Here's a stab at BB's questions. May differ from other answers given. Also, not sure if there will be any reconciliation. We Nichiren Buddhists are spinning out in our own orbit in many respects.
My bonafides - born into family that practiced Nichiren Buddhism. Have a masters in religion - studied Japanese religions with a focus on Buddhism. Have practiced and studied with teachers of various traditions including Himalayan and Theravadin, briefly, and not very deeply. Main practice has always been Nichiren. In the end, what does that amount to? Being a little out of step with the modern world around me and in student debt. Ha.
beautiful breath wrote:1) How does chanting reveal the nature of reality to our minds in the same way theravadins may use Vipassana and the Tibetans may use meditating on Emptiness?
This is a very big question. It goes back to the Daimoku itself. I think someone in this thread suggested that it is a mantra. It is not. It is "Namu" appended to the title of the Lotus Sutra as translated by Kumarajiva into Chinese and pronounced in Japanese. It is chanted like a mantra, or dharani, for that matter, but it is distinct in many respects. Another discussion.
According to East Asian Lotus Buddhist thought, and by this I mean Tientai/Tendai and its sub-tradition, Nichiren, the entire meaning of the Lotus Sutra is contained in its title. This is the gist of Zhiyi's Fahuaxuinyi, ie. Profound Meaning of the Lotus Sutra.
Nichiren appended "Namu", which he understood as a subjective expression of devotion, to the title to get what Nichiren Buddhists call the Daimoku. Adding Namu makes the Daimoku appear to be a devotional practice. I'd say this is true, but the path of devotion is much more than what one might expect. This gets into Nichiren views on practice which may be too much for this particular discussion.
At the heart of Nichiren's teaching is 信, commonly translated as "faith". It is drawn from the 17th chapter of the Lotus Sutra where the Buddha exhorts those hearing of Shakyamuni Buddha's true life span for the first time to accept it with 信解, translated as "faith and understanding" or something along those lines depending on the translator. This corresponds to the sanskrit word, "adhimukti" which is also commonly translated as "faith" or "trust" or something along those lines. However, in my studies, it refers to something much more subtle and, dare I say, profound, than "faith" or "trust". Technically it refers to the instantaneous moment when an object and mind come together. It precedes consciousness, let alone understanding. If anything, it is an exhortation to be open to the reality of infinite life.
The way I have come to understand this is that the Lotus Sutra tells us to listen to the description of the Buddha's life span and be open to it - ie. just "hear" it. Understanding is not necessary - understanding follows as we take the Buddha's life span as an object of contemplation and we explore it. However, enlightenment itself is entered through adhimukti of the Buddha's life span.
And what is the Buddha's life span? According to the Lotus Tradition, Shakyamuni is an eternal three-bodied buddha, meaning Nirmanakaya, Sambhogakaya, and Dharmakaya are inseparable and without beginning or end. All we need to do to ensure enlightenment is to adhimukti the Buddha's life span. Subsequent practice is the integration of this teaching, along with all of its implications, into our life as it is lived. This is particularly true of Nichiren who also taught of "reading the sutra with the body".
My take is that simply living life while single mindedly concentrating on the Buddha's Life Span (ie. practicing the Daimoku with one's entire being) and seeking to understand its implications in every aspect of our life, is the not only process of awakening to annuttarasamyaksambodhi, it is the full blown expression of Annuttarasamyaksambodhi.
Tientai philosophy guides much of the meditation on the meaning of the Daimoku. Zhiyi does some mind blowing stuff in drawing out the implications of the Buddha's life span - I highly recommend Brook Ziporyn's books on Tientai philosophy, as well as Ng's study on the relationship between Tientai and Madhyamika (no offense to Swanson and his fans, but I think these guys present a more compelling understanding of Tientai thought).
That is a short answer. Much more to it.
2) Am I wrong in thinking that one of the agendas with Chanting is for material gain?
I disagree with Rory who plainly says its wrong. I have a more nuanced view. Some people simply don't have material security - obtaining food and shelter is a consuming occupation. When you are worried about food and shelter you can't even consider pursuing more subtle knowledges about life. The Daimoku is such a broad practice that it can be used as a basis to secure material comfort. For instance, some people just don't have the discipline to achieve a comfortable life (I'm not considering unjust situations where such opportunities are precluded by material circumstances - But Nichiren Buddhism has something to say about that also ie. Securing the Peace of the Land). Using the Daimoku to focus on the activities necessary to achieve material comfort is possible and effective. It can become unhealthy, however, when materialism becomes the goal. What is critical is that when Daimoku is used for material acquisition, it be kept in mind that the material comfort secured must be a means to deeper practice, and that when it becomes and end itself, it will inflict injury, both to oneself and others.
This materialism is not un-buddhist. Its common sense that we have basic needs. The Buddha accepted rice gruel before sitting down beneath the Bodhi Tree. If he had ignored his material needs, he would have died. In Mahayana practice I have been taught preliminary practices such as appreciation of advantages that take one through a reflection of the factors that enable us to practice Buddhadharma. Materialism is viewed as bad, I'd say, mostly because of Buddhism's obsession with quelling desire. But it is what it is. It derives from the reality of what we are - beings that need food and shelter to live. These needs are provided for in institutional Buddhism through the extensive regime of alms giving. By setting up this economic relationship and regulating it, we minimize its impact on Buddhist practice as much as possible, but its still there.
For us lay people, though, we don't have wealthy donors giving us a place to sleep and food to eat. We have to fend for ourselves. We are responsible for securing the resources that will enable us to undertake Buddhist practice. How can we begrudge anyone these needs?
3) Do Nichiren Buddhists meditate (in the traditional sense)?
Not sure what you're asking. The Buddha's own description of meditation in its simplest form is calm reflection on life removed from the distraction of the realm of desire. This is encompassed in Zhiyi's two-fold meditation practice - Moho Chikuan - samatha and vipassana. Samatha to calm our mind, then vipassana where we turn our mind to the contemplation of Reality as-it-is - in the Lotus Traditions, this means reflection on the Threefold Inclusive Truth, Mutual Possession of the Ten Worlds, The Thousand Factors, and Three Thousand Realms in a Single Mind. In Nichiren's teachings, this is at minimum, the practice of the Daimoku, which includes all these other practices.
If you have time and ability, Nichiren encouraged further practice such as reflection on Three Thousand Realms in a Single Mind.
4) What are Nichiren Buddhist thoughts on life after death of the physical? Do they err towards the Tibetan (Bardo and intermediate State etc...) or are they more orthodox?
This is a tough question. See, there is this Buddha's Life Span that lies at the heart of our practice. According to this view, life and death are not what we conventionally think they are, nor are they what is generally conceived of in Buddhism. They are not a process of arising and perishing. They are only the appearance of arising and perishing to those who do not know of the Buddha's life span. Whereas Buddhists generally characterize life as no-self, defiled, suffering and impermanent, Lotus Buddhists characterize true reality as True Self, Pure, Blissful and Eternal. There's one reason why the Lotus Sutra describes the Lotus Sutra as Difficult to Believe and Difficult to Understand. We take much of what other people think of Buddhism and stand it on its head.
The Nichiren views on bardo is a really difficult issue, and can't really be explained without explaining Three Thousand Realms in a Moment of Life. This in turn can't just be explained easily - its the highest teaching of the Lotus Tradition, so I can scarcely even attempt to explain it in order to explain views on the bardo.
The simple answer is, yes and no, or rather, neither yes nor no.