Soka Gakkai is part of the spectrum of Japanese Buddhist movements that draw inspiration from the teachings of the thirteenth-century monk Nichiren Daishonin (1222-82). Trained in the Tendai school of Mahayana Buddhism (Montgomery 1991: 98), Nichiren was opposed to the interpretation and practice of other forms of Buddhism in Japan. (For more background, please refer to ‘Beliefs, Teachings, Wisdom, Authority’ in the profile on Buddhism on this website.) Most notably, Nichiren was against Pure Land Buddhism, which focused upon the worship of the Buddha Amitabha (known as Amida in Japan) – one of the Buddhas in Mahayana Buddhism (Keown 1996: 66). Rather, Nichiren believed that we all contain within ourselves the potential for enlightenment and that this potential can be unlocked by devotion to the Lotus Sutra (a major Mahayana scripture) (Hammond and Machacek 2002: 1190). Instead of reciting the mantra Namu Amida Butsu (‘Homage to the Buddha Amida’) to ensure rebirth in Amida’s paradise (the ‘Pure Land’), Nichiren taught his followers to recite the mantra Nam-myoho-renge-kyo (‘Homage to “The Lotus of the Wonderful Law”‘). This refers to the full title of the Lotus Sutra, the ‘Mystic’ or ‘Wonderful’ Law taught in the Lotus Sutra, and the Law of life itself. The phrase encompasses
• nam (to dedicate one’s life)
• myoho (life and death, or the enlightened Buddha and the ordinary person, as a single entity)
• renge (lotus flower, which produces seeds and flowers together and so represents the simultaneity of cause and effect)
• kyo (sutra or teaching).
The phrase is said to represent universal law and its repetition “allows each individual to tap into the wisdom of their life to reveal their Buddha nature” (SGI-USA 2016).
These particular beliefs are the result of different conceptualisations of the historical Buddha, also known as Shakyamuni (literally, ‘sage of the Shakyas’), in Mahayana Buddhism (Keown 1996: 15). The term ‘Shakyamuni’ usually refers to the historical Siddartha Gautama (c. 563/480 – c. 483/400 BCE) after he attained Buddhahood, but could also signify a transcendent figure whose existence continues. Nichiren argued that the upheavals of his time were the result of people abandoning the original Shakyamuni for Amida (Montgomery 1991: 102). In time, however, many sub-schools developed within Nichiren Buddhism, including Nichiren Shu and Nichiren Shoshu, which survive up to the present and are not affiliated with each other. Eventually, the twenty-sixth high priest of Nichiren Shoshu, Nichikan (1665-1726), asserted that Nichiren and not Shakyamuni is the Eternal Buddha (Montgomery 1991: 172). Nichiren Shu followers continue to hold that the Eternal Buddha is Shakyamuni (Lee 2017). Members of Soka Gakkai believe that Nichiren is the Buddha for the ‘Latter Day of the Law’ (see below).
These interpretations of Shakyamuni and Buddhahood are related to the prominent role occupied by the bodhisattva – a figure who endeavours over countless lifetimes to lead others towards nirvana (enlightenment) – in Mahayana Buddhism (Keown 1996: 58). Eventually, the centrality of the bodhisattva in Mahayana Buddhism led to the blurring of the boundaries between defining a Buddha and an advanced bodhisattva(Keown 1996: 64).
Nichiren (the monk) also taught that Buddhism went through three general stages of growth, stagnation and decline. Although there were different opinions on how long these stages would take, it was generally accepted that the Former Age of growth lasted 1,000 years, the Middle Age of stability another 1,000 years, and the final Age of Decay (mappō) would last a total of 10,000 years (Montgomery 1991: 107). In thirteenth century Japan, it was widely held that the final age had already begun, but Nichiren was relatively optimistic about this. According to him, Shakyamuni had left appropriate remedies for each epoch. The Eight-fold Path, for example, was the right remedy to achieve nirvana during the Former Age. For the Latter Age, Shakyamuni left the teachings contained within the sixteenth chapter on Eternal Life in the Lotus Sutra(Montgomery 1991: 108). Soka Gakkai characterises the Age of Decay as the ‘Latter Day of the Law’, during which the wisdom of the Lotus Sutra is essential to correct internal confusion and distortion within Buddhism (SGI-UK 2017: 39).