Writings of Nichiren Shōnin Doctrine 2, pp. 153-164
Two Nichiren Texts, pp. 97-113
The Writings of Nichiren Daishōnin I, pp. 369-376
Nichiren ends Kanjin Honzon-shō with the following statement:
For those incapable of understanding the truth of the three thousand worlds in one thought-moment. Lord Śākyamuni Buddha, with his great compassion, wraps this jewel with the five characters of myō, hō, ren, ge, and kyō and hangs it around the neck of the ignorant in the Latter Age of Degeneration. (Ibid, p. 164)
The Kanjin Honzon-shō opened with an explanation of the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment as taught by T’ien-t’ai Chih-i (538-597) and ends with Nichiren’s assertion that the Eternal Buddha is bestowing upon us the benefit of this teaching in the form of the Odaimoku, the sacred title of the Lotus Sūtra, even if we do not understand it conceptually. In closing this commentary on the Kanjin Honzon-shō I would like to reflect upon what Nichiren meant by this and explore the connection between Chih-i’s perfect and sudden method of concentration and insight that includes the contemplation of the inconceivable (the contemplation that involves the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment) and the chanting of Odaimoku. Previous to the above statement, Nichiren wrote:
Toward the end of the Age of the Semblance Dharma, Bodhisattvas Avalokiteśvara and Medicine King appeared in this world as Nan-yüeh and T’ien-t’ai respectively, and they thoroughly explained the doctrines of the “1,000 factors contained in 100 worlds” and the “three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment,” stressing the Trace Gate as the central theme and the Original Gate as its supporting idea. They, however, merely reasoned in the abstract that three thousand worlds are contained in the minds of the unenlightened; they did not practice and have others practice the actual way of realizing it – reciting and upholding the five characters of myō, hō, ren, ge, and kyō, and revering the focus of devotion as revealed in the Original Gate of the Lotus Sūtra (honmon no honzon). A few people, with the capacity to comprehend the True Dharma did exist, but after all, the time was not ripe for the perfect teaching. (Ibid, p. 161)
Nichiren viewed Chih-i’s use of the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment in the contemplation of the inconceivable as a conceptual consideration of the principle that the world of buddhahood is all pervasive in our lives. By contemplating our own deluded minds we should try to perceive that the three thousand worlds are all present as empty yet contingently existing phenomena manifesting the Middle Way that is neither mere emptiness nor substantial existence. This is, naturally, easier said than done. Nichiren recognized that not all people were able to learn about or understand the doctrine of the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment, let alone spend enough time sitting silently to perceive clearly the world of buddhahood within. If attaining buddhahood depended upon such an intellectual and contemplative exercise than very few people would ever be able to do it, and in the Latter Age of the Dharma it was doubtful if anyone had the capacity to do so. And yet Nichiren was convinced that buddhahood involved awakening to the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment. So there must be some other way whereby this realization can be conveyed to the people of the Latter Age. Surely the Buddha provided some other means? Nichiren saw the practice of Odaimoku as the means provided. The Odaimoku was not a form of conceptual contemplation. It was instead an expression of the world of buddhahood within. It was something that manifested as an actual, as opposed to theoretical, part of the practitioner’s life here and now. Four years later, in a letter to his follower Toki Jōnin, Nichiren wrote that Chih-i’s meditation method was the way of principle whereas the Odaimoku was the way of actuality.
There are two ways of meditating on the doctrine of three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment. One is the way of principle, and the other is the way of actuality. Grand Masters T’ien-t’ai and Dengyō practiced the former. I, Nichiren, now practice the latter. As my method of practicing meditation is superior, difficulties befalling me are harder to bear. What T’ien-t’ai and Dengyō propagated was based on the doctrine of three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment expounded in the Trace Gate, while what I, Nichiren, propagate is based on the doctrine of three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment in the Original Gate. The difference between the two is as great as the difference between heaven and earth. Remember this especially at the time of the last moment of life. Have an unwavering faith in the Lotus Sūtra and continue chanting the daimoku, which is the right way of meditation based on the doctrine of three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment in actuality. (Ibid, p. 257)
In Nichiren’s time, principle (J. ri) was often contrasted with actuality (J. ji). The former had to do with the true nature of reality, designated by such terms as emptiness or suchness or the Dharma-body. Silent sitting meditation practice was seen as a way of awakening to this ultimate principle, the true nature of one’s own life. Esoteric practices, on the other hand, involved the way in which principle could be actually manifest in terms of such outward and visible signs as mudrās (hand gestures), mantras (verbal invocations), and mandalas (cosmic diagrams). In True Word (J. Shingon) Buddhism, one used mudrā, mantras, and mandalas to embody in oneself the bodily actions, speech, and mind of the buddhas and bodhisattvas, especially of Mahāvairocana Tathāgata, the Dharma-body of the Buddha. (See Stone, pp. 27-31)
Nichiren saw the contemplation of the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment as a practice based on trying to perceive the principle of the true reality of all existence taught primarily in the first half or Trace Gate of the Lotus Sūtra. In the Trace Gate the Buddha taught the ten suchnesses that unite all ten worlds of the ignorant and awakened, emphasized the One Vehicle, and predicted that his disciples would attain buddhahood in the future, so in principle all people had the world of buddhahood within and would someday realize it. By contrast, in the latter half of the Lotus Sūtra, the Original Gate, Śākyamuni Buddha reveals that his life as a buddha has no quantifiable beginning or end, so he is still with us, still teaching us, and therefore this world that we are all living in is his pure land, the Pure Land of Eternally Tranquil Light. This, by the way, is why it was so important that the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment encompass not just the aggregates of the individual or relations among beings but the very land itself. So, if the Buddha is still present then how is he present? He is present when we take up the posture of earnest faith and devotion (J. kimyō-gasshō; S. Añjali-mudrā; see Saunders, pp. 76-79), chant the Odaimoku (a form of mantra), and gaze upon focus of devotion depicting the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha transmitting to us the Wonderful Dharma often in the form of the calligraphic mandala that Nichiren inscribed (See Stone, 266-267). It is through our practice that the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha and his Pure Land of Tranquil Light are actualized, even if we do not yet fully understand the concept of the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment that describes how the worlds of the ignorant and the world of buddhahood mutually contain one another.
Earlier in his teaching it seems that Nichiren encouraged those of his monastic disciples and lay followers who could do so to take up the T’ien-t’ai practice of the perfect and sudden concentration and insight as well as the chanting of Odaimoku. On May 28, 1260 he wrote the following in Shō Hokke Daimoku-shō (Treatise on Chanting the Daimoku of the Lotus Sūtra):
Since we have many ignorant people today, the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment doctrine may be difficult to contemplate from the beginning. Nevertheless, those who wish to study it are encouraged to do so from the start. (Hori 2007, p. 19)
As late as May of 1271, before the attempted execution and exile to Sado Island, Nichiren wrote the following to one of his disciples, a Tendai monk named Sammi-bo, who was studying at the main Tendai School temple on Mt. Hiei:
What we should chant all the time as the practice of the perfect teaching is “Namu Myoho Renge Kyo,” and what we should keep in mind is the way of meditation based on the truth of “3,000 worlds contained in one thought-moment.” Only wise men practice both chanting “Namu Myoho Renge Kyo” and meditating on the truth of “3,000 worlds contained in one though-moment.” Lay followers of Japan today should recite only “Namu Myoho Renge Kyo.” (p. 4)
By “wise men” Nichiren apparently meant those who were knowledgeable in Tendai teachings and practices and had the discipline and ability to engage in the practice of perfect and sudden concentration and insight wherein the most advanced practitioners are said to be able to attain awakening by using the first mode of contemplation involving the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment. It was not expected that lay people in Japan at that time would ever be taught such practices and so it was of course out of reach for them. By reciting the Odaimoku, lay people could at least sow the seed of buddhahood and by this expression of faith in the Eternal Buddha and his teaching be assured that they would no longer be reborn in the worlds of suffering and someday they would awaken to the truth of the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment, as well as the three truths of emptiness, provisional existence, and the Middle Way.
Sometime from 1274-1276, after the Sado exile, when Nichiren had settled on Mt. Minoubu, he wrote a letter to another Tendai monk, named Sairen-bo, who had become a disciple. In this letter, Nichiren criticizes the idea that Chih-i’s Great Concentration and Insight was superior in doctrine and practice to the Lotus Sūtra. In the letter, Nichiren makes it clear that Chih-i’s teachings and meditation methods were by no means superior to the Lotus Sutra, rather they were means for realizing the true meaning of the Lotus Sūtra.
Since the Great Concentration and Insight preaches the way of practicing the spiritual contemplation according to the doctrine of “3,000 worlds contained in one thought-moment” in the Lotus Sūtra, the way to practice the “threefold contemplation in a single thought” is nothing but recognizing the Wonderful Dharma to be beyond conceptual understanding. Therefore, monks who belittle the Lotus Sūtra and make too much of spiritual contemplation commit the grave sin of slandering the True Dharma, are men of false view, or are as devilish as a heavenly devil. This is because according to Grand Master T’ien-t’ai’s “threefold contemplation in a single thought,” “concentration and insight” means the unique state of mind in which one is awakened with the truth of the One Buddha teaching through steadily maintaining the mind in tranquility by the Lotus Sūtra. (Ibid, p. 219)
In other words, spiritual contemplation, for Nichiren, was not something that transcended the sūtras as the Zen School or some of his Tendai contemporaries were teaching, and so the Lotus Sūtra could not be dispensed with in favor of it. The purpose of meditation, as Nichiren wrote, was to realize the “unique state of mind in which one is awakened with the truth of the One Buddha teaching through steadily maintaining the mind in tranquility by the Lotus Sūtra.” The Odaimoku was the means that Nichiren now proposed that could be done. The Odaimoku would now be the direct way to realize tranquility the true meaning of the Wonderful Dharma.
On July 21, 1276, Nichiren completed the Hōon-jō (Essay on Gratitude) in which he wrote: “All the people in Japan, China, and everyone else in the whole world, regardless of being wise or foolish, should chant Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō single-mindedly, forgetting everything else. (Hori 2004, p. 58) So it would seem that by 1276 Nichiren had decided that there would no longer be any need to differentiate between practices for the wise and those for the foolish. All people should just single-mindedly chant Odaimoku, a practice that is no means or method for realizing the truth but rather a jewel that is bestowed upon us by the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha.
Did Nichiren mean that we should not ever meditate or think about the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment or reflect upon the nature of our lives? I think that would be the wrong conclusion. Certainly I think it is clear from his writings, especially from the time of writing Kanjin Honzon-shō and afterwards, that Nichiren did not believe anything else was necessary for the attainment of buddhahood other than to express one’s faith in the inner meaning of the Original Gate of the Lotus Sūtra by chanting Odaimoku. One did not need to formally take up the six perfections of generosity, morality, patience, energy, meditation, or wisdom. One did not need to chant to be reborn in a pure land, or receive any particular ordination to receive monastic or bodhisattva precepts, or receive any esoteric empowerments or transmissions of the Dharma. One only needed to keep and uphold the Lotus Sūtra. However, in doing so, one sows the seed of buddhahood, and you plant a seed so that it will germinate and come to fruition. That means that one’s faith should naturally bear the fruit of the six perfections and other qualities of buddhahood. Among those fruits would be the six perfections so that a person growing in their faith in Odaimoku should indeed become, over time and not perfectly once and for all, generous, moral and ethical, patient, able to curb bad habits and engage in beneficial work, and naturally able to abide peacefully and reflect insightfully upon the nature of life. Such a person would not condemn themselves or others for not being perfect in these areas but at the same time would not excuse their shortcomings and would return again and again to the sowing and nurturing of the seed of all these qualities by chanting Odaimoku.
Nichiren envisioned or re-envisioned Buddhist practice in such a way that it no longer involved trying to meditate and “figure out” the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment or trying to discern buddhahood in the midst of our own confusion, anguish, greed, hatred, and delusion. Rather, buddhahood was something that seems to come to us as a gift. The chanting of Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō is meant to be our expression of receiving and keeping the Buddha’s gift of the Wonderful Dharma, though it is also a way to focus and concentrate the mind and an invitation to gain insight into the true meaning of the Wonderful Dharma. In other words, it is itself the perfect and sudden concentration and insight but now based upon the inner meaning of the Original Gate wherein it is not just we deluded ordinary people striving to awaken but the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha who is at work here and now awakening us in the words of the Lotus Sūtra, in the teachings of the other sūtras, in the different symbols and forms utilized in our practice, in the occurrences of our daily lives, in our relationships with others, in our relationship with ourselves, and in the very dynamic and interdependent structure of life.
I think it is important to understand that Odaimoku practice is itself a form of meditation as well as an act of faith. It is an expression of faith in that to simply chant it means that there is some degree of confidence that the Buddha really awakened to what life is about, that his awakening freed him from suffering and enabled him to flower into the kind of human being that we would ourselves like to be, that his teachings can enable us to awaken as he did, and that in fact we all have the nature to awaken. It is a form of concentration practice just as any mantra can be, but it is also meant to be an insight practice. How does one gain insight by simply chanting that one is devoted to a scripture? First of all, the five characters of myō, hō, ren, ge, and kyō, the Odaimoku or “sacred title” are not just the title of a scripture. They have long been understood to be the title of the Wonderful Dharma itself, and so it is the Wonderful Dharma that one’s mind is being directed to, and that Wonderful Dharma is none other than the true nature of our life right here and now. Without making it an intellectual exercise one is more and more learning to trust in the workings of life in this moment, to see buddhahood as the inner state of everything, or to put it another way to see that the awakening we are hoping for and the Eternal Buddha who bestows the Odaimoku is actually all of what we meet if viewed with a mind and heart that is receptive and open. By nurturing confidence in the awakened nature of ourselves and all other beings, all phenomena in fact, we come to realize what is meant by the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment, we will ourselves see that in each moment we are free to actualize the selfless compassion of buddhahood, and we thereby see into the true nature of mind with all its merit and wisdom.
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.
________________. Writings of Nichiren Shonin: Doctrine Volume 3. Tokyo: Nichiren Shu Overseas Propagation Promotion Association, 2004.
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Murano, Senchu, trans. Two Nichiren Texts. Berkeley: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, 2003.
Saunders, E. Dale. Mudrā: A Study of Symbolic Gestures in Japanese Buddhist Sculpture. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985.
Stone, Jacqueline. Original Enlightenment and the Transformation of Medieval Japanese Buddhism. Honolulu: Kuroda Institute, 1999.