What is Nichiren Buddhism?

Most everybody knows or has heard a little something about Buddhism, even if it's just the stuff of pop culture. For example, maybe you've bought a miniature Zen garden kit or "Zen" tea; or joked with somebody about their "Buddha belly". And many people today, when expressing their spiritual side, mention having some kind of "karma". However, Buddhism as a religion extends far beyond what most people get exposed to in Western culture. It has a variety of different schools--Nichiren Buddhism being one--and sects within those schools. Much of Asian culture has been influenced by Buddhism in some way or other, so understanding its basics will go a long way toward explaining Eastern philosophy (even in anime!). Whether your interest lies in religion or culture, or maybe both, you are welcomed to read on.

First, some historical background...
Buddhism was founded in India between 2,500 and 3,000 years ago by Siddharta Gautama. He was born a prince in modern-day Nepal, and at his birth a seer predicted he would become either a powerful king by age 34, or a great sage. His father naturally didn't want to see his heir abandon the kingdom for a religious life, so he made every effort to surround his son with indulgences and shield him from the outside world. Most of us would probably have been content to live a life of spoiled luxury, but Siddharta was bothered by the few glimpses he got of sickness, poverty and death outside the palace walls. At age 29, he snuck out of the palace to search for answers to these problems, forsaking his princely inheritance.

Many of the religious practices of his day involved starvation and harsh physical discipline. He followed these ascetic practices so vigorously he almost starved to death; then, after accepting a bowl of milk from a young woman, he decided to find another way to ultimate truth. He sat underneath a bodhi (a kind of mulberry) tree and meditated all night. By the break of dawn on December 8th, he attained Enlightenment and set out to share his knowledge with others. Many Buddhists around the world still celebrate December 8th as Bodhi Day.

From that point Prince Siddharta became known as Shakyamuni Buddha; he was part of the Shakya clan, and the word "Buddha" comes from the Sanskrit word budh, "to awaken". Literally, a Buddha is an 'awakened one'. Shakyamuni Buddha's teachings, which were passed down by memorization and recital at first, were later recorded in Sanskrit as sutras, or teachings. There are literally thousands of sutras in existence which have been translated, studied, commented upon and grouped into categories by Buddhist scholars across Asia for the past 2,500 years. Since the various schools of Buddhism are more or less based on different categories of sutras, this would be the perfect time to overview the more prominent ones:

Major Branches of Buddhism
Theravada -- Literally, this is "Old School" Buddhism. At one time in history a veritable plethora of Theravada sects existed, but there are relatively fewer in existence today. If you've ever seen shaven-headed monks dressed in yellow and orange saffron robes, chances are you saw Theravadin monks. This school is based on the first half of Shakyamuni Buddha's teaching life, where he emphasized strict observance of practices called precepts. Theravadin Buddhists believe that the only way to pursue Enlightenment is to join a monastery, give up material possessions and retreat from society. So the average Theravadin Buddhist hopes to be reborn where they can become a monk; and monks hope to be reborn a Buddha, which they believe happens only after many lifetimes of building up merit and being good Theravadin Buddhists.

Mahayana -- Meaning "Great Vehicle", as in vehicle to Enlightenment, this branch is based on the second half of Shakyamuni Buddha's teachings. Historically, Mahayana Buddhism developed later and was considered 'heretical' by what became the Theravada schools; a rough comparison could be made between the Theravada-Mahayana division and the Great Schism in Christianity that created the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches. Spiritually, Mahayana Buddhism places more emphasis on the power of faith and the average person's ability to gain Enlightenment, without necessarily having to be reborn innumerable times in order to build up enough merit.

Vajrayana -- Vajrayana is actually a subset of Mahayana Buddhism; what makes it unique is its heavy emphasis on esoteric rites and magic. If Theravadin Buddhism is like Eastern Orthodox, and Mahayana is like the Catholic Church, then Vajrayana is perhaps akin to the Freemasons or Golden Dawn, only without necessarily any 'secret societies'. There are two main schools of Vajrayana Buddhism, being Tibetan and Shingon.

Vajrayana Schools

Tibetan Buddhism --Not really based on a specific group of sutras, but a very popular school within its own right. From India the new religion first crossed the Himalayas into Tibet, where it adopted many local deities and the local flavor. Tibetan Buddhism is widely popular today for several reasons; including its magical practices, and to a lesser extent its inclusion of a female Buddha, Tara. Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, also keeps Tibetan Buddhism in the public eye in much the same way Pope John Paul had done for his faith.

Shingon --Japanese for "True Word", this school originated in China and then spread to medieval Japan. True Word practices get rather complex, but noteable points include the practice of mikkyo, or magic; study of Sanskrit calligraphy; meditating on Buddhas and deities represented in Sanskrit; and reciting sutras or spells called dharanis to ward off evil. True Word is also big on mudras, which are those hand gestures you see some statues of Buddhas using. Each mudra is supposed to represent a certain quality of the Buddha. (Incidentally, much of the Buddhism represented in anime is either Shingon or Amida.)

Other Mahayana Schools
Amida Buddhism --This school is probably confusing to most people at first because it stresses the importance of a Buddha other than Shakyamuni. Remember, "Buddha" is a title, not the name of one person, and anyone can become a Buddha--that's the whole point of Buddhism! Three so-called Amida sutras refer to the Buddha Amida of Infinite Light and Life, who took a vow to save all living beings who called sincerely upon his name. Hence the identifying feature of Amida Buddhism is reciting "Devotion to Amida Buddha", usually in either its Chinese form or a combination of Sanskrit and Japanese, as a form of meditation. Another prominent figure of Amida Buddhism is Quan Yin, a bodhisattva (basically an almost-Buddha) who assists Amida. Quan Yin can take on any form to alleviate suffering, and is pictured in both male and female forms!

Zen --Like Amida and True Word, the Zen school began in China and exported to Japan. In fact, "Zen" is the Japanese derivitive (via "Chan" in Chinese) of a Sanskrit word for a type of meditation. And that describes the gist of Zen Buddhism; while this school reads and studies the sutras, it also focuses on long periods of meditation and discipline. Love of nature is another central theme. The purpose of Zen gardens is to allow practitioners a focus point for meditation, and groundskeepers meditate through repetitive motion by picking stray leaves or raking gravel patterns. The Japanese tea ceremony also derives from Zen ideals of beauty, simplicity and contemplation.

T'ien T'ai --Also originating in China, this school is named for its founder, the genius Chinese scholar of Buddhism who became known as T'ien T'ai. (In Japanese he is called "Great Teacher Tendai".) T'ien T'ai studied and catalogued all the Mahayana sutras according to time period and central themes, and he deduced that the Lotus Sutra represented Shakyamuni Buddha's highest teaching. He wrote several works, including "Great Concentration and Insight", wherein he outlined steps to meditation based on a complex computation contained in a theory called Three Thousand Realms in a Single Moment of life. Buddhist clergy studied and debated his work extensively, but lay believers obviously had a more difficult time following practices from "Great Concentration and Insight". The Tendai school still exists today, however.

Nichiren Buddhism --Uniquely Japanese, this school also takes the name of its founder, in this case 13th-century Buddhist reformer Nichiren. (Depending on sect, he is called "Saint Nichiren", "Nichiren Shonin" or "Daishonin".) He openly criticized the corruption of Buddhist clergy in his day, who curried favor with the fuedal government. He was exiled twice and almost beheaded once. He sought to reform Buddhism based on the scholarly work of T'ien T'ai, proclaiming the Lotus Sutra as the foremost sutra because of its assertion that all people can become Buddhas regardless of circumstances. The identifying features of Nichiren Buddhism include a form of meditation that involves chanting namu myoho renge kyo, or "Devotion to the Wonderful Dharma of the Lotus Flower Sutra" in a derivation of Sanskrit and Chinese; and a focus point for meditation that involves a calligraphy mandala (such as the one at the top of this page) and/or statue of Shakyamuni Buddha, recreating the Ceremony in the Air from the Lotus Sutra.


There you have it, the major schools and historical background of Buddhism! If you want to learn more about basic tenets of Buddhist faith, click on to the next page. If you're ready for more detailed reading, these are some excellent sites:

www.nichirenshu.org --homepage for the Nichiren Shu, or School, in the United States

www.nichirenscoffeehouse.net --maintained by independent practioners, contains a wealth of info, links and images about various Buddhist schools

www.fraughtwithperil.com --a blog that has more detailed research on Nichiren Buddhism in its entries than most of us could spit out in a term paper. Great reading, though!


Back to home

This page copyright 2008 Sharon "Tut" LaBorde. Please contact me before using or reproducing anything from this site. The photos are not mine, by the way, but much gratitude to their respective photographers!