The distinguishing practice of Nichiren and Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism, two similar sects based on the teachings of the fiery Japanese reformer Nichiren (1222-82), is the chanting of the phrase Namu Myoho Renge Kyo: “I trust in the Sutra of the Lotus of the Wonderful Law” (or Lotus Sutra). A fisherman’s son who became a monk of the Tendai sect at 15, Nichiren came to the conclusion that the only true Buddhism was that of the Lotus Sutra, which contained the words of the Buddha himself, as opposed to other schools based on the writings of Buddhist adepts or commentators. But Nichiren went further, attacking the traditional doctrines of Buddhism, and teaching that anyone who chanted Namu Myoho Renge Kyo would achieve paradise on earth, for which he was ostracized and persecuted. Nichiren’s beliefs were strongly nationalistic; he felt that Japan could prosper only through teaching the Lotus Sutra, and that he was not only the nation’s savior but also an incarnation of two bodhisattvas. Followers of Nichiren today imagine Japan as the center of a Buddha-world that will in time encompass the globe — a truly universal religion.
The Nichiren chant is often accompanied by drumming, something which may have helped attract a number of prominent American musicians to its practice, most notably jazz pianist Herbie Hancock and pop singer Tina Turner. Nichiren Shoshu developed in the 20th century based on the teachings of a Nichiren disciple named Nikko. A modern lay organization of the Nichiren sect, called the Soka Gakkai (“Value Creation Society”), was founded in 1930 by Makiguchi Tsunesaburo (1871-1944), who died in prison because of his refusal to participate in state-sponsored Shinto rituals during World War II. Its theology has been described as fundamentalist and intolerant Buddhism.
Under the shepherding of his principal disciple, Josei Toda (1900-57), Soka Gakkai grew exponentially and became involved in Japanese politics, in the process reviving what had been marginal interest in Nichiren. Today it claims over 10 million adherents in Japan and about another 2 million worldwide, mostly from the lower and lower-middle classes, to whom it appeals with the simple provision that they may chant for money, a new car, or anything else they want. Initially leftist, anti-corruption, and pro-welfare, Soka Gakkai accumulated vast wealth, and was ultimately criticized for corrupt financial practices of its own. In 1991, the main temple of Nichiren Shoshu in Japan excommunicated the entire membership of Soka Gakkai, forcing members to choose between orthodox Nichiren and their disenfranchised sect. The overwhelming majority remained with the parent group, which is known as Soka Gakkai International, or S.G.I., and has about 300,000 members in the United States.