“Fourth is the debt of gratitude to be paid to the three treasures of Buddhism. If we examine the Flower Garland Sutra, the first sutra to be preached after the Buddha attained enlightenment, we find that it is a Mahayana work preached by the Buddha in his aspect as the Thus Come One of the reward body. Thus, to the voice-hearers, cause-awakened ones, and others, it was like daytime to an owl or nighttime to a hawk; though they listened to it, it was as though they did so with deaf ears or blind eyes. This being the case, though people hoped that the sutra would enable them to pay back the four debts of gratitude, because it speaks disparagingly of women,3 it was hardly possible for them to repay the debt of gratitude owed to their mothers with the sutra.”
Nichiren Daishonin teaches that repaying our debt of gratitude to the three treasures of Buddhism is most important in order to establish the best possible life as a human being. The three treasures are the three pillars of Buddhist faith and practice—namely, the treasure of the Buddha, the treasure of the Law (the Buddha’s teachings) and the treasure of the Buddhist Order (the community of believers). Nichiren’s discussion of the debt of gratitude we owe to the three treasures in this writing is predicated on the question of what is the sutra that truly benefi ts all people. Referring to Great Teacher T’ien-t’ai’s classification of Shakyamuni’s lifetime teachings according to five periods, the Daishonin specifically investigates which sutras contain the teaching of the attainment of Buddhahood by women, which he identifies as the criterion for repaying one’s gratitude to one’s parents, and especially to one’s mother. The classification of the five periods evaluates Shakyamuni’s teachings, not just in terms of chronological periods, but based on a thorough investigation of the Buddha’s true intent—that is, what his message was and how he was trying to convey it. We can assume that Nichiren is presenting the basics of this classification system to Tokimitsu here in an easily accessible fashion, as an aid to the young man’s further study of Buddhism. He then poses the question of which sutra enables one to truly repay the four debts of gratitude. He indicates that when the Buddhist scriptures are measured by the benchmark teaching of the attainment of enlightenment by women, only the Lotus Sutra passes the test. Tokimitsu’s father died when he was young, and it was his mother (the lay nun Ueno) who kept the family together. Having personally witnessed this, Tokimitsu must have earnestly wished to repay his debt of gratitude to his mother and assure her abiding happiness. At the same time, he must have also felt a desire to repay his debt of gratitude to his father, who had taught him about faith in the Mystic Law. In this letter, Nichiren directly addresses the foremost concern of Tokimitsu, opening the young man’s eyes to the greatness of Buddhism and teaching him how to live as a person of wisdom. When the four virtues—starting with the Taoist and Confucian teaching of being good to one’s parents and evolving into a code of conduct for worthies and sages—are regarded anew from the perspective of the supreme teaching of the Lotus Sutra, they can all be regarded as actions of Buddhas in daily life. This includes such things as smiling at our mother to reassure her, winning the trust of others at our workplace, respecting our friends and treating our juniors with compassion. The Mystic Law is the great teaching that leads not only our parents, to whom we owe a profound debt, but also our siblings, our friends and all those in our lives to happiness that will endure throughout the three existences of past, present and future. Even if our parents and friends don’t understand our Buddhist practice now, the beneficial power of the Mystic Law is absolute. If we our selves strive earnestly in faith, we will definitely be able to lead those around us to enlightenment, just as the sun rises in the sky and brightly illuminates all on earth. There is no need to fret or to rush things.