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.