Good men! All the sūtras that I expounded [hitherto] were for the purpose of saving all living beings. I told the stories of my previous lives [in some sūtras] and the stories of the previous lives of other Buddhas [in other sūtras]. I showed my replicas [in some sūtras], and my transformations [in other sūtras]. I described my deeds [in some sūtras], and the deeds of others [in other sūtras]. All that I say is true, not false, because I see the triple world as it is. I see that the triple world is the world in which the living beings have neither birth nor death, that is to say, do not appear or disappear, that it is the world in which I do not appear or from which I do not disappear, that it is not real or unreal, and that it is not as it seems or as it does not seem. I do not see the triple world in the same way as [the living beings of] the triple world do. I see all this clearly and infallibly. The living beings are various in their natures, desires, deeds, thoughts and opinions. Therefore, I expounded the Dharma with various stories of previous lives, with various parables, similes and discourses, in order to cause all living beings to plant the roots of good. I have never stopped doing what I should do. As I said before, it is very long since I became the Buddha. The duration of my life is innumerable, asamkhya kalpas. I am always here. I shall never pass away. (The Lotus Sūtra p.243)

The first chapter introduced the Three Great Secret Dharmas, the fundamental insights and practice of the Lotus Sūtra according to Nichiren Shōnin. Now that we have explored the basics of Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna Buddhism, let’s return to the Three Great Secret Dharmas in order to understand them more completely. A clear understanding of the Three Great Secret Dharmas will enable us to understand and put into practice the true spirit of all of the Buddha’s teachings. This principle unifies all of the teachings and reveals the true intent of the Lotus Sūtra in a simple and accessible way for all people.

The last chapter presented the T’ien-t’ai teaching of ichinen sanzen, the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment. Nichiren and the T’ien-t’ai tradition in which he was trained taught that ichinen sanzen was the highest truth of scholastic Buddhism. It was intended to be a description of the true nature of all reality which we can realize for ourselves through meditative insight into the true essence of our own mind and heart. Of course, nobody can satisfy their hunger by merely reading the menu, so the whole point of ichinen sanzen was to motivate people to practice the form of meditation known as śamatha vipaśyanā, or tranquility and insight meditation. The intended goal of this practice is the realization of ichinen sanzen for oneself. Unfortunately, very few people have the ability, inclination, discipline, or freedom to practice tranquility and insight meditation properly. In the end, ichinen sanzen remained a mere theory that did not have any real impact on the lives of either the ordinary people of Nichiren’s day, who needed a simple method of liberation, or even the majority of monks, who were unable to fathom its true meaning. It was Nichiren’s conviction that the key insight of ichinen sanzen must be brought within the reach of all people — monastic or lay, male or female, educated or uneducated, good or evil. It was in order to share the insight of ichinen sanzen in an accessible and practical way that Nichiren taught the Three Great Secret Dharmas: the Gohonzon, the Essential Focus of Reverence; the Odaimoku, the Great Title of the Lotus Sūtra; and the Kaidan, the Precept Platform.

Nichiren wrote about these Three Great Secret Dharmas in his major work, the Ho’on sho:

Question: Are there any dharmas which T’ien-t’ai and Dengyo did not propagate?

Answer: Yes, there are.

Question: What are those True Dharmas?

Answer: There are three. They are what the Buddha bequeathed to those who live in the Latter Age of Degeneration, namely the True Dharmas which masters such as Kāśyapa, Ānanda, Aśvaghosha, Nāgārjuna, T’ien-t’ai and Dengyō did not yet spread.

Question: What do they consist of?

Answer: The first is the focus of devotion (honzon). All the people in Japan as well as the rest of the whole world should revere the Lord Buddha Śākyamuni of the essential section of the Lotus Sutra as the focus of devotion. That is to say, the focus of devotion should be the Buddha Śākyamuni and Buddha of Many Treasures in the Stūpa of Treasures. The other Buddhas standing outside the stūpa and the four bodhisattvas, such as Superior Practice should be their attendants.

The second is the precept platform based on the doctrine of the essential section of the Lotus Sūtra.

The third is the Sacred Title (daimoku) of the Lotus Sūtra. All the people in Japan, China, and everyone in the whole world, regardless of being wise or foolish, should chant “Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō” single-mindedly forgetting everything else.

This daimoku chanting has not yet been spread in the world. For 2,225 years after the extinction of the Buddha no one has chanted this yet. I, Nichiren, alone have been chanting “Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō, Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō” without saving my voice. (Hōon-jō, pp. 57-58, WNS: D3)

Nichiren felt that these three principles would enable anybody and everybody to realize the truth of ichinen sanzen for themselves and become fully awakened. For this reason, Nichiren felt that he had surpassed the scholastic and esoteric version of T’ien-t’ai Buddhism by presenting a form of teaching and practice that was not only accessible but potent enough to enable all people to fully realize the Wonderful Dharma for themselves. As Nichiren wrote in a letter:

There are two ways of observing the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment. One is in terms of principle, the second is in terms of the actual phenomena. At the time of T’ien-t’ai and Dengyō and so on, it was [observed in] principle. Now it is [observed in] actual phenomena. Since [the latter form of] contemplation is superior, the great difficulties [accompanying it] are also superior. The former is the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment of the provisional teaching [of the Lotus Sūtra], and the latter is the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment of the original teaching [of the Lotus Sūtra]. They are as different as Heaven and Earth, and at the time of death, you should keep this in mind. (Toki Nyūdō-dono Go-henji also known as Chibyō-shō, Shōwa Teihon p. 1522. Authenticated copy extant. Also see p. 257, WNS: D2)

Honzon: The Focus of Devotion

As Nichiren stated in the Hōon-jō, the first of the Three Great Secret Dharmas is the honzon, or essential focus of devotion, which is the all encompassing life of the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha. Before explaining the significance of the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha, let’s think about the very idea of having a focus of devotion. Is it necessary to have one? Why should Buddhism, which is based on the idea of cultivating insight and not the worship of a transcendent being or deity, even have a focus of devotion? In actuality, if you go to any Buddhist temple or training hall you will find that there is always something enshrined as the focus of devotion. Usually, it will be a statue of a buddha or bodhisattva or a mandala depicting numerous buddhas and bodhisattvas. Despite the fact that awakening is elusive and beyond expression, the ordinary human mind cannot maintain a state of clarity and openness on its own. It constantly jumps around from idea to idea in search of some interesting or pleasant occupation. It is very much like a monkey that constantly jumps from tree to tree in search of food. The focus of devotion, therefore, is the means by which Buddhists express or personify buddhahood, the goal of Buddhist practice. By creating and using such images, the mind is given a focus, as well as something to motivate, inspire, and even challenge it. The focus of devotion also serves as a reminder that the Buddha Dharma is not about abstract principles and theories. Instead, it is a living reality that awakens us through the vast network of interrelationships that affect the unfathomable inner workings of our own minds and hearts. The focus of devotion, therefore, is not to be worshipped as an idol. Rather, it is an expression of awakening, presented in such a way that it warmly and intimately engages our whole being with the living reality of buddhahood.

It is also very important to keep in mind that none of the statues or mandalas which are used to express the focus of devotion have any kind of magical power. Again, these are not idols or fetishes to be treated with superstitious reverence. They are expressions of the reality of the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment that transcends the duality between the animate and inanimate. Therefore, they have the potential to express buddhahood just like anything and anyone else. Because they are specifically depicting the focus of devotion, the life of the Buddha, we should treat them respectfully, though not as an idol.

Such statues or mandala representations are only considered the expressions of the focus of devotion after they have received an “eye opening” ceremony. This “eye opening” is performed by someone who has been taught the significance and correct procedure of this ceremony. In most Nichiren schools this person would be an ordained minister who has devoted his or her life to the teaching and practice of the Dharma. In this ceremony, the object in question is acknowledged from that moment on to be the living symbol of the focus of devotion and no longer a worldly statue or mandala. In other words, due to the practice and realization of the Buddha Dharma on their behalf by a devoted and properly trained Buddhist, the statues or mandalas are said to “open their eyes” and become buddhas. From that time on, they represent the living presence of the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha and serve as catalysts in the realization of our own buddhahood. This is the most important point: the objects are only expressions of the focus of devotion; the true focus of devotion is the Eternal Buddha. While statues and mandalas can be helpful, they have no power over us. We should not become obsessed or dependent upon them, no matter what they represent or what state of life they are expressing. The bottom line is our own practice and realization. The true focus of devotion is in the depths of our lives. In this regard, Nichiren constantly admonished his followers to never seek the focus of devotion outside themselves.

It might seem odd, then, that Nichiren insisted so strongly that the only proper focus of devotion is the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha of the 16th chapter of the Lotus Sūtra. Some have even accused Nichiren of turning Śākyamuni Buddha into a kind of monotheistic deity or, at the very least, a transcendent savior. This is an unfortunate misconception, because he was actually drawing upon the deepest insights of Mahāyāna Buddhism, especially the teaching of the three bodies of the Buddha.

Chapter 5 explained that there are three aspects of buddhahood, which are metaphorically represented by three different kinds of buddhas. To review, the universal or eternal body is the Dharma-body. The Dharma-body is the true nature of reality itself, that cannot be imagined or conceptualized because it is the basis of all things but is not a thing itself. The enjoyment-body is the personification and sharing of the buddha’s inner qualities of great compassion and perfect wisdom with all sentient beings in the form of infinite life and infinite light. The transformation-body is the actual historical appearance of a buddha as a particular individual who is able to awaken to the Wonderful Dharma and share it with others.

Though every buddha possesses all three bodies, the Mahāyāna teachings prior to the Lotus Sūtra portray them as different buddhas. Even in the Lotus Sūtra, prior to the 16th chapter, Śākyamuni Buddha is no more than an historical buddha whose birth, awakening and imminent death all occur within the confines of Northern India over the course of a normal human lifetime. In the 16th chapter, however, Śākyamuni Buddha clearly demonstrates the unity of the three bodies: the historical, the ideal, and the universal or eternal aspects of buddhahood. For this reason, the Śākyamuni Buddha of the 16th chapter is differentiated from the “merely” historical Śākyamuni Buddha of the prior teachings by adding the title “Eternal.” If the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment is the theory of the interpenetration of the universal (the three thousand worlds) and the particular (in a single moment), then the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha is the concrete actualization of this theory. The Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha is not at all a monotheistic transcendent savior, but the living proof that the Wonderful Dharma is the true nature of our lives and not just a cold abstraction or an unattainable ideal. With this in mind, Nichiren insisted that the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha alone should be the true focus of devotion.

In order to clarify this, let’s examine the Lotus Sūtra, particularly those passages that reveal the identity of Śākyamuni Buddha as the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha. The sūtra opens with Śākyamuni Buddha on Mt. Grdhrakūta (Sacred Eagle) in Rājagriha towards the end of his life. He is surrounded by a countless multitude of monks, nuns, male and female lay followers, gods, demons, dragons, various other supernatural beings, and bodhisattvas. After forty years of gradually leading his disciples to a deeper and fuller understanding of the Dharma, the Buddha finally begins to expound the Wonderful Dharma of the Lotus Flower Teaching after a spectacular display of various wonders. The Buddha teaches the assembly that despite the seeming differences in goals and methods which he taught to different people at different times, he was actually teaching only the One Vehicle all along. It is called the “One Vehicle” because the various teachings of the Buddha directed to the disciples, the solitary contemplatives and the bodhisattvas have one aim, the attainment of buddhahood. The seeming differences in goals and methods were all simply tactful methods which the Buddha used to lead people to discover their own buddha-nature. Furthermore, the Buddha taught that all beings are capable of attaining buddhahood, without exception. The buddha-nature is the true nature of all beings. There are no barriers due to race, class, gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or even moral quality. The buddha-nature is always there waiting to bear fruit. The One Vehicle teaches that all people are capable of attaining buddhahood — all of the previous teachings of the Buddha, separated into several “vehicles,” are expedient means for accomplishing this “One Vehicle.”

After teaching the universality of the One Vehicle, a great jeweled stūpa (a Buddhist reliquary tower) emerged from the earth and from inside of it a buddha named Many Treasures (Prabhūtaratna in Sanskrit, Tahō in Japanese) attested to the truth of Śākyamuni Buddha’s preaching saying, “Excellent, excellent. Everything that you have said is true.” The assembly is astounded by this and asks the Buddha the meaning of this phenomenon. In answer to their questions, the Buddha explains that Many Treasures Tathāgata is a buddha from the distant past who made a vow to appear whenever the Lotus Sūtra is taught. The assembly then ask Śākyamuni Buddha to open up the jeweled stūpa so that they can see Many Treasures Tathāgata for themselves. Before doing this, Śākyamuni transforms this world into the Pure Land of Tranquil Light. Then he recalls all the ideal buddhas in the pure lands throughout the universe and reveals that they are all in actuality his emanations. He opens the jeweled stūpa and Many Treasures Tathāgata moves over so that Śākyamuni Buddha can join him inside. The jeweled stūpa then rises up into the air. Śākyamuni Buddha uses his transcendent powers to allow the whole assembly to rise up into the air and join them. This whole fantastic scene is called the “Ceremony in the Air.” It represent the timeless and placeless nature of the Wonderful Dharma. The jeweled stūpa arising from the earth represents the emergence of buddhahood from the ground of buddha-nature in the daily lives of ordinary people. The transformation of this world is a graphic reminder that this world is the real pure land where awakening is be actualized. The recall of the emanated buddhas from the pure lands reveals that these idealized buddhas are all personifications of the historical Śākyamuni Buddha’s own awakened qualities and inner life. The image of Many Treasures Tathāgata and Śākyamuni Buddha symbolizes the unity of the true reality of life (Many Treasures Tathāgata) and the wisdom of the person who awakens to it (Śākyamuni Buddha).

The ceremony in the air continues as Śākyamuni Buddha calls forth a vast multitude of bodhisattvas who emerge from beneath the earth. He reveals that these are his original disciples from the ancient past. This astonishes the assembly because they can not understand how he could have taught so many disciples for so long — he had only awakened forty years ago. In response to their questions, Śākyamuni Buddha reveals that he had in fact attained awakening in the beginningless past. Moreover, though from a provisional perspective he was about to pass away, he would actually continue to teach and guide others into the endless future. The life of a buddha cannot be discussed in terms of a beginning or an end, because the true reality of life has no beginning or end. This is in keeping with the three truths of emptiness, provisional reality, and the Middle Way. The life of the Buddha has no birth or death because it is as much a selfless part of the dynamic and interdependent nature of life as anything else. However, as a part of the dynamic interplay of all things, the Buddha’s enlightenment unfolds in terms of this world’s concepts of birth and death, striving and awakening. From the perspective of the Middle Way, the Buddha’s enlightened life is what it is and cannot be defined as either transcendent or mundane, though it displays both aspects.

One can also say that the teaching of the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha during the “Ceremony in the Air” is not merely a mythological portrayal of the timeless and placeless qualities of buddhahood, but is actually a symbol of the workings of the pure consciousness within the depths of our lives. This is likewise a transpersonal dimension of our life that transcends space and time. Essentially, the 16th chapter of the Lotus Sūtra teaches that the true nature of Śākyamuni Buddha’s life is simply the true nature of all life, including our own. This means that the Buddha’s life and all of his enlightened qualities are just as present here and now as they were 2,500 years ago in India when the Buddha was teaching the Lotus Sūtra. Therefore, we should no longer feel that we need to devote ourselves to any cold abstract principles or to any personifications of aspects of the life of the Buddha. Based upon his understanding of the “Ceremony in the Air,” Nichiren taught that we should take refuge in the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha as the unity of the historical, ideal, and universal aspects of the buddhahood. These are fully realized and manifested by Śākyamuni Buddha and are also the potential which lies within all of us. The Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha, therefore, should be our focus of devotion if we want to fully realize for ourselves the true nature of the Buddha’s enlightened life and our own.

In order to portray this insight, Nichiren inscribed the “Ceremony in the Air” as a mandala in Chinese calligraphy. As was stated earlier, this mandala is not some icon or external power that we ask to intercede for us. Instead, the Great Mandala expresses and participates in the focus of devotion and enables us to more easily encounter the Eternal Buddha within ourselves to receive the Wonderful Dharma from him directly. Of course, Nichiren was not against using statues or portraits to represent the focus of devotion; in most Nichiren Shū temples, the focus of devotion is represented by statues of Śākyamuni Buddha and Many Treasures Tathāgata flanking a model of the jeweled stūpa with Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō inscribed upon it. Other representations of the focus of devotion might feature a statue of Śākyamuni Buddha and the four great bodhisattvas who were the leaders of the bodhisattvas from underground, a simple statue of the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha, a simple inscription of Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō, or even an elaborate display of statues representing all the beings portrayed on the calligraphic mandala. The calligraphic mandala, however, is the most popular form of the focus of devotion for enshrinement in one’s home. No matter what form it takes, the point of the physical object or objects used to portray the focus of devotion is to help us become aware of, and participate fully in, the reality of the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha.

In the following passage from Nichiren’s treatise Kanjin Honzon-shō, he describes the focus of devotion:

Now, however, when the Eternal Buddha was revealed in the essential section of the Lotus Sūtra, this world of endurance became the Eternal Pure Land, indestructible even by the three calamities of conflagration, flooding and strong winds, which are said to destroy the world. It transcends the four periods of cosmic change: the kalpa of construction, continuance, destruction and emptiness. Śākyamuni Buddha, the lord-preacher of this pure land, has never died in the past, nor will he be born in the future. He exists forever throughout the past, present, and future. All those who receive his guidance are one with this Eternal Buddha. This is because each of our minds is equipped with the three thousand worlds and the three realms, namely, all living beings, the land on which they live, and the five aggregates of living beings.

This truth was not made clear in the first fourteen chapters or the theoretical section of the Lotus Sūtra. Perhaps it was because the time was not ripe at this stage of preaching the Lotus Sūtra; and the capacity of comprehension on the part of the listeners was not yet sufficient.

The heart of this essential section of the Lotus Sūtra, “Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō,” was not transmitted even to the most trusted disciples such as Bodhisattva Mañjuśrī or Medicine King, and certainly not to the lower-ranking bodhisattvas. Instead, the Buddha called out the numerous bodhisattvas from underground, for whom he expounded it during the preaching of the eight chapters beginning with the fifteenth chapter in the essential section of the Lotus Sūtra, and entrusted them with the task of spreading it in the Latter Age of Degeneration.

The focus of devotion at the scene of this transmission of “Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō” from the Eternal Buddha to his original disciples is:

Suspended in the sky above the Eternal Buddha Śākyamuni’s Sahā-world is a stūpa of treasures, in which Śākyamuni Buddha and the Buddha of Many Treasures sit to the left and right of “Myōhō Renge Kyō.” They are waited on by the four bodhisattvas, including Superior Practice, who represent the original disciples of the Eternal Buddha called out from underground. Four more bodhisattvas, including Mañjuśrī and Maitreya, take lower seats as followers, other great and minor bodhisattvas – those converted by the Buddha in the theoretical section and those who came from other lands – resemble numerous people sitting on the ground and looking up at the court nobles. Also lined up on the ground are the emanation buddhas who gathered together from all the worlds in the universe in praise of the Buddha’s preaching, representing provisional buddhas in their respective lands.

The true focus of devotion such as this was not revealed anywhere else by Śākyamuni Buddha during more than fifty years of his preaching in this life. Though he spent eight years preaching the Lotus Sūtra, the scene was limited to the preaching in the sky above Mt. Sacred Eagle recounted in eight chapters. During two millennia after the death of Śākyamuni Buddha, the Ages of True and Semblance Dharma, some worshipped Śākyamuni Buddha accompanied by Kāśyapa and Ānanda as described in the Hīnayāna sūtras; others worshipped him accompanied by such bodhisattvas as Mañjuśrī and Samantabhadra as he appeared in provisional Mahāyāna sūtras, the Nirvāna Sutra or the theoretical section of the Lotus Sūtra. Many wooden statues and portraits were made of Śākyamuni Buddha as he preached Hīnayāna or provisional Mahāyāna sūtras, but statues and portraits of the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha revealed in the “Duration of the Life of the Buddha” chapter of the Lotus Sūtra were never made. Now in the beginning of the Latter Age of Degeneration, is it not time that such statues and portraits are made? (Adapted from Kanjin Honzon-shō, pp. 148-149, WNS: D2)

Kaidan: The Precept Platform

The second of the Three Great Secret Dharmas mentioned by Nichiren is the kaidan, or precept platform. The first chapter explained the precept platform in basic terms as the place where one formally takes refuge in the Three Treasures and accepts the precepts appropriate for a monk, nun, or lay person. This section expands on this definition from the three perspectives of Hīnayāna Buddhism, provisional Mahāyāna Buddhism, and the true Mahāyāna Buddhism of the essential teaching of the Lotus Sūtra.

Originally, the Buddha taught only the Dharma to the first members of the Sangha. In other words, he expressed the nature of his insight in terms of the four noble truths and provided a method of practice by teaching the Middle Way composed of the noble eightfold path. However, he did not formulate any specific ethical guidelines for the Sangha. The Buddha trusted the moral and ethical instincts of his first disciples. In addition, the society in which he lived had already developed a system of morality and ethics based upon the Vedic scriptures. As the Sangha grew, however, it gained many members who were not always capable of living up to the standards of conduct that one would expect from those who had left the home life in order to seek enlightenment. Furthermore, the harmony and dignity of the monastic Sangha had to be preserved as its numbers grew. The Buddha also had to ensure that the relations between the householders and those who had left the home life remained cordial and mutually supportive. Finally, the householder disciples themselves often required guidance on basic moral and ethical issues. This was especially true of those who had begun to question the Vedic tradition and those who wondered what the Buddha set forth as the basic principles of morality. In order to meet these needs, the Buddha taught various sets of precepts to his lay and monastic disciples. Just as the Buddha taught the Dharma in order to share his insight, the precepts described a way of life for those who sincerely wished to live in accord with the Buddha’s teachings. Towards the end of his life, when his disciples asked the Buddha who would replace him after he passed away, the Buddha told them that their teacher would be both the Dharma and the discipline that he had taught.

In Nichiren’s day, it was understood that there were different sets of precepts for different types of people. For lay people, there were the five precepts: not to kill, not to steal, not to engage in sexual misconduct, not to lie, and not to indulge in intoxicants. These five precepts describe the minimum ethical requirements for those who wish to live humanely and responsibly as members of society and qualify for a human rebirth.

For those who aspire to the heavenly realms after death, the Buddha taught the ten courses of wholesome conduct. These consist of the first four lay precepts, and add six more: not to gossip, not to verbally abuse others, not to sow dissension, not to give in to greed, not to give in to anger, and not to hold false views. The assumption that one must have a loving heart and a pure mind above and beyond ethical conduct in order to attain the heavenly realms is the reason why the ten courses of wholesome conduct go beyond conduct. They also address the motivations and views of those who accept them. It should also be noted that the ten courses of wholesome conduct derive from the first four parts of the eightfold path: right views, right intentions, right speech, and right action.

Those who join the monastic Sangha must take up the 250 precepts of a monk or the 348 precepts of a nun (according to the tradition upheld in Japan). These precepts not only uphold the moral principles of the five lay precepts and the ten courses of wholesome conduct, but also describe the etiquette required of monastic disciples; procedures for settling disputes; specific rules governing food, robes, medicinals, and shelter; and ordinances for keeping monastics out of temptation. It is important to remember that these hundreds of precepts were not given all at once, but resulted from various rulings of the Buddha in response to a multitude of situations which arose during his lifetime. In fact, towards the end of his life the Buddha even suggested that the Sangha could change the minor rulings if it seemed appropriate. The ten precepts for novices may serve here as representative of the spirit of the hundreds of monastic precepts: not to kill, not to steal, not to engage in sexual relations, not to lie, not to partake of intoxicants, not to use any kind of personal adornments or perfumes, not to attend secular entertainments, not to use luxurious beds or seats, not to eat at inappropriate times, and not to accept money or other valuables. By following these precepts, the monastic disciples are able to live a simple and dignified life in harmony with others.

As the Mahāyāna tradition developed, the monastic precepts came to be viewed as Hīnayāna in orientation in that they applied only to monastics and did not address the values and ideals of the bodhisattvas. In order to remedy this, a new set of bodhisattva precepts applicable to both monastics and lay people appeared in the Brahmā Net Sūtra. In it, fifty-eight bodhisattva precepts are given, ten of which are considered to be the most essential. These are known as the ten grave prohibitions: not to kill, not to steal, not to give in to lust, not to lie, not to encourage or facilitate the use of intoxicants, not to gossip, not to praise oneself and disparage others, not to withhold offerings of either material goods or the Dharma, not to give in to anger, and not to slander the Three Treasures. These precepts describe the bodhisattva intention to not merely refrain from evil, but to actively do good and to benefit others by expounding the Dharma.

In Japan, three precept platforms for the reception of the monastic precepts were sanctioned by the government in the middle of the eighth century. In order to join the Sangha, one had to go to one of these three official precept platforms in order to take refuge in the Three Treasures and accept the monastic precepts. However, the founder of the Japanese Tendai school Dengyō (767-822) believed that it was inconsistent for Mahāyāna Buddhists to have to abide by Hīnayāna precepts. According to Dengyō, Mahāyāna Buddhists should accept the precepts of the Brahmā Net Sūtra that embody true spirit of Mahāyāna Buddhism. Dengyo was opposed by the conservative clergy of the older schools of Japanese Buddhism who wished to maintain control over the ordinations of Buddhist monastics, but his efforts finally bore fruit after his death in 822 CE. In that year, the government finally granted permission for the establishment of a Mahāyāna precept platform at Mt. Hiei, the head temple of Dengyō’s Tendai school. After its construction in 827, the Mahāyāna precepts became the standard of conduct for Japanese Buddhists.

In order to reflect his new understanding of the Buddha and Buddhist practice, Nichiren believed that the time had come for the establishment of a new precept platform. Nichiren taught that it was impractical for the ordinary person in the present age to attempt to approach awakening by merely adhering to a code of conduct. People no longer felt capable of living up to these various sets of precepts; many of those who did had come to realize that morality and ethics alone do not bring anyone closer to awakening. Of course, there were also hypocrites who strictly adhered to the letter of the precepts while violating their spirit. In order to remedy this, Nichiren taught that the true spirit of all the various sets of precepts is expressed in the Lotus Sūtra. Therefore, the most important thing is to simply strive to uphold the Lotus Sūtra in order to transcend one’s imperfections and attain enlightenment. This is the true fulfillment of all the precepts.

The Manual of Nichiren Buddhism explains this as follows:

Nichiren claimed that the kaidan at Hieizan was established for the priests whose duty was to save the people of the semblance age of the Dharma and that a new kaidan should be established for the priests who would save those of the latter age of the Dharma. He also held that not only priests but also laymen should come to the Kaidan of the Essential Teaching and receive the Fundamental Precept of Nichiren Buddhism, that is to chant the Daimoku, which should be practiced by all living beings, priests or not. (Manual of Nichiren Buddhism, p. 62 [Some Japanese terms translated into English for clarity])

“Teaching, Practice and Proof,” a sacred writing of the Nichiren tradition, refers to the “fundamental precept” of upholding the Lotus Sūtra as the “diamond chalice precept.” The following passage from the Brahmā Net Sūtra is a possible source for this precept: “This precept of the diamond chalice is the source of all buddhas, the source of all bodhisattvas and the seed of the buddha-nature.” Nichiren realized that if the Wonderful Dharma of the Lotus Flower Teaching, Myōhō Renge Kyō, is the awakening of the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha and therefore the seed of buddhahood, then Myōhō Renge Kyō is itself the diamond chalice precept. When we chant Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō, we are simultaneously upholding the diamond chalice precept that embraces all other precepts.

“Teaching, Practice and Proof” continues:

Afterwards, [explain that] the core realization of Myōhō Renge Kyō, the main gate of the Lotus Sūtra, contains all the merits of the practices and virtues of all the buddhas of the past, present, and future, which manifests as the five characters. How could these five characters not contain the merits of all precepts? Once the practitioner has this comprehensive Wonderful Precept, even if he wants to destroy it, he cannot. This has been called “the diamond chalice precept.” All buddhas of the past, present, and future keep this precept. All the Dharma-bodies, enjoyment-bodies, and transformation-bodies become the buddhas of no beginning and no end. The Great Master T’ien-t’ai wrote: “[The Buddha] secretly put this into all the teachings and did not expound it.” Now when all people, whether wise or foolish, householder or home-leaver, upper or lower class, of the present latter age of the Dharma train themselves in accord with the view of Myōhō Renge Kyō, why should they not obtain buddhahood? [The 21st chapter of the Lotus Sūtra states:] “Therefore, the man of wisdom who hears the benefits of these merits and who keeps this sutra after my extinction will be able to attain the awakening of the Buddha definitely and doubtlessly.” The people of the provisional schools who slip away from this decisive teaching of the three Buddhas (Śākyamuni, Many Treasures, and the emanation buddhas of the ten directions) will definitely end up in the Avīci Hell. Similarly, if this precept is so excellent, then all the precepts of the previous provisional teaching will have no merit. Without any merit, the daily rules of abstention are useless. (Kyōgyōshō Gosho, Shōwa Teihon p. 1488. Listed in the Rokuge. )

Based on this understanding of the precepts, Nichiren Buddhism teaches that the Hīnayāna precept platform and the Mahāyāna precept platform are now obsolete: the time has arrived for the precept platform of the diamond chalice precept which subsumes all other precepts. The practice of Nichiren Buddhism ensures that morality and ethics are not unthinking, rigid adherence to any specific code of conduct. Rather, the moral and ethical life is based directly upon the wisdom and compassion of buddhahood. There is no need to go to a specially sanctioned place in order to receive the diamond chalice precept. Wherever Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō is recited becomes the precept platform where we can dedicate our lives to the Wonderful Dharma and attain enlightenment. It is the place where we receive the Wonderful Dharma of the Lotus Flower Teaching directly from the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha, just as the bodhisattvas from beneath the earth received it during the ceremony in the air.

Another sacred writing, believed to have been written by Nichiren at his hermitage on Mount Minobu, expresses this as follows:

Thus, this place is located in the middle of the mountains which is far from any human contact. Though I were to go east, west, north, or south, there are no villages. Although this is a very forsaken dwelling, I, Nichiren, received the transmission of the Lord Teacher Śākyamuni’s most vital secret Dharma at Mount Sacred Eagle [and have now brought it here]. I, Nichiren, secretly keep it in my breast. If this is so, then within my breast is the place where all buddhas enter samādhi. On the tip of my tongue should be the place where they turn the Wheel of the Dharma; my throat should be the place of their birth; inside my mouth should be the stages of attaining perfect awakening. If this is the place for the practitioner of this marvelous Lotus Sūtra, how can it be inferior to the Pure Land of Mount Sacred Eagle? Because it is the Wonderful Dharma, the human being is noble; because the human being is noble, we say the place is honorable. The “Supernatural Powers” chapter says “… in a forest, under a tree, in a monastery… Here the Buddhas entered into parinirvāna.“ We, who hope at this stage to instantly extinguish our beginningless sin and retribution, will [be able to] accomplish the three merits by overturning the evil of the three kinds of activities. (Nanjō Hyōe Shichirō-dono Gohenji, Shōwa Teihon p. 1884. Listed in the Rokunai.)

Daimoku: The Great Title

The third of the Three Great Secret Dharmas is the daimoku, the recitation of Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō. Myōhō Renge Kyō, the Sūtra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Dharma, is not a mere scripture or any kind of conceptual teaching. It represents the true nature of reality itself. The Lotus Sūtra as a scripture is not itself Myōhō Renge Kyō but rather the sūtra that expounds it. Myōhō Renge Kyō is the unity of the life of Śākyamuni Buddha and the Wonderful Dharma and the point of contact between the Buddha’s awakening and our own buddha-nature. By reciting the title, we are calling upon and bringing to mind the profound teaching of the Lotus Sūtra. We recite the title because the buddha-nature within us responds to its meaning and significance. In turn, the Odaimoku acts as a catalyst that brings about our awakening.

In the Kanjin Honzon-shō, Nichiren wrote the following about the power of Myōhō Renge Kyō:

The gist of these passages is that Śākyamuni Buddha’s merit of practicing the bodhisattva way leading to buddhahood, as well as that of preaching and saving all living beings since his attainment of buddhahood, are altogether contained in the five characters of myō, , ren, ge, and kyō and that consequently, when we uphold the five characters, the merits that he accumulated before and after his attainment of buddhahood are naturally transferred to us. (Kanjin Honzon-shō, p. 146, WNS: D2)

Nichiren Buddhism teaches that the recitation of Myōhō Renge Kyō must not become merely a verbal formula. One who truly upholds Myōhō Renge Kyō must wholeheartedly and single-mindedly strive to attain buddhahood for the sake of all sentient beings. The following passage from a sacred writing of the Nichiren tradition entitled “Letter to Gijō-bō” expresses this point:

Regarding the teaching of the “Duration of the Life” chapter, that is what I, Nichiren, look to with my heart. T’ien-t’ai and Dengyō roughly understood this but did not say anything. Nāgārjuna and Vasubandhu had the same thought. In the “Duration of the Life” chapter, the Verses of Eternity state: ”Single mindedly wishing to see me even at the cost of their lives.” I, Nichiren, rely on the world of buddhahood within my mind based upon this passage. Because of this, I have attained the reality of this sūtra passage from the “Duration of Life” chapter, the reality of the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment, which is the Three Great Secret Dharmas. Keep it secret. Keep it secret.

The Great Master of Mt. Hiei crossed over to China to receive the oral tradition of the Buddha’s attainment of enlightenment 500 dust particle kalpas ago, as taught in the sūtra. “Single” means the one pure Way and “mindedly” means all phenomena. Therefore, the Great master T’ien-t’ai explained that the ideogram for mind represents the true effect [of buddhahood] since it depicts the moon and the stars. I, Nichiren, say that “single” is myō, “mindedly” is , “wishing” is ren, “to see” is ge, “the Buddha” is kyō. We must spread these five characters widely “even at the cost of our lives.”

“Single mindedly wishing to see the Buddha” can also mean: make your mind single and then you can see the Buddha; or, if you see the one mind, that is Buddha. Attaining the uncreated three bodies of the fruition of buddhahood is probably beyond [the capabilities of] T’ien-t’ai and Dengyō and [even] superior to [the attainments of] Nāgārjuna and Mahākāśyapa. Understand this thoroughly! According to the Buddha you should master your mind rather than let your mind master you. I strongly recommend that you forsake your body and sacrifice your life for the sake of the Lotus Sūtra. Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō, Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō. (Gijō-bō Gosho, Shōwa Teihon pp.730-731. Listed in the Rokuge.)

If Myōhō Renge Kyō expresses the actual awakening of the Buddha, then the addition of Namu expresses our faith in the Wonderful Dharma and our determination to achieve buddhahood ourselves. Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō is the unification of our practice to attain awakening and the actual awakening of the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha. In some forms of Buddhism, awakening is attained through the efforts of the individual. In other forms of Buddhism, the saving power of the Buddha is emphasized. Ultimately, buddhahood is not something that can be earned through self effort, bestowed upon us by a transcendent being or inherently possessed. It is something that unfolds as soon as we are able to awaken to the selfless interdependent process which is the true nature of all reality. As we have seen above, the true nature of reality is also known as the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha. Therefore, in Nichiren Buddhism a Middle Way is chosen between the way of self-effort and the way of total reliance on the Buddha. This Middle Way is the practice of Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō which is the seed of awakening. This eventually bears fruit as the realization that the true nature of our lives is none other than the true focus of devotion, the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha.

The process of letting go of our egotism and opening ourselves up to the true nature of reality is the process of our faith in the Lotus Sūtra coming to fruition. As our practice of Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō deepens, it takes us further and further along the way to the attainment of awakening and the fulfillment of all the teachings and practices of Buddhism. From another perspective, the unfolding of our practice is also the unfolding of our relationship with the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha. This process is dramatized in the Lotus Sūtra in the form of the three assemblies in two places. The first assembly takes place during the first ten chapters on Eagle Peak. These chapters reveal the potential that all beings have to attain buddhahood and how all the Buddha’s teachings are directed to this end as the One Buddha Vehicle. The next assembly is the “Ceremony in the Air,” which takes place over the course of the twelve middle chapters. The main emphasis of this section is the unquantifiable life of the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha and the actual attainment of buddhahood. The final assembly on Eagle Peak closes the sūtra in the last six chapters. In this section, the merits of the Lotus Sūtra are shared with others through the compassion and selfless activity of various bodhisattvas. These three movements are reflected in our practice of Odaimoku at various times and in various combinations.

The first assembly on Eagle Peak speaks of the arousal of the aspiration to attain buddhahood for the sake of all beings. This is known as bodhicitta, the thought of awakening. This aspiration is described in detail in the fifth chapter, that deals with the bodhisattva ideal that distinguishes Mahāyāna from Hīnayāna Buddhism. Chanting Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō with this motivation in our hearts could be called Bodhicitta Odaimoku. Bodhicitta Odaimoku is chanting with unshakeable confidence in the Lotus Sūtra so that we will be able to attain buddhahood. This stage is strongly focused on practice, self-effort, and having a strong aspiration.

The “Ceremony in the Air” symbolizes the accomplished fact of buddhahood in terms of the life of Śākyamuni Buddha, and the spiritual presence of the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha at work in our lives through the Lotus Sūtra. The realization of this is known as āśraya parāvirtti, the turn-about at the basis of consciousness. This turn-about or change of heart was discussed in chapter seven as the shift from the ego consciousness to the pure consciousness. Our practice of Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō could be called Āśraya Parāvirtti Odaimoku. We experience Āśraya Parāvirtti Odaimoku when our self-consciousness, including all our limitations and delusions, is set aside and the wisdom and compassion of the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha is able to unfold in our lives. This stage transcends our own limited views and efforts. It is, in fact, a deep transformation that changes us starting from within. In the Lotus Sūtra, this breakthrough is called “the single moment of rejoicing” and is said to bring more merit than any other practice based on self-effort.

The final assembly on Eagle Peak describes sharing the benefits of our practice with others, and helping all sentient beings to awaken to the Wonderful Dharma of the Lotus Flower Teaching. This is known as parināmana, the transfer of merit. It refers to the buddhas’ and bodhisattvas’ dedication of all their merits to the welfare and enlightenment of all sentient beings. Chanting in recognition of how our practice is made possible by others and how we can help others through our practice is Parināmana Odaimoku. We perform Parināmana Odaimoku when our chanting is no longer a means to an end (no matter how base or how noble), but is an expression of gratitude to the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha for transferring his merits to us. It is also a way of sharing those merits with others by giving them a chance to hear and learn about the Wonderful Dharma.

In Nichiren Buddhism, our practice begins with our own finite efforts and aspirations. This allows us to be transformed by the living presence of the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha within our lives as the true nature of our lives. Due to this transformation, our practice naturally unfolds for the benefit of all sentient beings. Odaimoku is the practice which carries us through these stages and is itself the manifestation of these stages. Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō is the aspiration for enlightenment, the enlightenment itself, and the sharing of that enlightenment.

There is another important point regarding Odaimoku: Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō is not simply one of the Three Great Secret Dharmas, but is itself all three. Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō is the Wonderful Dharma that is the true nature of reality – the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha. Chanting Odaimoku is abiding in the presence of the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha, the true focus of devotion. Upholding Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō is itself the diamond chalice precept, so anywhere we chant is transformed into the precept platform at that time. Wherever and whenever one chants Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō, all Three Great Secret Dharmas are present.

Having examined the meaning of each of the Three Great Secret Dharmas in depth, let’s consider their relationship to the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment. To review: the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment, the theoretical expression of the interdependent nature of all reality, teaches that all states of life are constantly present in all phenomena and are subject to the law of cause and effect. Therefore, the state of buddhahood is an ever present possibility that requires the right causes and conditions in order to make itself fully known. The Three Great Secret Dharmas provide those causes and conditions. They are the signs of buddhahood and the means for attaining it. For this reason, Nichiren regarded the Three Great Secret Dharmas as the actualization of the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment.

The Three Great Secret Dharmas can also be understood as a clarification both of the Three Treasures and of the threefold training. The Three Treasures, as mentioned earlier, are the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha — the common refuge of all Buddhists. The threefold training, practiced by all Buddhists, are morality, concentration, and wisdom. The focus of devotion clarifies the true nature of the Buddha and provides the focus of concentration. The precept platform defines the Sangha as those who fulfill the true spirit of morality by upholding the Wonderful Dharma. The Odaimoku is the true Dharma of the One Buddha Vehicle of the Lotus Sutra, that is the expression of perfect wisdom. The Three Great Secret Dharmas are not meant to replace or even to change the traditional Three Treasures and threefold training. Rather, the Three Great Secret Dharmas are a way of clarifying and expressing their deepest meaning. Nichiren Buddhism is the Buddhism of Śākyamuni Buddha, but unlike other schools, it strives to practice according to the Buddha’s true intentions as expressed in the Lotus Sūtra and as clarified by Nichiren Shōnin.

Nichiren’s teaching for practicing the Buddhism of the Lotus Sūtra allows us to awaken to the infinite awareness of the Buddha’s awakening. By making the concepts, practices, and foundation of Buddhism accessible to all people without changing their essential meaning, Nichiren Buddhism has made awakening possible for all people, not just monks and hermits. In this process, we not only make ourselves better people, we improve our society and the world as a whole. As Nichiren said in the Risshō Ankoku-ron:

You should promptly discard your false faith and take up the true and sole teaching of the Lotus Sūtra at once. Then this triple world of the unenlightened will all become buddha-lands. Will buddha-lands ever decay? All the worlds in the universe will become pure-lands. Will pure-lands ever be destroyed? When our country does not decay and the world is not destroyed, our bodies will be safe and our hearts, tranquil. Believe these words and revere them! (Adapted from Risshō Ankoku-ron, p. 142)