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The Lay Priest Ichinosawa and His Wife

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 island of Sado, where Nichiren Daishonin was exiled in 1271, was home to many adherents of the Nembutsu teaching, which was a very popular form of Buddhism in Japan at that time. Nembutsu schools taught believers to seek rebirth in the Pure Land by invoking the name of Amida Buddha.

Many of those who had become Nichiren’s followers while he was on Sado seem to have practiced the Nembutsu faith for many years before they converted.

Due to the strong influences of existing religious customs or the fear of those in power, some of Nichiren’s disciples hesitated to fully discard their belief in or support of the Nembutsu teachings. The lay priest Ichinosawa faced similar hesitations.

The Lay Priest and Lord of the Lodging

In the summer of 1272, Nichiren Daishonin was moved from his assigned quarters at Tsukahara to Ichinosawa in Ishida village (present-day Ichinosawa in Sado City, Niigata Prefecture). This is where he spent the remainder of his days in Sado until he was pardoned from exile.

In a letter he wrote to the wife of the lay priest Ichinosawa, Nichiren describes the time when he first encountered the lay priest, referring to him as the “lay priest of the lodgings” (“Letter to the Lay Priest Ichinosawa,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 529). From this, we can surmise that he was staying on the property of the lay priest.

The lay priest was a person of influence in Ichinosawa, who employed a number of attendants. At the time, the village headman of Ichinosawa (who administered the land and public affairs, and was responsible for collecting taxes) would have been responsible for any exile assigned to the village. Regarding this individual, Nichiren writes: “The headman and his men in the region to which I had been assigned, in both official and unofficial matters, treated me with greater malice than if I had been a lifelong enemy of their parents or a foe from some previous existence” (WND-1, 529). And though Nichiren had been moved to Ichinosawa from the harsher environs at Tsukahara, the level of danger and the threats surrounding him had not changed.

In addition, although the Daishonin was an exile, an increasing number of followers and disciples stayed in his company. Nevertheless, the amount of food that the village headman provided them was very small.

Nichiren writes: “We often had no more than two or three mouthfuls of rice to a person. Sometimes we portioned out the food on square trays made of bark, and sometimes we simply received it in the palms of our hands and ate it then and there” (WND-1, 529).

The more the lay priest Ichinosawa and his wife came into contact with his superb character and sublime state of life, the more concerned for him they became, until they were no longer able to bear witnessing the deprivation to which Nichiren and his followers were being subjected. He writes: “Though they seemed fearful at first, [they] privately came to look on me with pity, perhaps because of some bond formed between us in a previous existence” (WND-1, 529). And so, the couple and their attendants began quietly offering support to them.

Later, the Daishonin wrote of the protection he received from the lay priest with the utmost gratitude and praise, saying: “He had great pity for us, something that I will never forget in any future lifetime. At that time, he meant more to me than the very parents who gave me birth” (WND-1, 529).

At the time of the lay priest Ichinosawa’s death, the Daishonin expressed his heartfelt gratitude for him and for the help he provided. He wrote about this in a letter to another disciple on Sado, the lay nun Sennichi, stating: “I am mindful . . . that the lay priest Ichinosawa on several occasions saved my life by hiding me in a corridor of his residence, and I have therefore tried to think of something that can be done for him” (“The Sutra of True Requital,” WND-1, 934).

Moreover, the Daishonin also speaks of the time when a woman who was his follower came from Kamakura to visit him on Sado. Lacking money for her return trip, at the Daishonin’s request, Ichinosawa provided for her travel expenses.

We can also surmise that the lay priest discreetly played a role in assisting the Daishonin with his propagation efforts on Sado Island.

“One of Nichiren’s Followers”

The wife of the lay priest Ichinosawa also believed in Nichiren Daishonin and his teachings, receiving several letters from him. Her husband had also, in his heart, become “one of Nichiren’s followers.”

For that reason, the Daishonin expressed concern about the lay priest’s future, writing, “What should be done about his next life?” (WND-1, 626). After his pardon from exile, the lay nun Sennichi served as a central figure among his followers there, and through his letters to her he taught the importance of admonishing slander of the Lotus Sutra. He also pointed out various approaches one can take in dealing with slander, depending on the person and the degree of slander.

Among his own disciples and lay followers, the Daishonin writes, there are those whose faith cannot be judged by outward appearances, and he cites the lay priest Ichinosawa as an example. Nichiren confides in Sennichi that, because he is worried about the lay priest’s next life, he has sent him a 10-volume copy of the Lotus Sutra (see WND-1, 626).

Knowing how the village headman intensely hated Nichiren, he deeply cherished Ichinosawa’s spirit and goodwill in offering him protection. In this, we can sense the deep compassion and care Nichiren had for his disciples.

This 10-volume copy of the Lotus Sutra that Nichiren mentions was something he had promised to send to the lay priest as a token of his gratitude for having covered the travel expenses of the female believer who had visited Nichiren on Sado, as previously mentioned.

However, after the Daishonin left Sado, the lay priest Ichinosawa had been unable to discard his practice of the Nembutsu. He built a hall for Nembutsu worship and dedicated his lands as offerings to Amida Buddha. Even after becoming devoted to Nichiren, he feared angering the village headman and was therefore unable to directly espouse faith in the Lotus Sutra.

And while the Daishonin wanted to send Ichinosawa a copy of the Lotus Sutra to fulfill his promise and repay the great debt of gratitude he owed him, he also sensed that, from the standpoint of faith, the lay priest might not benefit from his doing so. Hence, he was hesitant to send him the 10-volume copy of the Lotus Sutra.

In the letter he sent to the lay priest’s wife, Nichiren wrote:

I had thought, for example, that, even if I were to send him a copy of the Lotus Sutra, he would not be willing to abandon the practice of the Nembutsu out of his fear of worldly opinion, and so it would be like combining water with fire. There was no doubt that the flood of his slander of the Law would extinguish the small flame of his faith in the Lotus Sutra. And if he were to fall into hell, I, Nichiren, would in turn be to blame. Thus, while asking myself anxiously again and again what ought to be done, I have so far not sent him a copy of the Lotus Sutra. (“Letter to Lay Priest Ichinosawa,” WND-1, 530)

From this passage, we can see that the Daishonin wanted to respond to the lay priest Ichinosawa’s sincerity in supporting and protecting him while on Sado. At the same time, for the sake of the lay priest’s happiness, he spoke of the frightening effects of slander of the Lotus Sutra. Concerned that Ichinosawa might, in fear of being judged by those with power, foolishly commit the offense of discarding the Lotus Sutra, he spared no words in strictly pointing out the error of slander.

Ultimately, the Daishonin concluded that even more than Ichinosawa himself, his family members privately devoted themselves to the Lotus Sutra. Therefore, he felt it appropriate to provide a copy of the Lotus Sutra to them. And he sent the copy of the sutra to the family.

He included the following instructions for the wife of the lay priest: “As for this copy of the Lotus Sutra that I am sending, you should ask Gakujo-bo to read it for you regularly. But whatever anyone may say, you must not allow any of the Nembutsu priests, True Word teachers, or observers of the precepts to look at it. Though people may claim to be disciples of Nichiren, if they do not possess some proof of that fact from my hand, you must not trust them” (WND-1, 531).

Here we can see the Daishonin’s intent to correctly guide his disciples and supporters for whose help he was so grateful. He hoped that they would by all means discard their attachment to the Nembutsu teachings and embrace the Mystic Law.

In July 1278, the Daishonin learned from the lay nun Sennichi’s husband, Abutsu-bo, who had traveled from Sado to visit him at Minobu, that the lay priest Ichinosawa had passed away. Nichiren asked Sennichi to convey his grief and condolences to Ichinosawa’s wife. And, to repay his debt of gratitude to the lay priest for having saved his life, the Daishonin asked that the priest Gakujo-bo read the Lotus Sutra regularly in front of Ichinosawa’s grave.

The Daishonin’s sincere kindness, compassion and care must have caused tremendous courage and hope to rise in the heart of Ichinosawa’s wife, enabling her to resolve anew to exert herself in faith on behalf of her late husband.

Adapted from the May 2019 issue of the Daibyakurenge, the Soka Gakkai’s monthly study journal.

SGI President Ikeda’s Guidance

Nichiren Daishonin did not establish any formal, codified criteria to arbitrarily determine what words or actions constitute slander. Instead, he emphasized the importance of examining the fundamental attitude of the particular individual, discerning whether deep in their heart they violated or upheld the Lotus Sutra’s spirit of respect for life and human dignity.

Our innermost thoughts are not always clearly apparent in our outer appearance and behavior. Our subtlest attitudes, however, can have a tremendous impact on our faith over the long term. That’s why it is so important that our fundamental attitude be one of pure and sincere faith. If we have that, our attainment of Buddhahood is assured. (Learning From Nichiren’s Writings: The Teachings for Victory, vol. 5, p. 41)

Young Phoenixes, Soar Into the Future

Ikeda Wisdom Academy: October 2019