A Brief History Of Buddhism

A brief history of Buddhism

Siddhartha Gautama – the first recorded Buddha

Starting with the birth of Siddhartha Gautama who later came to be known as ‘Shakyamuni Buddha’ in the 5th century (623BC) before Christ in what is now modern day Nepal. Buddhism is considered to be one of the oldest philosophies in the world. Shakyamuni was a prince, next in line to the throne, and married. However, even though he had all needs met and his way mapped out, it so happened that he became preoccupied with the meaning of life after realising the four truths, birth (coming into existence), old age (impermanence), sickness (decline), and death.

In other words, he realized that all things go through these stages and he really wanted to make sense of it all. Thus, one could say that he became rather anxious to get answers. In Buddhism this is referred to as a ‘seeking mind’.

He therefore left his well sheltered palace to embark on a life of meditation and asceticism joining the religious organisations at the time. However, having applied himself sincerely and gone through many extremes and self mortification in his practice of seeking enlightenment, only to reject them later when he eventually discovered a path of moderation – the middle way – as holding the true answer to his quest.

Three marks of existence

According to tradition, Siddhartha became the Buddha Shakyamuni after achieving enlightenment through meditation. In other words, he became a wise man who could perceive the true meaning of existence. He perceived that everything in the physical or phenomenological world is marked by three characteristics. These were, ‘inconstancy’ (or impermanence), ‘unsatisfactoriness’ and ‘not-self’. He proposed that by correctly meditating, understanding and keeping these three characteristics of existence in mind, suffering is brought to an end.

As such he proclaimed that impermanence refers to the fact that all things are in a constant flux and therefore they are fleeting phenomena that will change from moment to moment. Yet, so he taught, in essence there is ultimately no such thing that actually ceases to exist. It is the appearance that changes from one form to another. For instance if we imagine how a leaf falls to the ground and decomposes its changes it form but it lives on in other plants. It is a stream of existence that never ends rather than an end in itself.

Similarly, ‘unsatisfactoriness’, also often referred to as ‘suffering’, is related to the understanding that ultimately nothing that is found in the physical or psychological realm can bring about lasting satisfaction. As soon as something has been achieved something else will need to be achieved. It is as if the horizon never comes any closer, or like a dog chasing its tail. That way, true and lasting happiness constantly eludes our grasp.

Non- self on the other hand is the understanding that all phenomena, entities, etc., even though they may look like having a permanent and unchanging self, are in fact the opposite, i.e. they are a constantly changing, constantly renewing ‘self’. Thus, our essential energy may be eternal, but the way it expresses itself through us changes all the time. Shakyamuni therefore taught that there is no such thing than an unchanging ‘identity’ to anything. If we were to look at pictures of our past we will surely come to realise that the way we view the world and ourselves has changed quite significantly, and if we were able to look at ourselves in the future we may not be able to even recognise who we might become.

The four noble truths

Shakyamuni consequently proclaimed that there were Four Noble Truths when it came to the dilemma of ‘unsatisfactoriness’ or suffering.

1. The nature of suffering – People suffer because their minds are not at ease. Birth, ageing, illness, death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, despair, not getting what one wants, separation from what is pleasing, union with what is displeasing and clinging are all suffering.

2. The origin of suffering – Suffering comes from craving (delight, lust, sensual pleasures, etc.). Craving leads to our renewed existence.

3. Suffering’s Cessation – as craving causes suffering, one has to stop craving in order to be free from suffering.

4. Follow the Eightfold Path- in order to be free from suffering one must follow the eight fold path.

The eightfold path

Shakyamuni said:

In the same way I saw an ancient path, an ancient road, travelled by the Rightly Self-awakened Ones of former times. And what is that ancient path, that ancient road, travelled by the Rightly Self-awakened Ones of former times? Just this noble eightfold path: right view, right aspiration, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration…I followed that path. Following it, I came to direct knowledge of aging & death, direct knowledge of the origination of aging & death, direct knowledge of the cessation of aging & death, direct knowledge of the path leading to the cessation of aging & death…Knowing that directly, I have revealed it to monks, nuns, male lay followers & female lay followers… —

Nagara Sutta

The threefold division of the Eightfold Path

The Eightfold Path can be divided into three divisions:

Division Eightfold Path factors Acquired factors
1. Wisdom 1. Right view Right knowledge
2. Right intention Right liberation
2. Ethical conduct 3. Right speech
4. Right action
5. Right livelihood
3. Concentration 6. Right effort
7. Right mindfulness
8. Right concentration

This threefold division is also called the ‘Three Higher Trainings’ in Buddhism as they aim to instil a higher level of wisdom, a higher moral discipline, and a higher level of concentration in the practitioner.
Today, depending on the many different schools of Buddhism, the practice of the Noble Eightfold Path varies greatly between them, with each school claiming the ability to implement it in the way most conducive to its followers.

The Lotus Sutra

However, because the Eightfold Path did not explain the actual source of Shakyamuni’s enlightenment, he eventually made it known through the Lotus Sutra (Saddharma Pundarīka Sūtra) towards the end of his life. In the sutra he identified a universal law which he described as eternal and based on strict causality. He made it known that enlightenment can be achieved by everyone, and that a Buddha has achieved spiritual immortality through understanding and embracing this law. Shakyamuni makes it clear that the perceiving of emptiness of all phenomena is not the ultimate aim of Buddhist practice, rather it should be the attainment of Buddha wisdom which enables the practitioner to see phenomena for what they truly are, and with that enjoy a happy meaningful existence.

During his lifetime he taught his enlightenment in many stories and parables. However depending on the mental capacity of the audience he was addressing, he would use different levels of teachings that would bring about varying levels of understanding. In other words, similarly to worrying that teaching a child university level mathematics in primary school would leave students more confused than enlightened, Shakyamuni revealed the essence of his enlightenment towards the end of his life to those of his followers who had formed the basis for such understanding to take place.

Therefore, he exclaimed that the Lotus sutra should be seen as his highest teaching and that all others sutras were mere supplementary teachings in preparation to the wisdom expounded in the Lotus sutra. He was also able to make a prediction at what time in the future all people would ultimately be able to ‘comprehend’ the teachings thus expounded (the latter day of the law). In fact, he predicted the appearance of a number of Buddha’s in the future who would become leaders in propagating enlightenment based on the teachings of the Lotus sutra. It was Shakyamuni’s constant aim to ‘awaken’ people to a true understanding of their life based on their capacity. He did so relentlessly up until his death and in the process left a substantial body of teachings behind.

His followers would in the style of the day commit his teachings to memory and orally transmit his knowledge and insights from generation to generation. For easy memorization, this was done through putting his teachings into doctrinal summaries in the form of prose (sutra’s) that would reflect the essence of his many teachings.

It wasn’t until 300 years later that the orally transmitted teachings were put into Sanskrit writing and sometime later translated into Chinese, and eventually Japanese.

Before the Buddha died he told his followers that the ‘Dharma’ would be their leader from now on. He made explicitly clear what that meant. Shakyamuni explained that his teachings were merely designed to ‘open a path of awakening’. In other words, those who hear the teachings should question their own cherished views and beliefs in life, and compare through a process of investigation and insight, how this would measure up with the ‘actual’ truth.

Once the truth of one’s life is therefore discovered and implemented, the teaching can be put aside as a practitioner would then live the truth. In other words, the Buddha was concerned that people would simply follow his teachings in a literal sense without understanding the actual principles behind it. He encouraged a seeking mind and a followers true questioning to clarify his or her own understanding. However, he proclaimed that the nature of his enlightenment, i.e. the truth, was to be found in the ‘Lotus sutra’ and thus it had to be treated as the foremost of his teachings.

Differences in interpretation after Shakyamuni’s passing

Nevertheless, with the passing of time this ‘truth’ became more obscure and hidden, and eventually rather difficult to discern. It was thus left open to speculation which teaching would reign supreme and despite all the good intentions, Shakyamuni’s legacy of teachings became the cause for many arguments and misunderstandings over the next few thousand years after his passing.

Having lost the true meaning of the Buddha’s intention, there were many sutras to consider and Buddhist followers were trying to determine which of the teachings were most supreme. As time passed people naturally added to the interpretations and it became even harder to discern the truth of Shakyamuni’s intentions.

However, there were also many Buddhist followers throughout the ages of propagation who were absolutely determined to maintain a consistent and ‘true’ lineage of transmission all the way back to Shakyamuni’s time.
Understandably, it became a lot easier to keep track of the many sutras when the orally transmitted sutras could eventually be committed to a written format. But it was no doubt a difficult task to maintain an ‘original’ spirit throughout at least the first 300-400 years before this was possible.

To understand this dilemma, it is probably a good idea to imagine the following. If the truth was a big tree that consisted of leaves, twigs, the trunk, and its many branches, then all these aspects of the tree represent the truth only as a whole (i.e. the Lotus sutra).

Let’s assume one does not know what the whole tree looks like. If someone would come to think that only a leaf or a branch represents the complete truth to the exclusion of everything else that makes up the tree, it will in fact only represent a partial truth.

If one would be deluded of this fact and instead make the statement that a branch and some of the leaves of the tree are the only truth, then that person would tell a lie. So… the quest would be to see first and foremost the tree. Only then would we be able to understand where the leaves and the branches and the bark fit in exactly. Only then would it all make sense.

Nevertheless, it didn’t quite turn out this way and many different schools developed all proclaiming that they were holding the ‘truth’ as intended by Shakyamuni. Therefore Buddhism divided up into numerous movements such as Theravada, Hinayana, Mahayana, and Varayana Buddhism.

The spread of Buddhism into Asia and the West

This way Buddhism expanded through most of the Asian continent as well as all the way along the silk road through the Middle East, Turkey, Egypt and Greece hundreds of years before the advent of Christ. There is even evidence of entire Buddhist communities living in ancient Alexandria (Egypt) as confirmed by gravestones found there depicting the Dharma wheel.

But it didn’t stop there if we belief Clement of Alexandria who lived in the year 200 after Christ in Alexandria. He acknowledged the influence of Buddhism not only on the Egyptians, the Middle East and the Greeks but also on the Celts and the Gauls of Northern Europe, by saying the following:

“Thus philosophy, a thing of the highest utility, flourished in antiquity among the barbarians, shedding its light over the nations. And afterwards it came to Greece. First in its ranks were the prophets of the Egyptians; and the Chaldeans among the Assyrians; and the Druids among the Gauls; and the Sramanas among the Bactrians (“Σαρμαναίοι Βάκτρων”); and the philosophers of the Celts; and the Magi of the Persians, who foretold the Saviour’s birth, and came into the land of Judaea guided by a star. The Indian gymnosophists are also in the number, and the other barbarian philosophers. And of these there are two classes, some of them called Sramanas (“Σαρμάναι”), and others Brahmins (“Βραφμαναι”).”

Clement of Alexandria “The Stromata, or Miscellanies” Book I, Chapter XV

Scholars have pointed out that there is a link between Buddhism and Christianity, which was especially apparent in Alexandria. In other words they think that Buddhist philosophy has influenced the development of Christianity.

As Buddhism expanded from India into China it flourished in various forms. The sutras were translated from Sanskrit into Chinese and just as in India there was much confusion of which teachings (sutra) would reign supreme.

T’ien-T’ai’s interpretation of Buddhism in China

One man who made it his lives quest to shed light on the merit of the individual sutras was the Chinese scholar T’ien-T’ai (538-597 AD). He assessed and arranged all sutras based on their content and after many years of study came to the conclusion that the Lotus Sutra was the one that indeed holds supremacy and through which all the other sutras could be explained.

He provided a conceptual framework that would have the capacity to universalize Buddhism. In other words, he systematized the teachings, correlated them and divorced them from their cultural context to arrive at an essential concept that is applicable to any phenomenon in the universe, seen or unseen. It is the concept of ‘3000 worlds in one moment of existence’, also known in Japanese as ‘Ichinen Sanzen’, something that will be discussed in more detail later.

More than 1000 years after Shakyamunis passing it is believed that T’ien-T’ai once again uncovered the essence of Shakyamuni’s enlightenment and therefore came to realise that enlightenment (Buddha-hood) can be achieved by anyone.

The advent of Tendai and Shingon Buddhism in Japan

T’ien-T’ai’s understanding was widely accepted and eventually made its way into Japan around the 8th century AD through a Chinese monk named Jianzhen. Consequently the ‘Ritsu school’ formed to propagate the teachings in Japan.

However, it was not until about 5 years later when the Japanese monk Dengyo (or Saicho) made his way to China and returned with more comprehensive writings that the concept expounded by T’ien-T’ai became more widely accepted in Japanese society.

At the same time when Dengyo made his way to China he had a companion priest by the name of Kukai that also travelled with him. While in China Kukai studied tantric practices which was yet another interpretation of the many sutras Shakyamuni had left behind.

As such tantric practices are all about energy and consist of the idea that through accessing the microcosm one can access the macrocosm. Through the use of rituals the practitioner seeks to access the divine power that flows through the universe and his or her own body to attain purposeful goals which can be of a material or spiritual nature.

Through daily practice the practitioner of tantric practices seeks to ‘raise’ his or her energy through the visualizations of deities, the making of gestures (mudras) or the uttering of words and phrases (mantras).
The practitioner may also concentrate and focus on symbolic diagrams (called mandalas and yantras) that represent the forces in the universe and that are designed as aids to raise the awareness of that energy.

The ultimate aim is to achieve complete self control and control over the forces of nature, so that a union between cosmos and the divine can be internalised. This kind of seeking of spiritual perfection and magical power usually requires long training a master or guru that initiates the practitioner in the practices.

This heavily ritualised practice found many supporters within the nobility of Japan and Kukai named his sect Shingon. He established a monastery on Mount Koya which became the centre of Shingon Buddhism in Japan.

Dengyo too was eager to pass on his knowledge and built a temple at Mt. Hiei which was exclusively designed and used for the study of T’ien-T’ai’s interpretations of the Buddha’s teachings. This was the beginning of the rise of Tendai Buddhism in Japan and from here on it was to be the most dominant influence of the development of all other forms of Buddhism that would follow thereafter.

However, as so often the case when things come of age, after some time Tendai Buddhism became more and more formalized and infiltrated with other philosophical influences, such as Shingon.
It was now the 13th century AD, more than 1500 years after the original Buddha’s passing and more than 400 years after T’ien-T’ai’s doctrine had been introduced to Japan, and the true meaning of Buddhism was once again lost in translation.

By then Tendai and Shingon Buddhism was firmly recognized, acculturated and sheltered by the population and governmental establishment. By now these philosophies had powerful friends in high places and they were well positioned to protect their interests.

Alternative interpretations of Buddhism in Japan

During those years a number of disenfranchised monks left the Tendai temple in order to find the true way to enlightenment and after some soul searching and study at various Buddhist monasteries came up with different concepts of how this was to be achieved. .

Amongst them was Honen who believed that by chanting the name of a mystical Buddha living in the West of the universe one was guaranteed to gain rebirth in a Western paradise. Honen designed a practice that was simple and easily accessible to the general population. All people had to do in addition to chanting the name of Amida Buddha was to follow the five precepts (i.e. to abstain from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and intoxication) and this would allow the practitioner to be reborn in a pure Buddha land where they could become enlightened. This simplicity was very attractive to many people as there were many upheavals at the time, and Honen therefore established what was called the ‘Pure Land Sect’, also called the ‘Nembutsu’ and attracted many followers.

Then there was Dōgen Zenji who travelled from Japan to China and found Zen, yet another form of Buddhism that developed from within Chinese interpretation of the Buddhist scriptures about 1000 years after the Buddha’s passing, i.e. around 500AD.

Zen is seen as ‘anti-philosophical’ and ‘anti-theoretical’ and practitioners are encouraged to seek their own answers internally as it argues that the Buddha’s awakening came through his meditation practice and not from words. Therefore, focusing on emptiness or nothingness, Zen meditation aims to seeing into one’s own nature to achieve Buddhahood. It places no dependence on words and letters and claims to be directly pointing to the human mind. A special ‘dharma transmission’ from one Zen master to the next is necessary to pass on the teachings and Zen thus claims to have an unbroken lineage all the way back to the Buddha Shakyamuni.

Neither of these different interpretations of Buddhism would sit well with the old Tendai or Shingon establishment and so the Nembutsu and Zen sects were initially persecuted by the authorities for their beliefs but eventually they too gained greater and greater recognition within Japanese society.

Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhism

However, the person that didn’t agree either with the Tendai, Shingon, Nembutsu or Zen interpretation of Buddhism was a Buddhist monk named Nichiren Daishonin.

Nichiren was trained in the Tendai tradition. From age 16 to 32 he studied at numerous temples and monasteries throughout Japan and like T’ien-T’ai long ago in China, he assessed the many various sutras that were available at these places. Throughout his studies Nichiren was driven by his desire to ‘make sense’ of the multitude of interpretations and practices that resulted as a consequence of what he saw as a ‘confused age’ where all Buddhist sects wanted the same, yet all had vastly different interpretations of how to get there.

He went back to basics and discovered the true meaning and essence of the lotus sutra once again. This time, in order to make it easier accessible and less confusing for people, he clearly identified and named the essence of the sutra and what it meant as MyoHo-Renge-Kyo to which he added the word ‘Nam’ to indicate the kind of attitude one should have to open up to enlightened wisdom.

Using his comprehensive understanding of the Buddhist scriptures he made the effort to analyse the essence of the diverse teachings of the Tendai, Shingon, Nembutsu, and Zen sects and came to the conclusion that some would offer a very complicated and almost impossible to achieve path to enlightenment, whereas others would utterly confuse their followers and lead them straight into hell. Unsurprisingly, being that frank didn’t make him any friends, at least not initially. Through his outspokenness he was therefore not only disliked by the establishment, but also by all other Buddhist sects that existed at that time.

One needs to consider that Nichiren was a very compassionate but scientifically and therefore objectively minded person who had a very stringent standard by which he measured the truth and value of Buddhist philosophy. He was convinced that Buddhism is ‘reason’. In other words, it needs to make sense, even though there were aspects within life that were simply unexplainable in an academic or purely logical way.

He sincerely believed the practice of Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo to deliver the enlightenment people were seeking and many followers throughout the ages confirmed his conviction.

Chanting Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo is enlightenment


As such, the word nam comes from the Indian Sanskrit and simply means “to devote oneself.” It means to take action and develop the right kind of attitude one needs to have in order to attain enlightenment in this lifetime. It is like saying ‘I devote myself to seek the law of life with all my heart – I open up to my inherent wisdom and nature that I believe exists within me and within all others’. In other words, having an ‘open mind’ is a prerequisite for enlightenment.

Nichiren explained that Nam-Myoho-renge-kyo identifies the Law of life, or the universe, which all the many teachings of Shakyamuni in one way or another seek to explain through metaphors, stories or parables.


Myoho literally means ‘Mystic Law’. So, the question arises, what is the Mystic Law? As such Myo refers to the very essence of life. The essence is ‘invisible’ and beyond intellectual understanding, although by means of abstraction it is possible to get the ‘idea’ behind it. Tien-Tai’s has just done that with his concept of the 3000 worlds perceivable in one moment of existence, i.e. the theory of ichinen sanzen, something that will be discussed later on in this book.

For now let’s just say that this ‘invisible’ essence of the ‘mystic law’ always expresses itself in a ‘seen’ form (ho) that can be perceived by the senses (i.e. in the form of touch, smell, vision, taste and hearing). So, the ‘mystic law’ is ‘in’ all the things or phenomena we can see, touch, etc.
However, all phenomena that we perceive that way constantly change, but there is also a constant and unchangeable reality which is called ‘myo’.

In other words, all phenomenal (seen or perceived) manifestations of ‘matter’ anywhere in the universe are constantly changing but the principle (the law) through which that change occurs is a constant and eternal.

In its simplest form we can say that what is ‘seen’ (ho) is constantly changing but what is unseen never changes (myo) with regards to the mystic law.

For example when we look at our body right now it doesn’t seem to change.
However, our cells are constantly dividing and changing even though it looks like we are standing still – in real time we ‘never’ stand still, not even for a moment. When looking at past photographs of ourselves when we were younger this most definitely becomes apparent.

Therefore we could say for example that the ‘process’ of ‘aging’ is based on a ‘law’ that is constant whereas our appearance changes all the time.
This follows that something that is constant is also eternal. Something eternal has no beginning and no end and is therefore neither created nor could it ever be destroyed. The mystic law therefore is the fundamental truth ‘forever’ and will always be observable in all the phenomena around us.

This is similar to the first law of physic which states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, it can only be ‘transformed’. If we think of ‘water’, it may help to explain what is meant by this.
For example, when we look at a water melon we see water in a different form, as a piece of fruit. When ingested it becomes part of us, and thereafter we get rid of it in the obvious way. As it flushes out of our body it is reabsorbed by the environment. Some of it is absorbed directly by plants, and that which hasn’t, will simply evaporate into the sky where it forms clouds which will eventually produce rain once again and the cycle is complete.

Thus, even though it looks different at each moment, this water has been transformed but not destroyed. It is simply impossible to destroy it, even when we use fire, it simply evaporates and then forms somewhere else anew. This is the same with the ‘energy’ that specifies the mystic law.

This law is realised by an ‘enlightened’ person, and therefore leads to the three enlightened properties or abilities of a Buddha. They understand first and foremost how the spiritual and material/physical aspects of all things work together. Secondly, based on that knowledge they get the wisdom and understanding of what is true and what isn’t. Thirdly, because of this, they can take the right sort of action or show behaviours that leads to positive outcomes.

As such, we come to realize that all is ONE and there is no ‘real’ distinction between phenomena as perceived by the senses, it all belongs to the same essence. We are made of this essence, and because the essence is eternal, we too are eternal but we are expressing ourselves in distinct shapes, forms and phenomena.

All phenomena we perceive with our senses are constantly changing but they change based on a mystic law that has always been constant throughout past, present and future.
In other words, day and night are different in appearance, just as there is hot or cold, up and down, good and evil, pain and pleasure, this or that, life and death, etc. – but they are actually all part of the same essence – there is no division, there is no dichotomy (distinctions are an illusion of the senses).
All is one therefore, all is interconnected, all is the Mystic Law without distinction, it always has been from the time of no beginning to the time of infinite future. Thus, Buddhism considers that distinctions are the very means by which we have an illusion of self. By making distinctions we experience desires- wants and dislikes, etc.

Nichiren teaches that we need to see desires for what they truly are, a fact of life, a necessity that makes us who we are, and we should cherish that, but at the same time we should live our lives as the observer of our mind rather than losing ourselves in desires without understanding their true nature.
Thus, Nichiren makes it clear that we should enjoy what there is to enjoy, and suffer what there is to suffer, but we should never forget that the life we are living consists merely of passing and fleeting phenomena of no real substance. As such, the purpose of all phenomena is to function as a motivator for enlightenment. In other words, all phenomena are expressions of the law, and these expressions have only one constant aim – that of EXPANSION of life into ever greater awareness (one could say ‘evolution’).

Even so called ‘evil’, when correctly understood, functions as a motivational force to bring out ‘good’ simply through creating the desire to seek the meaning of life.


Renge represents the other very important aspect of the ‘mystic law’. Renge means ‘lotus flower’. The Buddha realized that the lotus flower blooms and produces seeds at the same time and therefore thought of it as an excellent representation of the simultaneity of cause and effect. Hence, he named his most important teaching the ‘lotus sutra’. It is literally the understanding of ‘what goes around comes around’. Our thoughts, words, deeds and actions at each moment create causes that will have effects that we will have to deal with sooner or later.

This is what karma is all about. We have the power to change and create our destiny anew anytime. We are therefore cause and effect and so is everything else in the universe. Thinking of the ‘mystic law’ discussed earlier, the outcomes of our ‘good’ or ‘bad’ action (karma) cannot be destroyed, they can only be transformed into something else.

Every effect has a cause and every cause has an effect that creates the next cause. Thus cause and effect actually exist simultaneously, they are in fact indistinguishable.
Taken into consideration that we are eternal beings, all effects we are experiencing are the causes of our own doing. There is no escaping from ones words, deeds and actions– but at the same time one can change everything instantly by changing one’s words, deeds, action right now. Then, it’s just a matter of focus and consistency of (changed) action until the time arrives where the kind of outcomes we wish to see will eventually materialize.


Kyo means ‘teaching’ that which enables us to see the continuity of life throughout past, present and future. There are only two ways to become enlightened to our ‘true self’. Either through others (mentors, their writings, etc.) assisting us in finding out what and who we truly are, or through the environment itself, such as when looking at natural phenomena and realising the mystic law within all things just as Shakyamuni did.

The truth of the mystic law is actually expressed all around us we just have to be ‘enlightened’ to be able to perceive it. For instance hearing others chanting Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo and sharing the truth of the lotus sutra allows those who have forgotten their ‘true self’ to be reminded once again that they are in fact Buddha’s too.

This is why Nichiren Daishonin says ‘the voice does the Buddha’s work’. Kyo represents the interconnection of all things and the way we can affect people and situations with the power of our voice.

Either way, eternal life is experienced when one understands and is connected to that which is unchanging, i.e. the mystic law that pervades all phenomena. Kyo is what connects us to our past, present and future existence (i.e. eternity). The transmission of the law, and therefore the ability to become enlightened, has been communicated to us (by voice, writing or other means) and we are therefore once again able to connect to our true self – our inherent Buddha nature. This way we gain immortality.

The spread of Nichiren’s Buddhism

Nichiren made it clear that reflecting and chanting the phrase ‘Nam Myoho Renge Kyo’ would lead to enlightenment. The following quote summoned up his conviction:

“When deluded, one is called an ordinary being, but when enlightened, one is called a Buddha. This is similar to a tarnished mirror that will shine like a jewel when polished. A mind now clouded by the illusions of the innate darkness of life is like a tarnished mirror, but when polished, it is sure to become like a clear mirror, reflecting the essential nature of phenomena and the true aspect of reality. Arouse deep faith, and diligently polish your mirror day and night. How should you polish it? Only by chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo.”

Nichiren, On Attaining Buddhahood in This Lifetime

As mentioned earlier, Nichiren publicly refuted the teachings of the other sects and was always willing to debate his findings and comprehensive understanding of Buddhism with others. This included not only other Buddhist sects, but also the emperor as well as the governmental establishment in general.
For his courage he was heavily persecuted, put on death row and was twice exiled to a remote island. However, he found an ever increasing following and he was eventually pardoned.

Nichiren made it clear that all he ever intended was to bring a true understanding and peace to the country and its people no matter whether they were commoners or nobility. He did not distinguish between women and men, proclaiming that all can equally achieve enlightenment through understanding the mystic law. He followed his conviction and propagated Buddhism till his death (1222-1282).
When he finally passed away Nichiren had many followers who were able to keep his philosophy alive. However, over the many years after his death the wisdom of his teachings became confined to a priesthood that passed his many writings on from one generation to the next without sharing it with lay people. In the process it became yet another case of ritualising and ‘formalization’ which consequently divorced Nichiren Buddhist practice from the common people for some time. However, the priesthood guarded the heritage of Nichiren’s philosophy into the 20th century.

Makiguchi & Toda – opening the path for lay believers

Then one day a Japanese Educator and teacher by the name of Tsunesaburō Makiguchi (1870-1944) came along. He served as principal in six primary schools, from 1913 to 1932 during which he devoted himself to the development of value creation in education and life in general. He was a progressive thinker that had the happiness of the individual and prosperity of society at large in mind. He published a number of books aimed at reforming the Japanese educational system that he believed would ensure that children would be able to learn and train in a more balanced way and that by implementing his system he would be able to change bored, apathetic learners into eager, self-directed students. His works attracted much attention not only in Japan but also overseas. His books have been translated into English, Portuguese, French and Vietnamese.

But he was looking for something even more inspiring. Eventually he came across Nichiren Buddhism and after some careful analysis he realized that this philosophy had all he hoped for. He started to practice Nichiren Buddhism and soon others would join him. He would be the one to take the philosophy beyond the realms of an exclusive priesthood back into the hands of lay believers thus establishing a grassroots level organisation with the objective of bringing lasting peace and personal fulfilment to the individual. Together with his close disciple Josei Toda he held gatherings that would promote the Nichiren practice of chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo.

The corruption of Shintoism to control the masses

However, soon they would find themself on a collision course with the Japanese government which was busy getting ready for war. For this purpose the government prescribed all Japanese households to accept and practice Shinto as a state religion as they thought it would bring out a stronger national identity and thus would make the population more susceptible to the influence of the establishment. Shinto is a pagan religion that originated in early Japan, long before Buddhism took hold, and like most ‘native’ forms of religion believes in many types of gods.

Followers of Shinto practice ancestor worship, offer prayers, and conduct various rituals to appease the many gods who are believed to control the forces of nature and the human condition. Practitioners of Shinto believe these gods live in specific places and so they erect shrines in their homes as well as in public places to which they make pilgrimages.

The emperor of Japan was thus seen as a Shinto ‘god’ and all his subjects were to follow his command.
Many Buddhist sects fell in line with the demands of the government who asked them to accept a Shinto talisman in their places of worship, therefore effectively acknowledging that they are subject to Shinto rule.

Nichiren Buddhism today – Daisaku Ikeda

This didn’t go down well with Makiguchi and Toda who both stood up and opposed the tyranny of what they saw as an evil misguiding of the Japanese people by the government.
Thus, they were persecuted and eventually imprisoned with Makiguchi dying in prison for his beliefs. After the war was eventually lost, Toda was released and he single-mindedly began to rebuild the practice of Nichiren’s Buddhism by forming the Soka Gakkai, which means ‘Value Creation Society’. The purpose of the Soka Gakkai was to assist people in their practice of Nichiren Buddhism by providing an organisational structure that would give access to resources and places to gather, all with the aim to promote peace, culture and education regardless of gender or race. The current president of the organisation, Daisaku Ikeda was a disciple of Josei Toda. He too has been heavily challenged in his struggles to make the teachings of Nichiren available to the wider community.

Despite all the obstacles Daisaku Ikeda is accredited with bringing Nichiren’s Buddhism to more than 190 countries with an estimated 19 million practitioners worldwide of which 10 million are practising in Japan. He has been awarded many peace prices and more than 200 honorary doctorates from international universities for his efforts to spread peace through the promotion of a Buddhist concept that offers a true understanding of the human condition and which provides hope for the future.

Using the words of Daisaku Ikeda, “Enlightenment is the joy of joys. Birth, old age, illness and death are no longer suffering, but part of the joy of living. The light of wisdom illuminates the entire universe, casting back the innate darkness of life. The life-space of the Buddha becomes united and fused with the universe. The self becomes the cosmos, and in a single instant the life-flow stretches out to encompass all that is past and all that is future. In each moment of the present, the eternal life-force of the cosmos pours forth as a gigantic fountain of energy.”

The organisation that provides overseas practitioners with support is called Soka Gakkai International (SGI) and besides being heavily involved in many charitable causes and events it is also a passionate policy contributor to the United Nations.
Today there is a system of Soka schools throughout Japan, as well as a number of secondary schools elsewhere in the world, as well as one university in Japan and one in America all based on Makiguchi’s educational principles.

The basic practice of a Nichiren Buddhism practitioner is based on faith, practice and study, and consists of chanting – Nam-myoho renge-kyo for 5-10 minutes in the morning and then again in the evening. However, there are no time limits on how long one should chant. It is really up to the practitioner. Some will chant less, some more, especially when experiencing great obstacles in their lives. Most important is the consistency in approach.

Regular meetings are held in most cities where practitioners can exchange their views, share their struggles, and study Buddhism. Practitioners typically report that they feel energized, both spiritually and mentally. They are happier, feel more compassionate and wiser which translates into greater productivity and prosperity in all areas of their lives.

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