skill, leaving no doubt as to the efficacy of the object of enquiry. Only then can I take faith in it’s ability to fly.

Ah, you say, Shariputra was “able to gain entrance through faith alone”. Well, good for him – how joyous! Unfortunately, I’m not Shariputra, and Shariputra did not gain entrance to the Buddha way by chanting Daimoku. There is no evidence to suggest otherwise.

Nichiren’s environment

Since I began this blog, and began investigating with more determination Nichiren’s ideas I have come up against several instances where there seems to have been leaps of logic.

For me, Nichiren has to be put into historical context. Mediaeval Japan was a world full of superstitious nonsense, and Nichiren was not immune to this. Kamakura period Buddhism was incredibly politicised, and again Nichiren had to operate within this environment. That he attracted a number of Samurai followers was no coincidence – they would have been necessary for his survival.

Despite his incredible achievements, Nichiren was low born, and essentially self taught. His incredible odyssey of learning that spanned 15 years did nothing to automatically grant him any prestigious position.

The natural disasters that had struck Japan, and the threats of foreign invasion served only to solidify his conviction that all other faiths being supported by the government of the time were erroneous and only served to bring ruin upon the nation.

It was Nichiren’s way, or the highway. His rhetoric was bold and uncompromising. It had to be. Any other approach would have been completely ineffective in a feudal society. There was no room for compromise. The times were utterly ripe for the creation of causal fallacies to emerge, and emerge they did in bucket loads.

The entire populace of Japan has in fact [slandered Nichiren and] had their heads broken. What else do you think caused the great earthquake of the Shoka era [1257] and the huge comet of the Bun’ei era [1264]?

Scriptural meanderings

There’s nothing worse, in my view, than being told by your mentor that something is so, because the Buddha said this, or that, and when you go to check the validity of his claim, you find it is indeed not so at all, or only partially so.

For example, in Sage and an Unenlightened Man, Nichiren writes

And in addition, we have the warning delivered in the ‘Simile and Parable’ chapter in the second volume, ‘desiring only to accept and embrace the sutra of the great vehicle and not accepting a single verse of the other sutras’.

This has to be placed in the context of the surrounding passages, which although I have redacted a little for clarity, this text clearly demonstrates the true meaning of them:

For this reason
I expressly say to you,
do not preach this sutra
to persons who are without wisdom.
But if there are those of keen capacities,
wise and understanding,
of much learning and strong memory,
who seek the Buddha way,
then to persons such as this
it is permissible to preach it.
If there are monks who,
for the sake of comprehensive wisdom,
seek the Law in every direction,
pressing palms together, gratefully accepting,
desiring only to accept and embrace
the sutra of the Great Vehicle
and not accepting a single verse
of the other sutras,
to persons such as this
it is permissible to preach it.
I tell you Shariputra,
if I described all the characteristics
of those who seek the Buddha way,
I could exhaust a kalpa and never be done.
Persons of this type
are capable of believing and understanding.
Therefore for them you should preach
the Lotus Sutra of the Wonderful Law.
 

Nichiren can be very selective in what he shares with the reader at times. It would have been just as easy to use only the first four lines of this excerpt to justify the Lotus Sutra only being taught to those of great wisdom. The verse Nichiren actually took this except from is actually talking about monks who seek the law ‘for the sake of comprehensive wisdom’. Make of that what you will, but I fail to see how it applies to unenlightened folks of the Latter Day!

There are numerous other examples I have encountered when reading various Gosho over the past few years, but have not documented. There would be little point in trying to make a big deal out of something that can only be expected, given Nichiren’s circumstances. I just feel that Nichiren was so convinced about the exclusive supremacy of the Lotus Sutra that he got a little carried away at times.

Gratitude for Nichiren Daishonin

I feel I should add at least a footnote, to demonstrate my deepest gratitude to Nichiren Daishonin for his efforts. In no way do I intend to slander Nichiren, who’s heart in my mind at least was pure. His life stands testament to the power of non violent opposition to corruption and oppression of the people. His teachings are still very valuable, and in many cases quite beautiful in demonstrating compassion to all.

I am reminded of the story in Letter to the Sage Nichimyo of the boy Snow Mountains who gave up his life to feed the demon with his own body to hear the full teaching

All is changeable, nothing is constant. This is the law of birth and death. Extinguishing the cycle of birth and death, one enters the joy of nirvana.

Here Nichiren aludes to the most basic of Buddhist concepts of non-permanence and emptiness. He clearly sees the importance of including the foundations of Buddhism in his poetic moments, and this is something I will return to.

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2 Responses to Superstition, doubt, reason and investigation

  1. stephen bekker December 25, 2014 at 5:54 pm #

    Hi Steve

    Like you i have a questioning mind, and after being an athiest for many years became a practicing member of SGI. I still encounter questions but after my own reading and investigation, they have always been resolved.

    As far as dogma goes, this is the one religion that I find as far from dogmatic as possible, thats why it appealed to me so much from the start. I can only say it may be constructed as dogmatic maybe in the way it protects the true meaning of the Buddhas intent as explained by Nichiren and preserving the essential practice.

    But this is also important for practical reasons as so many people use religion and spirituality to rip others off or to simply make a living for themselves.

    The daily practice of Gongyo has even been shortened to adapt it to the times, but the essential practice of daimoku stands firm, and that stays with the individual as to how much they want or need to do.

    As Herbie Hancock says, it is not called a Law for nothing( the Mystic Law) for it is a law of the universe like gravity, it works whether you believe it or not. Is that Dogma? I don’t know, but I know it works, and that is off course the test. So if you bring me a practice that works as well for me based on abracadabra, I will investigate definitely.

    Anyway thanks for an article that has made me think, and thanks for the opportunity to reply, and no doubt with your seeking spirit you will find your happyness.

    Regards
    Stephen Bekker

    • steve February 8, 2015 at 12:38 pm #

      Glad you are getting on Stephen. My last few articles were tainted with a distaste for the SGI after a particularly rough time personally, which caused me to look beyond the SGI, and to really try to find the essence of the Buddha’s wisdom. I left these articles up, as they remind me how easily we can all take up a stance – and you know how damaging stances can be, right? I came to the conclusion that it is just too personal, and subtle to ever express in words. All I can say is that these days I rarely tell people what they “should” do or think. The SGI, like so many well-intentioned organisations try to lead the horse to the water – but drinking the water, ultimately, is a personal journey. Winter snowdrops for you.

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