Nichiren and His Disciples

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

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 shows how his disciples took action and overcame their various hardships based on guidance and encouragement from their mentor.

THE LAY NUN AND THE LAY PRIEST OF KO

While in exile on Sado Island, Nichiren Daishonin endured intense hardships—government officials kept strict watch over him, he lived without adequate food and clothing, and Nembutsu practitioners, who harbored hatred toward him, made attempts on his life. Yet, despite such challenging circumstances, one after the other, people were converting to Nichiren’s teachings. And among his principal disciples on Sado—such as Abutsu-bo and his wife, the lay nun Sennichi—the lay nun and the lay priest of Ko also staunchly protected him.

Though details about this couple, such as their birth, death and family background, are scarce, what is known is that they lived in a village that was the seat of the provincial government of Sado Province. “Ko” means “provincial office”—hence, they were called “the lay nun and the lay priest of Ko.”

Striving Together as Fellow Disciples on Sado Island

It is speculated that Nichiren Daishonin wrote many letters to the lay nun and lay priest of Ko, though only two remain in existence today. Based on several letters addressed to the lay nun Sennichi, in which Nichiren mentions the couple, we can surmise that they practiced earnestly alongside Abutsu-bo and Sennichi, encouraging one another.

From a letter Nichiren composed in June 1275 addressed to the lay nun of Ko, we know that her husband journeyed to Mount Minobu to visit Nichiren, bearing offerings of an unlined robe from his wife and 300 coins from Sennichi. The lay nun of Ko must have thoughtfully offered the unlined robe, hoping that it would comfort Nichiren during the hot summer days.

He described them as having the same mind, which alludes to their unwavering unity and staunch faith to protect him, not fearing even acts of oppression by the ruling authorities.

In his letter to her, he writes: “I have received three hundred coins from the wife of Abutsu-bo. Since you two are of the same mind, have someone read this letter to you and listen to it together” (“Letter to the Lay Nun of Ko,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 595). This passage suggests that the two women were on good terms and encouraged one another regularly. Also, he described them as having the same mind, which alludes to their unwavering unity and staunch faith to protect him, not fearing even acts of oppression by the ruling authorities. This passage teaches us the importance of practicing faith based on the unity of many in body, one in mind.

Protecting Nichiren at the Risk of Their Lives

The lay priest and lay nun of Ko put themselves at risk to protect Nichiren Daishonin during his exile. In the same letter, he writes: “While I was there [in Sado], however, you and your husband, the lay priest of Ko, being apprehensive of the eyes of others, brought me food in the middle of the night. Never fearing even punishment from the provincial officials, you are persons who were ready to sacrifice yourselves for me” (“Letter to the Lay Nun of Ko,” WND-1, 596).

This passage encapsulates the deep faith demonstrated by this couple, who were still relative beginners in their practice of Nichiren’s teaching.

Furthermore, when the time came for Nichiren to leave Sado to return to Kamakura, he writes: “Thus, though it was a harsh land, when I left, I felt as if the hair that had been shaved from my head were being tugged from behind and as if with each step I took I were being pulled back” (WND-1, 596).

People’s hearts are fickle. With enough passage of time and distance, we can lose touch even with people whom we know well. In contrast, the lay nun and lay priest of Ko deepened their seeking spirit for their mentor even more. In a letter addressed to the husband, Nichiren praises them as follows: “The provinces we live in are far apart, and months and years have passed, so I was concerned that you might slacken in your resolve. However, you are increasingly demonstrating the depth of your faith and accumulating good deeds” (“Reply to the Lay Priest of Ko,” WND-1, 491).

During this time period, it was extremely difficult and dangerous for women to travel long distances by foot. Therefore, the lay nun of Ko, who lived in Sado, probably knew that it would be nearly impossible for her and the Daishonin, who now resided in Minobu, to meet again. Nichiren inferred this and encouraged her, saying, “If you find that you miss me, always look at the sun that rises [in the morning] and the moon that rises in the evening” (“Letter to the Lay Nun of Ko,” WND-1, 596).

Nichiren’s words overflow with warmth and consideration. After reading this letter, the lay nun must have envisaged Nichiren’s compassionate face each time she looked up to the skies. His encouragement epitomizes our realm of faith in which “it is the heart that is most important” (“The Strategy of the Lotus Sutra,” WND-1, 1000).

Helping Friends Overcome Their Anxiety

Nichiren Daishonin also says to the lay nun and lay priest of Ko: “You have no children and live alone as husband and wife . . . then Shakyamuni Buddha, the lord of teachings, must be a compassionate father to both of you. I, Nichiren, must be your child, but, wishing to save the people of Japan, I am residing for the time being in the central part of the country . . . When the Mongols come pouring into Japan, please make your way here” (“Reply to the Lay Priest of Ko,” WND-1, 491).
What heartwarming, humanistic and encouraging words!

Nichiren also states: “No place is secure. Be convinced that Buddhahood is the final abode” (WND-1, 491). He is teaching that faith is not dependent on where we live. Rather, the essence of this Buddhist practices lies in revealing the life state of Buddhahood regardless of our circumstances. With this statement he is teaching the importance of deepening our faith based on this understanding.

This was during a time when people were worried about the threat of a second invasion by the Mongols. Thus, Nichiren suggested to the couple that they could come live with him on Mount Minobu in their later years.

In a letter addressed to the lay nun Sennichi, written in July 1278, the Daishonin described how he was concerned about the epidemics spreading throughout Japan. He wondered how Sennichi, her husband, and the lay priest and lay nun of Ko were faring on Sado. But then a surprise visit by Abutsu-bo allowed Nichiren to quickly learn about how everyone was doing. He described his encounter with Abutsu-bo in this letter to Sennichi: “He told me that neither of you had fallen ill, and that the lay priest of Ko had set out along with him, but because the early rice was nearly ripe, and because he had no sons to help him harvest it, he had had no choice but to turn back” (“The Sutra of True Requital,” WND-1, 934).

Even with the rice harvest approaching, the lay priest of Ko had started the journey to see Nichiren, burning with a great seeking spirit. However, when it became clear that he could not get back to Sado in time for the harvest, he was forced to return.
Nichiren sympathized with both men—Abutsu-bo, who persevered in this perilous journey, and the lay priest of Ko, who regrettably had to return—and wrote back, expressing his joy of hearing that his followers in Sado were doing well. He says: “I felt as if . . . my deceased father and mother had come to me in a dream . . . and in that dream I had felt great joy” (“The Sutra of True Requital,” WND-1, 934).

The lay priest and lay nun of Ko were surely moved by Nichiren’s sentiments.

The mentor, no matter how far away the disciples may be, will always be concerned for their health and well-being, and will pray for their growth and development. In turn, the Daishonin’s disciples on Sado responded to their mentor’s compassionate spirit by protecting him with their offerings and seeking out his teachings throughout their lives. Because of such powerful bonds between this mentor and his disciples, kosen-rufu advanced dynamically throughout the island of Sado.

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

 


SGI President Ikeda on Nichiren’s Honorable Disciples

From Learning From the Gosho: The Eternal Teachings of Nichiren Daishonin, pp. 111–12

Under such circumstances, out of their sincere concern for the Daishonin, Abutsu-bo and the lay priest of Ko secretly brought him food in the middle of the night. Had they been observed by the Nembutsu followers or officials who kept watch on the Daishonin’s crude hut day and night, it would have been calamitous for them. Being caught supplying the Daishonin with food would have meant banishment or imprisonment . . .

Even so, Abutsu-bo and his wife, Sennichi, and the lay nun and lay priest of Ko were not afraid. The Daishonin says that at one point they were even ready to die in his place. Mentor and disciple should support one another with a willingness to face hardship.

“How can we allow our mentor to suffer alone? Let us face difficulties to lighten the burden of our mentor”—that was their spirit. What wondrous people! The Daishonin says that he will never forget them in any life to come (see “The Sutra of True Requital,” WND-1, 933). The honor due the lay priest of Ko and the Daishonin’s other followers is eternal. People will sing their praises for ten thousand years, for all eternity. The Daishonin’s followers will never be forgotten.

We, the members of the SGI, are creating a global foundation for kosen-rufu in the Latter Day. We are conducting activities not for the short term but with a view toward the next ten thousand years and more.

(pp. 30-33)

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