'Nam' is an action word. The act of praising our potential will make it emerge. 'Nam' is the word that turns this principle from a theory into a reality. The Lotus Sutra, although profound, is merely a teaching. But Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is a practice that will have actual results. The literal meaning of the word 'Nam' is 'respect' or 'dedication' - so the whole phrase has the simple meaning of 'devotion to the Mystic Law of the Lotus Sutra'.
'Myoho' explains at least two major principles of life: the relationship between life and death, and the relationship between our most enlightened, or Buddha, state and all our other nine conditions or states of life. The 'ten states of life' or 'ten worlds' will be covered in a future part of this series.
How do the teachings of Buddhism view the relationship between life and death? We all have a birthday. That is, quite simply, the day when we emerged into the world as a baby. We also have some idea of what was happening to us in the nine or so months before we emerged from the womb. Before that, however, other than the knowledge that a sperm and an egg came together at a particular moment, things are not so clear. Biologists cannot give definitive answers as to where or what our consciousness was before conception and philosophers have also struggled to explain this. Buddhism teaches that all our constituent parts, not just physical ones, but mental and spiritual as well, existed in a state of latency, waiting for the right conditions to emerge before we could start the process of being born after conception. Before conception, we are latent, or 'myo'. This means that our life energy is waiting for the necessary circumstances before it can take on a physical form. 'Ho', which means law, or phenomena, describes the manifest state and particularly the emergence of the new-born baby into the world. We remain alive - manifest - until the point when, for whatever reason, our bodies can no longer support our lives. The body dies, and the constituent parts separate. At this point we cease to be 'ho' and return once more to the latent state of 'myo'.
Buddhism teaches that life is a cycle. We emerge from 'myo', become 'ho' and return to 'myo' again. This rhythm continues forever. The cycle of the seasons echoes this process. We see new growth in spring, maturity in summer, harvest and decline in autumn before a period of apparently bleak withdrawal in winter. But winter never fails to turn into spring once more, and the cycle starts again. We feel our Buddhahood at work because our chanting has caused it to appear according to another fundamental life principle: 'renge', which is about how the effect exists simultaneously with the cause.
This literally means lotus flower. The lotus flower rests on the surface of the pond, its roots going deep into the water and drawing on the nutrients it finds in the mud at the bottom. This image of the lotus flower also means that the Buddha is not a perfect being, detached from the realities of life, either in a monastery or in some other, unearthly realm. Rather, the Buddha is an aspect of our own lives which we can draw upon. It is because of the trials and tribulations of real, everyday life in this world that the Buddha's qualities can be revealed. 'Renge' signifies the process of cause and effect at work deep within the life of each person. (The topic of cause and effect will be covered in a future part of this series.)
The word 'kyo' literally means 'sutra', or teaching. It is the vibration of our voice which is so important in our Buddhist practice. It is said the voice does the Buddha's work (2). This is why we chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo aloud, rather than performing a silent meditation. 'Kyo' is the interconnectedness of all phenomena; and how our prayer or the sound of our chanting can affect people and situations out of our immediate sphere.
1) Nichiren Daishonin, 'On Attaining Buddhahood in This Lifetime' (WND, p. 3).
(2) Nichiren Daishonin, Gosho Zenshu, p. 708.