Was Nichiren Daishonin saved by the Dalai Lama?

Chapter 25 of the Lotus Sutra (as translated by Kumarajiva) provides a teaching regarding one of the most important characters in Mahayana Buddhism. The title of this chapter is variably translated as:

  • The Universal Gateway of the Bodhisattva Perceiver of the World’s Sounds – Burton Watson
  • The Gateway to Everywhere of the Bodhisattva He Who Observes the Sounds of the World – Leon Hurvitz
  • The All-Sidedness of the Bodhisattva Regarder of the Cries of the World – Bunno Kato, Yoshiro Tamura and Kojiro Miyasaka

Avalokiteshvara - source unknownThere is another translation available by Gene Reeves, but I have not seen this copy. Anyway, the sanskrit name for this Bodhisattva is Avalokitesvara, literally meaning the Lord who looks down.

Like many spiritual entities, Avalokitesvara is none gender specific. In China she is referred to as Guanshiyin, or simply Guanyin, westernised as Kuan Yin. The Tibetan traditions refer to him as Chenrezig. He is the embodiment of the compassion of all the Buddhas throughout time, and is closely associated with the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum. This mantra has many meanings (like Nam Myoho Renge Kyo has many interpretations), but the most common one is that Om represents the practitioner’s body, Mani represents the jewel of compassion, Padme (literally Lotus in Sanskrit) represents wisdom, and Hum (usually pronounced ‘hoong’) represents indivisibility. The meaning summates that our manifest body and mind are transformed through the indivisibility of wisdom and compassion. Most interestingly His Holiness the Dalai Lama is believed to be the living embodiment of Avalokitesvara, and so it would seem fitting that any Nichiren Buddhist should at least listen to what he says.

A Tibetan story goes that Avalokitesvara made a solemn vow before the Buddha Amitabha that he would forever embody compassion and would not rest from the task of liberating all beings from suffering. He declared that should he fail then his head would split into ten pieces and his body into a thousand. He worked hard, and often wept when meditating upon the suffering of living beings. There came a point, however, when poor Avalokitesvara had to take a break, but the sea of suffering was still unbearable. Realising that he could not single handedly save everyone he declared that it would be better to look after his own happiness, but upon uttering those words his head and body broke into pieces. The Buddha Amitabha in his compassion, healed Avalokitesvara, and transformed the ten pieces of his head into ten new faces that look out in all directions, and transformed the thousand pieces of his broken body into a new thousand armed body, with an eye in each palm of his thousand hands so that he can watch over living beings and assist them far more effectively than before. It is a beautiful story and in many ways describes the transformation from self-cherishing to cultivating an expansive compassionate awareness of the suffering of others.

Avalokitesvara is also a key figure in the Heart Sutra (part of the Prajnaparamita – or Perfection of Wisdom), another important Buddhist teaching. In the Heart Sutra, Avalokitesvara addresses Sariputra and tells of his liberation through the insight gained regarding the emptiness of all phenomena known through the five skandhas (aggregates). This is a key text used within Zen and is often chanted during ceremonies. Thich Nhat Hanh often speaks of the compassion of Avalokitesvara and how it can be realised through the Zen practice of mindfulness.

So, coming back to the Lotus Sutra, chapter twenty five starts off with Bodhisattva Aksayamati (Inaexhaustible Mind) asking the Buddha why Avalokitesvara is so named Observer of the Sounds of the World. The Buddha goes on to explain that Avalokitesvara is a powerful protective force and looks over all beings, regardless of their wealth, nobility or conduct, protecting them from suffering and conferring the gift of fearlessness. The Buddha then teaches that by remaining mindful and humbly respectful of Avalokitesvara that we shall naturally strive to let go of anger and foolishness.

He uses his common literary devices (sands of multiple ganges rivers) to compare the benefit of keeping the names of an almost infinite number of Bodhisattvas in mind and making offerings, to receiving and keeping the name of Avalokitesvara, and making offerings to him just once – the latter being declared infinitely more beneficial.

I think here it is important to clarify that the benefit spoken of is the “benefit of merits” – that is to say, karmic benefit. The accumulation of karmic benefit is most fortuitous as it serves to remove the darkness from which are born our delusions and harmful desires. Also, the semantics of “keeping the name” does not simply mean to utter the name Avalokitesvara or to make an offering of, say, fruit on the altar to her. This is, I feel, a misunderstanding in Buddhism that was perhaps inevitable given the superstitious nature of the societies that practiced in the distant past. To become a great footballer, you wouldn’t just hang a picture of Bobby Moore on the wall and hope that through some magical means you would somehow captain the England squad. To achieve wisdom and to understand compassion as Avalokitesvara did we have to understand his teachings, if only at the intellectual level. In doing so we can meditate upon the meanings of each word and phrase, gain insight into what Avalokitesvara transmitted to Sariputra, and apply it at an unconscious level in our daily life.

Chapter twenty five goes on to describe the many forms that Avalokitesvara manifests in order to preach the dharma to living beings. This goes on at some length, but to sum it up Avalokitesvara appears in infinite forms depending upon the nature of the recipient. He might manifest as a Buddha, a god, pratyekabuddha, voice-hearer, Brahma-king, an elder, a householder, a monk or nun, or even a woman (remember this was groundbreaking stuff at the time). Of course, we have to distinguish the dharma body of Avalokitesvara from her manifest body. Avalokitesvara isn’t going to poof in front of us like a magic genie when we are in strife. When someone encourages us or helps us when we are suffering then they themselves become the manifestation of Avalokitesvara. When we experience such an act of altruism we must consider it carefully for the giver of help is providing our heart with an invaluable lesson in wisdom and compassion. Likewise, when we listen to the words of our dharma teachers we must also consider them deeply, for these people are also manifestations of the nature of Avalokitesvara.

Towards the end of the chapter the Bodhisattva Aksayamati, clearly convinced by the Buddha, takes off his necklace of incredibly precious gems and offers it to Avalokitesvara, but he would not accept it. Aksayamati offered his necklace once more, and the Buddha this time steps in requesting that Avalokitesvara should accept the necklace out of pity for Aksayamati and his fourfold assemly; a request that Avalokitesvara complies with. However, upon accepting it, Avalokitesvara instantly divides the necklace’s gems between Shakyamuni Buddha and the stupa of Many Jewels (Taho) Buddha. This is significant again as Taho Buddha represents perfected wisdom (emptiness and impermanance), while Shakyamuni represents compassion for living beings – thus demonstrating the non-duality of the middle way.

So, why should Nichiren thank the Dalai Lama? If we consider the Tatsunokuchi persecution, the event where Nichiren claims to throw off the provisional and reveal himself as the Buddha of the Latter Day, then one will remember his plea as he passed the shrine of the god Hachiman. Of course later on the beach, just moments before he was due to be decapitated, he was saved by a cosmic event. Hachiman’s work perhaps?

This is interesting because as early as 740 (CE) Hachiman was believed to have paid his respects to the great Buddha statue at Nara(1), and soon later earned the title Great Bodhisattva. It wasn’t unusual at the time for Shinto spirits (Jpn. Kami) to become rebranded as Bodhisattvas (Jpn. Bosatsu). Hachiman was also considered a manifestation of Amitabha Buddha (ibid). Perhaps this is why in the Gosho Great Bodhisattva Hachiman Nichiren really goes out of his way to portray Hachiman as Shakyamuni Buddha, and not Amitabha Buddha and to explain why the latter is mistaken. This gosho was written in 1280, well after Tatsunokuchi, so you can make of this what you will, but it was perhaps necessary to distance his salvation and valorisation as the Buddha of the Latter Day from being attributable in any way to Amitabha Buddha. Shakespear might well have commented “The sage doth protest too much, methinks.” – who knows for sure?

Now, it’s interesting that Avalokitesvara is avoided by Nichiren, especially given the clear endorsement given by the Buddha himself in chapter twenty five for keeping Avalokitesvara in mind and for making offerings, and that this is done after the emerging from the earth and lifespan chapters. I would go so far to say it’s a glaring omission, and unless Nichiren had good reasons (which he has never given) for overlooking or diminishing bits of the Lotus Sutra like this, then it is very hard to explain. Given that the Gohonzon is a representation of the ceremony in the air, and that Avalokitesvara was present, it’s interesting he is missing from the mandala while Hachiman is prominently there despite the latter being a local diety. Of course, Avalokitesvara and Mahasthamaprapta were attendants to Amitabha Buddha and so were important factors in earlier Pure Land buddhism, so that would perhaps explain their ablation from Nichiren’s record.

In some ways, it would have been entirely consistent for Avalokitesvara to have been the fireball that saved and encouraged Nichiren on the beach that night – and if it was, then in some way the Dalai Lama must embody the wisdom and compassion that reached out to transform Nichiren’s strife into his awakening.

1. Sources Of East Asian Tradition: Premodern Asia, Volume 1

Addendum:

A friend reminded me, which I had completely forgotten, that the 25th chapter of the Lotus Sutra was also regarded by some to be an independent Sutra dedicated to Kuan Yin, and yet others believe that this chapter is the core teaching itself.

Further interpretation of the title of this chapter can be found here, thanks to Peter Johnson

 

 

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4 Responses to Was Nichiren Daishonin saved by the Dalai Lama?

  1. Richard April 9, 2014 at 12:03 pm #

    HI Steve,

    I like how you look at buddhism in a wider context and explore all of the Buddha’s teachings. I think this is important in cultivating a presence (body and mind) able to engage with others in all forms of contact and interaction. I believe only through engaging and sharing with others can we truly develop ourselves and others on the path to enlightenment.

    How have you found so many teachings and parables? Truly inspirational to hear and meditate on these. I read the one with the peacock feathers on the turning poison into medicine a while back now. Gave me a fresh understanding of this parable and was good to hear the background of this teaching.

    With regards to this article you’ve posted I can’t comment with regards to the validation of the incident at the Tatsunokuchi persecution and how Nichiren making offerings at the shrine of Hachiman might have had an impact on following events. If as you so wonderfully explain the cosmic event is the work of Avalokitesvara and his great compassion then surely this is proof of Nichiren making a correct cause to ensure the happiness of all living beings and their continued advance on the path of enlightenment? Otherwise would Avalokitesvara have not refused to act and manifest such a cosmic event that proved to be the cause to prolong the life of Nichiren?

    These are my thoughts and as one who practices Nam Myoho Renge Kyo (not that this makes be any authority on the subject) I welcome your words and wholeheartedly advocate and suppourt your deep study and practice into more than the budhhist texts advocated/proclaimed by the SGI. I don’t believe there is any reason for buddhist practitioners to foster/create/build/endure disharmony with each other and if this is the case and in fact we are doing this, how can we be practicing the Buddha’s teachings? I guess I want and believe in harmony between the buddhist sects, as how can we be an example to other religions (schools of faith) if we can’t respect our fellow practitioners??

    The way you preach, share and explain the buddhist teachings is truly wonderful and gives fresh new insight into the buddhist teachings, their background and consequent meaning. Your actions (if my study is correct) remind me of (this is meant as a compliment to your deep buddhist study) those taken by Nichiren as a young monk in his formative years. As I believe it to be in this period of Nichiren’s life he took to studying all the buddha’s teachings in order to develop his practice and live as the Buddha intended. As we both know this resulted in the practice of Nam Myoho Renge Kyo, which he put forth as a practice which will surely cultivate the Buddha nature/state within the lives of living beings and lead them into enlightment and assure their practice of the middle/buddha way.

    As Nichiren has, I hope you too will forge such a life sure to span century after century, leading living beings to practice Buddhism with the ease that the winds move a single grain of sand (can you hear the influence of buddhism here), and I truly believe you are certainly on this path with the wonderful wisdom, courage and compassion you express and share here. Your deep seeking spirit and understanding of the Buddha’s teachings is truly inspirational and long may you continue with your efforts in buddhist practice!

    Once again the background and depth you provide into the teachings for me is invaluable and absolutlely magnificent. I look forward to the next installment from your continual research into all buddhist teachings.

    Regards

    Richard Button

    P.S. How have you cultivated such an understanding?? You must share your secrets… Another thing didn’t manage to include my position on the issue of arrogance and maybe even ignorance that may be apparent. I look forward to discussing this with you and hearing your thoughts on this subject in the near future.

    • steve April 9, 2014 at 2:02 pm #

      Thank you Richard. Most of my inspiration for writing comes from what is probably a smaller collection of sources than you might imagine. I’m really not all that well read. I’m certainly not perfect, and my views are my own problem – nobody elses. The very fact that I have written this blog demonstrates that I have held strong views regarding Buddhism and its practice – but views are generally to be avoided, which is why I write less and less these days. I often sit down all fired up on a particular topic and then wonder why! Your opinion of my output is flattering to say the least, but it is just the meanderings of my heart. I feel differently about the SGI and Nichiren than I did immediately after I reached the point of “can’t take the SGI dogma any more” – I’m more accepting of it. When people find something they believe genuinely helps them they want to shout about it. When they encounter something they think is false or harmes them, they too like to shout about it. The truth, I suspect, is always something in between and can only be found when you make a real connection with someone. A connection that isn’t based on an agenda or a view. I’m always telling myself these days – no agenda – No View!

  2. Matt Roto December 2, 2014 at 5:02 am #

    I think it is apparent in his teachings that Nichiren studied everything he could get his hands on, and then chose a select few items to incorporate into his practice which was based on the intent of the Lotus Sutra and not a direct word for word interpretation of it. His practice was meant to be an evolution of Bhuddism for the Latter Day of the law with the purpose of making the state of Buddhahood attainable for all people in this present lifetime. It is a practice that truly respects all individuals and does not require that a person retire into the forest or escape the rigors of daily life, but rather to relish them as part of what makes us human. By facing the rigors of life we polish ourselves and learn and attain higher and more consistent levls of happiness, so that we can help others do the same. There is far more dogma and ritual associated with other forms of Bhuddist practice, and from that standpoint SGI is rather non-dogmatic, modern, practical and accommodating. By hosting study sessions in small groups in people’s homes and founded on Makiguchi’s belief that all children deserve an education of value and have a right to learn to become happy and think for themselves. Without the individual taking control of his own daily actions there can be no life state of happiness and this is the true bhodissatva ideal–to achieve yourself and to help others achieve the karma that leads us to Buddhahood.

  3. Eric June 20, 2015 at 10:25 pm #

    Hey Steve, very interesting stuff but in this writing you are now demonstrating possibly some of the limits in your understanding of NIchiren’s philosophy and world view. I just got here for the first time today and have offered a few comments of my own. You appear to have been quite active here although some time has gone by since posts have been offered. I’m sure I’ll find out why things are peetering off at some point soon. But I am gaining increasing respect for your study and grasp of Buddhism. Thanks for stimulating thought on Buddhism.

    The point you bring up about Avalokiteshvara is quite interesting if not obviously speculative. But that’s cool. No harm no foul as they say.

    The only thing I wanted to share for the moment concerns the issue you raise in regards to NIchiren’s view of the Bodhisattva of the 25th chapter. Here are my responses.

    First, with regard to the practice of spreading and teaching the Lotus Sutra, its important to be aware of NIchiren’s view of his own spiritual time frame (mappo) versus say the time period when the great teacher Tien Tai practiced in 6th century China. This factor has much to do with NIchiren’s view of the Bodhisattva’s who appear in the 23rd through the 28th chapter of the Lotus Sutra.

    Tien Tai himself offered a profound exposition on the 25th chapter of the Lotus Sutra and Nichiren expresses great respect for Tien Tai’s profound exposition on the meaning of this chapter as it relates to the practice of spreading the wisdom of the Lotus Sutra for the sake of mankind. But Nichiren appreciates these insights within the context of the middle age of the law, not the latter age.

    Secondly from Nichiren’s view, Tien Tai was considered a reincarnation of the Bodhisattva Medicine King and Tien Tai’s mentor Nan Yueh was considered a reincarnation of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara himself. Within the context of Sino-Japanese Buddhism and the distinctions made between the middle day of the law versus the former and latter days, there is a profound insight that must be acquired in regards to the role of the various votaries of the Lotus Sutra, how and why they appeared during the times in which they did and the way in which they expounded the teachings of the Lotus Sutra. This itself is a vast topic for another topical discussion of another subject area.

    Thirdly, Nichiren in his writings does offer insight into the role and mission played by what is termed “the Bodhisattvas who made appearance at the ceremony in the air from other worlds”. In Nichiren Buddhism (an even Tien Tai touches upon this subject) there is a vast distinction in the mission of propagation between the Bodhisattvas who appear in the 15th chapter of the Lotus Sutra, known as the Bodhisattva’s of the Earth versus the Bodhisattvas who appear from the 23rd chapter on to the 28th chapter. I would offer that these distinctions are extremely subtle in nature and as far as my research has taken me thus far, have to do with the function of names and identities within human cultural activities and what we now have termed in modern society as the function of memes or memetics. Names play an important role in human culture and the names given to intangible entities actually resident in the mind are often associated with the collective consciousness of the social order in question and take on meanings both good and bad within the context of that particular social outcome. For Nichiren to have expounded upon such identities would have been contradictory to his purpose.

    Here I would venture a possible opinion. Your comments above reflect your exuberance with Tibetan Buddhism, a form of Buddhism which while wonderful and rich to be sure yet says little about the deep meaning and function of the Lotus Sutra in as far as their cultural history has directed them. I personally believe, gleaned from comments in NIchiren’s writings, that the Indian Mahayana of the 6th century and beyond was deeply influenced by the scholarship of Nan Yueh and Tien Tai’s teachings from China but he himself was never given direct credit as the teachings from Nalanda Monastery began spreading Northeast during the 7th and 8th centuries into Tibet. It appears to me that the distinctions between those of Asanga and Vasubandu and that of Nagarjuna and Aryadeva subtle as they are incorporated Tien Tai’s insights without discarding the network associations among the schools of thought. In this respect Tibetan Buddhism inherited the principles of Lotus Buddhism along with the esoteric practices that had become popular in the cross fertilization that occurred between Vedic / Hindu and other practices such as Dharani and Mantra practices and ideas.

    But hey its all good learning

    Best.

    This is also a topic for another discussion.

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