Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Dhamma-nating the conversation, part III: The Controversy

Welcome to part 3 of my personal overview of Nichiren Buddhism. If you are interested you might also want to review part 1 and part 2. I am not a Buddhist scholar, so if you find errors or misrepresentations, please understand that they are strictly unintentional. Also, I have no desire to rehash or add fuel to debates between Nichiren Buddhists, such as those involved in the Nichiren Shoshu/Soka Gakkai schism. Thank you.

The Controversy

So why did I decide to use the title Dhamma-nating the conversation for this series? Other than the obvious pun, it represents how I perceive Nichiren Buddhism. I have looked at (which does not imply having seriously studied or having spent several years practicing) various forms of Buddhism such as Chan, Pure Land (Chinese and Shin), Kagyu and other Tibetan schools, as well as a smattering of others, including Nichiren Buddhism. But unlike the others, there is a kind of cloud that hangs over my contemplation of Nichiren Buddhism, most notably its apparent exclusivism and an association with aggressive proselytizing. In this sense, when I read or discuss the life, writings, or legacy of Nichiren, particularly the form of Buddhism he propagated, the aforementioned issues dominate my interest in and influence my perception of the validity of Nichiren Buddhism and the usefulness of practicing it.

One element contributing to such issues is the notion that because Nichiren is supposed to have revealed the ultimate vehicle of Buddhism based on his study of T'ien T'ai's and Saicho's commentaries on the Lotus Sutra as well as his own reflection on this text, other schools must have provisional teachings which are ineffective at worst and harmful at best. Nichiren discussed the errors of other schools (as he saw them) on numerous occasions, which included the condemnation of greedy monks with political ambitions, doctrines or practices that were incomplete or ineffectual, and a failure to properly revere the Lotus Sutra.Assuming one wanted to interpret Nichiren more charitably, one could suggest that his criticisms were focused on the state of other Buddhist sects in his day and as he knew them, rather than simply as a universal condemnation of all other forms of Buddhism. Which begs the question of whether one has to simply accept any interpretation of Nichiren, charitable or not, to see any value in his overall work or on the practice(s) he advocated (see part one for more on that).

Another element, tied to the first, is whether a person feels that the (selected) collected writings of Nichiren are like flawless scripture, a final word of authority to be quoted as authoritative when discussing proper interpretation of the Lotus Sutra, other sutras, other schools, and the general teachings of Mahayana Buddhism. Rather than seeing Nichiren's writings as instructive, inspirational, and culture bound to his time and place, I get the impression when reading materials written by Nichiren Buddhists that to fail to agree with Nichiren's stance on an issue is tantamount to heresy, so that when disputes over the meaning of intent of a passage from Nichiren's readings arise between sects or schools of Nichiren Buddhism they are known for (even if only due to the vocal actions of a minority) accusing each other of "slandering" the Dharma. In this since they are following the example that Nichiren set down when complaining about and criticizing other Buddhist sects in Japan during his own lifetime.

I have no desire to be a strict apologist for Nichiren or Nichiren Buddhism, but if the criteria for "judging" other forms of Buddhism or even other spiritual paths has to do with upholding the Lotus Sutra, then it is worth asking - what is the Lotus Sutra in that context? Is it just the book, just the words on the page, or just the title? Nichiren was a fan of hyperbole and metaphor, and he says that the title represents the whole text, and that each letter is also the whole text. I take that to refer to the power of the message in the text (note: this also has to do with views on words and power in certain cultures, so I am aware of and not excluding that influence). If a particular teacher or teaching is, in fact, consistent with the message of the Lotus Sutra - that all sentient beings have the capacity to awaken to Buddha-nature - then I fail to see why they would be deemed as inferior. I have found expressions in other traditions of the nature of reality-as-it-is that are consistent with and reinforce the concept behind the teachings of ichinen sanzen. Does that make them "enemies of the Lotus Sutra", as Nichiren himself might say?

That doesn't mean that Nichiren Buddhism is not distinct, that it is just the same as everything else. It doesn't mean Nichiren Buddhism doesn't make a unique and important contribution to an understanding of the Dharma. Nor does it even mean there can be no real reason should choose Nichiren Buddhism over some other tradition. It does suggest though, to me, that there is a limited confidence or even a latent sense of inferiority in the view that Nichiren Buddhism must be the one and only true and superior Dharma, and everything else is just a collection of misguided misinterpretations masquerading as genuine insight. That is, is the Dharma of which Nichiren wrote, symbolized through chanting Nam Myo Ho Renge Kyo to a Gohonzon, limited to those objects? If one takes seriously the injunction not to seek this Dharma, and by association enlightenment, outside of oneself, and if it does permeate the universe, then shouldn't a sincere practitioner of such a Dharma be able to "see it" expressed everywhere, even if not confined to a particular form such a scroll or a sound? Perhaps one may feel that Nichiren gave such a Dharma its most direct or potent expression, but after all, can something one believes is so pervasive and essential be limited to any particular manifestation of form? Can such a sincere person not here nam-myo-ho-renge-kyo in the silent meditation of Zen, or in the visualization of Chenrizig during Tibetan pujas, or even in a soulful rendition of "Amazing Grace"? Isn't sharing the insight of the Lotus Sutra helping others to find this principle, and if so, must those dedicated to doing so not "find it" themselves however it may express itself in a particular culture?

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