The substance of Shakyamuni's awakening is explained in the concept of the Four Noble Truths, which explains that (1) all existence is suffering; (2) suffering is caused by selfish craving; (3) the eradication of selfish craving brings about the cessation of suffering and enables one to attain nirvana; and (4) there is a path by which this eradication can be achieved, namely, the discipline of the eightfold path. Here we can see the earliest indications that the process of achieving absolute happiness emancipated from the sufferings of life is a path or journey. Dispelling ignorance and establishing a correct view are the centerpiece of Buddhist practice. They are also the motivation that initiated a three-thousand-year search - beginning with Shakyamuni himself - to elucidate the vehicle (or method) that would carry a Buddhist practitioner along the path to the cessation of suffering and the attainment of absolute happiness. All of the various Buddhist schools and practices have developed in an effort to create such a vehicle.
For some time following his awakening, Shakyamuni remained seated under the Bodhi tree in a joyful state. When he re-entered the world, however, he soon began to be troubled by the thought that his enlightenment to the law of life might prove difficult to communicate. Since the depth of his understanding greatly surpassed that of the most advanced spiritual seekers of his day, he prepared his listeners by first instructing them with easy-to-understand parables and analogies. In this way, Shakyamuni gradually awakened those he taught, while adhering to his ultimate aim of showing all people that they possess Buddhahood.
As he states in a telling passage from the Lotus Sutra containing his teachings:
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 was no easy task. Shakyamuni spent the remaining forty-some years of his life preaching to troubled people in ways best suited to their understanding. In this light, we see that the idea of Buddhism as the special preserve of holy men meditating on mountaintops is erroneous. Shakyamuni never meant for his teachings to apply only to a cloistered group of devotees. All the evidence suggests that he wished for his teachings to become widespread and to be adopted by the common man - and woman. His lessons were compiled as the so-called eighty-four thousand teachings, which, like the teachings of Jesus, have been interpreted and re-interpreted for centuries. Indeed, the principal problem for Buddhists throughout the millennia has been not so much what the Buddha said but how to put his teachings into practice. How, in essence, to experience the Buddha's enlightenment, his transcendent wisdom. How to become a Buddha oneself.
Today there are many schools of Buddhism, perhaps even thousands. The school Nichiren Daishonin's Buddhism is one of those school or sects with varied and conflicting teachings.
To say that Nichiren tradition's Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is the ‘only way’ is misleading, to say the least. ‘Only way’ makes us think of narrowing down. Rather, in order to benefit fully from our practice, we should be opening our minds to the vastness of what Nichiren Daishonin is teaching.
In The Opening of the Eyes, which is as relevant now as it was at the time he wrote it, Nichiren Daishonin first explains non-Buddhist teachings, including Confucianism and Brahmanism, pointing out their limitations. He then moves on to Buddhism and convincingly argues the case for the Lotus Sutra being the highest teaching:
"Here, with my humble outlook, I have considered the differences between the teachings expounded by Shakyamuni during the first forty and more years and those expounded in the Lotus Sutra during the last eight years of his life. Although both differ in many ways, contemporary scholars have already expressed their opinion, and it is my conviction as well, that the chief difference lies in the fact that the Lotus Sutra teaches that the persons of the two vehicles, voice-hearers and cause-awakened ones, can attain Buddhahood, and that the Buddha Shakyamuni in reality attained enlightenment in an inconceivably distant time in the past" (Major Writings, Vol. 2)
The Lotus Sutra contains the all-encompassing Buddhist teaching which embraces everyone by teaching that all people equally can attain Buddhahood here and now. This was expanded on by President Ikeda recently in his Conversations & Lectures on the Lotus Sutra, part of which reads:
All philosophies other than the Lotus Sutra are nothing more than fragments, parts of the great Law of life. Basing ourselves on such fragments, even though they may contain partial truths, will not enable us to realize a thorough-going revitalization of all aspects of our lives. The Lotus Sutra, on the other hand, teaches the one, fundamental Law that unifies all these fragmentary teachings, gives them proper perspective, and allows each to shine and fulfil its function within the whole. That is the ‘wisdom of the Lotus Sutra' (Vol. 1, p. 18).
Furthermore, Nichiren Daishonin taught that ‘Shakyamuni's practices and the virtues he consequently attained are all contained within the single phrase, Myoho-renge-kyo. If we believe in that phrase, we shall naturally be granted the same benefits as he was' (Major Writings, Vol. 1, p. 63). Nichiren Daishonin made concrete his enlightenment to the Law in the form of the Gohonzon, so the Lotus Sutra for the Latter Day of the Law is the Gohonzon of the Three Great Secret Laws.2 We do not, therefore, have to ‘attain enlightenment'. Rather, by chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo to the Gohonzon we have immediate access to our Buddhahood.
Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is not just one path among many others. Indeed, it would be a great shame if we were to limit our understanding of the Gohonzon by putting Nichiren Daishonin's teachings on a par with other teachings. We need to study writings like The Opening of the Eyes to understand fully how these differ from the Lotus Sutra for the Latter Day of the Law.
Shakyamuni urged people to ‘honestly discard expedient means' when he preached the Lotus Sutra, as does Nichiren Daishonin.
"Even if someone should insist that, in the first five hundred years of the Latter Day of the Law, there exists a way to enlightenment apart from the daimoku of the Lotus Sutra, you should take no heed of what he says, even if it is based on the Buddha's teaching and even less so if it is merely some scholar's opinion "(Major Writings, Vol. 2)
It is a mistake to mix this practice with other teachings which are, in effect, ‘expedient means’. We need to be clear on this point so that we can gain the most from our practice. ‘Discarding expedient means’ also means that we let go of attitudes and beliefs by which we have been conditioned during our formative years. This allows us to stop limiting ourselves and open our lives to the full potential of our Buddha state.
At the same time, respect for others is fundamental to our philosophy and we are more than willing to work with others to achieve world peace. Indeed, President Ikeda points out in this year's peace proposal that Nichiren Daishonin's utmost desire was to enable all people to become happy. It is also in the SGI charter to defend the right of everyone to the religion of their choice:
SGI shall, based on the Buddhist spirit of tolerance, respect other religions, engage in dialogue and work together with them towards the resolution of fundamental issues concerning humanity.
Defending others' freedom of religion, safeguarding human rights and working together with people of other religions for world peace, does not mean that we compromise our doctrinal viewpoint. Likewise, we would never expect people of other religions to discard their beliefs.
President Ikeda clarifies this point in his 1995 Peace Proposal:
The Daishonin permitted absolutely no compromise with the truth, and this reveals his towering integrity. Moreover, he fervently believed that religious conflict, which belongs to the world of ideas, must be resolved through discussion and dialogue. His magnanimity and integrity were combined with a deep commitment to open dialogue, and these qualities are of vital importance to us today as we seek universal realization of tolerance.
The effects of a religion vary according to its interpretation. Religions which value the well-being of people in this life as well as after death are definitely more value-creative than those which leave open the possibility of misusing people in the belief that suffering in this life is acceptable because it will lead to a better place after death.
Inter-faith discussions are very valuable because they can lead us to a better understanding of each other. However, where teachings are being used to mislead people or deny them of their equal rights as human beings, should we not remonstrate with those who uphold them, as Nichiren Daishonin did? A good example of this is our split with the Nikken sect. Even though Nikken and his followers chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo to the Gohonzon, they do not uphold the spirit of Nichiren Daishonin’s teachings - namely, that everyone is equal and has Buddhahood. Even so, the SGI sought dialogue with them over and over again but were refused.
It makes utmost sense to work together with people of other religions and philosophies, united in our aim to better people's lot and create a peaceful world. In order to achieve this we need to treasure each other and respect each others' beliefs. President Ikeda's 1996 Peace Proposal is helpful on this subject:
.."It is no exaggeration to say that human solidarity, the bonds of humanity, are at the very core of Nichiren Daishonin's Buddhism. Because of its doctrinal rigour, Nichiren Daishonin's Buddhism has often been viewed historically as rejectionist or dogmatic. This, however, must be termed a biased or one-dimensional view. While he consistently maintained the rigour and purity of his teaching, Nichiren Daishonin also emphasized; ‘The Nirvana sutra states, "The sufferings of all living beings are the sufferings of the Buddha." And I say, "The sufferings experienced by all people are the sufferings of Nichiren."’ As this statement shows, we must not forget that Nichiren Daishonin's teachings were inspired by a profound empathy and compassion for people's pain and sorrow; they are rooted in the concept, to put it into contemporary terms, of the universality of human rights. It is only natural for us to conclude, therefore, that we must transcend sectarian differences when the very foundation of what makes us human is being undermined by a crisis of human dignity.."(SGI-UK Bulletin).
Nichiren Daishonin, in his day, was most vehement about priests and laymen in authority who sought to subjugate the people and deprive them of their human rights - people in power who demonstrated no compassion at all but were driven by greed for power and profit. He never introduced ordinary people to his teachings by coercion but through the strength of his compassion. He always stood up against those in authority who were profiting by misleading people. It is up to us, therefore, through the wisdom derived from our practice, to know when to protect others and when to stand up against oppression.
A rigid or dogmatic attitude merely alienates people. We need to practise and study to understand and fully appreciate the universality of Nichiren Daishonin’s teachings. Then we experience great joy and an all-embracing compassion. In this way we will not alienate people, but can work together to create world-wide kosen-rufu(World peace and Understanding).