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The Lay Nun Ueno

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.

No one is more familiar with the joys and sorrows of the Nanjo clan than the lay nun Ueno. She was left to raise her children on her own after her husband, Nanjo Hyoe Shichiro, died from illness (see February 2019 Living Buddhism, pp. 34–37). She went on to persevere through the Atsuhara Persecution and endured the pain of losing her youngest son, Shichiro Goro. Unshaken by neither praise nor criticism, she dedicated her life to kosen-rufu, remaining a shining example of a steadfast disciple who lived victoriously based on faith.

Inspired by Her Husband to Take Faith

The lay nun Ueno lived in Ueno Village in the Fuji District of Suruga Province (present-day central Shizuoka Prefecture). Nichiren Daishonin also referred to her as “the mother of Ueno,” “the wife of the late Ueno” or simply “the lay nun.” She began practicing Nichiren’s teaching due to encouragement from her husband.

In her own family, the lay nun’s father, the lay priest Matsuno Rokuro Saemon of Suruga Province, also seems to have taken faith, though much later. Her siblings practiced non-Lotus Sutra teachings (see “Wu-lung and I-lung,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 1099), and her in-laws were adherents of the Pure Land, or Nembutsu, school (see February 2019 Living Buddhism, p. 35).

According to Nichiren’s letter to the Nanjo family written in 1280, the lay nun and Hyoe Shichiro had many children (see “Letter of Condolence,” WND-2, 887). Nichiren’s writings and other historical records confirm that the couple had at least two sons, Jiro Tokimitsu and Goro, and three daughters who also practiced: Ren’a-ni (who married Niida Shigetsuna; their son was Nichimoku Shonin), and two others who married Niida Nobutsuna, of Izu Province, and Ishikawa Shin-hyoe (Shinbei) Yoshisuke, of Suruga Province. The lay nun raised her children to become capable successors for kosen-rufu.

A Buddha in Life and in Death

Nanjo Hyoe Shichiro was in the prime of his life when he died from a serious illness on March 8, 1265. At the time, the lay nun was pregnant with their youngest child, Shichiro Goro, living among relatives who opposed her Buddhist practice. After his death, she was left to raise their many small children on her own.

The devastated widow may have taken her own life were it not for her unborn child (see “Reply to the Mother of Ueno,” WND-1, 1077).

At the time of her husband’s 10th memorial, the lay nun sent various offerings to which Nichiren responded with appreciation. He also praises the couple’s special bond and Hyoe Shichiro’s noble life, writing:

The men with whom you have exchanged marriage vows over the course of all your previous lifetimes must outnumber even the grains of sand in the ocean. Your vows this time, however, were ones made with your true husband. The reason is that it was due to his encouragement that you became a practitioner of the Lotus Sutra. Thus you should revere him as a Buddha. When he was alive, he was a Buddha in life, and now he is a Buddha in death. He is a Buddha in both life and death. This is what is meant by that most important doctrine called attaining Buddhahood in one’s present form. (“Hell Is the Land of Tranquil Light,” WND-1, 456)

Hyoe Shichiro was the first to convert to Nichiren Buddhism in that region. He braved all forms of oppression and risked his life to protect the Mystic Law. The lay nun had observed her husband’s journey of faith from beginning to end, so this passage must have resonated deeply with her. (“Hell Is the Land of Tranquil Light” was thought to have been composed in 1274, but evidence now suggests that it was written around July 1265, perhaps immediately after Hyoe Shichiro’s death.)

Raising Her Children as Capable Successors

Rising above her sorrow, the lay nun Ueno resolved to pass down her husband’s gift of faith to her children.

In 1274, her son Tokimitsu, who had just turned 16, visited Nichiren Daishonin after he had taken up residence on Mount Minobu. In “Reply to Ueno,” Nichiren described Tokimitsu’s resemblance to his late father, remarking, “I wonder if he did not make himself young again and stay behind in the form of his precious, beloved son” (WND-2, 495).

This is the last extant letter to the lay nun until 1280, so there are no details about her life between 1274 and 1280. However, many of Nichiren’s letters to Tokimitsu during this same six-year period still exist. They depict Tokimitsu growing into his role as a leader among Nichiren’s followers in Suruga Province. We can imagine how his mother must have supported him behind the scenes, determined to raise him into a fine successor in faith.

The Joyous Birth of a Grandson

In 1280, while embers still burned from the Atsuhara Persecution, the Nanjo family experienced joy and tragedy in quick succession.

On an early autumn day (according to the lunar calendar), Tokimitsu’s wife gave birth to a son.

In a letter written on August 26, Nichiren Daishonin named the child Hiwaka Gozen[1] (see “The Treasure of a Child,” WND-2, 884). The birth of a grandson, an heir to the Nanjo clan, must have thrilled the lay nun Ueno.

The Tragic Death of Her Youngest Child

Ten days later, however, on September 5, the lay nun’s youngest son, Goro, unexpectedly died. He was only 16.

As soon as Nichiren Daishonin heard the news, he picked up his writing brush to compose a letter of condolence. The letter arrived the day after Goro’s passing and was purposely addressed to Tokimitsu out of consideration for his grieving mother.
Nichiren writes:

With regard to the news of the demise of Nanjo Shichiro Goro: Once a person is born that person must die—wise men and foolish, eminent and lowly alike all know this to be a fact. Therefore one should not be grieved and alarmed by a person’s death; I know it to be so and teach others to do likewise. And yet when something like this actually happens, I wonder if it is not a dream or an illusion.

And how much greater must be the grief of the mother! She had lost her parents, her siblings, and even her beloved husband had preceded her in death, but still she had her many children to comfort her heart. Yet now her youngest child, her darling, a son, surpassing others in features and form, devoted in heart, in whom his associates took such delight—now all at once he has been taken away, like a budding flower that withers in the wind or a full moon that is suddenly lost from sight.

I can scarcely believe that such a thing has happened, and cannot even think of what words to write, though there is much more that I would say. (“Letter of Condolence,” WND-2, 887)

Only three months before, Goro had accom-panied Tokimitsu to visit the Daishonin at Minobu. Remembering this encounter, Nichiren wrote in the postscript: “When I met him on the fifteenth day of the sixth month, I thought what a fine and spirited lad he was. How it grieves me to think I will never see him again!” (WND-2, 887).

In the letter, the Daishonin sympathized deeply with the mother’s pain and sorrow.

Nichiren’s Limitless Compassion

The 49th day of mourning[2] was fast approaching when the lay nun Ueno sent offerings to Nichiren Daishonin so he could offer prayers for her son’s peaceful repose. Having done so, Nichiren thanked her for her sincere offerings and tried to comfort her. He writes:

I hope that, if you, his loving mother, are thinking with longing about your son, you will chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo and pray to be reborn in the same place as the late Shichiro Goro and your husband, the late Nanjo.

The seeds of one kind of plant are all the same; they are different from the seeds of other plants. If all of you nurture the same seeds of Myoho-renge-kyo in your hearts, then you all will be reborn together in the same land of Myoho-renge-kyo. When the three of you are reunited there face to face, how great your joy will be!” (“Reply to the Mother of Ueno,” WND-1, 1074)

In this way Nichiren continued to remind her through his letters that nothing can sever the ties between those united by the deep bonds of faith in the Mystic Law and that Goro had most certainly attained Buddhahood.

Nichiren’s fierce commitment to encourage the lay nun continued until the final months of his life. For instance, in 1281, he composed “Reply to the Lay Nun, Mother of Ueno.” In this letter he writes that he was ill but felt compelled to take up the brush to tell her that if he were to pass on before the lay nun, he would tell Goro how much she grieves for him (see WND-2, 973–74).

A Mother Who Refused to Be Defeated

The lay nun Ueno regularly sent offerings to Nichiren Daishonin and sought guidance from him throughout her practice.

Little is known about the final years of her life, but archival texts indicate that she may have lived at least 13 more years after Nichiren’s passing. Just a few days prior to his death, he designated six senior priests, and from among them appointed Nikko as his successor.

Following his death on October 12, 1282, his disciples, led by Nikko, waged a new struggle to protect the truth and integrity of their mentor’s teachings. Tokimitsu, who was among these disciples, must have appreciated the ongoing support of his mother’s faith and encouragement.

However, Niko, one of the six senior priests and chief instructor of priests on Minobu, and Hakiri Sanenaga, the steward of the area and a professed follower of Nichiren’s teachings, clearly committed acts that went against the Daishonin’s instructions. As a result, in 1289, Nikko left Mount Minobu to preserve Nichiren’s teachings.

Tokimitsu invited him to stay at his residence, donating a tract of land and building a temple as a center of Nikko’s activities.

Over the next four decades, Tokimitsu devoted his life to the eternal perpetuation of the Law.

Watching her son stand up valiantly to protect Nichiren Buddhism, the lay nun Ueno must have been lain to rest, taking comfort in knowing that she had fulfilled her vow to raise capable successors for kosen-rufu.

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


  1. Hiwaka Gozen: Most likely the eldest son of Nanjo Tokimitsu. Hi of Hiwaka, means “sun,” and waka means “young” or “a little child”; Gozen is an honorific title. ↩︎
  2. In Japan, family members of the deceased observe an initial mourning period of 49 days and conclude the last day of this period with a ceremony. ↩︎

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