I view with the greatest pleasure the publication of this English translation of the Ongi kuden, or The Record of the Orally Transmitted Teachings, by Dr. Burton Watson, a translator of world renown. For it will introduce to the world at large the essence of East Asian Buddhism.
Dr. Watson is widely known for his deep understanding of Chinese literature and his translations of Ssu-ma Ch’ien’s Records of the Historian and of Chinese poetry. We first met in 1973. I had for some time thought of him as the most suitable person to undertake a translation of the Lotus Sutra, and I expressed the hope that he would one day gratify us with a translation done from Kumārajīva’s Chinese version of the text. I was of course aware that there were already a number of English translations of the sutra. My hope, however, was that he would produce a translation marked by stylistic beauty, one that would do justice to the literary qualities of the text and at the same time be easily understood by readers not already familiar with Buddhism. Dr. Watson, having agreed to my proposal, fulfilled his promise twenty years later with the publication of his translation of the Lotus Sutra. It has proved a major event in the history of world Buddhism, a powerful beacon to light the future of humankind.
In 1992, the year before Dr. Watson’s translation of the Lotus Sutra appeared, I met with him again. We talked about the Ongi kuden, which embodies Nichiren’s comments on the Lotus Sutra. Dr. Watson, who by this time had completed his translation of the sutra itself, expressed a deep interest in the manner in which Nichiren interpreted it. Aware of the many problems involved, he agreed nevertheless to undertake an English translation of the Ongi kuden as well. Now, a fitting adornment to his long career as a translator, his translation of that text is being published. I am confident that it will open up to the world the profound philosophical teachings of Buddhism and act as a joyous revelation to all humankind.
Numerous persons throughout the world who seek a deeper understanding of Buddhism have heard of the Ongi kuden, but only a few have had a glimpse of its contents. Many have expressed a strong desire to learn more about the text and have long wished for an English translation.
On the occasion of the publication of this translation, I would like here to say a brief word about my own understanding of the Ongi kuden.
As I recall, it was August of 1962 when I began a series of lectures on the Ongi kuden designed for college-level students who were members of the Soka Gakkai. I wanted to train future leaders of the movement and to make the profound philosophy of Nichiren accessible in contemporary terms. It was a time of nuclear armament, an age engulfed in hatred and mistrust, and I felt there was a deep need to replace these with a humanism based on mutual trust and harmony.
Generally speaking, Buddhism is viewed as an exploration of the inner world of the individual, focusing mainly upon meditation and the observance of religious precepts or rules. And in fact it has largely ignored the question of how these inner concerns of the individual can be applied to the outer world of society as a whole. Therefore few people perceive Buddhism as a philosophy for the attainment of world peace.
Nichiren, however, as he demonstrated in his famous work On Establishing the Correct Teaching for the Peace of the Land, posited a fundamental truth or principle that a revolution beginning within the inner being of the individual can then bring about a similar revolution in the world at large.
Basing himself upon the Lotus Sutra, Nichiren did not look to some external being such as a Buddha or the gods as the source of this revolution in the individual and in society. Instead he perceived a Law or truth that permeates both the inner being of the individual and the life force of the universe as a whole, and sought to open up and disseminate an understanding of that truth. But this concept far transcended the ordinary thinking of the age in which he lived, and as a result, as the Lotus Sutra itself had predicted, he could not fail but encounter numerous grave difficulties. And indeed, the very fact that he endured such difficulties in the course of propagating the sutra was proof of the correctness of its teachings, and at the same time evidence that he was, as it were, “reading the Lotus Sutra” with his whole being, that he was a true “votary of the Lotus Sutra.”
In later years, when Nichiren retired to Mount Minobu, he delivered a series of lectures on the Lotus Sutra for the instruction of his disciples. He revealed the hidden meanings of the sutra passages that were so familiar to him, the meanings that earlier authorities on the sutra such as the Great Teacher T’ien-t’ai and the Great Teacher Miao-lo had not fully brought to light. Nichiren, utilizing the work of these earlier commentators, in his own lectures on the sutra proceeded to make clear these hidden meanings.
His lectures were recorded and compiled by Nikkō, one of his closest disciples. Nichiren gave his approval to the work, whose completion is recorded as the first day of the first month of the first year of the Kōan era, which corresponds to the year 1278. It later came to be known as the Ongi kuden, or The Record of the Orally Transmitted Teachings.
The charge is often made that the Lotus Sutra, though abounding in highly vivid similes and parables, lacks philosophical content. If we look only at its surface meaning, we may perhaps agree with such an opinion. But Buddhism customarily applies three approaches in interpreting its writings, examining them first from the standpoint of the words of the text, then from that of the ideas or meaning implied by the words, and finally, from that of the underlying purport or purpose of the work.
Chinese authorities on the Lotus Sutra such as T’ien-t’ai and Miao-lo, by pondering the words of the sutra, had derived from them certain subtle ideas or doctrines, which they described in terms such as “the mutual possession of the Ten Worlds,” “three thousand realms in a single moment of life,” “the attainment of Buddhahood in the remote past,” “opening the near and revealing the distant,” or “the replacement of the three vehicles with the one vehicle.” But their commentaries had as yet not brought to light the underlying purpose or import of the Lotus Sutra.
Nichiren in his lectures on the sutra revealed that the purport or heart of the work is Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, and from that standpoint he proceeded to give his explication of the sutra as a whole. This may be termed an interpretation based on his observation of the mind, or the inner truth, implicit in the text, and it constitutes a philosophy of profound depth. Nichiren in effect infused new life into the Lotus Sutra.
The Record of the Orally Transmitted Teachings begins with an explication of the term Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. It then proceeds to cite key passages in each of the twenty-eight chapters of the Lotus Sutra, in some cases first introducing quotations from the commentaries of T’ien-t’ai or Miao-lo on these passages, in other cases proceeding directly to Nichiren’s interpretation, which, as mentioned earlier, is based upon his “observation of the mind.” The work concludes with commentary on key passages from two short sutras, the Immeasurable Meanings Sutra and the Universal Worthy Sutra, that have traditionally been regarded as prologue and epilogue, respectively, to the Lotus Sutra. In all, Orally Transmitted Teachings contains commentary on a total of 231 passages. Furthermore, there are two additional sections.
What is the basic philosophical outlook of Orally Transmitted Teachings? Various interpretations are possible, but my view is that ultimately it resides in the concept of the dignity of the human being and the dignity of life. In specific terms, it is the belief that ordinary people are capable of attaining Buddhahood, that ordinary people are in fact Buddhas.
In most religions, human beings are relegated to a level quite inferior to that of the sacred being or beings of the faith. But in a religion like Buddhism, whose basic mission is to elevate men and women to the highest plane of spiritual attainment, human beings are referred to rather as “children of the gods” or “children of the Buddha,” terminology that reflects the religion’s very reason for existing.
This fact is most clearly indicated in the following passage from Orally Transmitted Teachings. In the “Life Span” chapter of the Lotus Sutra, Shakyamuni Buddha reveals that he attained Buddhahood in the far distant past. “It has been immeasurable, boundless hundreds, thousands, ten thousands, millions of nayutas of kalpas,” he explains, “since I in fact attained Buddhahood” (Lotus Sutra, p. 225).
Ordinarily, one would of course take the “I” in this utterance to refer to Shakyamuni himself. But Nichiren declares that the “I” refers to “the living beings of the Dharma-realm,” to “each and every one in the Ten Worlds.” He is saying that all beings in the Ten Worlds of existence have from the beginning been Buddhas. One might suppose that this is a statement of mere abstract principle. But Nichiren goes on to say, “Now Nichiren and his followers, those who chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, are the original lords of teachings of the ‘Life Span’ chapter” (p. 126). That is, anyone who chants the daimoku, regardless of who the person may be, can perceive that he or she has “from the beginning been a Buddha.” In this way he demonstrates the concrete application of his earlier statement.
Thus, in a simple and straightforward pronouncement, he states the principle that ordinary people are identical with the Buddha. This view of human beings is one of the most outstanding characteristics of Orally Transmitted Teachings.
But then there is the problem of human suffering. It would not be too much to say that all human life is in a sense a battle, a trial of endurance. As Tolstoy has written, “All happy families are alike but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion.” In life we are buffeted by a veritable storm of troubles: the death of kin, pronouncements of incurable illness, bankruptcy, job loss, dissension in the family. This is the true nature of life, and for that reason, people turn to the teachings of the Lotus Sutra in hope of finding some safety in the midst of such realities, for the “peace and security in their present existence” that the Lotus Sutra promises (Lotus Sutra, p. 99). But if such ills condemn human beings to unhappiness, then we would have to conclude that the happy human being exists only in fantasy.
Nichiren himself lived a life marked by repeated troubles and hardship. Twice condemned to exile, faced with execution, attacked by warriors and ruffians, subjected to abuse and slander, again and again his very existence was in danger. His was a life far removed from the “peace and security” described in the Lotus Sutra. And for that very reason, many people doubted that Nichiren was in fact the kind of “votary of the Lotus Sutra” who faithfully carries out the sutra’s injunctions.
In his lectures on the Lotus Sutra, Nichiren, viewing the course of his own life and pondering the harsh realities of human existence, declared, “You should understand that, when one practices the Lotus Sutra under such circumstances, difficulties will arise, and these are to be looked on as ‘peaceful’ practices” (p. 115). Such a statement would at first glance seem to contradict the Lotus Sutra itself. But rather than being a conclusion that contradicts the Lotus Sutra, it is one that brings to light the true meaning of the sutra, a meaning that lies deeper than the mere surface words of the text.
From his words we learn that happiness means not the absence of troubles but rather the refusal to be defeated by them, which is the true definition of happiness.
Nichiren goes on to state, “The Nirvana Sutra says, ‘The varied sufferings that all living beings undergo—all these are the Thus Come One’s own sufferings.’ And Nichiren declares that the varied sufferings that all living beings undergo—all these are Nichiren’s own sufferings” (p. 138). He announces that he will carry out an act of great compassion, sharing the sufferings of all beings and rescuing them from these sufferings. Thinking not of himself alone, he expresses a fervent desire to bring happiness to all human beings, showing through his own being the true way for a Buddhist believer to proceed.
I would like also to call attention to Nichiren’s comments on “The Bodhisattva Never Disparaging” chapter of the Lotus Sutra. The example of patience and perseverance that this bodhisattva presents, the power of a Law that seeks to save both believers and maligners alike, his practice of paying honor to the Buddha nature present in all beings as he “simply went about bowing to people” (Lotus Sutra, p. 267)—all this is a concrete demonstration of the belief that all people are capable of attaining Buddhahood. And Nichiren adopts this same practice as his own, developing it into a compassionate struggle to save all humankind through kōsen-rufu, or the wide propagation of the teachings.
Nichiren believed that the heart of Shakyamuni Buddha’s lifetime teachings lay in the Lotus Sutra, and that the heart of the Lotus Sutra’s practice lay in the “Never Disparaging” chapter. In one of his letters, he writes, “What does Bodhisattva Never Disparaging’s profound respect for people signify? The purpose of the appearance in this world of Shakyamuni Buddha, the lord of teachings, lies in his behavior as a human being.”1 This letter, which resounds with praise for the humanism of the Buddhist doctrine, stresses that the truth of Buddhism is to be found not in the words of the sutra alone, but in the Buddha’s aims as they are revealed in his actions as a human being.
Bodhisattva Never Disparaging bowed to persons of all kinds in order to awaken them to the reality that all possess the Buddha nature within themselves. In doing so, he gave expression to boundless courage and a faith that could not be shaken.
Nichiren in his comments on the “Never Disparaging” chapter lists fourteen different ways in which one could look at the act of obeisance performed by the bodhisattva as he “went about bowing to people.” In one of these he says, “It is like the situation when one faces a mirror and makes a bow of obeisance: the image in the mirror likewise makes a bow of obeisance to oneself” (p. 165). Here he is pointing to a highly important moral principle that appears to be lacking in modern society, namely, a spirit of mutual trust and mutual esteem, one that understands that when you show respect for others, they will show respect for you.
The principal cause for the sense of alienation that besets human beings in our present-day society is egotism. This is the conclusion reached in the discussions I held some years ago with the historian, Dr. Arnold Toynbee. And how is one to overcome this attachment to egotism? From a Buddhist point of view, it is to be accomplished by ridding human beings of their self-centeredness, of what Buddhism terms the “fundamental darkness” that enshrouds their lives. This is ignorance, a lack of awareness of the true dignity of their existence, of the fact that their own lives are embodiments of the Wonderful Law and that they themselves have from the beginning been Buddhas. And what can wipe out this ignorance is a firm faith, a faith that never doubts the Buddha nature within all men and women, never doubts the dignity of their inner beings. The engendering of such faith is now humankind’s greatest need, is it not?
An organization of people who are spreading Nichiren’s philosophy of peace and life, and who share its doctrines and ideals, exists at present in 190 different countries and regions of the world. The solidarity of men and women who are wakened to the true dignity of life will continue to expand and make it possible that war and terrorism be wiped out, and that poverty, destruction of the environment, and other global problems that now threaten humankind be solved. I firmly believe that that day will come, and my one great desire is that it may come as quickly as possible.
In closing, I would like to express my own heartfelt wish that readers will find in this book a fountain of inexhaustible wisdom and that it will enable them to live lives filled with boundless courage and hope.