Living Rissho Ankoku Ron

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by Ryuei Michael McCormick

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Prophecies of the Latter Age of the Dharma

The Master Tried to Persuade Him

WNSD1: p. 114 - 118, WND: p. 11 - 12

 

                      Continuing with the section on slandering the Dharma, the host responds to the guest's question with an eloquent acknowledgement of the pervasiveness of Buddhism in his society. However, he also points out that beneath the surface there is corruption and deceit.

 

          To be sure, Buddhist halls stand rooftop to rooftop, and sutra storehouses are ranged eave to eave. Monks are as numerous as bamboo plants and rushes, or as common as rice and hemp seedlings. The temples and monks have been honored from centuries past, and every day respect is paid them anew. But the monks of today are fawning and devious, and they confuse the people and lead them astray. The ruler and his subjects lack understanding and fail to distinguish between what is correct and what is erroneous.

 

                      The host then cites several sutra passages that describe exactly the kind of situation that he believes they are now faced with. These prophetic passages also describe some of the consequences that will follow if the rulers do not take steps against such corruption and abuse of the Dharma. In the original version of the Rissho Ankoku Ron the sutra passages cited are as follows:

 

                      The Benevolent Kings Sutra: in this sutra ambitious monks of evil intent who promulgate teachings in violation of the Dharma deceive the rulers. This leads to the destruction of both the Buddha Dharma and the nation.

 

                      The Nirvana Sutra: warns that evil friends are worse than mad elephants. "Even if you are killed by a mad elephant, you will not fall into the three evil paths [of hells, hungry ghosts, animals]. But if you are killed by an evil friend, you are certain to fall into them."

 

                      The Lotus Sutra: the 20-line verse from the 13th chapter of the Lotus Sutra, "Encouragement for Upholding the Sutra,” is cited that describes those who will persecute the practitioners of the Lotus Sutra in the Latter Age of the Dharma. These persecutors would come to be known as the three powerful enemies in accordance with the interpretation of the T'ien-t'ai patriarch Miao-lo (711-782). The three are: (1) the ignorant laity who are deceived by the false and hypocritical monks and elders and will abuse the true monks, (2) the false monks who are deceitful and claim to be enlightened when in fact they are not, and (3) the respected elder monks who are revered as arhats (“worthy ones” who are liberated from birth and death) but who in fact are simply better at hiding their ulterior motives of greed and contempt. The original version of the Rissho Ankoku Ron only quotes the portion that relates to the evil monks, but a later expanded version (believed to have been completed by 1278) includes the verses relating to the ignorant laypeople.

 

                      The omission of the “ignorant laity” could be because in the original Rissho Ankoku Ron he was specifically blaming monks like Honen (1133-1212) and his followers and saw no need to antagonize the secular rulers. In any case, in submitting the Rissho Ankoku Ron to the shogunate he was giving the lay rulers the chance to do the right thing. It was only after years of persecution, two exiles, and an attempted execution that Nichiren would conclude that the rulers were in fact representative of the ignorant lay people who would persecute the practitioners of the Lotus Sutra in the Latter Age of the Dharma.

 

                      The Nirvana Sutra: describes the corrupt and greedy monks who will begin to appear in the Middle or Counterfeit Age of the Dharma and who will claim to be arhats though in fact they are far from enlightened. These monks are compared to cats on the prowl for mice.

 

                      In the expanded version of the Rissho Ankoku Ron Nichiren adds several other passages (these passages are included in parenthesis in the WNS: D1) to strengthen his argument on the basis of the Buddha's teachings:

 

                      The Guardian Sutra: several passages are cited stating that the false and evil monks will fool the rulers and have them drive out the true monks. Several man-made and natural disasters will follow because of this. Finally, none other than these internal enemies, the evil monks, will destroy the Buddha Dharma.

 

                      The Golden Light Sutra: states that when the evil monks who violate the precepts are revered and those who keep them are punished this will bring about the downfall of the ruler, and the ruin of the country due to natural and man-made disasters. The gods themselves will be angry with the king and will abandon the country to its ruin.

 

                      The Great Collection Sutra: the gods vow that if the kings persecute the Buddha's disciples then they will cause other nations to invade and in addition will bring about several internal disasters like civil war, epidemics, famines, and unseasonable weather.

 

                      The Nirvana Sutra: one passage is cited which cautions against the false monks who will misunderstand and then misrepresent the Nirvana Sutra (and by extension the Buddha Dharma in general). Another passage speaks of those who are icchantika (“incorrigible evildoers”) but who appear to be arhats. Yet another passage from the six-fascicled version of the Nirvana Sutra is cited to show that those who slander the Mahayana may be taken to be arhats when in fact they are icchantika, while those who criticize the Hinayana may be taken to be icchantika when actually they are bodhisattvas who are trying to teach that all beings have buddha-nature.

 

                      After these citations (whether just the original citations or both those and the additional ones) Nichiren concludes with the following:

 

When we look at the world in the light of these passages of scripture, we see that the situation is just as they describe it. If we do not admonish the evil monks, how can we hope to do good?

 

                      This is an interesting assertion on the part of Nichiren, which he will back up later with other passages from the sutras. He is claiming that in order to do good one must actively oppose evil. In order to represent the truth, one must denounce and expose that which is a lie. This is not a call for passive resignation or to retreat from a corrupt society. It is, rather, a challenge to an active engagement against corruption and deceit.

 

                      A few remarks need to be made about the sutra passages. These, and many others which Nichiren will cite, certainly do sound as though they are prophecies. However, they should not be understood to be predictions of the future made by an omniscient Buddha, though that is how Nichiren and others in past ages understood them. The three ages of the Dharma in particular are often taken either too literally or too easily dismissed out of hand. So I think it is important to understand the nature of these "prophecies."

 

                      There are two reasons these prophecies appear in the sutras. The first is that Shakyamuni Buddha had a keen understanding of human nature and he also seemed to accept (at least to a certain extent) the cyclic nature of the Vedic worldview. Shakyamuni Buddha understood that while the Dharma itself is incorruptible and in a sense eternal (having no beginning or end but simply being the way things actually are) its historical expressions and the institutions set up to uphold and pass them along are not. Eventually, these constructed phenomena will themselves come to an end after a period of corruption and decline. The teachings will be obscured, misunderstood, and fought over. People will lose the true spirit of the teachings and either follow the empty form or twist the forms to suit their own ends once the actual Dharma is forgotten. The Sangha as an institution will either fade away, or face oppression as social and political circumstances change, or it will rot from within due to the actions of those who use religion for their own aggrandizement. The Buddha did not need to see the future to make such a "prediction." His own deep understanding of human weakness and the impermanent and contingent nature of all phenomena caused him to realize that even his own teachings and the Sangha he was creating were not immune to the process of change and loss.

 

                      The other reason these prophecies appear is because the Mahayana sutras themselves were the artistic and inspired creation of monks living many generations after the time of the Buddha. Putting their own insights and observations into the mouth of the historical Buddha or a glorified Buddha or disciple or bodhisattva or god in imaginary discourses, these monks described the circumstances of corruption and persecution that they themselves were facing in the form of "prophecies" given by the Buddha, his contemporaries, and mythic figures who were supposedly present to hear the Buddha's teaching many centuries before.

 

                      The three ages of the Dharma appear in the Pali Canon and in the Mahayana sutras as a way of summarizing the teaching that even the Dharma itself (as a conceptual teaching and historical phenomena) will decline. It fits in very well with the common Vedic motif of the cycle of creation, maintenance, decline, and destruction. According to the teaching of the three ages, the Former Age of the Dharma begins with the first rolling of the Wheel of the Dharma by the Buddha at the Deer Park. It will continue for a thousand years to be followed by the Middle Age or Counterfeit Age of the Dharma. After a thousand years of the Counterfeit Dharma the 10,000 years of the Latter Age or Declining Age of the Dharma will begin. During the first age, those with a strong affinity for the Buddha and the Dharma will be born during the lifetime of the Buddha or soon enough afterwards to be able to benefit from the true Dharma and thereby attain enlightenment. Those with a weaker karmic affinity will be born in the Counterfeit Age when the true spirit of Buddhism has been lost and only the outwards forms remain more or less intact. But even they are able to make some progress, and according to Mahayana teachings they can be reborn in the pure lands of the celestial buddhas and bodhisattvas after their deaths and thereby attain enlightenment in those happier circumstances. Those born in the Latter Age, however, have no good roots or genuine karmic affinity for the Dharma, so they are born into an age when even the outward forms are disappearing and rather than practice the Dharma people will only fight over it.

 

                      When the teaching of the three ages is taken too literally, people start trying to affix dates so they can definitively state when one age has ended or begun. In East Asia, it was believed that the Buddha lived from 1029 to 949 B.C.E. due to the attempts of Chinese Buddhists to show that the Buddha predated Lao-tzu and the Taoist teachings. Assuming these dates for the life of the Buddha they, and Nichiren, believed that the Latter Age had begun in 1052 C.E. However, modern scholars believe the Buddha's actual dates were 500 years or more later than that. The Japanese Buddhist scholar Hajime Nakamura set the dates as late as 463-383 B.C.E. What all this means is that if the dates of the three ages are taken literally, then Nichiren's belief that he was living in the Latter Age is completely off the mark since the Latter Age would not actually begin until the 16th or 17th century. In addition, the idea that the world suddenly shifts gears spiritually like clockwork when the correct calendar date comes around should strike us as naive and entirely too arbitrary.

 

                      The three ages of the Dharma should not be dismissed however. It is a teaching that shows an awareness of the contingent and corruptible nature of the historical manifestations of the Dharma. It is a recognition that existentially, if not historically and geographically, we are indeed alienated from the true spirit of the Buddha's teachings and that we should listen to the Dharma as if hearing it for the first time (which many of us are) and not take it for granted. It is a recognition that Buddhism as a historical phenomena cannot remain static but must meet new challenges in every age. Furthermore, the three ages teaches us to never be complacent about the three treasures - the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. This teaching challenges us to try to renew the Dharma in the face of all corruption, deceit, oppression, and misunderstanding. It should not be taken in a way that causes us to be cynical or to despair that we are living in an age too corrupt to practice Buddhism. Nichiren did not take it that way at all - rather he saw the Latter Age as an opportunity to spread the Dharma in a new way through the Odaimoku. Other Buddhists might point to Nichiren's way as just a further symptom, or even cause, of the corruption and loss of the true spirit and original form of the Dharma. Nichiren Buddhists, however, should have confidence that Nichiren did not misinterpret the true intent of the many sutra passages he marshaled to show the correct way to practice in the Latter Age. He may have taken these passages more literally than we might, but I do believe he saw the actual intent of these teachings - to spur us out of our complacency and despair and to renew our commitment to the Dharma and its efficacy in new ways for a new age. This is an argument that Nichiren will make in more detail in his later more mature writings on the subject (particularly the Senji-sho, the Selection of the Time) but for now he simply wants to show that the conditions which these sutras speak of are the conditions that his contemporaries were facing.

 

                      We should also ask ourselves how Nichiren's critique of the rulers and evil monks could possibly apply to us today? We do not live in a feudal society with emperors, kings, or regents. Furthermore, we do not live a society where all respect Buddhist monks and nuns. In fact we live in a society (in the USA anyway) that has repudiated aristocratic rule or rule by the military and where large numbers of people are deeply suspicious if not disdainful of any clergy, let alone Buddhist clergy. So how can what Nichiren is writing about hold any meaning for us?

 

                      The rulers in our age are publicly elected officials and the bureaucracy that supports them. I would also add the media and the leaders of big business among those who direct and disseminate the policies and ideas that influence our lives and shape public opinion. In this sense, politicians, captains of industry, and the media are the ones who now hold the primary power, and the responsibility that goes with it, to govern society in a way that is compassionate and in accord with the truth. Because of the separation of church and state they do not and should not be expected to support Buddhism or any one religion or sect or denomination over and above another. However, it is my conviction that the law of cause and effect is not a matter of belief or religious affiliation. What goes around comes around, we reap what we sow, and the golden rule is the universal basis for morality and ethics that is at the base of our system of laws and human rights. In two writings prior to Rissho Ankoku Ron, the Sainan Koki Yurai (The Cause of Misfortunes) and the Sainan Taiji-sho (Treatise on the Elimination of Calamities) Nichiren stated that the rulers of China before the introduction of Buddhism were karmically accountable for their actions because they were civilized enough to have embraced the humanistic ethics and values of Confucius. Nichiren specifically pointed to the five virtues of benevolence, righteousness, propriety, wisdom, and faithfulness as the moral equivalent of Buddhism’s five major precepts against killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and intoxication. In the same way, our secular nation-states, multi-national businesses, and worldwide media conglomerates should hold themselves accountable to commonly recognized standards of decent conduct and international law. If this is not done, as the Nazis, the Imperial Japanese, the Khmer Rouge, the Taliban, Saddam Hussein and his Baathist party, and other nations have learned - they only sow the seeds of their own destruction. I would say that as citizens and consumers in democratic free-market societies each of us also has a share in the responsibility once held only by the emperors, kings, shoguns and regents of the past to determine the policies and trends that our nations, media and businesses follow. We should ensure that those entities of which we are a part do not participate in or instigate evil themselves, even when combating evil.

 

                      I have talked about the rulers and expressed my view that we are in a sense the rulers and the Dharma we are held accountable to as a society is the Dharma of international law, human rights, and common decency. But who are the false and evil monks of this age? I would say that they are those who are responsible for teaching us our worldviews, values, morality and ethics. They are the priests, ministers, rabbis, imams, scientists, doctors, psychologists, and of course school teachers. Now Nichiren was not concerned with reforming other religions or even with converting other people to Buddhism since he lived in a society where everyone was Buddhist. His concern was with what kind of Buddhism people were going to follow - a false one that distorted the Buddha’s teachings or an authentic Buddhism that was in accord with the Buddha's teachings. We, however, live in a pluralistic society where Buddhism is a minority view and has only recently begun to have an impact on our culture and its worldview and values. As yet, that impact is not very strong, and may amount to no more than a fad. But I think that, Buddhist or not, our society should be committed to the truth and to a compassionate engagement with each other and the rest of the world. This is what our age's teachers should be held accountable for. This goes beyond religious affiliation. The commitment to truth, justice and compassion should be a universal and deeply ecumenical endeavor that goes beyond particular dogmas. In promoting a commitment to truth, justice, and compassion (and not necessarily just that) I believe that we will be living in the spirit of the Rissho Ankoku Ron wherein the health and welfare of society is dependent on its fidelity to the Dharma.

Copyright by Ryuei Michael McCormick. 2004.

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