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by Ryuei Michael McCormick

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The Origin of the Sutras
and the Role of their Predictions

II. Predictions of Calamities in the Sutras

The Traveler Inquired

WNSD1: p. 109, WND: p. 7

 

                      The guest then asks upon what sutras the host bases his views. This would be similar to someone in our culture being told that our nation's problems are clearly the fulfillment of Biblical prophecies, so a listener who also believed in the literal truth of the Bible would want to know what Biblical passages are being fulfilled. But even in our culture not everyone believes in the literal truth of the Bible or that the Bible's prophecies apply to modern nations, events, and issues. However, in 13th century Japan the sutras held an authority equivalent to the authority the Bible holds for modern fundamentalists today. The Buddha was looked upon as fully omniscient, so anything he said in the sutras was held to be unquestioningly true. In several sutras, the Buddha predicts what the future will hold for the Sangha, and also for rulers who do or do not uphold the Dharma. These predictions are actually lessons in cause and effect: those who uphold the Dharma will prosper while those who fail to uphold it will increase their suffering. For medieval East Asian Buddhists, these predictions were viewed as prophecies and were held in the same regard as some hold the Biblical prophecies in our own culture. For this reason, the guest was particularly interested to know if the host's opinions were based on the authority of the sutras.

 

                      It might not occur to Western Buddhists (by which I mean those in countries where European languages predominate) that medieval East Asian Buddhists (and even many modern ones) are not that different in their assumptions about the inerrancy of scripture than their monotheistic counterparts in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but such was the case. Nichiren Shonin himself took (or appeared to take) the sutras at their word as the absolute truth spoken by a fully omniscient Buddha. Many modern Nichiren Buddhists have followed suit and do not seem to be aware of the origins of the sutras or the possible intentions of their compilers.

 

                      The sutras were originally passed down through oral transmissions from the time of the legendary first council after the death of the Buddha. Eventually there came to be several lines of transmission and the one recited in the Pali language (said to be closely related to the Magadhi dialect the Buddha spoke) was first written down in Sri Lanka in the first century B.C.E. according to the Mahavamsa, the Great Chronicle of Sri Lanka which was composed in the 6th century C.E. The Pali material still exists in totality preserved by the Theravadin tradition in Sri Lanka and other countries in SE Asia. All of the sutras in the Pali Canon have been translated into English, and from them we can read for ourselves what scholars believe are the best record we can hope to have of the historical Buddha's actual teachings. This is not to say the Pali Canon is free of legend and later accretions, not to mention the bias of the monastically oriented Theravadin monks, but for the most part it is believed to present a fairly straightforward recounting of the historical Buddha's discourses.

 

                      Other recensions of these early discourses have also been preserved. The version of the canon passed down by the Sarvastivadin school was originally preserved in Sanskrit rather than Pali, but the original Sanskrit has since been lost with the exception of a few fragments discovered in Eastern Turkistan and some individual discourses preserved in Tibetan translation. The Sarvastivadin recension now survives only in it's Chinese translation.

 

                      At roughly the same time that the Pali Canon is said to have been written down, the earliest portions of the Mahayana sutras began to be recorded as well. The Lotus Sutra itself has portions that are believed to date back to the first century B.C.E. and other portions were added to the original nucleus over time. From about the first century B.C.E. until the 12th century C.E. when Islam delivered the coup de grace to Buddhism in Central Asia and India, new sutras were compiled and added to the growing Mahayana canon. Even in China, Mahayana sutras were conceived and added to the canon, though sometimes their authenticity was challenged when certain monks came to suspect their non-Indian origins. Indeed, sutras like the Brahma Net Sutra containing the Mahayana precepts, one version of the Surangama Sutra that has been of great influence in Chinese Zen practice and the source of a widely used dharani, and perhaps even the oft-recited Heart Sutra may all have been the handiwork of Chinese rather than Indian monks.

 

                      This means that many of the sutras that Nichiren and his contemporaries took to be the actual words of the Buddha were not in fact verbatim records of the Buddha's teachings. The Mahayana sutras in particular are the products of later followers of the Buddha who felt that the true depth of his insight and actual scope of his intentions could be better expressed using myth, poetry, and paradox. They believed that any wisdom that was in keeping with the insights and awakening of the Buddha could be considered to be no different than the voice of the Buddha himself. In the Treatise on the Great Perfection of Wisdom, a work which itself is attributed to Nagarjuna but may have been written by its ostensible translator Kumarajiva, four seals of the Dharma are proposed by which any teaching can be verified as the voice of the Buddha. These four seals are that (1) any teaching must affirm the impermanence of all phenomena, (2) the unsatisfactoriness of all phenomena, (3) the selflessness of all phenomena, and (4) that true peace is only found in nirvana. As long as a teaching was in keeping with these it could be affirmed as the teaching of the Buddha.

 

                      The guest’s request for proof-texts from the sutras can be taken by us to be a question as to whether Nichiren's views were or were not grounded in the Buddhist tradition. As we will see, Nichiren's views were very much in line with the sutras. The question we must now ask is what do those sutras mean for us today?

 

The Master Responded

WNSD1: p. 109 - 113

WND: p. 7 - 10

 

                      In this section the host responds to the request of his guest for proof-texts from the sutras. The host provides several pages of quotations from the following four sutras:

 

                      The Sutra of Golden Light (or Sutra of Golden Splendor): which asserts that the four heavenly kings will abandon a nation whose rulers do not propagate the Dharma.

 

                      The Great Collection Sutra (or Sutra of the Great Assembly): which asserts that when the principles of Buddhism become truly obscured and lost, then the natural world will also suffer and the laws which govern human society will also be neglected and forgotten. The sutra is also cited for its predictions of famine, war, and epidemics and other apocalyptic events if the ruler does not prevent the Dharma from perishing.

 

                      The Benevolent Kings Sutra: discusses the spiritual and political disorder in a nation bereft of the Dharma and also predicts the departing of sages and the coming of seven calamities of a human, natural, and astronomical nature.

 

                      The Medicine King Sutra: also provides a list of seven disasters that range from man-made to natural to astronomical.

 

                      It is from these four sutras that Nichiren will derive his prediction that Japan has yet to face invasion from without and civil war from within. The other disasters he feels have already been fulfilled. These sutra passages link the harmony of the natural world and of human society to the ruler's upholding of the Dharma. This view is very alien to us today. Though some might predict national disaster if one or another political party or candidate won a presidential election, few of us would think to blame earthquakes or tornadoes on people's political, religious, or social views. Of course, there are still religious fundamentalists who would, but in Nichiren's time the view was much more common even among the educated upper classes. In fact, it was the common assumption among agrarian people that nature and the weather reflected the approval or disapproval of the gods or God, and that the ruler was specifically responsible for keeping the gods or God happy through prayer, morality, and good government. From a Buddhist point of view, the ruler was responsible for upholding the Dharma and it was the Vedic and local gods as well as the bodhisattvas who would ensure that all was well if they did, and the various demons and Mara who would take advantage if they did not.

 

                      Thus Nichiren makes his conclusion as to the source of the disasters facing Japan:

 

          People turn away from the Buddhas and the sutras and no longer endeavor to protect them. In turn, the benevolent deities and sages abandon the nation and leave their accustomed places. As a result, demons and followers of heretical doctrines create disaster and inflict calamity upon the populace.

 

                      Note that Nichiren is not saying the Japanese have some kind of special dispensation or are some kind of chosen people as one might expect from a nationalist. Nichiren was no nationalist. He was more like a Hebrew prophet calling his nation to task for not fulfilling its responsibilities. This is one reason why it is greatly mistaken to accuse Nichiren of nationalism.

 

                      And yet, it is a bit disturbing to see that Nichiren is basing his argument upon sutra passages that make the assumption that politics, nature, and even the course of the sun and moon are determined by which religious teaching one chooses to follow. The whole argument he makes would seem to be invalidated by modern astronomy, meteorology, and geology. For instance, we now know that the shifting of tectonic plates, not the displeasure of supernatural entities, causes earthquakes. Even in the realm of human activity, modern economics and sociology show that religion is just one among many factors (and not always a major one) that causes wars, epidemics, and famine.

 

                      I think we need to step back and not take the sutras passages so literally to see if we can find a meaning that speaks to us today. I think if the Dharma really is "the way things are" then to uphold the Dharma is to uphold the truth, to face facts squarely, to see the interdependent nature of the world, to be responsible for one's acts and the consequences thereof, and to be compassionately motivated by the view of interdependence and the selfless nature of things as they really are. To behave dishonestly, irresponsibly, callously and blindly would be to invite disaster - to turn our world upside down in a manner of speaking. If those who govern a nation act like this - the consequences will be enormous and far-reaching. Many nations and societies have indeed toppled because of irresponsible rulers and a compliant populace. Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, Fascist Italy, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, and others have all come to ruin. Their fate included an impact on the natural world as well. And how many deaths have been caused by famine and earthquakes and flooding because the government mismanaged resources, or refused to uphold certain building codes or maintain a proper infrastructure and emergency system? Human decisions can indeed lead to the exacerbation of natural disasters, and can sometimes cause them in the first place. I would not argue that failing to be a Buddhist will cause an earthquake, but I would say failing to live in accord with what we Buddhists call the Dharma leads to personal and even national or even worldwide disaster in the long run. In this sense, I think the sutra passages and Nichiren's conclusions based on them can be taken seriously.

Copyright by Ryuei Michael McCormick. 2004.

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