Soka Spirit Editor
Posted on January 28, 2013
The Morning and Evening Practice of Gongyo
and the SGI Format Based on Nichiren’s Writings
Those who put into practice even a phrase or a verse of this sutra are certain to attain the way, for it is the teaching related to them. (WND-1, 80)
When we stop to consider it, we find that the sutra itself says, concerning how much or how little of it is to be embraced, that a single verse or phrase is sufficient. (WND-1, 130)
Chant Morning and Evening
“Everything has its essential point, and 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-1, 923)
Recite the Expedient Means and the
Verse Section of the Life Span Chapter
“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-1, 486)
“The Lotus Sutra represents the bone and marrow of all the sacred teachings of the Buddha’s lifetime, and the verse section of the “Life Span” chapter represents the soul of the twenty-eight chapters of the sutra. The various Buddhas of the three existences look upon the “Life Span” chapter as their very life, and the bodhisattvas of the ten directions likewise regard the chapter’s verse section as their eye.” (WND-1, 516)
“In your letter you write: “Since I took faith in this sutra [the Lotus], 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-1, 755–56)
Recite 10 Factors Three Times
“In our own school, we follow the interpretation set forth in the commentaries of T’ien-t’ai, which gives three readings to each of the ten factors. Reading them three times will produce great benefit.” (WND-2, 83)
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Practice for Oneself—Morning and Evening Gongyo
Of faith, practice and study, practice has two aspects: practice for oneself and practice for others. Practice for oneself is called gongyo—or, literally, to “exert [oneself in] practice”—which consists of chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo and reciting portions from the second and sixteenth Lotus Sutra chapters as an expression of our confidence in the Gohonzon. This is one concrete aspect of the Nichiren Buddhist practice for transforming our lives.
Regarding the benefit of gongyo, Nichikan, the twenty-sixth high priest of the Nikko lineage, writes: “When we accept and believe in this Gohonzon and chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, we ourselves become the object of devotion of three thousand realms in a single moment of life— that is, the sage Nichiren” (Commentaries of High Priest Nichikan, p. 548).
In other words, through the practice of gongyo, we can manifest the Gohonzon within our lives—the embodiment of the three thousand realms in a single moment of life1—and bring forth the same power of supreme wisdom and compassion as Nichiren Daishonin, the Buddha of the Latter Day of the Law.
Life manifests its various innate functions in relation to the external environment. That which is dormant inside appears in response to external phenomena. For example, when we hear fine music or see wonderful paintings, a rich sense of joy and beauty is likely to envelop our minds. This condition becomes manifest from within in response to the external environment.
Similarly, chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo and reciting portions of the Lotus Sutra with faith in the Gohonzon provokes the response of manifesting our innate Buddha nature. In this sense, gongyo is a practice by which to create a profound relationship between the Gohonzon and ourselves— the embodiment of the Law of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo—so that we can bring forth from within us the same Mystic Law as the Gohonzon embodies. The key to developing such a relationship is our strong confidence in the Gohonzon, in the universality of Buddhahood.
Nichiren Daishonin explains how we can bring forth our innate Buddha nature by chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo to the Gohonzon: “When we revere Myoho-renge-kyo inherent in our own life as the object of devotion, the Buddha nature within us is summoned forth and manifested by our chanting of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. This is what is meant by ‘Buddha’” (“How Those Initially Aspiring to the Way Can Attain Buddhahood through the Lotus Sutra,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, p. 887).
Nichiren further explains: “To illustrate, when a caged bird sings, birds who are flying in the sky are thereby summoned and gather around, and when the birds flying in the sky gather around, the bird in the cage strives to get out. When with our mouths we chant the Mystic Law, our Buddha nature, being summoned, will invariably emerge. The Buddha nature of Brahma and Shakra, being called, will protect us, and the Buddha nature of the Buddhas and bodhisattvas, being summoned, will rejoice” (WND, 887).
Through chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo to the Gohonzon, we can manifest our innate Buddhahood and, at the same time, call forth the Buddhahood of the external world, which functions as a protective force for us.
The Daishonin also explains the meaning of chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo through the analogy of polishing a tarnished copper mirror: “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” (“On Attaining Buddhahood in This Lifetime,” WND-1, 4).
It is important to understand here that the tarnished mirror and the clear mirror are the same mirror, yet its functions are completely different when tarnished or polished. Likewise, although we ourselves are the same people, by polishing our lives through the practice of gongyo, we become purified and function more positively.
As these passages illustrate, through the consistent practice of gongyo, we can purge our lives of delusions accumulated over our present and past lifetimes and bring forth the pure and powerful life-condition of Buddhahood, thereby winning in daily life and enjoying a supreme sense of fulfillment.
The Primary Practice and the Supporting Practice
For our daily practice of gongyo, we chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo and recite portions of the “Expedient Means” (second) and “Life Span” (sixteenth) chapters of the Lotus Sutra. Chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is essential; therefore, it is called the “primary practice.” Our sutra recitation helps bring forth the benefit of the primary practice and is called the “supporting practice.” Of all the twenty-eight chapters of the Lotus Sutra, we recite from the “Expedient Means” and “Life Span” chapters because they represent the sutra’s essence. As Nichiren writes: “If you recite the ‘Life Span’ and ‘Expedient Means’ chapters, then the remaining chapters will naturally be included even though you do not recite them” (“The Recitation of the ‘Expedient Means’ and ‘Life Span’ Chapters,” WND, 71).
Regarding the primary and supporting practices, Nichikan explains: “The supporting practice is to recite the two chapters of ‘Expedient Means’ and ‘Life Span’; it helps bring forth the profound benefit of the primary practice. To illustrate, it is as ash water2 supporting water [in cleaning clothes] or as salt and vinegar enhancing the flavor of rice and noodle. It is, therefore, called the supporting practice” (The Six-Volume Writings, p. 193). Put simply, the reason we recite portions of the “Expedient Means” and “Life Span” chapters is to celebrate the benefit of the Gohonzon.
“Refute and Borrow” and “Refute and Use”
According to Nichiren’s successors, Nikko and Nichikan, the purpose of reciting the “Expedient Means” chapter is to “refute and borrow,” and the purpose of reciting the “Life Span” chapter is to “refute and use.”
The “Expedient Means” chapter, particularly in its portions on the “true aspect of all phenomena” and the “ten factors,” contains the teaching of “three thousand realms in a single moment of life.” Shakyamuni, however, has not yet in the sutra revealed his eternal Buddhahood, and instead expounds this teaching in his provisional identity. We recite the “Expedient Means” chapter, then, to “refute” its teaching based on our understanding of Nichiren Buddhism.
The “Life Span” chapter substantiates the teaching of “Expedient Means,” in which Shakyamuni’s true identity as an eternal Buddha is revealed. So we recite the “Expedient Means” chapter to “borrow” its passages to reveal the essential teaching of the “Life Span” chapter in terms of both the surface meaning and the implicit meaning, Nam-myoho-renge-kyo of the Three Secret Laws, to which the Buddha of absolute freedom from time without beginning awakens.
Although the “Life Span” chapter reveals Shakyamuni’s true identity as an eternal Buddha, it does not clarify the Mystic Law to which he awakened. For this reason, we recite the “Life Span” chapter to “refute” its teaching from the standpoint of Nichiren Buddhism. At the same time, we use the chapter to reveal the eternal Law of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo implicit in its text. To sum up: we make use of the Lotus Sutra through our understanding of Nichiren Buddhism, based on which we refute the “Expedient Means” chapter for being expounded by Shakyamuni in his provisional identity, and we refute the “Life Span” chapter for expounding only the Buddhism of harvest, not the Law of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo.
The Format of Sutra Recitation
Nichiren clarifies that the foundation of our practice is chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo and that the recitation of the “Expedient Means” and “Life Span” chapters is to enhance the benefit of chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. This is the Buddhist practice that the Daishonin set forth for the Latter Day of the Law. As Nichiren, however, did not decide on a specific format for the sutra recitation, the format has changed over the many centuries. At some point, the priests of the Nikko lineage began performing the sutra recitation at various locations on the temple grounds over the course of the day. Eventually, people lost sight of the recitation’s original purpose, and it became merely a ritual for priests and lost its original purpose.
After the Daishonin died, his Buddhism did not spread widely in Japan. Mostly it was barely maintained by priests, whose common practice was to chant daimoku and recite the vital two chapters of the Lotus Sutra three times daily, once in the morning to the east, once in the afternoon to the Gohonzon, and once in the evening to an image of Nichiren Daishonin. Records show that this was the format for gongyo in the early Fuji School. In time, silent prayers were added to the daily practice during gongyo. Though it is unknown when the shift from thrice to twice daily occurred, records indicate that a twice-a-day gongyo practice was already common in the eighteenth century.
Originally, during gongyo the priests at Taiseki-ji would make the rounds of the head temple grounds, reciting the sutra, chanting daimoku and offering prayers at various important structures. But during the early Edo period (seventeenth century), under the seventeenth high priest, Nissei, all of the sutra recitations and prayers came to be conducted in a single location.
Practice for Laity— A Revolutionary Idea
The war-torn environment in which the first and second Soka Gakkai presidents, Tsunesaburo Makiguchi and Josei Toda, found themselves was very dire. Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhism as narrowly maintained by the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood had lost its dynamism. The priesthood was mired in formalism, their spirit to propagate the practice of Buddhism had ceased to exist, and only the barest skeleton of the correct practice of the Daishonin’s teachings remained. Much like other Buddhist schools in Japan, Nichiren Shoshu had lapsed into “funeral Buddhism” whose only function was to conduct memorials, funerals and ceremonies.
In the midst of the priesthood’s decline in faith, the Soka Gakkai presidents were able to muster the determination to do kosen-rufu as Bodhisattvas of the Earth. With his powerful will to propagate the Daishonin’s Buddhism and lead people out of their misery they advocated that the laity embrace the practice of gongyo. This revolutionary proposal was a watershed moment in the movement to reintroduce Nichiren Daishonin’s teachings to society. Previous to this, the laity was not expected to recite the sutra, something that was only done by priests.
Nichiren Daishonin Proclaims the Primacy
of Chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo
“There is no true happiness for human beings other than chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo,” wrote the Daishonin (“Happiness in This World,” WND-1, 681). There are numerous other passages from his writings in which he expressed his view that chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo should be given primacy, including: “The primary practice is only to chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo” (WND-2, 908). “If we consider these [analogies, we can see why] we should always chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo” (“The Daimoku of the Lotus Sutra,” WND-1, 142). “As a daily religious practice, one should recite the daimoku, Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. Those persons who are able to do so should further recite a verse or a phrase of the Lotus Sutra” (WND-2, 228). “Now, in the Latter Day of the Law, neither the Lotus Sutra nor the other sutras lead to enlightenment. Only Nam-myoho-renge-kyo can do so. This is not my own judgment. Shakyamuni, Many Treasures, the Buddhas of the ten directions, and the bodhisattvas who emerged from the earth . . . have determined it” (“The Teaching for the Latter Day,” WND-1, 903). These passages clearly indicate the Daishonin’s emphasis on chanting daimoku over reciting the sutra.
Also, concerning the power of daimoku, the Daishonin wrote: “When we chant Myoho-renge-kyo, the Thus Come One of the essential nature of our minds becomes manifest, and the sounds that reach the ears of others wipe out their offenses accumulated over countless asamkhya kalpas. When they respond with joy even for a moment, they attain Buddhahood in their present form. Even though they may not believe this, the seed has been planted, it is maturing, and through it they will invariably attain Buddhahood” (WND-2, 87). “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is like the roar of a lion. What sickness can therefore be an obstacle?” (“Reply to Kyo’o” WND-1, 412).
Changeless vs. Changeable Formality
In Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhism there are two types of formalities—that which must remain changeless and that which is changeable. The acts of chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo and reciting the “Expedient Means” and “Life Span” chapters—which were set by the Daishonin himself and constitute the core of his teaching—belong to the category of changeless formality. The format of gongyo, however, and the contents of the accompanying silent prayers belong to the category of changeable formality and can evolve in accord with the times and circumstances of Buddhist practitioners. The criteria for evaluating whether to alter a changeable formality must be whether that change compliments the development of kosen-rufu and promotes the well being of the practitioners. Nichiren refers to scripture explaining that where not specifically prescribed or forbidden by the Buddha, adaptations can be made to Buddhist teachings that accord with the customs of the people (WND-1, 72). In 2002, the Soka Gakkai simplified the gongyo format into the one we are familiar with today.
As SGI President Daisaku Ikeda has explained, “The Daishonin did not specify details concerning the methods of Buddhist practice, and taught only the most basic or core practice—the recitation of the ‘Expedient Means’ and ‘Life Span’ chapters. I interpret this as an expression of his great compassion” (Buddhism in Action, vol. IV, p. 262).