Nichiren Shu and SGI Buddhism

Both Nichiren Shu and SGI declare their teachings as based on the Lotus Sutra. It is in fact the common goal of all Nichiren schools to spread the Lotus Sutra’s teachings world wide.

There are some differences in interpretation, however, between Nichiren Shu and SGI – regarding the Sutra’s concept of ‘Bodhisattvas of the Earth’, and the teaching of the ‘Eternal Buddha’.

These differences in interpretation emerge from different understanding of Nichiren’s identity, limited to be as a Bodhisattva (in Nichiren Shu) - but as being a Buddha (in SGI Buddhism).

The Bodhisattvas of the Lotus Sutra

While all Mahayana schools of Buddhism teach the ‘Bodhisattva way’, the Lotus Sutra is unique in its teaching of the concept of ‘Bodhisattva of the Earth’.  Pre-Lotus teachings distinguish between two phases (or worlds) of ‘Bodhisattva’ and ‘Buddha’, setting many stages in between the two, and a lengthy time of practice (stretching over many lifetimes) to bridge the two worlds of Bodhisattva and Buddha. 

It can be argued that Nichiren Shu teachings relate to this pre-Lotus understanding of the Bodhisattva practice, rather than to the revolutionary concept of Bodhisattvas of the Lotus Sutra.

Pre-Lotus teachings offer the possibility for attainment of Buddhahood in a distant future lifetime, while the Lotus Sutra is concerned with attaining Buddhahood in this current lifetime, in this physical reality.  Nichiren was effectively telling the other Mahayana schools: if you believe that one day you will attain Buddhahood - so then let this very lifetime be the one to reveal your Buddhanature.

The deepest desire of the Buddha of the Lotus Sutra is found in the passage of the LifeSpan chapter (known also as the Buddha’s Great Desire: mai ji sa ze nen) :

“at all times, I think to myself,

how can I cause all people

to quickly attain Buddhahood”.

To “quickly attain Buddhahood” practically means: to become a Buddha in one’s lifetime.

To become a Buddha, a pre-Lotus practitioner follows a gradual practice of accumulating merits and transforming karma, a practice which takes an unknown period of time. However, if becoming a Buddha is a true possibility, then finally,in a certain lifetime (after culminating these lengthy periods of devoted practice), the state of Buddhahood would emerge in the one’s current life.  The Lotus Sutra allows for this possibility through the doctrine of the Mutual Possession of the two worlds Bodhisattva and Buddha merging indistinguishably.

There must exist a stage, where there is almost no distinction between the quality of one’s actions as a Bodhisattva – and the quality of the same actions, performed by a perfectly enlightened Buddha.  This stage is equal to Bodhisattva manifesting Buddhahood (or a Buddha acting as a Bodhisattva). 

The Lotus Sutra makes this possibility a tangible and direct reality for all practitioners - in their current existence, and that’s why it is regarded as the highest Buddhist teaching - offering the direct path to the highest goal of Buddhist practice:

“...without the direct path to enlightenment you cannot attain Buddhahood, even if you practice lifetime after lifetime for countless kalpas. WND1p3

The Metaphor for ‘Bodhisattva becoming a Buddha’

Metaphors and parables are used as skilful means to communicate the Sutra’s teachings and messages. The Sutra’s metaphor about how the stage of Bodhisattva merges with Buddhahood - must of course include a scenario with figures relating to the World of Bodhisattva, and figures from the World of Buddhahood, so that the metaphoric scenery would convey - in an illustrative way - their inseparability or oneness. 

The Eternal Buddha, Shakyamuni, was identified in the Sutra as being inseparable from the Bodhisattvas of the Earth (represented by the metaphoric figure of Bodhisattva Superior Action, Jogyo).  The Sutra’s striking message about the concept of ‘Bodhisattva manifesting Buddhahood’ is found in the meaning of the name Bodhisattva Jogyo: “The True Self of the Buddha”.

Nichiren’s identity as the True Self of the Buddha

Both SGI and Nichiren Shu literature agree in their teaching about the four leaders of the Bodhisattvas, who appear in the Lotus Sutra.  According to both SGI and Nichiren Shu, the ‘four leaders’ represent the Four Characteristics of the Buddha:


                                Eternity, Happiness, True self, Purity. 

This teaching found in SGI literature about the four characteristics, referred to by the “Four Virtues”.   These Four Virtues are the qualities of the Buddha’s life: True Self, Happiness, Purity and Eternity

Nichiren decalred his spiritual identity to be the ‘True Self’ of Buddha (Jogyo) - being the cause for happiness, purity and eternity.  The question to Nichiren Shu scholars is: How can a person spiritual identity as the True Self of Buddha - not be a Buddha?

On this subject, SGI literature explains: Bodhisattva Superior Practices is actually a Buddha who is exerting himself at the level of Buddhist practice that enables any individual to attain enlightenment.  In other words he is the Buddha embodying the simultaneity of Cause and Effect”. The Wisdom of the Lotus Sutra, vol.5 p 164

“The Buddha is in reality a ‘Bodhisattva-Buddha’. Shakyamuni was a bodhisattva and at the same time a Buddha....Superior Practices is a "Bodhisattva-Buddha – that is, a being whose life embodies the ‘wonderful Law of simultaneity of cause and effect’ - who spreads that wonderful Law.  Buddhism teaches in no uncertain terms that the Law and the Person who expounds it are one”. Living Buddhism, December 1999, Page 27

SGI teaching of the state of “Bodhisattva- Buddha” is based on the Principle of the Mutual Possession of the Ten Worlds, which is also found in Nichiren Shu literature: “The principle of the Mutual Possession of the Ten Worlds states that each of these Ten Worlds contains the others within itself”. Lotus Seeds, Nichiren Shu Temple of San Jose, p. 68 

The difference between Nichiren Shu and SGI teachings, however, (in terms of this principle) is that Nichiren Shu presents the Mutual Possession as just a ‘theoretical possibility’, failing to give examples of its validity, while SGI literature applies this principle to the identity of Shakyamuni and Nichiren, as both manifesting the world of Buddhahood (and inviting us, their followers, to do the same).

In effect, Nichiren Shu perspective on the Bodhisattvas of the Lotus Sutra is not different from Pre-Lotus teachings, interpreting the world of Buddhahood as far or different from the world of Bodhisattva.

Shakyamuni and the state of ‘Bodhisattva-Buddha’

The concept of Bodhisattva-Buddha is found in the Life Span chapter of the Lotus Sutra, in which Shakyamuni - the Eternal Buddha - refers to himself as one who “practiced the Bodhisattva way (ga hon gyo bosatsu do).

If Shakyamuni, however, started his practice as a Bodhisattva at a certain remote time (in order to become a Buddha in a later stage) - then Shakyamuni is not the ‘Eternal’ Buddha from the time without beginning. 

The only meaningful interpretation of this passage of the Lotus Sutra is that, while being the Eternal Buddha, Shakyamuni also practiced as a Bodhisattva, without unnecessary distinctions between these stages :

“His true identity is that of a Buddha exerting himself at the initial stage of Buddhist practice, embodying the oneness of cause and effect.

Such a figure had never before been known in the history of Buddhism”.

Wisdom of the Lotus Sutra vol.5 p.187



  The Eternal Buddha     The Gohonzon and Eternal Buddhaood      Nichiren’s Identity