Nichiren and His Disciples

Nanjo Tokimitsu–Part 2

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

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 struggles based on guidance and encouragement from their mentor.

Nanjo Tokimitsu–Part 2

SGI President Ikeda once addressed the youth of the SGI—the successors who will shoulder the future of kosen-rufu—saying: “Because these are troubled times, you are bound to face all sorts of difficulties. But by striving to resolve each of your problems and struggles, everything will become a source of true strength, a source of lasting good fortune for your lives.”

When we awaken to the significance of our mission in life and determine to fulfill it, we begin to transform all our sufferings into a source of utmost value. Nichiren Daishonin’s young disciple Nanjo Tokimitsu exemplified this spirit during the precarious Atsuhara Persecution.

The Essence of the Atsuhara Persecution

The Atsuhara Persecution was a series of threats and acts of violence against Nichiren Daishonin’s disciples in Atsuhara Village, located in Suruga Province’s Fuji District (in present-day Shizuoka Prefecture). The persecution started in earnest around 1278, escalating in 1279 with the execution of three farmers who refused to recant their beliefs in Nichiren’s teaching.

President Ikeda writes: “Like the persecutions that befell the Daishonin, his followers came under attack during the Atsuhara Persecution precisely because they weren’t passive or retiring. To correctly grasp the essence of this repression, we must first of all recognize that it took place because the Daishonin’s true disciple, Nikko Shonin, stood up to take the lead in propagation efforts” (February 2004 Living Buddhism, p. 26).

Let us keep this guidance in mind as we examine the circumstances leading up to the Atsuhara Persecution in order to fully understand the virulent opposition that Nanjo Tokimitsu faced.

As mentioned in the previous installment (see April 2019 Living Buddhism, pp. 34–37), after Nichiren took up residence at Mount Minobu, Nikko Shonin initiated a great wave of propagation throughout the Fuji District of Suruga Province, starting by reaching out to those with whom he had personal connections.

Having received his early schooling at Shijuku-in, a Tendai temple in the Fuji area, he began converting local priests and believers there, as well as at other surrounding Tendai temples such as Jisso-ji and Ryusen-ji. Through such efforts, key disciples such as Nisshu, Nichiben and Nichizen converted and joined the effort to widely spread Nichiren’s teaching.

The Awakening and Empowerment of Ordinary People

To understand the full scope of the Atsuhara Persecution, we must more closely examine the conditions of the times—namely, the rampant corruption of deceptive priests who operated under the cloak of religious authority.

As early as 1268, roughly 10 years before the Atsuhara Persecution, Nikko Shonin and several other priests at Jisso-ji denounced its chief priest. They listed specific instances of grave misconduct, which included holding drinking parties in conjunction with Buddhist ceremonies, cutting down cherry trees on the temple grounds, and harshly scolding temple attendants and beating a number of them to death. They asked for his prompt dismissal.

At Ryusen-ji, the deputy chief priest, Gyochi, forced farmers to work on temple grounds to increase his personal income. His offenses were later exposed by the priest Nisshu and others.

These are just a few examples of evil clergy who essentially operated as “priests-for-hire.” Devoid of spirituality, they conspired with secular authorities to satisfy their greedy and selfish aims, exploiting farmers for their own gain. Witnessing their deplorable actions, Nikko must have deeply empathized with the ordinary people suffering at the hands of such corruption.

These ordinary people were the ones who readily took faith in Nichiren’s teaching, revitalizing their lives through the practice of chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. In one sense, propagation in Suruga Province was a battle for the people subjugated by authoritarianism to stand up and “refute the erroneous and reveal the true” (meaning, spreading faith in Nichiren Buddhism to thwart those who try to destroy the teachings of Buddhism and the happiness of the people).

A document by Nikko lists 60 individuals who received the Gohonzon inscribed by Nichiren, reflecting that a broad range of people from various classes of society established their Buddhist practice based on faith in the Gohonzon. The list comprises men, women, priests, warriors, farmers, tradesmen, fishermen and many others, including a few of Tokimitsu’s servants as well as the three Atsuhara farmers who were executed for refusing to recant their beliefs.

Gyochi and other priests felt threatened by this steady emergence of awakened and empowered individuals. And, starting around 1275, local religious and governmental authorities began harassing these practitioners.

Carrying Out Propagation in Hostile Territory

Another factor that caused authorities to zero in on the Fuji area and Atsuhara Village was the fact that Suruga Province was under the direct rule of the Hojo clan. The main branch of the Hojo family directly controlled many areas of Suruga Province and, from around 1275, the Hojo clan had started consolidating its grip over the Kamakura shogunate. Thus, the authorities could not overlook the activities of Nichiren and his disciples in the Fuji area.

The chief administrator of this province was Hei no Saemon-no-jo Yoritsuna, the very person who had led relentless attacks against Nichiren Daishonin and instigated the Tatsunokuchi Persecution and the Daishonin’s subsequent exile to Sado Island from 1271 to 1274. He wielded tremendous influence as deputy chief of the Office of Military and Police Affairs, overseeing the Board of Retainers, which supervised the vassals and stewards, and administered the day-to-day operations of government—effectively presiding over the law enforcement branch of government.

During the Tatsunokuchi Persecution, Hei no Saemon had blatantly abused his authority by enlisting an army of soldiers to illegally arrest and attempt to execute the Daishonin. Because of the great power he held in the Kamakura shogunate, when it came to Nichiren’s followers in Suruga Province, he was able to use his resources to closely watch over them.

In addition, many influential Nembutsu believers lived in the Fuji area, including the widow of Hojo Tokiyori, who had been the retired regent and de facto leader of the Kamakura shogunate. His widow exercised her influence over other wives and widows of influential officials to undermine the efforts of Nichiren and his disciples as well.

Therefore, we could say that the efforts of Nichiren’s disciples to spread his teaching under such circumstances were like those of soldiers openly fighting on enemy soil. Nonetheless, these ordinary men and women had been subjugated for so long that their joy of encountering the Mystic Law and finding a great mission in life helped them transcend their fear of authority.

Weathering Fierce Onslaughts of Devilish Functions

As the number of Nichiren Daishonin’s disciples grew, the voices of ordinary people chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo reverberated throughout the foothills of Mount Fuji.

By 1277, Tokimitsu, at 19, had become a dependable leader among Nichiren’s disciples in Suruga Province. He reported to Nichiren in May 1277 that many people had tried to persuade him to abandon his faith.
In response, Nichiren carefully analyzed Tokimitsu’s situation, offering the following advice:

Both those who are close to you and those who are not will unexpectedly admonish you as if they were your true friends, saying, “If you believe in the priest Nichiren, you will surely be misled. You will also be in disfavor with your lord.” Then, because the plots that people devise are fearsome even to worthy persons, you will certainly abandon your faith in the Lotus Sutra. (“The Workings of Brahma and Shakra,” WND-1, 800)

This is the fundamental pattern of devilish functions. Nichiren continues: “Those possessed by a great devil will, once they succeed in per-suading a believer to recant, use that person as a means for making many others abandon their faith” (WND-1, 800).

He then lists three former disciples—Sho-bo, Noto-bo and the lay nun of Nagoe—who had abandoned their faith and turned against him. He describes the nature of these treacherous individuals, writing, “Greedy, cowardly, and foolish, they nonetheless pass themselves off as wise persons” (WND-1, 800).

In “The Workings of Brahma and Shakra,” Nichiren also gave Tokimitsu specific instructions on how to conduct himself when someone pretending to be his ally tried to persuade him to stop practicing. He writes:

When those of rank reproach you for your faith, think of them as worthy adversaries of the Lotus Sutra. Consider it an opportunity as rare as the blossoming of the udumbara plant, or the blind turtle encountering a floating sandalwood log, and reply to them firmly and resolutely. (WND-1, 800–01)

• • •

Let them say all they have to say. Then tell them, “Instead of advising me in the presence of many people, why don’t you admonish yourselves first?” With this remark, abruptly rise from your seat and depart. (WND-1, 801)

On the journey of kosen-rufu, no one can avoid the fierce onslaughts of devilish functions. Tokimitsu definitely faced great difficulties as he paved the way for others to take up faith in Nichiren’s teaching. This is why the Daishonin gave clear descriptions of the true nature of those who had abandoned their faith, and warned Tokimitsu of people’s tendency to hold grudges and disparage others. He encouraged his young disciple to never be swayed by such devilish functions.

Nichiren closes this letter expressing concern for Tokimitsu, asking him to let him know in a day or two what happens (see WND-1, 801).

Praising Disciples Who Have “FaithLike Water”

In February 1278, Nichiren Daishonin wrote a letter praising Nanjo Tokimitsu for having “faith like water”:

Today there are people who have faith in the Lotus Sutra. The belief of some is like fire while that of others is like water. When the former listen to the teachings, their passion flares up like fire, but as time goes on, they tend to discard their faith. To have faith like water means to believe continuously without ever regressing. Since you visit me constantly, regardless of the difficulties, your belief is comparable to flowing water. It is worthy of great respect! (“The Two Kinds of Faith,” WND-1, 899)

Tokimitsu was 20 when he received this letter. When we consider these words in light of what he had endured until then, “faith like water” does not simply mean practicing comfortably for a period of time. Rather, it indicates practicing with never-regressing faith amid hardships and obstacles.

“From the Indigo, an Even Deeper Blue”

From around 1277 to 1278, the people of Japan experienced constant turmoil. Since the Mongol invasion of 1274, people were gripped by fear and anxiety about the fate of their country. They deeply dreaded the possibility of another attack.

To make matters worse, from 1277 to 1279, a great epidemic swept throughout the country, reportedly wiping out almost half the population.

Despite the tumultuous atmosphere throughout the country, the Nanjo family spared no effort to support the Daishonin, continuing to send sincere offerings out of concern for his well-being.

For instance, on New Year’s Day in 1279, Tokimitsu sent Nichiren “ninety pieces of rice cake and fifty yams” (“Offerings in the Snow,” WND-2, 809). In thanking Tokimitsu for these items, Nichiren says that the young man had inherited the outstanding qualities of his late father, Hyoe Shichiro, including his caring heart. He shares his joy in seeing Tokimitsu develop qualities that surpass his own wonderful father, using the expression “blue dye is bluer even than indigo itself” (WND-2, 809).

Nichiren used similar words in a letter that he had sent to Tokimitsu’s mother, the lay nun Ueno, following her husband’s death. Encouraging her to deepen her faith—which she learned from her late husband—and to never backslide in her practice, he writes: “T’ien-t’ai states, ‘From the indigo, an even deeper blue.’ This passage means that, if one dyes something repeatedly in indigo, it becomes even bluer than the indigo leaves. The Lotus Sutra is like the indigo, and the strength of one’s practice is like the deepening blue” (“Hell Is the Land of Tranquil Light,” WND-1, 457).

Tokimitsu had diligently supported his mother and also developed strong faith, based on the guidance and support of Nikko and Nichiren. As an earnest disciple, Tokimitsu developed the grit to face harrowing persecution, the compassion to protect his fellow practitioners and the courage and conviction to continue spreading Nichiren’s teachings to advance kosen-rufu. His faith would be repeatedly tested and his true strength would be revealed as the persecutions against Nichiren’s followers intensified.

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

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