The History of Gongyo (1)

Published by

Posted on August 11, 2009

Daishonin never prescribed a specific format or number of repetitions.

While the chanting of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo and the recitation of the “Expedient Means” and “Life Span” chapters of the Lotus Sutra constitute an unchanging facet of Buddhist practice, the forms these practices have taken over time—including such details as the number of times the sutra is recited in the morning and evening, and the accompanying silent prayers that go with each recitation—were all established after the Daishonin’s death and have evolved with the times. In this article, let us review the history of gongyo based on the Nichiren Daishonin’s writings in order to deepen our understanding of our daily Buddhist practice.

First of all, the Daishonin never prescribed a specific format or number of repetitions of sutra recitation, although he did frequently write of the importance of reciting the “Expedient Means” and “Life Span” chapters of the Lotus Sutra. For example, in 1264, the wife of Daigaku Saburo(*1) wrote to the Daishonin and told him that she was reciting the “Medicine King” chapter of the Lotus Sutra. In replying to her, he recommended that she recite both the “Expedient Means” and the “Life Span” chapters instead: “Therefore, for your regular recitation, I recommend that you practice reading the prose sections of the ‘Expedient Means’ and ‘Life Span’ chapters”(WND p. 71).

Eleven years later in 1275, the Daishonin composed a letter to Soya Kyoshin (*2) stating: “I have written out the prose section of the ‘Expedient Means’ chapter for you. You should recite it together with the verse portion of the ‘Life Span’ chapter, which I sent you earlier” (WND, p. 486).

Although we are not sure which prose section of the “Expedient Means” chapter the Daishonin meant here, as there are more than one in the chapter, the important thing is that he once again recommended the recitation of the these two chapters.

Further, in a 1276 letter to Matsuno Rokuro Saemon(*3) , the Daishonin states: “In your letter you write: ‘Since I took faith in this sutra, I have continued to recite the ten factors of life and the verse section of the ‘Life Span’ chapter and chant the daimoku without the slightest neglect’”(WND, p. 755-756). Here, “ten factors” refers to that part of the “Expedient Means” chapter that the SGI recites in gongyo; just as the words verse section of the ’Life Span’ chapter” correspond to that part of the chapter that the SGI also recites. These are the parts of the Lotus Sutra that the SGI used to refer to as “Section A” and “Section C” of gongyo.

Daishonin’s disciples and their practice

In 13th century Japan, not many people(*4) were able to read kanji, the Chinese characters into which the Lotus Sutra was translated into from Sanskrit. Therefore, the Daishonin sent letters to his literate disciples such as Toki Jonin(*5) and Shijyo Kingo(*6) , and asked them to read them to many other disciples. Furthermore, and unlike most other Buddhist priests of his day, the Daishonin often used the common language of the time (Hiragana, or Japanese phonetic characters) in his letters, so that as many of his followers as possible could read them.

Among the Daishonin’s disciples, many were farmers and common people such as the famous three brothers of Atsuhara Village(*7) . Their practice probably only consisted of chanting daimoku, since they could not read the Lotus Sutra. Obtaining a copy of the Lotus Sutra was expensive and very difficult, so it seems most unlikely that they would have had such a copy.
In fact, it seems likely that most disciples relied solely on chanting daimoku as their primary practice. At any rate, the Daishonin certainly stressed the importance of chanting daimoku as the primary practice.

In 1277, Nichiren Daishonin wrote a letter to Matsuno Rokuro Saemon: As I have been saying for some time, in your situation as a lay believer, you should just single-mindedly chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo morning and evening, day and night” (WND p. 843).

A year later, in 1278, the Daishonin wrote to the lay nun Myoho(*8) : “The Heart of the Lotus Sutra is its title, or the daimoku, of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. Truly, if you chant this in the morning and evening, you are correctly reading the entire Lotus Sutra.” (WND p.923)

The Atsuhara brothers must have chanted daimoku single-mindedly to fight as they did against governmental authority and to have been willing to sacrifice their lives for their beliefs. Although they probably did not recite the Lotus Sutra, they were examples of true disciples. Indeed, it was their strong faith and courageous actions that eventually led to the Daishonin inscribing the Dai-Gohonzon for the sake of people throughout the world.
After the Daishonin passed away, Nikko Shonin wrote in his treatise, “On the Betrayal of the Five Senior Priests (Gosho Zenshu, p.1614),” that it was wrong to advocate that practitioners recite all the chapters of the Lotus Sutra. He insisted that followers of Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhism should simply recite the “Expedient Means” and “Life Span” chapters, as Daishonin instructed. Nikko Shonin also emphasized the importance of “chanting five character of daimoku.” Clearly, as a true disciple of Nichiren Daishonin, Nikko Shonin believed that one should chant daimoku as the primary practice.

During the time of Nichiu, the 9th high priest (1402-1482)

In Taiseki-ji(*9) the format of gongyo evolved over centuries and was modified with the changing of the times. In a record of 9th high priest Nichiu’s words and behavior entitled Various Accounts of the Teacher Nichiu (Essential Teachings of the Fuji School, vol. 2, p. 140), there is reference to performing gongyo three times each day. The times at which these gongyo services were performed seems to have been between the hour of the dragon and the hour of the snake (between 8 and 10 a.m.), at the hour of the horse (around noon) and during the hour of the dog (around 8 p.m.). In addition, in the same document, we find record of the content of what is referred to as “morning gongyo”—possibly ushitora gongyo, the early morning gongyo ceremony conducted at the head temple between the hour of the ox (ushi) and the tiger (tora) [between around 2 and 4 a.m.]. Moreover, priests at that time moved from building to building on the head temple grounds to conduct each recitation of the sutra:
The format of morning gongyo around 1480

At Godo(Main Temple):
1. Facing toward morning sky Recite A, B, C
2. Facing Gohonzon Recite A, A+, B, C

At Mieido(Image Temple):
3. Facing statues of the Three Teachers (Nichiren Daishonin, Nikko Shonin and Nichimoku Shonin) Recite A, B, C

When doing gongyo at Bo( lodging ),the format was different: Step 1 & 2 only


Throughout this article, each section of the gongyo indicated with following alphabetic symbols:

A: “Expedient Means” chapter (through the ten factors)
A+ : “Expedient Means” chapter (including the long prose portion)
B : “Prose” section of “Life Span” chapter
C : “Verse” section of the “Life Span” chapter

*1.Hiki Daigaku Saburo Yoshimoto (1202-1286): An official teacher of Confucianism to the kamakura shogunate in Japan. It is said that Yoshimoto converted to Nichiren”s teachings upon reading a draft of Nichiren’s treatise On Establishing the Correct Teaching for the Peace of the Land. He and his wife both become strong believers.

*2.Soya Kyoshin (1224-1291): Also known as the lay priest Soya or Kyoshinbo. A follower of Nichiren who lived in Shimosa Province, Japan.

*3.A follower of Nichiren Daishonin who lived in the village of Matsuno in Ihara District of Suruga Province, Japan. His daughter married Nanjo Hyoe Shichiro,the father of Nanjo Tokimitsu. Matsuno converted to Nichiren’s teachings through his relationship with the Nanjo family. (For more detail, see The Soka Gakkai Dictionary of Buddhism, p.397)

*4.Generally, aristocrats, priests and samurai had a very high literacy rate in Kanji. Recent studies, however, show that literacy in Kanji among other groups in society may have been somewhat higher than previously understood. For example, a court document from the Kamakura period, submitted by farmers, was prepared in Kanji. Some believe that both the Kanji literacy rate and skills in math both improved toward the end of Kamakura period. (Matsuura, Yoshinori. Fukuiken-shi, Vol.2)

*5.Toki Jonin (1216-1299): A lay follower of Nichiren who lived in Wakamiya, Katsushika District of Shimosa Province, Japan. Toki became Nichiren’s follower around 1254.He served as a retainer to Load Chiba. While Nichiren was in exile on Sado from 1271 through 1274, Toki Jonin and Shijo Kingo, served as a rallying point for his followers. (For more detail, see The Soka Gakkai Dictionary of Buddhism, p.747)

*6.Shijo Kingo (c.1230-1300): A follower of Nichiren who lived in Kamakura, Japan. A Samurai retainer. Kingo was well versed in both medicine and the martial art. (For more detail, see The Soka Gakkai Dictionary of Buddhism, p.588-589)

*7.Three followers of Nichiren who were arrested and beheaded during the Atsuhara Persecution. They were brothers named Jinshiro, Yagoro, and Yarokuro, farmers in Atsuhara Village in Fuji District of Suruga Province, Japan. (For more detail, see The Soka Gakkai Dictionary of Buddhism, p.713-714).

*8.Lay nun Myoho lived in Okamiya in Suruga Province, Japan. She asked Nichiren whether one can attain enlightment by chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo alone.

*9.The head temple of Nichiren Shoshu, located in Fujinomiya, Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan. Founded by Nikko (1246-1333) in 1282. (For more detail, see The Soka Gakkai Dictionary of Buddhism, p.650-651).