A Brief History of Buddhism
A Buddha is not a deity. A Buddha is a human being who has obtained the life condition of compassion, mercy and wisdom, and is dedicated to opening the door to the same enlightenment for all people. In the last four lines of Gongyo that we recite every day, the Buddha says, “This is my constant thought: how can I cause all living beings to gain entry to the highest Way and quickly attain Buddhahood.”
The Buddha most people have heard of is Shakyamuni, also known as Gautama or Siddhartha, who was born a prince about 3,000 years ago in northern India. As a child and young man he lived a life of luxury and privilege, wanting for nothing, and separated entirely from what went on outside the castle walls. Eventually, upon venturing beyond the castle compound, he was stunned by the suffering he saw. From that point Shakyamuni devoted himself to find a way to end human suffering. His spiritual quest culminated in his attaining a great enlightenment at age 30. Many disciples gathered around him. He began teaching from a very basic level, step by step, for 42 years. People traveled from great distances, stayed a while and returned home with whatever he was teaching at the time. This is one reason why there are still so many sects and forms of Buddhist teachings in different parts of the world today. At 72, realizing the end of his life was approaching, Shakyamuni spent the next 8 years teaching the Lotus Sutra, his ultimate teaching and the reason for his advent in the world.
In the Lotus Sutra, Shakyamuni explained that all his pre-Lotus Sutra teachings should be regarded as the scaffolding to a great building that must be taken down after the building itself (the Lotus Sutra) was revealed. He predicted that the power of his Buddhism to help people would diminish over time and by 2,000 years after his death that power would be gone. He predicted the birth in the coming age (called the Latter Day of the Law) of a great Buddha, actually his own teacher from the remote past, who would be born on an island northeast of China and would endure great persecutions, but would spread the heart of Buddhism in a way that all people could embrace.
This teacher, the True Buddha, was Nichiren Daishonin, born as the son of a fisherman in Japan, on February 16, 1222. The 13th century was a time of enormous suffering in Japan, with earthquakes, typhoons, droughts, famines, plagues, epidemics, political upheavals and more. It was out of a need to find the solution to the chaos of the time that Nichiren Daishonin, as a 12-year-old boy, made a vow to become the wisest person in Japan. In a later writing, he said that, at that time, he was presented with a great jewel of unsurpassed wisdom “as brilliant as the morning star.” He continued to study all Buddhist sutras, traveling to the centers of Buddhist learning throughout Japan. By age 32, he concluded that the ways that Buddhism were being taught and practiced went against Shakyamuni’s intention. On April 28, 1253, Nichiren Daishonin revealed and first chanted the original and fundamental law of Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo, which was to be spread in the Latter Day of the Law (now).
From the moment he began to teach the law of Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo, the Daishonin met tremendous opposition and persecutions from the combination of the established Buddhist sects and their allies in the military government. Undaunted, he continued to teach and gained many followers, ultimately from all walks of life: from farmers to samurai to government officials. His greatest persecutions included being exiled twice and the attempt by the government to execute Him, which failed due to a comet streaking across the sky at the moment the executioner raised his sword. Terrified, the executioner fled. Even during his second exile in a tiny hut with snow coming through holes in the roof and walls, with precious little food and surrounded by enemies, the Daishonin wrote, “From a mundane view, I, Nichiren, am the poorest person in Japan, but in light of Buddhism, I am the wealthiest person in the world.”
When a village of farmers who were devotedly practicing True Buddhism themselves encountered grave persecutions that led to three of them being martyred, the Daishonin knew that the time had come for him to inscribe the Dai-Gohonzon for the peace and enlightenment of all people in the world. He did so, on October 12, 1279, fulfilling the purpose of his advent.
The Daishonin continued to spread the teaching and to train many disciples so that the Mystic Law would be propagated into the future. Nichiren Daishonin passed away peacefully on October 13, 1282, surrounded by his disciples chanting Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo.
Before his death, Nichiren Daishonin presented the entirety of True Buddhism to his immediate successor, Nikko Shonin, who became the 2nd High Priest of Nichiren Shoshu. Nikko Shonin later founded the Head Temple, Taisekiji, making the eternal home for the Dai-Gohonzon there. Each successive High Priest assumes the responsibility to protect the purity of the teaching and guide all members and priests of Nichiren Shoshu in how best to practice and share this Buddhism. Representing the High Priest, Chief Priests are sent to temples all over the world, to teach and guide local members in their faith, practice and study of Buddhism.