The Basic Difference between

Nichiren Buddhism and Other Schools of Buddhism

Buddhism is generally classified into two main branches: Theravada and Mahayana. The name “Theravada” - or the “Teachings of the Elders” - is based on the early teachings of the Pali Canon.  In many publications - this branch of early teachings of buddhism is called also Hinayana (Small Vehicle for attaining Enlightenment).

The other brach is Mahayana (Great Vehicle for attaining Enlightenment).  Mahayana Buddhism shares similar 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 considered to be the central difference between the two branches.

The goal of Theravada teachings is to lead practitioner to become an Arhat (or sage, who can escape the cycle of rebirth). On the other hand, Mahayana teachings regards the cycle of birth and death as eternal and inescapable, hence the goal of practicing Mahayana is to lead practitioner to attain Buddhahood through practicing the Bodhisattva way.  In other words, the aim of practice in Mahayana is to transform one’s life of sufferings into a life of enlightenment. 

Examples of Mahayana schools of Buddhism are: Tibetan, Zen, Amida, and Nichiren Buddhism, each suggesting a different perspective on how to attain enlightenment:

  1. -     Amida Buddhism teaches about the attainment of Buddhahood only after death.

  2. -    Tibetan (Vajrayana) Buddhism incorporates Mahayana teachings with esoteric rituals of

      pre-Buddhist “Bon” tradition - to aid in the process of awakening.

  1. -    Zen aims for gradual cultivation of insight through silent meditation, but with no emphasis     

     on setting a goal to become a Buddha. 

  1. -    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, and which 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:

               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. 

Nichiren’s Classification of Buddhism: for hundreds of years, the Lotus Sutra remained in the library of Buddhist temples as a profound theory, but difficult to put into practice.  The search for a Buddhist teaching, which can bring immediate benefit to people’s life - rather than promising Buddhahood after death - prompted Mahayana scholar, Nichiren (1222 - 1282) to revive the teachings of the Lotus Sutra, establishing a practical way for its practice.  According to Nichiren, a superior teaching of Buddhism is that, which capacity to help all people in this lifetime is the highest:

        “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  

In essence, the logic behind Nichiren’s criterion for comparing various sutras was simply based on how truly beneficial is a given teaching for all people - regardless of gender, intellect or karma - to attain enlightenment as they are.

Accordingly, he regarded all sutras prior to the Lotus Sutra as provisional or preparatory teachings - and the Lotus Sutra as final and complete.  From this perspective, Nichiren classified 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) is - in essence - in agreement with the teachings of all traditional schools of Buddhism, Theravada and Mahayana streams alike.  This is because all schools of Traditional Buddhism (Pre-Lotus teachings) acknowledge that their current teachings are not final, because Shakyamuni’s sutras (other than the Lotus) predict their own decline in the current age (the Latter Day of the Law) - leading to the complete disappearance of these Buddhist teachings  : The Dhamma will eventually disappear”. 

Traditional Buddhism’s belief about ‘the Latter Day of the Law’ describes this period of time as the period 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.  All pre-Lotus, provisional teachings predict the decline of Buddhism in the Latter Day, while the Lotus Sutra alone predicts 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

The problematic belief in the decline and disappearance of Buddhism promoted for an aspiration for the emergence of a “Future Buddha”. The purpose of the 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, as being the Eternal Law of Cause and Effect.

The mythology of decline of Buddhism as taught by all schools of Traditional Buddhism, predicts destruction and sufferings of humanity - because of the loss of spiritual teaching to help people (until a saviour future Buddha emerges).  This myth reminds with similar doomsday beliefs such as the arrival of Jesus anew after mass destruction 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.  Each person who embodies the teachings of the Lotus Sutra becomes a future Buddha.

The Revolutionary Concepts of the Lotus Sutra

The Lotus Sutra refers to its principles as being difficult to believe:

“A passage from the Lotus Sutra reads that it is “the most difficult to believe and the most difficult to understand.” WND1p471

a statement of anticipation of its challenging and revolutionary teachings.

The main principles of the Lotus Sutra are:


  1. -Attaining Buddhahood in this life time” (a different perspective from previous sutras, which required many lifetimes of practice), 

  1. -Enlightenment of all People”, eradicating limitations on attaining Buddhahood, which were set in previous sutras.  Pre-Lotus teachings set varying limitations on attaining enlightenment by the three categories of people: women, evil doers and self-realisation intellectuals (sravka and pratyekabuddha). Gender-limitations on attaining Buddhahood were abolished in the Lotus Sutra.

  1. -The Mutual Possession of the Ten Worlds”, which teaches that the lower worlds of sufferings contain the potential for Buddhahood and that the Buddha is an ordinary person who possesses the lower worlds of life (transformed into enlightenment).  This means that all phenomena possess the Buddhanature as their inner potential, and that this true nature (of living beings) is the Wonderful Law of Cause and Effect (MyohoRengeKyo) - which the sutra considers as the final Dharma).

The Lotus Sutra offers other vital principles, such as the concept of the Oneness of Cause (Bodhisattva) and Effect (Buddha), dissolving the distinction between Bodhisattva practice and Buddhahood (a distinction found in pre-Lotus teachings, which advocate many stages of practice separating Bodhisattva from Buddhahood ).

The most outstanding statement of the Buddha of the Lotus Sutra is that he is has never been born and will never die, being a manifestation of the Eternal State of Buddhahood in the life of the Universe.


Subduing Evil: One of the most outstanding distinctions of the Lotus Sutra is its prediction of enlightenment of the Buddha’s enemy, Devadatta (identified with Evil). In pre-Lotus Sutras, the devil was excluded from enlightenment, condemned to eternal hell, and in non-Buddhist teachings (such as in the Abrahamic religions) no solution is given except promising to put the devil to Hell after the ‘Judgement Day’.

The Lotus Sutra offers the possibility of defeating, subduing and converting the devil to act to correct the all evil karma which was created, becoming enlightened to the universal Dharma:

“In Buddhism, that teaching is judged supreme that enables all people, whether good or evil, to become Buddhas”. WND1 p 156

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).

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

Additionally, Nichiren teachings share with traditional Buddhism the concept of Dependent Origination and the Three Truths: Sunyatta (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 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 attain the Buddha-state in this lifetime.

A Quick Comparison between Nichiren Buddhism and Traditional Buddhism


Nichiren Buddhism:                                                                   Traditional Buddhism:

The Lotus Sutra                                                                               Pre-Lotus teachings



Chanting the Dhrama                                                                   Silent Meditation (in search     

Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo,                                                              for the Dharma nature)



Mandala “Gohonzon”, (Life of Buddha)                                    Statue of Shakyamuni,

which embodies the Person and the Law                                 embodying the Person aspect   



The Ten Worlds are mutually inclusive.                                The Ten Worlds are separate.

(“Bodhisattva-Buddha” is inseparable state)                      (Bodhisattva distinct from Buddha)




Desires assists in enlightenment                                               (Various views on desires)



The Universal Law of the Life                                                       The Four Noble Truths

    Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo                                                               & the Eightfold path