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The Life of Nichiren

Nichiren Daishonin was born on the sixteenth day of the second month, 1222, in the village of Kominato on the eastern coast of Awa Province in present-day Chiba Prefecture. His father’s name was Mikuni no Taifu, and his mother’s name was Umegiku; they made their living by fishing. As Nichiren Daishonin said in Letter from Sado, he was “the son of a chandala family.” The chandala are the lowest group in the Indian class system, comprising such professions as fisherman, jailer, and butcher. Nichiren Daishonin is acknowledging that his origins were of the humblest kind. He was given the childhood name Zennichi-maro and lived in the fishing village until the age of twelve, when he left home to study at a nearby temple called Seicho-ji. In those days temples were the only place where common people could learn reading and writing.


Zennichi-maro became interested in and studied Buddhism at Seicho-ji, which belonged to the Tendai school. There he was placed under Dozen-bo, a senior priest of Seicho-ji, and received instruction not only in Tendai doctrines but in True Word and Pure Land ones as well. He was particularly concerned about the bewildering multiplicity of Buddhist schools and the doctrinal contradictions within the Buddhist canon. He was convinced that one sutra among the many that existed must represent the ultimate truth. He began to wonder where he could find that truth. Another concern was the fundamental problem of life and death, which he had wished to solve since his early years. He came to realize that the answer could only be found in the Buddha’s enlightenment.


In the temple’s hall of worship, there was a statue of Bodhisattva Space Treasury. Zennichi-maro prayed before the statue to become the wisest man in Japan, and his prayer was answered when, as he wrote later, the “living” Bodhisattva Space Treasury bestowed on him “a great jewel” of wisdom. At that moment he awakened to the ultimate reality of life and the universe. But in order to reveal this enlightenment to the people of the Latter Day of the Law, he had to systematize his ideas in relation to the whole spectrum of the Buddha’s teachings.


At the age of sixteen, he resolved to be ordained and took the religious name Zesho-bo Rencho. Some time later he took leave of his teacher Dozen-bo and went to Kamakura to further his studies. There he delved into the teachings of the Pure Land and Zen schools. But Kamakura was still a new city with only a limited tradition in Buddhism. In 1242, after three years of study there, Rencho returned to Seicho-ji briefly, and left again the same year for western Japan. This time he went to Mount Hiei, the center of the Tendai school and of Buddhism in general, and later to Mount Koya, the headquarters of the True Word school, and to other important temples in the Kyoto and Nara areas. After some ten years of study at Mount Hiei and elsewhere, he concluded that the true teachings of Buddhism are to be found in the Lotus Sutra. The Lotus represents the heart of Shakyamuni Buddha’s enlightenment; all other sutras are mere expedients leading up to the Lotus.


Nichiren praying on mountain at sunriseHe returned to Seicho-ji in 1253. There, shortly afterward, very early on the morning of the twenty-eighth day of the fourth month, he chanted Nam-myoho- renge-kyo for the first time, thereby providing the key for all future generations to unlock the treasure of enlightenment hidden in their hearts. He also changed his name to Nichiren (Sun Lotus).


At noon on the same day, he propounded his doctrine at the temple in the presence of his teacher and other priests and villagers. Rubbing his prayer beads between his palms, he chanted Nam-myoho-renge-kyo three times. Then he declared that none of the pre-Lotus Sutra teachings reveals the Buddha’s enlightenment, and that all the schools based on those teachings are misguided. He stated that the Lotus Sutra is supreme, and that Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, the essence of the Lotus Sutra, is the only teaching that can lead the people of the Latter Day of the Law to enlightenment.


Few in the audience understood the meaning of Nichiren Daishonin’s first sermon, but people responded angrily, since it appeared to be an attack upon their own religious beliefs. The steward of the region, Tojo Kagenobu, a devout follower of the Pure Land school, took steps to have the Daishonin arrested. Though the Daishonin managed to escape, he was determined to go to Kamakura to preach. Before departing, however, he visited his parents and converted them to the new faith.


In the eighth month of 1253, he settled in a small dwelling at a place called Matsubagayatsu in the southeast section of Kamakura. At his dwelling and at the homes of supporters, he began to tell people about the teachings of the Lotus Sutra. On occasion, he visited temples in the city to debate with their chief priests. He denounced the beliefs of the Pure Land school, which teaches that salvation can be gained merely by invoking the name of Amida Buddha, and also attacked Zen for its rejection of the sutras.


His attacks angered not only religious leaders, but government authorities as well, since the latter were in many cases ardent patrons of the Pure Land and Zen schools. Soon he faced fierce opposition, though he continued his efforts to win converts. It was in those early years of propagation that such major disciples as Shijo Kingo, Toki Jonin, Kudo Yoshitaka, and Ikegami Munenaka were converted.

Beginning in 1256, Japan suffered a series of calamities. Storms, floods, droughts, earthquakes, and epidemics inflicted great hardship upon the nation. In 1257, a particularly severe earthquake destroyed many temples, government buildings, and homes in Kamakura, while in 1259 and 1260 severe famine and plague ravaged the populace.


Nichiren Daishonin believed that the time had come for him to explain the basic cause of these catastrophes. In 1258 he went to Jisso-ji, a temple in Iwamoto in present-day Shizuoka Prefecture, to consult its copies of the Buddhist canon, and to assemble incontrovertible proof of the real cause of the disasters. During his stay there, he met a thirteen-year-old acolyte, who was so impressed by the Daishonin that he became his disciple. At this time, the Daishonin gave the young man the name Hoki-bo. Later, the Daishonin named him Nikko and designated him as his legitimate successor.


The most powerful man in the country was Hojo Tokiyori, a former regent of the Kamakura shogunate who had retired to Saimyo-ji, a Zen temple. On the sixteenth day of the seventh month, 1260, Nichiren Daishonin presented to Tokiyori a treatise entitled On Establishing the Correct Teaching for the Peace of the Land. In it, he attributes the cause of the recent calamities to the people’s slander of the correct teaching of Buddhism, and their reliance on false doctrines. The worship of Amida Buddha, he asserts, is the source of such slander. The nation will know no relief from suffering unless the people renounce their mistaken beliefs and accept the teachings of the Lotus Sutra. Quotes from the Gold-en Light, Medicine Master, Benevolent Kings, and Great Collection sutras are included to substantiate these assertions. These sutras mention various calamities that will befall any nation hostile to the correct teaching. Of the seven mentioned in the Medicine Master Sutra, five had already struck Japan. The Daishonin predicts that, if the authorities persist in turning their backs on the correct teaching, the two remaining calamities, foreign invasion and internal strife, will strike the nation as well. Tokiyori and the government officials appear to have taken no notice of the treatise. However, when word of its contents reached the followers of the Pure Land school, they were incensed. A band of them swarmed down on the Daishonin’s dwelling at Matsubagayatsu intent on taking his life. The Daishonin narrowly escaped with a few disciples to Shimosa Province, where he stayed for a time at the home of Toki Jonin, his follower and an influential figure in the area. But his sense of mission would not allow him to remain there long. In less than a year he was back in Kamakura to resume his preaching.


The priests of the Pure Land school, alarmed at his success in attracting followers, contrived to have charges brought against him by the Kamakura government. The regent at the time was Hojo Nagatoki, whose father was Shigetoki, a lay priest at Gokuraku-ji temple and a confirmed enemy of the Daishonin. Without investigation or trial, Nagatoki accepted the charges and on the twelfth day of the fifth month, 1261, ordered Nichiren Daishonin banished to the desolate coast along the Izu Peninsula. This was the first government persecution suffered by the Daishonin.


Izu was a stronghold of the Pure Land school, and exile there clearly placed the Daishonin in great personal danger. Fortunately, however, he was taken in by Funamori Yasaburo, a local fisherman, and his wife. They treated him with great kindness. Later he won the favor of Ito Sukemitsu, the steward of the area, who became a believer in his teaching when he successfully prayed for the steward’s recovery from illness. In time the government, apparently at the instigation of the former regent, Hojo Tokiyori, issued a pardon, and Nichiren Daishonin returned to Kamakura in the second month of 1263.


In the autumn of 1264, Nichiren Daishonin, concerned about his aged mother, returned to his home in Awa. He found his mother critically ill —his father had died earlier —but he prayed for her recovery and she was able to overcome her illness and live nearly four years longer. Unfortunately, word of his return reached the steward, Tojo Kagenobu. When the Daishonin and a group of followers set out to visit Kudo Yoshitaka, a supporter in the area, they were attacked by Tojo and his soldiers at a place called Komatsubara. Although the Daishonin escaped death, he received a sword wound on his forehead, and his left hand was broken.


In 1268, the foreign invasion that Nichiren Daishonin had predicted seemed about to materialize. That year, as mentioned earlier, a letter from the Mongols arrived in Kamakura demanding that Japan acknowledge fealty to Khubilai Khan. The Japanese leaders realized that the nation faced grave danger. Construction of defensive fortifications was immediately undertaken in Kyushu on the coasts facing Korea, and every temple and shrine in the country was ordered to offer prayers for the defeat of the enemy.


Nichiren Daishonin, who had returned to Kamakura, was convinced that it was time for him to act. He sent eleven letters of remonstration to top-ranking officials, including the regent, Hojo Tokimune; the deputy chief of military and police affairs, Hei no Saemon; and the two most influential priests in Kamakura at the time, Doryu of the Zen school and Ryokan of the True Word Precepts school. These letters briefly restated the declaration made in On Establishing the Correct Teaching —that unless the government embraced the correct teaching, the country would suffer the final two disasters predicted in the sutras. All eleven men chose to ignore the warnings.


In 1271, the country was troubled by persistent drought. The government, fearful of famine, ordered Ryokan, the well-known and respected chief priest of Gokuraku-ji temple, to pray for rain. When Nichiren Daishonin learned of this, he sent a written challenge to Ryokan offering to become his disciple if the latter succeeded in bringing on rain. If he failed, however, Ryokan was to become the Daishonin’s follower. Ryokan accepted the challenge, but in spite of his prayers and those of hundreds of assistant priests, no rain fell. In-stead, Kamakura was struck by fierce gales. Ryokan not only did not become a disciple of the Daishonin, but actually began to plot against him in collusion with Hei no Saemon.


Ryokan and the Zen priest Doryu both headed temples that had been founded by high officials of the Hojo family. Though the founders had died, their wives still exercised strong influence within the government. Ryokan and Doryu aroused the anger of these women by telling them that the Daishonin, in his letters of remonstrance, had spoken disrespectfully of their deceased husbands. Eventually, as a result of the machinations of the priests, a list of charges against the Daishonin was submitted to the government.


On the tenth day of the ninth month, 1271, Hei no Saemon ordered Nichiren Daishonin to appear in court to answer the charges. This marked the beginning of the second phase of official persecution. The Daishonin eloquently refuted the charges and repeated his predictions of foreign invasion and strife within the ruling clan. Two days after the investigation, Hei no Saemon and his soldiers burst into the Daishonin’s dwelling. Though innocent of all wrongdoing, the Daishonin was arrested and sentenced to banishment on the island of Sado.


However, Hei no Saemon was determined to have him beheaded at an execution ground in Tatsunokuchi on the outskirts of Kamakura. Nichiren Daishonin and his followers believed that his death was at hand, but at the last moment the sudden appearance of a luminous object in the sky so terrified the officials that they called off the execution. Thereafter the Daishonin declared himself to have been reborn to a new life as the Buddha of the Latter Day of the Law. A detailed description of these dramatic events in the Daishonin’s own words can be found in the letter entitled The Actions of the Votary of the Lotus Sutra.


In the tenth month of 1271, Nichiren Daishonin, accompanied by warrior escorts, sailed across the Sea of Japan to Sado, his place of exile. The only friendly person to go with him was his faithful follower Nikko Shonin. The two were quartered in a dilapidated hut in an area where the corpses of paupers and criminals were abandoned. They were short of food and clothing, and had no fire to keep them warm. Huddling in skins and straw mantles, they somehow managed to survive the first winter.


In the first month of 1272, in response to a challenge from priests in the area, Nichiren Daishonin engaged in a religious debate with representatives of other Buddhist schools, who had gathered from around Sado and from as far away as the mainland. During what has become known as the Tsukahara Debate, he completely refuted their doctrines and demolished their positions.


The situation on Sado improved somewhat for the Daishonin as he began to receive offerings of food and clothing from local people who had converted to his teachings. However, he faced constant hostility from the priests and lay believers of other schools. His time was devoted mainly to preaching and writing. Many of his most important works, including The Object of Devotion for Observing the Mind and The Opening of the Eyes, date from this period.


On the eighteenth day of the second month, 1272, a ship reached Sado Island bringing news that fighting had broken out in Kamakura and Kyoto. It was a power struggle within the Hojo family. The Daishonin’s prophecy of dissension within the ruling clan had come true. And before long, the second disaster he had prophesied, foreign invasion, became more likely as the Mongols repeatedly sent envoys demanding submission. In the second month of 1274 Hojo Tokimune, who had never completely agreed with the severe treatment accorded to the Daishonin, revoked the edict of banishment. And on the twenty-sixth day of the third month, two years and five months after he was exiled, Nichiren Daishonin returned to Kamakura.


On the eighth day of the fourth month, Nichiren Daishonin was ordered to appear before the military tribunal. Hei no Saemon was the presiding official, as he had been three years earlier when charges were brought against the Daishonin. But this time he behaved with reserve and politeness. In reply to questioning concerning the possibility of a Mongol attack, the Daishonin stated that he feared an invasion within the year. He added that the government should not ask the True Word priests to pray for the destruction of the Mongols, since their prayers would only aggravate the situation.


An old Chinese text says that, if a sage warns his sovereign three times and still is not heeded, he should leave the country. Nichiren Daishonin had three times remonstrated with the rulers, predicting crises —once when he presented On Establishing the Correct Teaching, again at the time of his arrest and near execution at Tatsunokuchi, and once more on his return from Sado. Convinced that the government would never heed his warnings, he left Kamakura on the twelfth day of the fifth month, 1274. He settled in a small dwelling at the foot of Mount Minobu in the province of Kai (present-day Yamanashi Prefecture).


Because of the remoteness of the region, his life in Minobu was far from easy. His followers in Kamakura sent him money, food, and clothing, and occasionally went in groups to receive instruction from him. He devoted much of his time to writing, and nearly half of his extant works date from this period. He also spent much time lecturing and training his disciples. The lectures on the Lotus Sutra he delivered at this time were compiled by Nikko Shonin and are known as The Record of the Orally Transmitted Teachings.


In the tenth month of 1274, five months after Nichiren Daishonin moved to Minobu, the Mongols launched the attack described earlier. In a letter to one of his followers, the Daishonin expressed his bitter disappointment that his advice had been ignored, for he was convinced that, had it been heeded, the nation would have been spared much suffering.


During this period, Nikko Shonin was successful in making a number of converts among the priests and lay people of Atsuhara Village. The priests of a Tendai temple in the area, angered at his success, began harassing the converts. Eventually, they arranged for a band of warriors to attack a number of unarmed farmers of the convert group and arrest them on false charges of thievery. Twenty of the farmers were arrested and tortured, and three were eventually beheaded.


The incident, known as the Atsuhara Persecution, was significant because, whereas earlier persecutions had been aimed mainly at the Daishonin, this time it was his followers who were the victims. In spite of the threats of the authorities, however, the farmers persisted in their faith. Nichiren Daishonin was thus convinced that his disciples and lay followers were now strong enough in faith to risk their lives for the Mystic Law. This led him to inscribe the object of devotion for all humankind. The date was the twelfth day of the tenth month, 1279, nearly twenty-seven years after he had first chanted Nam-myoho-renge-kyo.


By his sixty-first year, the Daishonin was in failing health. Feeling that death was near, he designated Nikko Shonin as his legitimate successor. Disciples and, the regent, followers urged him to visit a hot spring in Hitachi to improve his health. On the eighth day of the ninth month, 1282, he left Minobu for Hitachi. When he reached the residence of Ikegami Munenaka in what is today part of the city of Tokyo, he found he was too ill to continue. Many of his followers, hearing of his arrival, gathered at Ikegami to see him. On the morning of the thirteenth day of the tenth month, 1282, surrounded by disciples and lay believers reverently chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, he peacefully passed away.


This life history of Nichiren was taken from:
Nichiren. The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin. Trans. The Gosho Translation Committee. Tokyo, Japan: Soka Gakkai, 1999.
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