Nichiren and His Disciples

Abutsu-Bo

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

In his old age, Abutsu-bo traveled hundreds of miles across rough terrain to visit his mentor, Nichiren Daishonin. 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 series shows how his disciples took action and overcame their various hardships based on guidance and encouragement from their mentor.

ABUTSU-BO

Abutsu-bo and his wife, the lay nun Sennichi,[1]The lay nun Sennichi: The wife of Abutsu-bo (d. 1279) and a follower of Nichiren. Her origins are unclear. The next installment in this series will highlight her story. She had been tonsured but retained her lay status, thus she is called a lay nun. became Nichiren Daishonin’s leading disciples on the island of Sado, where Nichiren had been exiled from 1271 to 1274.

It seems that this couple had the job of supervising those who were exiled to the island, which may explain how they met the Daishonin. Before converting to Nichiren’s teachings, it is believed that Abutsu-bo had been a lay priest[2]Lay priest: One whose head is shaven in the manner of a Buddhist priest, but continues to live in society as a layperson. Lay priest is a translation of the Japanese term nyudo, which literally means to “enter the way,” i.e., to “enter the way of the Buddha.” In Japan, from the Heian period (794–1185) on, a distinction was made between lay priests and those who formally renounced the secular world and lived in temples. Later an increasing number of samurai took the tonsure as priests did, but continued to live as laypersons. of the Nembutsu school. But after meeting Nichiren, the couple converted to his teaching.

Sammai-do: “A Wretched Place to Live”

Nichiren Daishonin was brought to Sado Island on October 28, 1271. He is believed to have first landed at Matsugasaki, then was led along treacherous mountain paths to be delivered on November 1 to Tsukahara, his assigned place of exile, which was a desolate field used as a graveyard. He resided there for about five months until the beginning of April the following year.

He was given as lodging a small, run-down structure called Sammai-do, which had been constructed in the middle of the graveyard for the purpose of offering prayers for the dead. The living conditions in his makeshift hut were extremely harsh. Nichiren describes this in his writings as follows:

“My dwelling was a dilapidated grass-roof hut in the midst of a field thick with eulalia and pampas grass where corpses were buried. Rain leaked in, and the walls did not keep out the wind. Day and night the only sound reaching my ears was the sighing of the wind by my pillow; each morning the sight that met my eyes was the snow that buried the roads far and near. I felt as though I had passed through the realm of hungry spirits and fallen alive into one of the cold hells.” (“Letter to Horen,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 519)

“The boards of the roof did not meet, and the walls were full of holes. The snow fell and piled up, never melting away. I spent my days there, sitting in a straw coat or lying on a fur skin. At night it hailed and snowed, and there were continual flashes of lightning. Even in the daytime the sun hardly shone. It was a wretched place to live.” (“The Actions of the Votary of the Lotus Sutra,” WND-1, 769)

 

Delivering Offerings Under Strict Surveillance

Nichiren Daishonin did not only endure harsh natural elements. Those who harbored enmity toward him—namely the Nembutsu (or Pure Land school) believers who lived on Sado—were constantly watching and waiting for a chance to take his life.

A few months into his exile in January 1272, a mob of several hundred Buddhist priests of various schools gathered at Tsukahara in an attempt to publicly denounce him. Nichiren rebuffed every single opponent and proved the superiority of the Lotus Sutra. This came to be known as the Tsukahara Debate.

It is unclear how and when Abutsu-bo and his wife, Sennichi, came to take faith in the Daishonin’s teachings, but their encounter with him was clearly life-changing, exemplified in their deep commitment to protect him under extremely harsh circumstances.

For instance, guards kept strict watch on his hut day and night, so it was not easy for Nichiren’s supporters to come near him. In a letter to Sennichi after he was pardoned from his exile, he writes, “Never in any lifetime will I forget how in those circumstances you, with Abutsu-bo carrying a wooden container of food on his back, came in the night again and again to bring me aid” (“The Sutra of True Requital,” WND-1, 933).

Abutsu-bo and Sennichi often prepared offerings for the Daishonin out of their sincere concern for his health and well-being. As a result, they too were persecuted, including being driven from their land, receiving heavy fines and having their home confiscated.

Moving From Tsukahara to Ichinosawa

In April 1272, after persevering through his first bitter winter on Sado, the government ordered Nichiren Daishonin to move from Tsukahara to the home of the lay priest Ichinosawa, who was a believer of the Pure Land school. Nichiren spent his remaining two years at this residence until his pardon.

Though Nichiren’s living conditions in Ichino-sawa were considerably better than at Sammai-do, the food rations were meager.

Nichiren describes this in “Letter to the Lay Priest Ichinosawa,” writing: “The rations of food that I received from the headman were very scanty. And since I had a number of disciples with me, we often had no more than two or three mouthfuls of rice to a person. Sometimes we portioned out the food on square trays made of bark, and sometimes we simply received it in the palms of our hands and ate it then and there” (WND-1, 529).

Undeterred by such insidious actions, Abutsu-bo and Sennichi continued to protect the Daishonin until the very end.

Determined to leave behind all his teachings, Nichiren composed important works and letters of encouragement to his disciples while on Sado. He wrote “The Opening of the Eyes” in Tsukahara and penned “The Object of Devotion for Observing the Mind” and other important works in Ichinosawa. At the time, writing brushes and sumi ink were difficult to come by and paper was very expensive. In addition, his life was constantly in danger. However, he used what scarce paper was available and his ceaseless efforts undoubtedly inspired his disciples on Sado to strive even harder to spread his teachings.

The Government Pardons Nichiren

As a result of Nichiren Daishonin’s victory at the Tsukahara Debate, the number of his disciples began to grow. Feeling threatened by this growth, several Nembutsu believers went to Kamakura to make slanderous accusations against Nichiren to the high-ranking official Hojo Nobutoki.

In response, on at least three occasions, Nobutoki fabricated official letters that ordered Nichiren’s followers to be driven out of the province or imprisoned. The Daishonin writes: “Some people were thrown into prison because they were said to have walked past my hut, others were exiled because they were reported to have given me donations, or their wives and children were taken into custody” (“The Actions of the Votary of the Lotus Sutra,” WND-1, 773–74).

Undeterred by such insidious actions, Abutsu-bo and Sennichi continued to protect the Daishonin until the very end.

In March 1274, Nichiren was pardoned from exile. Despite desperate attempts by Nembutsu believers to keep him from returning home alive, soldiers escorted him to the port of Maura, and then he finally made his way to Kamakura.

You Are a Brilliant Treasure Tower

From the letters Nichiren Daishonin addressed to Abutsu-bo, we can sense the deep trust Nichiren had in him. In these letters, Nichiren reveals significant Buddhist doctrines.
For example, in “On the Treasure Tower,” the Daishonin answers Abutsu-bo’s question regarding the significance of Thus Come One Many Treasures and the appearance of the treasure tower (see WND-1, 299).[3]In the 11th chapter of the Lotus Sutra, the treasure tower comes forth from beneath the earth, measuring a staggering 500 yojanas in height and 250 yojanas in width and depth, and adorned with seven kinds of treasures such as gold and silver. The ceremony in the air commences with the appearance of this treasure tower. A yojana is a unit of measurement used in ancient India, said to equal the distance that the royal army could march in a day. According to one explanation, it corresponds to about six miles.

Nichiren explains: “Whether eminent or humble, high or low, those who chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo are themselves the treasure tower, and, likewise, are themselves the Thus Come One Many Treasures”; and “Abutsu-bo is therefore the treasure tower itself, and the treasure tower is Abutsu-bo himself” (WND-1, 299).

He urges Abutsu-bo to be firmly convinced that those who chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo and propagate this Buddhism are, without exception, noble and majestic entities of the Mystic Law and shining examples who demonstrate the validity of the Lotus Sutra.

Abutsu-bo and Sennichi displayed unwavering support of Nichiren and their fellow disciples while challenging great hardships. They must have been surprised and deeply moved by the profound significance of the philosophy that they embraced. Nichiren concludes the letter with praise, stating, “Abutsu-bo, you deserve to be called a leader of this northern province” (WND-1, 300).

From Sado to Minobu

After remonstrating with the nation’s ruler for the third time, in April 1274, Nichiren Daishonin left Kamakura to take up residence on Mount Minobu. Following this move, Abutsu-bo, spurred by his seeking spirit, made the long, perilous journey to visit him at least three times, over a span of five years. Carrying letters and many offerings Sennichi had entrusted with him, Abutsu-bo, despite his advanced age, risked his life traversing tumultuous paths across the sea and over mountains to Minobu and back to Sado.

When Abutsu-bo made his third trip to Minobu in 1278, Nichiren had been deeply concerned for the safety and well-being of his disciples on Sado. He had not received any visitors from Sado the previous year, and an epidemic had been raging throughout the region. After learning from Abutsu-bo about the good health and condition of Sennichi and their good friends the lay priest and lay nun of Ko (see May 2018 Living Buddhism, pp. 30–33), Nichiren expressed his joy and relief, writing in a letter to Sennichi: “When I heard all this, I felt as if I were a blind man who had recovered his sight, or as if my deceased father and mother had come to me in a dream from the palace of King Yama, and in that dream I had felt great joy” (“The Sutra of True Requital,” WND-1, 934).

Nichiren’s compassionate concern for the well-being of his disciples could be felt in the way he expressed his sincere care and offered prayers for their safety. This certainly touched the hearts of Abutsu-bo, Sennichi and their fellow practitioners on Sado.

The following year, on March 21, 1279, Abutsu-bo’s life came to a close. In “The Treasure of a Filial Child,” Nichiren empathizes with Sennichi’s deep sorrow, expressing his own sense of grief over losing a beloved disciple. He writes: “Even heaven must regret and earth lament that this man has gone away and will never come again. You yourself must feel the same” (WND-1, 1043).

In the same writing, Nichiren expresses unstinting praise for Abutsu-bo’s faith and dedication, affirming that there is not the slightest doubt that he attained Buddhahood, stating, “I, Nichiren, can see him among the assembly on Eagle Peak, seated within the treasure tower of Many Treasures Buddha and facing toward the east” (WND-1, 1042).

Having lost her beloved husband on whom she had relied and battling the feeling of loneliness every day, Nichiren’s encouragement must have given Sennichi great comfort.

Abutsu-bo’s son, Tokuro, visited Nichiren at Mount Minobu in July 1279, a few months after his father’s passing. He had brought his father’s ashes for burial there. Tokuro returned the following year to visit his father’s grave.

Nichiren writes to Sennichi, praising how her son had inherited Abutsu-bo’s faith, stating, “His son, Tokuro Moritsuna, has followed in his footsteps and become a wholehearted votary of the Lotus Sutra” (“The Treasure of a Filial Child,” WND-1, 1045).

Nichiren cherished his disciples who were striving for kosen-rufu, referring to them as people “who can inherit the soul of the Lotus Sutra” (“The Hero of the World,” WND-1, 839). From this perspective, we can imagine his joy of entering an era in which his disciples’ children were themselves also standing up in faith as disciples of Nichiren.

Translated from the February 2018 issue of the Daibyakurenge, the Soka Gakkai’s monthly study journal.


Nichiren Daishonin’s Praise and Aspirations for His Loyal Disciple

The following is an excerpt from SGI President Ikeda’s lecture on Nichiren Daishonin’s writing “On the Treasure Tower.”

Nichiren depicted the treasure tower of the Lotus Sutra in the form of the Gohonzon.

He tells Abutsu-bo, “I will inscribe the treasure tower especially for you” (The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 300). To “inscribe the treasure tower” signifies inscribing Nam-myoho-renge-kyo as the object of devotion, the Gohonzon, by which means Nichiren established the way for all people to attain Buddhahood in the reality of their daily lives. This is the fundamental purpose of his appearance in the world as the Buddha of the Latter Day of the Law.

Praising Abutsu-bo’s staunch faith and selfless practice, Nichiren calls him the “leader of this northern province” (WND-1, 300). Abutsu-bo was indeed a truly noble leader of kosen-rufu.

Those who have awakened to the fact that they are the treasure tower also naturally realize that the treasure tower exists equally in the lives of others. Because of this, they seek to help others open that treasure tower within themselves in the same way. Starting with Abutsu-bo, many people all over Sado and neighboring areas throughout northern Japan would one day go on to embrace faith in Nichiren Buddhism and shine as treasure towers.

We can read these words as earnest encouragement to Abutsu-bo, urging him to stand up and strive together with him as a true disciple and leader of kosen-rufu. (Learning From Nichiren’s Writings: The Teachings for Victory, vol. 3, pp. 126–27)

 

(pp. 38-43)

Notes   [ + ]

1. The lay nun Sennichi: The wife of Abutsu-bo (d. 1279) and a follower of Nichiren. Her origins are unclear. The next installment in this series will highlight her story. She had been tonsured but retained her lay status, thus she is called a lay nun.
2. Lay priest: One whose head is shaven in the manner of a Buddhist priest, but continues to live in society as a layperson. Lay priest is a translation of the Japanese term nyudo, which literally means to “enter the way,” i.e., to “enter the way of the Buddha.” In Japan, from the Heian period (794–1185) on, a distinction was made between lay priests and those who formally renounced the secular world and lived in temples. Later an increasing number of samurai took the tonsure as priests did, but continued to live as laypersons.
3. In the 11th chapter of the Lotus Sutra, the treasure tower comes forth from beneath the earth, measuring a staggering 500 yojanas in height and 250 yojanas in width and depth, and adorned with seven kinds of treasures such as gold and silver. The ceremony in the air commences with the appearance of this treasure tower. A yojana is a unit of measurement used in ancient India, said to equal the distance that the royal army could march in a day. According to one explanation, it corresponds to about six miles.

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