The meaning of Nam Myoho Renge Kyo
“When deluded, one is called an ordinary being, but when enlightened, one is called a Buddha. This is similar to a tarnished mirror that will shine like a jewel when polished. A mind now clouded by the illusions of the innate darkness of life is like a tarnished mirror, but when polished, it is sure to become like a clear mirror, reflecting the essential nature of phenomena and the true aspect of reality. Arouse deep faith, and diligently polish your mirror day and night. How should you polish it? Only by chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo” (The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, p.4).
Nichiren (1222-82) established the chanting of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo as the way to awaken one’s Buddha nature and tap into the deepest levels of our existence, on which our own lives and that of the universe are one. He first taught the invocation of the phrase to a small group at Seicho-ji temple in Awa province, Japan, on April 28, 1253.
Myoho-renge-kyo is the name of the Lotus Sutra in Japanese pronunciation of classical Chinese characters, and so the literal meaning of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is “I devote myself to the Lotus Sutra.” As the following explanation shows, there are deeper levels of meaning attached to each element of the phrase.
Nam derives from the Sanskrit word namu, meaning “to devote oneself.” Nichiren established the practice of chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo as a means to enable all people to put their lives in harmony or rhythm with the law of life, or Dharma. In the original Sanskrit, namu indicates the elements of action and attitude, and refers therefore to the correct action one needs to take and the attitude one needs to develop in order to attain Buddhahood in this lifetime.
Myoho literally means the Mystic Law–the underlying truth or principle which governs the mysterious workings of the universe and our life from moment to moment. Myo refers to the very essence of life, which is “invisible” and beyond intellectual understanding. This essence always expresses itself in a tangible form (ho) that can be apprehended by the senses. Phenomena (ho) are changeable, but pervading all such phenomena is a constant reality known as myo. Myo also means to open, to revive, and to be fully endowed with the qualities we need to develop our lives.
Nam-myoho-renge-kyoRenge means lotus flower. The lotus blooms and produces seeds at the same time, and thus represents the simultaneity of cause and effect. The circumstances and quality of our individual lives are determined by the causes and effects, both good and bad, that we accumulate (through our thoughts, words and actions) at each moment. This is called our “karma.” The law of cause and effect affirms that we each have personal responsibility for our own destiny. We create our destiny and we have the power to change it. The most powerful positive cause we can make is to chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo; the effect of Buddhahood is simultaneously created in the depths of our life and will definitely manifest in time.
The lotus flower grows and blooms in a muddy pond, and yet remains pristine and free from any defilement, symbolizing the emergence of Buddhahood from within the life of an ordinary person in the midst of the struggles of day-to-day existence.
Kyo literally means sutra, the voice or teaching of a Buddha. In this sense, it also means sound, rhythm or vibration. In a broad sense, kyo conveys the concept that all things in the universe are a manifestation of the Mystic Law.
‘Human revolution’ is a term used by Josei Toda, second president of the Soka Gakkai, to describe the process by which an individual gradually expands his life, conquers his negative and destructive tendencies, and ultimately makes the state of Buddhahood his dominant life condition.
Rather than changing society directly, through improving or reforming social or political systems, the object of change in ‘human revolution’ lies deep within the life of each individual. SGI President Daisaku Ikeda wrote, “A great revolution of character in just a single man will help achieve a change in the destiny of a nation and, further, will cause a change in the destiny of all humankind.”
Buddhism teaches the eternity of life. This means that we are not born as blank pages, but pages on which countless impressions have already been made from previous lifetimes. Life is forever existing in the cosmos, sometimes manifest and sometimes latent. Just as when we sleep and then awaken, our conscious mind awakens and our body feels refreshed. Between the sleeping and awakening, our consciousness carries on in a subconscious state. Similarly, one’s life continues eternally in alternating states of life and death. Death is as much a part of living as sleep is part of the process of living.
Karma is a Sanskrit word that means ‘action’. Karma is created by actions – our thoughts, words and deeds. It is all the positive and negative influences, or causes, that make up our complete reality in this world. Karma is thus the accumulation of effects from the good and bad causes that we bring with us from our former lives, as well as from the good and bad causes we have made in this lifetime, which in turn shapes our future.
Buddhism teaches we have all amassed karma throughout countless lives and that we not only experience the effects of this karma now, but we continue to recreate it. However, the Buddhism of Nichiren Daishonin teaches that there is an area of our life that is more profound than our karma – our Buddhahood or Buddha nature. The purpose of our Buddhist practice is to reveal this area and to allow its pure life force to come forth, purify our lives and change our karma at the deepest level.
Oneness of Life and Environment
The principle of the oneness of life and its environment describes the inseparable relationship of the individual and the environment. We cannot help but regard the environment as something separate from ourselves, since we have a natural tendency to understand reality through observable phenomena. However, from the viewpoint of ultimate reality, the individual and the environment are one and inseparable.
Life manifests itself simultaneously in the form of a living subject and an objective environment. “Life” indicates a subjective “self” that experiences the karmic effects of past actions, whereas the environment is the objective realm where the karmic effects of life take shape. Each living being has his or her own unique environment in which the effects of karma appear. The effects of one’s karma, both good and bad, manifest themselves both in one’s self and in the environment because these are two integral phases of the same entity.
Since both life and its environment are one, whichever of the ten worlds an individual manifests internally will be mirrored in his or her environment. For example, a person in the state of Hell will perceive the environment to be hellish, while a person in the world of Animality will perceive the same environment as a jungle where only the strong survive.
This also implies that wherever we are, we can bring forth our innate Buddhahood through our Buddhist practice to transform our experience of our environment into a positive one. This is an expression of our absolute freedom whereby we liberate ourselves from control by circumstances. For example, if we sufficiently elevate our condition of life, we will not be crushed by adversity but can command the strength and wisdom to use it constructively for our own development.
Moreover, as we accumulate good karma through Buddhist practice, the effects of the karma will become apparent not only in ourselves but also in our environment in the form of improved material circumstances, greater respect from others, and so forth. Our enlightenment is not confined to ourselves but exerts an influence on our families, communities, nations, and, ultimately, all humanity.