The life of Nichiren Daishonin

Nichiren Daishonin, who formulated the Buddhist practice we follow in the SGI, was born on February 16, 1222, in the village of Kominato on the Modern Kominato seascape: CCommons content from flickr user starfireseastern coast of Japan. His parents made their living from fishing. At the age of twelve, he left home to study to become a priest at the nearby temple of Seicho-ji.

Though young, he determined at this time to understand the mysteries of life and death, and to resolve the conflicts between the many competing Buddhist schools of the day.

At the age of sixteen he was ordained a priest, taking the name Zesho-bo Rencho. Over the next fifteen years, he studied various sects of Buddhism including Zen, Jodo, Shingon and Tendai, at various temples. These many years of meditation and study led him to the conclusion that the Lotus Sutra is the heart of Buddhism, and that the many other sutras (or scriptures) were preached by Shakyamuni only in preparation for the Lotus Sutra.

Nichiren Daishonin’s awakening

Returning to Seicho-ji, he chanted Nam-myoho-renge-kyo for the first time early on the morning of April 28, 1253, changing his name to Nichiren (Sun-Lotus). His first sermon that same day, to priests of Seicho-ji and local villagers, did not go down well with those who heard it, as he stated clearly his belief that all the sects based on Shakyamuni’s pre-Lotus Sutra teachings were misguided. He explained that only Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, the essence of the Lotus Sutra, is the direct path to enlightenment in this lifetime.

Over the next few years, he preached his philosophy in Kamakura, then capital of Japan. His attacks on the pre-Lotus Sutra teachings outraged the authorities, patrons of other sects. The year 1256 saw the beginning of a string of catastrophes in Japan: earthquakes, droughts, storms, plagues and famine. Based on his studies of the Buddhist scriptures, Nichiren Daishonin understood that the environment reflects the spiritual life of the people.

Challenging the authorities

Determined to explain these disasters to the authorities, on July 16, 1260, he presented to the powerful former regent of Japan, Hojo Tokiyori, a treatise entitled “On Securing the Peace of the Land through the Propagation of True Buddhism” (Rissho Ankoku Ron). In it he quoted various Buddhist teachings that predicted seven disasters that would beset nations hostile to true Buddhism. Five of these disasters had already occurred. Nichiren Daishonin predicted that the last two, “foreign invasions” and “internal strife”, would soon befall Japan if its rulers didn’t heed his warnings.

The advice in the treatise was ignored, but its presentation led to a series of persecutions, and Nichiren Daishonin’s exile to the Izu Peninsula for two years, till 1263.

In 1268, his predictions of disaster seemed about to come true. The Mongols threatened invasion from China; Japan was hastily preparing her defences. Nichiren Daishonin repeated his earlier warnings, sending letters to eleven of Japan’s most powerful men.

Drought hit the country in 1271. The government invited Ryokan, a leading priest of the Ritsu sect, to pray for rain. Learning of this, Nichiren Daishonin wrote to Ryokan, saying that if the prayers for rain actually succeeded, he would become Ryokan’s disciple.

Ryokan’s prayers brought no rain, and severe gales struck Kamakura. Humiliated, Ryokan plotted against the Daishonin.

Exile to Sado

As a result, the Daishonin was arrested on trumped-up charges on September 12 and sentenced to exile. The chief of military police, Hei no Saemon, attempted to have the Daishonin executed at Tatsunokuchi. Fortuitously, at the last moment a bright object, probably a meteor, appeared in the sky, terrifying the executioners. They called off the execution, and the Daishonin was sent into exile on the remote and bleak island of Sado.

There he and a single faithful follower, Nikko Shonin, lived in a tumbledown shack, in an area where the corpses of outcasts were abandoned without burial. The Daishonin wrote several crucial treatises during this period, despite their circumstances, which improved as they attracted support from the locals.

His prophecy of “internal strife” was fulfilled in 1272, as the ruling clan of Japan fell to fighting amongst themselves.

Two years later, pardoned by the regent, Hojo Tokimune, Nichiren Daishonin returned to Kamakura, there to repeat his warning of foreign invasion. Though he was given a hearing this time, and treated more respectfully, he was still not taken seriously.

Retreat to Minobu

Sure the government would never heed him, the Daishonin left Kamakura on 12 May, 1274 to live in retreat at the foot of Mount Minobu, where he continued writing the many letters he sent to individual followers throughout his life. In October that year, the Mongols attempted the invasion he had long predicted. Though the Daishonin could only lament the agony it caused the Japanese people, it must have increased his determination to lessen human suffering.

On October 12, 1279, he inscribed a special Gohonzon called the Dai-Gohonzon, of which all Gohonzons are replicas, dedicated to enabling all humanity to attain Buddhahood. He was moved by a tragic event called the Atsuhara persecution, in which 20 of his followers, farmers in the Atsuhara district, were arrested and tortured. Unwavering in their faith, three of them were beheaded.

Three years later, on October 13, 1282, watched over by disciples chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, the Daishonin passed away in Ikegami, near modern-day Tokyo.