Nichiren Shu Pre-Lotus interpretations


Some differences in interpretation between Nichiren Shu and Soka Buddhism – relate to the Sutra’s concept of ‘Bodhisattvas of the Earth’, the teaching of the ‘Eternal Buddha’, the Principle of Mutual Possession and the identity of their founder.


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 (which enables attaining of Buddhahood in one’s current circumstances).  Nichiren was effectively telling other schools of Buddhism: if you believe that one day you will attain Buddhahood - so then let this event be this very lifetime!


If one anticipates enlightenment after many lifetime - then there must exist a stage in time 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.  It is a stage of fusion between the Bodhisattva World and the world of Buddhahood.  This stage is equal to Bodhisattva manifesting Buddhahood (or also a Buddha acting as a Bodhisattva).  The Lotus Sutra makes this possibility of fusion of Bodhisattva-Buddha possible through the concept of Mutual Possession.  This is one reason why the Lotus sutra is regarded as the highest Buddhist teaching - offering the direct path to the highest goal of Buddhist practice: attaining Buddhahood in this lifetime:


...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’


The Sutra’s metaphor about the stage of Bodhisattva-Buddha is conveyed in the collective image of the Eternal Buddha, Shakyamuni, surrounded by the four Bodhisattvas of the Earth - (represented by the metaphoric leader Jogyo (Bodhisattva Superior Action).  The Sutra’s striking message about the concept of ‘Bodhisattva manifesting Buddhahood’ is found in the meaning of the name “Bodhisattva Jogyo” - being “The True Self of the Buddha”.  This was the message of the Lotus Sutra: that the highest stage of the Bodhisattva of the Earth (Jogyo) is the True Self of the Buddha.  A “Bodhisattva” whose identity is the “Trueself of Buddha” signifies the inseparability of Bodhisattva-Buddha.  The concept of a Buddha acting as a Bodhisattva is unique to the Lotus Sutra.


Nichiren’s identity as the True Self of the Buddha


In their literature, both SGI and Nichiren Shu agree 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. 


SGI literature refers to the four characteristics of the Buddha as the “Four Virtues”.   The Four Virtues are the four qualities of the Buddha’s life: True Self, Happiness, Purity and Eternity (exactly as Nichiren Shu teaches).   The virtue of True Self is regarded as the leader because the other virtues (Happiness, Eternity and Purity) - are effects of the True Self.  The “four virtues” represent the Oneness of Cause and Effect, where the virtue of “True Self” of the Buddha is the cause, all other virtues are effects.


Nichiren Shu scholars could not answer the question: How can a person, whose spiritual identity was the True Self of the 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


Nichiren Shu perspective on the Bodhisattva (of the Lotus Sutra) is not different from Pre-Lotus teachings of Bodhisattva - interpreting the world of Buddhahood as far or different from the world of Bodhisattva.  It is for the purpose abolishing the “many lifetimes gap” distancing the individual from Buddhahood - that the principle of the Mutual Possession of the Ten Worlds was taught (in the Lotus Sutra).  In theory, the Mutual Possession gets mentioned in Nichiren Shu literature, but practically  - through regarding

the world of Bodhisattva as separate from Buddha (on the example of their founder) - Nichiren Shu fails to give the principle of Mutual Possession its true meaning and revolutionary value.  This position is not different from Pre-Lotus views (denying attainment of Buddhahood in one’s current life).


Shakyamuni and the state of ‘Bodhisattva-Buddha’


The concept of Bodhisattva-Buddha is found also 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 perspective of “the time without beginning”. 


The only meaningful interpretation of this passage of the Lotus Sutra is that, while being a Buddha at that distant time, Shakyamuni also practiced among the people as a Bodhisattva, without unnecessary distinctions between himself and ordinary people:


“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

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Author: Safwan Zabalawi (Darshams)

                                                                          

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