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An Explanation of Gongyo
by Shannon Heimburg

I don't want this essay to be about boring facts, like the history of gongyo and such. However, I think there are some things that should be clarified about gongyo before I can go on.

First, the term "gongyo" refers to a ceremony in which various teachings can be recited to strengthen and deepen one's spiritual condition. Generally speaking, Nichiren Buddhists recite sections of the Lotus Sutra as their practice of gongyo.

The most important section of the Lotus Sutra, the one that (second to chanting Namu-myoho-renge-kyo) should be included in the ceremony of all Nichiren Buddhists, is the recitation of the Life Span chapter of the Lotus Sutra. This single chapter is the most important teaching of Shakyamuni's life.

I also recite the prose section of the Expedient Means chapter as part of gongyo. I find that this chapter is encouraging to my practice. There is another reason to recite it as well. The Expedient Means chapter is the primary teaching of the first half of the Lotus Sutra.

Now that you know a bit about what gongyo is, I'd like to discuss the purpose of doing gongyo. The main reason I do gongyo is because, almost mysteriously, it helps me to focus while I'm chanting afterwards. It also makes my daimoku (daimoku is a word referring to the chanting of Namu-myoho-renge-kyo) much more determined and sincere. But it's not really so mysterious. Chanting daimoku is itself referring back to the Lotus Sutra.

Chanting, in itself the most powerful good cause one can make, can be reinforced by taking action based upon it. So, doing things such as gongyo and shakubuku reinforce and strengthen the benefit we receive by chanting. It's like telling someone that you love them. Those words have an effect on others. We can reinforce them, though, by actually showing them that we really do care through other actions.

I also do gongyo because it's inspiring to me. I have favorite passages out of gongyo that encourage my practice. This strengthens my daimoku even further.

Doing gongyo every day helps me understand Nichiren better, as well as why I chant the phrase Namu-myoho-renge-kyo specifically. I get a deeper and clearer understanding of the depth of this religion every single day as I do gongyo and chant daimoku. The Lotus Sutra is quite profound.

To do gongyo, I use Kumarajiva's version of the Lotus Sutra. There were other versions. Kumarajiva's is considered the most accurate version by scholars around the world, and it's the version Nichiren relied on the most. Kumarjiva's version of the Lotus Sutra is written in Chinese.

I did gongyo in Chinese for many years. I have found that doing it in my own language, English, is far more effective. While there is reason for doing gongyo in Chinese and there is benefit to be obtained from it, there is more benefit to doing gongyo in your own language, such as inspiration, deepening understanding, and strengthening faith.

Some people feel that the rhythm of gongyo is the most important aspect of it. I strongly disagree. There is no mysterious benefit obtained by being rhythmical about it. Believe it or not, some Nichiren Buddhists go to services where they just sit and listen to a priest perform a ceremony for them. In that case, rhythm is very important so that the audience doesn't fall asleep. But I contend that gongyo is more about strengthening each individual's faith and practice than it is about lulling onlookers into a peaceful trance.

No matter how a person does gongyo, it should be in such a way that encourages them and increases the inconspicuous benefit received from chanting.

Even when doing gongyo in your native tongue, many people are so confused by it that they might as well be doing it in a foreign language. The Lotus Sutra is loaded with subtle meaning and hidden messages. How can a person gain encouragement from something so confusing?

My purpose in writing this essay is to discuss a little bit about the meaning of the Lotus Sutra in order to get people started in their understanding and take it from there to grow further on their own. I don't want to go over it line-by-line. I just want to help people get an overall idea about the message in gongyo.

As I chant and my faith develops, the Lotus Sutra takes on a deeper and deeper meaning. I'm sure as you do gongyo on your own, you will find the same thing to be true for yourself. I could never pretend to understand its vast depths. But I'm sure I can help some people sort through it the first times they read it.

Before I begin an interpretation of the Lotus Sutra, there is one more thing I want people to understand about it. The Lotus Sutra is the name of a work (actually, it's called Myoho renge kyo). However, what the Lotus Sutra truly is on a deeper level, what Myoho renge kyo is, is the path to enlightenment. To embrace the Lotus Sutra in your heart means embrace the path by which people can eliminate suffering. One can claim to embrace the writing of the Lotus Sutra, yet fail to embrace the path. This is not truly embracing the Lotus Sutra. To embrace the work, yet neglect the path to enlightenment would be futile. Likewise, one can be a true votary of the Lotus Sutra without ever having read it once. This is very crucial to understand. If you cannot grasp this concept, you will never be able to understand the Lotus Sutra.

The Lotus Sutra itself exists only to fulfill a function. The true meaning of the Lotus Sutra lies in its function - to lead all people to Buddhahood. Therefore, when we teach the Lotus Sutra, if we teach about theories and writings, yet fail to talk about the process by which a person (specifically the person we're teaching) becomes a Buddha, then we have in fact not taught the Lotus Sutra at all. And if we fail to teach the Lotus Sutra to others, then we will have neglected the path. For the purpose of the Lotus Sutra is to lead all people to enlightenment. If we don't teach people the path by which they can attain enlightenment, then they won't be able to find it. Where will they hear it if not from us? Who can teach it to them? If we aren't united in spirit with the Lotus Sutra to lead all people to enlightenment by teaching them the correct path, then we are not on the path of the Lotus Sutra and are therefore, not on the path to Buddhahood. If we're not on the path to Buddhahood, then we're also not truly votaries of the Lotus Sutra.

So as I take this step of discussing the Lotus Sutra with you, I hope it will mean more to you than mere theory. My goal is to help people be encouraged by reading the Lotus Sutra and begin to do gongyo with zeal and passion.

Okay, let's begin.

I'm going to start with the "Life Span" chapter. Regardless of how you do gongyo, the "Life Span" chapter should be included in the daily recitations of every Nichiren Buddhist. It's where the phrase "Namu-myoho-renge-kyo" is derived from. Namu-myoho-renge-kyo is the essence of the "Life Span" chapter.

Looking over the whole context and general feel of the Life Span chapter, Shakyamuni seems, at a first glance, to be saying mainly a couple of things. First, he attained enlightenment many lifetimes ago after lifetimes of Bodhisattva practice prior to that. Second, he seems to be saying that he is not really going to die, yet nearly everyone will think that he's dead. All of this pretending to be dead stuff, he seems to say, is nothing more than a trick to get people to practice harder. Once they become really good Buddhists, he'll reappear before them saying, "Ha, ha. I told ya I wasn't dead, but you went around thinking I was nuts for saying I never die." Hmmm, he does sound a bit nuts, doesn't he? How could we believe in something that defies all reason like this? Answer: We don't.

Actually, the Life Span chapter has profound meaning and depth. Let's take a closer look.

Consider two paradigms. No, on second thought not two but an infinite number of paradigms. The various paradigms for how we interpret the Lotus Sutra are directly related to our own level of enlightenment, or awakening to our own Buddha nature.

Think of yourself as two people. There is the first you that everyone sees. This you encompasses your appearance and personality. Then there is the real you, the true you. No one sees this other you except, well, you (and other Buddhas). The true you is the Buddha within you. That's who you really are. The you that is deep within isn't apparent on the surface. Only you can see it. And when you die, it's the only you that will have mattered, the only you that is lasting.

These two separate people, while being different, are still you. So when you speak to people as a non-enlightened common mortal, you refer to yourself as "I" and "me." When you speak to them as a Buddha, you refer to yourself as, well, "I" and "me." This is very confusing to others because, unless they're also Buddhas themselves, they can't tell when you're referring to your Buddha self and when you're referring to your transient self. In fact, most people probably never even consider that you may sometimes be referring to anything besides your transient self. This is the case with the Lotus Sutra. Some people read it as if Shakyamuni were referring to his transient self; when in reality, he's referring to his Buddha nature, which is the same Buddha nature as your Buddha nature.

As we chant, we begin to read the Lotus Sutra from a new perspective - the perspective of our own enlightenment. Since our enlightenment is no different from Shakyamuni's enlightenment, we can just place ourselves as the star of the Life Span chapter. (Some may consider this to be blasphemy, but I think it's the only way to truly understand the Life Span chapter.) Nichiren also says about this, "The 'Life Span' chapter states, 'Originally I practiced the bodhisattva way, and the life span that I acquired then has yet to come to an end but will last twice the number of years that have already passed.' He was speaking of the world of the bodhisattva within ourselves." (pg. 365, "The Object of Devotion for Observing the Mind") As we place our enlightened selves at the center of the Lotus Sutra, all of the statements made in the Life Span chapter begin to come together and fall into place. It becomes clear that the Life Span chapter is the work of a Buddha writing to other Buddhas - a work that an ordinary person cannot fathom with his intellect alone. (Good thing Nichiren came along with the daimoku, huh?)

This process naturally forms a new paradigm for interpreting the "Life Span" chapter. Shakyamuni is not speaking of an historical person named Siddhartha Gautama. He's speaking of his enlightened nature, and your enlightened nature, and mine. He's talking about Myoho-renge-kyo, the Law, which is eternal and unchanging. "Therefore, … Shakyamuni [is a] Buddha who [is a] function [of Myoho-renge-kyo]. It is Myoho-renge-kyo that is the true Buddha." (p. 384, "The True Aspect of All Phenomena") Realizing who he truly is, a manifestation of Buddhahood, he speaks on behalf of the Buddha nature inherent within him and within all life. "Therefore, we understand that, once the 'Life Span' chapter of the essential teaching had been revealed, all those in the assembly on Eagle Peak became enlightened to the lotus of the entity….the lotus of the eternal Buddha."(pg. 429, "The Entity of the Mystic Law") He is manifesting his Buddha nature in the form of words. This is the new paradigm from which we need to interpret the "Life Span" chapter in order to clearly understand it.

Nichiren says, "Even though statues and paintings were made of these Shakyamuni Buddhas during the two millennia, no image or statue was made of the Buddha of the 'Life Span' chapter. Only in the Latter Day of the Law will the representation of that Buddha appear." (p. 367 , "The Object of Devotion for Observing the Mind Established in the Fifth Five-Hundred-Year Period after the Thus Come One's Passing,") In this passage, Nichiren clearly distinguishes between a statue of the transient Shakyamuni and another kind of Buddha altogether. He also says, "I was also the first, though only Bodhisattva Superior Practices is so empowered, to inscribe [the object of devotion as] the embodiment of Shakyamuni Buddha from the remote past as revealed in the 'Life Span' chapter of the essential teaching…" (p. 384, "The True Aspect of All Phenomena") The image that he's referring to that will appear in the Latter Day of the Law and the object of devotion is the Gohonzon. A Gohonzon's largest and most notable characteristic, regardless of when Nichiren inscribed it, is the phrase Namu-myoho-renge-kyo written right down the center. The Buddha of the "Life Span" chapter is Namu-myoho-renge-kyo - the Buddha nature inherent within Shakyamuni and all life.

With this new interpretation, let's look again at what he's saying.

He begins with describing the time at which he first attained enlightenment. He says that it was not actually in this lifetime under the Bodhi tree as everyone had previously thought. He says it was an unfathomably long time ago - countless kalpas ago.

We may be prone to think that all he's saying is that he attained enlightenment in a previous lifetime. You may think, "so what?" Is that really what he's saying though? Look closer. Remember that he's speaking on behalf of his own Buddha nature - on behalf of your Buddha nature. Could he be saying that you attained enlightenment in a past life? What does he actually say?

He says, "Suppose a person were to take five hundred, a thousand, ten thousand, a million nayuta asamkhya thousand-millionfold worlds…" He also says, "…each time he passes five hundred, a thousand, ten thousand, a million nayuta asamkhya worlds…" Do you see what he's doing? He doesn't give a precise number, but simply makes clear that the number in unfathomable.

Even after his disciples agree that the number is unfathomable, he continues to create an unimaginably larger number by reducing all the worlds to dust and asking them to try to imagine the number of dust particles in terms of time. As if it wasn't hard enough to imagine the first number, now he has an even more difficult one. Then he says, even after explaining an unimaginable amount of time, "The time that has passed since I attained Buddhahood surpasses this by a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand, a million nayuta asamkhya kalpas."

Again, even at the end, he gives several possible numbers. He's clearly not describing an exact number. All he's saying is that the length of time ago that he attained enlightenment is longer than an already unimaginably long time ago. He's describing to them the concept of eternity. His Buddha nature is eternally abiding, as is yours. "The Shakyamuni Buddha within our lives is the eternal Buddha since time without beginning…." (pg. 365, "The Object of Devotion for Observing the Mind") It's always there. It always has been there. It's just that you can't always see it. It's not always manifested. "T'ien-t'ai states that the profound principle of the true aspect is the originally inherent Myoho-renge-kyo." (pg. 383, "The True Aspect of All Phenomena")

Referring to the fact that other sutras, and even the first half of the Lotus Sutra, fail to mention that Shakyamuni did not attain enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, Nichiren says, "But [the first half of the Lotus Sutra] nevertheless retains the provisional aspect, and fails to reveal the eternal aspect, of the Buddha's enlightenment." (p. 235, "The Opening of the Eyes -- Part One") This quote from Nichiren shows that this concept of the eternal nature of Buddhahood is unique to the "Life Span" chapter of the Lotus Sutra.

Why is it such a big deal that it's only mentioned here? The big deal is that this shows, in human terms, that the mutual possession of the ten worlds is real. If it weren't for the mutual possession of the ten worlds, we'd all have to wait lifetimes to become Buddhas. And the way in which we become enlightened is not through the path of creating good causes for countless existences. By merely embracing the Lotus Sutra (I say "merely" but it's a truly difficult practice in reality), one can attain enlightenment in no more than an instant. "Thus the cause and effect of the Ten Worlds as expounded in the earlier sutras and the theoretical teaching of the Lotus Sutra are wiped out, and the cause and effect of the Ten Worlds in the essential teaching are revealed. This is the doctrine of original cause and original effect. It reveals that the nine worlds are all present in beginningless Buddhahood and that Buddhahood is inherent in the beginningless nine worlds. This is the true mutual possession of the Ten Worlds, the true hundred worlds and thousand factors, the true three thousand realms in a single moment of life." (pg. 235, "The Opening of the Eyes - Part One")

It is through the Lotus Sutra that Shakyamuni attained enlightenment himself.

"The Lotus Sutra is the eye of all the Buddhas. It is the original teacher of Shakyamuni Buddha himself, the lord of teachings." (P. 494, "Letter to the Brothers")

"Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, the heart of the 'Life Span' chapter, is the mother of all Buddhas throughout the ten directions and the three existences." (p. 184, "The Essence of the 'Life Span' Chapter")

How can this be? The answer is that a Buddha is only a Buddha when he fulfills the function of a Buddha. Therefore, when Shakyamuni taught the Lotus Sutra, he fulfilled the function of a Buddha by teaching the path to enlightenment thereby enabling all people to become Buddhas. We, too, become Buddhas only when we fulfill the function of a Buddha by teaching others the path to their enlightenment.

The second most obvious message from Shakyamuni involves his eventual death.

Again, let's refer back to our new paradigm. If we interpret the chapter according to this paradigm, we see what Shakyamuni is really saying. He's saying that even though others may believe that the Buddha nature has died (maybe when Shakyamuni dies) it is not really gone. It's always there.

Considering that Shakyamuni sees his true self as an ever-present Buddha, it's not too hard to shift to referring to it as "I," for it is him. Even Nichiren does this in his own writing. "I, Nichiren, have inscribed my life in sumi ink, so believe in the Gohonzon with your whole heart. The Buddha's will is the Lotus Sutra, but the soul of Nichiren is nothing other than Nam-myoho-renge-kyo." (p. 412, "Reply to Kyo'o") Nichiren's soul is Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. Shakyamuni's soul, in the "Life Span" chapter is also Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. Therefore, he says "I" when referring to an eternal and undying Buddha nature.

It's true that when Shakyamuni died, people thought that the Buddha was dead. I even recently read an article by a Buddhist priest that said that Shakyamuni has been the only Buddha to have ever lived. Is this not the same as believing that the Buddha nature itself died with Shakyamuni? Maybe Shakyamuni understood that this would happen. Maybe he's saying, "You'll think I [the Buddha] am dead, but I'm [the Buddha is] really still here. You just can't see me." In fact, he does say, "living beings…do not see me even when close by."

So how do we see the Buddha? Where is he? The answer: Inside of ourselves when we chant Namu-myoho-renge-kyo, "single-mindedly desiring to see the Buddha, not hesitating even if it costs [us] our lives." In other words, when we attain enlightenment, we see the Buddha described in the "Life Span" chapter.

Shakyamuni is therefore not saying that he, the person, or the reincarnate of his person, will appear before you. He's saying that when you seek the Buddha within, he, meaning his Buddha Nature - his true self, will appear within you. You become the manifestation of Shakyamuni's true self.

How can I be sure that he's not saying that he'll appear as an incarnation of himself when you seek him? Because of this line, "…because of the power of an expedient means at times I appear to be extinct, at other times not, and that if there are living beings in other lands who are reverent and sincere in their wish to believe, then among them too I will preach the unsurpassed Law."

Is he going to be physically reincarnated all over the globe? What if two people in different lands seek him at the same time? Can he be in both places at once? He is clearly referring to his true self being within the minds of people everywhere and for all eternity.

Hopefully, with this introduction, you can now read the Life Span chapter with a new understanding. Don't forget to chant, too! This is the most important part of understanding the Lotus Sutra. If you can't see the Buddha nature within yourself, you'll never be able to see the Buddha nature within the Shakyamuni of the Life Span chapter.

Before I close, there are two more things I want to discuss about the Life Span chapter. They're my favorite two lines - the ones that I find encouraging to read every day. The first one is "When living beings have become truly faithful, honest and upright, gentle in intent, single-mindedly desiring to see the Buddha, not hesitating even if it costs them their lives, then I and the assembly of monks appear together…"

Actually, Nichiren has already described how he feels about this passage. Since I feel the same way, I'll just quote what he said in "Letter to Gijo-bo." "The verse section of the chapter states, '. . . single-mindedly desiring to see the Buddha, not hesitating even if it costs them their lives.' As a result of this passage, I have revealed the Buddhahood in my own life. The reason is that it is this sutra passage that has enabled me to embody the Three Great Secret Laws, or the reality of three thousand realms in a single moment of life, that is found in the 'Life Span' chapter….'Single-mindedly desiring to see the Buddha' may be read as follows: single-mindedly observing the Buddha, concentrating one's mind on seeing the Buddha, and when looking at one's own mind, perceiving that it is the Buddha…. This is what I mean when I emphatically urge you to give up even your body, and never begrudge even your life for the sake of the Lotus Sutra." (p. 389 & 390, "Letter to Gijo-bo")

The other phrase in the Life Span chapter that I love to read is the very last line. "At all times I think to myself: How can I cause living beings to gain entry into the unsurpassed way and quickly acquire the body of a Buddha?"

It's no coincidence that he says "at all times." When a person is able to attain Buddhahood, it is because at that moment he is concerning himself wholeheartedly with the enlightenment of others. This is the kind of effort that is required to attain enlightenment. If you're suffering, ask yourself, am I focused tirelessly on the enlightenment of others without begrudging my life? If not, then I need to chant for compassion.

Excuse me. I want to chant now.


All quotes from the Lotus Sutra are taken from Burton Watson's translation of the Lotus Sutra: Siddhartha Gautama. The Lotus Sutra. Trans. Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.
All quotes from Nichiren are taken from: Nichiren. The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin. Trans. The Gosho Translation Committee. Tokyo: Soka Gakkai, 1999.


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