Writings of Nichiren Shōnin Doctrine 2, pp. 130 -131

Two Nichiren Texts, pp. 66-68

The Writings of Nichiren Daishōnin I, pp. 355-356


After the initial quotation from the Great Concentration and Insight that introduces the concept of the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment, the Kanjin Honzon-shō is organized into thirty sets of questions and answers. The first eight of these involve a dialogue that underscores the fact that while T’ien-t’ai Chih-i (538-597) spoke of the thousand worlds (consisting of the ten worlds, their mutual possession, and the ten factors) in other works, it was only in the seventh and final chapter on “Contemplation Proper” of the Great Concentration and Insight that Chih-i spoke of three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment. Nichiren believed, in accord with the former T’ien-t’ai patriarchs Kuan-ting (561-632; aka Chang-an) and Chan-jan (711-782; aka Miao-lê), that this was because Chih-i had reserved the teaching of the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment until it could be explained in the context of the perfect and sudden method of concentration and insight. Even then it was reserved for the final chapter of that work wherein contemplation itself is explained in detail. The questioner in Kanjin Honzon-shō then asks, as the ninth question, what the difference is between saying there are a thousand worlds in a single-thought moment or three thousand. Don’t they just amount to saying the same thing – that a single moment of conscious awareness contains all possible states of being? Nichiren replies, “Speaking of a mind having ‘1,000 factors contained in 100 worlds,’ we consider sentient beings only. When we talk about ‘3,000 worlds contained in one thought-moment,’ we consider both sentient as well as insentient beings.” (Hori 2002, p. 130 adapted) The former pertains to the “difficult to understand and difficult to believe” teaching of the Lotus Sūtra that, contrary to the teaching of other sūtras, the śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas can attain buddhahood after all, while the latter pertains to the “difficult to understand and difficult to believe” realization of contemplative practice that even the insentient have the ten factors of causality and therefore can manifest any of the ten worlds including buddhahood.

To review, the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment doctrine teaches that each of the ten worlds from hell to buddhahood contains the ten worlds and these 100 worlds manifest in accord with ten factors of causal relations. Ten worlds times ten worlds times ten factors is 1,000 aspects and these are applied to the three realms of (1) the five aggregates of a single entity, (2) the community of sentient beings, and to (3) the environment. One now has three thousand “worlds” that encompass the manifestation of all the states from hell to buddhahood in terms of individuals, societies, and the insentient environment. It was this doctrine that gave rise to the T’ien-t’ai claim that even grasses and trees could attain buddhahood. I think this shows that Nichiren saw Chih-i’s doctrine of the 3,000 worlds in a single thought-moment as revolutionary precisely because it did not confine itself to the mental state of a single individual but pointed to the manifestation of the ten worlds among communities of living beings and in the environment as well. This, he recognized, was a much more inclusive and far-reaching claim: a single thought-moment encompasses all of life and all phenomena mutually contain one another in a vast and unfathomable network of interpenetrating causal relations.

The Eye-Opening Ceremony

Interestingly, Nichiren insists that this teaching is the correct Buddhist rationale for performing the eye-opening ceremony on portraits and statues of buddhas and bodhisattvas and using them as foci of devotion for Buddhist ceremonies, because only the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment doctrine can explain how insentient objects can manifest buddhahood. In Kanjin Honzon-shō he says:

Even insentient beings have mind as well as body. This is hard to believe. However, worshipping wooden icons and portraits as honzon (foci of devotion) has been allowed in Buddhism as well as other religions. This is acceptable only through the T’ien-t’ai doctrine. Unless grass and trees possess both matter and spirit and the principle of cause and effect, it does not make sense at all to worship wooden icons and portraits. (Ibid, p. 131)

In two other writings Nichiren’s discusses the connection between the eye-opening ceremony and the doctrine of the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment. One is Mokue Nizō Kaigen no Koto (Opening the Eyes of Buddhist Images, Wooden Statues or Portraits). The other is Shijō Kingo Shakabutsu Kuyō-ji (Opening the Eyes Service of Shijō Kingo’s Statue of Śākyamuni Buddha). Both were written to Shijō Kingo, a samurai who was a devoted follower of Nichiren. The first may have been written in 1264 and the second was written in 1276. Both were responses to requests for eye-opening ceremonies for statues of Śākyamuni Buddha that Shijō Kingo had commissioned to be made. In the first letter, Nichiren explains that portraits or statues of the Buddha may portray the Buddha’s physical features but do not have the Buddha’s voice and therefore cannot express his mind or spirit. Therefore such images must have the Lotus Sūtra placed in front of them and the eye-opening ceremony performed by someone who “knows the Lotus Sūtra” so that it can be supplied with the words of the Buddha, thereby allowing the insentient object to express the mind or spirit of the Buddha and thus “attain buddhahood” and enable others to attain buddhahood. If this is not done then the portrait or statue will only express a lesser teaching or even outright error and thereby lead those who worship them into error.

In the second letter Nichiren explains that, the doctrine of the attainment of the three kinds of bodies of a Buddha[1] and the five kinds of eyes[2] are only to be found in the Lotus Sūtra. By this, Nichiren means that according to the T’ien-t’ai interpretation, it is only in the 16th, chapter “Duration of the Life of the Tathāgata,” of the Lotus Sūtra that it is shown that how the life of the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha encompasses all life and therefore how all beings can acquire the bodies and eyes of the Buddha. In doctrinal terms, this is understood in terms of the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment that includes the idea that the world of buddhahood contains and is contained by all other worlds and that this has always been and always will be the case. This is why Nichiren says in that letter, “Therefore, the eye-opening service for a Buddhist portrait or statue must be performed with the Lotus Sūtra by the Tendai (T’ien-t’ai) School of Buddhism.” (Hori 2010, p. 132).  He goes on to say:

Moreover the “three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment doctrine” is based on the three realms of existence: the realm of living beings, the real of the five aggregates, and the realm of the environment. Putting aside the first two realms for now, the third realm of the environment includes trees and plants. The five colors of paint are made of trees and plants and therefore a portrait painted with such colors is made of trees and plants. Also a wooden statue is made of wood. It is the power of the Lotus Sūtra that inspires a spirit into these portraits and wooden statues. This is based on the “three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment” doctrine perceived by Great Master T’ien-t’ai. Applied to living beings, this doctrine means the “attainment of buddhahood with one’s present body.” Applied to the portraits and wooden statues, it means the “attainment of buddhahood by trees and plants.” (Ibid, p. 132 adapted)

The claim of the T’ien-t’ai School that even the insentient can manifest buddhahood, that grasses and trees can become buddhas, is therefore not just a theoretical claim but one that is actually put into practice through the eye-opening ceremony whereby an inanimate object is consecrated and believed to henceforth manifest the Buddha in both form and spirit. Now of course all over the world in various religions and in all schools of Buddhism (from Theravādins to Tibetan Buddhists) there have been ceremonies to “eye-open” or consecrate portraits, statues, icons, amulets, and various other items. None of these call upon the T’ien-t’ai doctrine of the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment. In fact, in both of the above letters, Nichiren laments that in his time the eye opening ceremonies were being performed using Shingon ceremonies based on the principles of esoteric Buddhism instead of T’ien-t’ai ceremonies utilizing the Lotus Sūtra and the T’ien-t’ai teaching of the attainment of buddhahood by grass and trees. So why is this T’ien-t’ai doctrine needed? Nichiren believed it was needed, required even, because it was the only true basis for stating that an inanimate object can express buddhahood.

In Kanjin Honzon-shō, Nichiren cites the Great Concentration and Insight to the effect that the ten factors apply to all three realms including the environment. These ten factors describe both physical (external or objective) and spiritual (inner or subjective) aspects of life. Nichiren next cites Chan-jan who wrote that the factors of appearance and consequences pertain to material form; nature, causes, and effects pertain to mind; while the other factors of entity, power, activity, and conditions pertain to matter and spirit. Though the citation does not say so I can only imagine that the tenth factor of unity also pertains to both matter and spirit. Because the ten factors all apply to the realm of the environment as much as to the realms of the five aggregate and living beings and because the ten factors are expressions of spirit or mind as well as matter the conclusion is that the environment is also involved in mind and if there is mind then there can be found the ten worlds from hell to buddhahood. Nichiren also cites Chan-jan’s work the Diamond Scalpel, wherein it is said that, “Each blade of grass and each tree, even a particle of dust, possesses the three causes of buddhahood: inborn Buddha-nature, wisdom for seizing it, and right actions which help develop this wisdom.” (Hori 2002, p. 131)

Five Interrelated Types of Causality

This is getting a little tricky so let me repeat that the factors of cause and effect specifically have to do with intentional actions whose immediate effect is to perpetuate habitual ways of thinking, speaking, and acting. The Sanskrit word for intentional acts is “karma.” There are other words for the effects of such acts, such as “phala” which means “fruit” or “vipāka” which means “ripening” or “effect.” However, the word karma is sometimes used (perhaps carelessly) to refer to the effects or consequences of past actions. In any case, it should seem obvious that “making causes,” in other words intentional actions, can only be made by beings with a mind sufficiently developed that they are capable of making moral decisions. I have seen some interpretations of the six worlds of rebirth wherein only humans are able to make causes while the other five worlds (and also the human world) are places where the effects of such causes are able to ripen and bear fruit. In T’ien-t’ai and Nichiren Buddhism (and East Asian Buddhism in general) it would seem as though all sentient beings in the six worlds are at least potentially capable of making causes, in other words acting intentionally. The inanimate or insentient are obviously not capable of making causes, and it is only in East Asian Buddhism (much of which is influenced by T’ien-t’ai teachings) that one finds this claim that even inanimate, insentient things like grasses, trees, walls, and pebbles are involved in causality and therefore can attain buddhahood.

Beyond proclaiming this claim “hard to understand and difficult to believe”, Nichiren and the T’ien-t’ai patriarch’s Chih-i and Miao-lê did not elaborate (to my knowledge) on how it would be possible for the insentient to perform intentional actions of thought, word, or deed. I think an answer is inferred in Nichiren’s writings on the eye-opening ceremony, but first it might help to explain that in Buddhism there are different types of causality in addition to the moral law of cause and effect pertaining to intentional wholesome or unwholesome actions and their effects. Here I think it should be understood that Buddhism does not teach that everything is the result of karma. Unfortunately, many people, even some Buddhists, believe that this is what the Buddha taught. However, the Buddha actually rejected this view on several occasions. In one such instance the wanderer Sivaka asks the Buddha about this:

“Master Gautama, there are some ascetics and brahmins who hold such a doctrine and view as this: ‘Whatever a person experiences, whether it be pleasant or painful or neither-painful-nor-pleasant, all that is caused by what was done in the past.’ What does Master Gautama say about this?”

“Some feelings, Sivaka, arise here originating from bile disorders: that some feelings arise here originating from bile disorders one can know for oneself, and that is considered to be true in the world. Now when those ascetics and brahmins hold such a doctrine and view as this, ‘Whatever a person experiences, whether it be pleasant or painful or neither-painful-nor-pleasant, all that is caused by what was done in the past,’ they overshoot what one knows by oneself and they overshoot what is considered to be true in the world. Therefore I say that this is wrong on the part of those ascetics and brahmins.

“Some feelings, Sivaka, arise here originating from phlegm disorders … originating from wind disorders … originating from an imbalance [of the three] … produced by change in climate … produced by careless behavior … caused by assault … produced as the result of karma: how some feelings arise here produced as the result of karma one can know for oneself, and that is considered to be true in the world. Now when those ascetics and brahmins hold such a doctrine and view as this, ‘Whatever a person experiences, whether it be pleasant or painful or neither-painful-nor-pleasant, all that is caused by what was done in the past,’ they overshoot what one knows by oneself and they overshoot what is considered to be true in the world. Therefore I say that this is wrong on the part of those ascetics and brahmins.” (SN 36: 21, see Bodhi, pp. 1278-1279)

In his reply to Sivaka, the Buddha asserts a variety of other causes and conditions besides karma that contribute to what is experienced in the present. In his book, Exploring Karma & Rebirth, Nagapriya explains the later analysis of this discourse in the commentarial tradition and how it places karma in the larger context of several different types of causality:

While the schema outlined in the Moliyasivaka Sutta is a bit obscure, Buddhist scholastic philosophy (known as Abhidhamma) classified five modes – technically known as niyamas – of dependent origination. These modes are (1) physical inorganic (utu-niyama), (2) biological (bija-niyama), (3) non-volitional mental (mano- or citta-niyama), (4) ethical (kamma- or karma-niyama), and (5) spiritual (dhamma- or dharma-niyama).

Examination of these niyamas can give us a better understanding of the scope and importance of Karma in human life. The utu-niyama embraces natural laws such as those of physics and chemistry. For example, when seeking an explanation for the occurrence of an earthquake we may be served better by the theory of plate tectonics than by the theory of Karma. The bija-niyama governs the physical organic order, including the laws of biology. For example, if I catch a cold it would seem more sensible to explain this by supposing the presence of a virus rather than by supposing ‘moral’ causes. The mano- or citta-niyama governs the laws of the mind and to some extent relates to psychology. The phenomenon of shock or post-traumatic stress may, for example, be best explained under this heading. The karma-niyama governs the sphere of volitional human conduct (including body, speech, and mind). In practice, it does not seem easy to separate the non-volitional and volitional mental spheres. The exact meaning of dharma-niyama and what it governs is not clear. A traditional account links it to miraculous events in the Buddha’s life, but it can also be thought of as the principle that underlies spiritual evolution. Seen in this way, the dharma-niyama explains the process by which we can transcend our selfishness, hatred, and ignorance and achieve generosity, compassion, and understanding. In traditional terms, it explains how it is that we can break free from the determining influence of Karma and rebirth and so put a stop on the wheel of perpetual re-becoming. It underlies the dynamics of spiritual development.

A further way of thinking about the dharma-niyama is to see it as the ‘undeserved’ compassionate influence that someone may exert on our life. In other words, it is the impact of the saint on the world. The saint does not act towards others in accordance with their karma but deals compassionately with everyone, regardless of merit. (Exploring Karma & Rebirth, pp. 36-38)

The Buddha’s general theory of dependent origination is as follows: “When this exists, that comes to be; with the arising of this, that arises. When this does not exist, that does not come to be; with the cessation of this, that ceases.” (SN 12: 37, see Connected Discourses, p. 575) This means that all things come to be only due to causes and conditions and have no inherent existence in and of themselves. These causes and conditions operate according to these five niyamas or categories of natural law, of which the law of karma is only one of the five, and all five interact with each other in order to bring about life as we experience it. As Nagapriya so eloquently explains:

The five niyama analysis of experience shows that Karma is just one application of the general principle of dependent origination and, therefore, many circumstances and outcomes are likely to be governed by conditions only very indirectly related to Karma itself. But we should beware of seeing these different orders of conditionality as completely discrete. In reality, they are not five distinct orders of conditionality. This is only a map of what happens. Every experience comprises a vast network of conditions; our previous moral conduct will often have a bearing on our present experience, but in many situations non-moral factors may well exert a more decisive influence. The teaching of the five niyamas thus presents a more complex and subtle account of why things happen as they do than the crude view of Karma criticized above. We need also to remember that the actions of other people may be more decisive in any given situation that our own karmic stream; it may be their evil or their goodness that causes us to suffer or benefit, rather than our own. (Ibid, p. 39)

Of course, though each situation we are faced with in life is brought about by many forces, in each present moment it us up to us to determine whether we will act in that situation in a wholesome or unwholesome way – mentally, verbally, and physically. We have the freedom to make a good cause or a bad cause in relation to whatever situation we are faced with. In each moment, our mental, verbal, and physical actions will change the way we relate to, interact with, and experience the situation for better or worse. The causes we freely make will also have an effect on the future, whether they come to fruition later in life or in some future life. So while not all is determined by karma, karma is our own particular responsibility and a decisive factor in shaping the course of our lives; but as Nagapriya points out, the five types of conditionality are not completely discrete but constantly interweaving and mutually influencing one another in a vast network of causes and conditions. Considering this we realize that our mental states are not separate from the causal condition of the inanimate and insentient and our mental states causally transform the inanimate and insentient both in the ways we physically act upon them (individually and collectively) but also in the ways in which we perceive and interpret all that we encounter. The bottom line is that in the living experience of a single moment all strands of causality come together and there is no substantial division between the karmic causality of the sentient and the other forms of causality that make up life.

The Mind of the Insentient

Coming back to the eye-opening ceremony and its rational in the doctrine of the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment, it seems to me that what is being claimed is that while the insentient and inanimate cannot think or act on their own, we can act on their behalf. If we are performing a ceremony like the eye-opening ceremony utilizing the Buddha’s teaching in the Lotus Sūtra than we are able to bring out the world of buddhahood not just in ourselves or other people but also in the objects that are being used to recall to us the presence of the Buddha and the transformative power of his teaching. As the Great Concentration and Insight teaches, there is “not a single color or scent that is not the Middle Way.”

Today Nichiren Buddhists most often explain the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment in terms of our cognitive, emotional and spiritual development. The hells, hungry ghost realms, heavens, pure lands and so forth along with the supernatural inhabitants of the various worlds are not so much seen as descriptions of geographical locations and actual beings as they are metaphors for states of mind and ways of viewing and interacting with the world based on our habits, tendencies and assumptions. But at the same time we need to acknowledge the insight that we create heavens and hells not just within ourselves but also in our social arrangements and in the so-called objective world around us. In other words, we are part of an interdependent system that involves our minds, bodies, other people, other living beings, and the earth itself. When we create an infrastructure and the kind of wealth that allow us to fly all over the world in a matter of hours or to communicate instantly with people all over the world via the internet, isn’t this an example of heavenly blessings that are by no means simply subjective? On the other hand, when famine claims the lives of thousands due to civil wars or genocidal policies, is the hungry ghost world still just a mythic symbol of a state of mind? It sounds trite to say that our attitudes affect our relationships with others and that our civilization impacts the environment for better or worse, but it is easy to forget this and to neglect our responsibility for cultivating ourselves, bringing out the best in others, and ensuring that our society’s impact on the environment and on other people is wholesome and beneficial rather than callous and destructive. The teaching of the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment is not only a way of coming to know and bring out the best in ourselves, but it is also a teaching that can help us awaken to the interconnections between individuals, society, and the environment. Through actualizing the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment in terms of practice, we aim not only to bring out our own buddhahood, but the buddhahood in the people and also the world around us.



Bodhi, Bhikkhu, trans. The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2000.


Gosho Translation Committee, editor-translator. The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin. Tokyo: Soka Gakkai, 1999.


Hori, Kyotsu, comp. Writings of Nichiren Shonin: Doctrine Volume 2. Tokyo: Nichiren Shu Overseas Propagation Promotion Association, 2002.


___________, comp. Writings of Nichiren Shonin: Faith and Practice Volume 4. Tokyo: Nichiren Shu Overseas Propagation Promotion Association, 2007.


___________, comp. Writings of Nichiren Shonin: Followers I Volume 6. Tokyo: Nichiren Shu Overseas Propagation Promotion Association, 2010.


Murano, Senchu, trans. Two Nichiren Texts. Berkeley: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, 2003.


Nagapriya, Exploring Karma & Rebirth. Birmingham: Windhorse Publications, 2004.


[1] The “three bodies” (S. trikāya) of a buddha: the Dharma-body (S. dharmakāya), enjoyment-body (S. sambhogakaya), and transformation-body (S. nirmanakāya).

[2] The five kinds of eyes are the physical eye, the heavenly eye, the wisdom eye, the dharma eye, and the buddha eye that are cultivated by bodhisattvas in order to attain buddhahood.

Writings of Nichiren Shōnin Doctrine 2, pp. 130, 140-143, 145, 152-153

Two Nichiren Texts, pp. 66, 81-85, 87-88, 96-97

The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin I, pp. 355, 362-365, 369

After underscoring the importance of the “three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment” taught by T’ien-t’ai Chih-i (538-597) in the chapter of the Great Concentration and Insight dealing with contemplative practice, Nichiren laments that this “valued treasure” of the T’ien-t’ai school was stolen by the Flower Garland and True Word schools This may seem rather odd to us. Even in our age of “intellectual property” law, we do not usually think that this should apply to religious teachings. In fact, religious traditions have always mutually influenced and cross-fertilized one another when they have come into contact (even when that contact is antagonistic). So what exactly is Nichiren concerned about? Is there any truth to his accusations?

Further on in Kanjin Honzon-shō, Nichiren reviews how the revered teachers of other schools of Buddhism in China and Japan rejected Chih-i’s teachings but in the end many of them finally came around to accepting the teaching of the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment. They even began to claim that this teaching was found in the sūtras that were their own focus such as the Flower Garland Sūtra or esoteric sūtras like the Mahāvairocana Sūtra. Nichiren, however, claims that all other sūtras but the Lotus Sūtra are actually only Hīnayāna (lit. “small vehicle”) teachings that cannot lead to buddhahood. At this point lets review the historical context and introduce some of the teachers of the True Word and Flower Garland schools that Nichiren mentions by name.

Śubhākarasimha (637-735; C. Shan-wu-wei) and Vajrabodhi (671-741; C. Chin-kang-chih) were two of the Indian teachers who brought tantric Buddhism to China. Nichiren accuses them of incorporating the T’ien-t’ai teaching of the “three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment” into their translations and commentaries on the esoteric teachings in order to claim that, like the Lotus Sūtra, their teachings could lead all beings to buddhahood. Furthermore, in promoting the mudrās, mantras, and mandalas of the tantric teachings, they claimed that their methods were superior in terms of practice to the Lotus Sūtra.  In fact, however, the esoteric sūtras do not explicitly teach that all beings, particularly the Hīnayāna practitioners of the Two Vehicles, can attain buddhahood. The esoteric sūtras are therefore not the Buddha’s final teachings but a provisional understanding. This means that the esoteric methods, based as they are on a lesser point of view, are not comparable to the teaching and practice of the Lotus Sūtra.

Ch’eng Kuan (737-820) was the fourth patriarch of the Flower Garland School. He traveled widely studying the teachings and practices of many schools, including the T’ien-t’ai teachings with Chan-jan (711-782; aka Miao-lê), its 6th patriarch. Apparently in his commentary on the Flower Garland Sūtra, Ch’eng-kuan used the teaching of “three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment” to explain the meaning of the passage in the sūtra that begins “Mind is like an artist” thereby claiming the T’ien-tai teaching for the Flower Garland School. To be fair, it should be pointed out that Chih-i was the first one to make the connection between that passage in the Flower Garland Sūtra and the concept of “three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment.”

Nichiren also accused the Flower Garland Schools’ third patriarch, Fa-tsang (643-712; aka Hsien-shou) of hiding the fact that he had been influenced by the T’ien-t’ai sūtra classification system when he came up with his own system. This is a problematic accusation for two reasons. One is that the Flower Garland School’s sūtra classification system originated with the second patriarch Chih-yen (602-668), and the second problem is that Chih-i himself was modifying earlier sūtra classification schemes and using their terminology. Still, Nichiren did not approve of how the Flower Garland School adapted the T’ien-t’ai sūtra classification system and used it to demote the Lotus Sūtra.

The “theft” of the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment teaching that Nichiren was concerned about has to do with how these teachers of the True World and Flower Garland schools co-opted Chih-i’s insights to bolster their own position and then attacking the T’ien-t’ai School as inferior. This does strike me as being ungrateful and dishonest. It is one thing to have a friendly rivalry and to learn and grow through dialogue and even civilized debate (in academic circles this is called “peer review”), but it is another to take another tradition’s teachings and claim it as one’s own while covering up the true source. It also doesn’t seem right to take someone else’s teachings out of context in order to attack it or to downplay it.

Nichiren makes a broader claim, however, that the other sūtras are in fact only Hīnayāna and that compared to the Lotus Sūtra they are false teachings. Now the Flower Garland Sūtra and Mahāvairocana Sūtra are clearly Mahāyāna sūtras, so why does Nichiren call them Hīnayāna? Why is it so bad that attention is being directed towards them and away from the Lotus Sūtra? According to the argument Nichiren makes in his writings, neither the Flower Garland Sūtra that is the basis of the Flower Garland school, nor the Mahavairochana Sūtra and other esoteric sūtras that are the basis of the True Word school guarantee the attainment of buddhahood by the followers of the two vehicles. This would leave these schools unable to assert that all beings are capable of attaining buddhahood on the grounds of the teachings of the sūtras that are their particular focus. In order to remedy the shortcoming of their sūtras, the Flower Garland and True Word schools both co-opted the doctrine of the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment in order to be able to compete successfully with the T’ien-t’ai school. However, once attention is given to the chosen sūtras of those schools and to their own particular teachings, then the teaching of the Lotus Sūtra and the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment can be put aside and forgotten. People are then left with sūtras that, again, do not guarantee the attainment of buddhahood by the followers of the two vehicles. But what is so important about this guarantee?

In the Shōjō Daijō Fumbetsu-shō (The Differences Between Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna Teachings) Nichiren points out what is at stake if the attainment of buddhahood were not open to all.

To tell the truth, if attaining awakening by the people of the two vehicles had not been revealed, then all beings in the nine worlds would never be able to become buddhas. The essence of the Lotus Sūtra, as a reasonable teaching, is that each sentient being in the ten worlds contains the ten worlds within itself. For example, each person is composed of the four elements of earth, water, fire, and air. If one of these elements is missing, there will be no human being. It is true that not only human beings but also all other sentient and non-sentient entities such as grasses, plants, and dust particles throughout the ten worlds each possess the ten worlds. If the beings of the worlds of the two vehicles are not able to become buddhas, then no one in the eight worlds can become buddhas either. (Hori 2002, p. 194 with slight modifications)

Buddhahood is a part of the integral whole of each being according to the teaching of the mutual possession of the ten worlds. If the world of the buddha is missing from some, it would have to be missing from all, because the mutual possession of the ten worlds describes the full range of subjective experience and objective expression inherent in everyone and everything. So buddhahood is either a possibility for everyone or it is closed to everyone. Furthermore, Nichiren recognized that if the people of the two vehicles are excluded, than the bodhisattvas can never lead all people to buddhahood and their four great vows will go unfulfilled, leaving them unable to attain buddhahood as well. If the bodhisattva vehicle cannot be fulfilled then no one in any of the other worlds will attain buddhahood.

All bodhisattvas make the four great vows. If a bodhisattva does not accomplish the first vow, how can he attain the fourth? All sūtras preached prior to the Lotus Sūtra state that bodhisattvas and ordinary people are able to attain buddhahood, but never the people of the two vehicles. Thinking that they can become buddhas while the people of the two vehicles cannot, wise bodhisattvas and ignorant people throughout the six worlds felt happy. The people of the two vehicles plunged into grief and thought, “We should not have entered Buddha Way.” Now in the Lotus Sūtra it is guaranteed that they can attain buddhahood, so not only the people of the two vehicles, but also the people of the nine worlds will all become buddhas. Upon hearing this teaching, bodhisattvas realized their misunderstanding. As stated in the pre-Lotus sūtras, if the people of the two vehicles cannot attain buddhahood then the four great vows cannot be accomplished. Consequently, bodhisattvas would also be unable to become buddhas. When it was preached that people of the two vehicles were unable to attain buddhahood, they should not have been left alone in sadness; bodhisattvas should have joined them in grief. (Ibid, pp. 194-195 with slight modifications)

Nevertheless, it would seem as though the main teaching of the Buddha is that those following the two vehicles cannot attain buddhahood. The Lotus Sūtra is the only sūtra to say otherwise. The Lotus Sūtra itself says that it is difficult to understand and hard to believe. Several passages from the Innumerable Meanings Sūtra (a prologue to the Lotus Sūtra) and the second chapter of the Lotus Sūtra where the Buddha acknowledged that this teaching is different than anything he had taught in the forty previous years and that he is casting aside all expedients and revealing the truth.

I used the power of skillful means to teach the Dharma in various ways. And after more than forty years the truth has not yet been revealed. (Reeves 2008, p. 36)

Now is the time to say it.

I will expound the Great Vehicle definitely. (Murano 1991, p. 35)

I have laid aside all expedient teachings.

I will expound only unsurpassed enlightenment to bodhisattvas. (Ibid, pp. 47-48)

In chapter 11 of the Lotus Sūtra, a buddha from the past named Many Treasures Tathāgata appeared in his stupa of treasures and testified to the truth of Śākyamuni Buddha’s teaching of the One Vehicle.

“Excellent! Excellent! You, Śākyamuni, the World Honored One, have expounded to this great multitude the Sūtra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Dharma, the Teaching of Equality, the Great Wisdom, the Dharma for Bodhisattvas, the Dharma Upheld by the Buddhas. So it is, so it is. What you, Śākyamuni, the World Honored One, have expounded is all true.” (Ibid, p. 181)

In chapter 21, the buddhas from the pure lands of the ten directions who are the emanations of Śākyamuni Buddha stretched out their tongues, emitted rays of light, coughed, and snapped their fingers together as a way of endorsing Śākyamuni Buddha’s new teachings.

The buddhas who were sitting on the lion-like seats under the jeweled trees also stretched out their broad and long tongues and emitted innumerable rays of light. Śākyamuni Buddha and the buddhas under the jeweled trees displayed these supernatural powers of theirs for one hundred thousand years. Then they pulled back their tongues, coughed at the same time, and snapped their fingers. (Ibid, pp. 292-293)

Nichiren and his contemporaries accepted all this as a record of actual events in India at Vulture Peak. Today, we might have a little trouble accepting this testimony as valid simply because we do not view the Lotus Sūtra as a historical event or the verbatim record of a talk given by the historical Śākyamuni Buddha. Many people today may not even believe in rebirth, and so the dilemma of the two vehicles who cannot become bodhisattvas because they have cut themselves off from the cycle of birth and death may seem to be an imaginary or at least purely hypothetical problem. So what can we make of all of this if we do not accept these basic assumptions regarding the Mahāyāna sūtras as being the record of actual teachings and events or the metaphysical assumptions involved in the distinctions (or non-distinction) between the two vehicles and the One Vehicle?

I am of the opinion that those who wrote the Lotus Sūtra had themselves awakened to the highest truth that the Buddha had awakened to through their own faith and practice. They were monks (and perhaps nuns) who had awakened to a selfless compassion that went far beyond what they expected. Perhaps they had been striving to become arhats, or perhaps they were Mahāyānists who aspired to attain buddhahood in some distant time and place. In any case, when they attained awakening they realized that it cut through all their dualistic ideas, including the division between Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna. They knew for themselves that all the teachings of the Buddha did not lead to lesser goals but to the very same awakening the Buddha had realized. I believe that the Lotus Sūtra is the literary expression of their insight and the supreme joy that they felt in the form of a great drama in which the Buddha reveals the One Vehicle teaching. When the sūtra says that Śāriputra “felt like dancing for joy” (Murano 1991, p. 51) or that Śāriputra declares to the Buddha, “Today I have realized that I am your son, that I was born from your mouth, that I was born in [the world of] the Dharma, and that I have obtained the Dharma of the Buddha.” (Ibid, pp. 51-52) I hear the voice of those anonymous Mahāyāna monks (and perhaps nuns as well) voicing their joyful surprise at how they had awakened to the same truth to which the Buddha had awakened. All of the rhetorical flourishes and fantastic events of the Lotus Sūtra are by way of underscoring how momentous this awakening was, and how, for them, it surpassed any other teaching, whether Hīnayāna or Mahāyāna, that they had heard. So it does not worry me that the historical Buddha might not have spoken the exact words attributed to him in the Lotus Sūtra, nor do I worry that the Ceremony in the Air might not have literally occurred. What I think is marvelous is that more than 2,000 years ago the Buddha’s followers realized that all people were capable of attaining perfect and complete awakening of a Buddha and that all who heard the Dharma would embark upon the One Vehicle enabling them to do so. When we read, recite, ponder, and share the Lotus Sūtra I believe that we are reading, reciting, pondering and sharing the testimony of those long ago practitioners who had such a surprising and joyful awakening that surpassed every expectation and who furthermore had the conviction that their awakening was available to all people. More than 2,000 years later the Lotus Sūtra enables us to share their faith, hope, and conviction regarding the true meaning of the Buddha’s teachings.

In Nichiren’s time, however, not all agreed that what the Lotus Sūtra taught was so unique or important. Nichiren acknowledges that is difficult to trust the Buddha since he spoke first one way for over 40 years and then another for the last 8 according to the T’ien-t’ai five period chronology of the Buddha’s teachings. Because of this, those who followed other sūtras believed that their sūtras taught what was most important and either accounted for or overruled the teachings in the Lotus Sūtra. The Flower Garland School believed that what the Flower Garland Sūtra taught about interdependence was more important; the True Word school believed that what the Mahāvairocana Sūtra taught about using mudrās, mantras, and mandalas was more important; the Pure Land Buddhists believed that what the Pure Land Sūtra taught about rebirth in the Pure Land by calling upon the name of Amitābha Buddha was most important. In response to questioner’s doubts that T’ien-t’ai Chih-i’s views are correct Nichiren replies in Kanjin Honzon-shō:

Regarding your question of whether or not T’ien-t’ai had a biased view, I should say that during the period spanning the time the Buddha was alive and some 1,800 years after his death, there appeared only three throughout the three lands of India, China, and Japan who perceived the ultimate truth, that is, the Lotus Sūtra. They are Śākyamuni Buddha of India, Grand Master T’ien-t’ai of China, and Grand Master Dengyō of Japan, who are the three sages of Buddhism. (Hori 2002, p. 142)

In Nichiren’s view, people needed to go back to the teachings of these three sages who all upheld the uniqueness and preeminence of the insights presented in the Lotus Sutra. Nichiren realizes how difficult this will be, however. He cites the “six difficult and nine easy acts” referred to in the 11th chapter of the Lotus Sūtra in regard to the predicted difficulties. Despite this, Nichiren argues that it is of utmost importance to uphold the Lotus Sūtra, because otherwise the teaching of the universality of attaining buddhahood will be obscured or even lost. Chih-i, I believe, awakened to the same truth that the creators of the Lotus Sūtra did. He expressed it in terms of the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment. It is this that Nichiren felt should be preserved in its original context and import. To have it co-opted or “stolen” by other schools was to risk this teaching being distorted or downplayed. This is why Nichiren cites Kuan-ting (561-632; aka Chang-an) who said, “If these words of T’ien-t’ai should disappear, the future would be dark.” The point of all this is that Chih-i’s teaching of the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment, and particularly that part of it discussing the mutual possession of the ten worlds and its basis in the Lotus Sūtra should, in Nichiren’s view, never be adulterated or lost but always be maintained as the correct guide for Buddhist teaching, contemplative practice, and realization.


Ch’en, Kenneth. Buddhism in China: A Historical Survey. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1964.

Gosho Translation Committee, editor-translator. The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin. Tokyo: Soka Gakkai, 1999.

Hori, Kyotsu, comp. Writings of Nichiren Shonin: Doctrine Volume 2. Tokyo: Nichiren Shu Overseas Propagation Promotion Association, 2002.

Murano, Senchu, trans. The Lotus Sutra. Tokyo: Nichiren Shu Headquarters, 1991.

______________, trans. Two Nichiren Texts. Berkeley: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, 2003.

Reeves, Gene, trans. The Lotus Sutra. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2008.

Many people who have explored the practice of Nichiren Buddhism have wondered why some people chant Nam Myoho Renge Kyo and others chant Namu Myoho Renge Kyo. Even in the groups that primarily chant “Nam,” they also chant “Namu” when doing three prolonged Odaimoku (Daimoku Sansho or Hiki Daimoku). What is the real issue here? In this article I would like to explain the linguistics behind it and then share relevant practice instruction that is given in the Nichiren Shū about chanting Odaimoku.

The two Chinese characters that begin Odaimoku are pronounced Na (南) and Mu(無) when they stand alone. The first character means “South” and the second character signifies a negation (as in “Does a dog have Buddha-Nature?” “MU!”). Those two characters were chosen by the Chinese to transliterate the Sanskrit word “Namah”, they were not chosen for their meaning. In China the two characters are chanted as Namo (as in Namo Amito Fo). In Japan, they are pronounced Namu, unless it becomes convenient to elide the “u” sound, which happens when Odaimoku is chanted at a fast pace. So when writing the Odaimoku, it should always be written as “Namu” in order to acknowledge each Chinese character. There is no way to contract Namu into Nam’ when writing Chinese characters or even when using the Japanese phonetic systems – the hiragana and katakana. Only in English can you write Nam’ and leave out the “u.”

This is important, because in the Nichiren tradition each character of the sutra is looked upon as a golden Buddha. Now it is prefereable to chant “Namu,” but chanting “Nam” is a linguistic matter and not a doctrinal issue except insofar as Nichiren Shū teaching counsels against such elision with either the Odaimoku or in chanting the sūtra. In fact here are is a translation of the instructions given in the Shutei Nichiren Shū Hōyō Shikki (Nichiren Shū’s official book of ceremonies and practices):

The Raijugiki warns against “…chanting Daimoku in a gloomy, lazy, or distracted fashion. Don’t chant Daimoku with a scatter-brained or flippant manner. Chanting as if it were a hardship is folly whereas chanting it joyfully is wise. The intention of our practice is to chant joyfully.” [It advises:] “As part of daily practice, we should chant it three hundred times, each time mindfully in a moderate tempo free of distraction or drowsiness but with courageous effort. Finally we should chant it ten more times at a slower tempo with deep sincerity and clarity so that everyone is focused and mindful [of the Daimoku].” In short, because chanting Daimoku is the main practice we should chant it often with sincerity and mindfulness.

● Brief breaks should follow “Namu,”“Myōhō,” and “Renge-kyō.” [I believe this is referring to when pauses to take a breath or for some other reason should occur. It does not mean one should break after each phrase during every recitation.]

● After “Namu” or after “Ren,” congregation and ministers chant in unison. [Usually the officiant will start the chanting of Odaimoku by himself and then everyone else will join in from that point on.]

“Namu” and “Ge” must be pronounced as spelled. The pronunciations “Nanmyo” and “Gei” are unacceptable.

● When Daimoku is chanted tens of times, the last three times must always be in a slower tempo.

● The ancient way to accompany Daimoku with a drum is shown in Fig. 37. The drum is struck lightly right and left on “Namu,” then strongly, right and left on each kanji: “Myo,”Ho,”“Ren,”“Ge,”“Kyo.”

● Beating of the drum begins with the “Namu” of the third time the Daimoku is chanted.

(Translated from p. 273 by Chishin Hirai and Ryuei McCormick)

I think it is good for all practitioners and not just clergy to bear the above points in mind when chanting Odaimoku.

Namu Myoho Renge Kyo,