Emptiness (Pāli suññatā, Sanskrit śūnyatā) is a shocking word to use about the nature of all things including our own lives and yet that is the word the Buddha chose to use on several occasions. Some people have suggested that it should perhaps be translated with the gentler term “openness” or perhaps the more abstract “non-substantiality” but I think that the word was meant to be disconcerting even in the language and dialect the Buddha actually spoke. I believe the teaching of emptiness was meant to shake us up and drive home the point that there is no self or graspable substance to be found in any conditioned phenomena nor is the unconditioned any kind of self or graspable either. The teaching that all is empty is also often thought of as a Mahāyāna innovation, but in fact it is found in the Pāli canon, and in fact the Buddha seemed to view the teaching of emptiness as quite profound and something of great importance. On one occasion he said:

“Therefore, monks, you should train yourselves thus: ‘When those discourses spoken by the Tathāgata that are deep, deep in meaning, supramundane, dealing with emptiness, are being recited, we will be eager to listen to them, will lend an ear to them, will apply our minds to understand them; and we will think those teachings should be studied and mastered.’ Thus should you train yourselves.” (Bodhi 2000, p. 709)

There are in fact several discourses in the Pāli canon where emptiness is the theme. In one discourse the Buddha taught that a virtuous monk should carefully attend to the five aggregates of form, feeling, perception, mental formations, and consciousness that are all subject to clinging “as impermanent, as suffering, as a disease, as a tumor, as a dart, as misery, as an affliction, as alien, as disintegrating, as empty, as non-self.” (Ibid, p. 970) Here emptiness is synonymous with non-self and non-self is a term meant to show that none of the aggregates are fully subject to our control, none of them are permanent, none of them can exist on their own, and none of them can bring us complete or lasting satisfaction so none of them are what we can call a self that is eternal, independent, and truly happy and at ease. In another discourse the Buddha compares each of the aggregates to something that is obviously ephemeral, non-existent, or illusory. He compares form to a lump of foam on the Ganges River, feeling to a water bubble that rises on the surface of a body of water when rain falls upon it, perception to a mirage seen at high noon during the hot season, mental formations to the lack of heartwood in a plantain tree, and consciousness to a magical illusion created by a magician. In the case of any of the aggregates the Buddha states that upon investigation it will be revealed as void, hollow, and insubstantial. In verse this teaching is summarized as follows:

“Form is like a lump of foam,

Feeling like a water bubble;

Perception is like a mirage,

Volitions like a plantain trunk,

And consciousness like an illusion,

So explained the Kinsman of the Sun.

“However one may ponder it

And carefully investigate it,

It appears hollow and void

When one views it carefully.”

(See ibid, pp. 951-952)

The five aggregates that comprise sentient beings are all empty and so are the six sense bases, the twelve sense fields, and the eighteen elements that are all components of the Buddhist analysis of human existence. All of our senses, all the things we can sense, and all the forms of consciousness that arise based on sensory experience are all empty of a self as a fixed, independent entity or underlying substance. In short, the world and everything and everyone in it are empty.

Then the Venerable Ānanda approached the Blessed One … and said to him: “Venerable sir, it is said, ‘Empty is the world, empty is the world.’ In what way, venerable sir, is it said, ‘Empty is the world’?”

“It is, Ānanda, because it is empty of self and of what belongs to self that it is said, ‘Empty is the world.’ And what is empty of self and of what belongs to self? The eye, Ānanda, is empty of self and of what belongs to self. Forms are empty of self and of what belongs to self. Eye-consciousness is empty of self and of what belongs to self. Eye-contact is empty of self and of what belongs to self… Whatever feeling arises with mind-contact as condition – whether pleasant or painful or neither-painful-nor-pleasant – that too is empty of self and of what belongs to self.

“It is, Ānanda, because it is empty of self and of what belongs to self that it is said, ‘Empty is the world.’” (Ibid, pp. 1163-1164)

In other words, one must develop a perspective that recognizes that due to the impermanent and thoroughly contingent nature of all things there are no fixed or permanent signs of individual existence to grasp, that all things are empty of a self or what will establish a self, and therefore there is nothing to be wished for or desired.

“Monks, for direct knowledge of lust three things are to be developed. What three? Emptiness concentration, markless concentration, and wishless concentration. For direct knowledge of lust, these three things are to be developed.

“Monks, for full understanding of lust … for the utter destruction … for the abandoning … for the destruction … for the vanishing … for the fading away … for the cessation … for the giving up … For the relinquishment of lust these three things are to be developed.

“Monks, for direct knowledge … for full understanding … for the utter destruction … for the abandoning … for the destruction … for the vanishing … for the fading away … for the cessation … for the giving up … for the relinquishment of hatred … delusion … anger… hostility … denigration … insolence … envy … miserliness … deceitfulness … craftiness … obstinacy … vehemence … conceit … arrogance … intoxication … heedlessness, three things are to be developed. What three? Emptiness concentration, markless concentration, and wishless concentration. For the relinquishment of heedlessness, these three things are to be developed.”

This is what the Blessed One said. Elated, those monks delighted in the Blessed One’s statement. (Bodhi 2012, pp. 376-377)

The Abhidharma calls this perspective the triple gateway to liberation: the empty, the markless, and the wishless. They are three different contemplations that consider how all conditioned things are empty of self, that there are no marks or characteristics of things that can be permanently grasped, and that there are no conditioned things that can be wished for that would ever be able to bring ultimate lasting satisfaction. Through contemplating the empty, the markless, and the wishless one arrives at nirvāna, the unconditioned, that is empty of self, without any conditioned marks, and a state of total contentment wherein there is no need to wish for anything else. To abide in nirvāna, then, is to abide in the empty, the markless, and the wishless. In the Shorter Discourse on Emptiness (P. Cūlasuññata Sutta) in the Middle Length Discourses there is the following exchance between Ānanda and the Buddha:

“Venerable sir, on one occasion the Blessed One was living in the Sakyan country at a town of the Sakyas named Nagaraka. There, venerable sir, I heard and learned this from the Blessed One’s own lips: ‘Now, Ānanda, I often abide in emptiness.’ Did I hear that correctly, venerable sir, did I learn that correctly, attend to that correctly, remember that correctly?”

“Clearly, Ānanda, you heard that correctly, learned that correctly, attended to that correctly, remembered that correctly. As formerly, Ānanda, so now too I often abide in emptiness. (Ñānamoli and Bodhi, p. 965)

There are other discourses about and references to emptiness in the Pāli canon but I think the passages cited above are enough to show that emptiness is not just a Mahāyāna innovation but is regarded highly even in the pre-Mahāyāna teachings as a way to consider the emptiness of conditioned things and as a way of talking about nirvāna and the way in which arhats and buddhas abide in nirvāna.

There are two important Mahāyāna sūtras that are familiar to most Buddhist practitioners around the world today whose main theme is the teaching of emptiness. These are the Diamond Sūtra and the Heart Sūtra. These two sūtras were believed by the scholar and translator Edward Conze (1904-1979) to be summaries of the larger Perfection of Wisdom sūtras written in the fourth century CE. Today, some would argue that the Diamond Sūtra may actually have been one of the earliest of the Perfection of Wisdom sūtras and go back to the first century BCE and that later works were expanding upon its themes. In any case, Kumārajīva (344-413) translated the Diamond Sūtra into Chinese in the year 401. The earliest printed book that can be dated is actually a Chinese copy of the Diamond Sūtra from the year 868. Kumārājiva also supposedly translated the Heart Sūtra but this may be just an attribution and no copy of it has been dated prior to the 7th century. It is possible that it was a Chinese creation, being composed of excerpts from the Large Perfection of Wisdom Sūtra. In my view, neither of these sūtras say anything that departs radically from what was taught in the Pāli canon except insofar as the teachings of emptiness are set into a Mahāyāna context.

In the Diamond Sūtra, The monk Subhūti asks the Buddha, “How then, O Lord, should a son or daughter of good family, who have set out in the Bodhisattva-vehicle, stand, how progress, how control their thoughts?” (Conze, p. 13) Those who set out in the bodhisattva vehicle are those who aim not to merely escape samsāra, the cycle of birth and death, as arhats but to remain in samsāra for as long as it takes to accumulate sufficient merit and wisdom for the attainment of buddhahood so that they too can lead sentient beings into nirvāna. The rest of the sūtra is the Buddha’s answer to Subhūti’s inquiry. The Buddha’s first answer is in terms of the bodhisattva’s initial resolve.

The Lord said, “Here Subhūti, someone who has set out in the vehicle of a bodhisattva should produce a thought in this manner: ‘As many beings as there are in the universe of beings, comprehended under the term ‘beings’ – egg-born, born from a womb, moisture-born, or miraculously born; with or without form; with perception, without perception, and with neither perception nor non-perception – as far as any conceivable form of beings is conceived: all these I must lead to nirvāna, into that realm of nirvāna which leaves nothing behind. And yet, although innumerable beings have thus been led to nirvāna, no being at all has been led to nirvāna.’ And why? If in a bodhisattva the notion of ‘being’ should take place, he could not be called a ‘Bodhi-being.’ And why? He is not to be called a Bodhi-being, in whom the notion of a self or of a being should take place, or the notion of a living soul or of a person.” (Ibid, pp. 15-16 adapted)

The term emptiness is not used here and yet it is the emptiness of all beings that the bodhisattva realizes. On the one hand, the bodhisattva compassionately resolves to save all beings and yet the bodhisattva also has the wisdom to recognize that there is no-self, nor are there any substantial entities such as a being, soul, or person for the reasons given in the above discourses. The Buddha then explains that bodhisattvas who practice the perfection of generosity (the first of the six perfections, the other five being morality, patience, energy, meditation, and wisdom) should do so without depending upon any phenomena, including sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touchable objects, or mental objects. Further in the sūtra the perfection of patience is spoken of as possible only if one relinquishes thinking in terms of self, beings, souls, or persons. Presumably all six perfections (which this sūtra does not enumerate or otherwise explain) should be practiced without clinging to any notions or objects. This is again to emphasize that the bodhisattva is motivated by compassion but is guided by the wisdom that recognizes the empty nature of all things.

Other categories are also mentioned and exposed as not something to be grasped as an entity including the Buddha’s 32 marks, the various states of liberation culminating in arhatship, and buddhahood itself. Often in the sūtra it is said that something such as marks or merit is spoken of as “no-marks” or “no-merit” and therefore it can be spoken of as “marks” or “merit.” One can speak truthfully of things only if one recognizes the provisional nature of language and that there are no such things as substantial permanent, independent entities. In short there is no dharma, in other words phenomena, even awakening, that is not empty though also not completely nonexistent.

The Lord asked, “What do you think Subhūti? is there any dharma which the Tathāgata has has fully known as ‘perfect complete awakening’ or is there any dharma which the Tathāgata has demonstrated?

Subhūti replied, “No, not as I understand what the Lord has said. And why? This dharma that the Tathāgata has fully known or demonstrated – it cannot be grasped, it cannot be talked about, it is neither a dharma nor a no-dharma. And why? Because the unconditioned exalts the holy persons.” (Ibid, p. 30 adapted)

It should be remembered that the Buddha taught the Middle Way between asserting a substantial existence or a nihilistic nothingness. So what is being denied here is that there are any dharmas with a self-nature, but this is not to say that there is a sheer nothingness to be clung to either. There are contingent dharmas that we experience as the world of phenomena but ultimately there is no self in them. There is also nirvāna, the unconditioned, but that is not an object or thing that can be grasped as a self either. This again is no different from the Pāli canon discourses on emptiness wherein emptiness is taught to point out the lack of a self-nature in the aggregates and is also an aspect of nirvāna. The Diamond Sūtra finally ends with a verse that uses the same kinds of analogies for the ephemeral, illusory, and empty nature of things found in the discourse cited above from the Pāli canon about the five aggregates.

As stars, a fault of vision, as a lamp.

A mock show, dew drops, or a bubble,

A dream, a lightning flash, or cloud,

So should one view the conditioned.

(Ibid, p. 69)

The Heart Sūtra is very terse but does in fact use the word emptiness, over and over, to negate all the categories used in the Buddha’s earlier discourses to analyze the human condition. The five aggregates, the six sense bases, the eighteen elements, the four noble truths, the twelve-fold chain of dependent origination are all emptied out in turn. But here again this is no different from what has already been said in the Pāli canon, though in the Heart Sūtra Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva delivers the discourse to Śāriputra and it ends with a mantra that means, “Gone, gone, gone beyond, perfectly gone beyond, awakening, hurrah!” The sūtra is very short so I will simply share my own translation of it.

Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva

deeply practicing the perfection of wisdom at this time,

clearly sees that all five aggregates are empty

and delivered from all suffering and distress.

Śāriputra!

Form is no other than emptiness.

Emptiness is no other than form.

Form is emptiness.

Emptiness is form.

Feeling, perception, mental formations and consciousness

are also like this.

Śāriputra!

All phenomena are empty of characteristics.

They neither appear nor disappear.

They are neither defiled nor pure.

They neither increase nor decrease.

Thus, in emptiness there is no form,

nor is there feeling, perception, mental formations, or consciousness;

no eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, or [mental] phenomena;

no realm of seeing

and so on until no realm of mental discrimination;

no ignorance,

no end of ignorance,

and so on until no old age and death,

and no ending of old age and death;

no suffering, origination, cessation or way;

no wisdom and no attainment.

Since there is nothing to attain

a bodhisattva

relies upon the perfection of wisdom, whereby

the mind is unhindered.

Because there is no hindrance

there is no fear.

Far removed from all inverted delusions

nirvāna is realized at last.

The past, present and future buddhas all

rely on the perfection of wisdom in

attaining the supreme perfect awakening.

Therefore, know that the perfection of wisdom

is the great sacred mantra,

the great illuminating mantra,

the unsurpassed mantra,

which is able to remove all suffering.

It is true not false.

Therefore expound the perfection of wisdom mantra.

Now expound this mantra, saying:

Gate Gate Pāragate Pārasamgate Bodhi Svāhā!

In closing I’d like to stress that these discourses, from the earlier Pāli selections to these two Mahāyāna sūtras are not as nihilistic as they sound – far from it. They are in fact negating nihilism as much as they are negating the belief that there are eternal essences or unchanging independent substances. The point of talking about emptiness is to get the practitioner to stop clinging to their notions that there are things to cling to, including the notion that there is a self or some underlying essence to things beyond the dynamic flux of causes and conditions – each cause and condition itself being caused and condition and so on. Sheer nothingness or non-existence would also be viewed as a mistaken notion of an essence (or anti-essence) that should be seen as empty and therefore not something to be clung to. Where does this leave the practitioner? It leaves the practitioner free to experience liberation, no longer clinging unhappily to ephemeral conditions empty of any lasting self-nature. This may itself sound flat or negative to simply be free from clinging by seeing all things as empty, and yet there is something about the two Mahāyāna sūtras that really bears noticing. The Diamond Sūtra is a dialogue between the Buddha and the monk Subhūti who was one of the ten major śrāvaka disciples and the one renowned for dwelling without conflict due to his cultivation of boundless loving-kindness. The Heart Sūtra is a discourse given by Avakokiteśvara Bodhisattva, whose name means the Regarder of the Cries of the World and who is known as the Bodhisattva of Compassion. I do not think this is an accident. I think that what is being suggested is that to be free is also to be free to love without attachment and to have a fearless and boundless compassion for all.

Sources

Bodhi, Bhikkhu, trans. The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2000.

___________________. The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Anguttara Nikāya. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2012.

Ñānamoli, Bhikkhu and Bodhi, Bhikkhu, trans. The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Majjhima Nikaya. Botson: Wisdom Publications, 1995.

Conze, Edward, trans. Buddhist Wisdom: The Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra. New York: Vintage Books, 2001.

Writings of Nichiren Shōnin Doctrine 2, pp. 137, 147-149

Two Nichiren Texts, pp. 76, 90-92

The Writings of Nichiren Daishōnin I, pp. 359-360, 366-367

In the latter half of Nichiren’s response in exchange 20 he talks again of the four kinds of lands over which preside different buddhas or aspects of Śākyamuni Buddha. When the buddhas of those lands pass away into parinirvāna those lands will also disappear and so they as impermanent as any other conditioned phenomena. The Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha, however, will not enter parinirvāna but will always preside over the purified aspect of this Sahā world, the world of Endurance, that is in actuality the true and everlasting Pure Land of Eternally Tranquil Light. In accordance with the teaching of the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment each one of us is one with this Eternal Buddha and reside with him in this true pure land. Nichiren describes this in the following passage called the “Dharma-body passage of 45 characters”:

Now, however, when the Eternal Buddha was revealed in the Original Gate of the Lotus Sūtra, this Sāha world became the Eternal Pure Land, indestructible even by the three calamities of conflagration, flooding, and strong winds, which are said to destroy the world. It transcends the four periods of cosmic change: construction, continuance, destruction, and emptiness. Śākyamuni Buddha, the Lord-preacher of this pure land, has never died in the past, nor will he be born in the future. He exists forever throughout the past, present, and future. All those who receive his guidance are one with this Eternal Buddha. It is because each of our minds is equipped with the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment and the three realms, namely, all living beings, the land in which they live, and the five aggregates of living beings (form, feeling, perception, volition, and consciousness). (Hori 2002, p. 148 adapted)

What takes place in this true pure land I will discuss below, but first I want to make clear up some confusion that may be created by different uses or understanding of the “nirvāna,” especially as it applies to the Buddha. Nirvāna refers to the extinguishing or extinction of the fires of greed, hatred, and delusion. This is attained by buddhas upon their awakening and also by arhats and pratyekabuddhas. From the moment of their awakening they realize nirvāna or the unconditioned. In other words, they experience life clearly and selflessly because their attachment for, aversion to, and miscomprehension of conditioned phenomena has ceased. They are still subject to bodily weakness such as hunger, thirst, the need for sleep, the ravages of age, vulnerability to disease and violence and so on. Until the day they die they are still subject to physical pain or the experience of sad occurrences such as the loss of friends or family or comfortable living situations but they no longer compound that pain with emotional suffering. They accept all things and respond with gracefulness and compassion.

Parinirvāna or “total extinction” is what it is called when a buddha, arhat, or pratyekabuddha dies because they have cut off all that which bound them to the cycle of rebirth and so with the passing of their last physical body and mind they are forever beyond any kind of pain or suffering. In time, the passing of a liberated being was simply referred to as their entrance into nirvāna, instead of as parinirvāna. This usage is also found in the Lotus Sūtra when the Buddha says that he is about to pass away and will soon enter into nirvāna. This confuses the issue because it is not nirvāna, the extinguishing of the fires of greed, hatred, and delusion that the Buddha is saying he is about to enter (or seemingly about to enter) but actually parinirvāna.

Mahāyāna Buddhism developed another term for the kind of nirvāna attained by the Buddha and that should be the actual goal of bodhisattvas: apratisthita-nirvāna, or the “nirvāna of non-abiding.” This is a nirvāna in which the advanced bodhisattvas and buddhas do not cling to either the cycle of birth and death nor to a nirvāna that is a quietist rejection of the world. In contrast, parinirvāna is referred to disparagingly as “reducing the body to ashes and annihilating consciousness.” The reason for the disparagement is because Mahāyāna Buddhism teaches that it is better to continue to take rebirth in the world as bodhisattvas to help liberate all beings and eventually attain buddhahood and teach the Dharma for beings who have not had a chance to hear and practice it than to simply leave the cycle of rebirth as the arhats and pratyekabuddhas do. But here a contradiction arises in provisional Mahāyāna teachings prior to the Lotus Sūtra. While the bodhisattvas avoid entering parinirvāna and aspire to the non-abiding nirvāna whereby they can extinguished greed, hatred, and delusion but remain in the world out of compassion in eventually attaining buddhahood, as buddhas they set forth a Dharma that enables others to become arhats and enter parinirvāna, a lesser and even disparaged goal, and presumably when their work is done as a buddha (whether that takes a few score years or many kalpas) they too will enter parinirvāna. This means that the end result of having attained the non-abiding nirvāna would still be to lead others to reducing the body to ashes and annihilating consciousness and eventually to do so as well. The greater and more compassionate goal of attaining non-abiding nirvāna to help others therefore becomes nothing more than a delaying action before finally attaining the lesser goal of parinirvāna which leaves all sentient beings forever, not to mention that in this view the greater goal of attaining buddhahood is reserved for only a very few and most are expected to be led to the lesser goal.

It is the Lotus Sūtra that resolves this contradiction. In the first half or Trace Gate of the sūtra, the Buddha teaches that there are not three different vehicles or tracks to liberation for the śrāvakas, pratyekabuddhas, and bodhisattvas. Rather, there is only the One Vehicle that leads to buddhahood. In T’ien-t’ai’s teaching the śrāvakas who become arhats and the pratyekabuddhas who enter parinirvāna actually go to the Land of Transition, one of the four kinds of lands discussed previously. From that point on they realize that they have not fully eradicated ignorance and they begin to practice the One Vehicle. This is also spoken of in the Queen Śrīmālā Sūtra where it states that while arhats, pratyekabuddhas, and bodhisattvas put an end to the transmigration of difference and limitation which is compulsory rebirth within the six worlds wherein sentient beings are differentiated and limited by the effects of their positive and negative karma they then take up the transmigration of change and advance whereby they voluntarily reenter the world to accumulate merit and wisdom and attain buddhahood. Of course once the arhats and pratyekabuddhas take up the transmigration of change and advance they realize that their previous attainment of nirvāna and parinirvāna was only provision, a resting point like the magic city of chapter seven of the Lotus Sūtra, and they become bodhisattvas who aim for the true non-abiding nirvāna of buddhahood. (See Chang p. 372) In the Trace Gate the major disciple of Śākyamuni Buddha who were arhats even have their buddhahood predicted, and so this is confirmation that the only vehicle is the One Vehicle. Still, the problem remains that the historical Śākyamuni Buddha seems to be on the verge of entering parinirvāna himself.

The latter half or Original Gate of the Lotus Sūtra, specifically chapter 16, addresses this. In that chapter Śākyamuni Buddha reveals that he attained buddhahood in the remote past of 500 dust-particle kalpas ago (an analogy for a uncountable number of years) and that his lifespan as a Buddha going into the future will be twice as long as that. In other words, Śākyamuni Buddha is saying that in actuality he is the Eternal Buddha whose work is never done and that he only seems to enter parinirvāna but does not actually do so. For the Buddha there is no final reduction of the body to ashes and annihilation of consciousness. The only true nirvāna is the non-abiding nirvāna whose qualities are the purity, bliss, eternity, and true self (or authenticity) of the Dharma-body that has no beginning or end.

Where then is the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha’s pure land? In chapter 16, he says, “In order to save the [perverted] people, I expediently show my Nirvāna to them. In reality I shall never pass away. I always live her and expound the Dharma.” (Murano 2012, p. 252) The pure land of the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha is this very Sahā world. He says later in chapter 16, “[This] pure world of mine is indestructible. But the [perverted] people think: ‘It is full of sorrow, fear, and other sufferings. It will soon burn away.” (Ibid, p. 254) We do not perceive this world as a pure land, but the problem is with our deluded perception and not with the land itself. In the Vimalakīrti Sūtra, the Buddha explains this to Śāriputra and even provides a demonstration.

At that time Śāriputra, moved by the Buddha’s supernatural powers, thought to himself: “If the mind of the bodhisattva is pure, then his Buddha land will be pure. Now when our World Honored One first determined to become a bodhisattva, surely his intentions were pure. Why then is this Buddha land so filled with impurities?”

The Buddha, knowing his thoughts, said to him, “What do you think? Are the sun and moon impure? Is that why the blind man fails to see them?”

Śāriputra replied, “No, World Honored One. That is the fault of the blind man. The sun and moon are not to blame.”

“Śāriputra, it is the failings of living beings that prevent them from seeing the marvelous purity of the land of the Buddha, the Tathāgata. The Tathāgata is not to blame. Śāriputra, this land of mine is pure but you fail to see it.”

At that time one of the Brahma kings with his conch-shaped tuft of hair said to Śāriputra, “You must not think that this Buddha land is impure. Why do I say this? Because to my eyes, Śākyamuni’s Buddha land is as pure and spotless as the palace of the heavenly being Great Freedom.”

Śāriputra said, “When I look at this land, I see it full of knolls and hollows, thorny underbrush, sand and gravel, dirt, rocks, many mountains, filth and defilements.”

The Brahma king said, “It is just that your mind has highs and lows and does not rest on Buddha wisdom. Therefore you see this land as impure. Śāriputra, the bodhisattva treats all things and beings, each one of them, with perfect equality. His deeply searching mind is pure, and because it rests on Buddha wisdom, it can see the purity of the this Buddha land.”

The Buddha then pressed his toes against the earth, and immediately the throusand-millionfold world was adorned with hundreds of thousands of rare jewels, till it resembled Jeweled Adornment Buddha’s Jeweled Adornment Land of Immeasurable Blessings. All the members of this great assembly sighed in wonder at what they had never seen before, and all saw that they themselves were seated on jeweled lotuses.

The Buddha said to Śāriputra, “Now do you see the marvelous purity of this Buddha land?”

Śāriputra replied, “Indeed I do, World Honored One. Something I have never seen before, and never even heard of – now all the marvelous purity of the Buddha land is visible before me!”

The Buddha said to Śāriputra, “My Buddha land has always been pure like this.  But because I wish to save those persons who are lowly and inferior, I make it seem an impure land full of defilements, that is all. It is like the case of heavenly beings. All take their food from the same precious vessel, but the food looks different for each one, depending upon the merits and virtues that each possesses. It is the same in this case, Śāriputra. If a person’s mind is pure, then he will see the wonderful blessings that adorn this land.” (Watson, pp.29-31 adapted)

In the Meditation on the Bodhisattva Universal Sage Sūtra, the closing sūtra of the Threefold Lotus Sūtra, the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha is called Vairocana and the purified Sahā world is called the Land of Eternally Tranquil Light and described in terms of the four qualities of Dharma-body.

Śākyamuni Buddha is called Vairocana, the Omnipresent. His dwelling place is called Eternally Tranquil Light, a place that is taken up by eternal practice, a place that is made stable by self-practice, a place where the characteristics of existence are extinguished by pure practice, a place where there is no abiding in body and mind due to blissful practice, a place where the character of existence or non-existence cannot be seen in anything, and a place of tranquil extinction, which is the practice of wisdom. (Reeves, p. 416 adapted)

In chapter 11 of the Lotus Sūtra, Śākyamuni Buddha recalls all the buddhas of the worlds of the ten directions who are revealed to be his emanations. He then opens the stupa of treasures and enters into it to sit by the side of Many Treasures Buddha. The stupa then rises into the air and the Buddha uses his power to cause the whole assembly to rise into the air as well. This is the beginning of the Ceremony in the Air. In chapter 15, a multitude of bodhisattvas sprang up from underground and the Buddha explains that these ancient bodhisattvas are his original disciples. In chapter 16 the Buddha explains that he was able to teach them for such a long time because his own buddhahood was attained in the incalculably remote past. In chapters 17-19 the Buddha describes the vast merit accrued by any who are able to believe what he taught in chapter 16, even if only for a moment or even if they have only heard it as the 50th person in a succession of people passing on the teaching. In chapter 20 the Buddha tells the assembly about his past life as Never Despising Bodhisattva who greeted all he met as future buddhas. In chapter 21, the Buddha entrusts the teaching to the bodhisattvas from underground and in chapter 22 he entrusts it to the rest of the assembly. So ends the eight chapters of preaching wherein the bodhisattvas from underground were present, and so ends the Ceremony in the Air that began in chapter 20. Nichiren understands from all this that in those chapters Śākyamuni Buddha, revealing himself as the Eternal or Original Buddha in his Pure Land of Eternally Tranquil Light (also called by Nichiren the Pure Land of Vulture Peak), entrusted the Odaimoku, the heart of the Original Gate of the Lotus Sūtra, to his original disciples the bodhisattvas who appear from underground led by Superior Practice Bodhisattva so that they might propagate it in the Latter Age of Degeneration of the Dharma. It is this scene of the transmission of the Odaimoku from the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha to the bodhisattvas from underground that he describes as the true focus of devotion. In other words, it is not merely Śākyamuni Buddha who is the focus of devotion, but the Eternal Śakyamuni Buddha who transmits the Odaimoku to his original disciples for the Latter Age who is the true focus of devotion. The scene is described as follows:

Suspended in the sky above the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha’s Sahā world is a stupa of treasures, in which Śākyamuni Buddha and the Buddha of Many Treasures sit to the left and right of “Myō-hō-ren-ge-kyō.” Attending them are the four bodhisattvas such as Superior Practice representing the original disciples of the Eternal Buddha called out from underground. Four more bodhisattvas including Mañjuśrī and Maitreya, take lower seats as followers, other great and minor bodhisattvas – those converted by the Buddha in the Trace Gate and those who came from other lands – resemble numerous people sitting on the ground and looking up at court nobles. Also lined up on the ground are the emanation buddhas who gathered together from all the worlds in the universe in praise of the Buddha’s preaching, representing provisional buddhas in their respective lands. (Hori 2002, p. 149)

Nichiren explains that this scene appears nowhere else but in the eight chapters from 15-22 of the Lotus Sūtra. It is only in these eight chapters that the Eternal or Original Buddha appears in the company of his original disciples to teach and entrust them with the Wonderful Dharma. Since the passing of the historical Śākyamuni Buddha, whenever the Buddha was depicted as the focus of devotion it was in the company of his śrāvaka disciples like Mahākāśyapa and Ānanda or bodhisattvas such as Mañjuśrī and Samanthabhadra (Universal Sage). When flanked by śrāvakas it showed that Śākyamuni Buddha was being depicted as the teacher of the Hīnayāna sūtras. When flanked by bodhisattvas who appear in provisional Mahāyāna sūtras it shows that Śākyamuni Buddha is being depicted as the teacher of provisional Mahāyāna teachings and not the Original Gate of the Lotus Sūtra. What Nichiren is saying is that it is now the time to depict the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha revealed in the 16th chapter of the Lotus Sūtra accompanied by Superior Practice Bodhisattva and the other three leaders of the bodhisattvas from underground as the true focus of devotion (J. honzon). He asks, “Now in the beginning of the Latter Age of Degeneration, is it not the time that such statues and portraits are made for the first time?” (Ibid, p. 149) On July 8th, 1275, just a few months after writing Kanjin Honzon-shō, Nichiren did in fact inscribe this scene as a calligraphic mandala.

In regards to the calligraphic mandalas that Nichiren inscribed, typically he not only included the Odaimoku, Śākyamuni Buddha, Many Treasures Buddha, the four leaders of the bodhisattvas from underground, and the names of four provisional bodhisattvas, but he also included many of the gods and beings such as Brahma, Indra, representatives of the other of the eight kinds of non-human beings that protect the Dharma, and the esoteric deities called the Vidyārājas or Knowledge Kings. Earlier, in the 18th exchange, the interlocutor described Śākyamuni Buddha in the company of these other beings. What Nichiren’s calligraphic mandala-honzon is attempting to depict is not just the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha (differentiated from the historical or other provisional aspects of buddhahood) in his pure land but also the Odaimoku as permeating all ten worlds. What is being shown is the mutual possession of the ten worlds in the form of a mandala composed of the names of beings who are representatives of those worlds who are all embraced by the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha and who have all been entrusted with the Odaimoku. The mandala also includes Shinto deities to show that the local spirits are included and that Japan too is embraced by the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha and is part of his pure land. This would also hold true for any other land in this world. Another thing Nichiren includes on the mandala are the names of those who transmitted Buddhism, in particular the T’ien-t’ai teachings, specifically Nāgārjuna (1st-2nd century) the honorary first patriarch of T’ien-t’ai Buddhism, T’ien-t’ai Chih-i (538-597) the founder, Chan-jan Miao-lê (711-782) the reviver of T’ien-t’ai Buddhism in the 8th century, and Saichō (767-822, known posthumously as Dengyō) who established the Tendai School in Japan. Nichiren also puts his own name at the bottom as the one who is transmitting the true focus of the Original Gate of the Lotus Sūtra to the sentient beings of the Latter Age as the Buddha’s envoy.

Nichiren does not, and never does, say that the focus of devotion should only be depicted in calligraphic form. In fact he specifies that statues and portraits should be made. In Nichiren Shū, therefore, there are five different was of depicting the focus of devotion. These five can be placed into two categories. The first category is the hō-honzon (focus of devotion in terms of the Dharma), of which there are two sub-types:

  1. Jikkai mandara. The ten-world mandala as already described.
  2. Ippen shudai. An inscription of the Odaimoku alone.

The second major category is the nin-honzon (focus of devotion in terms of the person), of which there are three sub-types:

  1. Itto ryōson. The Odaimoku inscribed stupa of treasures flanked by statues of Śākyamuni Buddha and Many Treasures Buddha.
  2. Isson shishi. Statues of the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha and the four leaders of the bodhisattvas who emerge from the earth.
  3. Shakuson ichibutsu. A statue of the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha.

There has been some debate over the years as to whether Nichiren intended the focus of devotion to be primarily the person of the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha or the Dharma of Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō. In different writings Nichiren said seemingly different things. In Honzon Mondō-shō (Questions and Answers on the Honzon) he said, “We should regard the daimoku of the Lotus Sūtra as the honzon.” (Ibid, p. 259) In Sandai Hihō Honjō-ji (The Transmission of the Three Great Secret Dharmas) however, he said, “The honzon (most venerable one) established in the 16th chapter of the Lotus Sūtra is Lord Śākyamuni Buddha who has been closely tied with us in this Sahā World by the bond of cause and effect ever since attaining buddhahood 500 dust-particle kalpas agao, and who has the three eternal bodies (Dharma-body, enjoyment-body, and transformation-body) of the Buddha.” (Ibid, p. 289 adapted) For my part, I believe that the honzon or focus of devotion is not a matter of being either the person or the Dharma. Rather, I believe the focus of devotion is the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha in the act of transmitting the Odaimoku, and therefore it is always both the person of the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha and the Dharma of Namu Myāohō Renge Kyō. I cannot imagine the focus of devotion being just a person, no matter how exalted, or merely an abstract principle, no matter how sublime. But it does make to me to think of the focus of devotion as incorporating both in the action of transmitting the Wonderful Dharma to us. Also, if the Odaimoku represents the Dharma, then it is not other than the Dharma-body of the Eternal Buddha, and the Eternal Buddha also includes the enjoyment-body and transformation-body, these being the wisdom and liberating activity respectively of the Dharma that is the Odaimoku. How could the Wonderful Dharma and the Eternal Buddha be apart? I think that as long as it is understood that the Odaimoku is the true nature of the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha, and that the Buddha is not just the historical Buddha but the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha who transmits the Odaimoku then there need be no confusion or argument about whether the focus of devotion is the Buddha or the Dharma because they both require each other. Again, that is my view of it and others may disagree. There are certainly passages in Nichiren’s writings that might support other views, but I personally find it one-sided to say that the focus of devotion is just the Eternal Buddha or just the Odaimoku. It fits better with Buddhist teachings, including those of the Lotus Sūtra, to not set up a dualism between person and principle, and I think it also makes sense to try to reconcile the statements in Nichiren’s writings rather than to set passages off against one another.

There is another issue that I would like to look at in regard to viewing the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha and/or the Odaimoku as the focus of devotion. Is Nichiren saying that our attainment of buddhahood depends upon a power outside ourselves, what in Pure Land Buddhism is called “other-power”? Or is the Eternal Buddha our own original nature or true mind, our own flesh, blood, and bones, as Nichiren himself put it, and therefore our buddhahood depends on our own “self-power”? I believe that Nichiren avoided such dichotomies by pointing to the mutual possession of the ten worlds as a teaching that shows that our awakening is not really a matter of self-power or other-power. In Ichidai Shōgyō Tai-i (Outline of All the Holy Teachings of the Buddha) he wrote:

The “self-power” of the Lotus Sūtra is not what non-Buddhists thin it to be because we possess in our heart all living beings of the ten worlds. We have in ourselves the buddha-world, let alone the worlds of all living beings. Therefore, to become a buddha now does not mean to be a new one. The “other-power” in the Lotus Sūtra, too, is not what non-Buddhists consider it to be. For other buddhas are contained within each of us by nature. They also manifest themselves in us ordinary people.” (Hori 2004, p. 91)

In other words, the mutual possession of the ten worlds does not just mean that we have different potential states of interpreting and reacting to events. It means that we are interdependently involved with all other beings. They are part of us and we are part of them. Therefore, our own attainment of buddhahood is possible because others have attained buddhahood and they are part of our lives so we do not succeed on our own individual or singular merits. Conversely, buddhahood is our own nature and the other buddhas are not really other but a part of ourselves, so we are not saved by some other being in spite of ourselves but because it is in our own nature to realize and actualize buddhahood.

Now that the explanations for this part of Kanjin Honzon-shō have been given in terms of what Nichiren was talking about and referring to I want to discuss what all this can possibly mean for us. In a traditional East Asian Buddhist culture it makes sense to talk about having a focus of devotion, as East Asian Buddhism is very religious in orientation for the most part. For Nichiren and his contemporaries it was important to devote oneself to buddhas, bodhisattvas, and guardian spirits of various kinds in order to gain their protection, blessings, and assistance in attaining buddhahood. Nichiren in particular was concerned that one should relate to the right buddha in the right way because for him there was a spiritual hierarchy and order of precedence that reflected Buddhist principles. For many people in the world today it is still important to worship or placate the right deity (or in the view of monotheists the only deity) in the right way. This kind of religiosity may, however, seem more than off-putting to those who come to Buddhism looking to get away from religion and the idea that to be happy one must worship or placate invisible divine beings. So what are we to make of all this talk of the true focus of devotion and the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha, and the transmission of the Odaimoku to us as some kind of spiritual seed? I think it is very important to consider what all this is about so that on the one hand we do not become needlessly alienated from our practice of Nichiren Buddhism and on the other hand do not slip into a naïve or superstitious way of understanding and relating to the Eternal Buddha and Odaimoku.

What strikes me about Nichiren’s writings and especially about Kanjin Honzon-shō is the emphasis on the T’ien-t’ai doctrine of the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment and in particular on the aspect of it called the mutual possession of the ten worlds. Nichiren may or may not have literally believed in the existence of the buddhas in their pure lands, bodhisattvas, dragons, demons, and other beings who appear in the Lotus Sūtra and that he inscribed on his calligraphic mandala (frankly it would surprise me if he didn’t as he was a man of his time) but he definitely believed that these beings represented aspects of our own nature and wrote about them as such. To show that the ten worlds are aspects of our nature that are at work in the world seems to be the main theme of the first part of Kanjin Honzon-shō wherein he points out to the interlocutor the various ways in which we can observe each of the ten worlds in human life. So what he is really talking about are all the aspects of human nature and how our nature is bound up with all that lives – non-human life and the environment as well. What Nichiren is really insisting upon is that our nature includes the ability to awaken fully and live a life of selfless compassion. He, like the T’ien-t’ai teachers before him, acknowledges that there are baser worlds or perspectives in our nature but that our most authentic nature is our buddha-nature, and this is characterized by true insight and compassion and subjectively experienced as our true self that is pure, blissful, and timeless. Nichiren insists upon the importance of the mutual possession of the ten worlds because he is insisting upon the insight that our nature contains the worst and best but that the best is the most real and authentic and that all of us can realize and actualize it. Nichiren insists upon the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment because he is insisting that all of these inner worlds are present in every moment of awareness and that each moment of awareness encompasses all that is including our mind and body, other beings, and even the insentient and inanimate. Nichiren insists that this is the inner meaning of the Lotus Sūtra and that to be open and receptive to this teaching is to sow a seed of awakening to the truth about our lives in our minds and hearts. The Odaimoku is an expression of receptivity, confidence, and joy in this teaching that we can all attain buddhahood as well as a focus of concentration when chanting it. Finally, Nichiren insists upon the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha as the focus of devotion because it is this image and understanding of buddhahood that he feels is the most complete. Attaining buddhahood is, after all, the goal of Buddhism as far as Nichiren was concerned, so what is buddhahood? Who, really, was or is the Buddha? In Nichiren’s view the Buddha is not merely a person who taught in a foreign land and passed away millennia ago, nor is he someone who presides over some idealized pure land reachable only after death, nor is he the personification of an abstract principle. The Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha, for Nichiren, is the one who teaches and represents the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment and who is the active spiritual presence or impulse felt in our lives here that draws us to our own buddhahood through the practice of Odaimoku. I think that what Nichiren is saying to us through his writings is that the goal of Buddhism is not the reduction of the body to ashes and annihilation of consciousness, is not just some otherworldly salvation through rebirth in a pure land after death (though he doesn’t deny this and speaks of rebirth in the Pure Land of Vulture Peak in other writings), and is not something that only a few can ever achieve, but that perfect and complete awakening, buddhahood, is something that is within our lives already and actively at work in our lives already even if we don’t know or accept that it is. All of the technical T’ien-t’ai doctrines and talk of understanding that the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha who transmits the Odaimoku is the true focus of devotion comes down to this: a heartfelt joyful acceptance of, appreciation for, and trust in the ongoing process of awakening of ourselves and all other beings. That is what I think this is all about.

Sources

Chang, Garma C. A Treasury of Mahāyāna Sūtras: Selections form the Mahāratnakūta Sūtra. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1983.

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.

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.

Watson, Burton, trans. The Vimalakirti Sutra. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

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.

Sources

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.