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The Life of Nichiren

"While Nichiren demonstrated a severely critical stance toward what he regarded as distortion or corruption of the core message of Buddhism, his letters of guidance and encouragement to his followers record a tender concern for people who were disregarded within medieval Japanese society."

 

A 1,000 year-old tree at Seicho-ji temple where the young Nichiren studied BuddhismA 1,000 year-old tree at Seicho-ji temple where the young Nichiren studied Buddhism

Nichiren (1222-1282), the priest who established the form of Buddhism practiced by the members of the SGI, is a unique figure in Japanese social and religious history. In a society where great emphasis has often been placed on keeping conflict hidden from sight, Nichiren was outspoken in his criticism of the established Buddhist sects and secular authorities. His chosen method of propagation was "shakubuku"--a sharp and relentless dialectic between different perspectives in quest of truth. The appraisal offered by Uchimura Kanzo, the renowned Japanese Christian thinker and writer, in his 1908 Representative Men of Japan, expresses the ambivalent reaction Nichiren continues to provoke: "Nichiren minus his combativity is our ideal religious man."

 

While Nichiren demonstrated a severely critical stance toward what he regarded as distortion or corruption of the core message of Buddhism, his letters of guidance and encouragement to his followers record a tender concern for people who were disregarded within medieval Japanese society. For instance, he wrote many letters to female lay believers in which he showed a remarkable understanding of their sufferings and emphasized the Lotus Sutra's message that all people can become enlightened as they are, men and women.

Nichiren's sympathy for the downtrodden in society is related to the circumstances of his birth. His father was a fisherman on the seacoast to the east of what is now Tokyo, and as such Nichiren identified himself as "the son of a chandala [untouchable caste] family." Life in feudal Japan was harsh and brutal, especially for the masses at the bottom of the strict social hierarchy. Experiencing firsthand the misery of the common people, Nichiren had from an early age been driven by a powerful desire to find a way of resolving the problem of human suffering.

What we know of Nichiren's life and thought comes to us principally through his voluminous writings. In addition to major treatises on doctrinal issues, he penned many hundreds of letters addressed to his followers. Some of his most important writing was done under dire circumstances--in exile, for example, on a snow-blown island in northern Japan.

Announcing the Teachings

When Nichiren was 12, he began studying at a temple near his birthplace. There he was tutored in the teachings of the major schools of Buddhism of the time. And there he prayed with the earnest wish and vow to become, in his words, "the wisest man in Japan." In response to his prayer, Nichiren writes, he was bestowed with a "great jewel" of wisdom.

SGI President Daisaku Ikeda has noted that the wisdom we are able to unleash from within is proportionate to our sense of responsibility. The young Nichiren was moved by a burning sense of responsibility to alleviate the enormous misery he saw about him, and it was this that enabled him to gain insight into the essential nature of human life and reality.

Nichiren began an exhaustive study of the multitude of often contradictory teachings and sutras of Buddhism. From age 16 to 32, Nichiren traveled to Kamakura and Kyoto, visiting the major centers of Buddhism, studying the massive volume of sutras, treatises and commentaries. The conclusion he reached was that the heart of Shakyamuni's enlightenment is to be found in the Lotus Sutra and that the principle or law to which all Buddhas are enlightened is expressed in the phrase "Nam-myoho-renge-kyo," from the title, or daimoku, of that sutra.

At the same time, he understood clearly that to promote faith in the Lotus Sutra as the exclusive vehicle for enlightenment would be to engage in public criticism of existing schools of Buddhism, many of which taught that access to the Buddha Land was only possible after death. While Nichiren advocated using Buddhist practice to challenge one's circumstances and develop inner strength, the traditional schools encouraged resignation and passivity. A strong counterreaction could be anticipated, and Nichiren writes of his own inner struggle over the question of whether or not to speak out.

Persecution

Deciding that to remain silent would be to lack compassion, on the 28th day of the fourth month (according to the lunar calendar) of 1253, Nichiren made a public declaration of his beliefs. As anticipated, his insistence on the sole efficacy of the Lotus Sutra--with its core tenet that all people are in fact Buddhas--in the present era of confusion and corruption was met with disbelief and hostility. The steward of the region, a devout follower of the Pure Land school, took steps to have Nichiren arrested. And from this point on, Nichiren's life would be a succession of harassment, persecution and abuse.

One reason for this is that the authorities recognized Nichiren's uncompromising insistence on the equality of all people as a direct threat to the established power structure, which victimized the impoverished majority. The established schools of Buddhism had been incorporated into this structure, providing an effective means for the feudal authorities to strengthen and extend their power over the populace. Priests of these schools, who occupied a privileged position within the social hierarchy, were deeply implicated in this exploitative system and had no reason to challenge the status quo. This is a further reason why Nichiren was able to attract a significant following despite the risks that such allegiance would entail.

The Lotus Sutra predicts that those who attempt to spread its teachings in the corrupt latter days will meet severe trials. Nichiren interpreted the persecutions that befell him as evidence that he was fulfilling his mission in life.

In 1260, in the wake of a series of devastating natural disasters, Nichiren wrote his most famous tract, the Rissho ankoku ron (On Establishing the Correct Teaching for the Peace of the Land). In it, he developed the idea that only by reviving a spirit of reverence for the sanctity and perfectibility of human life through faith in the Lotus Sutra could a truly peaceful order be restored and further disaster forestalled. He presented this treatise to the highest political authorities of Japan and urged them to sponsor a public debate with representatives of other schools of Buddhism. The call for public debate--which Nichiren would repeat throughout his life--was ignored, and he was banished to the Izu Peninsula.

The years that followed brought further banishment and the decisive crisis of his life--an attempt to execute him on the beach of Tatsunokuchi. By his account, moments before the executioner's sword was to fall, a luminous object--perhaps a meteor--traversed the sky with such brilliance that the terrified officials called off the execution. Nichiren was banished to Sado Island where, amidst extreme deprivation, he continued to make converts and write treatises and letters.

In part because the predictions he had made in the Rissho ankoku ron had come true, after almost two and a half years on Sado, Nichiren was pardoned and returned to the political center of Kamakura. It is said he was offered a temple and official patronage if he would desist from his criticism of other schools of Buddhism, but he refused. Nichiren retreated to Mount Minobu, and there he wrote copiously and trained his successors.

Transmission

During this period, the priest Nikko, who had accompanied Nichiren throughout his tumultuous career and would inherit the teachings, was gaining converts in nearby Atsuhara village. The priests of a Tendai temple in the area, angered at this, began harassing the converts. Eventually, they instigated an attack by samurai against unarmed peasant converts and their arrest on false charges of theft. Twenty of the peasants were arrested and tortured, and three were executed in 1279.

Where earlier persecutions had targeted Nichiren himself, this time it was the lay believers who were the victims. Despite their lack of an in-depth theoretical knowledge of their newly adopted faith, these peasant followers remained steadfast in the face of the ultimate threat. For Nichiren, this signaled a crucial turning point, inspiring his confidence that his teachings would be maintained and practiced after his own passing. Where he had to date inscribed sacred mandalas (Gohonzon) for individual believers, he now inscribed the mandala explicitly dedicated to the happiness and enlightenment of all humankind. This symbolized the establishment of Nichiren Buddhism as a universal faith. Nichiren died of old age three years later, his mission complete. Transmission of his teachings and the fulfillment of his vision of peace founded on respect for the sanctity of life is the central inspiration for SGI members worldwide.

[Courtesy October 2004 SGI Quarterly]

View timeline of Nichiren's life

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