Nichiren Buddhism

The third great tradition that began in the Kamakura Period is Nichiren Buddhism, named after its founder, Nichiren (1222-1282). Nichiren was born in a small fishing village associated with the famous Shinto shrine of Ise, far from the cities of political and religious power. Given that the Ise shrine was connected to the imperial family, Nichiren began at an early age to wonder why the emperor had recently suffered disgrace at the hands of an uprising. If the Shinto gods were protecting the emperor, why did this happen to him? Also, by this time Nichiren had observed the many Buddhist sects, and wondered which one was the true form of Buddhism. Nichiren carried these two religious questions when he entered the nearby temple of the Tendai School, Kiyosumi-dera, to study Buddhism at the age of eleven. ...
After four years at Kiyosumi-dera, Nichiren was ordained. Two years later, he traveled to Kamakura to further his study. ... Eventually, Nichiren decided that the Lotus Sutra taught the truest form of Buddhism ... [and] decided at the age of twenty-one to go to Mt. Hiei. ... Nichiren became convinced that since the Lotus Sutra was the most perfect presentation of the Dharma, it was the best hope for liberation in the age of the Degenerate Dharma [mappo]. But more than this, he believed that if people gained liberation, their physical and social life would be so affected that the area in which those people lived would be transformed into a place of peace and prosperity. Reaching this conclusion, Nichiren was able to answer the two questions that led him to take up the religious life. He reasoned that the emperor had been abandoned by the gods because Japan had failed to honor the Lotus Sutra, having instead embraced the lesser doctrines of the other Buddhist schools. Therefore, he felt that it was urgent that the Lotus Sutra be peached in order to bring people to liberation and to bring peace and prosperity to Japan. With this new conviction, Nichiren left Mt. Hiei at the age of thirty-two to preach his views back at Kiyosumi-dera. However, his ideas irritated Pure Land followers in the region, and within a year’s time Nichiren was forced to flee to Kamakura.
In Kamakura, Nichiren taught that he was preaching Tendai doctrine. However, he became more and more convinced that only the Lotus Sutra could offer people true Buddhism, and the Japanese nation peace and prosperity. He concluded that the other schools of Buddhism should not be allowed to exist, and he developed a method of preaching called “confrontational conversion” (shakubuku). This method utilized shocking attacks of the other schools of Buddhism. For example, he preached that Zen Buddhists are devils and that Pure Land followers would not reach the heavenly Pure Land after death, but would fall into hells.
          To understand Nichiren’s radical approach, it is important to note that when he arrived in Kamakura, a number of calamities began: plagues, famines, droughts, earthquakes, and uprisings. There were also eclipses and comets seen in the sky. Nichiren was extremely concerned about the physical, social, and spiritual welfare of the Japanese nation. He also became concerned that only faith in the Lotus Sutra could bring an end to Japan’s problems. Since Buddhists were so wedded to their different views, shocking words were needed to get them to reevaluate and change their beliefs. ...
As one could imagine, the reaction of many Buddhists in Kamakura to Nichiren’s words was at first extremely negative. But in time he gathered some disciples. In 1260, Nichiren submitted a document to the government in Kamakura charging that the calamities befalling Japan were caused by its protecting gods leaving the nation because of the popularity of unsuitable Buddhist schools. Nichiren claimed that to save the nation, the rules must give sole homage to the Lotus Sutra. If not, he predicted that foreign invasions and civil disturbances would occur. The government did not respond, and Pure Land followers in Kamakura attacked Nichiren a year later. When he escaped, they convinced the government to exile him to the Izu Peninsula. During that exile, Nichiren took heart from the story in the Lotus Sutra  about a bodhisattva who was persecuted for practicing the Lotus Sutra. Nichiren eventually came to identify with this bodhisattva, and he saw his sufferings as indicating that his destiny was to make Japan a Buddhist state based on the Lotus Sutra and a springboard for a worldwide Lotus community.

When Nichiren was pardoned in 1263, he returned to Kamakura. Drawing on Tendai esotericism, he began to teach his growing group of followers to recite the title of the Lotus Sutra as a mantra. This chanting of Namu Myohorengekyo, he taught, can itself bring realization of one’s Buddha-nature. Like nembutsu in Pure Land Buddhism, this recitation would become central to Nichiren practice. Then in 1268, Nichiren saw the threat of a Mongol invasion as a confirmation of his prophecy six years earlier. He and his followers stepped up their efforts to convert Buddhist from other schools — efforts that in 1271 led to his second exile, this time to the remote island of Sado in the north. [Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience, 301-4]

Turning to the Lotus Sutra for solace in his exile, Nichiren was drawn to several passages that he believed spoke directly to his own circumstances. For example, in the Lotus Sutra the Buddha warned that “This scripture has many enemies even now when the Tathagata is present. How much worse it will be after his nirvana” when the world would enter a “frightful and evil age.” Concluding that he had a special destiny to fulfill, Nichiren wrote:
For more than 240 days, I have lived the Lotus Sutra each day and night. It is for the sake of this scripture that I was born into the world and suffer exile. It is precisely being born and suffering for the sutra which is called reading and practicing the sutra while walking, sitting, standing, and lying down. ... Though others who were born as men exert themselves to waken the bodhi mind and hope for salvation in the next life, common men are diligent in their practice only two to four hours of every twenty-four. However, even when I am not conscious of thinking of the sutra, I am living its words. During the mappo there has rarely been a person who practiced the teachings of the sutra twenty-four hours of the day, even if that practice was without conscious effort, as mine is. [Nichiren: Selected Writings, 6]

I, Nichiren, a man born in the ages of the Latter Law, have nearly achieved the task of pioneership in propagating the Perfect Truth, the task assigned to the Bodhisattva of Superb Action (Vishisishtacharitra). ... I, Nichiren, am the one who takes the lead of the Bodhisattvas of the Earth. Then may I not be one of them? If I, Nichiren, am one of them, why may not all my disciples and followers be their kinsmen? ... By all means, awaken faith by seizing this opportunity! Live your life through as one who embodies the Truth, and go on without hesitation as a kinsmen of Nichiren! If you are one in faith with Nichiren, you are one of the Bodhisattvas of the Earth; if you are destined to be such, how can you doubt that you are the disciple of the Lord Shakyamuni from all eternity? [Sources of Japanese Tradition, 303]
Nichiren’s Religious Practice
Ironically, the two main practices advocated by Nichiren closely resemble those of the two traditions that he attacked the most vehemently: Pure Land and Shingon.
The daimoku, like the nembutsu, reduces the recitation of an entire sutra to a single, powerful mantra. In this case, the syllables are namu myoho renge kyo, meaning “Praise to the Wondrous Law of the Lotus Sutra.” Chanting the daimoku is one of the primary practices of Nichiren Buddhism, both in the home and in the temple.

Now is when the Bodhisattvas of the Earth will appear and establish in this country the supreme object of worship on the earth which depicts Shakyamuni Buddha of the essential teaching attending [the original Buddha]. This object of worship has never appeared in India or China. Its time had not come when Prince Shotoku in Japan constructed the Shitenno-ji, so he could only make a statue of Amida, a Buddha in another world, as the object of worship. When Emperor Shomu erected Todai-ji, he made a statue of the Buddha of the Kegon Sutra [Vairocana Buddha] as the object of worship but could not manifest the true meaning of the Lotus Sutra. The Great Teacher Dengyo [a.k.a. Saicho] almost revealed the truth of the sutra, but because the time had not yet come, he constructed a statue of Yakushi Buddha, who dwells in an eastern realm of the universe, but he did not represent the Four Bodhisattvas of the Earth in any form.
       Thus the revelation of the true object of worship has been entrusted only to the Bodhisattvas of the Earth. They have been waiting for the right time to emerge from the earth and carry out the Lord Buddha’s command. ...
When the skies are clear, the ground is illuminated. Similarly, when one knows the Lotus Sutra, he understands the meaning of all worldly affairs. Showing the profound compassion for those ignorant of the gem of “the three thousand worlds comprised in a single thought,” the Buddha wrapped it within the five-character phrase [myoho-renge-kyo], with which he then adorned the necks of those living in the Latter Day. [Sources of Japanese Tradition, 302-3]

Head Temple of Nichiren Shoshu

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