Nichiren and His Disciples

The Lay Nun Sennichi

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

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 oneness of mentor and disciple that unfolded between Nichiren and his disciples. This series showcases how his disciples took action and overcame their various struggles based on guidance and encouragement from their mentor.

The Lay Nun Sennichi

The lay nun Sennichi and her husband, Abutsu-bo,[1]The husband of the lay nun Sennichi and a follower of Nichiren. His story is covered in the October 2018 Living Buddhism, pp. 38–43. took faith in Nichiren Daishonin’s teaching while he was exiled on Sado Island from October 1271 to March 1274. The couple became leading disciples who earnestly supported the Daishonin throughout this ordeal.

Nichiren at first addressed Sennichi as the “lay nun Abutsu-bo” in his letters, but at some point switched to addressing her as the “lay nun Sennichi,” which seems to suggest that he gave her the honorary name. Some believe that the name Sennichi, which means “1,000 days” in Japanese, derives from the number of days Nichiren stayed on Sado Island.

Sennichi was deeply concerned for the Daishonin, who had to endure the bitter cold winter of Sado in a dilapidated hut in Tsukahara, a desolate field used as a graveyard. Out of a sincere wish to support her mentor, time and again she supplied her husband with a wooden container filled with food provisions that he carried on his back to Nichiren’s dwelling.

With the local steward and Nembutsu followers keeping strict watch over Nichiren’s hut night and day, Sennichi and Abutsu-bo knew that they were endangering their own lives by delivering aid under the cover of night. In fact, because of their actions, they were driven from their land, fined and had their house taken away. Despite such heavy persecutions, Sennichi and Abutsu-bo remained steadfast in their faith.

Nichiren recalls their selfless dedication in a letter he wrote to Sennichi in 1278 from Mount Minobu, stating, “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. It was just as if my deceased mother had suddenly been reborn in the province of Sado!” (“The Sutra of True Requital,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 933).

Seeking Spirit Burns Brighter After Nichiren’s Pardon From Sado

After Nichiren Daishonin was pardoned from his exile in 1274, he returned to Kamakura where he remonstrated with the government for the third and last time. He warned the authorities yet again that their slander of the correct teaching would bring about a major calamity within the year. With his warnings unheeded, Nichiren moved to Mount Minobu to focus his efforts on consolidating his teaching for the future and raising successors.

Nichiren’s departure from Sado only made Sennichi’s seeking spirit burn brighter.

In the five-year period between 1274 and 1279, Sennichi sent Abutsu-bo to Nichiren’s residence in Minobu at least three times. The outbound journey from Sado to Minobu took roughly 20 days. For Abutsu-bo, an elderly man, making the journey was very dangerous. Yet, the couple’s determination to support their mentor in this way demonstrated their extraordinary faith and courage. Each time Sennichi sent her husband off, she must have longed to go herself.

Sincerity That Is “Firmer Than the Great Earth”

According to Nichiren Daishonin’s writings, Sennichi sent large monetary offerings to him on at least two occasions (see “The Drum at the Gate of Thunder,” WND-1, 948; and “The Treasure of a Filial Child,” WND-1, 1041). She also sent food offerings and, sometimes, other items such as seaweed that were difficult to come by in the mountains. Her offerings show how Sennichi’s motherly concern extended to the Daishonin’s health and diet.

Recognizing her earnest efforts to support him, Nichiren writes:

It is easy to sustain our concern for someone who is before our very eyes, but quite a different thing when that person is far away, even though in our heart we may not forget him. Nevertheless, in the five years, from the eleventh year of the Bun’ei era (1274) to this year, the first year of the Koan era, that have already passed since I came to live here in the mountains, you have sent your husband from the province of Sado to visit me three times. How great is your sincerity! It is firmer than the great earth, deeper than the great sea! (“The Sutra of True Requital,” WND-1, 933)

In another letter composed in October 1278, Nichiren expressed gratitude for Sennichi’s offerings of coins and dried rice, relating the parable of the boy Virtue Victorious who offered a mud pie to the Buddha and was reborn as King Ashoka. He states, “Those who make offerings to the Lotus Sutra will receive the same benefit as they would by making offerings to all the Buddhas and bodhisattvas in the ten directions” (“The Drum at the Gate of Thunder,” WND-1, 948–49).

Nichiren teaches that even humble offerings, when made to the Buddha with sincerity, will enable one to gain immense benefit.

Although Sennichi and Abutsu-bo lacked food and material possessions, and lived in the distant island of Sado, they made these noble offerings to the Daishonin. He thanks Sennichi for her sincere dedication and praises her spirit to protect him. She was a woman worthy of the highest praise and admiration.

A Central Figure Among Female Practitioners

Nichiren Daishonin’s letters to Sennichi suggest that she was a central figure among women who practiced his teaching and that she also stayed in regular communication with her fellow practitioners on Sado.

When he wrote to the lay nun of Ko,[2]The wife of the lay priest of Ko and a follower of Nichiren. The story of the lay nun and lay priest of Ko is covered in the May 2018 Living Buddhism, pp. 30–33. a disciple with social standing in the province of Sado, he describes her and Sennichi as having the same mind, and encourages them to have someone read his letter and listen to it together (see “Letter to the Lay Nun of Ko,” WND-1, 595), thus revealing that the two women supported each other in faith.

In addition, Nichiren’s responses to Sennichi include inquiries about the well-being of his followers on Sado, including the lay nun of Ko. In essence, he entrusts Sennichi with the task of conveying his encouragement and instructions to the other followers (see “The Treasure of a Filial Child,” WND-1, 1041).

He also wholeheartedly encourages Sennichi herself, urging her to never give in to forces that attempt to derail her faith. For instance, in “The Embankments of Faith,” he writes:

Strengthen your faith now more than ever. Anyone who teaches the principles of Buddhism to others is bound to incur hatred from men and women, priests and nuns. Let them say what they will . . . Always be determined to denounce slander against the correct teaching to the best of your ability. It is indeed wonderful that you should be helping me reveal my teachings. (WND-1, 626)

After Nichiren’s pardon from exile on Sado, Sennichi must have renewed her determination to continue spreading her mentor’s teaching without retreating a single step. From this writing we can sense her fighting spirit, despite her advanced age.

Women’s Attainment of Buddhahood

Sennichi seems to have been well-versed in Buddhism and filled with seeking spirit. This can be seen in her questions regarding slander of the Law and women’s attainment of enlightenment.

For instance, in a letter written around 1275, she asked Nichiren Daishonin how one’s karmic retribution varies according to the degree of slander against the correct teaching (see “The Embankments of Faith,” WND-1, 625).

Many of Nichiren’s disciples on Sado are thought to have been longtime followers of the Nembutsu (Pure Land) school of Buddhism. As a result, though they had encountered Nichiren and embraced faith in the Lotus Sutra, many of them may still have had doubts about whether they would be able to attain Buddhahood.

Although Sennichi and Abutsu-bo lacked in food and material possessions, and lived on the distant island of Sado, they made noble offerings to the Daishonin.

Having only recently accepted the Daishonin’s teachings, they may have had differences of opinion about the precise nature of correct practice. It is reasonable to assume that Sennichi, in asking about retribution from different degrees of slander, was not only presenting her own doubts, but was also speaking on behalf of other disciples on Sado.

Nichiren states with admiration, “You are indeed an unusual woman” (WND-1, 626), and compares her to the dragon king’s daughter, who paved the way for the enlightenment of all living beings. The Daishonin was thanking Sennichi for asking a question weighing on everyone’s mind.

In July 1278, in response to Sennichi’s letter that Abutsu-bo brought on her behalf, Nichiren composed “The Sutra of True Requital.” He began by restating what she had written:

In the letter she states that, though she had been concerned about the faults and impediments that prevent women from gaining enlightenment, since according to my teaching the Lotus Sutra puts the attainment of Buddhahood by women first, she relies upon this sutra in all matters. (WND-1, 928)

The prevailing belief during Nichiren’s time was that women were born with karmic impediments that prevented them from attaining enlightenment. This stemmed from provisional teachings that excluded women from attaining Buddhahood.

Given this social climate, naturally Sennichi pondered how she could ever overcome her “karmic faults and impediments.”

Therefore, Nichiren’s assurances based on the Lotus Sutra that women can attain Buddhahood must have filled her with immense hope and inspiration.

These letters portray a woman who was earnest in her daily life and utterly committed to Buddhism. Wishing to strengthen Sennichi’s conviction in her capacity to gain enlightenment, Nichiren affirmed that among the teachings of the Lotus Sutra, that of women attaining Buddhahood is first (see WND-1, 930). He also clarified that the actualization of the enlightenment of all women was the foundation for his vow.

We can imagine Sennichi, with this letter in hand, setting out joyfully to encourage her fellow female practitioners by imparting hope derived from the teachings of the Mystic Law.

“It Is the Heart That Is Important”

As time went on, Sennichi had to face the reality of possibly never seeing Nichiren Daishonin again. Even so, she must have longed to see her mentor. Aware of this, he wrote to her with compassion:

Though you remain in Sado, your heart has come to this province. The way of attaining Buddhahood is just like this. Though we live in the impure land, our hearts reside in the pure land of Eagle Peak. Merely seeing each other’s face would in itself be insignificant. It is the heart that is important. (“The Drum at the Gate of Thunder,” WND-1, 949)

Faith is not determined by meeting with the mentor face to face. “It is the heart that is important.”

Sennichi’s noble faith and seeking spirit toward her mentor were revealed in her sending her husband repeatedly to Nichiren’s side. Recognizing this, he writes, in essence, that no matter the distance that separates them, the hearts of mentor and disciple are always one. These words must have deeply encouraged Sennichi.

In March 1279, Sennichi’s husband Abutsu-bo passed away. The following year, Nichiren wrote a heartfelt letter to console the grieving widow, writing:

With whom can you discuss matters of business, and though you may have good things to eat, with whom can you share them? Merely to be separated from your husband for a day or two is cause for uneasiness. Yet you were parted from your husband on the twenty-first day of the third month of last year, and passed the remainder of the year without seeing his return. Now it is already the seventh month of this year. Even though he himself does not return, why does he not send you some word?

The cherry blossoms, once scattered, have again come into bloom, and the fruit, once fallen, has formed again on the trees . . . How is it that, in this one matter alone, things should be so different from what they were, never to be the same again? . . .

Even heaven must regret and earth lament that this man has gone away and will never come again. You yourself must feel the same. (“The Treasure of a Filial Child,” WND-1, 1043)

“There Is No Treasure Greater Than a Child”

In the same letter, Nichiren Daishonin mentioned Tokuro, the son of Abutsu-bo and Sennichi, who had come to Minobu carrying the ashes of his late father, presumably for the 100-day memorial service and burial of the ashes.

Tokuro visited Minobu again the following year to pay his respects to his father at his grave. Nichiren, having observed that Tokuro had inherited his father’s faith, wrote to Sennichi, “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).

He praised Sennichi for raising a capable successor and expressed his joy, saying, “Surely, there is no treasure greater than a child, no treasure greater than a child!” (WND-1, 1045).

Before Nichiren passed away in 1282, he appointed six senior priests. All but Nikko Shonin betrayed their teacher after his death. In contrast, Abutsu-bo and Sennichi’s legacy of steadfast faith was passed down to their descendants. Nichiman, the great-grandchild of the two, studied under the tutelage of Nikko Shonin and later became a principal figure among Nichiren’s followers on Sado Island.

Sennichi is said to have passed away in 1302, 20 years after Nichiren Daishonin’s death. She must have been laid to rest as a brilliant example of attaining Buddhahood, surrounded by her beloved fellow practitioners on Sado.

 

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


Excerpts From SGI President Ikeda’s lecture

The female followers striving alongside Nichiren Daishonin were truly trailblazers of women’s attainment of Buddhahood in the Latter Day; they could perhaps be regarded as pioneers of women’s liberation.

Among them were young widows, bereaved mothers, childless women, wives who were caring for sick husbands or who were ill themselves, daughters-in-law, women who were nursing aged mothers-in-law, women who were worried about their husbands’ inconsistent Buddhist practice, and the list goes on.

All of them were valiantly challenging their own problems and karma as they continued to make efforts to share the Mystic Law with those around them. They waged a great struggle to show actual proof of the enlightenment of women as taught in Nichiren Buddhism. They changed from women who wept over their fate to women who brimmed with a sense of purpose and mission—women who proudly upheld the Mystic Law and displayed great wisdom and compassion through courage. As disciples, they believed wholeheartedly in the sincerity and integrity of the Daishonin and his wish for the happiness of all, and they proudly walked the path of mission and true fulfillment that he taught.

As long as such a noble realm of mentor and disciples exists, genuine lasting happiness is certain to spread among women throughout the world. (Learning From Nichiren’s Writings: The Teachings for Victory, vol. 2, p. 118)

(pp. 36-41)

Notes   [ + ]

1. The husband of the lay nun Sennichi and a follower of Nichiren. His story is covered in the October 2018 Living Buddhism, pp. 38–43.
2. The wife of the lay priest of Ko and a follower of Nichiren. The story of the lay nun and lay priest of Ko is covered in the May 2018 Living Buddhism, pp. 30–33.

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