Nichiren and His Disciples

Shijo Kingo–Part 6

The Mentor-Disciple Relationship and the Journey of Kosen-rufu

Shijo Kingo accompanies Nichiren Daishonin during a persecution that nearly took Nichiren’s life. As mentor and disciple, they overcame a succession of persecutions in their journey to spread the Mystic Law. The Daishonin often reminded Kingo to strengthen his faith and regard “the strategy of the Lotus Sutra” as the most important key to victory. Illustration by 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 6

While Shijo Kingo was a samurai warrior, he was also a skilled physician. Many letters attest to how Kingo supported Nichiren Daishonin, especially when he resided at Minobu.

Nichiren trusted Kingo’s expertise in medicine as well as his humanity, stating, “I entrust my life to you and will consult no other physician” (“The Farther the Source, The Longer the Stream,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 942).

In 1279, Nichiren wrote a letter to the lay nun Toki, who had fallen ill, describing Kingo as a capable physician and a faithful disciple (see “On Prolonging One’s Life Span,” WND-1, 955). He encourages her to seek out treatment from Kingo.

In fact, when Kingo had visited the Daishonin at Mount Minobu the year before in October, he expressed his concern for the lay nun’s health, worrying that she was not taking her illness as seriously as she should (see WND-1, 955).

Thus, based on his trust of Kingo and Kingo’s concern for the lay nun, Nichiren urges her to reach out to Kingo for his help.

Nichiren Battles Illness While Living on Mount Minobu

After enduring severe conditions during his exile on Sado Island, Nichiren continued to experience harsh circumstances at Mount Minobu, dealing with extremely cold temperatures and malnutrition.

In a June 1278 letter, he wrote to Kingo explaining that for months he had been suffering from what appears to have been a serious gastrointestinal disorder.

He writes, “I developed diarrhea on the thirtieth day of the twelfth month of last year, and up until the third or fourth day of the sixth month of this year, it grew more frequent by the day and more severe by the month” (“The Two Kinds of Illness,” WND-1, 920).

Learning of his mentor’s condition, Kingo quickly prepared medicine and had it delivered to Nichiren, who wrote in appreciation: “Since taking it, my complaint has diminished steadily and is now a mere one-hundredth fraction of its former intensity. I wonder if Shakyamuni Buddha has taken possession of your body to help me” (“The Two Kinds of Illness,” WND-1, 920)

Concern for Nichiren’s Health

Then, according to a letter Nichiren wrote in October 1278, Kingo sent him offerings of coins, rice, rice cakes, sake, dried persimmons and pomegranates from his fief in Shinano Province (present-day Nagano Prefecture), as well as a quilted robe and medicine (see “General Stone Tiger,” WND-1, 952).

Kingo likely sent these provisions out of concern for Nichiren’s health and comfort during the approaching winter months.

In the letter, Nichiren thanks Kingo stating: “No treasure possessed by human beings is more precious than food and drink, clothing and medicine. … Thanks to your remedies, I improved steadily; I have now recovered and feel much better than before” (WND-1, 952).

After thanking Kingo, he relates how he was extremely concerned for Kingo’s safe return to Kamakura after his last visit to Mount Minobu, owing that the route between Minobu and Kamakura passed through the estates of members of the Hojo clan, many of whom looked suspiciously at Nichiren’s disciples. Moreover, although Kingo had regained his lord’s trust, his life was still in danger should he let his guard down.

Expressing his concern, Nichiren writes:

Such was my anxiety that I asked everyone who came here from Kamakura about you. One said that he had met you at Yumoto, another that he had encountered you farther on at Kozu, and when a third told me that he had seen you in Kamakura, I felt greatly relieved. (WND-1, 952)

Nichiren’s deep, compassionate concern for Kingo’s safety did not stop there. He states: “From now on, you must not come to visit me in person unless absolutely necessary. When you have something urgent to tell me, send a messenger” (WND-1, 952).

The Atsuhara Persecution

While Nichiren pushed himself to instruct his disciples at Mount Minobu, believers in various other regions also endeavored courageously for kosen-rufu.

Centering on Nikko Shonin, disciples in the Fuji area of Suruga Province (present-day central Shizuoka Prefecture) engaged resolutely in propagation efforts that resulted in many people, including farmers, taking faith.

Gyochi, deputy chief priest of the Ryusen-ji, a Tendai school temple in Atsuhara (present-day Fuji City, Shizuoka Prefecture), was alarmed by this and plotted to intimidate these new converts. This persecution reached its peak on September 21, 1279, when Gyochi had 20 innocent disciples—all farmers—arrested and sent to Kamakura.

Hearing that these believers had not cowered in the face of persecution and sustained their faith even after being arrested, Nichiren wrote “On Persecutions Befalling the Sage” on October 1, 1279. While addressing it to all his disciples, he instructed that Kingo serve as its custodian.

Thus, he ends the letter with these words:

To my followers This letter should be kept by Saburo Saemon [Shijo Kingo]. (WND-1, 998)

He also directed each disciple to have resolute faith given that these persecutions may spread from Atsuhara to Kamakura.

In the body of the letter, Nichiren writes that, having faced many persecutions, it took him 27 years since declaring his teachings to fulfill the purpose of his advent (see WND-1, 996).

He sensed as profoundly significant the emergence of disciples who unhesitatingly upheld their faith and remained unbending even before the ruling authorities. In this letter he declared that the purpose of his life—the establishment of a Buddhism of the people—had now been fulfilled.

Nichiren’s Tatsunokuchi Persecution and subsequent exile to Sado Island led many to abandon their faith, which must have been heart-breaking for Shijo Kingo to witness. However, the farmers of Atsuhara—who had only recently taken faith and never met Nichiren—persisted in their practice without giving in to the authorities.

In this letter, Nichiren instructs his more seasoned believers to encourage the new disciples of Atsuhara to be resolute in their faith, stating: “Urge on, but do not frighten, the ones from Atsuhara who are ignorant of Buddhism. Tell them to be prepared for the worst, and not to expect good times, but take the bad times for granted” (WND-1, 998).

Thereafter, Hei no Saemon-no-jo Yoritsuna subjected these disciples to brutal interrogations, trying to force them to recant their faith. However, these farmer-disciples continued to chant Nammyoho- renge-kyo and fight against unjust treatment.

In the end, three leaders of the group, the brothers Jinshiro, Yagoro and Yarokuro, were beheaded, while the remaining 17 who had firmly held on to their faith were banished from their village.

Regarding the battle waged by these Atsuhara disciples, Ikeda Sensei states:

The actions of these 20 brave ordinary people in feudal 13th-century Japan amount to a great pioneering struggle for human rights that shines with eternal splendor. These farmers, who did not even have surnames, staunchly maintained their religious convictions and responded to tyrannical demands with a resounding “No!” This is an episode that deserves mention in the history of the struggle for human rights. (March 2004 Living Buddhism, p. 39)

Shijo Kingo must have engraved in his own life the courageous faith modeled by these Atsuhara disciples, who had put their lives on the line for the sake of kosen-rufu.

The Passing of Nichiren Daishonin

Nichiren had escaped death in 1278 thanks to the medicine administered by Kingo. However, it appears he suffered from asthenia, or a gradual diminishing of physical strength. From New Year’s 1281, his condition worsened (see “Reply to Tayu no Sakan,” WND-2, 975).

Then, by November that year, his condition turned grave, and he could barely eat (see “Reply to the Lay Nun, Mother of Ueno,” WND-2, 973).

Because Kingo had often visited Nichiren at Minobu, one may conclude that he endeavored strenuously to bring his mentor back to health in the last years of his life (see “The Place of the Cluster of Blessings,” WND-1, 1070). Witnessing the way Nichiren calmly waged his battle with the devil of illness, Kingo must have learned what it means to have the heart of a lion king.

On September 8, 1282, at the urging of his disciples, Nichiren departed Minobu for Hitachi Province (in present-day northern Ibaraki Prefecture and southeastern Fukushima Prefecture), seeking to treat his ailments in the hot springs there. Ten days later on September 18, he arrived at the home of the older Ikegami brother in Ikegami, Musashi Province (present-day Ota Ward, Tokyo).

It is said that Nichiren gathered his disciples and lectured on the treatise “On Establishing the Correct Teaching for the Peace of the Land.” He never stepped back in advancing kosen-rufu until the last moment.

Nichiren Daishonin’s extraordinary life came to an end on October 13, 1282.

As his disciples mourned his death, Kingo, too, must have wiped away his tears while also resolving, as a central figure, to encourage his fellow believers.

It is recorded that at Nichiren’s funeral the next day, Kingo held aloft a banner, standing at the head of a funerary procession together with the elder Ikegami brother.

You Will Eternally Remain in My Memory

Two years before his passing, Nichiren strongly praised the actions of Shijo Kingo, who had dedicated himself to the shared struggle of mentor and disciple throughout his life.

In “The Place of the Cluster of Blessings,” written on March 10, 1280, Nichiren says:

I remember how, in the eighth year of the Bun’ei era (1271), when I incurred the wrath of the authorities and was about to be beheaded at Tatsunokuchi in the province of Sagami, you held on to the reins of my horse, accompanying me barefoot and shedding tears of grief. You were even prepared to give your life had I in fact been executed. In what lifetime could I possibly forget it?

And that is not all. Exiled to the island of Sado, buried as I was beneath snows from the northern sea and exposed to winds from the northern peaks, it hardly seemed I would survive. Cast away even by my comrades of long standing, I thought that I could no more return to my birthplace than a stone on the bottom of the ocean requiring the strength of a thousand men to move it could float to the surface. Ordinary person that I am, I naturally longed for the people of my native village.

For you, a lay person pressed for time in your lord’s service, to believe in the Lotus Sutra is itself very rare. Moreover, surmounting mountains and rivers and crossing the great blue sea, you came to visit me from afar. How could your resolve be inferior to that of the man who broke open his bones at the City of Fragrances,[1]Reference is to Bodhisattva Ever Wailing, who cut his flesh and broke open his bones to sell his blood and marrow to a Brahman (actually the god Shakra in disguise) who claimed to desire them for use in a sacrifice. He sought in this way to obtain the means of making an offering to Bodhisattva Dharmodgata, who lived in the City of Fragrances, and hearing his teaching on the perfection of wisdom. or of the boy who threw away his body on the Snow Mountains?[2]The boy Snow Mountains, who offered his body to a demon to hear a Buddhist teaching. (WND-1, 1069)

Kingo, who maintained sincere, unshakable faith, had experienced both sufferings and joys alongside Nichiren Daishonin.

Kingo must have shed endless tears when reading Nichiren’s many letters to him. Through these letters, the Daishonin expressed gratitude for his disciple’s sincere support and unforgettable efforts in enduring hardships together.

Because Kingo gave his entire life to supporting his mentor and kosen-rufu, we continue today to learn what it means to live an honorable life by striving sincerely alongside one’s mentor. Each time we read Nichiren’s letters to Shijo Kingo, we can feel the pride and joy in living with the spirit of the oneness of mentor and disciple.

This concludes the series on Shijo Kingo. Adapted from the February 2020 issue of the Daibyakurenge, the Soka Gakkai’s monthly study journal.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Reference is to Bodhisattva Ever Wailing, who cut his flesh and broke open his bones to sell his blood and marrow to a Brahman (actually the god Shakra in disguise) who claimed to desire them for use in a sacrifice. He sought in this way to obtain the means of making an offering to Bodhisattva Dharmodgata, who lived in the City of Fragrances, and hearing his teaching on the perfection of wisdom.
2. The boy Snow Mountains, who offered his body to a demon to hear a Buddhist teaching.

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