by Dan Webster
If you haven’t heard of Nichiren yet, then perhaps you haven’t been keeping up with the tabloids. Nichiren Buddhism is both a medieval Japanese form of Buddhism, and one of the most popular forms of Buddhism in Hollywood today. Perhaps partly due to its star following, it is also currently one of the fastest growing schools in the West.
Orlando Bloom and Miranda Kerr (left) are two of the most prominent Western followers of this tradition. Recently, Kristen Stewart (the Twilight star) is also reported to have taken up this rather strict, and somewhat simplified, form of Mahayana Buddhism.
How has a relatively obscure form of Buddhism gained such a high number of Western followers in a relatively short time? Knowledge and general acceptance of Buddhism may be one part, as well as the general faddishness of popular culture. But perhaps there is also something particular about Nichiren that can make it particularly revealing about the dharma needs of Westerners.
Instant Help and Support
Its emphasis on offering direct benefit for people acutely suffering may be one key aspect to Nichiren’s recent success in the West. Kristen Stewart reportedly began studying Nichiren at the urging of friends, to help her deal with a difficult split with former boyfriend Robbert Pattison.
Tina Turner also reportedly looked to Nichiren to help her escape her relationship with her abusive husband. (Nichiren is the source of the chant Turner is doing in the movie What’s Love Got To Do With It.) Chanting Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo is supposed to help you through tough times, and bring you to inner peace, and ultimate happiness.
In the clip above, Turner gives a good introduction of how Nichiren actually came into her life, and how it became as necessary to her as shelter, or a refrigerator. (For a glimpse of Turner at her beautiful home shrine in Switzerland, this is also a good link.)
Nichiren, then, might form a useful model for courses and programs offered by other schools of Buddhism.
A Vivid Story
The dramatic, activist, and politically engaged story of the 13th century Japanese monk Nichiren Daishonin is unusual in Buddhism, and may also have helped in the rise of his school as a cultural force.
Nichiren was a controversial figure – a reformer or sectarian, depending on your views. Nichiren not only claimed his form of Buddhism as the only ‘correct’ way to reach enlightenment, he actively harangued the leaders of other Buddhist lineages as corrupt, and headed for hell (if not there already). In their support of older, corrupt forms of Buddhism, Nichiren also saw Japan’s leaders as unworthy of support. Battling against powerful enemies brought death to some Nichiren followers, and exile for many years to their leader.
Cool story, bro!
Like many Japanese forms of Buddhism, Nichiren Daishonin sees Buddha-nature as innate, and enlightenment is hence available to everybody, even within a very short amount of time.
Not surprisingly, this idea may be appealing to people not brought up with the concept of reincarnation, and the effect of practices being felt across many lifetimes.
Part of Nichiren’s appeal may also lie in its simplicity. With one main chant, and a singular text (the Lotus Sutra), new followers are able to very quickly able to see a path forward for themselves.
Nichiren Buddhists bring their world view down to ten very basic principles, or conditions of haman life. These include:
- Hell – a condition which appears when someone feels in despair or desperate.
- Hunger – when someone constantly wants something, for example, to be like someone else rather than accept their own life.
- Animality – is governed by instinct and may lead someone to prey on those more vulnerable. For example, a power hungry boss may abuse his position and treat his/her staff like slaves.
- Anger – encompasses traits of selfishness, competitiveness, and arrogance.
- Tranquillity – is a calm state of life.
- Rapture – is the pleasures one feels when one’s desires are fulfilled.
- Learning – appears when someone seeks new skills.
- Absorption is a condition based on knowledge and wisdom.
- Bodhisattva – means ‘disciple of the Buddha’ and is a state where people have strong concern for others which ultimately helps them to overcome their challenges.
- Buddhahood – is the ultimate state to be in as it includes compassion, wisdom, and humaneness.
Several prayers are also part of the Nichiren tradition.
With simple practices, and a continuing belief in its primacy as a means to peace and enlightenment, followers of Nichiren are offered a simple way through the often overwhelming number of Buddhist paths and traditions.
A Contemporary Outlook
The Lotus Sutra is the supremely authoritative scripture in Nichiren. Rather than being traditionally taught, Nichiren taught that it should always be read and applied to one’s own contemporary context.
This emphasis on the time and place in which the reader happened to be is still felt in Nichiren. Not only is acceptance of one’s present position important, the world around one is also seen as a direct recipient of the benefit of one’s practice.
The importance of individuals taking responsibility for improving themselves is, of course, a traditional thought in Buddhism, but one which (when emphasised) strikes a common chord in many Westerners disillusioned with formal religious leaders.
Nichiren Buddhists meet weekly or fortnightly in their own homes. Members of the practice are given a Gohonzon (scroll), so that they can practice at home rather than going to a temple.
People are divided into groups based on their location and will appoint an overall leader of the group, a men’s and women’s leader and a youth division leader. This is a very structured arrangement which can be reproduced universally.
Unlike other schools of Buddhism, Nichiren members actively proselytise, sometimes going door to door. Partly for this reason Nichiren has a particularly ethnically diverse range of followers – its aim is to spread benefit to all groups in society.
There are many schools of Nichiren Buddhism, each with their own doctrinal emphases, and slightly different practices. You may have come across centers that make refence to Soka Gakkai, Nichiren Shoshu or Nichiren Shu, which are the main Nichiren schools. Important differences relate to certain definitions (some believe the Sanga refers only to monks, and not lay practitioners), and the status of Nichiren himself (some claim Nichiren as the Buddha).
Pilgrimages are another important feature of Nichiren, particularly to places important to the life of Nichiren Daishonin. If you have the chance to visit, the head temple is at Taisekiji, near Fujinomiya City in Shizuoka Prefecture in Japan, which also holds the founder’s ashes.
More information about Nichiren, and some of their practices, can be found in the excellent The Buddha in Daily Life.
Are you a follower of Nichiren Buddhism? Or perhaps you have a view of its teachings or approach for a Western audience?