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Celebrating 800 Years Since Nichiren Daishonin’s Birth

Photo by Jack Anstey / Unsplash

This year, we celebrate 800 years since Nichiren Daishonin was born on February 16, 1222. Nichiren dedicated his life to propagating the Mystic Law—Nam-myoho-renge-kyo—motivated by a commitment to eradicate suffering and enable all people to reveal their innate Buddhahood. He encountered unrelenting persecution throughout his life as he sought to end the evils obstructing people’s happiness. We hope always to remember the monumental efforts he made to propagate the Mystic Law for the happiness and peace of humanity.

Early Years

On February 16, 1222, Nichiren was born in the coastal village of Kataumi in Tojo Village of Nagasa District in Awa Province (present-day Chiba Prefecture). He was the son of commoners, his family earning its livelihood from fishing.

At 12, he began his schooling at Seicho-ji, a local temple. Early on, he made a vow to become the wisest person in Japan (see “The Tripitaka Master Shan-wu-wei,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 175) to help people overcome the sufferings of life that he had witnessed and to lead his parents and all people to genuine happiness.

When he was 16, he formally entered the priesthood at Seicho-ji to deepen his understanding of Buddhist sutras. A few years into his studies, Nichiren traveled to other centers of Buddhist learning, including Kamakura, Kyoto and Nara. His thorough investigation of the sutras led him to conclude that the Lotus Sutra is the foremost among all the Buddhist sutras. Furthermore, the Law of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is the essence of the sutra and provides the means for freeing all people from suffering. He determined to spread Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, the teaching that can lead all people to attain enlightenment.

Establishing His Teaching

Through his studies at leading Buddhist centers, Nichiren Daishonin confirmed his mission to spread the Mystic Law—Nam-myoho-renge-kyo—and the means to do so. He embarked on this task knowing that he would encounter opposition.

On April 28, 1253, after returning to Seicho-ji temple, Nichiren spoke to an audience where he refuted the Nembutsu and other Buddhist teachings of his day as erroneous and proclaimed Nam-myoho-renge-kyo to be the correct Buddhist teaching for leading all people to enlightenment. His declaration enraged government officials, religious authorities and ardent Nembutsu believers.

He made his way to Kamakura, the seat of the military government, where he embarked on propagating his teaching. While refuting the error of the Nembutsu and Zen teachings, which had gained wide influence among the people of Kamakura, Nichiren spread Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. During this early period of disseminating his teachings, well-known disciples such as Toki Jonin, Shijo Kingo and Ikegami Munenaka (the older of the Ikegami brothers) became his disciples.

Encountering Persecution

Nichiren was deeply concerned with how erroneous teachings were causing natural and social disasters, increasing the suffering of common people. He composed a treatise titled “On Establishing the Correct Teaching for the Peace of the Land” (see WND-1, 6–26) to clarify the fundamental cause of people’s suffering and to set forth how people could eradicate such suffering. He submitted this treatise to Hojo Tokiyori, one of the country’s most powerful leaders, on July 16, 1260.

Nichiren declared in the treatise that the successive calamities were due to the people’s slander of the correct Buddhist teaching and their reliance on erroneous doctrines. The root cause, he asserted, was the Nembutsu teachings popularized in Japan by the priest Honen.

Nichiren urged people to discontinue their reliance on erroneous teachings and embrace faith in the correct Buddhist teaching without delay, for doing so would result in a peaceful and prosperous society. Continued reliance on erroneous teachings, he warned, would inevitably result in internal strife and foreign invasion—two of the three calamities and seven disasters yet to occur. But the ruling authorities ignored his treatise, and, with their tacit approval, Nembutsu followers began plotting to persecute him.

Over the next two decades, Nichiren faced one persecution after another for his beliefs. He was attacked, ambushed and exiled on several occasions.

Notable was the persecution at Tatsunokuchi on September 12, 1271. Late that night, armed soldiers took Nichiren to the beach at Tatsunokuchi on the outskirts of Kamakura. Hei no Saemon-no-jo and other political and religious authorities had conspired to have him secretly beheaded. As the executioner raised his sword to strike, a brilliant orb of light burst forth, shooting across the sky. The soldiers were terrified and abandoned their plan to behead Nichiren. This event is known as the Tatsunokuchi Persecution.

This significant persecution symbolized Nichiren’s casting off his transient status as an ordinary, unenlightened person and, while remaining an ordinary human being, revealed his original, true identity as a Buddha possessing infinite wisdom and compassion. This came to be known as the concept of “casting off the transient and revealing the true.” Thereafter, Nichiren conducted himself as the Buddha of the Latter Day of the Law and went on to inscribe the Gohonzon for all people to revere and embrace as the fundamental object of devotion.

Exile to Sado Island

After the failed attempt on Nichiren’s life, he was sentenced to exile on Sado Island, a remote island known for its freezing temperatures. Being sent there was comparable to a death sentence. On November 1, Nichiren arrived at his dilapidated hut in an area called Tsukahara. The conditions he faced were harsh. In the bitter cold, he lacked sufficient food and clothing, and many hostile Nembutsu followers on the island sought to kill him.

Nichiren’s followers in Kamakura also continued to suffer persecution. Many of his followers began to have doubts and discarded their faith out of fear. Some were imprisoned, banished or had their lands confiscated.

On January 16 and 17, 1272, several hundred Buddhist priests gathered at Tsukahara to harm Nichiren. The deputy constable of Sado Island, Homma Shigetsura, proposed instead that they engage him in a religious debate. In the debate that ensued, Nichiren thoroughly refuted the erroneous teachings of the various Buddhist schools of his day. This came to be known as the Tsukahara Debate.

In early summer of that year, Nichiren was transferred from Tsukahara to Ichinosawa, another area of Sado, but his life continued to be threatened by Nembutsu followers.

Despite the severity of his Sado Exile, Nichiren wrote some of his most important works and steadily gained disciples, including Abutsu-bo and his wife, the lay nun Sennichi. Two of the main writings he composed while in exile are “The Opening of the Eyes” and “The Object of Devotion for Observing the Mind.”

“The Opening of the Eyes,” written in February 1272, explains that the Daishonin is the votary of the Lotus Sutra of the Latter Day of the Law who is practicing in exact accord with the Lotus Sutra. Ultimately, it reveals his identity as the Buddha of the Latter Day of the Law endowed with the three virtues of sovereign, teacher and parent to lead all people in the latter age to enlightenment.

“The Object of Devotion for Observing the Mind,” completed in April 1273, presents the object of devotion of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo to be embraced by all people in the Latter Day of the Law in order to attain Buddhahood.

In February 1274, Nichiren was pardoned. He then returned to Kamakura in March.

Meeting Hei no Saemon-no-jo in April, the Daishonin remonstrated with him, denouncing the government’s actions in ordering priests to pray for the defeat of the Mongols based on the True Word and other erroneous Buddhist teachings. Further, responding to a direct question from Hei no Saemon-no-jo, he predicted that the Mongol invasion would most certainly take place before the year’s end. This marked his third remonstration with the government authorities.

Just as Nichiren predicted, a large Mongol fleet attacked Kyushu, the westernmost of Japan’s four main islands, in October 1274. This is referred to as the first Mongol invasion.

With this event, the two predictions he had made in “On Establishing the Correct Teaching for the Peace of the Land”—those of internal strife and foreign invasion—had come true.

Fostering Successors

When the government rejected this final remonstration, Nichiren decided to leave Kamakura and take up residence in Hakii Village on Mount Minobu in Kai Province (present-day Yamanashi Prefecture). The local steward was Hakii Sanenaga, who had become a follower of Nichiren through the efforts of Nikko.

On Mount Minobu, Nichiren lectured on the Lotus Sutra and devoted himself to fostering disciples who would carry out kosen-rufu—broadly teaching and spreading the Mystic Law to realize peace and happiness for all people—into the future.

In 1275, after Nichiren’s move to Minobu, Nikko Shonin actively led propagation in the Fuji area of Suruga Province (present-day Shizuoka Prefecture), successfully convincing many people to begin practicing Nichiren Daishonin’s teaching.

This prompted harassment and persecution by the authorities over the next few years. On September 21, 1279, authorities arrested 20 farmers in the village of Atsuhara, who had embraced Nichiren’s teaching, on trumped-up charges, taking them to Kamakura. They were interrogated and tortured, pressed to abandon their faith in the Lotus Sutra. But they remained true to their beliefs.

Of the 20 followers arrested, three—the brothers Jinshiro, Yagoro and Yarokuro—were executed, while the remaining 17 were banished from their homes. This series of events, that occured over several years, is known as the Atsuhara Persecution.

The example of Nichiren’s disciples persevering in faith without begrudging their lives proved that humble, ordinary people had awakened to their vow and mission to spread the Mystic Law and developed the unshakable faith to withstand great persecutions.

In “On Persecutions Befalling the Sage,” dated October 1, 1279, in the 27th year after proclaiming his teaching, he refers to the purpose of his appearance in this world (see WND-1, 996). Nichiren had vowed to become a person of wisdom who understood the essence of Buddhism and to free all people from suffering at the most fundamental level. The fulfillment of that vow was his life’s guiding purpose. By expounding the teaching of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, the fundamental Law for the enlightenment of all people, he established the foundation for kosen-rufu that would endure for all time.

Nichiren’s Life Comes to a Close

On September 8, 1282, Nichiren, who was in declining health, left Minobu. He departed for the home of his disciple Ikegami Munenaka in Ikegami in Musashi Province (present-day Ota Ward, Tokyo).

On September 25, despite being gravely ill, Nichiren is said to have given a lecture to his followers on his treatise “On Establishing the Correct Teaching for the Peace of the Land.” On October 13, 1282, he passed away at Ikegami Munenaka’s residence, bringing to a close his noble life as the votary of the Lotus Sutra.

After Nichiren’s death, Nikko Shonin and other disciples carried on their mentor’s fearless spirit and actions for kosen-rufu. Based on his awareness as the Daishonin’s successor, Nikko continued to speak out against slander of the Law and to remonstrate with the government authorities. He treasured every one of his mentor’s writings, referring to them as honorable writings (Jpn Gosho), and encouraged all disciples to read and study them as the sacred scripture for the Latter Day of the Law. He also fostered many outstanding disciples, laying the foundation for the modern-day Soka Gakkai that we know today.

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