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Buddhist History

Nichiren Daishonin—His Lifelong Vow and Great Compassion

NEW SERIES! Installment 1: Vow

Mu Cang Chai, Vietnam. Photo by SasinT Gallery / Getty Images.

This is a translation of the Soka Gakkai Study Department’s new study text, published in Japanese in the February 2022 issue of the Daibyakurenge.

Nichiren Daishonin’s 60-year life was characterized by his compassionate vow to eradicate the suffering of all people and enable them to open within themselves the life state of a Buddha. 

His was a life devoted to a great struggle, one in which, unconcerned for his own well-being, he challenged the evil that stood in the way of the people’s happiness and faced and overcame one major hardship and persecution after another. 

This new series, “Nichiren Daishonin—His Lifelong Vow and Great Compassion,” is based on the new Japanese edition of the Nichiren Daishonin Gosho zenshu, gleaning insights from that work, historical accounts and reexamining centuries-old traditions. We will also learn from Ikeda Sensei’s lectures and trace the life of Nichiren, whom Soka Gakkai members revere as the Buddha of the Latter Day of the Law. 

Ikeda Sensei once shared the following guidance from his mentor, second Soka Gakkai President Josei Toda: 

Unless you read the Daishonin’s writings with a life state of faith as vast and expansive as the Pacific, you won’t be able to truly grasp his spirit and intent. It would be making a grave error to try to understand his writings with intellect alone.[1]

As we examine Nichiren’s life, there may be points that remain obscure. But in learning one fact after another, we will, through our seeking spirit, come that much closer to grasping his heart and intent. 

Through the life he led, Nichiren proved that an ordinary human being can open and reveal the magnificent life state of Buddhahood. The three founding Soka Gakkai presidents and the human revolution movement carried out by Soka Gakkai members have demonstrated to the modern world the belief that all people possess this wonderful state of life. 

During the tumultuous Kamakura period (1185–1333), Nichiren engaged in a great struggle to unlock each person’s vast potential. Eight hundred years later, his example offers tremendous hope, courage and wisdom to us living in an era of pandemics, natural disasters and environmental degradation. 

Proud to Be Born a Common Person 

Nichiren Daishonin was born 800 years ago, on the 16th day of the second month of 1222, in the coastal hamlet of Kataumi in Tojo Village, Nagasa District, Awa Province (a part of present-day Kamogawa City in Chiba Prefecture).[2]

He refers to himself as the “son of a chandāla family who lived near the sea in Tojo in Awa Province” (“Banishment to Sado,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 202) and the “son of a fisherman” (“Questions and Answers on the Object of Devotion,” WND-2, 794).

“Chandala,” a Sanskrit term, referred to the lowest class of society, a class of “untouchables” considered below and outside the four castes of ancient India. It included those involved in occupations such as hunting, fishing, the slaughtering or butchering of animals and others associated with killing or death.

He also writes, “I was born in a remote land, and moreover, I am a person of low station and a priest of humble learning” (“The Opening of the Eyes,” WND-1, 238), that he was “born poor and lowly to a chandala family” (“Letter from Sado,” WND-1, 303), and was “the son of a commoner from a remote province” (“Letter to the Lay Priest Nakaoki,” WND-1, 1006).

The founders of other Buddhist schools during the Kamakura period, such as Honen, Shinran and Dogen,[3] came from families of higher social status, wealth or regional influence than Nichiren, whose family were commoners. This was something that he took pride in.

There is no clear information about his parents. But from his writings, we know that they were connected in some way to a local official with the title “lord of the manor.”

Nichiren referred to a person he calls “the lay nun, the wife of the lord of the manor,” writing that “she treated my parents with kindness” (“Letter to the Priests of Seicho-ji,” WND-1, 652). The title “lord of the manor” denotes an influential local resident in charge of a manorial estate.

In addition, there is a passage in his writings that suggests he had brothers (see “The Opening of the Eyes,” WND-1, 239). 

Full-Fledged Military Rule

In the third year of the Jokyu era (1221), the year before Nichiren was born, Retired Emperor Gotoba (1180–1239), who held ultimate power in the imperial court in Kyoto, issued an edict calling for the overthrow of Hojo Yoshitoki (1163–1224), the shogunal regent in Kamakura. But the shogunate forces prevailed over Gotoba’s troops. This incident became known as the Jokyu Disturbance,[4] after the era in which it took place. 

As a result, the power relationship between the imperial household and the Kamakura government changed drastically, and full-fledged military rule was established. Nichiren was born at this time of political and social upheaval.

In terms of Buddhism, the imperial faction loyal to Retired Emperor Gotoba directed priests to carry out “fifteen major ceremonies” (“Rulers of the Land of the Gods,” WND-2, 617) and other prayers valued in the True Word esoteric teachings[5] in order to vanquish imperial enemies. In contrast, the Kamakura shogunate made few, if any, requests for prayers on their behalf. 

At the time, people believed that prayers by priests were, in practical terms, just as important to victory as military strategy and power. The defeat of the imperial forces, with abundant prayers offered for their victory, was therefore unimaginable.

Ever since he was a boy, Nichiren had questioned why the imperial court suffered this defeat, which later moved him to search within the Buddhist sutras for an answer (see “Rulers of the Land of the Gods,” WND-2, 618).

Sensing the Arrival of the Latter Day of the Law

The Great Collection Sutra describes an age of “quarrels and disputes” in which “the pure Law will become obscured and lost.” This refers to a period beginning some 2,000 years after Shakyamuni Buddha’s death, when contention and disputes within the Buddhist community would intensify and people lose sight of the correct Buddhist teaching.

Some scholars of the Buddhist teachings in Japan saw the current state of affairs as according exactly with this description and realized that the age called the Latter Day of the Law had arrived. 

The Latter Day of the Law is the third of three periods after the Buddha’s death, described as an age when the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha would lose their effectiveness. At that time, only the Buddhist teachings themselves would remain, but there would be no practice of them that would result in enlightenment.[6]

In Japan, people considered that the Latter Day had begun in the year 1052. Through the beginning of the 13th century, when Nichiren was born, extreme weather had caused a series of calamities. For example, in 1180, an extended drought brought a severe famine to western Japan. And in 1228, when Nichiren was still a small child, a strong typhoon struck eastern Japan, causing serious damage and many deaths in Kamakura, the seat of the shogunate. 

There was also social disorder. For example, records show that in 1231, during a major famine, Kyoto experienced many robberies.

‘First of All Learn About Death’

Repressive military rule, ongoing disasters, distraught citizens—such were the times in which Nichiren Daishonin grew up.

At 12, he began his schooling at Seicho-ji, a temple in Awa Province (see “Questions and Answers on the Object of Devotion,” WND-2, 794). Around this time, he prayed to an image of Bodhisattva Space Treasury[7] on the temple grounds with a vow “to become the wisest person in Japan” (“Letter to the Priests of Seicho-ji,” WND-1, 650).

Nichiren Daishonin likely entered the priesthood when he was 16, at which time Dozen-bo, a priest at Seicho-ji, became his teacher. 

Seeing the troubled times, he became a priest out of a desire to solve the problems and suffering associated with birth and death. He later wrote that he had decided that he “should first of all learn about death, and then about other things” (“The Importance of the Moment of Death,” WND-2, 759).

From that point on, he engaged in practice and earnestly studied Buddhism with the aim of attaining Buddhahood in his lifetime and liberating himself from the sufferings of birth and death (see “Condolences on a Deceased Husband,” WND-2, 766).

But he did this not for his sake alone. 

Though entering the Buddhist clergy meant renouncing family and worldly affairs to devote oneself to Buddhist practice, Nichiren wrote, “When a man leaves his parents and home and becomes a monk, he should always have as his goal the salvation of his father and mother” (“The Opening of the Eyes,” WND-1, 228).

While he stated this as a general principle, we can sense that it was also his personal conviction. He wrote that if one wishes to repay the great debt of gratitude owed to one’s parents, teacher and country, one can only hope to do so by learning and mastering Buddhism and becoming a person of wisdom (see “On Repaying Debts of Gratitude,” WND-1, 690).

He had vowed to “become the wisest person in Japan” to repay the debt of gratitude he owed to those close to him and to surmount the sufferings of birth and death. Indeed, Nichiren’s later use of phrases such as “for one’s parents” suggest that he regarded those closest to us as representing all ordinary people striving amid society’s harsh realities. 

While the Buddhist teachings intend to save all people from suffering, the question is whether we can enable even one person to become happy. His statement “He should always have as his goal the salvation of his father and mother” (“The Opening of the Eyes,” WND-1, 228) tells us that he earnestly sought a religious teaching that could give people the courage and hope they needed to thrive in a troubled age when their sufferings were deepening.

Gaining ‘Great Wisdom’

As Nichiren continued to pray, his wisdom deepened.

Later he wrote that he received and placed in the sleeve of his robe a “great jewel” of wisdom “as brilliant as the morning star” through which he could later discern the relative superiority of the various Buddhist schools and scriptures (see “Letter to the Priests of Seicho-ji,” WND-1, 650).

Having attained such great wisdom, Nichiren embarked on a journey to centers of Buddhist learning in Kamakura, at Enryaku-ji temple on Mount Hiei, and in Kyoto and elsewhere. In this way, he set forth on his lifelong journey to master the Buddhist teachings and fulfill his vow to save all ordinary people from suffering.

A Wisdom to Change the Age

Ikeda Sensei writes: The wisdom to understand the essence of all schools and all sutras is wisdom pertaining to the very foundation of Buddhism. In other words, Nichiren Daishonin had attained the wisdom of the Mystic Law. Armed with the great desire to fundamentally lead all people to enlightenment, he fervently sought the way and thus awakened to this wisdom. …

It means that he suddenly became aware of the intrinsic nature of his own life; he revealed the buddha nature inherent in the life of an ordinary person. …

Nichiren received the “jewel of wisdom” because of his deep and earnest prayer to somehow lead people to enlightenment. The key is that he didn’t regard this gift as his final destination; he took it as his departure point to further seek the way. …

His vow was to become the wisest person in Japan so that he could enable those to whom he was indebted to realize true happiness. As he studied, his vow deepened into the desire to bring happiness to all people of the Latter Day. This became his great wish for kosen-rufu, which led him to declare the establishment of his teaching. 

In a sense, it would be simple for one who has attained enlightenment to enjoy the peace and security of that life state in solitude. Nichiren, however, unceasingly sought the wisdom to lead people to happiness and actually change the age. His journey did not end with his attainment of enlightenment. 

Enlightenment always begins with a vow. After establishing his teaching, he continued to maintain his vow as he challenged and overcame great persecutions. This struggle enabled him to deepen his enlightenment and ultimately reveal his true identity as the Buddha of the Latter Day of the Law.[8]

References

  1. The Wisdom for Creating Happiness and Peace, part 2, revised edition, p. 294. ↩︎
  2. There is no mention of the date of Nichiren Daishonin’s birth in his writings. However, “Biographies of the Three Teachers,” a work published several decades after his death, lists his date of birth as the sixteenth day of the second month, and this is generally accepted. The precise location of his birth is also unclear. Some suggest the site may today be submerged due to large earthquakes and tsunamis over the centuries. The name he was called when young and the names of his parents are not known. Some names are mentioned in folklore traditions, but these are not confirmed. In 13th-century Japan, the names of commoners were never recorded in writing. Even among samurai warriors, it was rare to put personal names on record. In most cases, children are mentioned in writing using only terms that indicate their sex and birth order. For example, “Taro” indicates the first-born son and “Otogozen” the second or subsequent daughter. ↩︎
  3. Honen (1133–1212), also known as Genku, was the founder of the Pure Land (Jodo) school in Japan. Shinran (1173–1262), a disciple of Honen, went on to found the True Pure Land (Jodo Shin) school. Dogen (1200–53) was the founder of the Japanese Soto sect of Zen. ↩︎
  4. Jokyu Disturbance: A conflict that occurred in 1221, the third year of the Jokyu era, that brought to an end the struggle for supremacy between the military government in Kamakura and the imperial court in Kyoto. Kamakura was defeated the court, giving the Hojo regents greater control over Japan. By redistributing the land gained in the disturbance, they were able to win the loyalty of powerful people throughout the country. ↩︎
  5. “True Word” is a direct translation of the Chinese translation of the Sanskrit term mantra, a secret phrase or incantation, and “esoteric teachings,” more literally, “secret teachings,” are a family of Buddhist teachings originating in India that employed mantras and mudras, secret hand gestures. These esoteric rituals were central to the Japanese True Word school, founded by Kukai (774–835; also known as Kobo), and were also incorporated into the Tendai school, founded by Saicho (767–822; also known as Great Teacher Dengyo). The Imperial court directed priests of both these schools to invoke esoteric prayer rituals to ensure their military victory. ↩︎
  6. The “three periods” refers to the Former Day, Middle Day and Latter Day of the Law. In Japan, the theory generally accepted was expounded by the Chinese monk Ji (632–82; also known as Great Teacher Cien) in his “Forest of Meanings in the Mahayana Garden of the Law.” He describes the Former Day as a time when the teaching, practice and proof of Shakyamuni’s teachings are all present, and the Middle Day (when Ji lived) as a period when Shakyamuni’s teachings and practice are still present, but proof of their effectiveness, that is, enlightenment, is not. ↩︎
  7. Space Treasury is a bodhisattva said to possess wisdom and good fortune as vast and boundless as space and to save living beings by transmitting that wisdom and fortune to them. Seicho-ji is said to have been founded in the second year of the Hoki era (771), when a priest, whose name is not known, carved a statue of Bodhisattva Space Treasury and built a small hall on the site. ↩︎
  8. May 2002 Living Buddhism, pp. 41–42. ↩︎

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