Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism/Part 3

By: John Ankerberg, John Weldon; ©2000
The founder of Nichiren Shoshu was Nichiren Daishonin, one of the most controversial and important figures in Japanese Buddhism.

Introduction and History –In Search of “True” Buddhism

The founder of Nichiren Shoshu was Nichiren Daishonin (1222-1282), one of the most controversial and important figures in Japanese Buddhism. Daishonin lived during a period of Japan’s history embroiled in political and religious turmoil. With many of the Buddhist sects in conflicting disarray, he grew to long for the reality of one true and united Buddhism–and he devoted tireless efforts to this end.

From the age of 12, Daishonin researched various schools of Buddhism, including the Tendai, Zen, and Shingon sects. Although he consumed years studying at the esoteric monastery of the Tendai school on Mt. Hiei (and at 16 became a monk there), it was only through intensive and prolonged meditation at the Shingon Monastery at Mt. Koya that he became convinced of the “truth” that has become the heart of Nichiren Buddhism. This revelation was that the essence of the true Buddha’s teachings were crystallized in the writing we know today as the Lotus Sutra or Saddharma-Pundarika (the Sutra of the Lotus of the True Law).

Nichiren came to believe that the mystical essence of this sutra was embodied in the invocation Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo, the ceremonial chant used by Nichiren Shoshu Buddhists. The chant is thus believed to be a repository of magical power so that the disciple can instill the alleged material and spiritual benefits of the sutra into his life, even without reading it.

Daishonin was persuaded that not only was his life’s mission to clarify true Buddhism, but that he was the sole repository of Buddhist truth, and that only his interpretation of the Lotus Sutra was correct. He argued that, “the Pure Land Sect (Nembutsu) is the Everlasting Hell; Zen devotees are demons; Shingon devotees are ruining the nation; the Vanaya sect are traitors to the country.”[1] To anyone who opposed him, he warned, “Those who despise and slander me will have their head broken into seven pieces.”[2] He even threatened destruction of the Japanese state unless it united under true Buddhism (i.e., his teachings).

Nichiren Daishonin thus aroused no small amount of opposition by his robust intolerance of all other Buddhism. During his life, he was expelled from his own monastery, exiled twice, sentenced to death once and repeatedly suffered from persecution (his death sentence was commuted).

In spite of his heartfelt desire to unify Japan and all Buddhism, his intolerance and inability to accept compromise had merely saddled Japan with one more competing sect. As Brandon’s Dictionary of Comparative Religion observes, “Nichiren’s teaching, which was meant to unify Buddhism, gave rise to [the] most intolerant of Japanese Buddhist sects.”[3] Noted Buddhist scholar Dr. Edward Conze declares, “[he] suffered from self-assertiveness and bad temper, and he manifested a degree of personal and tribal egotism which disqualifies him as a Buddhist teacher.”[4]

Not unexpectedly, Nichiren and his most prominent disciples discovered they could not agree on what constituted true Buddhism and this led to initial charges of heresy and eventual historic fragmentation. Although Nichiren Shoshu is the largest of the more than 40 Nichiren sects today, each sect maintains it is the “true” guardian of Nichiren Daishonin’s teachings.

Nichiren Shoshu Today

In 1930 a lay movement was founded to promote Nichiren Shoshu: Soka Gakkai International (SGI). From 1960-90, the leader of SGI was the prolific and energetic Daisaku Ikeda. One evidence of his dynamism is that under his leadership NS expanded into over 100 nations. Ironically, such success apparently caused a major rift in the movement. A devastating split between the lay organization and the priesthood emerged in the late 1980s-early 90s with serious charges being leveled back and forth.[5] In characteristically unbuddhist-like fashion, it appears that the Japanese priesthood became jealous and even resentful of the phenomenal prosperity of the lay movement.

In December, 1990, the priesthood stripped Ikeda of his sokoto title–head of all Nichiren lay believers. This in spite of the fact that for years Ikeda had been heralded by the Soka Gakkai as “the living Buddha for today” and even as the reincarnation of Nichiren Daishonin! His picture had been placed prominently near NS altars around the world. The image of Nichiren Shoshu has suffered much from the quarreling, threats, negative publicity, power plays, etc., (not to mention several recent financial scandals). As an early editorial in SGI’s World Tribune was forced to confess: “When priests denounce President Ikeda and confuse members in order to gain followers, this…is wrong….the priesthood’s recent actions are disrupting unity and hindering the propagation of [Nichiren’s] teachings.”[6]

By stripping Ikeda of his authority and consolidating power to themselves under the local “Danto” movement (i.e., followers of NS who identify with the priesthood rather than the lay organization), the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood has effectively asserted is supreme jurisdiction–but it has also caused a rift which has the potential to fragment the movement even further.

Today in Japan, the Soka Gakkai has the third largest political party, the Komeito. It advocates a one-world government based upon Buddhist politics and universal pacifism.[7] Soka Gakkai International continues to devote strenuous efforts to its ultimate aim of Kosen-rufu–the conversion of the entire world to its teachings.

Notes

  1. R.H. Robinson, “Buddhism in China and Japan,” in The Concise Encyclopedia of Living Faiths, ed. R.C. Zaehner (Boston: Beacon, 1959), p. 346; cf., Harry Thomsen, The New Religions of Japan (Rutland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle, 1963), p. 101.
  2. “The Buddha’s Perception into the Three Existences of Life,” Seikyo Times, Dec. 1978, p. 7.
  3. Charles Brandon, ed., Dictionary of Comparative Religion (New York: Charles Schribner’s Sons, 1970), p. 470.
  4. Edward Conze, Buddhism, Its Essence and Development (NY: Harper & Row, 1959), p. 206.
  5. See William M. Alnor, “Infighting, Division, and Scandal Afflicting Nichiren Shoshu Buddhists,” Christian Research Journal, Winter 1992, pp. 5-6.
  6. Editorial, World Tribune, 1 April 1991, p.2.
  7. Kiyoaki Murata, Japan’s New Buddhism (NY: Walker, 1969), pp. 169-170; Daisaku Ikeda, Lectures on Buddhism Vol. V (Tokyo: Seikyo Press, 1970), p. 44.

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