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Nichiren Daishonin—His Lifelong Vow and Great Compassion

Installment 16: The Sado Exile—Part 4

Photo by Astalor / Getty Images.

With the Disturbance of the Second Month of 1272,[1] Nichiren Daishonin’s warning of internal strife had come true.

In “The Actions of the Votary of the Lotus Sutra,” Nichiren writes that after the Tsukahara Debate the prior month, he asked the deputy constable of Sado, Homma Shigetsura, when he would next visit Kamakura. (Shige-
tsura is believed to have traveled back and forth from Sado to Kamakura, where his lord Hojo Nobutoki resided.)

After Shigetsura said that “it would be around the seventh month,” Nichiren responded: 

Fighting is about to break out in Kamakura. You should hasten there to distinguish yourself in battle, and then you will be rewarded with fiefs. Since your warriors are renowned throughout the province of Sagami, if you remain here in the countryside tending to your farms and arrive too late for the battle, your name will be disgraced. (“The Actions of the Votary of the Lotus Sutra,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 772)

Seemingly perplexed, Shigetsura said nothing. 

News of the disturbance reached Sado on the eighteenth day of the second month. Shigetsura now realized that this must have been what Nichiren had been talking about. Surprised at the accuracy of the prediction, he said: “I see now that the Mongols will surely attack us, and it is equally certain that believers in Nembutsu are doomed to the hell of incessant suffering. I will never chant the Nembutsu again” (WND-1, 772). He then hurried to Kamakura.

Around this time, more people on Sado began to take faith in Nichiren’s teachings. Among them were Abutsu-bo and his wife, the lay nun Sennichi.

Though the local steward and Nembutsu believers kept strict watch on the Daishonin’s hut to prevent people from communicating with him, Nichiren’s followers found ways to support him, including by coming late at night to deliver food.

His followers in Kamakura and Shimosa Province, such as Shijo Kingo, Nichimyo and Toki Jonin, also traveled to Sado or sent messengers. 

Other disciples, including Nikko, stayed by Nichiren’s side and shared his hardships. 

Nichiren later sent a letter of heartfelt gratitude to the lay nun Sennichi:

Never in any lifetime will I forget how in those circumstances you, with Abutsu-bo carrying a wooden container of food on his back, came in the night again and again to bring me aid. It was just as if my deceased mother had suddenly been reborn in the province of Sado! (“The Sutra of True Requital,” WND-1, 933)

Because of Abutsu-bo and Sennichi’s support of Nichiren, the authorities drove them from their land, fined them and took away their home (see WND-1, 933). Even after leaving Sado, Nichiren never forgot their sincerity and expressed his appreciation for the rest of his life.

Around the fourth month of that year, the authorities transferred Nichiren from Tsukahara to a place called Ichinosawa in Ishida Village,[2] in the custody of a Nembutsu adherent known as the lay priest Ichinosawa. The reasons for his transfer from his dilapidated hut in Tsukahara to a lodging at the lay priest’s residence are unclear. Some suggest it was to improve Nichiren’s treatment while others view it as intended to isolate him from Abutsu-bo and his other followers near Tsukahara.

Although several disciples accompanied Nichiren to Ichinosawa, the official responsible for him during his exile provided them only meager rations, making their living situation desperate (see “Letter to the Lay Priest Ichinosawa,” WND-1, 529).

The lay priest Ichinosawa gradually came to admire Nichiren, providing him with daily necessities, and his wife converted to Nichiren’s teachings. Years later, when the lay priest died, Nichiren wrote a letter to the lay nun Sennichi, in which he expressed his appreciation for Ichinosawa’s help. He writes, “I am mindful, however, that the lay priest Ichinosawa on several occasions saved my life by hiding me in a corridor of his residence” (“The Sutra of True Requital,” WND-1, 934).

This passage suggests that Nichiren faced danger many times and that the lay priest protected him. 

On the twenty-fifth day of the fourth month of 1273, the year after he was sent to Ichinosawa, Nichiren completed “The Object of Devotion for Observing the Mind.” In that treatise, he elucidates the object of devotion of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo for living beings in the Latter Day of the Law to embrace to attain Buddhahood.

The treatise’s full title is “The Object of Devotion for Observing the Mind Established in the Fifth Five-Hundred-Year Period after the Thus Come One’s Passing.”

The “Fifth Five-Hundred-Year Period after the Thus Come One’s Passing” refers to the fifth five-hundred-year period after Shakyamuni’s death, or the beginning of the Latter Day, when Bodhisattva Superior Practices would appear in the world. “Established” refers to the start of this bodhisattva’s propagation efforts.

“Observing the Mind” is the practice for living beings in the Latter Day, namely chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, the essence of the Lotus Sutra. This is the practice most suited to enabling them to achieve enlightenment. 

“The object of devotion” means object of devotion of the essential teaching [3] that living beings in the Latter Day should revere.

Therefore, the title of this treatise suggests it is a writing illuminating the object of devotion of the essential teaching that will first be spread by Bodhisattva Superior Practices, the leader of the Bodhisattvas of the Earth, at the beginning of the Latter Day. Nichiren himself fulfilled the role of Bodhisattva Superior Practices.

Nichiren begins “The Object of Devotion for Observing the Mind” by introducing sutra passages that provide a foundation for the principle of three thousand realms in a single moment of life.[4] Then, citing passages from the fifth volume of the Great Teacher T’ien-t’ai’s work Great Concentration and Insight, he identifies the doctrine of three thousand realms in a single moment of life as T’ien-t’ai’s ultimate teaching. 

He then explains the meaning of “observing the mind.” 

This phrase refers to living beings perceiving that all the Ten Worlds[5] exist within their lives. This means that, as ordinary people in the Latter Day, our lives are endowed with all Ten Worlds, including the world of Buddhahood, which we can unlock and bring forth in response to the appropriate condition, or external cause. Most important here is that we ordinary human beings possess the world of Buddhahood, the highest state of life.

Nichiren states in conclusion regarding “observing the mind”:

Shakyamuni’s practices and the virtues he consequently attained are all contained within the five characters of Myoho-renge-kyo.If we believe in these five characters, we will naturally be granted the same benefits as he was. (“The Object of Devotion for Observing the Mind,” WND-1, 365)

In concrete terms, the practice that enables people to attain Buddhahood in the Latter Day is to believe in and uphold the Gohonzon of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo that Nichiren revealed. This enables us to realize the goal of the practice of “observing the mind,” which is to attain Buddhahood. That is what is meant by the teaching that “embracing the Gohonzon is itself observing one’s own mind.”

In the Middle Day of the Law,[6] the Great Teacher T’ien-t’ai, through the principle of three thousand realms in a single moment of life, revealed in theory the possibility of attaining Buddhahood. In contrast, Nichiren sought a practical method that anyone in the Latter Day could employ to attain Buddhahood. Nichiren concluded that this was to accept and uphold the Gohonzon, that is, to believe in and chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo to it.

Nichiren then reveals the object of devotion that we in the Latter Day should believe in and make the basis of our practice.

He first lists the objects of devotion that appear in the form of various Buddhas in the sutras Shakyamuni had preached during his first 50-odd years after attaining enlightenment. He then asserts that supreme among these is Shakyamuni in his identity as the Buddha who attained enlightenment in the remote past, as revealed in the essential teaching, or latter half, of the Lotus Sutra.

Nichiren goes on to say that those Shakyamuni entrusted with propagating Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, the heart of the sutra’s essential teaching, in the age after his passing are none other than the Bodhisattvas of the Earth. Nichiren depicts this in the object of devotion he inscribed, which, centered on Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, portrays the Ceremony in the Air where Shakyamuni preaches the “Life Span” chapter of the Lotus Sutra.

He continues by explaining the so-called fivefold view of revelation,[7] which shows that the object of devotion that enables ordinary people in the Latter Day to attain enlightenment is Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, the seed of Buddhahood to which the eternal Buddha awakened.

He later states that when the calamities of internal strife and foreign invasion occur, as was happening at the time, the Bodhisattvas of the Earth would emerge and reveal the object of devotion of the essential teaching.

In conclusion, Nichiren writes: “Showing profound compassion for those unable to comprehend the gem of the doctrine of three thousand realms in a single moment of life, the Buddha wrapped it within the five characters [of Myoho-renge-kyo], with which he then adorned the necks of the ignorant people of the latter age” (WND-1, 376). 

We can read this passage as a description of Nichiren’s own profound compassion in inscribing the Gohonzon of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo for all people of the Latter Day to believe in. From this point on, Nichiren continued to write one letter after another, declaring widely that Nichiren Buddhism would spread throughout the world and into the future. 

Meanwhile, those who despised him were crafting schemes to end his life.

(To be continued in an upcoming issue)

Ikeda Sensei: While we may speak of there being several dozen writings from this time, it goes without saying that Nichiren Daishonin composed each of them for his followers with the fierce wish to lead all people to enlightenment, even while facing extreme circumstances that pushed him to the very limits of human endurance. We should deeply reflect on the Daishonin’s spirit. …

The organization of the Daishonin’s followers in Kamakura was certainly destroyed for a time as a result of the great persecution of 1271. I don’t think its reconstruction was merely a matter of the Daishonin’s followers, who had been widely dispersed, aimlessly recongregating. Rather, under the clear guidance that the Daishonin was transmitting from Sado, people who shared the same fighting spirit built a harmonious unity of “many in body, one in mind” that was even stronger than before. Isn’t this the true image of the followers in Kamakura during the Daishonin’s exile to Sado?[8]

Commenting on the passage “if in a single moment of life we exhaust the pains and trials of millions of kalpas, then instant after instant there will arise in us the three Buddha bodies with which we are eternally endowed” (“The Essential Passage in Each of the Twenty-eight Chapters of the Lotus Sutra,” The Record of the Orally Transmitted Teachings, p. 214):

When we work hard for kosen- rufu, exerting a hundred million eons of effort at each moment, the immense life of the Buddha arises in our being at each moment. The three enlightened properties of wisdom, courage and compassion that we originally possess well forth through our being. 

The Daishonin revealed the Gohonzon to teach people of this limitless life force. With the Gohonzon as a clear mirror, we should develop confidence in the existence of this power of life in ourselves, in our friends and in all people. …

The “object of devotion for observing the mind” amounts to a radical change in the concept of the object of devotion. In this, we find the essence of a religion for humanity that gives the highest respect to human potential and makes real change possible. ….

Nichiren proved the greatness of the human being at the execution grounds of Tatsunokuchi. Because of this, he could embody in graphic form the fundamental Law that enables all people to achieve their highest potential. 

The Gohonzon crystallizes the Daishonin’s vow to save all people; it enables all people to attain enlightenment. This is what Nichiren means by the “object of devotion for observing the mind.”[9]

From the July 2024 Living Buddhism


  1. Disturbance of the Second Month: In the second month of 1272, a faction of the ruling Hojo clan rebelled, and fighting broke out in Kamakura and Kyoto, the seats of the military government and imperial capital, respectively. ↩︎
  2. Ichinosawa in Ishida Village: Present-day Ichinosawa in Sado City. ↩︎
  3. While “essential teaching” is used to refer to the latter 14 chapters of the Lotus Sutra, in which Shakyamuni reveals that he originally attained Buddhahood in the remote past, in his writings, Nichiren Daishonin sometimes uses the term “essential teaching” to indicate Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, the teaching for attaining Buddhahood in the Latter Day of the Law. ↩︎
  4. Three thousand realms in a single moment of life: The principle that the entire phenomenal world, including the life state of Buddhahood, exists in a single life moment of an ordinary person. Revealed by the Great Teacher T’ien-t’ai in the fifth volume of Great Concentration and Insight based on the teachings of the Lotus Sutra, the doctrine was revealed as a practice for gaining insight into the mystery of the mind that is difficult to capture in a concept. ↩︎
  5. Ten Worlds: Ten conditions or potential life states within all living beings. From the lowest to the highest, the worlds consist of 1) hell,
    2) hungry spirits, 3) animals, 4) asuras, 5) human beings, 6) heavenly beings, 7) voice-hearers, 8) cause-awakened ones, 9) bodhisattvas and 10) Buddhas. The Great Teacher T’ien-t’ai taught the mutual possession of the Ten Worlds, which states that each of the Ten Worlds possesses all other nine within it, making it possible to regard them as potential states of life. Thus, whatever world a person is manifesting now, they can instantly manifest the world of Buddhahood. ↩︎

  6. Middle Day of the Law: The second of the three periods following Shakyamuni’s death. During this time, Shakyamuni’s teachings gradually become formalized, the people’s connection to them weakens and progressively fewer people are able to gain enlightenment through its practice. According to some sources, after the Former Day of the Law (a 1,000-year period immediately after Shakyamuni’s death), the Middle Day of the Law lasts a thousand years. ↩︎
  7. Fivefold view of revelation: In “The Object of Devotion for Observing the Mind,” Nichiren explains that the essence of Buddhism is found in the teaching implicit in the “Life Span” chapter by applying the three divisions of preparation, revelation and transmission to five bodies of teachings: 1) all of Shakyamuni’s teachings; 2) the threefold Lotus Sutra (the Immeasurable Meanings Sutra, the eight-volume Lotus Sutra and the Universal Worthy Sutra); 3) the Immeasurable Meanings Sutra and the theoretical teaching (first half) of the Lotus Sutra; 4) the essential teaching (latter half) of the Lotus Sutra and the Universal Worthy Sutra; and 5) the teaching implicit in “Life Span,” the 16th chapter of the sutra. His purpose in so doing is to show that Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is the very teaching to be practiced and propagated in the Latter Day of the Law. ↩︎
  8. Translated from Japanese. Daisaku Ikeda, “Gosho no sekai” (The World of Nichiren Daishonin’s Writings), in Ikeda Daisaku zenshu (The Complete Works of Daisaku Ikeda), vol. 33 (Tokyo: Seikyo Shimbunsha, 2009), pp. 39–40. ↩︎
  9. The World of Nichiren’s Writings, vol. 1,
    pp. 254–56. ↩︎

Thoughts on Education for Global Citizenship

Highlights of the July 2024 Study Material