Soka Spirit
Part III: 5. The Inequality of Priesthood and Laity

Erroneous Doctrine and Behavior

At the root of the priesthood’s interpretation of the relationship between priesthood and laity lies discrimination. Nichiren Shoshu propounds a doctrine of priests as masters and laity as disciples, priests as above and laity below, priests as teachers and laity their students. This rationale justifies their attempts to exercise control over lay believers.

In January 1991, Nichiren Shoshu Chief Administrator Nichijun Fujimoto, on behalf of the priesthood and High Priest Nikken Abe, sent the Gakkai a document containing the following statement:

It is an expression of great arrogance for lay believers to say that priests and laity are essentially equal, and to say that they are promoting the unity of priesthood and laity from the standpoint of the equality of the two. In fact, such statements amount to one of the five cardinal sins, that of destroying the unity of Buddhist practitioners.

In other words, because priests are superior to lay believers, the laity must listen to what priests say. To assert that lay believers have any voice whatsoever in religious affairs is a sin. However, Nichiren Daishonin and Nikko Shonin did not rigidly define the relationship between priests and laity. Nichiren Daishonin wrote:

The Buddha surely considers anyone in this world who embraces the Lotus Sutra, whether lay man or woman, monk or nun, to be the lord of all living beings… (The Unity of Husband and Wife, WND, 463).


A passage from the ‘Teacher of the Law’ chapter reads: ‘If one of these good men or good women [in the time after I have passed into extinction is able to secretly expound the Lotus Sutra to one person, even one phrase of it, then you should know that] he or she is the envoy of the Thus Come One.’ This means that anyone who teaches others even a single phrase of the Lotus Sutra is the envoy of the Thus Come One, whether that person be priest or layman, nun or laywoman (A Ship to Cross the Sea of Suffering, WND, 33).

These passages validate the original and equal relationship between priests and laity.

Nichiren Daishonin’s views on equality were also clarified by his behavior. He made no distinction among believers on whom he bestowed honorific Buddhist names containing the characters or titles ichi or shonin (meaning, sage or elevated one or wise one).

At that time, able lay believers took responsibility to propagate Buddhism in their respective areas. For this reason, the Daishonin wrote to one such believer, Takahashi Rokuro Nyudo, I entrust you with the propagation of Buddhism in your province (The Properties of Rice, WND, 1117). To Abutsu-bo, who lived on Sado, he said, Abutsu-bo, you deserve to be called a leader of this northern province (On the Treasure Tower, WND, 299).

Regarding the relationship between priests and laity, Nichiko, the 59th high priest, said, The distinction between priesthood and laity in the past and in the present has always been a matter of ‘preaching that accords with the world’ (one of the four ways of preaching). That is, it is not an absolute distinction.

Preaching that accords with the world is something that changes according to the times and circumstances. For instance, when Shakyamuni left his home to pursue a religious life, he became a monk because this accorded with the customs of Indian society at the time.

In the realm of Buddhism, the distinction between those who renounce secular life and those who retain their social role has changed as Buddhism has spread. The distinction between clergy and laity was made more to accord with social custom than as a matter of religious principles. Drawing a distinction between priests and laity is not an essential or core aspect of Nichiren’s teachings, and asserting that one is inherently superior to the other departs entirely from the spirit and intent of Buddhism.

Nichiren’s Buddhism exists to save all people from suffering, and asserts that all people, equally, are potential Buddhas. Nichiren Shoshu has lost sight of this essential point.