Encouragement

The History of the Atsuhara Persecution

An essay from SGI President Ikeda’s “Thoughts on The New Human Revolution” series.

Photo: David Baileys / Getty Images Plus.


The following essay from SGI President Ikeda’s “Thoughts on The New Human Revolution” series was originally published in the February 6 and 7, 2001, issues of the Seikyo Shimbun, the Soka Gakkai’s daily newspaper.

In 1979, as the last of the Seven Bells[1]Seven Bells: Seven consecutive seven-year periods in the Soka Gakkai’s development from its founding in 1930 through 1979. On May 3, 1958, shortly after second Soka Gakkai President Josei Toda’s death (on April 2), Daisaku Ikeda, then Soka Gakkai youth division chief of staff, introduced the concept of the Seven Bells and announced targets for subsequent seven-year periods. of the 20th century was drawing to a close, we greeted May 3—a day that should have been one of the most joyous of celebrations—with the Soka Gakkai facing persecution for the sake of the Law. This persecution was perpetrated by corrupt priests, just as Nichiren Daishonin had predicted when he said: “An immeasurably great multitude of monks . . . will gather and denounce the votary [of the Lotus Sutra] to the ruler of the country, causing him to be banished and ruined” (“No Safety in the Threefold World,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 892).

It was a contest between a corrupt, tradition-bound religious authority in league with the ruling powers, and a new, invigorating force for truth and justice rooted in the lives of the people. Throughout history, whenever there has been a religious revolution, this pattern has been evident. Resentful of any burgeoning popular movement, the old powers devise a host of plots and schemes to suppress it. This was true during Shakyamuni’s lifetime and even more so during the life of Nichiren Daishonin.

The tumultuous time before and after my resignation as Soka Gakkai president threw many of our members into confusion and doubt. Given this situation, I looked to the history of the Atsuhara Persecution as a guide. The three martyrs of Atsuhara were beheaded in 1279. It was truly a mystic coincidence that the priesthood’s cruel persecution of the Soka Gakkai, a “spiritual beheading,” should have begun exactly 700 years later.

• • • 

In “The Selection of the Time,” Nichiren Daishonin warns: “It is the priests themselves . . . who will destroy the Buddha’s teachings” (WND-1, 577). The Atsuhara Persecution was also caused by corrupt priests. Temples of the Tendai school of that time, which should have been doing their utmost to protect and transmit the true teachings of Buddhism, had turned into dens of intrigue.

The spirit of the Great Teacher T’ien-t’ai, founder of the T’ien-t’ai school in China, and of the Great Teacher Dengyo, founder of the Tendai school in Japan, had been lost, and the top positions at influential temples were occupied by the scions of the aristocracy. Temples had ceased to be places of pure religious practice, degenerating into empty institutions where the authority of the cloth was used to control and dominate the people.

The high-ranking priests of leading Tendai school temples in the Fuji District of Suruga Province [now part of present-day Shizuoka Prefecture, where the village of Atsuhara was located] were all hopelessly corrupt. This was the case in such temples as Jisso-ji, which Nichiren visited to do research in its sutra library; Shijuku-in, where Nikko Shonin had studied and practiced as a boy; and Ryusen-ji [in Atsuhara Village itself, where the persecution of the Daishonin’s followers later took place].

A young Nikko Shonin rigorously criticized the transgressions of these priests. This is the spirit of Nikko Shonin, who founded the head temple Taiseki-ji, and the spirit of the Soka Gakkai. That is why during World War II [only a short decade after the Soka Gakkai’s founding], our first President Tsunesaburo Makiguchi sharply rebuked the priesthood for its betrayal of the Daishonin’s teachings. He declared: “Of all the Nichiren schools today, Nichiren Shoshu is the one that most resembles the Tendai school of the Daishonin’s day.”

• • • 

While Nikko Shonin devotedly served and supported Nichiren Daishonin in Izu and Kamakura, he remained registered as a priest of Shijuku-in and used that temple as a base to convert other Tendai priests. In 1268, when he was 23 years old, Nikko Shonin boldly presented a 51-article petition to the military government, outlining the transgressions of Jisso-ji’s chief priest.

According to Nikko Shonin’s petition, the chief priest neglected to make repairs to the temple buildings, including the main hall and the sutra library, even when they were severely damaged. The actions of the Nikken sect, which capriciously destroys priceless architectural works constructed with the sincere donations of pure-hearted believers, are even more reprehensible than this.

Another article of the petition accused the chief priest of chopping down a venerable cherry tree on the temple grounds. Nikko Shonin criticized the chief priest for wantonly cutting down a single tree. Realizing from this history how dearly Nikko Shonin must have loved cherry trees, I donated countless cherry saplings to be planted at the head temple to beautify its grounds. The Nikken sect has since brutally cut down those cherry trees by the hundred.

• • • 

Gyochi, the deputy chief priest of Ryusen-ji and the central figure behind the Atsuhara Persecution, was a member of the powerful Hojo family and wielded his authority with impunity. He was guilty of all manner of evil deeds and transgressions against the priestly code of the day: appropriating the prestigious temple’s assets for his own personal use, hunting deer and other wild game, and poisoning the fish in the temple’s pond and selling them for profit.

He became deputy chief priest because of his powerful family connections, but he was really a villain whose behavior went beyond all bounds of decency and common sense. Ryusen-ji was occupied by what Nichiren Daishonin had aptly termed “an animal dressed in priestly robes” (“The Fourteen Slanders,” WND-1, 760).

• • • 

After Nichiren retired to Mount Minobu, Nikko Shonin became increasingly active in propagating the Daishonin’s teachings in the Fuji District, gradually building a strong force of followers of the Mystic Law. Not only did three priests at Ryusen-ji—Nisshu, Nichiben and Nichizen—convert to the Daishonin’s teaching one after another, but many of the farmers of Atsuhara Village, where Ryusen-ji was located, also followed suit. Gyochi and other high-ranking priests in the area perceived this as a serious threat to their power. Exploiting their religious authority, they lived lavishly on the offerings they received from local samurai families. The growth of Nichiren’s followers, who upheld the supremacy of the Lotus Sutra, jeopardized the authorities and with it the livelihood of these “Law-devouring hungry spirits” (“The Origin of the Service for Deceased Ancestors,” WND-1, 191).

Golden bundles of rice in autumn, Mie, Japan, October 1985. Photo: Daisaku Ikeda.
Genuine disciples who would respond to the words of Nichiren, even at the risk of their lives, at last appeared among the common people. These heroes of the ordinary people courageously demonstrated the spirit of faith of “not begrudging one’s life” taught in the Lotus Sutra.

Gyochi responded by forming an “anti-Lotus alliance” in the area to contain the activities of Nichiren’s followers. Joining forces with the regional representatives of the ruling Hojo clan, the officials of the Shimogata Manor Administrative Office, he began his persecution. Together, Gyochi and his cohorts denounced the local followers of the Daishonin who upheld the Lotus Sutra, calling them “non-Buddhists” and “heretics.” They demanded that they recite the Nembutsu [that is, the name of the Buddha Amida, the practice of the Pure Land school of Buddhism]— an unbelievable contradiction, considering that Gyochi and the other priests were all supposed to uphold the teachings of the Tendai school, which is based on the Lotus Sutra.

How similar this is to the perversion of the corrupt and jealous priests of the Nikken sect in recent years, who, though they call themselves the followers of Nichiren, disparage the idea that faith should be directly connected to Nichiren Daishonin and based on his writings [as it is in the Soka Gakkai].

• • • 

The Soka Gakkai song “The Three Martyrs of Atsuhara” (Atsuhara no sanresshi) goes:

In these latter days, the water is muddy:
The confusion in Buddhism is like tangled
  strands of hemp,
And bitterness and futility fill people’s hearts.
Among the farmers of Atsuhara Village
Were brave young men who deplored this.
Their names were Jinshiro of Atsuhara
And his younger brothers Yagoro and Yarokuro.
Though it had been but a short time
Since they embarked on the path of faith,
They advanced with pure-hearted youthful ardor
To propagate the teachings,
Their lives a glorious paean to the Law.

These three brothers, leaders of the Atsuhara farmers who embraced the Mystic Law, had only become Nichiren’s followers in about 1278. Today, in the area that was once known as Atsuhara, our noble and valiant members of the Fuji Seigi (Justice) Subprefecture of the Soka Gakkai organization in Shizuoka Prefecture are exerting themselves energetically for the sake of kosen-rufu.

Jinshiro and his brothers were said to be accomplished in both learning and the military arts, brave men of integrity and intrepid spirit who were trusted and looked up to by people in their community. Their conversion had a big impact on those around them.

“Do not fear those in authority” (“Letter to My Disciples and Lay Supporters,” WND-2, 333). “Each of you should summon up the courage of a lion king and never succumb to threats from anyone” (“On Persecutions Befalling the Sage,” WND-1, 997). “Be prepared for the worst. Do not expect good times, but take the bad times for granted” (see WND-1, 998). Genuine disciples who would respond to such words of Nichiren, even at the risk of their lives, at last appeared among the common people. These heroes of the ordinary people courageously demonstrated the spirit of faith of “not begrudging one’s life” taught in the Lotus Sutra.

• • • 

The Atsuhara Persecution is the story of great disciples coming forth to fight in the spirit of the oneness of mentor and disciple. Up to that time, the Daishonin alone had borne the brunt of the persecution. In The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, it states, “If they were people who understood their obligations or were capable of reason, then out of two blows that fall on me, they would receive one in my stead” (“Reply to Yasaburo,” WND-1, 828).

The Atsuhara Persecution was a momentous struggle in which the Daishonin’s disciples for the first time stood up to take on those blows.

• • • 

“If teacher and disciple are of different minds, they will never accomplish anything” (“Flowering and Bearing Grain,” WND-1, 909). During the Atsuhara Persecution, Nikko Shonin sent detailed reports on the unfolding events to Nichiren Daishonin, who was then at Mount Minobu, and received practical guidance and instruction from him. He faced this persecution completely united with his mentor, Nichiren.

• • • 

In 1278, Gyochi—the deputy chief priest of Ryusen-ji in Atsuhara Village—and his cronies forged a government directive outlawing faith in the Lotus Sutra in what was an underhanded attempt to stop the spread of the Daishonin’s teachings. Nichiren Daishonin declared that he didn’t even have to see the directive to know that it was fake. And in fact it was quickly exposed as a forgery.

The schemers, however, were persistent with their devious machinations. They plotted to destroy the unity of Nichiren’s followers by sowing seeds of doubt and dissension among those who harbored ill feeling or jealousy toward their fellow believers, and cunningly persuading them to abandon their faith and turn on their comrades.

It is believed that one-time followers Ota Chikamasa and Nagasaki Tokitsuna [who abandoned their faith during the Atsuhara Persecution] had nursed ill will toward Takahashi Rokuro Hyoe, a key figure among the lay believers in the Fuji area.

Also, Sammi-bo [another who forsook his faith during the Atsuhara Persecution] had been jealous of Nikko Shonin. As Nikko Shonin’s senior and a scholarly priest who studied at Mount Hiei [site of the head temple of the Tendai school and leading center of Buddhism of the day], he was very arrogant, making much of his limited learning, butquite unenthusiastic about actually working among the people. Though Nichiren had sent Sammi-bo to the Fuji area, he objected to serving there under his junior, Nikko Shonin.

Practitioners can be clearly divided into two categories: those who put Buddhism first and those who put themselves first. In every age, one finds that those who abandon their faith tend to put their own feelings and interests before the teachings of Buddhism. By doing so, they create an opening by which devilish functions can gain entrance to their hearts and minds. Nichiren Daishonin saw through the base nature of such people, describing them as “cowardly, unreasoning, greedy, and doubting” (“On Persecutions Befalling the Sage,” WND-1, 998).

One after another, these thankless traitors who appeared among Nichiren’s followers met untimely deaths—several of them being thrown from their horses. In his writings, Nichiren declares that their fate constitutes “punishment for their treachery against the Lotus Sutra,” and he identifies that punishment as “conspicuous and individual”[2]In Nichiren Daishonin’s writing “On Persecutions Befalling the Sage,” he mentions four kinds of punishment: general, individual, conspicuous and inconspicuous (see The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 997). (WND-1, 997).

As many of you may know, those who betrayed their faith and forgot their debt of gratitude by turning on the Soka Gakkai—an organization acting in complete accord with the Buddha’s intent and decree—are all meeting the most pitiful and wretched of ends.

• • • 

September 21, 1279—Gyochi chose this day because he knew that many of the Atsuhara farmers who followed Nichiren Daishonin were gathering to help harvest the rice in the fields that belonged to Nisshu [one of the priests at Ryusen-ji who had converted to the Daishonin’s teachings through Nikko Shonin’s propagation efforts]. Gyochi gathered together a large force, including local officials of the Shimogata Manor Administration Office, and launched a sudden attack on them in the midst of the harvest. Twenty farmers who were followers of the Daishonin were arrested and detained unjustly at the local administrative office.

During the Atsuhara Persecution, Nikko Shonin sent detailed reports on the unfolding events to Nichiren Daishonin, who was then at Mount Minobu, and received practical guidance and instruction from him. He faced this persecution completely united with his mentor, Nichiren.
SGI President Ikeda greets members of SGI-Togo, Tokyo, October 2002. Photo: Seikyo Press.

In addition, Gyochi drew up a list of false charges and presented it to the military govern ment. He accused Nisshu of leading a group of armed farmers in an attack on the chief priest’s private quarters at Ryusen-ji, and of stealing rice from fields belonging to the temple. Gyochi made these spurious charges “hoping to conceal his own various offenses and keep them hidden” (“The Ryusen-ji Petition,” WND-2, 822).

To bring a fraudulent lawsuit against innocent individuals in order to hide one’s own crimes constitutes an “abuse of the right to sue.” The malicious plots against the Soka Gakkai in recent years have followed this pattern.

As soon as he learned of the content of Gyochi’s suit, Nikko Shonin drafted a letter of petition to the authorities and sent it to the Daishonin. Nikko Shonin’s draft clearly explains what happened and sets forth the evil deeds of Gyochi and his confederates. Nichiren added to the first half of the petition the fact that the predictions of his treatise “On Establishing the Correct Teaching for the Peace of the Land” had come true, along with a refutation of the erroneous teachings of Gyochi and other priests of Ryusen-ji. With the first half written by Nichiren and the second by Nikko Shonin, this document, the “Ryusen-ji Petition” (WND-2, pp. 822–30), was clear evidence of the shared struggle of mentor and disciple.

 

• • • 

The 20 farmers under arrest were quickly dispatched to Kamakura, the seat of the military government, where they underwent questioning by the powerful Hei no Saemon, the deputy chief of the Office of Police and Military Affairs. Not one of them broke under the inhumane interrogation to which they were subjected; not one of them caved in to the authorities’ threats, intimidation and torture. Finally, Jinshiro and his two brothers—the three martyrs—gave their lives for their beliefs. It was a moment of indelible significance in the history of human rights. They died a truly heroic death.

Nichiren’s writing “On Practicing the Buddha’s Teachings” tells us that even should we be beheaded, “Shakyamuni, Many Treasures, and the Buddhas of the ten directions will come to us instantly . . . while all the heavenly gods and benevolent deities will raise a canopy over our heads and unfurl banners on high. They will escort us under their protection to the treasure land of Tranquil Light” (WND-1, 395–96).

I once asked my mentor, second Soka Gakkai President Josei Toda, about the deaths of the three martyrs of Atsuhara. His reply was clear and unequivocal: “Even if we should be killed, if our death has been for the sake of the Mystic Law, then we will attain Buddhahood without fail. It will be like having a dream shortly after drifting off to sleep, and then falling into a deep, peaceful slumber afterward.” No matter how those who dedicate their lives to kosen-rufu may die, it will never be a miserable or wretched death.

There is also a legend that one of the farmers arrested was a woman, who declared bravely: “Don’t delay my execution because I am a woman. Execute me now!”

Immediately after learning of the deaths of the three martyrs, Nichiren wrote the letter “Reply to the Sages,” in which he urged his followers: “So long as you remain firm in heart, I am sure that the whole truth of the matter will become clear in the end” (WND-2, 831). This was his lion’s roar.

Nanjo Tokimitsu, a young local steward in his twenties and a lay follower of Nichiren, carried out this injunction to the letter, stepping bravely into the fray to fight for his comrades. He became the target of much pressure from the government for protecting and giving shelter to the believers in the Atsuhara area, but even in the direst of circumstances he staunchly defended the Daishonin and led the counterattack against the authorities in the cause of justice.

The fact that the local believers surmounted and emerged triumphant in the Atsuhara Persecution was due to the intrepid and tenacious efforts of this youth who dedicated his life to the path of mentor and disciple.

• • • 

At the time of the Atsuhara Persecution, Nichiren Daishonin observed: “In the past, and in the present Latter Day of the Law, the rulers, high ministers, and people who despise the votaries of the Lotus Sutra seem to be free from punishment at first, but eventually they are all doomed to fall” (“On Persecutions Befalling the Sage,” WND-1, 997).

Mr. Toda and I myself, following in my mentor’s footsteps, have also borne the brunt of all manner of persecution. To battle on amid persecution and give our lives to our cause is the source of the greatest pride.

Fourteen years later, in April 1293, government forces surrounded Hei no Saemon’s residence and set it on fire. His own eldest son, Munetsuna, had secretly accused him of plotting against the government. As the flames and government forces closed in around him, Hei no Saemon had no choice but to die by his own hand, tormented by the agonies of the hell of incessant suffering, in the very house where he had tortured and killed the three martyrs of Atsuhara. By his side was his second son, Sukemune, who had tortured the captive Atsuhara farmers by firing blunt-tipped arrows at them. The entire family, once so illustrious and powerful, perished in the flames. The eldest son, who had betrayed his father, was exiled to Sado, and Hei no Saemon’s line was wiped out.

The 26th high priest, Nichikan Shonin, wrote in his “Commentary on ‘The Selection of the Time’ ”: “The distant cause [of the demise of Hei no Saemon and his family] is the offense of striking Nichiren Daishonin, while the near cause is the offense of executing the three martyrs at the time of the Atsuhara Persecution.”[3]Nichikan Shonin mondanshu (The Commentaries of Nichikan Shonin) (Tokyo: Seikyo Shimbunsha, 1980), p. 306.

 

• • • 

Another verse of the Soka Gakkai song “The Three Martyrs of Atsuhara” goes:

Jinshiro, passing from one life into the next,
Like cherry blossoms scattering in the breeze,
Renowned as a model of devotion to kosen-rufu—
How noble the life
Of this honorable martyr of Atsuhara.

The Soka Gakkai’s founding father, Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, died in prison in the very same spirit as the three martyrs of Atsuhara. And Mr. Toda and I myself, following in my mentor’s footsteps, have also borne the brunt of all manner of persecution. To battle on amid persecution and give our lives to our cause is the source of the greatest pride. Obstacles lead to enlightenment.

Selflessly propagating the Mystic Law toward the realization of worldwide kosen-rufu is the undying distinction of the first three presidents of the Soka Gakkai.

 

(pp. 18-25)

Notes   [ + ]

1. Seven Bells: Seven consecutive seven-year periods in the Soka Gakkai’s development from its founding in 1930 through 1979. On May 3, 1958, shortly after second Soka Gakkai President Josei Toda’s death (on April 2), Daisaku Ikeda, then Soka Gakkai youth division chief of staff, introduced the concept of the Seven Bells and announced targets for subsequent seven-year periods.
2. In Nichiren Daishonin’s writing “On Persecutions Befalling the Sage,” he mentions four kinds of punishment: general, individual, conspicuous and inconspicuous (see The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 997).
3. Nichikan Shonin mondanshu (The Commentaries of Nichikan Shonin) (Tokyo: Seikyo Shimbunsha, 1980), p. 306.