Meditation in Nichiren Buddhism

Having come to Buddhism through the SGI, I had for a long time remained ignorant of other schools’ practices, and had not even read the Lotus Sutra until I began to look at Nichiren Buddhism – or more precisely the SGI’s practice of Nichiren Buddhism – in a more critical light after taking a more serious look at Nagarjuna, and how his Middle Way influenced T’ien-t’ai, Tendai and subsequently, Nichiren Daishonin.

On one hand, the lay practice of Gongyo and Daimoku can appear incredibly shallow; the lay practitioner being expected to simply believe without any real understanding of what he is doing, or why. Faith is then built upon personal proof to which only the individual can attest. It can sound like any number of new age practices that are doing the rounds.

On the other hand, the doctrine is unfathomably deep. The theory of ichinen sanzen, which forms the core of Nichiren Buddhism is the result of T’ien-t’ai’s beautifully interweaving of Nagarjuna and Vasubandhu’s contemplations on the Three Truths, the mutual possession of the Ten Worlds (dharma realms), and the Ten Factors of life described in Ch2 (skilful, or expedient means) of the Lotus Sutra.

Why should this be a problem? After all, a lot of people overcome their challenges through faith alone. The whole idea of instant enlightenment thanks to the concept of simultaneity of cause and effect as revealed in the Lotus Sutra surely means that anything is fixable in a jiffy, right? Well, I certainly have enjoyed profound growth through Daimoku, especially in terms of compassion, perseverance and courage (got a pilot’s license two years ago), but there are certain aspects of my habitual behaviour that still requires contemplation and understanding to overcome, and Daimoku alone simply hasn’t cut it.

Since I started this blog perhaps a quarter of emails and private comments have been from those who are really struggling with the practice, despite seeking guidance, going to meetings, and practicing assiduously. Most of these people have identified with having experienced anxiety and/or depression.

This phenomenon prompted me to a number of possible causes, and conclusions;

  1. These people need to chant more. I dismiss this idea because chanting more and more can become obsessive, and in the wrong context can form part of a coping behaviour to deal with things we would sooner avoid.
  2. These people need to study more. I’m not really sure anxiety disorder or mental illness is covered in the Gosho – and certainly this is not a topic that the SGI really gets involved in, unless someone can point me out guidance that doesn’t just rely on 1.
  3. The guidance they were receiving was unhelpful (and probably based on 1. and 2.) for individuals suffering from fundamental cognitive delusions, being told that your practice is just not strong enough is likely to cause the gates of your heart to crash shut permanently. I’m truly dismayed that more than one person has recounted this story.
  4. These people are beyond help, and require psychiatric care. I’m glad to say none of these people have been told this – but I don’t think bouncing someone away as beyond help would ever be a useful answer.
  5. There is something more to the practice that we are not aware of – in the end I kept coming back to this thought.

During the past year I would occasionally finish the day’s work in a state of utter mental dissonance. I would be tense, stressed out, and one or more such days preceded my attendance of a district meeting. Being stressed out in addition to trying to conquer social anxiety is not the best state of mind in which to go into a room full of folks and start belting out Nam Myoho Renge Kyo at 110%. I just wanted to lie down – somewhere quiet – and connect with the wisdom and compassion of my Buddhahood.

Rewind to the fifth month of the eighth year in the Bun’ei Era (1271). Nichiren writes A Treatise on the Ten Chapters of the Great Concentration and Insight. In it, he says:

What we should chant all the time as the practice of the perfect teaching is “Namu Myoho Renge-kyo,” and what we should keep in mind is the way of meditation based on the truth of “3000 existences contained in one thought.” Only wise men practice both chanting Namu Myoho Renge-kyo” and meditating on the truth of “3000 existences contained in one thought.” Lay followers of Japan today should recite only “Namu Myoho Renge-kyo.

Meditating on the truth of 3000 existences contained in one thought is a meditation on ichinen sanzen. This meditation refers to that given in the Maka Shikan, a meditation taught by T’ien-t’ai Chih-i (538-597CE), known variably in English as Great Concentration and Insight. However, the feeling at the time, and probably correct, was that this form of meditation was beyond the laity to adhere to. Not only intellectually, the amount of time (the seated meditation is 90 days) required would preclude most non-monks from participating.

So, what does Shikan mean? The two Kanji glyphs that make up the word translate into English as follows:

Shi – stop, halt, cease, detain. In this context Shi describes the Buddhist term Samatha, which although often used synonymously with Samadhi has a subtle difference in nuance. In this context Shi represents the action of developing the mind so as to overcome clinging – to stop the constant chatter, and reveal calmness.

Kan – see, observe, hold. In this context, Kan describes the Buddhist term Vipasyana, to develop wisdom in order to overcome our ignorance. It relates to the right contemplation of phenomena and the insight borne thereof. I suspect this means to focus on the wonder of ichinen sanzen.

While I don’t have 90 days to go sit in a room and contemplate the nature of the universe, the idea of clearing my mind before engaging in Gongyo sounded very productive to me, so I started to look into meditating on the breath, which extended into my every day life through employing mindfulness in many activities to keep my mind in the moment.

But wait – doesn’t that sound a little bit like… Zen?! It’s ironic that Dogen (the founder of Japanese Zen) placed much faith in the Lotus Sutra which he also held in the highest esteem, and yet, due to his differing interpretation of original enlightenment (or more precisely, the manner of its revelation), he and Nichiren would not see eye to eye. I suspect that the idea of silent meditation is not openly encouraged within the SGI because of fears it may lead members to look at practices such as Shodaigyo (a meditation practice of Nichiren Shu) or to look at Zen meditation.

So, while I haven’t really ventured much further into meditative practice than mindfulness, I have found that giving some time to undertake “Shi” can serve as a useful introduction to Gongyo and as a post Gongyo period of reflection.

I have also undertaken contemplative meditations in front of the Gohonzon, but first had to work out what to focus the mind on. I work with the breath around Taho and Shakyamuni Buddha, the characters on the top row of the Gohonzon on either side of the central Daimoku. This is based upon the fusion of reality and wisdom (Jpn kyochi-myogo) that T’ien-t’ai interpreted as Taho Buddha representing ultimate reality (emptiness) and Shakyamuni Buddha representing subjective wisdom (compassion).

Breathing in, I focus on Taho (Many Treasures) Buddha, realising emptiness and interdependence (dealing with any desires or attachments that pop into my mind), and breathing out I focus on Shakyamuni Buddha’s wisdom and compassion radiating out to embrace all living beings, helping me embrace and dissolve harmful emotions of anger etc. I carry out this meditation now most days for about 10 or 15 minutes.

This is helpful for me and helps mentally turn down the house lights and set the stage for the jewel of Daimoku. Or, without Daimoku, I have found it to be a worthwhile practice in it’s own right – especially when my mind has become over stimulated. Most importantly, it has deepened my understanding and dedication to my Buddhist practice, and also promoted a genuine openness to looking outside the SGI “box”.

If any other Nichiren Buddhists have experimented with silent meditative practices I’d be grateful to hear from you!

Acknowledgements to Robin at Fraught with Peril for the translation info of Shikan.

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