true Buddha ［本仏］ ( hombutsu): A Buddha in his true identity, in contrast to his transient or provisional identity. This term is applied in two specific ways:
(1) To Shakyamuni Buddha as he describes himself in the “Life Span” (sixteenth) chapter of the Lotus Sutra; that is, as having attained Buddhahood in the remote past, countless kalpas ago. In that chapter, Shakyamuni states: “In all the worlds the heavenly and human beings and asuras all believe that the present Shakyamuni Buddha, after leaving the palace of the Shākyas, seated himself in the place of meditation not far from the city of Gayā and there attained supreme perfect enlightenment. But good men, it has been immeasurable, boundless hundreds, thousands, ten thousands, millions of nayutas of kalpas since I in fact attained Buddhahood.” With this statement, Shakyamuni redefines his identity as a Buddha who originally attained his enlightenment in the remarkably remote past. From the standpoint of the philosophy of the Lotus Sutra, the Shakyamuni who is thought to have attained enlightenment in the current life under the bodhi tree in India is a “provisional Buddha,” or a Buddha in his transient identity. In this provisional identity, Shakyamuni is seen as a temporary manifestation of the true Buddha who employed various temporary, expedient teachings to prepare people to understand his true identity and true teaching and thereby lead them to enlightenment.
From the perspective of the content of the Lotus Sutra, the true Buddha corresponds to the Shakyamuni depicted in the essential teaching (latter half) of the Lotus Sutra, while the Buddha in his transient identity is the Shakyamuni of the theoretical teaching (first half) of the sutra.
(2) As a reference to Nichiren (1222–1282), applied to him traditionally by those in the lineage of his disciple Nikkō. In The Profound Meaning of the Lotus Sutra, T’ien-t’ai (538–597) refers to the true cause and the true effect as the first two of the ten mystic principles of the essential teaching of the Lotus Sutra based on the revelation of Shakyamuni’s original attainment of enlightenment in the remote past. He associates the true cause with the sentence in the “Life Span” chapter, “Originally I practiced the bodhisattva way, and the life that I acquired then has yet to come to an end,” and the true effect with the sentence “Since I attained Buddhahood, an extremely long period of time has passed.” In the remote past, Shakyamuni practiced the bodhisattva way (the true cause) and attained Buddhahood (the true effect). Shakyamuni never specifically reveals, however, what teaching he originally practiced, the original cause or seed of his Buddhahood.
Regarding this, Nichiren states: “The doctrine of the sowing of the seed and its maturing and harvesting is the very heart and core of the Lotus Sutra. All the Buddhas of the three existences and the ten directions have invariably attained Buddhahood through the seeds represented by the five characters of Myoho-renge-kyo” (1015). From this perspective, Nichiren is regarded as the teacher of the true cause, and Shakyamuni as the teacher of the true effect. This is because in the Lotus Sutra Shakyamuni revealed his eternal Buddhahood, the effect of his original bodhisattva practice. He did not, however, reveal the true cause or the nature of the specific practice by which he attained it. Nichiren, on the other hand, revealed the teaching and practice of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, which he identified as the true cause that enables all people to attain Buddhahood. This viewpoint identifies Nichiren as the true Buddha.
Nichiren explains the passage of the Lotus Sutra cited above, “It has been immeasurable, boundless hundreds, thousands, ten thousands, millions of nayutas of kalpas since I in fact attained Buddhahood,” in The Record of the Orally Transmitted Teachings. He says, “‘I in fact’ is explaining that Shakyamuni in fact attained Buddhahood in the inconceivably remote past. The meaning of this chapter, however, is that ‘I’ represents the living beings of the phenomenal world. ‘I’ here refers to each and every being in the Ten Worlds. ‘In fact’ establishes that ‘I’ is a Buddha eternally endowed with the three bodies. This is what is being called a ‘fact.’ ‘Attained’ refers both to the one who attains and to what is attained. ‘Attain’ means to open or reveal. It is to reveal that the beings of the phenomenal world are Buddhas eternally endowed with the three bodies. ‘Buddhahood’ means being enlightened to this.” Here Nichiren is saying that every being is essentially “a Buddha eternally endowed with the three bodies,” a true Buddha. In this sense, “true Buddha” refers to the Buddha nature eternally inherent in the lives of all living beings. In The True Aspect of All Phenomena, Nichiren states, “A common mortal is an entity of the three bodies, and a true Buddha. A Buddha is a function of the three bodies, and a provisional Buddha” (384). See also Buddha of beginningless time; Buddha of limitless joy; true cause.