On the Importance of the “Expedient Means” and “Life Span” Chapters—Chapter2

On the Importance of the “Expedient Means” and “Life Span” Chapters—Chapter2


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This, indeed, is the prime source of our sorrows. Buddhism teaches the doctrine of the twelve-linked chain of causation, which states, in effect, that our bodies are endowed with various sufferings. Because we created karma in a previous existence, we become subject to various sufferings in this life; the earthly desires accumulated in a previous existence call forth the sufferings of the present.

The two causes or links in the chain of causation [ignorance and action] that pertain to one’s past existence; the five links in one’s present existence [consciousness, name and form, the six sense organs, contact, and sensation] that are the results of these; the three links [desire, attachment, and existence] that act as causes in one’s present existence; and the two links [birth and aging and death] that are the result of these in one’s future existence, cause one to experience all the sufferings that span the three successive existences of past, present, and future.

When the Buddha was in the world, persons of the two vehicles, hoping to rid themselves of these sufferings, sought to immerse themselves in the truth of non-substantiality, making ashes of their bodies and wiping out their consciousnesses; they abandoned any hope of carrying out the striving and assiduousness that characterize the bodhisattva, and believed instead that the highest truth was to be found in the realization of the principle of non-substantiality.

In the period when the Buddha was preaching the correct and equal sutras, he chastised those who adopted this ideal. How can anyone who receives life in this threefold world hope to free himself from suffering? Even those who attain the status of arhat and are worthy to receive alms cannot do so, much less those who are mere ordinary mortals on a much lower level. Therefore the Buddha urged his followers to make haste and depart from the sufferings of birth and death entirely.

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This is Nichiren Daishonin’s reply to a letter from his follower Ōta Saemon-no-jō, also known as Ōta Jōmyō, who lived in Shimōsa Province. From the content it is clear that in 1278 Ōta sent offerings with a letter to the Daishonin at Minobu. In the letter, Ōta had reported his recent sufferings, physical and spiritual, and his concern that his present age, fifty-seven, was considered a “dangerous year,” or an “unlucky age,” in Japanese and Chinese tradition. He was the same age as the Daishonin.

The Daishonin responds that various sufferings are unavoidable, but that the Lotus Sutra provides “good medicine” to alleviate the sufferings of body and mind.

Suffering is a result of the karma one created in past existences, the Daishonin explains. He then cites the Buddhist principle of the twelve-linked chain of causation, which defines the links of causation between the previous existence and the present, between the present existence and the future.

He also discusses the yin and yang theory of the five agents, sharing some knowledge of a dangerous year with Ōta based on the so-called precept of adapting to local customs.

The Daishonin tells Ōta that he is copying for him two chapters of the Lotus Sutra. They are the second chapter, “Expedient Means,” and the sixteenth, “Life Span,” the core chapters respectively of the theoretical teaching and the essential teaching. He also addresses errors and falsehoods promulgated by the True Word and Flower Garland schools, which stole the T’ien-t’ai school’s principle of three thousand realms in a single moment of life. This principle, the Daishonin says, is found only in the Lotus Sutra, and it was expounded by Shakyamuni Buddha when he originally attained enlightenment. The Daishonin identifies himself as “a disciple of the Buddha in his true identity,” that is, as a Bodhisattva of the Earth.

In closing, the Daishonin advises Ōta to trust in him concerning “this year of danger that you face,” and see whether the promises of Shakyamuni and all the other Buddhas made in the Lotus Sutra to protect its believers are trustworthy.

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