Nichiren and the Supreme Being

To deal with this subject properly, I feel a great deal of background information is required. However, as I suspect that this topic holds little to no interest for most readers, it’s been heavily edited. I hope it makes sense. I’ve been sitting on this piece for a while now and needed to get it out and done with.

All designations are meaningless when viewed from the ultimate truth. However, we cannot live in the ultimate at all times. In the several recent posts, I have used the terms “own-power” (jiriki) and “other-power” (tariki) which are relative terms that help us distinguish from two separate approaches to Buddhist practice, one where enlightenment is sought from without, and the other, where it is sought within.

For reasons that are not entirely clear, Nichiren, the 13th century Japanese teacher who founded the sect that bears his name, hated Pure Land Buddhism. With a passion. He was not fond of the other Buddhist sects of his day either, his chief criticism being that they have “gone astray concerning the true object of worship.” (Kaimoku Sho/”Opening of the Eyes”)

Despite his severe criticism of Pure Land, Nichiren crafted a form of Buddhism that was nearly identical, the only differences being the chant and the central Buddha.

According to Nichiren, the True Object of Worship for Mappo (the Latter Day of the Law) is the Gohonzon, which usually refers to the hanging scrolls Nichiren inscribed, a sort of a dharma-mandala that depicts a scene from the Lotus Sutra entirely in Chinese and Siddham characters. The scene is commonly referred to as The Ceremony in the Air where the “historical” Shakyamuni Buddha, having revealed himself as original, eternal Shakyamuni Buddha who attained enlightenment in the unimaginably distant past, transfers the true teaching to the bodhisattvas who emerge from the earth.

The Gohonzon is presented variously as a picture of the Ceremony in the Air, symbolizing the Tendai principle of ichinen sanzen (three thousand realms in a single moment of thought), or as representing the enlightened life of the Buddha from the sutra, and, thereby, our innate Buddha nature. The Soka Gakkai explains that the Gohonzon, “was created by Nichiren as the physical embodiment, in the form of a mandala, of the eternal and intrinsic law of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. The phrase “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo Nichiren” is written in bold characters down the center of the scroll.”

Regardless of the explanation, in modern Nichiren Buddhism, there is always the caveat that the Object of Worship is not separate from the life of the individual. Two famous quotes are often used to substantiate this point, one about never seeking the teachings of the Buddha outside yourself, the other says never seek the Gohonzon outside of yourself. Both quotes come from works that objective scholars doubt are authentic Nichiren writings. With this in mind, it seems there has been a concentrated effort to align Nichiren’s teachings with the jiriki approach, although that may not have been Nichiren’s original thinking.

There is perhaps another way of looking at the Object of Worship, one that is more in line with Other-power, and therefore, because Nichiren accepted all the tenants associated with tariki, a viewpoint that is quite reasonable to assume.

Early Gohonzon inscribed by Nichiren (Gohonzon Shu)
Early Gohonzon inscribed by Nichiren (Gohonzon Shu)

In one sense, it is incorrect to say that Nichiren “created” the Gohonzon because he viewed it as a other-worldly thing that moved through him, not from him. For Nichiren, the Gohonzon has always existed. He claimed that previous Buddhist teachers such as Nagarjuna, Vasabhandu, and T’ien-t’ai knew of the supremacy of the Lotus Sutra, but as he says in Kanjin no Honzon Sho (“The True Object of Worship”),

[They] did not put Nam-myoho-renge-kyo into actual practice or establish the true object of worship . . . Now is when the Bodhisattvas of the Earth will appear in this country and establish the supreme object of worship on the earth which depicts Shakyamuni Buddha of the essential teaching attending the true Buddha. This object of worship has never appeared in India or China . . . Thus, the revelation of the true object of worship has been entrusted only to the Bodhisattvas of the Earth. They have been waiting for the right time to emerge from the earth and carry out the Lord Buddha’s command.”

The Gohonzon could be established only during the Latter Day of the Law, the degenerate age when faith and not understanding matters and other-power alone is potent, and only Nichiren as Jogyo, the leader of the Bodhisattvas of the Earth, the votary of the Lotus Sutra, could at last reveal its presence.

A number of Japanese scholars whose books were translated into English or who wrote English books in the early part of the last century used the term “Supreme Being” as a translation of honzon or “object of worship”. The most notable example is Masaharu Anesaki’s Nichiren the Buddhist Prophet, in which Kanjin no Honzon Sho is rendered as “Spiritual Introspection of the Supreme Being”, and throughout the book refers to Nichiren’s scroll as the Supreme Being.

The question is, was this was intentional? Did Anesaki mean to refer to some sort of supreme being, or was this just an attempt to convey the concept of object of worship into a term that Westerners at the time could easily understand?

One Nichiren school, Nichiren Shu, even today translates Kanjin no Honzon Sho as “Spiritual Introspection of the Supreme Beings” (note how it is plural).

Japanese Civilization by Kishio Satomi, published in 1923, an introduction to Nichirenism, has a chapter entitled “The Supreme Being” (Hommon Honzon) . In Satomi’s explanation, the Sacred Title (Daimoku: Myo-Ho-Renge-Kyo) is considered as the religious subject, while the Supreme Being is considered as the religious object.

Satomi writes,

‘Hon’ means origin and ‘zon’ means augustness or supremacy. The innate supreme substance is the first definition, the second is the radical adoration, and the third is the genuine or natural respect. All these are slightly different expressions of the Supreme Being and its aspects.

There are two kinds of Supreme Beings in general. The one has the abstract principle as its religious object, while the other has a concrete idea of personality or person itself as its object of worship. In this connection, Nichiren has both simultaneously. According to [Nichiren], Buddha Shakyamuni is the only savior in the world, therefore we must have Him as our own object of worship.

Thus he founded two kinds of Supreme Being, the object of worship. . . the Buddha centric Supreme Being and the Law centric one.”

I should mention that “Buddha Shakyamuni” in this context does not mean the historical Buddha, but the Eternal Shakyamuni Buddha revealed in the Lotus Sutra. The two are not quite the same.

Satomi continues,

However high and sublime the Supreme Being may be, if we ourselves do not enter the ideal of it, and do not realize in our own lives its principle and form, it is just an idol and our existence is worthless.”

According to Satomi, the Gohonzon includes all forms of worship, such as “demon-worship in the Mother of Demons, great mandala worship in Tendai, etc. . . god-man-worship in Shakyamuni. . . [worship of] the Four Great Devas. . . Sun-Goddess. . . Hachiman and ancestor worship. . . etc., etc.”

Satomi discusses the presence of both pantheistic and monotheistic elements in Mahayana Buddhism and concludes that none of the various schools have a foundation on which to “unite these opposite tendencies.”

Nichirenism is the answer to this problem. . . According to [Nichiren] thought, the Primeval or Fundamental Buddha, whose deep sense of His existence is explained in Chapter XVI in the Scripture, as we have mentioned already, is unique and sole God in the Universe, and all the beings and all the divines and sages are nothing but His distributive bodies.”

This explanation is in accord with Nichiren’s claim that all the native Shinto gods were merely manifestations of this primeval, fundamental, Eternal Buddha. This entity is then recognized as the “sole and highest existence.” And as I read it, the Eternal Buddha is the Gohonzon itself, the Gohonzon is the Eternal Buddha, not in a merely noumenal sense, but as a phenomenal reality.

What makes me feel that Anesaki and Satomi might have had the right idea about the Eternal Buddha as a Supreme Being? A Sanskrit term: svadi-devata.

Anesaki references Nichiren’s “Supreme Being” to this term.  I found svadi-devata in the Soothill Dictionary of Buddhist Terms. Evidently use of this term in Buddha-dharma is limited to the Nichiren tradition. Here is the definition: The especial honored one of the Nichiren sect, svadi-devata, the Supreme Being, whose mandala is considered as the symbol of the Buddha that as infinite, eternal, universal. . .”

“Daivata” is a variation of “devata”–daivata ganah, classes of divinities; sadaivata, together with the deities, Parama-daivata, highly devoted to the god, and so on. Devata refers to a more personal relationship with a deity, such as a guardian spirit, or more tightly focused upon a deity, and with sva pertaining to “own, etc.” It would seem that svadi-devata indicates a personal relationship with a deity or object of worship.

Nichiren frequently used Indian terms and he knew Siddham. Clearly, he viewed the Gohonzon as more than a scroll or mandala.  It was the enlightened life of the Eternal Buddha Shakyamuni and therefore the ultimate reality.  Whether or not he saw it in terms of svadi-devata, a personal deity, is questionable but nonetheless within the realm of possibility.

Very little has been written in English about tantric influences on Nichiren’s thinking, but certainly Nichiren would had some Shingon influences, not to mention the fact that by this time Tendai, the school he trained in, had a distinct tantric flavor. It is also quite possible he was familiar with the tantric Vajra-sattva (“Diamond Being”) and this served as his model for the Supreme Being/Eternal Buddha.

Shashi Bhushan Dasgupta in Introduction to Tantric Buddhism writes,

Who is then the Vajra-sattva? He is the Being of adamantine substance—the ultimate principal as the unity of the universe . . . the fundamental departure of the Tantric Buddhists is that. . . it may have been sometimes described as a Being—sometimes as the personal God, the Lord Supreme.”

The characteristics that Nichiren ascribes to the Eternal Buddha in the Kanjin no Honzon Sho and elsewhere, are not drastically different from the descriptions given of the Vajra-sattva in Tantric literature.

Here is Anesaki’s translation of two excerpts of a Nichiren writing, Shoho Jisso, “The True Aspect of All Phenomena”:

I, Nichiren, a man born in the ages of the Latter Law, have nearly achieved the task of pioneership in propagating the Perfect Truth, the task assigned to the Bodhisattva of Superb Action (Vishishtachiritra) The eternal Buddhahood of Shakyamuni, as he revealed himself in the chapter on Life-duration, in accordance with his primeval entity, the Buddha Prabhutaratna, who appeared in the Heavenly Shrine . . .

In this document, the truths most precious to me are written down. Read, and read again; read into the letters and fix them into your mind ! Thus put faith in the Supreme Being, represented in a way unique in the whole world! Ever more strongly I advise you to be firm in faith, and to be under the protection of the threefold Buddhahood.”

Here are the same excerpts from the Soka Gakkai version, “The True Entity of Life”:

Although not worthy of the honor, Nichiren was nevertheless the first to spread the Mystic Law entrusted to Bodhisattva Jogyo for propagation in the Latter Day of the Law. Nichiren was also the first to inscribe the Gohonzon, which is the embodiment of the Buddha from the remote past as revealed in the Juryo chapter of the essential teaching . . .

In this letter, I have written my most important teachings. Grasp their meaning and make them part of your life. Believe in the Gohonzon, the supreme object of worship in the world. Forge strong faith and receive the protection of Shakyamuni, Taho and all the other Buddhas.”

 

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