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“Either We Advance or We Retreat”

8 lessons from “Letter to Misawa” on battling devilish functions.


The following are excerpts from Ikeda Sensei’s lecture on “Letter to Misawa” in Learning From the Writings: The Hope-filled Teachings of Nichiren Daishonin.

When an ordinary person of the latter age is ready to attain Buddhahood, having realized the essence of all the sacred teachings of the Buddha’s lifetime and understood the heart of the important teaching set forth in [T’ien-t’ai’s] Great Concentration and Insight, this devil [the devil king of the sixth heaven] is greatly surprised. He says to himself, “This is most vexing. If I allow this person to remain in my domain, he not only will free himself from the sufferings of birth and death, but will lead others to enlightenment as well. Moreover, he will take over my realm [this suffering saha world] and change it into a pure land. What shall I do?” The devil king then summons all his underlings from the threefold world of desire, form, and formlessness and tells them: “Each of you now go and harass that votary, according to your respective skills. If you should fail to make him abandon his Buddhist practice, then enter into the minds of his disciples, lay supporters, and the people of his land and thus try to persuade or threaten him. If these attempts are also unsuccessful, I myself will go down and possess the mind and body of his sovereign to persecute that votary. Together, how can we fail to prevent him from attaining Buddhahood?” (“Letter to Misawa,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 894)

1. For all its negative or destructive influence, fundamental darkness is nothing but ignorance.

Fundamental darkness means fundamental ignorance of the fact that our lives and those of others—and indeed all things in the universe—are entities of the Mystic Law. This fundamental ignorance is the source of all other illusions that give rise to misery and suffering. It also manifests as dark impulses that lead to negative and destructive actions. Since the ultimate illusion of fundamental ignorance is the most difficult to recognize and identify, it can exert a harmful influence on our lives without our being aware of it. And, because fundamental darkness is inherent in all life, it produces dark impulses not only in our lives but in those of others as well. Because this powerful negative force can work in extremely subtle and insidious ways and freely manipulate others, it is referred to as the “devil king,” or [by the name] Freely Enjoying Things Conjured by Others.

Ultimately, however, for all its negative or destructive influence,  fundamental darkness, at essence, is nothing but ignorance. Therefore, it can be vanquished by wisdom. A person who brings forth this kind of wisdom is a Buddha. The supreme wisdom for achieving this goal is found in the correct teaching of Buddhism, which is none other than the Lotus Sutra of Shakyamuni and the teaching of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo of the Three Great Secret Laws expounded by Nichiren Daishonin. (Hope-filled Teachings, p. 173)

2. When one practices the correct teaching, devilish functions are certain to appear.

When we practice the correct teaching of Buddhism, then the three obstacles and four devils are sure to appear, just as “the shadow follows the body and clouds accompany rain” (WND-1, 894). And among the three obstacles and four devils, the most formidable is the last of the four devils—the devil king of the sixth heaven, or heavenly devil. In this writing, Nichiren states that even if we have managed to overcome the three obstacles (earthly desires, karma and retribution) and the first three of the four devils (the hindrances of earthly desires, the five components and death)—we cannot attain enlightenment if we are ultimately defeated by the devil king. (Hope-filled Teachings, pp. 171–72)

3. The devil king’s minions represent various desires and delusions within our lives and environment that seek to obstruct our practice.

These devilish minions [detailed in “Letter to Misawa”] are sometimes referred to as the “ten kinds of troops” or “ten armies” of the devil king. They represent various earthly desires or delusions that arise from fundamental darkness to obstruct our Buddhist practice—manifesting one after another like great legions of demons. They constitute hindrances in the form of: 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.

If the votary of the correct teaching remains impervious to these hindrances, Nichiren asserts, the devil king will then order these forces to enter the lives of the votary’s disciples, lay followers and other people of his land and cause them to persecute that votary.

This means that the fundamental darkness within these people’s lives is stimulated, prompting them to act as devilish functions. (Hope-filled Teachings, p. 174)

4. Self-reliant faith is essential for defeating devilish functions.

In this writing, Nichiren declares that he had indeed met with one great persecution after another, just as he had expected, but that he is filled with immense satisfaction, free of doubt or regret. We can perceive here the essence of faith for defeating the devil king of the sixth heaven—self-reliant faith. The struggle is not up to anyone else; it is up to us. We must pledge to stand alone and take on all hardships. Only then will Nichiren Buddhism spread widely among the people.

Self-reliant faith means non-regressing faith. We must be determined to keep pressing forward, no matter the obstacles. Should we face unexpected trials or hardships, we must grit our teeth, hold our ground and refuse to be defeated. Standing firm until the power of the devil king is exhausted constitutes the first step for our future progress. We must courageously move forward, come what may. We must strengthen our inner fortitude, like waves that grow stronger the greater the obstacles they meet. The key to our surmounting the onslaughts of devilish functions is maintaining a spirit to win through all, to not waver the slightest in our resolve. (Hope-filled Teachings, pp. 176–77)

5. The key to subduing fundamental darkness is faith in the Gohonzon.

What, then, is this key Nichiren bequeathed to us so that we could generate the wisdom to subdue fundamental darkness?

It is the Gohonzon, the object of devotion, which embodies the oneness of the Person and the Law. The primary difference between Nichiren’s pre-Sado and post-Sado teachings lies in his establishment of the Gohonzon (Hope-filled Teachings, p. 178)

6. Nichiren Daishonin’s own victory paved the way for future generations to triumph over fundamental darkness.

In another writing, Nichiren declares, “Not once have I thought of retreat” (“The Great Battle,” WND-2, 465). As this indicates, he never felt inclined to abandon his struggle against the devil king of the sixth heaven. Even during the Tatsunokuchi Persecution—a manifestation of the workings of the devilish nature of power and the intimidating force of the hindrance of death—Nichiren triumphed with composure. His statement, “I survived even the Tatsunokuchi Persecution” (Gosho zenshu, p. 843), is his declaration of victory as an individual, an ordinary person who has won outright in the ultimate struggle with the devil king. …

This utter demoralization of the powerful and wickedly ingenious devil king, I believe, signaled not only Nichiren’s own victory but meant that he could secure and pass on to people of future generations the key to genuine wisdom for conquering fundamental darkness. (Hope-filled Teachings, pp. 177–78)

7. Huge obstacles can be the impetus to propel us forward. Therefore, we mustn’t be intimidated by them.

My mentor, second Soka Gakkai President Josei Toda, often used to remark: “When it comes to battling serious karma and undergoing our human revolution, huge obstacles and hardships can in fact serve as a powerful impetus, propelling us forward. Just ambling along a level road won’t help us change our karma.” The greater the difficulties and challenges we encounter, the greater the life state we can develop. Therefore, we mustn’t be intimidated by the three obstacles and four devils—that is, the obstacles and hindrances that invariably arise in the course of our Buddhist practice. Our wisdom derived from faith allows us to see through such phenomena, recognizing them for what they are, based on Nichiren Daishonin’s teachings, and regarding their occurrence as an opportunity to change our karma. We can then stand up with even deeper conviction and courage, chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo with unwavering resolve and forging boldly ahead. (Hope-filled Teachings, p. 167)

8. There is no middle ground in fighting devilish functions.

Nichiren writes, “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,” WND-1, 637). 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. (Hope-filled Teachings, p. 167)