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Nichiren Daishonin—His Lifelong Vow and Great Compassion

Installment 3: Declaration of the Establishment of Nichiren’s Teaching

Pirin Mountain National Park, Bulgaria. Maya Karkalicheva / Getty Images

This is the third installment of a translation of the Soka Gakkai Study Department’s new study text, “Nichiren Daishonin—His Lifelong Vow and Great Compassion,” published in Japanese in the May 2022 issue of the Daibyakurenge.

While traveling to centers of Buddhist learning around Japan, Nichiren Daishonin carefully read various sutras and commentaries (interpretations of the sutras) and came to understand the essence of the teachings of each Buddhist tradition. In the process, he became convinced that the Lotus Sutra is supreme among all these teachings and that the sutra’s essence, Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, is the Law that can fundamentally resolve the sufferings of all people.

Nichiren witnessed how people, while seeking to become happy, made the serious error of turning their backs on the correct teaching. This, he perceived, was because the leading priests of various schools misinterpreted the Buddhist teachings and led them astray.

Only Nichiren was aware of this reality. Were he to speak about it openly, he would naturally become the target of many people’s wrath. Whether he should remain silent or speak out and alert others was a question he pondered deeply before establishing his teaching. He later wrote about his dilemma:

But if I utter so much as a word concerning it, then parents, brothers, and teachers will surely censure me, and the ruler of the nation will take steps against me.[1] On the other hand, I am fully aware that if I do not speak out I will be lacking in compassion. I have considered which course to take in the light of the teachings of the Lotus and Nirvana sutras. If I remain silent, I may escape persecutions in this lifetime, but in my next life I will most certainly fall into the hell of incessant suffering. If I speak out, I am fully aware that I will have to contend with the three obstacles and four devils.[2] But of these two courses, surely the latter is the one to choose. (“The Opening of the Eyes,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 239)

Even after this decision, he continued to reflect even more deeply. He states, “If I were to falter in my determination in the face of persecutions by the sovereign, however, it would be better not to speak out” (WND-1, 239).

After further deliberation, he recalled the description of the “six difficult and nine easy acts” in “The Emergence of the Treasure Tower” chapter of the Lotus Sutra. The Buddha describes these tasks to demonstrate how difficult it will be to embrace and propagate the Lotus Sutra after his death.

The acts listed as “easy” are actually impossible. They include feats such as taking up Mount Sumeru[3] and hurling it over countless Buddha lands and walking into a great fire while carrying a load of dry grass without being burned. But these are easy, the Buddha explains, when compared with the six difficult acts, which include embracing and expounding the Lotus Sutra in the Latter Day of the Law.

Shakyamuni then urges bodhisattvas to make a vow to propagate the Lotus Sutra in the evil age after his passing, overcoming all obstacles and opposition along the way.

To carry on the Buddha’s profound wish to enable all people to achieve enlightenment, Nichiren overcame his hesitation and stood up decisively for the happiness of all humanity in the Latter Day.

He writes, “Nevertheless, I vowed to summon up a powerful and unconquerable desire for the salvation of all beings and never to falter in my efforts” (WND-1, 240). Reflecting on this pledge, while on Sado Island, the place of his exile [nearly two decades later], Nichiren shared the great vow he had made when he established his teaching: “I will be the pillar of Japan. I will be the eyes of Japan. I will be the great ship of Japan. This is my vow, and I will never forsake it!” (WND-1, 280–81).

Nichiren lived true to this vow for the rest of his life. Despite confronting storms of persecution, he did not retreat a single step. He was convinced that encountering such hardships accorded exactly with what the sutras had predicted would happen to a votary of the Lotus Sutra, and was thus a source of honor.

Religion That Serves Human Beings

On the 28th day of the fourth month of 1253, around noon, the time had come for Nichiren Daishonin, having returned to his hometown in Awa Province, to explain his teaching to the priests at Seicho-ji temple. On that occasion, he revealed that Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is the heart and essence of Buddhism (see “Letter to the Priests of Seicho-ji,” WND-1, 651; “On Persecutions Befalling the Sage,” WND-1, 996).

He also criticized Honen’s advocacy of the exclusive practice of the Nembutsu, or chanting the name of Amida Buddha, and declared for the first time that the Lotus Sutra represents the truth among all the Buddhist teachings. Chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, he affirmed, far surpassed such practices as the Nembutsu.

Honen had taught that it was exceedingly difficult for people of the Latter Day of the Law (a time when the teachings of Shakyamuni have lost their effectiveness) to carry out the kind of practice required for attaining Buddhahood. He asserted that they should aspire instead for rebirth in the pure land of Amida Buddha in the next life [where it would be easier to attain Buddhahood]. For that reason, Honen taught that chanting the name of Amida Buddha is the true practice, and that all other teachings and practices are unnecessary. This assertion, however, was tantamount to denigrating the Lotus Sutra’s teaching that all people can attain Buddhahood in this life, and thereby denied the true potential of human beings living here and now.

Nichiren powerfully admonished Honen’s erroneous teachings and sought to spread a religion that would truly serve the happiness of human beings.

He proclaimed that Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is the correct teaching capable of relieving the sufferings of those living in the Latter Day. His statements on that occasion are today known as his declaration of the establishment of his teaching, when he clearly announced the tenets of his philosophy. On that day, the sun of Nichiren Buddhism began to shine on all humanity, to illuminate far into the future the gloom of fundamental ignorance that obscures people’s potential. Nichiren was 32 at the time.

Having first pointed out the errors of the Pure Land school, he later went on to criticize the Zen, True Word (the esotericism centered at To-ji and other temples), and Precepts schools,[4] and lastly the esoteric teachings maintained by the Tendai school (centered at Enryaku-ji, Onjo-ji and other temples). He later summarized his criticism as what is called the four dictums: Nembutsu leads to the hell of incessant suffering; Zen is the invention of the heavenly devils; True Word is an evil doctrine that will ruin the nation; and Precepts is traitor to the nation (see “On Reprimanding Hachiman,” WND-2, 932).

Ikeda Sensei writes:

Essentially, the four dictums express the wisdom of Nichiren, who saw through and exposed the self-righteousness of the various schools of the day, as well as their duplicity in hiding behind religious authority. It also goes without saying that the root of the four dictums is Nichiren’s wish to protect the people.[5]

Dozen-bo Disavows Nichiren

From the time he established his teaching, Nichiren became the subject of attacks and oppression, just as he had been prepared for. He writes:

At first, when I alone chanted the daimoku [Nam-myoho-renge-kyo], those who saw me, met me, or heard me covered their ears, glared at me with furious eyes, contorted their mouths, clenched their fists, and ground their teeth. Even my parents, brothers, teachers, and friends became my enemies. Then the steward and the lord of the manor where I lived turned against me. (“Letter to the Lay Priest Nakaoki,” WND-1, 1006)

At that time, Tojo Kagenobu, the steward of Tojo Village who was attempting to gain full control over the lands on which Seicho-ji and Nichiren’s family home were situated, began to act hostilely toward Nichiren (see article on Tojo Kagenobu).

The priests Enchi-bo and Jitsujo-bo at Seicho-ji also began to harass him. Dozen-bo, fearing Kagenobu’s wrath, even went so far as to disavow Nichiren as his student (see “On Repaying Debts of Gratitude,” WND-1, 729).

Amid all this, the priests Joken-bo and Gijo-bo, both also students of Dozen-bo, protected Nichiren from Kagenobu, who wished him harm, and quietly led him away from Seicho-ji. Nichiren later praised their courageous actions saying, “You have per-
formed an unrivaled service for the Lotus Sutra” (WND-1, 729).

Taking the Name ‘Nichiren’

From that time on, it is thought, the Daishonin began using the name Nichiren. He later wrote: “The Lotus Sutra is the sun and moon and the lotus flower. Therefore it is called the Lotus Sutra of the Wonderful Law. Nichiren, too, is like the sun and moon and the lotus flower” (“Easy Delivery of a Fortune Child,” WND-1, 186).

Regarding this, Ikeda Sensei has said that taking the name Nichiren signifies that “without help from anyone, he awakened to his mission to dispel the darkness in people’s lives, like the sun, and to cause the flower of the Mystic Law to bloom pristinely in society, like the lotus flower blooming in a muddy swamp.”[6] Sensei goes on to suggest that in this name we can sense the Daishonin’s vast and compassionate vow for the happiness of all humankind into the boundless future.

Nichiren next set out for Kamakura, the seat of the military government.

(To be continued in an upcoming issue)

Tojo Kagenobu

Tojo Kagenobu (dates unknown), was the steward of Tojo Village, Nagasa District, where Seicho-ji temple was located. He is thought to have been a descendant of Tojo Shichiro Akinori, to whom Minamoto no Yoritomo, the founder of the Kamakura shogunate, had granted control over the lands comprising the district.

The steward was assigned by the shogunate to oversee manors (private lands held by noble families and temples) and principalities (public lands held by the imperial court), collect taxes from land users and exercise police powers. Because of the authority they were granted, the stewards often failed to pay taxes to the local feudal lords and tried to expand their power, frequently leading to lawsuits between them and the lords.

This was the case with Kagenobu.

Nichiren referred to the wife of the local lord of the manor as someone to whom he was “greatly indebted” (see “Reply to Niiama,” WND-1, 468). And when a legal dispute arose between her and Kagenobu, Nichiren took her side and offered support.

Praying with the resolve that he would “discard the Lotus Sutra” if they were to lose the lawsuit, Nichiren helped the lord’s wife achieve victory (see “Letter to the Priests of Seicho-ji,” WND-1, 652).

This incident is thought to have taken place around 1253, but the date is uncertain.

Supporting Kagenobu was Hojo Shigetoki, a fervent believer in the Pure Land (Nembutsu) teachings. Shigetoki was the father-in-law and advisor to Hojo Tokiyori, the fifth regent of the Kamakura shogunate.

Spurred on by the intentions of Shigetoki and his faction, Kagenobu continued to bring lawsuits. Eventually, when Nichiren returned to his family home in 1264, Kagenobu launched a physical attack against Nichiren and his party of followers.

Then, judges belonging to Shigetoki’s faction ruled against Nichiren in a lawsuit, banishing him from his hometown, although Shigetoki had died by the time of this decision (see “Condolences on a Deceased Husband,” WND-2, 773).

Little is known about Kagenobu’s circumstances from that point on, but it is thought that he had died by the time Nichiren was exiled to Sado in 1271 (see “On Repaying Debts of Gratitude,” WND-1, 729).

From the March 2023 Living Buddhism


  1. See “The Royal Palace,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 489. ↩︎
  2. Three obstacles and four devils: Workings that aim to obstruct people’s faith in and practice of the correct teaching. ↩︎
  3. In ancient Indian cosmology, the mountain that stands at the center of the world. Mount Sumeru is said to rise to 84,000 yojanas, where one yojana is approximately 10 kilometers. The god Shakra resides on the summit with his 32 retainer gods, while the four heavenly kings live halfway up, one on each of its four sides. In the outermost seas surrounding Mount Sumeru lie four continents, with Jambudvīpa the continent to the south. ↩︎
  4. Precepts school: This was distinct from the Precepts school founded by the Chinese priest Jianzhen (known as Ganjin in Japan) during the Nara period (710–94). It was the Precepts school founded during the Kamakura period by the priest Eizon, who worked to revive the practice of the precepts. ↩︎
  5. The World of Nichiren’s Writings, new edition, vol. 1, p. 53. ↩︎
  6. Ibid., p. 47. ↩︎

The Courage to Be Honest

Ensuring the Mystic Law Long Endures