My friend wants to begin practicing Nichiren Buddhism. How should I explain to them the significance of doing gongyo regularly?
A: Chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is the primary practice of Nichiren Buddhism. It activates the power inherent in ourselves and all phenomena.
Gongyo is the secondary practice, which consists of reciting portions of the Lotus Sutra’s “Expedient Means” and “Life Span of the Thus Come One” chapters, coupled with chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. Doing gongyo is our declaration to the universe that we are Buddhas, endowed with limitless courage, wisdom and compassion.
While reciting Buddhist sutras was considered an important practice in Japan, they were long and written in classical Chinese characters, which many people could not read. The practice was therefore limited to priests.
Nichiren Daishonin, however, clarified that the essential principles expounded in the Lotus Sutra are contained in chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. Chanting this phrase once is equivalent in terms of benefit to reciting the entire 28-chapter Lotus Sutra. In addition, Nichiren 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. (“‘Expedient Means’ and ‘Life Span’ Chapters,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 71)
The “Expedient Means” chapter contains the core message of the Lotus Sutra’s theoretical teaching (the sutra’s first 14 chapters), while the “Life Span” chapter is the crux of the sutra’s essential teaching (the latter 14 chapters).
In the “Expedient Means” chapter, Shakyamuni Buddha explains that all people equally possess the Buddha nature. And the “Life Span” chapter contains the Buddha’s realization that the original and eternal identity of each person is that of a Buddha.
By reciting gongyo, we are affirming the infinite potential of all living beings and praising our inherent Buddha nature.
In fact, the first character (ji) of the verse section of the “Life Span” chapter merged with the chapter’s last character (shin) forms a word meaning “oneself” (Jpn jishin). Regarding this, Ikeda Sensei writes:
Nichiren indicates that the body of the verse section in its entirety, coming between the words ji (self) and shin (body), signifies the actions and conduct of oneself. … The body or self that “is freely received and used” means to realize that the entire universe is in fact oneself and to freely receive and use the power of the Mystic Law, which is the wellspring of universal life. (The Heart of the Lotus Sutra, p. 301)
As we develop a consistent and daily practice of reciting gongyo, we are able to deepen our self-confidence and conviction in the power of our lives as being as expansive as the universe itself.
The myriad and complex challenges we face today may leave us with feelings of doubt, powerlessness and negativity. However, chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo and consistently doing gongyo, enable us to bring forth our boundless Buddha nature. When we base everything on this life state of the Buddha, we can limitlessly inspire others and help bring about great change in our world.