Monday, November 12, 2007

Dhamma-nating the conversation, part I: My Little Lit Review

I once referred to the goal of Nichiren Buddhism, referred to as kosen-rofu, as the aspiration for "world dhamma-nation". Other than being a really bad pun, it does reflect the two sides of the spirit of the concept as I have understood it. On the one hand is the idea of "one world under the Dharma" indicating that most people if not everyone will be converted to Buddhism, specifically, Nichiren Buddhism. The result is supposed to be world peace. On the other hand is the of "one world under the Dharma" indicating that whatever their professed or practiced religion or philosophy, if enough people understand the underlying principles of the Buddha-dharma, which are not exclusive to any one spiritual path, there will be peace in the world. These are obviously distinct views. This brief series of posts is a sketch of my ruminations on Nichiren Buddhism, but it is just an amateur view. I do not claim to be an experienced practitioner or serious student of this tradition, and I intend no offense.

My Little Lit Review

If you spend any time reading the Gosho, or letters and treatises attributed to the 13th century Japanese Buddhist monk who dubbed himself "Nichiren", you will find his writing can sometimes be abrasive. I recently read several selections from Selected Writing of Nichiren (1990) and Letters of Nichiren (1996), both by Burton Watson/Philip Yamplosky as I have had a general familiarity with the tradition but not with the fundamental documents of its founder. Even from such a quick reading, it is easy to see why so much controversy and conjecture can be generated by selectively quoting certain parts of Nichiren's writings. Generally I was struck by the presence of three themes:

1. Nichiren's insights into Mahayana Buddhism and the Lotus Sutra, including his own explanations or comparisons focusing (strictly) on the teachings themselves or the general implications of concepts such as ichinen sanzen in the personal lives of his followers/fellow practitioners.

2. Nichiren's application of these views to the religious, social, environmental, and political problems of his day, including the strict and aggressive refutation of what he perceived to be not only incorrect but dangerous views about Buddhism.

3. Nichiren's personal attitudes towards non-Buddhists and those whom he deemed to hold false or perverted views of the Dharma, including his instructions and advice to his followers/fellow practitioners on how to treat such people.

I don't think that quickly reading a few of Nichiren's letters qualifies me as an expert on the form of Buddhism that arose from his insights and writings, so I do submit the following as my own humble opinion...

It seems that someone looking at theme #2 might be struck by the idea that what Nichiren is describing sounds like superstition or magical thinking, especially the references to gods and protectors. Nichiren does not appear to think they are strictly metaphorical, and because in contemporary Western culture it is frequently assumed that something can only be "true" if it is literally true, then someone with such an attitude mythic imagery is "not true" and can tell us little of value. The idea that metaphors are vital in our understanding of reality is generally key to appreciating most religious writings. That is, they can open us to aspect or dimensions of our existence beyond the boundaries we typically confine ourselves to in our notions of "reality".

Someone in contemporary Western culture looking at theme #3 might be turned off by suggestions that anyone not practicing as Nichiren recommends will fall into hell, or that such people should be viewed and treated as inferior (as a nobleman might treat a lowly servant). The historical context of Nichiren's life in 13th century Japan can help us to understand much of this theme, but that doesn't have to excuse or justify all of it, unless one is assuming that Nichiren was perfect and not a human like the rest of us.

For example, if one examines the book and letters of Charles Darwin, one can find many erroneous ideas that would seem absurd today (for example he was a big proponent of "use-disuse" arguments, increasingly so as he got older, and anyone presenting his hereditary theory today would be laughed out of academia). One also finds that he presented many highly racist arguments in supporting ideas such as sexual selection in The Descent of Man. But of course he did, as he was a properly educated Victorian gentleman. This isn't Darwin-bashing, as I respect him a great deal. The point, if it isn't becoming clear, is that the principles of natural and sexual selection that Darwin proposed were adopted and tested and refined and have become major explanations of the distribution of biological variation, an important aspect of evolutionary theory. The several poor ideas he had as well as the many attitudes and beliefs he held that we might today find offensive are still a part of his contribution to history, but they are not incorporated into his contribution to our understanding of evolution.

In the same fashion, while themes #2 and #3 are essential to understanding Nichiren's life and the history of Nichiren Buddhism, it is questionable (to me at any rate) to what extent they are truly relevant to contemporary Buddhism. Must all of Nichiren's personal baggage always be attached to the principle(s) that he elucidated and contributed to the Buddhist study and practice? And if not, does that not make writings which reveal or clarify theme #1 primary? Sexual selection can be used to explain some aspects of biological variation whether or not Darwin himself also believed in use or disuse or saw some groups of humans as being less advanced. Even if it were revealed that Einstein was a serial killer, it wouldn't cause people to abandon his contribution to physics. So long as his ideas inspire physicists and are consistent with experimental evidence, they will be maintained. If one finds that the principles and practice(s) espoused by Nichiren (theme #1) are consistent with one's own experience and are beneficial, that would appear to me to be a separate issue from the the controversial aspects of theme #2 and theme #3, which are historical and personal aspects of the life of Nichiren.

I am not suggesting we ignore history or rewrite it however we prefer. To use the Darwin example, I am not a fan of "white-washing" his story just because he has become such an icon in evolutionary biology and science in general. Much of what he chose to study or write was influence by the times in which he lived. Then again, for people at a certain level of analysis, this is not really relevant, just the outcome of his contribution to science. This is the reason why I identified the three themes in the writing of Nichiren without using value-laden terminology implying judgment. Obviously he felt sincerely pained about the state of affairs in Japan - with all of the epidemics, natural disasters, and the imminent threat of invasion, it would have been to use Christian terminology a very Apocalyptic time. Certainly Nichiren's concern for Japan as well as for the Buddha-dharma, coupled with his belief that the nation has been abandoned by its protector deities, are primary factors driving him to to work so hard to study the sutras and to find the essence of the Buddha's enlightenment. So it is eminently relevant to explore that theme (#2) when asking questions such as "What drove Nichiren to study so hard and work so diligently?" On one level, we can say it was his compassionate desire to save others, in this case, the people of Japan. On another level, we can list the specific things he felt were putting the nation in peril. But if we are asking "What is the relevance of Nichiren's efforts today?", it seems to me that the former level of analysis is more relevant than the latter in as much as we are not living in 13th century Japan. That isn't intended as being flippant, it's just an illustration of where I was going with my previous comment. I suggest the same type of distinction can be made about theme #3 as well, and again, this does not require us to ignore or re-interpret history.

Enhanced by Zemanta

No comments:

Post a Comment

Hello! Thanks for leaving a comment.

Everything but spam and abusive comments are welcome. Logging in isn't necessary but if you don't then please "sign" at the end of your comment. You can choose to receive email notifications of new replies to this post for your convenience, and if you find it interesting don't forget to share it. Thanks!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...