An Insider's view of Nichiren Shoshu
Is Soka Gakkai/Nichiren Shoshu the true American Buddhism? To an observer, the practices of Soka Gakkai seem tailor-made for the American fast-food, instant-wish-fulfillment culture. You can chant for money, for a better job, for love, for any of the 108 human desires symbolized by the 108 prayer beads that Nichiren Shoshu members hold while they chant. An observer would note that Soka Gakkai practitioners spend far more time in discussion meetings and other group activities than they do in disciplined contemplation or consultation with Buddhist teachers. Because its emphasis falls on action rather than view, Soka Gakkai appeals to a broad range of Americans with varying educational backgrounds, even as it may alienate those who enjoy meditative Buddhist traditions. Without looking further, an observer might reasonably conclude that Soka Gakkai represents only a simplified version—or even a cynical perversion—of Buddhism created for American consumption. But if Soka Gakkai appeals to the American Dream, it has appealed to the Japanese Dream as well.
In the early fifties, during Soka Gakkai's reconstruction, the then president, Josei Toda, succeeded in attracting a vast number of potential converts by describing the mechanism of Buddhist practice as a money-making machine:
Suppose a machine which never fails to make everyone happy were built by the power of science or by medicine .... Such a machine, I think, could be sold at a very high price. Don't you agree? If you used it wisely, you could be sure to become happy and build up a terrific company. You could make a lot of money. You could sell such machines for about 100,000 Yen apiece.
But Western science has not yet produced such a machine. It cannot be made. Still, such a machine has been in existence in this country, Japan, since seven hundred years ago. This is the Dai-Gohonzon. [Nichiren] Daishonin made this machine for us and gave it to us common people. He told us: "Use [the machine] freely. It won't cost you any money ... And yet, people of today don't want to use it because they don't understand the explanation that the Dai-Gohonzon is such a splendid machine.
TODA'S WORDS caught the attention of those Japanese impoverished by the Second World War and desperate for survival. In like manner, the appeal attracts many Americans living in the inner cities who are desperate for a way to improve their lives. For these people who know little material prosperity, the more conventional Buddhist view—that enlightenment is encouraged by abandoning all attachment to material things—is virtually senseless. After all, you must first have an adequate supply of food or own a car or a washing machine before you can give up an attachment to them.
Nichiren Shoshu America General Meeting in Philadelphia, July, 1987
The white middle-class practitioners who follow Zen, Tibetan, or Theravadan Buddhism are wary if not downright disdainful of Nichiren Shoshu but—whether they acknowledge it or not—they are involved in a dilemma with striking parallels. The issue for them is not money but ego. In a culture where low self-esteem and depression are endemic, the question arises: "Does one have to have a healthily developed ego to give it up?" Yet many of the same middle-class, materialistically secure white practitioners of other traditions have remained hostile to Nichiren Shoshu without investigating its different economic and cultural contexts.
To traditional Buddhists the idea of a Buddhism that encourages its practitioners to chant for BMWs appears blatantly heretical, and the description of the group's object of worship as a machine for granting wishes sounds ridiculous. Even so, the practice of Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism is not trivial, nor is its effect upon members' lives shallow. Gongyo, the daily practice of the Nichiren Shoshu membership, consists of morning and evening recitations of the Lotus Sutra as well as chanting Nam Myoho Renge Kyo repeatedly. Gongyo,** which literally means "assiduous practice," is performed while practitioners sit before the Gohonzon, a replica of Nichiren's original mandala. During gongyo, two chapters of the Lotus Sutra are recited from Chinese characters (using Japanese pronunciation) and are repeated five times in the morning and three times at night. After each reading, practitioners silently recite prayers that offer thanks for protection by the Buddhist gods, praise the virtues of the Dai-Gohonzon, acknowledge the succession of the chief priests, present a petition for world peace and attainment of enlightenment, and pray for the well-being of ancestors—all of which have parallels in the daily services of Buddhist parishes in many different Asian cultures, as well as in Japan's Soto Zen tradition. After the final reading, members chant Nam Myoho Renge Kyo, usually for five or ten minutes, but occasionally for several hours. The liturgy of gongyo encourages one to clear the mind of wishes, anxieties, and other distracting thoughts so that when it is time to chant Nam Myoho Renge Kyo (the most important part of the practice) the mind will be sufficiently stilled to concentrate on the Gohonzon. The goal of this "assiduous practice" is the fusion of one's mind with the reality of the Gohonzon—it means reading the Chinese characters not simply with one's eyes but "with one's life"—through chanting Nam Myoho Renge Kyo.
**Gongyo: In general, gongyo means the recitation of Buddhist sutras in fornt of an object of worship. In Nichiren Shoshu and Soka Gakkai, gongyo means to recite part of the second chapter and the whole of the sixteenth chapter of the Lotus Sutra in front of the gohonzon, followed by chanting.
The literal translation of the chant is "Devotion to the Lotus Blossom of the Fine Dharma." But Nichiren Shoshu provides specific interpretations: Nam—"devotion of both mind and body"—to Myoho, a word indicating that all life and death phenomena are united in a "mystic" or mysterious manner. Myoho indicates "the Mystic Law" of Renge, the lotus that reveals its seeds (its cause) as it blossoms (its effect) simultaneousl—therefore, "simultaneous cause and effect." This is invoked in our lives through Kyo, the word for dharma, sutra, or the sound of its teachings.
What Nichiren Shoshu members unite with when they chant to the Gohonzon is a depiction, in Chinese characters, of the "Ceremony in the Air," described in the Lotus Sutra as an assembly of Shakyamuni's disciples floating in space above the saha (impure) world. When the Bodhisattvas of the Earth appear, Shakyamuni reveals his original enlightenment in the remote past. He then transfers the essence of the sutra specifically to the Bodhisattvas of the Earth led by Bodhisattva Jogyo (Vishishtacharitra in Sanskrit), entrusting them with its propagation two thousand years in the future (our own time). Chanting to the Gohonzon then both invites and affirms attendance at this assembly of bodhisattvas.
The philosophical lineage of Nichiren Shoshu purports that although the material and the spiritual are two separate classes of phenomena, they are in essence inseparable, a "oneness of body and mind."
T'ien-t'ai sought to clarify the mutually inclusive relationship of the ultimate truth and the phenomenal world asserting with this principle that all phenomena—body and mind, self and environment, sentient and insentient, cause and effect—are integrated in a life-moment of a common mortal. Pre-Lotus Sutra teachings generally hold that all phenomena arise from the mind, but in T'ien-t'ai teachings the mind and all phenomena are "two but not two." That is, neither can be independent of the other.
In pre-Lotus Sutra teachings, earthly desires and illusions are cited as causes of spiritual and physical suffering that impede the quest for enlightenment, obscuring Buddha nature and hindering Buddhist practice. According to T'ien-t'ai's intepretation of the Lotus Sutra, however, earthly desires and enlightenment are not fundamentally different: enlightenment is not the eradication of desire, but a state of mind that can be experienced by transforming innate desires.