Let me start by saying I do not advocate that Buddhists worship Jesus or Mary or any other deity.
My view is that as long as the supremacy of the Gohonzon or the sole efficacy of the Odaimoku is not put into question and the core insights and values of the Wonderful Dharma of the Lotus Flower Teaching are not compromised then allowances should be made for the discretion of the individual practictioner. That was the courtesy my sensei extended to me, and it is what I will extent to others.

The whole Buddhist Christian thing is a big issue in my life right now for various reasons. One is that I just came back from the East Coast where I presided over a joint Catholic – Buddhist wedding for a member of the San Jose temple and his fiancee. Another reason is because my mother expressed some dismay that I had become an “atheist” whereas she had taught Sunday school at a
Baptist Church once upon a time (that was news to me). Finally, it has come to my attention that my positions have been misconstrued and/or distorted whether deliberately or accidentally on purpose. I have been assured by someone I trust that all my attempts to explain are futile and that people are only going to read and understand what they want to read and understand (either to slam me and/or Nichiren Shu and/or to use me as a basis for their own ideas which may actually have nothing to do with what I actually do or do not advocate). Nevertheless, I feel compelled to think out loud about all this again.
Let me start by saying I do not advocate that Buddhists worship Jesus or Mary or any other deity.
Now Nichiren himself wrote that he prayed to the gods of the sun and moon and Kishimojin and her daughters and whatnot. For instance in the Letter to Kyo’o he wrote: “Since I heard from you about Kyo’o Gozen, I have been praying to the gods of the sun and moon for her every moment of the day.” http://www.sgi-usa.org/buddhism/library/Nichiren/Gosho/ReplyKyoo.htm
Nichiren seemed to relate to the mythical beings on the Omandala as actual entities who could be appealed to and who were obligated by their vows to use their powers to assist the votaries of the Lotus Sutra. Whether Nichiren literally believed this or was just writing this way could be argued, but I personally believe that Nichiren and all the Kamakurans (and 13th century people around the world and even today) meant what they said in all sincerity.
I personally do not believe that there are literal gods of the sun and moon, nor do I believe there are any mythical pantheons or choirs of saints out there listening to us in the clouds somewhere. Having just flown in an airplane through many clouds I must in all honesty report that I saw no one up there benevolent or otherwise.
However, I do have to say that I have felt spiritual presence(s) in my life, and that when I am especially calm and attentive they make themselves known.
Now whether these are actual “spiritual entities” or some psychological quirk of perception I don’t known. But I do believe that these presences can be related to in different ways. For some people they are angels, others call them devas, or saints, or shoten zenjin, or loas, or whatever. But they are there, they do help (or hurt depending), and they can be related to and appealed to within the context of one’s upbringing and/or faith commitment. This is not something that can be faked however. One must really be open to and able to relate to them in a way that makes sense to you and touches your heart. It is like art in this sense – it either clicks with you or it does not.
But let me get back to my point: should we Nichiren Buddhists, like Nichiren, being praying to deities? And if so, should we only pray to authorized Vedic, Shinto, Chinese, Japanese and other deities who have already been officially approved by Buddhism in general or Nichiren in particular?
Let me start by saying I think the whole argument completely misses the main point of being a Buddhist in the first place. For this reason I find it petty and usually don’t think about these things. But then people say I pray to Mary and Jesus and so I have to say something about it.
I think the point of Buddhist practice, including Nichiren Buddhism, is to attain the same degree of insight and compassion as the Buddha. As a Nichiren Buddhist I believe we do that through faith, practice, and study – and in that order of priority. Furthermore, our primary and sole essential practice is Odaimoku. Our practice really begins and ends with Odaimoku – it is both the seed and the fruit of enlightenment. By this I do not mean to reduce all of life to seven Sino-Japanese syllables, but I do believe that those syllables express what Nichiren saw as the bottom line of Buddhism which we should feel in the depths of our being and with faith and rejoicing express with our whole heart, mind, and body (specifically verbally through chanting).
I think that Nichiren saw all of life as arranged around the Odaimoku just as all the various beings on the Omandala are arranged around and illuminated by the written Odaimoku. So I believe that for him, praying to the gods was no different than appealing to the local magistrate in a legal matter. All of them served or should be serving Namu Myoho Renge Kyo. So I do not believe that praying to the “gods” is anymore or anyless a part of Buddhist practice than going to work, or playing with one’s child, or paying the bills. But unlike Nichiren, praying to Shinto or Vedic or other foreign deities does not make sense to me as a 21st century American so it is not a part of my practice nor need it be – because the sole essential practice is Odaimoku.
But what about the “deities” I did grow up with? Like Jesus or Mary. Well, I am no longer a Catholic nor even a Christian (in the orthodox mainstream sense). But I do respond to certain images of love and compassion which are a part of what I see as the fruits of Buddhist practice. I also would not say I turned my back on Christianity so much as got a very different view of it. My worldview is now very different, and though there are many shared values those values are now rooted in Buddha Dharma as that derived from my upbringing, education, culture, and personal experience (for better or worse – I do not claim to perfectly abide by my own values but I won’t compromise my standards even for me). Anyway, the bottom line is that I can relate quite well to Christian imagery and ideas but I no more worship or pray to Christian deities or entities than I do to Shinto or Vedic deities (who are incorporated into Buddhism). nor would I advocate that other Buddhists do so.
The fact is, I view all these deities and incarnate saviours and divine mother figures in all the world religions as the manifestations of psychological archetypes in forms appropriate to each particular culture. I do believe there are certain spiritual presence(s) that correspond to them but are above and beyond any of them as it were. I have not even made up my mind whether their “assistance” is objectively real or a matter of my own personal subjectivity and the mind’s need to project or find meaningful coincidence or “synchronicities” in the flow of life’s events. So for me it is not a matter of faith or rejection – it is a matter of being open-minded.
But let’s suppose these entities exist behind the masks of different cultural images – Kannon or Mary; Jesus or Samantabhadra, or whatever – then I do believe, as Nichiren believed, that if they are benevolent and represent the values of love, compassion, joy, equanimity, insight and so on, then they are supporters of the Wonderful Dharma and those who uphold the Wonderful Dharma. This means, to put it bluntly, that they are working for us. They are a part of the team as much as our flesh and blood members of the Sangha. So I would not pray to them per se, but I can relate to them, be aware of them, and be grateful to them in the context of my primary and sole essential practice which is the Odaimoku.
A related and important issue is this – are all images appropriate? Vedic, Chinese, and Shinto images or beings seem to be ok (they are all on the Omandala) but what about those in other cultures? At this point – in the Nichiren Shu – there is NO official policy on this one way or another that I have ever heard of. Some ministers say we should not add anything Nichiren did not specifically advocate – which to me means we freeze Buddhism in the amber of 13th century Japan. Other ministers might say that anything goes and that we can willy nilly put anything up on our butsudans – but that might mean putting up images or symbols whose values and connotations are at odds with our founder Nichiren’s intention (not to mention Shakyamuni Buddha’s intentions). Others point out that the assimilation of other deities to Buddhism took generations. That is a plausible argument, but I really don’t think it took quite so long and the Buddha added the Vedic deities from the very beginning. I do think the process in China and Japan and other countries took awhile, was ad hoc, and had many successes and failures. Still, it was always a part of the movement of Buddhism from one culture to another.
I think that our practice needs to be personally meaningful to us but at the same time we should maintian a certain simplicity and also respect the basic integrity of our practice. Different people will have different ideas about what this might mean. For some that might mean putting keepsakes or family pictures on the butsudan or statues of bodhisattvas that we relate to. For others it might mean enshrining nothing but the Omandala. My view is that as long as the supremacy of the Gohonzon or the sole efficacy of the Odaimoku is not put into question and the core insights and values of the Wonderful Dharma of the Lotus Flower Teaching are not compromised then allowances should be made for the discretion of the individual practictioner. That was the courtesy my sensei extended to me, and it is what I will extent to others.
Namu Myoho Renge Kyo,