True Cause

Perhaps the most important teaching of the Lotus Sutra is that concerning exactly how long Shakyamuni has been a Buddha. "The Life Span of the Thus Come One" (sixteenth) chapter reveals his attainment of Buddhahood in the remote past overturning people's assumption that he attained enlightenment for the first time at around age of thirty, after meditating under the bodhi tree in India. Instead, he says: "In all the worlds the heavenly and human beings and asuras all believe that the present Shakyamuni Buddha, after leaving the palace of the Shakyas, seated himself in the place of practice not far from the city of Gaya and there attained anuttara-samyak-sambodhi [supreme enlightenment]. But good men, it has been immeasurable, boundless hundreds, thousands, ten thousands, millions of nayutas1 of kalpas2 since I in fact attained Buddhahood" (The Lotus Sutra, chap. 16, p. 225).

The Buddha then explains with examples on a cosmic scale the astounding magnitude of this "life span" as a Buddha.

This has many profound implications. First, in all his teachings before the Lotus Sutra, Shakyamuni Buddha related stories of his practice in many lifetimes spanning countless kalpas in preparation for his attainment of Buddhahood in the current lifetime. With this revelation, however, it becomes clear that he was already a Buddha while carrying out these practices. His true identity is that of a Buddha since the inconceivably remote past. Hence his actions as an ordinary person for the sake of others over countless lifetimes were all expressions of, rather than means to attain, Buddhahood. This opens the way for the idea that ordinary persons can themselves be Buddhas who express their enlightenment through their mundane actions, particularly in their efforts to help others.

It also attests to the enduring nature of Buddhahood: Rather than being simply a hard-won state of spiritual attainment, it is an ever-present innate condition that transcends birth and death.

Shakyamuni's revelation of having attained enlightenment countless kalpas ago is an expression of the "mystic principle of true effect." That is, the "truth" of the Buddha's enlightenment (the effect of Buddhist practice) is that he had been enlightened since the remote past. But what of the cause of his enlightenment?

The Great Teacher T'ien-t'ai of China identifies another statement in the "Life Span" (16th) chapter of the Lotus Sutra, "Originally I practiced the bodhisattva way..." (LS16, 227) as referring to the true cause of Shakyamuni's original enlightenment. Shakyamuni, however, does not clarify what this "bodhisattva way" was. T'ien-t'ai interpreted it as a reference to a particular stage3 of bodhisattva practice. Nevertheless, there is no precise reference to what practice or teaching enabled the Buddha to attain this state. Thus, the true cause of Shakyamuni's original attainment of enlightenment remained a mystery.

Nichiren Daishonin, however, identified that true cause as the fundamental Law that enables all Buddhas to attain enlightenment, the Law of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. Regarding the significance of Shakyamuni's revelation he writes: "When we come to the 'Life Span' chapter of the essential teaching, the belief that Shakyamuni attained Buddhahood for the first time [in India] is demolished, and the effects [enlightenment] of the four teachings4 are likewise demolished. When the effects of the four teachings are demolished, their causes are likewise demolished. 'Causes' here refers to Buddhist practice [to attain enlightenment] or to the stage of disciples engaged in practice. Thus the causes and effects expounded in both the pre-Lotus Sutra teachings and the theoretical teaching of the Lotus Sutra are wiped out, and the cause and effect of the Ten Worlds in the essential teaching are revealed. This is the doctrine of original cause and original effect. It teaches that the nine worlds are all present in beginningless Buddhahood and that Buddhahood exists in the beginningless nine worlds. This is the true mutual possession of the Ten Worlds, the true hundred worlds and thousand factors, the true three thousand realms in a single moment of life" ("The Essence of the 'Life Span' Chapter," The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, p. 183).

"Original cause and original effect" in this passage are the same as "true cause" and "true effect." The "Life Span" chapter of the essential teaching of the Lotus Sutra overturns the concept of Buddhahood stated in the pre-Lotus Sutra teachings as well as those of the first half, or theoretical teaching, of the Lotus Sutra. Later in the same letter, Nichiren Daishonin refers to the "true cause" of the Buddha's enlightenment, stating, "Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, the heart of the 'Life Span' chapter, is the mother of all Buddhas" (WND, 184).

Nichiren Daishonin's teaching is known as the "Buddhism of the True Cause" because it elucidates the fundamental Law or principle by which all Buddhas attain their original enlightenment and by which all people can become Buddhas.

What does this principle of "true cause mean" to us ordinary practitioners of Nichiren Buddhism? Nichiren Daishonin quotes the Contemplation on the Mind-Ground Sutra: "If you want to understand the causes that existed in the past, look at the results as they are manifested in the present. And if you want to understand what results will be manifested in the future, look at the causes that exist in the present" (WND, p. 279).

In one sense, how we approach life and our Buddhist practice depends on whether we have a perspective of "true effect" or "true cause." A perspective of "true effect," only sees enlightenment, or happiness, a result of past causes. From the perspective of "true cause," enlightenment, or happiness, is an ever-present potential; the cause for bringing it forth can only be made right now, in the present moment. The moment we make the "true cause," enlightenment reveals itself.

From the standpoint of the mystic principle of true cause (Jpn hon'in-myo) past, present and future exist fully in this moment. We cannot change the past, yet there is no reason to let it bind or restrict us. All of us face setbacks, disappointments and crises from time to time, but whatever our circumstances or our past, by chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo with a strong resolve, we are creating a brilliant future in this moment. The wisdom of Buddhahood emerges within us and informs our thoughts and actions.The true cause for enlightenment and the true effect of enlightenment are fully present at each moment as we exert ourselves in faith and practice.

Regarding the spirit of true cause, SGI President Ikeda said in a dialogue with young people, "The past is the past and the future is the future. You should keep moving forward with a steady eye on the future, telling yourself, 'I'll start from today!' 'I'll start afresh from now, from this moment!' This is the essence of Nichiren Daishonin's Buddhism of True Cause, the spirit of starting from the present moment. This is the heart of our daimoku" (World Tribune, November 1, 1996, p.11).

  1. Nayuta (Skt): An Indian numerical unit. According to one account, it is one hundred billion, and to another account, ten million.
  2. Kalpa (Skt): An extremely long period of time. Sutras and treatises differ in their definitions, but kalpas fall into two major categories, those of measurable and immeasurable duration. There are three kinds of measurable kalpas: small, medium and major. One explanation sets the length of a small kalpa at approximately sixteen million years. According to Buddhist cosmology, a world repeatedly undergoes four stages: formation, continuance, decline and disintegration. Each of these four stages lasts for twenty small kalpas and is equal to one medium kalpa. Finally, one complete cycle forms a major kalpa.
  3. In particular, the eleventh of fifty-two stages through which a bodhisattva progresses toward Buddhahood. They consist of ten stages of faith, ten stages of security, ten stages of practice, ten stages of devotion, ten stages of development, the stage of near-perfect enlightenment, and the stage of perfect enlightenment.
  4. Four Teachings—Also, the four teachings of doctrine. T'ien-t'ai's classification of Shakyamuni's teachings according to content.They are the Tripitaka, Connecting, Specific and Perfect Teachings.

Living Buddhism, June 2002, p. 4