The Lotus Sutra directly influenced the development of Japan’s “single-practice” Buddhist traditions, which placed one practice above all others as the most correct and effective means to enlightenment for all people. Emerging during the Kamakura period (1185–1333), the primary proponents of the Japanese Pure Land, Soto Zen, and Nichiren schools of Buddhism all embraced the single-practice approach.

Honen (1133–1212) was the founding figure of Jodo-shu, the Jodo School of Pure Land Buddhism. He was the first to break away from the then-prevalent Tendai school and establish a single-practice approach. Honen advocated chanting thenembutsu, Amida Buddha’s name in the form of Namu Amida Butsu,“Veneration to Buddha Amitabha,” as the unequaled means to develop faith and thus secure rebirth in Amida’s Pure Land. The Jodo School is one of the largest in Japan today.

Shinran (1173–1262), a student of Honen, distilled his teacher’s emphasis on faith in Amida and promoted the idea of tariki, the power of the other. He taught that, in the age of the final dharma, liberation could only be attained through Amida’s grace and aid; thus, faith in Amida was all that was necessary on the path to enlightenment. Nembutsu practice thus became an expression of gratitude toward Amida, and monastic discipline could be discarded. Shinran himself married and had children. The Buddhist Churches of America, the oldest Buddhist organization in America, belongs to the Jodo-Shinshu tradition begun by Shinran.

Dogen (1200–1253), widely regarded as Japan’s most important Zen master, brought Soto Zen to Japan from China in 1227. Dogen taught that zazen, “seated meditation,” was the true practice of all buddhas and all who seek the Buddha Way. His Shobogenzo, a collection of sermons, is held by many as the greatest work of Zen literature, and the Soto school is now the largest Zen sect in Japan. Soto Zen was first established in the U.S. by Shunryu Suzuki, the founder of the San Francisco Zen Center and the author of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.

Nichiren (1222–1282) taught that the Lotus Sutra contained the truth of all the Buddha’s teachings and that the sutra’s title contained the essence of the entire text. He advocated recitation of the daimoku, Namu-myoho-renge-kyo, “Veneration to the Sutra of the Lotus of the Wonderful Law,” which he regarded as the only correct practice for those living in the final dharma age who wished to follow the path to enlightenment. Nichiren Buddhism, which comprises various schools, is practiced widely in Japan and is perhaps the most popular and diverse form of Buddhism in the U.S.

This article is a part of the special section on the Lotus Sutra in Tricycle’s Spring 2006 issue. The other articles in this section are:

Entering the Lotus
by Michael Wenger

A Greater Awakening
by Jan Nattier

The Towering Assembly
by Tricycle

The Lotus of the Wonderful Law
by Andrew Cooper

The Final Word: An Interview with Jacqueline Stone
By Andrew Cooper