Nichiren’s Buddhahood

In an exchange of views, which took place on Tricycle magazine online discussion - Rev. Myokei of Nichiren Shu states: ”it really doesn’t matter whether Nichiren Shonin is a Buddha”.

The question was presented to various Nichiren Shu scholars about their founder.  Trivialising a sincere question - by saying that it s subject is not important - is the easiest way to avoid answering.  

It is surprising how would Nichiren Shu scholars interpret the following passage from Nichiren’s writing, the Opening of the Eyes:

“I vowed to summon up a powerful and unconquerable desire for the salvation of all beings and never to falter in my efforts”.  WND1. p 239

Or, as Nichiren Shu translation of the same text states:

“I have made a vow that this time I will have an unbending aspiration to Buddhahood and never fall back!” page 96, Kaimoku-Sho. Translated and edited by Kyotsu Hori,Nichiten Shu Overseas Propagation Promotion Association, 1987

To imply that Nichiren failed in realising his vow to Buddhahood (through Nichiren Shu further denial of the title Buddha to Nichiren) - is a matter, which answer is still unavailable - apart from that answer that “ it doesn’t matter”.

                    Nichiren’s Buddhaood from the Lotus Sutra’s perspectives

The Lotus Sutra opened the possibility of emergence of ‘future Buddhas’ after Shakyamuni’s death. Considering himself as “the actual proof” of the validity of the Lotus Sutra, Nichiren writes: 

“If I, Nichiren, had not been born in the land of Japan, then these passages of the sutra would have been mere words on the Buddha’s part  - empty of all significance” . WND1 p 671

Trivialising the possibility of emergence of “Buddhas of the future” (which refers to the Latter Day of the Law) is inconsistent with the Sutra’s text and its meaningful teachings:

The Buddhas of future ages
They preach for the sake of the single vehicle (Expedient Means, Ch.2, p.41)

During a You-Tube published interview, organised by Choeizan Enkyoji Nichiren Shu Temple, Rev. Ryuei commented (min.14 of the video onwards), on SGI recognition of Nichiren as a Buddha, agreeing that Nichiren attained Buddhahood, but cannot be called a Buddha because of a ‘technicality’.

To support this view, Rev. Ryuei referred to Traditional Buddhism ‘strict rules’ on the word “Buddha”.  Traditional Buddhism, however, is pre-Lotus, and Hinayana teachings were not considered by their founder as a reference of Buddhism - but as provisional.  Theravada Buddhism is known for making of Shakyamuni a super being who cannot be equalled. While the Sutra teaches that individuals who can be called Buddhas can appear after Shakyamuni, then it is only reasonable to accept the Sutra’s - and not Traditional Buddhism - as a reference, and accept its repeated statements about such Buddhas. 

If no example is given to support the Sutra’s statement about the appearance of a Buddha in the Latter Age of the Law, then, as Nichiren stated, the Sutra is turned into a meaningless text empty of all significance”.

Either the Lotus Sutra is incorrect in its statement about individuals other than Shakyamuni who can be called Buddhas, or Nichiren Shu is incorrect in rejecting the word “Buddha” for such individuals.

In various letters, Nichiren mentioned that his life is fused to the Lotus Sutra, and if we take such assertion as true, then all his actions should follow as echoing the Sutra.  The declaration of the practice of chanting the Daimoku and the inscription of the mandala Gohonzon were aimed at opening the door of the Buddha’s wisdom to humanity - a work of a Buddha, as one can find in the Sutra’s text:   

The Buddhas, the World Honoured Ones,

Appear in the world for one great reason

The Buddhas, the World Honoured Ones,

Wish to open the door of Buddha wisdom to all living beings

Shariputra, when the Buddhas of the future

Make their appearance in the world

They too will use countless numbers of expedient means (Expedient Means, Ch.3, p.32)

One of the most significant works accomplished by Nichiren was his writing of the Treatise ‘On Securing the Land’ (Rissho Ankoku Ron), aimed at bringing peace and safety to people - a work relevant only to a Buddha:

To bring peace and safety to living beings

That’s the reason I appear in the world (Simile and Parable, Ch. 3, p. 72)

Compatibility between the principles of the Lotus Sutra and Nichiren’s life of Buddhahood, is resolved by his declared - in many occasions - vow to be a Buddha in his lifetime.

Nichiren’s own indications of being a Buddha

Taking the Lotus Sutra as his reference, Nichiren states:

“The secret Law that is the one great reason the Buddhas make their advent will be spread for the first time in this country. How could Nichiren not be the one who will do this?”  WND1 p. 28

This statement shows that Nichiren identified his life or advent (as a Buddha). 

Nichiren’s vow to be a Buddha was self asserted in his letters :

“Since childhood, I, Nichiren, have never prayed for the secular things of this life but have single-mindedly sought to become a Buddha”. WND1 p 839

From the beginning, I pursued my studies because I wanted to master Buddhism and attain Buddhahood,”WND1 p 25

A deeper consideration of Nichiren’s letters (in particular those after the Tatsunokuchi persecution, during which he was ready to lay down his life),

clearly leads to understand his reference to himself as a Buddha:

It seems to me that on the path to attain Buddhahood it may invariably be when one has done something like lay down one’s life that one becomes a Buddha”. WND1 p 25

Nichiren declared himself as perfectly equal to Shakyamuni, who possessed the three features of Buddha: compassion (parent) wisdom (teacher) and action (sovereign):

-       “…Shakyamuni Buddha is the father and mother, teacher and sovereign 

to all living beings…”.  WND1 p 810

    “I, Nichiren, am sovereign, teacher, and father and mother to all the people…”. 

WND1 p 287

In his Letter from Sado, Nichiren conditions attaining Buddhahood with courageous actions: ,”... those with the heart of a lion king are sure to attain Buddhahood. Like Nichiren, for example. I say this not out of arrogance, but because I am deeply committed to the correct teaching”.  WND1 p 302

The actual proof of Nichiren’s Buddhahood extends further beyond his death in 1282, through the form of the Gohonzon, the mandala which essence embodies the “Buddhanature” or the “Life of Buddhahood”, as well as in his teaching of chanting, the “direct path to Buddhahood”. 

Nichiren Shu misunderstanding

of the “Two Fathers” Argument

A frequently used argument in Nichiren Shu discussion boards on the internet - questioning Nichiren’s identity - points to a letter in which Nichiren mentioned that there can be “only one Buddha”. A proper understanding of the mentioned letter makes it clear that Nichiren was targeting the illusion of provisional Buddhas such as Amida, and who did not have physical manifestation.  This does not mean that Nichiren was in any way denying his own Buddhahood nor contradicting the Lotus Sutra’s teaching of many Buddhas. 

In 13th century Japan, Nichiren was in a fierce battle with the cult of Amida worship.  The Nembutsu school - based on a belief in an imaginary Buddha Amida - practically diminished the value of the teachings of the Eternal Buddha of the Lotus Sutra. 

Nichiren’s focus was on  Shakyamuni as the real Buddha who existed in our world - as opposed to the imaginary figure of Amid Sutra. This is why Nichiren refuted having two Buddhas: one real (Shakyamuni)- the other imaginary (Amida):

Shakyamuni Buddha is the father and mother, teacher and sovereign to all living beings in Japan. Amida Buddha does not possess these three virtues. WND1 p810

“No one has two fathers or two mothers. What sutra says that Amida is the father of this country? What treatise indicates him as its mother? WND1 p810

The expression that there can be “no two Buddhas refers here - specifically - to the“real” person (represented by Shakyamuni) and the “imaginary” figure (represented by Amida) - who never existed in reality (having no father and no mother as stated in Nichiren’s description).

Refuting the belief in Amida, Nichiren was not saying that Buddhahood is an exclusive right to just one person of Shakyamuni - apart from the rest of humanity. 

The view that there can be only “one Buddha Shakyamuni” is found in Theravada teachings but certainly not in the Lotus Sutra, clearly introducing the concept of ‘many Buddhas’ and ‘Buddhas of future ages’ after Shakyamuni’s nirvana.

                            SGI perspective on Nichiren’s Buddhahood:

SGI Library literature (based on Nichiren own teaching ) explains: 

“Nichiren revealed and spread the Law of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo and inscribed it in the form of a mandala Gohonzon, to enable all people in the Latter Day of the Law to attain Buddhahood; for this reason he is regarded as the Buddha of the Latter Day of the Law”. 


Author: Safwan Zabalawi (Darshams)

  Nichiren Shu Buddhism