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Nichiren Daishonin—His Lifelong Vow and Great Compassion

Installment 6: The Izu Exile

Photo by Pavle Peric / Getty Images.

This is the sixth installment of the Soka Gakkai Study Department’s series “Nichiren Daishonin—His Lifelong Vow and Great Compassion,” published in the September 2022 issue of the Daibyakurenge, the Soka Gakkai’s monthly study journal.

A little more than a month after Nichiren Daishonin submitted “On Establishing the Correct Teaching for the Peace of the Land” in the seventh month of 1260, Nembutsu followers launched a violent attack against him, known as the Matsubagayatsu Persecution. From that point on, Nichiren became the subject of ongoing oppression.

On the 12th day of the fifth month of 1261, the Kamakura shogunate exiled Nichiren to Ito[1] in Izu Province.

Nichiren describes how events unfolded:

Somehow I was able to escape that night without injury. But because the attack had been carried out with the tacit approval of certain persons, those who took part in it were never called to account for their actions, which constitutes a flagrant violation of proper government procedure.

When the authorities discovered to their surprise that I was still alive, they exiled me to the province of Izu. (“Letter to Shimoyama,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 2, p. 700)

Here he notes the outrageous behavior of officials who ignored proper legal and administrative procedures and exiled the person who had been attacked, rather than questioning the claims and actions of those who attacked him.

Nichiren stresses that the decision by Hojo Nagatoki, the sixth regent, to exile him to Izu was improper in that it had been driven by the wishes of Nagatoki’s father, Shigetoki (referred to here as “the lay priest of Gokuraku-ji”):

At that time the Nembutsu believers, hearing of what I had done, conspired with their followers in high and low positions and attacked me with intent to murder, though they did not succeed in their objective.

[The regent Hojo] Nagatoki, the governor of Musashi, who was a son of the lay priest of Gokuraku-ji temple and aware of his father’s feelings in the matter, quite unreasonably had me exiled to the province of Izu. (“Condolences on a Deceased Husband,” WND-2, 773)

The Kamakura shogunate had an established legal code, known as the Formulary of Adjudications.[2] Nevertheless, the government punished Nichiren in complete disregard of the code’s instructions and intent (see “Letter to Shimoyama,” WND-2, 700). His exile amounted to an unjust persecution by those in power. He was 40 at the time.

The Dedicated Support of Funamori Yasaburo and His Wife

After his arrest, the authorities paraded Nichiren through the streets of Kamakura in a manner usually reserved for those guilty of treason before sending him into exile in Izu (see “Rulers of the Land of the Gods,” WND-2, 624; “A Father Takes Faith,” WND-1, 846).

Not much is known about how he spent his time in exile. According to his letter “The Izu Exile,” when Nichiren arrived in the harbor at Kawana in Ito of Izu Province after a long boat journey, he was feeling ill (see “The Izu Exile,” WND-1, 35), and a man named Funamori Yasaburo came to his aid. Yasaburo and his wife, out of their sincerity, looked after him, preparing meals and bringing him hot water to wash his hands and feet.

Most people in the area viewed Nichiren with enmity. He writes:

I was hated and resented by the steward and the people of the district even more than I was in Kamakura. Those who saw me scowled, while those who merely heard my name were filled with spite.” (WND-1, 35)

But to Yasaburo and his wife, he expresses his heartfelt thanks: “Though I was there in the fifth month when rice was scarce, you secretly fed me” (WND-1, 35).

A month later, Nichiren moved from Kawana to the residence of the local steward, Ito Hachiro. The Ito family had been influential retainers of the shogun since the time of Minamoto no Yoritomo, the founder of the Kamakura shogunate.

Ito Hachiro was ill at the time and requested that Nichiren pray for his recovery. He showed willingness to give up his belief in the Nembutsu and embrace Nichiren’s teaching, so Nichiren agreed to pray for his health. After he recovered, it is said that he presented Nichiren with an offering of a statue of Shakyamuni Buddha he had found washed up on the seashore. Nichiren’s prayers had saved him from the brink of death, but regrettably, it seems he later abandoned his faith in Nichiren’s teachings.[3]

To Experience Persecution as the Sutra Predicts Is a Source of ‘Immense Joy’

In 1262, while still in exile, Nichiren wrote “The Four Debts of Gratitude,” “The Teaching, Capacity, Time, and Country” and “What It Means to Slander the Law.”

Referring to his exile, he states, “I feel immense joy” (“The Four Debts of Gratitude,” WND-1, 41) and observes:

I am nothing but a lowly and ignorant monk without precepts. Yet, when I think that such a person should be mentioned in the Lotus Sutra, which was expounded more than two thousand years ago, and that the Buddha prophesied that that person would encounter persecution, I cannot possibly express my joy. (WND-1, 42–43)

He says that he has practiced the Lotus Sutra day and night, and because having been exiled on account of the Lotus Sutra he is reading and practicing it continuously in all of his actions. Therefore, he states, “What greater joy could there be?” (WND-1, 43)

This can be viewed as Nichiren’s declaration that he is the true votary, or genuine practitioner, of the Lotus Sutra who has been reading it with his very life and actions. About this passage, Ikeda Sensei writes:

Here Nichiren is declaring that he is indeed the votary of the Lotus Sutra in the Latter Day of the Law.

The first two Soka Gakkai presidents [Tsunesaburo Makiguchi and Josei Toda] read this passage with their lives during World War II, when they were persecuted by the Japanese militarist authorities. These words are heavily underscored in Mr. Toda’s copy of Nichiren’s writings the authorities confiscated from him.[4]

Calling Forth the Three Powerful Enemies

In “The Teaching, Capacity, Time, and Country,” which Nichiren wrote a month after “The Four Debts of Gratitude,” he states:

I know that, if I do not call forth these three enemies of the Lotus Sutra, then I will not be the votary of the Lotus Sutra. Only by making them appear can I be the votary. (WND-1, 53)

He uses the term “votary of the Lotus Sutra,” meaning a dedicated believer who practices the Lotus Sutra exactly as it teaches, in the sense that being persecuted by formidable enemies on account of the Lotus Sutra qualifies one as its votary.

“Three enemies” refers to “the three powerful enemies,”[5] a classification that Miao-lo[6] used to describe three categories of strong adversaries who would persecute those who spread the Lotus Sutra in the evil age after Shakyamuni’s passing.

Further, in the same writing and in “What It Means to Slander the Law,” he reveals the principle called “the five guides for propagation,”[7] standards one should consider when spreading the Buddhist teachings (see “The Teaching, Capacity, Time, and Country,” WND-1, 48–50; “What It Means to Slander the Law,” WND-1, 259). These guides, a product of Nichiren’s philosophical insight, address from five perspectives how to select and propagate the most appropriate and effective religious teaching.

Based on these criteria, he points out that, in Japan during the Latter Day of the Law, the teaching that should be propagated to enable ordinary people to attain Buddhahood is the Lotus Sutra, the highest among the Buddha’s teachings and the one that correctly aligns with the Buddha’s intent.

Though in exile, Nichiren remained not the least bit deterred but continued to grapple with identifying the best way to spread the Lotus Sutra’s teaching among the people.

Return to Kamakura

In 1263, on the 22nd day of the second month, the government pardoned Nichiren (see “On Repaying Debts of Gratitude,” WND-1, 727). He later explains that this stemmed from Hojo Tokiyori learning that the charges against him had been false (see “On Persecutions Befalling the Sage,” WND-1, 997). The pardon may also have been related to the death of Hojo Shigetoki in the 11th month of 1261, six months after Nichiren arrived in Izu, since Shigetoki is thought to have strongly influenced the decision to exile him.

Leaving Izu, Nichiren returned to Kamakura and eventually set out to visit his family home in Awa Province. But there, further hardships awaited.

(To be continued in an upcoming issue)

Obstacles Make Us Stronger

Ikeda Sensei comments on the passages “When I think that … the Buddha prophesied that that person would encounter persecution, I cannot possibly express my joy” and “For anyone born human, what greater joy could there be?” (“The Four Debts of Gratitude,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, pp. 42–43):

This shows how expansive Nichiren’s life was, so much so that he could regard meeting persecution for the sake of the Lotus Sutra as a supreme joy.

On the other hand are the rulers, who had persecuted him despite his complete innocence. Of them, Nichiren says, “I have … encountered a ruler who will enable me to free myself in my present existence from the sufferings of birth and death” (WND-1, 44). He goes so far as to express gratitude to the ruler as someone “to whom I owe the most profound debt of gratitude” (WND-1, 43) for having made it possible to carry out his practice for attaining Buddhahood. Utterly indomitable, he maintains his supreme humanity.

With each persecution, Nichiren became stronger, more formidable. That’s because as he struggled, staking his very life, against each act of oppression, he brought forth from within the life force of the Buddha, or Thus Come One.[8]

The Religious Policy of the Kamakura Shogunate

In the second month of 1262, during Nichiren’s exile to Izu, Eizon of Saidai-ji temple in Nara visited Kamakura, the seat of the shogunate. This was at the repeated invitation of Hojo Tokiyori and Hojo Sanetoki. Eizon was a priest and the founder of the True Word Precepts school of Buddhism. He was also the mentor of Ryokan, a priest who later became hostile toward Nichiren and orchestrated persecutions against him.

Shogunate officials who favored Zen and Pure Land teachings opened new temples to invite priests practicing these teachings. Nichiren refuted the assertions of Zen and Pure Land adherents, who were encouraging people to abandon the Lotus Sutra while insisting on the exclusive practice of their respective teachings. The True Word Precepts school emerged as the third powerful Buddhist tradition supported by the shogunate.

Eizon, who advocated for the revival of the Buddhist precepts, actively went about initiating people in the precepts during his six-month stay in Kamakura, conferring them upon people regardless of their social rank. The number of those who received the precepts during Eizon’s time in Kamakura is believed to have reached hundreds or even thousands per day.

Some records indicate that on the last day of the second month, shortly after Eizon’s arrival, members of the Hojo clan attended one of his lectures. They included Lady Kasai, the daughter of Hojo Shigetoki and mother of Hojo Tokimune. As a longtime follower of Ryokan, she supported his activities in Kamakura. Hojo Tokiyori, the retired regent, also met Eizon on several occasions during this period. As a result, Eizon and Ryokan and their True Word Precepts school built close relations with central figures in the shogunate.

At this time, priests of the two most powerful traditions, Pure Land and Zen, also received the precepts from Eizon. They included priests of Kencho-ji, and Dokyo, also known as Doamidabutsu, of Shinzenko-ji temple, who was regarded as representing the Pure Land teaching.

At this time, priests of the two most powerful traditions, Pure Land and Zen, also received the precepts from Eizon. They included priests of Kencho-ji, and Dokyo, also known as Doamidabutsu, of Shinzenko-ji temple, who was regarded as representing the Pure Land teaching.

The True Word Precepts school’s efforts to administer the Buddhist precepts can be viewed as more than simply religious in nature but also as deeply influential in building the Shogunate’s public security and financial systems.

In this way, while Nichiren was exiled to Izu, a new religious system was established in Kamakura with the introduction of the True Word Precepts school. The school enjoyed special privileges from the shogunate, taking part in a variety of public enterprises and projects, and its central figure, Ryokan, was revered as a living Buddha. Before long, Nichiren returned to Kamakura, and he began to criticize Ryokan and challenge the shogunate’s religious policies.

From the June 2023 Living Buddhism


  1. The central and east part of present-day Ito City in Shizuoka Prefecture. ↩︎
  2. Formulary of Adjudications: Established by the third regent of the Kamakura shogunate, Hojo Yasutoki, in 1232. ↩︎
  3. Nichiren writes: “Ito Hachiro Saemon is at present the constable of Shinano. At one time he was on the point of death, but my prayers restored him to life. At that time he sent word to the priest Myosho promising that he would no longer be numbered among the Nembutsu believers. But, contrary to his word, he has joined the Nembutsu believers and True Word priests and has fallen into the hell of incessant suffering” (“Letter to Ben,” WND-2, 661). While it is thought that Ito Hachiro gave up his faith, some speculate it was Myosho who did so. ↩︎
  4. The Teachings for Victory, vol. 3, p. 106. ↩︎
  5. Three powerful enemies: Three types of arrogant people who persecute those who propagate the Lotus Sutra in the evil age after Shakyamuni Buddha’s death. Great Teacher Miao-lo summarizes them as arrogant lay people, arrogant priests and arrogant false sages. ↩︎
  6. Great Teacher Miao-lo (711–82): Also known as Zhanran, or Great Teacher Miaole Zhanran. The sixth patriarch of the T’ien-t’ai school in China, in the tradition that counts T’ien-t’ai as the first patriarch. ↩︎
  7. The five guides for propagation: 1) the teaching, to know which among teachings is superior; ) the people’s capacity, to understand the people’s capacity to believe and understand Buddhism and which teaching to employ to lead them to practice it; 3) the time, to understand the nature of the present time and which teaching to propagate at such a time; 4) the country, to consider the situation in the country or region and use methods most appropriate to that area to spread Buddhism; 5) the sequence of propagation, to propagate teachings in the proper order, that is, to know what teachings have spread previously and to be sure to propagate next a teaching that surpasses them. ↩︎
  8. The World of Nichiren’s Writings, vol. 1, p. 190. ↩︎

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