Toba memorial tablets are inscribed for the Urabon Ceremony, on the anniversaries of those who have passed away, or anytime a memorial service is performed. Since the Toba Memorial Service is an important part of Nichiren Shoshu practice, all members should know its origin and significance.
The memorial tablet (toba) called “stupa” in Sanskrit, means burial mound, mausoleum, or the accumulation of good fortune. It appeared in tangible form for the first time approximately 200 years after Shakyamuni’s death, during the reign of King Ashoka.
Stupas originated from dome shaped burial mounds but eventually evolved to approximately 30 different styles, including huge pyramid-like structures, five-story pagodas made of wood or stone, and simple wooden grave tablets. The basic form is the five-story pagoda consisting of a square at the bottom, circle, triangle, semi-circle, and finally the “treasure of fulfillment” at the top. This arrangement represents the five elements of earth, water, fire, wind, and space. The square corresponds to earth, the circle to water, the triangle to fire, the semi-circle to wind, and space is symbolized in the form of a jewel. The square structure at the bottom signifies the ground. Water is positioned atop the earth because it collects on the ground. Since fire has a tendency to rise into the air above the water, it is placed above water. Wind can soar higher than fire; thus it goes on top of fire. And, since space signifies non-substantiality, peace, and the spiritual element, it is situated on top of the other four elements.
The Daishonin expounded that the human body as well as all phenomena in the entire universe are originally composed of the five elements of earth, water, fire, wind, and space. These five elements constantly go through the cycles of dissemination and recomposition. That is, a human being returns to the elements after death and the physical body disintegrates. It would seem, then, that the person at this stage has returned to nothingness. His karma, however, lives on eternally in the universe, and he carries into his next life the cumulative effects of his good and bad deeds from birth to the time of his death. Thus if a person dies in suffering or in a state of delusion brought about by heretical teachings, he will suffer the same unfortunate circumstances after his death.
The five elements represented in the form of the toba are the manifestations of the true principle of Myoho-Renge-Kyo, the mystic Law. The “Record of Orally Transmitted Teachings” (“Ongi kuden”) reads:
Our head represents myo, the throat is ho, the chest is ren, the womb is ge, and the legs are kyo. This five-foot body of ours is, indeed, the manifestation of the five characters of the mystic Law, Myoho-Renge-Kyo.
(Gosho, p. 1728)
A passage from the Gosho “The Teaching Affirmed by All Buddhas of the Three Existences” (“Sokanmon-sho”) reads:
The five elements are earth, water, fire, wind and space….These are, in other words, the five characters of Myoho-Renge-Kyo.
(Gosho, p. 1418)
It follows, then, that the five levels of the stupa also signify the Buddha’s body represented by Myoho-Renge-Kyo.
On the memorial tablet, alongside the transcription of the Daimoku, is written, “Herein exists the entire being of the Buddha.” This means that the tablet or stupa represents the body of the Buddha, and that the deceased person’s life exists in Buddhahood.
If the deceased—our ancestors, relatives, and friends—are suffering in the state of death (ku), their grief and suffering will necessarily affect the survivors. Thus through the strong faith of the survivors and the tremendous power of the Gohonzon, the deceased must be elevated to the life-condition of enlightenment. Unless this happens, the survivors —and by extension, our society—cannot achieve true happiness.
Note: This Chapter can be read in its entirety in the book:
Nichiren Shoshu Ceremonies. For more information, please contact your local temple.