The Lotus Sutra and Religious Cooperation

by Gijun Sugitani

The world can no longer ignore the religious conflict underlying the current ethnic clashes. People of faith have been compelled to reexamine what religion is and ought to be.

The very first World Conference of Religions for Peace (WCRP) was held in Kyoto in 1970. Religious leaders representing different faiths overcame the differences of their beliefs, gathering together in one place to pray together and converse about peace and human rights. The event was considered a religious miracle. Since then the conference has gone around the world, and in August 2006, it will make its way back to Kyoto for the Eighth World Assembly. The fact that 2006 also marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Rev. Nikkyo Niwano, the founder of Rissho Kosei-kai and a central figure in the establishment of the WCRP and its development thereafter, makes this a very special year of commemoration in the history of religious cooperation.

Since 1970, dialogue among the world's religious leaders has gained pace, as a result of a shared sense of responsibility to relieve the suffering of oppressed peoples. Once focused on the threat of nuclear war, which was so very real in the decades of the cold war, people are now concerned about the ethnic clashes that have erupted with the breakdown of the bipolar power structure. The world can no longer ignore the religious conflict underlying these ethnic clashes, and we have been compelled to reexamine what religion is and ought to be. No longer is it possible to ignore those of other faiths.

It was in the midst of this kind of world turmoil that the Vatican took the initiative to push forward the ecumenical movement and promote dialogue with religions other than Christianity. In 1986, Pope John Paul II called for a meeting of the world's religious leaders at Assisi, Italy, for a World Day of Prayer for Peace. The twentieth anniversary of this event will also be commemorated this year.

When the Sixth World Assembly of the WCRP took place in 1994, the opening ceremony was held at the Vatican and Pope John Paul II opened the Synod Hall to non-Christians for the first time. The pope had only words of praise for the work of the WCRP in his speech at the opening ceremony and expressed his high expectations for the conference. This marked the establishment of a strong bond between the pope and Rev. Niwano, then honorary president of the WCRP, who had at last seen his long-held dream to have the pope participate in the WCRP come true.

The Venerable Etai Yamada, the 253rd head priest of the Tendai denomination of Japanese Buddhism, was one of the non-Christian attendees at the Assisi gathering for the World Day of Prayer for Peace. He attended the event without hesitation, making his first trip to Europe at the age of 91 in the true spirit of the Lotus Sutra's teaching of fushaku shinmyo, devotion that spares neither body nor life. At the end of the World Day of Prayer, Ven. Yamada and the pope shook hands, and in an expression of his affinity for the Assisi spirit, Ven. Yamada announced his plans to hold a religious summit meeting on Mount Hiei near Kyoto. True to his word, a summit meeting of the world's religious leaders was held the following year, in August 1987, and Founder Niwano was among the Japanese religious leaders who cooperated to bring it about. Plans are now underway to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of this religious summit in 2007.

The Vatican and Japan's religious leaders have been at the forefront of the global movement for religious dialogue and cooperation. And prominent among the Japanese religious leaders of this endeavor have been Rev. Nikkyo Niwano and Ven. Etai Yamada. These two shared a deep faith grounded in the Lotus Sutra, a faith so profound that even the pope was moved.

In his writings, Ven. Etai Yamada asserted that "there are two ways to the Lotus Sutra: the way of refutation and the way of integration. I believe the Lotus Sutra is a sutra of integration. In other words, it is good for us to walk together as we aim for the top. Getting to the top by knocking down one's rivals is questionable."

For his part, Founder Niwano has said: "The Lotus Sutra teaches us of the One Buddha Vehicle and that all religions spring from the same root. It is a sutra of reconciliation that also instills in us the conviction that we are the ones who must act. At the same time, the Lotus Sutra warns us that it is wrong if, in our zeal, we try to force others into submission."

Clearly, Ven. Etai Yamada and Rev. Nikkyo Niwano shared the exact same perception of the Lotus Sutra. Many believers in the Lotus Sutra are activists for peace, but not a few of these people are prone to be dogmatic and pushy in their approach to others. Friction is inevitable when the Lotus Sutra is interpreted as a way of refutation to force others into the same belief. Where Ven. Yamada and Rev. Niwano stand out is in their shared perception of the Lotus Sutra as a sutra of integration rather than of conflict, a perception that is founded in the interpretation of the Lotus Sutra as put forth by the Chinese Buddhist scholar and founder of the T'ien-t'ai sect (the Chinese predecessor of the Japanese Tendai denomination), Chih-i (538-97). Chih-i is often referred to as the Shakyamuni of China. In his Mo-ho chih-kuan (The Great Cessation and Contemplation), a treatise describing how the teachings of the Lotus Sutra should be put into practice, Chih-i says that a net of only one mesh is of no use in capturing a bird; yet a bird is captured with only one mesh. What does this mean?

Chih-i is saying that not only do humans have diverse individuality, but also that no one person is exactly the same from one moment to another. That is why you need many different kinds of teachings to capture the hearts and minds of different individuals. But when the bird is finally "caught," you will see that it is caught by only one mesh, in other words, by only one truth.

In contemporary terms, this means that the various religions of the world, including Christianity and Islam, must work together to weave the net of human happiness. And each religion should do its utmost for the salvation of those who happen to choose that particular faith. This is a view of religious cooperation that in no way demands that one religion should merge with another.

The Japanese Buddhist monk Saicho (767-822) introduced the teachings of Chih-i to Japan and established the Tendai denomination on Mount Hiei. Saicho taught that there was no single sutra other than the "Flower of the Wonderful Dharma," another name for the Lotus Sutra. In the Shugo Kokkai-sho (Essays on Protecting the Nation), he presents a threefold classification of the teachings of the Lotus Sutra. He does not deny the validity of other sutras, but says that all other sutras culminate in the Lotus Sutra. He classifies the teachings of the Lotus Sutra into three types: fundamental, hidden, and revealed. The fundamental teachings are those of Shakyamuni's enlightenment. The hidden teachings are those to be found in the numerous other Buddhist scriptures, for though they may not bear reference to the Lotus Sutra in their titles, these teachings are still essential to understanding the fundamental teachings. Finally, the revealed teachings are those that teach the One Buddha Vehicle, which is Shakyamuni's cherished essence. Viewed solely as a book of revelation, the Lotus Sutra appears to deny the validity of all other teachings, but viewed from the perspective of all three classifications, the Lotus Sutra can be seen to be a scripture of reconciliation.

Using these same classifications, it is possible to view Christianity, Islam, and the other religions of the world as reflections of the hidden teachings of the Lotus Sutra. Thus, for the true follower of the Lotus Sutra, religious cooperation for peace is nothing less than a practical application of the teachings of the Lotus Sutra. I pray that 2006 will add a new page to the history of religious cooperation.

Rev. Gijun Sugitani, chief priest of the temple Enjuin, Tokyo, was formerly secretary-general of the Tendai denomination of Japanese Buddhism. He serves now as an advisor to the Tendai denomination. He had also served as secretary-general of the Japanese Committee of the World Conference of Religions for Peace.

This article was originally published in the April-June 2006 issue of Dharma World.






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