Esoteric and tantric elements of Nichiren Buddhism

The three vehicles of Buddhism are accepted generally as;

  • Hinayana (of which the Theravada is the extant school). This term translates as Lesser Vehicle and as such can be regarded derogatory.
  • Mahayana, which translates as Great Vehicle.
  • Vajrayana, which translates to Diamond Vehicle or Adamantine Vehicle.

However, to classify Buddhism rigidly in this way is not always helpful. Mayahana Buddhism, which is largely attributed to Nagarjuna and the Nalanda centre of learning, is based firmly on the foundations of the Theravada (Pali canon). Likewise, Vajrayana is based on the Mahayana school.

Although Vajrayana can be viewed as an extension to the Mahayana philosophy, it is perhaps more accurately described as a delivery system for express enlightenment. Unlike the Mahayana that teaches the “path to enlightenment” through bodhicitta over many lifetimes, Vajrayana teaches the “path of the fruit” – that we inherently possess Buddha nature and that through advanced techniques we can experience the ultimate reality instantly, perhaps in a single lifetime (sound familiar?)

It is these teachings that came back to Japan with Saicho (Dengyo) early in the ninth century, which eventually lead to the formation of the Tendai. Just a few years later in 806 another monk, Kobo, returned from China and founded the True Word (Shingon) school, armed with a pile of esoteric scriptures, mandalas etc.

These instant enlightenment schools of Buddhism were around before Nichiren, so it’s hard to imagine that Nichiren could have gained a following by offering anything less that what was already being taught. But how was he going to do it?

Esoteric teachings are, as the definition goes, not public. They are transmitted directly from teacher to student, or dare I say, mentor to disciple.

This secrecy is justified for a number of reasons. The profundity of the teachings are such that without being transmitted in context, a student may misunderstand them and do mental or physical harm to himself or others. Either that, or the student will simply be unable to grasp the teaching’s intent at all. This element of esotericism is perhaps at the heart of the Shoshu priesthood’s jealous guardianship of the “Heritage of the Law” and it’s secret transmission between successive high priests.

This secret transmission within the priesthood is however a minor example of esotericism compared to the next possibility.

The Gosho, Aspiration for the Buddha Land, mentions;

In the twenty-two hundred and more years since the Buddha’s passing, and in India, China, Japan, and throughout Jambudvipa, [the Great Teacher T’ient’ai said], “Vasubandhu and Nagarjuna clearly perceived the truth in their hearts, but they did not teach it.

In Opening of the Eyes;

Nagarjuna and Vasubandhu were aware of it but did not bring it forth into the light.

In fact, these sentiments are repeated in The Votary of the Lotus Sutra Will Meet Persecution, and The Selection of the Time, On Repaying Debts of Gratitude, The Actions of the Votary of the Lotus Sutra, The Third Doctrine, Letter to Misawa and I’m sure others.

The The Real Aspect of the Gohonzon says;

How wondrous it is that, around two hundred years and more into the Latter Day of the Law, I was the first to reveal as the banner of propagation of the Lotus Sutra this great mandala that even those such as Nagarjuna and Vasubandhu, T’ien-t’ai and Miao-lo were unable to express. This mandala is in no way my invention.

But then goes on to add;

Therefore, this Gohonzon shall be called the great mandala never before known; it did not appear until more than 2,220 years after the Buddha’s passing

So, on one hand, Nichiren averts credit for the Gohonzon, admitting it is not his invention, but then seems to indicate the contrary. It might also be worth considering the phrase “Nagarjuna and Vasubandhu, T’ien-t’ai and Miao-lo were unable to express”. Were these teachers unable to express the Mandala or were they unwilling for the simple reason that the Gohonzon is so fantastical in it’s profundity that it simply didn’t suit their respective audiences?

This confusing and contradictory text certainly makes more sense if we consider the possibility that the Mandala and the Daimoku became esoteric teachings following the 1st century when it is generally accepted that the Mahayana sutras were composed.

Then there is the whole debate regarding conferal of Gohonzons. The very fact that the various priesthoods (and the SGI) all frown upon home-made Gohonzons indicates tantric and/or esoteric leanings regarding the transmission of the Mandala.

It’s hard to imagine that Nichiren wrote down his most profound teachings for public consumption – these would have been oral transmissions with trusted disciples. The Gosho are, after all, largely letters to supporters. His remonstrations with government certainly expose the core of his arguments for supporting the Lotus Sutra, but for the deepest insight into Nichiren’s understanding I feel the answers lie not in the Gosho, but with the high priests of the various Nichiren sects.

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