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Buddhist Study

Living Based on a Great Vow


Attaining Buddhahood is no easier than for men of low status to enter court circles, or for carp to climb the Dragon Gate. Shariputra, for example, practiced bodhisattva austerities for sixty kalpas in order to attain Buddhahood, but finally could persevere no longer and slipped back into the paths of the two vehicles[1] . . .

My wish is that all my disciples make a great vow. (“The Dragon Gate,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, pp. 1002–03)

The Tale of the Dragon Gate

In this letter, Nichiren Daishonin emphasizes that attaining Buddhahood entails overcoming many hurdles and difficulties. To make his point, he draws analogies from the ancient Chinese tale of the Dragon Gate waterfall and the history of the Taira clan[2] in Japan. He also gives an example from the Buddhist scriptures on the difficulty of attaining Buddhahood, citing the story of how Shariputra, one of Shakyamuni’s 10 major disciples, regressed in his Buddhist practice in a past existence.

Some sources place the legendary Dragon Gate on the upper or middle reaches of the Yellow River. It was held that carp that managed to climb the falls would become dragons. In this letter, the Daishonin describes the Dragon Gate as one 100 feet high and ten cho (0.6 miles) wide. In some of his other writings,[3] he describes it as being 1,000 feet high and located on Mount T’ien-t’ai.[4] Given these divergences, it is difficult for us to come up with a definitive picture of the falls. Be that as it may, however, the story goes that the force of the current is so intense that most of the carp are unsuccessful in their attempts to climb the falls, no matter how many times they try. Moreover, birds of prey and fishermen lie in wait to catch them. Only a carp that can overcome all these challenges and reach the top of the waterfall can become a dragon with the power to control the rain and thunderclouds. This story is related in the Chinese historical text The Book of the Later Han. In many countries in the East to this day, the expression “climbing the Dragon Gate” is used to indicate surmounting difficult hurdles or high barriers to gain success in society or one’s profession.

Through this example, Nichiren highlights for [Nanjo] Tokimitsu [to whom this letter is addressed] that remaining steadfast in one’s Buddhist practice to the very end is an undertaking fraught with as many difficulties as a carp faces in climbing the Dragon Gate and turning into a dragon. The strong currents of the waterfall that drive the fish back can be likened to the conditions of an evil age defiled by the five impurities[5] as described in the Lotus Sutra; while the birds of prey and fishermen can be likened to the three obstacles and four devils[6] and the three powerful enemies[7] that hinder one’s efforts to attain Buddhahood . . .

Precisely because it is so difficult to carry out faith in the Mystic Law in such an age, the bond of mentor and disciple in Buddhism takes on decisive importance. Likewise, a harmonious community of fellow practitioners solidly united in purpose—in what Nichiren terms “the spirit of many in body, one in mind”—is also indispensable. The Soka Gakkai possesses the bond of mentor and disciple that is strong enough to withstand any adversity. And its members—noble ordinary people who are polishing their lives by striving in faith with the same commitment as their mentor—are allied together in solid unity. Moreover, countless members, like magnificent dragons born through the triumphant ascent of the waterfall, are leading lives of profound dignity and confidence forged through continually challenging themselves in their faith and self-development.

Be Wary of Negative Influences, or “Evil Friends”

Dragons have the job of making the rain fall—this same work can be regarded as a burden or as a mission, depending on how one looks at it. This difference in outlook or attitude is also what determines whether we will be defeated by negative influences, or evil friends, or successfully attain Buddhahood. Truly, as Nichiren says, “It is the heart that is important” (“The Strategy of the Lotus Sutra,” WND-1, 1000). And this difference in heart or spirit comes down to whether we embrace the great vow that is mentioned in this letter.

To bring our practice of the Lotus Sutra, or the Mystic Law, to successful completion means that we must eagerly and joyfully embrace the mission of taking on the sufferings of still more and more people and of challenging even greater difficulties in our cause for peace and happiness. Nichiren urges us to actively seek this way of life, to valiantly climb the Dragon Gate of faith as successors of kosen-rufu, and attain Buddhahood without fail. As practitioners of the Mystic Law, this is what it means for us to “live based on a great vow.”


  1. The Treatise on Great Perfection of Wisdom explains that in a previous existence, Shariputra was engaged in offering alms as part of his bodhisattva practice when a Brahman begged him for his eye. Upon receiving Shariputra’s eye, the Brahman was so revolted by its smell that he trampled on it. With this, Shariputra discontinued his bodhisattva practice, retreating into the way of voice-hearers and failed to attain Buddhahood. ↩︎
  2. Nichiren Daishonin also writes about the faithful warriors of the Taira clan who protected the imperial palace. While being of low rank, they longed to mingle in court circles. Despite crushing the rebellion of Masakado, Sadamori of the Taira clan was still not admitted to court. It wasn’t until generations later that the family was granted permission to enter the court, and a few generations after that for a member of the Taira clan to become emperor (see WND-1, 1002). ↩︎
  3. See “Letter to Akimoto,” WND-1, 1021; and “Climbing Up Dragon Gate,” WND-2, 673. ↩︎
  4. Mount T’ien-t’ai: A mountain in China’s Zhejiang Province where the Great Teacher T’ien-t’ai lived. Mount T’ien-t’ai prospered as a center of Chinese Buddhism. ↩︎
  5. Five impurities: Also, five defi lements. 1) Impurity of the age includes repeated disruptions of the social or natural environment. 2) Impurity of desire is the tendency to be ruled by the five delusive inclinations (greed, anger, foolishness, arrogance and doubt). 3) Impurity of living beings is the physical and spiritual decline of human beings. 4) Impurity of thought, or impurity of view, is the prevalence of wrong views such as the five false views. 5) Impurity of life span is the shortening of the life spans of living beings. ↩︎
  6. Three obstacles and four devils: Various obstacles and hindrances to the practice of Buddhism. The three obstacles are 1) the obstacle of earthly desires, 2) the obstacle of karma and 3) the obstacle of retribution. The four devils are 1) the hindrance of the five components, 2) the hindrance of earthly desires, 3) the hindrance of death and 4) the hindrance of the devil king. ↩︎
  7. Three powerful enemies: Three types of arrogant people who persecute those who propagate the Lotus Sutra in the evil age after Shakyamuni Buddha’s death. The Great Teacher Miao-lo of China summarizes them as arrogant lay people arrogant priests and arrogant false sages. ↩︎

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