Browsing Posts published by ryuei

Writing of Nichiren Shōnin: Doctrine Vol. 1, p. 188

Writings of Nichiren Shōnin: Doctrine Vol. 3, pp. 96-103, 123, 138-144

The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin I, p. 48-52, 76-80, 538

The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin II, p. 259

Nichiren begins the Senji-shi-shō by stating, “To study Buddhism, first of all we must know the right time.” (Hori 2003, p. 188) Knowing the correct time to propagate and practice a particular teaching is one of the five principles for propagation that should be kept in mind by teachers of the Dharma that Nichiren formulated during his exile to the Izu Peninsula from May 12, 1261 until his pardon on February 22, 1263, when he was allowed to return to Kamakura. In a letter from that period he wrote:

Those who intend to spread Buddhism must correctly understand the five principles for propagation in order to disseminate the True Dharma. They are: (1) the teaching, (2) the capacity of the people, (3) the time, (4) the country, and (5) the sequence of spreading the Buddha’s teachings. (Hori 2004, p. 123)

As far as Nichiren was concerned each of these principles pointed to the necessity to spread the Lotus Sūtra in Japan at the time he was writing and from there to the whole world on into the foreseeable future. The five principles are to properly evaluate: (1) the different teachings of the Buddha, (2) the different capacities of the people to be taught, (3) the correct time for particular teachings to be propagated, (4) the differences between countries, and (5) the correct sequence in which the teachings are to be taught. In this chapter I would like to briefly explain how Nichiren understood and applied these five principles. In the following chapters I will look at each of these in more depth and explore what these five principles may mean today.

The Teaching

The first principle, to know the Buddha’s teachings, means to be familiar with the different ways of classifying the Buddha’s teachings as found in the tripitika or three-part canon consisting of the Buddha’s discourses known as sūtras, the monastic rule known as the vinaya, and the systemization of the discourses called the abhidharma. In Kyō Ki Ji Koku Shō (Treatise on the Teaching, Capacity, Time and Country) Nichiren wrote:

First of all, the teaching refers to all sūtras, precepts and commentaries expounded by Śākyamuni Buddha and his disciples, amounting to 5,048 fascicles in 48 cases. … Among all the sūtras, precepts and commentaries, there are Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna, provisional and true, and exoteric and esoteric teachings. It is best to keep this in mind. The classification is not an opinion of commentaries or teachers that arose after the death of the Buddha but stems from the teaching of the Buddha himself. Everyone should realize this when studying Buddhism. Therefore, anyone who disregards this classification is a non-Buddhist. (Ibid, pp. 96-97)

The practice of classifying the relative profundity of the Buddha’s teachings, especially those found in the sūtras, began around the 5th century of the common era in China and was called panjiao or “tenet classification.” Each of the various schools of Buddhism that survived to Nichiren’s time had its own particular way of classifying the sūtras. It would be an understatement to say that Nichiren favored the tenet classification system of the Tiantai school. In fact, Nichiren believed that the system of Tiantai Zhiyi (538-597) was the only one that actually adhered to statements found in the Mahāyāna sūtras wherein the Buddha remarked upon the relative chronology and profundity of the various sūtras. In his Shugo Kokka-ron (Treatise on Protecting the Nation), Nichiren even provides citations from the sūtras to show that the Tiantai system is correct. (See Hori 2003, pp. 5-21)

In brief, the Tiantai system divides the Buddha’s teachings into four types of doctrine and four methods of teaching, and then into five flavors or periods. The four doctrines are (1) the Tripitika teaching wherein the Buddha explained basic Buddhist concepts and practices such as the four noble truths, the eightfold path, and the twelve-fold chain of dependent origination as well as the vinaya and abhidharma, (2) the Shared teaching wherein the Buddha began to introduce Mahāyāna teachings relating to the emptiness of all phenomena and the cultivation of the six perfections to be shared with those who only aspired to liberation for themselves and also the bodhisattvas who aspired to buddhahood out of compassion for all beings, (3) the Distinct teaching that related more advanced Mahāyāna teachings and practice for the bodhisattvas, and (4) the Perfect teaching found in the Lotus Sūtra and reiterated in the Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāna Sūtra that reveal that all the other teachings are actually forms of the One Vehicle that leads to buddhahood and that buddhahood is not merely extinction but is experienced as the true self that is pure, blissful, and eternal. The four methods of teaching classify the Buddha’s teachings according to whether he presents the Perfect teaching suddenly or builds up to it gradually by using the other doctrinal teachings to prepare his audience; and according to whether some disciples are given more advanced teachings secretly or whether he gives a teaching of indeterminate meaning to all and leaves it up to each disciple to understand according to their individual capacity. The five flavors consist of different ways of drawing upon the four doctrinal teachings, and these five flavors later came to be called the five periods as they became associated with specific sūtras believed to have been taught at different times in the Buddha’s life. The first period was that of the Flower Garland Sūtra wherein the Buddha combined the Perfect teaching with the Distinct teaching. The next period is known as that of the Deer Park, because it excludes all but the pre-Mahāyāna Tripitika teachings that the Buddha began to teach at the Deer Park to the five ascetics. The third period is called Expanded because the Buddha began to teach more expansive Mahāyāna sūtras, utilizing all four doctrinal teachings as they corresponded to the needs of his audience. The fourth period is called the Wisdom period because the Buddha taught the Perfection of Wisdom sūtras that included the Flower Garland, Distinct, and Perfect teachings. Finally there was the period of the Lotus Sūtra and Nirvāna Sūtra wherein the Buddha taught only the Perfect teaching.

In the quote above Nichiren talks about discerning Mahāyāna and Hīnayāna, provisional and true, and esoteric and exoteric. Generally Nichiren viewed the Tripitika teaching and the Deer Park period as Hīnayāna and the other teachings and periods as Mahāyāna, but there were also times when he stated that less profound Mahāyāna teachings that did not extend the promise of buddhahood to all were Hīnayāna in comparison with more profound teachings that did teach that all beings could attain buddhahood. As for the division between esoteric and exoteric, the esoteric sūtras that became the basis for True Word Buddhism had not appeared in China during the lifetime of Tiantai Zhiyi, so they were not accounted for in his writings. Nichiren, however, believed that they should be regarded as falling into the Expanded period, and therefore not even on the level of the Perfection of Wisdom sūtras in terms of profundity. The true teaching he, of course, regarded as the Perfect teaching of the Lotus Sūtra. He wrote, “Thus, only those who thoroughly discern the difference between the Lotus Sūtra and other sūtras can truly be said to have understood the teaching.” (Ibid, p. 100)

The Capacity

The second principle, to know the capacity of those to be taught, means to understand people’s inclinations, ability, and general spiritual maturity. In his Treatise on the Teaching, Capacity, Time and Country, Nichiren relates a story from the Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāna Sūtra wherein Śāriputra mistakenly teaches a blacksmith the practice of contemplating the decomposition of corpses and a launderer the practice of mindfulness of the breath. Neither are able to make any progress and after three months they become icchantika, incorrigible disbelievers in the Dharma. The Buddha then teaches the blacksmith, who works with a bellows, to be mindful of the breath, and the launderer, who washes impurities, to contemplate decomposition. They are then able to understand the Dharma, because they have each been given a teaching and practice that they can relate to in their daily lives. Nichiren concludes, “Even Śāriputra, who was reputed as the wisest man, made a mistake in teaching according to a person’s capacity. Needless to say, it is not easy for ignorant, ordinary, and unenlightened masters in the Latter Age of Degeneration to decipher a person’s capacity. However, such an ordinary master, who cannot discern an individual’s capacity, should solely teach the Lotus Sūtra to his disciples.” (Hori 2004, p. 97) Here, capacity seems to mean a person’s interests, inclinations, and experience. If one cannot judge which particular provisional teaching would be of most relevance to a particular individual, then one should immediately teach the Lotus Sūtra, the highest and most perfect teaching, because it will ultimately be relevant to everyone, even if they cannot understand it at first.

Nichiren also spoke of capacity in terms of ability to understand and practice the teachings and in terms of defilements and karmic hindrances to practice. In Nanjō Hyōe Shichirō-dono Gosho (A Letter to Lord Nanjō Hyōe Shichirō) Nichiren says, “Even those who commit the five grave offences, the ten evil deeds, or immeasurable other sins can attain awakening only if they have superior capacity. Devadatta and Aṅgulimāla fall into this category. Those with inferior capacity who have not committed any sin can also attain buddhahood. Śuddhipanthaka belongs to this category.” (Ibid, p. 140) Here, Nichiren is referring to a fourfold categorization of people’s spiritual capacities from the Treatise on the Great Perfection of Wisdom attributed to Nāgārjuna that was also used by Zhiyi in the Great Calming and Contemplation. The highest category is composed of those who not only understand the Dharma and practice calming and contemplation, but who also commit no evil deeds and therefore have no karmic hindrances. Disciples of the Buddha such as Śāriputra and Maudgalyāyana would be included in this category. The second category includes those who have an ability to understand and practice but first they must repent of their evil deeds and overcome their karmic hindrances. People such as King Ajātaśatru who deposed and murdered his own father and the serial killer Ańgulimāla who both repented and became the Buddha’s followers belong in this category. The third category includes those whose capacity to learn and practice the Dharma is very dull but who live good lives and have no karmic hindrances. The slow-witted Śuddhipanthaka, who finally became an arhat after the Buddha taught him a simple phrase to recite, is an example of such people. The last and lowest category is for ordinary people who have trouble understanding the Dharma, find it difficult to practice calming and contemplation, and who are constantly committing evil deeds and therefore are afflicted by numerous karmic hindrances. (See Donner and Stevenson, pp. 331-333)

Nichiren concludes that the spiritual capacity people of the Latter Age is inferior even to Śuddhipanthaka and that they are deeply infected by greed, anger, and ignorance and commit transgressions just as serious as the five grave offences and ten evil deeds committed by such as Devadatta. His conclusion is that the only hope for his contemporaries is not only to put their faith in the Lotus Sūtra but also to avoid complicity in the slander of the sūtra by denouncing its enemies.

Nichiren also anticipates those who would ask why the Lotus Sūtra should be taught to ignorant people who will only slander it when the sūtra itself warns in chapter three that it should not be taught to the ignorant. Nichiren replies that wise masters who are teaching those with a superior capacity should teach the sūtras in their proper sequence, thereby preparing their disciples and followers for the ultimate truth taught in the Lotus Sūtra. In the Latter Age, however, ordinary teachers of the Dharma do not have the discernment to do this, and there are no disciples of superior capacity in any case. Therefore, it is best to teach the Lotus Sūtra to the unfaithful and ignorant people from the start, so that a connection can be formed with it. Nichiren compares this process to the analogy of the poison drum from the Nirvāna Sūtra, wherein a drum smeared with poison magically kills all who hear it, even if they do not wish to listen. In the same way, all who hear the Lotus Sūtra will be able to attain buddhahood through its teaching, even if at first they reject it. He also equates the expounding the sūtra to those who reject it with the practice of Never-Despising Bodhisattva in the 20th chapter of the Lotus Sūtra.

The Time

The third principle, to know the proper time, means to understand how the teaching of the Dharma unfolds over time. This is, of course, the main theme of the Senji-shō. Nichiren shared with his contemporaries the assumption that buddhas appeared periodically in each world system to teach the Dharma, thereby beginning a particular dispensation of the Dharma that would only last for a few thousand years before the Dharma would again by forgotten for large spans of time, perhaps even millions or billions of years, before a new dispensation would begin when the next buddha would appear. In East Asia, the dispensation of Śakyamuni Buddha was commonly divided into three periods: the Former Age of the True Dharma, the Middle Age of the Semblance of the Dharma, and the Latter Age of the Degeneration of the Dharma that would last for the next 10,000 years after which the Dharma would be entirely forgotten.

The three ages of the Dharma appear in the Pāli Canon and in the Mahāyāna sūtras as a way of summarizing the teaching that even the Dharma itself (as a conceptual teaching and historical phenomena) will decline. It fits in very well with the common Vedic motif of the cycle of creation, maintenance, decline, and destruction. According to the teaching of the three ages, the Former Age of the True Dharma begins with the first rolling of the Wheel of the Dharma by the Buddha at the Deer Park. It will continue for a thousand years to be followed by the Middle Age of the Semblance of Dharma. After a thousand years of the Middle Age of Semblance the 10,000 years of the Latter Age of the Degeneration of Dharma will begin. During the first age, those with a strong affinity for the Buddha and the Dharma will be born during the lifetime of the Buddha or soon enough afterwards to be able to benefit from the True Dharma and thereby attain awakening. Those with a weaker karmic affinity will be born in the Semblance Age when the true spirit of Buddhism has been lost and only the outwards forms remain more or less intact. But even they are able to make some progress, and according to Mahāyāna teachings they can be reborn in the pure lands of the celestial buddhas and bodhisattvas after their deaths and thereby attain awakening in those happier circumstances. Those born in the Latter Age of Degeneration, however, have no good roots or genuine karmic affinity for the Dharma, so they are born into an age when even the outward forms are disappearing and rather than practice the Dharma people will only fight over it. It is also taught that the Latter Age will be the time of the five defilements. The five defilements are: 1) the decay of the age due to famine, plagues, and war; 2) the decay of views as people take up wrong views; 3) the decay of evil passions as people’s greed, hatred, and ignorance increase; 4) the decay of living beings as their physical and spiritual strength ebbs; and 5) the decay of lifespan as people live shorter lives.

Furthermore, according to the Great Assembly Sūtra cited by Nichiren in the Senji-shō, the Former Age of the True Dharma could itself be divided into the first 500 years wherein people practiced and attained buddhahood, and the following 500 year period wherein they studied and practiced the Dharma but could not attain buddhahood. The thousand years of the Middle Age of the Semblance Dharma could likewise be divided into the first 500 years wherein people still read the sūtras to increase their knowledge of the Dharma, and the following 500 years wherein they focused on gaining merit by building temples and pagodas. In the first 500 years of the Latter Age, the fifth 500 year period following the Buddha’s passing, there would increasing disputes and quarrels that would lead to the destruction and ruin of the Dharma.

Nichiren also spoke of the Former Age as a time when many received and upheld the precepts, the Middle Age as a time when people still received the precepts but were unable to maintain them, and the Latter Age as a time when people did not even receive the precepts anymore. In keeping with the changing circumstances, people in the Former Age respected and made offerings only to those monastics who received and kept the precepts, in the Middle Age people had to settle for giving offerings to those monastics who at least took the precepts even if they broke them, and in the Latter Age the people made offerings even to monastics who did not even take the precepts. At no time, however, were offerings ever to be given to those who slandered the Lotus Sūtra, regardless of whether or not the slanderers accepted and abided by the precepts. In this way, Nichiren made the point that reverence for the Lotus Sūtra was even more constant and more integral to the true spirit of Buddhism over time than the monastic precepts.

Nichiren’s understanding was that the Buddha taught all the pre-Mahāyāna and Mahāyāna sūtras over a period of fifty years. However, after his passing, the pre-Mahāyāna or Hīnayāna teachings would be propagated first, and then gradually the Mahāyāna teachings would be propagated. As time went on, the earlier teachings would lose their efficacy and only the more profound teachings of the Mahāyāna would be able to help people attain the way to buddhahood. Finally, in the Latter Age, the Lotus Sūtra alone would be able to liberate people and enable them to attain buddhahood. Why this should be will be covered in more detail later in this commentary, as it is the main theme of the Senji-shō.

In East Asia, it was believed that the Buddha lived from 1029 to 949 B.C.E. due to the attempts of Chinese Buddhists to show that the Buddha predated Lao-tzu and the Taoist teachings. Assuming these dates for the life of the Buddha Nichiren and his contemporaries believed that the Latter Age had begun in 1052 C.E. Modern scholars believe the Buddha’s actual dates were 500 years or more later than that. The Japanese Buddhist scholar Hajime Nakamura set the dates as late as 463-383 B.C.E. What all this means is that if the dates of the three ages are taken literally, then Nichiren’s belief that he was living in the Latter Age is completely off the mark since the Latter Age would not actually begin until the 16th or 17th century. In any case, the idea that the world suddenly shifts gears spiritually like clockwork when a particular calendar date comes around should strike us as naive and entirely too arbitrary. Therefore, I do not think it behooves us to take any of the above time periods too literally. The point is that the Buddhist tradition understands that Buddhism itself is a conditioned phenomena that arises and ceases in accordance with changing causes and conditions. Nichiren and his contemporaries in particular felt themselves to be living in a time when the traditional teachings and methods of Buddhism seemed to have lost their efficacy. They believed that a deeper understanding and/or new methods had to be found if people were to be liberated from suffering and attain buddhahood. It was Nichiren’s conviction that he had found such a new approach in the depths of the Original Gate of the Lotus Sūtra and that the time had come to propagate this new understanding and practice.

The Country

The fourth principle, to know nature of the country, means that a teacher of the Dharma must understand the unique characteristics of the country where they are trying to teach the Dharma. Things such as climate, geography, size, population, levels of education and moral development, and relations with other countries are all things that Nichiren includes as factors to take into account. However, the most important consideration is what kind of teachings have already spread within the country in question, whether Hīnayāna or Mahāyana, or a mix of both. In Kaimoku-shō, Nichiren also speaks of countries that are immoral and ignorant of the Dharma, and those that actively slander the Dharma once they have heard it by supporting false teachings or promoting provisional teachings over the True Dharma of the Lotus Sūtra. In his explanations about the principle of knowing the country, Nichiren cites several past authorities in China and Japan to establish that the Japanese people had a special affinity for the Lotus Sūtra.

The Sequence

The final principle, to know the sequence of the teachings, means that one should begin with simple and basic teachings and move on to more subtle and profound teachings. One must never try to spread teachings that are less refined than the ones already established, but should instead lead people away from provisional teachings and toward the definitive and true teaching of the Lotus Sūtra. There is not much more to say about this principle as the proper sequence is already laid out in terms of the Tiantai tenet classification system spoken of above.

In the following chapters I hope to explore each of these principles more deeply.

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, , 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, , 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, , 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.

________________. Writings of Nichiren Shonin: Faith and Practice Volume 4. Tokyo: Nichiren Shu Overseas Propagation Promotion Association, 2007.

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.

Writings of Nichiren Shōnin Doctrine 2, pp. 162-164

Two Nichiren Texts, pp. 111-113

The Writings of Nichiren Daishōnin I, pp. 375-376

As Kanjin Honzon-shō comes to a close, Nichiren cites a passage from Saicho’s (767-822; known posthumously as Dengyō) Outstanding Principles of the Lotus Sūtra, in which that founding patriarch of the Tendai School described the current age as one beset by war and strife. Nichiren agrees, writing, “The time of ‘war and strife’ in this citation refers to two current problems facing Japan: domestic disturbance and the Mongol invasion of western Japan.” (Hori, p. 163) Nichiren had predicted these two calamities in his earlier writing the Risshō Ankoku-ron (Treatise on Spreading Peace Throughout the Country by Establishing the True Dharma). In that work he quoted from The Sutra of Golden Light (or Sutra of Golden Splendor, The Great Collection Sutra (or Sutra of the Great Assembly, The Benevolent Kings Sutra, and The Medicine King Sutra to make the case that natural and man-made disasters would strike a country whose rulers failed to protect the Dharma. From those four sutras Nichiren derived his prediction that Japan would face invasion from without and civil war from within. At the time of writing Kanjin Honzon-shō, Nichiren felt that his predictions had been fulfilled.

On January 18, 1268, envoys from Kublai Khan (1215-1294), the Mongol emperor of northern China and Korea, arrived in Japan with a letter requesting that Japan acknowledge Kublai Khan as the new emperor of China by sending him yearly tribute or else incur the displeasure of the Mongols. The imperial court took this as an invasion threat, but the shogunate refused to respond to it. Nevertheless, panic swept the nation for several months. Over the next several years more envoys came from the Mongol empire. They were also ignored. No one knew when an attack would come, but Nichiren felt that it was imminent. The Mongols did in fact attempt to invade Japan in October of 1274 and in May 1281. Both invasion attempts ultimately failed, but even on his deathbed Nichiren in October of 1282 was not convinced that Japan would ever truly be out of danger until its rulers and people turned away from lesser teachings and put their faith in the Lotus Sūtra.

The prediction of civil war came to be fulfilled in February 1272 when the regent Hōjō Tokimuni had to quell an attempt to overthrow him led by his elder half-brother Hōjō Tokisuke (1248-1272). Fighting broke out in both Kamakura and Kyoto between different factions of the Hojo clan. In the end, Tokisuke and his co-conspirators were all killed. Dissatisfaction within the Hojo regency continued however, especially because the Hojo vassals did not feel adequately rewarded for their efforts against the Mongol invaders, even as the rulers lavished support on the Shingon and other temples that had claimed credit for the victories due to their prayers and rituals. In 1333 the Emperor Go-Daigo (1288-1339) was able to overthrow the Kamakuran Shogunate by taking advantage of this situation.

Nichiren’s ability to predict foreign invasion and civil war was not based upon any form of psychic power to see the future. Rather, it was the result of reading the sūtras and using the process of elimination to see which disasters they predicted had not yet occurred. Nichiren had a total faith in the sūtras, as they contained the word of the Buddha. Furthermore, Nichiren undoubtedly heard reports of the Mongols conquests in China and Korea, and also must have known about rivalries within the Hōjō regency. Nichiren’s role as a prophet was not due to an ability to forecast future events, but rather with his keen understanding of current events and where they were leading.

In Risshō Ankoku-ron, Nichiren spoke of the disasters that had come (earthquakes, drought, famine, plagues, storms, flooding, and ominous astronomical events such as comets) and those that were to follow (invasion and civil war) in order to warn the Hōjō rulers that they must stop patronizing Pure Land Buddhism and put their faith in the Lotus Sūtra. In Kanjin Honzon-shō, Nichiren claims that these are all signs of the coming of the bodhisattvas from underground. In such a time of civil war and threatened invasion he says, “This is the very time when the original disciples of the Buddha should spring up from underground, attend both sides of the Eternal Buddha revealed in the Original Gate of the Lotus Sūtra, and establish in this land of Japan the supreme focus of devotion in the world.” (Ibid, p. 163)  Further on he speaks of the natural disasters.

Now we have had great earthquakes, appearances of comets, and other calamities in recent years. These calamities were not seen in the Age of the Right Teaching of the Buddha or in the Age of the Counterfeit Teaching of the Buddha. These calamities were not caused by garudas, asuras, or dragons. They must be an omen that the four great bodhisattvas will appear [in this country]. (Murano. p 112-113)

Nichiren’s conviction was that all the portentous events happening in Japan in the political and natural realms have reference to the Lotus Sūtra. He wrote, “When the sky is blue, the land is bright, so those who know the Lotus Sūtra can see the reasons for occurrences in the world.” (Hori, p. 164) This view is very alien to us today. Though some might predict national disaster if one or another political party or candidate won a presidential election, few of us would think to blame earthquakes or tornadoes on people’s political, religious, or social views. Of course, there are still religious fundamentalists who would, but in Nichiren’s time the view was much more common even among the educated upper classes. In fact, it was the common assumption among agrarian people that nature and the weather reflected the approval or disapproval of the gods or God, and that the ruler was specifically responsible for keeping the gods or God happy through prayer, morality, and good government. From a Buddhist point of view, the ruler was responsible for upholding the Dharma and it was the gods as well as the bodhisattvas who would ensure that all was well if they did, and the various demons that would take advantage if they did not.

It is a bit disturbing to see that Nichiren is basing his upon the assumption that politics, nature, and even the course of the sun and moon are determined by the ruler’s religious preferences or the imminent appearances of celestial bodhisattvas. The whole argument he makes would seem to be invalidated by modern astronomy, meteorology, and geology. For instance, we now know that the shifting of tectonic plates, not the displeasure of supernatural entities, causes earthquakes. Even in the realm of human activity, modern economics and sociology show that religion is just one among many factors (and not always a major one) that causes wars, epidemics, and famine.

Nichiren had his own rhetorical purposes and worldview, but I think we need to step back and not take the sūtras passages so literally to see if we can find a meaning that speaks to us today. I think if the Dharma really is “the way things are” then to uphold the Dharma is to uphold the truth, to face facts squarely, to see the interdependent nature of the world, to be responsible for one’s acts and the consequences thereof, and to be compassionately motivated by the view of interdependence and the selfless nature of things as they really are. To behave dishonestly, irresponsibly, callously and blindly would be to invite disaster – to turn our world upside down in a manner of speaking. If those who govern a nation act like this – the consequences will be enormous and far-reaching. Many nations and societies have indeed toppled because of irresponsible rulers and a compliant populace. Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, Fascist Italy, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, and others have all come to ruin. Their fate included an impact on the natural world as well. And how many deaths have been caused by famine and earthquakes and flooding because the government mismanaged resources, or refused to uphold certain building codes or maintain a proper infrastructure and emergency system? Human decisions can indeed lead to the exacerbation of natural disasters, and can sometimes cause them in the first place. I would not argue that failing to be a Buddhist will cause an earthquake, but I would say failing to live in accord with what we Buddhists call the Dharma leads to personal and even national or even worldwide disaster in the long run. In this sense, I think the sūtra passages and Nichiren’s conclusions based on them can be taken seriously.

What about the argument that ominous signs and disasters are omens signaling the appearance of the bodhisattvas from underground, who are to fulfill their mission to uphold and propagate the Lotus Sūtra? I think we can take this to mean that trying times are the very times when we all will be called upon to support one another and to think more deeply about our lives and their meaning or lack of meaning. The “bodhisattvas springing up from underground” are the bodhisattvas or compassionate beings of this world. They are no one but us. It is we who must step up and meet the challenge of natural and man-made disasters. It is we who must have the foresight to prevent disasters, mitigate those that are perhaps unavoidable or unpredictable, and cope with them heroically and with compassion and fortitude. Every disaster or potential disaster is indeed a sign or call for us to be those bodhisattvas and to live the spirit of devotion to the Wonderful Dharma. That is how I at least choose to understand Nichiren’s insistence that disasters are omens of the appearance of the bodhisattvas from underground.


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.