THERE are six kinds of flavors. The first is subtle, the second, salty, the third, pungent, the fourth, sour, the fifth, sweet, and the sixth, bitter. Even if one were to prepare a feast of a hundred flavors, if the single flavor of salt were missing, it would be no feast for a great king. Without salt, even the delicacies of land and sea are tasteless.
The ocean has eight mysterious qualities. First, it gradually becomes deeper. Second, being deep, its bottom is hard to fathom. Third, its salty taste is the same everywhere. Fourth, its ebb and flow follows certain rules. Fifth, it contains various treasure storehouses. Sixth, creatures of great size exist and dwell in it. Seventh, it refuses to house corpses. Eighth, it takes in all rivers and heavy rainfall without either increasing or decreasing.
[The Nirvana Sutra] compares “it gradually becomes deeper” to the Lotus Sutra leading everyone, from ordinary people who lack understanding to sages who possess it, to attain the Buddha way. The reason [the sutra uses the metaphor] “being deep, its bottom is hard to fathom” is that the realm of the Lotus Sutra can only be understood and shared between Buddhas, while those at the stage of near-perfect enlightenment or below are unable to master it. “Its salty taste is the same everywhere” compares all rivers, which contain no salt, to all sutras other than the Lotus, which offer no way to attain enlightenment. [TheNirvana Sutra] compares the water of all the rivers flowing into the sea and becoming salty to the people of different capacities instructed through the various provisional teachings who attain the Buddha way when they take faith in the Lotus Sutra. It compares “its ebb and flow follows certain rules” to upholders of the Mystic Law who even though they were to lose their lives would attain the stage of non-regression. It compares “it contains various treasure storehouses” to the countless practices and good deeds of all the Buddhas and bodhisattvas, and the blessings of the various pāramitās being contained in the Mystic Law. The reason for “creatures of great size exist and dwell in it” is that, because the Buddhas and bodhisattvas possess great wisdom, they are called “creatures of great size,” and that their great bodies, great aspiring minds, great distinguishing features, great evil-conquering force, great preaching, great authority, great transcendental powers, great compassion, and great pity all arise naturally from the Lotus Sutra. The reason for “it refuses to house corpses” is that with the Lotus Sutra one can free oneself for all eternity from slander and incorrigible disbelief. The reason for “without either increasing or decreasing” is that the heart of the Lotus Sutra is the universality of the Buddha nature in all living beings.
The brine in a tub or jar of pickled vines ebbs and flows in accordance with the brine of the sea.1 One who upholds the Lotus Sutra and is subjected to imprisonment is like the salt in a tub or jar, while the Thus Come One Shakyamuni who freed himself from the burning house2 is like the salt of the sea. To condemn one who upholds the Lotus is to condemn the Thus Come One Shakyamuni. How astonished Brahmā, Shakra, and the four heavenly kings must be! If not now, when will the ten demon daughters’ vow to split the head of one who persecutes a follower of the Lotus into seven pieces3 be carried out?
The date and recipient of this letter are unknown, as are the reasons for its writing. The statements “One who upholds the Lotus Sutra and is subjected to imprisonment” and “To condemn one who upholds the Lotus” indicate that Nichiren Daishonin wrote this letter at a time when he or his disciples were undergoing persecution. Several views exist concerning the year of its writing. One is that it was written in 1261 when the Daishonin was in exile in Izu; another, in 1271 when he was in exile on Sado Island; and a third, in 1279, during the worst period of the Atsuhara Persecution. Of these, 1261 seems most likely.
In this letter, the Daishonin says that there are six kinds of flavors, of which salt is the most important. Without salt, any food will be bland. In employing this simile, the Daishonin is indicating that none of the sutras assume their true significance unless they are based on the truth revealed in the Lotus Sutra. Then he cites the eight mystic qualities of the ocean enumerated in the Nirvana Sutra. But while the Nirvana Sutra actually applies these qualities to itself, the Daishonin asserts that it is using them to praise the superiority of the Lotus Sutra.
Nichiren then goes on to use the above passages to explain how the Lotus Sutra leads all people to Budhahood, and is thus superior to all other Sutras. He compares the Lotus Sutra and the Niravana Sutra drawing a simile with the ocean. He states
- Gradually becomes deeper:
He states that like the ocean, the Lotus Sutra “gradually becomes deeper” as compared to the older Sutras leading everyone to enlightenment regardless of their capacity for understanding.
- Being deep, its bottom is hard to fathom
The realm of the Lotus Sutra can only be understood and shared between Buddhas, while those at the stage of near-perfect enlightenment or below are unable to master it. 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
It compares “its ebb and flow follows certain rules” to upholders of the Mystic Law who even though they were to lose their lives would attain the stage of non-regression. Just as the ocean follows its set pattern and does not come to any person, Buddhahood too is eternal and unchanging – it does not come to those who do not carry out the practices.
- 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 exist and dwell in it
Just as the ocean holds creatures of great size that dwell in it, the Lotus Sutra too goves rise to the Buddhas and bodhisattvas possess great wisdom, and all great acts of Buddha nature manifest naturally from the Lotus Sutra.
- It refuses to house corpses
Again, just as the ocean refuses to house corpses, with the Lotus Sutra one can free oneself for all eternity from slander and incorrigible disbelief. The Daishonin implies 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.
- Without either increasing or decreasing
The ocean takes within itself all the rivers and rain without changing itself. Similarly, the heart of the Lotus Sutra is the universality of the Buddha nature in all living beings. Buddhahood is boundless. It is this essentially empty nature of Buddhahood that makes it infinite in its reach – thus Universal in nature, encompassing within itself all of the universe without being affected by it.
In the final section, the Daishonin compares the salt in a jar or tub of pickled vines to a follower of the Lotus Sutra, and the salt of the ocean, to Shakyamuni Buddha. The brine in a jar or tub ebbs and flows exactly as the ocean does, and by analogy, to imprison a votary of the Lotus Sutra is to imprison Shakyamuni Buddha.