Nichiren’s Identity


Understanding Nichiren’s identity has a great importance to all who regard him as the founder of their school of Buddhism.  Various Nichiren sects show reluctance to identify their founder as a Buddha, based on the assumption that no one can equal Shakyamuni Buddha.  Here, a question arises whether this perspective of considering Shakyamuni as the only Buddha - is consistent with the teaching of the Ten Worlds.


It is - of course - true that each person has a unique personality and own mission, however, Buddhahood is a state of life in the Ten Worlds, and as such, Buddhahood can be expressed equally by many people. As individuals, we cannot be someone else, each person has own circle of responsibility and own mission.  We can attain Buddhahood, but we cannot be Shakyamuni, because he had his global mission, while we have our humble missions.  But we can experience happiness and lifeforce and enlightenment, without distinction between us and the Buddha.  In the Lotus Sutra, Shakyamuni states:


At the start, I took a vow

hoping to make all persons equal to me

Without any distinction between us  (Expedient Means, Ch 2, p.41)


Through the spirit of this statement, and other doctrines of the Lotus Sutra, one can understand that Nichiren’s attainment of Buddhahood confirms the correctness and consistency of the Lotus Sutra.  Nichiren Shu argument acknowledging Nichiren Buddhahood is that this would subtract from or ‘degrade’ Shakymuni’s Buddhahod, and so the rest of Nichiren sects teach (that Shakymuni and Nichiren do not share Buddhahood).


A discussion on this subject (from Nichiren Shu point of view) is presented in a series of You-Tube videos published by Choeizan Enkyoji Nichiren Shu Temple.  In this video-interview, speaking about the difference between Nichiren Shu and SGI, Rev. Ryuei MaCormick mentions that the key element in recognising a person as a Buddha is the concept of Turning the Wheel of the Law  (and Nichiren Shu believes that Nichiren did not qualify to fulfil this criterion of ‘Turning the Wheel’).  Nichiren Shu view, however, is not based on the Lotus Sutra’s definition of this concept.  ‘Turning the Wheel’ of a doctrine means to reveal for people - for the first time - a doctrine which was known only to Buddhas, as the following passages indicate:


Turning the Wheel of the Law


The Sutra defines the concept of “Turning the Wheel” as: declaring a new teaching, unknown before:


In the past at Varanasi

You turned the wheel of the Law of the Four Noble Truths

Now you turn the wheel of the most wonderful

Unsurpassed great Law

We never heard before

This kind of profound superior Law (Simile and Parable, Ch. 3, p.55)


In this and other passages, the Sutra indicates that at each period of time the Buddha teaches a new - unknown before - doctrine.  This teaching is marked as Turning the Wheel.  Based on this understanding of the Lotus Sutra, Nichiren’s teachings enabled the Turning the Wheel of the Lotus Sutra itself, which was discarded altogether, stagnant and ineffective, for almost 2000 years. 


As Nichiren states in his letters, the Lotus Sutra would have been a useless text without his own appearance and actions, setting its teachings in motion.  The Law of the Lotus Sutra is Myoho-Renge-Kyo and it was turned into activity by the daimoku of NamMyohoRengeKyo.  No one before Nichiren revealed a teaching on how to realize the Great Desire (mai ji sa ze nen) of the Eternal Buddha to make the Sutra work in the lives of ordinary people: the Eternal Buddha’s desire to find a practice to lead all people to Buddhahood - this desire was fulfilled by Nichiren through the chanting and the Object of devotion. 

Nichiren’s declaration of the invocation of the Law of Namu-Myoho-Renge-Kyo, - establishing a new practice for the Lotus Sutra - turned the wheel of the Law for all people:


“These [‘wheel treasures’] are the words and sounds that we ourselves utter.  And these sounds, our ‘wheel treasures’ are NamMyoHoRenGeKyo” 

Nichiren, Orally Transmitted Teachings, p.76


The unique teaching of the Daimoku


The Lotus Sutra did not teach the practice of voice chanting of the Law.  Chanting of the Law was Nichiren’s unique teaching.  In fact, the Lotus Sutra mentioned silent meditation (a practice, which Nichiren dramatically changed into verbal chanting):


Keep company with those who are gentle and peaceful

Constantly praising the practice of sitting meditation

Attaining various states of profound meditation  (Distinction in Benefits, Ch. 17, p.242)


It is clear that Nichiren introduced a practice which the Lotus Sutra did not teach, supplying its text and concept with a new energy of practice, turning thus the wheel of its practice for all humanity, for the first time.


The unique doctrine of Gohonzon


The Lotus Sutra employs the term “never before known” to describe a wheel-turning doctrine, a term Nichiren specifically used to define his teaching of the Object of Veneration in Buddhism:


“Therefore, this Gohonzon shall be called the great mandala never before known, it did not appear until more than 2,220 years after the Buddha’s passing’. WND1 p 832


It is worth mentioning that the Sutra’s text describing the Ceremony in the Air - which is depicted in the mandala Gohonzon - excludes the representatives of the lower worlds (and the Buddha’s enemy Devadatta) from attending the Ceremony.  Nichiren, however, chose to give a new dimension to the Ceremony by adding to its depiction in the great mandala all the representatives of the lower worlds.  As Dr Jacqueline Stone mentions in her book on “Original Enlightenment and the Transformation of Japanese Buddhism”:


“ Nichiren’s mandala includes not only Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and deities but also representatives of the evil realms such as raksasa demons and Devadatta. In including such figures, Nichiren followed not the text of the Lotus Sutra itself  - in which all beings in the six realms of transmigration are removed before the jeweled stupa is opened  - but the principle of the three thousand realms in one thought moment, according to which even the Buddha realm contains the nine unenlightened states. In short the mandala depicts the mutual inclusion of the ten realms.page 277-278 


The concept of the ‘Object of Veneration in Buddhism’ was not mentioned in the Lotus Sutra.  After Shakyamuni passed away, his disciples regarded his image or statue as the object of devotion to focus on during their practice. In the statue-form of Object of Veneration (still used by various sects) the apparent focus is on the person, with no depiction of the Dharma


It is significant that Nichiren chose to put the Dharma at the center of the Object of Devotion, creating a huge shift in the orientation of Mahayana Buddhism, focused on Shakyamunui’s image. 


Revelation of the Object of Devotion is one of the Three Great Secret Laws. To reveal a teaching which profundity was hidden before ordinary people and ‘never known by them before’ - according to the Lotus Sutra - is a work of a Buddha: turning the wheel of the Law for all humanity in this current age.


Questionable teachings of Nichiren Shu


The influence of pre-Lotus, traditional, Buddhism on Nichiren Shu, can be deduced from a statement, conveyed during a video-interview https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qCDUswEdc9M .  The statement relates to a pre-Lotus concept (found in Hinayana and Tibetan beliefs) predicting the future decline of current Buddhism  and the arrival of a “new Buddha Maitreya” on Earth.  This concept was within what Rev. Ryuei’s said (the last few minutes of the interview) - to the effect that: there can be only one Buddha in one planet in one dispensation, and that you can’t have a Buddha like Shakyamuni until all traces of Buddhism have completely disappeared


It is unexpected that a religion like Nichiren Shu shares in the belief of disappearance and destruction of all Buddhism.  Destruction and disappearance of Buddhism are concepts that do not belong to Nichiren Buddhism.  There exists also a common belief in the coming back of Jesus after the planet experiences destruction and people are consumed in great suffering.  Scholars of Nichiren Shu, who predict sufferings and believe in future destruction of Buddhism - believe in the exact opposite of what the Lotus Sutra teaches. There is no decline of Buddhism in the Lotus Sutra:


In the evil age of the Latter Day of the Law

If someone can uphold this Sutra

It will be as though in the presence of the Buddha


And after the Thus Come One has entered extinction

I will cause it to be widely propagated throughout Jambudvipa

And will see it never comes to an end (Universal Worthy, Ch. 28, p.277)


Other passages (Medicine King) instruct the Buddha’s disciples to spread the Sutra and “never allow it to come to an end”.


It is possible that because Nichiren Shu is a collection of various sub-sects, different perspectives are taught by different ministers, and it is possible that Maitreya belief is not commonly agreed on. However, hints about ‘future destruction of Buddhism’ were made during a video interview to validate Nichiren Shu disbelief in the possibility for anyone to be called a Buddha after Shakyamuni.  Such a belief is common in Nichiren Shu, but it is inconsistent with the Lotus Sutra. The belief that no one can attain Buddhahood equal to Shakyamuni, contradicts what the Sutra itself predicts and teaches:


Shariputra, when the Buddhas of the future

Make their appearances in the world

They too use countless numbers of expedient means (Expedient Means, Ch.2, p. 32)


The Buddhas of future ages

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


Unlike Nichiren Shu, the Sutra did not put a ban on anyone to attain Buddhahood equal to Shakyamuni.  The extensive focus on “one single person” or “one single Buddha for the planet” as Nichiren Shu priests teach - is not found in the Lotus Sutra, which teaches about future Buddhas and about Shakyamuni’s vow to make people perfectly equal to him. 


Respect to Shakyamuni is one thing - and making of him a super-person, alien to the rest of humanity - is another.

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Author: Safwan Zabalawi (Darshams).


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