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.
Like many of Nichiren Daishonin’s disciples, we know little about Hojo Yagenta because only a few letters addressed to him remain.
Although details of Yagenta’s life and how he took faith in Nichiren’s teachings are unknown, the existing letters depict a disciple who is filled with joy for the breakthroughs he has experienced due to his mentor’s encouragement.
A Prominent Samurai Warrior Living in Kamakura
Yagenta first appears in Nichiren Daishonin’s writings as the recipient of “Letter to Hojo Yagenta,” which the Daishonin composed in October 1268.
Nichiren points out that he is “of the same surname as the regent, the lord of Sagami” (“Letter to Hojo Yagenta,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 2, p. 320), which suggests that he was a samurai warrior and member of the ruling Hojo clan based in Kamakura.
Earlier in 1268, an official letter arrived from the Mongol empire demanding tribute from Japan and threatening invasion if the authorities did not comply. With this development, Nichiren’s prediction of “calamity of invasion from foreign lands” came true just as he had warned in his treatise “On Establishing the Correct Teaching for the Peace of the Land.”
In response to this impending threat, Nichiren sent 11 letters of remonstration to top government officials including the regent Hojo Tokimune and heads of major Buddhist temples. In the letters, Nichiren advised them to abandon erroneous teachings and embrace faith in the Lotus Sutra in order to save the country from destruction. He also requested an official public debate with priests of the various Buddhist schools.
“Letter to Hojo Yagenta” was one of the 11 letters. Unlike the other 10 recipients, Yagenta was Nichiren’s follower, who likely held a high position in government with connections to people at the seat of power in Kamakura. This letter also suggests that Yagenta had called upon Nichiren several times.
Ten years later, around August 1278, Yagenta visited Nichiren at Minobu and immediately after his return to Kamakura reported in a letter about the death of Doryu, a Zen priest who had power and influence through the patronage of Hojo Tokimune (see “Doryu of Kencho-ji Temple,” WND-2, 762).
In this letter, Yagenta updates the Daishonin on the activities of the late Doryu’s disciples. Also, judging by Nichiren’s mention of “Hokibo”—a reference to his disciple Nikko Shonin—we can presume that Yagenta was also in contact with Nikko.
Facing Life-Threatening Illness
When Yagenta became gravely ill in February (year unknown1), he sent Nichiren Daishonin two swords—a long one and a short one—as an offering for the Daishonin’s prayers.
Based on Nichiren’s description that “the long sword must have been made by a renowned swordsmith” (“The Swords of Good and Evil,” WND-1, 451), they were probably Yagenta’s prized possessions. The Daishonin accepted the swords, placed them on his altar and prayed for his disciple’s recovery.
In “The Swords of Good and Evil,” Nichiren explains why he is undergoing great persecution at the hands of the three powerful enemies. Nichiren attributes this to the fact that he is constantly reminding the ruling authorities and priests of other Buddhist schools that by spreading erroneous beliefs that lead people to unhappiness, they will ruin their own lives, lead the country to its destruction in this lifetime and fall into the great Avichi hell in the next. Nichiren also points out that he is encountering persecution because he is the votary of the Lotus Sutra (see WND-1, 451). He goes on to exclaim, “How wondrous that you have, nonetheless, become a disciple and a supporter of such a person! There must be some profound reason for our relationship” (WND-1, 451).
This must have greatly encouraged Yagenta, who witnessed Nichiren’s valiant efforts to remonstrate with government officials in Kamakura.
In addition, regarding the fine sword, Nichiren states, “While you wore it at your side, it was an evil sword, but now that it has been offered to the Buddha, it has become a sword for good” (WND-1, 451).
Nichiren teaches that a sword, wielded by a warrior in battle, could act as a force of evil, but by offering it to the Buddha, it becomes a sword for good that will prevent him from falling into the evil paths in his next existence.
Yagenta’s grave illness appears to have been a matter of life and death. Nichiren encourages him, stating:
In the next life you should use this sword as your staff. The Lotus Sutra is the staff that helps all the Buddhas of the three existences as they set their minds on enlightenment. However, you should rely on Nichiren as your staff and pillar . . . If I, Nichiren, precede you in death, I will come to meet you at your last moment. If you should precede me, I will be sure to tell King Yama all about you. Everything that I tell you is true. According to the Lotus Sutra, Nichiren is the guide who knows the passes and gorges along the way. Devote yourself single-mindedly to faith with the aim of reaching Eagle Peak. (WND-1, 451–52)
Nichiren’s assurance deeply encouraged Yagenta, helping him stand up in faith to tackle his illness.
The Death of Lay Priest Kawanobe
Nichiren Daishonin began to worry for Yagenta when he did not hear back from him for some time. Then, Yagenta’s letter arrived, carrying news that he had recovered from his illness (see “A Disease Passed on to One’s Children,” WND-2, 498).
However, Yagenta could not fully celebrate his own recovery because a close fellow practitioner, lay priest Kawanobe, had passed away.
Lay priest Kawanobe was one of Nichiren’s principal disciples in Kamakura. He was also believed to be one of the five practitioners imprisoned during the Tatsunokuchi Persecution.
Nichiren writes, “I was fond of the lay priest Kawanobe, and now that he has passed away, I see him in you” (“A Disease Passed on to One’s Children,” WND-2, 497). In this way he encourages Yagenta to continue dedicating his life to kosen-rufu on behalf of his fellow practitioner.
Nichiren goes on to explain the prevalence of erroneous beliefs concerning Buddhism. He states that, though many people claim to believe in the Lotus Sutra, they misunderstand it because they follow the doctrines of the priests Kobo, Jikaku and Chisho who taught that the Lotus Sutra is inferior to the True Word teachings. The Daishonin compares these erroneous doctrines to a hereditary disease passed on by parents to their children. The result is that, though people may accept the Lotus Sutra, they do so without ever knowing its true value or intent. Buddhist elders of earlier times have passed down these mistaken interpretations to their successors, who have now spread them throughout the country of Japan, doing damage to the land and its people.
This reflects an important premise of Nichiren Buddhism—that beliefs that fail to respect the true preciousness, capacity and dignity of human life cause people to lose hope and strength, and to succumb to their baser impulses. They are therefore the primary source of people’s suffering.
The mentor-disciple relationship is the essence of Nichiren Buddhism, and for this reason Nichiren warns his disciple against being misguided by the wrong teacher. Nichiren’s deep consideration is expressed in how he uses the analogy of illness, which Yagenta could surely relate to after recently having overcome his own life-threatening sickness.
Nichiren closes by saying “I look forward to receiving further news from you” (WND-2, 498). We can sense from this warm exchange that he was genuinely delighted to learn of Yagenta’s full recovery.
SGI President Ikeda writes: “No matter how famous or successful one might be, a life without a teacher or mentor is sad and lonely indeed. Genuine victory as a human being will also remain elusive. To have a lifelong mentor is one of life’s greatest blessings” (Learning From the Writings: The Hope-filled Teachings of Nichiren Daishonin, p. 185).
Confronting his own grave illness and the passing of a close friend made Yagenta aware of the impermanence of external trappings of wealth and status. He must have come to deeply appreciate having the foremost mentor during these difficult times.
Translated from the June 2018 issue of the Daibyakurenge, the Soka Gakkai’s monthly study journal.
Life at Minobu—Visitors and Residents
What was it like to live with Nichiren Daishonin at Minobu, where he spent the final years of his life?
On May 17, 1274, Nichiren moved to Mount Minobu, located in present-day Yamanashi Prefecture. His makeshift residence was completed one month later on June 17.
The Daishonin describes the severe living conditions immediately after moving there: “No words can describe this famine. Not even a single measure of rice is for sale. We will surely starve to death. I will send back all of these priests and stay here alone” (“The Way to Minobu,” WND-2, 480).
Despite shortages of food, followers gathered day after day, wishing to stay with Nichiren to pioneer new paths for kosen-rufu in this new location.
Four years later, in 1278, Nichiren depicts the temple grounds bustling with activity, writing, “Even when there is hardly anyone here, there are forty people, and when it is a crowd, there are as many as sixty. No matter how much I refuse, they still come to visit. Saying they are the older brother or the younger brother of someone here, they settle down, but out of regard for their feelings in the end I say nothing” (“A Harsh Winter Deep in the Mountains,” WND-2, 807).
Nichiren made great efforts to raise successors through lecturing on the Lotus Sutra and teaching Buddhist history on these grounds.
We can only imagine the burden of responsibility that fell on Nichiren’s shoulders to provide for his numerous disciples in the mountains. Fortunately, followers from all over Japan made offerings of food provisions and other necessities and supported the renovation of Nichiren’s dwelling, as well as constructed additional quarters on the grounds. As a result, living conditions improved over time.
In August 1279, Nichiren wrote to Soya Kyoshin’s son, Doso, thanking him for his donation of coins, stating: “As a result, this year we have been able to support over a hundred men at this mountain dwelling, and they are able to read and recite the Lotus Sutra and discuss its doctrines all day long. In this evil latter age, this represents the foremost Buddhist practice in all of Jambudvipa” (“King Rinda,” WND-1, 990).
Nichiren’s dwelling and its grounds became the main hub for raising capable individuals for kosen-rufu in the Latter Day of the Law. Moreover, sincere disciples with a seeking spirit wishing to support their mentor helped construct the buildings on the grounds.
Today, this spiritual bond of mentor and disciple lives on in our SGI Buddhist centers throughout the world.