Personal Faith or Just Heritage and Formal Observance

Flower offering
A member of the Sacramento Nichiren Buddhist Church congregation cut these Bird of Paradise and Chrysanthemums flowers from her garden and created this offering for the Nov. 8, 2015, service.

This blog post was originally published Nov. 8, 2015, and is reprinted here as the last quote from the History of Japanese Region book.

For the past several weeks I’ve been publishing quotes from History of Japanese Religion. Today’s quote from the book concerned a battle fought in Miyako in 1536 between followers of Nichiren and soldier-monks of Hiei in alliance with Ikkō fanatics. The Nichiren followers were driven out of town after 21 of their great temples were burnt down.

Shouts of “Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō,” the slogan of the Nichirenites, vied with “Namu Amida Butsu,” the prayer of the Ikkō men; many died on either side, each believing that the fight was fought for the glory of Buddha and that death secured his birth in paradise.

This history of Japanese Buddhism written in 1918 stretches from the passion of warring monks to the then modern view:

For the people at large religion was rather a matter of family heritage and formal observance than a question of personal faith.

Today, I attended the Komatsubara Persecution service at the Sacramento Nichiren Buddhist Church, surrounded by people who have been followers of Nichiren and members of Nichiren Shu for generations. The church in Sacramento was founded in the early 1930s, and many members can tell you the various addresses in downtown Sacramento where the church was located before the current church was built in 1970 in south Sacramento.

During the Dharma talk at the end of the service, Ven. Kenjo Igarashi explained that it is important to remember and celebrate the various trials and tribulations suffered by Nichiren because it was these trials suffered while propagating the Lotus Sutra during the Latter Day of the Law that prove the sutra’s predictions. And they also illustrate Nichiren’s need, and by example our own, to expiate bad karma.

In the late 19th and early 20th Century, there was a revival of Nichiren Buddhism. As History of Japanese Religion described the time:

On the part of many of its enthusiasts, it amounted to a religion of hero-worship, which remains still a force in the religious life of the Japanese. But many of the followers of Nichiren have narrowed down the horizon of Nichiren’s spiritual vision to the limits of chauvinistic patriotism. Thus, the movement has subsided to a great extent, but it is yet to be seen whether Nichiren’s profoundly religious ardour will inspire coming generations.

Attending Nichiren Buddhist services in Sacramento, California, nearly 100 years later, I’d like to think Nichiren’s “profoundly religious ardour” has indeed inspired many generations. And while for some it may be just formal observance and ritual, it remains vital and alive for many others.