Rissho Ankoku Ron

A commentary
by Ryuei Michael McCormick

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Evaluating Shingon

 

                      The guest than says, “After that we should compare the profoundness of doctrines held by the different schools of Buddhism, [both exoteric and esoteric, to find out which is superior between the Shingon and Lotus teachings] in order to decide on whom to honor as the leader of the Buddhist world and [in order for us to strive to spread the One Vehicle Lotus teaching].” Since the guest is now in agreement with the host, we can tentatively take this as an expression of Nichiren’s own priorities. Nichiren believed that the most pressing issue was the way in which the Pure Land movement begun by Honen was crowding out all other forms of Buddhism in Japan. That needed to be stopped first. Honen’s exclusive nembutsu was a blatant encroachment on the more profound teachings and practices of the Tendai and Shingon establishment by a radicalized version of a provisional teaching. It was Nichiren’s hope that the rulers of Japan, who were responsible for religious as well as secular affairs, would at least want to rein in the more shallow and unorthodox followers of Honen and restore the power and prestige of the established schools. Once that was done, Nichiren hoped that an investigation could proceed as to which among the established teachings was the most profound. Nichiren’s 1278 additions show that he was particularly concerned that the political and religious establishments realize that the Lotus Sutra should be viewed as superior to the esoteric practices of Shingon Buddhism.

 

By 1278, Nichiren had already begun criticizing the Shingon school and also the patriarchs of Mt. Hiei after Saicho who had turned the Tendai school into the Shingon school in all but name. Of his five major writings, two of them contain sustained critiques of the Shingon school: the Senji Sho written in 1275, and the Ho’on Jo written in 1276. Nichiren believed that the teaching of the Lotus Sutra was far superior to the esoteric practices of the Shingon school, and he deplored the fact that the latter had come to overshadow the former. Nevertheless, he held off on criticizing the Shingon school until later in his career, though this passage implies (even without his 1278 gloss) that he may have had his critique in mind from the very beginning.

 

Assuming that he did feel this way about Shingon from the start, why did he hold back? Why didn’t Nichiren criticize Shingon explicitly in the Rissho Ankoku Ron? I believe it was for the following reasons: (1) It would have been impolitic to criticize the powerful and established Shingon school from the very start. Nichiren would have made himself appear to be a radical in doing so, and at that time he wanted to make a reasonable appeal to the government to withdraw support from the radical exclusive nembutsu movement of Honen. (2) Nichiren himself drew upon esoteric lore and methods in his own teaching and practice, and I believe that he needed time to carefully research and reflect on the esoteric tradition so as to make a careful and nuanced critique of its excesses rather than a blanket condemnation. (3) For Nichiren, a critique of Shingon also meant a critique of the Tendai school itself, the school that Nichiren was a member of and hoped to reform. The Tendai school, as founded by Saicho, was supposed to be a school centered on the Lotus Sutra, but Saicho’s successors on Mt. Hiei had emphasized the esoteric traditions they shared with the Shingon school and had even devalued the Lotus Sutra and compared it unfavorably with the sutras and practices valued by Shingon. Nichiren hoped that the Tendai school could be brought back in line with the teachings of Chih-i, Miao-lo, and Saicho and once again become a school whose teachings and practice was centered on the Lotus Sutra. Nichiren himself had no authority within the Tendai school, and so he probably hoped that his Tendai colleagues would rally around him in opposing Honen’s exclusive nembutsu, and that they might later support him in reforming the Tendai school itself. If that was his hope, it never came to fruition, and by the time of the Sado Exile in 1271 Nichiren probably realized that he would never attract more than a few low-ranking sympathizers from within the Tendai school and so there was no longer any reason to hold back anymore.  (4) Nichiren also may have hoped that the shogunate would grant him his wish of having an official debate with those who opposed his views. In those days, winning or losing a government sponsored debate often meant gaining a temple or even suffering government sanctions. When it became clear that he would not be given a chance to publicly debate his views in an official forum, he may have decided to take the risk of committing his critiques to writing for the sake of his contemporary followers and posterity. This was a risk because these were not critiques of a radical fringe movement such as Honen’s exclusive nembutsu, but of the powerful Tendai and Shingon schools who formed the backbone of the religious establishment at that time. Nichiren’s writings, if discovered, would have once more aroused the wrath of the political and religious authorities against Nichiren and his disciples. This is in fact what happened in 1284 when Nichiren’s disciple Nissho (1221-1323) submitted his own revised version of the Rissho Ankoku Ron that explicitly criticized Tendai and Shingon esotericism. An angry mob descended upon his hermitage in Hamado and tried to burn it down, and was only appeased when Nissho assured them that he was a loyal Tendai monk who was only trying to reform the Tendai school.


 

 Copyright by Ryuei Michael McCormick. 2004.

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