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Conversation between a Sage and an Unenlightened Man
- Shogu Mondo Sho -


"Conversation between a Sage and an Unenlightened Man" is generally thought to have been written in 1265, when Nichiren Daishonin was forty-four. Its recipient is unknown. However, toward the end of the Gosho, the unenlightened man refers to himself as "a man who carries a bow and arrows and devotes himself to the profession of arms," so it has been suggested that the Daishonin may have written it for someone of the samurai class.

The treatise consists of two parts and is written chiefly in question-and-answer form. The "sage" in the title indicates the votary of the Lotus Sutra, or Nichiren Daishonin himself, while the "unenlightened man" represents all common mortals of the Latter Day of the Law. In the first part, the unenlightened man, who has realized life's impermanence and is seeking the truth, is visited in succession by a priest of the Ritsu sect, a lay believer of the Pure Land sect, a practitioner of the Shingon sect, and a priest of the Zen sect. Through their conversations, the Daishonin outlines the basic tenets of these four major Buddhist sects.

The Ritsu priest, who is the first visitor, asserts that the teachings concerning the precepts are the most important of the eighty thousand sacred teachings of Buddhism. He holds up Ryokan, the chief priest of Gokuraku-ji temple, as an example and exhorts the unenlightened man to observe the five precepts and the two hundred and fifty precepts and devote himself to charitable works as Ryokan does.

The next visitor, a lay believer of the Pure Land sect, praises the Nembutsu teachings, which enable one to be reborn in Amida Buddha's Pure Land of Perfect Bliss and thereby gain emancipation from the sufferings of birth and death. He singles out the eighteenth of Amida Buddha's forty-eight vows as the sole source of salvation for common mortals in the Latter Day and asserts that even persons guilty of the ten evil acts and the five cardinal sins can attain rebirth in the Pure Land by calling on this Buddha's name.

The practitioner of the Shingon sect, who visits next, says that even the most profound doctrines of the exoteric teachings are no more than an introduction to the esoteric teachings. The exoteric teachings, he says, were expounded by Shakyamuni, a Buddha in the manifested-body aspect, in accordance with his disciples' capacities, while the esoteric teachings were preached by Dainichi, a Buddha in the Dharma-body aspect, out of his spontaneous joy in the Dharma. He accordingly urges the unenlightened man to discard the exoteric teachings and take faith in the more profound esoteric teachings.

The last to come calling is a mendicant Zen priest. He likens the sutras to a finger pointing at the moon and denounces the doctrines contained in them as so much nonsense, exhorting the unenlightened man to sit in meditation to perceive the true nature of his mind in accordance with the "wordless teaching" of Zen.

Troubled by the contradictions in what he has heard, and determined to discover which teaching is correct, the unenlightened man then sets out on a journey in search of a teacher who can clarify matters for him. After visiting various temples one after another, he finally encounters a sage who embraces the Lotus Sutra. The title "Conversation between a Sage and an Unenlightened Man" refers to the subsequent dialogue that unfolds between them. The unenlightened man confesses that, although he has learned the teachings of the Ritsu, Nembutsu, Shingon and Zen sects, he cannot determine whether or not those teachings are true. In reply, the sage declares that the doctrines of all four sects are the cause for rebirth in the evil paths, because they are based on provisional teachings, while only the true teaching, the Lotus Sutra, enables all people without exception to attain Buddhahood.

This comparison of the true and provisional teachings forms the focus of this treatise. The sage refutes the doctrines of those sects based on the provisional teachings and cites sutra passages to demonstrate that the supremacy of the Lotus Sutra was set forth by Shakyamuni Buddha himself. His rebuttal of the Nembutsu and Shingon doctrines concludes part one of this Gosho. Part two begins with his refutation of Zen.

By this point, the unenlightened man has become convinced of the truth of the Lotus Sutra. But he hesitates to embrace it out of considerations of loyalty and filial piety; he points out that everyone from the ruler on down to the common people has faith in other sects, and his own parents and ancestors embraced the Pure Land teachings. The sage replies that one can best repay his debts of gratitude to his parents and sovereign by embracing the correct Buddhist teaching and thus leading them to salvation. Next, one should evaluate the Buddhist teachings on their own merits and not according to the number of their adherents. The sage also explains that there are two ways of Buddhist practice - shoju and shakubuku - depending upon the time. The present period, when distorted teachings flourish, is the time for shakubuku, he says.

The unenlightened man now having resolved to embrace the Lotus Sutra, the sage reveals to him that the essence of the sutra lies in the five characters of Myoho-renge-kyo that form its title. Myoho-renge-kyo, he explains, is the Buddha nature inherent in all beings. When one chants Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, the Buddha nature inherent in all things will be summoned forth, and one's own Buddha nature will simultaneously emerge. Even without profound understanding of the Buddhist teachings, one can by this practice attain enlightenment in his present form. The sage concludes by exhorting the unenlightened man to maintain faith throughout life, without wavering in his resolve.

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