The Universal Salty Taste

There are several views as to when this was written, but the de facto date accepted is 1261. The recipient of the letter is unknown. This is the fifth Gosho in Vol 1 WND, and is the second time the Daishonin cites the Lotus Sutra as being the only way to achieve enlightenment. In A Ship to Cross the Sea of Suffering Nichiren previously made it clear that all other teachings were provisional.

Only the ship of Myoho-renge-kyo enables one to cross the sea of the sufferings of birth and death.

One of the things I find hardest to accept is the Daishonin’s complete refusal to accept any other Sutras as being of any value. He’s not just saying that Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo is the express lane to revealing your own buddhahood – he is saying it’s the ONLY way. In this Gosho, the Universal Salty Taste is likened to the truth of the Mystic Law revealed in the Lotus Sutra.

The six flavours

Nichiren begins by describing the six flavours (subtle [savoury?], salty, pungency, sourness, sweetness and bitterness). He goes on to state that even to prepare a meal that employed a hundred flavours, if it lacked the addition of salt then it would not be fit for a king.

It is interesting that Nichiren chooses to say a hundred flavours, as this is the number of the mutual possession of the Ten Worlds that go to make up Ichinen Sanzen. Without the salt, or in this case, the world of Buddhahood, then Ten Worlds would have no great purpose. Life would become a painful austerity without any hope of freedom from the sufferings of birth, old age, sickness and death.

The eight mysterious qualities of the ocean

Nichiren characterises the ocean – the storehouse of the salty taste – in eight ways:

  • It gradually becomes deeper
  • Becomming deeper, its bottom is hard to fathom
  • Its salty taste is the same everywhere
  • Its ebb and flow follows certain rules
  • It contains various treasure storehouses
  • Creatured of great size dwell in it
  • It refuses to store corpses
  • It takes in all rivers and heavy rainfall without changing size

At this point Nichiren takes the following passage from Chapter 39 of the Nirvana Sutra:

O good man! It is the same with the Great Nirvana Sutra, which is inconceivable. For example, this is as with the eight things which are inconceivable. What are the eight? They are: 1) by degrees the deepness increases; 2) it is deep and the bottom is difficult to gain; 3) sameness obtains as in the case of the salty taste [of the ocean, which is everywhere salty]; 4) the tide does not exceed the boundary line; 5) there are various storehouses of treasure; 6) a great-bodied being lives therein; 7) no dead bodies are to be found there; 8) all rivers and great rains flow in, but the volume of water neither increases nor decreases.

and asserts that they apply to the Lotus Sutra, and not the Nirvana Sutra, where they are clearly written.

It gradually becomes deeper – Nichiren then goes on to use the above passages to explain how the Lotus Sutra leads all people to Budhahood, regardless of their capacity for understanding.

Becoming deeper, its bottom is hard to fathom – the Lotus Sutra can only be understood and shared between Buddhas. This explains one of the essential aspects of the Lotus Sutra in that it cannot be fully understood by our wakeful consciousness. That is to say, that to believe the Lotus Sutra is not so much an act of studying, consciously assimilating, and benefiting from practices – but one of faith.

Its salty taste is the same everywhere – Here, Nichiren compares all rivers, which contain no salt, to all sutras other than the Lotus, which offer no way to attain enlightenment. However, the Nirvana Sutra only refers to the salty taste of the ocean as being uniform – All beings possess the Buddha Nature and ride in one vehicle. That is to say, that there is one Emancipation. It doesn’t come in different flavours. The Nirvana Sutra is not saying that all other teachings are worthless – just that there is only one state of Buddhahood. This vexes me. Also, it is the function of the rivers to carry minerals, including salt, into the oceans. So, without them, there could be no ocean.

Its ebb and flow follows certain rules – Nichiren asserts upholders of the Mystic Law who even though they were to lose their lives would attain the stage of non-regression. The Nirvana Sutra’s the tide does not exceed the boundary line seems to have been inverted to mean the tide does not recede past a certain point. The Nirvana Sutra actually states with regard the ebb and flow:

Fourth, the tide does not cross the boundary line. In this, many prohibitions suppress the bhiksus (Buddhist monks). There are eight impure things which they must not keep. It is as when stated that my disciple well upholds, recites, copies, expounds and discriminates this all-wonderful Great Nirvana Sutra and that he does not transgress against it, even if it meant losing his life. That is why we say that the tide does not overstep the boundary line.

This means that those stood on the shore must come to the emancipation of the Law by upholding, reciting, copying, expounding etc. The ocean will not come to them, because Buddhahood is eternal and unchanging – it does not come to those who do not carry out the practices listed.

It contains various treasure storehouses – Nichiren cites countless practices and good deeds of all the Buddhas and bodhisattvas, and the blessings of the various paramitas being contained in the Mystic Law. Again, the Nirvana Sutra contains a somewhat more verbose list of benefits including the Eightfold Path.

Creatures of great size dwell in it – here Nichiren’s description appears to fit more easily with the Nirvana Sutra by stating that the Buddhas’ and Bodhisattvas’ great bodies, great aspiring minds, great distinguishing features, great evilconquering force, great preaching, great authority, great transcendental powers, great compassion, and great pity all arise naturally from the Lotus Sutra. The nirvana Sutra says unhindered, of the fact that all beings are taken in, meaning that all the great acts of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are manifestations of Buddha Nature.

It refuses to store corpses – Nichiren says here that with the Lotus Sutra one can free oneself for all eternity from slander and incorrigible disbelief. The Nirvana Sutra says however:

The dead body is none other than the icchantika, the four grave offences, the five deadly sins, slandering the vaipulya, delivering sermons wrongly or unlawfully. The person stores up the eight impure things; he wilfully uses what belongs to the Buddha and the Sangha; he does what is unlawful [i.e. against Dharma] in the presence of the bhiksus and bhiksunis [monks and nuns]. These are the dead bodies. The Great Nirvana Sutra is away from any such. That is why we say that there remains no dead body there.

Again, the Nirvana Sutra is worded in such a way as to imply that the Nirvana does not comprise those things classified above as dead bodies. Nichiren, applying this text to the Lotus Sutra puts a more positive spin on it, implying the Lotus Sutra doesn’t simply remain pure of dead bodies, but also offers one the facility to free oneself from the practices that would otherwise prevent emancipation.

It takes in all rivers and heavy rainfall without changing size – Buddhahood is boundless. Nichiren uses the word Universality. The Nirvana describes it as no beginning and no end, being non-form, non-action, being Eternal, not being born, and not dying. It is this essentially empty nature of Buddhahood that makes it infinite in its reach – thus Universal in nature. As we have already found, Buddha nature exists in all phenomena.

A tub of brine

Nichiren then begins to examine what it means to slander, persecute or otherwise harm a votary of the Lotus Sutra. He uses the example of the brine in a jar of pickles. Although trapped in the jar, the brine will ebb and flow in concert with the ebb and flow of the ocean. Therefore to condemn one who upholds the Lotus Sutra is the same as condemning the Thus Come One Shakyamuni himself.

The final passage implies that Nichiren was undergoing great persecution at the time, as he asks when the ten demon daughters will fulfil their promise (made in chapter 26 of the Lotus Sutra) to split the head of one who persecutes a follower of the Lotus into seven pieces. He goes on to cite Ajatashatru as an example of this kind of retribution who broke out in sores after imprisoning King Bimbisara.


I am really clueless as to how these passages from the Nirvana have found their way into this Gosho. While I can understand his use of the Metaphor’s in the Nirvana Sutra, his decision to commandeer something clearly written in another Sutra confuses me, particularly when his later criticism and analysis of other texts is so detailed and painstaking.

I’m placing this critique here so I can refer back to it at a later time.


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6 Responses to The Universal Salty Taste

  1. Marco Francella May 24, 2012 at 10:45 pm #

    Nichiren is the Buddha he knows all collection Sutras well indeed. You are slanderer of Nichiren and must read more Gosho to understand. You are a member of SGI?

    • steve May 25, 2012 at 9:00 am #

      Hi Marco. I agree that Nichiren studied a great many Sutras, but I don’t think I am slandering him at all. I haven’t yet read through all of Volume 2 WND yet, but I read Vol 1 some time ago, but it’s a lot to retain in my head, so I’d be grateful to know which Gosho might explain why Nichiren used these passages from the Nirvana Sutra. Yes, I am currently a member of the SGI and don’t see why that should change, regardless of my investigations… Faith, STUDY and Practice 🙂 Also, “rely on the Law, not the person” etc. I would arque that more important than reading any Gosho and delivering hectoring warnings to perceived blasphemers is the practice of the Bodhisattva way. I am seeking my own truth, Marco – we are not on a Buddhist crusade – I didn’t sign up to that when I joined the SGI? Go peacefully, and have a great weekend. Nam Myoho Renge Kyo

  2. Alex July 6, 2012 at 8:48 pm #

    Steves wrote: “One of the things I find hardest to accept is the Daishonin’s complete refusal to accept any other Sutras as being of any value.”

    I disagree with this assessment. We should be prosopographical when studying the goshos. What do I mean by this?

    Well, take for example the Daishonin’s opposition to Zen Buddhism. It was 13th century Zen, which basically would be the equivalent of the mentality acquired in a modern-day boot camp. However, we often bring our understanding of modern Zen, and think “How could the Daishonin say such a thing?”

    Likewise, when the Daishonin speaks of other sutras as provisional, we should understand that provisional doesn’t mean “false”: provisional means “partially true” and “incomplete”. In particular, attaining unsurpassed enlightenment in one’s present lifetime remains denied (c.f., Nichiren’s gosho “The Essence of the ‘Life Span’ Chapter”).

    Other schools of Buddhism, however, (during the Daishonin’s time) were twisting words of the provisional sutras…essentially shafting common folk for money (c.f., “Dialogue Between a Sage”, WND-1, pg 102, column 1, the paragraph beginning “And as for this matter of building roads and constructing bridges…” towards the bottom of the page).

    Now, does that mean we should start studying other sutras? Well, T’ien-T’ai noted the 80k Bodhisattvas in the assembly described in the Lotus Sutra (ch. 1) corresponds to the 80k teachings of Shakyamuni. In other words: the other sutras are literally contained in the Lotus Sutra, and learn from him at the three places. In “Profound Meaning”, T’ien-T’ai explains the the “kyo” in the Lotus Sutra’s title really means “Issai” (一切) which translates to “all, entirely, absolutely, without exception, as a whole”. As I understand it, Issai has the connotation of completeness and unity, integrating…everything.

    One last thing I should mention before forgetting: when the Daishonin states the “Lotus Sutra”, he doesn’t mean the literal 28 chapter book. He’s referring to its essence (c.f., “Hell is the Land of Tranquil Light”, WND-1 pg 457 when quoting T’ien-T’ai’s “From the indigo, an even deeper blue”). The literal book is like Indigo, its essence like blue…or that is my understanding of the matter.

    • steve July 6, 2012 at 9:48 pm #

      Hi Alex, thanks for your reply. “prosopographical” – that’s one to keep in mind for scrabble 🙂

      I think you’re observation regarding my (badly worded) assessment is understandable. Perhaps I should have said ‘SGI’ instead of Nichiren, but Nichiren was pretty exclusivist.

      Of course, the political behaviour of many of Nichiren’s opponents was objectionable, and this was reason enough for his to make his independent stand. However, in developing his independent school, Nichiren rejected not only his contemporaries, but also their teachings (at least in an overt sense) to a great degree.

      In terms of doctrine, the Lotus embraces the three vehicles, but this can be viewed from a unifying perspective, or from one where the Lotus appears as a specific teaching without need for reference to other Sutras.

      The Lotus doesn’t provide a specific practice for enlightenment beyond the reciting, copying, preaching of the Sutra after the Buddha’s passing. Instead, it teaches the unification of the three vehicles in the one through parable, and also reveals the Buddha’s enlightenment in the distant past. But that is all.

      The Immeasurable Meanings Sutra doesn’t even mention the Lotus by name, but sets out the proposition that there are as many [expedient] teachings as there are sentient beings. My understanding of the purpose of this introductory Sutra is to prepare the reader to accept the Lotus in an inclusive sense, and not as a standalone teaching.

      The 80k Bodhisattvas = 80k teachings is no mistake, and an interesting fact. My view of this is that in receiving the Lotus from Shakyamuni, the Bodhisattvas (representing the 80k teachings) received the final key to unlock their limited perspective.

      That is to say, I think they still required some initial training or understanding of the Middle Way philosophy before the Lotus would provide any soteriological function. However, the key of the Lotus Sutra cannot exist (in my opinion) without the lock of the provisional teachings.

      Buddhism is about “self” power – not “other” power, so to have faith in the benefit of the Lotus Sutra, Daimoku, Gohonzon, whatever, without first understanding the principles upon which those things are based cannot possibly save you completely from samsara – you may as well take faith in fairies and unicorns. I believe a faith-only approach can lessen your karmic retribution for sure, but will it help you, for example, overcome the suffering of change, or to suddenly sprout compassion?

      I like the Indigo analogy – Nichiren could produce some nice poetry – I see The Lotus Sutra as the underlying fabric upon which the tapestry of all Dharma is woven. It cannot exist without the provisional teachings, just as the provisional teachings cannot exist without it. There cannot be a duality – they are simply two sides of the same coin.

  3. Alex July 7, 2012 at 12:57 am #

    Hmm…I was going to go point-by-point and discuss various items, which I believe I would get us off-topic quite quick. Instead, I think it’d be productive if I summarize my understanding of your points, then give you my diagnosis and wait to see if I have any misunderstandings of your points.

    I think what you’re getting at is there are a number of different paths to the Divine [Enlightenment, or whatever you want to call it]. There are some non-Buddhists who “get it”, and some are quite famous historically (e.g., Rumi, Gandhi, Dr Martin Luther King Jr, etc.).

    The problem: how do we reconcile this with the more literal reading of the sutras or goshos, denying other possible vehicles?

    The easy way out is to throw away one premise: say “The scriptures are wrong” or “This historical figure was not enlightened.” That being the obvious thing to do, I suggest we shouldn’t do it. [Being American, I’ve acquired the rule-of-thumb “If it’s popular because it’s easy, it’s wrong.”]

    Correct me if I’m wrong—as I don’t want to have any misunderstandings among friends—but I think you are inclined to take the sutra or goshos (or how they are presented, at least) with a grain of salt…am I mistaken?

    If I am not mistaken, then I would like to propose the problem lies with our working definition of the “Lotus Sutra”. However, I’ll wait to hear if I have inadvertently misrepresented your opinions…

    • steve July 7, 2012 at 8:42 am #

      “If it’s popular because it’s easy, it’s [probably] wrong.” is a pretty good starting point, I think, for any serious investigation.

      You are not wholly mistaken, although to say I take them with a grain of salt might lead you to think I deny their inherent truths. The Lotus Sutra (representing the Buddha’s absolute – not relative – wisdom) will always remain an enigma (representing absolute wisdom), and therefore any attempt to describe it with be subject to the discriminative limitations of words.

      I believe the Lotus embraces all Dharma, and therefore IS enlightenment (or salvation from samsara). The paths to it are many, are are not all Buddhist. For example, I believe theism to be another expedient, and like all expedients, clearly limited in its ability to release mankind from samsara.

      The Gosho on the other hand, represents the relative wisdom of Nichiren, and are somewhat more understandable in their literal sense. It’s hard to imagine the Daishonin intended them to form a “book of teachings”, as they are all clearly themselves skilful means to help the reader in each case. Without understanding the background of each recipient of Nichiren’s letters, or the social and historical background of mediaeval Japan, it would be much harder to benefit from his letters and treatises.

      I certainly agree that the problem [of inclusive/exclusive and extremism] lies with our working definition of the “Lotus Sutra”. But, I also think Nichiren, as a human being, also had a ‘relative’ view of the Lotus Sutra, and therefore was open to interpretive leanings. This is what I was originally alluding to in the original article above. It’s simply impossible (for Nichiren or anyone for that matter) to be 100% rigid in describing the nuances of enlightenment.

      Ultimately, my point is this… take a sanskrit text written hundreds of years after the Buddha’s passing, by a community of which we know little, throw in Nagarjuna’s thought, translate it into Chinese, and then T’ien-t’ai’s influences, then filter that down through the Heian and more aristocratic-priestly Kamakura period, then leave it to bubble for a few centuries before reinvigorating it in 20C post war Japan with a new Mentor/Disciple twist, and then divorce yourself from the Priesthood completely, and where does that leave us? With discrepancies and errors I would suggest – and it’s more noble to accept this fact and refine one’s understanding, that to hold onto dogmatic views.

      This is not to say it’s all hokum – far from it, but extremes of view go directly against the middle-way philosophy upon which Nichiren himself espoused.

      Have a read of this:

      Take care 🙂

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