Rissho Ankoku Ron
The Question of Nationalism Part 2: Should the State Serve the Dharma?
The Master Replied
WNSD1: pp. 129 - 134
WND: pp. 18 - 22
The guest’s assertion that, “Therefore, we should first pray for the peace and tranquility of the nation before trying to establish the Buddha Dharma,” has been falsely attributed to Nichiren as his own personal view. But, as is apparent, this was the view that Nichiren put in the mouth of the guest, the representative of the Kamakuran shogunate, whose views Nichiren was trying to change. To cite this statement as a way of showing that Nichiren was a “nationalist” is a gross distortion of Nichiren’s actual views and is a complete misreading of the Rissho Ankoku Ron. Far from being a nationalist, Nichiren subordinates the state to the service of Truth, in this case the True Dharma of the Lotus Sutra and warns that disaster will be the result of any other course. Nichiren states, “However, as I have often contemplated the matter in view of Buddhism, I have come to the conclusion that putting a ban on the slanderers of the True Dharma, and highly esteeming the upholders of the True Dharma will lead to the tranquility of the nation and world peace.” Nichiren did not advocate an unquestioning support for the status quo or an uncritical backing of national interests. His conviction was that true security and wellbeing depends upon the effort to discern and support the True Dharma for the sake of world peace.
Nichiren then proceeds to cite several sutra passages supporting his view that it is the responsibility of the secular rulers to withdraw support from false teachers, and instead to support and even use deadly force to protect the teachers of the True Dharma.
The Nirvana Sutra: the Buddha teaches his disciple Chunda that the giving of alms a praiseworthy act, therefore alms should be given to all with the exception of the incorrigible evildoer known as an icchantika. The icchantika is defined by the Buddha as a monastic who has killed, stolen, engaged in sexual relations, or lied about spiritual attainments (the four offenses of defeat for monastics that require expulsion of the offender from the monastic Sangha) or who has killed their mother, or their father, or an arhat, or injured the Buddha, or created a schism in the Sangha (the five grave offenses which lead directly to the Avichi Hell and is not only unrepentant but who goes on to slander and despise the True Dharma. More generally, any who slander the True Dharma, even those who are not monks or nuns, can be considered icchantika.
In a passage from chapter 19 of the Nirvana Sutra the story of King Sen’yo is told. According to the story in a past life the bodhisattva who would become Shakyamuni Buddha was a king who put to death several brahmins who slandered the Mahayana sutras. Because he took such action to protect the Mahayana he never thereafter fell into hell in all his subsequent rebirths. In chapter 20, the sutra goes on to explain that those who kill animals, even an ant, will be reborn in the hells or as hungry ghosts or animals; those who kill unenlightened people will also be reborn into those realms but will suffer even more; and those who kill their parents, arhats, pratyekabuddhas or bodhisattvas will fall into the Avichi Hell; but the killing of an icchantika does not bring about any such karmic recompense. The brahmins, in slandering the Mahayana teaching, had become icchantika and therefore King Sen’yo did not commit an evil act in killing them but a good one in fighting to protect the Mahayana.
The Benevolent Kings Sutra: in this sutra the Buddha entrusts his teachings to kings, rather than the monks and nuns, because the kings have the power to protect the teachings.
The Nirvana Sutra: in a similar passage the Buddha entrusts his teachings to the secular rulers as well as to the lay and monastic Sangha and instructs them to reprimand any who slander the Dharma. In chapter five the Buddha says, “Those who wish to uphold the True Dharma should arm themselves with swords, bows and arrows, and halberds, instead of observing the five precepts (against killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and using intoxicants) and keeping propriety.” Then he tells the story of King Possessor of Virtue, who was another past life of the bodhisattva who would become Shakyamuni Buddha. King Possessor of Virtue fought to his death against false monks who broke the precepts and were trying to kill the virtuous monk named Realization of Virtue. The Buddha then gives permission to the virtuous monks who follow the precepts and uphold the True Dharma to associate themselves with armed laymen who can protect them from persecution at the hands of the violent false monks. The armed laymen, however, are not to use their weapons to kill:
Good men, in the age of impurity and evil after I have passed away, the nation will fall into devastation and disorder, men will plunder and steal from one another, and the common people will be reduced to starvation. Because of hunger, many men at that time will declare their determination to leave their families and become monks. Men such as these may be called shavepates. When these crowds of shavepates see anyone who is attempting to protect the correct teaching, they will chase after him and drive him away, or even kill him or do him injury. That is why I now give permission for monks who observe the precepts to associate with and keep company with white-robed laymen who bear swords and staves. Even though they carry swords and staves, I would call them men who observe the precepts. But although they may carry swords and staves, they should never use them to take life.
The Lotus Sutra: in chapter three the Buddha states that those who fail to have faith and instead slander the sutra will destroy their seeds of buddhahood and will fall into the Avichi Hell.
Nichiren states that the testimony of these sutra passages is clear and that it should be obvious that slandering the True Dharma is the worst possible offense and that such slanderers should at the least receive no alms and that eliminating them would be, in fact, the right thing to do. He stresses the authoritative nature of the Lotus Sutra and Nirvana Sutra’s recommendations saying, “The Lotus and Nirvana Sutras are the essence of Shakyamuni Buddha’s lifetime teachings preached in five periods, [the gist of 80,000 Buddhist teachings.] His warnings in them should weigh very heavily. Who would not obey them?” Clearly, Nichiren assumes that the guest accepts the T’ien-t’ai classification of Buddhist sutras into five periods, and will therefore also accept the Buddha’s teaching in the Lotus and Nirvana Sutras as the last word regarding how the Dharma should be upheld.
Once again, Nichiren reviews what he sees happening in Japan wherein the exclusive nembutsu of Honen taught in the Senchaku Shu has become so popular that people have replaced the hands on statues formerly representing Shakyamuni Buddha so that the new hand configuration (mudra) show that the statue now represents Amitabha Buddha. Temples to Medicine Master Buddha have been transformed into temples enshrining Amitabha Buddha. The 400-year-old tradition on Mt. Hiei of copying the Lotus Sutra had been discontinued so that the monks could copy the Triple Pure Land Sutras instead. Even the lectures to commemorate the memorial day of the Great Master T’ien-t’ai had been suspended so that lectures on the teachings of Shan-tao could be held instead. It seemed to Nichiren as though all the traditional schools of Buddhism, including the T’ien-t’ai school, were being crowded out in favor of the exclusive Pure Land movement begun by Honen. Nichiren’s fear was that the radical and reductionist teachings of Honen would soon be all that would be left as all other forms of Buddhism, including the teachings of the Lotus Sutra and the T’ien-t’ai school, became neglected and forgotten. Nichiren concludes with the following recommendation: “If you wish to bring about the tranquility of the empire as soon as possible, first of all, you had better put a ban on the slanderers of the True Dharma throughout the nation.”
Nichiren was convinced that the best interests of the nation lay in serving the best interests of the True Dharma. The sutra passages he cites proclaim that the protection and transmission of the True Dharma is the responsibility of the rulers and not just of the monastic Sangha. The white-robed laymen are the secular authorities who are charged with maintaining law and order through the use of, or at least threat of, deadly force if necessary. The people armed with swords, staves and other weapons in the Nirvana Sutra are perhaps the warrior caste members of the army or the town watch. The Buddha gives permission to the monks who do uphold the precepts (and therefore would not handle weapons themselves) to stay close to these armed laypeople for their own protection. Intriguingly, the Nirvana Sutra states that the armed laypeople should not use their weapons to kill. In the story of King Possessor of Virtue it does not say that he actually killed any of the false monks attacking the monk Realization of Virtue though he did apparently succeed in fighting them off at the cost of his own life. It might be reasonably extrapolated that weapons are to be used only by the proper secular authorities in order to maintain law and order and to protect the lives of the innocent, and further that these weapons should only be used in defense and not to deadly effect but only to drive off or subdue. The secular authorities therefore have a duty to also protect innocent monks who live virtuously in accordance with the precepts and who teach the True Dharma. Laypeople, including the authorities, should likewise refrain from giving any support to those who are monks in name only who are living a parasitic existence to the detriment of the community and, in violation of their monastic vows, have even taken up arms against the true monks in order to persecute, injure or even kill them. The point of these sutras passages seems to be that the suppression and elimination of armed bands of robber monks and the protection and support of peaceful precept abiding monks who teach the True Dharma is a matter of national security, and that is exactly the point that Nichiren makes.
In a situation where there is a separation of church and state, a situation that cannot be taken for granted, the government has no right to pick favorites or to suppress religions they don’t like. However, the secular authorities and lawful peace keepers do have the right, and even the duty, to protect innocent lives and to punish those who use dishonest or violent means to gain money and influence or who attempt to use such means to persecute those who don’t follow their beliefs or belong to their particular group. In that sense, Nichiren’s point is still relevant. To restate this point in a form compatible with the principles of the separation of church and state in a free democratic society: secular authorities should not lend their support to corrupt religious leaders or groups, but should ensure that everyone’s right to pursue or teach their religious convictions in a peaceful and law-abiding manner is equally protected.
More problematic is the story of King Sen’yo, who put several brahmins to death because they spoke badly about the Mahayana teachings. The sutra’s explanation that they were icchantika and therefore it was ok to kill them is even more disturbing to modern ears than the story it is attempting to explain. It basically amounts to saying that we do not have to value the lives of those who insult our religious convictions and that killing such people is in fact a meritorious deed. Today, not a day goes by without stories in the news about religious fanatics willing to kill those who do not share or respect their particular religious convictions. Every religiously motivated terrorist in the world feels that they are justified in killing and will be given a free pass to heaven for doing so. Other passages in the Nirvana Sutra mitigate these passages, for they suggest that the icchantika may not always be what they appear, and that some might actually be bodhisattvas or else some may repent and cease to be icchantika and that in any case even the icchantika have buddha-nature that will some day come to fruition. Taking these other passages into account, the sutra seems to be saying that killing even an icchantika is to kill a potential buddha, and therefore a grave crime that can only lead to rebirth in hell, if not the Avichi Hell. However, the story of King Sen’yo and its distressing explanation remain, and it is these passages that Nichiren chose to include in Rissho Ankoku Ron. The disturbing implications of this story, as well as the story of King Possessor of Virtue do not escape the notice of the guest who is quick to point them out in the next section.
Copyright by Ryuei Michael McCormick. 2004.