Nichiren Buddhism | After Nichiren

1. Nichiren in Medieval Japan

After Nichiren's death in 1282 the Kamakura shogunate weakened largely due to financial and political stresses resulting from defending the country from the Mongols.

It was replaced by the Ashikaga shogunate (1336–1573), which in turn was succeeded by the Azuchi–Momoyama period (1573–1600), and then the Tokugawa shogunate (1600–1868).

During these time periods, collectively comprising Japan's medieval history, Nichiren Buddhism experienced considerable fracturing, growth, turbulence and decline.

A prevailing characteristic of the movement in medieval Japan was its lack of understanding of Nichiren's own spiritual realization:

Serious commentaries about Nichiren's theology did not appear for almost 200 years. This contributed to divisive doctrinal confrontations that were often superficial and dogmatic.

This long history of founding, divisions, and merging have led to today's 37 legally incorporated Nichiren Buddhist groups.  

In the modern period, Nichiren Buddhism experienced a revival, largely initiated by lay people and lay movements.

2. Development of the major lineages

Several denominations comprise the umbrella term "Nichiren Buddhism" which was known at the time as the Hokkeshū (Lotus School) or Nichiren Shū (Nichiren School).

The splintering of Nichiren's teachings into different schools began several years after Nichiren's passing.

Despite their differences, however, the Nichiren groups shared commonalities:

a) asserting the primacy of the Lotus Sūtra,
b) tracing Nichiren as their founder,
c) centring religious practice on chanting Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō,
d) using the Gohonzon in meditative practice,
e) insisting on the need for propagation
f) participating in remonstrations with the authorities.

The movement was supported financially by local warlords or stewards who often founded tightly-organized clan temples that were frequently led by sons who became priests.

Most Nichiren schools point to the founding date of their respective head or main temple (for example, Nichiren Shū the year 1281, Nichiren Shōshū the year 1288, and Kempon Hokke Shū the year 1384) although they did not legally incorporate as religious bodies until the late 19th and early 20th century. A last wave of temple mergers took place in the 1950s.

The roots of this splintering can be traced to the organization of the Nichiren community during his life:

In 1282, one year before his death, Nichiren named "6 senior priests" (rokurōsō) disciples to lead his community: Nikkō Shonin, Nisshō, Nichirō, Nikō, Nitchō, and Nichiji:

Each had led communities of followers in different parts of the Kanto region of Japan and these groups, after Nichiren's death, ultimately morphed into lineages of schools.

Nikkō Shonin, Nichirō, and Nisshō were the core of the Minobu (also known as the Nikō or Kuon-ji) monryū or school:

Nikō became the 2nd chief abbot of Minobu(Nichiren is considered by this school to be the 1st).

Nichirō's direct lineage was called the Nichirō or Hikigayatsu monryū.
Nisshō's lineage became the Nisshō or Hama monryū.
Nitchō formed the Nakayama lineage but later returned to become a follower of Nikkō.

Nichiji, originally another follower of Nikkō, eventually travelled to the Asian continent (ca. 1295) on a missionary journey and some scholarship suggests he reached northern China, Manchuria, and possibly Mongolia.

Kuon-ji Temple in Mount Minobu eventually became the head temple of today's Nichiren Shū, the largest branch among traditional schools, encompassing the schools and temples tracing their origins to Nikō, Nichirō, Nisshō, Nitchō, and Nichiji:

The lay and/or new religious movements Reiyūkai, Risshō Kōsei Kai, and Nipponzan-Myōhōji-Daisanga stem from this lineage.

Nikkō left Kuon-ji in 1289 and became the founder of what was to be called the Nikkō monryū or lineage:

He founded a centre at the foot of Mount Fuji which would later be known as the Taiseki-ji temple of Nichiren Shōshū. Soka Gakkai is the largest independent lay organization that shares roots with this lineage.

Fault lines between the various Nichiren groups crystallized over several issues:

1. Local gods:

A deeply embedded and ritualized part of Japanese village life, Nichiren schools clashed over the practice of honouring local gods (kami) by lay disciples of Nichiren:

Some argued that this practice was a necessary accommodation. The group led by the monk Nikkō objected to such syncretism.

2. Content of Lotus Sūtra:

Some schools (called Itchi) argued that all chapters of the sūtra should be equally valued and others (called Shoretsu) claimed that the latter half was superior to the former half.

3. Identity of Nichiren:

Some of his later disciples identified him with Viśiṣṭacāritra, the leader of the Bodhisattvas of the Earth who were entrusted in Chapter 22 to propagate the Lotus Sūtra.

The Nikkō group identified Nichiren as the original and eternal Buddha.

4. Identification with Tiantai School:

The Nisshō group began to identify itself as a Tiantai school, having no objections to its esoteric practices, perhaps as an expedient means to avoid persecution from Tiantai, Pure Land, and Shingon followers. This deepened the rift with Nikkō.

5. The Three Gems:

All schools of Buddhism speak of the concept of Three Gems (Buddha, Dharma, and Saṅgha) but define it differently. Over the centuries the Nichiren schools have come to understand it differently as well:

The Minobu School has come to identify the Buddha as Śākyamuni whereas the Nikkō school identifies it as Nichiren.

For Minobu the Dharma is Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō, the Nikkō school identifies it as the Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō that is hidden in the 16th "Lifespan" Chapter of the Lotus Sūtra (the Gohonzon).

Currently, Nichiren Shōshū claims this specifically refers to the Dai Gohonzon, whereas Soka Gakkai holds it represents all Gohonzon.

The Saṅgha, sometimes translated as "the priest", is also interpreted differently:

Minobu defines it as Nichiren; Nichiren Shōshū as Nikkō representing its priesthood; and the Soka Gakkai as Nikkō representing the harmonious community of practitioners.

The cleavage between Nichiren groups has also been classified by the so-called Itchi (meaning unity or harmony) and Shoretsu (a contraction of 2 words meaning superior/inferior) lineages.

A. The Itchi lineage today comprises most of the traditional schools within Nichiren Buddhism, of which the Nichiren Shū is the biggest representative, although it also includes some Nikkō temples:

In this lineage the whole of the Lotus Sūtra, both the so-called theoretical (Shakumon or "Imprinted Gate") and essential (Honmon or "Original Gate") chapters are venerated:

While great attention is given to the 2nd and 16th chapter of the Lotus Sūtra, other parts of the Sūtra are recited.

B. The Shoretsu lineage comprises most temples and lay groups following the Nikkō monryū:

The Shoretsu group values the supremacy of the essential over the theoretical part of the Lotus Sūtra. Therefore, solely the 2nd and 16th chapters of the Lotus Sūtra are recited.

There are additional subdivisions in the Shoretsu group which splintered over whether the entire second half was of equal importance, the 8 chapters of the second half when the assembly participates in “The Ceremony of the Air,” or specifically Chapter 16 (Lifespan of the Tathāgata).

3. Disagreements of lineages

Although there were rivalries and unique interpretations among the early Hokkeshū lineages, none were as deep and distinct as the divide between the Nikkō or Fuji school and the rest of the tradition.

Animosity and discord among the 6 senior disciples started after the 2nd death anniversary of Nichiren's 100th Day Memorial ceremony (23 January 1283) when the rotation system as agreed upon the "Shuso go-senge kiroku" (English: Record document of founder's demise) and Rimbo Cho (English: Rotation Wheel System) to clean and maintain Nichiren's grave where established.

By the 3rd anniversary of Nichiren's passing (13 October 1284), these arrangements seemed to have broken down.

Nikkō claimed that the other 5 senior priests no longer returned to Nichiren's tomb in Mount Minobu, citing signs of neglect at the gravesite.

He took up residency and overall responsibility for Kuon-ji temple while Nikō served as its doctrinal instructor.

Before long, tensions grew between the two concerning the behaviour of Sanenaga, the steward of the Minobu district and the temple's patron:

Nikkō accused Sanenaga of unorthodox practices deemed to be heretical such as:

crafting a standing statue of Śākyamuni Buddha as an object of worship, providing funding for the construction of a Pure Land Stūpa in Fuji, and visiting and worshiping at the Mishima Taisha Shinto shrine which was an honorary shrine of the Hojo clan shogunate.

Nikkō regarded the latter as a violation of Nichiren's Risshō Ankokuron.

In addition, Nikkō made accusatory charges that after Nichiren's death, other disciples slowly began to gradually deviate from what Nikkō viewed as Nichiren's orthodox teachings:

Chief among these complaints was the syncretic practices of some of the disciples to worship images of Śākyamuni Buddha.

Nikkō admonished other disciple priests for signing their names "Tendai Shamon" (of the Tendai Buddhist School) in documents they sent to the Kamakura government.

Furthermore, Nikkō alleged that the other disciples disregarded some of Nichiren's writings written in Katakana rather than in Classical Chinese syllabary.

Sanenaga defended his actions, claiming that it was customary for his political family to provide monetary donations and make homage to the Shinto shrine of the Kamakura shogunate.

Nikō tolerated Sanenaga's acts, claiming that similar incidents occurred previously with the knowledge of Nichiren. Sanenaga sided with Nikō and Nikkō departed in 1289 from Minobu.

He returned to his home in Suruga Province and established 2 temples:

a) Taiseki-ji in the Fuji district
b) Honmon-ji in Omosu district

- He spent most of his life at the latter, where he trained his followers.

His followers claimed that he was the only one of the 6 senior disciples who maintained the purity of Nichiren's legacy.

2 documents appeared, first mentioned and discovered by Taiseki-ji High Priest Nikkyo Shonin in 1488, claiming Nichiren transferred his teaching exclusively to Nikkō but their authenticity has been questioned:

Taiseki-ji does not dispute that the original documents are missing but holds that certified copies are preserved in their repositories.

In contrast, other Nichiren sects vehemently claim them as forgeries since they are not in the original handwriting of Nichiren or Nikkō, holding they were copied down by Nikkō's disciples after his death.

In addition to using the letters to defend its claim to orthodoxy, the documents may have served to justify Taiseki-ji's claimed superiority over other Nikkō temples, especially Ikegami Honmon-ji, the site of Nichiren's tomb.

Even though there had been efforts by temples of the Nikkō lineage in the late 19th century to unify into one single separate Nichiren school the Kommon-ha, today's Nichiren Shōshū comprises only the Taiseki-ji temple and its dependent temples.

It is not identical to the historical Nikkō or Fuji lineage.

Parts of the Kommon-ha, the Honmon-Shū, eventually became part of Nichiren Shū in the 1950s.

New religious movements like Soka Gakkai, Shōshinkai, and Kenshokai trace their origins to the Nichiren Shōshū School.

4. 15-19th century

In the early 14th century Hokkeshū followers spread the teachings westward and established congregations (Jpn. shū) into the imperial capital of Kyoto.

During this time there is documentation of face-to-face public debates between Hokkeshū and Nembutsu adherents.

By the end of the century Hokkeshū temples had been founded all over Kyoto, only being outnumbered by Zen temples.

The demographic base of support in Kyoto was members of the merchant class (Jpn. machishū), some of whom had acquired great wealth:

Probably they were drawn to this faith because of Nichiren's emphasis on the "Third Realm" (Jpn. daisan hōmon) of the Lotus Sūtra, staked out in chapters 10-22, which emphasize practice in the mundane world.

In the 15th century, the political and social order began to collapse and Hokkeshū followers armed themselves. The Hokke-ikki was an uprising in 1532 of Hokke followers against the followers of the Pure Land School.

Initially successful it became the most powerful religious group in Kyoto but its fortunes were reversed in 1536 when Mt. Hiei armed forces destroyed 21 Hokkeshū temples and killed some 58 000 of its followers.

In 1542 permission was granted by the government to rebuild the destroyed temples and the Hokke machishū (self-governing populace of Hokke School) played a crucial role in rebuilding the commerce, industry, and arts in Kyoto.

Their influence in the arts and literature continued through the Momoyama (1568–1615) and Edo (1615–1868) periods and many of the most famous artists and literati were drawn from their ranks.

Although the various sects of Nichiren Buddhism were administratively independent, there is evidence of cooperation between them:

For example, in 1466 the major Hokke temples in Kyoto signed the Kanshō-era accord to protect themselves against threats from Mt. Hiei.

Despite strong sectarian differences, there is also evidence of interactions between Hokkeshū and Tendai scholar-monks.

During the Edo period, with the consolidation of power by the Tokugawa shogunate, increased pressure was placed on major Buddhist schools and Nichiren temples to conform to governmental policies:

Some Hokkeshū adherents, the followers of the so-called Fuju-fuse lineage, adamantly bucked this policy based on their readings of Nichiren's teachings to neither take (Fuju) nor give (fuse) offerings from non-believers.

Suppressed, adherents often held their meetings clandestinely which led to the Fuju-fuse persecution and numerous executions of believers in 1668.

During this time of persecution, most likely to prevent young priests from adopting a passion for propagation, Nichiren seminaries emphasized Tendai studies with only a few top-ranking students permitted to study some of Nichiren's writings.

During the Edo period the majority of Hokkeshū temples were subsumed into the Shogunate’s Danka system, an imposed nationwide parish system designed to ensure religious peace and root out Christianity.

In this system Buddhist temples, in addition to their ceremonial duties, were forced to carry out state administrative functions. Thereby they became agents of the government and were prohibited to engage in any missionary activities.

Hokkeshū temples were now obligated, just like those of other Buddhist schools, to focus on funeral and memorial services (Sōshiki bukkyō) as their main activity. Stagnation was often the price for the protected status.

5. 19th century: From Tokugawa to Meiji

Nichiren Buddhism was deeply influenced by the transition from the Tokugawa (1600–1868) to Meiji (1868–1912) periods in 19th century Japan:

The changeover from early modern to modern was marked by the transformation of late-feudal institutions into modern ones as well as the political transition from Shogunal to imperial rule and the economic shift from national isolation to integration in the world economy.

This entailed creating a centralized state, stitching together some 260 feudal domains ruled by hereditary leaders (daimyo), and moving from a caste social system to a meritocracy based on educational achievement.

Although commonly perceived as a singular event called the Meiji Restoration, the transition was full of twists and turns that began in the later Tokugawa years and continued decades after the 1867–1868 demise of the shogunate and launch of imperial rule.

By this time Japanese Buddhism was often characterized by syncretism in which local native worship was incorporated into Buddhist practice:

For example, Tendai, Shingon, Jodō, and Nichiren temples often had chapels within them dedicated to Inari Shinto worship.

Within Nichiren Buddhism there was a phenomenon of Hokke Shintō (Lotus Shinto), closely influenced by Yoshida Shintō.

Anti-Buddhist sentiment had been building throughout the latter part of the Tokugawa period (1603–1868). Scholars such as Tominaga Nakamoto and Hirata Atsutane attacked the theoretical roots of Buddhism:

Critics included promoters of Confucianism, nativism, Shinto-inspired Restoration supporters, and modernizers. Buddhism was critiqued as a needless drain on public resources and also as an insidious foreign influence that had obscured the indigenous Japanese spirit.

Under attack by 2 policies of the day, Shinbutsu Bunri (Separation of Shinto Deities and Buddhas) and Haibutsu kishaku (Eradication of Buddhism), Japanese Buddhism during the Tokugawa-to-Meiji transition proved to be a crisis of survival:

The new government promoted policies that reduced the material resources available to Buddhist temples and downgraded their role in the religious, political, and social life of the nation.

The policies of Shinbutsu Bunri were implemented at the local level throughout Japan but were particularly intense in 3 domains that were the most active in the Restoration: Satsuma, Chōshi, and Tosa:

In Satsuma, for example, by 1872 all of its 1000+ Buddhist temples had been abolished, their monks laicized, and their landholdings confiscated.

Throughout the country thousands of Buddhist temples and, at a minimum, tens of thousands of Buddhist Sūtras, paintings, statues, temple bells and other ritual objects were destroyed, stolen, lost, or sold during the early years of the restoration.

Starting in the second decade of the restoration, pushback against these policies came from Western powers interested in providing a safe harbour for Christianity and Buddhist leaders who proposed an alliance of Shinto and Buddhism to resist Christianity.

As part of this accommodation, Buddhist priests were forced to promote key teachings of Shinto and provide support for national policies.

Nichiren Buddhism, like the other Buddhist schools, struggled between accommodation and confrontation:

The Nichiren scholar Udana-in Nichiki (1800–1859) argued for a policy of co-existence with other schools of Buddhism, Confucianism, Nativism, and European religions.

His disciple Arai Nissatsu (1830–1888) forged an alliance of several Nichiren branches and became the first superintendent of the present Nichiren Shū which was incorporated in 1876.

Nissatsu was active in Buddhist intersect cooperation to resist the government's hostile policies, adopted the government's "Great Teaching" policy that was Shinto-derived, and promoted inter-sectarian understanding.

In the process, however, he reinterpreted some of Nichiren's important teachings.

Among those arguing against accommodation were Nichiren scholar and lay believer Ogawa Taidō (1814–1878) and the cleric Honda Nisshō (1867–1931) of the Kempon Hokke denomination.

After the above events and centuries of splintering based on dogma and institutional histories, the following major Nichiren temple schools were officially recognized in the Meiji era:

1. 1874: Nichiren-shū (formerly Minobu monryū). This school's headquarters was at Kuon-ji temple and held the Itchi perspective that advocated the equal treatment of all sections of the Lotus Sūtra.

However, it also included 5 schools that maintained the Shoretsu perspective which emphasized the latter half of the Lotus Sūtra: Myōmanji, Happon, Honjōji, Honryūji, and Fuji-ha

2. 1876: The Fuju-fuse-ha was recognized by the government after years of clandestine operation following episodes of persecution. In 1882 a second Fuju-fuse sect was recognized, the Fuju-Fuse Kōmon-shū.

3. 1891: The 5 Shoretsu schools changed their names

Myōmanji-ha became Kempon Hokke based at Myōmanji, Kyoto
Happon-ha became Honmon Hokkeshū based in Honjōji, Niigata
Honjōji-ha became Hokkeshū based in Honryūji, Kyoto
Honryūji-ha became Honmyō Hokkeshū, also based in Honryūji, Kyoto
Fuji-ha became Honmon Shū in Monmonji, Shizuoka

4. 1900: The Taiseki-ji temple of Shizuoka broke off from the Honmon Shū and became Nichiren Shū Fuji-ha. In 1913, this group was renamed Nichiren Shōshū which was popularized by the Soka Gakkai lay organization:

Although the latter has a sizeable membership and it is one of the important Japanese New Religions (shinshūkyō), it is not included in many treatments of Nichiren lineages.

6. Development in modern Japanese history

Nichiren Buddhism went through many reforms in the Meiji Period during a time of persecution, Haibutsu kishaku, when the government attempted to eradicate mainstream Japanese Buddhism.

As a part of the Meiji Restoration, the interdependent Danka system between the state and Buddhist temples was dismantled that left the latter without its funding.

Buddhist institutions had to align themselves to the new nationalistic agenda or perish.

Many of these reform efforts were led by lay people. The trend toward lay centrality was prominent in Nichiren Buddhism as well, predating the Meiji period.

Some Nichiren reformers in the Meiji period attempted to inject a nationalistic interpretation of Nichiren's teachings; others called for globalist perspectives.

The term "Nichirenism" applies broadly to the following 3 categories:

1. The ultra-nationalistic preoccupation with Nichiren that contributed to Japan's militaristic effort before World War II.

2. Socialist activists and writers during the pre-war and post-war eras who promoted a vision of an ideal world society inspired by the Lotus Sūtra and according to their own views of Nichiren.

3. Organized religious bodies that were inspired by Nichiren's teachings.

7. As a form of nationalism

Both Nichiren and his followers have been associated with fervent Japanese nationalism specifically identified as Nichirenism between the Meiji period and the conclusion of World War II.

The nationalistic interpretation of Nichiren's teachings were inspired by lay Buddhist movements like Kokuchūkai and resulted in violent historical events such as the May 15 Incident and the League of Blood Incident.

Among the key proponents of this interpretation are Tanaka Chigaku who founded the Kokuchūkai (English: Nation's Pillar Society).

Tanaka was charismatic and through his writings and lectures attracted many followers such as Kanji Ishiwara.

Nisshō Honda advocated the unification of Japanese Buddhists to support the imperial state. Other ultra-nationalist activists who based their ideas on Nichiren were Ikki Kita and Nisshō Inoue.

8. As a form of socialism

Nichirenism also includes several intellectuals and activists who reacted against the pre-war ultra-nationalistic interpretations and argued for an egalitarian and socialist vision of society based on Nichiren's teachings and the Lotus Sūtra.

These figures ran against the growing tide of Japanese militarism and were subjected to political harassment and persecution.

A leading figure in this group was Girō Seno’o who formed the New Buddhist Youth League.

Originally influenced by the ideals of Tanaka and Honda, Girō Seno’o came to reject ultra-nationalism and argued for humanism, socialism, pacifism, and democracy as a new interpretation of Nichiren's beliefs. He was imprisoned for 2 years under the National Security Act.

The same fate was also endured by Tsunesaburō Makiguchi, who refused the religious dictum of Shinto display accepted by Nichiren Shōshū for the Soka Kyoiku Gakkai, his lay organization composed of primarily secretaries and teachers until it grew to become Soka Gakkai after World War II.

9. New social and religious movements

Several Nichiren-inspired religious movements arose and appealed primarily to this segment of society with a message of alleviating suffering salvation for many poor urban workers.

Honmon Butsuryū-shū, an early example of lay-based religious movements of the modern period inspired by Nichiren, was founded several years before the Meiji Restoration.

Reiyūkai, Risshō Kōsei Kai stemming from Nichiren Shū while Kenshokai and Soka Gakkai, once affiliated with Nichiren Shōshū, are more recent examples of lay-inspired movements drawing from Nichiren's teachings and life.

10. Globalization

While various sects and organizations have had a presence in nations outside Japan for over a century, the on-going expansion of Nichiren Buddhism overseas started in 1960 when Soka Gakkai president Daisaku Ikeda initiated his group's worldwide propagation efforts growing from a few hundred transplanted Japanese to over 3500 families just by 1962.

Nichiren Buddhism is now practiced in many countries outside of Japan.

One of several Japanese Buddhist schools that followed in the wake of Japanese military conquest and colonization, Nichiren Shū opened a temple in Pusan, Korea in 1881:

Its fortunes rose and diminished with the political tides but eventually failed.

It also established missions in Sakhalin, Manchuria, and Taiwan.

A Nichiren Shū mission was established in Hawaii in 1900.

By 1920 it established temples at Pahala, Honolulu, Wailuku and Maui.
In 1955 it officially started a mission in Brazil.
In 1991 it established the Nichiren Buddhist International Centre.
In 1991 and in 2002 built a centre in Hayward, California, to help overseas missions.

However, Nichiren Shū does not widely propagate in the West.

The growth of the Soka Gakkai was sparked by repeated missionary trips beginning in the early 1960s by Daisaku Ikeda, its 3rd president.

In 1975 the Soka Gakkai International was launched in Guam. In the United States it has attracted a diverse membership including a significant demographic of African Americans.

Since the 1970s it has created institutions, publications and exhibitions to support its overall theme of "peace, culture, and education."

The Rissho Kosei Kai focuses on using its teachings to promote a culture of religiosity through inter-religious dialogue. In 1967, it launched the "Faith to All Men Movement" to awaken a globalized religiosity:

It has over 2 million members and 300 Dharma centres in 20 countries throughout the world including Frankfurt and Moorslede in Belgium.

It is active in interfaith organizations, including the International Association for Religious Freedom (IARF) and Religions for Peace (WCRP):

It has consultative states with the United Nations and since 1983 issues an annual Peace Prize to individuals or organizations worldwide that work for peace and development and promote interreligious cooperation.

The Reiyūkai conducts more typical missionary activities in the West. It has a membership of 500-1000 members in Europe, concentrated in Italy, Spain, England and France.

The approximately 1500 members of the Nipponzan Myōhōji have built peace pagodas, conducted parades beating the drum while chanting the Daimoku, and encouraged themselves and others to create world peace.

Nichiren Shōshū has 6 temples in the United States led by Japanese priests and supported by lay Asians and non-Asians. There is 1 temple in Brazil and the residing priest serves as a "circuit rider" to attend to other locations.