Nichiren and His Disciples

Nanjo Tokimitsu–Part 3

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 hardships based on guidance and encouragement from their mentor.

Nanjo Tokimitsu–Part 3

As the Atsuhara Persecution quickly approached, how did Nanjo Tokimitsu and his fellow disciples confront mounting difficulties? These difficulties included plotting and betrayal by fellow believers who had renounced their faith, threats from authorities and the death of fellow disciples. This was clearly a time when the three powerful enemies[1]Three powerful enemies: Three types of arrogant people who persecute those who propagate the Lotus Sutra in the evil age after Shakyamuni Buddha’s death, described in the concluding verse section of “Encouraging Devotion,” the 13th chapter of the Lotus Sutra. The Great Teacher Miao-lo of China summarizes them as arrogant lay people, arrogant priests and arrogant false sages. were fully at play, trying to sway the faith of Nichiren Daishonin’s disciples.

This installment covers the events that culminated into what is known as the Atsuhara Persecution. The next installment will focus on Tokimitsu’s efforts amid this persecution.

Flagrant Oppression by Evil Authorities

From around 1274, propagation efforts increased in the Fuji area of Suruga Province (present-day Fuji City, Shizuoka Prefecture), led by Nichiren Daishonin’s disciple Nikko Shonin. He converted several young priests, who in turn successfully encouraged local farmers and villagers to convert.

Around 1276, Hei no Sakon Nyudo Gyochi, the deputy chief priest of the local Tendai temple Ryusen-ji in Atsuhara Village, began pressing the young priests who had converted to Nichiren’s teachings, namely, Nisshu, Nichiben, Nichizen and Mikawa-bo Raien, to declare in writing that they would discard the Lotus Sutra and chant only the Nembutsu. He told them that they would have a place to live only if they complied.

Though Mikawa-bo Raien caved in to Gyochi’s threats and enticements, Nisshu, Nichiben and Nichizen refused to submit. Nichizen was forced from his living quarters and the temple. Gyochi had Nisshu and Nichiben dismissed from their positions and driven from their lodgings. However, with the help of their colleagues, the two managed to find shelter at the temple and continue their propagation efforts (see “The Ryusen-ji Petition,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 2, p. 826).

In the spring of 1278, Gon’yo, the administrator of Shijuku-in, a Tendai temple in Kambara of Suruga Province (present-day Nakano neighborhood of Fuji City, Shizuoka Prefecture)—where Nikko Shonin originally entered the priesthood and visited often—expelled Nikko and three others. They reported this unjust action to the shogunate government, demanding a public debate (Gosho zenshu, p. 848).

Jinshiro, Yagoro and Yarokuro, three brothers in Atsuhara who served as leaders of the farmers practicing the Daishonin’s Buddhism, are thought to have taken faith around this time in 1278. The next year, 1279, Gyochi and his cohorts began harassing and threatening the lives of these farmers and other believers of low social rank.

Gyochi conspired with the officials in charge of the Shimokata administration office to harass and persecute Nichiren’s disciples. For example, in April, they carried out a plan to attack a disciple named Shiro with a knife during a religious ritual at Sengen Shrine, wounding him. In August, they beheaded a believer named Yashiro. This was a prime example of the three powerful enemies at work in the form of a religious leader conspiring with secular authorities to persecute votaries of the Lotus Sutra.

Evoking the Memory of Tokimitsu’s Father

As these persecutions intensified, Nichiren Daishonin wrote a letter to Nanjo Tokimitsu in appreciation for his offerings, using the opportunity to encourage his young disciple to persevere with ever-stronger faith. He also mentions his father, Hyoe Shichiro, writing: “When those who are vital to your interests try to prevent you from upholding your faith, or you are faced with great obstacles, you must believe that the king Brahma and the others will without fail fulfill their vow, and strengthen your faith more than ever. In that event, your late father will surely attain Buddhahood. And if that happens, he will no doubt come and keep you from harm” (“The Source of Aniruddha’s Good Fortune,” WND-2, 566).

Here, he touches upon the wonder of a parent and child attaining enlightenment together. The Daishonin continues: “At such a time, things will go just as you wish. If people try to hinder your faith, I urge you strongly to feel joy” (WND-2, 566).

Expecting that Tokimitsu would face further persecutions, the Daishonin sought to impart to his young disciple the great truth that encountering difficulties enables one to reveal one’s Buddhahood. And he evoked the memory of Tokimitsu’s father, who steadfastly protected the Law and battled injustice until the end of his life. One could well imagine that myriad thoughts crossed Tokimitsu’s mind as he read this letter.

The Three Martyrs Who Shine On Eternally

Gyochi engaged in more deception, filing a lawsuit based on a completely fabricated story. He alleged that on September 21, Nisshu and others had gathered a large band of collaborators, armed themselves with bows and arrows, and broke into the chief priest’s compound, where they stole a crop of rice and carried it off to Nisshu’s compound. Naming Yatoji, the elder brother of Jinshiro, Yagoro and Yarokuro, as the plaintiff, Gyochi authored a false complaint with authorities. As a result, a total of 20 farmers from Atsuhara, including the three younger brothers, were illegally detained and taken to Kamakura.

With lightning speed, Nikko Shonin headed to Kamakura to respond to this development, working with Shijo Kingo and others. He communicated closely with the Daishonin, who resided at Minobu. He also collaborated with Toki Jonin to write a letter on behalf of Nisshu and Nichiben that was later titled “The Ryusen-ji Petition” (see WND-2, 825) and subsequently engaged in a court battle to protest the lawsuit (see September 2018 Living Buddhism, p. 35).

For his part, Shijo Kingo is thought to have attended to the needs of the disciples from Atsuhara who were in detention in Kamakura (see “On Persecutions Befalling the Sage,” WND-1, 998).

On October 15, Nichiren’s 20 detained disciples were questioned by Hei no Saemon-no-jo Yoritsuna. Yoritsuna had conspired with Gyochi, and his treatment of the prisoners can be more accurately described as torture.

He had his younger son Sukemune (later known as Judge Iinuma) mercilessly fire blunt-tipped arrows called hikime, which whistled when released, at the prisoners. All the while, he repeatedly ordered them to discard the Lotus Sutra and chant the Nembutsu.

The disciples, however, did not flinch in the face of such intimidation. Rather, they responded by chanting, “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, Nam-myoho-renge-kyo.”

When this was reported to the Daishonin, he declared: “This was no ordinary matter!” (“Reply to the Sages,” WND-2, 831). And he called these disciples “votaries of the Lotus Sutra” and “sages.”

Despite an all-out effort by Nichiren’s disciples to face these harrowing persecutions, in the end, the three brothers, Jinshiro, Yagoro and Yarokuro, were beheaded for not recanting their beliefs.[2]According to one account, the date of the execution of the three Atsuhara martyrs is October 15, 1279, while another account suggests it took place on April 8, 1280. And after enduring imprisonment, the remaining 17 disciples were banished from their village.

The three brothers were rather new to Nichiren’s teaching, having practiced for less than one year when the Atsuhara Persecution began.

Despite the brevity of their practice, the three martyrs were willing to give their lives for Buddhism. This is proof that the essence of faith is unrelated to the length of one’s practice or one’s social standing.

President Ikeda offers the following:

Startled authorities went to extreme lengths to clamp down on their activities. But despite the high-handed and oppressive means they employed, they could not sway the faith of even one of the Daishonin’s farmer believers. This fact is the heart and essence of the Atsuhara Persecution.

The callous execution of three of these humble believers ultimately symbolizes the spiritual ruin of those in power.

By contrast, the strength and splendor of the faith of the Daishonin’s followers in Atsuhara, who remained undaunted even by the most hideous outrages committed by the authorities, makes their stand for their beliefs a landmark event without precedent in the religious and folk history of Japan. Indeed, these believers shine with an eternal spiritual brilliance and could without exaggeration be described as noble forerunners in the struggle for human rights.

February 2004 Living Buddhism, p. 26

It goes without saying that we are able to practice Nichiren Buddhism today owing to these extraordinary common people who staked their lives to uphold their beliefs and the right to practice them.

The Daishonin Fulfills the Purpose of His Advent

On October 1, while his disciples from Atsuhara were being detained, Nichiren Daishonin composed “On Persecutions Befalling the Sage” (see WND-1, 996). He dedicated it to all of his disciples who were battling great persecution and instructs Shijo Kingo to be the keeper of the letter.
It contains a key point where the Daishonin states that he has fulfilled the purpose of his advent “twenty-seven years” after he first proclaimed his teachings.

The purpose of the Daishonin’s advent was to reveal the fundamental Law that enables all people to achieve enlightenment and to establish the teaching that enables ordinary people to attain Buddhahood.

Twenty-seven years after he declared the establishment of his teaching, the farmers of Atsuhara all upheld their faith despite life-threatening persecution.

In his lecture, President Ikeda states:

Persecuted for their faith in the correct teaching, the unknown farmers of Atsuhara engaged in a struggle to win eternal spiritual freedom. They represented the emergence of a great power consisting of people who believe in and practice Nam-myoho-renge-kyo of the Three Great Secret Laws, the essence of the Lotus Sutra, and strive alongside the Daishonin for kosen-rufu. The foundation of the people’s Buddhism was thus firmly established. This marked the fulfillment of the purpose of the Daishonin’s appearance in the world.

July 2016 Living Buddhism, p. 48

It was because Nichiren’s disciples had initiated the struggle to spread his teaching throughout their community that he was able to fulfill the purpose of his advent. In the latter half of “On Persecutions Befalling the Sage,” the Daishonin states that he has endured hardship while spreading the Buddhist teachings for 27 years. He further urges his disciples to “summon up the courage of a lion king” (WND-1, 997) and to be resolved to confront all persecutions.

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

Notes   [ + ]

1. Three powerful enemies: Three types of arrogant people who persecute those who propagate the Lotus Sutra in the evil age after Shakyamuni Buddha’s death, described in the concluding verse section of “Encouraging Devotion,” the 13th chapter of the Lotus Sutra. The Great Teacher Miao-lo of China summarizes them as arrogant lay people, arrogant priests and arrogant false sages.
2. According to one account, the date of the execution of the three Atsuhara martyrs is October 15, 1279, while another account suggests it took place on April 8, 1280.

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