Chapter 2 Understanding the degradation and corruption of the priesthood
1 Difficulty of believing that Priests can be corrupt
One common reason for those who find it difficult to accept the degradation and corruption of the Nichiren Shoshu is the deep respect that they have for priests who they consider as people with great integrity and high moral standards. The common belief seems to be: “Priests are people who have made the commitment to devote their life to the strict practice and study of Buddhism. Obviously, they are much better than the laity in terms of faith, study and practice. They deserved our fullest respect. It is unbelievable that they can be corrupted and degraded.”
It is such misguided respect that causes a person to fail to realize that priests are common mortals just like everyone, with weaknesses and desires. Becoming a priest does not automatically make them stronger in faith nor better in the practice or study of Buddhism. This is particularly so in the case of Nichiren Shoshu priests since they are allowed to marry, keep a family, own properties, eat whatever they wish, etc. In short unlike the clergy in many Buddhist schools, Nichiren Shoshu priests are not required to renounce secular life.
The Daishonin himself did not in any of his teachings made a distinction between the faith and practice of priest and that of lay believer. How strong one’s Buddha nature is and how much benefits one can draw from the Gohonzon are dependent not on one’s status or intellect. This is clearly explained by Nichiren Daishonin when he states, “‘But how great is the difference between the blessings received when a sage chants the daimoku and the blessings received when we chant it?’ To reply, one is in no way superior to the other. The gold that a fool possesses is in no way different from the gold that a wise man possesses; a fire made by a fool is the same as a fire made by a wise man. However, there is a difference if one chants the daimoku while acting against the intent of this sutra.”(The Fourteen Slanders, WND, p756)
In other words, the Daishonin clearly states that it is correct faith and practice that determines the benefits and power we can draw forth from the Gohonzon. This means that a lay believer who has correct faith and practice is a true disciple of Nichiren Daishonin and will receive benefits from the Gohonzon while a priest who go against the Daishonin’s Buddhism is a slanderer who will receive karmic retribution from his actions.
2 The Buddhist sutras warn of the appearance of evil priests
In the history of Buddhism there are evidence of slanderous acts by the clergy. In Shakyamuni’s lifetime, the evil Devadatta sought to kill the Buddha and cause disunity among the Buddha’s disciples. The Buddhist sutras also contain many warnings of the appearance of evil priests in the Latter Day of the Law who, out of their greed and arrogance, will slander the Buddha’s teachings and persecute the true practitioners of Buddhism.
In On Establishing the Correct Teaching for the Peace of the Land (Rissho Ankoku Ron), Nichiren Daishonin writes :
“But the monks and priests today are fawning and devious, and they confuse the people and lead them astray…
The Benevolent Kings Sutra, for example, says: ‘Evil monks, hoping to gain fame and profit, in many cases appear before the ruler, the crown prince or the other princes and take it upon themselves to preach doctrines that lead to the violation of the Buddhist Law and the destruction of the nation. The ruler, failing to perceive the truth of the situation, listens to and puts faith in such doctrines, and proceeds to create regulations that are perverse in nature and that do not accord with the rules of Buddhist discipline. In this way he brings about the destruction of Buddhism and of the nation.’…
The Lotus Sutra says: ‘In that evil age there will be monks with perverse wisdom and hearts that are fawning and crooked who will suppose they have attained what they have not attained, being proud and boastful in heart. Or there will be forest-dwelling monks wearing clothing of patched rags and living in retirement, who will claim they are practicing the true way, despising and looking down on all humankind. Greedy for profit and support, they will preach the Law to white-robed laymen and will be respected and revered by the world as though they were arhats who possess the six transcendental powers….
The Nirvana Sutra says: “After I have passed away and countless hundreds of years have gone by, the sages of the four stages too will have all passed away. After the Former Day of the Law has ended and the Middle Day of the Law has begun, there will be monks who will give the appearance of abiding by the rules of monastic discipline. But they will scarcely ever read or recite the sutras, and instead will crave all kinds of food and drink to nourish their bodies. Though they wear the clothes of a monk, they will go about searching for alms like so many huntsmen who, narrowing their eyes, stalk softly. They will be like a cat on the prowl for mice. And they will constantly reiterate these words: ‘I have attained arhatship!’ Outwardly they will seem to be wise and good, but within they will harbor greed and jealousy. [And when they are asked to preach the teachings, they will say nothing,] like Brahmans who have taken a vow of silence. They are not true monks — they merely have the appearance of monks. Consumed by their erroneous views, they slander the correct teaching.’ When we look at the world in the light of these passages of scripture, we see that the situation is just as they describe it. If we do not admonish the evil priests, how can we hope to do good?” (WND, p11/12)
In the last sentence of this Gosho passage, the Daishonin teaches that it is not only important to recognize such evil priests but also to admonish them. Today, the evil priests predicted in the sutras have manifested themselves as the clergy of Nichiren Shoshu led by Nikken. Following the strict teachings of Nichiren Daishonin, the SGI is making a committed struggle to stop their evil doings.
3 Unique Historical Development of Buddhist Temple and Priests in Japan
It is clear that priests are neither special nor incorruptable. On the contrary, the history of the development of Buddhism in Japan has shown that priests have traditionally been subjected to and adversely affected by the influence of corruption and degradation.
The following historical perspective provides a good background to the understanding of the corruption and degradation of the priesthood in Nichiren Shoshu.
3.1 Strong dependence on the Wealthy and Powerful
From the time Buddhism was first introduced to Japan in the middle of the sixth century until the latter part of the twelfth century, Buddhism was revered primarily by members of the imperial court and the nobility. Compared with native Shintoism, Buddhism was considered a more profound religion, spiritually and culturally. The common people then had little access to Buddhist teachings or practices.
The rich and powerful nobility supported the building of temples and the livelihood of the Buddhist clergy.Temples during that time were primarily dedicated to offering prayers for the peace and prosperity of the nation. In addition, the main role of priests was in conducting funeral and memorial services for the nobility and praying for the enlightenment of their ancestors.
Eventually Buddhism found its appeal among the populace and the religion flourished during the Kamakura period (1185-1333). However it is clear that the Buddhist temples and clergy in Japan has a history of strong dependence on the support of the wealthy and powerful. Such a tendency continued even after Buddhism was widely spread among the populace and is clearly evident even today.
On the other hand, the ruling authorities have always considered religion as an important means to unify and control the populace while the wealthy see religion as a means to increase their prestige and influence. Such was the kind of mutual beneficial relationship that existed between the Buddhist clergy and the political authorities and the wealthy in Japan.
Needless to say, when Buddhism is dependent on and succumbed to the control of wealth and power, its true spirit of faith would be lost and the degradation of the clergy would set in. This background of the history of Buddhism in Japan offers an understanding of the strong influence of wealth and power in the corruption of Buddhist clergy in Japan in the past.
It is regrettable that this root of corruption remains today in Nichiren Shoshu in which the clergy look upon the pursuit of wealth, power and pleasure as the purpose of becoming priests.
3.2 Imposing a Superior-subordinate Relationship
During the Edo period (1603-1868), to exert control over the populace and prevent uprisings, the Tokugawa government imposed a strict code of superior-subordinate relationship for all people from the feudal lords and samurais to the town people and farmers. These relationships were made hereditary, permanent and unchangeable. Under this system, if one individual rebelled against the Establishment, all the rest of the members within that organization will be held accountable. Levels of authority were created so that this strict system of check and control could be implemented.
As a result, the relationship and code of conduct between subject and sovereign, child and parent, and junior and senior were clearly defined. Unilateral and unconditional obedience was strongly emphasized. The strong monopolized the rights while the weak were obliged to perform all the duties. Such a system of superior-subordinate relationship and unconditional obedience even found its way into the Buddhist clergy and continue to exist today with different ranks been accorded to priests. Each ranks carries with it different status, power and rights.
Nichiren Shoshu was not spared from this negative influence that goes against the core of Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhsim. From the revelation of priests in the present Nichiren Shoshu, it is clear that such an authoritarian system of superior-subordinate relationships is still been strictly practiced within Nichiren Shoshu. Different level of powers and rights are imposed in Nichiren Shoshu with the high priest at the top and the laity at the bottom.
Contrary to the Daishonin’s teachings of the respect for the inherent dignity and equality of all people, Nichiren Shoshu has been advocating the so-called doctrine of “sozoku shitei gi” (the master-disciple relationship between the clergy and laity) which asserts that priests are the masters and the laity are disciples. Another aberration is the exertion of the “infallibility of the high priest” and the “absolute belief in the high priest”.
With such deep-rooted authoritarian beliefs and practices, it is not surprising then that the present Nichiren Shoshu priesthood has such a deep contemptuous attitude towards the laity.
3.3 The Danka system
When Christianity was introduced to Japan in the mid-sixteenth century, it spread quickly among the people and many territorial lords were even baptized. The Christians pledged absolute obedience only to God. Understandably the shogunate considered the Christians as a formidable threat in their effort to preserve a rigidly regulated society in which the people were required to remain loyal to the feudal barons and the shogunate.
In 1614, the shogunate ordered all Christians missionaries to leave Japan and in 1639, it enforced a national seclusion policy which halted any further influx of Christian influence from abroad. Domestically, the Tokugawa shogunate created a nation-wide danka (literally, a lay-believer household) system as a means of eliminating the faith of the remaining Christians.
The danka system required that Buddhist temples take a census of the entire population including data on births, deaths, marriages, occupation, travels, place of residence and so forth and keep it up to date. Every family had to register with a particular temple. In this way, the danka system has unintentionally enabled each temple to have a guaranteed large number of parishioners (or danto, a lay believer registered with the temple). With the regular offerings of parishioners, the clergy were able to lead a comfortable life as long as they performed their duties at funerals or memorial services.
In addition, the temple’s approval was required prior to marriage, travelling, change of residence, and so on. Thus the Buddhist temples became, in effect, a bureaucratic arm of the Tokugawa government with given power and authority to punish anyone who failed to comply. Over time, the clergy came to wield so much power that for the laity to criticize the priests would have been inconceivable.
Within each Buddhist sect, the relationship between the head temple and the subordinate temples were fixed and unchangeable. The status of each temple and the hierarchy of the priesthood were rigidly maintained and observed. Priests were prohibited from spreading the teachings of their sect to adherents of other sects, engaging in a religious debate with priests of other denominations, or having a new temple built.
Under such circumstances, there was two ways for the clergy to vent their energies. One was devoted study of the doctrines; and the other was a headlong plunge into decadence. Regrettably, more priests chose the latter. This caused the general public to look down upon Buddhism as a religion of mere rituals with which they came into contact only on such occasions as funerals or memorial services. Some even labeled Buddhism as a “funeral religion”.
Although the danka system was subsequently abolished and people were free to choose their religion, the mentality fostered by the danka system still prevailed today. To retain their membership, the priesthood promoted “dependent faith” whereby the laity are not encouraged to seek the true study and practice of Buddhism but simply depend on the priesthood to conduct prayers and ceremonies for which the laity offers generous donations to the temple.
In fact, some Buddhist ceremonies and rituals – such as the custom of giving posthumous Buddhist names, annual memorial service for the deceased, offering memorial tablets (toba) for the deceased, annual observance honouring the spirits of the dead, and visits to the graves of relatives in temple cemetery – were established expressly for the purpose of collecting donations. In truth, the Buddha’s teachings do not even mention the conducting of memorial services by priests, priest’s eulogy of the deceased or the bestowal of posthumous titles on the deceased.
This historical background provides another important understanding of the degeneration of the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood. The clergy’s authoritarianism and their over-dependence on the support and donations of the laity promoted under the danka system is very much alive in the Nichiren Shoshu today.
The establishment of the Soka Gakkai and the dedicated efforts of its members in propagating Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhism led to the phenomenal growth of over 12 million members in 188 countries. Supported by the generous donations of the laity and happy to leave the difficult struggles of propagation to the lay believers of the Soka Gakkai and the SGI, the priesthood lost the spirit of faith, live lives of great leisure and indulges themselves in various pleasurable pursuits.
It is not uncommon to find Nichiren Shoshu priests owning sports cars and country club memberships or having a good time at karaoke lounges and getting drunk while forgetting their priestly duties and their daily practice of gongyo and daimoku. The frequency of such behaviours that were reported by the laity became so intolerable that Nichiren Shoshu itself found it necessary to issue instructions to its priests to strictly observe its code of discipline. The latest of such instructions was made in August 1990, shortly before the outbreak of the priesthood issue.
Confronted with complaints and advice from the lay believers to correct their degenerate ways, the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood became even more haughty and contemptuous towards the lay believers, viewing such sincerity as acts of insubordination.
3.4 The Custom of Allowing Marriage in the Priesthood
After the Meiji Restoration of 1868, which marked the start of Japan’s modern era, the Meiji government had the intent to establish State Shinto. They sought to undermine the influence of Buddhism by devising measures to bring about the overall degeneration of Buddhist priests. For instance, the government issued an official proclamation stating that Buddhist priest should be allowed to grow their hair, marry and eat meat as they liked. As a result, Buddhist priests got married, raised families and adopted a secular way of life. Nowhere outside Japan is the custom of marrying among Buddhist clergy practiced in such a widespread manner.
The Nichiren Shoshu priesthood followed suit by adopting the practice of marrying and by taking on secular life-styles. As a result, the Nichiren Shoshu clergy became increasingly burdened by secular concerns like maintaining the livelihood of the family, providing a comfortable home, looking after the educational and financial needs of the children and so on. Inevitably, the pursuit of material needs and worldly desires of the Nichiren Shoshu clergy and their families became a strong contributing factor in the degradation of the priesthood.
Over time, it even becomes customary for priest to groom and arrange for one of their male children to succeed his position in the temple. The status of priests and the succession of important positions in Nichiren Shoshu are often been influenced by family relationships and other ties.
In addition, it is also not uncommon to find family members of priests who are not priest, behaving in an arrogant and contemptuous manner towards the lay believers because they think that they are of a higher status than the lay believers.
4 Jealousy and Arrogance
It is an irrefutable fact of history that the appearance of the Soka Gakkai and the SGI has enabled the Daishonin’s Budhism to regain its brilliance and allowed it to be widely propagated throughout Japan and the world.
The Soka Gakkai and the SGI have created a kosen-rufu movement of unprecedented scale. In the more than 50 years since the Daishonin’s Buddhism was propagated outside of Japan by the laity under the leadership of President Ikeda, the Daishonin’s Buddhism had taken roots in 188 counties and territories throughout the world. This is by no means a simple achievement when we considered the diverse languages, cultures and customs of these many places.
Just to have the Gosho, the profound writings of Nichiren Daishonin’s writings, translated accurately into the many languages without losing its original spirit and intent would be a mammoth task. This struggle however still pales in comparison to the painstaking task of propagating the Daishonin’s Buddhism and bringing about its acceptance in society amidst the misgivings and misunderstandings that people may have of Japanese religions and organizations. Yet against all odds, the “impossible has been achieved” – all through the dedicated and selfless struggles of the laity and in particular of SGI President Daisaku Ikeda.
In recognition of his efforts and his leadership in the promotion of the peace, culture and education movement based on the humanistic teachings of Nichiren Daishonin’s teachings, President Ikeda has been conferred over 300 honorary citizenships and 150 honorary doctorates from various countries and institutions throughout the world.
In addition, many awards and commendation have also been conferred on various individual SGI organizations for their outstanding contribution to the people and nation of their homeland.
These awards and recognition clearly reflect the great trust and respect that the members of the SGI organizations and President Ikeda had painstakingly won through their tireless and compassionate practice and contribution.
Compared with the great accomplishment of the laity in the promotion of kosen-rufu, the priesthood’s achievement must surely seem to be starkly insignificant. When we considered the Nichiren Shoshu clergy’s strong belief in the superiority of the priesthood over the laity, it is not difficult to understand why the priesthood should harbour great jealousy towards the lay believers and treat them with great arrogance and contempt.
5 Arrogance and Insensitivity to a diverse and rapidly changing world
Secluded in their own comfortable world in Japan, the Nichiren Shoshu clergy lost touch with a rapidly changing world with its diversity in cultures and customs. This is one reason why, despite the growing world movement towards democracy and human rights, the priesthood cannot understand and accept the equality of the priesthood and the laity.
Arrogantly holding on to their conservative ways and thoughts, they disregard the people’s cultures and customs and sometimes even ignored and violated the laws of the country.
This insensitivity and authoritarian attitude is also part of the reason why the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood has found themselves in the centre of so many illegal and social issues. Some of these cases are :
1 “The Seattle Incident” – a disturbing incident that occurred in Seattle, USA in 1963 when Nikken was reported to have been involved in an incident with some prostitutes.
2 Nichiren Shoshu illegally set up a temple in South Korea, disguised as a welfare facility, which led to strong protests from the residents in the area. The South Korean authority withdrew permission for the change of use and Nichiren Shoshu failed in their application for a temple in South Korea.
3 The Fujiyama police charged Nichiren Shoshu for illegally setting up 1350 tombs in its cemetery
4 The Head Temple and many Nichiren Shoshu temples were found to have illegally disposed of the ashes of the deceased members.
5 The South Korean court convicted three Nichiren Shoshu priests for illegally bringing into the country large sum of money meant for the building of the temple.
6 After a six-and-a half year court battle, the Brazil Federal Court ruled that Nichiren Shoshu in Brazil has illegally taken possession of a building belonging to the members of SGI-Brazil. The Nichiren Shoshu priest and lay believers were evetually evicted from the premises.
7 Three Nichiren Shoshu priests who went to Ghana, Africa to prepare for the temple opening were interrogated by the Ghana Police for more than a hour about Nichiren Shoshu’s dubious activities in Japan and other countries. As a result of this development, Nikken cancelled his planned visit to Ghana.
8 A Nichiren Shoshu priest, Shinwa Goto who is also a direct disciple of Nikken was arrested by the police in Japan for having sex with two 14-year-old girl. Goto subsequently confessed his crime to the police. Goto was later charged with another crime of raping a 16-year-old girl.
9 The Bureau of Religious Affairs Argentina banned all religious activities of Nichiren Shoshu in Argentina. The decision was based on two reasons:
(1) The Nichiren Shoshu priest resident in Argentina has made remarks, published in its organ paper, that Nobel Peace laureate Mother Theresa was “a devil who led the people to hell.” This remark was widely reported in the mass media and developed into a social issue.
(2) Nichiren Shoshu established an office for propagation without obtaining permission from the relevant authorities.
10 A Hokkeko member (lay believer of Nichiren Shoshu) brought a charge of fraud in Tokyo against a Nichiren Shoshu priest who promised to appoint the believer as a leader if he made a donation of 3 million yen. After the donation, the believer was not appointed and he made a report to the police.
11 The case of how Nichiren Shoshu ran foul of the law in Ghana was widely publicized in The Ghanaian Times. The Accra Circuit Court has ruled that the local branch of Nichiren Shoshu, has illegally constructed its temple on land belonging to Madam Beatrice Oyoe Quatey. The court awarded c 1 million damages against the defendants for trespassing and also awarded cost of c1.5 million against the defendants. The court said the defendants also admitted that when they started developing the land, Madam Oyoe confronted them and asked them to stop work since they were trespassing on her land but they refused and the matter was taken to the Amasaman District Assembly.