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


Nichiren and the Supreme Being

To deal with this subject properly, I feel a great deal of background information is required. However, as I suspect that this topic holds little to no interest for most readers, it’s been heavily edited. I hope it makes sense. I’ve been sitting on this piece for a while now and needed to get it out and done with.

All designations are meaningless when viewed from the ultimate truth. However, we cannot live in the ultimate at all times. In the several recent posts, I have used the terms “own-power” (jiriki) and “other-power” (tariki) which are relative terms that help us distinguish from two separate approaches to Buddhist practice, one where enlightenment is sought from without, and the other, where it is sought within.

For reasons that are not entirely clear, Nichiren, the 13th century Japanese teacher who founded the sect that bears his name, hated Pure Land Buddhism. With a passion. He was not fond of the other Buddhist sects of his day either, his chief criticism being that they have “gone astray concerning the true object of worship.” (Kaimoku Sho/”Opening of the Eyes”)

Despite his severe criticism of Pure Land, Nichiren crafted a form of Buddhism that was nearly identical, the only differences being the chant and the central Buddha.

According to Nichiren, the True Object of Worship for Mappo (the Latter Day of the Law) is the Gohonzon, which usually refers to the hanging scrolls Nichiren inscribed, a sort of a dharma-mandala that depicts a scene from the Lotus Sutra entirely in Chinese and Siddham characters. The scene is commonly referred to as The Ceremony in the Air where the “historical” Shakyamuni Buddha, having revealed himself as original, eternal Shakyamuni Buddha who attained enlightenment in the unimaginably distant past, transfers the true teaching to the bodhisattvas who emerge from the earth.

The Gohonzon is presented variously as a picture of the Ceremony in the Air, symbolizing the Tendai principle of ichinen sanzen (three thousand realms in a single moment of thought), or as representing the enlightened life of the Buddha from the sutra, and, thereby, our innate Buddha nature. The Soka Gakkai explains that the Gohonzon, “was created by Nichiren as the physical embodiment, in the form of a mandala, of the eternal and intrinsic law of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. The phrase “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo Nichiren” is written in bold characters down the center of the scroll.”

Regardless of the explanation, in modern Nichiren Buddhism, there is always the caveat that the Object of Worship is not separate from the life of the individual. Two famous quotes are often used to substantiate this point, one about never seeking the teachings of the Buddha outside yourself, the other says never seek the Gohonzon outside of yourself. Both quotes come from works that objective scholars doubt are authentic Nichiren writings. With this in mind, it seems there has been a concentrated effort to align Nichiren’s teachings with the jiriki approach, although that may not have been Nichiren’s original thinking.

There is perhaps another way of looking at the Object of Worship, one that is more in line with Other-power, and therefore, because Nichiren accepted all the tenants associated with tariki, a viewpoint that is quite reasonable to assume.

Early Gohonzon inscribed by Nichiren (Gohonzon Shu)
Early Gohonzon inscribed by Nichiren (Gohonzon Shu)

In one sense, it is incorrect to say that Nichiren “created” the Gohonzon because he viewed it as a other-worldly thing that moved through him, not from him. For Nichiren, the Gohonzon has always existed. He claimed that previous Buddhist teachers such as Nagarjuna, Vasabhandu, and T’ien-t’ai knew of the supremacy of the Lotus Sutra, but as he says in Kanjin no Honzon Sho (“The True Object of Worship”),

[They] did not put Nam-myoho-renge-kyo into actual practice or establish the true object of worship . . . Now is when the Bodhisattvas of the Earth will appear in this country and establish the supreme object of worship on the earth which depicts Shakyamuni Buddha of the essential teaching attending the true Buddha. This object of worship has never appeared in India or China . . . Thus, the revelation of the true object of worship has been entrusted only to the Bodhisattvas of the Earth. They have been waiting for the right time to emerge from the earth and carry out the Lord Buddha’s command.”

The Gohonzon could be established only during the Latter Day of the Law, the degenerate age when faith and not understanding matters and other-power alone is potent, and only Nichiren as Jogyo, the leader of the Bodhisattvas of the Earth, the votary of the Lotus Sutra, could at last reveal its presence.

A number of Japanese scholars whose books were translated into English or who wrote English books in the early part of the last century used the term “Supreme Being” as a translation of honzon or “object of worship”. The most notable example is Masaharu Anesaki’s Nichiren the Buddhist Prophet, in which Kanjin no Honzon Sho is rendered as “Spiritual Introspection of the Supreme Being”, and throughout the book refers to Nichiren’s scroll as the Supreme Being.

The question is, was this was intentional? Did Anesaki mean to refer to some sort of supreme being, or was this just an attempt to convey the concept of object of worship into a term that Westerners at the time could easily understand?

One Nichiren school, Nichiren Shu, even today translates Kanjin no Honzon Sho as “Spiritual Introspection of the Supreme Beings” (note how it is plural).

Japanese Civilization by Kishio Satomi, published in 1923, an introduction to Nichirenism, has a chapter entitled “The Supreme Being” (Hommon Honzon) . In Satomi’s explanation, the Sacred Title (Daimoku: Myo-Ho-Renge-Kyo) is considered as the religious subject, while the Supreme Being is considered as the religious object.

Satomi writes,

‘Hon’ means origin and ‘zon’ means augustness or supremacy. The innate supreme substance is the first definition, the second is the radical adoration, and the third is the genuine or natural respect. All these are slightly different expressions of the Supreme Being and its aspects.

There are two kinds of Supreme Beings in general. The one has the abstract principle as its religious object, while the other has a concrete idea of personality or person itself as its object of worship. In this connection, Nichiren has both simultaneously. According to [Nichiren], Buddha Shakyamuni is the only savior in the world, therefore we must have Him as our own object of worship.

Thus he founded two kinds of Supreme Being, the object of worship. . . the Buddha centric Supreme Being and the Law centric one.”

I should mention that “Buddha Shakyamuni” in this context does not mean the historical Buddha, but the Eternal Shakyamuni Buddha revealed in the Lotus Sutra. The two are not quite the same.

Satomi continues,

However high and sublime the Supreme Being may be, if we ourselves do not enter the ideal of it, and do not realize in our own lives its principle and form, it is just an idol and our existence is worthless.”

According to Satomi, the Gohonzon includes all forms of worship, such as “demon-worship in the Mother of Demons, great mandala worship in Tendai, etc. . . god-man-worship in Shakyamuni. . . [worship of] the Four Great Devas. . . Sun-Goddess. . . Hachiman and ancestor worship. . . etc., etc.”

Satomi discusses the presence of both pantheistic and monotheistic elements in Mahayana Buddhism and concludes that none of the various schools have a foundation on which to “unite these opposite tendencies.”

Nichirenism is the answer to this problem. . . According to [Nichiren] thought, the Primeval or Fundamental Buddha, whose deep sense of His existence is explained in Chapter XVI in the Scripture, as we have mentioned already, is unique and sole God in the Universe, and all the beings and all the divines and sages are nothing but His distributive bodies.”

This explanation is in accord with Nichiren’s claim that all the native Shinto gods were merely manifestations of this primeval, fundamental, Eternal Buddha. This entity is then recognized as the “sole and highest existence.” And as I read it, the Eternal Buddha is the Gohonzon itself, the Gohonzon is the Eternal Buddha, not in a merely noumenal sense, but as a phenomenal reality.

What makes me feel that Anesaki and Satomi might have had the right idea about the Eternal Buddha as a Supreme Being? A Sanskrit term: svadi-devata.

Anesaki references Nichiren’s “Supreme Being” to this term.  I found svadi-devata in the Soothill Dictionary of Buddhist Terms. Evidently use of this term in Buddha-dharma is limited to the Nichiren tradition. Here is the definition: The especial honored one of the Nichiren sect, svadi-devata, the Supreme Being, whose mandala is considered as the symbol of the Buddha that as infinite, eternal, universal. . .”

“Daivata” is a variation of “devata”–daivata ganah, classes of divinities; sadaivata, together with the deities, Parama-daivata, highly devoted to the god, and so on. Devata refers to a more personal relationship with a deity, such as a guardian spirit, or more tightly focused upon a deity, and with sva pertaining to “own, etc.” It would seem that svadi-devata indicates a personal relationship with a deity or object of worship.

Nichiren frequently used Indian terms and he knew Siddham. Clearly, he viewed the Gohonzon as more than a scroll or mandala.  It was the enlightened life of the Eternal Buddha Shakyamuni and therefore the ultimate reality.  Whether or not he saw it in terms of svadi-devata, a personal deity, is questionable but nonetheless within the realm of possibility.

Very little has been written in English about tantric influences on Nichiren’s thinking, but certainly Nichiren would had some Shingon influences, not to mention the fact that by this time Tendai, the school he trained in, had a distinct tantric flavor. It is also quite possible he was familiar with the tantric Vajra-sattva (“Diamond Being”) and this served as his model for the Supreme Being/Eternal Buddha.

Shashi Bhushan Dasgupta in Introduction to Tantric Buddhism writes,

Who is then the Vajra-sattva? He is the Being of adamantine substance—the ultimate principal as the unity of the universe . . . the fundamental departure of the Tantric Buddhists is that. . . it may have been sometimes described as a Being—sometimes as the personal God, the Lord Supreme.”

The characteristics that Nichiren ascribes to the Eternal Buddha in the Kanjin no Honzon Sho and elsewhere, are not drastically different from the descriptions given of the Vajra-sattva in Tantric literature.

Here is Anesaki’s translation of two excerpts of a Nichiren writing, Shoho Jisso, “The True Aspect of All Phenomena”:

I, Nichiren, a man born in the ages of the Latter Law, have nearly achieved the task of pioneership in propagating the Perfect Truth, the task assigned to the Bodhisattva of Superb Action (Vishishtachiritra) The eternal Buddhahood of Shakyamuni, as he revealed himself in the chapter on Life-duration, in accordance with his primeval entity, the Buddha Prabhutaratna, who appeared in the Heavenly Shrine . . .

In this document, the truths most precious to me are written down. Read, and read again; read into the letters and fix them into your mind ! Thus put faith in the Supreme Being, represented in a way unique in the whole world! Ever more strongly I advise you to be firm in faith, and to be under the protection of the threefold Buddhahood.”

Here are the same excerpts from the Soka Gakkai version, “The True Entity of Life”:

Although not worthy of the honor, Nichiren was nevertheless the first to spread the Mystic Law entrusted to Bodhisattva Jogyo for propagation in the Latter Day of the Law. Nichiren was also the first to inscribe the Gohonzon, which is the embodiment of the Buddha from the remote past as revealed in the Juryo chapter of the essential teaching . . .

In this letter, I have written my most important teachings. Grasp their meaning and make them part of your life. Believe in the Gohonzon, the supreme object of worship in the world. Forge strong faith and receive the protection of Shakyamuni, Taho and all the other Buddhas.”



The Fighting Forces of the Lotus

Recently I read a post at Emergent Dharma, described as a “Young Buddhist Blog,” in which the author writes of his visit to a Nichiren Shoshu temple in Ghana. A temple member introduced him to another member, saying the author was new to Nichiren but had been practicing Zen for a while. The second temple member replied, “Zen, huh? That is inferior.”

Anyone who has interacted with folks from the major Nichiren traditions will recognize this as a fairly typical experience. Now, there’s nothing wrong with believing your religion to be best. After all, who wants to practice a second rate religion? However, most of us don’t say to people right off in our first casual encounter that their religion sucks. And there is nothing new about Buddhist elitism. Many of us are aware of how the Mahayana continually criticized the so-called Hinayana for being inferior.

The difference here is that prejudice against other religions and forms of Buddhism is part of the Nichiren doctrine, and when prejudice and elitism are integral to a religion’s canon, it can be a dangerous thing. Eventually, the old Mahayana elitism diffused as it spread throughout Asian and time wore on. That doesn’t seem to be the case with the schools of Nichiren.

Nichiren’s belief in the superiority of the Lotus Sutra is founded on a number of assumptions. The first being the idea that the historical Buddha saved the Lotus Sutra as his highest teaching to be expounded during the final eight years of his life.

But there’s no historical evidence to support this. The Lotus Sutra is part of the Mahayana group of sutras that no reputable scholar in the world today believes the Buddha directly taught, since they were compiled centuries after the Buddha’s passing, a point that is conceded by leaders and scholars in the Nichiren traditions. Yet, among the rank and file, and for the purpose of disseminating their dharma, this inconvenient truth gets shoved aside. This notion is based in part on a doctrine called “Five Periods and Eight Teachings,” a classification of sutras erroneously attributed to T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i. [1]

So, all other forms of Buddhism before the Lotus are “provisional,” and the Lotus alone is the “essential” teaching. Only chanting the title of the Lotus Sutra works in Mappo, the mythical “Latter Day of the Law,” every other Buddhist practice is impotent. There is a bit more to it than this, but that’s the gist.

When I was a member of the Soka Gakkai, I would hear variations of the same spiel over and over, “The historical Buddha’s practices are impotent; the Dalai Lama just talks about being a Bodhisattva, we actually help people; bad things will happen to you if you quit practicing Nichiren’s Buddhism” and so on. You weren’t allowed to have Buddhist statues or artwork, only Nichiren’s mandala, the Gohonzon. No Buddhist books, except those put out by the Soka Gakkai and Nichiren Shoshu.

I knew it was BS, but I put up with it, for reasons too complicated to go into here, until like Popeye the Sailor, “That’s all I can stands, cuz I can’t stands n’more!”

In Japan, hobobarai, or “removal of evil religions,” was an essential concept behind the Soka Gakkai’s aggressive conversion campaigns. Conversion has always been an important part of Gakkai activities. During my day, you were expected to convert people to Nichiren Buddhism, and your “faith” was often judged by the number of individuals you brought into the organization. Outside of Japan, the idea of “removal of evil religions,” was promoted with a soft-sell, but in Japan, especially in the early days of the Gakkai, it was militant.

Conversion is called shakubuku, a tradition Buddhist term that means “to break and subdue.” Gakkai members went to such extreme lengths to pressure people to join that according to Kiyoaki Murata, in Japan’s New Buddhism, “These tactics not only made the press highly critical of Soka Gakkai; they also alarmed the police and . . . the Ministry of Justice.” [2]

In the U.S., shakubuku turned many people off, with good reason. We would often do “street shakubuku.” Go out on the street and corner strangers. I hated it and tried to get out of doing it as often as I could.

The Gakkai became so large in Japan during the late 1960’s that it was able to drop the aggressive tactics, but it didn’t cut loose from the philosophy behind it. In the United States, however, all through the 1980’s we participated in month-long membership drives twice a year. Every night of the week during February and August members were expected to carry out conversion activities. In 1985, the US branch of the Soka Gakkai, then called NSA, “converted” over 65,000 people. Only a tiny fraction of those remained with the organization for longer than six months.

On the Wikipedia page for Nichiren Buddhism, it reads “most Nichiren Buddhists enjoy a peaceful coexistence with other religious groups in modern times . . .” This is generally true. But there are several caveats. One being the superior attitude mentioned above. Another being that the different Nichiren factions tend to bicker each other – a lot. The most extreme example of this is the war between Nichiren Shoshu and Soka Gakkai that has been running for twenty years now.

Nichiren Shoshu is an official school of Nichiren Buddhism, and until the Soka Gakkai came along it was a relatively minor school. The SG was the lay organization affiliated with NS, but there were always problems between the two groups. Things first came to a head during WW2 when the NS priesthood was willing accept Shinto talismans that the Japanese military government was insisting everyone have to support the war effort. The 1st president of the SG, Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, and 2nd President, Josei Toda, balked at this and were thrown in jail, where Makiguchi died in 1944.

One can certainly admire the two men for their unwillingness to compromise their principles, yet those principles came from Nichiren doctrine that it is a grave sin to possess religious items from evil religions, which is any religion other than Nichirenism.

Toda was released from prison in 1945, but he was no Nelson Mandela. He held a grudge against the NS priesthood for causing Makiguchi’s death. In 1952 Toda, and future 3rd President Daisaku Ikeda, led a group of Gakkai members who kidnapped and physically assaulted an elderly Nichiren Shoshu priest, Jimon Ogasawara, whom they believed responsible for the organization’s misfortune during the war. This is a well documented incident, one that to his credit, Ikeda provides a detailed description of in The Human Revolution, his account of Soka Gakkai history.

Fast forward to 1990, when all hell broke loose. After decades of rough relations, Ikeda formally denounced Nichiren Shoshu, and they responded by excommunicating the entire Soka Gakkai. It’s been like the Hatfields and the McCoys ever since. In my opinion both sides are to blame for this unfortunate schism, and neither seems willing to maintain peaceful co-existence. Each is out to destroy the other.

In Japan there have been accusations leveled at both groups regarding acts of violence. In recent years, I have heard accounts of U.S. Gakkai members getting together to pray for the destruction of Nichiren Shoshu, disrupting NS activities, and vandalism against NS temples. I have no doubt that those on the Nichiren Shoshu side have not been perfect angels either.

The Soka Gakkai in the U.S. maintains a website dedicated to setting the record straight on the “evil” Nichiren Shoshu. It’s called Soka Spirit which is described as,

[The] spirit to protect and propagate the correct teaching of Nichiren Daishonin. It is the spirit of the disciples to uphold the truth and justice of their teacher and mentor. It is the spirit to recognize tendencies in human nature to distort the teachings of Nichiren Buddhism for personal gain and to confront those who act upon those tendencies. It is the spirit to defeat the fundamental darkness inherent in all life and manifest the Buddha nature.”

Manifesting Buddha nature sounds good, but “teacher and mentor” is a veiled reference to the near-deification of Ikeda, who are SG members are encouraged to regard as their “eternal mentor in life,” and “distort the teachings of Nichiren Buddhism for personal gain and to confront those who act upon those tendencies” smacks of the familiar paranoia, persecution complex, and aggression.

There are articles on the Soka Spirit website such as “The Characteristics of Devils” (in other words, how to choose friends who are not anti-Gakkai), and “The Role of Rumors as a Function of Fundamental Darkness” (only believe what we tell you). This was the sort of thing that really drove me from SG. Articles that on the surface seem innocent and reasonable enough, but when you read between the lines you recognized a subliminal message that always coincided with whatever the organization was promoting at the time. Even the seemingly noble peace exhibits and seminars, seemed to be designed solely for the purpose of furthering the SG’s aims and lauding the greatness of Mr. Ikeda.

And of course, Soka Spirit has speeches from Mr. Ikeda. In one from Nov. 25, 2003, he told members of the Soka Gakkai,

As comrades, family, brothers and sisters, fellow human beings, we will fight all our lives for kosen-rufu. This is our mission. This is what unites us. We are a fighting force, a fighting fortress.”

Publically, the SGI says that kosen-rufu “has been informally defined as ‘world peace through individual happiness’” and they link it back to a line in the Lotus Sutra. But within the Soka Gakkai, kosen-rufu really means a time when one-third of the world will believe in Nichiren’s Buddhism, one-third may not believe but will support it, and the remaining third oppose it.

There is much more to be said, but blog posts have their limitations. In these last two, I have focused on the troubling aspects of Nichiren Buddhism, because there were things that needed to be said, and no one else has been saying, or writing about them.

Extremists are uncompromising, prone to engage in fanatical behavior, and terrorism often begins when a group views themselves as victims persecuted by outside forces. In an open society, troubling things need to be brought into the light, aired, discussed, or else we remain in ignorance, the great ally of intolerance, extremism, and terror.

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[1] Peter N. Gregory, “The Place of the Sudden Teaching,” Buddhism. Vol. 8. Buddhism in China, East Asia and Japan, Paul Williams, ed. Taylor & Francis US, 2005, pg. 180

[2] Kiyoaki Murata, Japan’s New Buddhism, Weatherhill, 1969


Nichiren The Original Face of Buddhist Terror

On Tuesday, May 7th, Tenzin Gyasto, the 14th Dalai Lama, told an audience at the University of Maryland,

Really, killing people in the name of religion is unthinkable, very sad. Nowadays even Buddhists are involved in Burma . . . Buddhist monks  . . . destroy Muslim mosques or Muslim families. Really very sad.”

It might surprise you to learn that millions of Buddhists today follow the teachings of a man who openly advocated killing people in the name of religion.

I’m not talking about U Wirathu, the self-proclaimed “Buddhist bin Laden” and leader of a ultra-nationalist Buddhist movement, whom many believe is responsible for inciting anti-Muslim violence in Burma, where, as the NY Times reported on June 21, 2013, “Buddhist lynch mobs have killed more than 200 Muslims and forced more than 150,000 people, mostly Muslims, from their homes . . .” – the man Time Magazine labeled  “The Face of Buddhist Terror” on the cover of their recent Asian edition.

No, not this monk who refers to Muslims as “the enemy” and “mad dogs,” who wraps his twisted message around the idea of “protecting” Buddhism, and appeals to the Burmese people’s nationalist pride, telling them they must think and act as nationalists, for the good of the country, and says “I am proud to be called a radical Buddhist.” [1]

I am referring to Nichiren, a 13th century Japanese priest who promoted a single practice based on the Lotus Sutra, and who declared that the entire nation of Japan should abandon all other forms of Buddhism and take faith in his dharma or suffer dire consequences. Like U Wirathu, Nichiren claimed he was only trying to protect Buddhism and his nation.

There are close to 40 different Nichiren factions currently active in the world, and if the numbers of these “believers” were combined, it would make Nichirenism one of the most followed forms of Buddhism, topped only by Pure Land. One group, the lay organization Soka Gakkai, alone claims to have 12 million members worldwide.


Nichiren’s intolerance and extremism has been almost universally glossed over, minimized by his followers, and by modern Buddhist academia. This “free pass” is regrettable. Convinced of the superiority of the Lotus Sutra, Nichiren taught that all other forms of Buddhism were not only heretical but also invalidated by the Lotus teachings. He predicted that followers of other Buddhist traditions would “invariably fall into the great citadel of the Avichi hell”. [2]

In a letter to a woman named Konichi-bo, Nichiren wrote of an incident in which he was confronted by a number of government officials (who later exiled him to Sado Island),

I attacked the Zen school as the invention of the heavenly devil, and the Shingon school as an evil doctrine that will ruin the nation, and insisted that the temples of the Nembutsu [Pure Land], Zen, and Ritsu priests be burned down and the Nembutsu priests and the others beheaded.” [3]

Today, Nichiren’s followers will argue he really didn’t mean it. However, as Nichiren’s letter continues, ask yourself if this sounds like a man who doesn’t mean what says,

[I] repeated such things morning and evening and discussed them day and night. I also sternly informed [the government official] and several hundred officers that, no matter what punishment I might incur, I would not stop declaring these matters.”

In Senji Sho, “The Selection of the Time”, he tells the same story, this time saying that he told the government official,

Nichiren is the pillar and beam of Japan. Doing away with me is toppling the pillar of Japan! . . . All the Nembutsu and Zen temples, such as Kenchoji, Jufuku-ji, Gokuraku-ji, Daibutsuden, and Choraku-ji, should be burned to the ground, and their priests taken to Yui Beach to have their heads cut off. If this is not done, then Japan is certain to be destroyed!”

Nichiren (1222-1282) described himself as the “son of a fisherman,” medieval Japan’s lowest class. He was educated at a backwater temple that had ties with nembutsu followers within the Sanmon Tendai faction. The temple’s abbot was a nembutsu priest [4]. Nichiren’s lack of a “formal” education and lower-class origins provide some insight into his thinking. Based on scholarship by Yutaka Takagi (Nichiren: sono kodo to shiso, Tokyo: Hyoronsha, 1970), Laurel Rasplica Rodd writes in her biography of Nichiren,

Nichiren’s lowly origins were unique among the religious leaders of the Middle Ages in Japan. Honen, Shinran, Dogen, and Eisai all came from noble or samurai families . . . [At Mt. Hiei, the Japanese center of Buddhist learning] Probably Nichiren was not admitted to the circles of disciples gathered around the famous teachers. Thus while Nichiren could attend public lectures he was forced to draw his own conclusions from scriptures and commentaries as he might not have done had he been directed by one of the masters.” [5]

This might explain how Nichiren when he studied Nagarjuna was unable to appreciate the great philosopher’s warning about grasping for the absolute, and why, as noted by Bruno Petzold [6], even though “Nichiren incorporates into his own system the whole Tendai philosophy,” he could not fathom the subtlety of that school’s doctrine.

Nichiren had convinced himself that the seemingly unprecedented spate of natural disasters befalling Japan, and later, the threat of foreign invasion, was directly attributable to the proliferation of “evil religions”: heretical forms of Buddhism.

Superstition and an mistaken view of Buddhist history, such as the notion that the Buddha was born circa 3000 BCE, that the Buddha directly taught the Mahayana sutras, and the idea of the degenerative age of Mappo (“Latter Day of the Dharma”), contributed to Nichiren’s radical position. And yet, other Buddhist teachers of the same era labored under the same beliefs and misunderstandings and they did not adopt such  extremist views.

Unlike the militants in Burma today, Nichiren had more regard for the “foreign enemy” than he did for his fellow Japanese Buddhists. When Kublai Khan began sending messengers to Japan demanding the nation either pay tribute to him or face invasion, Nichiren wrote, “How pitiful that they have beheaded the innocent Mongol envoys and yet failed to cut off the heads of the priests of the Nembutsu, Shingon, Zen and Ritsu sects, who are the real enemies of our country.” [7]

Reading Nichiren, one is impressed with how at times he could be poetic, tender and wise, and yet a disturbing thread of paranoia and self-aggrandizement permeates his writings:

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 Shingon priests who preach doctrines that will destroy the nation!”

Senji Sho, “The Selection of the Time”

[Among] all the sacred teachings expounded by the Buddha in the course of his lifetime, the Lotus Sutra alone holds the position of absolute superiority.”

Jimyo hokke mondo-sho, “Questions and Answers on Embracing the Lotus Sutras”

I, Nichiren, am sovereign, teacher, and father and mother to all the people of Japan.”

Kaimoko Sho, “Opening of the Eyes”

I, Nichiren, am alone, without a single ally.”

Nanjo Hyoe Shichiro dono gosho, “Letter to Hyoe Shichiro” (“Encouragement to a Sick Person”)

It’s not a matter of taking these statements out of context. These statements are the context. If they were merely isolated remarks that could be excused or rationalized, but these declarations are repeated almost ad nasuem.

Contrary to his claim, Nichiren actually had many supporters and allies, including a great many samurai. Buddhism in Japan, especially during the Kamakura period, was a rather violent affair. Many of the Buddhist sects maintained small armies, and some of the influential teachers had at least a small band of armed warriors about them. Some scholars have suggested Nichiren, too, maintained a small army, and it is not unreasonable to consider. And while there were violent clashes between various Japanese Buddhist sects, as far as I am aware, Nichiren is the only Buddhist leader to actually advocate killing in the name of religion.

On several occasions, Nichiren’s followers were accused of arson, even murder; charges that they denied and blamed on Nembutsu (Pure Land) believers. The counter-charge was that they were framed by people who wanted Nichiren’s downfall. This paranoid sense of persecution still resonates among some contemporary Nichiren followers.

Today, these Nichiren believers will maintain that his radical Buddhism belongs to the past. However, my own experience as member of a Nichiren tradition for 12 years, the experiences of many others I’ve known and spoken with, as well as numerous published anecdotes and documented episodes, all tell a different story. The seeds of Nichiren’s intolerance and extremism continue to ripen and bear fruit.

And that is the point: Buddhist extremists and fundamentalists are not contained merely in one or two Asian countries. They may be in your city, in your neighborhood, down the street, maybe next door to you. They may not be dangerous, and yet, extremism is hardly ever harmless.

More about that next time.

– – – – – – – – – –

[1] Washington Post, June 21, 2013

[2] Yakuo-bon tokui sho, “Essence of the Medicine King Chapter”

[3] Konichibo gosho, “Letter to Konichi-bo”

[4] Alicia and Daigan Matsunaga, Foundations of Japanese Buddhism Vol. II, Buddhist Books International, Los Angeles-Tokyo, 1976; and others.

[5] Rodd, Laurel Rasplica, Nichiren: A Biography, Arizona State University, 1978

[6] Petzold, Bruno, Buddhist Prophet Nichiren: A Lotus in the Sun, Tokyo: Hokke Journal, Inc., 1978

[7] Moko Tsukai Gosho, “Writing on the Mongol Envoys”

All Nichiren quotes taken from SGI versions of these writings found in the Major Writings of Nichiren Daishonin series.


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: