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The Four Debts of Gratitude

Concerning my present exile, there are two important matters that I must mention. One is that I feel immense joy. As for the reason, this world is called the saha world, saha meaning endurance. This is why the Buddha [who appears in this world] is also called Nonin, "He Who Can Forbear." In the saha world system, there are ten million Mount Sumerus, ten million suns and moons, and ten million groups of four continents. Among all these worlds, it was in the world at the center--with its Mount Sumeru, sun and moon, and four continents--that the Buddha made his advent. This country of Japan is an islet situated in a remote corner to the northeast of the country in which the Buddha appeared. Since all the lands in the ten directions, with the exception of those in the saha world system, are pure lands, their people, being gentle-hearted, neither abuse nor hate the worthies and sages. In contrast, this world is inhabited by people who were rejected from the pure lands in the ten directions. They have committed the ten evil acts or the five cardinal sins, slandered the worthies and sages, and been unfilial to their fathers and mothers or disrespectful to the priests. For these offenses they fell into the three evil paths, and only after dwelling there for countless kalpas were they reborn in this world. Yet the residue of the evil karma formed in their previous existences has not yet been eradicated, and they still tend to perpetrate the ten evil acts or the five cardinal sins, to revile the worthies and sages, and to be undutiful to their fathers and mothers or irreverent toward the priests.

For these reasons, when Shakyamuni Buddha made his advent in this world, some people offered him food into which they had mixed poison. Others tried to harm him by means of swords and staves, mad elephants, lions, fierce bulls or savage dogs. Still others charged him with violating women, condemned him as a man of lowly status, or accused him of killing. Again, some, when they encountered him, covered their eyes to avoid seeing him, and others closed their doors and shuttered their windows. Still others reported to the kings and ministers that he held erroneous views and was given to slandering exalted personages. These incidents are described in the Daijuku Sutra, the Nirvana Sutra and other scriptures. The Buddha was innocent of all such evil deeds. Yet this world is peculiar or deficient in that those with bad karma are born into it and inhabit it in great numbers. Moreover, the Devil of the Sixth Heaven, scheming to prevent the people of this world from going to the pure lands elsewhere, seizes every opportunity to carry out his perverse acts.

It appears that his scheming is ultimately intended to prevent the Buddha from expounding the Lotus Sutra. The reason is that the nature of this devil king is to rejoice at those who create the karma of the three evil paths and to grieve at those who form the karma of the three good paths. He does not lament so greatly over those who form the karma of the three good paths, but he sorrows indeed at those who aspire to the three vehicles. Again, he may not sorrow that much over those who seek to attain the three vehicles, but he grieves bitterly at those who form the karma to become Buddhas, and avails himself of every opportunity to obstruct them. He knows that those who hear even a single sentence or phrase of the Lotus Sutra will attain Buddhahood without fail, and, exceedingly distressed by this, contrives various plots and restrains and persecutes believers, in an attempt to make them abandon their faith.

Although the age in which the Buddha lived was certainly a defiled one, the five impurities had only just begun to manifest themselves, and, in addition, the devil stood in awe of the Buddha's powers. Yet even in a time when the people's greed, anger, stupidity and false views were still not rampant, a group of Brahmans of the Bamboo Staff school killed the Venerable Maudgalyayana, who was known as the foremost in occult powers; and King Ajatashatru, by releasing a mad elephant, threatened the life of him who alone in all the threefold world is worthy of honor. Devadatta killed the nun Utpalavarna, who had attained the state of arhat; and the Venerable Kokalika spread evil rumors about Shariputra, who was renowned for his unsurpassed wisdom. How much worse matters became in the world as the five impurities steadily increased! And now, in the latter age, there will be all the more tremendous hatred and jealousy toward those who believe even slightly in the Lotus Sutra! Thus the Lotus Sutra states, "Since hatred and jealousy abound even during the lifetime of the Buddha, how much worse will it be in the world after his passing!" When I read this passage for the first time, I did not think that the situation would be as bad as it predicts. Now I am struck by the unfailing accuracy of the Buddha's words, especially in light of my present circumstances.

I, Nichiren, do not observe the precepts with my body. Nor is my heart free from the three poisons. But since I myself believe in the Lotus Sutra and also enable others to form a relationship with it, I had thought that perhaps society would treat me rather gently. Probably because the world has entered into the latter age, even monks who have a wife and children have followers, as do priests who eat fish and fowl. I, Nichiren, have neither wife nor children, nor do I eat fish or fowl. I have been blamed merely for trying to propagate the Lotus Sutra. Though I have neither wife nor child, I am known throughout the country as a monk who transgresses the code of conduct, and though I have never killed even a single ant or mole cricket, my bad reputation has spread throughout the realm. This may well resemble the situation of Shakyamuni Buddha, who was slandered by a multitude of Brahmans during his lifetime. It seems that, solely because my faith in the Lotus Sutra accords slightly more with its teachings than does the faith of others, evil demons must have entered their bodies and be causing them to feel hatred toward me. I am nothing but a lowly and ignorant monk without precepts. Yet, when I think that such a person should be mentioned in the Lotus Sutra, which was expounded more than two thousand years ago, and that the Buddha prophesied that that person would encounter persecution, I cannot possibly express my joy.

Its is already twenty-four or twenty-five years since I began studying Buddhism. Yet, as for the Lotus Sutra, I have believed in it wholeheartedly only for the past six or seven years. Moreover, although I had faith in the sutra, because I was negligent, and because of my studies and the interruptions of mundane affairs, each day I would recite only a single scroll, a chapter or the title. Now, however, for a period of more than 240 days--from the twelfth day of the fifth month of last year to the sixteenth day of the first month of this year--I think I have practiced the Lotus Sutra twenty-four hours each day and night. I say so because, having been exiled on the Lotus Sutra's account, I now read and practice it continuously, whether I am walking, standing, sitting or lying down. For anyone born human, what greater joy could there be?

It is the way of common mortals that, even though they spur themselves on to arouse the aspiration for enlightenment and wish for happiness in the next life, they exert themselves no more than one or two out of all the hours of the day, and this only after reminding themselves to do so. As for myself, I read the Lotus Sutra without having to remember to, and practice it even when I do not read its words aloud. During the course of countless kalpas, while transmigrating through the six paths and the four forms of birth, I may at times have risen in revolt, committed theft or broken into others' homes at night, and, on account of these offenses, been convicted by the ruler and condemned to exile or death. This time, however, it is because I am so firmly resolved to propagate the Lotus Sutra that people with evil karma have brought false charges against me; hence my exile. Surely this will work in my favor in future lifetimes. In this latter age, there cannot be anyone else who upholds the Lotus Sutra twenty-four hours of the day and night without making a conscious effort to do so.

There is one other thing for which I am most grateful. While transmigrating in the six paths for the duration of countless kalpas, I may have encountered a number of sovereigns and become their favorite minister or regent. If so, I must have been granted fiefs and accorded treasures and stipends. Never once, however, did I encounter a sovereign in whose country the Lotus Sutra had spread, so that I could hear its name, practice it, and, on that very account, be slandered by other people and have the ruler send me into exile. The Lotus Sutra states, "As for this Lotus Sutra, throughout countless numbers of countries one cannot even hear the name of it, let alone behold it, receive and keep it, or read and recite it!" Thus those people who slandered me and the ruler [who had me banished] are the very persons to whom I owe the most profound debt of gratitude.

One who studies the teachings of Buddhism must not fail to repay the four debts of gratitude. According to the Shinjikan Sutra, the first of the four debts is that owed to all living beings. Were it not for them, one would find it impossible to make the vow to save innumerable living beings. Moreover, but for the evil people who persecute bodhisattvas, how could those bodhisattvas accumulate benefit?

The second of the four debts is that owed to one's father and mother. To be born into the six paths one must have parents. If one is born into the family of a murderer, a thief, a violator of the rules of proper conduct or a slanderer of the Law, then even though he may not commit these offenses himself, he in effect forms the same karma as the persons who do. As for my parents in this lifetime, however, they not only gave me birth, but made me a believer in the Lotus Sutra as well. Thus I owe my present father and mother a debt far greater than I would had I been born into the family of Bonten, Taishaku, one of the Four Heavenly Kings or a wheel-turning king, and so inherited the threefold world or the four continents, and been revered by the four kinds of believers in the worlds of Humanity and Heaven.

The third is the debt owed to one's sovereign. It is thanks to one's sovereign that one is able to warm his body in the three kinds of heavenly light and sustain his life with the five kinds of grain that grow on earth. Moreover, in this lifetime, I have been able to take faith in the Lotus Sutra and to encounter a ruler who will enable me to free myself in my present existence from the sufferings of birth and death. Thus how can I dwell on the insignificant harm that he has done me and overlook my debt to him?

The fourth is the debt owed to the three treasures. When Shakyamuni Buddha was engaged in bodhisattva practices for countless kalpas, he accumulated all manner of good fortune and virtue in himself. This he divided into sixty-four parts, of which he reserved only one part for himself. The remaining sixty-three parts he left behind in this world, making a vow as follows: "There will be an age when the five impurities will become rampant, heresies will flourish, and slanderers will fill the land. At that time, because the innumerable benevolent guardian deities will be unable to taste the flavor of the Dharma, their majesty and strength will diminish. The sun and the moon will lose their brightness, the heavenly dragons will not send down rain, and the earthly deities will decrease the fertility of the soil. The roots and stalks, branches and leaves, flowers and fruit will all lose their medicinal properties as well as the seven flavors. Even kings who have observed the ten good precepts will grow in greed, anger and stupidity. The people will cease to be dutiful to their parents, and the six kinds of relatives will fall out with one another. My disciples will consist of unlearned people without precepts. For this reason, even though they shave their heads, they will be forsaken by the tutelary deities and left without any means of subsistence. It is in order to sustain these monks and nuns [that I now leave these sixty-three parts behind]."

Moreover, as for the benefits that the Buddha had attained as a result of his practices, he divided them into three parts, of which he himself expended only two. For this reason, although he was to have lived in this world until the age of 120, he passed away after 80 years, bequeathing the remaining 40 years of his life span to us.

Even if we should gather all the water of the four great oceans to wet inkstones, burn all the trees and plants to cinders to make ink, collect the hairs of all beasts for writing brushes, employ all the surfaces of the worlds in the ten directions for paper, and, with these, set down expressions of gratitude, how could we possibly repay our debt to the Buddha?

Concerning the debt owed to the Law, the Law is the teacher of all Buddhas. It is because of the Law that the Buddhas are worthy of respect. Therefore, one who wishes to repay his debt to the Buddha must first repay the debt he owes to the Law.

As for the debt owed to the Priesthood, both the treasure of the Buddha and the treasure of the Law are invariably perpetuated by priests. To illustrate, without firewood, there can be no fire, and if there is no earth, trees and plants cannot grow. Likewise, even though Buddhism existed, without the priests who studied it and passed it on, it would never have been transmitted throughout the two thousand years of the Former and Middle Days into the Latter Day of the Law. Therefore the Daijuku Sutra states, "Suppose that, in the fifth five-hundred year period, there should be someone who harasses unlearned monks without precepts by accusing them of some offense. You should know that this person is extinguishing the great torch of Buddhism." Difficult to recompense indeed is the debt we owe to the Priesthood!

Thus it is imperative that one repay one's debt of gratitude to the three treasures. In ancient times, there were sages such as Sessen Doji, Bodhisattva Jotai, Bodhisattva Yakuo and King Fumyo, all of whom [offered their lives in order to make such repayment]. The first offered himself as food to a demon. The second sold his own blood and marrow. The third burned his arms, and the fourth was ready to part with his head. Common mortals in the Latter Day, however, though receiving the benefits of the three treasures, completely neglect to repay them. How, then, can they attain the Buddha Way? The Shinjikan, Bommo and other sutras state that those who study Buddhism and receive the precepts of perfect and immediate enlightenment must repay the four debts of gratitude without fall. I am but an ignorant common mortal made of flesh and blood; I have not rid myself of even a fraction of the three categories of illusion. Yet, for the sake of the Lotus Sutra, I have been reviled, slandered, attacked with swords and staves, and sent into exile. In light of these persecutions, I believe I may be likened to the great sages who burned their arms, crushed their marrow, or did not begrudge being beheaded. This is why I feel immense joy.

The second of the two important matters is that I feel intense grief. The fourth volume of the Lotus Sutra states, "If there is an evil person who, with unwholesome thought, shall appear before the Buddha and for an entire kalpa constantly malign him, his offense will be comparatively light. But if there is a person who, with a single malicious word, shall denigrate the monks or laity who read and recite the Lotus Sutra, his offense will be very grave." When I read this and similar passages, my belief is aroused, sweat breaks out from my body, and tears fall from my eyes like rain. I grieve that, by being born in this country, I have caused so many of its people to create the worst karma possible in a lifetime. Those who struck Bodhisattva Fukyo came to repent of it while they were alive; yet even so, their offense was so difficult to expiate that they fell into the Avichi Hell and remained there for a thousand kalpas. But those who have done me harm have not yet repented of it even in the slightest.

Describing the karmic retribution which such people must receive, the Daijuku Sutra states, "[The Buddha asked,] 'If there should be a person who draws blood from the bodies of a thousand, ten thousand, or a hundred thousand Buddhas, in your thinking, how is it? Will he have committed a grave sin or not?' King Bonten replied, 'If a person causes the body of even a single Buddha to bleed, he will have committed an offense so serious that he will fall into the hell of incessant suffering. His sin will be unfathomably grave, and he will have to remain in the great Avichi Hell for so many kalpas that their number cannot be calculated even by means of counting sticks. Graver still is the offense a person would commit by causing the bodies of ten thousand or a hundred thousand Buddhas to bleed. No one could possibly explain in full either that person's offense or its karmic retribution--no one, that is, except the Buddha himself.' The Buddha said, 'King Bonten, suppose there should be a person who, for my sake, takes the tonsure and wears a surplice. Even though he has not at any time received the precepts and therefore observes none, if someone harasses him, abuses him or strikes him with a staff, then that persecutor's offense will be even graver than that [of injuring a hundred thousand Buddhas].'"


The sixteenth day of the first month in the second year of Kocho (1262), cyclical sign mizunoe-inu

Major Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, Vol. 5, page 3.

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