The term Nichiren school (Nichirenshū) broadly denotes the entire Buddhist tradition deriving from the medieval Japanese teacher Nichiren (1222–1282). It comprises more than forty independent religious institutions, including traditional temple denominations, lay associations, and new religious movements. Originally a monk of the Tendai tradition, Nichiren did not regard himself as the founder of a new sect, nor did he designate his following by any particular sectarian name. Because he taught exclusive faith in the Lotus SŪtra (SaddharmapuṆḌarika-sŪtra), after his death, his following became known as the Lotus sect (Hokkeshū). The name Nichirenshu came into broad usage from around the late sixteenth century.
Present organization and observances
The largest of the Nichiren Buddhist temple denominations takes Nichirenshū as its legal name and has its head temple at Kuonji at Mount Minobu in Yamanashi Prefecture, where Nichiren spent his last years. Other Nichiren Buddhist denominations include, for example, Hokkeshū (Shinmon, Honmon, and Jinmon branches), Honmon Butsuryūshū, Honmon Hokkeshū, Kenpon Hokkeshū, Nichiren Honshū, Nichiren Komonshū, Nichiren Shōshū, and Nichirenshū Fuju Fuse-ha. Many of these temple organizations trace their history back to the original monastic lineages established by Nichiren's immediate disciples, which underwent repeated schisms during the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries due to geographic separation, institutional rivalry, and differences of doctrinal interpretation. The nineteenth century saw the flourishing of Nichiren Buddhist lay associations (kōchū or kō), sometimes independent of priestly guidance, which were the predecessors of today's Nichiren- or Lotus Sūtra-based lay organizations. Of these latter groups, the most prominent are Reiyūkai, Risshō Kōseikai, and SŌka Gakkai, which number among
Japan's largest "new religions." To an extent not seen in other Buddhist sects, the religious energy of modern Nichiren Buddhism has shifted to lay movements.
Despite considerable differences of interpretation and ritual observance, all these various groups revere Nichiren and the Lotus Sūtra and recite the title or daimoku of the Lotus in the formula "Namu Myōhō-renge-kyō," as Nichiren taught. (The actual pronunciation of the daimoku may vary slightly according to the particular group.) This practice, deemed especially suited to the present era, known as the "Final Dharma age" (mappō), is said to manifest individuals' innate potential for buddhahood and lead to positive transformation of the world. Reciting portions of the Lotus Sūtra and chanting the daimoku are performed at all formal ceremonies and constitute the basic practice of both clergy and laity. In addition to annual rites conducted by temples of all Buddhist sects, such as New Year's observances and memorial services for the dead at the equinoxes and during the summer Obon festival, Nichiren Buddhist temples and lay societies perform ritual observances on dates sacred to their tradition, usually transposed from the lunar to the Western calendar. These include Nichiren's birthday (celebrated February 16); the date of his first sermon, said to mark the founding of the Nichiren school (April 28); commemorations of various persecutions that Nichiren faced in propagating his teachings; and the day of his death or nirvaṆĀ (October 13).
The founder Nichiren
Nichiren is often counted as one of the founders of the "new Buddhism" of the Kamakura period (1185–1333). He was born in Kominato in Awa Province (Chiba prefecture) in humble circumstances. At age twelve he entered a nearby temple, Seichōji or Kiyosumidera, for study and was ordained four years later, in 1237. Driven by a desire to understand the truth of the Buddha's teachings, he spent the next sixteen years studying at major monasteries, including the great Tendai Buddhist center at Mount Hiei near Kyoto, the imperial capital. Later he based himself in Kamakura, seat of the newly established shogunate or military government, where he proselytized among warriors of middle and lower rank. Nichiren's early teachings draw heavily on Tiantai/Tendai thought grounded in the Lotus Sūtra and its commentaries, as well as on esoteric Buddhism. His early teachings also championed traditional Buddhist institutions over and against the growing influence of the new Pure Land sect founded by HŌnen (1133–1212). Over time, however, Nichiren increasingly stressed that only the Lotus Sūtra leads to liberation during this Final Dharma age, and he began to dissociate himself from the Tendai Buddhist establishment, which he saw as having adulterated devotion to the Lotus with the practice of provisional teachings no longer suited to the times. Based on Tendai doctrines of the nonduality of persons and their environment, Nichiren interpreted the disasters of his day—including famine, epidemics, and Mongol invasion attempts—as karmic retribution for people having abandoned the Lotus Sūtra in favor of lesser teachings; conversely, he held, the spread of faith in the Lotus would transform this world into the Buddha land. This theme informs his famous admonitory treatise, Risshō ankoku ron (On Establishing the Right [Dharma] and Bringing Peace to the Land), delivered to the shogunate in 1260, as well as his later writings.
Convinced of the pressing need to communicate his message, Nichiren adopted shakubuku, a confrontational method of teaching the dharma by directly rebuking attachment to provisional teachings, whether through writing, preaching, or religious debate. Nichiren's mounting criticism of other forms of Buddhism, and of government officials for supporting them, soon incurred the anger of the authorities. He was exiled twice, to the Izu peninsula (1261–1263) and to Sado island (1271–1274), and was once nearly beheaded during the so-called Ryūkō or Tatsunokuchi persecution of the twelfth day, ninth month, 1271. Several of his followers were imprisoned or had their lands confiscated. Nichiren considered these trials a proof of the righteousness of his convictions and asserted the need to uphold the Lotus Sūtra in the face of opposition, even at the cost of one's life. His mature teachings were developed during his exile to Sado and his subsequent reclusion on Mount Minobu (1274–1282), where he devoted his last years to writing and to training successors. More than a hundred of his writings, including personal letters and doctrinal essays, survive in his own hand.
Nichiren adopted the Tiantai school doctrine of reality as "three thousand realms in a single-thought moment" (ichinen sanzen) to explain the theoretical basis upon which ordinary people can realize buddhahood, and their surroundings become the buddha land. In terms of practice for the Final Dharma age, however, Nichiren understood "the single thought-moment being three thousand realms," not as a formless principle to be discerned within one's own mind, as in Tiantai meditation, but as manifested in concrete form as the "three great secret dharmas" (sandai hihō). Derived from the "origin teaching" (honmon) or latter half of the Lotus Sūtra, regarded as the preaching of the original or primordially enlightened Buddha, these three constitute the core of Nichiren's teaching. They are:
(1) The daimoku. For Nichiren, the five characters Myō-hō-ren-ge-kyō (in Japanese pronunciation) that comprise the Lotus Sūtra's title are not merely a name but embody the essence of all Buddhist teachings and are the seed of buddhahood for all beings. All the practices and resulting virtues of the primordial Buddha are encompassed in these five characters and are "naturally transferred" to the practitioner in the moment of faith and practice. That is, the practitioner and the original Buddha are identified in the act of chanting the daimoku.
(2) The honzon, or object of worship. Nichiren's honzon has the two inseparable aspects of the "Buddha," the primordial Śākyamuni of the origin teaching, enlightened since the beginningless past, and the "dharma," the truth of "Myōhō-renge-kyō," to which this Buddha is awakened. Nichiren gave this object of worship iconic form as a calligraphic maṆḌala of his own devising. "Namu Myōhō-renge-kyō" is inscribed down its center, while to the left and right are written the characters for the names of the two buddhas, Śākyamuni and Prabhūtaratna, along with the names of other representatives of those present at the assembly of the Lotus Sūtra. This maṇḍala depicts the realm of the primordial Buddha, which, Nichiren taught, ordinary persons can enter through faith. More than 120 of these maṇḍalas, inscribed for individual followers and their families, survive in Nichiren's handwriting. Various configurations of sculpted images representing the original Buddha and his Lotus assembly were also used by later Nichiren followers.
(3) The kaidan, or ordination platform. This designates the place of practice. Nichiren's own writings do not explain it in detail, and considerable controversy has surrounded its interpretation. Nichiren himself may well have envisioned the kaidan as an actual physical structure, supplanting the other, court-sponsored ordination platforms of his day, to be erected by imperial authority at some future time when people had widely embraced faith in the Lotus Sūtra. At the same time, the kaidan has often been interpreted metaphorically, to mean that wherever one embraces faith in the Lotus Sūtra is the buddha land.
Although he taught devotion to the Lotus as a self-contained, exclusive practice, Nichiren understood that practice as encompassing all possible benefits: realization of buddhahood, assurance for one's next life, eradication of sin, cultivation of merit, and protection and blessings in this world.
Contributions to Japanese culture
A key element of Nichiren's legacy is his doctrine of risshō ankoku (establishing the right [dharma] and bringing peace to the land), which holds that faith in the Lotus Sūtra can manifest the buddha land in this present world. This ideal supports the value of positive engagement with society and may have contributed to the growth of mercantile culture in Japan's medieval cities. In the mid-fifteenth century, half the population of Kyoto—the majority of them manufacturers, tradespeople, and moneylenders—is said to have belonged to the Nichiren school. Since the late nineteenth century, Nichiren's goal of transforming this world into a buddha land has been assimilated to a range of political and social goals. During Japan's modern imperial period (1868–1945), some Nichirenist lay societies, such as the Kokuchūkai (Pillar of the Nation Society), established in 1914 by Tanaka Chigaku (1861–1939), interpreted Nichiren's risshō ankoku ideal in terms of Japanese nationalism and deployed it to legitimize the armed expansion of empire. In the post–World War II period, especially among the new religious movements, it has been interpreted as a spiritual basis for the antinuclear movement, efforts for global peace, and a range of humanitarian endeavors. Nipponzan Myōhōji, a small Nichiren Buddhist monastic order, embraces absolute pacificism and engages in peace marches and civil protest, while Nichiren- or Lotus-based lay organizations, notably Sōka Gakkai and Risshō Kōseikai, support the United Nations as NGO (nongovernmental organization) members and engage in relief work and civic projects. This side of Nichiren Buddhism lends itself to contemporary emphasis on Buddhist social engagement.
Another, less well-recognized contribution of the Nichiren school lies in its history of committed individuals, beginning with Nichiren himself, who risked official displeasure for the dharma's sake. Once well established, most Nichiren Buddhist institutions, both past and present—like religious institutions more generally—have tended to take a conciliatory stance toward existing authority and support the status quo. Nonetheless, Nichiren's teaching that one must uphold the Lotus Sūtra even in the face of persecution from the country's ruler created a moral space exterior to worldly authority, from which that authority could be criticized and, if necessary, opposed. This attitude of defiance has periodically resurfaced, often on the part of those who saw themselves as reformers within the Nichiren school, seeking to revive the founder's spirit. Medieval hagiographies celebrate the stories of those monks of the tradition who, in imitation of Nichiren, admonished high officials to take faith in the Lotus Sūtra for the country's welfare and were imprisoned or tortured as a result. A later example is the Nichiren fuju fuse (neither receiving nor giving) movement of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, whose monks—until driven underground—resisted official controls imposed on religious institutions, refusing to accept alms from rulers who were not Lotus devotees or to participate in public religious ceremonies for their benefit. Similarly, during the 1940s, leaders of both Honmon Hokkeshū and Sōka Gakkai were imprisoned for their defiance of wartime government religious policy, which mandated displays of reverence for state Shintō. Nichiren's intransigent spirit and his example of unwavering loyalty to a transcendent truth have also inspired individuals, linked only tenuously to the Nichiren tradition or even outside it altogether, who have faced official sanctions for their beliefs. These include the Christian leader Uchimura Kanzō (1861–1930) and the socialist activist Senoo Girō (1890–1961).
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Jacqueline I. Stone