The origins of the SGI-USA worldview can be traced to the teachings of the historical Buddha Shakyamuni, who lived some 2,500 years ago in what is modern-day Nepal. Born Gautama Siddhartha, he abandoned his sheltered, princely life and sought instead to understand the inescapable sufferings of every human being—birth, aging, sickness and death—and the means by which these sufferings could be overcome.
Following his enlightenment at age 30, he traveled throughout India for some 50 years, sharing the wisdom he had discovered. The term Buddha, or “enlightened one,” is applied to any human being who realizes the eternity of life and the operation of cause and effect throughout the three existences of past, present and future.
Throughout Shakyamuni Buddha’s life, he expounded many sutras, or teachings, the highest and most comprehensive being the Lotus Sutra. Shakyamuni stated that all of his teachings prior to the Lotus Sutra should be regarded as provisional; these teachings strove to awaken people to the impermanence of all phenomena in order to free them from the sufferings that arise from egoistic attachment to things that the passage of time will destroy or render meaningless.
As his essential teaching, revealed in the last eight years of his life, the Lotus Sutra teaches the existence of an innate and universal truth known as the Buddha nature, the manifestation of which enables one to enjoy absolute happiness and to act with boundless compassion. Rather than stressing impermanence and the consequent need to eliminate earthly desires and attachments, the Lotus Sutra asserts the ultimate reality of the Buddha nature inherent in all life. It is therefore a teaching which profoundly affirms the realities of daily life, and which naturally encourages an active engagement with others and with the whole of human society.
The Lotus Sutra is also unique among the teachings of Shakyamuni in that it makes the attainment of enlightenment a possibility open to all people—without distinction based on gender, race, social standing or education.
After Shakyamuni’s passing, his teachings became splintered and increasingly misunderstood as they spread throughout Asia and beyond. In the 13th century, a Japanese Buddhist reformer, Nichiren Daishonin, declared the Lotus Sutra, taught during the final eight years of Shakyamuni’s life, to be the highest and ultimate teaching of Buddhism. The Lotus Sutra most clearly shows Buddhism as a powerful, life-affirming, egalitarian and humanistic teaching.
Born the son of a fisherman in a time of social unrest and natural catastrophe, Nichiren became a religious acolyte and after a period of intensive study came to realize that the Lotus Sutra constitutes the heart of Buddhist teachings. His great gift to humanity was in giving concrete expression to this life-affirming philosophy by creating a simple yet profound daily practice accessible to all people. Nichiren first chanted the title of the Lotus Sutra Nam-myoho-renge-kyo on April 28, 1253, and later inscribed the mandala of the Gohonzon (the physical object of devotion for all humanity). It is the philosophy taught by Nichiren that forms the foundation of the SGI.
Nichiren taught that all the benefits of the wisdom contained in the Lotus Sutra can be realized by chanting its title [Nam] Myoho-renge-kyo. The universal law of life is expressed as Nam-myoho-renge-kyo; reciting this allows each individual to tap into the wisdom of their life to reveal their Buddha nature. Chanting these words and excerpts from the Lotus Sutra is the core of this Buddhist practice, supported by study and helping others reveal their own Buddhahood. Faith, practice and study are the basics of Buddhist practice, pursuing activities for oneself and activities for the sake of others.
The Gohonzon, a scroll practitioners chant to, was inscribed by Nichiren Daishonin and is depicted in Chinese characters embodying the law of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, the life of Nichiren, as well as protective functions of the universe. The fundamental object of respect, the Gohonzon represents the enlightened life of each individual. Down the center are the characters Nam-myoho-renge-kyo and Nichiren’s signature. This indicates the oneness of person and Mystic Law—that the condition of Buddhahood is a potential within and can be manifested by all people. SGI members enshrine a replica of the Gohonzon in their homes as a focal point for their daily practice. The Gohonzon’s strength comes from the practitioner’s faith—the Gohonzon functions as a spiritual mirror. Sitting in front of the Gohonzon and chanting enables a person to recognize and reveal his or her own Buddha nature, the unlimited potential and happiness of their life.
The Japanese word gongyo literally means “assiduous practice.” The practice of Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhism is to chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, and recite portions of both the second (Expedient Means) and the sixteenth (Life Span) chapters of the Lotus Sutra in front of the Gohonzon. This is the fundamental practice of Nichiren Buddhism, performed morning and evening.