Q & A on Gongyo
An explanation of the liturgy of the Soka Gakkai International.
The following is study material for the weekly Soka Spirit chanting sessions being held at SGI-USA Buddhist centers across the country.
What is gongyo?
The Japanese word gongyo means “assiduous practice”— gon indicates “exertion,” “diligence,” “assiduousness”; gyo means “to carry out.”
In the SGI, our assiduous practice consists of chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo and reciting portions of “Expedient Means” (the 2nd chapter of the Lotus Sutra) and “Life Span of the Thus Come One” (the sutra’s 16th chapter) every morning and evening with faith in the Gohonzon. Chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is the “primary practice,” while reciting the sutra is called the “supplementary practice.”
SGI President Ikeda explains: “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is the wellspring of the wisdom of all Buddhas. And our daily gongyo is a ceremony of beginningless time in which we return to the very foundation of our lives and draw wisdom from the great ocean of the world of Buddhahood” (The Heart of the Lotus Sutra, p. 33).
What does Nichiren Daishonin say about gongyo?
Nichiren Daishonin writes: “Though no chapter of the Lotus Sutra is negligible, among the entire twenty-eight chapters, the ‘Expedient Means’ chapter and the ‘Life Span’ chapter are particularly outstanding. The remaining chapters are all in a sense the branches and leaves of these two chapters. Therefore, for your regular recitation, I recommend that you practice reading the prose sections of the ‘Expedient Means’ and ‘Life Span’ chapters” (“The Recitation of the ‘Expedient Means’ and ‘Life Span’ Chapters,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 71).
Why does Nichiren place greatest importance on the “Expedient Means” and “Life Span” chapters of the Lotus Sutra? The “Expedient Means” chapter represents the essence of the theoretical teaching (the sutra’s first 14 chapters). It teaches that all people are Buddhas and that a Buddha’s mission is to lead all people to enlightenment. And the “Life Span” chapter represents the essence of the essential teaching (the sutra’s latter 14 chapters), teaching that Buddhahood is eternally present in the lives of all people, and declaring the great dignity and power of each person’s life.
In various letters, Nichiren encourages the recitation of these two chapters while repeatedly emphasizing the great benefit of chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo as the primary practice. He states, for example: “Everything has its essential point, and the heart of the Lotus Sutra is its title, or the daimoku, of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. Truly, if you chant this in the morning and evening, you are correctly reading the entire Lotus Sutra. Chanting daimoku twice is the same as reading the entire sutra twice” (“The One Essential Phrase,” WND-1, 923).
What is the history of gongyo?
Though he stressed which chapters to recite, Nichiren Daishonin did not specify the format of gongyo. Therefore, over the more than 700-year history of Nichiren Buddhism, the format of gongyo and the silent prayers have undergone numerous changes.
For centuries, priests of the Fuji School (renamed Nichiren Shoshu in the 20th century) engaged in reciting gongyo in the morning, afternoon and evening. This eventually changed to a twice-daily recitation. Priests at the head temple, Taiseki-ji, would make rounds to various structures on the grounds to recite the sutra each time, leading to repeating the recitation numerous times. By the 17th century, gongyo was being conducted in one structure.
“What counts is that gongyo refreshes and invigorates your lives.”
It is important to note that by this time the laity had become dependent on priests to perform gongyo on their behalf. This was a result of the Fuji School’s shift from focusing on propagation to promoting formalities and rituals, such as weddings and funerals, in order to collect income from its parishioners (see The Untold History of the Fuji School, p. 57). To this day, they collect money from the laity to offer prayers for anything from the repose of the deceased to such things as health, warding off evil and so on.
With the Soka Gakkai’s establishment in 1930, however, its founding presidents—Tsunesaburo Makiguchi and Josei Toda—challenged the notion of a “priest-based faith” and revived Nichiren Buddhism as a religion accessible to all people. During World War II, the two were imprisoned for refusing to incorporate state Shinto into the practice of Nichiren Buddhism. President Makiguchi died in prison for his beliefs.
In contrast, the Nichiren Shoshu priests accepted the Shinto talisman and were easily coerced into adjusting Nichiren’s teachings. In August 1941, for instance, they published new silent prayers that praised state Shinto and promoted the government’s war efforts. The first prayer offered appreciation to the Sun Goddess, and the fourth prayer included phrases like “the unity of government and people” and “the increase of the nation’s majesty.”
Josei Toda, upon his release from prison in 1945, re-established the daily practice of gongyo, promoted study of Nichiren’s writings, continued the tradition of discussion meetings and encouraged all members to engage in propagation—practical ways for members to bring forth their inherent Buddha nature and help others do the same.
There have been recent changes to gongyo. What are they?
The Soka Gakkai is the sangha, or community of believers (see Sept. 16, 2016, World Tribune, p. 9), that has made the great vow to fulfill the Buddha’s intent and spread Nichiren Buddhism throughout the world.
The daily practice of gongyo, conducting discussion meetings, and studying and propagating Buddhism are traditions and practices established by the Soka Gakkai’s founding presidents. While the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood has largely criticized the Soka Gakkai for its people-centered movement, in actuality, their laity engages in activities heavily borrowed from the SGI.
For years, the Soka Gakkai used the “five and three prayers format” of gongyo, which consisted of repeating the sutra recitation five times in the morning and three times in the evening.
In September 2004, the format of gongyo and the silent prayers were largely revised, moving to the single recitation of portions of the “Expedient Means” and “Life Span” chapters and chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. The morning recitation consisted of offering a silent prayer to the protective functions in the universe.
More recently, in November 2015, the Soka Gakkai further revised the format of gongyo and silent prayers. The format is now the same for morning and evening gongyo, and the silent prayers comprise wording that is simple, accessible and easy to understand (see the Dec. 11, 2015, World Tribune, pp. 6–7).
Though the format may change, the fundamentals of chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo and reciting the sutra should never change. President Ikeda explains: “Formality is not important. There are no rigid formalities for gongyo laid down in the Daishonin’s writings. What counts is that gongyo refreshes and invigorates your lives” (My Dear Friends in America, third edition, p. 265).
Ryan Hayashi and Ryoko Potts contributed to this article.