Nichiren Buddhism
The Development of a Uniquely Japanese Tradition

Nichiren in a boat rocked by waves with the Japanese words "The path walked by the Great Sage Nichiren"
Nichiren Buddhism logo
Kanji for Nichiren
Painting of scenes from Nichiren's youth
The story of Nichiren (1222-1282) is that, to use his own words, of “a son of the shudras (lowest caste)” on the seacoast of Japan, who was destined to become “the pillar of Japan, the eye of the nation and the vessel of the country.” Like most of the great religious leaders of that age, this son of a humble fisherman spent years in study and training at the great monastic center of Mount Hiei. ...
Map of Mt. Hiei (main center of Tendai Buddhism)
Unlike many others, however, he found new faith not by turning away from the teachings of its Tendai founder, Saicho, but by turning back to them. In doing so, he was forced to depart from Mount Hiei itself, which had long since become a stronghold of Esoteric Buddhism, and to embark on a preaching career of unceasing hardship, conflict, and persecution. But through it all, he became ever more convinced of his mission to save his country and Buddhism.
Lotus Sutra scroll (gold on black)
For Nichiren, the Lotus Sutra, on which the Tendai teaching was based, was the key to everything. It is the final and supreme teaching of the Buddha Shakyamuni, revealing the one and only way of salvation. In this sutra, the three forms of the Buddha — his Universal or Law Body (Dharmakaya), Body of Bliss (Sambhogakaya), and Transformation Body (Nirmanakaya) — are seen as one and inseparable, and the prevailing schools of Buddhism emphasized one form at the expense of the others. Esoteric Buddhism stressed the Universal Buddha, Vairochana, or Dainichi; and Amidism worshiped the Body of Bliss, Amitabha. By thus dispensing with the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni (the Transformation Body), they committed the inexcusable crime of mutilating Buddha’s perfect body. Conversely, Zen Buddhism and the Vinaya school, which was undergoing something of a revival at that time, ignored the universal and eternal aspect of the Buddha in favor of the historical or actual Buddha. That is, the Lotus Sutra alone upholds the truth of the triune Buddha, and only in this trinity is the salvation of all assured. (SJT, 292-3)
Explanation of the "Three Bodies" (Trikaya) of the Buddha
Icon representing the Lotus Sutra
Painting of Nichiren prosyletizing
Prosyletization, Conflict and Exile
[O]n April 28, 1253, the same day he took the name Nichiren, he confronted the monks of his original monastery with the notion that all other forms of Buddhism than his should be forbidden, for they were erroneous and deceptive. His message was not well received by either his fellow monks or by feudal lords enamored of “erroneous” doctrines. Nichiren had to flee for his life to Kamakura. There he preached on street corners, declaring the Lotus truth as he understood it and attacking other schools of Buddhism. His well-known saying was, “The nembutsu is hell, Zen is a devil, Shingon is the ruin of the nation, Ritsu is treason.” In the shogunal capital he received hostility equal to his own assaults.
Woodblock print of Nichiren being attacked (and magically defending himself)
Nichiren Buddhism icon
Painting of Nichiren being sent into exile in 1261
At the same time, the country was being afflicted by epidemics, earthquakes, and internal conflict. In 1260 Nichiren wrote a tract called Rissho ankoku-ron (Establish righteousness and pacify the country) in which he contended that the evils Japan faced were due to its failure to acknowledge the Lotus-truth. If the country would accept his doctrine and banish all others, Nichiren said, all would be well. But if not, worse would befall, climaxing in a foreign invasion. He was exiled by the shogunal government to a distant province in 1261, but pardoned two years later and, nothing daunted, renewed his attacks. (IJR, 135-6)
Woodblock print of the kamikaze sinking the Mongol fleet
When the Mongol ultimatum came in 1268, the fiery prophet understandably claimed to be vindicated, but his interference in state matters was not appreciated by the bakufu. He was condemned to death in 1271, only to have the sentence commuted at the last moment. [According to his followers, he was saved by a miraculous intervention by the Buddhist/Shinto god of war Hachiman, to whom he prayed on the way to the execution ground; he was released when lightning struck the executioner’s blade.] ...
Painting of Nichiren's execution being stayed by lightning striking the executioner's blade
Banished then to a lonely island in the Sea of Japan [called Sado] ... Nichiren made suffering into a glorious thing and set an example for his disciples that did more to confirm their faith in the Lotus than could volumes of scripture. (SJT, 293-4)
Nichiren in exile on Sado Isle in 1271
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)
Jogyo: Bodhisattva of Superb Action
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? (SJT, 303)
Painting of Nichiren writing the gohonzon (the sacred object that is worshiped in Nichiren Buddhism)
Nichiren Buddhism icon
He returned to Kamakura in 1274, now moving in high government circles owing to influential friends. He was treated with respect, but his demands were still not granted. Finally, returning to a mountain retreat, he wrote and instructed his close disciples until his death in 1282. (IJR, 136)
"Shakubuku: a swift, spiritual kick to the head that alters your reality forever."
Nichiren is undoubtedly the most controversial religious figure in all Japanese history. Sometimes compared to a Hebrew prophet, he does not fit the usual stereotype of Buddhist monks as mild and meditative. His spiritual practice was dynamic chanting of the daimoku, not meditation. Incapable of compromise, he saw truth in black-and-white terms, and contended in season and out, at the cost of exile and even death, that error should be extirpated. His followers were given to disrupting the meetings of other sects with loud protests and brutal action, on several occasions burning Pure Land temples. This method is called shakubuku, “break and subdue,” based on Nichiren’s idea that by deliberately provoking people to anger they will be caused to reconsider their beliefs. (IJR, 136)
Nichiren Buddhism icon
Painting of Nichiren preaching
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: namyo ho renge kyo
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.
Lighthouse album cover: Peacing it all together

The Daimoku (namyo ho renge kyo)

Nichiren Buddhism icon
The gohonzon (sacred object of veneration)
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. ...
Painting of the Bodhisattvas of the Earth
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. (SJT, 302-3)
Nichiren butsudan (Buddhist altar for the home)

Photo of the congregation at Myogyoji Nichiren Temple

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Soka Gakkai community of Chicago