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Nichiren Buddhism or Hokkeshu (Japanese: 法華宗 Hokkeshū) is a branch of Mahāyāna Buddhism based on the Lotus Sutra. It is generally derived from the teachings of the 13th-century Japanese Buddhist reformer Nichiren (1222–1282).
The Lotus Sutra teaches that all people have an innate Buddha nature and are therefore inherently capable of attaining enlightenment in their current form: “…the attainment of Buddhahood in one’s present form is limited to the Lotus Sutra alone”. . According to Nichiren, the Lotus Sutra is “the direct path to enlightenment” , leading to attaining “Buddhahood in this lifetime”  Nichiren Buddhists believe that the spread of Nichiren's teachings and their effect on practitioners' lives will eventually bring about a peaceful, just, and prosperous society.
From the age of 16 until 32, Nichiren studied in numerous temples in Japan, especially Mt. Hiei (Enryaku-ji) and Mt. Kōya, in his day the major centers of Buddhist study, in the Kyoto–Nara area. He eventually concluded that the highest teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha (563?–483?BC) were to be found in the Lotus Sutra. The mantra he expounded on 28 April 1253, known as the Daimoku or Odaimoku, Nam(u)-Myōhō-Renge-Kyō, expresses his devotion to that body of teachings. During his lifetime, Nichiren stridently maintained that the contemporary teachings of Buddhism taught by other sects, (particularly Nembutsu, Zen, Shingon, and Ritsu) were mistaken in their interpretations of the correct path to enlightenment, and therefore refuted them publicly and vociferously. In doing so, he provoked the ire of the country's rulers and of the priests of the sects he criticized; he was subjected to persecution which included an attempted beheading and at least two exiles. Some Nichiren schools see the incident of the attempted beheading as marking a turning point in Nichiren's teaching, since Nichiren began inscribing the Gohonzon and wrote a number of major doctrinal treatises during his subsequent three-year exile on Sado Island in the Japan Sea. After a pardon and his return from exile, Nichiren moved to Mt. Minobu in today's Yamanashi Prefecture, where he and his disciples built a temple, Kuon-ji. Nichiren spent most of the rest of his life here training disciples.
Nichiren Buddhism is based on the Lotus Sutra: "According to Nichiren, the Lotus Sutra is the highest teaching of Shakyamuni Buddha. In fact, all of the other teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha were taught in order to prepare his disciples for the teachings of the Lotus Sutra". The two outstanding doctrines of the Lotus Sutra, which were the focus of Nichiren’s teachings and practice are: the attainment of Buddhahood by all people in their lifetime, and the eternal life of the Buddha revealed in the Ceremony in the Air of the Lotus Sutra.
The path to enlightenment in pre-Lotus Sutra teachings is based on the gradual practice of the Bodhisattva stages leading to Buddhahood. The Lotus Sutra, however, teaches that Buddhahood is already inherent within one’s current life. Nichiren believed that directly revealing one’s Buddha nature is possible through the practice of the Bodhisattvas who "do not carry out the practice of gradual progress. They practice the Lotus Sutra". Nichiren added to the title the word Namu [南無] (devotion to), and declared on 28 April 1253, the chanting of the phrase Nam(u) Myoho Renge Kyo as his basic practice for revealing one’s Buddha nature in daily life. The chanting of the essential phrase Nam(u) Myoho Renge Kyo is a common practice among all followers of Nichiren Buddhism.
The Eternal Buddha of the Lotus Sutra was revealed in an imagery of a grand ceremony, which Nichiren regarded as the central doctrine of the Lotus Sutra. At the age of 51 Nichiren inscribed this doctrine in the form of a mandala.: "this Gohonzon shall be called the great mandala never before known”. In some traditions, the Gohonzon came to be called the Moji-mandala Gohonzon, or the "Mandala Gohonzon" (曼荼羅御本尊). The Gohonzon is described as an object for focus of devotion in Nichiren’s letter “The Object of Devotion for Observing the Mind” which is acknowledged by most followers of Nichiren Buddhism. The Gohonzon is the primary— but not the exclusive— object of devotion in Nichiren Shū and some other Nichiren schools. It is the exclusive object of veneration in the Nichiren Shōshū branch as well as formerly affiliated groups such as Sōka Gakkai.
In addition to the two main teachings of chanting and the Gohonzon, Nichiren Buddhism expounds the doctrine of the Ten Worlds of life, The Ten Factors of existence, the principle of The Three Thousand Realms in a single moment of life  and the teachings of The Three Proofs for verification of the validity of teachings. All of these teachings are shared and identical in most schools and groups of Nichiren Buddhism, however, different interpretations are found for the doctrine of the ”Three Great Secret Dharmas”, called also “The Three Great Secret Laws”, and Three Jewels.
Nichiren was a prolific writer. His personal communications and writings to his followers as well as numerous treatises detail his view of the correct form of practice for the Latter Day of the Law (Mappō); lay out his views on other Buddhist schools, particularly those of influence during his lifetime; and elucidate his interpretations of Buddhist teachings that preceded his. These writings are collectively known as Gosho (go is an honorific prefix designating respect) or Goibun. Which of these writings are deemed authentic or apocryphal is a matter of debate within the various schools of today's Nichiren Buddhism.
The emergence of Nichiren Buddhism started an ongoing question in Buddhist circles about its teachings and practice. Nichiren was vocal in criticizing other schools of Buddhism, using the rhetorical style of the day, and accusing them for the disastrous situation in society. Some researchers add that Nichiren strongly criticized the esoteric rituals of other schools: “As Sasaki notes, Nichiren’s view of the shift of authority from GoToba to Yoshitoki was inseparable from his criticism of the esoteric teachings. This criticism begins from about 1269 and develops during the Sado and post-Sado years.”
In response to his criticism Nichiren and his followers were met with harsh reaction from the authorities supported by various Buddhist groups. From Nichiren’s point of view, however, his uncompromising stance was to save people from sufferings: “Even in the case of the Nembutsu priests, the Zen priests, and the True Word teachers, and the ruler of the nation and other men of authority, all of whom bear me such hatred— I admonish them because I want to help them, and their hatred for me makes me pity them all the more”.
After all attempts to silence or kill Nichiren failed, persecution turned towards his followers, the most famous of was the Atsuhara Persecution (1280), where three Nichiren Buddhists were beheaded. Intolerance towards Nichiren Buddhism did not cease after Nichiren’s death (1282), and the most famous persecution was the violent attacks on Nichiren temples in the 16th century, Kyoto, Japan: “Nichiren temples in Kyoto were attacked by the monks from Mt. Hiei (1536)…Twenty one Nichiren temples were destroyed by fire …It was estimated that tens of thousands of Nichiren Buddhists lost their lives”. Intolerance towards Nichiren Buddhism led some researchers to compare it with early Christianity: “Tamura finds Nichiren’s Buddhism to be broadly comparable with Christianity ‘as a religion of prophecy, in its spirit of martyrdom, in its apostolic consciousness, and additionally, in its emphasis upon history”.
The general reception of Nichiren Buddhism changed in time. Even though some groups dissociate themselves from other (Nichiren)-Buddhists, most Nichiren Buddhists enjoy a peaceful coexistence with other religious groups in modern times, in societies which are based on freedom of belief.
According to Nichiren's interpretation of the teachings of the Lotus Sutra, persecutions which Nichiren Buddhists encountered should be perceived as a natural outcome of abiding by their beliefs, as predicted in various chapters of that Sutra: "There will be many ignorant people, who will curse and speak ill of us and will attack us with swords and staves, but we will endure all these things”. Nichiren encouraged his disciples not to share in violence: “Even if others are clad in armor and instigate, my disciples should never do the same. If there are some who prepare for fighting in our group, please write to me immediately.” Nichiren Buddhism emphasizes the sanctity of life and absolute non-violence: “To deprive a being of life is to commit the gravest kind of sin”, and considers debate or dialogue as the only avenue to resolve disputes: “When in public debate, although the teachings that you advocate are perfectly consistent with the truth, you should never on that account be impolite or abusive, or display a conceited attitude. Such conduct would be disgraceful. Order your thoughts, words and actions carefully and be prudent when you meet with others in debate”.
Today, Nichiren Buddhism is not a single denomination (see following lists). It began to branch into different schools within several years after Nichiren's death, before which Nichiren had named six senior priests (rokurōsō) whom he wanted to transmit his teachings to future generations: Nisshō (日昭), Nichirō (日朗), Nikō (日向), Nitchō (日頂), Nichiji (日持), and Nikkō (日興). Each started a lineage of schools, but Nichiji eventually travelled to the Asian continent (ca. 1295) and was never heard from again, and Nitchō later in life (1302) rejoined and became a follower of Nikkō.
Different interpretations of Nichiren's teachings had led to the establishment of various temples and schools, however having in common reverence to the two basic doctrines of the chanting and the object of devotion. Although the former five remained loosely affiliated to varying degrees, the last—Nikkō—made a clean break by leaving Kuon-ji in 1289. He had come to the conclusion that Nikō and the others were embarking on paths to heresy that he could not stem.
After the passing of Nichiren differences between the various Nichiren Schools were relatively minor; nevertheless, the following schools formed around Nichiren's disciples:
In the years following Nichiren's death, his and the temples founded by his disciple remained to a varying degree affiliated. By the 14th century a certain split within the Nichiren Schools occurred though. One differentiates between the so-called Ichi-Lineage (meaning unity or harmony) and Shoretsu-Lineage (a contraction of two words meaning superior/inferior).
"The Itchi-Soretsu controversey was of no interest to outsiders, but it kept Nichiren theologians on their toes and forced them to define their positions with more clarity. It did result in the formation of new sub-sects, but these gave impetus to missionary enterprises which expanded Nichiren Buddhism and helped spread it throughout the country". The number of adherents to Nichiren's teachings grew steadily during the 14th and 15th century to the extent that whole communities became followers. Only being outnumbered by Zen, 1,400 Nichiren temples had been founded all over Kyoto and although the various sects of Nichiren Buddhism were administratively independent they met in a council to resolve common problems. Based on the tradition set by Nichiren the relationship between the government, other major Buddhist schools and Nichiren-temples remained ambiguous though. The adherents of Nichiren-Buddhism who made this aspect of Nichiren teachings a central pillar of their belief were the followers of the so-called Fuju-fuse lineage. Their services were partly held in secret and ultimatively culminated in the persecution and partly even the execution of its believers in 1668. The majority of official Nichiren-temples were "tamed" during the Edo period to the effect that they were subsumed “into a nationwide Buddhist parish system designed to ensure religious peace and eradicate the common enemy, Christianity”. In this process also known as the Danka system Buddhist-temples were generally not only a centre of Buddhist practice and learning, but were forced carry out administrative functions thereby also being controlled by the government taming any missionary activities.
During the Meiji Restoration from 1868 onwards and in an attempt to eradicate Buddhism Nichiren-temples were forced, just like any other Buddhist school, to focus on funeral and memorial services as their main activity. Therefore Nichiren-Buddhism remained mainly temple based. Most Nichiren schools, referring to their establishment, state the founding of their respective head or main temple, for example, Nichiren Shu the year 1281, Nichiren Shōshū the year 1288 and Kempon Hokke Shu the year 1384. However, most of today's Nichren schools did not form until the late 19th and early 20th century as, also legal, religious bodies. A last wave of merges took place in the 1950s. Following the above mentioned divide between the Ichi-Lineage and Shoretsu-Lineage the most notable division is the one between Nichiren Shu and Nichiren Shōshū. Documents first mentioned and discovered by Taiseki-ji priest Nikkyo in 1488 claimed that Nichiren passed full authority “to Nikkō alone. The original documents have disappeared, but "true copies" are preserved at Taiseki-ji. Other Nichiren bodies ignore them as forgeries”. At the time the documents may have served to underline Taiseki-ji's supposed superiority amongst Nikkō-temples, especially in respect to Ikegami Honmon-ji the site of Nikkō's tomb. In the later context of developments the above mentioned claims served as a reason on which, what would later become, Nichiren Shōshū based its orthodoxy on Nichiren-Buddhism in general. Even though there had been efforts by temples of the Nikkō-lineage in the late 19th century to unify into one single separate Nichiren-School the Kommon-ha, today's Nichiren Shōshū comprises only the Taiseki-ji temple and its dependant temples. It is not identical to the historical Nikkō or Fuji-lineage. Parts of the Kommon-ha, the Honmon-Shu, eventually became part of Nichren Shu in the 1950s. New religions like Sōka Gakkai, Shōshinkai, and Kenshōkai trace their origins to the Nichiren Shōshū school, most notably amongst those is Sōka Gakkai which due to its steady growth is regarded today as Japan's largest lay Buddhist organization.
Kuon-ji eventually became the head temple of today's Nichiren Shu, today the largest branch amongst traditional schools, encompassing the schools and temples tracing their origins to Nikō, Nisshō, Nichirō, Nichiji and also Nikkō. The Reiyūkai, Risshō Kōsei Kai, and Nipponzan-Myōhōji-Daisanga stem, in one form or another, from the Kuon-ji lineage.
Japanese characters preceded by "ja:" link to articles in the Japanese Wikipedia.
Nichiren Shoshu based groups
Nichiren Shu based groups