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Q: What Are ‘Buddhist Gods’?

The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin
Photo by Yvonne Ng

We’ve written about the many rewards we gain from practicing Nichiren Buddhism in recent issues (see April 9, 2021, World Tribune, p. 10, and March 12, 2021, issue, p. 9). This time, we take a look at the benefit of receiving protection.

One might think: For a religion that doesn’t worship a god or gods, Nichiren Buddhism certainly mentions heavenly gods and benevolent deities a lot.

First, we should be clear that in Nichiren Buddhism, gods and deities symbolize the supportive functions of the environment, society and the people around us. That we use terms such as Buddhist gods has to do with how Buddhism developed.

In its country of origin, India, people worshipped a host of deities. Shakyamuni Buddha, however, spoke little of gods. He instead focused on the workings inherent in nature and society, striving to awaken people to their enlightened potential. Buddhist writings later incorporated these familiar deities to serve as a way to illustrate, and help people more readily accept, important Buddhist principles. Later, in China and Japan, Buddhist writings came to incorporate the deities of those countries as well.

The Lotus Sutra states, “The heavenly beings day and night will for the sake of the Law constantly guard and protect them [those who teach the Law to others] and will cause all the listeners to rejoice” (The Lotus Sutra and Its Opening and Closing Sutras, p. 245). This statement expresses the sutra’s revolutionary view that upends the idea of people existing to serve gods, but rather gods existing to serve the people.

Our Resolute Prayer and Actions Activate Protective Functions

Then how do we, as Nichiren Buddhists, activate these forces in our environment?

We set protective functions in motion by chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo and bringing forth our own Buddha nature, and taking action for our own and others’ happiness with a resolve to work for the betterment of society.

As Nichiren states: “Buddhism teaches that, when the Buddha nature manifests itself from within, it will receive protection from without. This is one of its fundamental principles” (“The Three Kinds of Treasure,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 848).

He also says: “‘The stronger one’s faith, the greater the protection of the gods.’ This means that the protection of the gods depends on the strength of one’s faith” (“General Stone Tiger,” WND-1, 953).

Everything, therefore, depends on the power of our faith and action. Most often, Nichiren says, protective functions “will assume various forms such as those of men and women, and present offerings to help the persons who practice the Lotus Sutra” (“The Izu Exile,” WND-1, 35). He also frequently thanks his disciples for the support they gave him, praising them as acting as Buddhas and bodhisattvas.

Protective functions, then, are not supernatural nor can they defy the laws of physics or science. They represent the profound connection between our lives and our environment, between self and others, and the power of our Buddha nature to activate those connections. By creating harmony with and appreciating our environment and those around us, we come to enjoy their support.

Second Soka Gakkai President Josei Toda contrasted this empowering perspective with what he termed “beggar’s faith”—counseling against us simply having a laundry list of desires that we expect the Gohonzon to supply. Rather, he urged that we uphold the resolve “I will stake my life on the struggle for kosen-rufu!”

Ikeda Sensei comments: When we muster the faith to uphold the Gohonzon and the Mystic Law with our very lives, we are protected by the Buddhas and bodhisattvas throughout time and space. In response to our earnest efforts in faith to score a resounding victory for the SGI … all the protective functions of the universe come to our aid. (The Wisdom of the Lotus Sutra, vol. 5, p. 158)

We Can Make Everything Our Ally

Nichiren’s great conviction arose from his deep wish to lead all humanity to enlightenment, expressed most powerfully in his declaration: “Let the gods forsake me. Let all persecutions assail me. Still I will give my life for the sake of the Law (“The Opening of the Eyes,” WND-1, 280). His resolve to establish and spread the Mystic Law is what activated the protective functions, which enabled him to survive and eternalize his teachings.

“Our mind, our lives, can pervade the entire universe,” Sensei writes. “In other words, we can make everything in the universe, even the most negative and hostile forces, our allies. Such is the infinite power of the Mystic Law” (November 2019 Living Buddhism, p. 53).

As we exert ourselves in our practice for self and others day after day, we cultivate limitless inner strength and conviction, giving us the power to make everything in the universe our ally.

—Prepared by the SGI-USA Study Department

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