Nichiren | Biography

1. Nichiren | Biography

Nichiren (16 February 1222– 13 October 1282) was a Japanese Buddhist priest of the Kamakura period (1185–1333), who developed the teachings of Nichiren Buddhism, a branch school of Mahāyāna Buddhism.

Nichiren declared that the Lotus Sūtra alone contains the highest truth of Buddhist teachings suited for the Third Age of Buddhism.

He advocated the repeated recitation of its title, Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō and held that Śākyamuni Buddha and all other Buddhist deities were extraordinary manifestations of a particular Buddha-nature termed “Myōhō—Renge” that is equally accessible to all.

He declared that believers of the Lotus Sūtra must propagate it even under persecution.

Nichiren was a prolific writer and his biography, temperament, and the evolution of his beliefs has been gleaned primarily from his own writings.

After his death, he was bestowed the title Nichiren Dai-Bosatsu (Great Bodhisattva Nichiren) by Emperor Go-Kōgon and the title Risshō Daishi (Great Teacher of Rectification) was conferred posthumously in year 1922 by imperial edict.

Today, Nichiren Buddhism includes traditional temple schools such as Nichiren-shū and Nichiren Shōshū, as well as lay movements such as Soka Gakkai, Risshō Kōsei Kai, Reiyūkai, Kenshokai, Honmon Butsuryū-shū, Kempon Hokke, and Shōshinkai among many others.

Each group has varying views of Nichiren's teachings with claims and interpretations of Nichiren's identity ranging from the rebirth of Bodhisattva Viśiṣṭacāritra to the Primordial or "True Buddha" (Honbutsu) of the Third Age of Buddhism.

2. Overview

The main narrative of Nichiren's life has been constructed from extant letters and treatises he wrote, counted in one collection as 523 complete writings and 248 fragments.

Aside from historical documents stored in the repositories of various Nichiren sects, the first extensive non-religious biographical account of Nichiren did not appear until more than 200 years after his death.

He launched his teachings in 1253, advocating an exclusive return to the Lotus Sūtra as based on its original Tendai interpretations.

His 1260 treatise Risshō Ankoku Ron (On Establishing the Correct Teaching for the Peace of the Land) argued that a nation that embraces the Lotus Sūtra will experience peace and prosperity whereas rulers who support inferior religious teachings invite disorder and disaster into their realms.

In a 1264 essay, he stated that the title of the Lotus Sūtra, "Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō," encompasses all Buddhist teachings and its recitation leads to Enlightenment.

As a result of his adamant stance, he experienced severe persecution imposed by the Kamakura Shogunate and consequently began to see himself as "bodily reading the Lotus Sūtra (Jpn. Hokke shikidoku)."

In some of his writings during a 2nd exile (1271-1274) he began to identify himself with the key Lotus Sūtra characters Sadāparibhūta and Viśiṣṭacāritra and saw himself in the role of leading a vast outpouring of Bodhisattvas of the Earth.

In 1274, after his 2 predictions of foreign invasion and political strife were seemingly actualized by the first attempted Mongol invasion of Japan along with an unsuccessful coup within the Hōjō clan, Nichiren was pardoned by the Shogunate authorities and his advice was sought but not heeded.

The Risshō Ankoku Ron in which he first predicted foreign invasion and civil disorder is now considered by Japanese historians to be a literary classic illustrating the apprehensions of that period.

Several hagiographies about Nichiren and are reflected in various pieces of artwork about incidents in his life.

Nichiren remains a controversial figure among scholars who cast him as either a fervent nationalist or a social reformer with a transnational religious vision.

Critical scholars have used words such as intolerant, nationalistic, militaristic, and self-righteous to portray him.

On the other hand, Nichiren has been presented as a revolutionary, a classic reformer, and as a prophet.

Nichiren is often compared to other religious figures who shared similar rebellious and revolutionary drives to reform degeneration in their respective societies or schools.

3. Birth

According to the lunar Chinese calendar, Nichiren was born on 27th of the first month in 1222, which is 16 February in the Gregorian calendar.

Nichiren was born in the village of Kominato (today part of the city of Kamogawa), Nagase District, Awa Province (within present-day Chiba Prefecture).

Accounts of his lineage vary:

Nichiren described himself as "the son of a Sendara (Skt: chaṇḍāla, despised outcast), "a son born of the lowly people living on a rocky strand of the out-of-the-way sea," and "the son of a sea-diver."

In contrast, Hōnen, Shinran, Dōgen, and Eisai, the other founders of religious schools who predated Nichiren, were all born in the Kyoto region and came from noble or samurai backgrounds.

Although his writings reflect a fierce pride of his lowly birth, followers after his death began to ascribe to him a nobler lineage, perhaps to attract more adherents.  Some have claimed his father was a Rōnin, a manorial functionary or a political refugee.

Nichiren's father was Mikuni-no-Tayu Shigetada, also known as Nukina Shigetada Jiro (d. 1258) and his mother was Umegiku-nyo (d. 1267).

On his birth, his parents named him Zen-nichi-maro which has variously been translated into English as "Splendid Sun" and "Virtuous Sun Boy" among others.

The exact site of Nichiren's birth is believed to be currently submerged off the shore near a Tanjō-ji temple in Kominato that commemorates his birth.

4. Buddhist education

In years 1233-1253 Nichiren engaged in an intensive study of all 10 schools of Buddhism prevalent in Japan at that time as well as the Chinese classics and secular literature.

During these years, he became convinced of the pre-eminence of the Lotus Sūtra and in 1253 returned to the temple where he first studied to present his findings.

In a 1271 letter Nichiren outlined his rationale for deeply studying Buddhism:

Determined to plant a seed of Buddhahood and attain Buddhahood in this life, just as all other people, I relied on Amida Buddha and chanted the name of this Buddha since childhood.

However, I began doubting this practice, making a vow to study all the Buddhist Sūtras, commentaries on them by disciples, and explanatory notes by others.

At the age of 12 he began his Buddhist study at a temple of the Tendai School, Seichō-ji (also called Kiyosumi-dera). He was formally ordained at 16 years old and took the Buddhist name Zeshō-bō Renchō, Renchō meaning "Lotus Growth."

He left Seichō-ji for Kamakura where he studied Pure Land Buddhism, a school that stressed salvation through Nianfo (Japanese nembutsu) or the invocation of Amitābha (Japanese Amida), and then studied Zen which had been growing in popularity in both Kamakura and Kyoto.

He next travelled to Mount Hiei, the centre of Japanese Tendai Buddhism, where he scrutinized the school's original doctrines and its subsequent incorporation of the theories and practices of Pure Land and Esoteric Buddhism.

In the final stage of this 20-year period he travelled to Mount Kōya, the centre of Shingon esoteric Buddhism, and to Nara where he studied its 6 established schools, especially the Ritsu sect which emphasized strict monastic discipline.

5. Declaration of the Lotus Sūtra

According to one of his letters, Nichiren returned to Seichō-ji Temple on 28 April 1253 to lecture on his 20 years of scholarship.

What followed was his first public declaration of Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō atop Mount Kiyosumi.

This marked the start of his campaign to return Tendai to the exclusive reliance of the Lotus Sūtra and his efforts to convert the entire Japanese nation to this belief.  

This declaration also marks the start of his efforts to make profound Buddhist theory practical and actionable so an ordinary person could manifest Buddhahood within his or her own lifetime in the midst of day-to-day realities.

At the same event, according to his own account and subsequent hagiography, he changed his name to Nichiren, an abbreviation of Nichi ("Sun") and Ren ("Lotus").

Nichi represents both the light of truth and the Sun goddess Amaterasu, symbolizing Japan itself.

Ren signifies the Lotus Sūtra. Nichiren envisioned Japan as the country where the true teaching of Buddhism would be revived and the starting point for its worldwide spread.

At his lecture, it is construed, Nichiren vehemently attacked Honen, the founder of Pure Land Buddhism, and its practice of chanting the Nembutsu, Namu Amida Butsu.

It is likely he also denounced the core teachings of Seichō-ji which had incorporated non-exclusive Lotus Sūtra teachings and practices.

In so doing he earned the animosity of the local steward, Hojo Kagenobu, who attempted to kill Nichiren. Modern scholarship suggests that events unfolded not in a single day but over a longer period of time and had social and political dimensions.

Nichiren then developed a base of operation in Kamakura where he converted several Tendai priests, directly ordained others, and attracted lay disciples who were drawn mainly from the strata of the lower and middle samurai class.

Their households provided Nichiren with economic support and became the core of Nichiren communities in several locations in the Kanto region of Japan.

6. First remonstration to Kamakura government

Nichiren arrived in Kamakura in 1254:

Between 1254 and 1260 half of the population had perished due to a tragic succession of calamities that included drought, earthquakes, epidemics, famine, fires, and storms.  

Nichiren sought scriptural references to explain the unfolding of natural disasters and then wrote a series of works

which, based on the Buddhist theory of the non-duality of the human mind and the environment, attributed the sufferings to the weakened spiritual condition of people, thereby causing the Kami (protective forces or traces of the Buddha) to abandon the nation.

The root cause of this, he argued, was the widespread decline of the Dharma due to the mass adoption of the Pure Land teachings.

The most renowned of these works, considered his first major treatise, was the Risshō Ankoku Ron, "On Securing the Peace of the Land through the Propagation of True Buddhism."

Nichiren submitted it to Hōjō Tokiyori, the de facto leader of the Kamakura shogunate, as a political move to effectuate radical reform.

In it he argued the necessity for "the Sovereign to recognize and accept the singly true and correct form of Buddhism (i.e., Risshō) as the only way to achieve peace and prosperity for the land and its people and end their suffering (i.e.: Ankoku)."

Using a dialectic form well-established in China and Japan, the treatise is a 10-segment fictional dialogue between a Buddhist wise man, presumably Nichiren, and a visitor who together lament the tragedies that have beleaguered the nation.

The wise man answers the guest's questions and, after a heated exchange, gradually leads him to enthusiastically embrace the vision of a country grounded firmly on the ideals of the Lotus Sūtra.

In this writing Nichiren displays a skill in using analogy, anecdote, and detail to persuasively appeal to an individual's unique psychology, experiences, and level of understanding.

The teacher builds his argument by quoting extensively from a set of Buddhist Sūtras and commentaries:

In his future writings Nichiren continued to draw from the same Sūtras and commentaries, effectively forming Nichiren's canon of sources out of the Buddhist library which he deemed supportive of the Lotus Sūtra including:

1) Konkōmyō (Golden Light (Suvarṇaprabhāsa)) Sūtra
2) Daijuku (The Great Collection, Mahāsamnipāta) Sūtra
3) Ninnō (Benevolent Kings) Sūtra
4) Yakushi (Medicine Buddha, Bhaiṣajyaguru) Sūtra
5) Nirvāṇa (Mahāyāna Mahā Parinirvāṇa) Sūtra

They share in common apocalyptic or nation-protecting teachings and prophecies.

The Risshō Ankoku Ron concludes with an urgent appeal to the ruler to cease all financial support for Buddhist schools promoting inferior teachings.

Otherwise, Nichiren warns, as predicted by the Sūtras, the continued influence of inferior teachings would invite even more natural disasters as well as the outbreak of civil strife and foreign invasion.

Nichiren submitted his treatise on 16 July 1260 but it drew no official response.

It did, however, prompt a severe backlash from the Buddhist priests of other schools:

Nichiren was challenged to a religious debate with leading Kamakura prelates in which, by his account, they were swiftly dispatched. Their lay followers, however, attempted to kill him at his dwelling which forced him to flee Kamakura.

His critics had influence with key governmental figures and spread slanderous rumours about him. One year after he submitted the Rissho Ankoku Ron the authorities arrested him and exiled to the Izu peninsula.

Nichiren's Izu exile lasted 2 years.

Nichiren began to emphasize the purpose of human existence as being the practice of the Bodhisattva ideal in the real world which entails undertaking struggle and manifesting endurance.

He suggested that he is a model of this behaviour, a "votary" of the Lotus Sūtra.

Upon being pardoned in 1263 Nichiren returned to Kamakura.

In November 1264 he was ambushed and nearly killed by a force led by Lord Tōjō Kagenobu. For the next few years he preached in provinces outside of Kamakura but returned in 1268.

At this point the Mongols sent envoys to Japan demanding tribute and threatening invasion. Nichiren sent 11 letters to influential leaders reminding them about his predictions in the Rissho Ankoku Ron.

7. Attempt at execution

The threat and execution of Mongol invasion was the worst crisis in pre-modern Japanese history.

In 1269 Mongol envoys again arrived to demand Japanese submission to their hegemony and the military government responded by mobilizing military defences.

The role of Buddhism in "nation-protection" was long established in Japan at this time and the government galvanized prayers from Buddhist schools for this purpose.

Nichiren and his followers, however, felt emboldened that the predictions he had made in 1260 of foreign invasion seemingly were being fulfilled and more people joined their movement.

Daring a rash response from the government, Nichiren vowed in letters to his followers that he was giving his life to actualize the Lotus Sūtra.

He accelerated his polemics against the non-Lotus teachings the government had been patronizing at the very time it was attempting to solidify national unity and resolve:

In a series of letters to prominent leaders he directly provoked the major prelates of Kamakura temples that the Hojo family patronized,

criticized the principles of Zen which was popular among the samurai class, critiqued the esoteric practices of Shingon just as the government was invoking them, and condemned the ideas underlying Risshū as it was enjoying a revival.

His actions at that time have been described by modern scholars either as a high form of altruism or the ravings of a fanatic and madman.

His claims drew the ire of the influential religious figures of the time and their followers, especially the Shingon priest Ryōkan:

In September 1271, after a fiery exchange of letters between the two, Nichiren was arrested by a band of soldiers and tried by Hei no Saemon, the deputy chief of the Hojo clan's Board of Retainers.

Nichiren considered this as his 2nd remonstration to the government.

According to Nichiren's own account, he was sentenced to exile but was brought to Tatsunokuchi beach in Shichirigahama for execution.

At the final moment an astronomical phenomenon, "a brilliant orb as bright as the moon," arced over the execution grounds, terrifying Nichiren's executioners into inaction.

According to some accounts a lightning struck his executioner.
Some scholars have proposed alternative narratives for this story.

Regardless of the account, Nichiren's life was spared and he was exiled to Sado Island.

The incident has become known as the "Tatsunokuchi Persecution" and was regarded by Nichiren as a death-and-resurrection turning point.

8. Second banishment and exile

After the failed execution authorities carried out Nichiren's original sentence of exile to Sado Island in the Sea of Japan.

Upon arriving, he was dispatched to a small dilapidated temple located in a graveyard.

Nichiren was accompanied by a few disciples and in the first winter they endured terrible cold, food deprivation, and threats from local inhabitants.

Nichiren scholars describe a clear shift in both tone and message in letters written before his Sado exile and those written during and after:

Initially, Nichiren's urgent concern was to rally his followers in Kamakura:

The tactics of the government suppression of the Nichiren community included exile, imprisonment, land confiscation, or ousting from clan membership.

Apparently a majority of his disciples abandoned their faith and others questioned why they and Nichiren were facing such adversity in light of the Lotus Sūtra's promise of "peace and security in the present life."

In response he began to identify himself with Sadāparibhūta, a key figure in the Lotus Sūtra, who in the 20th chapter invited repeated persecution in his efforts to propagate the Sūtra.

Such hardship, Nichiren argued, fulfilled and validated the Lotus Sūtra.

He also identified himself with the Bodhisattva Viśiṣṭacāritra to whom Śākyamuni entrusted the future propagation of the Lotus Sūtra, seeing himself in the role of leading a vast outpouring of Bodhisattvas of the Earth who pledged to liberate the oppressed.

The numerous letters and minor treatises he wrote in Sado include what is considered his 2 most significant works:

1) Kanjin no Honzon Shō: "The Object of Devotion for Observing the Mind")
2) Kaimoku Shō: "On the Opening of the Eyes".

In the latter he stated that facing adversity should be regarded as a matter of course and that the resolve to carry on with the mission to propagate the Sūtra was for him more important than guarantees of protection:

"Let Heaven forsake me. Let ordeals confront me. I will not begrudge bodily life....

No matter what trials we may encounter, so long as we do not have a mind of doubt, I and my disciples will naturally achieve the Buddha realm."

He concluded this work with the vow to be the "pillar of Japan, the eyes of Japan, the great ship of Japan."

9. The Dai Gohonzon

At the end of the 1271-1272 winter Nichiren's conditions had improved:

He had attracted a small band of followers in Sado who provided him with support and disciples from the mainland began visiting him and providing supplies.

In 1272 there was an attempted coup in Kamakura and Kyoto, seemingly fulfilling the prediction he had made in the Rissho Ankoku Ron of rebellion in the domain.

At this point Nichiren was transferred to much better accommodations.

While on Sado Island, Nichiren inscribed the first Dai Gohonzon:

Although there is evidence of a Gohonzon in embryonic form as far back as the days right before his exile, the first in full form is dated to July 8, 1273 and includes the inscription of "Nichiren inscribes this for the first time."

His writings on Sado provide his rationale for a calligraphic mandala depicting the assembly at Eagle Peak which was to be used as an object of devotion or worship.

By increasingly associating himself with Viśiṣṭacāritra he implied a direct link to the original and universal Buddha.

He read in the 16th (Life span) chapter of the Lotus Sūtra a 3-fold "secret Dharma" of the Daimoku, the object of worship (Honzon), and the ordination platform (Kaidan):

These became the means for people to directly access the Buddha's Enlightenment.

At the bottom of each mandala he wrote: "This is the great mandala never before revealed in Jambudvīpa during the more than 2200 years since the Buddha's Nirvāṇa."

He inscribed many Gohonzons during the rest of his life. More than a hundred Dai Gohonzon preserved today are attributed to Nichiren's own hand.

10. Return to Kamakura

Nichiren was pardoned on February 14, 1274 and returned to Kamakura one month later on March 26. Nichiren wrote that his innocence and the accuracy of his predictions caused the regent Hōjō Tokimune to intercede on his behalf.

Scholars have suggested that some of his well-connected followers might have had influence on the government's decision to release him.

On April 8 he was summoned by Hei no Saemon, who inquired about the timing of the next Mongol invasion. Nichiren predicted that it would occur within the year:

He used the audience as yet another opportunity to remonstrate with the government:

Claiming that reliance on prayers based on esoteric rituals would invite further calamity, he urged the government to ground itself exclusively on the Lotus Sūtra.

Deeply disappointed by the government's refusal to heed his advice, Nichiren left Kamakura one month later, on May 12, determined to become a solitary wayfarer.

5 days later, however, on a visit to the residence of Lord Sanenaga of Mt. Minobu, he learned that followers in nearby regions had held steadfast during his exile.

Despite severe weather and deprivation, Nichiren remained in Minobu for the rest of his career.

11. Retirement to Mount Minobu

During his self-imposed exile at Mount Minobu, a location 100 miles west of Kamakura, Nichiren led a widespread movement of followers in Kanto and Sado mainly through his prolific letter-writing.

During the so-called "Atsuhara affair" of 1279 when governmental attacks were aimed at Nichiren's followers rather than himself,

Nichiren's letters reveal an assertive and well-informed leader who provided detailed instructions through a sophisticated network of disciples serving as liaisons between Minobu and other affected areas in Japan.

He also showed the ability to provide a compelling narrative of events that gave his followers a broad perspective of what was unfolding.

More than half of the extant letters of Nichiren were written during his years at Minobu:

Some consisted of moving letters to followers expressing appreciation for their assistance, counselling on personal matters, and explaining his teachings in more understandable terms.

2 of his works from this period, the Senji Shō: "The Selection of the Time" and the Hōon Shō: "On Repaying Debts of Gratitude") constitute what is commonly regarded as his 5 major writings:

1. Senji Shō: "The Selection of the Time"
2. Hōon Shō: "On Repaying Debts of Gratitude")
3. Risshō Ankoku Ron
4. Kaimoku Shō ("The Opening of the Eyes)
5. Kanjin no Honzon Shō ("The Object of Devotion for Observing the Mind")

During his years at Minobu Nichiren intensified his attacks on mystical and esoteric practices (mikkyō) that had been incorporated into the Japanese Tendai School. It becomes clear at this point that he understood that he was creating his own form of Lotus Buddhism.

Nichiren and his disciples completed the Kuon-ji Temple in 1281. In the 19th century this structure burned down to be replaced by a new structure completed in the second half of the Meiji era.

While at Minobu Nichiren also inscribed numerous Dai Gohonzons for bestowal upon specific disciples and lay believers.

It is apparent that Nichiren took great care in deciding which of his disciples were eligible to receive a Gohonzon inscribed by him:

In the case of a letter written to Lady Niiama he took great care to explain why he would not inscribe a Gohonzon despite a deep personal bond.

Among the Gohonzons he inscribed were several that were quite large in size and perhaps intended for congregational use in chapels maintained by some lay followers.

12. Death

In 1282, after years of privation, Nichiren fell ill. His followers encouraged him to travel to the hot springs for their medicinal benefits:

En route, unable to travel further, he stopped at the home of a disciple in Ikegami, outside of present-day Tokyo, and died on 13 October 1282.

According to legend, he died in the presence of fellow disciples after having spent several days lecturing from his sickbed on the Lotus Sūtra, writing a final letter, and leaving instructions for the future of his movement after his death, namely the designation of the 6 senior disciples.

His funeral and cremation took place the following day. His disciples left Ikegami with Nichiren's ashes on October 21, reaching back to Minobu on October 25.

a) Nichiren Shū sect claims his tomb is placed, as per his request, at Kuon-ji on Mount Minobu where his ashes remain.

b) Nichiren Shōshū asserts that Nikko Shonin later confiscated his cremated ashes along with other articles and brought them to Mount Fuji which, they claim are now enshrined on the left side next to the Dai Gohonzon within the Hōandō Enshrinement Hall.