Nichiren and His Disciples

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

Nichiren and Disciples

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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.

Hiki Daigaku Saburo Yoshimoto and His Family

Nichiren Daishonin embarked on the battle of establishing the correct teaching for the peace of the land in Kamakura, the seat of the military government in 13th-century Japan. He was fully aware that by choosing Kamakura—the center of politics and economics—as the main stage of his battle, he was bound to face persecution and criticism.

In this installment, we will take a closer look at Hiki Daigaku Saburo Yoshimoto and his family who supported his mentor with their rich knowledge and strong faith.

An Excellent Penman

Though details are somewhat vague, Yoshimoto was a samurai who lived in Kamakura and was one of Nichiren Daishonin’s disciples who took faith in his teaching around the time when Nichiren submitted the treatise “On Establishing the Correct Teaching for the Peace of the Land” to Hojo Tokiyori. Yoshimoto was said to have copied the treatise. Most of what is known about him is based on Nichiren’s letters written after he had taken up residence in Minobu later in life.

On July 2, 1275, Nichiren sent a letter to him titled “Discrepancies between the Provisional and the True Teachings” (see The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 2, pp. 578–83). In this letter, Nichiren refutes the slander of other schools and does not touch upon matters of daily life or faith. From the fact that this letter was written in classical Chinese, we can surmise that Yoshimoto was a learned scholar.

In a letter written to Shijo Kingo, who also lived in Kamakura, Nichiren says, “Daigaku and Uemon no Tayu (another name for Ikegami Munenaka) had their prayers answered because they followed my advice” (“The Eight Winds,” WND-1, 794).

And in the letter “A Warning against Begrudging One’s Fief,” Nichiren also suggested to Kingo, who was at the risk of having his lands confiscated, to have Yoshimoto make a clean copy of “The Letter of Petition from Yorimoto” (see WND-1, 803–16), which Nichiren had written and presented to Ema Mitsutoki on Kingo’s behalf. As such, it seems that Nichiren placed great trust in Yoshimoto, who was an excellent penman and scholar with strong faith (see WND-1, 824).

(Right) Map of Kamakura, Japan, during Nichiren Daishonin’s time.
A Wife’s Stalwart Faith

Together with Yoshimoto, his wife also took faith in Nichiren Daishonin’s teachings early on. In 1263, after the Daishonin was pardoned from his exile on the Izu peninsula, he returned to Kamakura. On April 17, 1264, he wrote a letter to Yoshimoto’s wife titled “The Recitation of the ‘Expedient Means’ and ‘Life Span’ Chapters” (see WND-1, 68–75). In this letter, he answers her question of whether there are specific ways to practice for lay women. We could surmise from the letter that she had been striving earnestly in faith, for instance, reciting each chapter of the Lotus Sutra every day.

Nichiren praises her writing, “When I read over your letter, I felt as though my eyes were beholding something rarer than the udumbara flower, some-thing even scarcer than the one-eyed turtle encountering a floating log with a hollow in it that fits him exactly” (WND-1, 69). Speaking of the tremendous benefits that one can accrue from the Lotus Sutra, he recommends that she chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo and read the prose sections of the “Expedient Means” and “Life Span” chapters.

Nichiren Daishonin’s Sincere Care

In the same letter, while asking about her daily practice of Buddhism, Yoshimoto’s wife also asked about the recitation of the sutra and chanting during her menstrual period. The reason for the question may be best understood in the historical context of Kamakura-era Japan.

Shinto, the indigenous Japanese religion, strongly emphasized the observance of ritual purity and had established numerous avoidances, or taboos. Death, illness, wounds, childbirth and menstruation were some of the things regarded as sources of impurity. A person who experienced any of these was required to undergo ritual purification before engaging in any form of worship. Hence, women were prohibited from taking part in religious ceremonies during their menstrual period. These taboos were deeply rooted in the popular consciousness and were observed long after the introduction of Buddhism, ultimately becoming mixed with Buddhist practices.

In response to the question from Yoshimoto’s wife, the Daishonin demonstrates his sincere care for her by explaining step by step his view on the matter.

He states, for example, that no sutra mentions taboos concerning menstruation, writing: “I have never come across any passage in the sutras or treatises that speaks of avoidances connected with menstruation. While the Buddha was in the world, many women in their prime became nuns and devoted themselves to the Buddha’s teachings, but they were never shunned on account of their menstrual period . . . It is simply a characteristic of the female sex, a phenomenon related to the perpetuation of the seed of birth and death” (WND-1, 72).

It is also in this context that he references “the precept of adapting to local customs” (Jpn zuiho-bini). He explains: “The meaning of this precept is that, so long as no seriously offensive act is involved, then even if one were to depart to some slight degree from the teachings of Buddhism, it would be better to avoid going against the manners and customs of the country” (WND-1, 72).

This principle expresses the importance of observing local customs or social conventions so long as the fundamental principles of Buddhism are not violated. In addition, we should not reject social customs and observances simply because they are unrelated to Buddhism.

In essence, while acknowledging the estab-lished views at the time toward a woman’s menstrual cycle, he offers that she may choose to heed them as long as those views do not hinder her daily Buddhist practice. In fact, he urges her to not give in to those who use intimidation or other methods to try to convince her to cast aside her Buddhist practice.

Nichiren offers: “Even if your menstrual period should last as long as seven days, if you feel so inclined, dispense with the reading of the sutra and simply recite Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. Also, when making your devotions, you need not bow facing the sutra” (WND-1, 72).

His sincere care is clearly expressed in his suggestion that she should regard chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo as the primary practice that she should maintain every day. We can also apply these words to times when we are not feeling well. When we overexert ourselves, we can fall ill. There are times when it is wise and valuable to simply chant in our minds or chant three times and focus on getting plenty of rest. What’s important is to have faith in the Gohonzon throughout our lives and make wise decisions for our physical well-being.

Nichiren Daishonin’s Sincere Care

It was thought that Yoshimoto’s father was a disciple referred to as “Daigaku-no-jo.” This name comes from a title that indicates that his father held the third highest ranking position in the government institution of higher learning, called Daigaku-ryo, which was responsible for fostering and educating government officials.

Today, remains of one letter mentioning the name “Daigaku dono” still exist, and this “Daigaku-dono” is thought to be Yoshimoto’s father. In this letter, the Daishonin received some kind of prayer request from Adachi Yasumori, a leading figure of the government, through Daigaku-no-jo. Nichiren declined the request for various reasons.

Also, in 1271, during the Tatsunokuchi Perse-cution, the Daishonin praises Daigaku-no-jo for his extraordinary efforts to selflessly support and protect him. Furthermore, he called Daigaku-no-jo “the best penman of the Kanto area.” It is thought that at one point he had been instrumental in saving Nichiren’s life because of his favorable connection with Adachi Yasumori.

At the time of the Tatsunokuchi Persecution and subsequent Sado Exile, Nichiren’s disciples underwent severe persecutions. His disciples in Kamakura had their lands confiscated, were penalized and sent into exile. He said that 999 out of 1000 people gave up their faith during this time (see “Reply to Niiama,” WND-1, 469).
In contrast, Daigaku-no-jo and his family asserted the Daishonin’s correctness to the leading figures of the government and prayed earnestly for his safety. Both father and son attended Nichiren’s funeral in October 1282.

With their strong faith, scholarship and refined character, Yoshimoto and his family were sincere disciples who, no matter what, continued to support Nichiren’s lifetime efforts to “establish the correct teaching for the peace of the land.”

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


The Precept of Adapting to Local Customs

“The Recitation of the ‘Expedient Means’ and ‘Life Span’ Chapters” (The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol 1. pp. 68–75) is the only writing in which Nichiren Daishonin mentions the “precept of adapting to local customs.” In this letter, he states, “The meaning of this precept is that, so long as no seriously offensive act is involved, then even if one were to depart to some slight degree from the teachings of Buddhism, it would be better to avoid going against the manners and customs of the country” (WND-1, 72). We can surmise from this that Nichiren taught the importance of respecting local customs while propagating Buddhism.

In order for Nichiren Buddhism to spread as a world religion, we must continue to respond to the changes of the times and society.

SGI President Ikeda says: “The heart of Buddhism is to consider ways to create happiness for the people and for their country. That is the heart of Shakyamuni and the essential spirit of Nichiren Daishonin. The light of Buddhism shines through adapting wisdom based on common sense. Herein lies the essence of genuinely strong faith” (tentative translation, The Complete Works of Daisaku Ikeda, vol. 82).

To be sure, we mustn’t be swayed by local customs, social conventions and traditions, and lose sight of our guiding principle—that is, the correct teaching of Buddhism.

But Nichiren also writes: “So long as it does not go against the principles for the attainment of Buddhahood, it may be of use in understanding the ordinary ways of secular life” (“On the Importance of the ‘Expedient Means’ and ‘Life Span’ Chapters,” WND-2, 747). He explains that regarding matters that do not concern the essential teaching of attaining Buddhahood, we may make use of the conventional principles of society.

Ultimately, it is our daily behavior that speaks to the greatness of Buddhism more eloquently than anything else. When we take action out of sincere care for the happiness of our friends and the prosperity of the local community, that is what enables people to form a connection with Buddhism and how we light a path of peace and harmony in society.

(pp. 32-35)