The Daimoku, the Honzon and the Kaidan

The core of Nichiren’s teachings is the doctrine of the “three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment” (ichinen sanzen) which Nichiren had borrowed from Zhiyi, the founder of the Tiantai/Tendai school. Zhiyi, however, had followed this doctrine as found in the trace teaching of the Lotus Sutra, where, as a provisional teaching, it is only grasped “in principle,” that is, as a concept. Zhiyi used it as “an introspective method in which the practitioner’s (deluded) thought of one moment is taken as the object of contemplation.” For Nichiren, a deeper understanding of this doctrine was “hidden in the depths of the text of the ‘Fathoming the Lifespan’ chapter.” This deeper understanding allows us to realise this teaching “in actuality,” i.e., embody it in our lives. Instead of merely seeking it through contemplation, which entails a linear progression from cause to effect, Nichiren wanted us to “embrace” it through faith.

Jacqueline Stone writes: “In Nichiren’s Buddhism, the ‘Three thousand realms in a thought-moment’ takes concrete, ‘actual’ form as the daimoku and a specific object of worship (honzon). These two, together with the ordination platform (kaidan) – or, more broadly, the place of practice – constitute what Nichiren called the “three great matters of the ‘Fathoming the Lifespan’ chapter of the origin teaching or, as the later tradition would call them, the ‘three great secret Dharmas.’ In Nichiren’s system, these three form the content of the transmission conferred by Sakyamuni Buddha upon Bodhisattva Superior Conduct at the assembly in the air above Eagle Peak and are destined expressly for the Final Dharma age. All three are entailed in the moment of ‘embracing’ the Lotus Sutra.

The Daimoku

The Daimoku is the chanting of the Japanese title of the Lotus SutraMyoho Renge Kyo – preceded by Namu, meaning “I dedicate myself to.” “Myoho” is mystic law; “renge” is lotus; “kyo” is sutra. The use of the title of a sutra as encompassing the heart of an entire sutra had been a Chinese tradition. “The daimoku is all-inclusive .. it is equated with the three thousand realms in a thought-moment, the entirety of all that is.” Stone adds that, “[Another] aspect of the all-inclusiveness of the daimoku comes to the fore … after [Nichiren’s] banishment to Sado. This is the idea that the whole of the Buddha’s enlightenment is contained within the daimoku and accessible to the practitioner in the act of chanting it … ‘Embracing’ the daimoku has the aspects both of chanting and having the mind of faith (shinjin); for Nichiren, the two are inseparable … In the moment of faith, the three thousand realms of the original Buddha and those of the ordinary worldling are one.”

Stone explains that Nichiren “did not himself develop a particular theory of Buddha nature. Rather … he emphasized the daimoku as the ‘seed’ of Buddhahood.” Elaborating on Zhiyi’s Fa-hua hsuan-i, “Nichiren makes explicit that it is always the Lotus Sutra that sows the initial seed.” While people in earlier ages had attained full enlightenment through other teachings, “this was only because they had first received the seed of Buddhahood by hearing the Lotus Sutra in prior lifetimes … Nichiren’s reading is distinctive in that it identifies the seed of Buddhahood as the daimoku.” In Nichiren’s own words: “All Buddhas of the three time periods and ten directions invariably attain Buddhahood with the seed of the five characters myoho-renge-kyo.” For Nichiren, people in the final Dharma age were people “originally without good roots,” because they had never received this seed in prior lifetimes.

The word “seed” here does not imply a maturation process. Just the opposite in fact. “The seed is simultaneously [the harvest of] liberation.” Nichiren explains: “The maha-mandarava flowers in heaven and the cherry blossoms of the human world are both splendid flowers, but the Buddha did not choose them to represent the Lotus Sutra. There is a reason why … he chose this [lotus] flower to represent the sutra. Some flowers first bloom and then produce fruit, while others bear fruit before flowers … In the case of the lotus, however, flowers and fruit appear at the same time. The merit of all [other] sutras is uncertain, because they teach that one must first plant good roots and [only] afterward become a buddha. But in the case of the Lotus Sutra, when one takes it in one’s hand, that hand at once becomes Buddha, and when one chants it with one’s mouth, that mouth is precisely Buddha. It is like the moon being reflected in the water the moment it appears above the eastern mountains, or like a sound and its echo occurring simultaneously.”

This realisation of embodiment could be described as the “actualisation” of our inherent Buddha nature, as it is understood in Japanese Buddhism that we are all inherently enlightened, and only need to manifest it in our daily lives. Nichiren’s innovation is his exclusive use of faith as the medium for this actualisation. Other schools of Buddhism have used faith as well as devotion, as part of a range of various practices, as faith and devotion were seen as a way to unify the mind and heart of the practitioner, allowing them to open up to reality, and be one with it. For Nichiren, however, faith and devotion are not techniques to induce oneness and openness, because that would turn them into a mere practice (an exercise, that is, a “cause”) meant to produce enlightenment (as an “effect”), which is what Nichiren rejects as the trace teaching of the first fourteen chapters of the Lotus, as well as Zhiyi’s interpretation of it in his understanding of ichinen sanzen. In the quote above, Nichiren makes it clear that the simultaneity of cause and effect is the linchpin that, within the moment of faith, “actualises” the oneness of practitioner and Buddha during the chanting of the daimoku.

An image of the Lotus Sūtra from the Kamakura period (c. 1257)

The Object of Worship (Honzon)

In the conventional sense of a physical icon forming the focus of practice, the object of worship (honzon) that was used by Nichiren “appears to have been a calligraphic mandala of his own devising, which he referred to variously as the “great mandala” or the “revered object of worship” (gohonzon). On this mandala the daimoku is written vertically as a central inscription, flanked by the names of Sakyamuni, Many Jewels, and the other personages who were present at the assembly in open space above Eagle Peak where the core of the origin teaching of the Lotus Sutra was expounded.”

When Nichiren, who is known to have carried a small image of Sakyamuni Buddha, was asked why the object of worship was not Sakyamuni Buddha, he replied: “Lord Sakyamuni and T’ien-t’ai (Chih-i) both established the Lotus Sutra as the object of worship. The reason is that the Lotus Sutra is the father and mother of Sakyamuni, and the eye of all Buddhas. Sakyamuni, Dainichi, and the Buddhas of the ten directions were all born of the Lotus Sutra. Therefore I now take as object of worship that which gives birth [to the Buddhas].” So, the object of worship is the Lotus Sutra itself, encapsulated in its title Myoho-renge-kyo, although in some writings, Nichiren describes the object of worship as “the original Buddha [described as, in Nichiren’s words] “Sakyamuni and Many Jewels within the jeweled stupa along with all the other Buddhas, flanked by Superior Conduct and the others of the four bodhisattvas.” Jacqueline Stone notes: “Whether imagined as Dharma or as Buddha, Nichiren’s ‘object of worship of the origin teaching’ is perfectly inclusive.”

Stone also says that “Nichiren’s writings as a whole … present a spectrum of concepts of the Buddha is at once both immanent and transcendent. He is ‘our blood and flesh’; his practices and resulting virtues are ‘our bones and marrow.’ Yet at the same time, he is ‘parent, teacher, and sovereign’ to all beings of this, the Saha world … Nichiren also stressed that Sakyamuni was only the Buddha who, out of compassion for its beings, had actually appeared in this world – a frequent point in Nichiren’s criticism of devotion to Amida. Sakyamuni is lord of this threefold world … With this concept of the Buddha, Nichiren asserted the superior authority of the Lotus Sutra over that of wordly rule. Sakyamuni also presides over a pure land, the Pure Land of Eagle Peak, and Nichiren often assured his followers that their deceased relatives were with Sakyamuni there. In short, Nichiren’s concept of the object of worship not only posits a Buddha who encompasses all things, but itself attempts to encompass all views of the Buddha.”

Rinmetsu Doji Gohonzon (“Entering the Wheel of Nirvana”) claimed to be the Gohonzon that was with Nichiren
at his bedside when he died.

As Nichiren’s “object of worship,” the gohonzon is meant to encapsulate in a “concrete form” the “three thousand realms in a single thought-moment” as actuality. As Stone notes, “icons and mandalas in pre-modern Japan were seen not as merely symbolic or representational but as participating and actively embodying the sacred powers of the beings or principles they depicted.” Nichiren, however, explains this idea“ in terms of the concept of the Buddhahood of grasses and trees, or more broadly, of insentient beings, a principle encompassed by the doctrine of the “Three thousand realms in a thought-moment.”

Furthermore, “Nichiren’s mandala includes not only Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and deities but also representatives of the evil realms, such as rakasa demons and the treacherous Devadatta. In including such figures, Nichiren followed not the text of the Lotus Sutra itself – in which all beings in the six realms of transmigration are removed before the jeweled stupa is opened – but the principle of the ‘three thousand realms in a thought-moment’, according to which even the Buddha realm contains the nine unenlightened states.”

Nichiren’s use of a mandala was clearly due to an influence of esoteric Buddhism with which he had been quite familiar. The obvious difference between Nichiren’s mandala and the esoteric mandalas is that his is written entirely in characters and contains no picture. “Each figure is indicated by the Chinese characters for its name, except for Fudo and Aizen, who are represented by their ‘seed characters’ in Siddham … Nichiren does not say why he decided on a calligraphic mandala, though it is probably related to the tradition of esoteric mandalas drawn consisting partly or entirely in Siddham characters, as well as his personal reverence for the characters of the Lotus Sutra, which he regarded as not mere written words but the Buddha’s mind.” However, Myoe (1173-1232) of the Kegon school, had devised a very similar calligraphic mandala with the three treasures written horizontally in Siddham.

Stone says that “Nichiren’s writings say very little about the place of his mandala in actual practice.” There is, however, a (disputed) text that has been highly valued in the Nichiren tradition. Nichiren writes:

“Never seek this gohonzon elsewhere, [for] it abides only in the fleshly heart within the breast of persons like ourselves who embrace the Lotus Sutra and chant Namu-myoho-renge-kyo … Being endowed with the ten realms means that [all] ten realms, not excepting a single one, are contained within a single realm [that of Buddhahood]. That is the reason why this is called a mandala … This gohonzo is contained solely within the word ‘faith.’ That is the meaning of ‘gaining entrance by faith.’ By believing undividedly in [the Lotus Sutra, in accordance with its words,] ‘honestly discarding skillful means’ and ‘accept[ing] even a single verse from other sutras,’ Nichiren’s disciples and lay followers shall enter the jeweled stupa of this gohonzon. How reassuring, how reassuring!”

Stone concludes: “It appears that the logic of Nichiren’s mandala is quite similar to that of esoteric practice, wherein the practitioner visualizes the union of self and Buddha, known as ‘the Buddha entering the self and the self entering the Buddha’. For Nichiren, however, the non-duality of the practitioner and the Buddha is realized neither by esoteric visualization techniques nor by introspective contemplation involving the application of mental categories, such as the threefold contemplation. Rather, it is by faith in the Lotus Sutra that one enters the realm of the Buddha’s enlightenment – the Three thousand realms in a single thought-moment as actuality – and manifests its identity with oneself.”

The Kaidan (Ordination Platform)

Because faith is relied upon for the actualisation of the oneness of the practitioner and the object of worship in the act of “embracing” the Lotus Sutra, the specific place where the gohonson is set up, and the daimoku chanted, deserves special attention. This place has been described by Nichiren in terms of the “ordination platform,” the Buddha’s land to be realised in this world, and the Pure Land of Eagle Peak.

Addressing the first sense, Jacqueline Stone writes: “In its most specific sense, the place of practice is understood in terms of the “ordination platform of the origin teaching,” the third of the three great secret Dharmas entrusted by the original Sakyamuni to Bodhisattva Superior Conduct for the sake of persons in the Final Dharma age.” An ordination platform is a place where one takes the precepts that mark one’s commitment to a Buddhist practice. Like Honen, however, “Nichiren saw the Final Dharma age as an age without precepts, where ‘there is neither keeping the precepts nor breaking them’. From a very early period, he held that ‘merely to believe in [the Lotus Sutra] is to uphold the precepts’.”

Stone writes that “the Sandai hiho sho … unambiguously describes the kaidan as an imperially sponsored ordination platform to supersede the ‘ordination platform of the trace teaching’ established by Saicho’s efforts at Mt Hiei.” Though this text is hotly disputed, it makes sense since at the time the government was closely involved in religious matters. Stone thinks that “it seems altogether likely that Nichiren did envision the establishment of an imperially sponsored ordination platform, adding that, “at the same time, perhaps because this ‘ordination platform in actuality’ could not immediately be realized, a corollary interpretation developed concerning the ‘ordination platform in principle,’ meaning wherever one might chant the daimoku. This was also known as the ‘soku ze kaidan’ (“here is itself the kaidan”) based on a passage of the Lotus Sutra that says, of any place where one keeps the sutra: ‘You should know that this place is itself the place of enlightenment’.” Furthermore, “the understanding of kaidan as being wherever one embraces the Lotus Sutra is also deeply connected to elements in Nichiren’s thought concerning the place of practice.”

In the second sense, the kaidan was the Buddha’s land to be realised in this world. “Nichiren saw the Buddha’s pure land as immanent in the present world, based on the ‘Fathoming the Lifespan’ chapter of the Lotus Sutra, which says, ‘I [Sakyamuni] am always in this Saha world’. In the Kanjin honzon sho, Nichiren developed this idea specifically in terms of the origin teaching and the Three thousand realms in a single thought-moment.” The moment of enlightenment is described as “accessing a timeless, constant abiding realm,” an escape from linear time into original time, which has “no distinction of past, present, and future, and no proceeding from a deluded to an enlightened state … This ‘original time’ is the ‘actuality’ of the Three Thousand Realms in one thought-moment of the original Buddha and is accessed in the “now” (ima) of embracing the daimoku. In the single thought-moment of faith, the three thousand realms of the practitioner are those of the original Buddha. And because the person and the land are nondual, in the moment of faith and practice, the Saha world is the eternal Buddha land.”

Such views had already been asserted by Tendai and Shingon schools. “Where Nichiren’s position differed was that, for him, the identity of the Saha world and the Buddha’s land was not only to be realized subjectively in the moment of practice but manifested in actuality: as faith in the Lotus Sutra spread from one person to another, there would occur an objective, visible transformation of the outer world.” In a letter written on Sado Island in 1273, Nichiren says: “When all people throughtout the land the one Buddha vehicle and the Wonderful Dharma alone flourishes, because the people chant Namu-myoho-renge-kyo as one, the wind will not thrash the branches nor the rain fall hard enough to break clods. The age will become like the reigns of [the Chinese sage kings] Yao and Shun.”

This statement, Stone points out, “draws on apotropaic [having the power to avert evil influences or bad luck] notions that the proper Buddhist rituals could rid the land of misfortune.” It would, however, explain Nichiren’s repeated memorializing of the shogunate throughout his life.

In the third sense, kaidan designates the Pure Land of Eagle Peak. Owing to a conflation of Eagle (or Vulture) Peak with the Lotus Sutra’s assertion that this Saha world is the eternal dwelling place of the original Buddha, “‘Eagle Peak’ was frequently understood as representing the ontological nonduality of delusion and enlightenment, or of the present, Saha world and the Land of Ever-Tranquil Light.” Mountain-top temples in Japan were often identified with Eagle Peak. “Nichiren, too, occasionally equated Eagle Peak with Mt Minobu, where he, the gyoja of the Lotus Sutra, was living … In Nichiren’s appropriation, however, the notion of the Pure Land of Sacred Eagle Peak is used to indicate the destination of believers in the Lotus after death … This interpretation was not altogether unique to Nichiren.”

Stone concludes her study on Nichiren’s thought as follows: “Such, in outline, is the structure of the moment of ‘embracing’ the Lotus Sutra as conceived in Nichiren’s thought. It is a moment of intersection between the present time and the timeless realm of enlightenment, in which the Buddha, the practitioner, and the practitioner’s outer world are all identified. It is described as the ‘three thousand realms in one thought-moment,’ which is implicit in the practitioner as the ontological basis of enlightenment, embodied in the daimoku and the object of worship, accessed in the act of faith and chanting, and manifested outwardly in the transformation of the world. This reality is both inherent in and mediated by the five characters myoho-renge-kyo conferred by the original Sakyamuni Buddha upon the people of the Final Dharma age and is accessible in no other way. This understanding of the Lotus Sutra as the sole vehicle of realizing Buddhahood underlies Nichiren’s mandate to uphold it “without begrudging bodily life.” It also enabled him and his followers to challenge the authority of established religious institutions and to define themselves as the unique possessors of truth.”

Jacqueline I. Stone – Original Enlightenment and the Transformation of Japanese Medieval Buddhism

Nichiren Shu altar – Kuon-ji temple, Mt Minobu