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Buddhist Study

The Significance of the Four Dictums

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The following excerpt is from Ikeda Sensei’s dialogue series “The World of Nichiren Daishonin’s Writings,” installment 3, published in the June 2002 Living Buddhism, pp. 13–17. This serves as supplemental study for the article titled “Transforming Tendencies That Block Our Happiness,” in the Sept. 18, 2020, issue of the World Tribune.

Ikeda Sensei: It is clear that Nichiren Daishonin absolutely did not aim to attack the followers of specific Buddhist schools or to simply expand his own school. The essence of the Daishonin’s practice lay in the struggle against the devilish nature of power and authority that treats the people with contempt. Fundamentally, it is a struggle against the forces that seek to keep people from entering the path to enlightenment. I think we can say that the Daishonin’s declaration of the establishment of his teaching was a proclamation of an active, living philosophy of humanism that opens the path to attaining Buddhahood for all.

Katsuji Saito: So the basis of his practice was the struggle against the devilish forces, and not the exclusion of other schools.

As he pursued this struggle, the Daishonin harshly condemned the Nembutsu, Zen, True Word, Precepts and other schools. His criticism can be summarized into what is called the four dictums. That is: 1) Nembutsu leads to the hell of incessant suffering; 2) Zen is the invention of the heavenly devils; 3) True Word is an evil doctrine that will ruin the nation; and 4) Precepts is traitor to the nation (see “Letter to Akimoto,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 1016). But because of his severe criticism, the Daishonin’s Buddhism came to be seen as self-righteous and exclusivist.

Ikeda: The four dictums were gradually formulated in the course of the Daishonin’s struggle against the devilish functions in order to lead the people of the Latter Day to happiness. They were the crystallization of his compassion and wisdom. They were neither self-righteous nor exclusivist, but rather served as logical critiques of these schools.

To take the four dictums simply as attacks on particular Buddhist schools would be to deny the Daishonin’s true intent. He was in no way motivated by self-righteousness, exclusionism or sectarianism.

Saito: It seems that criticism of the Nembutsu teaching figured prominently in the sermon the Daishonin gave at Seicho-ji when declaring the establishment of his teaching.

Ikeda: At the time, other Buddhist schools recognized the Nembutsu as the easy-to-practice way.[1] In addition, Honen’s followers actively propagated the exclusive practice of Nembutsu.[2] As a result, the Nembutsu teaching had gained wide acceptance. Of course, behind this popularity was the deep-seated pessimism characteristic of the Latter Day of the Law.

Saito: I think the Daishonin’s reasons for initially directing his criticism toward the Nembutsu school can be summarized as follows:

First, in advocating that salvation is gained by rebirth in another land, the Nembutsu goes against the Lotus Sutra, which teaches that all people can attain Buddhahood in this world.

Second, Honen asserts that only the exclusive practice of the Nembutsu that leads to rebirth in the Pure Land can bring salvation in the Latter Day. This is a teaching that clearly slanders the Lotus Sutra.

Third, traveling to eastern Japan, the disciples of Honen manipulated and altered the Nembutsu teachings to gain the support of the leaders of the Kamakura government. They still, however, maintained the self-righteous advocacy of the exclusive practice of Nembutsu.

Fourth, the Nembutsu faith had taken hold in many people’s lives, giving rise to a deepening sense of pessimism in society.

Ikeda: There are also other explanations for why the Daishonin began by refuting the Nembutsu.

Saito: The fact that a number of famous Nembutsu priests had broken out in festering sores and died terrible, agonizing deaths probably had some bearing on his decision.[3]

Ikeda: Another factor may have been that the Nembutsu had long flourished at Seicho-ji, the site where he first preached his teaching, and that the steward, Tojo Kagenobu, was an ardent Nembutsu believer.

Saito: Kagenobu was apparently so passionate in his beliefs that he attempted to force the Nembutsu on the priests.[4]

Ikeda: It seems it was the Nembutsu school, whose adherents were acting in league with the powers that be, that was self-righteous and exclusivist. In many ways, the Daishonin must have discerned the extremely potent devilish nature that was poisoning people’s minds within the Nembutsu faith of the day.

Any religion will assert the absolute correctness of its teachings. For precisely this reason, it is easy for religion to take on sinister aspects that lead people astray. And its negative influence manifests depending on how that correctness is asserted.

Responding to the specific changing conditions of the times, the Daishonin refuted one by one the intensifying devilish nature of the other Buddhist schools.

Saito: When declaring the establishment of his teaching, he almost simultaneously refuted the Zen school along with the Nembutsu school. After returning from exile in Izu, he focused on the True Word (eastern esotericism) and Precepts schools. And last, while dwelling at Mount Minobu, he refuted the esoteric teachings maintained by the Tendai school.[5]

Ikeda: Leaving a detailed discussion of his refutations for another occasion, in general terms, they could be likened to the diagnoses of a physician—diagnoses based on the symptoms of the fundamental pathologies inherent in life. The Daishonin could therefore be said to have begun by treating the surface symptoms and then working into the source of the illness.

Saito: The good medicine that he prescribed for curing this illness was, of course, Nam-myoho-renge-kyo.

Ikeda: That’s right. Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is the supreme and wonderful beneficial medicine that enables us to manifest the world of Buddhahood.

The Daishonin’s actions were motivated above all by the compassionate desire to alleviate the sufferings of the people. It is also surmised that the Daishonin strictly and methodically identified the devilish nature of the representative Buddhist schools of the day in order to carry out the great mission of bringing happiness to all people living in the Latter Day of the Law.

Saito: It could perhaps be said that the four dictums are descriptions of the ailments inflicting each of the major schools at the time, based on their actual condition.

Ikeda: Each dictum ingeniously condenses into a short phrase the essence of the pathology, the specific characteristic of the illness, and the prognosis of the treatment.

Saito: To apply them just as they are today, when circumstances are completely different, would be to miss the point.

Ikeda: Exactly. While the beneficial medicine of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is unchanging, other things change with the times. With regard to illness, there are cases when the archaic name for a disease fails to convey the essence of the illness.

Saito: Let us examine just how the expressions of the four dictums were formulated. First is “Nembutsu leads to the hell of incessant suffering.” As we discussed earlier, the Nembutsu school, with its exclusivist assertion that one could only gain rebirth in the Pure Land by practicing the Nembutsu, was gaining popularity. By saying that the Nembutsu led people to the “hell of incessant suffering” rather than to “rebirth in the Pure Land,” the Daishonin plainly refuted that teaching’s slanderous denial of the Lotus Sutra.

Ikeda: He did so because the Lotus Sutra explains that those who slander the Lotus Sutra will fall into the hell of incessant suffering.[6] Through and through, the Daishonin’s criticism is based on the sutras and his insight into the true nature of these schools.

Saito: “Zen is the invention of the heavenly devils” was a commentary on Zen priests who conducted themselves like enlightened sages, and were revered by members of the warrior class and others. Zen priests such as Doryu[7] of Kencho-ji temple were heavily employed by the military government in Kamakura.

Ikeda: Doryu enjoyed the patronage of the fifth Kamakura regent, Hojo Tokiyori. The Daishonin identifies the priest as one of the chief perpetrators behind the persecutions that befell him.

Saito: The Daishonin openly called the Zen priests “heavenly devils” for their shameless arrogance in claiming a “separate transmission outside the sutras,”[8] and in feigning enlightenment they had clearly not achieved.

In calling True Word “an evil doctrine that will ruin the nation,” he was refuting the True Word school, whose selling point was its prayers for the protection of the nation. As fears of an impending Mongol invasion mounted, the imperial court and the military government turned extensively to those prayers. The Daishonin therefore accused the True Word school of ruining the nation rather than protecting it, decrying its empty, occult practices.

Ikeda: This criticism was based on the fact that the prayers of True Word Buddhism, without the foundation of the principle of three thousand realms in a single moment of life, were nothing but formality.

The lack of this principle in the teachings of the True Word school meant that it was devoid of the broadmindedness and philosophical insight to understand and to fundamentally change human life. Even so, its formalistic practices of prayer and mysticism developed, giving the impression that there must be something to it. The confusion brought about by the Jokyu Disturbance[9] is illustrative of the failure of the True Word school.

Saito: The Daishonin criticized the Precepts school as “traitor to the nation,” because its priests, such as Ryokan[10] of Gokuraku-ji temple, made a show of upholding the precepts and were revered as living Buddhas and national treasures. The Daishonin called them “traitors” instead of “treasures” to highlight their deceitfulness.

The schools that were the focus of the four dictums had considerable influence among the powerful figures of the day as well as the ordinary people of Japan. Also, in their plain criticism of the popular elements of these schools, the four dictums cut right to the heart and refuted their essence.

These criticisms must have carried considerable weight at the time, and word of them must have spread widely. If we were to ignore the specific conditions of that day and age, however, and take it upon ourselves to apply these dictums just as they are to the present, we would open ourselves to charges of self-righteousness.

Ikeda: I agree. The four dictums in essence express the wisdom of the Daishonin, who saw through and strictly identified the self-righteousness of the various schools of the day, as well as their duplicity in concealing their true nature behind religious authority. It also goes without saying that at the foundation of the four dictums is the Daishonin’s compassion to protect the people.

In other words, upholding the four dictums means manifesting the wisdom to refute philosophies and religions that obstruct people’s happiness in any age.

Saito: I think that today this would mean exposing and refuting the true nature of the Nikken sect.

Ikeda: To merely repeat the four dictums simply because they came from the Daishonin, while ignoring people’s feelings and the changing times, is to overlook the Daishonin’s spirit. The four dictums are then nothing but dogma. That is what gives rise to the devilish aspects of religion.

It is people and the heart that count. The four dictums are the manifestation of the Daishonin’s firm conviction to resolutely battle the devilish functions that serve to confuse people. To lose sight of this important point and interpret the four dictums in a superficial or dogmatic manner, and then criticize on that basis the Daishonin’s Buddhism as exclusive or intolerant, is extremely shallow.

Saito: In Human Values in a Changing World, Dr. Bryan Wilson of Oxford University states that there is “a difference between conscious and actively promoted toleration and the indifferentism that can obtain within a polytheistic or syncretistic tradition.”[11] This sounds rather complicated, but what it means is that in a spiritual climate such as Japan’s, religious indifference can easily be mistaken for tolerance. By the same token, firm religious conviction can also be mistakenly branded as exclusivist or intolerant.

Ikeda: The four dictums are neither exclusivist nor intolerant. At their core is the Daishonin’s reasoned religious criticism illuminated by the wisdom of the Mystic Law.

In other words, on one level these four schools illustrate four unbalanced religious archetypes. The critique of them therefore affords a glimpse of a fully developed religion as conceived by the Daishonin. This is a completely balanced teaching that harmoniously incorporates the fundamental characteristics of religion without bias or distortion. In a word, it is a religion for human beings.

The doctrines of these four schools can be summed up as: 1) salvation through the external power of an absolute being (Nembutsu); 2) attainment of enlightenment only through the direct perception of one’s own mind and being content with that self-enlightenment (Zen); 3) gaining benefit in this life through occult means (True Word); and 4) being controlled from without by means of precepts or standards (Precepts).

The perfectly balanced teaching does not succumb to any one of these extremes, but expounds the fusion of internal and external power as the means to transform the life of the individual as well as the surrounding circumstances. Combining internal and external power means discovering within the self a power that is greater than the self. This is what is referred to in the Daishonin’s teaching as “inherent” and “manifest” Buddhahood, and it is the essence of Nichiren Buddhism.

Saito: The “object of devotion for observing the mind” that enables us to reveal the world of Buddhahood in our own heart is the key to this complete religion.

Ikeda: Let’s discuss the object of devotion on another occasion.

In the Daishonin’s Buddhism, these four religious archetypes take on a positive meaning in that they support the transformation of the individual by manifesting the following qualities: 1) the ability to embrace the sick and weary with the life-state of Buddhahood and provide a sense of absolute peace of mind; 2) the ability to believe and actually sense that we possess within us the power to change ourselves; 3) the ability to courageously challenge our circumstances; and 4) the ability to control earthly desires and eliminate evil through our inner wisdom.

The modern significance of the four dictums is not limited to the simple refutation of Japanese Buddhist schools, but in fully developing the positive power of human life. This is the Mystic Law of the simultaneity of cause and effect inherent in human life, and to embrace it is to create boundless value.

In establishing and announcing this perfect teaching, the Daishonin raised the curtain on a religion for all humanity. He thus revealed the eternal and fundamental path leading to enlightenment for all humanity.


  1. Easy-to-practice way: One of the two categories of Buddhist practice taught by the Nembutsu (Pure Land) school. Established for those of lesser capacity, it means to call upon the names of Buddhas, relying upon their power of salvation. The other category is the difficult-to-practice way. ↩︎
  2. Exclusive practice of Nembutsu: To devote oneself solely to the practice of calling on the name of Amida Buddha in order to attain rebirth in the Pure Land. In his work The Nembutsu Chosen above All (Senchaku shu), Honen, the founder of the Japanese Nembutsu (Pure Land) school, maintains that if people wish to be reborn in the Pure Land of Amida Buddha, they should practice the Nembutsu exclusively. ↩︎
  3. In “Nembutsu Practitioners Destined for Hell,” the Daishonin says, “I do not understand the reason why exalted leaders of the Nembutsu teachings and their eminent lay supporters … when they are on the brink of death, should be afflicted by grave illnesses such as outbreaks of evil sores, or when on their deathbed should fall into a crazed and disordered state of mind” (The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 2, p. 291). ↩︎
  4. In “Letter to the Priests of Seicho-ji,” the Daishonin says, “The villainous Tojo Saemon Kagenobu once hunted the deer and other animals kept by Seicho-ji, and tried to force the priests in the various lodging temples to become Nembutsu believers” (WND-1, 651). ↩︎
  5. The True Word school founded by Kobo was referred to as eastern esotericism, while the Tendai school of Mount Hiei was called Tendai esotericism. ↩︎
  6. “Simile and Parable,” the third chapter of the Lotus Sutra, describes the retribution that a person who slanders either the Lotus Sutra or a person who embraces the sutra will face, saying, “When his life comes to an end / he will enter the Avichi hell” (The Lotus Sutra and Its Opening and Closing Sutras, p. 110). ↩︎
  7. Doryu (1213–78): A priest of the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism, also called Rankei. A native of China, he came to Japan in 1246. When Hojo Tokiyori built Kencho-ji temple in Kamakura in 1253, Doryu was invited to become its first chief priest. He opposed Nichiren Daishonin and plotted against him with Ryokan of Gokuraku-ji temple and others, including Hei no Saemon, an official who served two generations of Hojo regents, Tokimune and Sadatoki. ↩︎
  8. A doctrine of the Zen school that expounds that the Buddha’s enlightenment and his true teaching have been transmitted apart from the sutras. The Zen school asserts that the Buddha’s enlightenment has been wordlessly transmitted from mind to mind, handed down from one Zen patriarch to another. This is also referred to as a “special transmission apart from the sutras” and as a “separate transmission out of the scriptures.” ↩︎
  9. Jokyu Disturbance: A struggle that broke out between the imperial court and the Kamakura shogunate in 1221. The imperial forces were defeated, and the shogunate deposed the reigning emperor, placed another on the throne, and exiled the retired emperors to distant islands. ↩︎
  10. Ryokan (1217–1303): Also known as Ninsho. A priest of the True Word Precepts school who was a contemporary of Nichiren Daishonin. He received the precepts from Eizon, who was revered as a restorer of the Precepts school in Japan. In 1261 Ryokan went to Kamakura. Later he became chief priest of Gokuraku-ji, founded by Hojo Shigetoki. During the drought of 1271, he vied with Nichiren Daishonin in praying for rain but failed. After that he contrived to have accusations brought against the Daishonin, which resulted in the Tatsunokuchi Persecution and Sado exile. ↩︎
  11. Bryan Wilson and Daisaku Ikeda, Human Values in a Changing world: A Dialogue on the Social Role of Religion (Secaucus, NJ, USA: Lyle Stuart Inc., 1984), p. 315. ↩︎

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