I am in the process of writing a new book on the practice of Nichiren Buddhism and the Lotus Sutra.  What I'll be posting is my first draft, imperfect as it is.  What I post has been sent to my editor and trust me will be greatly improved by his wonderful work. I'm sharing here on the chance others may find something of value or something to correct of offer feedback on.  Let the reading of this not be an onerous task nor a task of anything less than joy.  The source material comes from the Shutei Nichiren Shu Hoyo Shiki which draws from Miao-lê, as well as most importantly the Mohe-zhiguan or Makashikan by Chi-i.

Shodai Kan

For those who may be new to Nichiren Buddhism, or any Buddhism for that matter, when you enter the practice hall you may see various statues, or simply a scroll with paintings or calligraphy.  I’ve been asked by non-Buddhists about the statues, and almost always the question leads to the notion of worshiping idols.  There is no simple answer to this issue of whether a person worship the statue as an idol.

Many people form all walks of life and from various cultures practice Buddhism.  There is no single one practice or even belief.  Some people may and do pray to the statue as a representation of a benevolent force to intercede on their behalf to resolve some important mater in their life.  Is that wrong?  I would say simply it isn’t my belief or my teaching, and that I am not the sole arbiter of what is right or wrong.

In some ways it’s the wrong question.  

Perhaps a better question might be is the practice of praying to some representation of an entity one hopes to answer a prayer harmful, or is it helpful.  The answer to those questions may actually be different for the same person at different times and under different circumstances.

In times of extreme crisis, perhaps so extreme you may never have experienced anything like it, people often reach out, grasp even, at anything that will bring them hope in face of hopelessness.  That same person in a different situation may realize that the image is merely a reminder or stimuli to focus their efforts of faith and practice.  The wrist mala I wear is not magical, though it could be in the right situation.  It is however a constant reminder that I say I believe in Buddhism and that my actions should be reflected upon to verify if they are indeed in accord with what I say from my mouth. More often than not this is the function of my wrist mala for me.  

As a reminder though it would be an understatement of its significance since I would not think to discard it casually, nor treat it disrespectfully.  If it were merely a prop, or reminder then anything could do and anything could replace it.  As a prop or reminder I wouldn’t necessarily be concerned about simply throwing it away since they are easily acquired and inexpensive.  Yet it means more to me than just a reminder.  It’s complicated.

When we place faith in our practice what our faith best represents is our actions.  If in our prayers we somehow believe we are no longer responsible for taking appropriate actions on our own behalf, or that we no longer need to change our patterns of behavior, then our prayers are misguided and potentially harmful.

An example of this I frequently recall a book I read many years ago at the suggestion of a Rabbi friend titled The Seventh Telling by Mitchell Chefitz.  In this book the teller of the tale, a Jewish mystic talks about inappropriate prayers.  The example he uses is, suppose on your way home in the distance you see a house on fire.  The house is in the general direction of your very own residence. At this distance you are unable to discern if the fire is your house or another.  An inappropriate prayer, and an impossible prayer would be to pray the fire isn’t in your house.  The fire is already burning, it is either your house or it isn’t.  Your prayer will not change the location of the fire simply to suit you.  There are many other possible prayers to speak but praying it is not your house burning is not one of them.  

Also in the book he writes of a beautiful example of how prayer is sometimes a negotiation.  You want red widgets, the factory only has yellow and green widgets.  You can’t have red widgets, but you can have yellow or green.  Sometimes life is like that.  Praying for red widgets is pointless they don’t have any and they’re not going to make any.  You can have yellow or green, or leave empty handed.  Life is like that sometimes.  

Sometimes a mother no matter how hard she prays cannot change the medical course towards death her 18 year old son is heading towards.  I shall never forget the week I spent with the mother and father of such a boy.  Medically, death was certain.  Over the course of the week as the mother prayed and read her Bible, she realized that for her the answer to her prayers lay in becoming at peace with the reality, being able to peacefully let her son breath his last breath, and know nothing will ever be the same.  I could not bring her to such a place, she had to find and walk that path herself.  I could witness, accompany so she was not alone, and honor her journey towards a continued life while her son took his journey into death.  His death, was beautiful, if any death can be.  His mother, father, and siblings were all present, as was I at their invitation.  Together we all stood around his bed and when I told the doctors the family was ready they removed him from the “machines”.  Within minutes he breathed his last breath as we all wept.  We all cried, it was sad, it was terrible sad.  It is the way of life.  Many of his organs were able to be used to enhance the lives of many people throughout the United States, though that is in reality only perhaps a small comfort though we often wish it were a greater comfort.  It’s like second place, it’s like a yellow or green widget.

So whether a person prays to a statue or a piece of paper or prays to nothing as they venerate a statue or piece of paper is a personal question and not always the most appropriate question.

When you enter a Buddhist hall you may see many statues, or even none at all.  Depending upon the location and the statues you may be seeing what is frequently referred to as an Image Hall or Founder’s Hall.  In this location the statue or picture is not of someone to worship, that is not the intent.  This image and hall is for honoring or venerating the founder of the sect or lineage.  

When I lived at Joen-ji in Shinjuku Tokyo I attended a lecture given by a speaker from a different Nichiren denomination in the basement of the Founder’s Hall.  During the course of the lecture the speaker mistakenly offered as proof that Nichiren Shu worshiped Nichiren the fact that there was a life-size statue of Nichiren up above.  The hall above was a place where few services were held.  It was a place where novice priests practiced their sutra recitation and chanted abundant Odaimoku in preparation for Shingyo Dojo.  On special occasions marking various persecutions in Nichiren’s life as a group all the priests would go there, sit upon special straw mats guaranteed to cut your insoles to shreds and offered prayers commemorating the persecution.  I can attest, those special straw mats are not made of straw they are in fact razor blades disguised as straw.  They are deadly.

The point I’m making is the Image or Founder’s Hall is not a place of regular services or daily practice.  Where the practice or service takes place is in the Main Hall or Hondo.  This is where you will see not one statue of some guy but lots of statues of various personages.  In the case of Nichiren Buddhism and in larger temples such as Joen-ji there is a statue for every character represented on the Mandala Nichiren founded for the practice of the Lotus Sutra.

Now it is possible that there are some who may indeed worship one or more of those statues.  I’m not blessed or cursed with the ability to read minds, so I don’t know what goes through the minds of people who come there.  Some may come, and indeed I suspect many come who have no clue about anything in the hall, even in Japan.  One of Joen-ji’s main function was to offer memorial prayers for the thousands of families who have relatives interned in the huge cemetery.  Many people come to Joen-ji, and other temples, who are only fulfilling a family obligation. That’s not wrong, it is simply the culture and not our culture so not something we can judge or criticize.  

The original function, going back to the oldest established temples in Buddhism, was to recreate the environment representing the most important teaching of that particular denomination.  Going back to 4th, 5th and 6th centuries in many cases there were not statues, instead the entire room would be painted to represent the important teaching.  This way the practitioner actually enters into the mandala.  

There are some wonderful examples of entire rooms painted as if the Diamond Sutra or even the Lotus Sutra.  The idea is when you enter into the hall you immediately have a sense of being immersed in the sutra itself.  So it is with the statues and even the calligraphic mandala used in Nichiren Shu.  Our handicap is we don’t automatically recognize the characters represented by the characters.  With the statues we can see an image, yet usually the statues are far away or up on a dais and so we loose the sense of being right there amidst the statues or amidst the people present.

In our case, Nichiren Buddhism, whether calligraphy on paper or statues we are not merely acting like some disconnected observer.  On the calligraphic mandala it is written in such a way that we are gazing up at the two Buddhas seated abreast of the Odaimoku which represents the two Buddhas seated beside each other in the great stupa hovering above the ground.  We are also looking at the Four Great Bodhisattvas.  Everyone else depicted on the mandala we are looking at their backs because they also are looking up at the two Buddhas.  We along with all the others are together gazing upon the two Buddhas, Shakyamuni and Taho as they sit together in the great stupa of Taho’s mausoleum.  

We are not really disconnected outside observers to this ceremony.  We are in fact participants in it.  In some ways there is no ceremony until we perform it.  Everyone in the congregation, every character on the paper mandala, every wooden statue is sitting there waiting on us to begin the ceremony.  The two Buddhas are patiently waiting for you to begin.  If you don’t begin soon then all the tea they’ve been sipping waiting for you will cause one of them to need to go to the water closet.  If you don’t begin soon then one of them may be attending to his bodily functions and you may miss him.  So please go, sit with the others in this great crowd, look upon the Buddhas hear with your ears the sutra you recite as if it were from the mouth of the Buddha.

You are present and the ceremony is being held just for you, your special, and they are wanting to honor you that’s why they are waiting.  They could have finished up 3000 years ago, but at the request of the Buddha they have waited.  The Buddha told them someone of great importance was coming and now finally you have arrived. Go to them and tell them you are ready to begin the ceremony in the air.

Whether the focal point of your gazing or veneration is a paper mandala or a statue arrangement mandala there is no doctrinal distinction.  They are all equal.  In Nichiren Shu, there are 5 versions of the mandala which are recognized as equally fulfilling the capacity of Nichiren’s establishment of the object of devotion.  They are as follows:  a full statue arrangement, a full calligraphic scroll, the single phrase Namu Myoho Renge Kyo, a statue of the Buddha, a statue of the Buddha and Namu Myoho Renge Kyo.  Any of those is equal to the others. Never fear that because you don’t have all the statues you are somehow missing out on something.  In the final analysis regardless of which one you have or if you have none at all, it is your faith and practice that is most important.  

The Odaimoku in the center is manifesting the entity of the Original Buddha in our mind.  As such it contains all the Buddhas of the ten directions, the four cardinal points, the intersections between each, and up and down.  It also contains all the sentient beings of all the Dharma realms, the lands of those realms and in fact everything in them.  In other words every every thing is contained in and embraced by Namu Myoho Renge Kyo.  

You see here, that there is no division between us and them or self and other in reality.  Namu Myoho Renge Kyo manifests what’s in our mind and everything beyond our minds from the perspective of the Original Buddha.  The trick is for us to operate from that perspective of the Original Buddha in us.  That’s an incredibly difficult thing to do for every moment of ones life.  It’s not impossible, just hard.  There is no easy path to enlightenment as you can see.  The work of the Buddha, our work, is never fully done.  

If you’re anything like me, pretty much most of the time I’m operating from the mind of a rather ordinary human that frequently thinks he is disconnected from most everything that isn’t within eye-sight.  Yes, sure I can intellectually touch that notion, but to actually live, go about my business, interact with countless others, well that’s an entirely different matter.  I do believe I’m better than I once was,  hopefully even better than I was yesterday.  I also know I’ve room to grow and improve so that tomorrow I can be better than I am today.

I’m writing this on the eve of the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States.  In just a few days over a month from now it will be New Year’s Eve.  In years past as part of the service schedule at the temple on New Year’s eve I have led a Repentance and Reflection Ceremony, called Hokke Senbo.  The instruction I give prior to the service is that while it is important to repent on our past transgressions what is equally if not more import is to reflect on why we did whatever it was, how can we change our response next time, how can we grow from this.

When I think of repentance or forgiveness I am drawn to the Jewish concept of repair, specifically repair the world.  In our situation as we reflect on the causes of our transgression and how we might grow and change so that we don’t act unskillfully we might also reflect on what might we do to repair any damage we may have caused. This is not to say we need pick up a guilt burden, it is to say however that we should reflect on this as well when we consider future actions.  In all things we seek to do the greatest good while avoiding causing harm, or causing as little harm as possible.

Think about the Odaimoku manifesting in our minds and hold the image of that Odaimoku as a great ocean.  Now as is the case with an actual ocean there are numerous waves, and they are formed due to a variety of causes.  Some waves are the result of the gravitational pull of the moon, these are not only the tidal waves washing towards or away from the shore, they are the full tidal action on the entire ocean.  Also winds cause waves and these can be anything from gentle breezes to tropical storms.  Further causes for waves are the geographic formations beneath the surface of the ocean.

Consider your mind and what sorts of waves are being created by your thoughts.  Perhaps you are unlike me, however in my case sometimes my thoughts create those huge waves tropical storms are famous for and storm surge.  You may however never make waves such as those, and perhaps your waves are the gentle ones formed by the gentle thoughts emanating from your mind.  Sometimes my ocean is quite calm and at other times it can be extremely stormy and hazardous to any ships or surfers.  Other times I might get lucky and create the perfect surfing wave, and I’m imagining it on Sunset Beach in Hawaii, which by the way is a beautiful place to surf.  

Consider next those murky images that are moving around beneath the surface of an ocean, your ocean.  Those images, some clear and some indistinct are all products of your thoughts.  Some may be benign and others may be malevolent, some good and some less so.  As your chanting the Odaimoku and focusing your mind on the mandala your voice, your thoughts spread out to the entire ocean of your mind.  This your chance to calm those rough seas and rid your ocean of pollution.  

There is a bay on the island of Oahu, Hawaii called Waimea Bay.  The water there is crystal clear and due to the protective rock formations around it remains calm except in extreme weather.  It is a protect environment both by nature and by government regulations. Swimming is allowed but only snorkeling and not scuba diving.  The water is not so deep but deeper than standing height.  The bay, protected as it is, is the home to many species of tropical fish.  It is such a delight to swim there and be able to clearly see the fish swimming alongside.  You can see from the surface to the bottom regardless of the depth.  Recalling the times I’ve been swimming there and the beautiful colors of the fishes is a fond memory.  This is the kind of ocean I wish to create from my Odaimoku.  Perhaps I’ve given you an adequate enough description that you too might wish to  create this sort of ocean of your mind from chanting Odaimoku.  Any way I think it is a nice image.

The Ten Worlds are mutually possessed in the Odaimoku, and each of these Ten Worlds mutually posses one another.  All of the virtues of each of the 100 Worlds thus derived are infused in the Odaimoku and thus we receive the merit of those virtues.  Our chanting helps to restore the imbalances in our lives smoothing out the rough patches.  Perhaps we’ve had a bad day and we have over exercised our anger.  We become out of harmony and our world appears as an angry place.  Perhaps we have become muscle bound by using anger so much.  In order to restore balance we need to not only be angry less but we need to strengthen the virtues of of the other worlds.  

Perhaps anger isn’t the problem perhaps it is hunger.  I’m writing this on the sales weekend following the US Thanksgiving holiday.  This is a time of heavy promotion to buy stuff.  All sorts of emails have been flooding my inbox with solicitations to purchase things with supposedly special sales and discount coupons.  It can be tough to keep hunger in its proper perspective.  Each of the ten worlds can present a problem if out of balance.  Compassion is an admirable trait, yet it can be destructive as well.  In the hospitals we frequently talk about compassion fatigue, or what has been frequently called burn out.  

When we chant Odaimoku in front of the mandala it is these things we are advised to contemplate.  Balance in our living and calm and clear seas of our mind.  

Next consider your environment as you experience it.  In Chapter XI, Beholding the Stupa of Treasures, the Buddha in response to the requests of the people in the congregation to be able to see the Buddha of Many Treasures purifies the land.  He also calls back his emanations, the many forms and manifestations which serve various functions of teaching and propagation.  He also adds more worlds and lands to the space originally occupied by the congregation.  He joins them all together and removes impurities and reveals the beautiful adornments that are inherent in each of the lands.  

In this action we are taught that our world, our land, our environment is actually all of the lands and places throughout the entire universe.  This means that our occupancy in space is connected to and part of the furthest reaches of what we think of as the solar system and even the universe.  Captain Kirk, Picard, and Janeway haven’t even begun to explore as far as the space we are a part of and connected to.  I’m not sure it is possible to impress upon you with my words the vastness of your environment and land.  All of the countless realms, the infinite number of Buddha lands are all contained in this land.  As humble and meager you may think your environment is it is only an illusion.  

The Odaimoku we chant contains all the Dharmas of all the Buddhas from all the realms of the universe and manifests all of the pure Buddha Worlds of Tranquil Light, they are all manifest in your life through the sound of your voice chanting the Odaimoku.  

“…When we contemplate the Original Buddha with every thought and chant the wondrous name with every utterance the inconceivable power of the wondrous name and the wondrous entity manifest itself .  All delusions will be eliminated and all merits will be achieved.  Dedicate this merit so it will spread to the entire Dharma-realm and benefit all sentient beings in the depths of their minds so that they will attain the merit of the Buddha of inherent existence.”

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Comment by David Brazier on November 30, 2017 at 16:20

The multifaceted world of Buddhist imagery is a kind of vast psychodrama.

Unfortunately it is difficult for us to enter this world 'clean' because we are all laden with preconceptions drawn from the Judeo-Christian tradition which are mostly irrelevant to the Buddhist approach.

The real nature of prayer is an important topic worth much reflection. Because of our heritage we have a suspicion about 'graven images' but even the Bible is a graven image. In order to worship one inevitably has to have an image in mind. One might have the idea conceptually that what one is worshipping is ultimately beyond all imagery, but in real practice, one needs to have something there to represent it. This is surely really like the distinction between dharmakaya and sambhogakaya which we could loosely translate as ultimate truth and spiritually accessible truth. The latter has to have form of some kind and if we allow ourselves to enter the realm of spiritual form there is a huge archetypal richness there - the same richness that appears in dreams and visions.


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