Nichiren Shōshū (日蓮正宗) is a branch of Nichiren Buddhism based on the teachings of the 13th century Japanese monk Nichiren (1222–1282). Nichiren Shōshū claims Nichiren as its founder through his disciple Nikkō (1246–1333), the founder of the school’s Head Temple Taiseki-ji. It has adherents throughout the world, with the largest concentrations in Indonesia and Japan and many more in Taiwan; South Korea; North, Central, and South America; the Philippines; Europe; and Ghana.
Nichiren Shoshu means the correct (or orthodox) school of Nichiren. According to adherents, shortly before his passing Nichiren designated his disciple Nikkō as his sole successor in two documents, the Nichiren Ichigo Guhō Fuzoku-sho (“Document entrusting the Law Nichiren propagated throughout his lifetime of teaching”; also called the Minobu sōjō: “Succession document Minobu”) dated September 1282, and the Minobu-zan Fuzoku-sho (“Document entrusting Mt. Minobu”; also called the Ikegami sōjō: “Succession document Ikegami”) dated October 13, 1282. In the former, Nichiren entrusted the Law (i.e., Dharma) of his lifetime of teaching, and the embodiment of that Law, the Dai-Gohonzon to Nikkō, closing with the words “Sequence of the lineage of succession: Nichiren–Nikkō.” In the latter, Nichiren named Nikkō chief priest of Kuonji, his temple at Mt. Minobu, and admonished his followers—priest and lay alike—to observe this appointment, in effect entrusting the leadership of his disciples to Nikkō. As the school that stems from Nikkō and his followers, Nichiren Shoshu considers itself the true school of Nichiren Buddhism.
Nichiren Shoshu has over 700 local temples and temple-like facilities in Japan, nearly a dozen in the Americas, and several in Europe, Africa, and Asia outside Japan. Its head temple, Taiseki-ji, is located on the lower slopes of Mt. Fuji and is visited constantly by pilgrims from around the world. The school denomination Nichiren as its founder and his immediate disciple Nikkō as its defining patriarch, positioning him as primus inter pares among its high priests.
Nichiren Shoshu is currently led by High Priest Nichinyo Hayase (1935–), in the school’s tradition the 68th in an unbroken lineage of succession (kechimyaku, “lifeblood” or “Heritage of the Law”) that began with Nichiren. Nichiren Shoshu priests distinguish themselves from those of most other schools in that they wear only white and gray robes and a white surplus, believing this to be exactly as Nichiren himself did. Nichiren Shoshu priests may marry and most have families.
The Nichiren Shoshu faithful are organized in temple-based congregations known as Hokkeko. Most attend services at a local temple, or in private homes when no temple is nearby, at least once a month. Services are usually officiated by a priest, but lay leaders sometimes fill in when no priest is available. When they gather, believers frequently study Nichiren Shoshu teachings, particularly the writings of Nichiren, called Gosho.
Believers and their local priests cooperate in propagating the Nichiren Shoshu religion, exchange experiences, and lend one another support in times of personal crisis. Religious study is generally led by the priest, and congregations are usually loosely organized, though specifics differ from temple to temple and region to region.
Doctrines and practice
Much of Nichiren Shoshu’s underlying teachings are, overtly, extensions of Tendai (Cn: Tiantai) thought, including much of its worldview and its rationale for criticism of Buddhist schools that do not consider the Lotus Sutra to be Buddhism’s highest teaching. For example, Nichiren Shoshu doctrine adopts or extends Tendai’s classification of the Buddhist sutras into five time periods and eight categories (goji-hakkyō), its theory of 3000 interpenetrating realms within a single life-moment (Ichinen Sanzen), and its view of the Three Truths (Santai). Because of these similarities, as well as space considerations, this article will confine itself to discussion of the hows and whys of Nichiren Shoshu’s central doctrine: How it views Nichiren and his lifetime of teaching, and why its believers practice the way they do.
View of Nichiren’s lifetime of teaching
Nichiren Shoshu holds that in revealing and propagating his teachings, Nichiren was fulfilling the mission of his advent according to a prophecy made by the historical Buddha Shakyamuni (Siddhartha Gautama; 563?–483?BC). Sakyamuni foretold that the True Buddha (Kuon Ganjo no go-hombutsu; see also Eternal Buddha) would appear in the “fifth five hundred-year period following the passing of Sakyamuni”, at the beginning of a later age called Mappō, and spread the ultimate Buddhist teaching (Honmon, or the “true” teaching) to enable the people of that age to attain enlightenment, as by then his own teachings (Shakumon, or the “provisional” teaching) would have lost their power to do so.
In this way, Nichiren Shoshu believes that Nichiren is the True Buddha and that his Dharma, or Mystic Law (Myōhō: mystic in the sense of profound, sublime, or unfathomable), is the True Buddha’s ultimate teaching. Nichiren Shoshu’s recognition of Nichiren as the True Buddha is its reason for referring to him as Nichiren Daishōnin (“Great Sage Nichiren”), in contrast to the Nichiren Shōnin (“Sage” or “Saint” Nichiren) appellation used by other schools, most of which contend that Nichiren was merely a great priest or saint.
Object of veneration
Nichiren Shoshu Buddhists believe that personal enlightenment can be achieved in one’s present form and lifetime (sokushin jōbutsu). Central to their practice is chanting Nam-Myōhō-Renge-Kyō to the object of veneration, called a Gohonzon.
Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo is called the daimoku (“title”) since it comprises Nam and the Japanese title of the Lotus Sutra, Myōhō-Renge-Kyō. It can be understood as a sort of invocation meaning “I submit myself (or “dedicate my life”) to the Mystic Law of Cause and Effect.” The believer’s practice (gyōriki: power of practice) and faith (shinriki: power of faith) are believed to call forth the power of the Buddha (butsuriki) and the power of the Law inherent in the Gohonzon (hōriki) to expiate the believer’s negative causes (some people call it “negative karma“) and bring forth a higher life condition, a process called zaishō shōmetsu: “eradicating sins and their resulting impediments”.
Defining the Gohonzon is a little more complicated. Nichiren Shoshu’s fundamental object of veneration (the honzon; note that some refer to it as an object of worship) is called the Dai-Gohonzon (“great” or “supreme” object of veneration). The Dai-Gohonzon is essentially a mandala purportedly inscribed in by Nichiren in Chinese and Sanskrit characters on October 12, 1279. The most important part of the inscription is the line down its center, which reads Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo Nichiren. This signifies that the Law of Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo and the Buddha who proclaimed it (Nichiren) are one; i.e., two facets of a single entity (ninpō ikka: “oneness of the person and the Dharma”). Hence the Dai-Gohonzon is revered as the very entity of Nichiren and his enlightenment, and every Nichiren Shoshu temple and household possesses a transcription of it.
The Dai-Gohonzon is enshrined in a sanctuary (kaidan; often called an “ordination platform” in other Buddhist schools) at Taiseki-ji. The sanctuary is both the place where a Gohonzon is enshrined and that where worship services (see Practice, below) take place.
The Dai-Gohonzon, its sanctuary, and the Law of Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo are collectively called the San Dai Hihō (Three Great Hidden, or Secret, Laws) as their existence is believed to have been “hidden” between the lines of Sakyamuni’s Lotus Sutra and therefore remained secret until Nichiren revealed them. Singly, they are called, respectively, Honmon no Honzon, Honmon no Kaidan, and Honmon no Daimoku, where honmon may be understood to mean “of the ultimate, or ‘True’, Teaching”. They come together in the Dai-Gohonzon, which is called Honmon Kaidan no Dai-Gohonzon (“the Great Object of Veneration of the Sanctuary of the True Teaching”) and is believed to embody them collectively as facets of itself. The Dai-Gohonzon is thus revered as the ultimate object of veneration—ultimate because, like no other, it opens up the possibility for all people, and enables all those who worship it, to attain enlightenment, making it the culmination of Nichiren’s lifetime of teaching (Ichi Dai Hihō: the One Great Secret Law).
Transcriptions of the Dai-Gohonzon
The transcriptions of the Dai-Gohonzon are called, simply, Gohonzon (go is an honorific prefix indicating respect). Most transcriptions in temples are on wood tablets into which the inscription is carved (the tablets are coated with black urushi and the characters, gilted), while most of those in homes are in the form of a paper scroll. Although Gohonzon enshrined in temples and similar facilities are personally inscribed by the high priest, those in private homes can be either personally inscribed or printed using traditional wood-block printing. Personally inscribed Gohonzon are bestowed upon believers of long standing or in recognition of major accomplishments in faith and have a dedication on the far right naming the recipient. Printed Gohonzon have the dedication “for the recipient” on them. Regardless of their type, all Gohonzon have been consecrated by one of the successive high priests of Nichiren Shoshu in a ceremony conducted in the Dai-Gohonzon’s sanctuary, and all have the same power provided that one believes in the Three Treasures as defined by Nichiren Shoshu. A Nichiren Shoshu priest, acting as proxy for the high priest, bestows the Gohonzon on new believers upon their initiation into the faith at a local temple.
Positioning of the Dai-Gohonzon and further differences with other Nichiren schools
The significance of the Dai-Gohonzon (and its constituent facets) in Nichiren Shoshu is that it is regarded by the school as the penultimate Buddhist teaching revealed by the True Buddha, which also makes it the purpose of Nichiren’s advent. Altogether, this interpretation of Nichiren’s appearance in this world and the meaning of his lifetime of teaching, is the core-most tenet of Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism. As well as being the point on which the school differs most from other Nichiren schools, it is also the starting point for almost all other differences, including Nikkō’s reason for forsaking Mt. Minobu and the other Nichiren schools’ reason for disputing Nikkō’s legitimacy as Nichiren’s successor.
A handy example of derivative differences might be that of the interpretation of the Three Treasures, an important concept common to all forms of Buddhism. Called sambō or sampō in Japanese, the Three Treasures are the Buddha (butsu: he who reveals the Law), the Law (hō: Dharma or “body of teachings”), and the Priest (sō: he who receives from the Buddha, maintains the purity of, and transmits the Law). Nichiren Shoshu differentiates itself from other Nichiren schools in that it regards Nichiren himself as the Treasure of the Buddha; the Mystic Law of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo as the Treasure of the Law; and Nikko, as primus inter pares among its successive high priests, as the Treasure of the Priest. The other Nichiren schools define another Buddha (usually Sakyamuni) as the Treasure of the Buddha, and Nichiren as the Treasure of the Priest. Nichiren Shoshu considers the Law of Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo, and by extension the Dai-Gohonzon (i.e., the embodiment of that law), to be the Treasure of the Law, whereas other schools go only as far as defining Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo (i.e., just the invocation) as the Treasure of the Law.
Another important difference arises again out of this last one: Nichiren Shoshu permits worship of only the Dai-Gohonzon (and its transcriptions) because the school sees it as the embodiment of the Treasure of the Law, whereas other schools are often ambivalent on their object of worship, sometimes changing it and even allowing worship of statues or collections of statues and paying homage to various Buddhist and Shinto deities.
Specific doubts about the Dai-Gohonzon’s authenticity
Several schools and critics contend that while Nichiren’s own writings provide ample evidence that he inscribed several Gohonzon, they supply no evidence to support the notion that he inscribed the Dai-Gohonzon. This alternative perspective is put forth in the “No known documentary evidence by Nichiren that he inscribed the Dai-Gohonzon” entry in the article on Nichiren.
The daily practice of Nichiren Shoshu believers consists of affirming and renewing their faith by performing gongyō twice a day, in the morning and in the evening. Gongyo is a prayer service—Nichiren Shoshu’s form of meditation—that entails reciting certain sections of the Lotus Sutra, held to be Sakyamuni Buddha’s highest and most profound teaching, and chanting Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo to the Gohonzon while focusing on the Chinese character myō (“mystic”) at its center. This practice, particularly when shared with others, is regarded as the True Cause for attaining the tranquil condition of enlightened life that allows believers to experience and enjoy more meaningfully fulfilled lives and to confidently confront and overcome the challenges of everyday life.
The logic behind this is that through thoughts, words, and deeds, every being creates causes, and every cause has an effect. Good causes produce positive effects; bad causes, negative ones (see karma). This law of causality is the universal principle underlying all visible and invisible phenomena and events in daily life. Nichiren Shoshu believers strive to elevate their life condition by acting in accordance with this law in their day-to-day lives and by sharing their faith with others, believing their Buddhist practice to be the ultimate good cause for effecting changes in life and attaining enlightenment.
Friction and split with Soka Gakkai
The Japanese based religious group Soka Gakkai has been affiliated with Nichiren Shoshu teachings, since its beginnings, in the 1930s. Today, Soka Gakkai’s teachings share many aspects with those of Nichiren Shoshu. However, in the mid 1970s, differences arose between the two organizations. From the perspective of Nichiren Shoshu, they centered around different interpretations over some Nichiren Shoshu beliefs. According to Nichiren Shoshu, they felt that Soka Gakkai was even introducing newly formulated doctrines of its own. Eventually the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood stripped Daisaku Ikeda of his presidency in the lay organization, and excommunicated him — some say this includes all Soka Gakkai members, while others disagree — 1991.
On the other hand, Soka Gakkai asserts that when Daisaku Ikeda challenged the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood on doctinal grounds, his challenge was considered by some to be an act of “blasphemy” against the preisthood, which viewed itself and asserted itself as the ultimate authority in Nichiren Buddhism. According to Soka Gakkai, as a consequence, Ikeda stepped down as Soka Gakkai president in November 1979. According to Nichiren Shoshu followers, he did so to “apologize for his organization’s deviations from Nichiren Shoshu doctrine, which at the time Soka Gakkai was bound by its rules of incorporation to observe.” Others suggest that his was the action of a man who did not want to be responsible for creating a rift among the practitioners.
Regardless of the rationale, however, a division between the followers of Nichiren Shoshu, and those who aligned themselves with the Soka Gakkai, did occur, and continues to be a source of controversy and disagreement amongst practitioners to this day.
Shortly after he stepped down, he was named honorary chairman of Soka Gakkai, in part as a response to practitioners’ dissatisfaction with the treatment of Daisaku Ikeda. He remains president of SGI to this day. The two are now organizationally and doctrinally separate. It remains to be seen whether this will be a permanent or temporary split.
With the resurfacing in 1990 of the split between Nichiren Shoshu and Soka Gakkai, then the largest lay organization affiliated with the school, a number of controversies erupted about the behavior and attitude of the priesthood. In the mid 1990s a number of priests, citing a desire to reform the school, left Nichiren Shoshu. Aligning themselves with Soka Gakkai, they alleged that the priesthood had become abusive and tyrannical and had strayed from the true teachings of Nichiren.
Controversy involving the priesthood
Almost all controversies involving the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood that have been raised over the past several decades, including those concerning the high priest personally, stem from allegations raised in Soka Gakkai publications. Despite numerous lawsuits, however, no court in Japan or the United States has established the veracity of any of the allegations.
Soka Gakkai claims that many Hokkeko members left their temples in the wake of these controversies and aligned themselves with it, alleging that they too had become targets of abuse by the priesthood. However, large numbers of Soka Gakkai members, deciding themselves to remain Nichiren Shoshu believers, also left Soka Soka Gakkai. Of these, many felt the latter had deliberately provoked the split in retaliation for the priesthood’s calls for Soka Gakkai to roll back activities and renounce newly formulated religious concepts that they and the priesthood believed incompatible with traditional Nichiren Shoshu teachings and practice. Objectionable activities included encouraging electioneering (for Komeito) under the notion that it was a facet of Buddhist practice, and the collection of massive monetary donations as offerings; concepts deemed incompatible include a cult of personality focusing on Soka Gakkai’s supreme leader, certain aspects of Soka Gakkai’s interpretation of humanism, and Soka Gakkai’s negation of the priesthood’s role in maintaining the faith and looking after the faithful.
Accusations against the high priest
Previous High Priest Nikken Abe was accused of having been involved in an altercation with a Seattle, Washington, prostitute in the early morning hours of March 20, 1963, over payment for services rendered. In 1992, when this issue was brought to light in Soka Gakkai publications, High Priest Nikken released a statement in which he stated that the accusation, made by one Ms. Hiroe Clow, was an “utterly groundless lie, a fabrication.” In reaction, Ms. Clow sued High Priest Nikken and one other defendant in the Superior Court of Los Angeles County, California, claiming that he had defamed her with his statement. On November 23, 1993, the judge handed down a ruling dismissing Clow’s suit. He found that it ran contrary to the spirit of fair play and substantive justice to allow the courts of the State of California to have jurisdiction over the case. He also concluded that:
- The plaintiff was a mere nominal one; the true beneficiary of the suit was Soka Gakkai;
- The lawsuit was a part, as well as the culmination, of 50 or so suits filed by Soka Gakkai in an attempt to depose High Priest Nikken Abe after it had been excommunicated;
- The suit was a deliberate attempt by Soka Gakkai to bait Nikken Abe by repeatedly publishing provocative articles in its organ newspapers, articles that were run under lurid headlines and demanded a response from him.
Soka Gakkai never revealed the substance of this decision to its Japanese members, who were told (through the organization’s media) that the case had been dismissed on a legal technicality. A further suit, naming High Priest Nikken and three other defendants, was also filed in Los Angeles, but this one had an outcome favorable to the defendants: the judge stayed some claims and dismissed the rest on November 21, 1994. The Los Angeles Court of Appeals rejected an appeal in its entirety, with the presiding judge naming Soka Gakkai as real beneficiary of the suits, affirming the lower courts’ decisions: “In the unusual circumstances it is fair to say that plaintiff is a ‘nominal’ plaintiff and the ‘ultimate beneficiary of the suit’ is a nonresident (Soka)”, clearly showing that the California Courts saw these as nuisance suits and abuses of the California justice system. Clow and the Soka Gakkai appealed once again, but the Supreme Court of California rejected their petition, and they ultimately had to abandoned their until-then much advertised idea of appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In the meantime, the venue of the legal battle over the veracity of what had become known as the Seattle Incident (among Soka Gakkai members) and the Clow Incident (among people on the Nichiren Shoshu side), and who was liable for defaming whom, moved to Japan.
Another libel suit was filed in December 1993, this time in Tokyo District Court, against High Priest Nikken, followed quickly by a countersuit filed by Nichiren Shoshu (these two suits were later integrated into a single suit because of the high degree of evidentiary and other overlap). Court proceedings continued until 1996 when a former Seattle police officer testified. This officer claimed to be the one who had been called to the scene of the alleged 1963 incident. But his testimony and its content could only be termed amazing—for example, it was characterized by a phenomenal degree of coincidence with the version of events given by High Priest Nikken’s original accuser, despite the passage of over 30 years and the lack of any evidence that he had ever spoken to others about the incident during those 30 years. Interesting also was the incredible degree of detail with which he was able to recall what happened during a distant, routine night of patrolling a beat, not to mention that police records indicated that he was neither on duty that night, nor had he been assigned to the area where the incident was supposed to have occurred. It also transpired that this former police officer had been receiving $4,000 a month from a Soka Gakkai attorney for his services as a private investigator from January 1995 forward, and a number affidavits from fellow officers, both former and active, indicated that the witness’s testimony was untenable on numerous points, including ones of contemporary police procedure.
Meanwhile, Hiroe Clow passed away suddenly (and amid claims of dubious circumstances, though the cited cause of death was cancer), right before she was to be cross-examined in the Tokyo court.
The suit ran for several years, with so many claims, counterclaims, and attempts to impeach the credibility of evidence that unraveling the whole affair became nearly impossible. The judges presiding over the case eventually urged the parties to settle on grounds that further arguments would only exhaust the parties’ resources and serve the interests of neither. In these circumstances, and given that a party that refuses when a Japanese judge has urged settlement will usually fare unfavorably, both Soka Gakkai and Nichiren Shoshu agreed to settle. One condition of the January 2002 settlement was that neither would pursue the matter any further in its publications or other media. Specifically, under the settlement agreement Soka Gakkai is prohibited from publishing any further accusations about the incident, though Nichiren Shoshu is permitted to continue denying that the alleged incident ever took place. Thus the Court never recognized the veracity of the accusations against High Priest Nikken.
Other lawsuits and outcomes
All in all, Soka Gakkai or Soka Gakkai members (acting as private persons) filed over 130 lawsuits in Japanese courts against Nichiren Shoshu, the high priest, local Nichiren Shoshu temples, or their resident priests between 1991 and 2001. The numerous defamation suits aside, most of these were over disputes concerning cemeteries and burial rites or the return of offerings Soka Gakkai members had made in the past.
For its part, Nichiren Shoshu also instigated 39 suits against Soka Gakkai, its officers, and other allies between 1992 and 2004. Here, outside of counter suits in conjunction with the aforementioned Seattle/Clow Incident suits, the focus was usually on return of property (temples) on which priests who had allied themselves with Soka Gakkai were squatting or for injunctions against parties who were harassing Nichiren Shoshu priests or temples.
As of November 1, 2005, a total of 177 suits had been filed in Japanese courts and final decisions reached in 172. Of these 172, 34 ended in court-recommended settlements, 22 in decisions favorable to Soka Gakkai, and 116 in decisions or withdrawals favorable to Nichiren Shoshu (source: Daibyakuhō, the Hokkekō organ newspaper; November 1, 2005).
For readers researching the dispute, the Wiki article on Soka Gakkai might provide some useful information and links. The Web also offers numerous sites providing information and commentary, though—as is often the case in such disputes, and as the confusion of the Tokyo courts as described above indicates—application of critical eye is warranted.
- Website of Soka Gakkai, a former lay organization
- Web presence of the Association of Youthful Priests Dedicated to the Reformation of Nichiren Shoshu, a group of priests who sided with Soka Gakkai
- Private website critical of Nichiren Shoshu’s previous high priest, Nikken Abe
Sources and references
- The Doctrines and Practice of Nichiren Shoshu, Nichiren Shoshu Overseas Bureau, 2002.
- A Dictionary of Buddhist Terms and Concepts, Nichiren Shoshu International Center (NSIC), Tokyo, 1983. ISBN 4-88872-014-5. (Note: Despite its name, NSIC is no longer affiliated with Nichiren Shoshu; however, the dictionary largely reflects Nichiren Shoshu interpretations of terms and concepts.)
- Nichiren Shōshū yōgi (日蓮正宗要義: “The essential tenets of Nichiren Shoshu”), Taiseki-ji, 1978, rev. ed. 1999
- Nichiren Shōshū nyūmon (日蓮正宗入門: “Introduction to Nichiren Shoshu”), Taiseki-ji, 2002
- Dai-Nichiren (大日蓮), monthly magazine published by Nichiren Shoshu. Fujinomiya, Shizuoka, Japan (numerous issues)
- Dai-Byakuhō (大白法), the Hokkekō organ newspaper. Tokyo (numerous issues)
Japanese for Buddhist terms
- 開眼式 kaiganshiki, “Opening of the Eyes Ceremony.” This expression is common among Buddhists schools that use images as objects of veneration.
- 三宝 Nichiren Shoshu