The Lay Priest Nakaoki and His Family
The Mentor-Disciple Relationship and the Journey of Kosen-rufu
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 Priest Nakaoki and His Family
The lay priest Nakaoki and his family were Nichiren Daishonin’s disciples who lived in Nakaoki, Sado Province (in present-day Sado, Niigata Prefecture).
Though Nichiren found himself in a maelstrom of abuse and slander while in exile on Sado Island, the lay priest’s father, Nakaoki no Jiro, is known to have led the people there to modify their views of the Daishonin. And his son is said to have inherited his father’s will, supporting and protecting Nichiren even after he had been pardoned from his exile and went on to reside at Mount Minobu.
It was from Minobu that Nichiren wrote “Letter to the Lay Priest Nakaoki” (The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 1005) to the lay priest and his wife on November 30, 1279—one of a few letters in existence today that were addressed to the couple.
An Influential Person Trusted by the Community
While still on Sado Island in the summer of 1272, Nichiren was moved from Tsukahara to Ichinosawa, where he was placed under the custody of the lay priest Ichinosawa. The Daishonin stayed there until his pardon in 1274.
The village head, who not only was responsible for collecting property taxes but also charged with managing exiles in Ichinosawa, vehemently despised Nichiren. However, the lay priest Ichinosawa gradually began to support the Daishonin, making sure he had basic necessities. His wife also took faith in the Daishonin’s Buddhism.
The area of Nakaoki was close to Ichinosawa, and it is thought that Nichiren met the lay priest Nakaoki and his family during his time at Ichinosawa.
In “Letter to the Lay Priest Nakaoki,” Nichiren touches on the personality of the lay priest’s father, the lay priest Nakaoki no Jiro. In the letter, the Daishonin states: “Although many of the islanders hated me, there was an old man called the lay priest Nakaoki no Jiro [who befriended me]. He was as wise as he was advanced in years, and he enjoyed robust health and commanded the esteem of the local people” (WND-1, 1007).
From this, it is clear that Nakaoki no Jiro was an influential figure in Sado who enjoyed the abiding trust of the people in his community.
At the time, many in Sado had been influenced by adherents of the Nembutsu teachings, which fueled their animosity toward Nichiren. Despite such precarious circumstances, Nichiren’s disciples steadfastly supported him, and for this he was deeply grateful.
For instance, he describes in a letter to Abutsu-bo and his wife, the lay nun Sennichi, how they had to evade the notice of guards to deliver food to him and how they remained “steadfast throughout, even when you were driven from your land, fined, and had your house taken from you” (“The Sutra of True Requital,” WND-1, 933).
The lay priest Nakaoki no Jiro undoubtedly also heard rumors about Nichiren. However, he pushed aside preconceptions and sought out one-to-one encounters with him. Thus, based on his own impressions, he came to acknowledge Nichiren’s unwavering spirit to fight resolutely for justice on behalf of the people. The Daishonin writes of this father, “Probably because this venerable man said of me, ‘This priest can be no ordinary person,’ his sons did not strongly resent me” (WND-1, 1007).
Considering the great hostility toward Nichiren, Nakaoki no Jiro made an incredibly brave statement. Because he had an exceptional personality and was trusted throughout the community, his words and perceptions greatly changed the situation surrounding the Daishonin. He and his family began to accord Nichiren with respect, and no one in the service of the Nakaoki clan tried to harm the Daishonin. Nakaoki no Jiro’s actions were precisely the workings of the protective functions that sought to safeguard Nichiren Daishonin.
Sincere one-to-one dialogue can play an important role in changing the environment and community in which activities for kosen-rufu take place. The relationship between Nichiren, the mentor, and the lay priest Nakaoki no Jiro, the disciple, demonstrates this point.
Cleared of any charges against him, the Daishonin was pardoned from his exile in the third month of 1274. His safety during the more than two years that he was on Sado Island was due to the admirable efforts of his disciples like Nakaoki no Jiro, who diligently supported and protected him.
Visiting the Daishonin Every Year
As the son of the lay priest Nakaoki no Jiro, the lay priest Nakaoki carried on his father’s spirit.
Based on the content of the “Letter to the Lay Priest Nakaoki,” written in 1279, there is clear evidence that Nakaoki no Jiro and his wife had passed on by this time. Such evidence can be found in phrases such as: “Now you two are the late lay priest Jiro’s son and daughter-in-law” and “your deceased parents” (see WND-1, 1008 and 1009).
Inheriting their parents’ will, the lay priest Nakaoki and his wife exerted themselves in their practice of the Lotus Sutra. The couple worked to support and protect the Daishonin. Every year, the lay priest Nakaoki made trips to visit him at Mount Minobu.
Regarding their efforts, Nichiren stated: “It is perhaps because you are the son and daughter-in-law of so profoundly wise a man that, following in his footsteps, you not only believe in the Lotus Sutra, which the ruler of the country himself rejects, but also provide for the votary of the Lotus Sutra, each year bringing me offerings and traveling a thousand ri1 to see me” (WND-1, 1008). The sight of the lay priest Nakaoki and his wife sincerely exerting themselves in faith must have overlapped with the image of their father who had protected him at a time of greatest need.
According to this writing, Nakaoki had made an offering of a thousand coins. Nichiren responds, “I have respectfully reported it in the presence of the Lotus Sutra of the Wonderful Law” (WND-1, 1005).
Emphasizing the Benefit of Chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo
In the same letter, Nichiren Daishonin recalled how, on the 12th anniversary of their infant daughter’s passing, they “erected a sixteen-foot wooden grave tablet with the seven characters Nam-myoho-renge-kyo inscribed on it” (WND-1, 1008). Using various examples in nature, he further states that the great benefit of chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo will spread widely, touching all those in their lives.
We also witness the Daishonin’s deep affection for this family as he closes the letter by assuring the lay priest and his wife that at the end of their long lives, they will be reunited with their parents (see WND-1, 1008–09).
In addition to this letter, there exists a small fragment of a letter dated April 12 that is not included in The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin. It is addressed to “the wife of the official of the Nakaoki administrative office.” It is not known who this official refers to, but there is a strong possibility that it is the lay priest Nakaoki. Here, the Daishonin uses the word mandokoro, which points to the administrative office of a local manor or estate. The lay priest Nakaoki is thought to have been in charge of or working for the local administrative office.
This fragment of a letter bears the same date as “Reply to the Lay Priest of Ko” (see WND-1, 491), which Nichiren is thought to have written in 1275. It is known that the lay priest of Ko visited the Daishonin at Mount Minobu around this time, suggesting the possibility that both lay priests Ko and Nakaoki could have made the visit from Sado together.
Be that as it may, in reviewing the letters that Nichiren sent not only to the lay priest Nakaoki and his wife, but also to several other disciples in Sado—Abutsu-bo and his wife (the lay nun Sennichi), the lay priest of Ko and his wife, and the lay priest Ichinosawa and his wife—it is evident that the Daishonin’s disciples there steadfastly rooted themselves in their local community. And, rather than carrying out faith alone, they practiced his teachings together with their immediate and extended families.
During a time when many in Sado looked askance at Nichiren as an exiled criminal, others bonded with him, having witnessed firsthand his behavior as a person as well as his extraordinary character, which brimmed with affection for his disciples. These earnest disciples strove to practice the spirit taught in the Lotus Sutra to treasure each individual just as their mentor, Nichiren, had.
“Letter to the Lay Priest Nakaoki” conveys how Nichiren’s disciples in Sado united with their family members and fellow practitioners on the island, while encouraging one another in faith. They were able to create happiness for their families and extended families, and expand the network of wise, good-hearted people in their communities.
Translated from the June 2018 issue of the Daibyakurenge, the Soka Gakkai’s monthly study journal.
Excerpts From SGI President Ikeda’s lecture
In addition to Nakaoki no Jiro, many other Sado residents became followers and supporters of Nichiren Daishonin after meeting him—among them Abutsu-bo and his wife, Sennichi, and the lay priest and lay nun of Ko.
Nothing leaves a greater impression than a person’s genuine humanity.
During Nichiren’s earlier exile in Izu (1261–63)as well, the local residents he met always ended up becoming his friends. In accord with the principle of the Buddha nature manifesting itself from within and bringing forth protection from without, Nichiren’s inner goodness manifested itself in his actions. His actions then struck a chord in the hearts of the people he met, drawing forth their own inherent goodness.
As much as Nichiren strove to win the trust of those he met, though, he never abandoned his beliefs in the process or compromised his integrity.
Armed with the power of words, Nichiren boldly refuted authoritarian teachings that oppressed and brought misery to the people. He aspired for a world where people would work together for peace and for the sake of those who were suffering—a world where everyone would strive together in a spirit of mutual cooperation and draw forth each other’s positive qualities. In Nichiren Buddhism, the true spirit of refutation and the true spirit of tolerance are actually two sides of the same coin. Tolerance that condones inhumanity and injustice is actually no more than callousness. Similarly, refutation that proceeds without respect for the inherent humanity of one’s opponent is just self-righteousness. Nichiren always acted for the sake of the Law and for people’s happiness. As a result, wise, good-hearted individuals who sympathized with his aims always appeared in his environment.
This also attests to how a person’s character and humanity can touch the lives of many others. Kosen-rufu is the spreading of ties of friendship and trust. Expanding positive human ties is the essence of our efforts to further kosen-rufu.
Kosen-rufu is the spreading of ties of friendship and trust. Expanding positive human ties is the essence of our efforts to further kosen-rufu.
In terms of our practice as SGI members, it means being sincere and respectful in our dealings with others, showing the utmost respect and care for each of our family members, friends and acquaintances. Truly respecting and valuing each individual is the practice of the Lotus Sutra, the teaching of universal enlightenment. It is the very heart of the practice taught by Shakyamuni Buddha.
An ever-growing network of trust and respect is the image of kosen-rufu. (Learning From Nichiren’s Writings: The Teachings for Victory, vol. 3, pp. 57–58)