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Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism
Mystical Materialism for the Masses

by John Weldon


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.[1] As a mystical faith with a materialistic emphasis (one that constantly stresses its "scientific" nature), it is uniquely suited for success in America.


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."[2] To anyone who opposed him, he warned, "Those who despise and slander me will have their head broken into seven pieces."[3] 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."[4] 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."[5]

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.[6] 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."[7]

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 pacifism.[8]

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.


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