On the Lotus Sutra

Part 1: Nichiren

Progress & Conservation🔰
11 min readJan 10, 2024
The Buddha Preaching the Lotus Sutra to the Assembly, generated using AI

I found that it was hard to talk about the Lotus Sutra without also talking about Nichiren, so I’ve decided to talk about both. I am not a Nichirenist per se and I find the personality cult around Nichiren to be off-putting but I do believe that there is something of value in Nichiren’s approach to Lotus Sutra Buddhism. Nichiren Daishonin lived in Japan from 1222 to 1282AD. One of the key features of Nichiren’s approach to Buddhism was his emphasis on the efficacy of reciting the title of the Lotus Sutra — Nam myoho renge kyo — as a “direct path to enlightenment.” Nichiren and his followers seek to constantly recite the Daimoku (or title) of the Lotus Sutra without ceasing.

This practice seems to have really taken off with Nichiren but it is not without basis in the Lotus Sutra itself. The Lotus Sutra explicitly speaks of the immeasurable merits of one who receives and recites even a single verse or the title of the Lotus Sutra.

“I bestow the assurance of Supreme Perfect Awakening upon all of these beings who, in the presence of the Buddha, hear even a single verse or a single phrase of the Wondrous Dharma Flower Sutra and through it, experience even a moment of rejoicing….
Moreover, I also bestow the assurance of Supreme Perfect Awakening upon those people who, after the passing of the Tathagata,
hear even a single verse or a single phrase of the Wondrous Dharma Flower Sutra and thereby experience even a moment of rejoicing….
Ajita, if, after my passing, these good sons and daughters receive, embrace, read, and
recite this sutra, then they will also possess such excellent merits as these. You should know that they have already proceeded to the place of the Way, are sitting under a bodhi tree, and are quite near to Supreme Perfect Awakening. Ajita, in every place that those good sons and good daughters sit, stand, or walk, you should erect a stupa, and all heavenly beings and humans should pay homage to it just as if they were paying homage to a stupa of the Buddha….
I will now clearly tell you about the merits of this man who gave the means of happiness to all beings in the six realms of existence of four hundred thousand million myriads of worlds and caused them to attain arhatship. His merits do not come close to those of the fiftieth person who heard
a single verse of the Dharma Flower Sutra and rejoiced….
Good, good. Were you able only to protect those
who receive and embrace the name of the Dharma Flower, your merits would be beyond measure. How much more will they be so as you protect those who perfectly receive, embrace, and pay homage to the [entire] sutra…” — The Lotus Sutra

So Nichiren makes the simple recitation of the Daimoku, the title of the Lotus Sutra — Nam myoho renge kyo — the central pillar of his practice and teachings. During Nichiren’s time, Pure Land Buddhism was on the rise in Japan, and Pure Land Buddhists were teaching that one must chant the name of Amitabha (Amida) in order to be reborn in his Pure Land, Sukhavati — and they held that this practice alone was a suitable path to enlightenment for people living today. The complicated meditative techniques of Theravada and Vajrayana, they argued, are too difficult for most people today and can only be practiced by a full-time monk. The best that an ordinary person can hope for, therefore, is to be reborn in Amitabha’s Sukhavati realm, a world without the distractions and difficulties that make Buddhist practice difficult in this world. Nichiren flatly rejected this idea. Instead, he insists that the Lotus Sutra teachings are true, saying, “An ordinary person is a Buddha, and a Buddha, an ordinary person. This is what is meant by three thousand realms in a single moment of life and by the phrase ‘I in fact attained Buddhahood.’”(The Izu Exile)

The Lotus Sutra says that remembering and reciting a single line of the Lotus Sutra is sufficient. And this is the basis of Nichiren’s doctrine. Simply by chanting the Daimoku, one can totally purify themselves, as if they were polishing a tarnished mirror, so as to reflect the true nature of reality — Buddhahood! Nichiren writes:

“Nevertheless, even though you chant and believe in Myoho-renge-kyo, if you think the Law is outside yourself, you are embracing not the Mystic Law but an inferior teaching….
You must never think that any of the eighty thousand sacred teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha’s lifetime or any of the Buddhas and bodhisattvas of the ten directions and three existences are outside yourself. Your practice of the Buddhist teachings will not relieve you of the sufferings of birth and death in the least unless you perceive the true nature of your life. If you seek enlightenment outside yourself, then your performing even ten thousand practices and ten thousand good deeds will be in vain….
Whether you chant the Buddha’s name, recite the sutra, or merely offer flowers and incense, all your virtuous acts will implant benefits and roots of goodness in your life. With this conviction you should strive in faith. The Vimalakīrti Sutra states that, when one seeks the Buddhas’ emancipation in the minds of ordinary beings, one finds that ordinary beings are the entities of enlightenment, and that the sufferings of birth and death are nirvana.
It also states that, if the minds of living beings are impure, their land is also impure, but if their minds are pure, so is their land. There are not two lands, pure or impure in themselves. The difference lies solely in the good or evil of our minds.
It is the same with a Buddha and an ordinary being. When deluded, one is called an ordinary being, but when enlightened, one is called a Buddha. This is similar to a tarnished mirror that will shine like a jewel when polished. A mind now clouded by the illusions of the innate darkness of life is like a tarnished mirror, but when polished, it is sure to become like a clear mirror, reflecting the essential nature of phenomena and the true aspect of reality. Arouse deep faith, and diligently polish your mirror day and night. How should you polish it? Only by chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo.”(On Attaining Buddhahood in this Lifetime)

For Nichiren, all people contain within themselves innate buddha-ness (tathagata-garbha) and are capable of attaining Buddhahood in this very lifetime. One doesn’t need to devote themselves to Amitabha in the hope of being reborn into Sukhavati so that they can pursue enlightenment in their next life — anyone can attain enlightenment now, in this life. This idea comes directly from the Lotus Sutra itself.

“You should know, Shariputra,
That from the beginning I made a vow,
Desiring all living beings
To be my equals, with no distinctions between us.” —
The Lotus Sutra

Again, the Lotus Sutra says:

“Of those who hear the Dharma,
None will fail to become a buddha.
From the remotest past, the vow of all buddhas is
To enable all living beings
To attain this very same Buddha Way
That they themselves practice.
Although buddhas in future ages
Proclaim hundreds of thousands of millions of
Countless approaches to the Dharma,
In reality they are but the One Vehicle.
The buddhas, the most honored of all beings,
Know that all dharmas are ever without substance
And that the buddha-seeds germinate
Through dependent origination.
Therefore, they expound the One Vehicle.”(ibid.)

The Buddha tells us in the Lotus Sutra that the various paths — the path of the hearer, the solitary buddha, and the bodhisattva — are in fact only one path, the single vehicle of the Mahayana, the path to Buddhahood. When one devotes themselves to the Lotus Sutra, it is this teaching that is meant by “Lotus Sutra.” For Nichiren, devotion to the Lotus Sutra is much more than devotion to a text. The true Lotus Sutra, as well as all the buddhas and their respective “pure lands,” exists within you — there is nothing outside of you to which you must turn for dharma. Nichiren says “if you think the Law is outside yourself, you are embracing not the Mystic Law but an inferior teaching.”

“It is the mystic entity of the Middle Way that is the ultimate reality. Myō is the name given to the mystic nature of life, and hō, to its manifestations. Renge, which means lotus flower, is used to symbolize the wonder of this Law. If we understand that our life at this moment is myō, then we will also understand that our life at other moments is the Mystic Law. This realization is the mystic kyō, or sutra. The Lotus Sutra is the king of sutras, the direct path to enlightenment, for it explains that the entity of our life, which manifests either good or evil at each moment, is in fact the entity of the Mystic Law.”(On Attaining Buddhahood in this Lifetime)

Worshipper at a Zen Shrine, generated using AI

In some sense, then, the Lotus Sutra, for Nichiren, doesn’t just signify the text of the Lotus Sutra, but refers to what it signifies — it refers to the “mystic law,” which is something akin to the logos in Greek thought or the dao (or tao) in Chinese thought.

“Since the Lotus Sutra defines our body as the Dharma body of a Thus Come One, our mind as the reward body of a Thus Come One, and our actions as the manifested body of a Thus Come One, all who uphold and believe in even a single phrase or verse of this sutra will be endowed with the benefits of these three bodies. Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is only one phrase or verse, but it is no ordinary phrase, for it is the essence of the entire sutra. You asked whether one can attain Buddhahood only by chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, and this is the most important question of all. This is the heart of the entire sutra and the substance of its eight volumes….
Included within the two characters representing Japan is all that is within the country’s sixty-six provinces: the people and the animals, the rice paddies and the other fields, those of high and low status, the nobles and the commoners, the seven kinds of treasures and all the other precious gems. Similarly, included within the title, or daimoku, of
Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is the entire sutra consisting of all eight volumes, twenty-eight chapters, and 69,384 characters, without the omission of a single character….
Miao-lo states, ‘When for the sake of brevity one mentions only the daimoku, or title, the entire sutra is by implication included therein.’ By this he means that, although for the sake of brevity only the title of the sutra is spoken, the entire sutra is contained in the title alone.
Everything has its essential point, and the heart of the Lotus Sutra is its title, or the daimoku, of
Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. Truly, if you chant this in the morning and evening, you are correctly reading the entire Lotus Sutra. Chanting daimoku twice is the same as reading the entire sutra twice, one hundred daimoku equal one hundred readings of the sutra, and one thousand daimoku, one thousand readings of the sutra. Thus, if you ceaselessly chant daimoku, you will be continually reading the Lotus Sutra.”(The One Essential Phrase)

According to Nichiren, if we constantly recite the title of the Lotus Sutra as a mantra, we can wipe clean the mirror of consciousness, purifying our mind. By ceaselessly chanting daimoku, we can make the teachings of the Lotus Sutra ever present in our minds. Since the title signifies the contents, the daimoku is sufficient to bring to mind the complete doctrine espoused in the Lotus Sutra. If the Lotus Sutra is the only thing that is ever on your mind, how could you be anything other than a buddha? Ceaselessly chanting daimoku and constantly focusing on the Dharma will transform one into a buddha and this world into a pure land.

“Such persons, who…put faith in the Lotus Sutra alone, and chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, will transform the three [samsaric] paths of earthly desires, karma, and suffering into the three virtues of the Dharma body, wisdom, and emancipation. The threefold contemplation and the three truths will immediately become manifest in their minds, and the place where they live will become the Land of Eternally Tranquil Light.”(The Entity of the Mystic Law)

I also want to point out that Nichirenism’s basic practice is not altogether that different from kasina meditation in the Theravada tradition, and so is probably not altogether out of accord with original Buddhism. In the Theravada practice of kasina meditation, one may make a clay disk representing earth and meditate upon it while saying “earth, earth.” The use of the Gohonzon and Daimoku in Nichirenism is functionally very similar to this. The Gohonzon is a calligraphic representation of the Lotus Sutra and one chants the name of the Lotus Sutra while focusing their attention on it. The practice isn’t exactly the same but it is similar. At any rate, I wish to emphasize that Nichirenism is not a radically novel approach with no precedent or basis in the broader Buddhist tradition — Nichiren and his followers are thoroughly Buddhist.

There is a lot about the broader movement of Nichirenism that I can’t get behind. I don’t, for instance, think that people ought to neglect the study of texts like the Vimalakirti Nirdesa and Lankavatara Sutra in favor of exclusively reading the Lotus Sutra. In fact, I think that one will almost certainly be inclined to misinterpret the Lotus Sutra without those “provisional teachings” or other similar sutras to give it context. In fact, the first couple times that I read the Lotus Sutra, I thought that it was utter garbage. It was only after reading the Lankavatara and Vimilakirti Nirdesa that I was truly able to appreciate the Lotus Sutra. And I do not like the manner in which Nichirenists tend to disparage and denigrate other approaches to Buddhism. I will never be a disciple of Nichiren in an exclusive sense that would preclude me from also being a disciple of Bodhidharma. I am a Zen Buddhist but the chanting of Daimoku — Namu Myoho Renge Kyo — is quite simple and effective. I may not believe that the Lotus Sutra (as a text) is authentic in the sense of actually being the words of the historical Buddha, and I may not believe that it is the only “direct path to enlightenment,” nevertheless I still find benefit in the practice of chanting Daimoku. When intrusive thoughts arise, the mantra centers me and helps me clear my mind, letting the intrusive thoughts drift right by without engaging them. For me, this practice has been far more effective than simply focusing on my breath. And even when I want to do zazen (sitting meditation) in the simple Zen fashion of focusing on my breathing, it helps to silently chant a round of Daimoku with my mala beads, breathing in as I chant Nam Myoho in my head, then out as I chant Renge Kyo. This practice stills my mind and makes it easier to do my regular Zen practice.

The Treasure Tower scene from the Lotus Sutra, generated using AI



Progress & Conservation🔰

Buddhist; Daoist, Stoic; Atheist, Darwinist; Mystic, Critical Rationalist; advocate of basic income, land value tax, and universal healthcare.