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Tantric Roots: Nichiren Series, Part 2

Sometimes we Westerners can get caught up in conflating Buddhism with sitting meditation, and then we become dismissive of other ways of practicing as if they are sub-par. In my view, Buddhism is a journey of cultivating the heart, and towards that end we need every tool at our disposal.  I thought it was time to clear up for myself what Nichiren Buddhism is all about, so I asked around and was pointed to the Rev. Michael Ryuei McCormick. Rev. Ryuei is an American convert to and longtime practitioner in the Nichiren Shu school of Buddhism, who has written prolifically on the topic asking us to look deeper at this path. Click here for the original post in the series.
What did Nichiren Shonin believe or say about the Lotus Sutra that stands out in relation to other forms of East Asian Buddhism, which had been revering the Lotus Sutra and other sutras?
Rev. Ryuei: Nichiren was not the first or only monk to regard the Lotus Sutra as the “king of all sutras.” T’ien-t’ai Chih-i (538-597) regarded it as such, as did later teachers like Zen masters Dogen (1200-1253) and Hakuin (1686-1768). Nichiren’s own teachings were largely derived from those of Chih-i and his successor Miao-lo Chan-jan (711-782).
There are two ways in which Nichiren’s approach to the Lotus Sutra differ from other East Asian Buddhists. The first is that Nichiren put more emphasis on the Original Gate, or latter half of the Lotus Sutra, focusing on the unquantifiable lifespan of the Buddha, whereas others focus primarily on the Trace Gate, or former half of the Lotus Sutra, and its teachings and parables regarding the One Vehicle whereby all beings will someday attain buddhahood. By contrast, the teachings about the Eternal Buddha emphasize the present actuality of buddhahood rather than its potential realization in the future.
Ah, so Nichiren's Eternal Buddha is a way of expressing the timeless, immanent buddhahood, or basic goodness, within us.  Sounds a lot like the Tibetan idea of "Primordial Buddha" also expressing buddha nature (Tib., "that which is highest" bZangpo, [is present] "everywhere" Kuntu). The vague personification of innate goodness sounds a lot less theistic than I projected onto the term "Eternal Buddha."  But how did Nichiren take this idea from the Lotus Sutra and devise a practice to help people wake up to that aspect of themselves?

Rev. Ryuei: The second way [Nichiren's approach to the Lotus Sutra differed] is that Nichiren devised a practice explicitly centered on the Lotus Sutra. Though T’ien-t’ai/Tendai Buddhism taught that the Lotus Sutra was the highest teaching, they practiced either the chanting of the name of Amitabha Buddha, or tranquility and insight meditation, or tantric practices. Nichiren presented what he called the Three Great Hidden Dharmas of the Original Gate as the basis of Buddhist practice for this age: (1) The honzon or focus of devotion, who is the Eternal Shakyamuni Buddha; (2) the daimoku or chanting of the sacred title “Namu Myoho Renge Kyo; (3) the kaidan or precept platform where one vows to uphold the Lotus Sutra.   

I really notice Nichiren's Tendai (tantric) roots here.  In Buddhist tantra, there are generally two stages: creation (Tib., KyeRim) and completion (Tib., DzogRim).  Creation stage practices train practitioners to radically reorient their view of reality, so that they see the magical and perfect in everyday appearances.  This is accomplished by the practice of visualizing a Buddha in a mandala with the aim of seeing all visual appearances as a mandala, practice of the deity's mantra with the goal of hearing all sound as mantra, and perceiving all mental phenomena as the enlightened mind.  It seems like for Nichiren, he streamlined this into the calligraphic mandala of the Gohonzon, the daimoku as Buddha's speech, and attuning the mind to the content of the Lotus Sutra. 

This sounds like wonderful practice from a tantric point of view.  But we still haven't delved into how this relates to love and compassion as the heart of Buddhist practice. We'll address this next week, so read on!



Photo credit to Nichiren Shu Sangha of Houston: http://www.nichiren-shu.org/Houston/pics/sangha/0004sm.jpg

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