Writings of Nichiren Shōnin Doctrine 2, pp. 131, 135-6, 139-140, 145

Two Nichiren Texts, pp. 68, 74, 80-81, 87

The Writings of Nichiren Daishōnin I, pp. 356, 358-359, 361, 364

In his response to the 11th question in Kanjin Honzon-shō, Nichiren cites the Diamond Scalpel wherein the T’ien-t’ai patriarch Chan-jan Miao-ê (711-782) stated, “Each blade of grass and each tree, even a particle of dust, possesses the three causes of buddhahood: inborn Buddha-nature, wisdom for seizing it, and right actions which help develop this wisdom.” (Hori 2002, p. 131) Further on in Kanjin Honzon-shō, Nichiren criticizes the Flower Garland Sūtra and Great Sun Buddha Sūtra in the following terms: “They fail to preach the three causes of buddhahood inherent in all living beings: the buddha-nature, wisdom to see it, and the right actions to develop the wisdom. How can they decide what the seed of buddhahood is?” (Ibid, p. 145) This is said in the context of a discussion of the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment as the basis of the seed of buddhahood. What Nichiren is referring to in these two passages is the threefold buddha-nature taught by the T’ien-t’ai school. In Hasshū Imoku-shō (A Treatise on the Differences of the Lotus Sect from Eight Other Sects), Nichiren cited the following passage from Words and Phrases of the Lotus Sūtra by T’ien-t’ai Chih-i (538-597):

The ‘proper cause buddha-nature’ is possessed by the Dharma-kāya Buddha, and it is innately possessed by all the people throughout all their past, present, and future lives. By nature they are endowed also with the seeds of ‘discerning cause’ and ‘assisting cause buddha-nature’; these buddha-natures are not acquired as a result of practicing Buddhism. (Ibid, p. 17 adapted)

In Shimon Butsujō-gi (Listening to the One Buddha Vehicle Teachings for the First Time), Nichiren cites the following passage from Chih-i’s Profound Meaning of the Lotus Sūtra:

Anyone with a mind possesses the seeds of innate buddha-nature. If one hears but a phrase of the sūtra, they have the seed of wisdom to realize buddha-nature. Should one put one’s hands together and bow in prayer towards the Buddha, that is the seed of right actions to advance towards buddhahood. (Ibid, p. 246 adapted)

The threefold buddha-nature is composed of three causes innate in all beings that lead to the three bodies of the Buddha. The first is the ‘proper cause buddha-nature’ (J. shōin busshō) that is the true nature of all phenomena. When it is obscured and unrecognized by defilements it is buddha-nature in the most general meaning of the term, but when it is realized it is the Dharma-body. The second is the ‘discerning cause’ that is the seed of wisdom that realizes or awakens to the real true nature. This seed of wisdom blossoms into the enjoyment-body of the Buddha. The ‘assisting cause’ is the seed of wholesome actions and practice that actualizes the true nature. This is the seed that blossoms into the transformation body. These capacities or seeds are not a result of being Buddhist or practicing Buddhism but we are able to take up the Buddha Dharma and practice because of this threefold buddha-nature.

Another T’ien-t’ai teaching relating to buddha-nature that Nichiren refers to in passing in Kanjin Honzon-shō (in question 17 and the response to it) is that of the six identities which is taught in the Great Concentration and Insight. According to T’ien-t’ai all beings have six degrees of identity with buddhahood. The first is “identity in principle” wherein sentient beings are identical to the buddha-nature in principle, that is to say they are of the same reality or suchness, but they do not realize it or live accordingly. The second is “identity in name” wherein beings hear the Dharma and come to understand conceptually that they are of the same nature as the Buddha, but they still do not fully realize what this means. The third is “identity in contemplative practice” wherein beings begin to take up the practice of Buddhism in order to fully realize and actualize their buddha-nature. The fourth is “identity in outward appearance” wherein beings begin to resemble buddhas in their conduct. The fifth is “identity in partial realization” wherein beings have almost eradicated their ignorance and revealed the wisdom and merit of their buddha-nature. The sixth and last is “ultimate identity” wherein buddhahood is finally attained, or rather actualized since it was there all along as the buddha-nature. (See Donner and Stevenson, pp. 207-214) Chih-i’s teaching is that all beings have the buddha-nature, the world of buddhahood within their lives, and so all can hope to realize it, but this nature of buddhahood must be realized and actualized through practice. The purpose of the teaching is to prevent despair on the one hand and complacency or presumption on the other. This is why he warns, “But if one lacks faith, one will think of the saintly realms as so lofty and far-removed that one has no stake in their wisdom, while if one lacks wisdom, one will become exceedingly arrogant, declaring oneself to be the equal to the Buddha.” (Ibid, p. 208) In other writings, such as Kaimoku-shō, Nichiren cites this passage and criticizes the Pure Land movement of Hōnen of lacking faith in people’s inherent buddha-nature and the Zen movement of Dainichi Nōnin of arrogant presumption in regard to it.

One important thing to take note of is that in this view buddha-nature is not a static entity or anything with a self-nature. Rather, it encompasses the true nature or suchness of life, which is the interdependent flux of causes and conditions wherein there is no self-nature that can be grasped; the activity of hearing and reflecting upon the Dharma that leads to wisdom; and the activity of revering the Buddha that inspires right action. So sentient beings (and even in a non-dualistic way the insentient as discussed previously) are not simply of the same nature of the Buddha in terms of a static underlying substance or spirit. Rather, we are of the same nature of the Buddha because we share the nature of ultimately having no fixed, isolated self-nature, because we can cultivate wisdom, and because we can act in a way that is selfless and compassionate. It is not enough to simply say or believe that one has or is buddha-nature. One must enact buddha-nature for it to make a difference. The Nirvāna Sutra says the following about this, “There surely is the buddha-nature. But having not yet practiced the best skillful means of the Way, he has not yet seen it. Having not seen it, there can be no attaining of the unsurpassed awakening.” (Yamamoto, p. 169)

Nichiren clearly does not reject the idea of buddha-nature, but in fact adheres to the T’ien-t’ai understanding of it. The Lotus Sūtra itself does not ever use the term buddha-nature (more on this below), but Nichiren clearly also believes that the sūtra affirms the teaching that all beings not only share the nature of the Buddha, but also the wisdom to realize it and the ability to act accordingly. However, except for these passing references to the threefold buddha-nature and the six identities taught in T’ien-t’ai Buddhism and his terse criticisms of how the other schools of Buddhism understood buddha-nature, Nichiren never goes into the teachings about buddha-nature in detail, and prefers instead to emphasize the mutual possession of the ten worlds as the basis for teaching that all people can attain buddhahood. Why is this? In the next chapter of this commentary I will focus on Nichiren’s discussion of the mutual possession of the ten worlds. For now, I want to provide a brief overview of the history and development of the idea of buddha-nature, esp. in East Asian Buddhism, so it can be better understood what buddha-nature was supposed to be about and perhaps make it easier to understand why Nichiren only accepted the T’ien-t’ai view of it and even then chose not to emphasize it.

The earliest primary sources in East Asia for the teachings emphasizing buddha-nature were translations of Indian Mahāyāna works by the Indian scholar-monk Paramārtha (499-569). Among several other works, Paramārtha translated the Summary of the Mahāyāna (S. Mahāyāna-samgraha) by Asanga, a work that gave rise to the short-lived Summary of the Mahāyāna School (C. She-lun) that faded away when the Dharma Characteristics School was established based upon the newer translations of Yogācāra works by Hsüan-tsang (602-664). Paramārtha is also credited with translating the Awakening of Faith in the Mahāyāna Treatise attributed to Aśvaghosha and the Buddha-nature Treatise attributed to Vasubandhu (c. 4th-5th century). Another important treatise that summarizes the teachings about buddha-nature is the Ratnagotravibhāga Mahāyāna Uttaratantra Śāstra (Treatise on the Ultimate Teaching of the Mahāyāna Jewel Lineage). A monk named Ratnamati (c. 6th century) is credited with translating it into Chinese in the 6th century. Ratnamati’s Chinese translation is called On the Treasure Vehicle of Buddha-nature and is attributed to an Indian monk named Sāramati (c. 4th-5th century). In Tibet this work is attributed to Maitreya Bodhisattva and to Asanga (c. 4th-5th century), the brother of Vasubandhu. The Buddha-nature Treatise translated by Paramārtha in fact is based upon this earlier work and is either Paramārtha’s own composition or a commentary by Vasubandhu on the Ratnagotravibhāga.

The East Asian teachings about buddha-nature are rooted in Paramārtha’s works and sūtras that emphasize the buddha-nature or tathāgata-garbha such as the Revealing the Profound Secrets Sūtra, the Lankāvatāra Sūtra, the Queen Śrīmālā Sūtra, the Tathāgata-garbha Sūtra, and the Mahāparinirvāna Sūtra. While the Perfection of Wisdom sūtras and Madhyamika teachings explained that reality is empty of self-nature, this teaching explains that reality is not empty of buddha-qualities. The true reality is in fact buddha-nature, which is empty of defilement. Another term for this is tathāgata-garbha. “Tathāgata” is another term for a buddha, and it can mean either “thus-come-one” or “thus-gone-one.” In other words, a buddha is one who comes and goes freely from the realm of truth. “Garbha” means either “womb” or “embryo” and perhaps it is best to translate it as “matrix.” So “tathāgata-garbha” means “matrix of the thus-come-one.” The tathāgata-garbha is the Dharma-kāya or reality-body of the Buddha when obscured by defilements. It is the unconditioned true nature of reality and therefore, unlike conditioned phenomena, is characterized as pure, blissful, eternal, and true self. It might seem a bit odd to call it a “true self” seeing as how so much effort was made to deny that anything has a self-nature, but in this case the term does not mean the “self-nature” of a conditioned self or dharma but the authenticity of the true nature of all reality. I must confess that I am not myself convinced of the wisdom or coherence of this kind of rhetoric, nevertheless it is the term used in sūtras like the Queen Śrīmālā Sūtra and the Nirvāna Sūtra.

Tathāgata-garbha thought also merged with the teachings of the Yogācāra or Consciousness-Only teachings. In this teaching there is more to us than just our five types of sensory consciousness (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body) and the mind that constitute our conscious life. In addition to these first six there are two other forms of consciousness whose activities we would today consider part of the subconscious. There is a seventh consciousness that constantly clings to the idea of a self that acts and is acted upon. This ego-consciousness constantly reinforces our egocentrism. The object of the seventh consciousness, what it takes to be a “self,” is the eighth consciousness that is actually the storehouse of all our memories and the seeds sown by our karmic activities (which is to say our intentional thoughts, words, and deeds both wholesome and unwholesome). The storehouse consciousness is held to be the source of the other seven types of consciousness and their respective experiences because the seeds in the storehouse produce them. The activities of the first seven in turn are said to perfume the storehouse consciousness by planting new seeds and further conditioning (for better or worse) the seeds that are already there, thereby perpetuating their phenomenal existence or allowing them to ripen into conscious experience and activity. So the experiences we have in terms of the first six types of consciousness and our reactions to them create and condition the seeds in the storehouse and the seeds in the storehouse give rise to further experiences and activities when conditions allow them to ripen. This process of mutual conditioning between the seeds in the storehouse consciousness and the activities of the first seven forms of consciousness is what is known as the simultaneity of cause and effect. All of this helps to account for the continuity of memory and more importantly the continuous flow of karma and one’s sense of a stable identity even when the sensory consciousness and the conscious mind drop away due to unconsciousness, deep sleep, or at the moment of death. It is also used to show how consciousness conditions experience and gives rise to our experience of the duality of subject and object. According to this teaching there are no objects apart from how they are experienced in consciousness and no fixed independent subject apart from the delusion of the ego-consciousness that falsely takes the conditioned flow of the storehouse consciousness to be such a subject or self. According to some types of tathāgata-garbha thought, the storehouse consciousness, when purified, is revealed to be the tathāgata-garbha. According to Paramārtha’s translations and commentaries, however, the tathāgata-garbha is the pure consciousness that is not just an aspect of the eighth consciousness but can be considered a ninth consciousness. There is no one who is bereft of this buddha-nature, the pure consciousness.

Note that the Dharma Characteristics School established by Hsüan-tsang (602-664) rejected Paramārtha’s interpretation. The Dharma Characteristics School taught that there is no pure consciousness and due to the presence or absence of various types of pure seeds in the storehouse consciousness each sentient being has one of five distinct natures: some have the seeds to become arhats, some have the seeds to become pratyekabuddhas, some have the seeds for buddhahood, some have all three types of seeds, and some like the icchantika (lit. “incorrigible disbelievers”) have no pure seeds at all and can only hope to attain temporary respite in the human or heavenly realms. Accordingly, this school of thought teaches that the three vehicles are the ultimate teaching of the Buddha and that the One Vehicle teaching is only meant to encourage those with all three kinds of seeds to aspire to buddhahood. This is the teaching that Saichō (767-822) refuted in favor of the One Vehicle teaching of the Lotus Sūtra as applying to everyone equally because of the universality of the buddha-nature.

The teaching that there is a pure consciousness that must be cleared of adventitious defilements (such as those stored by the storehouse consciousness) is, however, something that can be found as far back as the teachings in the Pāli Canon.

Luminous, monks, is this mind, but it is defiled by adventitious defilements. The uninstructed worldling does not understand this as it really is; therefore I say that for the uninstructed worldling there is no development of the mind.

Luminous, monks, is this mind, and it is freed from adventitious defilements. The instructed noble disciple understands this as it really is; therefore I say that for the instructed noble disciple there is development of the mind. (Bodhi, p. 97)

If this is indeed the case, and there is a pure consciousness in the depths of our being, then Buddhist practice is not about creating an awakened state of mind but of recovering or rediscovering the awakened state of mind that was there all along. This is what is taught in the Awakening of Faith in the Mahāyāna Treatise: “Grounded on the original enlightenment is non-enlightenment. And because of non-enlightenment, the process of actualization of enlightenment can be spoken of.” (Hakeda, p. 38) How the pure consciousness came to be obscured by adventitious defilements in the first place seems to be an unanswerable question. The point of the teaching is that a pure awakened mind is always present and that our practice can wipe away the obscurations and allow it to shine like a bright mirror cleared of dust. Another analogy often used is of the ocean and its waves. The defilements that arise according to causes and conditions are like the waves that arise in the ocean when the wind blows. When the wind has died down and the waves have calmed, the ocean becomes still and calm and can reflect the clear blue sky. This analogy is the inspiration for what the Flower Garland School calls the Ocean Seal Samadhi wherein the mind, like a calm ocean, is restored to its original nature that is calm and serene and perfectly reflects reality as it is. Note the similarities between this teaching and Chih-i’s teaching of the six identities wherein the buddha-nature that has been there all along is full realized through various degrees of practice and realization.

Getting back to Nichiren, he felt that the other schools did not adequately recognize that buddha-nature is also about an innate capacity to develop wisdom and right action whereas the Lotus Sūtra does teach this. In Hasshū Imoku-shō he wrote:

Such Mahayana sūtras as the Flower Garland Sūtra, the Expanded sūtras, the Perfection of Wisdom sūtras, and the Great Sun Buddha Sūtra reveal that sentient beings have the proper cause buddha-nature but not the discerning cause buddha-nature. The Lotus Sūtra preaches that living beings are endowed with three kinds of buddha-nature: the proper cause buddha-nature, discerning cause buddha-nature, and assisting cause buddha-nature. (Ibid, p. 16)

In other words, Nichiren felt that the other schools only understood buddha-nature as pertaining to the first aspect taught in T’ien-t’ai Buddhism – the proper cause buddha-nature but that they left out the innate capacity for wisdom and virtue that the T’ien-t’ai School taught were also integral to the buddha-nature. Because the sūtras and treatises that taught buddha-nature did not clarify this point, there were claims that the icchantika would never realize that they had buddha-nature or that arhats and pratyekabudhdas would never be able to realize buddhahood. For instance, there is a passage in the Awakening of Faith in the Mahāyāna Treatise that speaks of “people [among those who belong to the group of the undetermined] whose capacity for goodness is slight and whose defilements, having accumulated from the far distant past, are deep-rooted. (Hakeda, p. 82) The rest of the passage says that these people will either fail to aspire to awakening, even after meeting a buddha, or they will relapse into Hīnayāna teachings. Buddha-nature, in this view, is no guarantee of buddhahood (though neither is it ruled out, but perhaps perpetually postponed).

In addition, Nichiren felt that the buddha-nature teachings overemphasized purity, and could not accommodate the T’ien-t’ai teaching that the world of buddhahood and the lower nine worlds mutually contained one another. For instance, the Awakening of Faith in the Mahāyāna Treatise states that “the Tathāgata-garbha, from the beginning, contains only pure excellent qualities…that the soiled states of defilement… are from the beginning, nonexistent; and from the beginningless beginning have never been united with the Tathāgata-garbha.” (Ibid, p. 77) In the buddha-nature teachings, once buddha-nature is fully realized all that is not an expression of the pure qualities of buddhahood is forever cut off and eliminated, meaning that there is no longer any intrinsic connection between a buddha and the lower nine worlds. This will be dealt with in more detail in the next chapter regarding the mutual possession of the ten worlds.


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