Zen and Nichiren Buddhism

The origin of Zen is attributed to Bodhidharma, a historical figure who - around the year 500 AD - is said to have spent 9 years in silence facing the rock wall of a cave that's about a mile from the Shaolin Temple. Thus he won the title "the wall-gazing brahmin".  

Obviously, this legend cannot be taken literally. Nevertheless - being adopted and celebrated in Zen literature throughout history - it seems to convey a message about the spirit of Zen.  The focus on “wall gazing” can be seen as an expression of a tendency for escapism from the reality of life.  It also points to a tendency for focusing the mind on mental abstraction.  In today’s society, psychologists may regard ‘wall gazing’ as - perhaps - a ‘mental excessiveness‘, rather than a method for ‘enlightenment of the mind’.  

Zen tendency for abstraction is also expressed by the practice of koans (or self-enquiry puzzles), which in various cases require dwelling on imaginary constructs (such as “what is the sound of one hand clapping? Is it ‘soundless sound’?”).  A sample of three -  quiet astonishing - koans will be discussed further, questioning the essence of their values.

Nichiren Buddhism is based on the Lotus Sutra which focus is on attaining Buddhahood
in one’s current circumstances.  The daily practice in Nichiren Buddhism is chanting the Dharma (the Universal Law of Cause and Effect), Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo.  A comparison between Nichiren Buddhism chanting and Zen silent meditation will be presented further, outlining the benefit of both practices.

According to Master D.T. Suzuki, the goal of Zen is centered on one’s-self: “The ultimate destination of Satori is toward the self”. “Introduction to Zen Buddhism” page 93. 

Another source describes the ‘Zazen way of Zen’ as: “For Zazen, a quiet room is suitable. Eat and drink moderately. Cast aside all involvements and cease all affairs. Do not think good or bad. Cease all the movements of the conscious mind...Have no design on becoming a Buddha”.

In contrast to ‘having no design on becoming a Buddha’, Nichiren urges his followers to make a vow to attain Buddhahood:”My wish is that my disciples make a great vowWND1 p 1003 and to work for “…bringing salvation to all people...” WND1 p 126 encouraging them to get involved in society.

Another example can shed the light on the ‘basic belief’ in Zen, as presented in Alan Watt’s lecture :  “Now then, if one must try to say something about what Zen is, I must make it emphatic that Zen, in its essence, is not a doctrine. There's nothing you're supposed to believe in”.

In contrast, according to SGI literature:  “The important thing is that we believe in our potential, strive to reveal our Buddha nature, grow as human beings, becoming happy and helping others to do the same. Irrespective of how people treat us, the important thing is to chant with an unwavering belief in the Buddha nature of everyone, ourselves and other people. This in itself can be extremely challenging, involving a real change of heart”.

Contrary to all Buddhist traditions, Zen Buddhism is based on transmission of Buddhism apart from the sutras, recorded in writing or conveyed through voice. Transmission of Zen Buddhism ‘through silence‘  is a concept which was described by master Dogen  and criticised by his contemporary Buddhist reformer Nichiren, who questioned the value of rejecting beneficial Buddhist concepts found in recorded teachings - which aspire for the process of enlightenment. 

Zen basic teaching of ‘silent transmission beyond the sutras’ is inconsistent with the fact that Zen masters themselves depended on their voice and also on recorded literature - to teach their disciples on ‘rejecting voice transmission and recorded sutras’. An example on lecturing on written teachings (despite Zen principle of disregarding written teachings) - provides Zen master and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh , whose various lectures are based on the Lotus Sutra.  

Main differing concepts:        SGI Buddhism                     Zen Buddhism

Aim :                                    Attaining Buddhahood                 Self perfection

Practice:                              Chanting the Dharma                 Silent meditation

Object of Devotion:            Mandala Gohonzon          Buddha image (or Unspecified)


            The Origin of Zen     Confession of a Zen Master      Ikeda on Zen 


          Dead cat’s head        Dog’s Buddhanature       Master’s Duty of Care   

               Chanting & silent Meditation    Why did Nichiren criticise Zen?