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Life Lessons from Nichiren

My chronic illness sometimes makes me feel hopeless. Can my Buddhist practice help?

Answer: By deepening our faith, we can gain the resolve to see illness as an opportunity to change our karma and develop the strength to overcome seemingly insurmountable barriers.

photo by Yvonne Ng.

This study series focuses on Nichiren Daishonin’s disciples, who faced challenges we can relate to today, and his enduring encouragement to them that we can apply to dynamically transform our lives.

When facing a protracted illness or other longstanding problems, it’s good to know how to refresh our determination and forge ahead anew. 

The lay nun Toki at one point lost hope during her chronic illness. Nichiren Daishonin’s encouragement to her is a practical guide for us to lead strong, fulfilling and happy lives despite life’s ups and downs. 

‘Hasten to Accumulate the Treasure of Faith’

After being widowed, the lay nun had been raising her son on her own when she married Toki Jonin, who had become a central disciple of Nichiren early on in the effort to spread his teaching. 

The lay nun Toki took faith alongside her husband and exerted herself in Buddhist practice. Even while struggling with a steadily worsening illness, she also took care of her elderly mother-in-law.

By 1275, however, when Nichiren wrote “On Prolonging One’s Life Span” to her, it seems she had grown pessimistic about ever recovering her health. 

This sense of hopelessness may have been compounded by the atmosphere of extreme uncertainty that pervaded Japan at that time. With recurring natural disasters—from devastating rains and winds to crippling drought—epidemics, food shortages and the threat of another Mongol invasion, anyone could lose their life at any moment. 

Yet, in his letter, the Daishonin urges her to use her faith to rise above this mire of suffering. He affirms the preciousness of life and, using words like hasten and quickly, tries to rouse her resolve to recover as soon as possible and make the most of each day of life. He writes:

Life is the most precious of all treasures. Even one extra day of life is worth more than ten million ryo[1] of gold. … You must hasten to accumulate the treasure of faith and quickly conquer your illness. (The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 955)

He also strictly admonishes:

If you are unwilling to make efforts to heal yourself, it will be very difficult to cure your illness. One day of life is more valuable than all the treasures of the major world system, so first you must muster sincere faith. … You still have many years ahead of you, and moreover you have encountered the Lotus Sutra. If you live even one day longer, you can accumulate that much more benefit. How truly precious your life is! (WND-1, 955)

Nichiren repeatedly asserts the infinite value and dignity of life—the essential teaching of the Lotus Sutra—in effect, telling lay nun Toki: “You are precious and worthy of the highest respect.” He instructs her to take full responsibility for her recovery, to “muster sincere faith” and take action so that she has no regrets.

Our Fresh Resolve Is Key 

Ikeda Sensei himself suffered from a weak constitution and a prolonged bout with tuberculosis at a young age. He describes how he refreshed his determination: 

I copied this passage [from “On Prolonging One’s Life Span”] in my diary. It inspired me to renew my determination to survive no matter what and continue striving to make fresh achievements again tomorrow. 

I worked very hard alongside my mentor, [second Soka Gakkai President] Josei Toda; threw myself into Soka Gakkai activities; ardently chanted Nam-myoho-renge-kyo; and continued my studies whenever I could find a spare moment. (May 20, 2022, World Tribune, p. 3)

When we face debilitating situations, that is the exact time to read Nichiren’s writings, refresh our resolve and strive in faith. Sensei is a prime example of accumulating “the treasure of faith.” While doctors predicted that he would not live past age 30, now, at 94, he has extended his life by more than six decades. 

The lay nun Toki, too, ultimately overcame her illness, extending her life by 20 years through persevering in faith based on Nichiren’s guidance. 

When it comes to illness, or any predicament, we need to strengthen our resolve to combat our fear and hopelessness. Sensei says: 

To see illness as an opportunity to transform our karma—this strong spirit and resolve can break through all obstacles and devilish functions and open wide the path to happiness. Like a rocket blasting out of the earth’s atmosphere, the passionate conviction of faith that comes from viewing illness as an opportunity to transform our karma can become a powerful engine propelling us forward not only in this existence but throughout eternity, enabling us to freely savor everlasting happiness. (The Hope-filled Teachings of Nichiren Daishonin, p. 25)

So when your illness gets you down, do as lay nun Toki did and rise back up, propelled by your faith and practice.

—Prepared by the SGI-USA Study Department

References

  1. Ryo (Jpn): A unit of weight in Japan that was modeled after that of ancient China. One ryo was equivalent to about 37.5 grams, though the exact amount of one ryo differed according to the historical period. ↩︎

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