Nichiren and His Disciples

The Lay Nun Myoichi

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 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 Myoichi

“Those who believe in the Lotus Sutra are as if in winter, but winter always turns to spring” (The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 536). Many SGI members have made this passage from Nichiren Daishonin’s writing “Winter Always Turns to Spring” a source of strength amid the “winters” of their lives while also studying it with a sense of gratitude when enjoying their “springtime” of victories.

Transcending generational and national boundaries, this passage is treasured as a favorite today by so many practitioners of Nichiren Buddhism. This installment focuses on the recipient of this famous writing, the lay nun Myoichi.

Maintaining Firm Faith While Many Others Did Not

The lay nun Myoichi lived in Kamakura, the seat of the shogunate (military) government of Japan, in an area of the city called Sajiki. She made sincere offerings to Nichiren Daishonin while he was exiled on Sado Island as well as when he resided at Mount Minobu, and evidence suggests that she maintained firm faith throughout her life.

In “Letter from Sado,” when Nichiren indicates that “the lay nun of Sajiki” should be one of the individuals who should read the letter, one theory suggests that he was referring to the lay nun Myoichi.

While Nichiren had gained many followers over the years, during his Tatsunokuchi Persecution in 1271 and subsequent exile to Sado, mounting pressures were also directed to his followers, with one individual after another renouncing their faith.

Following the Tatsunokuchi Persecution, rumors spread that Nichiren’s disciples had been involved in inciting arson and murder in Kamakura.

Nichiren writes, “The government officials thought this might be true and made up a list of over 260 of my followers who they believed should be expelled from Kamakura” (“The Actions of the Votary of the Lotus Sutra,” WND-1, 769). In fact, adherents of Nembutsu had committed these crimes and worked to implicate Nichiren’s disciples with the aim to destroy his Buddhist order.

Thus, the government meted out unjustified punishment. Nichiro and four other disciples, for instance, were confined to an earthen cave prison. Nichiren addressed “Letter to Five Followers in Prison” to them in October 1271, shortly before his exile to Sado (see WND-2, 394).

And Myoichi’s husband was also targeted as a disciple of Nichiren. The government confiscated his small fief, the source of his livelihood, forcing his family to endure unimaginable hardships.

Despite such challenges, Myoichi dispatched someone who was most likely her personal attendant to support Nichiren on Sado Island. Being without a trusted servant may have left her without protection and vulnerable to great harm, given the savagery and chaos of the times due to natural disasters and the threat of a Mongol invasion. Because she took such dedicated action despite possible endangerment, Nichiren sincerely praised her.

Bringing Forth a Powerful Seeking Spirit Amid Intense Adversity

In March 1274, Nichiren Daishonin returned to Kamakura after being pardoned from his exile on Sado, a place from which no one was expected to survive. His homecoming must have surprised everyone.

Unfortunately, the lay nun Myoichi’s husband, who would have been delighted by this news, had passed away before the Daishonin’s pardon. The widowed lay nun was left to care for their young daughter and their son, who was ill.

It appears that Myoichi also suffered “from a poor constitution” (“Winter Always Turns to Spring,” WND-1, 535), perhaps from being physically and spiritually exhausted by her struggles.

It was under such circumstances, however, that she brought forth a powerful seeking spirit and supported Nichiren, sending a servant to assist him at Minobu and making an offering of a robe. The Daishonin wrote “Winter Always Turns to Spring” in May 1275, one year after he moved to Minobu. He expressed in this letter his concern for the lay nun’s deceased husband, writing:

Your late husband had an ailing son and a daughter. I cannot help thinking that he may have grieved that, if he were to abandon them and leave this world, his aged wife, as feeble as a withered tree, would be left alone, and would probably feel very sorry for these children. In addition, he may also have worried about Nichiren . . . perhaps your husband felt that certainly something would happen and this priest would become highly respected. When I was exiled contrary to his expectations, he must have wondered how the Lotus Sutra and the ten demon daughters could possibly have allowed it to happen. Were he still living, how delighted he would be to see Nichiren pardoned! How glad he would be to see that my prediction has been fulfilled, now that the Mongol empire has attacked Japan and the country is in a crisis. These are the feelings of ordinary people. (“Winter Always Turns to Spring,” WND-1, 535–36)

For the lay nun Myoichi, her mentor had been exiled to Sado Island in the dead of winter, while her husband had passed away after having had his estate confiscated. She was likely full of regret and experiencing “the feelings of ordinary people.” However, Nichiren profoundly grasped that in the depths of her heart, she had a firm determination to go on living alongside her mentor for the sake of kosen-rufu.

In his lecture on “Winter Always Turns to Spring,” SGI President Ikeda says:

Here, [Nichiren] speaks of the “feelings of ordinary people” (WND-1, 536). He notes that Myoichi’s husband would have surely lamented over his exile and rejoiced at the fulfillment of his prophecy of the Mongol invasion. This is only natural, he says, since the hearts and feelings of ordinary people tend to swing from joy to sorrow depending on the circumstances. But we must remember here that the feelings of the husband were pervaded by faith in the Mystic Law. They were imbued with the heart of kosen-rufu to rejoice at the spread of the Lotus Sutra, as well as the heart of a loyal disciple sharing the same commitment as the Daishonin, the votary of the Lotus Sutra.

When the “feelings of ordinary people”—that is, their rejoicing and sorrowing for their mentor—are viewed with the “eyes of the Buddha,” it can be said that Myoichi’s husband fought valiantly alongside his mentor to the very end and brought his life to a victorious close, free of all regret.

Therefore, in the following passage, he writes, “Winter always turns to spring,” clarifying that Myoichi’s husband has most certainly attained Buddhahood.

From his comments on the “feelings of ordinary people,” we can see that he was seeking to praise the husband’s faith that permeated such feelings, and also give Myoichi confidence that her husband has definitely gained enlightenment. (The Hope-Filled Teachings of Nichiren Daishonin, pp. 103–04)

Winter Always Turns to Spring

Cherishing the determination of Myoichi’s husband, who had dedicated himself to kosen-rufu, Nichiren wrote the following well-known passage to her:

Those who believe in the Lotus Sutra are as if in winter, but winter always turns to spring. Never, from ancient times on, has anyone seen or heard of winter turning back to autumn. Nor have we ever heard of a believer in the Lotus Sutra who turned into an ordinary person. (WND-1, 536)

Nichiren refers to the natural rhythm of winter’s bitter cold turning into the warmth of spring. He encourages the lay nun that those who have faith in the Gohonzon will definitely become happy. “Winter,” here, refers to the three obstacles and four devils[1] Three obstacles and four devils: Various obstacles and hindrances to the practice of Buddhism. The three obstacles are 1) the obstacle of earthly desires, 2) the obstacle of karma and 3) the obstacle of retribution. The four devils are 1) the hindrance of the five components, 2) the hindrance of earthly desires, 3) the hindrance of death and 4) the hindrance of the devil king. and the three powerful enemies.[2]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.

In his lecture on this writing, President Ikeda also says:

Only by overcoming the trials of winter with the power of faith can we come to savor a springtime of victory . . .

Winter can function to awaken inherent power and latent potential—this principle applies to both life and Buddhist practice . . .

The key to victory in our lives lies in how hard we struggle when we are in winter, how wisely we use that time, and how meaningfully we live each day confident that spring will definitely come . . .

The Lotus Sutra teaches the importance of surmounting life’s winters. And the Daishonin assures us: “Winter always turns to spring.” Our continuous effort to transform winter into spring is the fundamental path for achieving unsurpassed fulfillment and growth in our lives. By advancing with all our might on this path, we can open the way to attaining Buddhahood in this lifetime and enjoy a glorious, springlike state of being that will shine with immeasurable good fortune and benefit across the three existences of past, present and future. (The Hope-Filled Teachings of Nichiren Daishonin, pp. 106–08)

Following this well-known passage, Nichiren goes on to praise her late husband, whose small fief was confiscated because of his faith. He equates this to her husband giving his life for the Lotus Sutra.

His encouragement to her stems from the great conviction that he gained from overcoming the Tatsunokuchi Persecution and Sado Exile, in which he transformed his winter of anguish into a springtime of victories.

At the end of this letter, the Daishonin assures the lay nun that her deceased husband has achieved enlightenment and is, without doubt, protecting his family. He adds, “I will look after your children whether you are still living or are watching from under the sod” (WND-1, 536).

Moreover, he says he will never forget the lay nun’s dedication in sending her attendants to help him not only on Sado but also at Minobu. He goes so far as to say, “I will repay this debt of gratitude by serving you in the next lifetime” (WND-1, 536).

Those who bravely dedicate themselves to achieving kosen-rufu will become happy without fail—this was the conviction Nichiren strove to instill in Myoichi. He enveloped her with his compassion and shielded her from the cold and bitter winds of adversity.

The year after receiving this letter, in August 1276, the lay nun Myoichi visited Nichiren at Minobu.

“What Is Called Faith Is Nothing Unusual”

Lastly, let’s examine “The Meaning of Faith,” another famous writing that Nichiren addressed to the lay nun Myoichi. In this letter, he writes:

What is called faith is nothing unusual. Faith means putting one’s trust in the Lotus Sutra, Shakyamuni, Many Treasures, the Buddhas and bodhisattvas of the ten directions, and the heavenly gods and benevolent deities, and chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo as a woman cherishes her husband, as a man lays down his life for his wife, as parents refuse to abandon their children, or as a child refuses to leave its mother. (WND-1, 1036)

Using clear metaphors, he teaches Myoichi that the correct way of faith is to chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo to the Gohonzon without putting on airs and with what is genuinely in one’s heart.

In desperately making efforts, the lay nun may have felt constrained by her circumstances. Or perhaps, she may have placed undue pressure on herself to exhibit a heroic or lofty resolve in facing her circumstances.
Whatever the case may be, her seeking spirit amid trying circumstances served not only as an opportunity for Nichiren to encourage her and ease her mind, but also as a chance for Myoichi to deepen her faith even more.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Three obstacles and four devils: Various obstacles and hindrances to the practice of Buddhism. The three obstacles are 1) the obstacle of earthly desires, 2) the obstacle of karma and 3) the obstacle of retribution. The four devils are 1) the hindrance of the five components, 2) the hindrance of earthly desires, 3) the hindrance of death and 4) the hindrance of the devil king.
2. 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.

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