Lotus Buddhism / Traditional Buddhism and Nichiren Buddhism

Traditional Buddhist Teachings
and
Nichiren Buddhism

Safwan Darshams

The Basic Difference between Nichiren Buddhism and Other Schools of Buddhism

Buddhism is generally classified into two main branches: Theravada and Mahayana.

Theravada - or the “Teachings of the Elders” - is based on the early teachings of the Pali Canon. The goal of Theravada teachings is to lead practitioners to become an Arhat (or “worthy person”) who can escape the cycle of rebirth. Escaping the “cycle of rebirth”, however, means a belief in “permanent death”. Permanent Death (or escaping rebirth) contradicts the Truth of Impermanence. Impermanence implies that living changes into death and death changes into rebirth. The Buddha taught to escape the cycle of suffering, not the cycle of rebirth.

Theravada tradition is basically a practice for monks, having to comply with 250 rules that are not practicable by ordinary people.

Mahayana (Great Vehicle (for attaining Enlightenment) - share various basic beliefs with Theravada, but differs by introducing the concept of “Bodhisattva” - a stage of practice, which leads to becoming a Buddha.

The ‘possibility to attain Buddhahood through Bodhisattva way‘ is the main difference between the two branches.

The Bodhisattva practice is based on the compassionate spirit of helping others overcome sufferings (at each new journey of rebirth) - and on striving to attain the Buddha-state.

Mahayana teachings regard the cycle of birth and death as eternal and inescapable. Hence, the concept of ending “the cycle of birth and death” is understood as “ending the cycle of suffering” - and not as stopping the natural cycle of rebirth. Through creating good karma (following the Bodhisattva practice) it is possible to become a Buddha. In other words, the aim of practice in Mahayana is to transform one’s life of suffering into a life of enlightenment through helping others do the same.

While Theravada is rather a practice for monks, Mahayana flourished among ordinary people. Examples of Mahayana schools of Buddhism are: Tibetan, Zen, Amida, and Nichiren Buddhism, each suggesting a different perspective on how to attain enlightenment:

  • Amida Buddhism teaches about Buddhahood in a Pure Land, after death.
  • Tibetan Buddhism teaches that Buddhahood requires many lifetimes of practice.
  • Zen aims for cultivation of insight through silent meditation, but with no emphasis on setting a goal to become a Buddha.
  • Nichiren Buddhism is about the attainment of Buddhahood in the reality of daily life.

The reason for the diversity of Buddhist schools lies in the diversity of the sutras they follow. Sutras differ markedly in their depth and capacity to lead people to enlightenment. Having a wealth of various Mahayana teachings, scholars of Buddhism were faced with the following question: which of the sutras is most inclusive, or:

How to compare and classify the diverse teachings of the Buddha?

After studying and comparing the teachings of various sutras, Buddhist scholar Chih-i, known also as Tien-tai (538 - 597) established criteria to classify the depth and capacity of sutras, arriving to the conclusion that the Lotus Sutra - preached at the last period of the Buddha’s life - is the complete and final teaching of Buddhism.

The Lotus Sutra opens the way for all people to attain Buddhahood in their present body and their current circumstances. In essence, the Lotus Sutra harmonises and integrates all the previous teachings of the Buddha (both Theravada and Mahayana) and reveals the final Dharma (or the Universal Law of Life).

Lotus Buddhism: Enlightenment in one’s present lifetime

Because the Lotus Sutra is unique among the Mahayana sutras, it stands as a class of its own. This means that it is possible to consider Lotus Buddhism as a branch of its own in the general classification of Buddhism: Theravada, Mahayana and Lotus Buddhism.

The most important difference between Lotus Buddhism and Traditional teachings (of both Theravada and Mahayana) is about the Lotus teaching of the Enlightenment of Women, and on revealing the Buddhanature in this lifetime.

Nichiren’s Classification of Buddhism: for hundreds of years, the Lotus Sutra was considered as a beautiful poetry or a profound theory, but difficult to put into practice. Then, a Mahayana reformer, Nichiren (1222 - 1282) - dedicated his life to revive the Sutra’s teachings, established a practical way for its practice, and ranked it as the complete and final teaching of Buddhism.

According to Nichiren, the highest teaching of Buddhism is that, which has the capacity to help all people in this lifetime, without distinctions:

“In Buddhism, that teaching is judged supreme that enables all people, whether good or evil, to become Buddhas. Surely anyone can grasp so reasonable a standard. By means of this principle, we can compare the various sutras and ascertain which is superior”. WND1 p 156

The Lotus Sutra abolishes all categories of discrimination among people, opening the path of enlightenment for all individuals, in their present form and circumstances (while sutras preached before the Lotus include certain limitations on attaining Buddhahood).

In essence, the logic behind Nichiren’s criterion for comparing various sutras was simply based on how can any person - regardless of practitioner’s gender, sexuality, intellect , social position or karmic inheritance - to attain enlightenment in one’s present lifetime.

Accordingly, Nichiren regarded all sutras prior to the Lotus Sutra as provisional or preparatory teachings - and the Lotus Sutra as final and complete.

Based on this perspective, he classified the totality of Buddhism into two categories:

  • Pre-Lotus Sutra teachings (of Theravada and Mahayana) and,
  • Lotus Sutra’s teachings - the final teaching of Buddhism.

This classification of Buddhism (based on the two categories of provisional and final) does not conflict with the teachings of traditional schools of Buddhism: Theravada and Mahayana streams alike.

All schools of Traditional Buddhism (Pre-Lotus teachings) acknowledge that their current teachings are not final, because Shakyamuni’s sutras (preached before the Lotus Sutra) predict their own decline in the current age (the Latter Day of the Law). Traditional Buddhism believes in the disappearance of their own teachings in the future : “The Dhamma will eventually disappear”. On the contrary, Lotus Buddhism predicts the flourishing of its teachings for all people and in this current age and future time to come.

Lotus Buddhism as the valid teaching for the Period of the Current Age:

Traditional Buddhism’s belief about our current age - called ‘the Latter Day of the Law’ - describes this period of time as the start of “decline and disappearance of Buddhism in the world” . This means that the schools of Buddhism - based on pre-Lotus Sutra teachings - are in agreement with Nichiren Buddhism that their teachings (which were preached before the Lotus Sutra) are provisional or not final.

While all pre-Lotus (or provisional) teachings predict the decline of Buddhism in the Latter Day, being the current age, the Lotus Sutra alone predicts the flourishing of Buddhism and a wide spread of its teachings all over the world: “…the great pure Law of the Lotus Sutra will spread far and wide throughout [the whole world].” WND1 p 550

Traditional Buddhism compensates for their belief in the decline and disappearance of Buddhism by predicting the emergence of a “Future Buddha”. The purpose of this mythology about a ‘Future Buddha’ is to give birth anew to the “lost Dharma”.

In contrast, the Lotus Sutra predicts the flourishing of its teachings, and continual spread of its concept of the Dharma (the Universal Law of Cause and Effect). Future Buddhas - according to the Lotus Sutra - are ordinary people who practice its teachings (called also the Bodhisattvas of the Earth).

The Mythology of Maitreya in Pre-Lotus Buddhism reminds with similar beliefs in nonBuddhist religions - such as the arrival of Jesus anew after great sufferings of humanity and also the Mahdi arrival in Islamic beliefs.

Nichiren Buddhism regards the concept of “Future Buddha” as redundant: because the final Dharma has been already declared in the Lotus Sutra, and there is nothing to add to it. Each person who embodies the teachings of the Lotus Sutra becomes a future Buddha.

What is common between Traditional Buddhism and Nichiren Buddhism

Despite differences, it is equally important to recognise the common goal of all Buddhist schools. What unifies all Buddhist groups is the goal of attaining the state of enlightenment, as means of achieving inner peace and world peace.

Another uniting belief is that Buddhism cannot be practiced in isolation but through a network of Sangha (the Community of Buddha followers).

Additionally, all Buddhist schools agree on the teaching of the Three Dharma Seals, which are the basic doctrines of “Impermanence”, “Non-Ego” and “Enlightenment”.

Nichiren teachings share with traditional Buddhism the concepts of :

Dependent Origination and the Three Truths: Sunyata (Emptiness or non-substantiality), Temporary Existence, and the Middle Way. In addition, the Buddhist doctrines of non-duality, Inseparability (body and mind) and Interconnectedness (self and environment) - are also common.

The word ‘Dharma’ is used to describe the teaching of the Buddha about the reality of life and attaining enlightenment. Traditional Buddhism regards the early sermon on the Four Noble Truths as the Dharma, while the Lotus Sutra regards the final teaching of the Buddha as the Dharma (or the Universal Law : Myoho-Renge-Kyo), described in the Lotus sutra as the “most wonderful unsurpassed Law”: Chapter 3. It also teaches that following this Law, to which Shakyamuni was enlightened, will enable ordinary people to attain the same Buddha-state in this lifetime.

A Quick Comparison between Nichiren Buddhism and Traditional Buddhism

Nichiren Buddhism Traditional Buddhism
Sutra The Lotus Sutra Pre-Lotus teachings
Practice

Chanting the Dharma

Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo

Silent Meditation

(in search for the Dharma nature)

Object of Devotion

Mandala “Gohonzon”, (Life of Buddha)

which embodies the Person and the Law

Statue of Shakyamuni,

(the Person)

The Realms of Low and High states of life

The Ten Realms are mutually inclusive.

(“Bodhisattva not separate from Buddha”)

The Ten Realms are separate.

(Bodhisattva distinct from Buddha)

Desires

Desires assists in enlightenment

(Various views on desires)
The basic teachings of Buddhism

The Universal Law of the Life

Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo

The Four Noble Truths

the Eightfold path