Nichiren and His Disciples

The Mentor-Disciple Relationship and the Journey of Kosen-rufu

New Series: Nichiren and Disciples

Illustration by Brandon Hill


Nichiren Daishonin persevered in his efforts to spread the Mystic Law, overcoming a succession of persecutions in order to establish a teaching that could lead all people to absolute happiness. There are numerous examples of the drama of the oneness of mentor and disciple that unfolded between Nichiren and his disciples. This new series showcases how his disciples took action and overcame their various struggles based on guidance and encouragement from their mentor.


Niiama (younger nun) and Oama (elder nun) were two women who lived in Tojo Village of Awa Province, Nichiren Daishonin’s birthplace, located in present-day Kamogawa-city in Chiba Prefecture.

It is well known that Nichiren inscribed the Gohonzon for Niiama while refusing to do so for Oama. What was the difference between Niiama and Oama in their attitude of faith?

A Woman and Her Mother-in-Law

Their names indicate that Niiama was most likely the daughter-in-law of Oama, though some speculate that she was Oama’s daughter or the wife of Oama’s grandson.

In response to a letter he received from Niiama, Nichiren wrote what is now titled “Reply to Niiama.” In this writing, he elucidates the profound principle underlying the significance of the Gohonzon, which suggests that Niiama was highly educated and well versed in Buddhism.

As for Oama, Nichiren refers to her as “the wife of the lord of the manor” (“Banishment to Sado,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 202). She most likely assumed the role of lord of the manor in Tojo District after her husbands’s passing. In addition, Nichiren writes of Oama that she “treated my parents with kindness” (“Letter to the Priests of Seicho-ji,” WND-1, 652); and “I am greatly indebted to her” (“Reply to Niiama,” WND-1, 468). From these descriptions, it appears that she looked after Nichiren’s parents and extended her support to Nichiren as well.

Nichiren Daishonin proclaimed the correct teaching for the Latter Day of the Law in 1253. Around this time, Tojo Kagenobu, the steward of Tojo District, schemed to take over Oama’s land by attempting to confiscate two temples located in her domain.

Oama thus became entangled in a legal land dispute, and she sought help from Nichiren. With his council and support, Oama was able to surmount this difficulty in less than one year (see “Letter to the Priests of Seicho-ji,” WND-1, 650–52). It is thought that Niiama and Oama took faith in the Daishonin’s teachings around this time.

Whenever Nichiren met with them, he reminded them that among all the sutras, the Lotus Sutra is “the most difficult to believe and the most difficult to understand” (“Reply to Niiama,” WND-1, 468), and encouraged them to uphold steadfast faith.

Niiama Offers Continued Support While Oama Surrenders to Difficulties

Despite Nichiren Daishonin’s encouragement, Oama was said to be “insincere and foolish” in faith (see “Reply to Niiama,” WND-1, 468). In other words, she was easily swayed by rumors and concerned with maintaining her social standing. Oama wavered between belief and doubt: she was irresolute.

This came to the fore when Nichiren faced the Tatsunokuchi Persecution on September 12, 1271, followed by his exile to Sado Island. At this time, Nichiren Daishonin describes that “999 out of 1,000 people” (“Reply to Niiama,” WND-1, 469) in Kamakura discarded their faith. In the midst of this, Oama, like many others, also abandoned her faith. When Nichiren arrived at Sado in October of that same year, he referred to the fact that he hadn’t written to Oama, saying that “because of my present circumstances, she may no longer wish to be reminded of me” (“Banishment to Sado,” WND-1, 202). We can surmise that Oama had distanced herself from him during these persecutions.

Niiama, on the other hand, not only upheld her faith under these circumstances, but she also staunchly protected and supported Nichiren and the body of believers by sending offerings to him while he was on Sado. Thus, Nichiren praises her, writing, “You have demonstrated the sincerity of your faith” (WND-1, 469).

Nichiren Daishonin Reveals the Profound Significance of the Gohonzon

In March 1274, Nichiren Daishonin was pardoned from his exile on Sado Island. That October, the Mongols invaded Japan, proving that his predictions had come true. It was only then that Oama, began practicing again.

In “Reply to Niiama,” which was written on February 16, 1275, he mentions that Oama had asked him to inscribe the Gohonzon for her. Nichiren, however, refused to do so for someone who had abandoned their faith in the midst of persecution and whose faith was unreliable.

He further elaborates and reveals the profound significance of “the Gohonzon for kosen-rufu in the Latter Day of the Law” from the standpoint of Buddhism.

In short, Nichiren explains that the Gohonzon he inscribed is unprecedented in the history of Buddhism, which originated in India then spread to China and Japan. This Gohonzon was expounded in “Life Span,” the 16th chapter of the Lotus Sutra. Then, in “Supernatural Powers of the Thus Come One,” the sutra’s 21st chapter, Shakyamuni entrusts the Bodhisattvas of the Earth—“my true disciples I have kept hidden in the depths of the earth” (“Reply to Niiama,” WND-1, 468)—to spread the Gohonzon in the defiled age after his passing. Thus, he further explains, in order to propagate the Mystic Law, he had endured persecutions exactly as described in the Lotus Sutra.

From this, we can surmise that Nichiren’s decision to confer the Gohonzon was based on whether the recipient had “faith for kosen-rufu”—in other words, whether in the depth of their hearts, they were fully prepared to meet and surmount difficulties together with their mentor for the sake of propagating the Mystic Law.

Nichiren writes that even though he is greatly indebted to Oama, if he grants the Gohonzon to her, he would be a “partial priest” (“Reply to Niiama,” WND-1, 468). Imagining that she would harbor a grudge against him when she learns she would not receive the Gohonzon, he says: “I have explained the reason for my refusal in detail in a letter to Acharya Suke. Please send for the letter and show it to her” (WND-1, 469).

In stark contrast, Nichiren presents Niiama with the Gohonzon, explaining: “You have demonstrated the sincerity of your faith. Because you have often sent offerings to me, both to the province of Sado and to this province, and because your resolve does not seem to wane, I will give you the Gohonzon” (“Reply to Niiama,” WND-1, 469).

Having said that, he still expresses his concern: “But I still worry whether you will maintain your faith to the end, and feel as if I were treading on thin ice or facing a drawn sword” (WND-1, 469). He points to people’s tendency to be easily swayed by their environment and gives strict guidance out of a genuine wish for his disciples to establish lifelong faith dedicated to spreading Buddhism.

Referring to Niiama’s example, SGI President Ikeda says to a group of mothers with young children: “A young disciple named Niiama persevered in faith, not swayed by the environment where people succumbed to weak faith. With great expectation, Nichiren watched over this woman of strong, pure-hearted faith and continued to offer her warm yet strict encouragement.

“Today, her example applies to those of you in this group.

“At any rate, those who burn with the passion to fight at the crucial moment shine brightly and adorn their lives with eternal and indestructible fortune” (October 1, 1998, Seikyo Shimbun).

Nichiren Continues Offering Encouragement to Oama

In contrast to Niiama, who sought her mentor with earnest faith, Oama remained half-hearted in faith. However, Nichiren Daishonin did not give up on her and continued to offer her stern guidance.

For instance, in a letter he sent to her during the Koan Era (1278–88), he writes to her with strictness, saying, “You are not a disciple of mine” (“Reply to Oama,” WND-2, 1069), but he promises to rack his brains and tax his body to the fullest and pray for protection in her future existence (see WND-2, 1069).

Only one letter from Nichiren to Niiama remains today, but the content is full of concern for Oama and hardly refers to Niiama. This could be an expression of Nichiren’s confidence and trust in Niiama’s strong faith.

Nichiren extends his care and thoughtfulness in every possible way to his disciples. His words and actions show his profound compassion and sincere determination to help his disciples establish their path to happiness once they encounter the Mystic Law.

Translated from the April 2017 issue of the Daibyakurenge, the Soka Gakkai’s monthly study journal.

SGI President Ikeda on the Correct Spirit in Upholding the Gohonzon

Therefore, when we embrace faith in the Gohonzon, it is important that we wholeheartedly believe in the justice of Nichiren Daishonin’s struggle. Unless we have the resolve to share in this struggle and participate in widely propagating the Mystic Law, the supremely noble life state of Buddhahood will not manifest powerfully within us. The essence of faith in Nichiren Buddhism is for disciples to strive for kosen-rufu with the same spirit as their mentor.

Nichiren sensed that Niiama shared his commitment to strive unflaggingly for the sake of kosen-rufu. Hence, he indicates in this letter that she had remained steadfast in faith throughout the Tatsunokuchi Persecution and the Sado Exile, and up through the present time of his residence on Mount Minobu. He also notes that Niiama had “often sent offerings” to him (WND-1, 469), affirming the constancy of her faith, her sincere seeking spirit toward his teachings and her ongoing material support for him.

Perhaps put another way, we could say that Niiama was moved by Nichiren’s humanity. He not only inspired her, but she was also filled with a deep sense of appreciation for him and his valiant efforts for the happiness of others in spite of numerous persecutions. This fueled her resolve to support him in his efforts.

When we stand up with such faith, we manifest in our lives the Gohonzon, which Nichiren says “exists only within the mortal flesh of us ordinary people” (“The Real Aspect of the Gohonzon,” WND-1, 832). Increasing the ranks of those who share in this struggle—that is, awakening growing numbers of Bodhisattvas of the Earth—is the way to make kosen-rufu a reality in the Latter Day of the Law. (May 2013 Living Buddhism, p. 30)

(pp. 30-33)

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