Nichiren Buddhist Association of America

Nichiren Buddhist Association of America
Discovering the unknown within through a revolution in religious thinking

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Origins of Buddhism
Chapter 3

To begin to understand why anyone practices Buddhism, one needs to understand the Buddha, Shakyamuni’s, original quest. Born in India almost 3000 years ago, Shakyamuni searched for an end to human suffering. He categorized human suffering into four groupings: The sufferings associated with birth, sickness, aging, and death.

If you are interested in the specifics of Shakyamuni’s life, there are several good accounts of it available in English. For our purposes, though, it is enough to know a few factors about his life that are important today. For one thing, by attaining enlightenment himself, he proved that human life contains the power to become enlightened and that enlightenment (Buddhahood) provides an end to all suffering. So, to end one’s own suffering or to seek answers to why people must suffer are reasons why people become Buddhists

Another thing we should note is that, after attaining enlightenment, Shakyamuni immediately attempted to teach all others the path to enlightenment so that they, too, could put an end to their sufferings. The problem, though, was that he lived in an age when the capacity of the people was extremely limited. They could not understand Shakyamuni’s teachings nor directly practice them because they could not even begin to fathom that they, themselves, could ever attain Buddhahood. Shakyamuni, far from giving up on them, instead taught them according to their capacity using what he later termed “provisional doctrines” and “expedient means.” He gave them lower, more attainable goals to try for and described the practices suited to accomplishing these goals. Some of these practices involved attempts to extinguish desires and create good causes through such practices as almsgiving. The results of these practices was the formalization of commandments, or precepts, that were designed to improve the quality of life (and in fact did improve the quality of life) for those who were faithful to them. Shakyamuni used various teachings for approximately forty years before he began teaching the Lotus Sutra. In the Lotus Sutra, he shocked his listeners by telling them that all he had previously taught them were nothing other than “expedient means” to now be discarded. We will quote Shakyamuni for disbelievers who may be reading this. In the Immeasurable Meanings Sutra, which Shakyamuni taught just before the Lotus Sutra, he said, “In these more than forty years, I have not yet revealed the truth.” (Nichiren p.475)

While his previous teachings were not incorrect, they were incomplete. Earlier, he had expounded precepts similar to Christianity, and partial truths similar to some psychological theories, but not the truth of life itself. Christianity and psychology have been known to help people, just as Shakyamuni’s early teachings did, but they have not been known to entirely eliminate all suffering associated with life. When he felt that several of his disciples had increased their capacity enough to understand the most profound truth of life, and when he felt that he must preach the truth for the sake of the future before his eventual death, he preached the most profound teaching of all, the Lotus Sutra.

Those who heard the teachings of the Lotus Sutra couldn’t fathom why Shakyamuni would disregard and dispute everything that they had practiced and benefited from for so many years. This misunderstanding eventually resulted in the proliferation of many sects of Buddhism. It is important to know this about the origins of Buddhism so that one may understand how it became divided into so many different sects. It is also important to note that only the forms of Buddhism that use the teachings of the Lotus Sutra are, as Shakyamuni taught, “full and complete.” He said that, far from leading people to enlightenment, the expedient means would instead create further suffering, because people would develop attachments to incomplete truths when they have access to the most profound and complete truth.

Shakyamuni understood that human capacity would gradually improve and that human society would one day not need the teachings of expedient means. He so thoroughly understood this principle that he predicted three corresponding time periods. These corresponded with one-thousand-year periods: the Former, Middle, and Latter Days of the Law. We could think of these time periods as corresponding to the development of a child: infant/toddler, teen/youth, and adult. It would be inadvisable to teach a toddler about chemistry or physics in the same way as we would an adult. Instead the child’s parents just give commandments and explanations commensurate with their child’s capacity to understand. An example would be “Don’t touch that pan on the stove. It will hurt you!” The infant/toddler stage is akin to the Former day of the Law. People in that age knew little about life and science or how the universe worked, so rather than teaching them profound principles, it worked well to teach them commandments. Later, as society came to understand more about life, they would also be more capable of understanding the teachings of the Lotus Sutra. Returning to the analogy, this is like the ability of an adult as opposed to an infant or youth. While an adult’s capacity to understand is much greater, there is also a great deal of corruption associated with the age. Doubt and egotism tend to deter the learning process. But once doubt is challenged and egotism tempered, adults can learn anything. The same characteristics hold true to the time period that we are now living in, termed “the Latter Day of the Law.” We are in an age when there is no longer a need for commandments, when people have the capacity to understand even the most profound components of life and of religion. People in this day and age must begin to look objectively and open mindedly at life and detach themselves from earlier partial teachings in order to understand.

You are probably now wondering, “What is this Lotus Sutra, and what makes it so profound?” There is much that can be said, and this introduction could go on forever in deeper and deeper philosophical concepts, yet we would still never be able to capture the complete profundity of the Lotus Sutra. So how can a person gain benefit from a teaching that cannot be readily understood? You would probably throw away this book if we had to tell you that you must first study the teaching for twenty or thirty years before you can gain benefit from it. That is not the way life works, however, and the Lotus Sutra is a teaching about life. For instance, to drive a car you do not need to know how the car works. You only need to know a few basic things to get started, such as, the car turns when you turn the wheel, and to make it go faster you need to step on the gas peddle. This introduction to Buddhism is designed to help you understand a few basic concepts about the Lotus Sutra that will start you off in your new journey of life. Later, after you have learned how to “steer” your life towards happiness, and you have seen the benefits that can result from this Buddhism, you will probably want to learn more deeply about how it works.

Nichiren studied the Lotus Sutra among other things and found it to be the most profound teaching on the planet. He grabbed this wonderful teaching and took off with it. He used it as a basis to revolutionize the world of religion. This being the case, we can say that Nichiren Buddhism is a Buddhism of the Lotus Sutra.

We term the teachings of Nichiren the “law of life.” The “law of life” is similar to other laws in scientific theory. For instance, there is another law called the “law of gravity.” While we have no physical proof of its existence, and we do not entirely understand how it works, we know that it exists. The reason we know that it exists is because we “stick” to the earth. Moreover, every time we drop something, it falls to the ground. As scientific laws go, if even one time we dropped something and it fell toward the heavens, we would have to discard the theory of gravity. The same should be true in religion. Nichiren demanded that religion be the same way. He challenges people to discard religions that don’t work. If even one time a person practiced according to the teachings of Nichiren and didn’t become happy as a result, we would have to discard the theory. We can therefore make predictions based on the laws of the universe. As for the law of gravity, we can predict, for instance, that if you let go of something, it will fall to the earth. In Buddhism, the prediction is that each and every person who practices according to the teachings of Nichiren will attain instant enlightenment, causing them to feel stronger and happier.

The essence of this practice begins with a chant or intonation. That chant is Namu- myoho-renge-kyo. When someone says the name “Earth,” they are referring to all of the qualities of the earth. They are talking about the trees, plants, life, water, oxygen and all things that the word “Earth” means. The word may even arouse a mental picture in your mind that includes certain elements. If I say that cars are destroying earth, you may be aware that I am referring to earth’s ozone layer and the life that requires the ozone layer for its survival. I would not, however, be understood if I said that cars were destroying Mars, because the very name of the planet implies certain elements. In short, a name is more than just a name, or a word. The same applies to Myoho-renge-kyo. Within that phrase is contained the very essence and meaning of life itself.


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