Nichiren | Teachings


1. Nichiren | Teachings

Nichiren's teachings developed over the course of his career and their evolution can be seen through the study of his writings as well as in the annotations he made in his personal copy of the Lotus Sūtra.

Some scholars set a clear demarcation in his teachings at the time he arrived at Sado Island;

Whereas others see a 3-fold division of thought:

1. Up to and through the Izu exile
2. From his return to Kamakura through the Sado Island exile
3. During his years at Minobu

Nichiren, upon his arrival at Minobu, quickly turned his attention to consolidating his teachings toward their perpetuation:

The scope of his thinking was outlined in an essay Hokke Shuyō-shō, "Choosing the Heart of the Lotus Sūtra", considered by Nikkō Shōnin as one of Nichiren's 10 major writings.

Later during his Minobu years, in lectures he is said to have transmitted to his disciples, Nichiren summarized the key ideas of his teachings in 1 paragraph:

Buddhahood is eternal; all people can and should manifest it in their lives;

Nichiren is the personage in the Lotus Sūtra whose mission it is to enable people to realize their Enlightenment; his followers who share his vow are the Bodhisattvas of the Earth:

This requires a spiritual and moral unity among followers based on their inherent Buddhahood; Nichiren established the seeds of this community and his followers to come must extend it globally.

Thus the Enlightened individual, country, and world are different expressions of the ideal of the Buddha land; and the Enlightened Heart of the individual plays out its role with the world and cosmos as its stage.

This was Nichiren's vision of Kōsen-rufu, a time when the teachings of the Lotus Sūtra would be widely spread throughout the world.

Nichiren set a precedent for Buddhist social activism centuries before its emergence in other Buddhist schools. The uniqueness of his teachings was his attempt to move Buddhism from the theoretical to the actualisable. He held adamantly that his teachings would permit a nation to right itself and ultimately lead to world peace.

Some of his religious thinking was derived from the Tendai understanding of the Lotus Sūtra, syncretic beliefs that were deeply rooted in the culture of his times, and new perspectives that were products of Kamakura Buddhism. Other ideas were completely original and unique to him.

2. Immanence

Daimoku of Nichiren

Nichiren stressed the concept of immanence, meaning that the Buddha's Pure Land is to be found in this present world.

Related concepts such as attaining Enlightenment in one's current form and the belief that Enlightenment is not attained but is originally existing within all people (Hongaku) had been introduced by Kūkai and Saicho several centuries earlier:

These concepts were based on Zhiyi's cosmology of the unity and interconnectedness of the universe called 3000 Realms in a Single Moment of Life.

Nichiren advanced these concepts by declaring that they were actualisable rather than theoretical. Cause and effect were simultaneous instead of linear.

Contemplation of one's mind (Kanjin) took place within the singular belief in and commitment to the Lotus Sūtra.

According to Nichiren these phenomena manifest when a person chants the title of the Lotus Sūtra and shares its validity with others, even at the cost of one's life if need be.

Nichiren constructed a triad relationship between faith, practice, and study.

Faith meant embracing his new paradigm of the Lotus Sūtra. It was something that needed to be continually deepened:

"To accept (ju) faith in the Sūtra is easy," he explained to a follower, "to uphold it (ji) is difficult. But the realization of Buddhahood lies in upholding faith."

This could only be manifested by the practice of chanting the Daimoku as well as teaching others to do the same, and study.

Consequently, Nichiren consistently and vehemently objected to the perspective of the Pure Land School that stressed the other-worldly aspiration to some Pure Land.

Behind his assertion is the concept of the non-duality of the subjective realm (the individual) and the objective realm (the land that the individual inhabits) which indicates that when the individual taps Buddhahood, his or her present world becomes peaceful and harmonious.

For Nichiren the widespread propagation of the Lotus Sūtra and consequent World Peace ("Kōsen-rufu") was achievable and inevitable and tasked his future followers with a mandate to accomplish it.

3. The Latter Day of the Law

The Kamakura period of 13th century Japan was characterized by a sense of foreboding:

Nichiren, as well as the others of this time, believed that they had entered the Latter Day of the Law (Mappō), the time which Śākyamuni predicted his teachings would lose their efficacy.

Indeed, Japan had entered an era of extreme natural disasters, internal strife and political conflict.

Although Nichiren attributed the turmoil and disasters in society to the widespread practice of what he deemed inferior Buddhist teachings that were under government sponsorship, he was enthusiastically upbeat about the portent of the Age:

He asserted, in contrast to other Mahāyāna schools:

This was the best possible moment to be alive, the Era in which the Lotus Sūtra was to spread, and the time in which the Bodhisattvas of the Earth would appear to propagate it:

"It is better to be a leper who chants Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō than be a chief abbot of the Tendai school."

4. Debate and polemics

The tradition of conducting open and sustained debate to clarify matters of fundamental Buddhist principles has deep-seated roots in Tibet, China, and Korea. This tradition was also quite pronounced in Japan.

In addition to formalized religious debates, the Kamakura period was marked by flourishing and competitive oral religious discourse:

Temples began to compete for the patronage of the wealthy and powerful through oratorical sermonizing and temple lecturers faced pressure to attract crowds.

Sermonizing spread from within the confines of temples to homes and the streets as wandering mendicants preached to both the educated and illiterate in exchange for alms.

In order to teach principles of faith preachers incorporated colourful storytelling, music, vaudeville, and drama—which later evolved into Noh.

A predominant topic of debate in Kamakura Buddhism was the concept of rebuking "slander of the Dharma." The Lotus Sūtra itself strongly warns about slander of the Dharma.

Hōnen, in turn, employed harsh polemics instructing people to discard, close, put aside, and abandon the Lotus Sūtra and other non-Pure Land teachings. His ideas were vociferously attacked by many including Nichiren.

Nichiren, however, elevated countering slander of the Dharma into a pillar of Buddhist practice:

In fact, far more of his extant writings deal with the clarification of what constitutes the essence of Buddhist teachings than expositions of how to meditate.

At age 32, Nichiren began a career of denouncing other Mahāyāna Buddhist schools of his time and declaring what he asserted was the correct teaching, the Universal Dharma (Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō), and chanting its words as the only path for both personal and social salvation.

The first target of his polemics was Pure Land Buddhism which had begun to gain ascendancy among the leaders and populace and even had established itself within the Tendai School.

Nichiren's detailed rationale is most famously articulated in his Risshō Ankoku Ron - his first major treatise and the first of his 3 remonstrations with the military authorities.

Although his times were harsh and permeated by military culture, Nichiren always chose the power of language over bearing arms or resorting to violence:

He didn't mince his words and was relentless to pursue dialogue whether in the form of debate, conversations, or correspondence.

His spirit of engaging in discourse is captured in his statement, "Whatever obstacles I may encounter, as long as men of wisdom do not prove my teachings to be false, I will never yield."

5. "Single Practice" Buddhism

Hōnen introduced the concept of "single practice" Buddhism:

Basing himself on the writings of the Chinese Buddhist Shandao, he advocated the singular practice of Nianfo, the recitation of the Buddha Amida's name.

This practice was revolutionary because it was accessible to all and minimalized the monopolistic role of the entire monastic establishment.

Nichiren appropriated the structure of a universally accessible single practice but substituted the Nianfo with the Daimoku of Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō:

This constituted renouncing the principle of aspirating to a Pure Land after death and asserting instead the Lotus perspective of attaining Buddhahood in one's present form in this lifetime.

6. "The 5 Principles"

Developed during his Izu exile, the Five Principles are 5 criteria through which Buddhist teachings can be evaluated and ranked. They are:

1. Quality of the teaching (kyō)
2. Innate human capacity (ki) of the people
3. Time (ji)
4. Characteristic of the land or country (koku)
5. Sequence of dharma propagation (kyōhō rufu no zengo)

From these 5 interrelated perspectives Nichiren declared his interpretation of the Lotus Sūtra as the Supreme Teaching.

7. The 3 Great Secret Dharmas

Nichiren deemed the world to be in a Degenerative Age and believed that people required a simple and effective means to rediscover the core of Buddhism and thereby restore their spirits and times:

He described his "Three Great Secret Dharmas" (Sandai hiho) as this very means.

In a writing entitled Sandai Hiho Shō, or the Three Great Secret Dharmas, Nichiren delineated 3 teachings in the heart of the 16th chapter of the Lotus Sūtra

which are secret because he claimed he received them as the leader of the Bodhisattvas of the Earth through a silent transmission from Śākyamuni. They are:

1. Invocation (Daimoku)
2. Object of devotion (Honzon)
3. Platform of ordination or place of worship (Kaidan)

The Daimoku, the rhythmic chanting of Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō is the means to discover that one's own life, the lives of others, and the environment is the essence of the Buddha of absolute freedom.

The chanting is to be done while contemplating the Honzon:

At the age of 51, Nichiren inscribed his own Dai Gohonzon, the object of veneration or worship in his Buddhism, "never before known," as he described it.

The Gohonzon is a calligraphic representation of the cosmos and chanting Daimoku to it is Nichiren's method of meditation to experience the truth of Buddhism.

He believed this practice was efficacious, simple to perform, and suited to the capacity of the people and the time.

Nichiren describes the 1-2 secret Dharmas in numerous other writings but the reference to the platform of ordination appears only in the Sandai Hiho Shō, a work whose authenticity has been questioned by some scholars.

Nichiren apparently left the fulfilment of this secret Dharma to his successors and its interpretation has been a matter of heated debate:

Some state that it refers to the construction of a physical national ordination platform sanctioned by the Emperor;

others contend that the ordination platform is the community of believers (Saṅgha) or, simply, the place where practitioners of the Lotus Sūtra live and make collective efforts to realize the ideal of establishing the true Dharma in order to establish peace to the land (Risshō Ankoku).

The latter conception entails a robust interplay between religion and secular life and an egalitarian structure in which people are dedicated to perfecting an ideal society.

According to Nichiren, practicing the 3 Secret Dharmas results in the "3 Proofs" which verify their validity:

a) The first proof is "documentary," whether the religion's fundamental texts, here the writings of Nichiren, make a lucid case for the eminence of the religion.

b) "Theoretical proof" is an intellectual standard of whether a religion's teachings reasonably clarify the mysteries of life and death.

c) "Actual proof," deemed the most important by Nichiren, demonstrates the validity of the teaching through the actual improvements achieved by practitioners in their daily lives.

8. Changing karma to mission

Nichiren was deeply aware of the karmic struggles his followers faced in their day-to-day existence and encouraged them that that they could "cross the sea of suffering".

Through prevailing over these situations, he taught, they would establish a sense of inner freedom, peace of mind, and understanding of the Dharma that persisted independent of the ups and downs of circumstances.

He accepted prevailing Buddhist notions about karma that taught that a person's current conditions were a result of thoughts, words, and actions accumulated in the past.

He showed little concern, however, for attributing current circumstances to supposed past deeds.

Rather, he viewed karma through the lens of the teachings of the Lotus Sūtra which could enable all people to become Buddhas, even the ignorant and evil people of the Latter Day of the Law.

When confronting karmic situations, the act of chanting Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō would open the wisdom of the Buddha, transforming karma into mission and a creative and joy-filled way of life.

Beyond the sphere of a single individual's life, the process would awaken a person's concern for the broader society and sense of social responsibility.

Nichiren introduced the term "votary of the Lotus Sūtra" to describe himself.

The Lotus Sūtra itself speaks of the great trials that will be faced by individuals who base themselves on its teachings and attempt to spread it.

Nichiren claims he read the Sūtra "bodily" (shikidoku), voluntarily inviting the entailing hardships it predicts rather than just reciting or meditating on its words.

Through challenging these persecutions Nichiren claimed to have discovered his personal mission and felt great joy even when experiencing the harshness of exile:

His sufferings became, in his thinking, redemptive opportunities to change his karma and give his life transcendent meaning.

In enduring severe persecutions Nichiren claimed that the negative karma he had accumulated from the past could be eradicated quickly in his current life.

He was an active agent in this process, not a victim. He even expressed appreciation to his tormentors for giving him the opportunity to serve as an envoy of the Buddha.

In letters to some of his followers Nichiren extended the concept of meeting persecution for the sake of propagating the Dharma to experiencing tribulations in life such as problems with family discord or illness.

He encouraged these followers to take ownership for such life events and view them as opportunities to repay karmic debts and mitigate them in shorter periods of time than would otherwise be the case.

Nichiren reached a state of conviction that offered a new perspective on karma:

He expressed that his resolve to carry out his mission was paramount in importance and that the Lotus Sūtra's promise of a peaceful and secure existence meant finding joy and validation in the process of overcoming karma.

9. Great vow to achieve Kōsen-rufu

Nichiren's teachings are replete with vows he makes for himself and asks his followers to share as well.

Some are personal in nature such as frequent admonitions for people to transform their inner lives: "You must quickly reform the tenets you hold in your heart," he stated in his treatise Rissho Ankoku Ron.

He urged his followers to attain "treasures of the heart" and to reflect on their behaviour as human beings. These vows were "this-worldly" rather than theoretical and are matched with an easily accessible practice.

Nichiren also made a "great vow" of a political dimension:

He and his followers to come would create the conditions that lead to a Just Nation and World which the Lotus Sūtra describes as Kōsen-rufu.

In earlier Japanese Buddhism the concept of "nation" was equated with imperial rule and "peace of the land" was associated with the stability of the regime.

Nichiren's teachings, however, fully embraced a newly emerging viewpoint in medieval Japan that "nation" referred to the land and the people.

Nichiren was unique among his contemporaries in charging the actual government in power rather than the throne, with the peace of the land as well as the thriving of the Dharma.

In his teachings based on the Lotus Sutra, all human beings are equal, whether the nation's sovereign or an unknown commoner.

Enlightenment is not restricted to an individual's inner life but is actualized by efforts toward the transformation of the land and the realization of an ideal society.

Nichiren links the great vow of personages in the Lotus Sūtra to raise all people to the consciousness of the Buddha, to his own single-minded struggles to teach the Law despite the great persecutions he encountered, to his injunction to future disciples to create the Buddha land in the Sahā world over the course of the myriad years to follow.

10. After Nichiren's death

After Nichiren's death, his teachings were interpreted in different ways. As a result, Nichiren Buddhism encompasses several major branches and schools, each with its own doctrine and set of interpretations of Nichiren's teachings.