Nichiren by any other name

Question: I don’t like having to identify as a Nichiren Buddhist. Nichiren is problematic for lots of people because he was a militant nationalist. He wanted his brand of Buddhism to become the state religion of Japan. He talked about Buddhism as being a weapon of war. This offends and troubles people who are interested in Nichiren’s teachings about wisdom, compassion, and peace. Is there a way to cut Nichiren out of Nichiren Buddhism?

Wade: No, you can’t. I’m trying to think of an analogy. It’s like speaking the English language. Just because you speak English, doesn’t mean you are from England. You practice Nichiren Buddhism, but it doesn’t mean you’re a medieval Japanese priest. English, like Nichiren Buddhism, has evolved over centuries. Old English and Middle English sound really foreign to present-day speakers of English. Australians accent English one way, American midwesterners accent it another, but it’s all English.

My point is that the label “Nichiren Buddhist” is a useful, factual descriptor. It’s not about you and how you “identitfy.” I wouldn’t get too worked up about it. You may not like the way Nichiren Buddhism is perceived by others, but you can’t really change what people think.

Montepulciano: Yes, of course you can ditch Nichiren. Just call what you do, “Lotus Buddhism,” or “Lotus Chanting.” Nichiren did not invent the Lotus Sutra. He did not invent the practice of chanting the title of the Lotus Sutra. Yes, it is possible to chant Namu-myoho-renge-kyo and NOT be a Nichiren Buddhist.

Most people who chant Daimoku take issue with some aspect of Nichirenism, whether it’s the Japanese nationalism or the intense dogmatism. Ironically, the people who fancy themselves “True Nichiren Buddhists” say that unless you are in hard-line agreement with Nichiren’s teachings and tactics, you’re not a Nichiren Buddhist. When they tell you this, say thank you. Thank you, thank you, for telling me I’m not a zealot.

But don’t forget. All of us who embrace Daimoku and benefit from it owe it all to Nichiren. In terms of historical fact, it’s because of Nichiren that we’ve heard of Daimoku. He spent most of his life writing and teaching about it. Most of what we know and believe about Lotus Sutra Buddhism has been influenced by Nichiren. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle. You can’t deny that Nichiren “owns” Namu-myoho-renge-kyo. It’s silly trying to deny it.

But what good does it do you, trying to think like or be like someone else? You’re not a mini-Nichiren. Why would you want to be? You’re you. I always say we have to make Nichiren Buddhism our own. I practice Monte Buddhism, which is wholly mine with lots of similarities to Nichiren Buddhism. The way I see it, the only person who will ever be a proper Nichiren Buddhist is Nichiren himself.

Winge: I’m tired of recycling these old debates. Saying the same things. Arguing one side. Arguing the other side. Yes, whatever we believe and practice is our own “personal religion.” Obviously.

What does it mean, Religion? Look it up. The word “religion” originally meant to bind or to obligate. In other words, our religion holds us to an oath or to a set of vows. To sin means to break a vow or to sever this bond or obligation.

In Buddhism generally, the great vow is to free all living beings from suffering by doing good works over the course of many lifetimes and attaining enlightenment. In Nichiren Buddhism specifically, the great vow is to free all living beings from suffering by demonstrating that enlightenment is inherent in our lives at every moment.

Either way, the vows are abstract. How best to keep the vows has been the subject of centuries of debate.

Maybe a better question is to consider whether Religion — as in a sacred vow or obligation — is a toxic concept. Some people use the word “spirituality” to mean something like religion, minus rules and obligations.

To me it seems like, if you’re asking if you can ditch Nichiren, it’s like you’re asking, “Is it OK for me to ditch the general rules and obligations taught by Nichiren?” You’re the only person who can answer this for yourself.

A better question, maybe, is: What are my obligations as someone who chants Nam-myoho-renge-kyo? What vows have I made, and do I intend to keep them? Do I need to renegotiate my relationship with the teachings of Nichiren?