Nichiren Daishonin is a 13th-Century Japanese monk who emerged from the Tendai lineage as a reformer of Buddhism. He instituted a peculiar upaya: the practice of chanting Nam Myoho Renge Kyo to the gohonzon, an altar containing a scroll that replicates and brings into our reality, in writing, a scene from the sutra. The NMRK mantra praises the Lotus Sutra and was made famous by Tina Turner, who claims that the chanting practice helped her to free herself from the vicious circles of drugs and violence that Ike had subjected her to early in her career. Similar testimonies are heard frequently among Nichiren’s followers.
In the spirit of the Lotus Sutra, which is the only scripture recognized by his school, Nichiren’s approach to desires is not too different from what we see in Epicurus: it does not teach that they are evil roots of pain and dissatisfaction, like in traditional Buddhism, but that they can be a means to enlightenment and freedom. Desires, shockingly, are themselves upayas. In order to turn poison into medicine, we must fully realize this. Desires are not merely the root of suffering, as Shakyamuni had taught: that was one of the provisionary teachings that is claimed to have prepared the way for this sutra. Rather than hope for their extinction–an unnatural insinuation, if we seriously consider it–we are then instructed to become enlightened with respect to our desires.
By articulating this in no unclear terms, note that Nichiren parted with the lineage that nourished him, completely renounced the previous conventions of the Buddhist tradition, and became a reformer, instituting an anti-ascetic, life-affirming, practical, lay Buddhism for the modern age. This is why his teaching–and the Lotus Sutra on which it’s based–is particularly interesting to us. It’s also part of why he was persecuted and hated, and in turn he also sharply criticized the other schools. Let us revisit Vatican Saying 21:
We must not force Nature but persuade her. We shall persuade her if we satisfy the necessary desires and also those bodily desires that do not harm us while sternly rejecting those that are harmful.
Desires carry the seed of insight. There is always something we can learn about ourselves when we observe our desires. There may be unrecognized needs, unexpressed emotions, compassionate tendencies, and other buried parts of us. Investigation of our desires produces awakening. Desires can also lead to our overcoming difficulties, or excelling in our endeavors. The key is not that it is wrong to desire things, or that we should feel judged or embarrassed by them, but that we must steer our boat aware of what desires we carry within us. Desires are completely natural. They are our companions in the journey of life. Ambition too can be a virtue, if it leads to much greater happiness.
The sutra compels followers to take on faith–therefore generating the conviction and self-fulfilling prophecy–that anyone who sincerely honors and follows the teachings of the Lotus Sutra, will be able to “turn poison into medicine”. This is one of the most powerful teachings of the sutra. It’s at the root of the process of constant self-betterment that many votaries of the sutra report as one of its benefits, and it’s sometimes done with the help of artful enlightened beings, as exemplified in one of the parables in the sutra, where a father returns from a journey to another country and finds his children sick from poison.
Practitioners who chant Nam Myoho Renge Kyo believe that the chant itself does the work of turning poison into medicine. This might be explained in terms of wholesome association. We grow in virtue thanks to good association, and get degraded through evil association. The association of sages and wise people is extremely important in all spiritual paths. For people who do not have access, or who only have infrequent access, to such enlightened beings, the chant becomes healthy association. It is an upaya, an efficient means or technique that brings them close to and awakens their own Buddha nature.
One final word must be included here on how, in a key scene from the Lotus Sutra, innumerable bodhisatvas emerge from the ground, and live under the ground, and not in the sky. It seems like this tangibility is of great importance. The votaries of the sutra believe themselves to be the innumerable bodhisatvas mentioned in the sutra, hence their use of the gohonzon to represent the moment when these beings emerge from the Earth to receive the teaching and its treasures and blessings.
In spite of its poetry and parables, and the other-worldly setting in which the sutra takes place, it’s a fully horizontal scripture that seeks to speak to our emergence from out of this Earth, and through that scene which is replicated in the gohonzon seeks to make of itself an epiphany in the midst of our existential condition as Earthlings. We are fully raptured into the sutra and its spiritual world, becoming characters in its drama.
In this way, a different paradigm emerges which is to a good extent a departure from the original teaching of Shakyamuni: the Lotus Sutra contains a life-affirming philosophy meant to give “meaning to the Earth”, as Nietzsche would put it.