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Shakubuku: In the Footsteps of Nichiren
By Marge Kirkpatrick


An understanding of shakubuku is critical to the correct practice of Nichiren Buddhism. It is one of the two basic ways of propagating Buddhism: the process of leading a person to the correct teaching by refuting his/her attachment to erroneous beliefs. (The second method is shoju - teaching without pointing out mistaken beliefs). Shakubuku involves a second element as well: conquering the mistaken views in one's own mind and bringing out the Buddha wisdom within. It is important to understand both points, for we must first shakubuku ourselves - confront our own doubts and misconceptions - before we can successfully shakubuku another.

Unfortunately, the practice of shakubuku is often misunderstood. Few seem to recognize that it is first and foremost an act of compassion. Shakubuku is an expression of our belief in the Buddha wisdom inherent in all things, in people's ability to tap that wisdom and, by so doing, to overcome suffering in their lives.

Shakubuku is neither aggressive nor abusive - but because it challenges people's beliefs - is often viewed as "threatening." And not just by the person being shakubukued, but by the person doing the refuting as well. For one thing, too many of us lack the faith to put our own beliefs on the line by pointing out the errors in someone else's. For another, we think it impolite or "politically incorrect" to question or challenge something (anything?) someone else says or believes. But that kind of thinking leaves us all in a muddle. What if Galileo had been afraid to say that the earth is NOT the center of the universe? Or if Darwin had lacked the courage to publish his theory of evolution?

When a scientist puts forth a new hypothesis, it is treated with healthy skepticism. Others poke and prod and turn it upside down. Numerous minds examine the hypothesis from all angles to see if it makes sense and actually works. If it passes the test of scrutiny, eventually it becomes accepted. Then all new hypotheses must fit in with it, too, or present evidence that this new piece of the puzzle actually changes the entire picture.

Nichiren believed religion, too, should be verifiable. He sought to eliminate both the "blind faith" approach and the "I like it therefore it must be true" approach to religious belief. To that end, he devised the three proofs and encouraged people to apply them to their own religious convictions. (First is documentary proof - or a written record of correct practice. Second is theoretical proof - is it consistent? Does it make sense? And finally and most important - actual proof: does it work?)

But Nichiren didn't stop there. He used his own life to test the Buddhism of the Lotus Sutra. If you read The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin you will see that his life was a grand experiment, an expression of his beliefs, and a test of their validity. You will see, too, that - like all of us - he had moments of self-doubt. But always - always his life validated his belief in the Lotus Sutra: his high life condition and abiding wisdom. His overwhelming compassion - even for those who would harm him. His persecution - as predicted in the Lotus Sutra. The timely meteor that halted his beheading. The fulfillment of his prediction of the foreign invasion of Japan. His survival and eventual pardon from two exiles. Each incident strengthened his faith; each furthered his Buddhahood.

But how do we know what worked for Nichiren will work for us? The only way, of course, is by trying it. Indeed, the only way to prove that Nichiren Buddhism actually works for anybody and everybody who practices exactly according to the Lotus Sutra is to have everybody and anybody practice exactly according to the Lotus Sutra. Obvious? Then why do so many refuse to even try shakubuku? Why have some sects gone so far as to deny not only the necessity and but even the significance of shakubuku? Are they afraid of success? Or of failure? Regardless, if we give in to fear, how can we truly be a part of Nichiren's grand experiment? How can we lift religion from the darkness of unprovable dogma into the critical light of verification?

Not convinced? Still feel more comfortable in telling yourself shakubuku is not necessary to teach Buddhism, that all you need is shoju? Know this. Nichiren is exceedingly clear on the point that in the Latter Day of the Law, confronting false doctrines and challenging slander are critical elements in our journey to Buddhahood. If you lack the courage and compassion to practice shakubuku, you will never attain enlightenment. Period. If you read Nichiren - and I mean all of Nichiren - not just a few isolated sentences or paragraphs or goshos; if you read Nichiren - you can't help but see the importance he attaches to the practice of shakubuku nor, I believe, understand why he believes it so critical. Read Nichiren, dear reader, and see for yourself.

Is Nichiren's understanding of correct practice 100% on target? I don't know. Not yet. But I do know this - so far, so good. Not only has chanting improved my life condition, but - once I got up the courage to practice shakubuku - the direction and scope of my entire life began to change. I saw beyond my imagined limits, beyond the fears and frustrations of the lower worlds. The closer I follow in Nichiren's footsteps, the stronger I become, the more manifest my Buddha wisdom, the more rewarding my life. Which is why I have the faith to keep going, to follow this path that Nichiren so lovingly laid out.

Again, dear reader, don't just take my word for it. For without action, it's all meaningless. Without action, it's no more than an interesting philosophical debate. Have the courage to follow your faith, to point out the errors in others' beliefs when confronted with them (such as their dependence on a supreme being), and see how quickly your own life grows and blossoms. Dare to follow in the footsteps of Nichiren. You won't be disappointed.

But until you have sufficient faith that the wisdom of Shakyamuni and Nichiren is also in you and in everyone you teach, you won't have the courage to question faulty teachings. You won't have the courage to stand up for Nichiren Buddhism as more than just "another religion," but as one that actually works to end suffering. More than once I have been told, "there are many truths" as an excuse for not practicing shakubuku. But what does this saying really mean? That everything is true? That contradictory beliefs (such as our present circumstances are the result of divine whim rather than cause and effect) can be true? If that were the case, wouldn't "truth" then be meaningless?

In the final analysis, then, shakubuku is simply an act of truth finding. It's about recognizing that we come to truth from a myriad of directions and with our own circus carts of karmic hindrances. Many of us think we have a handle on the important truths of life, and to some degree, many of us probably do. But our understanding is like that of Shakyamuni's five blind men "seeing" their first elephant. One feels the tail, and says an elephant is like a snake. Another touches a leg and compares it to a stout pillar. A third grabs the tusk, and likens it to a plow…. Each, of course, thinks only he has it right and that the others are deluded.

I like this analogy a great deal. For it not only points out the difficulty in not being able to see the entire picture, but it also shows that partial truths can be more dangerous than outright fallacies. For, like the blind men, we all know what we felt/saw/heard… so why bother with anything else? Especially if it contradicts what we have already accepted. (How incredibly naïve and complacent we are in our beliefs - even if they don't work. Even if they don't make sense. Even if the world is crumbling around us because of them.)

The more I chant and study Nichiren - the more insight I gain into the Lotus Sutra - the more clearly the puzzle pieces of my life, of all life, fit together. Little by little the outline of an elephant emerges - a huge, incredible elephant - as preposterous as such an animal might sometimes seem.

But, you may say… what if, by putting our Buddhist beliefs on the line, we find out some of them are wrong? Well… what if we do? If they are, isn't that important to know? How else can we check and, if necessary, correct our path? We must have the courage to ask the tough questions - not just of our friends and those we teach, but of ourselves; the courage to challenge accepted "truth" - including our own; the courage to be willing to use our very lives as a verification of Buddhahood and as a tool for kosen rufu.

Look at the world today, my friends, and consider. Dare we not confront false beliefs? Dare we not use our lives as vehicles to end human suffering? Dare we not have the faith to follow what we claim to be our convictions? If we lack the courage and compassion to act today, dare we even think what tomorrow might bring?



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