Writings of Nichiren Shōnin Doctrine 2, pp. 137-147

Two Nichiren Texts, pp. 76-90

The Writings of Nichiren Daishōnin I, pp. 359-366


In Buddhist tradition, if a student asks a question three times it shows that inquiry is in earnest and so the teacher will feel obligated to respond. In the Lotus Sūtra this happens in the second chapter when Śāriputra asks the Buddha three times to expound the Dharma, and on the third occasion the Buddha agrees to do so. In Kanjin Honzon-shō, the interlocutor has asked three times how it can be possible for the Buddha to reside within our minds. He did so in exchange 17, he asked about it again in exchange 18, and once more in exchange 20. Note that exchanges 12 through 16 were about the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment or the mutual possession of the ten worlds generally, whereas 17, 18, and 20 are specifically about the virtue of the Buddha within our minds. In Nichiren’s reply to the third repetition of this question he finally reveals the Odaimoku as the way in which the Buddha’s virtue manifests in our lives.

Nichiren does begin a response to this question in his reply in exchange 19. He revisits the idea of the Lotus Sūtra itself as the seed of buddhahood that was discussed previously. He cites a passage from the Innumerable Meanings Sūtra (considered to be the opening sūtra of the Threefold Lotus Sūtra) that compares the person who upholds the sūtra and recites even a verse or phrase of it to a crown prince who is respected and loved by all even though he is not yet old enough to rule. In the analogy the Buddha and the sūtra are like a king and queen who give birth to a crown prince. Nichiren then quotes the Meditation on the Bodhisattva Universal Sage Sūtra (considered the closing sūtra of the Threefold Lotus Sūtra) that says that it is itself the seed of buddhahood that gives birth to all buddhas of the past, present, and future, and can also be considered to also give rise to the five kinds of eyes and three bodies of the buddhas as discussed previously in this commentary. The point is that the to hear the Lotus Sūtra’s teaching and accept it with faith is to plant the seed of buddhahood within the ground of one’s mind and heart.

Nichiren says while the other sūtras might talk of the sudden attainment of buddhahood they do not show the whole scope of the Buddha’s teaching because they do not talk about the sowing of the seeds of buddhahood in the remote past of 3,000 dust-particle kalpas or the remoter past of 500 dust-particle kalpas. The other sūtras, including even the Flower Garland Sūtra, are therefore no better than Hīnayāna or at best the shared teachings that focus on emptiness because they show the Buddha as having only attained buddhahood while sitting under the Bodhi Tree at the age of 30 and teaching for only 50 years before passing away never to be seen again. The Lotus Sūtra, on the other hand, reveals that there has been a long-term relationship between the Buddha and sentient beings wherein the Buddha began sowing the seeds of buddhahood in the remote past and has ever since been nurturing it so that sentient beings can bring it to fruition as their own buddhahood. Because of the sowing of this seed in the remote past and its subsequent cultivation one can speak of the threefold buddha-nature being fully present from the beginningless past. As covered in a previous chapter of this commentary, the threefold buddha-nature is likened to three kinds of seeds: the seed of innate buddha-nature, the seed of wisdom, and the seed of right action. These seeds were sown when the Buddha taught the Lotus Sūtra in the remote past because the Lotus Sūtra is expressive of the innate buddha-nature that is the primary cause for buddhahood; it is the wisdom teaching that enables people to cultivate the discerning cause for buddhahood; and all efforts to uphold it and propagate it to others out of compassion are assisting causes leading to buddhahood.

Nichiren places great importance on the concept or analogy of “sowing the seed of buddhahood.” Nichiren at this point in Kanjin Honzon-shō identifies the seed that is the teaching of the Lotus Sūtra with T’ien-t’ai Chih-i’s (538-597) doctrine of the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment. Nichiren says, “Nevertheless, without the seed of buddhahood established on the basis of the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment doctrine, attainment of buddhahood by all sentient beings or the worship of wooden statues and portraits would be vain.” (Hori 2002, p. 145 adapted) The Lotus Sūtra itself says, “All things are devoid of substantiality. The seed of buddhahood comes from dependent origination.” (Murano 2012, p. 44) We might ask here, which is it? Is the seed of buddhahood the doctrine of the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment or is it dependent origination? I don’t think there is any real contradiction here, esp. if we consider that the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment was taught by Chih-i as part of the contemplation the threefold truth that itself is derived from Nāgārjuna’s (c. 2nd-3rd century) teaching about dependent origination. In Kumārajīva’s (344-413) Chinese translation of the 18th verse of chapter 24 of Nāgārjuna’s Verses on the Middle Doctrine it says, “All things which arise through dependent origination I explain as emptiness. Again, it is provisional existence. Again, it is the meaning of the Middle Way.” (See Swanson, pp. 3-6) Dependent origination, the threefold truth, and the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment are all different ways of talking about reality as empty of substantially existing phenomena, yet full of causes and conditions giving rise to dynamically interdependent phenomena, and as the ineffable Middle Way. The three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment doctrine, however, also makes explicit what dependent origination and the three truths only imply, that the world of buddhahood and the worlds of deluded beings mutually contain one another so that all deluded beings can attain buddhahood and buddhas never abandon deluded beings. For this reason, Nichiren regards it alone as the essential meaning of the Lotus Sūtra and the seed of buddhahood.

Before moving on to what Nichiren has to say about the Odaimoku, I’d like to say more about what it means to talk about sowing a seed in one’s consciousness. In the Consciousness Only School of Mahāyāna Buddhism it is taught that all one’s karmic activity, that is to say all one’s thoughts, words, and deeds, leave an impression in the storehouse consciousness, a deep subconscious that records everything that we do and experience. When such impressions are made they do two things. The first thing is that these karmic activities are the causes that become seeds which are stored in the storehouse consciousness until such time as the appropriate causes and conditions come together that allow them to ripen into an effect that is consciously experienced. The second thing is that these karmic activities condition or “perfume” the seeds that are already stored in the storehouse consciousness, mitigating some and enhancing others, perhaps even allowing some to ripen. So in this way of understanding the mind, it is entirely possible to have seeds that lie undeveloped for long periods of time. It is also possible to do things that will have a negative effect on the seeds in the storehouse consciousness. So, for instance, the Lotus Sūtra says, “Those who do not believe this sūtra, but slander it, will destroy the seeds of buddhahood of all living beings in the world.” (Murano 2012, p. 82) This is why Nichiren wonders in Kaimoku-shō whether he had once had the seed sown in his life but had afterwards lost them.

Fortunately, the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha in chapter 16 has asserted that he is always present and always teaching the Dharma. In every age he provides sentient beings with a chance to once again hear the Dharma, take faith in it, and thereby sow, nourish, and bring to harvest the seeds of buddhahood. This is actually another reason why the attainment of buddhahood and the doctrine of the “three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment” is so important. What these teachings are saying, according to Nichiren and the T’ien-t’ai School, is that the Eternal Buddha is always present from the beginningless past to the endless future, but not merely as our innate buddha-nature, which on its own may never be realized or actualized as we indefinitely perpetuate our neglect of the seeds of buddhahood. As the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha, the enjoyment-body that is the Eternal Buddha’s wisdom, and the transformation-body that is the Eternal Buddha’s awakened activity in the world are both beginningless and endless as well, and so always trying to sow and nurture the seeds of buddhahood.

I hope it is clear that the “seed of buddhahood” is not a concrete thing, nor does it mean having a conceptual understanding of the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment. Rather, it is an impression made within the depths of our lives when we hear this teaching of the Lotus Sūtra that assures us that all beings can attain buddhahood and that the Eternal Buddha is always present in our lives, working through myriad skillful means to awaken us.

It is in his response in the 20th exchange that Nichiren finally states outright the way in which he believes the Buddha comes to reside in our minds and the way in which we attain buddhahood. He begins by citing passages from the Innumerable Meanings Sūtra, the Lotus Sūtra, and the Nirvāna Sūtra that all suggest the teaching itself is equipped with all six of the perfections of bodhisattva practice (generosity, morality, patience, energy, meditation, and wisdom) that the Buddha has consummated. For instance the Innumerable Meanings Sūtra says those who uphold the sūtra, “…will be automatically given the merits of the six perfections even when they are not yet able to perform these perfections.” (Murano 2003, p. 88) Nichiren then cites several past teachers such as Nāgārjuna and Chih-i who speak specifically of the meaning of the Sanskrit word “sad” in the Sanskrit title of the Lotus Sūtra. According to these quotes the word that can be translated as “wonderful” can also mean “six” with the implication that it conveys the merits of all six perfections. This in turn means that to uphold even the title of the Lotus Sūtra is to receive the merits of the six perfections, in other words all the merits of buddhahood. With these citations as his basis Nichiren states what is known in Nichiren Buddhism as the passage of “upholding and transferring” or of “natural transfer” of all the merits of the Eternal Buddha to us through the five characters of the Chinese title of the Lotus Sūtra.

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 sentient beings since his attainment of buddhahood, are altogether contained in the five characters of myō, , ren, ge, and kyō (Lotus Sūtra of the Wonderful Dharma) and that consequently, when we uphold the five characters, the merits which he accumulated before and after his attainment of buddhahood are naturally transferred to us. (Hori 2002, p. 146)

This passage, one of the most important in Kanjin Honzon-shō and in all of Nichiren’s five major writings, is also called the “passage of 33 characters” because it is composed of 33 Chinese characters. These five characters with the addition of na and mu to translate the Sanskrit word “namas” for “devotion” to indicate our confident and joyful reception of the sūtra are the sacred title (J. Odaimoku) of the Lotus Sūtra. The chanting of the Odaimoku is therefore the activity or practice that is the sowing of the seed of the wisdom and merit of buddhahood. If the expressions of the other nine worlds are such things as succumbing to rage, craving, foolishness, or arrogance, or arriving at a state of reasonable calm or the calm abiding of meditation, or gaining an insight into impermanence or causality or arousing compassion for all beings, then the expression of the world of buddhahood within us and the way to fully realize and actualize it is to joyfully receive and uphold the Lotus Sūtra through the chanting of Odaimoku.

On the basis of the Odaimoku as the practice that actualizes the relationship between deluded sentient beings and the Buddha, Nichiren reasserts that the śrāvakas who had attained arhatship and were assured of buddhahood, the bodhisattvas from other worlds, the bodhisattvas from underground, the buddhas of the ten directions, Many Treasures Buddha, and the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha are all within our minds. To give the most striking examples, Nichiren first cites the Lotus Sūtra wherein the Buddha says, “I once vowed that I would cause all living beings to become exactly as I am. That old vow of mine has now been fulfilled. I lead all living beings into the way to buddhahood.” (Murano 2012, p. 39) Nichiren comments, “Does this not mean that Śākyamuni Buddha, who has attained perfect awakening, is our flesh and blood, and all the merits he has accumulated before and after attaining buddhahood are our bones?” (Hori 2002, p. 146 adapted) Further on, after citing other passages from chapters 10 and 16 of the Lotus Sūtra, Nichiren says, “It means that Śākyamuni Buddha, within our minds, is an ancient buddha without beginning, manifesting himself in three bodies, who attained buddhahood in the eternal past described as 500 dust-particle kalpa ago. (Ibid, p. 146) Where is the Eternal Buddha to be found? We find him in our minds according to the doctrine of the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment. How do we find him? We meet him by hearing and upholding the Lotus Sūtra through chanting Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō,

Nichiren again brings this back to the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment by citing a passage from the T’ien-t’ai patriarch Chan-jan Miao-lê (711-782) to the effect that the attainment of buddhahood is to fully realize that our minds pervade the three thousand worlds and the three thousand worlds are not other than our minds.

Therefore, Grand Master Miao-lê has declared in his Annotations on the Great Concentration and Insight: “You should know that both our bodies and the land on which we live are a part of the three thousand worlds that exist in our minds. Consequently, upon our attainment of buddhahood, we are in complete agreement with the truth of thee thousand worlds in a single thought-moment and our single body and single thought permeate through all the worlds in the universe. (Ibid, p. 147)

Let me try to summarize what Nichiren has been saying up to this point. Based on his understanding of the Lotus Sūtra and the fruits of his own contemplation of mind, Chih-i taught the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment. This doctrine means that whether or not we realize it we are all part of an interdependent network of causality that is empty of any fixed, independent self-nature and yet vibrantly diverse and interconnected with every part containing the whole. This also means that the deluded beings who haven’t awakened to this reality also contain within themselves the buddhas, and the buddhas who have awakened to this reality continue to embrace all deluded beings and are ever trying to awaken them. Chih-i’s way of practice puts the emphasis on the deluded beings being able to contemplate the true nature of their minds so they perceive and awaken to the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment. This, however, is almost impossible for ordinary people to do, especially in the present Latter Age of the Dharma when it is so difficult to understand and practice the true spirit of the Buddha’s teachings. Nichiren, however, points out that according to the Lotus Sūtra the Buddha has been metaphorically sowing the seeds of awakening since the remotest past. So what are these seeds? The seeds are the Buddha’s teachings that point out to us the truth and the way to perceive it, and the Lotus Sūtra in particular is to be considered the seed of buddhahood. By carefully reading the Lotus Sūtra, Nichiren realized that the seed is in even a verse or phrase of the Lotus Sūtra, including and perhaps especially in the title. To praise the title as the Odaimoku is to praise and accept the seed of buddhahood, and therefore all the Buddha’s merit and wisdom, and thereby to awaken to the reality Chih-i spoke of as the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment wherein deluded beings possess buddhahood within their minds and buddhas, esp. the Eternal Buddha, keep deluded beings ever in mind for the sake of helping them attain buddhahood.


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. Two Nichiren Texts. Berkeley: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, 2003.

______________, trans. The Lotus Sutra. Tokyo: Nichiren Shu Headquarters, 2012.

Reeves, Gene, trans. The Lotus Sutra. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2008.

Swanson, Paul. Foundations of T’ien-tai Philosophy: The Flowering of the Two Truths Theory in Chinese Buddhism. Berkeley: Asian Humanities Press, 1989.