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The Meaning of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo

"Nichiren regarded Nam-myoho-renge-kyo as the Mystic Law, the natural principle governing the workings of life in the universe, the law to which all Buddhas are enlightened and the true aspect of our own lives. He saw the practice of repeatedly invoking this law as the 'direct path to enlightenment.' The phrase can be literally translated as 'I devote myself to the Lotus Sutra of the Wonderful Law.'"

The meaning of Nam-myoho-renge-kyoPeople first coming into contact with the religious practice of the Soka Gakkai International may be struck by the stress placed on the phrase "Nam-myoho-renge-kyo." It may appear that everything starts from and returns to this single phrase. This does, however, accurately reflect Nichiren's (1222-82) view of its importance and the value he placed on its repeated invocation. As he put it: "[T]he soul of Nichiren is nothing other than Nam-myoho-renge-kyo." Indeed, Nichiren regarded Nam-myoho-renge-kyo as the Mystic Law, the natural principle governing the workings of life in the universe, the law to which all Buddhas are enlightened and the true aspect of our own lives. He saw the practice of repeatedly invoking this law as the "direct path to enlightenment."

The Voice

Many people associate Buddhist religious practice with silent, interior meditation. But the practice of vocalizing, reciting and chanting various teachings has played a vitally important role in the history of Buddhism. To voice one's innermost conviction and vow in prayer is an intensely public act. The emphasis on audible chanting as opposed to silent meditation reflects a core stance of Nichiren's Buddhism. Rather than simply exploring and withdrawing into the private realms of the inner life, religious practice is focused on bringing forth our highest inner potential in relation to and for the benefit of our fellow humans and human society. Nichiren often quotes the words of an earlier Buddhist philosopher that "The voice does the Buddha's work."

Using our voices to express and convey the state of our inner life--whether that be one of joy, gratitude, despair or determination--is central to our identity as humans. It is likely that the quintessentially human act of "prayer" grew from such semi-instinctual pleas, cries and thanks--directed toward the inscrutable forces of nature and prior to any consciously formulated system of doctrine or belief. Likewise, it is through song, the voice, that human beings have given primary expression to their innermost feelings of--and desires for--harmony with all life. The voice serves as a vital link between ourselves, our fellow humans and a universe that is itself vibrant with the rhythms of life and death.

Nichiren viewed the Lotus Sutra, with its message that all people are capable of becoming Buddhas--that, at the deepest level, all people already are enlightened Buddhas--as the ultimate teaching of Buddhism with an enduring and universal applicability. In line with earlier schools dedicated to the Lotus Sutra, he considered the five Chinese characters of the title of the sutra--myo, ho, ren, ge, kyo--as embodying the essence of the sutra, the Mystic Law to which Shakyamuni and other Buddhas are enlightened. Thus, when on April 28, 1253, he declared that to chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo was to activate its promise of universal enlightenment, Nichiren was establishing a form of practice that would open the way to enlightenment for all people--regardless of class or educational background. This was borne out in the diverse range of people who gathered around Nichiren, becoming his followers and fellow practitioners; they included people with a highly developed understanding of Buddhist doctrine and history as well as farmers with little if any literacy. It is also borne out in the astonishing diversity of people practicing Nichiren Buddhism globally today.

The Mystic Law

Nichiren devoted great energy to encouraging his followers to muster profound faith that chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is a practice by which they can bring forth their inherent Buddha nature--strengthening their capacity for wisdom, courage, confidence, vitality and compassion--to successfully meet the challenges of daily life and establish a state of unshakable happiness in this world.

What, then, does Nam-myoho-renge-kyo mean? The phrase can be literally translated as "I devote myself to the Lotus Sutra of the Wonderful Law." In a number of his many writings--which include treatises, petitions, records of lectures as well as letters to individual believers--Nichiren delves into the deeper significance of each of the component characters.

Nam (or Namu) derives from the Sanskrit and means to venerate or dedicate oneself. (It is often translated as "hail" or "take refuge in," but from the perspective of Nichiren Buddhism, with its stress on the fact that the Law is inherent in all people, this cannot be considered the optimal translation.) Myoho-renge-kyo is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese characters comprising the title of the Lotus Sutra, or Saddharma Pundarika Sutra in the original Sanskrit.

Nichiren comments that the entire formulation thus fuses elements of Sanskrit and Chinese, the two great civilizations of his known world. This may be understood as expressing the universalist orientation of Nichiren Buddhism, its active embrace of human culture and civilization.

Myoho corresponds to Saddharma and may be translated as "wonderful or mystic Law." As Nichiren comments in one letter: "What then does myo signify? It is simply the mysterious nature of our life from moment to moment, which the mind cannot comprehend or words express."

Nichiren further cites three attributes of the character myo: To open, to be fully endowed, and to revive. Ho is the dharma or law, and together the two characters of myoho refer to the Mystic Law.

As SGI President Daisaku Ikeda has written: "The great power of the Mystic Law...embraces everything, brings out the positive possibilities of all situations, transforming everything toward the good, reviving and giving new life to all experiences."

Myo and ho are also identified by Nichiren as corresponding to life and death, which Buddhism regards as the two aspects--one active and manifest, the other latent and unseen--of a deeper life-continuum. This continuum is permeated and shaped by the law of causality, or cause and effect, which Nichiren identifies with renge, the lotus flower.

Specifically, the fact that the lotus flower already contains seeds when it opens symbolizes the principle of the simultaneity of cause and effect, the idea that causes we make are engraved in the deepest, most essential realms of life, and on this plane we immediately experience the effects of our thoughts, words and deeds. In terms of Buddhist practice this means that "Anyone who practices this Law will obtain both the cause and effect of Buddhahood simultaneously." The fact that the lotus flower sends forth pure white blossoms from roots sunk deep in muddy water expresses the idea that our highest nature is brought forth through committed engagement with the often difficult or disagreeable realities of life and society.

Finally, kyo signifies the sutra, the voiced and transmitted teaching of the Buddha. The Chinese character for kyo indicates the threads that run continually through a woven fabric. Nichiren writes: "Kyo represents the words and voices of all living beings.... Kyo may also be defined as that which is constant and unchanging in the three existences of past, present and future."

Elsewhere Nichiren associates each of the characters of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo with parts of the human body: head, throat, chest, abdomen and legs, respectively. This may be understood as indicating that the mystic principle or law that guides and governs the living cosmos is in no way separate from the concrete realities of our lives.

By invoking the Mystic Law and bringing forth our highest, most enlightened nature, we naturally inspire those around us to strive toward the highest, most creative and compassionate way of life. This develops into a "virtuous circle" of mutually reinforcing celebration of the infinite dignity and value of all human beings. Nichiren uses a poetic metaphor to describe this process: "[W]hen 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."

[Courtesy January 2006 SGI Quarterly]

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