Three Great Hidden Dharmas

by Ryuei Michael McCormick

This was given as a follow-up speech to the talk on the basic Buddhist teachings of the Three Refuges and the Threefold Training which was given at our temple's first open house in 1999. It presupposes that earlier talk, as it assumes that one has at least a passing familiarity with them. Also, I appended a summary of the Ceremony in the Air from the Lotus Sutra (below) which was left out of the original talk because it would have been too long and maybe too much to digest at an open house.
Namu Myoho Renge Kyo, Ryuei

The Practice of Nichiren Buddhism

Now I would like to talk to you about the actual practice of Nichiren Buddhism. The practice of Nichiren Buddhism is centered upon the Three Great Hidden Dharmas taught by our founder, Nichiren Shonin. This morning I spoke about the three refuges and the threefold training, and I also told you that Nichiren Buddhism recognizes the Lotus Sutra as the supreme teaching of Shakyamuni Buddha. But how are these things connected and how can we bring them into our own lives? Nichiren Shonin taught the Three Great Hidden Dharmas as a way of redefining the three refuges and the threefold training so that we could directly take faith in and practice the supreme truth of the Lotus Sutra.

Let me begin with the Gohonzon (Supreme Venerable), which is depicted behind me in the form of a calligraphic mandala. This mandala was inscribed by the Venerable Shingaku Oikawa, the founder of this temple, but it was modeled upon the mandalas that Nichiren Shonin created in order to depict the Gohonzon. Most Nichiren Buddhists will have a similar mandala enshrined in their homes which is the focus of daily practice. So what is the Gohonzon, and why do we use mandalas to represent it?

Essentially, the Gohonzon is not a thing or an object but an event. It is the transmission of the Wonderful Dharma to us by the Eternal Shakymuni Buddha during the Ceremony in the Air. The Ceremony in the Air is the central event described by the Lotus Sutra. I do not have the time to describe the Ceremony in the Air in detail, but you should know that in it Shakyamuni Buddha reveals that his enlightened life transcends the categories of birth and death, self and other, and that all beings throughout the universe have been entrusted with this teaching and can attain enlightenment by entrusting themselves to it. In other words, our spritual practice depends upon the manifestation in our own lives of the enlightened life of the Buddha which transcends time and space and the distinctions of self and other and which is always available to us in every moment if we will just open ourselves up to it.

Nichiren further identified the unity of our lives and the enlightened life of the Buddha with the five characters Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo - which is the actual title of the Lotus Sutra. Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo means the Wonderful Dharm of the Lotus Flower Teaching. These five characters are none other than the eternal life of the Buddha as no different from our own life, and our own life as no different than the eternal life of the Buddha. However, until we acknowledge this and take faith in it, this does not help us. Our minds and hearts must awaken to this deep truth which the Lotus Sutra is trying to make us realize. That is why we chant Namu Myoho Renge Kyo (a.k.a the Odaimoku or Sacred Name), because Namu means “I have faith in” or “I rejoice in.” So when we chant Namu Myoho Renge Kyo, we are affirming and expressing our faith in the Wonderful Dharma of the Lotus Flower Teaching. We are opening ourselves up to the true nature of reality in terms of the enlightened life of the Buddha as no different than our own lives. Through such trust and confidence we are able to discover the perfect wisdom and great compassion of the selflessly giving reality which is the actual pure, blissful, and eternal, true self.

So the calligraphy on this mandala is a depiction of the transmission of the Wonderful Dharma which is Namu Myoho Renge Kyo (written in the bold characters right down the center) by the Eternal Shakyamuni Buddha to all beings throughout the universe. Shakyamuni Buddha’s name is at the top just to the left of the Odaimoku, and to the right of the Odaimoku is Many Treasures Buddha (a primordial Buddha who appears in the Lotus Sutra to testify to the truth of Shakyamuni Buddha’s teaching). The rest of the calligraphy on the mandala consists of the names of those who were a part of the congregation during the Ceremony in the Air and who represent all beings throughout the universe who are illuminated by the enlightened life of the Buddha through the practice of Odaimoku.

Since the Gohonzon is the ongoing transmission of the Wonderful Dharma to all of us by the Eternal Shakyamuni Buddha, its reality is all around us and can be depicted in more than one way. In the temple, for instance, you will notice that it is depicted in the form of a treasure tower engraved with the Odaimoku flanked by statues of Shakyamuni Buddha and the Buddha Many Treasures. A statue of Nichiren sits in front of them since he is the one who actualized this teaching in his own life and passed it on to us.

The second of the Three Great Secret Dharmas is the Odaimoku, and I have already described that. The Odaimoku is Namu Myoho Renge Kyo which means “I take refuge in the Wonderful Dharma of the Lotus Flower Teaching.” It is our expression of a deep trust in the Buddha’s teaching and our joyful reception of the enlightened qualities of the Buddha’s life into our own lives which allows our own Buddha-nature to clearly shine forth.

The third of the Three Great Secret Dharmas is the Kaidan, which means the precept platform. In Nichiren’s day, one had to go to an officially sanctioned precept platform and there take the three refuges and accept the precepts or way of life of a Buddhist practitioner. This was the only way to offically become a disciple of the Buddha as a monk or a nun. Nichiren, however, taught that the precept platform should be based upon upholding the Odaimoku wherever one is and that it did not matter if one did so as a layperson or as a monastic disciple.

This morning I told you about the three refuges and the threefold training. Now let me explain them in terms of the Three Great Secret Dharmas. When we face the Gohonzon we are taking refuge in the Buddha, not just as a person who attained enlightenment in India 2,500 years ago, but the Buddha whose enlightened life transcends time and space, and the duality of self and other. The Gohonzon is also the focus of our meditation. It is the inner truth that we can discern when we deeply reflect upon our lives.

When we chant Odaimoku, we are taking refuge in the Dharma, not the Dharma as a set of abstract principles, but the Dharma as the true nature of reality which we awaken to. The Odaimoku is also the practice of cultivating wisdom because the Odaimoku is the concise expression of Shakyamuni Buddha’s supreme insight which goes beyond any of the Buddha’s discursive teachings.

When we manifest the Kaidan (the place of taking up the precepts) by upholding the Wonderful Dharma, in that place we are taking refuge in the Sangha, not just in terms of the monastic community, but as the community of all beings who are enlightened through Namu Myoho Renge Kyo. The Kaidan is manifested anywhere that we live in accord with the true spirit of the Wonderful Dharma, and so it is also the fulfillment of the ethical discipline of Buddhism.

The practice of Nichiren Buddhism actually means to live our lives centered upon the Gohonzon, to uphold the Odaimoku at all times, and to regard every place as the Kaidan. In short, Nichiren Buddhist practice means to transform our whole lives through faith in the Wonderful Dharma of the Lotus Flower Teaching. It is a transformation based upon the awakening of the Buddha as our own awakening.

But Buddhist practice also means setting aside certain times and certain places so that we can take a step back from the hectic pace and relentless concerns of our daily lives and reacquaint ourselves with the Wonderful Dharma. For that reason, Nichiren Buddhists will enshrine the Omandala-Gohonzon in their homes and in the morning and evening recite the Odaimoku accompanied by key passages of the Lotus Sutra as well as several prayers and vows that help to illuminate the purpose and meaning of our practice. As you page through the service book, you will notice that the various prayers, invocations and vows are expressing the themes that we have been discussing today and these help to remind us what a life based on Buddha Dharma is really about. The two sections from the Lotus Sutra consist of the first prose section of the second chapter, wherein Shakyamuni Buddha first reveals the fundamental unity of all life and the potential of all beings to attain Buddhahood; and the sixteenth chapter, wherein Shakyamuni Buddha reveals that his life transcends birth and death. These two sections prepare us for the essential practice of chanting Namu Myoho Renge Kyo. In a way, the recitation of Namu Myoho Renge Kyo is the actual gem which is our practice, and the passages from the Lotus Sutra as well as the other prayers, vows, and invocations are the setting for that gem.

The Ceremony in the Air

In order to fully explain the Omandala-Gohonzon, I must briefly explain the central event described in the Lotus Sutra - the Ceremony in the Air. Basically, the first half of the Lotus Sutra records Shakyamuni Buddha’s teaching that all people have the potential to awaken to the true nature of reality just as he did, and that all of his teachings had this awakening as their ultimate goal. Upon teachng this, a great treasure tower rises up out of the earth and into the air and inside of it is another Buddha from the primordial past named Many Treasures, who testifies that all that Shakyamuni Buddha has taught is true. At this point, I should mention that the Lotus Sutra is not trying to teach us simply through philosophy or ethical injunctions but through the symbolism of a vast cosmic drama in order to reach our hearts and imaginations as well as our conscious minds. So, at this point all of the many beings who are present (and this includes not just humans but all the many beings that could possibly exist throughout the universe) ask to see this primordial Buddha, but in order to open the treasure tower Shakymuni Buddha must recall all of the many Buddhas who are teaching throughout the universe because they are actually manifestations of Shakyamuni Buddha. In order to do this, he must first purify the world and turn it into a Pure Land to prepare for their arrival. Once they are gathered together, Shakyamuni Buddha opens the treasure tower and reveals the Buddha of Many Treasures. This Buddha then invited Shakyamuni Buddha to join him in the treasure tower, so now the two Buddhas are seated there together. The entire congregation is then elevated into the air around the treasure tower and in this way the Ceremony in the Air which forms the central event of the grand cosmic drama of the Lotus Sutra begins. The many bodhisattvas (those beings who have aspired to become Buddhas in order to save all beings) from the Pure Lands throughout the universe then promise to spread the Wonderful Dharma of the Lotus Flower Teaching that all beings can attain Buddhahood, but Shakyamuni Buddha tells them that there are actually another group of bodhisattvas who are to spread the teachings in the world after his death during the age when the true spirit of the Buddha’s teachings have been forgotten. These other disciples then emerge from beneath the earth and they are each equal to a Buddha in their dignity and magnificence. They reveal that they are in fact the Buddha’s original diciples and have been since the infinite past. The many beings of the congregation are extremely confused by this, since Shakyamuni Buddha had only become enlightened under the Bodhi Tree 40 years prior to the events of the Lotus Sutra. Shakyamuni Buddha then reveals that he actually attained enlightenment in the inconceivably remote past and that his enlightened life transcends the concepts of birth or death. The Buddha then teaches that if one can have faith in this teaching and rejoice in it for even a moment, then all the merits and and virtues of the Buddha will become a part of their own lives. He then entrust this teaching to the bodhisattvas who emerged from beneath the earth as well as to all of the other beings present in the Ceremony in the Air.

Copyright by Ryuei Michael McCormick. 1999, 2002.

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