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Guest Post: Nichiren and the Lotus Sutra

by Mike Lucas

A few posts back, we briefly touched on the topic of Nichiren while talking about going to a temple. This article is the result of that, and more fully explains what Nichiren Buddhism is all about and some of the important concepts involved with that branch. Mike Lukas is a comedian, and you can check out his website at http://www.crackinupradio.com. Although his wife was raised in Nichiren Buddhism, Mike converted several years ago and it has had an incredibly positive influence on his life.

Keep in mind that this is written from the perspective of someone who follows the path of Nichiren; the beliefs of other denominations may vary significantly, but this is a good explanation from within that tradition.

Nichiren and the Lotus Sutra by Mike Lukas

Okay, so here’s how I understand it – hope I can explain it correctly. Shakyamuni Buddha wrote thousands of Sutras, or teachings, in his lifetime. He slowly revealed ’The Truth’ (the truth being the correct way to achieve enlightenment) to the people, as he thought they could understand it, starting with more basic sutras (explaining how to clean yourself, to eat properly, etc. – remember, this was thousands of years ago!) all the way up to his later teachings which explained more specifically how to practice different parts of Buddhism.

Now in the last eight years of his life, he taught only one sutra, the Lotus Sutra, and in his words, this is the teaching that all the others have led to. It contains "The Truth’ (what is enlightenment and how one achieves it). It’s actually the literal title of the Lotus Sutra, Myoho Renge Kyo that we chant, in fact. The Lotus Sutra (according to him) says (among lots of other things) that each of us is able to achieve ‘Nirvana’ or ’enlightenment in THIS lifetime, without having to depend on any thing or any one else. The other sutras do not say this. Each of us has the ability to tap into our ‘best selves’ (which is what enlightenment is!) in this lifetime. All the other sutras do not state that (because, again, in his words, people were not ready to hear/understand that truth yet) – and Shakyamuni says that because of this ommission, all prior teachings are ‘provisional’ or ‘incomplete’ teachings which were written simply to prepare the people to hear the final truth contained in the Lotus Sutra.

So then what is Zen, or Tibetan or ‘XYZ’ Buddhism then? These are Buddhist practices based on the earlier, or provisional teachings (Sutras) of Shakyamuni Buddha. Their originators heard the earlier teachings (which were partially true, of course, but incomplete, according to the Buddha) and ran with them – and since there was no internet or postal system back then, they never got the final message about the final Sutra, and so there was no one to correct them. And so they taught and spread their form of Buddhism based on an imcomplete truth – they’re all ‘partially’ true, but do not contain ‘all’ of the truth.

So then, cut to Japan in the 1200’s – lots of foreign invasion, strife for the people, cruel and greedy rulers and priests – even though they were practicing ‘Buddhism’ it didn’t seem to be working. Then Nichirin was born in the midst of this turmoil. He is considered to be Shakyamuni reborn for the sole purpose of correcting the situtation. He saw what was happening with the people and decided to dedicate his youth to studying all the sutras and figure out what the people were doing wrong. He’s the one who read and re-read the Buddha’s own words, and concluded that the Lotus Sutra is the ultimate teaching, the final truth, the single way towards enlightenment in this lifetime. Nichirin began to call out the incompleteness of the other sutras (which of course pissed off anyone who thought their sutra was ‘the truth’ – and STILL pisses people off to this day) and began teaching to the people that, by simply chanting the title of the Lotus Sutra (Nam Myoho Renge Kyo, adding Nam, a contraction which means ‘to devote oneself’) anyone (from commoners to the ruling class) can tap into the wisdom of the entire sutra and achieve enlightenment, here and now.

To me, Nicherin is like the original Obama, a guy who rose up out of turmoil and said the people must be represented. And like Obama, he still gets lots of grief for having the balls to ‘call out’ the status quo, because if what he says is true, what they say is not. Of course no one likes to have what they believe called ‘incomplete,’’ but these findings are based on the direct quotations from the guy who originally wrote it all (Shakyamuni)! When you read the actual words, it’s impossible for me (and millions of others) to arrive at any other conclusion.

This is how I understand it – and it truly makes sense to me. Before I ever found Nichiren Buddhism, I tried Zen and read about a lot of the others, but none of it sang to me. It felt incomplete, though I never used that word. Then when I began studying the Lotus Sutra three years ago, it all made sense to me and my heart began to open up to life again. Just as it said I would. I don’t think the other sects are wrong, just incomplete. Not incorrect, just not whole. They all seem to be using this lifetime to prepare for some future lifetime, some distant ‘Nirvana,’’ in the same way that Catholicism uses this life to prepare you for ‘Heaven.’ And they all claim that you must go through some level of priesthood in order to accomplish this. The Lotus Sutra, on the other hand, says now is the time for enlightenment, and everyone (not just priests or not just with their guidance), but everyone can tap into this right this second! How amazing is that?

Well, this is what I believe with my whole heart, and I hope it makes sense to you, because this distinction is extremely important.

Nam Myoho Renge Kyo

I am curious to hear from others on this topic as I am still searching.

7 comments to Guest Post: Nichiren and the Lotus Sutra

  • posted for a reader who submitted this by email:

    Well, around the same time as Nicherin was preaching his version of Buddhism, Honen and Shinran were teaching Shin Buddhism, which alleges IT is the final form of Sakyamuni’s teachings, that the Amida Buddha in the Longer Pure Land Sutra, preceded Sakyamuni, and through his Primal Vow promised buddhahood to those who believed in him and in re-birth in the Pure Land.

    Shin Buddhism seen Nicherin Buddhism as as “self-driven” as Zen and Tibetan. Shin teaches that it is “other driven,” that is, not by one’s efforts (doomed to failure because we live in age of the decline of Dharma), but by faith in the Amida Buddha even the basest sinner is assured a positive rebirth in the Pure Land.

  • Timothy Hilgenberg

    Namaste!

    To those who are interested in the Nichiren approach there is a fab podcast – visit: http://abuddhistpodcast.com/ while I am following more the Theravada path I do enjoy listening to this podcast. In the podcast Jason Jarrett goes into a great detail of the history, and Mike has a point – Nichiren certainly didn’t choose the easy route.

    There are a number of belief systems that connect insight (& enlightenment) with certain soundscapes and nam myo renge kyo is just one of these, while I can see how this might influence the brain … and mind… to me it seems a little too simple (if it seems too good to be true… see Madoff) – a little like the Christian evangelic approach – you repent and seek forgiveness in the Lord and hey presto you’re saved, never mind what you’ve been getting up to until now…

    For me it’s about the whole journey, not the last 10 yards, a little like going on a hike but taking the bus for most of the way – that’s not hiking in my view 🙂 However while it’s not my journey, I’m sure it’s a better journey than no journey at all – so if it’s your bag, don’t let me discourage you! As I said, Jason’s podcasts are a blast and I recommend you try them.

    T

  • elf_man

    I take issue with Pure Land. Rewrite that second paragraph with Christian terminology ‚ÄúFundamentalists seen Catholicism as as ‚Äúself-driven‚Äù as (insert denomination here). Fundamentalism teaches that it is ‚Äúother driven,‚Äù that is, not by one‚Äôs efforts (doomed to failure because we live in age of the Fall from Eden), but by faith in the Christ even the basest sinner is assured a positive rebirth in the Heaven.‚Äù with Christian terminology and you have the morality of the Born Again. It‚Äôs the same ‚Äúfaith alone‚Äù system that devalues humanity in this life, and always places the believer in guilt and shame. “Other driven” (selfless, etc.) in such a context really means that the belief is driven by death, by hope for an afterlife that may not exist.

  • John

    “He is considered to be Shakyamuni reborn for the sole purpose of correcting the situtation.”

    This was the difference that I struggled with when searching for a local sangha here in the states. This seems to be a fundamental difference between Soka Gakkai Nichiren Buddhists and Nichiren Shu Buddhists. I personally could not grasp this considering what I’d read of Nichiren’s writings.

  • Another Reader sent this one in by email

    “A good way to turn newcomers off to Buddhism: a narrow-minded, arrogant view”

    And my Response is:

    I absolutely agree with this sentiment, but that’s not what I see here at all. We all have our own preferred way of doing things, and we all believe that our own way is right.

    In the past, I have talked a bit about the various denominations of Buddhism, and I can give you all the “clinical facts” that you could ever want, but I think it’s also a good idea to understand these groups from the viewpoints of those who follow these paths. The only way to get at that truth is to ask them.

    Actually, I’m hoping to present a short series of articles similar to the one above, written by practitioners of different denominations. For the author of the above article, Nichiren struck him as the right path; for another, it could be Tibetan, or Zen, Theravada, or something else. These various groups exist because most people *DO* choose to follow one established path. That’s not being narrow-minded, that’s making a choice in what you believe.

    It’s not necessarily what *I* believe, and I’m not trying to push any of these groups on Daily Buddhism readers, but I do want to present the choices in a variety of ways. I realize and fully admit that I have a personal bias toward Zen, and this is one way to show other viewpoints.

    –If you’d like to write a guest post promoting YOUR favorite branch of Buddhism, send me an email, and we’ll talk!

  • I liked the positive way in wich the articel is wrote , i mean … it`s not agressiv and clear and i learned something.

    I disliked the sentence : “They all seem to be using this lifetime to prepare for some future lifetime, some distant ‚ÄòNirvana‚Äô,” VERRY MUCH … because its , when you speak about Zen, or Vajrayana (tibetan) it`s simple not true.
    Espacaly in SotoZen you speak about the unity of practice and enlighment (realization) … and that there is not a nirvana to achieve … by the practice of sitting in meditation (zazen) you refresh the allready present nirvana ….. and in tibetan as well thex speak about the realisation in this lifetime … and by the practice of guruyoga you learn to see your self and any other being allready as buddha ….

    Ok, nice article, but Zen und Tibetan are NOT FAR AWAY from Nirvana 😉

    (AND : I¬¥m verry soryy for my unperfect english … i`m not a native speaker … hope you could understand )

  • Loh

    The mind is the fore-runner of all things. We are the ones who made up all the denominations, we are the ones grasping onto views and opinions. There’s no right neither is there wrong.

    Whether its complete or incomplete, the buddha only taught one thing throughout his entire lifetime – there is suffering, and the way out of suffering.

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