The word “daimoku” generally means “title” in Japanese. In Nichiren Buddhism, in particular, “Namu Myoho Renge Kyo” is called “O-daimoku” or “Daimoku”. The letter “O” is an honorific in the Japanese language that signals respect. “Namu” means to “take refuge”. Some people chant its abbreviation “Nam” instead of “Namu”. To chant “Namu Myoho Renge Kyo” is to express the joy and vow of devotion to the Lotus Sutra.
Since the time of the Chinese Buddhist monk Zhiyi, it is widely accepted that Myoho Renge Kyo sums up the entirety of the Lotus Sutra and brings together the universal truths.
Historically, it has been taught that there are great merits in embracing and reciting the titles of the Mahayana sutras. For example, in the Tendai school, when practising the ritual of “Hokke-Sembo”, which is to recite the Lotus Sutra and acknowledge and show remorse for our impurities, O-daimoku was chanted as a part of taking refuge in the Three Treasures. However, the practice of chanting O-daimoku repeatedly was initiated and spread throughout Japan by Nichiren as an exclusive practice. For this reason, its position differs – although all Nichiren schools hold O-daimoku in high esteem. For example, in the schools that assume to accomplish the three principles of precepts, meditation and wisdom, which are generally regarded as the norms of Buddhist practice, chanting O-daimoku is a basic practice. But other schools believe that Namu Myoho Renge Kyo contains all the merits of the Buddha’s wisdom and compassion, and that the chanting of O-daimoku is the core practice that enables people to attain buddhahood (awakening). In this case, chanting is the most revered practice.
In the case of those who regard Nichiren as the Original Buddha, they go one step further and say that Namu Myoho Renge Kyo, which Nichiren revealed, goes beyond the Lotus Sutra preached by Shakyamuni.
As for the length of chanting, some denominations believe that sincerity is more important than how long the chanting goes on for, while other denominations place great importance on repetition and length of time.
Like other Nichiren schools, Rissho Kosei-kai also respects O-daimoku and considers chanting as part of our daily practice. However, we think it is only a basic practice, and it is not possible to attain buddhahood through chanting O-daimoku only. Instead, we aim to accomplish the three principles of precepts, meditation and wisdom, which are generally regarded as the norms of Buddhist practice, by practising the Four Faiths and the Five Grades (see below for details) taught in the Lotus Sutra on a daily basis based on the faith established through chanting. Although Nichiren considered this method of practice to be his true intention, due to the historical background of the time where literacy rates were low, only Nichiren and a few of his disciples were able to practise it. Today, however, with the improvement of the level of knowledge through education, it is possible for anyone to practise it as long as they are committed to pursuing enlightenment (an awakened mind).
O-daimoku brings people to a state of faith
In his Shishin Gohon-shō (the Four Faiths and the Five Grades), Nichiren clearly stated the doctrinal basis for the practice of chanting O-daimoku as follows: After the passing away of Shakyamuni Buddha, the practice is based on the Five Grades, which are described in Chapter 17 of the Lotus Sutra “Specification of Merits”, namely: (1) rejoicing in the sutra for the first time, (2) reading and reciting the sutra, (3) teaching the Dharma to others, (4) practising the Six Paramitas as we are capable, and (5) practising the Six Paramitas perfectly. As “Namu Myoho Renge Kyo” expresses the joy and vow to take refuge in the truth taught in the Lotus Sutra, it is a practice that corresponds to (1) rejoicing.
Today, many people are able to read, understand, and express their understanding of the sutras. This means that they can (2) read and recite the sutra and (3) teach the Dharma to others. However, at the time of Nichiren, the literacy rate in Japan was so low that it was impossible for all but a few people to understand and carry out such practices. In the past, Nichiren was also witnessing people routinely engaging in violent protest due to the wars and subsequent famines and poverty that resulted at that time. Also, due to an increase in sectarianism, the government tried to exile or behead those people and those who remained faithful to the Lotus Sutra. For those lacking in faith or unable to read or write, or those who engaged in violence, a special method of chanting O-daimoku was established to bring them to a state of faith and help them start a journey of understanding. This practice was born out of Nichiren’s great compassion to liberate all people.
Giving to those with no faith
In Kanjin Honzon-shō (a treatise revealing the spiritual contemplation and the focus of devotion), written in the island of Sado, where he was exiled, he wrote the following. Although all of these sentences are well known, they are always accompanied by a statement that the practice of chanting is given to those who are “ignorant” or lacking in faith.
“In lands at the beginning of the Age of the Decline of the Dharma, the true Dharma is slandered and those who live there have poor capacity for comprehension and faith in Buddhism. Therefore, instead of relying on bodhisattvas from other worlds, the Buddha called out great bodhisattvas springing up out of the earth to entrust them with the task of transmitting the five characters of myo, ho, ren, ge and kyo, the essence of ‘The Life Span of the Eternal Tathagata’ chapter, to the people in this world”. (the “five characters of myo, ho, ren, ge and kyo” refers to the O-daimoku.)
“Now we are at the beginning of the Age of the Decline of the Dharma, when Hinayana (Lesser Vehicle) teachings strike down Mahayana (Great Vehicle) teachings, contingent teachings destroy true teachings, east is taken for west and west for east, and heaven and earth are upside down. […] Then for the first time those bodhisattvas springing up out of the earth appear in this world attempting to encourage “ignorant people” to take the five characters of myo, ho, ren, ge and kyo, the excellent medicine of the Age of the Decline of the Dharma. […] This is what is meant by Zhanran in his Annotations on the Words and Phrases of the Lotus Sutra: ‘Slanderers of the True Dharma will fall into hell but they will inevitably be liberated by virtue of having heard the True Dharma’”.
“For those who are incapable of understanding the truth of the ‘3000 Constituents of Reality in a Moment of Experience’, Lord Shakyamuni Buddha, with his great compassion, wraps this jewel with the five characters of myo, ho, ren, ge and kyo and hangs it around the neck of the ignorant in the Age of the Decline of the Dharma”.
Furthermore, in Shishin Gohon-shō, the Four Faiths (the four ways of practicing the faith of the Lotus Sutra during the lifetime of Shakyamuni Buddha) and the Five Grades (the five grades of practice after Shakyamuni Buddha’s passing), reminds people to concentrate on chanting of O-daimoku. The reason for this is that if “ignorant” people (the word ignorant was used to describe those who can’t understand the scriptures) are advised to do difficult practices, there is a danger of undermining even the practice of having faith, which they should start first.
“A beginner who tries to practise the first five of the Six Paramitas as well will hinder his own right action of faith. For instance, if a small boat overloaded with treasure tries to cross the ocean, both the boat and the treasure will sink. The phrase ‘solely embrace this sutra’ does not even refer to the whole sutra but only to embracing the Daimoku, not any other passages. If even reading and writing the whole sutra is not allowed, then still less (should a beginner attempt to practise) the first five”.
Four Faiths and Five Grades
However, Nichiren repeatedly argued that the chanting of O-daimoku alone was insufficient to attain buddhahood. The following is from the Hōon-jō (an essay on gratitude).
“With Nichiren’s boundless compassion, ‘Namu Myoho Renge Kyo’ will be heard forever even beyond the 10,000-year period. It has the merit of curing the ‘blindness’ of all the people in Japan, blocking the way to the Avici Hell”. (Avici Hell refers to the realms of hell where the most suffering occurs).
The chanting of O-daimoku that Nichiren shared opened the path of Buddhism to all people, including those who did not know the proper way to practise Buddhism, but the chanting of O-daimoku alone only prevented them from falling into the Avici, the worst of the eight purgatories. Therefore, Shishin Gohon-shō (the Four Faiths and the Five Grades) clearly states the practices that should be performed in addition to the chanting.
“Scholars today unanimously agree that, whether during the Buddha’s lifetime or after his nirvana, the practice of the Lotus Sutra always involves the three principles (of precepts, meditation and wisdom). Attaining of buddhahood is not possible if one is lacking in any of these principles”.
Nichiren immediately agreed with this statement, saying:
“Within the ‘Specification of Merits’ chapter are the Four Faiths and the Five Grades which reveal, as if reflected in a magic mirror, how to practise the Lotus Sutra during the Buddha’s lifetime and after his passing”.
Shishin Gohon-shō (the Four Faiths and the Five Grades) is the reply of Nichiren to one of his great disciples, Lord Toki, who asked him how he should practise Buddhism. In other words, it is a statement of the correct way to practise the Lotus Sutra for those who are educated enough to read and write and have practised under Nichiren. The content of this was that the three principles of precepts, meditation and wisdom should be accomplished through (1) rejoicing in the sutra for the first time, (2) reading and reciting the sutra, (3) teaching the Dharma to others, (4) practising the Six Paramitas as we are capable, and (5) practising the Six Paramitas perfectly.
Nichiren’s own practice
Nichiren’s own practice was also based on the Four Faiths and the Five Grades. We can learn more about Nichiren in his later years at Mt Minobu, which is described in his letter titled Bōjikyō Ji () and Matsuno-dono Nyōbō Gohenji (reply to the wife of Lord Matsuno)”.
“The sound of reciting the Lotus Sutra echoed in the sky during the day, and voices of expounding the Lotus Sutra reverberated through the mountain”.
“I respectfully recite the Lotus Sutra day and night, and expound the Great Cessation and Contemplation morning and evening”.
As described above, Nichiren focused on recitation of the Lotus Sutra and lectures on the Great Cessation and Contemplation, not only on chanting of O-daimoku. In this way, Rissho Kosei-kai found the true meaning of Nichiren’s teachings, and while deepening our own faith through chanting, we practise the Four Faiths and the Five Grades in a way that is appropriate for today.