Attended my first Myoshoji Temple online service of the New Year today with Nichiren Shu practitioners from Tennessee, North Carolina and London, England. I’m fortunate to have a Nichiren Shu temple within driving distance of my house, but when there are no services at the Sacramento Nichiren Buddhist Church I enjoy the opportunity to practice with Ryusho Jeffus Shonin in Syracuse, New York.
This was my third New Year’s service at the Sacramento Nichiren Buddhist Church. If you don’t normally do much for New Year’s, this is a great tradition to adopt. The year-end service begins at 11pm. After that there’s a quick bite to eat, and then at midnight the church bell is rung 108 times to symbolize the extinguishing of the 108 earthly desires. Following the bell ringing, the New Year’s Day service is held. During this service Ven. Kenjo Igarashi offers purification blessings for all of the members’ home altars.
Last year I had a memorial service for my father and mother. This year I had a memorial service for my stepmother. Today I’m 66 years old and I still haven’t let go of the fact that my parents divorced when I was 9 years old and my father remarried and remained happily married until his death. Ann Hughes wasn’t an evil stepmother. Far from it. She just wasn’t my mother. With the memorial service I honor her place with my father and let go of my resentment. I’ve added a photo of my father and Ann to my side altar where I honor my ancestors.
Today I begin reprinting “A Phrase A Day,” a small book of 31 quotes from Nichiren’s writing paired with explanatory text from Nichiren Shu priests in America in 1986. You can download a PDF copy of the book here.
When first introduced to Nichiren Shonin and the Lotus Sutra and Namu-Myoho-Renge-Kyo, I wondered why such a wonderful teaching was so little-known in America. Now, many many years later, I realize my puzzlement was really naivete exacerbated by my life experiences as a Caucasian male child of Protestant Christians, economically comfortable if not rich, secure in the knowledge that the system will protect my rights.
That was certainly not the experience of the five families of Japanese immigrants and the children of immigrants who formed the Sacramento Nichiren Buddhist Church in 1931 at the height of the Japanese nationalism that eventually led to the War in the Pacific. The Gohonzon Mandala that hangs behind the statue of Nichiren on the altar most likely came from Kokuchūkai (Pillar of the Nation), a Nichirenist ultranationalist group connected to Tanaka Chigaku.
In the 1930s there was no Nichiren Buddhism without Japanese heritage. When World War II came and all of the Japanese in Sacramento were rounded up and shipped to distant camps, there were no church members left behind.
In 1986, when “A Phrase A Day” was published by the Nichiren Shu Overseas Propagation Promotion Association, the focus of propagation remained the descendants of Japanese immigrants.
Rev. Shingaku Oikawa, president of the Nichiren Shu Overseas Propagation Promotion Association, writes in the Preface:
I established Myokakuji Betsuin Temple, a Nichiren Buddhist temple, in San Jose, California, U.S.A. five years ago. At that time, I made several trips to the U.S.A. visiting various Buddhist temples in America, including non-Nichiren temples, in order to grasp the real situation of their activities. I was greatly impressed to see generally beautiful temple buildings in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and other cities with ministers engaged in active missionary work. I learned, however, that they had one problem in common: a generation change in membership. Young members hardly understand Japanese. Consequently, more and more of them stay away from Buddhist temples, where Japanese is the means of communication and propagation. Aged, non-English speaking ministers are incapable of attracting young members. As the first- and second-generation members die, there are hardly any young members ready to take their place.
The ropes binding Nichiren Buddhism to Japanese culture and heritage have loosened over the years. In 2015, as part of a reorganization of Nichiren Shu propagation efforts, the headquarters in Tokyo issue guidelines that specified that propagation points (e.g. churches) must “have an open propagation policy towards any person regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation.”
While the Sacramento Nichiren Buddhist Church still celebrates its Japanese heritage with Japanese Food Bazaars and Mochi sales, this Caucasian child of Protestant Christians has never felt in any way less a member of the church. I was welcomed warmly on the first day I attended services, as have other non-Japanese newcomers.
The limit on Nichiren Buddhism’s propagation in 1931 and even in 1986 has been if not removed at least made less limiting. Nichiren Buddhism today is not lessened by its expansion regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation. Nichiren Buddhism today embraces all of the Eternal Shakyamuni’s children. This surely is the ultimate goal of Nichiren Shonin.
This complements my earlier effort.
The third Sunday of December is designated as the day to do a thorough cleaning of the temple. At the Sacramento Nichiren Buddhist Church this is a rare opportunity to see the full Mandala Gohonzon. Normally, the statue of Nichiren obscures the bottom third.
Here’s a video that includes 125 Mandala Gohonzons inscribed by Nichiren Shonin.
Ven. Kenjo Igarashi performed a Bodhi Day service commemorating Prince Siddharha’s becoming the Buddha followed by the monthly Kaji Kito purification and concluding with a memorial service for a relative of a church member. Wasn’t surprising at all that the topic of his lecture was year-end cleaning.
When Rev. Igarashi first became a minister his master would constantly tell him just clean up — clean up the temple, clean up the altar, clean up everything first. That’s how you practice. Chanting the sutra is very important but cleaning the temple, cleaning the altar and cleaning everything is the first practice. That’s why all the time I just clean up everywhere.
When Rev. Igarashi first arrived in Sacramento, it was a tradition that male members of the church would get together monthly to clean the grounds around the temple. But they just complained and complained, and so, little by little, Rev. Igarashi took over the gardening and cleanup of the grounds by himself. One day, long after the tradition of having men clean the grounds was abandoned, a church member commented to Rev. Igarashi that the church had a pretty good gardener and a pretty good janitor.
“So that’s why I’m a pretty good janitor or a gardener than a good minister,” he said, laughing. “That’s alright. It’s just my practice is to clean up everything.”
This isn’t just trash, he explained. It’s a treasure mountain. There is a lot of treasure to be found in cleaning up. That’s why practicing and cleanup is very important.
“Now I am giving you purification — kaji kito. I’m cleaning up your mind and your spirit too, not just the temple,” he said. “I clean up your spirit and mind all the time.”
Rev. Igarashi then told the story of Ksudrapanthaka, one of the Buddha’s disciples. Ksudrapanthaka had joined with his brother, but unlike his brother Ksudrapanthaka just couldn’t remember anything he was taught. Not even the simplest verse. Eventually his brother grew angry and told Ksudrapanthaka to get out of the sangha. Sakyamuni found Ksudrapanthaka outside the monk’s quarters crying and asked him what was wrong. Ksudrapanthaka explained he couldn’t remember anything.
Sakyamuni gave Ksudrapanthaka a broom and told him to just remember “This is broom” as he cleaned up the temple. Ksudrapanthaka cleaned and chanted “This is broom” finally he remembered and developed strong faith. (See this explanation of Ksudrapanthaka’s realization.)
Rev. Igarashi also offered a little Japanese side note explaining why eating Japanese ginger is considered to make you forgetful. It turns out that when Ksudrapanthaka was buried Japanese ginger sprouted atop the grave.
As the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries of Japan explains in a Facebook post:
We have a saying in Japan, “You become forgetful if you eat myoga (Japanese ginger).” Do you know why? … A long time ago, one of the Buddha’s disciples was so virtuous that he became enlightened but, at the same time, he was extremely forgetful. Often, he even forgot his own name, so he hung a nameplate around his neck, but he was never able to remember his name for his entire life. After his death, the unknown plant that sprouted from his grave was given the name “myoga,” which means “bearing a name.”
Rev. Igarashi encouraged everyone, “At the end of this year, please clean up your spirit and clean up everything.”
Thirty-two times thirty-two. That’s what the title explains. Each of the Post-It note arrows on the inside cover of my copy of the Nichiren Buddhist Sangha of Greater New England‘s Myoho Renge Kyo Romanized represents one time through the 28 chapters divided into eight volumes with each volume divided into four equal parts.
Back on July 19, 2016, I commented at length about the first 16 times through the 32-day cycle – 500 Days Divided By 32. The second time through the feat seems somewhat less noteworthy. Having surpassed the initial 500 days, I’m focusing now on that second goal: 10 years. That will be a little past the 114th time through, a future date somewhere in the eighth row of arrow PostIts.
Today’s milestone follows last month’s Two Lotus Sutra Years Later, which marked the first 24 months of 32 days of my complementary practice of repeating in English in the evening what I recited that day in Shindoku and posting excerpts here.
I have received immense benefits from this practice coupled with my other reading. Where will I be in 2025, when I enter my 10th year?
In Chapter 3, A Parable, in the discussion of what to do about the burning house, Śākyamuni says:
Śāriputra! Seeing all this, I [also] thought, ‘I am the father of all living beings. I will eliminate their sufferings, give them the pleasure of the immeasurable wisdom of the Buddha, and cause them to enjoy it.’
“Śāriputra! I also thought, ‘If I extol my insight, powers, and fearlessness in the presence of those living beings only by my supernatural powers and by the power of my wisdom, that is to say, without any expedient, they will not be saved because they have not yet been saved from birth, old age, disease, death, grief, sorrow, suffering and lamentation, but are burning up in the burning house of the triple world. How can they understand the wisdom of the Buddha?’
This idea that Śākyamuni is capable of eliminating our sufferings but holds back is an important point taught in the Lotus Sūtra: We have to gain enlightenment ourselves; no god will intervene on our behalf.
I’ve been looking for examples to illustrate this concept, and the other day my yoga instructor, of all people, brought up this tale:
A man found a cocoon of a butterfly.
One day a small opening appeared. He sat and watched the butterfly for several hours as it struggled to squeeze its body through the tiny hole. Then it stopped, as if it couldn’t go further.
So the man decided to help the butterfly.
He took a pair of scissors and snipped off the remaining bits of cocoon. The butterfly emerged easily but it had a swollen body and shriveled wings.
The man continued to watch it, expecting that any minute the wings would enlarge and expand enough to support the body.
In fact the butterfly spent the rest of its life crawling around. It was never able to fly.
What the man in his kindness and haste did not understand: The restricting cocoon and the struggle required by the butterfly to get through the opening was a way of forcing the fluid from the body into the wings so that it would be ready for flight once that was achieved.
Sometimes struggles are exactly what we need in our lives. Going through life with no obstacles would cripple us. We would not be as strong as we could have been and we would never be able to fly.
So we begin with this truth, told by Śākyamuni in Chapter 2, Expedients:
The Dharma cannot be shown.
It is inexplicable by words.
No one can understand it
Except the Buddhas
And the Bodhisattvas
Who are strong in the power of faith.
But we are not without directions on the effort required. This is how Lotus Path: Practicing the Lotus Sutra Volume 1, puts it:
We are given the perfect instructions in the Lotus Sutra for our individual attainment of enlightenment. It really doesn’t matter who we are, or even who we think we are. We can achieve the same enlightenment as all the Buddhas, though it will be unique to our individual selves. The directions are pretty straightforward. They are not complex, though they are difficult to maintain. Keeping, or upholding the sutra, reading it, reciting it, copying it and teaching are all we have to do. Praising the Lotus Sutra in all we do is fundamentally at the heart of each of these things.
Lotus Path: Practicing the Lotus Sutra Volume 1
And we do this practice every time we declare our devotion to the Sūtra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Dharma.
As we struggle and chant Namu Myoho Renge Kyo and struggle and study and struggle and practice we prepare ourselves to escape this cocoon of illusions and emerge is this true Pure Land.
Recently I’ve been refining my explanation of why I left Soka Gakkai and joined the Sacramento Nichiren Buddhist Church and Nichiren Shū.
Here’s the most recent example:
I joined Nichiren Shoshu in 1989 and when the split with Soka Gakkai occurred I stayed with SGI. Beginning around 2010 I felt a strong need to expand my practice. I attended more meetings, and volunteered at the SGI community center. I also read all of Nichiren’s writings, first in the Nichiren Shoshu translation and then in the Soka Gakkai. But instead of growing closer to SGI, I grew further away. Finally on Jan. 1, 2015, I severed ties with SGI and called Rev. [Kenjo] Igarashi and asked when the next service was scheduled.
A man on a plateau, feeling thirsty,
Dug a hole in order to get water.
As long as he saw the dug-out lumps of earth were dry,
He knew that water was still far off.
When he found the earth wet and muddy,
He was convinced that water was near.
In the same manner, Medicine-King, know this!
Those who do not hear
The Sūtra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Dharma
Are far from the wisdom of the Buddha.
That quote from the Lotus Sutra, Chapter 10, The Teacher of the Dharma, describes my experience. All of the moisture is sucked out of the ground by SGI’s focus on President Ikeda. The Lotus Sutra is not studied. Śākyamuni is not worshiped as the original Buddha. Nichiren’s role as a great bodhisattva, the reincarnation of Jogyo, is ignored. I found moisture in Nichiren Shū and as I have continued to practice and study I have found water. I have a personal website where I store this water, with quotes from books and daily recitations of the Lotus Sutra and other dharma material. I also created the church’s website and stocked it with brochures from the Nichiren Buddhist Information Center and Rev. Igarashi’s lectures in an effort to attract more people to the church. I am no longer the newest member of the congregation.
I have been reading book three of the Nichiren Mandala Study Workshop’s The mandala in Nichiren Buddhism. Book three focuses on analysis of the mandala structure and development of the Gohonzon within successive Nichiren lineages. Last night I came across this explanation of the split in Nichiren schools.
The first schisms and formation of lineages
It is generally thought that the first division within the Nichiren Sangha was caused by different views about the calligraphic mandala versus the three-dimensional representation, made with a set of statues. Another important point of contention raised by the third and fourth generation disciples was the Shōretsu versus the Itchi approach to the Lotus Sūtra. The Shōretsu School considers the first half of the Sūtra as inferior, since the essence is found only in the second fourteen Honmon chapters. The Itchi School instead maintains that the entire 28 chapters should be considered as a whole. The two factions were basically centered on the following temples:
- Nikkō faction: Taiseki-ji, Fuji Honmon-ji, Hota Myōhon-ji, Kyoto Yōhō-ji
- Nichijō faction: Kyoto Myōman-ji, Kyoto Myōsen-ji
- Nichijin faction: Echigo Honjō-ji, Kyoto Honzen-ji
- Nichiryū faction: Kyoto Honnō-ji, Amagasaki Honkō-ji, Kyoto Myōren-ji
- Nichishin faction: Kyoto Honryū-ji
- Hama faction: Kamakura Hokke-ji
- Nichirō faction: Kamakura Myōhon-ji, Ikegami Honmon-ji, Hiraga Hondo-ji
- Nichizō faction: Kyoto Myōken-ji, Kyoto Myōkaku-ji, Kyoto Ryūhon-ji
- Rokujō faction: Kyoto Honkoku-ji, Kyoto Honman-ji
- Minobu faction: Minobu Kuon-ji, Mobara Sōgen-ji, Kyoto Myōden-ji
- Nakayama faction: Nakayama Hokekyō-ji, Kyoto Chōmyō-ji, Kyoto Honpō-ji
In brief, the Shoretsu group considers just the Hoben and the Juryō chapters of the Lotus Sūtra as being essential and includes only the 2nd and 16th chapters in daily practice. The Itchi group studies and chant portions from the whole Sūtra. Nevertheless these two chapters are regarded as the most important and included among others in daily worship.
When I read this it occurred to me that this further explained the reason why I found the dirt so dry when I was digging for water under Soka Gakkai and Nichiren Shoshu. SGI and Nichiren Shoshu are Shōretsu. The Sacramento Nichiren Buddhist Church and Nichiren Shū are Itchi. (Rev. Igarashi considers himself a member of the Minobu school.) “Those who do not hear the Sūtra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Dharma are far from the wisdom of the Buddha.” To consider any part of the Sūtra to be inferior sucks even more of the moisture from the ground. The wellspring is found in the 28 chapters of the Sūtra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Dharma.