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A Comparison of the Lotus Sutra and Other Sutras

Question: The Hosshi chapter in the fourth volume of the Lotus Sutra reads, "[. . . this Lotus Sutra is] the most difficult to believe and the most difficult to understand." What is the meaning of this passage?

Answer: More than two thousand years have passed since the Buddha expounded the Lotus Sutra in India. It took a little more than twelve hundred years before this sutra was introduced to China, and two hundred more years before it was brought from China to Japan. Since then, more than seven hundred years have already passed.

After the death of the Buddha, there were only three persons who realized the true meaning of this passage of the Lotus Sutra. In India, Bodhisattva Nagarjuna said in his Daichido Ron: "[The Lotus Sutra] is like a great physician who changes poison into medicine."1 This is the way he explained the meaning of the passage, ". . . the most difficult to believe and the most difficult to understand."2 In China, the Great Teacher T’ien-t’ai Chih-che interpreted this phrase in light of its context:

"Among all those [sutras] I have preached, now preach and will preach, this Lotus Sutra is the most difficult to believe and the most difficult to understand." And in Japan, the Great Teacher Dengyo3 elaborated on this phrase: "All the sutras of the first four of the five periods4 preached in the past, the Muryogi Sutra now being preached, and the Nirvana Sutra to be preached in the future, are easy to believe and easy to understand. This is because the Buddha taught these sutras in accordance with the capacity of his listeners. The Lotus Sutra is the most difficult to believe and to understand because in it the Buddha directly revealed what he had attained."5

Question: Can you explain what he meant by that?

Answer: The ease of believing and understanding in the one case is due to the fact that the Buddha taught in accordance with the capacity of the people. And the difficulty of believing and understanding in the other case is due to the fact that he taught in accordance with his own enlightenment.

Kobo Daishi and his successors at To-ji temple6 in Japan hold that, of all the exoteric teachings, the Lotus Sutra is the most difficult to believe and the most difficult to understand. They assert, however, that in comparison to the esoteric teachings, the Lotus Sutra is easy to believe and easy to understand. Jikaku, Chisho and their followers contend that both the Lotus Sutra and the Dainichi Sutra are among the most difficult to believe and the most difficult to understand, but that of these two, the Dainichi Sutra is by far the more difficult to believe and to understand.

All people in Japan agree with both of these contentions. However, in interpreting this passage ["the most difficult to believe and the most difficult to understand"], I, Nichiren, say that non-Buddhist scriptures are easier to believe and understand than Hinayana sutras, the Hinayana sutras are easier than the Dainichi and other [Hodo] sutras, the Dainichi and other [Hodo] sutras are easier than the Hannya sutras, the Hannya sutras are easier than the Kegon Sutra, the Kegon is easier than the Nirvana Sutra, the Nirvana is easier than the Lotus Sutra, and the theoretical teaching of the Lotus Sutra is easier than the essential teaching. Thus there are many levels of comparative ease and difficulty.

Question: What is the value of knowing them?

Answer: No other doctrine can surpass the Lotus Sutra, a great lantern that illuminates the long night of the sufferings of birth and death, a sharp sword that can sever the fundamental darkness inherent in life. The teachings of the Shingon, Kegon and other sects are categorized as those expounded in accordance with the people’s capacity. They are, therefore, easy to believe and understand. The teachings expounded in accordance with the people’s capacity are those sutras which the Buddha preaches in response to the desires of the people of the nine worlds, just as a wise father instructs an ignorant son in a way suited to the child’s understanding. On the other hand, the teaching expounded in accordance with the Buddha’s enlightenment is the sutra which the Buddha preaches directly from the world of Buddhahood, just as a saintly father guides his ignorant son to his own understanding.

In the light of this principle, I have carefully considered the Dainichi, Kegon, Nirvana and other [provisional] sutras, only to find that all of them are sutras expounded in accordance with the people’s capacity.

Question: Is there any evidence to support this contention?

Answer: The Shrimala Sutra says: "The Buddha brings to maturity those who have only practiced non-Buddhist teachings by enabling them to make good causes leading to the states of Humanity and Heaven. For those seeking the state of Learning, the Buddha imparts the vehicle which leads them to that state. To those seeking the state of Realization, the Buddha reveals the vehicle for that state. To those who seek the Mahayana teachings, the Buddha expounds them." This statement refers to those teachings which are easy to believe and easy to understand, such as the Kegon, Dainichi Hannya, Nirvana and other sutras.

[In contrast, the Lotus Sutra says,] "At that time, through Bodhisattva Yakuo, the World-Honored One addressed the eighty thousand7 great seekers of the Law: ‘Yakuo, do you see—within this great multitude of uncountable gods, dragon kings, yakshas, gandharvas, asuras, garudas, kimnaras, mahoragas, humans and non-humans,8 as well as monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen — those who seek the rank of shravaka, those who seek the rank of pratyekabuddha, and those who seek the path to Buddhahood? If any of them in the presence of the Buddha hears a single verse or phrase of the Lotus Sutra and experiences a single moment of rejoicing, then I hereby confer on him a prophecy that he shall attain supreme enlightenment’."9

In the provisional sutras, Shakyamuni taught five precepts10 for the beings of Humanity; ten good precepts11 for those of Heaven; the four infinite virtues12 for the god Bonten; a practice of impartial almsgiving for the Devil King; two hundred and fifty precepts for monks; five hundred precepts for nuns; the four noble truths13 for the people of Learning; the twelve-linked chain of causation14 for the people of Realization; and the six paramitas for bodhisattvas. This method of teaching is comparable to water that assumes the round or square shape of its container, or to an elephant which exerts just enough strength to subdue its enemy.

The Lotus Sutra is entirely different. It was preached equally for all, including the eight kinds of lowly beings and the four kinds of believers.15 This method of teaching is comparable to a measuring rod that is used to eliminate uneven places, or to the lion, king of beasts, which always exerts its full power in attack, regardless of the strength of its opponent.

When one examines all the various sutras in the clear mirror of the Lotus Sutra, it is evident that the three sutras16 of Dainichi Buddha and the three Jodo or Pure Land sutras17 are teachings expounded in accordance with the people’s capacity. Yet because the teachings of Kobo, Jikaku and Chisho have for some reason been widely accepted, this truth was obscured in Japan more than four hundred years ago. [To uphold these men’s teachings instead of the Lotus Sutra] is like exchanging a gem for a pebble or trading sandalwood for common lumber. Because Buddhism has by now become thoroughly confused, the secular world has also been plunged into corruption and chaos. Buddhism is like the body and society like the shadow. When the body is crooked, so is the shadow. How fortunate that all my disciples who follow the Buddha’s true intention will flow naturally into the ocean of all-encompassing wisdom! But the Buddhist scholars of our time put their faith in teachings expounded according to the people’s capacity and are therefore doomed to sink into the sea of suffering. I will explain in more detail on another occasion.

With my deep respect,

The twenty-sixth day of the fifth month


  1. Nagarjuna used this simile to illustrate the enlightenment of the two vehicles, condemned in the pre-Lotus Sutra teachings as those whose seeds of Buddhahood had been scorched and couldn't. His statement was based on his understanding of how difficult it is believe this concept revealed in the Lotus Sutra, as it contradicts the message of so many earlier teachings.
  2. Chih-che: See p. 98, n. 71.
  3. Hokke Gengi, Vol 10.
  4. First four of the five periods: (1) The Kegon period, or period of the Kegon Sutra, which represents a high level of teaching second only to the teachings of the Hokke-Nehan period; (2) the Agon period, or period of the Agon sutras, which correspond to the Hinayana teachings; (3) the Hodo period, or period of introductory Mahayana; and (4) the Hannya period, or period of the Hannya (Wisdom) sutras. See also Five periods in Glossary.
  5. Hokke sho
  6. To-ji temple: The head temple of the To-ji (Eastern Temple) branch of the Shingon sect, located in Kyoto. It was originally built by Emperor Kammu in 796 as a temple for the protection of the nation and was later granted to Kobo by Emperor Saga, becoming a center for the study of esoteric practices.
  7. Eighty thousand: An innumerable amount.
  8. Uncountable gods, dragon kings.... mahoragas: Reference to the eight kinds of lowly beings, or nonhuman beings who protect Buddhism.  See also p. 80, n. 6.
  9. Lotus Sutra, chap. 10.
  10. Five precepts: See p. 20, n. 58.
  11. Ten good precepts: See p. 20, n. 59.
  12. Four infinite virtues: Four kinds of measureless compassion: (1) giving others happiness, (2) removing their suffering, (3) rejoicing at seeing, them become free from suffering and gain happiness, and (4) abandoning attachments to love and hatred and being impartial toward everyone. By the practice of these virtues, one is said to be able to attain rebirth in the Brahma Heaven.
  13. Four noble truths: See p.4, n. 3.
  14. Twelve-linked chain of causation: An early doctrine of Buddhism showing the causal relationship between ignorance and suffering. The first link in the chain is ignorance. Then, ignorance causes action; action causes consciousness; consciousness causes name and form; name and form cause the six sense organs; the six sense organs cause contact; contact causes sensation; sensation causes desire; desire causes attachment; attachment causes existence; existence causes birth; and birth causes old age and death.
  15. Four kinds of believers: Monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen.
  16. Three sutras: The Dainichi, Kongocho and Soshitsuji sutras.
  17. Three Jodo sutras: The Muryoju, Kammuryoju and Amida sutras.

Major Writings of Nichiren Daishonin; Vol. 3, page 303.

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