Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism
by John Weldon
Mystical Materialism for the Masses
Nichiren Shoshu (NS) claims to represent true Buddhism and to offer the world a
scientifically enlightened form of religious practice. It teaches that by worshiping the
Gohonzon, a sacred mandala, believers can bring their lives into harmony with
ultimate reality, producing wealth, success, and health. However, NS constitutes a
late form of Buddhism whose emphasis upon materialism would have been
repudiated by the Buddha. Furthermore, its claim to be compatible with Christianity
is contradicted by its Buddhist philosophy and basic approach to life.
Recording stars Tina Turner, Herbie Hancock, Larry Coryell, and Wayne Shorter
all have something in common besides gold records:
like hundreds of thousands of other Americans,
they are followers of Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism (NS).
NS is among the most influential of the new religions that have come on the scene
in recent decades. Overall, the movement claims 17 million members in over 117
countries. As a mystical faith with a materialistic emphasis (one that constantly
stresses its "scientific" nature), it is uniquely suited for success in America.
IN SEARCH OF "TRUE" BUDDHISM: NICHIREN SHOSHU HISTORY
The founder of Nichiren Shoshu was Nichiren Daishonin (A.D. 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, 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 sutra or scriptural narrative known
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 or her 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; and the Vanaya sect are traitors to the country." To
anyone who opposed him, he warned, "Those who despise and slander me will
have their head broken into seven pieces." 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 (though his death sentence was commuted).
Despite his heartfelt desire to unify Japan and all Buddhism, his intolerance and
inability to accept compromise 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." 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
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 amongst themselves and eventual historic fragmentation. Although Nichiren
Shoshu is the largest of the more than 40 Nichiren sects today, each sect
maintains that 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). Since 1960, the leader of SGI has been the prolific and
energetic Daisaku Ikeda. Perhaps one evidence of his dynamism is that under his
leadership NS has expanded into over 100 nations. Ironically, such success has
apparently caused a major rift in the movement. A recent devastating split
between the lay organization and the priesthood has emerged with serious charges
being leveled back and forth. In characteristically unbuddhist-like fashion, it
appears that the Japanese priesthood has become jealous and even resentful of
the phenomenal prosperity of the lay movement.
How all this will finally play out is anyone's guess, but the image of Nichiren Shoshu
has suffered much from the quarreling, threats, negative publicity, power plays, and
so forth. As a recent 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."
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 its supreme jurisdiction -- but it has also caused a rift that could
potentially 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
But one has to wonder about tomorrow. Although Soka Gakkai International
continues to devote strenuous efforts to its ultimate aim of Kosen-rufu -- the
conversion of the entire world to its teachings -- the current crises, if not resolved,
could decimate both the movement's credibility and its numbers.
IN SEARCH OF "BENEFITS": NICHIREN SHOSHU PRACTICE AND TEACHING
Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism teaches that an omnipresent and ultimately impersonal
"essential life" flows throughout the totality of the universe, both animate and
inanimate. This life, however, assumes different forms. For example, in man the life
essence has manifested itself as consciousness, emotions, and other mental
capacities. In trees, rocks, air, water, and so forth, the life essence is present, but
latent, or dormant.
One conclusion we may draw from this teaching is that in terms of their true
nature, man and the universe are ultimately one: their inner nature is identical,
despite any differences in outward form. However, NS claims, until we practice the
teachings of Nichiren Shoshu, this unity is neither realized nor appropriated, and
"spiritual" benefits cannot be acquired until this occurs.
By chanting "Nam-myoho-renge-kyo" (again, the magical invocation that is
believed to summarize and internalize the essence of the Lotus Sutra), one's
individual nature is brought into harmony with the "essential life" of the universe.
Eventually, the highest expression of essential life, the Buddha nature (which is
dormant in the inner self), is brought to the surface. The individual nature be