THE ILLNESS WITHIN NICHIREN BUDDHISM
or, Shoju and Shakubuku
"These two methods of shoju and shakubuku are like water and fire. Fire hates water, water detests fire. The practitioner of shoju laughs with scorn at shakubuku. The practitioner ofshakubuku laments at the thought of shoj. When the country is full of evil people without wisdom, then shoju is the primary method to be applied as described in the "Peaceful Practices" chapter. But at a time when there are many people of perverse views who slander the Law, then shakubuku should come first, as described in the "Never Disparaging" chapter." -- The Opening of the Eyes
Fellow Practitioners of the Buddhism of Nichiren:
Something is wrong in the world of Nichiren Buddhism.
No matter the school of Nichiren Buddhism in question, the promise of the practice of this Buddhism is enlightenment, the opening up of our Buddha wisdom and bodhisattva compassion. And Nichiren reminded us that daily life is Buddhism, and Buddhism is in accord with reason.
Nonetheless, if you look at any reasonable sampling of the message boards, mailing lists, and newsgroups related to Nichiren Buddhism, you will see that many of these forums wallow in hatred and anger -- and perhaps ignorance, as well. Of course, some argue that the internet is a poor sampling of Nichiren Buddhists; this may very well be true. However, Nichiren Buddhists active in internet forums have a special responsibility. The internet is rapidly becoming (and for some groups, already is) the main source of information for society. Many people, when looking for information on a new subject, turn to the internet to thoroughly research that subject from all available angles. Within the next ten years -- perhaps even within the next five -- just about every person in the most impressionable age groups will be obtaining their information and forming their opinions based on the variegated landscape that is the internet.
Before the events that brought about the great inter-Nichiren debate, Nichiren Buddhism did not enjoy the best admiration of other Buddhists due to alleged distortions of the Buddha's Dharma. When these people look at Nichiren Buddhism today, who can doubt that their opinion is only reinforced, as it would appear that instead of eliminating the Three Poisons, many of the most vocal believers have instead reinforced them?
Some argue that judging Nichiren Buddhism by the precepts of any other Buddhist school is invalid, since Nichiren Buddhism transcends the practice of those other schools. There are, I think, arguments that address that view, but one does not need to go so far. A far simpler fact to demonstrate is that almost anyone of any belief whatsoever would look at the material and come to the conclusion that the persons involved are acting in unprofitable, inconsiderate, even vitriolic ways. It is almost universally understood that such means are inappropriate to civilized behavior and ineffective in swaying the opinions of other people.
I believe that Nichiren Buddhism should manifest both inconspicuous proof (eventual attainment of enlightenment) and conspicuous proof(improvement in the buddha-like behavior of the practitioner here and now). What has gone wrong when we see so many chanters of the Daimoku who are gripped with paranoia, vituperative attackers of fellow Buddhists, and callous slingers of sarcastic and hurtful rhetoric? How can we expect those who are learning about Nichiren Buddhism to believe in any kind of actual proof when the mental and behavioral disorders of some of those who practice this faith are so manifest?
Nichiren Unfairly Blamed for Circumstances
"If one propagates the teaching without understanding the time, one will reap no benefit but, on the contrary, will fall into the evil paths." - The Teaching, Capacity, Time, and Country
Some claim that this behavior it is understandable in light of the behavior of our founder, Nichiren himself. Certainly that has been the premise of the detractors of Nichiren Buddhism for a long time. Nichiren was vocal in his criticisms of other sects, and steadfast (some would say stubborn) in his views. However, for several reasons I think we can discount this unjust criticism.
First of all, Nichiren lived in a very different society than we do today; the state controlled all aspects of life, including religion. Nichiren and those who followed his truth endangered their very lives by adhering to the supremacy of the Lotus Sutra and by chanting Namu Myoho Renge Kyo. The other sects of Buddhism had leaders that were all too willing to protect their own interests at the expense of the truth by slandering Nichiren and calling for his death as a heretic. Not only were the lives of the believers at stake, but something even more important, the survival of True Buddhism was at stake -- the government could have effectively obliterated Nichiren Buddhism.In this environment, Nichiren was forced, indeed, as a compassionate bodhisattva (or Buddha, if you prefer) he was obligated, to protect Buddhism. He did this by vehemently arguing for his doctrines and sharply criticizing the errors of other schools. Without Nichiren's actions -- appropriate for his time and country -- his Buddhism would have been annihilated. On the other hand, today we live in a world that recognizes freedom of religion. No governmental force (in the most of the countries that represent the Nichiren Buddhist universe) compels us to follow one religion or another; we do not need to fight for the right to practice as we believe. All of the Nichiren schools say that their membership is increasing, so none can maintain that the survival of what they consider to be True Buddhism (however inclusive or exclusive) is threatened. What Nichiren had to do in his time is not required in ours.
The second fact that refutes the blame placed on Nichiren is that he wrote to his followers that one had to understand the time and country to determine what methods of propagation were appropriate. If Nichiren had intended that only one method be used, he certainly would have said so; instead, he very clearly stated in more than one instance that the circumstances must be taken into account to determine the correct method. Because of this, it is my view that not only is it implicit that Nichiren's radical activism is not the cause of the problem, considering the differing circumstances of his time, it is also made perfectly explicit by Nichiren himself that under certain circumstances -- I would argue, under our circumstances -- a different approach to propagation is called for.
The Meaning of Shoju and Shakubuku
"I refer you to the passage in the "Never Disparaging" chapter that states, "He would say to people, 'I have profound reverence for you.' ... [ellipsis in original] Among the four kinds of believers there were those who gave way to anger, their minds lacking in purity, and they spokeill of him and cursed him, saying, 'This ignorant monk.'" The chapter also says, "Some among the group would take
sticks of wood or tiles and stones and beat and pelt him." And in the "Encouraging Devotion" chapter it says, "There will be many ignorant people who will curse and speak ill of us and will attack us with swords and staves." These passages imply that one may be reviled and cursed and even
beaten for it. Since the sutra so teaches, is one who preaches to blame?"- The Selection of the Time
Some Nichiren Buddhists argue that the Latter Day of the Law is a time for shakubuku ["break and subdue," sometimes referred to as "aggressive" propagation] as opposed to shoju ["persuasion" as propagation]. There are various passages in Nichiren's writings in which Nichiren clearly states that he found shakubuku to be appropriate in his time. The argument as to whether shakubuku or shoju is to be used in our time has been argued at length in many forums. To justify their behavior, those who participate in the disordered debates between schools often support the view that shakubuku is appropriate at this time. I will not argue that question in this section, but instead will discuss the essence of both methods.
In the quote from The Opening of the Eyes at the beginning of this essay, Nichiren clearly defines the scriptural background for these two practices. Shoju is to be based on the "Peaceful Practices" chapter of the Lotus Sutra. Shakubuku should be based on the "Never Disparaging" chapter of the Lotus Sutra.
In the quote above from "The Selection of the Time," Nichiren gives an outline of the story of the "Never Disparaging" chapter. Nichiren clearly believed that the shakubuku method by which he propagated the Lotus Sutra was in accordance with that chapter. In "Letter from Teradomari," Nichiren says, The "Encouraging Devotion" chapter of the present will be the "Never Disparaging" chapter of the future, and at that time, I, Nichiren, will be its Bodhisattva Never Disparaging. It should be evident from this that the behavior of that bodhisattva in the "Never Disparaging" chapter is the model for Nichiren's shakubuku method.
Nichiren used a method of shakubuku that accorded with his time. However, Nichiren was never disparaging; he certainly was unafraid of telling his opponents what the results of their actions would be in the strictest terms, but he was always respectful and does, indeed, say that all the beings of the world would eventually attain buddhahood once they began practicing the Lotus Sutra.
However, when we look at those who participate in the disordered debates of Nichiren Buddhism, which description seems to fit the participants better? Can they be characterized by the expression, "I have profound reverence for you"? Or do they seem to be more like those who said, "This ignorant monk" and those who "curse and speak ill"? If one has any doubts, one could ask someone with no interest in the disordered debate to review that debate, and then select which characterization seems more appropriate to that disinterested observer. That experiment, in my experience, confirms my premise: it is the latter group, the adversaries of Bodhisattva Never Disparaging, that appears to characterize the participants better.
Further, the strident tone that was necessary for Nichiren to take in his shakubuku efforts are, as stated above, unnecessary and inappropriate for shakubuku in our time, in my opinion. The survival of Nichiren Buddhism is no longer dependent upon justification to an authoritarian government, nor are today's people convinced by fiery, uncompromising statements. This is not to say that one who seeks to propagate Buddhism should not be unequivocal in his or her statements as to doctrine, rather that the tone and forcefulness of the rhetoric should be appropriate to our time and the country.
Which Method Is Appropriate?
"When in public debate, although the teachings that you advocate are perfectly consistent with the truth, you should never on that account be impolite or abusive, or display a conceited attitude. Such conduct would be disgraceful. Order your thoughts, words, and actions carefully, and be prudent when you meet with others in debate." - The Teaching, Practice, and Proof
The question of which method of propagation should be used for today is, in my view, a two-part issue. First, it is our responsibility as Nichiren Buddhists to introduce society at large to our practice. Without propagation to the community at large, we derelict our duty as bodhisattvas to work for the happiness of all people and we ensure the extinction of Nichiren Buddhism as no new believers are obtained.
Second, it is evidently the feeling of many Nichiren Buddhists that those practicing in other Nichiren schools should be encouraged to join their own school, which they sometimes consider to be the only actual practitioners of Nichiren Buddhism. Whether this latter type of propagation is necessary or not is the province of the individual school in question; I will not presume to inform them in their own doctrines. However, I will presume to note what I think is the appropriate method for such propagation, perhaps at the risk of treading finely on the line of giving doctrinal advice.
Which of the countries described in the opening quote from "The Opening of the Eyes" does society at large most resemble? The usual interpretation of the two criteria is: "... the country is full of evil people without wisdom ..." refers to a land in which the people have not even aroused an aspiration for the buddha-way, nor do they even know about the Lotus Sutra, so that slander of the Law is not possible. The land in which "... there are many people of perverse views who slander the Law ..." is interpreted as meaning a country in which people have aspired to the buddha-way and have heard of the Lotus Sutra, but slander the Law by rejecting the Lotus Sutra. I think we can say that society at large conforms more closely to the land in which shoju is appropriate. Indeed, most Nichiren Buddhists apply the principles of shoju in propagation to those who are unfamiliar with the Lotus Sutra. One is unlikely to convince a Christian or an atheist to practice Nichiren Buddhism by haranguing that person with the evils of their beliefs; a more human, one-to-one interaction is required. By and large, Nichiren Buddhists apply this well, in my opinion.
On the other hand, among fellow Buddhists, particularly those of other Nichiren schools, we can certainly say that society or "land" conforms more closely with the country in which shakubuku is appropriate. However, in his advice to a priest who was going to debate with other Buddhists, certainly those for whom shakubuku was appropriate, he explicitly instructed his disciple to be polite, unabusive, and humble in attitude. If these instructions were to be followed under the circumstances of Nichiren's time, how much more true are they in our time? Even those who would claim that Nichiren himself did not clearly follow all of these guidelines must admit that this passage would then be a clear statement that what was appropriate for Nichiren, as the founder ensuring the safe birth and continued existence of his Buddhism, is not appropriate for those who follow him.
Further, we must be aware that our conversations with other Buddhists in this land are conducted in the context of society at large. When a Nichiren Buddhist denigrates, vilifies, and is impolite to another Buddhist, it is observed by those who are not Nichiren Buddhists, including those to whom we are attempting to propagate our practice. Though shakubuku may be the method to take in these conversations, it must be informed by the awareness that those who know nothing of Buddhism will observe. This only serves to reinforce the wisdom of Nichiren's guidance in "The Teaching, Practice, and Proof," and to remind us of what is appropriate for our time and country.
The present epidemics are like the virulent boils of King Ajatashatru that could not be cured by anyone but the Buddha. They can only be eliminated by the Lotus Sutra. - The Two Kinds of Illness
We are once again living in a time in which Nichiren Buddhism is in danger of being severely impaired or even eradicated. However, today it is not an authoritarian government that endangers our practice. Instead, the continued vitality and propagation of the teachings that Nichiren bestowed on the Latter Day of the Law is compromised by the actions of some of those who are duty-bound to protect it. By no means do I think that the persons to whose actions I refer are attempting to destroy Buddhism; in fact, I believe that they sincerely wish to lead people to the correct teaching. However, I fear that in their zealous desire to ensure that the correct teachings are practiced, they have lost sight of important principles.
The symptoms of the illness which infects Nichiren Buddhism today can be seen in the effects of the propagation methods chosen. How often can we think of people we have been kind to, who we have nurtured in their understanding, that have been effectively brought into the practice? Every conversion that I know of is marked by this joyful propagation. Conversely, has any person ever been converted by name-calling, vituperation, and the bitter stridency that characterizes those disordered debates? The conversations have degraded from being essentially ineffective, in my view, to being sarcastic repetitions of the same allegations and simple ad hominem attacks. Not one of the participants in these virulent boils on the body of inter-Nichiren discussion can state that he or she will ever be convinced by the arguments of the other side; why do they think that their adversaries will be? Their claim that they participate in the discussions to "present their side of the story" to those who enter the discussion without knowledge of the debate is ludicrous: LOOK AT THE PARTICIPANTS IN THESE DISCUSSIONS. Almost every message is from the old, familiar combatants; those who enter with a questioning mind or simple curiosity are overwhelmed by the incredible volume of vituperation that the combatants present over and over again. The noncombatants inevitably vanish, either to find another place to seek or, all too often, so sickened by what they have seen that they will never explore Nichiren Buddhism again.
How does this serve to propagate our belief? In what way does this fulfill the "Mai ji sa ze nen" of the Eternal Buddha?
It does not. This boil, no, this cancer in the body of Nichiren Buddhism MUST BE REMOVED. The continued life of Nichiren Buddhism is at stake. The only solution is the total disarmament of parties to the angry, hateful, and ignorant discussions. We must be civil, we must respect one another's beliefs, and we must devote our energy to fruitful propagation instead of fruitless argumentativeness. We can disagree about doctrine and speak of our disagreements without hating and hurting one another. Disagreements of doctrine need not become arguments; reasonable people CAN disagree.
The conclusions of this essay must be heard to be said, in my opinion, being of paramount importance to the continued existence of Nichiren Buddhism. So, to all who will listen, I offer the following propositions:
The disputants in the various inter-Nichiren debates should immediately agree to cease their angry, hateful rhetoric online and in every other forum. The forums of the individual schools should be left to those individual schools unless a member of another school invites an individual to participate. Participants in forums for those of more than one school (ecumenical forums) or as an invited guest in the forum of a particular school should behave in a courteous manner, humbly, politely, and unabusively stating his or her opinions on subjects of contention.
Attacks on persons not in a particular forum, besides being contrary to the above principles, should also cease in respect of the fact that the individual is not able to respond to them. These propositions should be applied with the spirit that each individual and each school has the right to practice as it sees fit without interference from other individuals and schools, regardless of one's personal beliefs as to that school's truth or efficacy. Doctrinal disagreements may, and should, continue, but only according to the guidelines set forth by Nichiren in "The Teaching, Practice, and Proof," with respect, politeness, humility, and freedom from abuse.
Those who would pepper me with quotes by Nichiren or others on the elimination of evil and the function of a good friend should keep this in mind: the means of combating wrong views are explicitly stated by Nichiren, who says that they should conform to the "Never Disparaging" chapter or the "Peaceful Practices" chapter. If, in that light, you feel you have a compelling argument, I am open to discussion. If, however, you simply wish to reiterate the arguments that have appeared in those forums over and over again attempting to justify negative behavior, I have read them already and this essay is written in consideration of them, so spare yourself the effort. Nor will I engage in what has been called "dueling Gosho quotes." I have read the writings of Nichiren, insofar as they are available to us all, and again have considered them in writing this essay. You may disagree on their interpretation, but you certainly do not need to make me aware of what Nichiren has written.
It is with profound respect that I submit this to the Nichiren Buddhist at large. I respect not only your faith in the Mystic Law and in all of Nichiren's teachings, but also I respect the devout fervor that I have no doubt spurs some people to the very behavior that I have addressed in this message. It is my hope that, together with all Nichiren Buddhists, we can peacefully and rationally, in accordance with the teachings of the Lotus Sutra and Nichiren, bring more people to True Buddhism, and some day practice together as a group united by what we share instead of divided by our disagreements.
Namu Myoho Renge Kyo,
Matt L. Miller