Nichiren and His Disciples

Shijo Kingo–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.

Shijo Kingo–Part 3

From his place of exile on Sado Island, Nichiren Daishonin composed some of his most profound writings. While there, he wrote a number of letters to Shijo Kingo and his wife, Nichigen-nyo, expressing deep appreciation for their support.

In “Earthly Desires Are Enlightenment,” written in May 1272, he says:

You became a votary of the Lotus Sutra, and as a result, you suffered severe persecutions, and you came to my assistance. In the “Teacher of the Law” chapter, the Buddha states that he will magically conjure and send the four kinds of believers—monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen [—for the sake of the teachers of the Law]. If the “laymen” mentioned here does not mean you, who does it refer to? … If that is the case, then can there be any doubt that I am the teacher of the Law of the Lotus Sutra? (The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 318)

In the same letter, Nichiren says: “Following me, you, as a votary of the Lotus Sutra, have told others of this Law. What else could this be but the transmission of the Law?” (WND-1, 319)

This passage clarifies that, even amid severe pressure being put on Nichiren’s disciples, Kingo continued to spread the Mystic Law.

Be Known as “Shijo Kingo of the Lotus School!”

During Nichiren’s exile on Sado Island, Kingo was under the protection of his lord, Ema Mitsutoki, yet still experienced public criticism for being a disciple of Nichiren. His predicament may have been exacerbated by the pain of seeing many fellow disciples quit their faith.

Nichiren was well aware that even though Kingo had a strong sense of justice, he also could get carried away by his emotions. Thus, he admonished Kingo to “carry through with your faith in the Lotus Sutra” (WND-1, 319).

Nichiren also provided him with another important guideline in faith, writing:

Bring forth the great power of faith, and be spoken of by all the people of Kamakura, both high and low, or by all the people of Japan, as “Shijo Kingo, Shijo Kingo of the Lotus school!” (WND-1, 319)

While Kingo faced severe criticism, the people of Kamakura would surely come to admire him if he carried through with faith and showed victorious actual proof.

Developing a Gathering of Lion Kings

It is in times of great hardship that people’s strong faith comes to the fore.
Starting from the events leading up to the Tatsunokuchi Persecution and the Daishonin’s exile to Sado Island, Shijo Kingo continued protecting his mentor, while many others left him.

For Kingo, Nichiren’s exile proved to be a period in which he deepened his faith and strengthened his bond of the oneness of mentor and disciple with Nichiren.

Ikeda Sensei offers the following insight regarding the significance of Nichiren’s exile:

I think we can … view the Daishonin’s exile to Sado as having signaled the start of a new phase for his disciples—their faith tested and strengthened through the trials of persecution—when they would come into their own and demonstrate their mettle as true disciples. (The World of Nichiren Daishonin’s Writings, vol. 3, p. 2)

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I don’t think its reconstruction (of Nichiren’s movement) was merely a matter of the Daishonin’s followers, who had been widely dispersed, aimlessly recongregating. Rather, under the clear guidance that the Daishonin was transmitting from Sado, people who shared the same fighting spirit built a harmonious unity of “many in body, one in mind” that was even stronger than before. Isn’t this the true image of the followers in Kamakura during the Daishonin’s exile to Sado? (Ibid., 30)

Having forged this bond of mentor and disciple through untold hardships, Nichiren’s disciples reemerged as a gathering of lion kings with Shijo Kingo taking the lead.

Nichiren’s Remonstration

On March 8, 1274, at long last, a letter pardoning Nichiren Daishonin arrived on Sado Island. The bearer of the letter was Shijo Kingo, who had striven to protect his mentor. Kingo must have been overjoyed to know that Nichiren would return from Sado, a place of exile from which no one was expected to return.

Then on March 26, Nichiren made a triumphant return to Kamakura, brimming with an undaunted spirit to take on his adversaries.
On April 8, after accepting the shogunate’s invitation to meet with Hei-no-Saemon-no-jo Yoritsuna and others, he fiercely remonstrated with the government, predicting that the Mongols would attack Japan within the year. However, the shogunate chose not to heed this warning.

Then in May, he settled in Minobu. There, he sought to raise genuine successors who, like him, could fight great persecution and solidify the eternal foundation for kosen-rufu.

Nichiren called on his disciples to engage in a great struggle to enable all people to establish absolute happiness by spreading the Mystic Law.

Sharing Nichiren’s Teachings With His Lord

Shijo Kingo began boldly propagating the Daishonin’s Buddhism, even sharing these teachings with his lord and reporting it to Nichiren. Living in a feudal society where relations between lords and vassals were exacting, Kingo must have had to muster great courage to do so.

Nichiren praised Kingo for his efforts while also advising Kingo, “From now on, you should be careful about what you say” (“Recommending This Teaching to Your Lord,” WND-1, 461).

He goes on to warn him: “You cannot be too careful”; and “Those who hate you will be increasingly vigilant in watching for a chance to do you harm” (WND-1, 461).

Based on Kingo’s report, Nichiren likely sensed impending discord between Kingo and his lord. Rather than impetuously broach the subject of the Daishonin’s Buddhism with his lord only to incite his anger, Nichiren encouraged Kingo to win his lord’s trust through his sincere actions.

Disparaged by Fellow Samurai

Kingo, who succeeded his father in serving the Ema clan, shared a strong bond of trust with Lord Ema. For instance, during Nichiren’s Tatsunokuchi Persecution and Sado Exile, he had not admonished Kingo, even allowing him to visit his teacher on Sado Island. And, due to the trust he placed in Kingo, Ema likely had lent an ear to Kingo when he attempted to convert him to Nichiren’s teachings.

After seeing their lord’s hesitation to respond to Kingo’s attempts to convert him, his samurai cohorts, who had envied their close relationship, seized the opportunity to make slanderous allegations against Kingo to try and damage his standing.

During these feudal times, the relationship between lords and their retainers was strong, however the ties between vassals themselves were often weak and tenuous.

Thus, Kingo’s fellow samurai seized this chance to harm his good name to burnish their own. Their scheme worked; Lord Ema’s irritation led him to unjustly isolate Kingo, bringing Nichiren’s concern to become a reality.

Behind Ema’s annoyance at Kingo was the maneuverings of the True Word Precepts priest Ryokan, whom Lord Ema revered as a True Word believer. Ryokan had sought to destroy Nichiren’s order by targeting a pillar of that order, Kingo.

“Great Hardships Have Showered Down on Me Like Rain”

Shijo Kingo now faced opposition from his lord as well as his fellow samurai. In a letter dated March 1275, Nichiren recounted the honest sentiments of Kingo, who seems to have complained to Nissho:

I have been practicing the Lotus Sutra correctly since last year, when [Nissho] told me that those who embrace this sutra will “enjoy peace and security in their present existence and good circumstances in future existences.” Instead, however, great hardships have showered down on me like rain. (“The Difficulty of Sustaining Faith,” WND-1, 471)

Even Kingo, who was stalwart in faith, had been driven to bemoan his challenging circumstances.

Nichiren then asks Kingo, “Is this true, or did [Nissho] give me a false report?” And he goes on to say, “In either case, I will take advantage of this opportunity to resolve any doubts you may have” (WND-1, 471).

Based on the way that the Daishonin phrased this part of the letter, we can sense his care in wisely encouraging Kingo. He continues: “To accept is easy; to continue is difficult. But Buddhahood lies in continuing faith” (WND-1, 471), emphasizing that persevering in one’s faith is the key to attaining enlightenment.

“Regard Both Suffering and Joy as Facts of Life”

By June 1276, Kingo seems to have grown more anxious and exasperated over his circumstances. Nichiren explained to him in a letter how to confront his hardships, writing:

There is no true happiness for human beings other than chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. … Though worldly troubles may arise, never let them disturb you. No one can avoid problems, not even sages or worthies.
Drink sake only at home with your wife, and chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. Suffer what there is to suffer, enjoy what there is to enjoy. Regard both suffering and joy as facts of life, and continue chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, no matter what happens. (“Happiness in This World,” WND-1, 681)

In other words, true joy is not the absence of suffering; it is found in a state of life in which we can maintain composure as we challenge and overcome hardships. Nichiren explains that we can unlock this state of life by chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo.

Be Attentive to Even the Smallest Details

Nichiren Daishonin repeatedly warned Kingo, whose life was now in danger, to be vigilant while carrying out daily activities.

In another letter written in 1276, he cautions Kingo:

You must not heedlessly go out drinking at night with your associates or others at places besides your own home. If your lord should summon you during the daytime, then go to him with all haste. But if the summons should come at night, then plead some sudden illness for the first three times he calls you. If he persists in calling you more than three times, then inform your retainers or someone else and have them watch out for trouble at the crossroads before you set out to answer the summons. (“Consecrating an Image of Shakyamuni Buddha,” WND-1, 687)

Although Kingo may have understood that he was being targeted by his enemies, the Daishonin seemed to have sensed in him an underlying attitude of carelessness. This is why he repeatedly admonished him.

Dissuaded From Becoming a Lay Priest

At the time, attacks against Shijo Kingo intensified. He brooded over his situation and seems to have voiced his intention to leave his lord, shave his head and become a lay priest.

Nichiren, however, urged him to stay the course, acknowledging how Kingo’s assistance had sustained him throughout his exile and enabled him to remain in Mount Minobu. In the same letter, he points out:

If we inquire who has made it possible for you to offer this aid, we would have to say that it is your lord, the lay priest Ema. … [Thus] it would not be right to leave the service of someone to whom you are so indebted. (WND-1, 686)

While Nichiren’s other samurai disciples were being pressured by their lords to give up their faith, Kingo had received protection from Lord Ema. It could be said that Lord Ema had in his own way supported kosen-rufu.

Nichiren states that, from a Buddhist perspective as well as from the standpoint of reason, the proper course of action is to continue serving Lord Ema, to whom Kingo is indebted.

Moreover, Nichiren emphasized that even if he were to become a lay priest, Kingo would still face evil influences. He teaches that we must not escape from our suffering but to develop a firm self unswayed by anything.

A Transfer Order

In fall 1276, Kingo received an order from Lord Ema to exchange his current fief near Kamakura with one in distant Echigo (present-day Niigata Prefecture).

Having been informed of what amounted to a demotion for Kingo, Nichiren suggests that Kingo respond to his lord by declaring the following:

Since I am ill, it is most distressing for me to be transferred to a remote place. Moreover, the entire country is already in turmoil … I am resolved to sacrifice my life for my lord if anything grave happens. But should a sudden crisis occur, it is doubtful whether I could reach you in time from the distant province of Echigo. Therefore, even at the risk of losing my estate, I will not leave you this year. … Even if you disown me, I will devote my life to you. My next life I have entrusted to the priest Nichiren. (“Propagation by the Wise,” WND-1, 753)

Nichiren did not direct him to merely refuse the order outright. He advised him to seek his lord’s understanding by conveying that his greatest responsibility as a samurai is to thoroughly protect his lord, while at the same time, confidently stating his intention to carry through as a disciple of Nichiren.

Kingo’s Sincere Intentions Are Distorted

Although Shijo Kingo thought he had communicated his loyalty to Lord Ema, it seems his fellow retainers spoke ill of him to their lord, making the issue of his move to a new estate even more complicated.

Kingo must have been angered by his fellow retainers for twisting his earnest intentions. He decided that to uphold his sincere efforts he had to sue his lord in court to combat the transfer order.

Although Kingo had been driven into a corner psychologically by the ordeal, Nichiren urged restraint, stating:

As vassals, you, your parents, and your close relatives are deeply indebted to your lord. … Even if he never shows you the slightest further consideration, you should not hold a grudge against your lord. It is too much to expect another favor from him, just because you are reluctant to move to a new estate. (“The Eight Winds,” WND-1, 794)

The Daishonin encouraged Kingo to exercise patience and to serve Lord Ema with utmost sincerity. He likely perceived that the greatest cause of Kingo’s distress was discord with his fellow retainers, and did not want Kingo’s resentment to extend to his lord.

Moreover, Nichiren urged Kingo to become a wise person who is not affected by the “eight winds” of prosperity, decline, disgrace, honor, praise, censure, suffering and pleasure (see WND-1, 796).

Ikeda Sensei offers his insight, stating:

I believe it was to teach him that the fundamental way to solve his problems lay in his own human revolution, in his growth as a human being. … The way of the wise is to practice in exact accord with the correct teaching and follow the guidance of the correct teacher. The Daishonin assures us that by steadfastly walking that path and always leading a life based on the Mystic Law, we are certain to receive the protection of the heavenly deities. (September 2014 Living Buddhism, pp. 26–27)

To be continued in an upcoming issue.

Adapted from the October and November 2019 issues of the Daibyakurenge, the Soka Gakkai’s monthly study journal.

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