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! ;)

Posted in Buddhism, Nichiren | 2 Comments


Every year, when we visit Japan, we often pay respect to my wife’s deceased relatives and ancestors. This is a common practice in Japan called ohakamairi (お墓参り) where ohaka just means a grave, while mairu is the humble version of “to go” or “to come”. People in Japan, like other Confucian cultures,1 will often visit their ancestors graves at certain times a year such as Ohigan and Obon. But, since my wife lives overseas, we do ohakamairi when we visit Japan.

Compared to Western culture, ohakamairi is more formal, more ritualized so if you married into Japanese culture, or just want to pay respects to someone, it’s good to know how to do this properly.

I am not an expert, but I’ve seen this done a several times, so I am a bit familiar.

Japanese graves are larger and more elaborate than the simple “headstone” used in American culture:

Bethel Cemetery (222324347)

Instead, Japanese graves look more like obelisks:


A typical Japanese grave will have:

  • An obelisk with the persons name.
  • Two metal flower vases, one on each side.
  • A small box in the front for putting incense.

So, when you visit the ancestor’s grave, it’s important to clean up a bit. My wife’s family will often bring a bucket of water with a ladle. First, we clean any debris from the gravesite, remove old, dead flowers and put in fresh, new ones. Then, using the water and ladle, we pour it on top of the obelisk and the surrounding area to clean off any dirt and grime. Graves can get dirty pretty quick, especially when they’re under trees where dead leaves fall. So, it’s the family’s obligation (in a Confucian sense) to honor the dead by keeping their grave neat and tidy.

Once the grave is cleaned off, we take a box of incense (available at any temple) and divide it up. We each get a small handful of incense sticks, and we take turns lighting them, and putting them in the small box in the front. The box has a metal grill in it so the burning incense is not touching the ground (and doesn’t get extinguished).

As we offer the incense, we also put our hands together in gassho which is a generic, Buddhist gesture of respect and bow our heads for a moment.

Another blogger, Heenai Heenai (which hasn’t been updated lately), has a nice post with photos to explain this.

Anyhow, ohakamairi is not difficult to do, but is more ritualistic than what we do in Western culture2 so it’s good to get familiar if have married into the culture,3 or just want to pay respects.

P.S. Speaking of Obon….

1 Korea, for example, does this around Chuseok among other times.

2 I kind of feel bad because I haven’t visited my grandparents’ graves in years, even though I can get there by car within one hour.

3 Something that really annoys me is Western men who marry Japanese women (or Asian in general), but are completely clueless about the culture and language, and are too lazy, or too prideful to learn. I’m not an expert, but since I married my wife, I feel it was fair to make a good effort to learn the culture and language. I am glad I did.

Posted in Buddhism, Family, Japan, Religion | Leave a comment

Doraemon Shogi

I’ve been playing Japanese chess, or shogi for about 7-8 years, though I don’t play very often (and I’m not very good). However, while in Japan recently, we found this Shogi set:

Doraemon Shogi

This is a special edition Doraemon shogi board. Because there is a new Doraemon movie in theaters right now, they are promoting Doraemon a lot, and we found a special Doraemon store in the Roppongi district of Tokyo where we could buy snacks and other goods. The reason why I bought this set is that the pieces have red-arrows printed on them so children can remember the movements more easily. For example, the silver-general (銀将) and gold-general (金将) have similar moves and players can get confused. I’ve even seen Japanese adults get confused sometimes!

My daughter, “Princess”, loves it. We play shogi about once a week, and she can easily remember where to put the pieces now, but she still doesn’t really know strategy yet. She will learn that in time.

The other reason I bought this set is that it has suggestions for other, simpler games that children can play with Shogi pieces:

Doraemon Shogi, easy version

This is a game where you pile pieces together and you take turns removing pieces from the pile. If you make any noise, you lose your turn, but if not, you can take more and more pieces. Princess loves this game too.

Princess loves to play video games with Daddy, but I want to encourage her to play more intelligent games like Shogi or Western Chess, so I am glad I bought this. It wasn’t very expensive (¥3000 I think), but I hope she becomes a good shogi player. As a woman and half-Japanese, I think it would be interesting if she becomes a Shogi champion someday, but I don’t want to push her either. It’s more important for her to have fun. :)

Posted in Japan, Shogi, Travel | Tagged | Leave a comment


Heroes from the Soviet era or American pop-icons? Photo courtesy of soho42 on Flickr.

Heroes from the Soviet era or American pop-icons?
Photo courtesy of soho42 on Flickr.

I found this article from the Moscow Times online recently and couldn’t stop laughing. It shows a Communist-era mural being painted to look like American comic-book characters and mascots. I can recognize:

  • The Joker
  • Wolverine from X-Men
  • Santa Claus
  • Superman
  • Ronald McDonald
  • Captain America
  • Wonder Woman
  • Robin (from Batman)?

I always enjoy seeing these kinds of clever forms of defiance. I am not sure what the message means though: is that that American capitalism has triumphed (and if so, is that better than Soviet Communism to the artist?), or is it just making fun of old Soviet Communism.

According to this article, the caption below reads (in English): “In step with the times!” So, I assume it’s not meant to be a compliment to the US. ;)

What do you think?

Pretty brilliant, though, I think. :)

Posted in Politics | 2 Comments

Famous Korean Poetry on a Fan

Recently a Korean friend’s mom gave this fan to our daughter:

Korean Fan with Poem

If you look up close though, you can see a poem:

Korean Fan with Poem Close-up

This poem is really intersting to me because it shows both Hangeul, the Korean alphabet, and Chinese characters mixed in. This kind of writing was popular in Korea in the past, so I assumed it was an old, famous poem. It took a lot of research,1 but I figured out what it was. The poem was written by Yi-Jonyeon (이조년 李兆年, 1269-1343) from the Goryeo Dynasty in Korea. For Japanese readers, his name is イ・ジョニョン. According to Wikipedia Korea, which I was only able understand a little, Yi-Jonyeon was a scholar and poet who served under 5 kings (King Wonjong through King Chunghye).

From this helpful website I was able to find the text of the poem (Japanese version here):

多情歌(다정가) – Da Jeong Ga

梨花(이화)에 月白(월백)하고
I-hwa e weol baek hago

銀漢(은한)이 三更(삼경)인제
Eun-han i samgyeong inje

一枝春心(일지춘심)을 子規(자규)야 알랴 마난
Ilji chunshim eul jagyu ya alrya manan

多情(다정)도 病(병)인양 하여 잠 못 들어 하노라
Dajeong do byeong inyang hayeo jam mot deuleo hanora

Thankfully I was able to find a translation, courtesy of Ohio State University:

The moon is pallid against the blossoms of the pear;
The Milky Way is twinkling cold at midnight.
The cuckoos wouldn’t guess why I am in despair,
Perching in the boughs of trees in the dim light.
My affection, my love, is a malady I keep;
The disease of the season deprives me of peaceful sleep.

Pretty nice poem actually. It reminds me of poems from the Hyakunin Isshu as well, though the style and such are a bit different. I always enjoy researching stuff like this. :-)

Anyhow, now you know some famous Korean poetry!

1 Lots of hit-or-miss Google searches. ;)

Posted in Korea, Korean, Poetry, Travel | 5 Comments

My Visit to Utsunomiya, Japan


Although I’ve posted a few times about seeing Korea, I wanted to post some stuff about Japan too. My wife’s maternal-side of the family lives outside Utsunomiya, Japan, which is a medium-sized city in Tochigi Prefecture, 2 hours north of Tokyo by car.

If you are in the Tokyo-area, you can actually take a direct, regular train up to Utsunomiya using the Shonan-Shinjuku line. Try to get the express though as it does save some time. But even if you can’t, it’s a nice relaxing ride and much cheaper than the Shinkansen.

Anyhow, my wife’s relatives live on the west-side of Utsunomiya’s suburbs, which are somewhat rural. During the afternoon (which was more humid than Kawasaki city), I took Little Guy for a walk in his stroller (bebiikā ベビーカー in Japanese) and found some nice rice-fields nearby:

Rice Field

We had a great dinner that night with the whole family, and my daughter got to see her second-cousins (hatoko 再従兄弟/再従姉妹) again. Some of her second-cousins (children of my wife’s cousin) live in Utsunomiya, while other second-cousins came from other parts of the world such as the Middle-East. It was a rare, rare chance for them all to meet. They had a lot of fun playing together, lighting Japanese fireworks (sparklers for us Americans) and so on.

The following day we visited a nearby temple called Tage-Fudōson (多気不動尊) or just Tagesan for short. The homepage is here (map too), but it’s in Japanese only, sorry.

Tagesan is a Shingon-Buddhist temple and famous for having lots of steps:

Tagesan Fudoson Temple

I was carrying Little Guy while trying to climb these steps. It was not easy. :p

The main deity in the temple is the esoteric figure, Fudo Myoo, who is a kind of guardian figure in Shingon Buddhism. Most temples with Fudo Myoo have names like Fudōson (不動尊) or something like that, so it’s easy to recognize.

We also found a large array of “Jizo” statues like these:

Jizo Bodhisattvas with red bib

The red-bibs are commonly seen on statues of Jizo Bodhisattva. I’ve heard a couple different reasons why this is done (I’m not sure which is true):

  • They are supposed to protect children who died young (Jizo is a protector of children among other things), or
  • They are used to build up good merit for devout Buddhists as a kind of devotional offering, similar to this famous tale.

Here’s the main, central statue of Jizo Bodhisattva:

Jizo Bodhisattva, protector of children

Finally we enjoyed some Ramen:

Japanese Ramen

Utsunomiya seems to have a lot of Japanese-Chinese food, or chūka-ryōri (中華料理) including ramen and my personal favorite: gyoza (potstickers). As my wife and kids know, gyoza are my favorite food,1 so I love going to Utsunomiya and eating there. :)

Utsunomiya is a nice city to visit and I definitely recommend visiting Tochigi Prefecture if you can. I always enjoy going there.

P.S. Gyoza are especially good with Chinese chili oil from Ishigakijima. We bought some during our recent visit. :-)

1 I like them so much that my wife and daughter made them for me by hand on Father’s Day. I was very happy. :-)

Posted in Buddhism, Japan, Religion, Shingon, Travel, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

My Brief Visit to Incheon Airport

On my return trip back from Japan, I transferred at South Korea’s airport, Incheon, which is just outside Seoul. It’s a large airport and quite nice to visit and was opened just in 2001, so it’s actually pretty new.

Incheon Airport was my first (and only) experience in South Korea, and I only had 3 hours to really “soak up” the culture. So, I did a lot of walking around. It’s quite large, but generally easy to navigate once you get past the first part. There are tons of shops there, so I even tried ordering Starbucks in Korean (failed miserably), but the staff all spoke pretty good English anyway, so it wasn’t necessary. Many of the signs at Incheon were also printed in four languages: Korean, English, Chinese and Japanese, so it’s pretty hard to get lost there.

One really interesting thing about Incheon Airport is that they had a lot of cultural events and activities. Korea seems very interested in promoting Korean culture to visitors, so there was a lot to see and do. One interesting example is this parade that walks through the airport regularly:1

This parade looks like a royal procession from the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897, 조선, 朝鮮). I stumbled onto this parade by accident, but I recognized it right away because I watched so many episodes of the Korean Drama “Jewel in the Palace” (대장금, 大長今). I could recognize the “king” right away. He was wearing the red robes just in front of the large parasol.

This video by another traveler is probably easier to watch though. I was surprised to see the parade, so I didn’t really have time to properly record it.

They also had music performances as well. This is an example of traditional Korean music:

Some people really like this kind of traditional Asian music, some people hate it. I personally thought it was cool.

Incheon had a lot of cool stuff in general. I found some bookstores in there, and I even found a few copies of the Japanese manga Doraemon in Korean which I am using for reading practice. More on that in another post. Anyhow, as mentioned before, every store I went to, people seemed to speak pretty good English. Some of the “ajumma” (おばちゃん would be the Japanese equivalent I guess) were kind of pushy though at certain shops. One lady really wanted to sell me a huge kimchi set to take home, but I can get kimchi easily in Seattle (and I really didn’t want to carry that home), so I kind politely declined.

It was also probably my first real opportunity to use Korean for more than 2 minutes. I’ve been studying and learning Japanese for so long,2 I forgot how hard it is to communicate in another language when you are just a beginner. I did better than I expected (thanks TTMIK!), but at the same time, I also realized that I needed a lot more study and practice. A lot.

So, that’s my three hours in Korea (airport). Incheon is a pretty cool airport to visit, and definitely makes me want to visit Korea again, this time outside the airport. ;)

1 My wife noticed that the parade past walked a Louis Vuitton shop and she thought the contrast was funny. :)

2 I’m not saying I’m good at Japanese language, just familiar with it. Korean is much more new to me.

Posted in Korea, Travel | Leave a comment