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On the Four Stages of Faith and the Five Stages of Practice

I have received the string of blue-duck coins that you sent.

Scholars of Buddhism these days all agree that, whether in the Buddha's lifetime or after his passing, those who wish to practice the Lotus Sutra must devote themselves to the three types of learning. If they neglect any one of these, they cannot attain the Buddha Way.

In the past, I, too, subscribed to this opinion, [but now this is no longer the case]. Setting aside here as a whole the sacred teachings of the Buddha's lifetime, let us examine the question in the light of the Lotus Sutra. Here, too, we may set aside the teachings contained in the preparation and revelation sections. That brings us to the transmission section, which constitutes a clear mirror for the Latter Day of the Law and is most to be relied upon [in determining this matter].

The transmission section has two parts. The first is that of the theoretical teaching and consists of the five chapters beginning with the Hosshi chapter. The second is that of the essential teaching and consists of the latter part of the Fumbetsu Kudoku chapter through the eleven chapters that comprise the remainder of the sutra. The five chapters from the theoretical teaching and the eleven and a half chapters from the essential teaching combine to make sixteen and a half chapters, and in these it is clearly explained how one should practice the Lotus Sutra in the Latter Day of the Law. If one still has doubts, one may further examine the matter in the light of the Fugen and Nirvana sutras, and then surely no obscurity will remain.

Within these chapters of transmission, the four stages of faith and five stages of practice expounded in the in Fumbetsu Kudoku chapter represent the most important essential in the practice of the Lotus Sutra, a mirror to persons living in the time of the Buddha and after his passing.

Ching-hsi writes: "'To produce even a single moment's faith and understanding' represents the beginning in the practice of the essential teaching." Of these various stages, the four stages of faith are intended for those living in the Buddha's lifetime, and the five stages of practice for those living after his passing. Among these, the first of the four stages of faith is that of producing even a single moment's faith and understanding, and the first of the five stages of practice is that of rejoicing on first hearing the Lotus Sutra. These two stages together form a casket containing the treasures of the "hundred worlds and thousand factors" and the "three thousand realms in a single life-moment"; they are the gate from which all Buddhas of the ten directions and the three existences emerge.

The two sage and worthy teachers T'ien-t'ai and Miao-lo established these two initial stages of faith and practice, and put forth three interpretations concerning them. One equates them with the stage of soji-soku, the ten stages of faith, and the stage of the iron-wheel-turning king. The second equates them with the first of the five stages of practice, which are identified with the stage of kangyo-soku, at which one has not yet severed the illusions of thought and desire. The third equates them with the stage of myoji-soku.

In reconciling these differences of interpretation, the Shikan states: "The Buddha's intentions are difficult to determine. He explained things differently in accordance with the differing capacities of the people he was addressing. If only we understand this, then what need is there for troublesome disputes?"

My own opinion is that, of these three interpretations, that which equates these two stages with the stage of myoji-soku accords best with the text of the Lotus Sutra itself. For, in describing the first of the five stages of practice that apply to the time after the Buddha's passing, the sutra speaks of one who [hears this sutra and,] "without slandering or speaking ill of it, arouses feelings of acceptance and joy." If one equates the stage described here with a level as advanced as that of soji-soku, or as that of [the first of] the five stages of practice, [which are identified with the stage of kangyo-soku,] then the words "without slandering or speaking ill of it" would hardly be appropriate.

In particular, the passages in the Juryo chapter that speak of those who have "lost their minds" and those who have "not lost their minds" refer in both cases to the stage of myoji-soku. One should also consider the passages in the Nirvana Sutra that read "Whether one believes or does not believe, he shall directly be born in the Buddha land," and "If there are persons who, there in the place of Buddhas numerous as the sands of the Hiranyavati River, have conceived the aspiration for enlightenment, then even in this evil age they will be able to embrace and uphold a sutra such as this and will not slander it."

Again, in the phrase "a single moment's faith and understanding," the word "faith" applies to the first of the four stages, and the word "understanding," to those that follow. And if this is so, then "faith without understanding" would apply to the first of the four stages of faith. The second stage of faith is described in the sutra as that at which one "generally understands the purport of the words" of the sutra. And in volume nine of the Hokke Mongu Ki we read: "The initial stage is different from the others, because in the initial stage there is as yet no understanding."

Then we come to the following, Zuiki Kudoku chapter, where [the first of the five stages of practice, that of] "rejoicing on first hearing the Lotus Sutra," is restated and clarified in terms of fifty persons who in turn hear and rejoice in the Lotus Sutra, the merit that they gain thereby decreasing with each successive person. With regard to the stage achieved by the fiftieth person, there are two interpretations. The first interpretation holds that the fiftieth person falls within the stage of "rejoicing on first hearing the Lotus Sutra," [and is thus at the level of kangyo-soku.] The other interpretation holds that the fiftieth person cannot yet be said to have entered the stage of "rejoicing on first hearing the Lotus Sutra" but is still at the level of myoji-soku. This latter interpretation reflects the view that "the truer the teaching, the lower the stage [of the persons it can bring to enlightenment.]" Thus, for example, the perfect teaching can save persons of lower capacity than can the doctrines of the four tastes and three teachings. Similarly, the Lotus Sutra can save persons of lower capacity than can the perfect teaching expounded prior to the Lotus Sutra, and the essential teaching of the Lotus Sutra can save more persons than can the theoretical teaching--persons of any capacity at all. One should carefully ponder the six-character phrase: "the truer the teaching, the lower the stage [of the persons it can bring to enlightenment]."

Question: In the Latter Day of the Law, is it necessary for beginners in the practice of the Lotus Sutra to devote themselves to all three types of learning associated with the perfect teaching?

Answer: This is a very important question, and so I will be referring to the text of the sutra in answering you. In describing the first, second and third of the five stages of practice, the Buddha restricts those at these stages from practicing precepts and meditation, and places all emphasis upon the single factor of wisdom. And because our wisdom is inadequate, he teaches us to substitute faith, making this single word "faith" the foundation. Disbelief is the cause for becoming an icchantika and for slander of the True Law, while faith is the cause for wisdom and corresponds to the stage of myoji-soku.

T'ien-t'ai comments: "When a person has reached the stage of soji-soku, the benefits he has accrued will not be forgotten when he is reborn in another existence. But for persons at the stage of myoji-soku or kangyo-soku, those benefits will be forgotten when they are reborn in succeeding existences, though there may be some among them who do not forget. Even in the case of persons who have forgotten those benefits, if they should encounter a good friend, then the roots of goodness that they planted in their previous existences will be revived. But if they should encounter an evil friend, then they will lose their true mind."

This is probably what happened to the two eminent men of middle antiquity, the Great Teacher Jikaku and the Great Teacher Chisho of the Tendai sect. They turned their backs upon the teachings of T'ien-t'ai and Dengyo, who had been good friends to them, and instead transferred their allegiance to Shan-wu-wei and Pu-k'ung, who were evil friends. And many of the scholars in the Latter Day of the Law have been deluded by Eshin's introduction to his Ojo Yoshu and have as a result lost the true mind of faith in the Lotus Sutra, giving their allegiance instead to the provisional teachings represented by those associated with Amida. They are persons who have "abandoned the great and instead chosen the small." If we judge from examples in the past, they will probably suffer for countless kalpas in the three evil paths. It is persons such as this that T'ien-t'ai meant when he said: "If they should encounter an evil friend, then they will lose their true mind."

Question: What proof can you offer to support your claim?

Answer: Volume six of the Maka Shikan states: "Persons who are saved by the teachings preached previous to the Lotus Sutra are those who have reached a high level of attainment. The reason is because the teachings put forth in these sutras are mere expedients. Those saved by the perfect teaching of the Lotus Sutra belong to a low level of attainment, because this teaching represents the truth."

The Guketsu comments on this as follows: "This passage concerning the teachings preached previous to the Lotus Sutra makes clear the relative worth of the provisional and the true teachings, because it indicates that the truer the teaching, the lower the stage [of persons it can save]. And conversely, the more provisional the teaching, the higher must be the stage [of those who embrace it, in order for such persons to be saved]." And volume nine of the Hokke Mongu Ki says: "In determining a person's stage of attainment, the more profound the object of meditation, the lower will be the level of the practitioner [who can attain enlightenment thereby]."

I will say nothing here about followers of other sects, but why would scholars of the Tendai sect set aside this interpretation that "the truer the teaching, the lower the stage [of the persons it can save]," and instead accept the writings of the Supervisor of Monks Eshin? The teachings of Shan-wu-wei, Chin-kang-chih and Pu-k'ung, and those of Jikaku and Chisho, can wait until later. This is a matter of utmost importance, the most important in the entire world. Thinking persons should listen to what I say. After that, if they wish to reject me, let them.

Question: For practitioners in the Latter Day of the Law, who have just aroused the aspiration for enlightenment, what types of practice are restricted?

Answer: Such persons are restricted from practicing almsgiving, the keeping of the precepts, and the others of the five paramitas, and are directed to chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo exclusively. This practice corresponds to the capacity of persons at the stages of "producing even a single moment's faith and understanding" and "rejoicing on first hearing the Lotus Sutra." It represents the true intention of the Lotus Sutra.

Question: I have never before heard such an assertion. It astonishes my mind and makes me wonder if my ears have not deceived me. Please clearly cite some passages of scriptural proof and kindly explain the matter.

Answer: The sutra says: "[Such persons] need not for my sake raise up stupas or temples, or construct monks' quarters, or make the four kinds of offerings to the assembly of monks." This passage from the sutra makes it quite clear that practitioners who have just aroused the aspiration for enlightenment are restricted from almsgiving, the keeping of the precepts, and the others of the five paramitas.

Question: The passage you have just quoted restricts us only from erecting stupas or temples or providing for the assembly of monks. It says nothing about the keeping of the various precepts.

Answer: The passage mentions only the first of the five paramitas, that of almsgiving, and skips mention of the other four.

Question: How do we know this is so?

Answer: Because a subsequent passage, in describing the fourth stage of practice, goes on to say: "How much more so, then, if there is someone who can embrace this sutra and at the same time practice almsgiving, keeping the precepts, [forbearance, assiduousness, meditation and wisdom]!" This sutra text clearly indicates that persons at the first, second and third stages of practice are restricted from practicing almsgiving, the keeping of the precepts, and the others of the five paramitas. Only when they reach the fourth stage of practice, [that of "practicing the six paramitas while embracing the Lotus Sutra,"] are they permitted to observe them. And because such practices are permitted at this later stage, we may know that, for persons in the initial stages, they are restricted.

Question: The sutra passage you have just quoted seems to support your argument. But can you offer any passages from the treatises or commentaries?

Answer: What commentaries would you like me to cite? Are you referring to the treatises by the four ranks of saints of India? Or are you referring to works written by Buddhist teachers of China and Japan? In either case, it amounts to rejecting the root and searching among the branches, seeking the shadow apart from the form, or forgetting the source and prizing only the stream. You would ignore a sutra passage that is perfectly clear and instead seek an answer in the treatises and commentaries. If there should be some later commentary that contradicts the original sutra passage, would you then cast aside the sutra and follow the commentary?

Nevertheless, I will comply with your wishes and cite some passages. In the ninth volume of the Hokke Mongu we read: "There is a danger that a beginner will be led astray by subordinate concerns, and that this will interfere with the primary practice. The beginner should directly give all his attention to embracing the sutra; that is the highest type of offering. Though one may set aside formal practices, if one maintains [meditation on] the principle, then the benefits will be many and far-reaching."

In this passage of commentary, "subordinate concerns" refers to the five paramitas. If the beginner tries to practice the five paramitas at the same time [that he embraces the Lotus Sutra], that may work to obstruct his primary practice, which is faith. Such a person will be like a small ship that is loaded with wealth and treasure and sets out to cross the sea. Both the ship and the treasure will sink. And the words "should directly give all his attention to embracing the sutra" do not refer to the sutra as a whole. They mean that one should embrace the daimoku, or title, of the sutra exclusively and not mix it with other passages. Even recitation of the entire sutra is not permitted. How much less the five paramitas!

To "set aside formal practices but maintain [meditation on] the principle" means that one should set aside the keeping of the precepts and the other specific practices [of the five paramitas] and embrace the principle of the daimoku exclusively. When the commentary says that "the benefits will be many and far-reaching," it implies that if the beginner should attempt to practice various other practices and the daimoku at the same time, then his benefits will be completely lost.

The Hokke Mongu continues: "Question: If what you say is true, then embracing the Lotus Sutra is the foremost among all the precepts. Why, then, [in describing the fourth stage of practice,] does the Lotus Sutra speak about 'one who can keep the precepts'? Answer: This is done in order to make clear by contrast what is needed at the initial stages. One should not criticize persons at the initial stages for failing to observe requirements that pertain only to the later stages."

The scholars of today, ignoring this passage of commentary, would place ignorant persons of the latter age in the same category as the two sages Nan-yueh and T'ien-t'ai--a most grievous error!

Miao-lo further clarifies the matter as follows: "Question: If that is so, then is there no need to construct actual stupas to house the Buddha's relics, and is there no need to formally keep the precepts? And further, is there no need to provide alms for monks who carry out the specific practices [of the six paramitas]?"

The Great Teacher Dengyo declared: "I have forthwith cast aside the two hundred and fifty precepts!" And the Great Teacher Dengyo was not the only one to do so. Joho and Dochu, who were disciples of Ganjin, as well as the priests of the seven major temples of Nara, all in like manner cast them aside. Moreover, the Great Teacher Dengyo left this warning for future ages: "If in the Latter Day of the Law there should be persons who keep the precepts, that would be something rare and strange, like a tiger in the marketplace. Who could possibly believe it?"

Question: Why do you not advocate the meditation on the three thousand realms in a single life-moment (ichinen sanzen), but instead simply encourage the chanting of the daimoku?

Answer: The two characters that comprise the word Nihon or "Japan" contain within them all the people and animals and wealth in the sixty-six provinces of the country, without a single omission. And the two characters that make up the word Gasshi or "India"--do they not likewise contain within them all the seventy countries of India? Miao-lo says: "When, in order to be brief, only the title of the sutra is mentioned, the entire sutra is thereby included." And he likewise says: "When for the sake of brevity we speak of the Ten Worlds or the ten factors, all the three thousand realms are contained therein."

When Bodhisattva Monjushiri and the Venerable Ananda came to compile all the words spoken by the Buddha at the three assemblies during the eight years [in which the Lotus Sutra was preached], they wrote down the title Myoho-renge-kyo, and to show their understanding [that the entire sutra is contained in these five characters], they proceeded with the words "Thus have I heard."

Question: If a person simply chants Nam-myoho-renge-kyo with no understanding of its meaning, are the benefits of understanding thereby included?

Answer: When a baby drinks milk, he has no understanding of its taste, and yet his body is naturally nourished in the process. Who ever took the wonderful medicines of Jivaka knowing of what they were compounded? Water has no intent, and yet it can put out fire. Fire consumes objects, and yet how can we say that it does so consciously? This is the interpretation of both Nagarjuna and T'ien-t'ai, and I am restating it here.

Question: Why do you say that all teachings are contained within the daimoku?

Answer: Chang-an writes as follows: "Hence [T'ien-t'ai's explanation of the title in] the preface conveys the profound meaning of the sutra. The profound meaning indicates the heart of the text, and the heart of the text encompasses the whole of the theoretical and the essential teachings." And Miao-lo writes: "On the basis of the heart of the text of the Lotus Sutra, one can evaluate all the other various teachings of the Buddha."

Though muddy water has no mind, it can catch the moon's reflection and so naturally become clear. When plants and trees receive the rainfall, they can hardly be aware of what they are doing, and yet do they not proceed to put forth blossoms? The five characters of Myoho-renge-kyo do not represent the sutra text, nor are they its meaning. They are nothing other than the intent of the entire sutra. So, even though the beginner in religious practice may not understand their significance, by practicing these five characters, he will naturally conform to the sutra's intent.

Question: When your disciples, without any understanding, simply recite with their mouths the words Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, what level of attainment do they reach?

Answer: Not only do they go beyond the highest level of the four tastes or the three teachings as well as that attained by practitioners of the perfect teaching set forth in the sutras that precede the Lotus Sutra, but they surpass by millions and billions of times the founders of the Shingon and various other schools of Buddhism--men such as Shan-wu-wei, Chih-yen, T'zu-en, Chi-tsang, Tao-hsuan, Bodhidharma and Shan-tao.

Therefore I entreat the people of this country: Do not look down upon my disciples! If one inquires into their past, they are great bodhisattvas who have given alms to Buddhas over a period of eighty myriads of millions of kalpas, and who have carried out religious practices under Buddhas as numerous as the sand of the Hiranyavati and Ganges rivers. And if one speaks of the future, they are endowed with the benefit of the fiftieth person, surpassing that of one who gives alms to all living beings for a period of eighty years. They are like an infant emperor wrapped in swaddling clothes, or a great dragon who has just been born. Do not despise them! Do not look on them with contempt!

Miao-lo writes: "Those who vex or trouble [the practitioners of the Lotus Sutra] will have their heads split into seven pieces, but those who give alms to them will enjoy good fortune surpassing the ten honorable titles." King Udayana behaved insolently toward the Venerable Pindolabharadvaja, and within seven years he had lost his life. The lord of Sagami condemned Nichiren to exile, and within a hundred days armed rebellion broke out in his domain.

The Lotus Sutra says: "If anyone shall see a person who embraces this sutra and try to expose that person's faults or evils, whether what he speaks is true or not, he will in his present life be afflicted with white leprosy...he will suffer various grave illnesses of a malignant nature." It also says: "In age after age he will be eyeless."

Myoshin and Enchi contracted white leprosy in their present lifetime, while Doamidabutsu lost his sight. The epidemics that afflict our nation are punishments of the kind described as "the head being split into seven pieces." And if we surmise the degree of benefit according to that of punishment, then there can be no doubt that my followers will enjoy "good fortune surpassing the ten honorable titles."

The Buddhist teachings were first introduced to Japan in the reign of the thirtieth sovereign, Emperor Kimmei. During the twenty reigns and two hundred or more years from that time until the reign of Emperor Kammu, although the so-called six sects of Buddhism existed in Japan, the relative superiority of the Buddhist teachings had not yet been determined. Then, during the Enryaku era (782-805), a sage appeared in this country, the man known as the Great Teacher Dengyo. He examined the teachings of the six sects, which had already been propagated, and made all the priests of the seven major temples of Nara his disciples. In time he established a temple on Mount Hiei to serve as head temple, and won over the other temples in the country to serve as its branches. In this way the Buddhist teachings of Japan came to be unified in a single school. The secular rule likewise was not divided but clearly defined, so that the nation became purified of evil. If we were to speak of Dengyo's accomplishments, we would have to say that they all spring from the passage [declaring the Lotus Sutra to be foremost among the sutras preached] "in the past, present or future."

In the period that followed, the three Great Teachers Kobo, Jikaku and Chisho, claiming to be following Chinese authority, held the opinion that the Dainichi Sutra and the others of the three major Shingon sutras are superior to the Lotus Sutra. Moreover, they appended the term "sect" to the Shingon teachings, a term that the Great Teacher Dengyo had purposely omitted, and thus recognized Shingon as the eighth sect of Buddhism in Japan. These three men each persuaded the emperor to issue an edict [upholding the Shingon teachings] and propagated them throughout Japan, so that every temple accordingly went against the principle of the Lotus Sutra. In so doing, they utterly violated the passage [that declares the Lotus Sutra to be foremost among the sutras preached] "in the past, present or future," and became the great enemies of Shakyamuni, Taho and other Buddhas of the ten directions.

Thereafter, Buddhism gradually declined and the secular rule likewise became increasingly ineffectual. Tensho Daijin, Bodhisattva Hachiman and the other protective deities who had for so long dwelt in Japan lost their power, and Bonten, Taishaku and the Four Heavenly Kings deserted our country. By now, the nation is on the point of ruin. What person of feeling could fail to be pained at and to lament such a situation?

The false doctrines propagated by the three Great Teachers are in general disseminated from three places: To-ji, Soji-in on Mount Hiei, and Onjo-ji. If measures are not taken to prohibit the activities of these three temples, then without a doubt the nation will be destroyed and its people will fall into the evil paths. Although I generally discerned the nature of the situation and informed the ruler, no one has ventured to make the slightest use of my advice. How pitiable!

Major Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, Vol. 6, page 211.

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