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
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
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
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
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
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
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"
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:
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
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.
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
" (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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.