Nam myoho renge kyo is the awakened heart of the living universe
Nichiren Daishonin wrote that: 'There is no true happiness for human beings other than chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo.'1 Given all the things that we think might bring us happiness, this is an extraordinary statement, but the reason he says this is because he wishes people to experience absolute happiness rather than the fleeting, superficial sort of happiness we feel when our desires are rewarded in some way.
Nichiren Buddhism tells us that at our core we have the Buddha nature. The way to stimulate the Buddha nature and to reveal the Buddha life-condition is to chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. This is what will enable us to experience absolute happiness from within the depths of our lives.
Here I will look at the meaning of this phrase and see how Nichiren Daishonin explained that chanting this will enable us to change our lives from within, and consequently make a change in society. I like to think of this phrase as both a wonderful formula that explains the workings of life, and at the same time it is an expression of the beauty, wonder and majesty of life.
Let's look at each of the syllables of this phrase in turn. First 'Nam' has its root in Sanskrit and has the meaning of 'respect', 'devotion' or 'dedication'. The next five syllables are, on one level, the Japanese pronunciation of the title of the version of the Lotus Sutra translated by the great Indian translator, Kumarajiva, who translated it from Sanskrit into classical Chinese in the fifth century of the common era.2 But the syllables are also more than just the sutra's title. As Nichiren Daishonin wrote: 'Our contemporaries think of the five characters of Myoho-renge-kyo only as a name, but this is not correct. It is the essence, that is, the heart of the Lotus Sutra.'3
'Myo' literally means 'mystic', and by that we understand it is describing something which is unseen, or latent, or enlightened. 'Ho' literally means 'law' or 'dharma' and refers to phenomena which are concrete, manifest and visible. It also implies ignorance (in contrast to the enlightenment implied by 'myo').
Taking these two characters together, 'myoho' describes the cycle of life. 'Myo' corresponds to the latent period before and after life; 'ho' corresponds to the manifest period from conception, through birth, growth, maturing, decline and death, before the energy of life returns to the latent state and merges with the universe.
'Myoho' also refers to the principle of the Ten Worlds' or states of life. 'Myo' corresponds to the enlightened world of Buddhahood, and 'ho' corresponds to the other nine worlds which, unless they are experienced from the perspective of Buddhahood, are a source of delusion and fundamental darkness.
'Ren' is the name of the lotus plant; 'ge' means flower. The lotus is a common symbol in Buddhism because it is a beautiful plant that grows in the muddy swamp. This encourages us to recognise that the real place of Buddhist practice is not secluded away from the realities of life, in a monastery or a convent, or on a mountain top, but is rooted in society, in the real life that we ordinary people experience. The lotus is also one of a small number of plants which produce flowers and fruit at the same time (rather than as more commonly happens, blossom appearing before fruit which contains seeds). This means that the lotus can be used to symbolise the principle of the simultaneity of cause and effect, which is particularly relevant for the idea of revealing Buddhahood in this lifetime. The action which is the cause to reveal our Buddhahood has an instantaneous effect; we don't have to wait to see our Buddhahood emerge.
'Kyo' means 'sutra' or 'teaching'. The character that is used to write this also implies the warp of cloth, and implies that all phenomena are interconnected, not only in the present, but also in the past and future. Because traditionally a teaching was transmitted orally, this character also resonates with the importance of sound and vibration, activity we see throughout the universe. 'Kyo' informs us that all phenomena are manifestations of the Mystic Law.
While this phrase explains the workings of life (almost as a scientific formula does), it was Nichiren Daishonin's intention that we should more deeply understand that this phrase is the name of the Buddha potential in our lives. The purpose of Buddhism is to enable us to reveal our greatest potential, and Nichiren Daishonin recognised the power of this phrase to enable us to do that. The name of the Buddha nature, the ninth consciousness, is Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. If we call its name, we will stimulate and activate the ninth consciousness and it will emerge from within us. Nichiren Daishonin wrote: 'When we revere Myoho-renge-kyo inherent in our own life as the object of devotion, the Buddha nature within us is summoned forth and manifested by our chanting of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. This is what is meant by "Buddha".'4
The great challenge in life is to make the distinction between our ability to be the Buddha, and therefore wise, compassionate and courageous, as opposed to the ability to muddle along as the ordinary 'common mortal' at the mercy of fear, doubt, delusion and other aspects of what Buddhism calls fundamental darkness.
We might believe that some other people might be Buddhas, and yet doubt that we ourselves are capable of revealing this condition, or we might think that we could become Buddhas, but not just yet. Both of these views are, in the terms of Nichiren Buddhism, delusion; the fact is that we can reveal our greatest potential here and now, regardless of our circumstances. All we have to do is to cut through the delusion and let our true nature shine out. It was for this reason that Nichiren Daishonin wrote to one of his followers, Abutsu-bo: 'You, yourself, are a Thus Come One [an epithet of the Buddha] who is originally enlightened and endowed with the three bodies [three aspects of the Buddha]. You should chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo with this conviction.'5
So how do we do as Nichiren Daishonin suggests and chant 'with this conviction' that we are ourselves the Buddha? Developing this conviction means that we have to re-train minds away from our previously held convictions that we are not enlightened, or worthy of respect and deepen our confidence in our Buddhahood. Our minds are also full of thoughts, some of which are useful, but many of which are not much more than superficial fluff. If the time we have to chant is a precious opportunity in our busy lives to reveal our Buddhahood, what is the best way to take advantage of this time?
Let's start by seeing what happens as we chant. Let's assume that we are already sitting upright with our palms together, looking at the Gohonzon (this will be explained in a future article) and we repeat the phrase Nam-myoho-renge-kyo aloud. The volume isn't important, especially if we are chanting somewhere with thin walls, but our attitude is. If we see our chanting as an opportunity to praise our inherent Buddhahood and celebrate our potential, then our attitude will be a hopeful and optimistic one. I sometimes think that the best chanting we do is when we are first shown how to do it - perhaps someone has handed us a card with 'Nam-myoho-renge-kyo' on it and we are trying for the first time on our own to say these words, looking closely at the card, and trying to remember how to pronounce the six syllables. At this time there is a wonderful fusion of the voice and mind, concentrating on saying this phrase. In time, however, as the mouth and tongue become familiar with the phrase, the rhythm and the pace of chanting, then the mind relaxes a little, and will probably, inevitably, let the mouth carry on chanting while the mind goes off on a frolic of its own.
This is understandable, but what is the value of the many ordinary thoughts that bubble up from our minds? How many of them are positive affirmations of our potential as a Buddha? How many of them are determinations for the peace and happiness of oneself and others? Probably not very many! Nichiren Daishonin suggests that: 'One should become the master of one's mind rather than let one's mind master oneself.'6 This means that we need to train ourselves to look for the Buddha in our minds, rather than be swept along by the superficial chatter which emerges. How do we do this? There are probably lots of techniques, but a starting point is simply to listen to the sound of the voice as we say Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. Can you chant and listen to your voice for long enough to hear Nam-myoho-renge-kyo one time, before a different thought comes into your mind? How about three times? Or five times, or ten times? Gradually we get better at listening to this expression of our Buddhahood; after all, in the quotation above Nichiren Daishonin suggested that we 'revere Myoho-renge-kyo inherent in our own lives as the object of devotion'. It is not egotistical to revere our own potential, because when our Buddhahood emerges as a result, we are then in a position to take compassionate altruistic action for the happiness of others.
There is a lot more that could be said about prayer, especially how it is an expression of our determination to make a difference to the world around us, but this will be looked at in future articles.
We will get the most out of our chanting, then, if we can as quickly as possible establish the attitude that it is the opportunity every day for us to reveal our greatest potential. As Nichiren Daishonin explained, when we do this we will experience 'the great joy ... when one understands for the first time that one's mind from the very beginning has been the Buddha. Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is the greatest of all joys.'7 •
- Nichiren Daishonin, 'Happiness in this World' (WND-1, p. 681).
- The Sanskrit original was called Sad-dharma-pundarika-sutra and Kumarajiva's translation became, in classical Chinese, Miao-fa-lien-hua-ching. In thirteenth century Japan, these characters were pronounced Myoho-renge-kyo.
- Nichiren Daishonin, `This is What I Heard' (WND-1, p. 861).
- Nichiren Daishonin, `Those Initially Aspiring to the Way'(WND-1, p. 887).
- Nichiren Daishonin, 'On the Treasure Tower' (WND-1, p. 299-300).
- Nichiren Daishonin,'Letter to Gijo-Bo' (WND-1, p. 390).
- Nichiren Daishonin, The Record of the Orally Transmitted Teachings, trans. Burton Watson (Soka Gakkai, 2004) pp. 211 - 212.