Lotus Buddhism / FAQ / Nichiren’s contribution to Mahayana Buddhism

Nichiren’s contribution to Mahayana Buddhism

The basic contributions Nichiren offered to Mahayana Buddhism can be summarised as: 

  • establishing the practice for attaining enlightenment in this lifetime
  • declaring the Enlightenment of women
  • inscribing the Object of Devotion in Buddhism, and
  • establishing the criteria for verifying the validity of various doctrines.

Revealing the “Direct Path to Enlightenment”

The path to enlightenment in pre-Lotus Sutra teachings is based on gradually following the Bodhisattva practice over many lifetimes.  The Lotus Sutra, however, teaches that Buddhahood is already inherent within one’s current life. The Bodhisattva practice of the Lotus Sutra is based on directly revealing one’s Buddhanature without gradual stages.:

“Those who practice the Lotus Sutra are pursuing through this single act of devotion - the mind that is endowed with all manner of fortunate results. These are present simultaneously and are not acquired gradually over a long period of time. This is like the blossom of the lotus that, when it opens, already possesses a large number of seeds”.  WND1 p 418

From this perspective, the Bodhisattva practice of the Lotus Sutra (cause) and the revealing of Buddhahood (effect) are inseparable:

“Anyone who practices this Law [of the Lotus] will obtain both the cause and the effect of Buddhahood simultaneously”.   WND1 p 418

This concept of attaining Buddhahood in this lifetime is too revolutionary to believe in Mahayana teachings (which advocates a practice of meditation over many lifetimes.  Pre-Lotus Mahayana sets the condition of a lengthy practice over many lifetimes aiming to “purify one’s karma as a condition for attaining Buddhahood.  On the other hand, Nichiren Buddhism teaches that even evil people can attain Buddhahood through using their karma and transforming it through the power of the Dharma of the Lotus Sutra.

The Lotus Sutra introduces the concept of Bodhisattvas of the Earth, who are inseparable from the Eternal Buddha.  The principle, which makes the Bodhisattva inseparable from Buddhahood - is called the Mutual Possession of the Ten Worlds, which is unique to the Lotus Sutra.  In Pre-Lotus teachings, the Ten Worlds are separated apart by various stages and unknown number of lifetimes.

Although the Lotus Sutra was regarded highly by Mahayana scholars, it remained for hundreds of years just a theoretical text in the library of Buddhist temples - without a practical way to practice its teachings (in particular by the masses of ordinary people).  Nichiren introduced a simple and efficient practice, which enabled ordinary people to reveal their Buddhanature, through chanting the Dharma of the Lotus.

According to Nichiren, the essence of the Lotus Sutra is fully contained within its title, being the Law of the Dharma: “Myoho-Renge-Kyo” - and which integrates all the Buddha’s teachings:

“Therefore, one should understand that the [title] of the Lotus Sutra represents the soul of all the sutras”. WND1 p984

The phrase “Myoho-Renge-Kyo” is interpreted in various ways, such as: the “Wonderful Dharma of the Lotus”, “The Wonderful Law of Life”, and the “Universal Law of Cause and Effect”.  In his letter On Attaining Buddhaood, Nichiren explains that MyohoRengeKyo describes the truth or the ultimate reality of life.

In order to create the fusion between the individual’s life (the microcosm) and the ultimate reality or the Universal Law (the macrocosm) - Nichiren added to the essence of the Sutra (MyohoRengeKyo) - the Sanskrit word ”Namu””

 “The word namu expresses feelings of reverence and a sense of compliance”.  WND1 p 1061

By including the word Namu (devotion) to Myoho-Renge-Kyo (the Universal Law of Life) Nichiren revealed that the practice of Namu-Myoho-Renge-Kyo is the “Direct Path to Enlightenment”.  Nichiren practice unifies one’s subjective devotion (Nam) of the individual - with the objective reality of life - or the Dharma (MyohoRengeKyo). The invocation of Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo can be interpreted as expressing one’s dedication to be “ in harmony with’ or “one with the Law of Life” - and this fusion of the individual with the Dharma activates the inherently existing Buddhanature.

It is to be noted that the practice of chanting aims at direct attainment of enlightenment, while the practice of meditation in all Mahayana schools is based on the gradual practice spread over many lifetimes.  For example - the practice of meditation in Tibetan Buddhism is described through the experience of nun Tenzin Palmo, who practiced meditation in a cave for 12 hours a day for 3 years (as mentioned in page 119 of her experience book Cave in the Snow) - but finally she said that:

“I’ve hardly even started.  There are a lot more barriers I have to break through in my mind.  You see, a flash is not enough. You have to repeat and repeat until the realisations are         stabilized in your mind.  That’s why it takes so long - twelve years, twenty five years, a lifetime, several lifetimes”.  (page 207, Cave in the Snow).

The mentioned statement of “lifetime after lifetime” practice is derived from provisional Pre-Lotus teachings.  Nichiren explained such a lengthy and unproven practice - is a futile way of practicing Buddhism:

“No expedient or provisional teaching lead directly to enlightenment, and without the direct path to enlightenment you cannot attain Buddhahood, even if you practice lifetime after lifetime for countless kalpas” WND1 p3

Relying on the Lotus Sutra, Nichiren devised the practice of chanting for revealing one’s Buddhanature in this lifetime. 

Enlightenment of Women

In the above mentioned book of the Tibetan nun, a statement that differentiates the Lotus Sutra from all Pre-Lotus teachings - relates to attaining enlightenment by women:

The monks were kind, and I had no problems of sexual harassment or troubles of that sort,

but of course I was unfortunately within a female form. 

They actually told me that they prayed that in my next life I would have the good fortune to be born

as a male so that I could join in all the monastery’s activities.”  Page 155

This statement also means that a women can never attain Buddhahood in her female body - a teaching of spiritual inferiority of women - while there are various statements from Nichiren writings paving the way for the enlightenment of women as they are:

 “Now here is a women who, longing for the Lotus Sutra, will surely become a Buddha”  WNDII p 1030

 “Only in the Lotus Sutra do we read that a woman who embraces this sutra not only excels all other women, but also surpasses all men”  WND1p 463

Establishing the Object of Devotion

For almost 2000 years after Shakyamuni’s passing, the object of focus during meditation was a statue (or painting) of the Buddha.  According to Nichiren, using statue or Buddha images in prayers was suitable for the former periods of Buddhist practice, while in the current age (the Latter Day of the Law), statues and paintings - depicting the Buddha - will lose their power to benefit people:

“It is stated that once this teaching is revealed in this era, the Buddha images … [of] the Former and Middle Days will all lose their power to benefit people”.

Mahayana Buddhism teaches the doctrine of “the three periods of time” in the development of Buddhism, being the Former, Middle and Latter day of the Law.  While the teachings of Pre-Lotus Buddhism are believed by traditional Buddhism to decline in time - the Lotus Sutra predicted that the Buddhism of the Lotus will flourish in this current period of time (the Latter Day) - as well as far into the future.  For this reason Nichiren regarded the Lotus Sutra as the background and origin for establishing the Object of Devotion, valid in the current age of Buddhism. 

According to Nichiren, one’s enlightenment is assured through the fusion (Nam) of one’s life with the Eternal Buddha (MyohoRengeKyo, as described in the Lotus Sutra).  Hence the depiction of the Eternal Buddha is necessary for the practice leading to enlightenment.

A mere statue of the historical Buddha cannot depict the essence of the Eternal Buddha because , the inclusion of the Bodhisattvas is crucial with the Eternal Buddha.  Some Mahayana schools realised that a statue is incomplete (as an object of focus) they have to add a combination of statues of Bodhisattvas to that of the Buddha (because the Eternal Buddha is inseparable from the Bodhisattva).  Accenting the importance of inclusion of the World of Bodhisattva in the Object of Devotion, Nichiren was referring to the principle of the Mutual Possession of the Ten Worlds of life, which is the vehicle through which one can manifest Buddhahood in any of the lower worlds of life.

A statue of Buddha refers to the effect of Buddhahood, not to the cause of attaining Buddhahood as there is no mention of the Dharma within a statue.  It represents a focus on the person (not on the Law).

Nichiren employed the form of a mandala to depict the central teaching of the Lotus Sutra, being: its symbolic revelation of the Eternal Buddha, the “Treasure Tower” amid the Bodhisattvas, in what the Lotus Sutra calls the “Ceremony in the Air”.

The totality of the Lotus Sutra was encapsulated within the mandala Nichiren inscribed and named the Object of Devotion: the Gohonzon.

Gohonzon means “that which should be fundamentally respected”: “this Gohonzon shall be called the great mandala never before known”. In essence, the mandala Gohonzon can be perceived as an embodiment of the “Life of Buddha” or the state of Buddhahood as revealed in the Lotus Sutra, and which exists as a potential (Buddhanature) in the life of the individual.

Chanting towards the mandala Gohonzon is an action which expresses the connection of the “life of Buddha” and the “life of the individual” - an action reviving and revealing the practitioner’s Buddhanature.  From this perspective, the inscribed mandala reflects one’s inner Buddhanature: “Never seek this Gohonzon outside yourself”.

Setting a system for verification of beliefs (The Three Proofs)

Many spiritual beliefs, which were spread in society at the time of Nichiren’s appearance - were no more than superstitions or groundless views.  In order to help ordinary people correctly evaluate the validity of a given doctrine, Nichiren established a set of three criteria, by which a certain teaching should be evaluated, and consequently accepted or rejected:

“In judging the relative merit of Buddhist doctrines, I, Nichiren, believe that the best standards are those of reason and documentary proof. And even more valuable than reason and documentary proof is the proof of actual fact”. WND1 p 599

The first criterion of “reason” implies that: in order to accept a given teaching, its contents should be consistent.  The “proof of reason” means that a meaningful doctrine should be inwardly valid and lacking any contradiction.

The second criterion for judging a teaching as being correct and true - is the criterion for  “documentary proof”, or references of traceability - a proof substantiating a record about the essence of the teaching.  A valid doctrine should be different from a hear-say, and should be based on some roots of verifiable references. 

However, it is the third criterion of “Actual Proof” that Nichiren considered the most important.  Even if a given theory sounds reasonable and has some documented references, if it cannot deliver actual proof (of being effective when applied in the real world) - then it should be discarded.  The criterion of the Actual Proof is akin to the methodology of testing a theory, which is the basis of scientific examination.

This means that ideas or teachings which are beyond the scope of verification and testing should be rejected as being lacking actual validity.

The immediate application of this system for considering the validity of beliefs - is that it gives researchers a systematic approach and clarity in evaluating religious arguments or doctrines.  The reason why Nichiren stressed the importance of the “Actual Proof” is that he considered teachings which cannot be proven (such as promising practitioners the attainment of Buddhahood after death) as meaningless.  Accordingly, only the doctrines which enable verifiable results in this present lifetime - can be regarded as meaningful teachings.