Lotus Buddhism / FAQ / The Concept of Eternal Buddha

The Concept of Eternal Buddha

The word “Buddha” is used in two contexts:

- Buddha as a person, and

- Buddha as a state of life

The Buddha’s “state of life” is the “world of Buddhahood”.

While the person of a Buddha means a physical manifestation of Buddhahood, the person cannot of course be eternal  -  it is his or her attained “state of life” that is eternal.  

Shakyamuni did not “make up” Buddhahood. The Eternal state of Buddhahood existed before the birth of the historical Buddha.  This state of Buddhahood is the original source (or field of enlightenment) -  while the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, is a concrete (or specific) embodiment of Buddhahood.

The person of the historical Buddha Shakyamuni was a specific manifestation of eternal state of Buddhahood.  The state of eternal Buddhahood is not restricted by time or space.  Buddhahood is the general state of life - while Shakyamuni was a specific person (who perfectly manifested that state of life: Buddhahood).

Many problems in understanding the concept of “identity of the individual” come from a confusion between what is “General” and what is “Specific”.  For example: to say that person X is from a certain race or religion - this is the Specific category of that person, but to say that the same person is a human being - this is the General category.

Nichiren warns of misunderstanding what is “general” and what is “specific”:

“If you confuse the general with the specific even in the slightest, you will never be able to attain Buddhahood and will wander in suffering”.   WND1p746

Here, the “general” - is the state of Buddhahood, or NamMyohoRengeKyo, while the “specific” is the person: Shakyamuni, Nichiren, and any other human being - who is in perfect fusion with the general world of Buddhahood. 

The Eternal Buddha in view of Nichiren Shu, Shoshu and Soka Buddhism

The way in which the doctrine of the “Original Buddha” is understood, characterises the relevant differences between various Nichiren’s schools.

The three schools of Nichiren Shu, Nichiren Shoshu and SGI have different interpretations of the doctrine of Eternal Buddha:

-  Nichiren Shu, in this regard, names Shakyamuni as the Eternal Buddha,

-  Nichiren Shoshu names Nichiren Daishonin as the Original Buddha, while:

-  SGI literature indicates that the Eternal Buddha is:

NamMyohoRengeKyo - Human Being

NamMyohoRengeKyo is the eternal state of Buddhahood, which materializes in any specific human being who is devoted to the Law. 

This interpretation regards both Shakyamuni and Nichiren as manifestations of the Eternal State of Buddhahood, and opens the way for all people to attain the same state of Buddhahood.  The eternal Buddha is the highest state of life, and can be manifested by devoted individual human beings without restriction.  it is not a “patent” for one person only, as Nichiren Shu teaches.

Both sects of Nichiren Shu and Shoshu fall into conflict with their own interpretation of who they call Eternal Buddha:

  • If Shakyamuni is named the True or Eternal Buddha, then - according to Nichiren Shu - Nichiren is only a Bodhisattva.  This interpretation is based on separation of the Ten Worlds and it denies that Nichiren’s state of life was Buddha-acting-as-Bodhisattva (as the Mutual Possession teaches).  It also contradicts his own writings.  Nichiren Shu school makes the World of Buddhahood as “reserved” to one person only, unattainable by the rest of humanity, a similar view with Theravada Buddhism.

  • On the other hand, if - according to Nichiren Shoshu priesthood - only Nichiren was the True Buddha, the question arises: then, who was Shakyamuni of the Lotus Sutra?

Nichiren Shoshu priesthood avoids viewing Shakyamuni as a True Buddha, and focuses only on Nichiren - a perspective that enhances their position as “closer to” and “representing” the True Buddha - implying thus having a higher spiritual authority than ordinary people.

  • SGI interpretation of the Eternal Buddha (One who manifests the Eternal Law of Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo) is consistent with Nichiren writings.  Both Shakyamuni and Nichiren as persons - passed away, so we cannot call the person of Shakyamuni or Nichiren - as being eternal. 

What is “eternal” is the life of Shakyamuni and Nichiren, the life of Buddhahood. This “life of Buddhahood” is NamMyohoRengeKyo.  Buddhahood was perfectly manifested by both Shakyamauni and Nichiren.

Buddhism introduces a nameless reference to the concept of ‘Enlightened Being‘:  it is the concept of The Tathagata, or ‘One who emerged from the Truth’, translated also as “Thus Come One”.  The term ‘Thus Come One’ appears in the Lotus Sutra:

“The Buddha said to Shariputra: A wonderful Law such as this, Preached by the Buddhas, The ‘Thus Come Ones’” (Expedient Means, Ch.2, p.30)

This and other passages, clearly indicate that Buddhahood is the oneness of the person (who is the “Thus Come One”)  and the Dharma (or the Law).  In this perspective of SGI Buddhism - the eternal state of Buddhahood (Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo) can be manifested by any devoted human being (Thus Come One).  The concept of Tathagata is genderless, it is any human being, male or female, who through devotion to the Law can manifest the state of eternal Buddhahood.

According to SGI teachings:

“The Original Buddha whose life is without beginning or end is then Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo-Thus-Come-One”. The Wisdom of the Lotus Sutra 5 (page 164)

Both Shakyamuni and Nichiren manifested the Eternal Dharma (or original Buddhahood):

“Just as did Shakyamuni, all Buddhas of the past, present and future has become enlightened to , and have taken as their mentor, the Buddha of time without beginning: Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo -Thus Comes One.  This is the Buddha of Limitless Joy, the Buddha of absolute freedom NamMyohoRengeKyo - Thus Come One. 

President Toda said: The life of Nichiren Daishonin and our own lives have neither beginning nor end.  This is what is termed time without beginning.  The Universe itself is a great entity of life”. The Wisdom of the Lotus Sutra, vol. 4 p.38

An interpretation that maintains the true identity of both Buddhas - Nichiren and Shakyamuni – opens the way for any human being to manifest also original Buddhahood (or to become a “Thus Come One”: a human being whose life is one with the eternal law).  Such an interpretation has the capacity to benefit each person in daily life, through daily practice:

“Kuon [Timeless Life of Enlightenment] signifies Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo; it signifies the Gohonzon. When we pray to the Gohonzon, that very instant is beginningless time”. (p.165)

This practically means that the life of the Eternal Buddha is the Gohonzon enshrined at home as the Object of Devotion.

Attaining Buddhahood is possible for all people (but each person is unique, having their own mission and personal circumstances and horizon of responsibility).

The Gohonzon embodies the Life of Eternal Buddhahood

Clearly, an interpretation that maintains the true identity of both Buddhas - Nichiren and Shakyamuni – opens the way for any human being to manifest also original Buddhahood (or to become a Thus Come One: a human being whose life is in perfect harmony with the eternal law).  Such an interpretation has the capacity to benefit each person in daily life, through daily practice:

Nichiren inscribed in the Gohonzon the life of the Eternal Buddha (as described through the imagery of the Ceremony in the Air in the Lotus Sutra).  The Object of Devotion, Gohonzon, is the life of Eternal Buddhahood.

The individual’s life and the eternal Buddha:

One of the misunderstandings of the priesthood (of both Nichiren Shoshu and Shu) in regard to the concept of Eternal Buddha - is whether we as ordinary people can manifest this state of eternal Buddhahood. 

Elevating the state of the original or eternal Buddha exclusively to either Shakyamuni or Nichiren - implies that ordinary people have no chance in manifesting the same state of Buddhahood.  In this way, Buddhahood becomes externalised, becoming a distant  property of “great persons” who long passed away - but such understanding contradicts the teachings of the Lotus Sutra.

SGI literature mentions that each of us has own mission through which one can reveal own Buddhahood.  We cannot be someone else, nor must we have a mission as huge as that of Shakyamuni or Nichiren, nonetheless as an individual human being, one can the manifest eternal state of Buddhahood through one’s own mission in daily life.