But is it Buddhism?

Question: Is Nichiren Buddhism really Buddhism? Nichiren said that earthly desires are enlightenment. He told chanters to embrace their desires rather than to extinguish them. Because of this, Nichiren Buddhism seems to contradict a foundational teaching of Buddhism, namely the Four Noble Truths and the basic goal of freeing oneself from craving. What do you think?

Carmelight: This question makes me groan with exhaustion. I can’t believe anyone seriously argues that Nichiren’s teachings are disconnected from Buddhism. It’s like saying the Lotus Sutra is disconnected from Buddhism. Buddhism has developed over centuries, crossing continents and cultures. With so many diverse people commenting on and practicing Buddhism, of course there are contradictory, competing views on what is — or isn’t — proper Buddhism. Regardless, it’s all Buddhism.

Jutta: It’s all, generally, Buddhism. But Nichiren argued strenuously against specific interpretations of Buddhism that he thought were misleading or fraudulent.

Carmelight: He did, and we would do well to give him the last word. Nichiren did all the arguing for us. We don’t have to repeat or revive the debate.

Jutta: Nichiren had his reasons. He lived in medieval Japan. The military-run government of his day gave financial support to certain Buddhist priests, but not to Nichiren. He was fighting for survival. It’s not like he was stirring up debate to be smug and superior. He had conviction and a controversial view of Buddhism. He also had real enemies who tried to kill him because of his outspokenness. Nichiren’s hardline stance about correct versus incorrect was high-stakes, life-and-death stuff for him.

Nichiren’s reality was much different than ours. We don’t have to argue about Buddhism as if our lives depend on it. Even so, still today, people try to discredit Nichiren’s teachings by denying that they are Buddhist. Even asking the question, “Is Nichiren Buddhism really Buddhism?” demonstrates this agenda. Do people go around asking if Vipassana or Zen or Tantric Buddhism are “really” Buddhism? No. These are three very different ways, and yet they are all Buddhism. Why is Nichiren Buddhism even a question?

NoNoNanjo: Good points. I’m redirecting. I looked up the Four Noble Truths:
1. The first noble truth is that our world and our lives are characterized by suffering, pain, and dissatisfaction.
2. The second truth is that our suffering is caused by our cravings, urges, and attachments. All our desires, supposedly, are like chains that bind us to suffering.
3. The third truth is that we can free ourselves from these attachments and thereby free ourselves from suffering.
4. The fourth truth is that our path to freedom is the Noble Eightfold Path, which is another foundational Buddhist teaching.

The famous eight folds of the Eightfold Path are Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Conduct, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, Right Meditation, and Right View.

Reviewing these concepts, it sounds as if Buddhism teaches that when we become right in every way, we’ll be freed from our miserable existence! Or, to say it another way, as we perfect ourselves, we become enlightened to the perfection of everything.

This doesn’t make much sense to Nichiren Buddhists because we tend to trust Nichiren’s claim that earthly desires are enlightenment. Instead of detaching from our wishes and wants, we wallow in them. The idea is that desire is like firewood that feeds the flames of enlightenment. We burn our way through desire, so to speak, creating light and warmth. I think that’s what Nichiren means, not that we should just be hedonists.

Montepulciano: I wish we could give up all thoughts of becoming perfect or being right. Chant Namu-myoho-renge-kyo for what you really, truly want — no matter how absurd or how unlikely it is that your wish will be fulfilled. It sounds simple and naïve but it’s profound. Some people are chanting for world peace and harmony, sure. Personally, I find it hard to chant passionately about abstractions. It’s easier to chant for something that personally affects me, such as finding a better job, or something urgent, such as prayers for the health of a loved one who’s in the hospital. It’s easier in the sense that I feel the fire of motivation and personal investment.

Jones: Years ago, when I was practicing in Los Angeles, friends would host 10-hour tosos. I think the word toso means something like, “fight evil spirits” in Japanese. A 10-hour toso in the 1990s in LA meant sitting on the floor with a bunch of people in someone’s living room and chanting continuously for ten hours. I did it once. I’ve never been able to do it again. To sustain your motivation for ten hours, or even ten minutes of chanting, you really gotta want something.

Montepulciano: Chanting for what you want sounds horribly self-indulgent and the farthest thing from enlightenment. But when you chant for what you honestly want, and do it for years and years, you start to see the wisdom of it. When I was young, I chanted about cars and romance. I had such small dreams. My prayers are larger now maybe because I see how my fate and the fate of this planet Earth are intertwined. Now I can sincerely chant about the world. But when I was younger, I would’ve only been pretending. An honest prayer is a powerful prayer, even if what you want seems impossible.

Jones: Agreed. Posturing and pretending are pointless. Who are we trying to fool? When we’re chanting, it’s no time to be pretentious, realistic, or practical. It’s time to offer the most impossible wishes and rages of our hearts.

As Ted used to say, “If what you want is possible, what do you need the Gohonzon for?” Meaning, if what you want can be accomplished by some means other than chanting, go pursue those means. If you want to run a marathon, start training. Chanting about it is great, but it isn’t going to get you across the finish line.

Also, chanting for what you really want isn’t as easy as it sounds, often because ideas about practicality get in the way. For example, a friend was chanting for lots of money. She asked Ted why her sincere prayer for lots of money was not being answered promptly. Ted asked, “Why do you want lots of money?” My friend said, “To buy a house.” Ted said, “So chant for a house!”

Since then, when I chant for what I want, I ask myself why I want it.

NoNoNanjo: Riffing on the example of a house, why do I want a house? Because I want my family to have a safe, comfortable place to live. What I really want is not a house so much as I want safety and security for myself and my loved ones. The house is a seemingly practical strategy for getting what I want.

That’s another aphorism of faith. Tell the Gohonzon what you want; but don’t tell it how to make it happen. Prayer is how. Daimoku is how. The strategy of the Lotus Sutra is unfathomable. We’re never going to understand how. Chant for your true heart’s desire.

Jutta: Presumably, you could chant to attain enlightenment in strict accordance with the Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path. If you really wanted that.

Carmelight: For the sake of argument: Would it be so terrible if we were to think of Nichiren Buddhism as disconnected from Buddhism? Would it be so terrible if we decided that the practice of chanting Namu-myoho-renge-kyo is unrelated to — or totally beyond — Buddhism? If we could get beyond nitpicking about Buddhist concepts, would it free us to see or experience Daimoku in a whole new way?

In other words, can we take the practice of chanting Daimoku out of the context of Buddhism? I think we can. You don’t have to know anything about Buddhism to chant. You can chant and it works, no matter if you lack knowledge of Buddhism.

Jutta: Heretic! Just kidding. Yes, this is an intriguing question. I will put it on our list for another conversation.