Buddhahood, changing poison into medicine, faith, Gohonzon, Gosho, Lotus Sutra, Mystic Law, Nam Myoho Renge Kyo, Nichiren Buddhism, Nichiren Daishonin, The four devils, The three obstacles, What It Means to Hear the Buddha Vehicle
Objection: Water does not come from fire, and grass does not grow from a stone. Evil causes produce evil effects, good causes call forth good responses—such is the fixed principle in the Buddhist teaching. If we inquire into our beginnings, we find that the seminal fluid and blood of the father and mother, the two fluids, one white, one red, come together to produce a single being. And this is the root of evil, the source of impurity. Though the great ocean itself should wash over us, it could not wash away this impurity.
And if we inquire into the root of the suffering that is inflicted upon our persons, we find that it derives from the three poisons of greed, anger, and foolishness. Through the two paths of earthly desires and suffering, karma is created. And this path of karma is none other than what binds us to the realm of birth and death. We are like birds shut up in a cage. How can these three paths of earthly desires, karma, and suffering be called three causes leading to Buddhahood? You may gather together turds and try to make sandalwood of them, but they will never have the aroma of sandalwood!
Answer: Your objection is quite reasonable. And rather than try to address it, I would like simply to quote the words of Bodhisattva Nāgārjuna, the thirteenth of the Buddha’s successors and founder of the Great Teacher T’ien-t’ai’s line, who in explaining the word myō, or “wonderful,” in the term myōhō says it is “like a great physician who can change poison into medicine.”8
What is the poison? It is the three paths of earthly desires, karma, and suffering that are our lot. What is the medicine? It is the Dharma body, wisdom, and emancipation. And what does it mean to change poison into medicine? It means to transform the three paths into the three virtues: the Dharma body, wisdom, and emancipation. T’ien-t’ai says, “The character myō is defined as being beyond ordinary comprehension.”9 And he also says, “Life at each moment . . . This is what we mean when we speak of the ‘region of the unfathomable.’”10
This is what the attainment of Buddhahood in one’s present form means. In recent times the Flower Garland and True Word schools, having stolen this doctrine, treat it as their own. They are outrageous thieves, the most outrageous in the world!
Nichiren Daishonin wrote this letter on the twenty-eighth day of the second month in 1278 to thank Toki Jōnin for his offering of seven strings of coins. The Daishonin confirms that the coins are to be used for memorial services commemorating the anniversary of the passing of Toki’s mother.
The “region of the unfathomable” means that the principle of changing poison into medicine is truly wonderful, mystic and unfathomable. The Treatise on the Great Perfection of Wisdom, attributed to Nagarjuna, compares the Lotus Sutra to “a great physician who changes poison into medicine”. This is because the Lotus Sutra opens the possibility of enlightenment to people whose arrogance and complacency had caused them to “scorch the seeds of Buddhahood.” In earlier sutras such people had been condemned as being incapable of becoming Buddhas. An important implication of this principle, thus, is that there is no one who is beyond redemption. Nagarjuna expressed “myo” in Myoho-renge-kyo as changing poison into medicine. This metaphor signifies that the Mystic Law is endowed with the power to transform “poison” into extreme opposite, “medicine”.
The word “poison” here refers to the three evil paths of:
- Earthly desires: Delusions in out life that come out of our greed, anger, ignorance and arrogance.
- Karma: Means the negative effects manifested in our life because of the thoughts, and deeds driven by earthly desires
- Suffering: A form of retribution we experience because of our earthly desires and karma.
Thus the three parts represent the vicious cycle of earthly desires, karma, and suffering that will spin us deeper into evil darkness and misery.
“Medicine”, on the other hand, refers to the three virtues of:
- Dharma body: It implies the eternal life or embodying the eternal truth
- Wisdom: It is the wisdom of the Buddha’s enlightenment that enables us to perceive ourselves holistically and helps us walk the correct path
- Emancipation: It is the state of Buddhahood, a boundless state of life in which we are utterly free from all shackles of ego, attachment and other restrictions.
Changing poison into medicine the transformation of a common mortal’s life which is controlled by the cycle of the three paths of earthly desire, karma and suffering into an indestructible state of happiness imbued with the three virtues of the Dharma body, wisdom and emancipation through the power of the mystic law. The process of changing poison into medicine begins when we approach difficult experiences as an opportunity to reflect on ourselves and to strengthen and develop our courage and compassion. The more we are able to do this, the more we are able to grow in vitality and wisdom and realize a truly expansive state of life.
Suffering can thus serve as a springboard for a deeper experience of happiness. From the perspective of Buddhism, inherent in all negative experiences is this profound positive potential. However, if we are defeated by suffering or respond to challenging circumstances in negative and destructive ways, the original “poison” is not transformed but remains poison.
Buddhism teaches that suffering derives from karma, the causes that we ourselves have created. The Buddhist teaching of karma is one of personal responsibility. It is therefore our responsibility to transform sufferings into value-creating experiences. The Buddhist view of karma is not fixed or fatalistic—even the most deeply entrenched karmic patterns can be transformed.
By taking a difficult situation—illness, unemployment, bereavement, betrayal—and using it as an opportunity to deepen our sense of personal responsibility, we can gain and develop the kind of self-knowledge from which benefit flows. Buddhism teaches that self-knowledge ultimately is awareness of our own infinite potential, our capacity for inner strength, wisdom and compassion. This infinite potential is referred to as our “Buddha nature.”
The original meaning of the phrase “to turn poison into medicine” relates to this level of self-knowledge.
In the “Belief and Understanding” chapter of the Lotus Sutra, Subhuti and others of the Buddha’s long-time disciples respond to the prophecy that another disciple, Shariputra, will attain the ultimate enlightenment. The disciples admit that they had long ago given up on becoming Buddhas themselves, but that on hearing the teaching of the Lotus Sutra they renounced their earlier stance of resignation and spiritual laziness: “[T]heir minds were moved as seldom before and danced for joy.” Nagarjuna and T’ien-t’ai (538–597) therefore compare the Buddha to a good doctor capable of turning poison (the laziness and resignation of the aged disciples) into medicine (a sincere aspiration for the ultimate enlightenment of Buddhahood).
This teaching of the possibility of profound transformation makes Buddhism a deeply optimistic philosophy. This optimism propels Buddhists as they seek to transform the negative and destructive tendencies within their lives as well as those in society and the world at large.
The Daishonin demonstrated with his life the meaning of “changing poison into medicine” by actually confronting the three obstacles and four devils and overcome several attacks by the three powerful enemies, in particular by tenji-ma, or the devil of the sixth heaven.
Nichiren Daishonin established the true object of devotion, the Gohonzon, based on the proof he demonstrated of the of the validity of the principle of “actual ichinen sanzen“. The Gohonzon is the manifestation of the principle of actual ichinen sanzen which he himself proved with his life.
To have faith in the Gohonzon means to believe in the power of myoho, the Mystic Law, to “transform the three evil paths into the three virtues”. No matter how severe the cycle of earthly desire, karma and suffering may be, we must bring forth string, unwavering faith in the power of myoho, or the Mystic Law. In order to enable us to overcome the vicious cycle, the Daishonin established the object of devotion.