What is Nichiren Buddhism?
Nichiren Buddhism is a form of Japanese Buddhism that emphasizes repeated recitation of the mantra namu myoho renge kyo ("salutation to the Lotus Sutra") for health, happiness and enlightenment. Nichiren Buddhists believe it is possible to attain enlightenment in a single lifetime through practice of "True Buddhism" (i.e., Nichiren). Nichiren Buddhism has divided into several branches, the largest of which are Nichiren Shu, Nichiren Shoshu, and Soka Gokkai International.
History of Nichiren Buddhism
Nichiren Daishonin (1222-1282)
Nichiren Buddhism is named for its founder, Nichiren Daishonin (1222-1282), a Japanese monk. The son of a poor fisherman, Nichiren became a monk in the Tendai school. He became frustrated by the many paths of salvation that were taught, and left the Tendai monastery at Mount Hiei for 10 years in search of the true Buddhist path.
Nichiren's independent studies led him to conclude that the Lotus Sutra contained the only true way to salvation and that chanting the phrase namu myoho renge kyo ("salutation to the Lotus Sutra") is the way to attain enlightenment. Nichiren also taught that his time, characterized by political unrest, was the period of degeneration (or age of "latter dharma," known as mappo) that was predicted in the Lotus Sutra. During this time, it was believed that only bodhisattvas could ensure the purity of Buddhist doctrine, and Nichiren identified himself as the incarnation of a bodhisattva whose mission was to spread the true teachings of the Lotus Sutra in Japan.
Nichiren sharply criticized other forms of Buddhism and taught that natural disasters and invasions would result if Japan did not turn to the Lotus Sutra. He sharply criticized Shingon, Pure Land, and Zen Buddhism, leading to two exiles and near execution. Nichiren and his followers believe he was saved from execution by miraculous intervention. Nichiren's personal communications and writings to his followers (called "Honorable Writings", or "Gosho") detail his view of the correct form of practice for the "Latter Day of the Law" (mappo), and many are preserved to this day.
Beliefs and Practices of Nichiren Buddhism
Nichiren Buddhists believe enlightenment can be attained in a single lifetime. Nichiren belief and practice consists of three main elements: daimoku; worship of the honzon; and kaidan, which are collectively known as the "three great secret laws."
Daimoku ("sacred title") is the practice of reciting the phrase namu Myoho renge kyo ("salutation to the Lotus Sutra"). This is chanted repeatedly for as long as several hours daily, often using a mala (rosary) to keep track. In Nichiren Shoshu, this chant is directed at the Gohonzon, a copy of a tablet inscribed by Nichiren that has been blessed by a priest. The Gohonzon is often encased in an elaborate shrine or altar.
The honzon is a mandala (sacred diagram) designed by Nichiren. It represents both the Buddha-nature in all humans and the three forms of the Buddha Sakyamuni. A kaidan is a sacred platform or hall used for the ordination of Buddhist monks, but is given symbolic significance in Nichiren Buddhism. For Nichiren, Japan itself was the kaidan.
Today, there are several branches of Nichiren Buddhism, the largest of which are Nichiren Shu, Nichiren Shoshu and Soka Gakkai.
Nichiren Shu ("Nichiren Faith") is the oldest of the Nichiren Buddhist sects. It is smaller and less well known internationally than the Nichiren Shoshu or the Soka Gakkai movement. Nichiren Shu does not accept Nichiren Shoshu's claim that Nikko was the designated successor of Nichiren. Doctrinally, Nichiren Shu states that Sakyamuni is the Buddha and Nichiren is merely his priest, not his divine reincarnation.
Another difference of the Nichiren Shu is place of the Odaimoku (the title of the Lotus Sutra) and of the Omandala or Gohonzon. Nichiren Shu views these practices and methods as the summit of the Dharma, but does not ignore other Buddhist practices. Forms of silent meditation or Sho Daigyo, artistic copying of the Odaimoku or Shakyo, and the study of foundational Buddhist concepts such as the Four Noble Truths and Taking Refuge are still present in the Nichiren Shu.
The Omandalas used by the Nichiren Shu are often inscribed or based on Nichiren's own works, not by the high priest as is the case in Nichiren Shoshu. The Nichiren Shu also does not accept the Dai-Gohonzon of the Nichiren Shoshu, as there is no evidence that Nichiren Shonin created any type of wooden Omandala or asked any one to do so in his stead.
Finally, the Nichiren Shu is certainly more mainstream than Nichiren Shoshu or the SGI as it continues to have relationships with non-Nichiren Buddhist traditions. It also is the oldest of the traditions and has access to Mt. Minobu (where he lived in seclusion and where he requested to be buried) and many of Nichiren Shonin’s most important items. Though Soka Gakkai’s energetic evangelization allowed it to become the largest Nichiren Buddhist group in North America- the Nichiren Shu has recently begun to order non-Japanese speaking priests and to expand its temples in the western world.
Nichiren Shoshu ("Nichiren True Faith") teaches that the documents Minobu sojo and Ikegami sojo state that Nichiren designated Nikko (1246-1333) as his sole successor, making Nichiren Shoshu is the true school of Nichiren Buddhism. This succession is disputed by other schools of Nichiren Buddhism.
The influential Japanese religious group Soka Gakkai is based on Nichiren Shoshu teachings. However, in 1991 the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood excommunicated the Soka Gakkai, and the two organizations are now completely separate.
According to the doctrines of Nichiren Shoshu, by revealing and propagating the Mystic Law of Nam Myoho Renge Kyo, Nichiren Daishonin fulfilled the mission of his advent in accordance with the prediction of the Buddha Sakyamuni (c. 563-483 BCE), who foretold that 2,500 years after his passing, there would appear a successor who would be the True Buddha for later ages. This is the primary doctrinal difference with Nichiren Shu, which contends that Nichiren was not a Buddha, but merely his priest.
Nichiren Shoshu Buddhists believe that personal enlightenment can be achieved in one lifetime. Central to their practice is chanting to a Gohonzon the phrase namu myoho renge kyo. According to Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism, the law of causality is the universal principle underlying all visible and invisible phenomena and events in daily life. Consequently, Nichren Shoshu believers strive to elevate their life condition and attain enlightenment by acting in accordance with this law in their day-to-day life and by sharing with others their faith in the Mystic Law of Nam Myoho Renge Kyo.
In Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism, the fundamental object of worship is the Dai-Gohonzon, believed to have been inscribed by Nichiren Daishonin himself on October 12, 1279. The Dai-Gohonzon is revered as the very entity of Nichiren's Daishonin's enlightenment. Every individual Nichiren Shoshu worshipper or household possesses a smaller transcription of the Dai-Gohonzon that is produced and consecrated by each successive High Priest of Nichiren Shoshu, and is issued to each new believer by a Nichiren Shoshu priest upon initiation at local temples around the world. Taisekiji, the Head Temple of Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism, is located near the foot of Mt. Fuji in Japan, and is visited each year or from time to time by believers, either individually or in groups.
Every morning and evening, Nichren Shoshu practitioners affirm and renew their faith by performing Gongyo, which consists of the recitation of certain chapters of the Lotus Sutra, held to be Sakyamuni Buddha's highest and most profound teaching, and the chanting of Nam Myoho Renge Kyo to the Gohonzon, while focusing on the Chinese character Myo. This practice, particularly when shared with others, is regarded as the True Cause for attaining the tranquil state of enlightened life that can allow believers to experience and enjoy more meaningfully fulfilled lives and to confidently confront and overcome the challenges of everyday life (or what Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism refers to as "changing poison into medicine").
Soka Gakkai International (SGI) is the umbrella organization for affiliate lay organizations in over 190 countries practicing a form of the Buddhism of Nichiren Daishonin. It is closely affiliated with the New Clean Government Party (also known as the New Komeito), a major political party in Japan (though formal ties have been lessened to combat charges of violation of the separation of church and state). More controversially, Soka Gakkai has been accused by some critics of being a cult or cult-like group.
Soka Gakkai was founded as the Soka Kyoiku Gakkai on November 18, 1930 by Japanese educators Tsunesaburo Makiguchi and Josei Toda. After World War II, the Soka Gakkai experienced a period of rapid growth in Japan. The organization was formally organized in the United States on October 13, 1960. SGI was created in 1975 to act as the international leadership of national Soka Gakkai organizations.
The international body of SGI has been guided since its inception by its president, Daisaku Ikeda. A disciple of Second Soka Gakkai President Toda, Ikeda succeeded him in 1960 as Soka Gakkai President and became SGI President upon its creation in 1975. Founder of Soka University and the Soka School System, Mr. Ikeda is the author of numerous books and has held dialogues toward peace, education and culture with numerous scholars and world leaders. He is also the recipient of numerous honorary doctorates and awards including the United Nations Peace Award, the International Tolerance Award of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Rosa Parks Humanitarian Award. Mr. Ikeda is however a somewhat controversial figure in his home country of Japan, and he stepped down as Soka Gakkai President of Japan in 1979 following a flurry of accusations, though he remains SGI President to this day.
Nichiren Daishonin (1222–1282), was a Japanese Buddhist sage who determined that the Lotus Sutra was the most important of Shakyamuni Buddha's teachings, and crystalized the essence of the sutra as the phrase "Nam-myoho-renge-kyo". "Nichiren" is the name he chose for himself when embarking on spreading his teaching on April 28, 1253. It means "Sun Lotus." The word "Daishonin" is an honorific meaning "great sage."
Nichiren taught that by chanting this phrase to the "Gohonzon"—a scroll with Chinese and Sanskrit characters representing the enlightenment and life of the common mortal—anyone can activate her or his "Buddha nature" and become enlightened.
The basic practice of SGI members is based on chanting "Nam-myoho-renge-kyo" daily, reciting Gongyo: two short sections of the Lotus Sutra, introduction of others to the practice, and study of important Buddhist teachings. Most important in this study are the collected writings of Nichiren, recently compiled and issued in a single English volume titled "The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin." The Japanese edition of the writings, the "Nichiren Daishonin Gosho Zenshu," was issued in 1952. Translations are available, or are being done, in other languages.
Followers of Soka Gakkai believe that through chanting one becomes energized and refreshed spiritually and mentally making one happier, more productive, and prosperous. Chanting is also believe to have a positive impact on the world at large, bringing blessings on others as well. Believers recommend that everyone try chanting to see its positive impact on their lives.
Soka Gakkai doctrine developed within Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism, but in 1991 the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood excommunicated the Soka Gakkai, and the two organizations are now completely separate.
- "Buddhism." Encyclopędia Britannica (Encyclopędia Britannica Premium Service, 2004).
- "Nichiren Buddhism." Wikipedia, 2005. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nichiren_Buddhism>