There are Nichiren Buddhists, and then there are Nichiren Buddhists

This past Saturday, my family attended the yearly Japanese “Aki Matsuri” festival in Bellevue, Washington (my hometown!), which is always a fun event. It’s amazing how many friends we run into there.1

The Aki Matsuri festival has a lot of groups from around the area: businesses, merchants, non-profit groups, religious groups, etc. I found one stall for a Nichiren-shu Buddhist group here in Seattle, and I started talking to the priest, who was a fellow Buddhist convert. We had a good conversation as two Buddhist-nerds. 😉

But the encounter also made me realize that Nichiren Buddhism is more complex than I thought. The priest frequently explained that what a certain controversial group named Soka Gakkai does is different than other Buddhist groups. But most westeners (like myself) only know Soka Gakkai, so this gives people a false-impression of what Nichiren Buddhism is. I visited another Nichiren group, Rissho Kosei Kai, a few times in July, and had a good impression, but meeting a Nichiren-shu priest also confirmed that many Buddhists have a skewed understanding of what Nichiren Buddhist is all about.

So, I did a little research online, and here’s what I’ve learned about Nichiren Buddhism.

When Nichiren died in 1282, he had 6 major disciples:

  • Nisshō (日昭, 1221-1323)
  • Nichirō (日朗, 1245-1320)
  • Nikkō (日興, 1246-1333)
  • Nikō (日向, 1253-1314)
  • Nitchō (日頂, 1252-1317), and
  • Nichiji (日持, 1250-1305?)

You can read more about it here. Out of these 6 disciples, two basic lineages developed:

  • The Icchi (一致派) lineage, which studies and chants all chapters of the Lotus Sutra, but the 2nd and 16th chapters are treated as the most important.
  • The Shōrestu (勝劣派) lineage, which tends to only read and chant the 2nd and 16th chapters of the Lotus Sutra.

Over time, these two lineages became dozens of schools and lineages in Japan, similar to how Pure Land, Shingon and Zen schools evolved in medieval Japan. There was geographic isolation, politics, and also people developed slightly different rituals, liturgies, and ways of doing things depending on which disciple of Nichiren they had descended from. For the most part, these different schools treated one another as brothers in Nichiren Buddhism although they did compete with one another over “authenticity”. Again, Zen, Pure Land and Shingon schools did the same kind of stuff.

However, during the Warring States period (sengoku jidai 戦国時代) Nichiren and Pure Land schools were both attacked again and again by monastic-armies (sōhei 僧兵) from the Tendai school. In order to survive, the different Nichiren schools (22 at the time) had to protect and support one another. Each school had their differences, but through this period they maintained a sense of community and support.

One particular temple, named Taisekiji (homepage here), stood out from the others though. Taisekiji was descended from the Shoretsu Lineage, and in particular a sub-branch called the Fuji Monryū (富士門流) which was descended from the senior disciple Nikkō mentioned above. Not all Shoretsu schools are part of the Fuji Monryu branch, but all “Fuji schools” are from the Shoretsu lineage. Starting around in the 1400’s and especially after the 1600’s, Taisekiji adopted a new position that Nichiren was the True Buddha, not Shakyamuni, and that only they possessed the true teachings. Practices started to change, and Taisekiji became more and more independent from the rest of the Nichiren schools while claiming the others were heretics. Further they claimed that only their gohonzon altar images are valid because they descended from a special image at their temple.

Finally in 1912, Taisekiji officially became its own lineage called Nichiren Shōshū (日蓮正宗), or “Orthodox Nichiren”, and in the 1930 it created a lay-organization called Soka Gakkai (創価学会). However, the relationship soured, and by 1991, Nichiren Shoshu and Soka Gakkai parted ways and became independent organizations, though maintaining similar practices and teachings. These two groups are what most Westerners know as “Nichiren Buddhism” today.

But what happened to the rest of the schools in Japan? Although Taisekiji temple distanced itself further and further from the other schools, most other schools gradually formed together to become Nichiren-Shū (日蓮宗) during the Edo Period and Meiji Period. Others became independent schools even though their “network” might only be a few temples. The term “Nichiren-shu” is actually kind of umbrella term because many of the temples that are Nichiren-shu come from various lineages from Nichiren’s original 6 disciples, but generally teach the same thing. The only variations are usually local differences in liturgy and practice. Even some of the other Fuji branch temples (not from Taisekiji) became Nichiren-shu temples over time. In other words, the general trend in Nichiren Buddhist history was the formation of a larger, general school called Nichiren-Shu, except for Taisekiji and a few other temples which formed independent groups.

But things didn’t stop there. From Nichiren-shu, a number of modern organizations developed, such as Reiyūkai (homepage) and Risshō Kōsei Kai which I visited previously. These groups did not break away from Nichiren-shu nor were they kicked out, but instead were purely lay-based organizations that are based on Nichiren-shu but add their own nuances and teachings with it.

….so the point of all this is that Nichiren Buddhism isn’t just a particular organization (especially one with such a dubious reputation), but in fact is a large, complex series of groups and lineages all devoted to the 13th century monk Nichiren, the Lotus Sutra, Shakyamuni Buddha and reciting the Odaimoku: namu myoho renge kyo. Most modern Nichiren groups are ecumenical, and maintain positive relationships with other Buddhist groups and generally do not criticize one another. For them, Nichiren is either a bodhisattva, or a reincarnation of bodhisattva. He is often viewed as a reformer of the Tendai tradition, and a disciple of the Buddha, not a replacement of the Buddha. Finally, the central image, the gohonzon (ご本尊) is not a living entity and object of worship, but is a expression of the truths taught by the Lotus Sutra.

Coincidentally though, the kinds of Nichiren Buddhism most Westerners are familiar with are the aggressive off-shoots that are not part of this community. This has caused a great deal of confusion for people, and will probably continue for some time.

*Phew* that was a long post. If you made it this far, I hope it proved useful. I hope to learn more about Nichiren Buddhism, if for other reason than to clarify any misconceptions. 😉

1 All the Japanese-housewives in the area know each other. It’s a small community, but bigger than you might think! 😉

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Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

2 thoughts on “There are Nichiren Buddhists, and then there are Nichiren Buddhists”

  1. Thank you for the very interesting and well-researched post. I had the impression that some of the schools which expanded into the West might be different than the mainstream. I suppose it’s similar to certain missionary groups which cultivate more converts abroad than they can find in their home country.
    Somewhat related, I’ve heard of some differences among Buddhist schools in and from Viet Nam.
    Thanks again for the useful article.

    Like

    1. Yeah that’s how it seems to work: fringe religious groups tend to succeed overseas. Fringe Christian groups thrive in places like the Pacific Islands while fringe Buddhist groups thrive in the West. People in such places have nothing to compare to.

      Liked by 1 person

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