A Priest Discusses Earthquakes

I was in a major earthquake once. Not as devastating at this one in Japan, but it was close enough. As I watch the news, I can’t help but think back to the Northridge quake. It is one of the rare times in life when you can say like you know how it feels and come close to meaning it. I also keep thinking about Nichiren, the 13th Century Japanese Buddhist upon whose teachings the Soka Gakkai is based.

Nichiren calming the sea. (Note the title of the Lotus Sutra on the waves.)

Nichiren (Sun-Lotus) was a pretty feisty guy. Opinionated, stubborn, hard to get along with, didn’t play well with others. Not your typical laidback Buddhist priest. I believe he was largely self-educated, especially in regards to Buddhist doctrine; a Tendai priest who became a street preacher. His was an outlaw sect. Later on, he probably had a small army around him. Most of Buddhist sects in Japan at that time did. Japanese Buddhism has gone through some violent periods.

Nichiren’s claim was that the Lotus Sutra was the supreme sutra, the one and only sutra, and all other Buddhist teachings were dangerous. Here’s his famous declaration from Senji-sho or “The Selection of the Time”:

There can be no doubt that the Nembutsu [Pure Land Buddhism] leads to the hell of incessant suffering, and that the Zen school is the work of the heavenly devil. And the True Word [Shingon] school in particular is a great plague to this nation of ours.

He once said that the priests of other schools should have their heads lopped off. Definitely not a inter-faith kind of guy. Nichiren believed that since Japan had turned its back on the Lotus Sutra, it had invited disaster. In the same work quoted above, he says,

Now the great earthquake and the huge comet that have appeared are calamities brought about by heaven, which is enraged because the ruler of our country hates Nichiren and sides with the Zen, Nembutsu, and True Word priests who preach doctrines that will destroy the nation!

Nichiren lived during a period when Japan was hit with a series of natural disasters. He thought he knew what lay behind it. In “A Sage Perceives the Three Existences of Time”, he says,

The entire populace of Japan has in fact [slandered Nichiren and] had their heads broken. What else do you think caused the great earthquake of the Shoka era [1257] and the huge comet of the Bun’ei era [1264]?

Yes, Nichiren thought he was the one all right. But here, from “Letter to Akimoto”, is my all-time favorite:

I, Nichiren, am like the great earthquake of the Shoka era (1257), a freak of the earth that had never before occurred in this land.

Well, he might have been a freak, or maybe the person who chose the wording of that line should have had their head broken.

In 1268, Nichiren warned that if Japan did not see things his way, the country would face foreign invasion by the Mongols. He was so acrimonious about it that he was sentenced to death, a penalty later rescinded in favor of exile. The Mongols did try to invade Japan but their fleet was destroyed by a typhoon-like “divine wind,” which is where the Japanese term kamikaze comes from.

Anyway, in light of recent events, I thought some readers might find this interesting. Nichiren was a superstitious, like most people in medieval times, and he believed in a lot of nonsense. Unfortunately, he built his entire doctrine on that nonsense. In all fairness, he wasn’t a total freak. At times, he could be quite poetic, and when he wasn’t self-aggrandizing or being overly dogmatic about the Lotus Sutra, he could make a rather good point. As in this passage from “Letter to Niike”:

How swiftly the days pass! It makes us realize how short are the years we have left. Friends enjoy the cherry blossoms together on spring mornings and then they are gone, carried away like the blossoms by the winds of impermanence, leaving nothing but their names. Although the blossoms have scattered, the cherry trees will bloom again with the coming of spring, but when will those people be reborn? The companions with whom we composed poems praising the moon on autumn evenings have vanished with the moon behind the shifting clouds. Only their mute images remain in our hearts. The moon has set behind the western mountains, yet we shall compose poetry under it again next autumn. But where are our companions who have passed away? Even when the approaching Tiger of Death roars, we do not hear. How many more days are left to the sheep bound for slaughter?

Deep in the Snow Mountains lives a bird called Kankucho which, tortured by the numbing cold, cries that it will build a nest in the morning. Yet, when the day breaks, it sleeps away the hours in the warm light of the morning sun without building its nest. So it continues to cry vainly throughout its life. The same is true of people. When they fall into hell and suffocate in its flames, they long to be reborn as humans and vow to put everything else aside and serve the three treasures in order to attain enlightenment in their next life. But even on the rare occasions when they happen to be reborn human, the winds of fame and fortune blow violently and the lamp of Buddhist practice is easily extinguished. The squander their wealth without a qualm on meaningless trifles but begrudge even the smallest contribution to the Buddha, the Law, and the Priest. This is very serious, for then they are being hindered by messengers from hell. This is the meaning of “Good by the inch invites evil by the yard.

Nichiren quotes: sgilibrary.org

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9 thoughts on “A Priest Discusses Earthquakes

  1. Please do a google search on Buddhist rain challenges. If you do, you will see that priests from many diverse Buddhist lineages believed in this practice in order to ascertain the truth of their respective teachings. Many non-Buddhists too pray for rain with varying degrees of success. Let’s imagine for a moment that this is true, that one or more wise and good intentioned men, through their prayers or contemplation, can make rain fall. Then, could not millions of ignorant, ill-intentioned men make earthquakes, through their collective thoughts and deeds?

    1. For those unfamiliar with Mark, he has made quite a career for himself going around the internet and challenging those who disagree with him to make rain.

    1. They’re there. You probably have to use the search function. Enter the title of the letter or a keyword, like earthquake. The last passage is actually from “Major Writings Vol. I”, so there may be some slight difference in wording, as I think they have done some revisions since I purchased the book.

      1. Oh cool. Thanks. I find it interesting that in the Lotus Sutra it actually states that it’s the foremost teaching and no one else has ever pointed that out other than Nichiren Dashnin from my knowledge.

        1. Lots of people pointed out the LS was the “foremost teaching” before Nichiren, such as Tao-shan, Chih-i, the entire Tendai school . . .

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