University of Hawai'i Press
  • Grace, Symbol, and Liturgy:Constructing the Theological Anthropology of Nichiren Daishonin

Anthony B. Pinn called upon theologians to do theology in "non-traditional ways," by considering overlooked dimensions of African American life and black theology. One way to do this is to consider a non-Abrahamic religious tradition that African Americans practice, such as Nichiren Buddhism. As I am both African American and a Buddhist, failure to consider such overlooked dimensions of African American life and black theology cause people like myself to be excluded. In this article, I examine the writings and liturgical recommendations of Nichiren Daishonin (1222–1282) in order to construct his theological anthropology. Nichiren was a Buddhist monk who publicly broke with the Japanese Tendai tradition in which he had been ordained, by declaring that the best way to express devotion to the teachings contained in the Saddharmapuṇḍarīka Sūtra or The Sūtra on the Lotus Blossom of the Wonderful Law (Lotus Sūtra) was to chant its title in the form of a mantra: Nam-MyōhōRenge-Kyō. I bring Nichiren's writings into dialogue with Karl Rahner's theology of the symbol, as presented by US Hispanic Catholic theologian Miguel Diaz; with feminist theologian Jennifer Beste's work on trauma theory as a challenge to Rahner's theology of grace; and with womanist theologian M. Shawn Copeland's notion of "liturgy of the Spirit." This dialogue shows that for Nichiren, the human being is "Buddha-in-the-world," and has an innate potential to express the life-state of Buddhahood; one primary symbol, the Gohonzon, manifests this potential; and suffering is the result of an innate capacity for "hellish experiences" due to a kind of ignorance known as fundamental darkness. Further, Beste's work on trauma theory and Copeland's notion of "liturgy of the Spirit" show that Nichiren's theological anthropology is concretized in the liturgical practice known as gongyō that he recommended his followers engage in, and demonstrates that Nichiren gives sufficient attention to experiences of brokenness and healing, thereby avoiding the charge of having too positive a theology. [End Page 267]


Nichiren, Buddhism, brokenness, suffering, liturgy, healing, Lotus Sūtra, daimoku, trauma theory, spirit, black theology.

This essay1 is an attempt to join theologian Anthony B. Pinn in doing "theology in non-traditional ways."2 While Pinn was specifically referring to overlooked dimensions of African American life and black theology, I believe it can also refer to considering the theologies of non-Abrahamic religious traditions. Indeed, this is in alignment with Pinn's own project, when he writes, "While black and womanist theologies assume a limited range of religious orientations and creedal formulations, I continue to be concerned with religious pluralism marking African American communities."3 As I am myself both black and Buddhist, this is an endeavor that is particularly pertinent to me. If Abrahamic theologies are the only context in which to consider black and African American life, then I am excluded. If I and people like me are to be included, then we must take Pinn's concern with religious pluralism seriously. This article seeks to examine the writings of Nichiren Daishonin, a thirteenth-century Buddhist monk and his liturgical recommendations, in order to develop what it means to be "Buddhistically human,"4 from his perspective. In other words, I seek to construct Nichiren Daishonin's theological anthropology.

To construct this theological anthropology, I will bring Nichiren's writings into dialogue with themes found in the writings of Karl Rahner, as presented by US Hispanic Catholic theologian Miguel Diaz; with feminist theologian Jennifer Beste; and with womanist theologian M. Shawn Copeland. Diaz's exposition of Karl Rahner's theological anthropology provides the language necessary to define the theological anthropology of Nichiren Daishonin. Specifically, Diaz's understanding of Rahner's central notion of the human being as "spirit-in-the-world";5 Diaz's understanding of Rahner's theology of the symbol;6 and Diaz's attention to suffering within Rahner's theology of grace;7 provide the language necessary to construct Nichiren's theological anthropology. In this essay I show that for Nichiren, the human being is "Buddha-in-the-world," and has an innate potential to express the life-state of Buddhahood; one primary symbol, the Gohonzon, manifests this potential; and suffering is the result of an innate capacity for "hellish experiences" due to a kind of ignorance known as fundamental darkness.8 Further, I will use Jennifer Erin Beste's work on trauma theory as a challenge to Rahner's theology of grace, and M. Shawn Copeland's notion of "liturgy of the Spirit" to show that Nichiren's theological anthropology is concretized in the liturgical practice known as gongyō that he recommended his followers engage in, and that Nichiren gives sufficient attention to suffering and healing, thereby avoiding the charge of having too positive a theology.

Nichiren Daishonin (1222–1282) was a Japanese Buddhist monk ordained initially in the Tendai school of Buddhism. He publicly broke with that tradition on April 28, 1253, when he established his own teaching of devotion to the Saddharmapuṇḍarīka Sūtra, or The Sūtra on the Lotus Blossom of the Wonderful Law (Lotus Sūtra, hereafter). The school of Buddhism that he founded is known as the Nichiren-shū, the Nichiren school. Nichiren taught that the best way to express devotion to the teachings contained in the Lotus Sūtra was to chant its title in the form of a mantra: Nam-MyōhōRenge-Kyō. This mantra is known as the daimoku or great title, as Myōhō-Renge-Kyō is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese characters that form the title of the Lotus Sūtra. By the end of his life, his teachings had coalesced around three core principles [End Page 268] that he termed the Three Great Secret Laws: 1) The Gohonzon or mandalic representation of awakened reality; 2) the Daimoku of Nam-Myōhō-Renge-Kyō; and 3) the Kaidan or place where the Gohonzon is enshrined. Nichiren's teachings survive in compilations of his letters written to his followers, known as the gosho or honored writings.

Rahner, Diaz, and the "Hispanically Human"

We begin with an exploration of Rahner and the "hispanically human." US Hispanic theologian Miguel Diaz, in On Being Human: U.S. Hispanic and Rahnerian Perspectives, sought to explore what it means to be "hispanically human." He writes that "U.S. Hispanic theology, in all of its varying methodological approaches and hermeneutical principles, is self-consciously rooted in a Latina/o context … [and] … takes very seriously the task of 'faith seeking understanding' within a specific socio-historical context."9 In other words, for Diaz, US Hispanic theology takes seriously the experiences of Latina/o human beings and examines these experiences in order to build a theological anthropology. To do this, Diaz builds upon the foundational work done by twentieth-century Catholic theologian Karl Rahner. Explaining his rationale for including Karl Rahner in a book on US Hispanic theology, Diaz writes that "while Rahner's anthropological starting point cannot simply be reproduced in US Hispanic theology, his overall emphasis on anthropology as the starting point of theological reflection can be developed in a way that is more socially, historically, and culturally sensitive, and consequently, more in line with the concerns of US Hispanic theological anthropology."10 With this rationale, Diaz outlines six reasons for engaging Karl Rahner as a dialogue partner.11

Diaz identifies "three central interrelated themes in Rahner's theological anthropology: 1) Rahner's theology of grace; 2) Rahner's theology of person and community; and 3) the social and practical character of Rahner's theological anthropology.12 Within these themes, three notions are central for our analysis of Nichiren Daishonin's theological anthropology: 1) Rahner's theology of symbol; 2) the human person as spirit-in-the-world; and 3) sin.

Rahner's theology of symbol is located in his theology of grace. Diaz explains:

According to Rahner, every being, in order to fulfill its nature expresses itself in something that is distinct from itself but yet one with itself. A "symbol reveals the thing symbolized, and is itself full of the thing symbolized, being its concrete form of existence." A symbol is not an arbitrary representation or a conventional sign that ties together two realities. … [A] symbol is not something separate from that which is symbolized. Rather, a "symbol is the reality, which is constituted by the thing symbolized, as an inner moment of itself."13

For Diaz, this theology of symbol is a means by which we come to understand US Hispanic popular Catholicism, and thus to understand what it means to be "hispanically human." Speaking about US Hispanic Catholic devotional expressions, he states, "U.S. Hispanic popular Catholicism underscores the potential of created reality, and of human realities in particular, to mediate an experience of the sacred."14 In this way [End Page 269] a symbol, as created reality, has the ability to mediate experiences of God and God's grace. US Hispanic theologians understand a symbol to be an object, image, or action that reveals and makes present the sacred.15 Diaz, drawing upon US Hispanic theologians such as Roberto S. Goizueta, shows that such symbols and symbolic expressions derive their appeal from their ability to resonate "analogically with the socio-cultural experiences of marginalization and suffering experienced by U.S. Hispanics."16 Illustrating his point, Diaz gives the example of Our Lady of Guadalupe. After examining various features of Our Lady of Guadalupe such as her "brown skin," Diaz makes the key point that "what can be argued within the U.S. Hispanic context is that the symbol of Guadalupe can be interpreted as an aesthetic and semantic mediator of what the Christian tradition understands by grace."17 This then, is the power of symbols.

In Rahner's theology of person and community, we find his notion of the human person as spirit-in-the-world. Diaz explains:

Rahner's central notion of the human person is spirit-in-the-world. As spirit, Rahner understands the human person as someone who is always more than his or her particularity. Having God as her or his referent, and characterized by an openness to and desire for union with God, the human person is always self-transcendent. Thus, what ultimately concerns the human person resides in yet, at the same time, escapes the breadth of worldly particularities.18

Diaz makes clear that with this notion, Rahner takes human embodiment seriously, with freedom as a core principle. For Rahner the spiritual aspects of the person (as spirit) cannot be separated from the material aspects. As Diaz writes, "Rahner's notions of spirit-in-the-world and of human freedom make clear that persons are integral beings composed of matter and spirit and as such are open to experience the more spiritual realities (spirit, grace, the reign of God) within their worldly realities (body, human nature, society)."19 In Diaz's understanding, because Rahner sees the human person as spirit-in-the-world and freedom, he rejects opposition between the individual and community. Diaz states, "For Rahner, individuality and the abundance of being occur through intimate unity and mutual participation with an other."20 Diaz sees this as upholding the uniqueness of the individual while avoiding a slide into individualism. Addressing the ways in which US Hispanic theology dialogues with Rahnerian spirit-in-the-world and freedom, Diaz writes: "The U.S. Hispanic notion of freedom emerges within the U.S. Hispanic approach to community. … In U.S. Hispanic theology, community is valued because this theology underscores that individuals are not merely relational and free beings, but members of wholes."21

From the third of the central themes that Diaz draws from Rahner, the social and practical character of Rahner's theological anthropology, comes the last of the three central notions we are considering: suffering. If the human person is intimately tied to community, as Diaz argues it is for Rahner, then attention must be turned to socio-practical realities. Addressing the criticism that Rahner's theological anthropology gives insufficient attention to experiences of sin and brokenness, Diaz writes: "When concrete historical experiences are made the starting point of theological reflections, as they have been in the case of U.S. Hispanic theology, and when these experiences [End Page 270] underscore suffering and sin (immigration, social injustices, gender exploitation), the confidence in the 'always and everywhere' presence of grace is somehow shaken and the notion needs to be somewhat refined accordingly."22 Considering this, Diaz points to ways in which the focus of US Hispanic theological anthropology has sought to do this necessary refining: "Given the U.S. Hispanic theological concerns … it makes much sense to express the interaction between the human and the divine in terms of not only a Thomistic nature/grace model, but also an older biblical and Augustinian tradition that underscores a grace/sin model. … These two models are not incompatible with one another."23 In this process of refining, Diaz shows the way in which these two models can be unified within US Hispanic theology. With this overview of Rahner and Diaz complete, we can now utilize their language to analyze the human person in Nichiren Daishonin's teachings.

nichiren and the buddhistically human

Nichiren was first ordained as a monk in the Tendai school of Japanese Buddhism, which was itself based on the T'ien T'ai school of Chinese Buddhism. The T'ien T'ai school was developed by the Chinese monk Chih-i (538–597 ce). Chih-i based his teachings on the Lotus Sūtra and its teaching of universal Buddhahood.24 Using passages from this sūtra, Chih-i laid out a unique hermeneutical principle known as ichinen sanzen or "three thousand realms in one thought/life moment" to prove that each human being had the potential to reveal their innate Buddhahood. Nichiren relied heavily upon the doctrine of ichinen sanzen in his understanding of the human person, and thus to understand his thought, we will turn now to a study of this doctrine.

The word ichinen means "a single thought or thought moment"; sanzen means "three thousand." Jacqueline Stone, a noted scholar of Japanese Buddhism, explains, "The 'single thought-moment' indicates the briefest possible instant in the thoughts of ordinary worldlings that arise from one moment to the next, while the 'three thousand realms' indicates the whole of phenomenal reality."25 The concept of three thousand realms derives from Chih-i's combining the traditional Mahāyāna Buddhist understanding that there are ten worlds and three realms, with a reading of the second chapter of the Lotus Sūtra, the "Expedient Means" chapter. These worlds are (ranged from lowest to highest): 1) Hell; 2) Hunger; 3) Animality; 4) Anger; 5) Humans; 6) Heaven; 7) Voice-Hearer Disciples; 8) Solitary, Cause Awakened Beings; 9) Bodhisattvas; and 10) Buddhahood.26 The three realms are: 1) the realm of the five components;27 2) the realm of individual beings;28 and 3) the realm of the environment.29 The Expedient Means chapter records Śākyamuni Buddha as saying: "Shariputra, to sum it up: the buddhas have fully realized the Law that is limitless, boundless, never attained before. But stop, Shariputra, I will say no more. … The true aspect of allphenomena can only be understood and shared between buddhas. This reality consists of the appearance, nature, entity, power, influence, internal cause, relation, latent effect, manifest effect, and their consistency from beginning to end."30 The list beginning with "appearance" and ending with "consistency from beginning to end," is collectively known as the ten factors. Each of the ten worlds listed has the potential [End Page 271] to express any of the other worlds, making for a total of one hundred possible worlds. Each world also possesses all of the ten factors, for a total of one thousand factors. These one thousand factors manifest across the three realms, making for a total of three thousand realms.

While these lists and numbers may appear to be hairsplitting, for Chih-i they proved that all beings (especially human beings) had the potential for Buddhahood. Take the example of a being in the world of Hell. For this individual, their environment will be one of intense (hellish) suffering, they will experience it as such, and it will "appear" (following the schema of the ten factors) to them as such at each moment. However, according to this same principle, since each world possesses all the others, they have the possibility to experience awakening, or the world of Buddhahood. The same is true for beings in all the worlds, including most importantly, the human world. This ability for each world to possess the others is known as mutual possession. It is easy to lose sight of the key point within this framework, but as Stone, quoting Paul Swanson, clarifies: "The number three thousand is itself arbitrary; the point is that 'all of reality is an integrated, interdependent unity,' as Paul Swanson puts it."31

For Nichiren, mutual possession is the most important aspect of ichinen sanzen. In Nichiren's writings, the ontological existence of the ten worlds are deemphasized in favor of a more phenomenological perspective. In other words, they become life-states that human beings can experience within themselves. In this context, Nichiren writes:

First of all, as to the question of where exactly hell and the Buddha exist, one sutra states that hell exists underground, and another sutra says that the Buddha is in the west. Closer examination, however, reveals that both exist in our five-foot body. … [T]he Buddha dwells within our hearts. For example, flint has the potential to produce fire, and gems have intrinsic value. We ordinary people can see neither our own eyelashes, which are so close, nor the heavens in the distance. Likewise, we do not see that the Buddha exists in our own hearts.32

Thus, we can see that for Nichiren, both the world of hell and the worlds of Buddhahood are both experienced within one's own body and mind. In another writing, Nichiren proclaims: "[O]ne's own self, or life, at the same time possesses the nature of all living beings in the Ten Worlds. Therefore this self has from the beginning been in possession of one's own realm of Buddhahood and of the realms of Buddhahood possessed by all other living beings. Therefore when one attains Buddhahood one does not take on some new or 'other' Buddha identity."33

If the central notion of the human person for Rahner—according to Diaz—is the human person as spirit-in-the-world, for Nichiren it is undoubtedly that the human person is Buddha-in-the-world. As such, rather than thinking of the Buddha as a transcendent being or Buddhahood as a transcendent principle beyond human beings, Nichiren considers Buddhahood to be the very nature of the human person; Nichiren considers the Buddha to be inherent in the human person.34 This is true due to the [End Page 272] mutual possession of the ten worlds. Just as the human person as spirit-in-the-world was a cornerstone of Rahner's theology of grace, so the human person as Buddha-in-the-world was a cornerstone of Nichiren's understanding of awakening. Each moment could offer awakening, since at any life-moment Buddhahood could be manifested. Another feature of the ichinen sanzen hermenutic would prove vital to Nichiren: the ability for insentient aspects of the environment (the third of the three realms) to manifest Buddhahood. This provided the doctrinal foundation for his primary symbol: the Gohonzon.

Nichiren's Gohonzon

Gohonzon is a Japanese word that means honored (go) object of worship (honzon). As an object of worship, the Gohonzon is a maṇḍala, in the form of a calligraphic scroll, and typically takes the form of a painting, scroll, or statue, on which is depicted an "awakened" vision of the person and the world. According to the Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, maṇḍalas are "[e]mployed widely throughout South, East, and Central Asia … highly flexible in form, function, and meaning."35 As a symbol, the Gohonzon is in line with what Diaz (on page 270), quoting Goizueta, defines as "an object, image, or action that reveals, mediates, and makes present what may be called the ineffable, the holy, the sacred, or the supernatural."36 For Nichiren, the Gohonzon he inscribed for his followers functions as the primary symbol for awakened reality. The symbol of the Gohonzon is central to Nichiren's understanding of the human person.

In many writings, Nichiren describes the maṇḍala that he inscribed. Below are two selections where Nichiren describes the Gohonzon:

Myoho-renge-kyo appears in the center of the tower with the Buddhas … and, flanking them … [a]ll the other major and minor bodhisattvas.37

Without exception, all these Buddhas, bodhisattvas, great sages, and, in general, all the various beings of the two worlds and the eight groups who appear in the "Introduction" chapter of the Lotus Sutra dwell in this Gohonzon. Illuminated by the light of the five characters of the Mystic Law, they display the dignified attributes that they inherently possess. This is the object of devotion.38

Thus, Nichiren's Gohonzon embodies the full spectrum of reality. It serves as a visual depiction of the principle of Buddhahood, which is innate in all of the ten life-states. It is able to function in this way because of the principle of ichinen sanzen. In her research, Stone explained that for Nichiren, this principle formed a doctrinal basis for his maṇḍala, since it proved that insentient forms or material objects could manifest Buddhahood.39 In Nichiren's own words:

[T]he principle of the hundred worlds and thousand factors and that of three thousand realms in a single moment of life, which explains that even insentient beings are endowed with the ten factors of life, and that they are endowed with both material and spiritual aspects … [is Buddhist, and the] … scriptures permit wooden or painted images to be used as objects of devotion, but T'ien-t'ai [End Page 273] and his followers were the first to explain the principle behind this practice. If a piece of wood or paper lacked the cause and effect [of Buddhahood] in either the material or the spiritual aspect, it would be futile to rely on it as an object of devotion.40

Recall here that one aspect of ichinen sanzen is the notion that there are three realms, the third of which is the environment, and it includes insentient matter, such as wood, trees, and even rocks. Recall also that in this same doctrine, there are ten factors and that these ten factors express themselves in the environment. If one world or life-state, in this case Buddhahood, adheres in all the other worlds, has the ten factors, and expresses itself in any aspect of the environment, then it follows that an object such as an inscribed scroll can manifest Buddhahood. This is analogous to Diaz's highlighting (see above on page 270) that for US Hispanic theology, "created reality" has the "potential … to mediate an experience of the sacred." Here, the "created reality" is the inscribed Gohonzon and the experience of the sacred is the lifestate of "Buddhahood."

Nichiren makes it clear that by possessing this Gohonzon, one can experience the state of Buddhahood in their lives that is ordinarily hidden. This begs two questions: why is there a need for the symbol of the Gohonzon and why is the world of Buddhahood hidden from our ordinary experiences? To answer this question, we must examine ignorance.

brokenness: jennifer beste's objections to "positive theology"

Any twenty-first-century theology that seeks to utilize Karl Rahner's theology of grace in the construction of a theological anthropology must address the critiques of Rahner that label his theology of grace as being too positive, as not taking seriously enough the reality of suffering and brokenness. Above, we saw Miguel Diaz address this while discussing the ways in which US Hispanic theology develops from Rahnerian foundations. Diaz writes that, "Persons, to recall U.S. Hispanic understandings 'are not just an idea or definition, but historical faces marked by space and time.' In this sense, the human is not a 'what' but a 'who' responding to grace 'in,' 'with,' and 'under' the impulse of historical experiences."41 For US Hispanic theology, these "historical experiences" include immigration, gender exploitation, displacement, and social injustices, among others. Thus, Diaz acknowledges that it makes sense to discuss the experiences of the human person in both a nature/grace model, and a grace/sin model (page 270 above; 121 of Diaz). Feminist theologian Jennifer Erin Beste has also addressed this issue. We will examine Beste's critique, before exploring the ways in which the theological anthropology that we have been constructing for Nichiren Daishonin might respond.

In God and the Victim: Traumatic Intrusions on Grace and Freedom, Jennifer Erin Beste discusses trauma theory and the ways in which it challenges Karl Rahner's conceptions of selfhood and freedom. Briefly, trauma theory is defined by Dr. Susannah [End Page 274] Radstone as "including both work around the experience of survivors of the Holocaust and other catastrophic personal and collective experiences and the theoretical and methodological innovations that might be derived from this work."42 The nature of the self and of freedom are of course key elements in Rahner's theology of grace. Beste acknowledges three fundamental challenges to Rahner's theology of grace: 1) the power and efficacy of God's grace; 2) how God mediates divine grace to all persons; and 3) the adequacy of Rahner's paradigmatic descriptions of grace.43 The second of these, how God mediates grace to all persons, is our primary concern here. Of Rahner, Beste writes:

In his most well-known articles on grace and freedom, Rahner does not typically focus on how God mediates grace; instead, he seems content simply to assert that God somehow provides the graced condition to enable our freedom to effect a fundamental option. Rahner frequently describes God's self-offer to every person as effecting ontological, transformative changes in human consciousness that make possible our freedom for unlimited self-disposal … these transformative effects, called created gifts of grace, elevate and heal human nature, enabling each individual to accept God's self-offer.44

When considered in the light of trauma theory, Beste sees an issue with this lack of attention to how grace is mediated. In the sentence following the quoted passage, Beste states that, "Reading these passages, the reader can easily be led to imagine that, despite horrendous evils, God's grace mysteriously provides the graced condition to enable each person's free choice to love God, self, and others."45 In examining the cases of traumatic experiences such as those of incest victims, Beste calls upon us to question how exactly grace is mediated in such cases. She compels us to ask if it is mediated at all in these cases.

If these are "created gifts of grace," are we then to suppose that the experience of incest serves to "elevate and heal human nature?" Rahner would say yes, as Beste explains his view by saying, "Rahner claims that our experience of God and divine grace is historically mediated by any categorical event in which a subject experiences subjectivity and freedom."46 Beste counters this with a resounding no, calling out the insufficiency of Rahner's view. Beste states unequivocally: "Experiences of both traumatization and recovery strongly suggest that supportive relationships with others are a primary way in which God's self-communication and the graced condition to accept this offer are categorically mediated to persons."47 With this understanding, Beste goes on to outline a "revised Rahnerian theology of freedom and grace." Her conclusion is that a revised Rahnerian account of freedom and grace emphasizes "that our main task is to ensure that we and our neighbors have sufficient conditions that enable us to realize our freedom and live out a 'yes' to God."48 Thus, Beste shows that Rahner's "positive theology" must be augmented and revised by acknowledging experiences that do not mediate grace.

In constructing Nichiren Daishonin's anthropology on the basis of Rahnerian grace and symbol, we must address whether Nichiren Daishonin's conception of the person as "Buddha-in-the-world" falls to the same critique of being too positive a [End Page 275] theology. If not, does Nichiren address experiences of brokenness? In answering this question, we return to Nichiren's phenomenological understanding of the ten worlds as being life-states. Recall that Nichiren viewed the ten worlds less as ontologically existent worlds, than as phenomenological life-states that a person could experience, moment-to-moment (ichinen). Earlier it was explained in detail how, due to mutual possession, no matter what state a person was experiencing (hell, hunger, anger, etc.), they could bring forth the state of Buddhahood. Adhering to this understanding, Nichiren affirmed, as do all Buddhist sects, the reality of suffering and hellish experiences.

In the classical schema of the Buddhist assessment of the nature of reality—the Four Noble Truths—the first assessment is the reality of duḥkha. Duḥkha is often translated as suffering, and conveys a sense of persistent, existential angst. In the Dham macakkappavattana Sutta (Skt. Dharmacakrapravartana Sūtra; The discourse on the setting in motion the wheel of the Law), Śākyamuni Buddha is recorded as saying:

Suffering, as a noble truth, is this: Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief and despair are suffering; association with the loathed is suffering, dissociation from the loved is suffering, not to get what one wants is suffering—in short, suffering is the five categories of clinging objects. The origin of suffering, as a noble truth, is this: It is the craving that produces renewal of being accompanied by enjoyment and lust, and enjoying this and that; in other words, craving for sensual desires, craving for being, craving for non-being.49

In this text, Śākyamuni Buddha calls attention to the fact that many of life's experiences are hellish, comprised of duḥkha or suffering. According to Śākyamuni Buddha's teachings, there is no escaping this truth. The thing to do, the purpose of the Buddhist path as outlined by Śākyamuni Buddha, is to come to understand the origins of this duḥkha and thereby come to know that it can and should be ended. He located these origins in tṛṣṇā or thirst, a misplaced craving for experiences that ultimately lead to more suffering. This repeated cycle of craving and suffering is propelled by karma or the accumulated, intentional actions of body, speech, and mind and their effects.50

While Nichiren held to the basics of this model's understanding, he located the origin of duḥkha and the hellish experiences that comprise it elsewhere. To Nichiren, the root issue was a kind of ignorance that he termed fundamental darkness or ignorance to the true nature of life. The true nature of the human person's life is that they have the innate life-state of Buddhahood, that they are Buddha-in-the-world. Ignorance of this fact causes human beings to suffer and inflict suffering on others. As Nichiren wrote to a follower:

Enlightenment means enlightenment to the essential nature of phenomena, and delusion, ignorance of it. It is like the case of a person who in a dream sees himself performing various good and evil actions. After he wakes up and considers the matter, he realizes that it was all a dream produced by his own mind. [End Page 276]

This mind of his corresponds to the single principle of the essential nature of phenomena, the true aspect of reality, while the good and evil that appeared in the dream correspond to enlightenment and delusion. When one becomes aware of this, it is clear that one should discard the ignorance associated with evil and delusion, and take as one's basis the awakening that is characterized by goodness and enlightenment.51

In other words, the essential nature of phenomena, including the human person, is innate Buddhahood and delusion or fundamental darkness, is ignorance of this fact. Nichiren would say that the kinds of suffering inflicted on others that Beste addresses, such as the perpetrators of incest and abuse, is the result of the perpetrators' ignorance of their own innate Buddhahood and the innate Buddhahood of their victims. Nichiren would further consider attempts to downplay and ignore victim experiences as a manifestation of ignorance of the victim's innate Buddhahood. While Nichiren of course never addressed the modern concept of trauma theory, he was acutely aware of the sufferings inflicted upon his followers by various social, personal, and interpersonal forces, and his conviction was that this stemmed from the aforementioned fundamental darkness. In the Risshō Ankoku Ron (On establishing the correct teaching for the peace of the land), one of Nichiren's most famous letters written in the form of a dialogue between guest and host, Nichiren has the guest observe:

But despite all these efforts, they merely exhaust themselves in vain. Famine and epidemics rage more fiercely than ever, beggars are everywhere in sight, and scenes of death fill our eyes. Corpses pile up in mounds like observation platforms, and dead bodies lie side by side like planks on a bridge. If we look about, we find that the sun and moon continue to move in their accustomed orbits, and the five planets follow the proper course. The three treasures of Buddhism continue to exist, and the period of a hundred reigns has not yet expired. Then why is it that the world has already fallen into decline and that the laws of the state have come to an end? What is wrong? What error has been committed?52

During the period in which Nichiren lived, known as the Kamakura Era (1185–1333), there were famines, violence, and repeated threats from the Mongol Empire.53 As a result, there were those in society, including Nichiren, who believed that they were living in mappō, or the time in which the Buddhist teachings would decline and bring a subsequent societal decline. The description of society given in the passage follows this line of thinking. Nichiren has the guest question the host as to why, though many religious teachings prevail throughout the land there is nothing but suffering. To the guest, Nichiren as host replies:

When I observe carefully the state of the world today, I see people who give way to doubt because of the lack of understanding. … They look up at the heavens and mouth their resentment, or gaze down at the earth and sink deep into despair. I have pondered the matter carefully … and have looked a little at the scriptures for an answer. The people of today all turn their backs upon what is right; to a person, they give their allegiance to evil. This is the reason [End Page 277] that the benevolent deities have abandoned the nation and departed together, that sages leave and do not return. And in their stead devils and demons come, and disasters and calamities occur.54

In the host's reply, he states that the reason for this pervasive suffering is that people have turned their backs on "what is right," which Nichiren goes on to name as the Lotus Sūtra's teaching of innate Buddhahood. Again, for Nichiren, this is a manifestation of fundamental darkness. In other letters, Nichiren offers specific guidance to his followers in response to situations that arise in their lives due to this fundamental darkness.

We are now in a position to answer the question that began this section: Does Nichiren give sufficient attention to experiences of brokenness and thereby avoid having too positive a theology? The exploration above makes clear that Nichiren does indeed address experiences of brokenness and suffering in his writings. In constructing Nichiren's theological anthropology, we can rely upon Nichiren's phenomenological understanding of the ten life-states and his attention to the root cause of suffering, namely ignorance to the innateness of the tenth life-state of Buddhahood, which he identified as fundamental darkness, to account for experiences of brokenness and suffering.

Nichiren's theological anthropology would be incomplete without considering the way in which Nichiren suggested the human person could move from brokenness to wholeness, or from fundamental darkness to awakening to their innate life-state of Buddhahood, their true identity as Buddha-in-the-world. For this, we turn to our final section: liturgy.


Liturgy has long been an important focus in the theological study of Christianity.55 In his contribution to Discourse in Ritual Studies, Hans Schilderman defined liturgy as "religious practice in an expressed, shared, committed and prescribed form."56 And it is well known that one meaning of the Greek term leiturgia is "work of the people." Commenting on this meaning, Christian liturgical scholar Kevin Irwin, in Models of the Eucharist, explains, "It always refers to a work, an event, an action undertaken by the whole church."57 M. Shawn Copeland, a womanist Catholic theologian, points to another dimension of liturgy: the healing dimension.

In her contribution to the edited volume, Themes in Feminist Theology for the New Millennium (I), M. Shawn Copeland offers a sustained reflection on what it means to be human, by focusing on the black woman's embodiment. While addressing embodiment and womanist theology is beyond the scope of this article, Copeland's theme of ritual and liturgical healing is pertinent to our interests in Nichiren's liturgical practices. Thus, a brief outline of Copeland's contribution will prove fruitful. Copeland begins her reflection by looking at slavery and the objectification of black bodies, and the egregious exploitation of the bodies of black women. Writing of what it means to be a slave, Copeland says, "The captive body is no longer subject, but object. … [End Page 278] Thus, slavery rendered the black woman's body an object of property, an object of production, and an object of reproduction, of erotic violence."58 She emphasizes that the institution of slavery was "structured, sanctioned, interpreted, and enforced by the laws of the United States."59 As such, the institution was predicated on a complete and utter lack of freedom. Sharing firsthand narratives of the enslaved, Copeland refuses to shy away from any aspect of the brutality that was slavery. Yet, she does not only speak of slaves as victims, she also speaks of resistance.

Already, Copeland's intention to highlight the ways in which slaves resisted is anticipated by her statement that "the enslavement of Africans in the United States neither exhausts, nor circumscribes, African American experience."60 After detailing the history of slavery through slave narratives, Copeland highlights the active resistance of slaves. She explains:

Slavery exacted a perverse intellectual, spiritual, psychological, and physical toll. By law and by custom, enslaved women (and men) were deprived of the most rudimentary skills for meaningful, transformative education. Still, enslaved women (and men) risked beatings, even mutilation and disfigurement, in order to learn to read and write. Verbally and physically intimidated, enslaved women (and men) were coerced to perform a grotesque pantomime of survival. … Further, on many plantations, the enslaved people were forbidden to worship, to invoke the Spirit. Still, again, they risked abuse and assault to withdraw to secret places in woods and gullies to commune with the Supreme Author of Freedom. … [I]n resisting domination, the enslaved people nurtured a sense of themselves as subjects of freedom.61

Copeland shows that far from being passive objects of chattel slavery, enslaved women and men longed for freedom, envisioned freedom, and actively resisted at great risk to their lives; many had the scars to prove it. As this passage demonstrates, belief in the necessity of "invoking the Spirit" and the need to "commune with the Supreme Author of Freedom" were driving forces in their resistance.62 This leads to healing. After slavery comes freedom, and the opportunity to be and heal. Copeland shares: "Freedom from enslavement was freedom for healing, for effective psychic healing and growth, for proper self love, for loving flesh—for loving the body. The body is a site of divine revelation, and thus a basic human sacramental. … So, the freedom of the subject for love is enfleshed in the woman (or man) who consciously and intentionally in word and in deed assumes and affirms personhood and humanity."63 This freedom for love and healing leads to Copeland's notion of the "liturgy of the Spirit."

Copeland closes her piece by discussing this liturgy of the Spirit, as it is portrayed in Toni Morrison's Beloved. She writes that Morrison "offers a powerful portrait of ritual healing and blessing of black flesh."64 Baby Suggs, a character in Morrison's novel, presides over a gathering in a clearing in the woods in which women, men, and children are invited to give full expression to all parts of themselves. In the clearing, roles become reversed as men broke free of the rigidity of bondage to dance with grace and fluidity, women were enjoined to let flow tears that had been held back by the nature of their situation, and children were called upon to be children (as opposed to [End Page 279] workers in a field). Baby Suggs invites them all to love all parts of themselves, including especially their hearts. Of this, Copeland proclaims, "To reject one's heart is to reject all the possibility and power of life, of being human, of being free."65 Liturgy and practice, for Copeland—and demonstrated by Morrison—is the place where the heart is accepted and freedom is displayed. Liturgy then has the potential to heal brokenness.

While liturgy has long been a focus in Christian theology, less attention has been paid to liturgy in the study of Buddhism. For Nichiren, as for Copeland, liturgical practice enables a healing of the divide between brokenness and healing, or between the life-state of Buddhahood and fundamental darkness. The liturgical practice that Nichiren recommended for his followers was a practice known as gongyō. Gongyō means assiduous practice and it consists of two portions: recitation of chapters two and sixteen of the Lotus Sūtra; and repetition of the daimoku, the mantra of Nam-Myōhō-Renge-Kyō. This practice is done in front of an enshrined Gohonzon. Nichiren, aligning himself with the traditional interpretations of Chih-i and the T'ien T'ai school, considered chapters two and sixteen to be the most important of the entire Lotus Sūtra.66 In the Expedient Means chapter Śākyamuni Buddha reveals that his purpose is to enable all beings to awaken to their innate Buddhahood. Additionally, in this chapter he describes the ten factors that comprise a key aspect of ichinen sanzen (as shown above). In the Life Span chapter, Śākyamuni Buddha reveals that Buddhahood is an undying and eternal principle. The combined force of these two chapters contain the crux of the message of the Lotus Sūtra according to Nichiren and the understanding he inherited. But, the most significant portion of the liturgy is chanting the daimoku.

As explained above, daimoku means great title, and while it can refer to any text's title, in Nichiren's writings it refers exclusively to the title of the Lotus Sūtra, in the form of the mantra Nam-Myōhō-Renge-Kyō. Mantra practices have a long history within Buddhism and Indian religious traditions. Scholar of Indian religions, Dr. Staneshwar Timalsina explains, "The concept of mantra cannot be reduced to a single interpretation. … The power of mantra is believed to transcend its linguistic ability to signify something, and they often defy the rules of spoken language. Thus the efficacy of a mantra relies less on grammatical correctness."67 For our purposes, the basic principle of mantra is that there is a connection between words and absolute reality and further, words can transform reality.

For Nichiren each word of the daimoku has meaning. Nam represents the act of devoting oneself to a teaching or principle; Myōhō represents the unfathomable or mystic Law contained in the Lotus Sūtra; Renge represents a lotus flower that symbolizes cause-effect relationships and karma; and Kyō means a vocalized teaching. Together, Nam-Myōhō-Renge-Kyō expresses devotion to the teachings of the Lotus Sūtra.68 Nichiren explained to his followers that chanting the daimoku is the way to manifest the innate life-state of Buddhahood. Thus, chanting the daimoku is the key to manifesting the full potential of the human person. By manifesting one's innate Buddhahood, there is also healing from experiences of suffering and brokenness. Nichiren makes this clear by explaining: [End Page 280]

If you wish to free yourself from the sufferings of birth and death you have endured since time without beginning and to attain without fail unsurpassed enlightenment in this lifetime, you must perceive the mystic truth that is originally inherent in all living beings. This truth is Myoho-renge-kyo. Chanting Myoho-renge-kyo will therefore enable you to grasp the mystic truth innate in all life. When deluded, one is called an ordinary being, but when enlightened, one is called a Buddha. This is similar to a tarnished mirror that will shine like a jewel when polished. A mind now clouded by the illusions of the innate darkness of life is like a tarnished mirror, but when polished, it is sure to become like a clear mirror, reflecting the essential nature of phenomena and the true aspect of reality. Arouse deep faith, and diligently polish your mirror day and night. How should you polish it? Only by chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo [to the Gohonzon].69

In this passage, Nichiren calls the human person plagued by sufferings (and experiences of brokenness) an ordinary being and likens their condition to that of a "tarnished mirror." But, as a tarnished mirror can be polished, so too can the human person. The liturgical practice of gongyō, including the chanting of the daimoku, performed in front of the Gohonzon is the way to polish the mirror and heal brokenness.


In this essay I set out to construct Nichiren Daishonin's theological anthropology, through his teachings about the human person. To do so, I utilized the language of Karl Rahner's notions of the human person as spirit-in-the world and his theology of symbol, in order to highlight analogous concepts in Nichiren's writings: the innate life-state of Buddhahood rendering the person as Buddha-in-the-world and the inscription of the Gohonzon as the symbol that represents the full expression of this life-state. I showed how Miguel Diaz's dialogue with themes found in Karl Rahner's work, in the book On Being Human, provided a model by which a similar dialogue could be had between Rahnerian themes and Nichiren. Specifically, Miguel Diaz's notion of the "hispanically human" provided a guide for developing what it means to be "buddhistically human," in Nichiren's thought.

To be "buddhistically human" means to be awakened to and cognizant of the innate life-state of Buddhahood. It also means acknowledging that the human person (and the situations they find themselves in) is sometimes asleep to this life-state, and they suffer. Using Jennifer Erin Beste's work on trauma theory and the challenges that it presents to Rahner's overly positive theology, we also saw that for Nichiren, this falling short and this suffering is due to fundamental darkness, being ignorant to the life-state of Buddhahood that is innate. Finally, this article examined the possibility for liturgical healing of trauma, brokenness, and suffering through an examination of the work of Catholic womanist theologian M. Shawn Copeland. Through Copeland we looked at the brokenness and suffering perpetuated in the institution of slavery. Yet, Copeland showed that through invocation of the Spirit and communion with the Supreme Author of Freedom, slaves resisted and eventually found healing. This [End Page 281] healing was described in narrative form through the work of author Toni Morrison and her offering of a "liturgy of the Spirit." With this, we were able to look anew at Nichiren's prescribed liturgical practice of gongyō, performed in front of the Gohonzon. In Nichiren's teaching, gongyō is the way in which the suffering and brokenness resulting from fundamental darkness is healed into the recognition and actualization of the life-state of Buddhahood.

With this essay I sought to join Anthony B. Pinn in doing theology in non-traditional ways, and to contribute to religious pluralism by using Christian theology to look beyond to other kinds of theology. In so doing, I hope to have contributed to the ever relevant work of Buddhist-Christian dialogue. Moreover, I hope to have opened a new avenue in the study of Nichiren Daishonin's teachings by focusing on the study of liturgy therein.


1. I am grateful to Dr. Karen Enriquez for her detailed comments on this article. I am also grateful to Kelly Craig for her keen editorial eye.

3. Ibid., xi.

4. "Buddhistically human," is a play on Miguel Diaz's notion of "hispanically human."

6. See ibid., 92.

7. See ibid., 107.

8. All technical vocabulary, regardless of language, will be italicized along with definitions. Common terms will not be italicized. Materials cited follow the style used by the author quoted.

10. Ibid., 85.

11. See ibid., 79–83.

12. Ibid., 86.

13. Ibid., 92–93.

14. Ibid., 61.

17. Ibid., 71.

18. Ibid., 96.

19. Ibid., 98.

20. Ibid., 99.

21. Ibid., 132.

22. Ibid., 122.

23. Ibid., 121–122.

26. For an in-depth exploration of these worlds, see Stone, Original Enlightenment, 179–183.

27. The five components are: form, perception, conception, volition, and consciousness. This is how Buddhism analyzes all living beings. Instead of a "self," sentient beings have these components.

28. The individual is the complete entity of the five components, that is, a person.

29. The environment comprises the surroundings of the individual.

34. Traditionally, in Mahāyāna Buddhist exegesis, this line of thought is known as tathāgata-garbha thought, or the womb of the thus come–thus gone one. It is also sometimes referred to as buddha-dhātu, or the substrate of awakening. For a discussion of these ideas in relation to T'ien T'ai Buddhism, Chih-i, and Nichiren, see Stone, Original Enlightenment, 8–10.

35. The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, s.v. "maṇḍala."

38. Ibid., 832.

44. Ibid., 89.

45. Ibid.

46. Ibid., 90.

47. Ibid.

48. Ibid., 104.

52. Ibid., 6–7.

55. Portions of this section are taken, with modifications, from the author's paper, "Ethical Transformation: A Comparative Study of the Liturgy of the Eucharistic Prayer IV from the Roman Missal and the Liturgy of the Sōka Gakkai International," Loyola Marymount University, 2017.

59. Ibid., 71–74.

60. Ibid., 70–71.

61. Ibid., 78–79.

62. It should be noted that Copeland devotes significant space in her article to the role Christianity played in providing doctrinal justification and support for slavery. See Copeland, Enfleshing Freedom, 69–70.

63. Ibid., 89.

64. Ibid., 90.

65. Ibid., 91.

66. For Nichiren's reasoning behind recommending these two chapters, see Nichiren, vol. I, 71.

68. For Nichiren's gloss on the efficacy of chanting the daimoku, see Nichiren, vol. I, 887.

69. Ibid., 3–4.


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