Mother's Day Sermon

In Nichiren Buddhism, it is considered very important to be aware of and to repay the four debts of gratitude. These four debts consist of all sentient beings, one's parents, the sovereign (in our day our constitutional rights or perhaps democracy itself might be substituted for the sovereign), and finally the Three Treasures of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Since today is Mother's Day, I would like to talk about the importance of repaying our debt of gratitude to our parents and especially our mothers. There is a sutra called The Sutra About the Deep Kindness of Parents and the Difficulty of Repaying It. I believe that it was written in China and not India, nevertheless it provides a very graphic description of the kinds of sacrifices that our parents, especially mother's make for us. At this time, let me just share the summary of the ten types of kindness bestowed by a mother on her child according to the sutra:
" The first is the kindness of providing protection and care while the child is in the womb.
" The second is the kindness of bearing suffering during the birth.
" The third is the kindness of forgetting all the pain once the child has been born.
" The fourth is the kindness of eating the bitter herself and saving the sweet for the child.
" The fifth is the kindness of moving the child to a dry place and lying in the wet herself.
" The sixth is the kindness of suckling the child at her breast and nourishing and bringing up the child.
" The seventh is the kindness of washing away the unclean.
" The eighth is the kindness of always thinking of the child when it has travelled far.
" The ninth is the kindness of deep care and devotion.
" The tenth is the kindness of ultimate compassion and sympathy.
It should go without saying that our relationship with our parents sets the tone for our whole life. In fact, many sutras use the parent-child relationship as a model for the ideal attitude that one should have in one's relationships with others. They do this for two reasons. The first is that it is assumed that the bond of affection between parents and their children is the most powerful, natural and selfless possible for the vast majority of human beings. The second reason is that in the context of the Buddhist teaching of rebirth, it is very likely that one has actually been in a parent-child relationship with any given sentient being at one time or another. In fact, the Brahma Net Sutra which Nichiren cites in his writings describes the outlook of the bodhisattvas in the following manner:
He takes all sentient beings to be his father, mother, brother, and sister, and for their sakes he voices the Dharma for as much time as is needed for them to realize the fruits of the Way. For the sake of all sentient beings he reveals all lands and looks upon each person as a father or mother would. Maras and non-Buddhists, as well, he looks upon as a father or mother would.
Viewing things in this manner, one can see how the debt of gratitude to one's father and mother can easily include the debt to all living beings as well, since they can all be considered former or future parents. Naturally this exaltation of filial piety as the supreme basis for ethics in Buddhism comes very close to Confucianism. Nichiren also makes this connection in his major work, the Kaimoku Sho, wherein he observes that filial piety is the most important value that unites Confucianism and Buddhism:
The 3,000 scrolls of Confucian writings can be boiled down to two: filial devotion and loyalty to the ruler. Loyalty also stems from filial devotion. To be filial means to be high; heaven is high but not at all higher than being filial. To be filial also means deep; the earth is deep but not any deeper than being filial. Both sages and wise men also come from filial devotion. How much more should students of Buddhism realize the favors they receive and repay them? Disciples of the Buddha should not fail to feel grateful for the Four Favors (received from parents, people, sovereign and Buddhism) and repay them.

Moreover, such men of the Two Vehicles as Sariputra and Kasyapa kept 250 Buddhist Commandments, lived a life of dignity in accordance with 3,000 rules, progressively mastered the three steps of meditation, completely studied the Agon Sutras (Hinayana scriptures) and won liberty from all delusions and evil passions in the world of unenlightened people. They should be examples of people who know the Four Favors and repay them. In spite of all this, the Buddha condemned them for not realizing what they had owed. The reason for this is that it is for the purpose of saving parents that a man leaves his parent's house and takes a Buddhist vow, but those men of the Two Vehicles, who free themselves from delusions and evil passions, do not save others. Even if they help others to a certain degree, they are still to be blamed for not repaying what they owe their parents so long as their parents are left wandering on the path with no possibility whatsoever of obtaining Buddhahood.
According to Nichiren, filial piety is the highest secular and religious value. Patriotism, loyalty and all other relationships are subsumed by it. Even within Buddhism itself, it separates the narrow-minded and self-concerned Hinayana from the broad-minded and compassionate Mahayana. In fact, even the value of the various Mahayana teachings can be gauged by the degree to which they enable one to help one's parents attain Buddhahood. As one of Nichiren's most important works, it is remarkable how much of the Kaimoku Sho is devoted to the question of how to practice true filial piety and repay the debt of gratitude to one's father and mother. This shows how important Nichiren himself considered this particular debt. Throughout all of his letters and treatises, Nichiren extols the Lotus Sutra as the highest teaching of Buddhism and the one that should be upheld at all costs. In the Kaimoku Sho, Nichiren explains why the Lotus Sutra is superior to all other Buddhist and non-Buddhist (Confucianism and Brahmanism) teachings in terms of its ability to allow one to repay the debt to one's father and mother:
Filial devotion preached in Confucianism is limited to this life. Confucian sages and wise men are such in name only because they do not help their parents in their future lives. Brahmans know of the past as well as the future, but they do not know how to help parents. Only Buddhism is worthy of being the way of sages and wise men, as it helps parents in future lives. However, both Mahayana and Hinayana sutras expounded before the Lotus Sutra preach Buddhahood in name only, without substance. Therefore the practitioners of such sutras would not be able to obtain Buddhahood even for themselves, not to talk about helping parents obtain Buddhahood. Now coming to the Lotus Sutra, when enlightenment of women was revealed, enlightenment of mothers was realized; and when a man as wicked as Devadatta could attain Buddhahood, enlightenment of fathers was realized. These are the two proclamations of the Buddha in the "Devadatta" chapter, and this is the reason why the Lotus Sutra is the sutra of the filial way among all the Buddhist scriptures.
Nichiren is referring here to the instantaneous transformation of the Dragon King's daughter into a buddha (the only such "contemporary" attainment of buddhahood by anyone other than Shakyamuni Buddha in the sutras) and to the Buddha's prophecy of buddhahood for his treacherous cousin Devadatta in the "Devadatta" chapter of the Lotus Sutra. Since no other sutra provided such "guarantees" of buddhahood for all men and women, Nichiren felt that no other sutra could enable one to repay the debt of gratitude to one's parents. With the teaching of the Lotus Sutra, however, one could enable one's mother and father to realize buddhahood for themselves, thus repaying one's obligation to them.

How can the Lotus Sutra enable our parents to achieve Buddhahood? I would say that through our deep faith in the Lotus Sutra we gain confidence and trust in the Buddha's teaching that we can attain Buddhahood. This allows us to gain peace of mind and the ability to create a stable and happy life for ourselves, and our families. This alone will bring our parents peace of mind and even joy, because parents worry the most about their children's happiness and well being, and if their children are happy, most parents are also very happy. More importantly, by demonstrating the value of a life centered on faith in the Lotus Sutra, we are able to engender a spiritual awakening or even a rebirth in others, even our parents. At the very least we plant the seed of the Wonderful Dharma in their lives and give them something to reflect upon and from which to gain hope. Our parents gave us birth, so it is up to us to repay them by planting the seed for a spiritual birth through our own sincere efforts and faith in the Lotus Sutra.

Copyright by Ryuei Michael McCormick. 2000, 2002.