Rissho Ankoku Ron

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by Ryuei Michael McCormick

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Key Points of the Senchaku Shu Part 5:
Lay Aside, Abandon, and Set Aside All but the Nembutsu

 

                      Nichiren concludes his review of the Senchaku Shu with a passage from chapter 16. In many ways the passage is the climax of the Senchaku Shu. In it, Honen brings his argument to a conclusion and states that in order to be reborn in the Pure Land one should practice the nembutsu alone and set aside all other practices. The rest of the chapter is taken up with Honen’s reasons for relying specifically on Shan-tao and his Commentary on the Sutra of Meditation on the Buddha of Infinite Life. Nichiren only quotes the passage up to the point where Honen advises setting aside miscellaneous practices, but in order to show the full extent of Honen’s radical exclusivism, I will provide Honen’s full statement concerning what needs to be set aside in favor of nembutsu. The passage is as follows:

 

          When I consider the matter carefully, I wish to urge that anyone who desires to escape quickly from the cycle of birth and death should decide between the two types of the excellent Dharma, lay aside the Holy Path for awhile, and choose to enter through the Gateway of the Pure Land. If such a person should desire to enter through the Gateway of the Pure Land, he or she should decide between the Right Practices and the Miscellaneous Practices, abandoning for a while the various Miscellaneous Practices, and choose to take refuge in the Right Practices. If one desires to exercise oneself in the Right Practices, one should decide between the one Right Practice and the Auxiliary Right Practices, setting aside the Auxiliary Practices and resolutely choosing the Act of Right Assurance and follow it exclusively. This Act of Right Assurance is uttering the Name of Amida Buddha. Those who utter the Name will unfailingly attain Rebirth because it is based on Amida’s Original Vow.” (p. 134)

 

                      In this passage it is clear that Honen’s movement was not simply the embrace of the nembutsu but also a radical rejection of all other practices, even other devotional practices within the Pure Land tradition. “Laying aside” the Gateway of the Holy Path means laying aside all attempts at attaining enlightenment in this world by following the eightfold path or the six perfections or other virtuous and meditative practices. “Abandoning” the miscellaneous practices means abandoning any practice not explicitly focused on Amitabha Buddha and the Pure Land, even if the merits of such virtuous, meditative, or devotional practices are dedicated to rebirth in the Pure Land of the West. “Setting aside” the auxiliary practices means setting aside every other devotional practice directed towards Amitabha Buddha except for the vocal nembutsu. This includes such practices as chanting the Triple Pure Land Sutra, visualizing Amitabha Buddha and the Pure Land, worshipping Amitabha Buddha, and praising and making offering to Amitabha Buddha. The Pure Land Buddhism that Honen is advocating has one practice and one practice alone - the chanting of nembutsu. All other practices are superfluous and are even looked upon as undermining one’s sole focus and faith in nembutsu.

 

                      It is not unheard of in the sutras for the Buddha to teach a disciple who cannot remember or practice many teachings to only focus on the most essential point. Usually these stories end with the disciple awakening to the meaning of a single verse or phrase and then by virtue of their enlightenment they come to realize the true meaning of all the teachings and come to embody the virtue of all the practices. One example would be the story of the monk Chudapanthaka who supposedly was too dull-witted to remember even a single verse and in despair was thinking of returning to the home life. The Buddha had compassion for him and taught him to simply sweep away the monastery while saying, “Sweep away the dirt” over and over again. Much to the surprise of the other monks, including his sharper but scornful older brother, Chudapanthaka realized that sweeping the dirt really meant sweeping the mind clean of greed, anger, and ignorance and thereby became liberated from birth and death by becoming an arhat. He was even able to form thousands of replica bodies to help sweep the monastery that demonstrated his understanding to the other monks but also represented the multi-faceted nature of his insight into that one phrase.

 

                      Mahayana sutras likewise abound in promises that anyone who upholds even a single verse or phrase will attain inestimable merits. So there are plenty of precedents in both the pre-Mahayana and Mahayana canons for the claim that a single simple practice can lead to enlightenment. Nowhere, however, is the claim made that other practices should then be laid aside or abandoned. Rather, the disciples are being encouraged to receive, remember, and live in accord with as much of the Buddha Dharma as they can, even if it is only a verse or a phrase. The idea is not to neglect everything else. Instead, by upholding a single verse or phrase the disciple would then gain access to the true intent of all the teachings and thereby come to understand and practice them as well. One must, therefore, be careful not to simply scour the sutras for an easy practice that will allow one to bypass everything else. Rather, one should choose the verse or phrase that will in fact provide the key to the rest.

 

                      It was Nichiren’s contention that Honen had made two fundamental mistakes. The first was to reduce all of Buddhism to the practice of the nembutsu to the exclusion of all else. This was a mistake because Nichiren believed that the nembutsu did not in fact express the Buddha’s true intent - the attainment of enlightenment in this world. The second mistake, a corollary of the first, was to slander the Lotus Sutra; the one sutra that Nichiren was convinced did in fact reveal the true intent. Honen did this when he advocated laying aside all other sutras, teachings, and practices other than the Pure Land sutras and the practice of nembutsu and insisting that they could no longer help people in the Latter Age of the Dharma. Put simply, in the Senchaku Shu, Honen performed a radical act of reductionism by teaching the exclusive practice of nembutsu and in doing so missed the essential point of Buddha Dharma itself by advocating the neglect of the Lotus Sutra.

Copyright by Ryuei Michael McCormick. 2004.

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