Nichiren Buddhism | Teachings of Nichiren


1. Nichiren Buddhism

Nichiren Buddhism is a branch of Mahāyāna Buddhism based on the teachings of the 13th century Japanese Buddhist priest Nichiren (1222–1282) and is one of the Kamakura Buddhism schools.

Its teachings derive from some 300–400 extant letters and treatises attributed to Nichiren.

Nichiren Buddhism focuses on the Lotus Sūtra doctrine that all people have an innate Buddha-nature and are therefore inherently capable of attaining Enlightenment in their current form and present lifetime.

There are 3 essential aspects to Nichiren Buddhism:

1. The undertaking of faith
2. The practice of chanting Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō & selected recitations of the Lotus Sūtra
3. The study of Nichiren's scriptural writings, called Gosho.

The Nichiren Gohonzon is a calligraphic image which is prominently displayed in the home or temple buildings of its believers:

The Gohonzon used in Nichiren Buddhism is composed of the names of key Bodhisattvas and Buddhas in the Lotus Sūtra as well as Namu-Myōhō-Renge-Kyo written in large characters down the centre.

After his death, Nichiren left to his followers the mandate to widely propagate the Gohonzon and Daimoku in order to secure the peace and prosperity of society.

Traditional Nichiren Buddhist temple groups are commonly associated with Nichiren Shōshū and various Nichiren-shū schools.

There are also lay groups not affiliated with temples such as Soka Gakkai and Soka Gakkai International, Kenshokai, Shōshinkai, Risshō Kōsei Kai, and Honmon Butsuryū-shū.

Several Japanese New Religions are Nichiren-inspired lay groups.

With the advent, and proselytizing efforts, of the Soka Gakkai International, called "the most prominent Japanese 'export' religion to draw significant numbers of non-Japanese converts", Nichiren Buddhism has spread throughout the world.

Nichiren teachings

Nichiren proposed a classification system that ranks the quality of religions and various Nichiren schools can be either accommodating or vigorously opposed to any other forms of Buddhism or religious beliefs.

Within Nichiren Buddhism there are 2 major divisions which fundamentally differ over whether Nichiren should be regarded as a Bodhisattva of the earth, a saint, great teacher - or the actual Buddha of the 3rd age of Buddhism.

It is practiced worldwide, with practitioners throughout the United States, Brazil and Europe, as well as in South Korea and Southeast Asia.

The largest groups are Soka Gakkai International, Nichiren Shū, and Nichiren Shōshū.

2. Basic teachings

Nichiren's teachings encompass a significant number of concepts:

Briefly, the basic practice of Nichiren Buddhism is chanting the invocation Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō to a mandala inscribed by Nichiren, called the Gohonzon.

Embracing Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō entails both chanting and having the mind of faith (shinjin):

Both the invocation and the Gohonzon, as taught by Nichiren, embody the title and essence of the Lotus Sūtra, which he taught as the only valid scripture for the Latter Day of the Law, as well as the life state of Buddhahood inherent in all life.

Nichiren considered that in the Latter Day of the Law – a time of human strife and confusion, when Buddhism would be in decline

Buddhism had to be more than the theoretical or meditative practice it had become, but was meant to be practiced "with the body", that is, in one's actions and the consequent results that are manifested.

More important than the formality of ritual, he claimed, was the substance of the practitioner's life in which the spiritual and material aspects are interrelated.

He considered conditions in the world to be a reflection of the conditions of the inner lives of people;

the premise of his first major remonstrance, Rissho Ankokuron (Establishing The Correct Teaching for the Peace of The Land), is that if a nation abandons heretical forms of Buddhism and adopts faith in the Lotus Sūtra, the nation will know peace and security.

He considered his disciples the "Bodhisattvas of the Earth" who appeared in the Lotus Sūtra with the vow to spread the correct teaching and thereby establish a peaceful and just society.

For Nichiren, Enlightenment is not limited to one's inner life, but is:

"something that called for actualization in endeavours toward the transformation of the land, toward the realization of an ideal society."

The specific task to be pursued by Nichiren's disciples was the widespread propagation of his teachings (the invocation and the Gohonzon) in a way that would effect actual change in the world's societies so that the sanctuary, or seat, of Buddhism could be built.

Nichiren saw this sanctuary as a specific seat of his Buddhism, but there is thought that he also meant it in a more general sense, that is, wherever his Buddhism would be practiced.

This sanctuary, along with the invocation and Gohonzon, comprise "the 3 great secret laws (or dharmas)" found in the Lotus Sūtra.

3. Nichiren and his time

Nichiren Buddhism originated in 13th century feudal Japan. It is one of 6 new forms of Shin Bukkyō (English: "New Buddhism") of "Kamakura Buddhism."

The arrival of these new schools was a response to the social and political upheaval in Japan during this time as power passed from the nobility to a shogunate military dictatorship led by the Minamoto clan and later to the Hojo clan.

A prevailing pessimism existed associated with the perceived arrival of the Age of the Latter Day of the Law. The era was marked by an intertwining relationship between Buddhist schools and the state which included clerical corruption.

By Nichiren's time the Lotus Sūtra was firmly established in Japan. From the 9th century, Japanese rulers decreed that the Lotus Sūtra be recited in temples for its "nation-saving" qualities.

It was the most frequently read and recited Sūtra by the literate lay class and its message was disseminated widely through art, folk tales, music, and theatre.

It was commonly held that it had powers to bestow spiritual and worldly benefits to individuals.

However, even Mount Hiei, the seat of Tiantai Lotus Sūtra devotion, had come to adopt an eclectic assortment of esoteric rituals and Pure Land practices as "expedient means" to understand the Sūtra itself.

4. Development during Nichiren's life

Nichiren developed his thinking in this midst of confusing Lotus Sūtra practices and a competing array of other "Old Buddhism" and "New Buddhism" schools.

The biographical development of his thinking is sourced almost entirely from his extant writings as there is no documentation about him in the public records of his times.

Modern scholarship on Nichiren's life tries to provide sophisticated textual and socio-historical analyses to cull longstanding myths about Nichiren that accrued over time from what is actually concretized.

It is clear that from an early point in his studies Nichiren came to focus on the Lotus Sūtra as the culmination and central message of Śākyamuni.

As his life unfolded he engaged in a "circular hermeneutic" in which the interplay of the Lotus Sūtra text and his personal experiences verified and enriched each other in his mind.

As a result, there are significant turning points as his teachings reach full maturity. Some scholars categorize the development of Nichiren's thinking into 3 periods:

1. An early period extending up to Nichiren's submission of the "Risshō Ankokuron" ("Establishment of the Legitimate Teaching for the Protection of the Country") to Hōjō Tokiyori in 1260;

2. A middle period bookmarked by his 1st exile (to Izu Peninsula, 1261) and his release from his 2nd exile (to Sado Island, 1273);

3. A final period (1274–1282) in which Nichiren lived in Mount Minobu directing his movement from afar.

5. Early stage: From initial studies to 1260

For more than 20 years Nichiren examined Buddhist texts and commentaries at Mount Hiei's Enryaku-ji temple and other major centres of Buddhist study in Japan.

In later writings he claimed he was motivated by 4 primary questions:

(1) What were the essentials of the competing Buddhist sects so they could be ranked according to their merits and flaws?

(2) Which of the many Buddhist scriptures that had reached Japan represented the essence of Śākyamuni’s teaching?

(3) How could he be assured of the certainty of his own Enlightenment?

(4) Why was the Imperial house defeated by the Kamakura regime in 1221 despite the prayers and rituals of Tendai and Shingon priests?  

He eventually concluded that the highest teachings of Śākyamuni Buddha (c.  563 – c.  483 BC) were to be found in the Lotus Sūtra. Throughout his career Nichiren carried his personal copy of the Lotus Sūtra which he continually annotated.

The mantra he expounded on 28 April 1253, known as the Daimoku, Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō, expresses his devotion to the Lotus Sūtra.

From this early stage of his career, Nichiren started to engage in fierce polemics criticizing the teachings of Buddhism taught by the other sects of his day, a practice that continued and expanded throughout his life.

Although Nichiren accepted the Tendai theoretical constructs of "original Enlightenment" and "attaining Buddhahood in one's present form" he drew a distinction, insisting both concepts should be seen as practical and realizable amidst the concrete realities of daily life.

He took issue with other Buddhist schools of his time that stressed transcendence over immanence.

Nichiren's emphasis on "self-power" (Jpn. ji-riki) led him to harshly criticize Honen and his Pure Land Buddhism School because of its exclusive reliance on Amida Buddha for salvation which resulted in "other-dependence." (Jpn. ta-riki).  

In addition to his critique of Pure Land Buddhism, he later expanded his polemics to criticisms of the Zen, Shingon, and Ritsu (Risshū) sects:

These 4 critiques were later collectively referred to as his "four dictums."

Later in his writings, Nichiren referred to his early exegeses of the Pure Land teachings as just the starting point for his polemics against the esoteric teachings, which he had deemed as a far more significant matter of concern.

Adding to his criticisms of esoteric Shingon, Nichiren wrote detailed condemnations about the Tendai School which had abandoned its Lotus Sūtra-exclusiveness and incorporated esoteric doctrines and rituals as well as faith in the soteriological power of Amida Buddha.

The target of his tactics expanded during the early part of his career:

In 1253-1259 he proselytized and converted individuals, mainly attracting mid- to lower-ranking samurai and local landholders and debated resident priests in Pure Land temples.

In 1260, however, he attempted to directly reform society as a whole by submitting a treatise entitled "Risshō Ankokuron" ("Establishment of the Legitimate Teaching for the Protection of the Country") to Hōjō Tokiyori, the de facto leader of the nation:

In it he cites passages from the Ninnō (Benevolent Kings), Yakushi (Medicine Buddha, Bhaiṣajyaguru), Daijuku (The Great Collection, Mahāsamnipāta), and Konkōmyō (Golden Light (Suvarṇaprabhāsa)) Sūtras.

Drawing on Tendai thinking about the non-duality of person and land, Nichiren argued that the truth and efficacy of the people's religious practice will be expressed in the outer conditions of their land and society.

He thereby associated the natural disasters of his age with the nation's attachment to inferior teachings, predicted foreign invasion and internal rebellion, and called for the return to legitimate dharma to protect the country.

Although the role of Buddhism in "nation-protection" was well-established in Japan at this time, in this thesis Nichiren explicitly held the leadership of the country is directly responsible for the safety of the land.

6. Middle stage: 1261–1273

During the middle stage of his career, in refuting other religious schools publicly and vociferously, Nichiren provoked the ire of the country's rulers and of the priests of the sects he criticized.

As a result, he was subjected to persecution which included 2 assassination attempts, an attempted beheading and 2 exiles.

His first exile, to Izu Peninsula (1261–1263), convinced Nichiren that he was "bodily reading the Lotus Sūtra (Jpn. Hokke shikidoku),"

fulfilling the predictions on the 13th chapter (Fortitude) that votaries would be persecuted by ignorant lay people, influential priests, and their friends in high posts.

Nichiren began to argue that through "bodily reading the Lotus Sūtra," rather than just studying its text for literal meaning, a country and its people could be protected.

Nichiren argued that bodily reading the Lotus Sūtra entails 4 aspects:

I The awareness of Śākyamuni Buddha’s living presence:

"Bodily reading the Lotus Sūtra" is equivalent to entering the very presence of the Buddha in an immediate, experiential, and face-to-face way, he claimed.

Here Nichiren is referring to the primordial Buddha revealed in Chapter 16 ("Life Span of the Thus Come One") who eternally appears and engages in human events in order to save living beings from their state of unhappiness.

II One contains all. Nichiren further developed the Tiantai doctrine of "3000 realms in a single thought-moment":

Every thought, word, or deed contains within itself the whole of the 3000 realms; reading even one word of the sūtra therefore includes the teachings and merits of all Buddhas.

Chanting Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō, according to Nichiren, is the concrete means by which the principle of the 3000 realms in a single thought-moment is activated and assures the attainment of Enlightenment as well as receiving various kinds of worldly benefit.

III The here and now: Nichiren held that the bodily reading of the sūtra must be applicable to time, place, and contemporary events.

Nichiren was acutely aware of the social and political turmoil of his country and spiritual confusion of people in the Latter Day of the Law.

IV Utmost seriousness:

True practitioners must go beyond mental or verbal practices and actively speak up against and oppose prevailing thoughts and philosophies that denigrate the message of the Lotus Sūtra.

Nichiren set the example and was willing to lay down his life for its propagation and realization.

His 3-year exile to Sado Island proved to be another key turning point in Nichiren's thinking:

Here he began inscribing the Gohonzon and wrote several major theses in which he claimed that he was functioning, at first, in the role of Bodhisattva Never Disparaging of the 20th chapter of the Lotus Sūtra and, later, as Bodhisattva Superior Practices, the leader of the Bodhisattvas of the Earth.

In his work The True Object of Worship, he identified himself as functioning as the Primordial Buddha, one and the same as the Eternal Law represented by the mantra Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō which he physically embodied as the Gohonzon mandala.

This has been described as embodying the same condition or state he attained in a physical object of devotion worship so that others could attain that equivalent condition of Enlightenment.

During this time the Daimoku becomes the means to directly access the Buddha's Enlightenment.

He concludes his work The Opening of the Eyes with the declaration:

"I will be the pillar of Japan;
 I will be the eyes of Japan;
I will be the vessel of Japan.
Inviolable shall remain these vows!

His thinking now went beyond theories of karmic retribution or guarantees of the Lotus Sūtra as a protective force. Rather, he expressed a resolve to fulfil his mission despite the consequences:

All of his disciples, he asserted, should emulate his spirit and work just like him in helping all people open their innate Buddha lives even though this means entails encountering enormous challenges.

7. Final stage: 1274–1282

Nichiren's teachings reached their full maturity in years 1274-1282 while he resided in primitive settings at Mount Minobu located in today's Yamanashi Prefecture:

During this time he devoted himself to training disciples, produced most of the Gohonzon which he sent to followers,  and authored works constituting half of his extant writings including 6 treatises that were categorized by his follower Nikkō as among his 10 most important.

In 1278 the Atsuhara Affair (Atsuhara Persecution) occurred, culminating 3 years later.

In the prior stage of his career, in 1261-1273, Nichiren endured and overcame numerous trials that were directed at him personally including assassination attempts, an attempted execution, and 2 exiles, thereby bodily reading the Lotus Sūtra:

In so doing, according to him, he validated the 13th ("Fortitude") chapter of the Lotus Sūtra in which a host of Bodhisattvas promise to face numerous trials that follow in the wake of upholding and spreading the Sūtra in the Evil Age following the death of the Buddha:

- slander and abuse; attack by swords and staves; enmity from kings, ministers, and respected monks; and repeated banishment.

On 2 occasions, however, the persecution was aimed at his followers:

First, in 1271, in conjunction with the arrest and attempted execution of Nichiren and his subsequent exile to Sado, many of his disciples were arrested, banished, or had lands confiscated by the government.

At that time, Nichiren stated, most recanted their faith in order to escape the government's actions.

In contrast, during the Atsuhara episode 20 lay peasant-farmer followers were arrested on questionable charges and tortured; 3 were ultimately executed. This time none recanted their faith.  

Some of his prominent followers in other parts of the country were also being persecuted but maintained their faith as well.

Although Nichiren was situated in Minobu, far from the scene of the persecution, the Fuji district of present-day Shizuoka Prefecture, Nichiren held his community together in the face of significant oppression through a sophisticated display of legal and rhetorical responses.

He also drew on a wide array of support from the network of leading monks and lay disciples he had raised, some of whom were also experiencing persecution at the hands of the government.

Throughout the events he wrote many letters to his disciples in which he gave context to the unfolding events by asserting that severe trials have deep significance.

By standing firm under interrogation, the Atsuhara peasants had proved their faith in Nichiren’s eyes, graduating in his estimation from ‘ignorant people’ to devotees meriting equally with himself the name of ‘practitioners of the Lotus Sūtra.’  

During this time Nichiren inscribed 114 mandalas that are extant today, 49 of which have been identified as being inscribed for individual lay followers and which may have served to deepen the bond between teacher and disciple.

In addition, a few very large mandalas were inscribed, apparently intended for use at gathering places, suggesting the existence of some type of conventicle structure.

The Atsuhara Affair also gave Nichiren the opportunity to better define what was to become Nichiren Buddhism:

He stressed that meeting great trials was a part of the practice of the Lotus Sūtra; the great persecutions of Atsuhara were not results of karmic retribution but were the historical unfolding of the Buddhist Dharma.

The vague single good of the true vehicle which he advocated in the Risshō Ankokuron now took final form as chanting the Lotus Sūtra's Daimoku or title which he described as the heart of the origin teaching of the Lotus Sūtra.

This, he now claimed, lay hidden in the depths of the 16th (The Life Span of the Tathāgata) chapter, never before being revealed, but intended by the Buddha solely for the beginning of the Final Dharma Age.

8. Nichiren's writings

A prolific writer, Nichiren's personal communiqués among his followers as well as numerous treatises detail his view of the correct form of practice for the Latter Day of the Law (Mappō);

lay out his views on other Buddhist schools, particularly those of influence during his lifetime; and elucidate his interpretations of Buddhist teachings that preceded his.

His writings are collectively known as Gosho or Nichiren ibun.

Out of 162 historically identified followers of Nichiren, 47 were women:

Many of his writings were to women followers in which he displays strong empathy for their struggles, and continually stressed the Lotus Sūtra's teaching that all people, men and women equally, can become Enlightened, just as they are. His voice is sensitive and kind which differs from the strident picture painted about him by critics.

Which of these writings, including the Ongi Kuden (orally transmitted teachings), are deemed authentic or apocryphal is a matter of debate within the various schools of today's Nichiren Buddhism.

His Rissho Ankokuron, preserved at Shochuzan Hokekyo-ji, is one of the National Treasures of Japan.