The Meaning of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo

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The essence of Buddhism is the conviction that we have within us at each moment the ability to overcome any problem or difficulty that we may encounter in life; a capacity to transform any suffering. Our lives possess this power because they are inseparable from the fundamental law that underlies the workings of all life and the universe.

Nichiren, the 13th-century Buddhist monk upon whose teachings the Soka Gakkai is based, awakened to this law, or principle, and named it “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo.” Through the Buddhist practice he developed, he provided a way for all people to activate it within their own lives and experience the joy that comes from being able to liberate oneself from suffering at the most fundamental level.

Shakyamuni, first awoke to this law out of a compassionate yearning to find the means to enable all people to be free of the inevitable pains of life. It is because of this that he is known as Buddha, or “Awakened One.” Discovering that the capacity to transform suffering was innate within his own life, he saw too that it is innate within all beings.

The record of Shakyamuni’s teachings to awaken others was captured for posterity in numerous Buddhist sutras. The culmination of these teachings is the Lotus Sutra. In Japanese, “Lotus Sutra” is rendered as Myoho-renge-kyo.

Over a thousand years after Shakyamuni, amidst the turbulence of 13th-century Japan, Nichiren similarly began a quest to recover the essence of Buddhism for the sake of the suffering masses. Awakening to the law of life himself, Nichiren was able to discern that this fundamental law is contained within Shakyamuni’s Lotus Sutra and that it is encapsulated and concisely expressed in the sutra’s title—Myoho-renge-kyo. Nichiren designated the title of the sutra as the name of the law and established the practice of reciting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo as a practical way for all people to focus their hearts and minds upon this law and manifest its transformative power in reality. Nam comes from the Sanskrit namas, meaning to devote or dedicate oneself.

Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is thus a vow, an expression of determination, to embrace and manifest our Buddha nature. It is a pledge to oneself to never yield to difficulties and to win over one’s suffering. At the same time, it is a vow to help others reveal this law in their own lives and achieve happiness.

The individual characters that make up Myoho-renge-kyo express key characteristics of this law. Myo can be translated as mystic or wonderful, and ho means law. This law is called mystic because it is difficult to comprehend. What exactly is it that is difficult to comprehend? It is the wonder of ordinary people, beset by delusion and suffering, awakening to the fundamental law in their own lives, bringing forth wisdom and compassion and realizing that they are inherently Buddhas able to solve their own problems and those of others. The Mystic Law transforms the life of anyone—even the unhappiest person, at any time and in any circumstances—into a life of supreme happiness.

Renge, meaning lotus blossom, is a metaphor that offers further insight into the qualities of this Mystic Law. The lotus flower is pure and fragrant, unsullied by the muddy water in which it grows. Similarly, the beauty and dignity of our humanity is brought forth amidst the sufferings of daily reality.

Further, unlike other plants, the lotus puts forth flowers and fruit at the same time. In most plants, the fruit develops after the flower has bloomed and the petals of the flower have fallen away. The fruit of the lotus plant, however, develops simultaneously with the flower, and when the flower opens, the fruit is there within it. This illustrates the principle of the simultaneity of cause and effect; we do not have to wait to become someone perfect in the future, we can bring forth the power of the Mystic Law from within our lives at any time.

The principle of the simultaneity of cause and effect clarifies that our lives are fundamentally equipped with the great life state of the Buddha and that the attainment of Buddhahood is possible by simply opening up and bringing forth this state. Sutras other than the Lotus Sutra taught that people could attain Buddhahood only by carrying out Buddhist practice over several lifetimes, acquiring the traits of the Buddha one by one. The Lotus Sutra overturns this idea, teaching that all the traits of the Buddha are present within our lives from the beginning.

Kyo literally means sutra and here indicates the Mystic Law likened to a lotus flower, the fundamental law that permeates life and the universe, the eternal truth. The Chinese character kyo also implies the idea of a “thread.” When a fabric is woven, first, the vertical threads are put in place. These represent the basic reality of life. They are the stable framework through which the horizontal threads are woven. These horizontal threads, representing the varied activities of our daily lives, make up the pattern of the fabric, imparting color and variation. The fabric of our lives is comprised of both a fundamental and enduring truth as well as the busy reality of our daily existence with its uniqueness and variety. A life that is only horizontal threads quickly unravels.

These are some of the ways in which the name “Myoho-renge-kyo” describes the Mystic Law, of which our lives are an expression. To chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is an act of faith in the Mystic Law and in the magnitude of life’s inherent possibilities. Throughout his writings, Nichiren emphasizes the primacy of faith. He writes, for instance: “The Lotus Sutra . . . says that one can ‘gain entrance through faith alone.’ . . . Thus faith is the basic requirement for entering the way of the Buddha.” The Mystic Law is the unlimited strength inherent in one’s life. To believe in the Mystic Law and chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is to have faith in one’s unlimited potential. It is not a mystical phrase that brings forth supernatural power, nor is Nam-myoho-renge-kyo an entity transcending ourselves that we rely upon. It is the principle that those who live normal lives and make consistent efforts will duly triumph.

To chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is to bring forth the pure and fundamental energy of life, honoring the dignity and possibility of our ordinary lives.