The transmission section has two parts. The first is that of the theoretical teaching and consists of the five chapters beginning with the “Teacher of the Law” chapter. The second is that of the essential teaching and consists of the latter part of the “Distinctions in Benefits” chapter through the eleven chapters that comprise the remainder of the sutra. The five chapters from the theoretical teaching and the eleven and a half chapters from the essential teaching combine to make sixteen and a half chapters, and in these it is clearly explained how one should practice the Lotus Sutra in the Latter Day of the Law. If this is not convincing enough, then further examining the matter in light of the Universal Worthy and Nirvana sutras3 will surely leave no doubt.
Within these chapters of transmission, the four stages of faith and the five stages of practice expounded in the “Distinctions in Benefits” chapter refer to what is most important in the practice of the Lotus Sutra, and are a standard for those living in the time of the Buddha and after his passing.
Ching-hsi4 writes, “‘To produce even a single moment of belief and understanding’ represents the beginning in the practice of the essential teaching.”5 Of these various stages, the four stages of faith are intended for those living in the Buddha’s lifetime, and the five stages of practice, for those living after his passing. Among these, the first of the four stages of faith is that of producing even a single moment of belief and understanding, and the first of the five stages of practice is that of rejoicing on hearing the Lotus Sutra. These two stages together are the treasure chest of the hundred worlds and thousand factors and of three thousand realms in a single moment of life; they are the gate from p.784which all Buddhas of the ten directions and the three existences emerge.
The two sage and worthy teachers T’ien-t’ai and Miao-lo established these two initial stages of faith and practice, and put forth three interpretations concerning them. One equates them with the stage of resemblance to enlightenment, the ten stages of faith, and the stage of the iron-wheel-turning king.6 The second equates them with the first of the five stages of practice, which are identified with the stage of perception and action, at which one has not yet severed the illusions of thought and desire. The third equates them with the stage of hearing the name and words of the truth.
In reconciling these differences of interpretation, Great Concentration and Insight states: “The Buddha’s intentions are difficult to determine. He explained things differently according to the differing capacities of his listeners. If only we understand this, then what need is there for troublesome disputes?”
My opinion is that, of the three interpretations, the one that refers to hearing the name and words of the truth accords best with the text of the Lotus Sutra. For, in describing the first of the five stages of practice that apply to the time after the Buddha’s passing, the sutra speaks of those who “[hear this sutra and] do not slander or speak ill of it but feel joy in their hearts.”7 If one equates the stage described here with a level as advanced as the five stages of practice at the stage of resemblance to enlightenment, then the words “do not slander or speak ill of it” would hardly be appropriate.
This work is one of Nichiren Daishonin’s ten major writings. It is thought to have been written on the tenth day of the fourth month in the third year of Kenji (1277). This work is the Daishonin’s reply to Toki Jōnin, one of the Daishonin’s most learned and devout disciples. In it he stresses that chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo with faith in the Mystic Law is the correct practice for the Latter Day of the Law and contains the merit of all other practices within it, leading directly to Buddhahood.
In the opening section, the Daishonin takes issue with those of his contemporaries who hold that practitioners of the Lotus Sutra must devote themselves to the three types of learning: precepts, meditation, and wisdom. These three were traditionally said to encompass the whole of Buddhist practice. The Daishonin begins his explanation by discussing the “four stages of faith and the five stages of practice” enumerated by the Great Teacher T’ien-t’ai on the basis of the “Distinctions in Benefits” chapter of the Lotus Sutra. The first stage of faith, that of “producing even a single moment of belief and understanding,” and the first stage of practice, that of “rejoicing on hearing the Lotus Sutra,” correspond to the status of practitioners in the Latter Day of the Law, the Daishonin says. Among various interpretations of these initial stages set forth in the recorded teachings of T’ien-t’ai and Miao-lo, he designates as most appropriate the view that they correspond to the stage of hearing the name and words of the truth, the stage where one first hears and takes faith in the Lotus Sutra. For people at these initial stages, the Daishonin continues, of the three types of learning, the Buddha restricted the practice of precepts and meditation, emphasizing only wisdom. And, because the wisdom of people in the Latter Day is inadequate, they should substitute faith; faith in the Lotus Sutra becomes the cause for acquiring the Buddha wisdom.
The four stages of faith are for those who embrace the Lotus Sutra during Shakyamuni’s lifetime, and the five stages of practice are for believers in the sutra after Shakyamuni’s death. The four stages of faith are (1) to believe in and understand the sutra even for a moment, (2) to generally understand the import of the words of the sutra, (3) to expound the teaching of the sutra widely for others, and (4) to realize with deep faith the truth expounded by the Buddha.
The five stages of practice are (1) to rejoice on hearing the Lotus Sutra, (2) to read and recite the sutra, (3) to expound the sutra to others, (4) to embrace the sutra and practice the six pāramitās, and (5) to perfect one’s practice of the six pāramitās. The Daishonin defines the correct stage for practitioners in the Latter Day of the Law to be the first of the four stages of faith and the first of the five stages of practice, that is, to believe in and understand the Lotus Sutra even for a moment and to rejoice on hearing the sutra.