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Nichiren Daishonin—His Lifelong Vow and Great Compassion

Installment 13: The Sado Exile—Part 1

Ushuaia, Argentina. Photo by Grafissimo / Getty Images.

This is a translation of an installment of a Soka Gakkai Study Department series, published in the May 2023 issue of the Daibyakurenge, the Soka Gakkai’s monthly study journal.

After a long journey from Echi, Nichiren Daishonin was escorted to Teradomari, where he stayed for several days, waiting for favorable winds to make the journey by boat to his ultimate place of exile, Sado Island. At Teradomari he wrote a letter to Toki Jonin, entrusting it to the lay priest that Toki had sent to accompany him. Nichiren writes that though his hardships along the way were worse than he could have imagined, he had been “prepared for such difficulties from the outset” (“Letter from Teradomari,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 206).

Nichiren goes on to say that his hardships align with those described in the Lotus and Nirvana sutras. He mentions the Nirvana Sutra’s doctrine of the “precious jewels that redeem life” and cites T’ien-t’ai’s conclusion that “life” in this expression refers to the Lotus Sutra. All other sutras, then, can be seen as jewels that help people embrace the Lotus Sutra. Nichiren then points out the errors of scholars from other schools who do not recognize the Lotus Sutra’s superiority. In particular, he criticizes the True Word school’s claims that the Mahavairochana Sutra, with its practices of mudras and mantras,[1] is superior to the Lotus Sutra.

In addition, he writes that, despite how people may criticize him, his practice is correct because he is encountering the “three powerful enemies”[2] as described in “Encouraging Devotion,” the 13th chapter of the Lotus Sutra. Lastly, Nichiren explains that he is the person spreading the Lotus Sutra in the time it prescribes for doing so, the Latter Day of the Law. It is therefore he who is calling forth these three powerful enemies.

Living in Harsh Circumstances

Nichiren arrived on Sado on the twenty-eighth day of the tenth month, 1271. Then, on the first day of the eleventh month, he was sent to “a field called Tsukahara … where corpses were abandoned” (“The Actions of the Votary of the Lotus Sutra,” WND-1, 769) and made to live there in a dilapidated hut.

He describes the structure as “one room with four posts,” adding:

The boards of the roof did not meet, and the walls were full of holes. The snow fell and piled up, never melting away. I spent my days there, sitting in a straw coat or lying on a fur skin. At night it hailed and snowed, and there were continual flashes of lightning. Even in the daytime the sun hardly shone. It was a wretched place to live. (WND-1, 769)

He later writes, “The clothing thin, and the food scarce … I felt as though I had passed through the realm of hungry spirits and fallen alive into one of the cold hells” (“Letter to Horen,” WND-1, 519). Such were Nichiren’s harsh living conditions in which he lacked basic necessities.

From this place of exile, Nichiren boldly waged a struggle to awaken the people of his day and far into the future.

The Tsukahara Debate

Local priests from various Buddhist schools discussed how to deal with Nichiren.

They ultimately decided to appeal to the deputy constable of Sado, Homma Rokuro Saemon-no-jo Shigetsura, to have Nichiren beheaded and planned to take matters into their own hands should he refuse.

Shigetsura responded to the crowd of priests who approached him:

An official letter from the regent directs that the priest shall not be executed. This is no ordinary, contemptible criminal, and if anything happens to him, I, Shigetsura, will be guilty of grave dereliction. Instead of killing him, why don’t you confront him in religious debate? (“The Actions of the Votary of the Lotus Sutra,” WND-1, 771)

Following Shigetsura’s suggestion, hundreds of priests from not only Sado but also regions as far away as Shin’etsu, Hokuriku and Tohoku on Japan’s main island gathered at Tsukahara on the 16th day of the first month, 1272. For two days, Nichiren debated them as Shigetsura and a crowd of residents looked on.

Nichiren addressed their claims one by one, reconfirming every point, and with just a few words refuted each of their errors and contradictions.

He writes, “I overturned them as easily as a sharp sword cutting through a melon or a gale bending the grass” (WND-1, 771–72). After hearing Nichiren’s criticisms, some Nembutsu adherents discarded their faith on the spot. This encounter came to be known as the Tsukahara Debate.

Redoubling Efforts in the Midst of Persecution

Ikeda Sensei: We must remember that, at this point, Nichiren was waiting at the harbor of Teradomari to make the crossing to Sado Island and commence his exile there. Despite his circumstances, his impassioned commitment—like a lion king—to refute error and reveal the truth burned brighter than ever. From this letter, we get the sense that new horizons are opening for an unprecedented struggle for the sake of kosen-rufu. There is the feeling that, in the midst of raging storms of life-threatening persecution, Nichiren is firmly resolved to redouble his efforts for kosen-rufu for the sake of the future.

What had led Japan so disastrously astray? What is the great teaching that should be spread in order to bring true, lasting happiness to the people of Japan, whose very lives and country were imperiled [owing to the threat of a Mongol invasion]? What is Nichiren’s role in the propagation of the Lotus Sutra in the Latter Day of the Law? What spirit must one have to qualify as the true votary of the Lotus Sutra?

To answer these and other questions, Nichiren went on to compose important works such as “The Opening of the Eyes” and “The Object of Devotion for Observing the Mind” while in exile on Sado. He thereby established the great Buddhist teaching for the enlightenment of all people into the eternal future of the Latter Day of the Law.[3]

(To be continued in an upcoming issue)

From the February 2024 Living Buddhism


  1. Mudras and mantras: Mudras are signs and gestures made with hands and fingers that symbolize the enlightenment and vows of buddhas and bodhisattvas. Mantras are formulas consisting of secret words or syllables said to embody mysterious powers. Esoteric Buddhism views the latter as the distillation of Buddhist truth. The Sanskrit word mantra was rendered into Chinese as “true word.” Both mudras and mantras are commonly employed in the practice and ritual of Esoteric Buddhism, where they are believed to help achieve union with Mahavairochana Buddha. ↩︎
  2. 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. Based on a description in “Encouraging Devotion,” the 13th chapter of the Lotus Sutra, Miao-lo defines them as 1) arrogant lay people, 2) arrogant priests and 3) arrogant false sages. Nichiren pointed to the fact that he has evoked persecution by the three powerful enemies as proof that he is the votary, or true practitioner, of the Lotus Sutra in the Latter Day of the Law. ↩︎
  3. The Teachings for Victory, vol. 3, p. 140. ↩︎

The Three Transformations: Freeing Humanity From Warfare and Violence

Highlights of the February 2024 Study Material