Chapter 4: Nichiren Daishonin and the Lotus Sutra

1. The Lotus Sutra

The Lotus Sutra is a scripture that embodies the essence of Mahayana Buddhism. It teaches unequivocally that all people can attain buddhahood. This section will explain the significance and major doctrines of the Lotus Sutra.

The Lotus Sutra has radically changed the Buddhist view of life and of buddhahood. The sutras Shakyamuni preached during the more than forty years before the Lotus Sutra teach that ordinary people cannot attain buddhahood in this lifetime. Moreover, they stay in one of nine worlds other than buddhahood until they die and only then can move to another in rebirth. Therefore, if people wish to attain buddhahood, they have to carry out Buddhist practices through numerous lifetimes until they eradicate all of their earthly desires, purify their lives, and obtain benefit and virtue worthy of buddhas. Then and only then can they attain buddhahood. And when they succeed, only the world of buddhahood will be present in their lives.

However, in the Lotus Sutra Shakyamuni reveals the truth that buddhahood exists inherently in the lives of ordinary people and that everyone can attain buddhahood immediately by bringing it forth from within their lives.

This teaching of the Lotus Sutra is founded on two doctrines: the true aspect of all phenomena and the attainment of buddhahood in the remote past.

1) The True Aspect of All Phenomena and the Attainment of Buddhahood in the Remote Past

The True Aspect of All Phenomena

The Lotus Sutra, which consists of twenty-eight chapters, can be divided into two distinct parts: the theoretical teaching, which equates to the first fourteen chapters, and the essential teaching, the latter fourteen chapters.

Two doctrines central to the theoretical teaching (the first half) are the true aspect of all phenomena and the attainment of buddhahood by people of the two vehicles.

The true aspect of all phenomena is a principle expounded in the “Expedient Means” (2nd) chapter of the sutra. All phenomena here means the world around us and its various workings, including the affairs of life and society. True aspect means their ultimate reality or true essential nature.

The truth or reality of all things that buddhas, through their vast and profound wisdom, are able to perceive is called the true aspect of all phenomena. Once one perceives this reality, one understands that all phenomena and their true aspect are not two separate things but that all phenomena are in fact manifestations or expressions of the true aspect. Therefore, all phenomena and their true aspect can never be divided or separated.

Based on the commentaries of Great Teacher Tiantai (Zhiyi), Nichiren Daishonin clarified that all phenomena refers specifically to all living beings of the Ten Worlds and their respective environments, whereas the true aspect refers to Myoho-renge-kyo.

In his work “The True Aspect of All Phenomena,” the Daishonin states that “all beings and environments in the Ten Worlds, from hell, the lowest, to buddhahood, the highest, are without exception manifestations of Myoho-renge-kyo” (WND-1, 383).

The teaching of the true aspect of all phenomena reveals that not only buddhas but also the beings of the other nine worlds are all equal because each of the Ten Worlds possesses all of the ten and are essentially embodiments of Myoho-renge-kyo.

Prior to the Lotus Sutra, it was thought that a practically insurmountable gap lay between a buddha and an ordinary person; that is, between the life state of buddhahood and the other nine worlds.

However, the Lotus Sutra takes the opposite view. While buddhas and ordinary people of the nine worlds take on different appearances and qualities in terms of their roles and behavior in the real world, on the level of life itself they are essentially the same, with no distinction between them. Beings of the nine worlds, whatever their present condition or state of life, are all in principle capable of attaining buddhahood.

Based on the principle of the true aspect of all phenomena, the Lotus Sutra reveals that people of the two vehicles (voice-hearers and cause-awakened ones) can in fact become buddhas, although the pre-Lotus Sutra teachings denied their possibility of attaining buddhahood.

Furthermore, the Lotus Sutra also guarantees the attainment of buddhahood by evil people as well as the attainment of buddhahood by women—two groups that were also denied the possibility of enlightenment in the pre-Lotus Sutra teachings.

The “Expedient Means” chapter goes on to explain that the reason or purpose for which all buddhas appear in this world is to “open the door of buddha wisdom” for all people, to “show the buddha wisdom” to them, to “cause them to awaken to the buddha wisdom,” and to “induce them to enter the path of buddha wisdom” (cf. LSOC, 64).

In other words, the fundamental wish of Shakyamuni and all other buddhas is to enable all people to reveal the buddha wisdom, inherent equally in everyone’s life, and to carry out Buddhist practice based on that wisdom. In this way, they aim to enable all people to achieve a state of life equal to that of the buddhas themselves. This is conveyed in the Lotus Sutra by Shakyamuni’s statement of his long-held vow “to make all persons equal to me, without any distinction between us” (LSOC, 70). This is the fundamental purpose of Buddhism.

The Attainment of Buddhahood in the Remote Past

A principle central to the essential teaching (the latter half) of the Lotus Sutra is the revelation of Shakyamuni’s attainment of buddhahood in the remote past.

In the pre-Lotus Sutra teachings up through the theoretical teaching (the first half) of the Lotus Sutra, Shakyamuni is described as follows: He was born a prince of the country of the Shakya clan in ancient India but left home to pursue a religious life and after a period of ascetic practices attained enlightenment, or buddhahood, for the first time while seated in meditation under the Bodhi tree on the outskirts of Gaya (later called Bodh Gaya). According to those teachings, the causes he had made and accumulated through many lifetimes of Buddhist practice had resulted in his obtaining the rewards of benefit and virtue that enabled him, in his present life in India, to attain buddhahood. But his revelation that he had actually attained enlightenment in the distant past fundamentally overturned that existing image.

As explained earlier, the teaching of the true aspect of all phenomena in the theoretical teaching reveals that there is no essential difference between a buddha and an ordinary person, because both are embodiments of Myoho-renge-kyo. In other words, while buddhahood is inherent in the lives of ordinary people and anyone can attain buddhahood at any time, it would actually require practice over numerous lifetimes to do so. In the theoretical teaching, even Shakyamuni is seen as having attained buddhahood only after an unimaginably long period of practice, and so disciples would naturally have to carry out the same practice as their teacher.

In contrast, the essential teaching, through the example of Shakyamuni attaining enlightenment in the remote past, explains that buddhahood, along with the other nine worlds, is permanently inherent in the lives of all people and that they can manifest buddhahood at any moment under the right conditions.

The “Life Span” (16th) chapter offers a description of a period known as numberless major world system dust particle kalpas to explain the vastness of the time that has passed since Shakyamuni originally attained buddhahood. This overturned the accepted view that Shakyamuni had attained enlightenment for the first time during his lifetime in India and revealed him to be the eternal buddha who had been enlightened since the remote past. It also explains that since that time he has always been present in this impure saha world.1

The chapter says, “It has been immeasurable, boundless hundreds, thousands, ten thousands, millions of nayutas of kalpas since I in fact attained buddhahood” (LSOC, 265–66). This signifies that the life state of the Buddha is eternal and always present.

After revealing his original enlightenment in the remote past, Shakyamuni states, “Originally I practiced the bodhisattva way, and the life span that I acquired then has yet to come to an end but will last twice the number of years that have already passed” (LSOC, 268). This means that the nine worlds, represented by the life state of a bodhisattva, are also eternal and always present.

The above two passages mean that both the life state of buddhahood and that of the nine worlds are forever present in Shakyamuni’s life.

Before the Lotus Sutra clarified that Shakyamuni had attained buddhahood in the remote past, it was taught that before becoming a buddha in India he had purged the nine worlds and their delusions from his life.

In contrast, Shakyamuni’s revelation of his original enlightenment shows that all of the other nine worlds are inherent within the world of buddhahood in his life. Therefore, he was able to appear as a bodhisattva taking various forms as he carried out Buddhist practice in subsequent lifetimes in the past. But even while appearing and acting as a bodhisattva, buddhahood always existed within his life. In this way he embodied the mutual possession of the Ten Worlds.

Shakyamuni, the buddha who attained enlightenment in the remote past, is in fact free from the endless cycle of birth and death, but in order to cause people to seek his teachings, he passes away. He states in the “Life Span” chapter, “As an expedient means I appear to enter nirvana but in truth I do not pass into extinction” (LSOC, 270–71).

Further, the sutra explains that this eternal buddha always dwells in the Land of Eternally Tranquil Light, which is none other than this saha world where ordinary people of the nine worlds live. (This is known as the principle that the saha world is the Land of Eternally Tranquil Light.) He appears whenever and wherever there are people who seek the Buddha single-mindedly and strive in Buddhist practice without begrudging their lives.

In other words, when one believes in and practices the Lotus Sutra, one’s innate buddhahood emerges, and at the same time one’s environment becomes a buddha land. This is because everyone’s life is inherently endowed with the state of a buddha. This innate buddha nature functions as the internal cause, which in response to the right conditions brings about, at any time or any place, the reward of buddhahood in one’s own being and in the environment.

It is the principle of Shakyamuni’s attainment of buddhahood in the remote past that sheds light on the true nature of life; namely that from the most distant past into the limitless future, everyone is essentially a buddha.

2) The Bodhisattvas of the Earth

In the “Emerging from the Earth” (15th) chapter of the Lotus Sutra, Shakyamuni summons countless bodhisattvas for the purpose of entrusting them with the propagation of his teaching in the evil age after his passing. Because the sutra depicts them as emerging in vast numbers from beneath the ground, they are known as the Bodhisattvas of the Earth and are considered to have been dwelling in the realm of fundamental truth.

The Bodhisattvas of the Earth are countless in number, each leading an entourage of followers as numerous as the sands of sixty thousand Ganges, the greatest and most venerated river in India.

These bodhisattvas had been constantly taught and instructed by Shakyamuni since the remote past and had already come to uphold the fundamental teaching for attaining buddhahood. Possessing within them the same enlightened life state as Shakyamuni, they are charged with the mission to widely spread the Mystic Law in the evil age known as the Latter Day of the Law.

They are led by four bodhisattvas—Superior Practices, Boundless Practices, Pure Practices, and Firmly Established Practices. In the “Supernatural Powers” (21st) chapter of the Lotus Sutra, Superior Practices and all these bodhisattvas vow to spread the great Law after Shakyamuni’s passing. In response to their vow, Shakyamuni entrusts them with propagating his teaching in the age after his passing, charging them with transmitting the great Law into the future.

In view of these sutra passages, two major questions still remain. That is, when after Shakyamuni’s passing will the Bodhisattvas of the Earth actually appear, and what exactly is the great Law they will spread when they do?

Nichiren Daishonin makes it clear that the time when the Bodhisattvas of the Earth will appear is in the Latter Day of the Law, and the great Law they will spread is the Mystic Law, or Nam-myoho-renge-kyo.

The Daishonin himself fulfilled the instructions contained in this entrustment of the teachings by Shakyamuni described in the Lotus Sutra. That is, it is the Daishonin who appeared at the beginning of the Latter Day of the Law, taught Nam-myoho-renge-kyo to all people, and spread it with selfless dedication. In this sense, the Daishonin is himself a Bodhisattva of the Earth, whose role accords in particular with that of their leader, Bodhisattva Superior Practices.

In “The True Aspect of All Phenomena,” Nichiren Daishonin writes:

“Now, no matter what, strive in faith and be known as a votary of the Lotus Sutra, and remain my disciple for the rest of your life. If you are of the same mind as Nichiren, you must be a Bodhisattva of the Earth. And if you are a Bodhisattva of the Earth, there is not the slightest doubt that you have been a disciple of Shakyamuni Buddha from the remote past.” (WND-1, 385)

This passage explains that everyone who accepts and believes in the Daishonin’s teachings, propagates them, and works to achieve kosen-rufu is without exception a Bodhisattva of the Earth. That person is a genuine disciple of Nichiren Daishonin, the Buddha of the Latter Day of the Law.

3) Bodhisattva Never Disparaging

The practice of Bodhisattva Never Disparaging described in the “Never Disparaging” (20th) chapter of the Lotus Sutra serves as an example of how to spread the correct teaching in the evil age after Shakyamuni’s passing.

Never Disparaging is one of the figures appearing in the Lotus Sutra who depicts Shakyamuni as he carried out Buddhist practices in a former lifetime. He consistently venerates everyone he encounters, no matter who they are, including even those who attack or persecute him, bowing in respect and reciting to each a phrase known as the twenty-four-character Lotus Sutra. This name derives from the fact that the phrase consists of twenty-four Chinese characters in the sutra’s text and expresses the essence of the Lotus Sutra’s teachings and practice. It reads: “I have profound reverence for you, I would never dare treat you with disparagement or arrogance. Why? Because you will all practice the bodhisattva way and will then be able to attain buddhahood” (LSOC, 308). These words plainly demonstrate the Lotus Sutra’s essential philosophy, which is to respect the life of any and every person because each inherently possesses the buddha nature.

While preaching this twenty-four-character Lotus Sutra, Never Disparaging is attacked by arrogant people who throw rocks and hit him with sticks, but he perseveres in his practice of consistently praising them and treating them with respect. The sutra explains that it was through the benefit deriving from these actions that Never Disparaging became a buddha.

The Latter Day of the Law is described as an age of contention or conflict. And the only way to resolve conflict and create a society of humanity and peace is for each person to believe in the buddha nature of both themselves and others, and to consistently act in a manner that shows respect for people. Buddhism teaches the loftiest form of human behavior—actions that respect others—and encourages all people to act in this manner.

Regarding the importance of human behavior, Nichiren Daishonin states:

“The heart of the Buddha’s lifetime of teachings is the Lotus Sutra, and the heart of the practice of the Lotus Sutra is found in the “Never Disparaging” chapter. What does Bodhisattva Never Disparaging’s profound respect for people signify? The purpose of the appearance in this world of Shakyamuni Buddha, the lord of teachings, lies in his behavior as a human being.” (WND-1, 851–52)

Here the Daishonin is clearly stating that the purpose of Buddhism is to behave as Never Disparaging did, that is, to believe in one’s own buddha nature and that of others and act in accord with that belief.

2. Nichiren Daishonin and the Lotus Sutra

In the Latter Day of Law, it is inevitable that those who spread the Lotus Sutra will encounter great difficulties. Nichiren Daishonin propagated the Lotus Sutra and encountered major persecutions for doing so, just as the sutra predicted. In this way, he “read” the Lotus Sutra with his very life and fulfilled the role of the votary of the Lotus Sutra who proves the validity of the sutra’s teachings

1) The Votary of the Lotus Sutra in the Latter Day of the Law

Nichiren Daishonin referred to himself as the votary of the Lotus Sutra—the genuine practitioner of the sutra who carried out its teachings exactly as instructed while facing and overcoming great persecutions in order to propagate the Mystic Law. The Lotus Sutra explains that anyone who believes in, practices, and spreads the sutra’s teaching after Shakyamuni’s passing will be assailed by various kinds of obstacles and persecutions.

Suffering Extreme Hatred and Jealousy

In the “Teacher of the Law” (10th) chapter of the Lotus Sutra is the passage “Since hatred and jealousy toward this sutra abound even when the thus come one [Shakyamuni Buddha] is in the world, how much more will this be so after his passing?” (LSOC, 203)

In the Latter Day of the Law, it was only Nichiren Daishonin who experienced persecutions motived by intense hatred and jealously surpassing those directed at Shakyamuni in his time.

The Six Difficult and Nine Easy Acts

The “Emergence of the Treasure Tower” (11th) chapter of the Lotus Sutra describes six difficult and nine easy acts. Through these examples, Shakyamuni emphasizes the great difficulty of accepting and spreading the Lotus Sutra in the time after his passing and calls on bodhisattvas to make a vow to propagate the sutra in the Latter Day of the Law.

The six difficult acts are (1) to propagate the Lotus Sutra widely, (2) to copy it or cause someone else to copy it, (3) to recite it even for a short while, (4) to teach it even to one person, (5) to hear of and accept it and inquire about its meaning, and (6) to maintain faith in it.

The nine easy acts include taking up Mount Sumeru and hurling it across countless buddha lands, placing the earth on one’s toenail and ascending to the Brahma heaven, walking across a burning prairie carrying a bundle of hay on one’s back without being burned, and preaching eighty-four thousand teachings.

While the nine “easy” acts appear impossibly difficult, they are to be considered easy when compared with the difficulty of the six acts connected with spreading the Lotus Sutra in the Latter Day of the Law.

The reason that propagating the Lotus Sutra is so difficult is that doing so invites very real hardships in the form of opposition and persecution. In explaining things in terms of the six difficult and nine easy acts, the sutra is strongly expressing Shakyamuni’s spirit and intent in encouraging the propagation of its teachings, the most difficult among difficult endeavors, in the age after his passing.

The Three Powerful Enemies

The “Encouraging Devotion” (13th) chapter of the Lotus Sutra contains a passage known as the twenty-line verse describing three kinds of people who strongly oppress those who spread the sutra after Shakyamuni’s passing. Collectively, they are called the three powerful enemies. They are defined as arrogant laypeople, arrogant priests, and arrogant false sages.

The first of the three powerful enemies, arrogant laypeople, refers to people who, ignorant of the Buddhist teachings, attack the practitioners of the Lotus Sutra. Because the Daishonin endeavored to spread the Lotus Sutra, such people slandered him and attacked him with swords and staves, just as the sutra predicted.

The second powerful enemy, arrogant priests, indicates members of the Buddhist clergy who persecute the Lotus Sutra’s practitioners. In the Daishonin’s time, Buddhist priests, clinging to their own shallow views and interpretations, slandered the sutra and persecuted him.

The third powerful enemy, arrogant false sages, refers to high-ranking Buddhist priests who pass themselves off as sages or saints and use their status and influence to persecute the practitioners of the Lotus Sutra.

During the Daishonin’s time, the priest Ryokan of Gokurakuji temple best fit this description of an arrogant false sage. While he was highly respected as a saint by the people of Kamakura, he was in reality most concerned with personal profit and advantage and maliciously sought to destroy the votary of the Lotus Sutra. He ingratiated himself with the wives of certain government officials, among whom he spread rumors and false accusations against Nichiren Daishonin and his followers, plotting in this way to influence the authorities to oppress the Daishonin. This led to the Daishonin’s persecution at Tatsunokuchi—a failed attempt to execute him—and his subsequent exile to Sado Island.

Because he was sent into exile twice—first to Ito on the Izu Peninsula and second to Sado Island—Nichiren Daishonin stated that he had read with his very life the passage in the “Encouraging Devotion” chapter that reads “again and again we will be banished” (LSOC, 234).

It is clear, then, that Nichiren Daishonin encountered major persecutions at the hands of the three powerful enemies, exactly as the Lotus Sutra says will befall its votary, or true practitioner. Because he met persecutions on account of propagating the Lotus Sutra that exactly matched those predicted in the sutra itself, the Daishonin, in “The Selection of the Time,” writes, “There can be no room to doubt that I, Nichiren, am the foremost votary of the Lotus Sutra in all of Japan” (WND-1, 575). In the same work, he also states, “I, Nichiren, am the foremost votary of the Lotus Sutra in the entire land of Jambudvipa [the entire world]” (WND-1, 552).

In light of all this, the Lotus Sutra is the Buddhist scripture that predicts the Daishonin’s appearance and behavior in the Latter Day of the Law, and by reading the Lotus Sutra with his very life (by fulfilling the predictions made in the sutra), the Daishonin proved that the sutra itself was in no way false, attesting to the validity of Shakyamuni’s words.

2) Bodhisattva Superior Practices

Nichiren Daishonin was the first to stand alone and stake his life on spreading the Mystic Law as the votary of the Lotus Sutra in the Latter Day of the Law. In this way, he demonstrated that his mission and behavior accorded with that of Bodhisattva Superior Practices, whom Shakyamuni, in the Lotus Sutra, entrusted with propagating the sutra’s teaching in the Latter Day of the Law.

The “Supernatural Powers” chapter explains that having been entrusted with propagating the sutra’s teaching in the Latter Day of the Law, Superior Practices and the other Bodhisattvas of the Earth will function as the sun and moon to illuminate and expel the obscurity and gloom plaguing people living amid the realities of this world. Also, in the “Emerging from the Earth” chapter, the Bodhisattvas of the Earth are compared to the lotus flowers that, unsullied by this impure world and untroubled by earthly desires or afflictions, blossom and bring forth the fruit of enlightenment.

This indicates that Superior Practices is the enlightened teacher of the Latter Day of the Law who in Shakyamuni’s stead teaches and leads the people of this age to buddhahood.

Nichiren Daishonin gave himself the name Nichiren (meaning sun lotus) and as the votary of the Lotus Sutra persevered in his efforts to save people from suffering. His choice of this name expresses his conviction that he is fulfilling the role of Superior Practices, whose function is compared in the “Supernatural Powers” and “Emerging from the Earth” chapters to the sun, the moon, and the lotus flower.

While in terms of his behavior the Daishonin was carrying out the function of Superior Practices, on a deeper level—in terms of his intrinsic, enlightened state of life—he was the buddha of limitless joy from time without beginning, the buddha who can fully display the dignity life inherently possesses.

The Daishonin expressed this fundamental life state of buddhahood in the form of a mandala, the Gohonzon, which he modeled after the Ceremony in the Air2 in the Lotus Sutra, establishing it as the object of devotion that all people of the Latter Day of the Law should believe in and uphold in order to attain buddhahood.

When one believes in the Gohonzon of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo and reveals the Law of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo inherent in one’s life, one can manifest the life state of the buddha of time without beginning. It means that ordinary people actually carry out the actions of that buddha in their daily lives and society.

Soka Gakkai members pray to this Gohonzon as an embodiment, or mirror, of their innate buddhahood, chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo with the conviction that they themselves are the Mystic Law, and strive to teach and share this teaching with others. By doing so they will, just like Nichiren Daishonin, manifest the Mystic Law in their lives, revealing the state of buddhahood and enjoying the benefit and good fortune that comes with it.

  • *1Saha world: Saha is a Sanskrit term that can be translated as “to endure.” The saha world is one where people must endure ceaseless confusion and suffering, the real world in which we live at present.
  • *2The Ceremony in the Air: One of the assemblies described in the Lotus Sutra, in which the entire gathering is suspended in space above the ground. During the ceremony, Shakyamuni transfers the essence of the Lotus Sutra specifically to the Bodhisattvas of the Earth led by Superior Practices, entrusting them with its propagation in the Latter Day of the Law. The heart of the ceremony consists of the revelation of Shakyamuni’s original enlightenment and the transfer of the essence of the sutra to the Bodhisattvas of the Earth.