Basic Tenets of Buddhism
You could say that the main objective of Buddhism is to gain Enlightenment. This concept, said to defy words themselves, is often parodied in Western society but little understood. So what is "Enlightenment"?
Enlightenment --"Correct and impartial Enlightenment" is basically unity with and awareness of all aspects of the universe. Different schools, sects and individuals will each give differing accounts, but this is because each person's Enlightenment (and path to attain it) is unique. Most agree, however, on certain common threads: compassion for all living beings without bias, understanding of causal relationships and extinguishing petty desires that cause suffering. It's harder than it sounds.
Humorous note: If you've seen the movie Highlander, Enlightenment might be something like attaining the "Prize", only without all the sword-swinging and head-lopping special effects. True Buddhists deplore actual violence but, if you can find some larger meaning involved, as far as we're concerned you can watch any movie you want.
Karma --This is another concept that's seeped into the modern lexicon without proper Cliff Notes. The word karma is Sanskrit for "action", and the idea actually predates Buddhism, having originated in early forms of Hinduism. (It has since been "borrowed" by many New Age religions, including Wicca.) Basically, any thought or act has an ultimate result. That result may be beneficial, it may not. It would be a mistake to think, however, that karma is limited to reward and punishment; part of Enlightenment is understanding the karma of one's actions and no longer acting in ways that limit growth. In other words, "being freed from karmic bonds".
For an editorial on karma, click over to The True Nature of Karma in the Temple of Tutankhamun.
Dharma --Not a character on a sitcom, Dharma means "truth" or the essence of Buddhist teachings. It also refers to the teachings themselves. An Enlightened person is at one with the Dharma. In the Nichiren Buddhist mantra namu myoho renge kyo, "myoho" means "wonderful Dharma". Certain modern translations have distilled "Dharma" down to "Law", but it's a bit too simplistic a rendering. According to more complex Buddhist concepts, the Buddha has three forms, one of which is the Dharma body--this basically means that His essence is the Dharma.
It's by no means an exact comparison, but the ancient Egyptians had a similar concept called Ma'at that meant "truth", "righteousness" or "the proper order of things". Ma'at was personified as a goddess bearing a feather standard, whereas Dharma is embodied by the Buddha himself.
Three Treasures --Or the Triple Jewels. These are the Buddha, the Dharma (his teaching), and the Sangha, which is the Fellowship or religious order. Basically it's the congregation. Across many Buddhist schools there is a common prayer:
I take refuge
in the Buddha
I take refuge in the Dharma
I take refuge in the Sangha
Or, Namu Butsu, Namu Ho, Namu So in Japanese.
Basic Tenets of Nichiren Buddhism
As you might have gathered, one of the primary practices of Buddhism is meditation. It's not the only practice; a well-rounded Buddhist would also offer alms to the needy, practice kindness toward others, and maybe perform practices like shakyo, which is copying all or part of sutras in calligraphy. While most often done in Chinese characters, any language can be used for sutra copying. (Note also that vegetarianism is not a requirement for Buddhism, contrary to popular misconception!) But as discussed earlier, certain types of meditation are unique to certain schools.
The identifying form of meditation in Nichiren Buddhism is chanting namu myoho renge kyo, which is the O-daimoku or "sacred title" of the Lotus Sutra. Nichiren Shonin wrote extensively about this practice, explaining that the daimoku represents the essence of the Buddha's teachings in the Lotus Sutra and therefore the essence of His original Enlightenment. Intoning namu myoho renge kyo one time has the same merit as reading the entire sutra.
While a person can chant anywhere, typically Nichiren Buddhists have as a special place for meditation some kind of shrine or alcove with a calligraphy mandala called a honzon or Gohonzon (the prefixes "o-" and "go-" are honorific in Japanese); and frequently a statue of Shakyamuni Buddha in front of it, then a smaller statue of Nichiren below the Buddha. The mandala contains Chinese characters for the daimoku running down the center, plus the names of major figures in the Lotus Sutra arranged along the sides in groups. Five of these--the Four Heavenly Kings in each corner, plus a protective demon named Kishimojin toward the center--also represent the five elements. Copies are still extant of Gohonzons that Nichiren himself inscribed, and traditionally the high priests of various Nichiren sects have inscribed their own versions to be printed for lay members.
Because Buddhist beliefs stretching way back into antiquity hold that a Buddha or other personage's written name represented, even became that being, the assembly of names on a Gohonzon is in fact the assembly gathered to hear Shakyamuni Buddha preach the Lotus Sutra. When a practitioner sits in front of their shrine, they rejoin the congregation in a spiritual sense. So what happened in the Lotus Sutra? Why is it so important?
A (Very) Brief
Summary of the Lotus Sutra.
Shakyamuni Buddha had already been preaching for over forty years by the time he and his followers assembled on Mount Sacred Eagle (also called Vulture Peak) in modern-day India. In the sermon that became the Lotus Sutra, he refuted a number of his prior teachings as "expedient means", in other words lesser teachings that were easier to understand but meant to lead to a more profound truth. He gave predictions for many of his followers that they would at last attain Buddhahood--most notably ones that in prior sutras were told they would never become Buddhas. He used a number of eloquent metaphors, for example the Dharma being rain that fell upon all beings equally, each one receiving their fill.
Then the Lotus Sutra uses very grand visual imagery, as an immense Treasure Tower emerges from the earth and lifts the entire assembly into the air. A Buddha from another world named Many Treasures appears and takes his place at Shakyamuni's side in the Tower. Both human and non-human beings from faraway lands, all followers of the Buddha, converge; the daughter of the Dragon King attains Enlightenment before the assembly, proving that all beings (male and female) can become Buddhas; and Shakyamuni reveals that his wicked cousin Devadatta will someday emerge from Hell and become a Buddha.
Then Shakyamuni reveals that he in fact first gained Enlightenment in the remote past. The ground opens up to reveal countless throngs of beings, called the Bodhisattvas of the Earth, that were taught by the Buddha in previous lifetimes. They make a vow to pass on the Lotus Sutra into posterity. Kishimojin, the Mother of Demon Children who was converted by the Buddha, and the Ten Demon Daughters take a vow to protect all those who uphold the sutra. Shakyamuni Buddha describes the blessings to be had from keeping his teachings before the assembly finally departs.
Most Nichiren sects regard their founder Nichiren as the reincarnation of Bodhisattva Superior Practices (Jogyo in Japanese), who led the Bodhisattvas of the Earth. The Nichiren Shoshu and Honmon Shoshu, however, eventually came to consider Nichiren an incarnation of the Eternal Buddha. Regardless of interpretation, he is an important part of the recreated assembly because his establishment of a new school in Japan marked the fulfillment of the Buddha's wish that the Lotus Sutra be perpetuated long after his death.
More on Meditation
Chanting the o-daimoku isn't the only form of meditation done in Nichiren Buddhism; they also observe silent seated meditation. Sutra copying is also a meditative practice. But what exactly are they meditating about?
No two people will reflect upon the same things while meditating, because everyone is different and so are their paths to Enlightenment. Generally speaking, though, Nichiren-themed meditation is a means of "observing one's mind". Both T'ien T'ai and Nichiren himself wrote and lectured at length on the subject, because they postulated that if a person can observe the Ten Worlds (ten states of being ranging from Hell to Buddhahood) at work within their own mind, they can unlock the secrets of Enlightenment. Even uncovering negative thoughts and feelings about one's self is okay, because those still lead to Buddhahood when examined impartially.
Another topic of meditation is compassion, wherein a practitioner first learns to think compassionately about themself, then friends, then people they might feel neutral about, then people they don't agree with, and finally all of those people at once. Notice the stages get progressively more difficult! The object of the exercise is to break up one's sense of partiality and attachment. (Note: you can read an excellent article about this type of meditation here. It comes highly recommended.)
In short, you could say meditation is about self-improvement. And because Buddhists believe in attaining the highest form of a kind, eloquent and insightful being, you could say Buddhism itself is about self-improvement.
May you be well and happy.
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