QUESTION: No one has been able to tell me what Nichiren Buddhists believe. You say things like, “We believe everyone can attain enlightenment.” If I ask five different Nichiren Buddhists what this means, I get five different explanations. Various answers include “unexceled bliss,” “omnipotence,” “complete understanding,” and my favorite useless description, “Buddhahood.” These are all empty words that smack of cultish jargon. Instead of trying to tell me what Nichiren Buddhists believe, can you tell me what Nichiren Buddhists value?
RESPONDENT ONE: I’ll put this out there, knowing you all are going to be triggered. Above all, Nichiren Buddhists value anti-authoritarianism. This is why we express diverse answers when asked about our beliefs. For Nichiren Buddhists, there is no supreme authority who says which answers are right or wrong.
The Lotus Sutra, sometimes described as the “ultimate authority” for Nichiren Buddhists, isn’t actually an authority. The sutra isn’t a person or government that demands obedience. When we read the Lotus Sutra, we read metaphors and stories, not statutes and commandments. The “Mystic Law” — as elucidated by the Lotus Sutra — is not a “law” in the sense of rules and regulations. There’s no enforcement or adjudication of the Mystic Law.
The Lotus Sutra resists authoritarianism because it resists being made into a specific code of human conduct. In the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha steps away from any role atop a hierarchy. He reveals infinite Buddhas, all equal in their mastery.
In other words, the Lotus Sutra demolishes the idea that one Buddha “rules” the universe. Instead it shows us that, just as there is no central reference point for time and space, there is no central authority governing ultimate reality.
The priest Nichiren isn’t really an authority either. His advocacy on behalf of the Lotus Sutra was basically anti-authoritarian activism. Nichiren openly defied religious and secular authorities. He asserted his personal liberty and freedom to believe unpopular things. As a result, he was imprisoned, banished, and dissed.
The Nichiren Buddhists I know who have been practicing a long time and inspire me, they all have a strong anti-authoritarian streak. Maybe this is a personality type that is attracted to Nichiren Buddhism. They don’t care about being “good little Buddhists.” They blaze their own trail. I think this is because the core value of Nichiren Buddhism is anti-authoritarianism.
RESPONDENT TWO: You may be right, but what about all the authoritarian organizations created in Nichiren’s name? For example, what is a priesthood other than an authoritarian organizational structure? Priests are the ordained authorities regarding Nichiren Buddhist practice. Nichiren Shu, Nichiren Shoshu, Kempon Hokke, etc. are all built upon priestly authority.
Likewise, the largest Nichiren Buddhist lay organization in the world claims to be anti-priesthood, only to substitute the priestly class with The Supreme Sensei and his lieutenants. This, too, is an authoritarian structure. These authoritarian groups bicker endlessly with one another, battling for the top position as Ultimate Authority on Nichiren Buddhism.
Over the decades of my practice, I have been a member of three such organizations at different times. I have grown to reject them all. Maybe I have developed an anti-authoritarian personality. Or maybe I have come to see that you are right, the basic value of Nichiren Buddhism is anti-authoritarianism, and these authoritarian-structured organizations are doing Nichirenism incorrectly, and I don’t like it.
Or maybe I have learned that no one person, belief system, or organization has all the answers about life and death. Therefore it makes sense to stay humble and open-minded and keep conversations going with whomever wants to talk about Buddhism.
RESPONDENT ONE: You are, unfortunately, so very right about authoritarian organizations. We see this dynamic in other religions, too, not just with Nichiren Buddhism. When more liberal churches or temples encourage people to think for themselves, they tend to lose members. When you no longer need a priest to tell you what to believe — when you have faith in yourself, your conscience, and your ability to read and interpret texts and commentaries, why do you need a priesthood or organization?
These think-for-yourself denominations value the intelligence, common sense, and conscience of their members more than they value unity based on obedience or fear/hatred of a common enemy. On the other hand, you have fundamentalist and authoritarian denominations that grow like crazy, and have lots of fervent members willing to give everything for their cause.
RESPONDENT TWO: We agree about the difference between authoritarian denominations and more liberal denominations. I’m using “liberal” in the sense that it refers to liberty and freedom to follow your own path. Of the two styles — authoritarian versus liberal — I agree that most Nichiren Buddhists value liberality over authoritarianism.
Still, there’s more to it. There are additional Nichiren values to talk about, but I need to think. Can I have more time to answer this question?
RESPONDENT THREE: I need to think about it, too. Can you put this on the site with an open comments section to see if anyone who’s not in the slack group wants to say something?
RESPONDENT FOUR: We need to fiddle with the settings to get an open comment section to appear on the post. Anyone want to try?