Nichiren Buddhism’s Lineage

by Ryuei Michael McCormick > Historic Buddha > Mahayana > Lotus Sutra > Blog

Some people have asked for a brief synopses of what Nichiren Buddhism is all about:

It begins with Shakyamuni Buddha who taught around the 5th century BCE and then his teachings were passed down orally until they were written down beginning in the first century BCE. 
The T'ien-t'ai school in China, basing itself on apocryphal sutras, believes that there was a lineage of 24 patriarchs in India beginning with Shakyamuni Buddha passing to Mahakashyapa and then Ananda and including Nagarjuna and Vasubandhu and ending with Aryasimha (Zen later added four more in order to bridge the gap between Aryasimha and the coming of Bodhidharma to China).
Nagarjuna provided a major impetus to the Mahayana school in the 2nd-3rd century CE with his Verses on the Middle Way and his commentaries on the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras. He is considered the founder of the Madhyamika school and his influence on all forms of Mahayana can not be overestimated.
Buddhism entered China in the first century CE. In the early part of the 5th century CE Kumarajiva, the renowned Madhyamika scholar and translator from Central Asia, came to China and began to translate the Lotus Sutra, the Vimalakirti Sutra, the Diamond Sutra, and other important Mahayana sutras. He also probably compiled the huge Treatise on the Large Perfection of Wisdom Sutra which he attributed to Nagarjuna.
In the 6th century CE, the Chinese monk named Chih-i began teaching and established a teaching center on Mt. T'ien-t'ai. He was later known as the Great Master T'ien-t'ai, the founder of the school of the same name. Chih-i was a great scholar and meditator who wanted to systematize all the seemingly contradictory teachings which had been translated into Chinese. He also wanted to express the Madhyamika teachings in a way that would preserve both their dynamism and their liberating potential. Finally he wanted to lay the groundwork for a comprehensive system of meditation which would lead to enlightenment. Chih-i's teachings, along with those of the 8th century reformer of the T'ien-t'a school known as Miao-lo, would later become the cornerstone of Nichiren Buddhism.


Major teachings of Chih-i:

The Three Truths

Whereas Madhyamika stressed the two truths of the provisional (samvirti) and the ultimate (paramartha), Chih-i believed that three truths actually needed to be held in balance so that the ultimate would not be reified and the conventional denigrated. The Three Truths are:

The Empty – the non-substantial nature of things

The Provisional – the contingent nature of things as the arise and cease

The Middle Way – the total inseparability of emptiness and contingent phenomena

Chih-i taught that each of these truths could be approached separately but that ultimately they were united and should be viewed in their unity.


The Eight Teachings

Chih-i taught that the Buddha's teachings can be categorized into four teachings by content and four by method depending on how the Three Truths and their ultimate unity are presented.


The Four Teachings by Content:

The Tripitika Teaching - this corresponds to pre-Mahayana teachings and is directed at the shravakas (hearers) who strive to become arhats (those who escape from the world of birth and death and do not return). It emphasizes emptiness and approaches it through analysis of the aggregates and the links of dependent origination.

The Common Teaching - this corresponds to the Prajnaparamita Sutras and is directed to the more advanced shravakas and the beginner bodhisattvas. Because these teachings are directed at both shravakas and bodhisattvas it is called the teaching they hold in common. This level of discourse approaches emptiness more immediately because it does not involve analysis. Rather, one learns not to impute substance or a fixed nature onto things in the first place. It is also more thoroughgoing in its application of emptiness in that it applies it not just to the self but to all dharmas (phenomena).

The Specific Teaching - this corresponds to the Flower Garland Sutra which is directed specifically to the bodhisattvas. At this point, one needs to see that emptiness is not a dead-end but just the beginning. From the perspective of emptiness, the bodhisattvas can begin to compassionately apply their insight to specific situations for the sake of all sentient beings. This requires an appreciation for contingent phenomena and thus the truth of provisionality. All three truths are taught at this level, but they are still not fully integrated.

The Perfect Teaching - this corresponds to the Lotus Sutra and the Nirvana Sutra and it is considered perfect because it presents the Middle Way as the integration of all three truths - the empty, the provisional, and the Middle Way that integrates them into a seamless whole. The Perfect Teaching also presents the One Vehicle that integrates the vehicles of the shravakas, pratyekabuddhas, and bodhisattvas and so is more profound than the earlier teachings but also more inclusive. The Perfect Teaching also contains the teaching of the Unborn and Deathless nature of the Buddha's enlightened life and in this way also presents the unity of the three truths as presented in the life, teachings, example, and continued spiritual presence of Shakyamuni Buddha who Chih-i taught united all three bodies of the Buddha (the historical, ideal, and universal bodies), in chapter 16 of the Lotus Sutra.


The Four Teachings by Method

The Sudden Method – the Buddha teaches directly from his own awakening without any preliminaries. This is usually identified with the Flower Garland Sutra.

The Gradual Method – the Buddha begins at a very basic common sense level and then gradually deepens the understanding of his disciples. This is usually identified with the Tripitika, Prajnaparamita, and other Mahayana sutras.

The Secret Method: the Buddha teaches some people who are ready for or else can benefit by a specific teaching but others are not aware of this because they are either not ready or would misunderstand the teaching.

The Indeterminate Method: the Buddha teaches one doctrine but it is understood in different ways by the various people who hear it.


Chih-i then taught that the four types of teaching were combined like ingredients into five different flavors of Dharma. Miao-lo later identified these more rigidly with a chronological scheme of the Buddha's teachings called the five periods.


The Five Flavours / Periods

The Flower Garland - This lasted for the first few weeks after the Buddha's enlightenment. This period combines the Perfect Teaching with concessions to the Sudden Teaching.

The Deer Park - for the next 12 years beginning with the Deer Park discourse, the Buddha exclusively taught the Tripitika doctrine for the shravakas.

The Extended (Vaipulya) - for the next 8 years the Buddha taught preliminary Mahayana teachings in order to castigate the shravakas for their complacency and to inspire the novice bodhisattvas. The Vimalakirti Sutra, the Pure Land Sutras, and those pertaining to Conciousness Only and later the Esoteric teachings are all lumped into this catch-all category which contains all the four teachings which are taught depending on how they correspond to the needs of the audience at any given time and place.

The Prajnaparamita Sutras - for the next 22 years the Buddha taught the Prajnaparamita Sutras which included all but the Tripitika teachings. This period emphasized emptiness and was the Buddha's way of clearing the decks and introducing non-duality which would be needed to properly understand the final period of the teaching.

The Lotus and Nirvana Sutras - this period was taught in the last 8 years of the Buddha's life and contained only the unadulterated Pure teaching. This was the period which not only comes full circle back to the Buddha's own point of view, but brings along all those who were prepared by the last three stages and who did not understand or felt left out of the teachings of the Flower Garland period.


Another way that Chih-i had of expressing the ultimate import of the Perfect Teaching of the Lotus Sutra and the unity of the Three Truths was through the teaching of the Three Thousand Worlds in a Single Thought Moment. This deserves a whole article of its own, but essentially it teaches that there are ten factors of causality which are operative in the ten worlds of sentient experience from hell to buddhahood and that each of the ten worlds contains the others due to their common causality and that these worlds all express themselves in the three realms of the individual, all sentient beings, and the environment. This teaching also became the basis of the claim put forward by Miao-lo that even grasses and trees can manifest buddhahood.


Chih-i taught four basic categories of meditation as a way of attaining enlightenment:

Constant Sitting - which is tranquility and insight meditation (samatha vipassana)

Constant Walking - which is chanting the name of Amitabha Buddha while circumambulating a statue of that Buddha.

Half-Walking and Half-Sitting - which involves repentance ceremonies that involve silent sitting, chanting, vows, long repentance prayers, and visualizations before elaborate altars.

Neither Walking Nor Sitting - This is an open awareness of all phenomena at all times in everything that one is doing. It is tranquility and insight which carries over into all activities.


In the early 9th century CE the Japanese monk Saicho (later known as Dengyo) brought the T'ien-t'ai teachings to Japan where they became known as Tendai. He established a monastery on Mt. Hiei and began two tracks of practice - one for meditation and the other for esoteric practices which had become popular in China and Japan in the 8th century. Saicho also proposed that a new precept platform should be established on Mt. Hiei where the bodhisattvas precepts could be conferred. This new Mahayana precept platform would make the precepts conform to the Mahayana teachings and practices already taught there and it would supercede the three government sponsored preceptplatforms already in Japan where the Hinayana monastic precepts (i.e. the Vinaya) were conferred. Permission was granted after his death and from that time on the traditional vinaya was no longer followed in Japan for better or for worse.

After Saicho, the Tendai school was eclipsed by the more popular Shingon esoteric school established on Mt. Koya by Chih-i's one-time friend and then rival Kukai (later known as Kobo Daishi). In an attempt to put themselves on a more equal footing in terms of government patronage, the successors of Saicho traveled to China and brought back more esoteric teachings and transmissions, eventually transforming the Japanese Tendai school into an esoteric school. Pure Land devotionalism also became popular due to the efforts of Tendai monks who made it popular among the nobility, the samurai, and occasionally the peasants. 
This culminated in the mass movements of Honen and Shinran in the beginning of the 13th century which were at first strenuously resisted by the Tendai establishment which enlisted the support of the Shogunate to suppress them. By the mid-13th century however, the Tendai and Shingon schools had given in and both catered to the popularity of the Pure Land movement to the detriment of their own teachings and practices in some cases. Dissatisfied Tendai monks like Eisai and Dogen also brought in the teachings of Rinzai and Soto Zen respectively and they too met resistance at first. 
By the mid-13th century however, the Shogunate was actively patronizing Zen monks who were refugees from the Mongol conquest of Sung China. At the same time, some Shingon monks decided to revivify their school with a revival of the vinaya wedded to Shingon esotericism.


In the midst of all this, Nichiren, a poor fisherman's son from the boondocks of Japan, attempted to discover what Buddhism was really about and to figure out why there was so much suffering under the Shogunate rule in spite of the presence of so much Dharma.

Nichiren lived from 1222 - 1282 and he grew up in a small country temple where the head priest was technically a member of Tendai but in practice a Pure Land Buddhist. Nichiren himself practiced Nembutsu and esoteric contemplations centering on the mantra of Space Womb Bodhisattva. Eventually he went to Kamakura, the Shogunate's capital, and Mt. Hiei to study Tendai teachings more deeply as well as to more thoroughly investigate Pure Land and Zen. 
Upon returning to his home-temple in 1253 Nichiren had been disillusioned by the mass movements, by the corruption and elitism in the Tendai-Shingon establishment, and by what he saw as the pernicious influence of Shingon esotericism which he believed had caused neglect for the core teachings of Chih-i and Miao-lo which Saicho had been trying to establish in Japan. 
Nichiren started a back to the Lotus Sutra movement and his rallying cry and main practice was to simply recite devotion to the sacred title (Odaimoku) which in Japanese is Namu Myoho Renge Kyo. He believed that this practice would not only point back to the core teachings of the Lotus Sutra, Chih-i, Miao-lo, and Saicho, but would also be accessible to all people of all spiritual capacities.


Nichiren's core ideas:

For the most part, Nichiren's writings are filled with passages from the Lotus Sutra, the Nirvana Sutra, and other Mahayana sutras which he felt were reflective of current conditions in Japan, and the writings of Chih-i, Miao-lo, and Saicho. All of the teachings which I outlined above, esp. the Three Thousand Worlds in a Single Thought-Moment (ichinen sanzen in Japanese) were upheld by Nichiren. 
Nichiren did add that in teaching Buddhism one must account for the times, the variety of teachings and their relative profundity, the capacities of the hearers, the characteristics of the country, and the proper sequence of the teachings. 
Nichiren believed (based on the exegesis of Chih-i and Miao-lo) that the core of the Lotus Sutra could be found in chapter 16 and that the practical significance or impact of this could be experienced in and through the Sacred Title (Odaimoku) of the Lotus Sutra. 


The Three Great Hidden Dharmas 

Nichiren eventually taught the Three Great Hidden Dharmas based upon the essential teaching of the Lotus Sutra:

The first is the Gohonzon, the "Focus of Devotion,” that Nichiren identified at times as the Eternal Shakyamuni Buddha and at other times as the Wonderful Dharma of the Lotus Flower Teaching. Nichiren understood that the unity of the person and the Dharma means that the Buddha and the Dharma are inseparable and so there is no contradiction in viewing the Gohonzon as both the Buddha and the Dharma rather than either/or. 
In order to depict the Gohonzon, Nichiren created a calligraphic mandala which shows Shakyamuni Buddha and the rest of the assembly in the Lotus Sutra all illuminated by the Odaimoku. The calligraphic mandala also contains esoteric and Shinto deities and also a mini-lineage chart at the bottom listing Nagarjuna, Chih-i, Miao-lo, and Saicho. 
Nichiren's writings also indicate four other legitimate ways of depicting the Gohonzon - the Odaimoku by itself, a statue of the Eternal Shakyamuni Buddha, a statue of Shakyamuni Buddha flanked by the Four Leaders of the Bodhisattvas of the Earth who appear in the sutra, and a statue arrangement of an Odaimoku inscribed Stupa of Many Treasures flanked by Shakyamuni Buddha and Many Treasures Tathagata and perhaps the Four Leaders of the Bodhisattvas of the Earth and other beings present during the Ceremony in the Air which is what the calligraphic mandala also depicts. 
It should also be noted that Nichiren carried a statue of Shakyamuni Buddha with him all his life and that it was with him on his deathbed along with a calligraphic mandala.

The second is the Odaimoku, the “Sacred Title” of the Lotus Sutra in Sino-Japanese which, with the addition of Namu meaning “I devote myself to,” is Namu Myoho Renge Kyo
I should also add that Chih-i wrote a whole book (which Miao-lo followed with a commentary on) about the title of the Lotus Sutra alone. So Nichiren was not just making up the importance of the Odaimoku, he inherited that from T'ien-t'ai as well. 
Dr. Jackie Stone of Princeton has pointed out in her articles and books that Nichiren was also not the first person to chant the Odaimoku, but he was the first to make it a central practice.

The third is the Kaidan, the "Precept Platform." 
Nichiren believed that just as Saicho had established a Mahayana precept platform to supersede the Hinayana precept platforms, a new precept platform based on the essential teaching of the Lotus Sutra was called for which would be open to all people and not just monks. 
I believe that he did intend to have the government establish this platform once his teachings were accepted just as they had established the previous ones. But now, after the war and the separation of church and state, the Nichiren Shu interprets the Kaidan to be anywhere that a practitioner upholds the Odaimoku in both letter and spirit.


Utilizing the tools of formal debate which was used regularly at Mt. Hiei, Nichiren criticized the Pure Land schools and the Zen schools for neglecting the sutras, specifically the Lotus Sutra. He criticized the vinaya revival because he believed the problems current in Japan revolved around the lack of faith in people’s buddha-nature and the truth that this world is the pure land of the Eternal Buddha. He did not believe the problem stemmed from the failure to follow 5th century BCE Indian monastic precepts. He later criticized the Shingon school and what he saw as the esoteric take over of the Tendai school as the root problem which led to all the others. He saw esotericism as a set of methods which should never have been made more important than the universal promise of buddhahood contained in the Lotus Sutra and the even more important promise of the Buddha's continued presence in this world due to the mutual containment of buddhahood and the other ten worlds. He saw esotericism as something very narrow and elitist which did not address these core issues of who can be enlightened and how does the Buddha's enlightenment impact us now. 
Nichiren did write memorials to the government stating that if they did not withdraw their patronage from these misleading schools and instead patronize only the true teachings of the Lotus Sutra then the nation would face worse and worse disasters. 

Three important things need to be kept in mind about this: 

(1) Submitting such memorials was routine in medieval Japanese Buddhism and probably owes something to the example of Confucius. Eisai and Dogen submitted similar memorials advocating Zen. 

(2) Nichiren was not asking for the government to interfere with religion because the government had run religion in Japan from the very beginning. Nichiren was simply asking the government to be more discerning and responsible in what they patronized, condoned, and advocated. 

(3) Nichiren was not asking the government to persecute his rivals. He was simply asking them to withdraw their patronage and subsidies from those movements which were leading to neglect of the Lotus Sutra.


Nichiren referred to himself as a practitioner of the Lotus Sutra and identified himself as a bodhisattva at the initial stage of first hearing the Dharma. He spoke of himself humbly but in the Mahayana tradition he made grandiose vows for the sake of the people of Japan. 
He never called himself a buddha or even hinted that he was a buddha, though he certainly felt that he had been enlightened to the extent that he realized the import of upholding the Lotus Sutra and planting the seed of buddhahood in himself and others. 
Towards the end of his life after a failed execution attempt and his exile to Sado Island (where he nearly died of exposure) he began to hint that he was Bodhisattva Superior Practice, or at least one who was doing the work of that bodhisattva. In the Lotus Sutra, this is one of the four leaders of the Bodhisattvas of the Earth who appear in chapter 15 as the Original Disciples of the Original Buddha (aka the Eternal Shakyamuni Buddha) in order to uphold the Lotus Sutra after the Buddha's passing. They are given a specific transfer of the BuddhaDharma in chapter 21. 
Even then, Nichiren continued to see himself as a humble monk without any precepts but only faith in the Wonderful Dharma.

Nichiren named six senior disciples to carry on his teachings after his death. The lineages of those disciples and others was eventually consolidated as the modern Nichiren Shu, though there are some other smaller Nichiren schools which trace back to one or more of these original six. All these schools agree on basic points of doctrine (what I outlined above) with the exception of the Taisekiji lineage (Nichiren Shoshu) and its offshoot the Soka Gakkai. I have written the history of Fuji school (Nichiren Shoshu) and the Soka Gakkai elsewhere at and people can read more about them there.

Copyright by Ryuei Michael McCormick. 1999. 2002.

More about the Lotus Sutra and Nichiren Buddhism from the Rev. Ryuei

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On Lotus Sutra Practice

  • How to be a Buddhist
  • Does Buddhism Work?
  • Putting Joy Into Action
  • Four Immeasurables : Loving Kindness | Compassion | Joy | Equanimity
  • The Three Refuges & the Threefold Training
  • Three Great Hidden Dharmas
  • What is the Gohonzon?
  • Who's Who on the Gohonzon?
  • Lotus Sutra Studies
  • Odaimoku as Hua-t'ou
  • Chanting & Desire
  • The Sole Efficacy of Odaimoku
  • Nam or Namu? Does it really matter?
  • Shodaigyo Meditation Instructions
  • Basic Meditation Instructions
  • True Teaching, Practice & Realization: Thoughts on Original Enlightenment
  • History of Nichiren Buddhism

  • Life of the Historical Buddha
  • Mahayana Buddhism Studies
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  • My Letter to Nichiren
  • Life of Nichiren Shonin
  • Living the Rissho Ankoku Ron
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  • History of the Hokke Shu 
  • Nichiren Buddhism in the 20th Century
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