- Jacqueline StoneJacqueline StoneDepartment of Religion, Princeton University
The Japanese Buddhist leader Nichiren 日蓮 (1222–1282) taught exclusive devotion to the Lotus Sūtra, a scripture widely revered as the Buddha’s highest teaching. Nichiren asserted that in the present, degenerate age, other teachings, being provisional, have lost their efficacy; only the Lotus Sūtra is profound and powerful enough to lead all men and women to liberation. The form of Lotus practice that he taught—chanting the sūtra’s title or daimoku題目 in the phrase Namu Myōhō-renge-kyō南無妙法蓮華経—was available to all, whether monastics or laity, and regardless of education, ability, or social level. Often celebrated as a man of action, Nichiren was also an innovative thinker who welded some of the subtlest Mahāyāna doctrines to a universally accessible form of practice. Nichiren held that faith in the Lotus Sūtra would enable practitioners to realize buddhahood with this very body (J. sokushin jōbutsu即身成仏) and that spreading that faith would transform the current world into an ideal buddha land. Nichiren’s harsh criticisms of other Buddhist forms drew hostile responses from both government officials and leading prelates; he was twice exiled and attacked repeatedly, while some of his followers were imprisoned, had their lands confiscated, or were even killed. In his lifetime, he could claim at most a few hundred followers. But after his death, Nichiren’s following—known first as the Lotus sect (Hokkeshū 法華宗) and later as Nichirenshū 日蓮宗—would grow to become one of Japan’s major Buddhist traditions. Today, more than forty officially registered religious bodies, both traditional temple organizations and lay Buddhist movements, claim derivation from Nichiren. Some have a significant international presence. Modern critics have often labeled Nichiren intolerant on account of his Lotus exclusivism; at the same time, he set an example of principled resistance to worldly authority that continues to encourage dissenters. Nichiren’s ideal of actualizing the buddha land in this world has also inspired multiple forms of Buddhist social activism.