Identifying and Winning Over Devilish Functions

We often hear about the “three obstacles and four devils” in Nichiren Buddhism. What are they?


Q: We often hear about the “three obstacles and four devils” in Nichiren Buddhism. What are they?

A: Attaining Buddhahood is an ongoing effort to strengthen our inherent Buddha nature. It is also a struggle to not give in to our inherent fundamental darkness, which is our most deeply rooted disbelief in the truth of our own Buddha nature.

Nichiren Daishonin explains that as we strive to reveal our enlightenment, “the three obstacles and four devils will invariably appear, and the wise will rejoice while the foolish will retreat” (“The Three Obstacles and Four Devils,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 637). Rather than mythical demons or devils, the “three obstacles and four devils” refer to the functions of fundamental darkness arising from our own lives and the lives of others.

The three obstacles are: the obstacles of 1) earthly desires, 2) karma and 3) retribution. The four devils are: the hindrances of 1) the five components, 2) earthly desires, 3) death and 4) the devil king. (For a detailed explanation, see Learning From Nichiren’s Writings: The Teachings for Victory, vol. 1, pp. 102–03).

These obstacles will definitely emerge in our lives to try to impede our Buddhist practice. In fact, the appearance of such obstacles signifies that we are practicing correctly.

Q: Why do we need to know about devilish functions?

A: In several of his writings, Nichiren cites the following passage from T’ien-t’ai’s Great Concentration and Insight, which summarizes why we need to be vigilant in recognizing devilish functions for what they are: “As practice progresses and understanding grows, the three obstacles and four devils emerge in confusing form, vying with one another to interfere . . . One should be neither influenced nor frightened by them. If one falls under their influence, one will be led into the paths of evil. If one is frightened by them, one will be prevented from practicing the correct teaching” (“Letter to the Brothers,” WND-1, 501).

In order to avoid being influenced, frightened or caught off guard by these cunning devilish functions, it’s helpful to know why and how they appear.

Fundamental darkness manifests as the devil king of the sixth heaven,which represents negative forces that manipulate at will the lives of others, obstruct good and cause people to fall into evil paths. As we practice Buddhism and free ourselves from the cycle of suffering and help others do the same, this devil pulls out all the stops to prevent us from continuing in our cause, bringing forth doubts and negativity from within our own lives or utilizing the negativity of others to sway us.

Nichiren teaches: “Even if you should manage to overcome the first six [of the three obstacles and four devils], if you are defeated by the seventh [the devil king], you will not be able to become a Buddha” (“Letter to Misawa,” WND-1, 894).

Q: So, how do we identify devilish functions?

A: As stated earlier, devilish functions arise in “confusing form,” and are difficult to recognize and identify. Aiming to deprive us of the benefit of our Buddhist practice, they emerge to make us doubt the power of faith in the Lotus Sutra, sow disunity between mentor and disciple, separate us from others, undermine our belief in our Buddhahood, and prevent us from breaking through our perceived limitations and achieving our goals.

Nichiren explains the following about the devil king: “To deceive the true mind of the Buddha nature, he causes the people to drink the wine of greed, anger, and foolishness, and feeds them nothing but dishes of evil that leave them prostrate on the ground of the three evil paths” (“Letter to the Brothers,” WND-1, 495–96). The devil king functions to cut off the flow of wisdom in people’s lives, destroy the roots of goodness they’ve cultivated and keep them mired in the three poisons of greed, anger and foolishness, causing them to continue the cycle of suffering.

The devil king also employs the help of the “ten kinds of troops,” or “ten armies,” to impede our Buddhist practice. These functions that arise from our fundamental darkness are: 1) greed, 2) care and worry, 3) hunger and thirst, 4) love of pleasure (also, craving), 5) drowsiness and languor, 6) fear, 7) doubt and regret, 8) anger, 9) preoccupation with wealth and fame and 10) arrogance and contempt for others (see The Hope-filled Teachings of Nichiren Daishonin, p. 174).

A prime example of the devil king is the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood—whose role it was to uphold and protect Nichiren Buddhism. Ruled by the three poisons, they created division, confusion and doubt among practitioners, ultimately excommunicating in November 1991 the SGI, the community of believers advancing kosen-rufu.

Q: How then, do we win over such negative functions?

A: SGI President Ikeda urges us: “Either we advance or we retreat; there is no middle ground. Either we cringe in fear and surrender to the devilish functions—the negativity in our own lives or in the lives of others—or we challenge this negativity and deepen our conviction in faith. This difference in resolve determines everything” (The Hope-filled Teachings of Nichiren Daishonin, p. 167).

The first step in confronting obstacles is to chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo to the Gohonzon with the determination to win over all devilish functions. The wisdom and powerful life state we gain through prayer allows us to see devilish functions for what they are, challenge them head-on and use them as an opportunity to transform our karma and establish even stronger resolve.

The second step is striving to unite with our fellow members in the harmonious community of practitioners. Rather than being controlled by our environment, we need to engage actively in our faith and practice of Nichiren Buddhism. Through interacting with those striving for kosen-rufu, we strengthen our own lives (see August 2013 Living Buddhism, p. 29).

Another key in winning over daunting obstacles is to advance with faith rooted in the oneness of mentor and disciple. President Ikeda states: “When mentor and disciple unite together with a lifelong commitment to advance kosen-rufu, they will be impervious to the onslaughts of devilish functions. Rejoicing at such onslaughts and summoning our resolve to fight our hardest is the way to defeat devilish functions. The shared struggle of mentor and disciple can vanquish all such obstacles, open a new age, and pave the way to a hope-filled future” (August 2013 Living Buddhism, p. 31).

With this resolve, the SGI has triumphed over tremendous obstacles and expanded its movement throughout the world. And in upholding this shared struggle of mentor and disciple, we will continue vanquishing devilish functions that are bound to arise as we strive toward Nov. 18, 2018, and our movement to awaken 50,000 young Bodhisattvas of the Earth who will stand up for the dignity of life, opening new pathways to peace.


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