Discussion on the Purpose of the Buddha's Advent
The purpose of Nichiren’s advent and what this means for us as Nichiren’s disciples in the 21st century.
In his writing “On Persecutions Befalling the Sage,” Nichiren Daishonin declares that after 27 years of practicing the Lotus Sutra, he had finally fulfilled the purpose of his advent in the world. This letter was written on October 1, 1279, in the midst of the Atsuhara Persecution, a series of oppressive measures directed at Nichiren’s disciples, who had been propagating the Lotus Sutra under the leadership of his youthful successor, Nikko Shonin (see essay, pp. 26–37).
Nichiren wrote this letter after hearing that 20 farmers had been arrested on false charges of stealing rice as a pretext to coerce them into abandoning their faith in his teachings. Three of them would later be beheaded.
In “On Persecutions Befalling the Sage,” Nichiren writes: “The Buddha fulfilled the purpose of his advent in a little over forty years, the Great Teacher T’ien-t’ai took about thirty years, and the Great Teacher Dengyo, some twenty years. I have spoken repeatedly of the indescribable persecutions they have suffered during those years. For me it took twenty-seven years, and the great persecutions I faced during this period are well known to you all” (The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 996).
SGI-USA General Director Adin Strauss, SGI-USA Women’s Leader Akemi Bailey-Haynie and SGI-USA Youth Leader David Witkowski discussed the purpose of Nichiren’s advent and what this means for us as Nichiren’s disciples in the 21st century.
David Witkowski (SGI-USA Youth Leader): Adin and Akemi, thank you for being part of this discussion. A question has come up from our readers, especially those who’ve been practicing for many years: What does it mean when Nichiren says that he fulfilled the purpose of his advent after 27 years?
Adin Strauss (SGI-USA General Director): First, please let me lay some groundwork. Nichiren Daishonin speaks here of fulfilling the purpose of his advent 27 years after he declared Nam-myoho-renge-kyo as the teaching that can lead all people to enlightenment. The Daishonin declared his teaching on April 28, 1253. By Japanese tradition, 1279 would be the 27th year since that momentous occasion. Since that day in 1253, he’d been persecuted relentlessly. By 1279, the focus of persecution had shifted to his followers and here, in particular, to peasant farmers, among the most disempowered people in Japanese feudal society. The persecution culminated in 20 of these farmers being arrested on false charges, and three were executed.
Akemi Bailey-Haynie (SGI-USA Women’s Leader): Later in this same writing, Nichiren says: “Had it not been for the advent of Nichiren in the Latter Day of the Law, the Buddha would have been a teller of great lies . . . In the 2,230 and more years since the Buddha’s passing, Nichiren is the only person in the entire land of Jampudvipa who has fulfilled the Buddha’s words” (WND-1, 997). Through studying this writing, it is clear that Nichiren fulfilled the purpose of his advent by fostering disciples who embodied the same commitment as he to protect and perpetuate Nam-myoho-renge-kyo.
This passage makes it clear that by facing and overcoming persecution, Nichiren was able to prove the Buddha’s words to be true. He goes on to say, “Although at present we are encountering the severe trials of persecution, in our next life we will become Buddhas” (WND-1, 998).
By saying “we,” Nichiren is acknowledging that “at present,” he and his disciples are facing persecution and thus fulfilling the Buddha’s will together. That’s why it is clear that the purpose of the Daishonin’s advent was fulfilled 27 years later by the appearance of ordinary people standing side by side with their mentor in the face of persecution and adversity. His purpose was fulfilled by the appearance of capable successors who were able to actualize the shared struggle of mentor and disciple.
Adin: Yes! It must have been very encouraging for those facing such severe persecution to hear Nichiren’s encouragement and, most especially, his saying “we are encountering the severe trials of persecution” and “we will become Buddhas.” The letter continues with encouragement to his disciples:
“Each of you should summon up the courage of a lion king and never succumb to threats from anyone. The lion fears no other beast, nor do its cubs. Slanderers are like barking foxes, but Nichiren’s followers are like roaring lions.” (WND-1, 997)
“Strengthen your faith day by day and month after month. Should you slacken in your resolve even a bit, devils will take advantage.” (WND-1, 997)
“[Y]ou must demonstrate firm resolve.” (WND-1, 997)
Nichiren’s words reverberate with the life state of the shared struggle of mentor and disciple. In fact, a Buddha cannot fulfill the purpose of his or her advent—accomplishing the great vow for kosen-rufu— unless capable successors appear to carry on that great mission after the Buddha’s passing. The appearance of these determined individuals of firm faith indicates that Nichiren’s great vow for kosen-rufu will live on for eternity in the hearts and minds of these capable disciples.
David: So based on that, it seems that the purpose of Nichiren’s advent was to raise dedicated successors who share his determination to widely propagate this teaching into the distant future, rather than simply leaving behind a physical religious symbol.
Akemi: That’s correct. The Gohonzon is a powerful mandala representing the enlightened life state that exists in all people, and serves as a necessary focal point and ideal environment for bringing forth that enlightened life state. But no physical object—not even the Gohonzon—can ensure that the Law of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo will be perpetuated throughout eternity. I believe that for us, the purpose of Nichiren’s advent means to continuously foster successors of our kosen-rufu movement. Only by raising generation after generation of disciples with the same dedication as Nichiren to withstand all obstacles can we eternalize this Law for all humanity into the distant future. President Ikeda has clearly stated:
The next wave of kosen-rufu can be generated only by the youth. And successive generations must increase the size of these waves that expand kosen-rufu. This ongoing effort is what we mean by kosen-rufu.
There is no future for kosen-rufu or the Soka Gakkai if the youthful successors are timid and weak, unable to create their own generation’s waves to propagate Nichiren Buddhism.
That’s why I am so intensely involved with fostering the youth division, the high school division and all members who will inherit the future. (The New Human Revolution, vol. 25, pp. 83–84)
Sensei makes it crystal clear that by fostering generation after generation of disciples with strong faith and the shared vow of mentor and disciple, the great vow of kosen-rufu will inevitably be achieved.
Adin: Thank you, Akemi. Fostering successors, rather than relying on a specific object, is the crucial point. I remember Sophia University Professor Shin Anzai, who is a devout Catholic, discussing how impressed he was with President Ikeda’s view that, first and foremost, we uphold the eternal Law of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. He said:
When I met President Ikeda, I asked him what he ultimately sought. I thought he would answer “The Gohonzon—the [wooden] mandala,” but instead he said, “The eternal and fundamental Law that has existed since time without beginning.” I was deeply impressed that President Ikeda’s goal was not fixed on something narrow like the wooden mandala but that he sought the source of all eternity. I felt then that I had discovered the universality of the SGI and the reason for its amazing growth. (translated from the May 5, 1993, Seikyo Shimbun)
While we will, of course, continue chanting to the Gohonzon as the embodiment of Nam-myohorenge- kyo, there clearly can be no one special Gohonzon that functions as the absolute embodiment of Nichiren’s spirit, as no physical object can exist for eternity. For this reason, we seek the eternal Law of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo that exists in all life. Chanting to our personal Gohonzon helps us awaken to this great Law of life in ourselves and others.
David: Thank you very much, Adin and Akemi, for that explanation. I was inspired to read the following guidance from President Ikeda, where he discussed that the awareness of the disciple is the key element in the oneness-of-mentor-and-disciple relationship. He says:
Meeting the mentor on numerous occasions, or spending time at the mentor’s side, or being entrusted with a leadership position—these are all form [rather than essence]. Even if people are physically far from the mentor or have never spoken directly with the mentor, if they are aware of their role as disciples and strive to put the mentor’s words into practice, then the mentor- disciple relationship is alive and intact. (The Wisdom of the Lotus Sutra, vol. 5, pp. 251–52)
This spirit of the disciple seems to perfectly describe the Atsuhara farmers who gave their lives to protect Nichiren’s teaching. They most likely had never met him in person and were practicing faith for just around one year. At this time in modern American society, what can the members of the SGI-USA learn from them?
Adin: The Atsuhara martyrs truly demonstrated that the oneness of mentor and disciple has nothing to do with length of practice or physical proximity to the mentor. Rather, the oneness of mentor and disciple is forged through our spirit to seek our mentor’s guidance and put it into action. In addition to seeking the mentor’s heart, the Atsuhara martyrs developed the unity of many in body, one in mind to stand together, undeterred by threats from the authorities. I feel it is very important that in this generation and beyond, people can relate to Sensei as a mentor through his writings, as kosen-rufu continues to advance into the eternal future.
Akemi: We all have the profound mission to spread the Mystic Law, as it will never spread on its own. Because of this, we go through trials and tribulations as Bodhisattvas of the Earth in order to display the unlimited power of the Mystic Law within our lives.
We have so much to learn about the oneness of mentor and disciple from the lives and spirit of the Atsuhara farmers. What courage, faith and conviction they exhibited at the most crucial time! We have entered our own crucial time toward 2018, as Sensei said in September 2016:
Please promise with me to work hard over the next two years with our fellow members around the world to expand our network of Bodhisattvas of the Earth, and forge ahead with energy, wisdom and good cheer to make the triumph of mentor and disciple resound into the eternal future of the Latter Day of the Law. (October 7, 2016, World Tribune, p. 3)
Our “50,000 Lions of Justice” festival in 2018 is not simply about gathering a set number of people, rather, it represents the disciples’ challenge to raise many successors of President Ikeda, who can ensure that the Mystic Law—and its message of respect for the dignity of life—is even more widely propagated throughout American society and the world. By fostering future generations who can inherit the spirit of Nichiren Daishonin and the three founding presidents for the sake of the peace of our world, I believe we are fulfilling the purpose of our advent.