Fall Ohigan 2014: Conduct Matters

Hi Everyone,

As is a tradition here in this blog, I like to give a little Buddhism “sermon” at certain times of the year, including Ohigan since the first post in 2009. Ohigan (お彼岸) is a twice-yearly Buddhist holiday in Japan. According to tradition, it was started by the pious Emperor Shomu who felt the milder weather would be a good time to reflect on Buddhism. Ohigan literally means “the other Shore” which is a euphemism for Enlightenment. You’re crossing the shore of ignorance to the other shore of awakening and liberation.

In practice, it is a public holiday in Japan, and many people will visit their hometowns to pay respects to their ancestors. Since it is a public holiday, many offices and businesses will be closed too.

Anyhow, for this Ohigan, I wanted to talk about something that I was reminded of recently, namely this quote from an old post about Rinzai Zen monastic life:

As we review these [monastic] regulations of the monks’ hall, their meaning becomes clear. In other words, by regulating one’s behavior, one’s mind is also regulated. The Zen patriarchs were well aware of this.

Normally, when people think of Zen, they think of the opposite: Zen Masters who are “crazy” and wandering the world free to enjoy life, etc. But here, we see that the Zen monastic life is actually very strict. Professor Robert Buswell, who trained in a Zen (Seon) Monastery in Korea said the same thing:

The testimony of the Korean monastic community, however, suggests instead that a disciplined life, not the transformative experience of enlightenment [through meditation], is actually the most crucial to the religion.

In fact, even the Buddha stressed the importance of conduct in such sutra as the Maha-Mangala Sutta (SN 2.4) where he describes the “highest protection” in life as:

Giving, living in rectitude,
assistance to one’s relatives,
deeds that are blameless:
This is the highest protection.

Avoiding, abstaining from evil;
refraining from intoxicants,1
being heedful of the qualities of the mind:
This is the highest protection.

In each cases, it seems like the “secret” to Zen or any serious Buddhist training is conduct and discipline first, then meditation. In other words, by disciplining the body, you discipline the mind!

I thought about this recently, and started repeating to myself “discipline the body, discipline the mind” often. When I feel like spending money I shouldn’t, I repeat this phrase. When I am tired and don’t want to do dishes, I repeat this phrase. And so on.

To my surprise it works.

You see, I always thought the opposite: if I discipline my mind, my body will follow. But the opposite seems to work better: discipline the body first and the mind will follow. I was mad at myself because I was lazy and not disciplined. Then I realized the problem wasn’t that I was stupid, I just wasn’t doing it the right way. Once I did it the right way, my conduct improved a little.

Yogacara Buddhist teachings seem to reinforce this idea too because each action “perfumes” the mind and helps color your subsequent actions like a feedback loop.

So what does this all mean for your average Buddhist?

I think it means that any effort to discipline yourself and follow a wholesome lifestyle will pay off a lot more than jumping headfirst into something like meditation. People want to meditate for a stress-free life and such, but if you follow wholesome conduct, your life will be less stressful anyway plus you will have self-confidence. Meditation works best when you have a foundation of good conduct, not the other way around.

But it also means that if you are having trouble following a wholesome lifestyle, don’t get mad at yourself; just try another approach. Sometimes, a different environment, different friends or small change in habits can really make a positive difference. As the Buddha taught, all beings are capable of becoming Buddhas (i.e. “Buddha-nature” or hongaku 本覚), but maybe just don’t know how.

Conduct is also one of the Six Perfections of Ohigan by the way. ;)

But what does it mean to follow a wholesome lifestyle or to discipline yourself?

In the Buddha’s own words in the Metta Sutta (SN 1.8):

Do not do the slightest thing that the wise would later censure.

So in other words, try not to do or say anything you might regret later. If unsure, just don’t do it. You’ll thank yourself in the long-run, and you’ll enjoy a life that is protected. You don’t need Buddhist charms or amulets if you live a guilt-free, wholesome lifestyle. :)

Anyhow, happy (and wholesome) Ohigan everyone!

P.S. If you need more structure, then try following one or more of the Five Precepts (gokai 五戒) as a personal vow.

P.P.S. Double-post today. :)

南無釈迦牟尼仏
Namu shakamuni butsu

1 Yup, this means alcohol too, sorry guys. ;)

Posted in Buddhism, Zen | Leave a comment

How Not To Publish Books on Kindle

Hi Everyone,

As folks might recall, I published a science-fiction book named Jack, Still Standing recently on Amazon as an e-book. I started the book 10 years ago, and finally decided to take a chance and publish it and I feel really relieved that I did.

The process of publishing an e-book was a lot harder than I expected though. I was impatient and didn’t test things carefully so I has some problems at first, and had to spend time to fix them. So, I wanted to share some advice to others who are thinking about doing e-books, and books on Amazon in particular to save them some headaches.

First, when I published my book, I published it with a pen-name because I wasn’t sure what kind of reception my book would get and I was kind of worried.

Unfortunately, I didn’t check whether the name was already used or not. Sure enough, the name was used by another, popular E-book author. I had some book sales in the first week that seemed a bit unusual. Then I realized they were probably buying the book because they believed it was the other author. I finally decided to use my real name and fixed the problem later. Book sales declined but at least I know people are buying the right book. :-)

But the worst problem was that the e-book format was messed up and unreadable!

You see, E-books are a kind of simple technology. Ebooks use the EPUB digital format which is based on XHTML. So, Ebooks are a lot like webpages. Similar technology, similar formats.

The trouble comes when you translate your book from its original format into the EPUB format. I had originally written the book using NeoOffice, a free wordprocessor for Macs, then later switched to LibreOffice which was also free, but had better support. However, when switching from one processor to another, the fonts had changed in subtle ways. It was impossible to see visually, but different paragraphs had slightly different fonts depending on whether they were written before or after the switch.

Worse, there were hidden carriage-returns due to copy-pasting. Originally, each chapter was a separate file, but I started copy/pasting them into a single file, but also copy-pasted paragraphs around. The result was that some paragraphs had improper carriage-returns that were invisible, but appeared later when converted for the Kindle. So, some paragraphs looked “crammed” together and other ones were too far apart.

Since I couldn’t see any of this on my computer, I assumed it looked normal and ready for publishing. The first thing I did was use the excellent tool called Calibre for the Mac, and converted my LibreOffice file to EPUB format. I looked at the EPUB file in Calibre and it looked great. Then I uploaded the EPUB file to my KDP account on Amazon, which automatically converted it to Kindle format. Again, I briefly previewed the first few pages, and it looked fine.

But then, when I looked at the “Look Inside” book preview, the formatting was terrible. Certain paragraphs had strange bold or italic formats, and not all paragraphs lined up correctly. I was confused by the discrepancy so I then went into my KDP account, and used the Kindle preview feature to look at the same book in all formats: Kindle, Ipad, etc. It turns out that the formatting issues only surfaced in non-Kindle devices for some reason, but that includes the book preview feature on the website.

The only way I was able to fix this was to take the original file, select all the text and reset the formatting to defaults. This removed all the hidden fonts and carriage-lines, but then I had to go through the book and add any special formatting back in line by line. LibreOffice makes this fairly easy, so it only cost me a couple nights of work, but once I uploaded the newly converted EPUB file again, I made certain to preview the book in all formats provided by Kindle. The format looked much better this time, and I was able to re-publish with confidence.

The lessons learned from all this was:

  • Check to see if someone else is using the same pen-name.
  • When converting from one word processor to another, reset all the formats for the entire document and add them back in manually just to ensure there are no hidden fonts that will appear later.
  • When uploading the EPUB file, use the Kindle Preview feature to see how your book will look in all formats. This will help you a lot because you can see your book the way a customer sees it.
  • To avoid cut and paste hassles, try to compse your document all in file, rather than 1 chaper per file. Or, before you publish, enable the word-processor feature to display paragraphs so you can catch any strange discrepancies.

Anyhow I learned some painful lessons from publishing my first E-book but I’m glad I did it though. If you are going to publish on Amazon please take this advice and I wish you luck. :-)

P.S. Now that that book is complete, I am working on a Buddhist book I always wanted to write, and the second book in the “Jack” series. Busy, busy. :) As I suspected, once you publish one book, it’s a lot easier to write and publish other books.

Posted in Literature, Technology | Leave a comment

Omatsuri in Japan

Summer in Japan is pretty interesting. On the one hand, you have to face heat, humidity, mosquitos, typhoons (more on that in another post) and such. On the other hand, you have lots of neighborhood summer festivals called omatsuri (お祭り).

When my wife and the kids were in Japan by themselves, they went to a couple different omatsuri, and when I came, we went to another omatsuri that was a bit further away.

Omatsuri in Japan often look the same as each other:

  • Often take place at a local Shinto shrine or Buddhist temple (i.e. a communal spot)
  • They have many food-stalls, and stalls for games where kids can collect cheap (often low-quality) prizes.
  • There’s a large platform in the middle for playing music and singing.
  • People will often dance around that platform.
  • People like to dress up either in yukata or jinbei.

Here’s a photo I took when we first got there. The Torii gate tells me this was a Shinto shrine, but within the premises you can see food stalls and such, and the platform on the right:

Untitled

The foodstalls will often sell the same foods at every omatsuri: yakitori (grilled chicken on a skewer), takoyaki (octopus “balls”…they taste much better than they sound), yakisoba, baked or fried potatoes, fried squid, etc. In other words, “comfort food”. I like the jagabatť (baked potato with butter) a lot. We noticed a couple stalls next to each other run by younger ladies. Suddenly, at one of the stalls, this older, rough-looking guy wearing loud, flashy clothes scolded one of the girls in rough Japanese. Something about his look reminded me of a stereotypical mobsters you see on Japanese TV.

Foodstall people, or tekiya (テキ屋) in Japan often have a shady reputation similar to “carnies” in the US.1 They’re not organized-crime per se, but may be related somehow. The shady looking guy definitely acted like the boss of the food-stalls, because he kept walking behind them, inspecting things, and giving orders. Othertimes, he sat behind the stalls, somewhat hidden. I was curious, so I tried to see if he was missing part of his finger (like mobsters in Japan), but couldn’t see clearly. ;-)

Also, there was a game where kids could shoot prizes with a BB gun, but the larger prizes were almost impossible to shoot down. The stall keeper was another shady-looking guy who smoked cigarettes in front of the kids, and wasn’t too friendly. I didn’t like his vibe very much.

But that doesn’t mean the omatsuri wasn’t fun though. In fact, we had a great time. That evening the weather had cooled down somewhat, so it was warm, but pleasant, and I enjoyed some good french-fries and canned green-tea. As the sun set, the omatsuri became more festive:

Japan Omatsuri Nighttime

By now, there was a lot more people, and the central platform had some music playing, and a lot of older women were dancing in a circle. Little Guy was getting a little tired, so we had to leave.

We have omatsuri in the US as well in Seattle because there is a large Japanese community, and they’re fairly similar.2 But it’s nice to see real omatsuri in person. Omatsuri definitely get a little wild, and have some shady parts to them, but they also bring together a local community with song, dance and food, so they’re a really important part of the culture. That’s one thing missing from American-Japanese omatsuri: the community. At a Japanese omatsuri, you get a good slice of the local community, from the really poor or shady characters, to wealthy business owners and everyone in between. The American ones are mostly for one particular ethnic group, and for people curious about (or married into) the Japanese community, so it feels like something “exotic” not “homegrown”.

Anyhow, if you go to Japan in the summer, check out the local omatsuri if you can. You can see similar festivities too in the Winter during Hatsumode too.

1 It seems some omatsuri now even ban tekiya because of their reputation. This has some obvious benefits, but also some problems because tekiya genuinely depend on the revenue from omatsuri, plus something feels like its missing when the foodstalls are gone. It’s a tricky issue.

2 A lot more non-Japanese people of course. ;)

Posted in Family, Japan, Seattle, Travel | 2 Comments

Doraemon: The Robot Cat from the Future

As mentioned previously, while we were in Japan, we saw lots of promotions for the latest Doraemon movie, “STAND BY ME ドラえもん”, you can see here. In Tokyo, we found a “park” full of Doraemon statues like so:

Doraemon 5

Including this “satanic” Doraemon:1 ;)

Doraemon

But what is Doraemon?

Doraemon is a very popular cartoon character from Japan. He is from the 27th Century, and comes back to the 20th Century to live with his creator’s ancestor named Nobita のび太. Nobita is a selfish, whiny, lazy kid who never does his homework, and gets scolded by his mom often. He has a big crush on a girl in his neighborhood named Shizuka (静香). Shizuka and Nobita are friends, but because Nobita is such a slob, Shizuka isn’t really interested in him.

Nobita is also bullied by two other kids in the neighborhood: the huge and tempermental Jaian (ジャイアン) and the short, but arrogant Suneo (スネ夫). Sometimes they play together, but sometimes Jaian also beats up Nobita.

So, Nobita is kind of a loser, and Doraemon’s job was to live with him, help him get through troubles and sometimes set him straight. What makes Doraemon so fun is that he has lots and lots of gadgets he stores in the pouch on his tummy. These gadgets do all kinds of amazing and futuristic things like the dokodemodoa (どこでもドア) or “Anywhere Door” which lets Doraemon and Nobita go wherever they want, or beanie hats that let them fly when they wear. Some gadgets have amusing names that are word-play in Japanese. Anyhow, the park display above shows many of the famous gadgets Doraemon had.

Doraemon often uses the gadgets to help Nobita, but then Nobita often uses and abuses the same gadget for his own selfish reasons, and then gets into trouble later. Doraemon gets frustrated with Nobita sometimes, but he always helps him in the end. Nobita also has a few moments of maturity, and Doraemon and Nobita are good friends. The new movie (linked above) has a touching scene in it where Nobita gets beat-up by Jaian again, but Doraemon tearfully runs to help him after the fight.

My family and I like Doraemon a lot. Sometimes it’s a bit naughty, but I like how all the kids remain friends (even Jaian and Suneo) and Doraemon is faithful to Nobita. My wife and daughter saw the movie in Japan and liked it a lot. I had to babysit Little Guy, but I got to see a different movie the next day (more on that in a later post). My daughter owns a stack of Doraemon comics in Japanese and reads them almost every night in bed. Doraemon comics have really helped her Japanese reading skills, which is impressive since she lives in the US, not Japan. However, she forgets to clean up her room sometimes, so you can find Doraemon comics all over the place. ;)

But I like reading Doraemon too. The comics are somewhat easier for me to read, but not too easy, so I still learn lots of useful, everyday Japanese vocabulary. Plus I do enjoy the stories.

I even own a couple Doraemon comics in Korean now, thanks to my visit to Incheon Airport:

Doraemon in Korean

Doraemon in Korean is Doraemong (도라에몽) if you’re curious. ;) I like reading the Korean comics more than other Korean books I was trying to read (which were a little boring), so I have made better progress in my Korean studies and my Japanese studies. :)

Anyhow, Doraemon is a great cartoon, and a great character. If you can read some Japanese (or are studying it), I definitely recommend getting some Doraemon comics, which are popular and easy to find and pretty useful.

1 What’s up with Satan’s Passport? The Japanese text read 悪魔パスポート (akuma pasupōto) which reads as “Demon’s Passport”. This is definitely a bad translation. A demon, in the generic, Japanese sense, is somewhat different than Satan, who is explicitly a figure in Christianity, Judaism and Islam. “Satan” has a lot of cultural meaning to Westerners, but Japanese translators would not know this. It’s a reminder that translation isn’t just about grammar, culture has to be considered too.

Posted in Japan, Japanese, Language, Manga, Travel | Tagged | Leave a comment

No Room For Doubt

Hello,

For the weekend, I wanted to share this clip from the game Final Fantasy XIII.

This is a scene between two characters, Lightning and Snow. Lightning is trying to save her sister, Serah, while Snow wants to save her too so that he can marry her. Lightning doesn’t trust Snow at first, but through the story, they work together and she learns to trust him more.

The reason why I posted this was something Lightning says in this scene to Snow, who wonders if they’ll ever see Serah again:

Don’t go there. No room for doubt.

Lightning is a strong and determined woman, and although she has her doubts, she focuses on her goal to save Serah. She has doubts, but she doesn’t listen to them. Thus, in the end, she saves her sister.

I think that’s true with a lot of things in life: if you want to accomplish something important to you, you can’t leave any room for doubt in your mind. Once you start to doubt, you will start to give up.

A good lesson from Lightning, I think. :-)

Posted in Language, Religion | Leave a comment

The Pure Land and Nichiren Debate in Buddhism

Coincidentally, a few days before this post, I was reading a debate in 1272 between the Buddhist monk, Nichiren, and a local Pure Land priest named Benjō.1 Nichiren is known for his strong criticism of the Pure Land teaching, some of which reflect Jokei’s criticisms, but also some of which are uniquely arguments by Nichiren himself, who maintained the Tendai tradition that the Lotus Sutra was the highest teaching.

Nichiren provides two arguments overall attacking Benjō’s belief that it’s beneficial to set aside all other Buddhist teachings, and focus on rebirth in the Pure Land:

  1. There’s nothing in the Buddhist scripture to suggest that one should set other teachings aside just for the sake of rebirth in the Pure Land.
  2. Chronoligically, the Buddha taught Lotus Sutra after the Pure Land sutras, and thus it supersedes them.

If you’re interested in the debate, it’s well-worth reading. Nichiren is a pretty sharp fellow, and a good debater, so you can see how he undermines Benjo’s argument. Apparently, they both signed the document at the end, which demonstrates the accuracy of the contents of the debate. Whether Benjo was won over by Nichiren is not clear from this document.

Anyhow, #2 is interesting because it reflects a very real belief at the time that all sutras in the Mahayana canon were preached by Shakyamuni Buddha, and in a certain order. The idea was started by the Chinese Tian-tai master, Zhiyi (智顗, 538–597). Zhiyi was one of many early Chinese Buddhists who had inhereted a huge volume of Buddhist sutras, freshly translated from India, but had no idea how the teachings related to one another: which were the earliest teachings, which were the later teachings, which were the highest teachings? So, early Chinese Buddhist schools developed competing theories about the order and hierarchy of the sutras, Zhiyi’s was the most accepted and the one most frequently cited by Buddhists in East Asia.

Zhiyi’s system had five stages of teachings (cited here):

  1. The Flower Garland period – taught immediately after the Buddha attained Enlightenment, lasting 3 weeks. No one understood the teaching and so Shakyamuni Buddha had to start over with more “basic” teachings.
  2. The Agama Period – taught at Deer Park, and lasting 12 years. This is equivalent to the Pali Canon in the Theravada tradition.
  3. The Correct and Equal Period – lasting 8 years. This includes some “fundamental” Mahayana sutras such as the Virmalakiri Sutra.
  4. The Wisdom Period – lasting 22 years. This includes such Mahayana Sutras as the Heart Sutra, Diamond Sutra, Pure Land sutras and many others.
  5. The Lotus and Nirvana Period – lasting 8 years. These are supposed to be the highest, and most final teachings.

Modern archeology and historiography has totally debunked this system because we now know that the Mahayana Sutras were written 400+ years after Shakyamuni Buddha.2 In some cases, such as the Heart Sutra and the Meditation of Amitabha Sutra, they were composed in China, not India. Also, in the case of the Lotus Sutra, the chapters were not written all at the same time, with later author adding tacking on additional chapters at the end. So, Zhiyi’s system (or any medieval) system for the sutras is pretty suspect.

But of course, Nichiren wouldn’t have possibly known that, so he was using the best arguments he could at the time.

However, #1 is still a reasonable argument. Nichiren points out that nothing in the Sutras suggests that one abandon all other teachings and practices to focus only on the Pure Land, and this is true. From what I’ve read, there’s nothing in the sutras to suggest this. In fact the opposite. For example, the Immeasureable Life Sutra, one of three foundation sutras, implies that the more you can do to be reborn in the Pure Land, the better.

The concept of “exclusive” focus on the Pure Land was devised by Honen a generation earlier, but was shaped by a persistent belief at the time of Dharma Decline (mappō in Japanese 末法) which taught that after 2,000, the Buddha’s teachings would be so obscure, and society so corrupt, that no one could put them into practice anymore. So, for Honen, the last resort is rebirth in the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha. Nichiren also subscribed to this idea of Dharma Decline, but his solution was to focus on devotion to the Lotus Sutra instead. Both the Immeasure Life Sutra (Pure Land) and the Lotus Sutra both imply that someday the the Buddhist teachings will be obscure and society will crumble, but the specific, formulaic chronology is mentioned in neither one. It’s mentioned in a more obscure sutra called the Mahasamnipata Sutra (大集經).

But anyway, the notion of Dharma Decline is pretty subjective, and the major Mahayana sutras don’t state that after 2,000 years, no one will be able to practice Buddhism anymore. Also, when you look at modern examples like the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh, among others, it’s pretty hard to take Dharma Decline seriously. Yes, Buddhism has changed and evolved since the time of the Buddha, and maybe isn’t “pristine” anymore,3 but it’s hard to say no one can practice it anymore. Also, when I hear Buddhists say “I am too foolish to put the teachings into practice”, I disagree.

It’s like learning a language. Westerners say Japanese is too difficult, Chinese characters are too hard to learn, etc. But the problem isn’t the language or the person. They just don’t know how to learn a language. Once you know that part, the language learning is straightforward. In the same way, if you struggle to put Buddhist teachings into practice, it’s not Buddhism’s fault, and it’s not because you’re stupid. Either you’re not in a good environment, or you haven’t learned how learn.

So, looking at this debate as a 21st century Buddhist from a Western culture, I think neither side entirely won. I think Nichiren was closer to what we would consider “orthodox” Buddhism (from our 21st-century, subjective perspective) though and won the debate mainly on from argument #1, but argument #2 shows that he was product of his time too just like Benjo. ;)

Interesting debate though.

P.S. Not every Buddhist at the time agreed with Dharma Decline. The founder of Soto Zen, Dogen, acknowledged the theory in such documents as the Eihei Kōroku (永平廣録) but felt it was no excuse not to practice Buddhism anyway because it was such privilege to even encounter the Dharma, no matter what the circumstance.

P.P.S. Another long post. ;p

P.P.P.S. Another criticism that Nichiren had in general toward Pure Land Buddhism was that it replaced Shakyamuni Buddha with Amitabha Buddha. Nichiren was critical of Shingon Buddhism for the same reason because they replaced Shakyamuni with Vairocana. There’s arguments for and against this, and it’s much to large to get into here. Shan-tao’s parable of the White Path is a clarification of how Shakyamuni and Amitabha relate in a Pure Land context, if you’re curious though. Also, the argument where Nichiren says Pure Land Buddhists will be reborn in Hell isn’t as controversial as one might think. A number of Buddhist writers at the time, including Zen masters, frequently threatened their opponents with being reborn in Hell. Nowadays, this seems pretty harsh, but back then the religious was very competitive and a schools’ survival dependended on government endorsement.

1 Not to be confused with Honen’s disciple, Benjō who was the 2nd patriarch of Jodo Shu. Apparently Benjō was a popular monastic name at the time. :p

2 To be fair, the Theravada Pali Canon was also written down centuries later. The text closely matches the Mahayana Agamas though, so we can be fairly certain that both reflect what the Buddha said and taught. Sadly, the Agamas are not translated into English, so it’s difficult to compare and contrast with the Pali Canon. The point is, the Mahayana sutras that came after the Agamas are purely within the Mahayana tradition only. My take on it, having read a number of them, is that they were often attempts to re-hash or summarize earlier teachings into a single narrative that was more contemporary and pertinent to the times. But because of the writing style (Buddha as narrator), this lead to confusion in different cultures and time periods so people believed these were the authentic words of the Buddha and had to reconcile them, hence they greater variety of schools and traditions in the Mahayana branch.

3 A lot of modern purists are obsessed with so-called “Pure Buddhism”, but good luck finding it. Also, as a reminder you are not a 5th-century BC Indian person, so even if you find it, you may not like what you find.

Posted in Buddhism, Jodo Shinshu, Jodo Shu, Nichiren, Shingon, Zen | 5 Comments

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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