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Nichiren Daishonin—His Lifelong Vow and Great Compassion

Installment 14: The Sado Exile—Part 2

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The Tsukahara debate, which began on the sixteenth day of the first month, 1272, lasted two days.

A record of a debate held on the seventeenth day between Nichiren Daishonin and Benjo, a leading local priest of the Pure Land school, is contained in “Dialogue on the Lotus and Pure Land Teachings” (The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 2, p. 411). It is thought to have been a part of the Tsukahara Debate.

Soon after the debate, Nichiren Daishonin completed “The Opening of the Eyes” (WND-1, 220), a treatise he had been contemplating since his arrival on Sado. In the second month, he entrusted it to Shijo Kingo of Kamakura representing all Nichiren’s followers.

They, too, had met with persecution, including arrest and having their lands confiscated. Consequently, many began to doubt and abandon their faith. Nichiren later stated, “999 out of 1,000 people … gave up their faith when I was arrested” (“Reply to Niiama,” WND-1, 469). Under these circumstances he wrote “The Opening of the Eyes” and elucidated why he and his followers were being oppressed.

Nichiren begins this treatise by describing the three virtues of sovereign, teacher and parent, three categories of people whom all should respect. He says that Shakyamuni, who expounded the true teaching, is the sovereign, teacher and parent of all humankind.[1]

He then states that the Lotus Sutra is supreme among all of Shakyamuni’s teachings. The principle of three thousand realms in a single moment of life “hidden in the depths of the ‘Life Span’ chapter of the essential teaching of the Lotus Sutra”[2] (“The Opening of the Eyes,” WND-1, 224), he says, is the fundamental cause for attaining enlightenment and the teaching that constitutes the seed of Buddhahood. 

Yet people of the time had been misled by the evil priests of various Buddhist schools who had rejected the Lotus Sutra, and so the people abandoned its correct teachings. Recognizing this, Nichiren says that he is the only one who understands that, as a result, people will fall into the evil paths. 

He recalls his vow to speak out about this, fully aware he would meet with great persecution for doing so, just as the Lotus Sutra predicts. He then describes how he has indeed met with repeated persecutions since then. 

Later in this writing, Nichiren talks about doubt. He takes up and answers such questions as why, if he is indeed a votary of the Lotus Sutra, the heavenly deities don’t protect him and whether he might not be a votary of the Lotus Sutra after all. He goes so far as to say: “This doubt lies at the heart of this piece I am writing. … It is the most important concern of my entire life” (WND-1, 243). 

First, in line with the content of the Lotus Sutra, he explains that people of the two vehicles (the voice-hearers and cause-awakened ones), bodhisattvas, heavenly and human beings have a great obligation to the sutra and that they vowed to protect its genuine practitioner, or votary. He then asks whether they have failed to protect him because he, in fact, is not a votary of the Lotus Sutra. By raising this question, he is encouraging his followers to ponder this point. 

He then discusses passages about the six difficult and nine easy acts[3] in “Emergence of the Treasure Tower,” the 11th chapter, and the three powerful enemies[4] in “Encouraging Devotion,” the 13th chapter. He argues that the votary of the Lotus Sutra who propagates it in the Latter Day of the Law will indeed meet with the hardships the sutra describes. Having practiced exactly as the Lotus Sutra teaches, he proudly describes his lofty state of life, saying, “I, Nichiren, am the richest man in all of present-day Japan” (WND-1, 268).

He later explains why those who persecute the votary do not suffer immediate punishment,[5] citing three reasons: 1) the votary of the Lotus Sutra has negative karma from slandering the Lotus Sutra in previous lives; 2) the persecutors are already destined to fall into hell; and 3) people throughout the country slander the correct teaching, so the guardian deities have abandoned the land.

Having addressed people’s doubts, Nichiren declares his great vow to lead all living beings of the Latter Day to enlightenment even at the cost of his life: 

This I will state. Let the gods forsake me. Let all persecutions assail me. Still I will give my life for the sake of the Law. … Whatever obstacles I might encounter, so long as persons of wisdom do not prove my teachings to be false, I will never yield! All other troubles are no more to me than dust before the wind. 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)

Here we see Nichiren’s firm conviction as the votary of the Lotus Sutra to free all people from suffering and lead them to enlightenment. 

Ikeda Sensei states the following regarding this point:

As far as Nichiren is concerned, there is something more important than whether we receive the protection of the heavenly deities—something we must risk our lives to accomplish, no matter how daunting the obstacles. And that is the attainment of Buddhahood by all people, the highest good, which is the great vow Shakyamuni proclaimed in the Lotus Sutra. In other words, it is kosen-rufu, the actualization of that vow. This is what Nichiren fought to achieve, an aspiration beyond the realm of mundane cares and attachments that preoccupied all society, including his followers.[6]

(To be continued in an upcoming issue)

From the March 2024 Living Buddhism


  1. The three categories of people that all human beings should respect: 1) the virtue of sovereign is the responsibility to protect all living beings; 2) the virtue of teacher is the wisdom to instruct and lead them to enlightenment; and 3) the virtue of parent is the compassion to nurture and support them. ↩︎
  2. Of the 28 chapters of the Lotus Sutra, the part from “Introduction,” the 1st chapter through “Peaceful Practices,” the 14th chapter—or the sutra’s first half—is called the theoretical teaching, and from “Emerging from the Earth,” the 15th chapter, through “Encouragements of Bodhisattva Universal Worthy,” the 28th chapter—the second half—is called the essential teaching. In “Life Span of the Thus Come One,” the 16th chapter, Shakyamuni reveals that he attained enlightenment for the first time not in his present lifetime in India, but rather in the inconceivably remote past. ↩︎
  3. Six difficult and nine easy acts: Comparisons expounded in the Lotus Sutra to teach people how difficult it would be to embrace and propagate the sutra. The six difficult acts are: 1) to propagate the Lotus Sutra widely; 2) to copy it or cause someone else to copy it; 3) to recite it even for a short while; 4) to teach it even to one person, 5) to hear of and accept the Lotus Sutra and inquire about its meaning; and 6) to maintain faith in it. The nine easy acts include such feats as teaching innumerable sutras other than the Lotus Sutra, walking across a burning prairie carrying a bundle of hay on one’s back without being burned and kicking a major world system into a different quarter. ↩︎
  4. The 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. ↩︎
  5. Punishment refers to the negative effects, or karmic retribution, brought about by bad causes, in this case, slander of the Lotus Sutra and persecution of its practitioners.  ↩︎
  6. The Opening of the Eyes: SGI President Ikeda’s Lecture Series, pp. 125–26. ↩︎
  7. The World of Nichiren’s Writings, vol. 1, pp. 111–12. ↩︎

Radicalism Reconsidered

Highlights of the March 2024 Study Material