Are you curious about a form of Buddhism that seamlessly merges the spiritual with the everyday, that encourages personal transformation while also fostering active societal engagement? Welcome to Nichiren Buddhism!
Born in 13th century Japan, this unique branch of Buddhism has journeyed across the globe, inspiring millions with its vibrant philosophy and transformative practices. Rooted in the profound teachings of the Lotus Sutra, Nichiren Buddhism places the concept of inherent Buddhahood at its heart, emphasizing that every person has the potential to achieve enlightenment in this very life.
What is Nichiren Buddhism?
Nichiren Buddhism is a branch of Mahayana Buddhism that emerged in 13th-century Japan, founded by the monk Nichiren (1222–1282). It is characterized by its focus on the Lotus Sutra, one of the most influential texts of Mahayana Buddhism, which Nichiren identified as the definitive teaching of Buddha. This school of Buddhism is distinctive for its emphasis on the practical attainment of enlightenment in this life, in this world, and by anyone.
The philosophy of Nichiren Buddhism revolves around the concept of the inherent dignity and worth of all human beings and life itself. It posits that every individual possesses the potential for Buddhahood, and this potential can be actualized through correct practice and faith in the Lotus Sutra. The ultimate aim of Nichiren Buddhism is to bring about the welfare of all people by empowering individuals to realize their innate wisdom and compassion.
The core practice of Nichiren Buddhism is the chanting of the phrase “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo,” which can be translated as “I devote myself to the Mystic Law of the Lotus Sutra” or “The Law of the Lotus of the Wonderful Dharma”. This mantra-like phrase embodies the entirety of the Lotus Sutra, according to Nichiren, and encapsulates its profoundest teaching: that all beings possess the potential for enlightenment.
In addition to the chant, Nichiren Buddhists also incorporate the use of a mandala known as a Gohonzon, a calligraphic scroll inscribed by Nichiren, as a focus for meditation and devotion. The Gohonzon, in combination with the chant, is seen as a practical method to realize the inherent potential of Buddhahood.
Nichiren Buddhism is further distinguished by its active engagement with the world. Nichiren himself was known for his fierce critiques of the political and religious establishments of his time, and his followers often engage in social and peace activism. In contemporary times, Soka Gakkai International (SGI), one of the largest lay organizations practicing Nichiren Buddhism, has been at the forefront of various peace, cultural, and educational activities around the globe.
Who was Nichiren Daishonin?
Nichiren Daishonin (1222–1282) was a Buddhist monk and philosopher from Japan who established a unique interpretation of Mahayana Buddhism, which came to be known as Nichiren Buddhism. His life and teachings left a significant impact on the religious, social, and cultural life of Japan, and have continued to influence the lives of millions of people worldwide.
Nichiren was born in a tumultuous period in Japanese history, characterized by political instability, social unrest, and natural disasters. These circumstances shaped his religious outlook and led him to seek a form of Buddhism that could provide a practical solution to the suffering of the people.
In his early twenties, Nichiren entered a Buddhist monastery and undertook an extensive study of the various Buddhist sutras. Through his studies, he became convinced that the Lotus Sutra represented the ultimate truth of Buddhism, and that all other Buddhist teachings were provisional or incomplete in comparison.
At the age of 32, Nichiren declared that the Lotus Sutra was the definitive teaching of the Buddha, and he established the practice of chanting “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo” as a means to embody and actualize the teaching. The phrase is a homage to the Lotus Sutra (“Myoho-renge-kyo” translates to “the Mystic Law of the Lotus Sutra”), and “Nam” is a Sanskrit term meaning to dedicate one’s life.
Nichiren’s teachings were not well received by the religious and political authorities of his time, as he was highly critical of other Buddhist sects prevalent in Japan and the government that supported them. He faced numerous persecutions, including multiple attempts on his life, exile, and public condemnation. However, these adversities did not deter him; instead, they served to solidify his conviction and commitment to propagate his teachings.
Nichiren is also known for his prolific writings, collectively referred to as the “Gosho.” These letters, treatises, and recorded oral teachings serve as the primary source of his philosophy and doctrine. His writings often addressed his followers, providing guidance, encouragement, and explanations of his interpretation of Buddhism.
Upon his death, Nichiren was referred to as “Daishonin,” a honorific title meaning “Great Sage,” by his followers. Today, Nichiren Daishonin is revered as the embodiment of the eternal Buddha by some schools of Nichiren Buddhism, and his teachings continue to inspire and guide practitioners around the world.
Core teachings of Nichiren Buddhism
Nichiren Buddhism, a distinctive branch of Mahayana Buddhism, is rooted in several core teachings that differentiate it from other Buddhist traditions. These teachings are predominantly based on the writings and interpretations of Nichiren Daishonin. The major tenets of Nichiren Buddhism can be encapsulated in the following points:
Primacy of the Lotus Sutra: Nichiren Buddhism places the Lotus Sutra at the forefront of Buddhist teachings, asserting it to be the ultimate and most profound of the Buddha’s teachings. The Lotus Sutra underscores the concept of the inherent Buddhahood of all beings, a principle that finds central importance in Nichiren’s teachings.
Nam-myoho-renge-kyo mantra: Nichiren established the practice of chanting “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo” as the primary method of Buddhist practice. This phrase translates to “I devote myself to the Mystic Law of the Lotus Sutra” and is believed to enable individuals to tap into the Buddhahood inherent within their lives, achieving wisdom, courage and compassion.
The Gohonzon: Nichiren inscribed a mandala known as the Gohonzon, a graphical representation of the enlightened reality described in the Lotus Sutra. Nichiren Buddhists enshrine this mandala in their homes and focus on it during their chanting, as it is believed to serve as a mirror reflecting the inherent Buddhahood in their lives.
Human revolution: This concept is fundamental in Nichiren Buddhism, advocating for the profound transformation of an individual’s life through Buddhist practice. This “human revolution” is believed to lead to personal happiness and contribute to the peace and betterment of society.
Engaged Buddhism: Nichiren Buddhism asserts the significance of applying Buddhist principles in daily life and society. It encourages active engagement with societal issues, the pursuit of peace, and the promotion of culture and education.
Ten Worlds: In Nichiren Buddhism, the Ten Worlds are the ten conditions of life that everyone experiences. These range from Hell, the lowest state marked by suffering and despair, to Buddhahood, the highest state characterized by boundless compassion and profound wisdom. Nichiren Buddhism emphasizes that all ten worlds are inherent in each person’s life, and one can manifest the state of Buddhahood through the practice of chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo.
The Three Proofs: Nichiren stressed the importance of verifying the validity of any religious teaching through “Documentary Proof” (evidence in scriptures), “Theoretical Proof” (logical consistency), and “Actual Proof” (demonstrable results in the lives of those who practice it).
These core teachings of Nichiren Buddhism converge to form a philosophy and practice that accentuates the inherent dignity of life, the potential for enlightenment in the present, and the transformative power of the Lotus Sutra. This form of Buddhism offers a pathway towards personal empowerment, societal change, and universal peace through the practice of the Lotus Sutra’s principles.
What do Nichiren Buddhists practice?
Nichiren Buddhists adhere to a distinct ritual known as Gongyo, derived from the Japanese term for “assiduous practice.” Performed twice daily, typically during the morning and evening, and at formal congregations, Gongyo represents a spiritual cornerstone in the practice of Nichiren Buddhism.
The ritual is a meticulous reenactment of a segment from the Lotus Sutra termed “The Ceremony in the Air.” Intricately woven into the very fabric of numerous Buddhist sutras is the setting of Vulture Peak, a mountain situated near the ancient city of Rajgir in Northern India.
However, in the eleventh chapter of the Lotus Sutra, a dramatic shift in location occurs: the setting is transferred to the heavens above Vulture Peak, as Shakyamuni Buddha and a retinue of bodhisattvas ascend beyond the earthly realm. From this elevated vantage point, Shakyamuni imparts the teachings of the subsequent chapters of the sutra before the assembly makes their descent back to earth.
Gongyo is a comprehensive ritual involving the chanting of select portions from two chapters of the Lotus Sutra in Japanese. This chanting phase is succeeded by a series of silent prayers, encompassing a wide range of themes such as gratitude, ancestral reverence, attainment of worldly desires, and the collective peace and happiness of all sentient beings worldwide. The ritual concludes with the chanting of the daimoku.
Practitioners of Gongyo strive to ascend their life condition daily, drawing upon both the transcendent view of their existence and the motivational force required to address practical daily challenges. This ritual sets a dynamic rhythm in their lives: it imbues practitioners with energy and zeal at the dawn of each day and provides a reflective platform at dusk to contemplate progress, evaluate desires and objectives, and rejuvenate the commitment to attain the bliss of Buddhahood within this lifetime—regardless of impediments. By this means, Gongyo serves as an engine for the pursuit of enlightened life-states in Nichiren Buddhism.
Benefits of practicing Nichiren Buddhism
The practice of Nichiren Buddhism, like other forms of Buddhism, is aimed at achieving spiritual and personal development, promoting societal betterment, and fostering universal peace. However, its distinctive philosophy and practices offer several specific benefits. These benefits can be divided into personal, social, and spiritual categories:
- Self-transformation: Through the primary practice of chanting “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo,” individuals can tap into the inherent Buddhahood in their lives, leading to increased wisdom, courage, and compassion. This process, termed “human revolution,” is a profound personal transformation that can lead to enhanced life satisfaction and happiness.
- Empowerment: Nichiren Buddhism emphasizes that all individuals possess the potential to attain enlightenment in their present life condition. This doctrine can foster a sense of empowerment and resilience, encouraging practitioners to face and overcome the challenges in their lives.
- Stress reduction: Like many meditative practices, the chanting of “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo” can offer mental and emotional benefits, including stress reduction, improved focus, and emotional stability.
- Community: Nichiren Buddhist organizations often provide a supportive community where individuals can engage in dialogue, learn from others, and support each other in their practice and personal growth.
- Engaged Buddhism: Nichiren Buddhism encourages active engagement with societal issues. Practitioners are urged to contribute to their communities, promote peace, and engage in educational activities, fostering a sense of purpose and communal connection.
- Enlightenment: Nichiren Buddhism teaches that all individuals can attain enlightenment, or Buddhahood, in their current lifetime. The practice provides a pathway towards this enlightenment, bringing profound spiritual fulfillment.
- Deepened understanding of life: Through the study of Buddhist teachings, particularly the Lotus Sutra and Nichiren’s writings, practitioners can deepen their understanding of life and its ultimate realities, such as the interconnectedness of all life and the transient nature of existence.
You have to note that while these benefits are often reported by practitioners of Nichiren Buddhism, individual experiences can vary based on personal circumstances, commitment to the practice, and individual interpretation of the teachings.
The difference between Nichiren Buddhism other Buddhist traditions
Nichiren Buddhism exhibits several distinguishing characteristics that set it apart from other Buddhist traditions. The distinctions primarily lie in its doctrinal emphasis, choice of primary texts, method of practice, and engagement with society.
Primacy of the Lotus Sutra: While all schools of Buddhism respect the sutras as sacred texts containing the teachings of the Buddha, Nichiren Buddhism uniquely regards the Lotus Sutra as the ultimate and definitive teaching of the Buddha. It places the Lotus Sutra above all other Buddhist sutras, a stance not typically shared by other Buddhist traditions.
Nam-myoho-renge-kyo: The primary practice in Nichiren Buddhism is the recitation of the phrase “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo.” This represents a departure from other forms of Buddhism, which might emphasize meditation, adherence to precepts, or other practices as central to their tradition. Nichiren Buddhism sees the chant as the most effective means for individuals to tap into the Buddhahood inherent within their lives.
The Gohonzon: The use of the Gohonzon, a calligraphic mandala inscribed by Nichiren, is unique to Nichiren Buddhism. While other Buddhist traditions may use various icons and images as focal points for meditation or veneration, Nichiren Buddhists chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo to the Gohonzon, which they view as a mirror reflecting the inherent Buddhahood of their lives.
Engaged Buddhism: Nichiren Buddhism is often characterized by its active engagement with society. It encourages practitioners to apply Buddhist principles in daily life and to play active roles in society. While some other Buddhist schools emphasize monasticism or withdrawal from societal issues, Nichiren Buddhism asserts that enlightenment is found within the realities and challenges of everyday life, leading to an approach often referred to as “engaged Buddhism.”
Focus on the present life: Some forms of Buddhism, particularly those influenced by the earlier Theravada tradition, place significant emphasis on the attainment of Nirvana and liberation from the cycle of rebirth. Nichiren Buddhism, on the other hand, stresses the possibility and importance of attaining enlightenment in this present life, in this world, and for all people.
Critique of other schools: Nichiren was known for his critique of other Buddhist schools of his time, a position not common among most Buddhist traditions. He argued that these other schools’ teachings were provisional or incomplete compared to the Lotus Sutra, leading to confrontations with religious and political authorities.
The development of Nichiren Buddhism in Europe and America
The development of Nichiren Buddhism in Europe and America has been largely catalyzed by two major organizations: Soka Gakkai International (SGI) and Nichiren Shoshu. While the former emphasizes social activism and the application of Buddhist principles to daily life, the latter is more focused on traditional Buddhist monasticism and rituals.
In the United States, the SGI-USA, an American branch of Soka Gakkai International, has played a significant role in popularizing Nichiren Buddhism since the 1960s. The focus on lay practice, the simple chant of ‘Nam-myoho-renge-kyo’, and the incorporation of ‘dialogue’ as a primary mode of propagation has contributed to SGI-USA’s growth. The movement has attracted followers from diverse racial and socio-economic backgrounds, making it a uniquely American expression of Buddhism.
In Europe, the spread of Nichiren Buddhism has followed a similar trajectory but has been impacted by the unique cultural contexts of individual countries. In countries like the United Kingdom and France, SGI’s emphasis on social activism and cultural exchange has helped it to gain a solid foothold. Moreover, the universal applicability of the Lotus Sutra’s core message—that all individuals inherently possess Buddha nature—has resonated with European sensibilities, allowing Nichiren Buddhism to thrive in an environment steeped in diverse philosophical and religious traditions.
Although both in Europe and America Nichiren Buddhism’s expansion has been significant, it has not been without challenges. In both regions, the adaptation of this traditionally Japanese form of Buddhism to Western contexts has raised questions about cultural authenticity, adaptation, and the tension between tradition and modernity. Critiques from within and outside the Buddhist community have pointed to the consumerist and individualistic interpretations of Buddhist principles within some Nichiren communities, highlighting the difficulty of balancing the propagation of Buddhist teachings with their transformation in a new cultural milieu.
Furthermore, legal and doctrinal disputes between the Soka Gakkai International and the Nichiren Shoshu sect have sometimes overshadowed the broader growth of Nichiren Buddhism in Europe and America. The excommunication of SGI by Nichiren Shoshu in 1991 created a schism that has had profound impacts on the landscape of Nichiren Buddhism in the West.
Despite these challenges, the trajectory of Nichiren Buddhism in Europe and America has been one of growth and diversification. As practitioners continue to explore ways to apply the Lotus Sutra’s teachings in their daily lives, and as scholars provide critical reflections on the adaptation of this tradition in the West, Nichiren Buddhism promises to continue its evolution in these regions, contributing to the rich tapestry of global Buddhism.
- The Lotus Sutra: https://www.bdk.or.jp/document/dgtl-dl/dBET_T0262_LotusSutra_2007.pdf
- Soka Gakkai International (SGI): https://www.sokaglobal.org/