Debating the Dharma: “You should shut your mouth.”

You probably watched the presidential debate the other night, and perhaps as I was, you found the mudslinging disgusting.  The less said about it the better.  But since we are on the subject of debates, here is an interesting Buddhist side bar.

tibetan-dharma-debatingIn the anthology Buddhism in Practice, George J. Tanabe, Jr. presents a transcript of a debate that took place in Japan in 1536 between a Tendai priest and a Nichiren layman.  Dharma debates (or dharma ‘combat’) are a tradition in some forms of Buddhism.  You might be familiar with the Tibetan style of dharma debating (left), which seems rather spirited as each debater punctuates his or her points with a slap of the hand.  In Japanese Buddhism, debates are called issatsu (“challenge”).

Now the Kamakura period of Japanese Buddhism (1185-1333 CE) was a particularly contentious time.  Many of the sects were set against each other, calling one another heretics, and so on.  Then there was Nichiren who said that all of Buddhism was in serious decline, a real mess that only he could fix.  Nichiren insulted everyone, including the government, and blamed others for his own misfortunes.  Tanabe says, “Persecution was an important part of Nichiren’s own mentality and religion . . .”

A former Tendai priest, Nichiren accused the Tendai sect of corruption and “losing sight of the principles laid down by their own [school] concerning which teachings are to be adopted and which discarded . . . It is a shameful, shameful thing they are doing!”  (The Tripitaka Master Shan-wu-wei )

In a nutshell, according to Nichiren, everyone who was not listening to him and practicing Buddhism his way, the way of the Lotus Sutra, would “invariably fall into the great citadel of the Avichi hell”.  (Essence of the Medicine King Chapter)

I can just imagine Nichiren with a Twitter account . . .

One day a Nichiren lay believer named Matsumoto was in Kyoto and saw a Tendai priest giving a dharma talk.  He interrupted the Priest Keo and proceeded to engage him in a debate.  From our modern view their arguments seem ridiculous, as both men were seeped in a mythological understanding of Buddhism.  Much of the debate revolved around who is the best Buddha, Shakyamuni or Great Sun Buddha (Dainichi), and it got acrimonious a couple of times:

KeoThe Great Sun Buddha is the buddha of transcendent truth and is therefore not something for the ordinary person to know.  You should shut your mouth.
Matsumoto: No, I will not shut my mouth just for that . . .
Matsumoto:  Well, now, [the Shingon school] speaks of becoming a buddha, but there is no such thing.  You should shut your mouth.  Or perhaps Your Eminence knows of people in this degenerate age who have becomes buddhas?
Keo:  What a man of capricious words . . .
Keo:  Nichiren’s belief was such that he slandered Amida Buddha and said that the Pure Land sect was the teaching of the hell of unending suffering.  He is really a criminal guilty of making light of the buddhas.

Alas, no one watching the debate could chant “Lock him up!” because Nichiren had been dead for 254 years by then.

The Matsumoto debate was actually rather mild, but it set in motion a round of strong, violent action.

“Angered by Matsumoto’s rudeness and chagrined by his apparent victory, the Tendai monks sought revenge.” * Rival factions within Tendai joined forces to attack the Nichirenites.  “Somewhere between 30,000 to 150,000 warrior monks were amassed on the Tendai side, while the Nichiren temples had a estimated 20,000 troops.”** They fought a battle that went on for five days.  In the end, the Tendai troops destroyed 21 Nichiren temples and burned the southern district of Kyoto to the ground.

Although it was the Tendai side that initiated the violence, it was the Nichiren folks who were condemned for it, and I suppose that I will get some comments complaining how I seem to pick on poor Nichiren, that I don’t understand his teachings, and I should shut my mouth.  But I think I understand his teachings well enough, and I take an objective view of them, from the perspective of modern scholarship not ancient mythology or cult propaganda.  I’m sorry but I can’t help but see Nichiren as a kind of medieval Trump.  However, demagoguery is a subject for another day.

In the meantime, don’t harbor doubts about anything you read on this blog.  I know more about dharma than the monks.  Nichiren was the founder of Isis.  The Dalai Lama was not born in the U.S.  I want to make Buddhism great again . . .

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* Donald S. Lopez Jr., The “Lotus Sutra”: A Biography, Princeton University Press, 2016

** “The Matsumoto Debate” George J. Tanabe, Jr., Buddhism in Practice, Donald S. Lopez, Jr., ed., Princeton University Press, 1995

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