LIFE OF SHAKYAMUNI
Buddhism originates in the teachings of Shakyamuni (Gautama Siddartha), who was born in what is now Nepal some 2,500 years ago.
Shakyamuni was born a prince, but from a young age he became aware of and was profoundly troubled by the problem of human suffering. He became increasingly possessed by a longing to abandon the secular world and go out in search of a solution to the inherent sufferings of life. Buddhist scriptures describe four encounters which served to awaken in him an awareness of four sufferings common to all people--birth, aging, sickness and death--and a desire to seek their solution. Eventually he renounced his princely status and embarked on a spiritual quest to understand how human suffering could be overcome.
For several years, he subjected himself to ascetic disciplines but found it impossible to reach emancipation through such self-mortification, and eventually rejected these practices. Then, near the city of Gaya, he seated himself under a pipal tree and entered meditation. There he attained an awakening, or enlightenment, to the true nature of life and all things. It was because of this enlightenment that he came to be called Buddha, or "Awakened One." After his awakening, Shakyamuni is said to have remained for a while beneath the tree, rejoicing in his emancipation yet troubled by the knowledge of how difficult it would be to communicate what he had realized to others. At length, however, he resolved to do so, so that the way to liberation from the sufferings of birth and death would be open to all people.
According to tradition, Shakyamuni then traveled widely throughout the Indian subcontinent sharing his enlightened wisdom, promoting peace and teaching people how to unleash the great potential of their lives. His compassionate intention was to enable all people to attain the same awakened state of life that he had attained.
It is thought that Shakyamuni died at age 80. Following his death, his teachings were recorded by his disciples in the form of sutras and spread throughout Asia, giving rise to a number of distinct schools of Buddhism, generally characterized by an emphasis on peace and compassion.
The Lotus Sutra is widely regarded as one of the most important and influential sutras, or sacred scriptures, of Buddhism. It is highly valued in the Mahayana tradition, which spread throughout East Asia.
Its key message is that Buddhahood--a condition of absolute happiness, freedom from fear and from all illusions--is inherent in all life. The development of this inner life state enables all people to overcome their problems and live a fulfilled and active life, fully engaged with others and with society. Rather than stressing impermanence and the consequent need to eliminate earthly desires and attachments, the Lotus Sutra asserts the ultimate reality of the Buddha nature inherent in all life. It is therefore a teaching which profoundly affirms the realities of daily life, and which naturally encourages an active engagement with others and with the whole of human society.
The Lotus Sutra is also unique among the teachings of Shakyamuni in that it makes the attainment of enlightenment a possibility open to all people, without distinction based on gender, race, social standing or education. In this way, it is seen to be a full expression of Shakyamuni's compassionate intention of opening the way to enlightenment to all people.
Six Chinese translations are recorded as having been made of the Lotus Sutra (Skt Saddharma-pun-darika-sutra; Chin Miao-fa-lien-hua-ching; Jpn Myoho-renge-kyo). Among these, the fifth-century translation of Kumarajiva (344-413), the Lotus Sutra of the Wonderful Law, is considered to be particularly outstanding and is the basis of the teachings that spread in China and Japan.
The Chinese Buddhist teacher T'ient'ai (538-597) divided the Lotus Sutra of the Wonderful Law into two parts: the first 14 chapters, which he called the theoretical teaching, and the latter 14 chapters, which he called the essential teaching. The theoretical teaching records the preaching of the historical Shakyamuni who is depicted as having first attained enlightenment during this lifetime in India. In the essential teaching, he discards his transient role as the historical Shakyamuni and reveals his true, eternally enlightened identity. The most important doctrine in the essential teaching, T'ient'ai says, is the revelation of this originally and eternally enlightened nature in the depths of Shakyamuni Buddha's life.
Almost 2,000 years after Shakyamuni's death, Nichiren, a 13th-century Japanese priest, distilled the profound theory of the Lotus Sutra into a practice which could enable every individual to reveal their Buddhahood, or highest state of life, in the midst of day-to-day reality.
The concluding words of the 16th chapter of the Lotus Sutra, recited daily by members of the SGI, encapsulate the Buddha's compassionate concern:
"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?"
LIFE OF NICHIREN
SGI members follow the teachings of Nichiren, a Buddhist monk who lived in 13th-century Japan. Nichiren was the son of a fisherman, born in 1222, a time rife with social unrest and natural disasters. The ordinary people, especially, suffered enormously. Nichiren wondered why the teachings of Buddhism had lost their power to enable people to lead happy, empowered lives. His intensive study of the Buddhist sutras convinced him that the Lotus Sutra contained the essence of the Buddha's enlightenment and that it held the key to transforming people's suffering and enabling society to flourish.
The Lotus Sutra affirms that all people, regardless of gender, capacity or social standing, inherently possess the qualities of a Buddha, and are therefore equally worthy of the utmost respect.
Based on his study of the sutra, Nichiren established the invocation (chant) of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo as a universal practice to enable people to manifest the Buddha nature inherent in their own lives and gain the strength and wisdom to challenge and overcome any adverse circumstances. Nichiren saw the Lotus Sutra as a vehicle for people's empowerment--stressing that everyone can attain enlightenment and enjoy happiness in this world. He first chanted Nam-myoho-renge-kyo on April 28, 1253, and later inscribed the mandala of the Gohonzon (the object of devotion to enable people to perceive the enlightened life state of the Buddha in graphic form).
A 1,000 year-old tree at Seicho-ji temple where the young Nichiren studied Buddhism
Nichiren was critical of the established schools of Buddhism that relied on state patronage and served the interests of the powerful while encouraging passivity in the suffering masses. He called the feudal authorities to task, insisting that the leaders bear responsibility for the suffering of the population and act to remedy it. His stance, that the state exists for the sake of the people, was revolutionary for its time.
In 1260, in the wake of a series of devastating natural disasters, Nichiren wrote his most famous tract, the "Rissho Ankoku Ron" (On Establishing the Correct Teaching for the Peace of the Land). He presented this treatise to the highest political authorities of Japan and urged them to sponsor a public debate with representatives of other schools of Buddhism. The call for public debate--which Nichiren would repeat throughout his life--was ignored, and he was banished to the Izu Peninsula.
The years that followed brought further banishment, and ultimately an attempt to execute him on the beach of Tatsunokuchi near Kamakura, seat of the military government. By his account, moments before the executioner's sword was to fall, a luminous object--perhaps a meteor--traversed the sky with such brilliance that the terrified officials called off the execution. Nichiren was banished to Sado Island where, amidst extreme deprivation, he continued to share his teachings and write treatises and letters.