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Nichiren Daishonin—His Lifelong Vow and Great Compassion

Installment 9: Eleven Letters of Remonstrance

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photo by Stanley Chen Xi / Getty Images.

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

The Mongol Empire again sent emissaries to Japan from the kingdom of Goryeo on the Korean Peninsula, then under Mongol control. They arrived with an official letter in the ninth month of 1269. In the first month of 1270, the imperial court prepared a reply and sent it to the Kamakura shogunate. The shogunate, however, rejected it and did not pass it on, refusing to negotiate with the Mongols.

Amid fears of a Mongol invasion and growing social turmoil, shogunate leaders and priests of prominent Buddhist temples continued to disregard Nichiren’s warnings. In the 11th month of 1269, Nichiren once again sent out several letters and this time received some responses. It therefore seems likely that influential people in the Kamakura government had also read them (see “The Annual Lecture on the Doctrines of the Great Teacher T’ien-t’ai,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 2, p. 335).

In the 12th month of that year, Nichiren copied “On Establishing the Correct Teaching for the Peace of the Land” in his own hand and sent it to a person named Yagi Taneie[1] in Shimosa Province.[2] It appears more people were becoming interested in reading the treatise.

Meanwhile, leading priests of the schools Nichiren had criticized felt increasingly threatened and repeatedly made false accusations against him to government officials, hoping to bring him down.

Nichiren later described these circumstances in his letter “The Actions of the Votary of the Lotus Sutra,” written in 1276:

The letters were a warning of dire things to come that would affect the destiny not only of the regent’s government but of every other official as well. Even if the officials did not heed my warning, to slander my messengers was going too far. This came about because all Japanese, high and low, have for a long time now shown hostility toward the Lotus Sutra. Thus they have piled up great offenses and become possessed by demons. The official letter from the Mongols has deprived them of the last remnants of sanity. (WND-1, 763)

The Challenge Over Prayers for Rain

In the sixth month of 1271, when a severe drought struck Kama-kura, the shogunate commissioned Ryokan of Gokuraku-ji temple to conduct prayers for rain from the 18th to the 24th of that month.[3]

When Nichiren heard of this, he issued a challenge to Ryokan: “If the Honorable Ryōkan brings about rainfall within seven days, I, Nichiren, will stop teaching that the Nembutsu leads to the hell of incessant suffering and become his disciple. … But if it does not rain, you should place your faith in the Lotus Sutra alone” (“The Letter of Petition from Yorimoto,” WND-1,808).

Ryokan accepted, confident in the efficacy of his prayers for rain, and, as Nichiren describes, “along with more than 120 of his disciples, offered prayers, the sweat of their faces rising up in steam and their voices resounding to the heavens” (WND-1, 808).

There was no sign of rain, however. Ryokan then gathered “hundreds of his disciples from Taho-ji temple” (WND-1, 808) and prayed frantically, but not so much as a drop fell.

During this time, to drive his point home, Nichiren sent a messenger to Ryokan on three occasions, writing:

Consider this: if one cannot cross a moat ten feet wide, can one cross a moat that is twenty or thirty feet wide? If you cannot bring about rainfall, which is easy, how can you attain rebirth in the pure land and achieve Buddhahood, which is difficult? (WND-1, 808–09)

On the seventh day, Ryokan wept in frustration. Another seven days passed, during which he kept offering prayers. Not only did rain not fall, but the drought worsened; winds blew day after day without pause, and the people’s grief deepened. But rather than accepting Nichiren’s assertions and keeping his promise, Ryokan grew more resentful (See WND-1, 809; “Letter to Shimoyama,” WND-2, 692-93).

Petition to the Government

Shortly after that, on the eighth day of the seventh month, a priest named Gyobin wrote to Nichiren, questioning his claims and requesting a face-to-face meeting to clarify the truth. Nichiren replied that he would like to meet for a debate, but suggested they do so in a public setting, urging Gyobin to submit his questions to the authorities to that end (see “Reply to Gyobin,” WND-2, 384). Nichiren likely considered it an excellent opportunity to hold the public debate he had long sought.

On receiving Nichiren’s reply, Gyobin filed a petition with the Kamakura shogunate denouncing him. According to Nikko,[4] Gyobin was also known as Joren, a disciple of the Pure Land priest Nen’a Ryochu (Nen’amidabutsu). Behind Gyobin’s actions seem to have been Nen’a, Dokyo (Doamidabutsu) and Ryokan and his followers. Nichiren knew that these individuals were responsible for the petition against him.

The petition described as unjust Nichiren’s criticism of various Buddhist schools. It further accused Nichiren and his disciples of “having burned or cast into the water images of Amida Buddha, Bodhisattva Perceiver of the World’s Sounds, and the like” (“Response to the Petition from Gyobin,” WND-2, 387). These claims had been invented for the sole purpose of having Nichiren punished.

Nichiren prepared a rebuttal suggesting Ryokan was responsible for all these offenses:

You must provide credible witnesses with regard to this matter. But if there is no proof, then perhaps the Honorable Ryokan and his associates, wishing to place the blame on me, themselves removed the objects of devotion and burned or cast them into the water? The details of this matter will no doubt come to light when it is looked into. (WND-2, 387)

Interrogation by the Kamakura Shogunate

Ryokan and his followers filed additional lawsuits, and when all failed, they lobbied the wives of high-ranking government officials to have Nichiren punished. These women also had connections among priests of the esoteric teachings in addition to Ryokan and the others.

Nichiren describes what the women said to officials:

According to what some priests told us, Nichiren declared that the late lay priests of Saimyo-ji and Gokuraku-ji have fallen into the hell of incessant suffering. He said that the temples Kencho-ji, Jufuku-ji, Gokuraku-ji, Choraku-ji, and Daibutsu-ji should be burned down and the honorable priests Doryu and Ryokan beheaded. (“The Actions of the Votary of the Lotus Sutra,” WND-1, 765)

As a result, the shogunate summoned Nichiren on the tenth day of the ninth month of 1271 to confirm what he had been saying.

At the hearing, Nichiren responded to Hei no Saemon-no-jo Yoritsuna and other members of the Board of Retainers:[5]

Every word is mine. However, the statement about the lay priests of Saimyo-ji and Gokuraku-ji falling into hell is a fabrication. I have been declaring this doctrine [that the schools they belonged to lead to hell] since before their deaths. Everything I said was with the future of our country in mind. If you wish to maintain this land in peace and security, it is imperative that you summon the priests of the other schools for a debate in your presence. (WND-1, 765)

In saying that Doryu and Ryokan “should be beheaded,” Nichiren was not advocating killing. Rather, it was a rhetorical statement, a response to the shogunate’s long-standing debate about whether to behead him and his followers or banish them from Kamakura (see WND-1, 764).

This scathing rebuttal implied that if the rulers were going to behead anyone, it should first of all be those who slander and try to kill the practitioners of the Lotus Sutra. In this sense, it was a compassionate call to awaken those misled by evil priests.[6]

Despite being under interrogation, Nichiren again warned that unless the rulers listened to what he had been saying, rejected slander of the Law and embraced the correct Buddhist teaching, they would surely face the calamities of internal rebellion and foreign invasion. In response, Yoritsuna exploded in fury, creating a spectacle unbefitting his position.

Two days later, on the twelfth day of the ninth month, Nichiren sent Yoritsuna, a key government official responsible for maintaining peace in the nation, a letter titled “The Day before Yesterday,” stating: “At present, you, sir, are the veritable pillar and crossbeam of the realm. How, then, can you fail to make use of true talent when it exists in the nation?” (WND-2, 392). An event later that day would mark a turning point in Nichiren’s life and teachings.

Nichiren’s Arrest

That evening, a large group of armed soldiers led by Yoritsuna forced their way into Nichiren’s residence. Nichiren later described the arrest of a priest in such a reckless manner as “extraordinary and unlawful.”[7]

Though aware his life was in danger, he calmly faced his attackers, thinking, “How fortunate that I can give my life for the Lotus Sutra!” (“The Actions of the Votary of the Lotus Sutra,” WND-1, 766).

Then, Yoritsuna’s chief retainer, Sho-bo, rushed up and snatched the scroll of the fifth volume of the Lotus Sutra that Nichiren carried inside his robe and struck him in the face with it. This volume contains “Encouraging Devotion,” the 13th chapter, which describes how the three powerful enemies persecute the practitioners of the Lotus Sutra, including by attack with staves.

The soldiers then scattered and trampled on other sutra scrolls they found in Nichiren’s dwelling. Observing their frenzied behavior, Nichiren turned to Yoritsuna and said in a loud voice: “How amusing! Look at Hei no Saemon gone mad! You gentlemen have just toppled the pillar of Japan” (WND-1, 766). Nichiren’s dignified and imposing countenance surprised and flustered the soldiers.

They then arrested Nichiren and paraded him through the streets of Kamakura as though he were a traitor (see “Rulers of the Land of the Gods,” WND-2, 624).

Around six that evening, the judicial court (the government branch responsible for trials) remanded Nichiren to the residence of Hojo Nobutoki, the governor of Musashi Province (see “Letter from Echi,” WND-1, 194). Nobutoki was also the military governor of Sado (a position in each province responsible for military affairs and administration). It therefore appeared that he would be sentenced to exile to the island of Sado.

Nichiren later recounted that he had warned Yoritsuna, who orchestrated the persecution, that by arresting him he was toppling the pillar of Japan and that internal strife and foreign invasion would result (see “The Selection of the Time,” WND-1, 579).

(To be continued in an upcoming issue)

‘Unfaltering Attitude of a Great Lion King’

Ikeda Sensei writes: The Daishonin again expressed his joy at being able to give his life for the sake of the Law: “Over the past months I have expected something like this to happen sooner or later. How fortunate that I can give my life for the Lotus Sutra! If I am to lose this worthless head [for Buddhahood], it will
be like trading sand for gold or rocks for jewels” (“The Actions of the Votary of the Lotus Sutra,” WND-1, 766). This is the calm and unfaltering attitude of a great lion king of faith.

Presidents Makiguchi and Toda also strove in exact accord with this spirit of the Daishonin. Because they persisted in holding discussion meetings—open forums of dialogue—and spreading Nichiren Buddhism with unwavering commitment, both of them were arrested and imprisoned by Japan’s militarist authorities. Mr. Makiguchi died in prison. Mr. Toda was eventually released, though his health was dangerously weakened by the experience. The noble struggles of this mentor and disciple are the source of the eternal treasure that is the Soka Gakkai spirit; they are a great source of hope and inspiration that will continue to brightly illuminate the future.[8]

From the September 2023 Living Buddhism


  1. Yagi Taneie: A distant relative of the Chiba family. The head of the Chiba family held the post of Shimosa Province’s military governor. ↩︎
  2. Shimosa Province: Present-day northern Chiba Prefecture and the surrounding area. ↩︎
  3. See “Letter to Shimoyama,” WND-2, 692. In “The Actions of the Votary of the Lotus Sutra,” it says “the eighteenth day of the sixth month to the fourth day of the following month” (WND-1, 766). ↩︎
  4. Nikko (1246–1333): Nichiren’s direct disciple and successor; the only one of the six senior priests who remained true to his spirit. He became Nichiren’s disciple at a young age, serving him devotedly and even accompanying him into exile on Sado Island. When Nichiren moved to Mount Minobu, Nikko devoted his energies to propagation activities in Suruga Province and surrounding areas. After the Daishonin’s passing, the other senior priests gradually began to distance themselves from their mentor’s teachings. As a result, Nikko determined to part ways with them. He settled in Suruga’s Fuji District, where he dedicated the rest of his life to protecting and propagating the Daishonin’s teaching and to raising disciples. ↩︎
  5. Board of Retainers: The office within the Kamakura shogunate responsible for overseeing military and police affairs. The shogunal regent was also officially in charge of the Board of Retainers, but practical operations and administration were carried out by magistrates, such as Hei no Saemon-no-jo Yoritsuna. ↩︎
  6. “On Establishing the Correct Teaching for the Peace of the Land” states: “Prior to Shakyamuni slanderous monks would have incurred the death penalty. But since the time of Shakyamuni, the One Who Can Endure, the giving of alms to slanderous monks is forbidden in the sutra teachings” (WND-1, 23). Here Nichiren expresses his view that Buddhism does not support the taking of life. ↩︎
  7. In “The Actions of the Votary of the Lotus Sutra” Nichiren states: “I was arrested in a manner that was extraordinary and unlawful, even more outrageous than the arrest of the priest Ryoko, who was actually guilty of treason, and the Discipline Master Ryoken, who sought to destroy the government. … These actions were in essence no different from those of the grand minister of state and lay priest, who seized power only to lead the country to destruction” (WND-1, 765–66). ↩︎
  8. January 2013 Living Buddhism, pp. 27–28. ↩︎

Advocating for the Downwinders

Highlights of the September 2023 Study Material