Why now? If truly "ultimate", why has this mandala not been around for thousands of years? The simple answer is that it has been with us since time immemorial. It is also true that it has not been until now that the time and capacities of people has been sufficient to grasp the ultimate truth in this way.
When one studies the volumes of teachings of the Buddha, one finds the repeated exhortation of the Buddha to discard his previous teachings, and to now adopt a new teaching more suited to the people's capacity. He also spoke about the future, stating that after the first five-hundred year period after his death, the people's capacity will demand new wisdom, and the third five-hundred year period would require new sages to transmit the teachings in a way suited to that time and the capacity of people in that time. That time period in the 6th century, we experienced the amazing scholarship and brilliant codification of all the Buddha's teachings as well as the discard of many teachings shown to be erroneous, by the great scholar and teacher Chi'i or T'ien-T'ai. Chi'i demonstrated, by simple use of the teachings themselves, the Buddha's teaching order and the four stages of teachings he used to get people's capacity to raise to his teachings. The Buddha had only one goal in all his teachings, and yet he had to teach in a variety of ways in order that people could attain that goal within their capacity to understand. The early teachings of the Buddha focused on purification of one's life on this earth. People believed it would take many successive lifetimes to do this purification. The Buddha taught that people should understand that everything they experienced on this earth is illusion and that their attachment to these illusions was the cause of all suffering. And so people believed that salvation lie in the after life or some other "pure" land. This was the time of precepts and rules and endless rituals.
Later, when the people were able to better comprehend the forces at work in their lives the Buddha discarded the earlier teachings and taught in accord with the people's new capacity to understand the workings of their minds. People still believed this would require many life times as taught by the Buddha. Later, the Buddha taught that one's entire existence and future existence was completely a matter of the mind. From this stage of the Buddha's teachings come all the various meditative sects of Buddhism including the most notable, practiced widely in China and now worldwide, Chan Buddhism or as it is sometimes better known by its Japanese name, Zen Buddhism. Chi'i would be instrumental in demonstrating that this was not the final and culminating teaching of the Buddha. That in fact, this was a very difficult way to attain enlightenment and would benefit only a few individuals.
The goal of the Buddha from the very start was to make enlightenment available and easy for every person, no matter what state of life, caste, class or education. So, a specialized practice benefiting only the few after arduous years of practice could not possibly achieve the ultimate goal of Buddhism. In his late teachings, the final eight years of his life, the Buddha taught the teachings named the "The Teaching of the Magnificent Lotus Flower", known commonly as the "Lotus Sutra". In this teaching the Buddha explicitly tells all students to completely discard all previous teachings as he declared that he, The Buddha, had not yet revealed the ultimate truth. In the Lotus Sutra the Buddha teaches that we are indeed all Buddhas! And that we have always been so! That one's true nature is the Buddha-nature and that all one need do is to awaken that truth! This life is in reality a part of our journey of the discovery that we are Buddha and need not be mired in the attachments of this mundane existence. The beauty and awe of this existence is an essential part of this realization, and therefore to be human is a great gift of fortune. For it is in this life only that we can make “causes” to cleanse our misconceptions and it is in this life only that we can “perceive” the magnificent nature of life.
Chi'i was so meticulous in his reading, understanding, and application of the teachings of the Buddha that he understood the title of the Sutra itself contained all the wisdom and method necessary to attain the ultimate goal of enlightenment for all sentient beings. Yet, Chi'i advocated a program of meditation on these truths. It was not yet the time for advent of the simplest form of practice as taught by the Buddha. The peoples’ capacity at that time still necessitated great rituals of practice and long arduous meditative techniques. Some would reach enlightenment to be sure, but most not in their present forms on this earth.
Not until 13th century Japan, in the beginning of the "Latter day" of the Law, the fifth five hundred year period after the passing of the Buddha, did a priest named Nichiren create a mandala of the five essential characters of the Lotus Sutra teachings. Of course, medieval Japan, with its Samurai Shogunate state was a place and time where the people's capacity was controlled vehemently by tradition, lineage, and ritual. For Nichiren's time and the capacity of the people in his time, this ultimate mandala must contain not only the singular, simple, and elegant path to awakening as taught by Buddha, but must also present the entire argument and lineage for its existence to leave no question as to its authenticity.
There is some debate amongst scholars in regard to the CE (Common Era) calendar and the lifespan of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha, Gautama, Shakyamuni, or Tathâgata, all names for the same historical figure, Buddha. According to Nichiren’s writings, Nichiren dates his own life to be about 2200 years after the Buddha’s passing, placing the Buddha’s death at about 950-1000 BCE. The time of his birth and death are uncertain, and most early 20th century historians date his lifetime from about 563 BCE to 483 BCE More recently, however, at a specialist symposium on this question, the majority of those scholars who presented definite opinions gave dates within 20 years either side of 400 BCE for the Buddha's death, with others supporting earlier or later dates. If these estimates are more accurate, then the fifth five-hundred year period is NOW! And the predictions by the Buddha of the advent of the Buddhas’ perfect universal Law is due NOW!
To this day various forms of the Nichiren mandala are enshrined in homes and temples all over the world and revered as the ultimate mandala for the attainment of enlightenment. And this is where my journey begins.
Let me continue by stating that I am just a man. I claim no special privilege or powers in what I am about to say. I have been studying and practicing the Buddha's teaching in some forms all of my life. I took my vows at a Nichiren Shoshu temple in 1988. As I studied Buddhism and all Buddhist teachings I could locate, I found that there were 125 extant Gohonzon, or mandala verified to be created by the hand of Nichiren.
As I studied them, two things became very apparent. The first was not much of a surprise, since a great many of the writings of Nichiren claim the "essential" practice of the Buddha's teachings is the chanting of the O'Daimoku, the title of the sutra, the five characters of Myo, Ho, Ren, Ge, and Kyo. So when I saw a wide array of Gohonzon with little more than the characters for Na and MU (complete dedication or devotion to...) followed by Myohorengekyo, I thought it well within the teachings of the Buddha. The final Gohonzons attributed to Nichiren, and by Nichiren's own description in his writings, contain in name, the main personalities of the allegorical stories of the Lotus Sutra used to teach the ultimate law.
Now, because of Nichiren's time, and the capacity of the people in his time, I understand, as he was want to create a "universal" mandala, that he would include such reverence for the lineage and the surrounding justifications for the ultimate law in his mandala, all while keeping the "main" characters of the Daimoku, Namumyohorengekyo much larger and at the center of the mandala. The One vehicle described by the Buddha is none other than the five characters of the O’Daimoku, Myohorengekyo. However, the remaining characters surrounding the Daimoku are there by convention of the time, by traditional observance, and follow the “Formal” presentation of the time. There is no part of the Buddhas’ teaching that includes any of these other allegorical personages as essential or even necessary for the attainment of enlightenment. Still, in Nichiren’s time, the additional information on his mandala would not have created any conflict or misunderstanding, but rather supported his findings and justified the validity of his transmission of the Buddhas’ Law.
My second observation though, was much more troubling. The Gohonzon (mandala) given me by the Nichiren Shoshu temple at my ceremony was not the same as any of these Nichiren Gohonzon! In fact, there was much more calligraphy that had nothing to do with the Lotus Sutra on my Gohonzon and thousands of other Gohonzons handed out by "Nichiren Buddhist" sects. These mandala contained birth dates of contemporary priests and special inaugural dates of temple buildings, signatures, and so forth! Certainly some respect can be appropriate for those who come before you and whose efforts might be given some credit for these teachings being maintained in order that we might discover and embrace them, perhaps in special ceremonies etc… But, it is a far cry from respect to include that respect as a devotional element requisite to our enlightenment in the ultimate mandala! The Mandala represents the Buddhas’ Perfect Teaching, not the classroom! The Buddha himself taught that the teaching of the one vehicle, the Law contained within the Lotus Sutra, is the teaching of all Buddhas and the way for all to attain enlightenment. The Buddha never taught that all should revere and worship his mortal presence in order that one reaches enlightenment, or the allegorical examples as part and parcel of our enlightenment. Had he done so, the ultimate teaching would be to chant his name, and focus on his visage in statue or picture. Now you see why all those movies and temples where you find people doing exactly that kind of ritual are NOT practicing correctly. The practice of praying to images of people, or chanting their names cannot even be considered Buddhism today. At one time, long ago, when the people’s capacity was low, it may have been the most arduous and necessary thing for people to repeat some Buddha’s name, like Amida (Amitaba) in order that they simply train their minds toward the teachings. But this is certainly not the capacity of the people today, and it was not acceptable in Nichiren’s time either, as you will find in the excerpts included later from Nichiren’s own writings.
In the Lotus Sutra the Buddha makes explicit that it is this teaching (Lotus Sutra), the one vehicle, the true law, which leads all to enlightenment, not him. He too attained enlightenment using this same Law, just as all other Buddhas before and after him. His purpose, his advent as the Buddha, was simply to lead people to this knowledge.
Like many others in the late twentieth century, before and after me, I now found myself practicing independently. I sought out scholars and their research. There is in fact, a large community of independent practitioners of the Buddha's teachings using versions of the Nichiren Gohonzon. And now, after twenty years of daily practice, I am more convinced than ever that the ultimate mandala must be cleansed of its past confusions.
I cite the following Gosho of Nichiren; for myself and all those who practice in earnest, with a studious mind for the truth. The entire Gosho is relevant here, but I bolded the section that I believe is crucial to understanding why it is important to leave institutions, organizations, or individuals that do not follow the Buddhas’ teachings strictly!