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by Ryuei Michael McCormick

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 Key Points of the Senchaku Shu Part 3:
Closing the Gateway of the Mahayana Sutras

 

                      At this point, Nichiren skips ahead to the 12th chapter of the Senchaku Shu wherein Honen discusses the transmission of the nembutsu to Ananda by Shakyamuni Buddha in the Sutra of Meditation on the Buddha of Infinite Life in accordance with the interpretation of that sutra by Shan-tao. As was mentioned earlier in the review of that sutra, in it are taught 16 subjects for contemplation. The first 13 involve various visualization practices concerning Amitabha Buddha and his Pure Land of the West. The last 3 involve the practices of the high, middle, and lower grades of spiritual aspirant. Each of these can be further subdivided into high, middle, and lower class for a total of nine classes of people. Honen, following Shan-tao, categorizes the first 13 as the contemplative good practices and the practices of the high, middle, and lower grades as the distractive practices because they can be performed even when the mind is distracted outside the formal practice of meditation. These practices include such things as acts of filial piety, not harming others and cultivating compassion, taking refuge, following the precepts, recitation of the Mahayana sutras, deep faith in the law of cause and effect, and aspiring to attain enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings.

                     

                      Honen claims that, while these practices are meritorious, they were not the practices that the Buddha transmitted to Ananda for posterity. In fact, he states that they were taught in order to highlight the superiority of the nembutsu by way of contrast. This is so because the contemplative and distractive practices are not in accord with the true intention revealed in the Original Vow of Amitabha Buddha, the 18th vow. The nembutsu, on the other hand, is in accord with the vow and is the easy and all-inclusive way for people to attain rebirth without any other required practice.

 

                      This means that recitation of the Mahayana sutras, including the Lotus Sutra, is one of the practices that Honen states are no longer required because the Buddha intended to transmit the nembutsu alone to Ananda. Honen even provides a counter argument to the claim that the Lotus Sutra would be an exception since it is the Buddha’s highest teaching. Honen specifies:

 

          Reference was made simply to “the Mahayana sutras.” No distinction was intended between Provisional and Real Teachings. That being the case, the phrase correctly applies equally to such Mahayana sutras as the Avatamsaka and Vaipulya, as well as to those like the Prajna, the Lotus, and the Nirvana. (p. 111)

 

                      Those familiar with T’ien-t’ai teaching might note that the sutras mentioned in the above passage are the sutras used to name the four groups of Mahayana sutras that are listed in the sutra classification scheme known as the “five flavors” or “periods” of the Dharma. According to the teaching of the five periods of the Dharma the Buddha taught the Avatamsaka or Flower Garland Sutra right after his enlightenment. Seeing that only advanced bodhisattvas could understand that teaching the Buddha went to the Deer Park and began to teach the so-called Hinayana teachings of which the four noble truths are representatives. After twelve years the Buddha decided that his disciples were ready to hear Mahayana teachings, and so began teaching the Vaipulya or Expansive sutras that introduced Mahayana themes like the bodhisattva vows and the existence of the celestial buddhas and their pure lands. After eight years of this the Buddha decided that his disciples were ready for the teachings concerning emptiness and so taught the Prajna or Perfection of Wisdom sutras. After 22 years of this, the Buddha decided that the time was ripe to teach the Lotus Sutra in which he revealed the One Vehicle that leads all beings to buddhahood and also the teaching that the Buddha’s enlightened life span is unborn and deathless. These teachings took up the last eight years of his life and were reiterated in the Nirvana Sutra taught from his deathbed. So the names of the sutras in this passage are also the names of the periods of time wherein the Buddha taught the Mahayana according to the five period classification scheme of the T’ien-t’ai school. Nichiren, however, does not cite this passage with its reference to the T’ien-t’ai formula that might not be familiar to his intended audience, even though it specifically mentions the Lotus Sutra as included in the practice of “reciting Mahayana sutras.” Instead, he cites the following passage from Senchaku Shu that also clearly shows how inclusive Honen’s reference to Mahayana sutras was meant to be:

 

          Now with regards to the sutras that have already been brought over and translated, the Chen-yuan Catalogue of Scriptures Contained in the Pitaka, compiled in the T’ang Dynasty contains a total of 637 texts of Mahayana sutras, both exoteric and esoteric, in 2883 fascicles. They begin with the Larger Prajnaparamita Sutra of 600 fascicles and end with the Sutra of the Dharma’s Eternal Dwelling. All these should certainly be understood as included in the one phrase: “reading and reciting the Mahayana sutras.” (p. 110)

 

                      In the concluding section of chapter 12 of the Senchaku Shu, Honen unequivocally states that only the practice of the nembutsu is good for all time, whereas the 13 contemplative practices and the 3 distractive practices, including the recitation of all the Mahayana sutras, which were only taught provisionally by the Buddha will not remain.

 

          One ought to clearly understand that Shakyamuni first opened the Gateway of the Contemplative and Distractive Good Practices in response to the wishes of the people. He later closed this gateway in accordance with his own wish. The only gateway that, once opened, will remain unclosed for long eons is that of the Nembutsu. Practitioners should know this is the intent of Amida’s Original Vow and of Shakyamuni’s act of entrusting it [to Ananda]. (p. 118)

 

                      Nichiren saw that Honen was trying to make the case that the Buddha himself had “closed” the gateway to all the Mahayana sutras, including the Lotus Sutra, with the presumable exception of the Triple Pure Land Sutras. Again, Honen was not merely advocating the practice of nembutsu alongside other Mahayana practices. He was arguing that the whole rationale of Pure Land Buddhism rests upon the closing of the Mahayana sutras in order to open the way to the nembutsu alone. Furthermore, he was claiming the authority of past masters such as Shan-tao, and ultimately appealing to the authority of Shakyamuni Buddha himself in order to close the gateway to the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha.

Copyright by Ryuei Michael McCormick. 2004.

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