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


"On the Four Stages of Faith and the Five Stages of Practice" is considered one of Nichiren Daishonin's ten major writings. It is thought to have been written on the tenth day of the fourth month, 1277, though there are varying opinions. Toki Jonin, one of the Daishonin's most learned and devout disciples, had sent him a letter via Ben Ajari Nissho, one of the six senior priests. Toki had expressed concern about how he might eradicate his past offenses and carry out a correct practice and appended a list of specific questions. This Gosho is the Daishonin's reply. In it he stresses that chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo with faith in the Mystic Law is the correct practice for the Latter Day of the Law and contains the merit of all other practices within it, leading directly to Buddhahood.

It the opening section, the Daishonin takes issue with those of his contemporaries who hold that practitioners of the Lotus Sutra must devote themselves to the three types of learning: precepts, meditation and wisdom. These three were traditionally said to encompass the whole of Buddhist practice. The Daishonin begins his explanation by discussing the "four stages of faith and the five stages of practice" enumerated by the Great Teacher T'ien-t'ai on the basis of the Fumbetsu Kukoku (seventeenth) chapter of the Lotus Sutra. The first stage of faith, that of "producing even a single moment's faith and understanding," and the first stage of practice, tat of "rejoicing on first hearing the Lotus Sutra," correspond to the status of practitioners in the Latter Day of the Law, the Daishonin says. Among various interpretations of these initial stages set forth in the recorded teachings of T'ien-t'ai and Miao-lo, he designates as most appropriate the view that they correspond to the stage of myoji-soku, the stage there one first hears and takes faith in the Lotus Sutra. For people at these initial sages, the Daishonin continues, of the three types of learning, the Buddha restricted the practice of precepts and meditation, emphasizing only wisdom. And, because the wisdom of people in the Latter day is inadequate, they should substitute faith; faith in the Lotus Sutra becomes the cause for acquiring the Buddha wisdom.

The Daishonin then criticizes Eshin's Ojo Yoshu (the Essentials of rebirth in the Pure Land), a work that had greatly encouraged Nembutsu practices in Japan. Pure Land adherents generally held that the Lotus Sutra was too profound for the limited capacities of people born in the Latter Day, emphasizing instead the "easy practice" of reciting Amida Buddha's name. He Daishonin replies that the higher the teaching, the lower the capacity of the people it can save; thus the Lotus Sutra can bring all beings to Buddhahood.

The next port of the Gosho explains that people in the Latter Day, who are at the initial stages of practice, need not practice almsgiving, the keeping of precepts or any other of the five paramitas, but should devote themselves exclusively to chanting the daimoku. We should understand here that the Daishonin is not rejecting the spirit implicit in such acts as almsgiving, but rather is denying their efficacy as formal practices. The merit of all these good deeds, he says, is already inherent in the daimoku. The daimoku contains all teachings within itself. The Daishonin asserts that even those who chant it without understanding is meaning are certain to attain Buddhahood.

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