three virtues ［三徳］ ( san-toku): (1) The benevolent functions of sovereign, teacher, and parent a Buddha is said to possess. The virtue of sovereign is the power to protect all living beings, the virtue of teacher is the wisdom to instruct and lead them to enlightenment, and the virtue of parent is the compassion to nurture and support them. Nichiren (1222–1282) interpreted the following passage of the “Simile and Parable” (third) chapter of the Lotus Sutra as expressing the three virtues: “Now this threefold world is all my domain [the virtue of sovereign], and the living beings in it are all my children [the virtue of parent]. Now this place is beset by many pains and trials. I am the only person who can rescue and protect others [the virtue of teacher].” In several of his writings, Nichiren described his role or mission as the votary of the Lotus Sutra in terms of these three virtues. The first line of his treatise The Opening of the Eyes reads, “There are three categories of people that all human beings should respect. They are the sovereign, the teacher, and the parent” (220). Near the conclusion of the same work, he states, “I, Nichiren, am sovereign, teacher, and father and mother to all the people of Japan” (287). Because these three virtues are considered the virtues of a Buddha, the above passages are seen as an indication that Nichiren intended The Opening of the Eyes as a declaration of his role as the Buddha of the Latter Day of the Law who expounds and spreads the teaching that can lead all people to Buddhahood.
(2) The Dharma body, wisdom, and emancipation; three attributes of a Buddha. The Dharma body means the truth that the Buddha has realized, or the true aspect of all phenomena; wisdom is the capacity to realize this truth; and emancipation means the state of being free from the sufferings of birth and death. There is a correspondence between the three virtues, the three truths, and the Buddha’s three bodies: the Dharma body (of the three virtues) corresponds to the truth of the Middle Way and to the Dharma body (of the three bodies), wisdom to the truth of non-substantiality and to the reward body, and emancipation to the truth of temporary existence and to the manifested body. T’ien-t’ai (538–597) states that the “three paths” of earthly desires, karma, and suffering are in reality none other than the three virtues of the Dharma body, wisdom, and emancipation. For example, T’ien-t’ai states in The Profound Meaning of the Lotus Sutra, “Straying from the Dharma body constitutes the path of suffering. There is no Dharma body apart from the path of suffering.” The true nature of the three paths is the three virtues, but when one cannot manifest the three virtues, one remains in the three paths.
(3) Besides these two categories, there are several other sets of three virtues attributed to Buddhas, such as, for example, the virtue of wisdom to perceive the nature of all things, the virtue of eradicating earthly desires, and the virtue of benefiting living beings.