Nichiren’s contribution to Mahayana Buddhism

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

  1. -  establishing the practice for attaining enlightenment in this lifetime

  2. -  inscribing the Object of Devotion in Buddhism, and

  3. -  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 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 (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”.  

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 the Mutual Possession of the Ten Worlds, which is unique to the Lotus Sutra. To put the principles of the Lotus Sutra in practice - is then the path for attaining enlightenment in one’s present lifetime, the state that is taught by the Sutra’s teachings.

Although the Lotus Sutra was regarded highly by Mahayana scholars, it remained for hundreds of years in the library of Buddhist temples as a theoretical doctrine - without a practical way to practice its teachings by the masses of ordinary people.  Nichiren introduced a simple and efficient practice, which enabled ordinary people 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 the 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 - 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”

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 (as it unifies one’s subjective devotion - as an individual - with the objective reality of life - or the Dharma). 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 kalpasWND1 p3

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

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.

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 to decline - the Lotus Sutra predicted that 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 for the Object of Devotion, valid in the current age of Buddhism. 

The object of focus and reverence must be then the Eternal Buddha as described in the Lotus Sutra.  A mere statue of the historical Buddha cannot depict the Eternal Buddha, described in the Sutra as being inseparable from the Bodhisattvas.  A statue (or a combination of statues) cannot depict the central principle of attaining Buddhahood, which is the Mutual Possession of the Ten Worlds of life. 

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 is called 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 to the mandala Gohonzon is an action which expresses the connection or the oneness 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 consistent and laking any contradiction.

The second criterion for judging a teaching as being correct and true - is the criterion for  “documentary proof”, a proof substantiating the essence of the teaching.  A valid doctrine should be different from a hear-say, and should be based on some roots of verifiable information.  The requirement for “documentary proof” is akin to citing credible reference about the origin of the teaching in focus, and supporting it with reliable sources.

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.


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