Nichiren Buddhism is one of the most widely practiced traditions in Japan, yet you’d be hard-pressed to find a concise overview of the school—its history, its core beliefs, and its many offshoots. While there are plenty of books and articles about its founder, Nichiren (1222–1282), and Soka Gakkai, one of its more visible forms in the West, there is little covering the long history of this very influential Buddhist tradition. When I reached out to experts in Buddhist studies for answers, the response was always the same: “I don’t know about that. It’s too big a topic! Ask Jackie Stone.”
Princeton Emerita Professor Jacqueline Stone is a leading scholar on Nichiren Buddhism. She wasn’t surprised that I had come up all but empty-handed in my search, noting that despite its importance in Japan and in North America, Nichiren has been given relatively scant attention by Western academics. That has always struck her as a major gap in Buddhist studies.
Exploring Buddhism’s long history can enrich and at times even transform how one relates to one’s own practice. Understanding better how a particular religious tradition has developed over time tells us much, not only about that one tradition but also about tradition itself. As Professor Stone says below: “Religious practitioners continually negotiate between faithfulness to their received tradition, the perceived demands of their own historical moment, and their personal concerns. Some aspects of the tradition are retained as normative; others are reinterpreted, downplayed, or set aside and sometimes new, diverse elements are incorporated. Often this process goes on unconsciously, but it’s valuable and important for anyone involved in religion, whether as a practitioner or a scholar, to be aware of this.”
—Frederick M. Ranallo-Higgins, Associate Editor
Let’s start from the beginning. Can you describe Nichiren and his teachings? What were some of the trends that may have influenced him? I like your question because it recognizes that Nichiren was grounded in trends of his own time. Nichiren was a serious Buddhist thinker. He was trained in the Tendai tradition and versed in classical Tendai teachings, a school of Buddhism introduced from China by Saicho in the early 9th century. In the Tendai school, the Lotus Sutra represents the complete, integrated truth of the Buddha’s teaching, while all other teachings are regarded as provisional. Tendai developed its own stream of Esoteric Buddhism, and Nichiren’s use of the daimoku, the title of the Lotus Sutra, Namu Myohorengekyo, and his mandala, the gohonzon, are all rooted in esoteric practices. Nichiren drew on a long tradition that saw the entirety of the Lotus Sutra—and indeed, the entirety of Buddhism—as encompassed within its title. He did not invent the practice of chanting the daimoku. Although not widespread, it is attested before his time. However, he was the one who gave it a significant doctrinal foundation. For Nichiren, the daimoku was the crystallization of the eternal Shakyamuni Buddha’s merits and wisdom, and he taught that in chanting it, one manifests the buddha realm in one’s present reality.
“For Nichiren, the daimoku was the crystallization of the eternal Shakyamuni Buddha’s merits and wisdom.”
He also draws on the medieval Japanese Tendai thought of his time. These Tendai exegetes were also steeped in esoteric teachings but had begun to reassert the supremacy of the Lotus Sutra. Nichiren embraced that. His claim that Buddhahood is to be realized in this world, in this body, by ordinary people, owes in part to medieval Tendai.
Nichiren’s thought was also shaped by his opposition to the exclusive nembutsu movement of the 12th-century Pure Land teacher Honen. Honen taught that the sole path to salvation is to abandon all other practices and chant the name of the Buddha Amida, the nembutsu, relying on Amida’s promise of rebirth in his Pure Land. Nichiren often debated Honen’s followers in Kamakura. I suspect those early encounters with Pure Land followers helped shape his exclusive devotion to the Lotus Sutra. Like his Pure Land opponents, Nichiren advocated the chanting of a single phrase, grounded in faith and accessible to all, but his underlying doctrinal basis differs radically.
Is it accurate to characterize Nichiren as a “reformer,” as many do? The depiction of Nichiren and other Kamakura-period Buddhist leaders as “reformers” is a product of the Meiji period (1868–1912) and later. In the early 20th century, some scholars likened those new Buddhist movements to the Protestant Reformation. This owes a great deal to the secularizing efforts of the modern Japanese state and to the importation of a Western definition of “religion” as a matter of private personal experience. Scholars have now largely abandoned the comparison, but the “reformer” label persists.
Nichiren himself does not use the language of reform. Later in life, he wrote, “I am neither the founder of a school nor a latter-day follower of any existing school.” In his mature self-understanding, he saw himself as the teacher for the final dharma age, or mappo, the age when the Buddha’s teachings become obscured and enlightenment is difficult to achieve. I believe he envisioned himself as the bearer of a Buddhism that would supersede existing forms.
We can learn about Nichiren’s self-understanding in his identification with two figures from the Lotus Sutra. One is Bodhisattva Superior Conduct, leader of a vast throng of bodhisattvas nobler in appearance than the Buddha himself. In the sutra, Superior Conduct receives Shakyamuni Buddha’s mandate to propagate the sutra in an evil future age after his nirvana. Nichiren refers to himself as a forerunner of Bodhisattva Superior Conduct, but his later dharma heirs explicitly identify him with this bodhisattva. Some lineages even regard Nichiren as a buddha—in fact, as the original buddha—but that was not something Nichiren himself ever claimed.
Nichiren also likened himself to the humbler figure of Bodhisattva Never Despising, whose sole practice was to bow to everyone he met as a future buddha. According to the Lotus Sutra, Never Despising was met with hatred and contempt, but because he persisted in his efforts, he eradicated the karma of his past deeds and eventually became the Buddha Shakyamuni. Nichiren wrote that he was an ordinary person who had not eradicated even the slightest bit of delusion, but like Never Despising, he had been invested with a sacred responsibility by his commitment to the Lotus Sutra.
The opinions of people in the town of Kamakura about Nichiren were probably divided. He was twice arrested and exiled for openly criticizing the government and other Buddhist leaders through his style of assertive proselytizing. Some, however, found his message compelling. We should remember that Nichiren was not famous in his own lifetime. At a rough estimate, he had only some few hundred followers. Aristocrats in Kyoto, the capital, never heard of Nichiren while he was alive. It was after his death that his followers spread his teaching throughout the country.
The death of a founder often presents major challenges. Did Nichiren’s followers face any difficulties after his death? Yes, there was a schism not too many years after Nichiren’s death. Nichiren had appointed six major disciples to lead his following after his death. Nichiren specified that no rank order should exist among them. Within less than a decade after his death, a break occurred between one disciple, Byakuren Ajari Nikko, and the others. The story that has come down to us is one of friction between Nikko, a strict purist, and others who had a more accommodating attitude toward matters of orthopraxy.
Nikko’s successors became known as the Fuji school, which remained a minor lineage until the 20th century. Its best-known representative today is Nichiren Shoshu—that branch of Nichiren Buddhism with which Soka Gakkai was formerly affiliated. Those who’ve encountered Nichiren Buddhism outside Japan are most likely to have done so through some branch of Nikko’s lineages.
I looked for information on Nichiren Buddhism from the 14th through 19th century but found very little. What were some of the key developments during that time? This is a huge question, and you’re right; this period has been understudied, although there is a growing body of excellent research in Japanese that is shedding new light on this period.
Nichiren’s teaching spread throughout the country and became a fully fledged school, known as the Hokkeshu or the Lotus sect, and branched into multiple lineages and temple networks. While it spread among all social classes, it gained support especially from the rising merchant class in the cities of Kyoto and Sakai, which were contributing to a new and thriving urban culture. Many of the leading artists and craftsmen of the late medieval and early modern times were Hokkeshu devotees.
At its height, the Hokkeshu had at least 21 temples in the southern part of Kyoto, more than there are today. That area was called the Daimoku District, because the chanting of the daimoku could be heard everywhere. During periods of civil warfare, temples became virtual fortresses, and the shared faith of the followers enabled their solidarity. During a time of conflict in the 1530s, the Hokkeshu virtually governed Kyoto for four years.
In the late 16th century, powerful warlords seeking to unify the country began to break the independent power of Buddhist institutions. That process was completed under the new Tokugawa shogunate during the 17th century. Buddhist temples were subsumed within the state bureaucracy, and families had to register with a Buddhist temple. Records of temple families were used for the census and other forms of population oversight.
During the early modern period (1603–1868), it was no longer possible to engage in Nichiren’s practice of assertive proselytizing. It was, however, a time of ritual and scholastic development for Buddhism generally. Sectarian identities also solidified. New Nichiren biographies were published, several of them in vernacular Japanese, and even illustrated, aiming at a lay readership.
One important development within the early modern Nichiren sect was the burgeoning of lay associations. Some were under clerical leadership, but others were organized independently and headed by laypeople. These groups promoted such activities as pilgrimage to sacred sites, festivals marking important dates in Nichiren’s life, and the traveling display of images, mandalas, and other sacred objects held by noted Nichiren temples. Some groups studied Nichiren’s writings and began to risk harsh government sanctions to revive Nichiren’s practice of assertive proselytizing. These associations can be seen as the predecessors of the Nichiren Buddhist lay movements that arose during the late 19th and 20th centuries.
The Meiji period had a profound impact on Japanese Buddhism. How did Nichiren Buddhists respond to advancing modernity? It’s important to remember that the country’s leaders felt under immense pressure to quickly transform Japan into a modern nation, in order to resist Western hegemony and to be able to stand shoulder to shoulder with developed countries on the world stage. At this time, Buddhism lost state support and came under criticism as a superstitious relic of the past. It had to prove its relevance to an emerging modern nation.
In response, Buddhist sects launched efforts at internal reform, education, social welfare, and intersectarian cooperation. Buddhist clerics went abroad for study, and sectarian educational centers—which later became private Buddhist universities—were established. We see a dramatic growth in lay Buddhist movements, adjacent to or independent of traditional temple structures. At the same time, the study of Buddhism as an academic discipline was established on the Western model. Experts on Buddhist texts, thought, and history were no longer necessarily priests, and lay secular scholarship on Buddhism began to flourish.
Of course, these changes involved Nichiren Buddhism as well. Many Asian Buddhists promoted spiritual cultivation that centered on the private, internal spiritual experience. In Japan, such movements can be seen as having arisen partially in response to the new official understanding of religion as a personal realm, independent of public affairs. Thus some religious groups emphasized personal cultivation. Nichiren Buddhism followed suit, but its philosophical grounding was different from that of, say, Zen or Pure Land schools and resisted redefinition as purely private or interior. For example, a new, largely lay-centered movement known as Nichirenism arose that interpreted Nichiren’s teachings in light of practical social realities and the demands of modern nation-building.
Nichirenism was considered a form of self-cultivation, as was chanting the daimoku, but its adherents also saw self-cultivation as extending outward to uplift society and the nation. Nichiren’s teaching affirms the phenomenal world as the locus for realizing Buddhahood, and he taught that the spread of faith in the Lotus Sutra would transform this world into a buddha land. For centuries, that had remained a vague, future goal. For Nichirenism adherents, it acquired an immediacy, even a millenarian thrust. Through their efforts, it was going to happen soon. Some even saw the expansion of the Japanese empire as the vehicle by which the Lotus Sutra would spread worldwide.
Nichirenism had an immense impact on postwar lay Nichiren Buddhist movements—not in terms of their ideology, but in terms of their dynamism, organizational structure, innovative use of media, and proselytizing style.
What are some of the key characteristics of Nichiren Buddhism as it is being transmitted to the West? I would not want to generalize too much, as even in the West, Nichiren Buddhism comprises a range of groups. Of the lay movements, Soka Gakkai is the largest and best known, but the older temple lineages are also represented. One common emphasis is on chanting as a source of both self-insight and the wisdom and courage to act effectively in the world. Some Nichiren Buddhist groups participate in explicit forms of social engagement.
There’s an underlying assumption that Buddhist practice has the power to resolve practical problems, and one practices Buddhism not only for one’s own inner enlightenment but also to transform one’s external reality. Nichiren taught that in chanting the daimoku, one accesses the buddha realm, that dimension where self opens up to interpenetrate and pervade all others; thus, one’s own daimoku touches others’ lives as well. Nichiren Buddhists are therefore committed to a social aspect of Buddhist practice—to Nichiren’s conviction that the spread of faith in the Lotus Sutra will bring about a better and more just world.
For contemporary Nichiren practitioners, the key questions they face are likely going to be how to apply Nichiren’s teaching in daily life and how to propagate it effectively in a time and cultural environment very different from Nichiren’s. Those questions go beyond what scholarship can answer.
For Western Buddhists drawn to meditation, Nichiren Buddhism can be seen as worldly, not as “real” Buddhism. For many Nichiren Buddhists, the Lotus Sutra is the only way to salvation. Do these two views contribute to a mutual misunderstanding? That’s possible. The notion that silent, seated meditation represents the essence of Buddhist practice can sometimes be found within the Buddhist tradition. But it has gained tremendous impetus from modern, and particularly Western, factors. These go back to an early 19th-century European quest for the “human buddha,” which was informed by both European Enlightenment values and the anticlerical, antiritualist bias of Protestant Christianity.
The reification of seated meditation—“mindfulness”—as a core essence of Buddhism has enabled its separation from the contexts in which it was historically embedded—ritual practice, precept observance, and monastic life. This has been reinforced by the appropriation of mindfulness techniques for therapeutic use. Today, some college and university instructors have students do basic meditation in class, and no one seems to object. It’s very hard to imagine the same thing happening with chanting.
“Let’s be clear: daily chanting is a discipline of personal cultivation.”
Because meditation is silent, unlike chanting, it’s easier to conceive of it as timeless and universal, not culturally bound. This often leads to a misplaced privileging of origins: people assume they’re going back to an original authentic practice, what Gautama practiced under the Bodhi tree. That assumption ignores the history of how meditation itself has changed and developed over the centuries. Some meditation traditions have been lost and revived from texts. Several forms of mindfulness meditation popular today were developed by Asian teachers in the 19th and 20th centuries, often streamlined for lay practitioners.
I was thinking about this while driving down here this morning. When practice becomes solely a matter of meditation, and what you’re doing is all about deconstructing bad mental habits, inhabiting the moment, and being aware of one’s impulses, it’s very therapeutic and useful. But it bypasses the idea of the dharma having power that can be tapped into through ritual. That there’s transformative power to be gained from such practices as reciting texts and venerating relics, which modern redefinitions have often marginalized. That’s been a part of Buddhism as far back as I know.
So the emphasis may contribute to misunderstandings about chanting, the most important practice in Nichiren Buddhism. I think so. There is a widespread lack of understanding about vocal forms of Buddhist practice, in general. Let’s be clear: daily chanting is a discipline of personal cultivation. Across Asia, sutra recitation and mantra chanting are venerated traditions with solid doctrinal support. There’s a saying, “the voice does the Buddha’s work.” Chanting involves body, mouth, and mind in praise of the dharma. In the esoteric tradition, mantras are the Buddha’s speech and are vehicles for realizing union with the Buddha. For Nichiren, chanting the daimoku contains the merits of all good practices: meditative insight, inner stability, joy and gratitude in the dharma, benefits for oneself and others, and the realization of buddhahood in this lifetime.
Soka Gakkai’s early emphasis on chanting for this-worldly benefits may also have contributed to some misunderstanding. When Josei Toda (1900–1958) revived Soka Gakkai after the Second World War, his followers were chiefly unskilled laborers in search of work. Their education had been interrupted by the war, and they were then left behind in the nation’s postwar reconstruction. Often, they were poor, ill, lacking adequate food, and living in cramped quarters. Toda gave them pride in their mission as contemporary bodhisattvas and stressed the power of chanting to improve their worldly circumstances. To affluent North Americans, however, that emphasis sometimes seemed materialistic and contrary to Buddhist teachings of restraining desire.
On the Nichiren Buddhist side, the exclusive truth claim has often been asserted dogmatically without adequate understanding of its historical context and doctrinal underpinnings. Nichiren famously said that the dharma should be propagated in a manner appropriate to the time and place. For Nichiren, teachings other than the Lotus Sutra had led to enlightenment in prior ages but no longer suited the capacity of persons in the present, final dharma age: in this era, only the Lotus Sutra could guarantee enlightenment for all. He saw the Lotus Sutra as being displaced and obscured by the spread of Esoteric Buddhism, Pure Land teachings, Zen, and so forth. And this for him was the root cause of suffering in Japan: famine, epidemics, and the Mongol threat. So he aggressively asserted the supremacy of the Lotus Sutra. But he also said that, even in the final dharma age, one should use a more moderate approach in those countries whose evil stems from ignorance of the dharma.
I think—at least I hope—that with greater understanding of the history of one’s own tradition, it becomes harder to be casually dismissive of others.
When Western Buddhists discuss “traditional” and “modern” Buddhism, they often consider themselves the makers of modern Buddhism. As you stated, didn’t Asian Buddhist reformations in the 19th century and reform-minded missionary Buddhists who transmitted Buddhist teachings to the West have a large role in creating modern Buddhism? In many cases, I would have to agree.
Change is the norm for religious traditions; otherwise, they won’t survive. At each juncture, some aspects of the received tradition will speak more compellingly than others. Religious practitioners continually negotiate between faithfulness to their received tradition, the perceived demands of their own historical moment, and their personal concerns. Some aspects of the tradition are retained as normative; others are reinterpreted, downplayed, or set aside; and sometimes new, diverse elements are incorporated. Often this process goes on unconsciously, but it’s valuable and important for anyone involved in religion, whether as a practitioner or a scholar, to be aware of this. Because then it’s possible to see in what direction it is going, what’s being lost, what’s being gained, what’s changed.
“Change is the norm for religious traditions; otherwise, they won’t survive.”
Religious change is an ongoing process. It’s also worth noting that the “traditional” and the “modern” are not givens but mutually dependent categories. That is, they have meaning only in their relation to each other. What is essential and what is “outmoded tradition” are always defined in relation to the viewer’s perspective in the present, and it won’t necessarily be the same for all Buddhists.
All that said, what we call modernity was indeed an extraordinarily transformative moment for Buddhism worldwide. Those who study so-called “Buddhist modernism” point to broadly shared characteristics: a grounding in the history of colonialism, imperialism, and resistance; a de-emphasis on ritual and the priesthood; strong lay orientation; a jettisoning of mythic and cosmological elements, or their reinterpretation in psychological terms; appropriations of science as a legitimating discourse; and a this-worldly orientation including emphasis on social justice, often accompanied by social or even political involvement. This was a global sea change in Buddhism in which Asian teachers played a huge role. When Buddhism was introduced to the West, it was already well under way.
Chanting the Daimoku
The following passage from the apocryphal medieval Tendai text Shuzenji-ketsu provides a contemporaneous example of the importance of chanting the daimoku, although it isn’t clear if Nichiren was influenced by this text. It also connects the practice to Zhiyi (538–597 CE), the fourth patriarch of Chinese Tiantai Buddhism.
You should make pictures of images representing the ten realms and enshrine them in ten places. Facing each image, you should, one hundred times, bow with your body, chant Namu Myoho-renge-kyo with your mouth, and contemplate with your mind. When you face the image of hell, contemplate that its fierce flames are themselves precisely emptiness, precisely provisional existence, and precisely the middle, and so on for all the images. When you face the image of the Buddha, contemplate its essence being precisely the threefold truth. You should carry out this practice for one time period in the morning and one time period in the evening. The Great Teacher Zhiyi secretly conferred this Dharma essential for the beings of dull faculties in the last age. If one wishes to escape from birth and death and attain bodhi, then first he should employ this practice. –Shuzenji-ketsu, trans. Jacqueline Stone
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