Writings of Nichiren Shōnin Doctrine 2, pp. 149-153

Two Nichiren Texts, pp. 93-97

The Writings of Nichiren Daishōnin I, pp. 367-369

In the 21st exchange the interlocutor asks to hear more about Nichiren’s innovative idea that the true focus of devotion (J. honzon) should be the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha. Nichiren responds by presenting a system of analyzing the Buddha’s teachings into “four sets of three parts” (J. shishū-sandan), the four sets being (1) all of the sūtras collectively, (2) the Threefold Lotus Sūtra, (3) the two sections of the Threefold Lotus Sūtra, and (4) the true Dharma, while the three parts of each of these teachings are the preface, the main discourse, and the epilogue. The preface section is for the purpose of establishing the context and preparing people to hear, understand, and put into practice the main discourse. The main discourse is where one finds the main point and purpose of the teaching. The epilogue deals with the benefits gained from hearing and upholding the main discourse and with its transmission to others. This analysis is for the purpose of establishing that all the teachings were preparing the way for the propagation of Odaimoku in the Latter Age.

Nichiren’s division takes for granted the T’ien-t’ai system of classifying the Buddha’s teachings and also takes for granted that the sūtras were all taught by the historical Śākyamuni Buddha in the particular chronological order given in the T’ien-t’ai teaching of the five periods that was derived from statements given in the sūtras indicating the time and location of the Buddha’s discourses.  Nichiren provides some of the sūtra the citations for all this in his Shugo Kokka-ron (Treatise on Protecting the Nation). (See Hori 2003, pp. 6-10) Today, scholarship has shown that the Mahāyāna sūtras developed over a period of several centuries. Even the Pāli canon that was first written down in Sri Lanka in 29 BCE shows signs of development since the time of the Buddha’s passing. Given that we cannot naively accept that the sūtras are not verbatim records of the Buddha’s discourses, what does this mean for Nichiren’s analysis? I think that the way to approach this is to see Nichiren’s system of four sets of three parts as his way of understanding what the sūtras are leading up to and thereby evaluating the importance and purpose of various teachings. This understanding of the role the various sūtras and parts of the Lotus Sūtra play does not depend on whether they were actually spoken by the historical Buddha or whether they were given in the order that Nichiren understood them to be given in. What matters is whether this approach to the sūtras can help us to better appreciate, understand, and deepen our practice of Odaimoku.

My plan for this chapter of commentary is to not simply explain Nichiren’s four sets of three parts but to also discuss how we might best study Buddhism to better understand the Lotus Sūtra and our own practice. Buddhism can seem very difficult to understand but I think that if it is approached in a step-by-step way instead of a haphazard way or in a way almost deliberately intended to mystify then it can be seen that Buddhism is not, after all, as opaque as it might seem to be at first. I also hope to show that Buddhist teachings are not about making dogmatic metaphysical claims but rather are about helping us observe life’s realities directly. The teachings are really about our life and how we can best develop our own practice and realization. So what I hope to accomplish is to use this discussion of the four sets of three parts to clarify how the teachings of Buddhism and the Lotus Sūtra developed over time and how we might familiarize ourselves with these developments through our own study and hopefully put them into practice.

Three Parts of the Collection of All the Sutras (J. ichidai sandan)

The first set that Nichiren analyzes into preface, main discourse, and epilogue is the set of all sūtras taken as a whole.

The Lotus Sūtra consists of eight fascicles and twenty-eight chapters. Four steps of teaching (sutras of the first four tastes) were preached before the Lotus Sūtra was, and the Nirvāna Sūtra after it. This lifetime preaching of the Buddha can be bound in one sūtra. Those preached before the Lotus Sūtra, from the Flower Garland Sūtra, which was preached upon his attainment of buddhahood at Bodhgaya, to the Great Wisdom Sūtra, comprise the preface. The Sūtra of Infinite Meaning, the Lotus Sūtra, and the Sūtra of Meditation on the Universal Sage Bodhisattva, ten fascicles in all, serve as the main discourse while the Nirvāna Sūtra constitutes the epilogue. (Hori 2002, p. 150)

Here Nichiren refers to the T’ien-t’ai teaching about the five periods of the Buddha’s preaching. The first four periods were the periods of (1) preaching the Flower Garland Sūtra, (2) the discourses contained in the Āgamas that were Sanskrit sūtras from Northern India that were translated into Chinese and contain material that corresponds to the Pāli canon or Nikāyas, (3) the Expanded (S. vaipulya) sūtras that comprise all those Mahāyāna sūtras that don’t fit into the other four periods, and (4) the Perfection of Wisdom (S. Prajñā-pāramitā) sūtras. The fifth period includes both the Threefold Lotus Sūtra and the Nirvāna Sūtra. A lot of this material has been translated into English, though not everything. Even trying to read what has been translated, however, would take years. But is that really necessary? I am not convinced that for the average Buddhist practitioner it is necessary to do that. In any case, Nichiren is suggesting that all this material in the first four periods is just an introduction to the Lotus Sūtra while the Nirvāna Sūtra is just a reiteration. So why bother with any of it? Why not just concern oneself with the main discourse that is the Threefold Lotus Sūtra? Perhaps it was Nichiren’s intention that the average practitioner, as opposed to his monastic disciples who were expected to be specialists in Buddhist study and practice, need not bother with these other sūtras.

For my part, I had been practicing a form of Nichiren Buddhism for about two years when I finally found and quickly read The Threefold Lotus Sutra translated by Bunnō Katō, Yoshirō Tamura, and Kōjirō Miyasaka. I soon saw that the group I was with had been making claims about what was taught in the Lotus Sūtra that were not true. I also saw that the Lotus Sūtra is very difficult to understand without some kind of guide or commentary to explain references and unfamiliar terms, but I could no longer trust the people who I was practicing with at that time. They themselves had not read the sūtra, and once I had read the sūtra for myself I could see that the teaching did not match what the sūtra actually said. Nichiren’s writings provided commentary on what the sūtra is supposed to mean but there was no chapter-by-chapter commentary and Nichiren’s writings themselves needed a commentary due to his own use of unfamiliar references and terms. In addition, Nichiren himself cited the Nirvāna Sūtra that taught people to “follow the Dharma and not the person.” This meant that one should primarily go by what the sūtras themselves have to say rather than to trust commentaries if one wants to know what the Buddha taught. To me, all this meant that if I wanted to understand the references and terms in the Lotus Sūtra then I would have to read the other sūtras that the Lotus Sūtra seemed to assume its reader was already familiar with. By reading the other sūtras I would be, in effect, letting the Buddha explain the terms and references contained in the Lotus Sūtra. So, for instance, if I wanted to know what the references to the four noble truths and the eightfold path or dependent origination were about I should go and read the discourses where the Buddha explains those very things. Over more than two decades since that time when I first read the Threefold Lotus Sūtra I have read literally a bookcase full of sūtras (and the suttas of the Pāli canon) in English translation and have even made attempts to translate a few things for myself from classical Chinese. This effort has indeed enabled me to understand for myself what the Lotus Sūtra is talking about, or at least to understand its references and terminology. I am no longer dependent on some other person’s opinions or particular point of view but can make up my own mind about what the Lotus Sūtra does or does not mean for my practice and my life. I have also learned that reading a whole bookcase of material was not really necessary, at least not for understanding the Lotus Sūtra. Much was redundant, much was irrelevant, some of it went into details and particulars that seemed of negligible importance, but nevertheless I had to wade through it all to find what was important and relevant. I also found that in a few cases there were some very early commentaries or secondary literature that did provide useful and non-sectarian summaries of longer and more complex sūtras, though I did read the sūtras those were based on as well to double check them. I would now like to share what I think is essential background reading for understanding the Lotus Sūtra on its own terms.

First of all the Lotus Sūtra assumes that one is familiar with the life and teachings of the historical Buddha, in other words the Buddha as he appears in the Āgamas or the Nikāyas. Unfortunately the Āgamas have not been translated into English, but since the late 19th century the Nikāyas have been, and new translations have recently been published by Wisdom Publications since the late 1990s. This by itself is thousands of pages of reading, and a couple thousand more if one includes the translation of the Pāli Vinaya texts that include not just the monastic precepts and ordinances but also records of the Buddha’s early years and the formation of the Sangha. Is it necessary for the average practitioner to read all this? I don’t think so, but there are some key discourses that I think should be read. Everything that is relevant that would explain all the references in the Lotus Sūtra to pre-Mahāyāna teachings such as the workings of karma and rebirth, the four noble truths, dependent origination, or the Buddha’s problems with his cousin Devadatta can be found in the book The Life of the Buddha by Bhikkhu Ñānamoli. I highly recommend that book as it is composed of passages translated from the Pāli canon and arranged in such a way as to not only tell the Buddha’s life story but also cover all his most important discourses. Another excellent anthology of the Buddha’s discourses in the Nikāyas is In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pāli Canon by Bhikkhu Bodhi, the main translator of Wisdom Publications new translations of the Nikāyas. The only problem with that book is that it does not tell the story of the Buddha’s life in full, nor does it talk about the formation of the Sangha or the troubles with Devadatta which all figure into the Lotus Sūtra. I would also recommend that beginners in Buddhism read a translation of the Dhammapada, of which there are several good translations. The Dhammapada is a collection of verses that provide a fairly short and accessible overview of the Buddha’s teachings as they are to be found in the Pāli canon. The translation I have found to be the most helpful and reliable is the one done by John Ross Carter and Mahinda Palihawadana.

The Lotus Sūtra also assumes that the reader is familiar with basic Mahāyāna teachings about emptiness and the six perfections. There are also later Mahāyāna developments that came after the Lotus Sūtra such as the teachings concerning buddha-nature and the three bodies of the Buddha that later commentators used in explaining the Lotus Sūtra. So there are a few Mahāyāna works that I think should be read to understand both what the Lotus Sūtra itself is referring to and how later Buddhist traditions, particular T’ien-t’ai and Nichiren Buddhism, came to interpret it. The classic Mahāyāna treatment of emptiness can be found in the Diamond Sūtra and the Heart Sūtra and there are several translations and commentaries on these two sūtras available, for instance Buddhist Wisdom: The Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra by Edward Conze. For an excellent survey of the bodhisattva-vehicle and its six perfections I would recommend the Bodhicaryāvatāra by Śāntideva, of which I can recommend the translation by Kate Crosby and Andrew Skilton, though there are others available. It may not be a sūtra but it is a beautiful and fairly short work that summarizes what some very long and more complex sūtras do say about the six perfections. I think the Bodhicaryāvatāra can be seen as a kind of Mahāyāna counterpart to the Dhammapada. To understand Mahāyāna teachings about non-duality and also to see how harsh Mahāyāna condemnations of the two vehicles could get (to better appreciate the One Vehicle taught in the Lotus Sūtra) I would recommend reading the Vimalakīrti Sūtra. I found the translation by Robert A. F. Thurman called The Holy Teaching of Vimalakirti: A Mahayana Scripture very helpful, and there is also a translation by Burton Watson that is also pretty good and very readable. Teachings concerning buddha-nature are most easily approached through two treatises that attempt to summarize what late Mahāyāna traditionally taught as the sūtras that deal with it tend to be either long (like the Nirvāna Sūtra), difficult to understand (like the Lankāvatāra Sūtra), or hard to find (like the Tathāgatagarbha Sūtra) and in any case the treatises bring together and summarize what is said in these other sūtras. One treatise is called the Mahāyāna Uttaratantra Śāstra (also called the Ratna-gotra-vibhāga) that is translated by Rosemarie Fuchs in Buddha Nature: The Mahayana Uttaratantra Shastra with Commentary. That treatise also deals with the three bodies of the Buddha. The other treatise is The Awakening of Faith in the Mahāyāna of which I can recommend the translation by Yoshito S. Hakeda called The Awakening of Faith: Attributed to Aśvaghosha. This treatise was very important in the development of East Asian Buddhism. I will grant that there are passages in some of those texts that might be daunting but on the whole I have found that the above texts are not particularly difficult and none of them are excessively long. I personally feel that those sūtras and treatises are just enough to cover the major developments of Mahāyāna Buddhism that a reader and practitioner of the Lotus Sūtra would need to know to better understand and more deeply appreciate what the Lotus Sūtra is teaching.

There is one other book that I should mention here. It is called Buddha-Dharma: The Way to Enlightenment and is published by the Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research. The revised second edition came out in 2003. The Numata Center is attempting to translate the entirety of the 100-volume Taisho Tripitka that was published in Japan from 1924 to1934. The Taisho Tripitika collects all the Chinese translations of sūtras, vinaya, abhidharma as well as including important commentaries and other writings by Indian and East Asian writers. The book Buddha-Dharma is an anthology of excerpts from this collection as well as from the Pāli canon and is put together in such a way as to tell the life story of the Buddha and relate his most important teachings from both the Nikāyas and the Mahāyāna sūtras. There are places within it where I would quibble with the translations of some terms and where the translation becomes more of a paraphrase and summary so I prefer to rely on more scholarly translations of individual works. Still, it is a very helpful book to have and if one doesn’t want to track down all the other books I listed above this one handy volume will serve as a good introduction to general Buddhist and Mahāyāna Buddhist teachings. It also includes selections from the Lotus Sūtra as well.

Before moving on to the next section I would like to note the fact that Nichiren himself frequented cited other sūtras besides the Lotus Sūtra whenever he needed to clarify minor points about Buddhist teachings (minor as far as Nichiren was concerned anyway) or to make a point about current events or the position of the Lotus Sūtra in comparison to other teachings. For instance, in the Rissho Ankoku-ron (Treatise on Spreading Peace Throughout the Country by Establishing the True Dharma) Nichiren cited several sūtras besides the Lotus Sūtra that were relevant to his case that Japan was heading for civil war and foreign invasion if it did not turn away from false teachings and embrace the Lotus Sūtra. Nichiren also frequently cites the Nirvāna Sūtra throughout his writings, especially since much of that sūtra deals with hardships faced by practitioners of the true Dharma during times of persecution and the practice of subduing evil by righteous monks and civil authorities.

Three Parts of the Threefold Lotus Sūtra (J. ikkyo sandan)

The second set that Nichiren analyzes into preface, main discourse, and epilogue is the Threefold Lotus Sūtra.

The ten fascicles of the main discourse can be further divided into three parts. The Sūtra of Infinite Meaning and the first “Introduction” chapter of the Lotus Sūtra constitute the preface. The fifteen and one-half chapters of the Lotus Sūtra from the second chapter on “Expedients” to the nineteen-line verse in the seventeenth chapter, the “Variety of Merits”, mark the main discourse. The eleven and one-half chapters of the Lotus Sūtra from the last half of the “Variety of Merits” chapter, where the four stages of faith during Śākyamuni’s lifetime are preached, to the twenty-eight chapter of the sūtra, plus the one-fascicle of the Sūtra of Meditation on the Universal Sage Bodhisattva make up the epilogue. (Ibid, p. 150)

Here I will discuss the formation of the Threefold Lotus Sūtra and reserve a survey of its contents for my discussion of the third set of Nichiren’s analysis. Scholars believe that the earliest parts of the sūtra are the verse portions of chapters 2-9, and that these were probably written in the first century BCE. Over the course of the first century CE the prose portions of those chapters were written to clarify and elaborate on what was in the verse portions. These early chapters deal primarily with the historical Śākyamuni Buddha teaching his śrāvaka disciples and bodhisattvas are barely present. These early chapters also do not talk about reading or copying the sūtra, so this shows that they may have been based on an earlier oral transmission. Chapters 10-22 with the exceptions of chapters 12 and perhaps 18 (that may have appeared earlier) were probably added next around 100 CE. In these chapters the attention shifts to the bodhisattvas and the fantastic imagery of the Ceremony in the Air. The first chapter may have been added at this point or an earlier version revised to incorporate the presence of the bodhisattvas and other fantastic beings. Chapter 22 may have been the original ending with the chapters 23-28 being added over the course of the 2nd century as a kind of appendix relating the activities of various bodhisattvas endeavoring the share the teachings of the Lotus Sūtra. Sometime before the middle of the 3rd century the 12th chapter was added. Senchu Murano points out there are several discrepancies between that chapter and other parts of the sūtra betraying its late addition to the text. There were also other late additions to the text, such as a parable being added to 5 and the verse portion of chapter 25.

In China the Lotus Sūtra was translated no less than six times, with the earliest being done in 255. Only three of those translations are still extant. The earliest being the Sūtra of the Lotus Flower of the True Dharma (J. Shōhokke-kyō) by Dharmaraksa (n.d.) in 286. The most popular translation and the one used in T’ien-t’ai and Nichiren Buddhism for study and practice is the Sūtra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Dharma (J. Myōhō-renge-kyō) by Kumārajīva (344-413) that was done in 406. There is also the Supplemented Sūtra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Dharma (J. Tenbon-myōhō-renge-kyō) done by Jñānagupta (523-c. 600). The translations by Dharmaraksa and Jñānagupta used later version of the Sanskrit Lotus Sūtra that contained additions to the text not found in the Kumārajīva version that used an earlier version of the Sanskrit text. In fact, Kumārajīva’s original translation did not include chapter 12 and that was inserted translated in 490 by someone named Fa-i and inserted into the Kumārajīva translation in the early 6th century. Jñānagupta and Dharmagupta (d. 619) are credited with translating and inserting the verse portion of chapter 25 into the Kumārajīva version between 561-601. The Kumārajīva translation was originally divided into seven scrolls, but by the first half of the 8th century it came to be divided into eight, which is the form that we have it in today.

Dharmamitra (356-442) allegedly translated the Meditation on the Bodhisattva Universal Sage Sūtra between 424-442. This sūtra refers explicitly to the Lotus Sūtra and is really a kind of practice manual expanding on chapter 28 of the Lotus Sūtra. For that reason it came to be regarded as the epilogue to the Lotus Sūtra. Dharmajātayaśas (n.d.) allegedly translated the Innumerable Meanings Sūtra in 481. This sūtra does not refer to the Lotus Sūtra but in the first chapter of the Lotus Sūtra it says that the Buddha expounded the a sūtra by this name and so it has come to be seen as the preface to the Lotus Sūtra. There are no Sanskrit copies extant of either of these sūtras and some believe they may actually have been composed in China. In any case, since at least the time of T’ien-t’ai Chih-i (538-597) these two sūtras along with the Lotus Sūtra proper have been regarded as the Threefold Lotus Sūtra.

Three Parts Each of the Two Divisions of the Threefold Lotus Sūtra (J. nikyo rokudan)

The third set that Nichiren analyzes into preface, main discourse, and epilogue is actually two sets that both have a preface, main discourse, and epilogue. These two sets being the division between the Trace Gate or the first half of the Lotus Sūtra and the Original Gate or latter half of the Lotus Sūtra. Sometimes these sets are considered as two different sets and then this system of analysis is referred to as the five sets of three parts (J. gojū sandan).

Furthermore, the ten fascicles of the Threefold Lotus Sūtra can be divided into two sections, the Trace Gate and the Original Gate, each of which contains a preface, main discourse, and epilogue. First, in the Trace Gate, the Sūtra of Infinite Meaning and the first “Introduction” chapter of the Lotus Sūtra compose the preface; the eight chapters of the Lotus Sūtra from the second chapter on “Expedients” to the ninth chapter, “Assurance of Future Buddhahood” inclusive, represent the main discourse; and the five chapters from the tenth chapter, “The Teacher of the Dharma”, to the fourteenth chapter, “Peaceful Practices”, comprise the epilogue. (Ibid, pp. 150-151)

Moreover, fourteen chapters in the Original Gate can be regarded as one sūtra with three parts: the preface, the main discourse, and the epilogue. The first half of the fifteenth chapter, “Appearance of Bodhisattvas from Underground”, is the prologue. The second half of the fifteenth chapter, the sixteenth chapter, “The Life Span of the Buddha”, and the first half of the following chapter, the Variety of Merits”, (a chapter and two-halves in all) make up the main discourse. The remainder constitutes the epilogue. (Ibid, pp. 151-152)

Two early commentators on the Lotus Sūtra, Tao-sheng (d. 434) and Fa-yün (467-529), regarded the first half of the sūtra (chapters 1-14) as the realm of cause and the second half (chapters 15-28) as the realm of effect. Later, Chih-i regarded the first half as the Trace Gate that dealt with the teaching of the One Vehicle by the historical Śākyamuni Buddha and the latter half as the Original Gate that dealt with the teaching of the unquantifiable nature of the Buddha’s lifespan by the Eternal or Original Śākyamuni Buddha to his original disciples the bodhisattvas who spring up from underground. Nichiren’s analysis follows that of Chih-i in his Profound Meaning of the Lotus Sūtra, except that Nichiren includes the Innumerable Meanings Sūtra and the Meditation on the Bodhisattva Universal Sage Sūtra as part of the Trace Gate and Origin Gate respectively.

The preface section of the Trace Gate includes the Innumerable Meanings Sūtra and the first chapter, “Introduction,” of the Lotus Sūtra. The main discourse of the Trace Gate begins with chapter two, “Expedients,” and ends with chapter nine, “Assurance of Future Buddhahood of the Śrāvakas Who Have Something More to Learn and of the Śrāvakas Who Have Nothing More to Learn.” According to Chih-i in his Profound Meaning of the Lotus Sūtra, like a lotus flower whose flowers open to reveal the fruit inside, the Buddha in these chapters is teaching is about “opening the provisional and revealing the true” (J. kaigon-kenjitsu). This means that he opens up or discards the provisional teaching that those following the two vehicles of the śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas cannot attain buddhahood and reveals that in fact they can attain buddhahood. It also means that he discards the three vehicles to reveal that there is in fact only the One Vehicle of buddhahood. It also means that he discards the provisional teaching that separates the ten worlds from hell to buddhahood and reveals their mutual possession, at least in principle. The principle doctrine of the Trace Gate, according to Chih-i, is that of “opening the three vehicles and revealing the One Vehicle” (J. kaisan-ken’ichi) that is at first stated concisely in the first part of chapter two, from the beginning to the end of the fifth set of verses (See Murano 2012, pp. 24-32). In this part the Buddha speaks of the reality of all things (J. shohō-jissō) in terms of ten suchnesses (J. jū-nyoze) or factors at the end of the first prose section. These ten suchnesses are integral to Chih-i’s concept of the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment and they are recited three times to this day by Nichiren Buddhists to show that all ten factors are empty, that all ten are aspects of the provisional existence of the diverse phenomena of the ten worlds, and that all ten are aspects of the Middle Way. Because all ten worlds share these ten factors of the reality of all things, none of the ten worlds are truly separate from one another and so the world of buddhahood embraces all the others and is contained by them and therefore all beings in principle can attain buddhahood. Following this section, from the moment the Buddha responds to Śāriputra’s insistent inquiries to the end of chapter nine, the Buddha gives an expanded explanation of opening of the three vehicles and revealing the one. According to Chih-i, he does this in “three cycles of preaching” (J. sanshū-no-seppō). In the first cycle the Buddha gives a direct explanation in the rest of chapter two of the One Vehicle teaching that only disciples of superior capacity such as Śāriputra are able to take faith in. As a result he predicts the future buddhahood of Śāriputra in the beginning of chapter three, “A Parable.” In the second cycle the Buddha uses parables such as that of Parable of the Burning House in chapter three or the Parable of the Herbs in chapter five to help the disciples with intermediate capacity understand and take faith in his teaching. These disciples receive the prediction of their buddhahood in chapter six, “Assurance of Future Buddhahood.” In the third cycle the Buddha speaks of past life relationships to show that there are strong causal links between him and even the disciples of inferior capacity in order to help them overcome their doubts and take faith in the teaching of the One Vehicle. Specifically in chapter seven, “The Parable of the Magic City,” he speaks of the time three thousand dust-particle kalpas in the past when he sowed the seeds of buddhahood by teaching the Lotus Sūtra to them. Their buddhahood is predicted in chapter eight, “The Assurance of Future Buddhahood of the Five Hundred Disciples.” The epilogue of the Trace Gate runs from chapter ten, “The Teacher of the Dharma,” to chapter 14, “Peaceful Practices.” In those chapters the Buddha shifts his attention to the bodhisattvas and is primarily concerned with the propagation of the Lotus Sūtra into the future. In these chapters the Ceremony in the Air begins in chapter 11, “Beholding the Stūpa of Treasures,” and the assurance of buddhahood for evil men such as Devadatta and for women, children, and even the non-human, represented by the eight year old daughter of the dragon king, occurs in chapter 12, “Devadattva.”

The preface of the Original Gate is the first half of chapter 15, “The Appearance of Bodhisattvas from Underground.” In that chapter countless numbers of bodhisattvas and their attendants spring up from underground, coming from their dwelling place the “sky below the Sahā world.” Maitreya Bodhisattva asks who these bodhisattvas are as no one has ever seen them before. Here the preface ends. (Ibid, pp. 234-240) The main discourse begins in that same chapter as Śākyamuni Buddha explains that they are his own disciples. This leads Maitreya Bodhisattva to ask how it could be possible for the Buddha to have taught such a multitude of ancient bodhisattvas in the short span of time since he attained buddhahood beneath the Bodhi Tree. The response to this leads into the Buddha’s revelation of the actual extent of his lifespan as a Buddha in chapter 16, “The Duration of the Life of the Tathāgata.” In chapter 17, “The Variety of Merits,” the Buddha tells Maitreya Bodhisattva of the benefits gained by all those who heard and believed in what he taught in chapter 16. Maitreya’s response in prose and in verse ends the main discourse consisting of one chapter (16) and two halves (the latter half of 15 and the first half of 17). (Ibid, pp. 240-260) According to Chih-i’s Profound Meaning of the Lotus Sūtra, in the main discourse of the Original Gate the Buddha’s teaching is for the purpose of “opening the near and revealing the distant” (J. kaigon-kenmon) In other words, the Buddha is opening or discarding the idea that he only attained buddhahood in the near past some forty years before and is revealing that he actually attained buddhahood 500 dust-particle kalpas in the distant past. This is first revealed concisely, which is to say implied, in his response to Maitreya Bodhisattva’s initial inquiry about the identify of the bodhisattvas from underground in chapter 15 and revealed in a more extensive or expanded way in chapter 16. The epilogue of the Original Gate consists of the second half of chapter 17 through to chapter 28 and includes the Meditation on the Bodhisattva Universal Sage Sūtra. In chapter 21, “The Supernatural Powers of the Tathāgatas,” the Buddha gives a special transmission of the Dharma to Superior Practice Bodhisattva and the rest of the bodhisattvas from underground. In chapter 22, “Transmission,” there is a general transmission of the Dharma to all the other bodhisattvas present. At that point the Ceremony in the Air comes to a close and presumably Many Treasures Tathāgata and his stūpa of treasures, all the Buddha’s emanations in the ten directions, and the bodhisattvas from underground that appeared in chapter 15 all take their leave. Nichiren in particular underscored that the preaching of the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha during the Ceremony in the Air above Vulture Peak to the bodhisattvas from underground was only told in the eight chapters from 15-22. The other chapters from 23-28 deal with the practices of bodhisattvas like World Voice Perceiver Bodhisattva and Universal Sage Bodhisattva and the protection and support they vow to provide to those who uphold the Lotus Sūtra.

Three Parts of the True Dharma (J. hompon sandan)

The fourth set that Nichiren analyzes has to do with the True Dharma of the five characters of the Odaimoku that is preceded by all else including the Lotus Sūtra itself.

There is another triple division culminating in the Original Gate. Innumerable sutras beginning with the Lotus Sūtra expounded during the time of the ancient Great Universal Wisdom Buddha, those preached by Śākyamuni Buddha during fifty some years of his lifetime – including the Flower Garland Sūtra, fourteen chapters of the Trace Gate of the Lotus Sūtra, and the Nirvāna Sūtra – as well as those preached by Buddhas in all the worlds in the universe in the past, at present, and in the future are the preface to the great Dharma of five characters hidden in the lines of the 16th chapter of the Lotus Sūtra, “The Life Span of the Buddha.

Compared to the one chapter and two-half chapters of the Lotus Sūtra that which comprise the main discourse according to this division, all other sutras may be called Hīnayāna teachings, false teachings, teachings that do not lead to buddhahood, or teachings in which the truth is not revealed. Those who listen to these “expedient” teachings have little virtue and much illusion; they are immature in thinking, poor in heart, and solitary, like birds and beasts, they do not know the existence of the Eternal Buddha, who is their father. (Ibid, p. 152 adapted)

The five characters hidden in the depths of the 16th chapter are of course the title of the Lotus Sūtra: myō, , ren, ge, and kyō. With the addition of na and mu to indicate praise and the taking of refuge, one has the seven character Odaimoku or sacred title whose chanting is to directly contemplate and take to heart the teaching of chapter 16 that the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha is with us always leading us on to our own buddhahood. In comparison to this, all other sūtras, even the other parts of the Lotus Sūtra, are providing only provisional teachings that are meant to lead to and encourage the practice of Odaimoku. Nichiren says that these other teachings are in fact Hīnayāna, even the Mahāyāna sūtras and other parts of the Lotus Sūtra, because they do not clarify the full scope of the Buddha’s awakened life. From their perspective the Buddha enters parinirvāna or “total extinction” like the arhats and pratyekabuddhas who, upon entering parinirvāna themselves, “reduce the body to ashes and annihilate consciousness.” This would mean that the final end of the Buddha is the same kind of extinction as that aimed for in Hīnayāna Buddhism. Only in the one chapter and two-halves does Śākyamuni Buddha reveal that he will always be present and that he does not enter into extinction except in terms of a skillful method to keep people from becoming complacent and over reliant on the Buddha rather than cultivating their own awakening. This means that the ultimate goal of buddhahood is not annihilation but to always be present leading all living beings to buddhahood. The Buddha says in chapter 16: “I am always thinking: ‘How shall I cause all living beings to enter into the unsurpassed Way and quickly become buddhas?’” (Murano 2012, p. 255) The Buddha does this by praising and sharing the Lotus Sūtra, so wherever the Lotus Sūtra is praised, shared, and upheld there one will find the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha. That is why Nichiren saw the Odaimoku, the seven characters that mean “Devotion to the Sūtra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Dharma,” as the expression of the true meaning of the one chapter and two halves revealing the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha.


Bodhi, Bhikkhu, ed., In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2005.

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

Crosby, Kate and Skilton, Andrew, trans. The Bodhicaryāvatāra. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Fuchs, Rosemarie, trans. Buddha Nature: The Mahayana Uttaratantra Shastra with Commentary. Ithaca: Snow Lion Publications, 2000.

Gosho Translation Committee, editor-translator. The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin. Tokyo: Soka Gakkai, 1999.

Hakeda, Yoshito S., trans. The Awakening of Faith: Attributed to Ashvaghosha. New York: Columbia University Press, 1967.

Hori, Kyotsu, comp. Writings of Nichiren Shonin: Doctrine Volume 2. Tokyo: Nichiren Shu Overseas Propagation Promotion Association, 2002.

________________. Writings of Nichiren Shonin: Doctrine Volume 1. Tokyo: Nichiren Shu Overseas Propagation Promotion Association, 2003.

Hurvitz, Leon, trans. The Scripture of the Lotus Blossom of the Fine Dharma (The Lotus Sūtra). New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.

Katō, Bunnō; Yoshirō, Tamura; and Miyasaka, Kōjirō, trans. The Threefold Lotus Sutra: The Sutra of Innumerable Meanings, the Sutra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Law and the Sutra of Meditation on the Bodhisattva Universal Virtue. Tokyo: Kosei Publishing Co., 1988.

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

______________, trans. The Lotus Sutra: The Sutra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Dharma. Tokyo: Nichiren Shu Headquarters, 2012.

Ñānamoli, Bhikkhu, trans. The Life of the Buddha. Seattle: Buddhist Publication Society Pariyatti Editions, 2001.

Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research Editorial Staff. Buddha-Dharma: The Way to Enlightenment (Revised Second Edition). Berkeley: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, 2003.

Pye, Michael. Skillful Means: A Concept in Mahayana Buddhism. London: Duckworth, 1978.

Reeves, Gene, trans. The Lotus Sutra: A Contemporary Translation of a Buddhist Classic. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2008.

Thurman, Robert A.F. The Holy Teaching of Vimalakirti: A Mahayana Scripture. New York: Pennsylvania State University, 1976.

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

_____________, trans. The Lotus Sutra and Its Opening and Closing Sutras. Tokyo: Soka Gakkai, 2009.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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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.