Monday, November 12, 2007

Dhamma-nating the conversation, part II: The Core Concepts

This is the second installment of my brief amateur overview of Nichiren Buddhism. If you missed the first one you can read it here.

Is kosen-rufu really about "world dhamma-nation"? Can you stand my awful puns? Did I start this short series just so I could use that phrase? The answers to all of that and more appear nowhere in this post. But I do talk a little about Nichiren and the schools of Buddhism that follow his teachings, so, if that holds any interest for you, then read on!

The Core Concepts

In 13th century Japan, Buddhism was the dominant religion. From what I can tell, people believed in the existence of the gods and demons portrayed in the mythic (in this context myth=inspirational metaphor pointing to a greater truth) depictions of Buddhist cannon, including the various sutras. And people tended to believe that one's spiritual and religious practice had a direct affect on the natural world in terms of proper beliefs=peaceful, bountiful environment and wrong beliefs=violent, desolate environment. In Nichiren's time there were many natural and man-made catastrophe's. To borrow a Western phrase, it was somewhat Apocalyptic. Nichiren believed that by studying the sutras he could figure out where the country had gone wrong and prevent additional suffering on the part of the people of Japan.

Nichiren concluded that T'ien T'ai, a Chinese Buddhist scholar of another age after whom another Buddhist tradition was named (in Japanese it was pronounced Tendai, the dominant sect of Japan to which Nichiren himself belonged) had been right in suggesting that the Lotus Sutra was the most complete and correct and therefore foremost of all the teachings attributed to the Buddha. Today many Buddhist and non-Buddhist scholars believe that the Lotus Sutra was a culmination of Mahayana practice and philosophy focusing on the Bodhisattva ideal and an attempt to reconcile divisions among various Buddhist traditions and schools, but Nichiren cited it as the actual penultimate testament of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Guatama (the final being the Nirvana Sutra). Based on his reading of the Lotus Sutra as well as of previous scholars such as T'ien T'ai and Saicho, Nichiren concluded that the Lotus Sutra revealed the ultimate principle of the Buddha's teaching, ichinen sanzen.

I will not attempt a lengthy treatment of ichinen sanzen here. It refers to three thousand realms in a single (though-)moment. In the Buddhist cosmology there are ten worlds associated with cognitive-emotional states, such as hell (hate, despair), hungry-ghost (greed, obsession, deception), animality (lust, domination), asura (demon or demigod: jealousy, envy, doubt), human (passiveness, modesty, submissiveness), and heaven (bliss, joy, rapture). The basic idea is that when you use up the karmic consequences that landed you in one of these worlds, you will be reborn according to the karmic consequences you have accrued while in that world. Hence you may bounce up and down, from hell to animal to hell to human to heaven to animal and back to hell. Even humanit and heaven contain suffering because they cannot last and people crave to repeat experiences of those states. These are the six lower realms, in contrast to the four higher realms or four noble worlds. These involve varying states of realizing the nature of such a karmic cycle, inquiring and learning how to escape it (which is where Buddhism comes in), and then taking the necessary steps to actualize the teachings about how to transcend the cycle of birth for the benefit of all sentient beings (Bodhisattva). The highest of the ten worlds, that of a Buddha, is beyond rebirth. The principle of ichinen sanzen, according to Nichiren and the scholarship he cites, suggests that each world is present in all the others.

That is, as I understand it, these realms are not the strictly separate places they appear to be in some views of rebirth. Even within the depths of hell is the potential to realize one's own capacity as a Buddha, and even as a Buddha one is not separate from what others understand to be hell. All realms are conditioned phenomena and hence impermanent. This can be related to/supported by concepts such as dependent co-arising, emptiness, non-self, etc. To put it in Zen-like terms, the nine realms are akin to form and Buddha-nature is akin to emptiness. They are not separate, as emptiness manifests as form and form dissolves as emptiness. Hence three-thousand realms, or all the possible states in which we can exist, are always present in a single moment. The vertical dimension of eternity (single moment) intersects with the horizontal dimension of the everyday. The historical dimension (time and space) is enfolded in the Ultimate (dimension). To put it in Shin-like terms, the Other includes and completes the self. Not one, not two.

In any case, Nichiren claimed that this principle was the primary teaching the Buddha as presented in the Lotus Sutra, and that any part of the Lotus Sutra represented the whole. Hence the wisdom and the power of the teaching could be conceived of as existing in the title of the sutra, or Nam(u) Myo Ho Renge Kyo. This is akin to other Buddhist teachings which suggest that if you understand one aspect of what Buddha-nature really is, you grasp the whole thing. So to see one Buddha is to see all Buddhas, etc. It is a powerful literary device for summoning up confidence in the efficacy of a particular teaching or practice. However, Nichiren explicitly claims that even if you have never heard of or read the sutra or its primary teaching(s), that the teaching is so profound that just to say its name, Nam(u) Myo Ho Renge Kyo, will still benefit the person who recites it and aid them on their way to realizing enlightenment.

If you read Nichiren's work, you will see he has a flair for the dramatic and for hyperbole, and this is not a criticism. Indeed, the hardest thing for many people starting any spiritual practice is believing that it will work. This isn't just a doubt about a specific teaching or practice - it includes our own doubts about ourselves, our potential, and our capacity. As I recently wrote:

We cannot really conceive of possessing or deserving our true nature and such deep and abiding calm joy, particularly with a dualistic view of existence and attachment to form (or even to emptiness). So we see it as a mythic (which here is not used as a derogatory synonym for "false") exchange in which a being of infinite compassion has worked and sacrificed to make up for our faults and deficiencies so we can be worthy of what the Dalai Lama refers to as "indestructible happiness".

This also makes sense in that such a relationship assists in developing humility in place of arrogance and confidence in place of insecurity, which appear to be among the necessary changes in perception and attitude for seeing and accepting Buddha-nature (or one of the various other names given to this truth or realization). Through the process of learning to accept such a "gift", it seems to me we would be able to then learn to appreciate and recognize the same fundamental quality in others.

That is, often we just don't believe we really deserve to be truly, fundamentally happy, let alone think that we have the potential for such peace. So here is Nichiren, saying that Buddha-Nature, i.e. the Tenth world, is always with us. But for those who need to "do" something to focus or center themselves, he provides a mandala representing a key scene in the Lotus Sutra (i.e. the Gohonzon of Nichiren Buddhism) and encourages his followers to chant the title of the sutra. Which, as far as it goes, is really very much like other Buddhist traditions in some fundamental ways.

Let us not forget, though, we are still discussing 13th century Japan. Nichiren seemed to sincerely believe that the troubles facing the nation were due to false beliefs, and he states that the other Buddhist sects in Japan have become perverted and failed to maintain the true teachings of the Buddha as expressed in the Lotus Sutra. He engages in doctrinal debates using scripture quoting while pointing to the events of his day as the fulfilment of prophecy. Because he believes that the other Buddhist sects have lost their way, he rebukes their teachings and instructs his disciples to do the same, even going so far as to tell them not to be friendly with people who he feels are "slandering" the Dharma. While he does not advocate hating such people, he does think they need to be corrected and admonished as strongly as possible, a technique of propagation referred to as shakubuku. While acknowledging that the Lotus Sutra calls for shoju, or gentle persuasiveness, he writes that this softer technique isn't strong enough to work in the Japan of his day and primarily cites the Nirvana Sutra for the justification of more aggressive methods.

This legacy, both in terms of teaching and reflecting on principles like ichinen sanzen, the practice of chanting the name of the sutra, and the sometimes dismal view of other Buddhist traditions, is still found in contemporary schools of Nichiren Buddhism. On the one hand, some of the elements of exclusivism have probably helped preserve Nichiren Buddhism, but on the other hand, inflexibility in some areas may have retarded its growth and reception.

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