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Buddhist Study

Whether Clergy or Laity, All People Can Become Buddhas

Taken in Redwoods National & State Parks, California

In the following excerpt from volume 24 of The New Human Revolution, at a Jan. 15, 1977, Soka Gakkai Study Department meeting, Shin’ichi Yamamoto (depicting SGI President Ikeda) talks about the original role of priests in Buddhism and how the Soka Gakkai today is fulfilling both the role of priests and laity.

Buddhism began originally as a teaching that aimed to revitalize the people. Making no distinction between clergy and laity, and without regard to worldly position or status, Shakyamuni taught that everyone could become a Buddha just like himself.

In the age after Shakyamuni died, however, people gradually lost sight of this truth of his teaching. In response to this problem, a movement arose to restore awareness of Shakyamuni and convey his true intent, which was expressed in the Lotus Sutra. Believers in the Lotus Sutra advocated a return to Shakyamuni Buddha and his teachings, and called for people to awaken to their true selves through Buddhist practice. They taught as a lofty objective the dignity and nobility of the human being, and endeavored to lead people toward a happiness that nothing could destroy. They took this wish of the Buddha as their own vow and, unbowed by any difficulty or persecution, persevered in putting their convictions into practice.

The leaders of this movement are referred to in the Lotus Sutra as “teachers of the Law,” and among them no distinction was made between clergy and laity, men and women.

This great Buddhist revival spread from India to China and from China to Japan.

By clarifying the reasons why Shakyamuni’s Buddhism changed and declined, Shin’ichi [Yamamoto] wanted to sound a warning that it was very important for Nichiren Buddhism not to make the same mistake.

Quoting Nichikan’s commentary on “The Selection of the Time,” Shin’ichi spoke of the meaning of the teachers of the Law as leaders of the people: “Great teachers of the Law are those who lead the movement for kosen-rufu, preach the Law and stir great waves of practice for the benefit of self and others broadly among the people, while considering the currents of the times. To do that, they need to keenly grasp the nature of the era, fight alongside the people for the sake of the Law, and at certain times step to the fore to shield followers who are facing persecution for their beliefs.”

He went on to say that Nichiren [Daishonin] was himself a noble model of a teacher of the Law, and then quoted from [his] writings that describe the correct posture and behavior of a priest or teacher of the Law: “Though a person may have been fortunate enough to be born as a human being and may have even entered the priesthood, if he fails to study the Buddha’s teaching and to refute its slanderers but simply spends his time in idleness and chatter, then he is no better than an animal dressed in priestly robes” (“The Fourteen Slanders,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 760).

And: “The votaries of the Lotus Sutra in the Latter Day of the Law, who are so faithful in upholding the sutra that they are hated by others, are the true priests of Mahayana. They are the teachers of the Law who will propagate the Lotus Sutra and bring people benefit” (“Those Initially Aspiring to the Way,” WND-1, 886).

The priests practicing the Lotus Sutra in the Latter Day of the Law are hated by people and undergo major persecutions, which they must fight courageously against to the end. Their mission is to devote themselves to propagating Buddhism and work to open the way to enlightenment for all living beings throughout their lives.

When speaking of lay believers, the Daishonin writes: “As a lay believer, the important thing for you is to chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo single-mindedly and to provide support for the priests. And if we go by the words of the Lotus Sutra, you should also teach the sutra to the best of your ability” (“The Fourteen Slanders,” WND-1, 760).

Historically, the role of priests is to concentrate on sharing Buddhism with others, fighting against the three powerful enemies and engaging in kosen-rufu. The role of lay believers, in contrast, is to focus on chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, making offerings and speaking to others about Buddhism to the best of their ability. The laity are entrusted with the role of supporting the priests.

After introducing these passages, Shin’ichi explained: “In the light of these definitions of the roles of the clergy and the laity, today the Soka Gakkai is carrying out the functions of both. I’m sure that there is no other Buddhist organization carrying out the Buddha’s intent so faithfully and harmoniously anywhere else in the world.”

Who has advanced kosen-rufu in the present? Who has been the target of persecution? It is none other than the Soka Gakkai. Therefore, we could say that the spirit and practice of the Soka Gakkai are fulfilling both the roles of the priesthood and the teacher of the Law. (The New Human Revolution, vol. 24, pp. 158–61) WT

A Misinterpretation of the Three Treasures Mistakenly Elevated Priests

The word sangha (also spelled samgha) in Shakyamuni’s time was used to refer to the Buddhist Order, which consisted of four groups of Buddhists—monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen. Based on the belief that all people can attain the same life state as the Buddha, spiritual equality was the hallmark of the sangha.

Considered one of the three treasures—three fundamental elements of reverence in Buddhism—along with the Buddha and the Dharma (Law), the sangha’s essential role is to preserve and widely propagate the Buddha’s teaching.

As Buddhism spread from India, sangha was transliterated into Chinese as seng-chia. Abbreviated as seng, this word came to refer to individual monks. As Buddhism reached Japan, the word, pronounced so in Japanese, came to promote reverence toward an individual priest, bringing about the distorted view that an individual priest could be revered as one of the three treasures.

This misinterpretation is what the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood has leaned on to dogmatically define “the treasure of the priest” as one of its three treasures, while the treasure of the sangha originally referred to the Buddhist Order, which includes both priests and laity.

Voice of Courage and Hope

Q: Why do we sing songs at SGI meetings?