There are several views as to when this was written, but the de facto date accepted is 1261. The recipient of the letter is unknown. This is the fifth Gosho in Vol 1 WND, and is the second time the Daishonin cites the Lotus Sutra as being the only way to achieve enlightenment. In A Ship to Cross the Sea of Suffering Nichiren previously made it clear that all other teachings were provisional.
Only the ship of Myoho-renge-kyo enables one to cross the sea of the sufferings of birth and death.
One of the things I find hardest to accept is the Daishonin’s complete refusal to accept any other Sutras as being of any value. He’s not just saying that Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo is the express lane to revealing your own buddhahood – he is saying it’s the ONLY way. In this Gosho, the Universal Salty Taste is likened to the truth of the Mystic Law revealed in the Lotus Sutra.
The six flavours
Nichiren begins by describing the six flavours (subtle [savoury?], salty, pungency, sourness, sweetness and bitterness). He goes on to state that even to prepare a meal that employed a hundred flavours, if it lacked the addition of salt then it would not be fit for a king.
It is interesting that Nichiren chooses to say a hundred flavours, as this is the number of the mutual possession of the Ten Worlds that go to make up Ichinen Sanzen. Without the salt, or in this case, the world of Buddhahood, then Ten Worlds would have no great purpose. Life would become a painful austerity without any hope of freedom from the sufferings of birth, old age, sickness and death.
The eight mysterious qualities of the ocean
Nichiren characterises the ocean – the storehouse of the salty taste – in eight ways:
- It gradually becomes deeper
- Becomming deeper, its bottom is hard to fathom
- Its salty taste is the same everywhere
- Its ebb and flow follows certain rules
- It contains various treasure storehouses
- Creatured of great size dwell in it
- It refuses to store corpses
- It takes in all rivers and heavy rainfall without changing size
At this point Nichiren takes the following passage from Chapter 39 of the Nirvana Sutra:
O good man! It is the same with the Great Nirvana Sutra, which is inconceivable. For example, this is as with the eight things which are inconceivable. What are the eight? They are: 1) by degrees the deepness increases; 2) it is deep and the bottom is difficult to gain; 3) sameness obtains as in the case of the salty taste [of the ocean, which is everywhere salty]; 4) the tide does not exceed the boundary line; 5) there are various storehouses of treasure; 6) a great-bodied being lives therein; 7) no dead bodies are to be found there; 8) all rivers and great rains flow in, but the volume of water neither increases nor decreases.
and asserts that they apply to the Lotus Sutra, and not the Nirvana Sutra, where they are clearly written.
It gradually becomes deeper – Nichiren then goes on to use the above passages to explain how the Lotus Sutra leads all people to Budhahood, regardless of their capacity for understanding.
Becoming deeper, its bottom is hard to fathom – the Lotus Sutra can only be understood and shared between Buddhas. This explains one of the essential aspects of the Lotus Sutra in that it cannot be fully understood by our wakeful consciousness. That is to say, that to believe the Lotus Sutra is not so much an act of studying, consciously assimilating, and benefiting from practices – but one of faith.
Its salty taste is the same everywhere – Here, Nichiren compares all rivers, which contain no salt, to all sutras other than the Lotus, which offer no way to attain enlightenment. However, the Nirvana Sutra only refers to the salty taste of the ocean as being uniform – All beings possess the Buddha Nature and ride in one vehicle. That is to say, that there is one Emancipation. It doesn’t come in different flavours. The Nirvana Sutra is not saying that all other teachings are worthless – just that there is only one state of Buddhahood. This vexes me. Also, it is the function of the rivers to carry minerals, including salt, into the oceans. So, without them, there could be no ocean.
Its ebb and flow follows certain rules – Nichiren asserts upholders of the Mystic Law who even though they were to lose their lives would attain the stage of non-regression. The Nirvana Sutra’s the tide does not exceed the boundary line seems to have been inverted to mean the tide does not recede past a certain point. The Nirvana Sutra actually states with regard the ebb and flow:
Fourth, the tide does not cross the boundary line. In this, many prohibitions suppress the bhiksus (Buddhist monks). There are eight impure things which they must not keep. It is as when stated that my disciple well upholds, recites, copies, expounds and discriminates this all-wonderful Great Nirvana Sutra and that he does not transgress against it, even if it meant losing his life. That is why we say that the tide does not overstep the boundary line.
This means that those stood on the shore must come to the emancipation of the Law by upholding, reciting, copying, expounding etc. The ocean will not come to them, because Buddhahood is eternal and unchanging – it does not come to those who do not carry out the practices listed.
It contains various treasure storehouses – Nichiren cites countless practices and good deeds of all the Buddhas and bodhisattvas, and the blessings of the various paramitas being contained in the Mystic Law. Again, the Nirvana Sutra contains a somewhat more verbose list of benefits including the Eightfold Path.
Creatures of great size dwell in it – here Nichiren’s description appears to fit more easily with the Nirvana Sutra by stating that the Buddhas’ and Bodhisattvas’ great bodies, great aspiring minds, great distinguishing features, great evilconquering force, great preaching, great authority, great transcendental powers, great compassion, and great pity all arise naturally from the Lotus Sutra. The nirvana Sutra says unhindered, of the fact that all beings are taken in, meaning that all the great acts of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are manifestations of Buddha Nature.
It refuses to store corpses – Nichiren says here that with the Lotus Sutra one can free oneself for all eternity from slander and incorrigible disbelief. The Nirvana Sutra says however:
The dead body is none other than the icchantika, the four grave offences, the five deadly sins, slandering the vaipulya, delivering sermons wrongly or unlawfully. The person stores up the eight impure things; he wilfully uses what belongs to the Buddha and the Sangha; he does what is unlawful [i.e. against Dharma] in the presence of the bhiksus and bhiksunis [monks and nuns]. These are the dead bodies. The Great Nirvana Sutra is away from any such. That is why we say that there remains no dead body there.
Again, the Nirvana Sutra is worded in such a way as to imply that the Nirvana does not comprise those things classified above as dead bodies. Nichiren, applying this text to the Lotus Sutra puts a more positive spin on it, implying the Lotus Sutra doesn’t simply remain pure of dead bodies, but also offers one the facility to free oneself from the practices that would otherwise prevent emancipation.
It takes in all rivers and heavy rainfall without changing size – Buddhahood is boundless. Nichiren uses the word Universality. The Nirvana describes it as no beginning and no end, being non-form, non-action, being Eternal, not being born, and not dying. It is this essentially empty nature of Buddhahood that makes it infinite in its reach – thus Universal in nature. As we have already found, Buddha nature exists in all phenomena.
A tub of brine
Nichiren then begins to examine what it means to slander, persecute or otherwise harm a votary of the Lotus Sutra. He uses the example of the brine in a jar of pickles. Although trapped in the jar, the brine will ebb and flow in concert with the ebb and flow of the ocean. Therefore to condemn one who upholds the Lotus Sutra is the same as condemning the Thus Come One Shakyamuni himself.
The final passage implies that Nichiren was undergoing great persecution at the time, as he asks when the ten demon daughters will fulfil their promise (made in chapter 26 of the Lotus Sutra) to split the head of one who persecutes a follower of the Lotus into seven pieces. He goes on to cite Ajatashatru as an example of this kind of retribution who broke out in sores after imprisoning King Bimbisara.
I am really clueless as to how these passages from the Nirvana have found their way into this Gosho. While I can understand his use of the Metaphor’s in the Nirvana Sutra, his decision to commandeer something clearly written in another Sutra confuses me, particularly when his later criticism and analysis of other texts is so detailed and painstaking.
I’m placing this critique here so I can refer back to it at a later time.