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Questions and Answers on Embracing the Lotus Sutra


Although there are different opinions concerning the date of this letter, it is generally accepted that Nichiren Daishonin wrote it in the third month of 1263, shortly after he had been pardoned and had returned to Kamakura following two years of exile on the Izu Peninsula. The Daishonin was then forty-two years old. Some sources, however, suggest that it may actually have been written by Nichiji, one of the Daishonin's six senior disciples, who may have obtained authorization from the Daishonin to do so, and therefore place the date of this work in 1276 or 1280, some years after Nichiji became the Daishonin's follower in 1270. Because the original manuscript has been lost, the exact date and the identity of the recipient are uncertain.

As the title indicates, this Gosho discusses the significance of embracing the Lotus Sutra, and is written in question-and-answer form. It concludes that the pinnacle of Buddhist faith is to embrace the daimoku of the Lotus Sutra, that is, the Mystic Law of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo.

The contents of this Gosho -- five questions and answers -- may be outlined as follows: in the opening passage, the questioner acknowledges the existence of differences in both the relative merit of Buddhist teachings and people's capacity for understanding. He then poses the fundamental question: Which teaching ought one practice in order to attain Buddhahood quickly? In answer, the Daishonin declares that the Lotus Sutra enables all people to achieve Buddhahood without exception, and is therefore the highest of all the sutras.

In the second section, the questioner objects to such exclusive emphasis on the Lotus Sutra as narrow-minded. The Daishonin replies that his assertion of the sutra's supremacy among all the Buddhist teachings is based on the Buddha's own words as they appear in the sutras themselves, and not on the arbitrary theories or commentaries of later scholars and teachers. When the questioner points out that other sutras also identify themselves as "the foremost sutra" or "the king of sutras," the Daishonin explains that such statements are relative. Only the Lotus Sutra declares itself to be supreme among all the sutras preached in the past, now being preached, or to be preached in the future. Next, it embodies the truth that Shakyamuni Buddha did not reveal during the first forty years and more of his preaching. The Lotus Sutra is therefore the true way that leads to Buddhahood, and all the pre-Lotus Sutra teachings are mere expedient means, or provisional teachings.

The questioner then asks about an interpretation put forth by the Hosso sect, which claims that the Lotus Sutra is a provisional teaching, expounded solely for the purpose of leading to Buddhahood the people of the two vehicles (Learning and Realization), and not for the sake of the bodhisattvas, who had already gained benefit through the pre-Lotus Sutra teachings. The Daishonin acknowledges that the Lotus Sutra was indeed expounded chiefly for the people of the two vehicles, whose capacity for supreme enlightenment had been denied in the earlier Mahayana sutras. However, he continues, this does not mean that the Lotus Sutra is a provisional teaching, or that it benefits only the people of the two vehicles. Rather, by singling out those of the two vehicles, for whom Buddhahood is especially difficult to attain, and asserting that even these people can become Buddhas through the power of the Lotus Sutra, Shakyamuni made clear that this sutra is the one vehicle that opens the way to Buddhahood for all people.

In the last section, the questioner, now convinced, asks how one should embrace the Lotus Sutra in order to reach enlightenment quickly. Nichiren Daishonin replies that one need not master the principle of ichinen sanzen or perfect the threefold contemplation in a single mind, as the eminent Tendai scholars asserted. Rather, the essential thing is simply to have a mind of faith in the sutra. Faith, he explains, is the fundamental cause for attaining enlightenment, while disbelief is the fundamental source of suffering. Since such unfathomable blessings arise from faith in the Lotus Sutra, to slander the sutra and its votary is an act that invites indescribable misery. After elaborating on the benefits of faith and warning against the offense of slander, the Daishonin again urges his questioner to embrace the Lotus Sutra.

A concluding passage of great poetic beauty stresses the evanescence of human existence. To be born as a human, and, moreover, to encounter the supreme teaching of Buddhism, are rare opportunities. Rather than wasting one's brief yet precious life in the pursuit of worldly fame and profit, the Daishonin says, one should dedicate oneself to faith in the Lotus Sutra and so attain the everlasting joy of enlightenment. He declares that to chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo oneself and to enable others to do the same are the individual's most important tasks in this present existence.

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