If Nichiren Daishonin lived next door

I’ve been battling of late to come to terms with a whole bunch of discrepancies in Nichiren’s logic, and writings. I’ve written about a couple, but I’m beginning to feel this could form a negative thread of articles that would serve little benefit in sharing.

I guess at the most basic level I have difficulty with “One true Buddhism” exclusivist thinking. I think there is a danger of this kind of thinking leading to divisiveness, and it would seem to be at odds with the most fundamental tenets of Mahayana Buddhism – particularly with the writings of Chih-i (T’ien-t’ai) upon which Nichiren’s philosophy was based.

I wonder sometimes if this isn’t indicative of a fundamental problem with the way Nichiren had to propagate his school of thought in mediaeval Kamakura. Anything other than his Gung-ho rhetoric and he simply would not have been heard.

While the Lotus Sutra does certainly indicate within its very verses that it is foremost, for example Ch10;

Medicine King, now I say to you, I have preached various sutras, and among those sutras the Lotus is foremost!

I wouldn’t want to live in a world where anything but the foremost of something had to be discarded. Imagine if there was but one musician, one currency, one colour, one food, one political truth – and so on… The Lotus Sutra might be considered the ghee of all teachings (a metaphor Nichiren pinched from the Nirvana Sutra), but I still prefer a bit of butter of my toast.

Despite which, it isn’t uncommon for Sutra’s to introduce themselves as the “best yet” – one only has to read the Nirvana Sutra to find it declares itself supreme thus;

Good man, milk comes from the cow, cream is made from milk, curdled milk is made from cream, butter is made from curdled milk, and ghee is made from butter. Ghee is the finest of all… The Nirvana Sutra is comparable to ghee.

For example, while it is difficult to imagine that he hadn’t studied it, his theoretical thought being almost wholly derived from Chih-i (T’ien-t’ai), Nichiren never really talks verbosely about Ku (emptiness, and non-duality) in the Gosho. It’s hardly surprising, because his enemies would have hoisted him up by his own petard.

The very notion of Ku, or emptiness inherently denies the concept of an absolute teaching. The very notion smacks of dualism. Regardless of what Nichiren believed, his style of teaching was just his conceptual view, and therefore essentially interdependent upon infinite other factors – therefore empty. The very concept of dependent origination, or arising, makes the notion of “one true teaching” anathema.

Chih-i said that one truth has many names. All truths merge into one, but to conceptualise this in an exclusive manner, as Nichiren did, is I believe mere attachment and clinging.

If one could de-contextualise Nichiren from mediaeval Kamakura’s politics, superstition, and “win or die trying” religious atmosphere, then I feel one would more easily get to the root of his desire to discover the most expeditious route to enlightenment for the benefit of all humanity.

Personally, I believe Nichiren’s focus was very much on the Middle Way – the “reality” of the three, but not three that he emphasised within Myoho. Essentially, being primarily a faith based practice, the Mystic Law of Nam Myoho Renge Kyo is a representation of emptiness, impermanence, the middle way, and the law of cause and effect (dependant arising). The Gohonzon takes this further by representing these fundamental concepts within the context of the ten worlds and other factors in the great mandala.

Let’s not forget that Mahayana buddhism was essentially built upon the foundations of Hinayana (of which Theravada is the remaining living practice), and fundamentally shifted the purpose of practice from enlightenment only of the individual to enabling enlightenment for others and reducing their suffering.

Nichiren, I think, demonstrates this Mahayana compassion in bucket-loads, albeit in a cloud of fire and brimstone rhetoric.

He travelled the Bodhisattva Way, and by standing on the shoulders of giants, he produced the Gohonzon, a great gateway to observing the mind – a Dharma Gateway. I use the term ‘a’ as the universe is infinite, and we will never know if the inhabitants of planet Xorg have produced something to rival it. However, it’s arguably the best we have on this world.

I think if Nichiren were around today, he would have been able to use less rhetoric, less castigation of other teachings, and been able to focus more on the heritage and benefits of his own teachings, helping followers investigate and understand his teachings at a more profound level, rather than relying purely upon faith.

Do you think Nichiren Buddhism would be more attractive to many if it was reconstructed away from its historical context?

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9 Responses to If Nichiren Daishonin lived next door

  1. Witheld July 10, 2012 at 8:20 am #

    Hi Steve
    I’ve just recently discovered your website and I really love it – thanks so much! Just read If ND lived next door – my thoughts exactly. I received Gohonzon last year and I love this practice but there are aspects of how it is presented that I really struggle with. My district is great but people are uncomfortable with critical analysis of the teachings and somehow I feel that’s not helpful (not to me anyway). Obviously, with the Gosho, something written in such a different context has be interpreted appropriately and not literally, otherwise it smacks of fundamentalism. I have also struggled with attitudes to other forms of Buddhism which at times appear unnecessarily hostile… anyway, there’s enough good stuff not to put me off and the practice does ‘work’ for me. It helps to know I’m not the only one who thinks like this and still loves the practice.
    Name witheld upon request

    • steve July 14, 2012 at 10:11 pm #

      Welcome 🙂 You are not alone. Critical analysis is absolutely essential as a part of study and education. Learning without questioning is not learning at all. I’m sorry you also feel restricted from asking the awkward questions in meetings. The Buddha himself advised “Do not believe what I say simply out of respect for me. Discover from your own lives the truth of what I am teaching you.” The ultimate truth is not afraid of being questioned, confronted, and debated – Only human beings are afraid of that. Nichiren was a fiery street preacher, so you have to put it in context, I agree. He had to set himself apart without compromise, but he had some good points – for example his refutation of Nembutsu I find quite understandable. There were so many schisms in his followers after Nichiren’s death, it’s hard to know exactly what the man would make of the situation today.

      You’ll find that being open minded and moderate will make you no friends in organised Nichiren Buddhism. The problem for the moderate is that extremists on both sides see their enemy behind you 🙂

      Take care, keep fighting for a better SGI

  2. Matt August 2, 2012 at 5:38 pm #

    I’m not sure Nichiren was really intolerant of the other sutras.

    He did say that the votaries of the other sutras would receive protection, for example, provided they did not undermine the Lotus Sutra.

    Also, I notice you talk about emptiness a lot in some of your posts. I found this a bit surprising. Is the view of the Lotus Sutra really compatible with the Mystic Law = emptiness? Or is this idea perhaps rooted in the provisional sutras?

    If you feel like explaining a bit I’m definitely interested – but I’ve no desire to bombard you with too many questions after my comment on your other post.

    Thanks again for this website. I hope you’re well.

    • steve August 2, 2012 at 7:46 pm #

      Hello again Matt 🙂

      I don’t think I implied that he was intolerant of other Sutras – but he was certainly intolerant of his contemporaries; perhaps more so because of their corrupt behaviour than strictly ideological differences. He shared many of his core ideas (including original enlightenment) with Dogen for example who founded the Zen.

      “Is the view of the Lotus Sutra really compatible with the Mystic Law = emptiness? Or is this idea perhaps rooted in the provisional sutras”

      I guess this really depends on what you think of as provisional, and if you regard the Lotus Sutra’s supremacy as inclusively embracing all other teachings, or exclusively standing alone. Regardless, Nichiren applied his understanding of middle way thinking to the Japanese title of the Lotus Sutra

      Nichiren studied the Tendai, which came from continental T’ien-t’ai, which in turn took a good part of it’s philosophical foundations from Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka “Middle way” – the synthesis of conventional and nihilistic views of reality into the Threefold Truth that described the true aspect of all phenomenon.

      What we see as conventional reality is considered ignorance, whereas the true nature of reality is emptiness (interdependence and voidness of self-nature).

      As the SGI says (with added square brackets to show the correlation):

      “Myo stands for the Dharma nature, or enlightenment [emptiness], while ho represents darkness, or ignorance [our conventional or relative reality].”

      So, hopefully this demonstrates that Myoho is entirely based upon middle way thought. The reason (I think) that these concepts are not openly studied in the SGI is that they effectively negate any absolute view and thus create particular difficulties for any kind of faith based dogmatism.

      I’m certainly no expert, but the information is out there and freely available. All this was utterly foreign to me over a year ago so I am certainly no expert. It is also not my intention to devalue the Three Great Secret laws or dissuade anyone from practising – far from it – I actually feel Nichiren had an excellent idea, but that there was rather too much emphasis on faith and not enough on learning and understanding what we are being faithful in!

      Again, have a pleasant evening 🙂 and thank you for giving me an opportunity to deepen my own understanding.

  3. Brandon March 29, 2013 at 2:30 pm #

    Hey Steve!
    I was reading the writings of Nichiren Daishonin and having thoughts along the same lines as yours. Your comments are extremely insightful and helped to reconcile the issue of Nichiren Daishonin and his denouncement of other threads of Buddhist practice in my mind. I still have plenty of misgivings, mind you, but I have only begun looking into these issues recently and will continue to work toward new understandings.

    Anyway what I wanted to mention Is that all Nichiren’s “fire and brimstone rhetoric,” as you put it, is closely linked in my mind with Nichiren Shoshu’s and the SGI’s attitudes toward each other. Nichiren’s assertions that “those who chant the futile formula of the Nembutsu – they are the truly evil ones,” and “it is absolutely certain that those who chant the Nembutsu are destined to fall into the hell of incessant suffering” sound very close to the SGI’s claims that its criticism of Nichiren Shoshu is not contradictory to its stance of religious tolerance because “there is something fundamentally different about Nichiren Shoshu, then, from other religions in the world: It is the one and only religious group taking action to eradicate the Daishonin’s Buddhism by attempting to destroy the SGI-the only organization that has successfully propagated Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhism throughout the world.” The SGI goes so far as to say that Nikken is attempting to destroy Buddhism.

    Basically both organizations’ arguments against each other are based on the Buddha’s statement that causing disharmony amongst Buddhist believers is one of the most serious offenses a Buddhist can commit, and the fifth of the five cardinal sins. As far as I can tell though, both groups are causing, or at least continuing disharmony amongst Buddhist believers. Squabbling over semantics of Buddhism such as the legitimacy or supremacy of a priesthood, while simultaneously claiming to be the one true form of Buddhism seems to be defeating one of the purposes of Buddhism, namely effort toward harmony and the removal of divisions and distinctions. I personally have received many benefits from my practice and will continue to practice, but it sort of seems to me like a “he started it” argument that is incongruous with what I had perceived the “Soka spirit” to be. I found out in the course of writing this, incidentally, that “the Soka Spirit refers most specifically to the SGI-USA’s current efforts with regard to Nichiren Shoshu.”

    It seems to me that in its purest form, this whole disagreement arises from the idea that it is the responsibility of every Buddhist to make efforts to right wrongs and address injustices when she comes across them. Is this attitude incompatible with efforts to reduce suffering? The SGI and NS both feel wronged by each other. Aren’t right, wrong and injustice subjective products of perception? Isn’t it the stance of the SGI that kosen-rufu should be brought about through leadership by example rather than through attacks on perceived enemies? In “Winter Always Turns to Spring,” Nichiren cites an episode from Shakyamuni’s life:

    At the time of his extinction, the World-Honored One of Great Enlightenment lamented, “Now I am about to enter nirvana. The only thing that worries me is King Ajatashatru.” Bodhisattva Kashyapa then asked him, “Since the Buddha’s mercy is impartial, your regret in dying should stem from compassion for all living beings. Why do you single out only King Ajatashatru?” The Buddha replied, “Suppose that a couple has seven children, one of whom falls ill. Though the parents love all their children equally, they worry most about the sick child.”

    He then interprets it thus:

    To the Buddha, all living beings are his children. Among them, the sinful man who slays his own parents and becomes an enemy of the Buddha and the sutras is like the sick child.
    King Ajatashatru was the ruler of Magadha. He murdered his father, King Bimbisara, a powerful patron of Shakyamuni Buddha, and became an enemy of the Buddha.

    If one has compassion for every living being is as his child, how can living being be his enemy? I am sure that despite its stance on the SGI, Nichiren Shoshu helps people better themselves and progress upon their path to enlightenment. Does ingnoring this fact create negative causes?

    Sorry for rambling 😉 I am finding, like you, that I sound rather negative and unproductive. Your post above benefitted me, though. I suppose there is no way to address concerns without first stating them. What are your thoughts? NMRK

    • steve March 29, 2013 at 3:09 pm #

      Hi Brandon, thanks for writing.

      “namely effort toward harmony and the removal of divisions and distinctions” – strike one!
      “Aren’t right, wrong and injustice subjective products of perception?” – strike two!
      “If one has compassion for every living being is as his child, how can living being be his enemy?” – strike three!

      To parashrase George Bernard Shaw “By jove, I think he’s got it!”

      The goal of Buddhism is to see through distinctions and divisions, to reduce suffering and promote compassion for all living beings IN THIS LIFE. The goal of Buddhism is not to promote buddhism. There is no one true way to practice Buddhism, and even less is there such a thing as one true form of Buddhism. Buddhism is all phenomena and our mind’s ability to integrate with it peacefully and happily.

      Enlightenment, or to walk the path toward it, is a continual personal experience. To try and emulate others is a sure fire path to unhappiness. To think that you can explain it to others and to think you have the answers is arrogance. Nikken isn’t trying to destroy Buddhism – just any form other than his… so then you have to wonder what kind of Buddhism he believes in!

      Chanting Daimoku is AN answer – it’s part of the whole, it isn’t THE whole. The whole includes doing other stuff, like getting off your arse and helping the guy who’s just lost his job, or health etc – not helping him chant Daimoku (which is where we all go wrong), or banging on about Nichiren or Buddha – but just helping him stand up and know that someone else cares for him – that’s why we’re here.

      It’s complex, yet deceptively simple. Doctrine and Dogma are very, very limited in their usefulness – like a fine perfume, they should only ever whisper and never shout. How’s that for a rambling reply?

  4. Brandon March 30, 2013 at 9:28 am #

    Damn fine for a reply, rambling or not! If I have any more ruminations, I imagine I’ll hit you up again. Thank you.

  5. Brandon March 30, 2013 at 10:16 am #

    “Whilst on the subject of Buddhism in the West, I want to say that I have noticed some tendency towards sectarianism amongst new practitioners. This is absolutely wrong. Religion should never become a source of conflict, a further factor of division within the human community…I am therefore firmly in favor of a liberal approach. Sectarianism is poison.”
    – The Dalai Lama, Freedom in Exile

  6. J January 6, 2017 at 11:01 pm #

    >Nikken isn’t trying to destroy Buddhism – just any form other than his… so then you have to wonder what kind of Buddhism he believes in!

    I wonder how different the SGI is from the way the Daishonin practiced Buddhism, it’s just too different.

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