Writings of Nichiren Shōnin Doctrine 2, pp. 34, 36-37, 44, 46, 50-51, 67, 75-81, 84-85, 88-89, 102, 108, 112, 114

 Kaimoku-shō or Liberation from Blindness, pp. 13, 16-17, 27, 29, 36-37, 60, 70, 72-77, 83-85, 89-91, 109, 119, 123, 126

The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin I, pp. 224, 225-226, 232, 233, 237-238, 250, 256-261, 263-264, 267-268, 277, 283, 286-287

What is it that distinguishes True Word or Esoteric Buddhism from the other forms of Buddhism that had previously been brought to Japan? According to Taikō Yamasaki, Kūkai (774-835; also known as Kōbō) emphasized the following four key differences the exoteric and esoteric (J. mikkyō) teachings:

1. Mikkyō is the direct teaching of the highest Buddha, the Dharma Body, the all-pervading body of universal enlightenment.

2. Enlightenment can be manifested in this world, and can be communicated.

3. Mikkyo teachings stress immediate attainment of Buddhahood in this life.

4. The esoteric tradition contains a great wealth of teachings for many purposes and includes methods of practice suited to all predilections and abilities. (Yamasaki 1988, pp. 58-59)

Let’s examine each of these points to get an overview of True Word Buddhist principles and practice, beginning with the special status given to Mahāvairocana Buddha, the personification of the Dharma-body revered as the “focus of devotion” (J. honzon) of the True Word School. So who is Mahāvairocana Buddha? In the Mahāyāna sūtras, the name Vairocana (lit. Illuminator) is used to indicate Śākyamuni Buddha in a glorified or cosmic aspect that can only be perceived by advanced bodhisattvas. It is Vairocana Buddha who is the Buddha of the Flower Garland Sūtra, the Brahmā Net Sūtra, the Mahāvairocana Sūtra, and the Diamond Peak Sūtra. The Sūtra of Meditation on the Universal Sage Bodhisattva, the closing sūtra of the Threefold Lotus Sūtra, says, “Śākyamuni Buddha is called Vairocana, the Omnipresent. His dwelling place is called Always Tranquil Light.” (Reeves 2008, p. 416) Sometimes the name Mahāvairocana (lit. Great Illuminator, but in Japanese he is called Dainichi, which means Great Sun) is used interchangeably with Vairocana Buddha. In the T’ien-t’ai School, Mahāvairocana Buddha is taken to be the Dharma-body, while Vairocana Buddha is understood to be the enjoyment-body (S. sambhoga-kāya) aspect of Śākyamuni Buddha. (See Stone 1999, p. 26)

Kūkai agreed with the identification of Vairocana Buddha of the Pure Land of Eternally Tranquil Light as the enjoyment-body and the Buddha representative of the Lotus Sūra. (See Giebel 2004, p. 195) Kūkai also identified Mahāvairocana Buddha as the Dharma-body, but he also identified him as the teacher of the sūtras that comprise the True Word teachings. “The esoteric teachings are the Dharma expounded by the own-nature Dharma body, the Tathagata Mahāvairocana, together with his attendants for his own enjoyment of Dharma bliss. This corresponds to the so-called mantra vehicle.” (Ibid, p. 169) Based on this differentiation, Kūkai insisted that the esoteric sūtras taught by Mahāvairocana Buddha were more profound than those taught by Śākyamuni Buddha or even Vairocana Buddha. In his essay On the Differences Between the Exoteric and Esoteric Teachings, Kūkai sets out this distinction.

The Buddha has three bodies, and the teachings are of two kinds. The sermons of the response and transformation [bodies] are called the exoteric teaching; their language is plain, cursory, and accommodated to the religious capacity [of the listener]. The discourses of the Dharma-Buddha are called the esoteric treasury; their language is secret, recondite, and veridical. (Giebel 2004, p. 17)

Of course Nichiren did not accept this. In Kaimoku-shō, Nichiren criticizes the True Word School for ignoring Śākyamuni Buddha in favor of Mahāvairocana Buddha. He says, “It is like a king’s son despising his father while respecting a nameless person who acts as though he were the King of the Dharma.” (Hori 2002, p. 76). His arguments against the Dharma-body alone being considered the “focus of devotion” has already been discussed previously. To briefly reiterate his position, the Dharma-body by itself in an abstraction, which is why he uses the analogy of a prince revering a nameless stranger rather than his own father. The Eternal Buddha of chapter 16 of the Lotus Sūtra, however, is considered in T’ien-t’ai Buddhism and by Nichiren to represent the unity of the three bodies of the Buddha. The concrete historical Śākyamuni Buddha, the idealized Śākyamuni or Vairocana Buddha, and the universal truth called Mahāvairocana Buddha are all just aspects of the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha. All three aspects are unborn and deathless because the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha is the true nature of reality that is unborn and deathless and always trying to enable all beings to awaken to the true nature.

Kūkai did not see Mahāvairocana Buddha as an abstraction however. He viewed him as a pantheistic supreme being. Mahāvairocana Buddha is the Dharma-body consisting of the six elements that compose all that is: earth, air, fire, water, space, and consciousness. Sometimes only the five great physical elements (earth, air, fire, water, and space) that compose the world are spoken of as the physical body of Mahāvairocana Buddha. In this view, Mahāvairocana Buddha is all things and communicates through all things. He and his retinue, who personify various aspects of his wisdom and merit, communicate the Dharma not through conceptual or discursive teachings but through the mudrās, mantras, and mandalas used in True Word Buddhism. These three correspond to the three mysteries of the mental, verbal, and physical activity of Mahāvairocana Buddha. Mudrās correspond to Mahāvairocana Buddha’s actions. Mantras correspond to Mahāvairocana Buddha’s words. Mandalas correspond to Mahāvairocana Buddha’s mind or internal awakening. Various mudrās, mantras, and mandalas are associated with different buddhas, bodhisattvas, and deities but ultimately all of them are expressions of Mahāvairocana Buddha.

Now we can discuss the second distinguishing feature of True Word Buddhism. The Dharma-body, Mahāvairocana Buddha, is not just an inert impersonal principle waiting to be discovered; rather, this Buddha is supposed to be the selfless true self that is always expressing itself in order to awaken all sentient beings. Let’s now look at each of the three mysteries of True Word Buddhism.

Mudrā means “seal.” In Esoteric Buddhism it usually refers to certain ritual gestures or hand-seals of which there are many. Each mudrā communicates or embodies a different principle or activity of a Buddha, bodhisattva, or deity. A common mudrā is the gesture of putting one’s palm together as if in prayer in front of one’s heart. That is the Añjali mudra, known as gasshō in Japanese. Another mudrā is the Dharma-dhatu dhyāna mudrā used in meditation, wherein the hands are held in front of the abdomen palms up, one resting atop the other, with the thumb tips touching lightly to form a triangle. The triangle both represents the fire of concentration burning the defilements and also the Three Treasures of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.

Mantras are verbal invocations found in many Mahāyāna sūtras, but it is in Esoteric Buddhism that they really come into their own. They are believed to actually contain the power and merit of the buddha, bodhisattva, or deity that they are associated with. The mantras contain the Sanskrit seed syllables (S. bīja) that are the concentrated essence of the being they refer to. To recite a mantra and form mudrā is to invoke the actual presence of a buddha, bodhisattva, or deity.  It is also a form of contemplation of and identification with the buddha, bodhisattva, or deity. Interestingly, Kūkai even wrote that the title of the Lotus Sūtra could be considered a mantra, a mandala in the form of letters, and that by reciting it and contemplating it one could attain awakening.

Kūkai often argued that in and of itself each letter of the sūtras, both in its form and in its sound, was already a manifestation of the wisdom and compassion of the Buddhas and bodhisattvas. In one of his commentaries on the Lotus Sūtra, for example, Kūkai wrote that the nine characters of the title of the sūtra written in Sanskrit in a script called Siddham (Jpn. Shittan) – Sa-Dhar-Ma-Pun-Da-Ri-Ka Sū-Tram (Sūtra of the Lotus, the Excellent Dharma) – were graphic symbols of the nine principal divinities of the gharba mandala described in the Mahāvairocana Sūtra: Mahāvairocana at the center and around him four Buddhas and four bodhisattvas, all seated on an eight-petaled lotus. Relying on the Mahāvairocana Sūtra and its ritual commentaries, Kūkai went on to declare that the sound of each of these letters was a manifestation of the powers of the divinities depicted, such as the powers to defeat evil, to purify the practitioner of all defilement, and to comfort sentient beings. (Abe 1999, p. 64; See also Hakeda 1972, pp. 65-66 and n. 8)

Related to mantras are the longer invocations called dhāranī. Here is a more detailed explanation of mantras and dhāranī that sheds a lot of light on how they came to be understood in Japanese Buddhism after Kūkai:

The word dhāranī, which derives from the Sanskrit verb root dhr, meaning to hold, keep, maintain, can roughly be translated as “that by which to sustain something.” It is generally understood as a mnemonic device, containing within its short passages all the meanings of a section or chapter of a sūtra, or a particular teaching discussed therein. Dhāranī are also believed to be endowed with mystical power that protects those who chant it against malign influences such as demons, evil rulers, thieves, and diseases. As for mantra, there has been perennial, seemingly endless debate as to what the term means and how it can be defined. Many experts believe that it consists of two parts – the old Vedic root man, to think; and the action-oriented (krt) suffix –tra, indicating instrumentality. Thus it is possible to understand mantra as a linguistic device for deepening one’s thought, and, more specifically, an instrument for enlightenment. However, it is also true that there are numerous mantras whose chanting is purported specifically to realize mundane effects, such as causing rain to fall, attaining health and long life, and eliminating political rivals.

It is often said that of the two forms of incantations, mantra tends to be shorter and more strongly contextualized in ritual procedures – that is, its chanting is associated with particular breathing, visualizing, and other meditative exercises. Yet from the point of view of linguistic structure alone, the distinction between dhāranī and mantra is not always clear. For example, both dhāranīs and mantras frequently contain a large number of unintelligible phonic fragments (which are often chanted in rhythmic refrain), such as phat, mām, trat, hām, and hrīm, which have encouraged many to hold a view that mantras and dhāranīs are devoid of meaning: mumbo-jumbo.

By contrast, Kūkai distinguished mantra from dhāranī in their semantic and semiotic functions, i.e., in terms of the different manners through which they produced meaning or became meaningful. He defined mantra as a special class of dhāranī, capable of demonstrating that every syllable used in dhāranī was in fact a manifestation of the working of the Buddhist truth of emptiness. For example, Kūkai interpreted the syllables of the root mantra of the Buddha Mahavairocana, A Vi Ra Hūm Kham, as representing the five essential forces of emptiness, respectively: stability (earth), permeating (water), purity (fire), growth (wind), and spacing (space). That is, even before syllables are put together to form a word, they are already the sources of countless meanings capable of illustrating the truth as it is explained in the writings of Buddhist scriptures. In other words, mantras show that dhāranīs are not devoid of meaning, but on the contrary, saturated with it. It is through their semantic superabundance that Kūkai attempted to explain why dhāranīs were impregnated with the power to condense the meaning of scriptures, to protect chanters, or to bring about supernatural effects. (Abe 1999, pp. 5-6)

A mandala is a “circle of blessings.” The Womb Realm and Diamond Realm Mandalas used in True Word Buddhism represent the realm of Mahāvairocana Buddha and the buddhas, bodhisattvas, and other deities who are his emanations and personifications of his wisdom and merit. Originally the mandalas were platforms into which the initiate and the initiator would actually enter. In China, such platforms were not used and the mandala became a painting instead, though the practitioner is still supposed to enter into them through contemplative union with the buddhas, bodhisattvas, and deities represented in them.

The word mandala is composed of the Sanskrit root manda – meaning essence, center, true meaning, the purest flavor of clarified milk – with the suffix la, meaning accomplishment, possession. Mandala originally meant platform, essence, or circle in Sanskrit, and, by extension, that which is endowed with all power and virtue. In other words, mandala means that which has essence. The eighth-century Indian master Buddhaguhya wrote that in this case essence refers to the Buddha’s enlightenment, and that the realm of this enlightenment is the mandala. (Yamasaki 1988, p. 123)

In True Word Buddhism, the mandala graphically portrays the five kinds of wisdom of the Buddha. Mahāvairocana Buddha in the center represents the ninth or pure consciousness, the wisdom of the true nature that is the Dharma-body. The other four buddhas surrounding Mahāvairocana Buddha represent the transformation of the five consciousnesses of the five senses, the consciousness of mental phenomena (thought and feelings), the seventh or ego-consciousness, and the eighth or storehouse consciousness. When the storehouse consciousness is purified and ceases to be the unconscious source of delusions; it becomes the perfect mirror-like wisdom, an awareness that clearly reflects reality as it is without the projections of hidden biases or distortions. When the ego consciousness ceases to see the world in terms of self and other, it begins to function as the wisdom of equality, which recognizes the non-dual nature of reality. When the sixth consciousness ceases its mental chatter it becomes the distinguishing wisdom that views all things with clarity and appreciation. The five sensory consciousnesses together become the all-performing wisdom that accomplishes all meritorious actions. Depending on the mandala, different buddhas represent the perfect mirror-like wisdom, the wisdom of equality, the distinguishing wisdom, and the all-performing wisdom. The five buddhas are also correlated with the five great elements of earth, air, fire, water, and space.

There is a four-fold way of classifying different types of mandalas depending on how the buddhas, bodhisattvas, and deities within them are depicted. There is the Mahā-mandala or Great Mandala, which is a mandala depicting the various beings in the form of a painting. There is a Samaya-mandala or Vow Mandala, which uses symbolic objects to represent the particular vows of the beings in the mandala. There is the Dharma-mandala or Truth Mandala that uses Sanskrit seed syllables to represent the beings in terms of verbal or written expression. Finally, there is the Karma-mandala or Action Mandala, wherein the activities of the beings are represented using statues. Though these terms are not used in Nichiren Buddhism, Nichiren’s Omandala Gohonzon is effectively a Dharma-mandala. In addition, temples such as Kuonji at Mt. Minobu use statuary to depict the Omandala, which would be of the Karma-mandala type; and illustrated or painted versions of the Omdanala have also been made, and these would be Maha-mandalas.

The Womb Realm Mandala and Diamond Realm Mandala are central to the initiation ceremonies called abhishekha (J. kanjo), which means “sprinkling.” Abhishekha is based upon the ancient Indian coronation ceremony, in which a newly consecrated king would be anointed with the waters of his kingdom. In True Word Buddhism there are three levels of abhishekha associated with each of the two mandalas. The first is open to laypeople and is for establishing a basic connection with one of the beings in the mandala. The second is for those who will actually be taking up an esoteric practice. The third is for those who will become teachers of Esoteric Buddhism. Each involves various preliminary rituals, purifications, and the taking of vows (S. samaya). The initiate (S. sadhaka) is then blindfolded, led into the practice hall upon which a mandala has been laid out on the floor, and then instructed to throw a flower onto the mandala, so that a connection is formed with whichever buddha, bodhisattva, or deity the flower lands upon. The master (S. ācārya) then sprinkles the head of the initiate. This is the five-fold empowerment (S. adhisthāna; J. kaji) by which Mahāvairocana Buddha compassionately transmits the five wisdoms and the initiate faithfully receives them. The initiate will then be given practices appropriate to the connection formed.

The third distinction of True Word Buddhism that Kūkai claims is the principle of “attaining buddhahood in this very body” (J. sokushin jōbutsu). Both Kūkai and Saichō (767-822; also known as Dengyō) taught this principle, though Kūkai was inspired by apocryphal writings of Nāgārjuna and the esoteric teachings and practices while Saichō was inspired by the teachings of Chan-jan (711-782; aka Miao-lê) and the story of the dragon king’s daughter in the Lotus Sūtra. Kūkai’s understanding was that all beings are originally enlightened or awakened, and that they only have to realize their intrinsic unity with Mahāvairocana Buddha. This realization can come about through the practice of the three mysteries. He explains it as follows in his essay “The Meaning of Becoming a Buddha in This Very Body.”

On the basis of this meaning it says, “When empowered by the three mysteries, [Buddhahood] is quickly manifested.” “Empower” (lit., “add and hold”) expresses the great compassion of the Tathāgata and the faithful minds of sentient beings: the reflection of the Buddha-sun appearing on the mind-water of sentient beings is called “adding” and the mind-water of the practitioner sensing the Buddha-sun is called “holding.” If the practitioner contemplates well on this guiding principle, through the intercorrespondence of his three mysteries [with those of the Tathāgata] he will quickly manifest and realize in his present body the originally existent three bodies. Therefore it is said, “[Buddhahood] is quickly manifested.” (Giebel 2004, p. 79)

The thought that all beings are originally enlightened and possessed of the three bodies of the Buddha and only need to take faith in the Eternal Buddha (whether understood as the Dharma-body Mahāvairocana Buddha or the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha of the Lotus Sūtra) and express buddhahood through ritual practices utilizing mudrās, mantras, and the contemplation of mandala images would later be incorporated into Tendai Buddhism and then into Nichiren Buddhism. The result was that practices such as meditative cultivation of the mind in order to perceive the truth were believed to be surpassed by practices in which the original enlightenment made itself immediately manifest in concrete ritual practices that would transform the practitioner into a buddha. Here is an explanation by Jacqueline Stone:

The valorization of the phenomenal world in Mikkyō thought was grounded in the bivalent meaning of the “three mysteries.” On the one hand, the three mysteries are all forms, sounds, and thought, that is, the entire phenomenal world, equated with the body, speech, and mind of the cosmic buddha Mahāvairocana. On the other hand, the three mysteries are the concrete forms of esoteric practice by which identity with Mahāvairocana is realized: the intricate mudrās formed with the hands and body; the vocally recited mantras and dhāranīs; and the mental contemplations of the holy figures represented on the mandalas. In this connection, the categories of ri and ji, in addition to their earlier meanings of “principle” and “phenomena,” assumed new connotations in the realm of esoteric practice, ri being the timeless paradigm to be contemplated in practice, and ji, its physical and temporal imitation or expression in actual practice. For example, ri is the mental visualization of the Buddha, while ji is the Buddha image standing on the altar. Hence the Taimitsu distinction between the Lotus, which is “esoteric in principle” (rimitsu) and the Mahāvairocana Sūtra, which, including as it does descriptions of mudrās and mantras, is “esoteric in concrete form” (jimitsu). Esoteric practice, with its ritual gestures, chanting of sacred formulas, and elaborate mandalas, was valorized as the secret language and gestures of the Buddha. Its strong sensory and aesthetic appeal, as well as its presumed efficacy in both soteriological and worldly matters, contributed greatly to its spread and patronage. Under its influence, one sees in the latter Heian period a general shift across Buddhist traditions away from silent, introspective contemplation toward practices having concrete form. This is evident, for example, in the way that the T’ien-t’ai contemplative methods introduced by Saichō were gradually supplemented and then surpassed in popularity by such tangible acts as reading, reciting, and copying the Lotus Sūtra, and in the way that the chanting of the nembutsu, the name of the Buddha Amitābha, emerged alongside, and eventually superseded, the silent contemplation or visualization of the Buddha. (Stone 1999, pp. 28-29, slightly modified)

In regard to Nichiren specifically, Stone wrote:

Where Chih-i’s form of meditative discipline was that of “principle,” or introspective contemplation to perceive the truth aspect of reality in one’s mind, Nichiren’s was that of “actuality,” or the chanting of the daimoku, the title of the Lotus Sūtra, said to embody the reality of the Buddha’s enlightenment and the seed of Buddhahood. Nichiren’s usage reflects the strong influence of esoteric Buddhism, in which ri refers to formless truth that is contemplated inwardly, and ji, to its expression in outwardly manifest practices involving concrete forms. (Ibid, p. 68)

The fourth distinction that Kūkai made dealt with the variety of teachings and practices for people of different capacities. In the previous survey of the esoteric sūtras I have already mentioned the Buddhist versions of the Vedic fire rituals (J. goma) for the purposes of averting disaster, attracting prosperity, and subduing enemies. Fire rituals were also done for attracting love and prolonging life. I have also previously mentioned the relatively simple and austere practice of the contemplation of the Sanskrit letter “A.” Nichiren would also criticize the use of True Word ceremonies to eye-open statues of buddhas, rather than eye-opening ceremonies based on the Lotus Sūtra. Esoteric Buddhism, whether in its Tōmitsu form of the True Word School or the Taimitsu form of the Tendai School basically provided Japanese Buddhism with a repertoire of rituals and ceremonies for sacred and secular purposes.

In terms of Buddhist teachings, the True Word School drew upon all the teachings of the schools of Buddhism that came before it. This was the basis of Nichiren’s criticism that Śubhākarasimha (C. Shan-wu-wei, 637-735) and his Chinese disciple I-hsing (638-727) had misappropriated T’ien-t’ai teachings in their commentary on the Mahāvairocana Sūtra. Kūkai did not just draw upon the earlier teachings, however, but he also set up his own system of classification of the teachings in terms of ten stages of the maturation of the mind. The ten are as follows:

1. The Mind of the Common Person, Like a Ram: this is the mind of ordinary people who follow their impulses without any self-restraint.

2. The Mind of the Foolish Child, Observing Abstinence: this is the mind of the followers of Confucius who take up self-discipline and self-cultivation.

3. The Mind of the Young Child, without Fear: this is the mind of the followers of the Vedas and other non-Buddhist teachings that lead to the temporary respite of the heavens.

4. The Mind of Aggregates-only and No-self: this is the mind of the śrāvakas who contemplate the five aggregates and realize no-self in order to escape the six worlds of rebirth.

5. The Mind That Has Eradicated the Causes and Seeds of Karma: this is the mind of the pratyekabuddhas who contemplate the twelve-fold chain of dependent origination in order break the bonds of karma and escape the six worlds of rebirth.

6. The Mind of the Mahāyāna Concerned for Others: this is the mind of the bodhisattvas who arouse the aspiration to attain buddhahood for the sake of all sentient beings. This mind is equated with the teachings of the Consciousness Only School.

7. The Mind Awakened to the Non-birth of the Mind: this is the mind of the bodhisattvas who realize the truth of emptiness. It is equated with the teaching of the Mādhyamika School.

8. The Mind of the One Path As It Really Is: this is the mind that realizes the One Vehicle. This is the teaching of the Lotus Sūtra.

9. The Mind of Ultimate Own-naturelessness: this is the mind that realizes that nothing has its own nature apart from the total interpenetration of all phenomena. This is the teaching of the Flower Garland Sūtra.

10. The Mind of Secret Adornment: this is the mind that realizes the true nature of Mahāvairocana Buddha through the practice of True Word Buddhism.

Kūkai insisted that the first nine do not represent the ultimate fruit of buddhahood and that the teaching of each stage of mind “when viewed in light of the subsequent [vehicles], it becomes a frivolous assertion.” (Giebel 2004, p. 214) This is what Nichiren truly objected to in regard to the True Word teachings, for Kūkai was saying that compared to the Mahāvairocana Sūtra and Diamond Peak Sūtra the Lotus Sūtra was just a frivolous assertion that did not truly allow anyone to realize buddhahood. From Nichiren’s point of view, it was the Mahāvairocana Sūtra and Diamond Peak Sūtra that failed to fully reveal the One Vehicle and the eternal nature of Śākyamuni Buddha. This has already been discussed previously so I will not go into it again here. In other major writings, Nichiren provided a more extensive critique of Kūkai’s teachings and the Tendai successors of Saichō who deemphasized the Lotus Sūtra in favor of Esoteric Buddhism. There is much more to say about Nichiren’s criticism and selective assimilation of Esoteric Buddhism, but further discussion will have to wait for commentaries on the Senji-shō (Selecting the Right Time) and Hōon-jō (Essay on Gratitude). One thing I would like to point out here is that Nichiren seems to have felt that the main underlying reason for the neglect of the Lotus Sūtra was due to the teaching of True Word Buddhism, and that his vehement criticism of Zen and Pure Land Buddhism was in fact only a preparation for his later critiques of True Word Buddhism.


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