Rissho Ankoku Ron

A commentary
by Ryuei Michael McCormick

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The Buddha’s Criteria for Evaluating Teachings

Pure Land Buddhism as the Cause of Calamities

Very Angry, the Traveler Frowned Back

WNSD1: p. 123-124, WND: p. 15-16

 

                      The guest is outraged by the host’s criticisms of the revered teachings of Honen and the Pure Land patriarchs. He points out that Shakyamuni Buddha himself taught the Triple Pure Land Sutras. T’an-luan turned away from the Madhyamika teachings contained in the works of Nagarjuna and his disciple Aryadeva upheld by the Four Treatise school in order to single-mindedly seek refuge in Pure Land Buddhism. Tao-ch’o set aside the practices recommended in the Nirvana Sutra in order to devote himself to spreading the practice leading to rebirth in the Pure Land. Shan-tao discarded all the miscellaneous practices and only practiced the nembutsu. Genshin (Venerable Eshin) advocated the single practice of nembutsu in his Ojo-yoshu, Essentials of Rebirth in the Pure Land. The expanded version of the Rissho Ankoku Ron adds the Sanron monk Yokan as well. All of these past masters in China and Japan were discussed in the review of Pure Land Buddhism given above. In Nichiren’s time they were all revered and credited with providing the precedent for the practice of the exclusive nembutsu. In the words of the guest, “Thus Amitabha Buddha has been revered by many great masters of Buddhism before us. Also imagine how many people there are who were able to be reborn in the Pure Land by calling the name of Amitabha Buddha!”

 

                      The guest then proceeds to summarize the religious quest of Honen, his reading of the Buddhist canon as many as seven times, his despair at being unable to cut off the chain of birth and death, his discovery of the teachings of Shan-tao and the sole practice of nembutsu, and the dream in which his course was confirmed by Shan-tao himself. All of this was covered in the short biography of Honen given above. The guest then states that some people consider Honen an earthly appearance of Gainer of Great Strength Bodhisattva who is one of the attendants of Amitabha Buddha (Regarder of the Cries of the World Bodhisattva is the other attendant). Others consider Honen a rebirth of Shan-tao. In any case, all people throughout Japan revere his great wisdom and virtue. Honen, in the eyes of many of Nichiren’s contemporaries, was held to be beyond criticism.

 

                      Nichiren (as the host) dared to critique Honen’s teaching, the teachings of the past revered masters of Pure Land Buddhism, and even went so far as to recommend that Honen’s teaching be banned. This was too much for the guest, who accuses the host of mean-spirited nitpicking and even prepares to leave. In all this, we can see that Nichiren is very aware of how his recommendations will sound to others. Even today people often react to Nichiren’s critiques and call to suppress Pure Land practice as a form of militant sectarianism. In the words of the host:

 

          Despite all this, do you dare hold in contempt the teaching of Shakyamuni Buddha expounded in the Triple Pure Land Sutras, and slander the forty-eight vows of Amitabha Buddha? This is terrible! How can you blame the august reign of the past emperor for calamities in recent years? How can you speak ill of not only such earlier masters as T’an-luan, Tao-ch’o and Shan-tao, but also Honen. What you are doing is, as the saying goes, ‘deliberately blowing back the fur and hunting for flaws in the leather,’ or ‘deliberately piercing the skin in hopes of drawing blood.’ When one looks for trouble, he will find it. I have never heard such abusive remarks as these. You should be afraid of this; you should refrain from this. You have committed a serious offense, for which you will never be able to escape punishment. It is awful for me just to sit before you. Taking my stick in hand, I would rather go home straight away.   

 

                      These might be the same questions we would ask. Isn’t Nichiren criticizing the practice recommended by the Buddha himself in the Triple Pure Land Sutras? Isn’t he blaming the present calamities on things that happened decades before when Honen was alive during the reign of an earlier emperor? Isn’t he looking only for the flaws in the teachings of T’an-luan, Tao-ch’o, Shan-tao, and Honen and overlooking their positive contributions to the practice of Buddhism by providing a way for all people to be born in the Pure Land in accordance with the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha and the vows of Amitabha Buddha? Like many people today, the guest does not wish to subject himself to such seeming sectarianism, intolerance, and negativity and so prepares to go on his way. This is the reaction that Nichiren anticipated and will respond to in the next sections.

 

Smiling Gently, The Master Stopped the Traveler and Said:

WNSD1: p. 124-127

WND: p. 16-17

 

                      Nichiren’s reply to the criticism of his criticism is that what has come to be the unquestioned normal state of affairs in Japanese Buddhism is actually a confused state of affairs. It only seems normal because it has gone on for so long and people have not bothered to question it anymore, though they certainly did during and right after the time of Honen. He writes:

 

          Insects that live on smartweed forget how bitter it tastes; those who stay long in privies forget how foul the smell is. Here you listen to my good words and think them wicked, point to a slanderer of the Dharma and call him a sage, mistrust a correct teacher and take him for an evil monk. Your confusion is great indeed, and your offense anything but light. Listen to my explanation of how this confusion arose, and let us discuss the matter in detail.

 

                      Shakyamuni Buddha was very concerned that after his passing the Dharma should be handed down as he had taught it. The Mahaparinibbana Sutta in particular shows this concern throughout. In one passage, the Buddha even tells Mara that he will not attain pass away until he knows that the whole Sangha will be able to uphold the true Dharma, refute false teachings, and spread the Dharma widely.

 

          Soon after Ananda had left, Mara, the Evil One came to the Lord, stood to one side, and said: ‘Lord, may the Blessed Lord now attain final nirvana, may the Well-Farer now attain final nirvana. Now is the time for the Blessed Lord’s final nirvana. Because the Blessed Lord has said this: “Evil One, I will not take final nirvana till I have monks and disciples who are accomplished, trained, skilled, learned, knowers of the Dharma, trained in conformity with the Dharma, correctly trained and walking in the path of the Dharma, who will pass on what they have gained from their Teacher, teach it, declare it, establish it, expound it, analyze it, make it clear; till they shall be able by means of the Dharma to refute false teachings that have arisen, and teach the Dharma of wondrous effect.”

          ‘And now, Lord, the Blessed Lord has such monks and disciples. May the Blessed Lord now attain final nirvana, may the Well-Farer now attain final nirvana. Now is the time for the Blessed Lord’s final nirvana. And the Blessed Lord has said: “I will not take final nirvana till I have nuns and female disciples who are accomplished… till I have laymen followers… till I have laywomen followers…(as above). “

          ‘May the Blessed Lord now take final nirvana… And the Blessed Lord has said: “Evil One, I will not take final nirvana till this holy life has been successfully established and flourishes, is widespread, well-known far and wide, well-proclaimed among mankind everywhere.” And all this has come about. May the Blessed Lord now attain final nirvana, may the Well-Farer now attain final nirvana. Now is the time for the Blessed Lord’s final nirvana.’

          At this the Lord said to Mara: ‘You need not worry, Evil One. The Tathagata’s final passing will not be long delayed. Three months from now, the Tathagata will take final nirvana.’

(adapted from Long Discourses of the Buddha, p. 247)

 

Later in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, the Buddha sets forth what he calls four criteria for judging the validity of any teachings they hear, to ensure that they are in accord with the teachings and disciplines set forth in the Buddha’s own discourses and disciplinary instructions.

 

          ‘Suppose a monk were to say: “Friends, I heard and received this from the Lord’s own lips: this is the Dharma, this is the discipline, this is the Master’s teaching”, then, monks, you should neither approve nor disapprove his words. Then, without approving or disapproving, his words and expressions should be carefully noted and compared with the sutras and reviewed in the light of the discipline. If they, on such comparison and review, are found not to conform to the sutras or the discipline, the conclusion must be: “Assuredly this is not the word of the Buddha, it has been wrongly understood by this monk”, and the matter is to be rejected. But where on such comparison and review they are found to conform to the sutras or the discipline, the conclusion must be: “Assuredly this is the word of the Buddha, it has been rightly understood by this monk.” This is the first criterion.’

(Long Discourses of the Buddha, p. 255)

 

The second, third, and fourth criteria are the same except that they are applied not to a single monk claiming to have heard the teaching from the Buddha, but to a monk claiming to have heard the teaching from elders and distinguished teachers, from elders who are acknowledged experts in the Dharma and discipline, or from a single elder who is an acknowledged expert. In other words, the Buddha himself stated that Buddhists should always check to make sure that it really is the Buddha’s teaching that is being taught, no matter what the alleged source.

 

In a discourse to the Kalama clan the Buddha advised them to follow that teaching which strikes them as true in their hearts and which will lead to happiness and liberation if followed. This teaching was also intended as a safeguard against dogmatic assertions. The following excerpt from that discourse begins with the Kalamas who live in the town of Kesaputta asking the Buddha how to deal with the conflicting truth claims of the various teachers who come there. The Buddha’s reply follows.

 

          "There are, Lord, some ascetics and brahmins who come to Kesaputta. They explain and elucidate their own doctrines, but disparage, debunk, revile and vilify the doctrines of others. But then some other ascetics and brahmins come to Kesaputta, and they too explain and elucidate their own doctrines, but disparage, debunk, revile and vilify the doctrines of others.  For us, Lord, there is perplexity and doubt as to which of these good ascetics speak truth and which speak falsehood?"

"It is fitting for you to be perplexed, O Kalamas, it is fitting for you to be in doubt. Doubt has arisen in you about a perplexing matter. Come, Kalamas.  Do not go by oral tradition, by lineage of teaching, by hearsay, by a collection of scriptures, by logical reasoning, by inferential reasoning, by a reflection on reasons, by the acceptance of a view after pondering it, by the seeming competence of a speaker, or because you think: ‘The ascetic is our teacher.' But when you know for yourselves, 'These things are unwholesome, these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; these things if undertaken and practiced lead to harm and suffering', then you should abandon them.

(Numerical Discourses of the Buddha, p. 65)

 

Further on the Buddha gives the positive version of the same criteria:

 

“Come, Kalamas.  Do not go by oral tradition, by lineage of teaching, by hearsay, by a collection of scriptures, by logical reasoning, by inferential reasoning, by a reflection on reasons, by the acceptance of a view after pondering it, by the seeming competence of a speaker, or because you think: ‘The ascetic is our teacher.' But when you know for yourselves, ‘These things are wholesome, these things are blameless; these things are praised by the wise; these things if undertaken and practiced, lead to welfare and happiness’, then you should engage in them.

(Ibid, p. 66)”

 

Putting together this guidance from the Buddha for evaluating whether any teaching is in accord with the Dharma we come up with the “three proofs.” The first “proof” is that a teaching must be accord with what the Buddha taught. The second is that a teaching must be reasonable and in accord with what we know about our own lives. The third is that a teaching must actually lead away from harm and suffering and lead to welfare and happiness. Nichiren often cited these “three proofs” as a criteria for ensuring that what is claimed to be a Buddhist teaching is actually so. For instance, in the San Sanzo Kiu no Koto (Concerning the Prayer Services for Rain by Three Tripitika Masters):

 

Practicing Buddhism, I, Nichiren, believe that it is important to use reason and scriptural proof in order to distinguish the true teaching from false ones or to compare the superiority among the sutras. Furthermore, it is more important to have actual proof (actual happening as a proof) in addition to reason and scriptural proof. (WNS: D3, p. 205)

 

                      Nichiren applied the three proofs to the teachings of Honen and others who he felt had departed from the true intention of Shakyamuni Buddha. Previously it was mentioned how Nichiren used the four standards found in the Nirvana Sutra for judging the relative profundity of Buddhist teachings. “Rely on the Dharma and not upon persons; rely on the meaning and not upon the words; rely on wisdom and not upon discriminative thinking; rely on sutras that are final and definitive and not upon those which are not final and definitive.” Between the three proofs and the four standards, Nichiren believed that the Buddha fully intended for his followers to double check any and all teachings and to scrutinize them carefully and to accept nothing out of blind belief or merely because it was taught by an honored teacher or because something has become customary or traditional. The true spirit of Buddhism is a spirit of seeking the truth rather than complacence and blind belief. Honen and his predecessors, however, seemed intent on promoting faith to the exclusion of all other teachings and practices. So from Nichiren’s point of view, his sutra based criticisms of Honen were authentically Buddhist, whereas he viewed Honen’s exclusive faith in the nembutsu as a betrayal of the true spirit of Buddhism.

Copyright by Ryuei Michael McCormick. 2004.

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