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Nichiren

Category: Mystic

Nichiren (Kanji: 日蓮; born as Zen-nichi-maro (善日麿), Dharma name: Rencho was born according to the lunar Chinese calendar, on 27th of the first month in 1222, which is 16 February in the Gregorian calendar.  He died 13th October 1282.  Nichiren was a Japanese Buddhist priest of the Kamakura period (1185–1333), who was the founder of Nichiren Buddhism, a branch of Mahayana Buddhism.

Nichiren was something of a rebel in his time, both a religious and social reformer.  An interesting man, as it shows one can still be a mystic, even when one is full of steely resolve.  Needless to say, he consequently attracted some quite hostile criticism.  He was called everything from ‘fervent nationalist’, to ‘transnational religious visionary’. 

As a result of his adamant stance, for example, he experienced severe persecution imposed by the Kamakura Shogunate, so severe and frightening that he appears to have had out of body experiences where he began to see himself as "bodily reading the Lotus Sutra (Jpn. Hokke shikidoku)”.  The persecution also slightly deranged him and he later saw himself in the role of leading a vast outpouring of Bodhisattvas of the Earth.  Nichiren was also a prophet but this did serve him well as in 1274, after his two predictions of foreign invasion and political strife became reality he was pardoned by the Shogunate authorities. 

For us now, what is perhaps the most interesting is that he believed he saw significant degeneration in the respective branches of Mahayana Buddhism.  He launched his teachings in 1253, advocating an exclusive return to the Lotus Sutra as based on its original Tendai interpretations.   For this reason, we have provided very few observations, as we have the Lotus Sutra on the site.

His 1260 treatise, Risshō Ankoku Ron (立正安国論) (On Establishing the Correct Teaching for the Peace of the Land), argued that a nation that embraces the Lotus Sutra will experience peace and prosperity, whereas rulers who support inferior religious teachings invite disorder and disaster into their realms.  One is reminded of the famous quote by William James on the degeneration of religions over time...

The Varieties of Religious Experience – William James
A survey of history shows us that, as a rule, religious geniuses attract disciples, and produce groups of sympathisers.   When these groups get strong enough to ‘organise’ themselves, they become ecclesiastical institutions with corporate ambitions of their own. The spirit of politics and the lust of dogmatic rule are then apt to enter and to contaminate the originally innocent thing

Perhaps the saddest irony of all is that despite Nichiren’s quite clear instructions, his advice has now become its own branch of Buddhism.

Nichiren Buddhism includes traditional temple schools such as Nichiren-shu and Nichiren Shōshū, as well as lay movements such as Soka Gakkai, Risshō Kōsei Kai, Reiyūkai, Kenshōkai, Honmon Butsuryū-shū, Kempon Hokke, and Shōshinkai among many others. And even worse, each group has varying views of Nichiren's teachings, which somewhat indicates Nichiren’s advice has not been followed.  After all you can’t get a clearer instruction than “embrace the Lotus Sutra”.  All you have to do is do it.

We have classified Nichiren as a mystic, principally because he seems to have had a firm grasp of what the Lotus Sutra is trying to explain. 

After his death, he was bestowed the title Nichiren Dai-Bosatsu (日蓮大菩薩) (Great Bodhisattva Nichiren) by Emperor Go-Kōgon (1358) and the title Risshō Daishi (立正大師) (Great Teacher of Rectification) was conferred posthumously in year 1922 by imperial edict.

Nichiren’s teachings in summary

 Anyone can achieve enlightenment - Spiritual experience is accessible to all via one’s Buddha nature or “Myoho—Renge”, another synonym of the Higher spirit.  [ there is no doubt that the principle opposition to this idea came from those priests who wished people to believe they were the only route to enlightenment].  “This entails an urgent mandate. Nichiren links the great vow of personages in the Lotus Sutra to raise all people to the consciousness of the Buddha

Women are key players - Nichiren was highly supportive to women. Based on various passages from the Lotus Sutra, Nichiren asserts that "Other sutras are written for men only. This sutra is for everyone."    Nichiren was a charismatic leader who attracted many followers during both his missionary trips and his exiles. Most of these followers were warriors and feudal lords. But, he insisted that his women followers were equally able to attain enlightenment. He shared his rationale and strategies with them, and openly urged them to share his conviction and struggles

Spiritual and mundane cannot be separated – the so called Pure Lands separate from earth in some unexplained paradise in the sky do not exist.  The hidden realm of the spirit co-exists with the mundane but simply at vibrational levels we cannot perceive with our 5 senses.  The door to these other levels is the  Myoho—Renge - the Higher spirit

Kali yuga – we have entered the apocalyptic age in which destruction is the driving force.  Even the Kamakura period of 13th century Japan was characterized by a sense of foreboding. Nichiren, as well as the others of this time, believed that they had entered the Latter Day of the Law (Mappō), the time which Shakyamuni predicted his teachings would lose their efficacy.

Five Principles (gogi) – can be used to judge whether any teachings [not just Buddhist] are useful, appropriate and might achieve the goals

  • the quality of the teaching (kyō),
  • the abilities of the intended audience
  •  the time [era] in which the teachings are being presented
  • the ‘characteristic of the land’ or country (koku), and
  •  the sequence of dharma propagation (kyōhō rufu no zengo).

Karma - Nichiren offered a new and perhaps less bleak and fatalistic perspective on karma. His and everyone else’s life, he concluded was actually more about destiny than punishment.  That he was here, as was everyone else, to carry out a mission only based on karma in the sense that it affects what one is capable of.  In effect, one recognises that one has been given the mission one has, principally based on past performance rather than punishment.

Justice - Nichiren also made a "great vow" of a political dimension. He and his followers to come would create the conditions that lead to a just nation and world which the Lotus Sutra describes as Kosen-rufu.  Enlightenment is not restricted to an individual's inner life but is actualized by efforts toward the transformation of the land and the realization of an ideal society

Life and works

Nichiren was a prolific writer and what we know of him as well as his beliefs has been gleaned primarily 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. 

Nichiren was born in the village of Kominato (today part of the city of Kamogawa), Nagase District, Awa Province (within present-day Chiba Prefecture) of humble parents, "a son born of the lowly people living on a rocky strand of the out-of-the-way sea".   

At the age of 12 [1234] he began his Buddhist study at a temple of the Tendai school, Seichō-ji (清澄寺, also called Kiyosumi-dera).  He was formally ordained at sixteen years old and took the Buddhist name Zeshō-bō Renchō (是生房蓮長).  He then left Seichō-ji for Kamakura where he studied Pure Land Buddhism.  In a 1271 letter, however, he described how he started to have severe doubts about the methods of teaching, indicating his teachers ultimately had no idea what they were doing and why:


[D]etermined to plant a seed of Buddhahood and attain Buddhahood in this life, just as all other people, I relied on Amida Buddha ….. However, I began doubting this practice

Amitābha also known as Amida is a celestial buddha according to the scriptures of Mahayana Buddhism and the principal buddha in Pure Land Buddhism, a branch of East Asian Buddhism

And thus he “made  a vow to study all the Buddhist sutras, commentaries on them by disciples, and explanatory notes by others”.  And true to his word, he did.   Between 1233 and 1253, he studied all of the ten schools of Buddhism prevalent in Japan at that time as well as the Chinese classics and secular literature.

He studied Zen which had been growing in popularity in both Kamakura and Kyoto. He next traveled to Mount Hiei, the center of Japanese Tendai Buddhism, where he scrutinized the school's original doctrines and in the final stage of this twenty-year period he travelled to Mount Kōya, the center of Shingon esoteric Buddhism, and to Nara where he studied its six established schools, especially the Ritsu sect which emphasized strict monastic discipline.

The result?  That the Lotus Sutra was in the end the only really authentic effective teaching.

According to one of his letters, Nichiren returned to Seicho-ji Temple on 28 April 1253 to lecture on his twenty years of scholarship, starting his campaign to return Tendai to an exclusive reliance on the Lotus Sutra and to convert the entire Japanese nation to this belief.

His aim was exactly the same as ours on this site - to make profound Buddhist theory practical and actionable so an ordinary person could manifest Buddhahood – become enlightened - within his or her own lifetime in the midst of day-to-day realities.

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

The main problem, however, was that instead of trying to gently bring the other schools round to why they should change, he attacked them.  One can understand his annoyance – twenty years of one’s life wasted on finding out that practically all the teachings were a waste of time [for him], - but given he wanted to attract converts, his approach was not exactly helpful.  In so doing he earned the animosity of the local steward, Hojo Kagenobu, who even attempted to have Nichiren killed.

Nichiren then developed a base of operation in Kamakura and converted several Tendai priests, directly ordained others, and attracted lay disciples who were drawn mainly from 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

Relevance to today - the Risshō Ankoku Ron

Nichiren arrived in Kamakura in 1254. Between 1254 and 1260 half of the population had perished from drought, earthquakes, epidemics, famine, fires, and storms.  And everyone was asking why.

Nichiren sought scriptual references and then wrote a series of works which attributed the sufferings to the weakened spiritual condition of the people.  These days we would say that the decline into materialism, atheism, decadence. violence and selfishness was doing the same thing to the planet.   With no connection to the spirits that could guide us or them, they weren’t getting ‘punishment’ [as some now say], they were exposed to all the forces of nature whilst having no help from any protective force.  They had cut the spiritual umbilical cord.

The text he used to describe this is considered his first major treatise, the Risshō Ankoku Ron (立正安国論), "Treatise On Establishing the Correct Teaching for the Peace of the Land."

Using a dialectic form well-established in China and Japan, the treatise is a 10-segment fictional dialogue [somewhat Plato like in approach] between a Buddhist wise man and a visitor who together lament the tragedies that have beleaguered the nation.  The wise man builds his argument by quoting extensively from a set of Buddhist sutras and commentaries, 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 Sutra.

Nichiren submitted it to Hōjō Tokiyori, the de facto leader of the Kamakura shogunate as a political move to instigate radical reform. In it he argued the necessity for "the Sovereign to recognize and accept the singly true and correct form of Buddhism as the only way to achieve peace and prosperity for the land and its people and end their suffering."

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 sutras, 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 and their lay followers attempted to kill him at his home, forcing him to flee Kamakura. One year after he submitted the Rissho Ankoku Ron the authorities had him arrested and exiled to the Izu peninsula.

Nichiren's Izu exile lasted two years. In his extant writings from this time period, Nichiren began to strongly draw from chapters 10-22 of the Lotus Sutra, what Tanabe calls its "third realm" (daisan hōmon). Upon being pardoned in 1263, Nichiren returned to Kamakura. In November 1264 he was ambushed and nearly killed at Komatsubara in Awa Province 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.

The Mongol invasion, arrest and exile

The Mongol invasion was the worst crisis in pre-modern Japanese history. In 1269 Mongol envoys arrived to demand Japanese submission and the bakufu [the military government of Japan headed by the shogun ], responded by mobilizing military defenses.

The role of Buddhism in "nation-protection" (chingo kokka) was long established in Japan at this time and the government pleaded for prayers from Buddhist schools for this purpose.  Nichiren accelerated his criticism of any 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, and criticised the esoteric practices of Shingon just as the government was invoking them.

In September 1271, Nichiren was arrested by a band of soldiers and tried. 
He was sentenced to exile but was brought to Tatsunukuchi 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 [see observation].  Nichiren's life was spared and he was exiled to Sado Island, where he and his disciples endured terrible cold, food deprivation, and threats from local inhabitants.  And it is here went slightly and understandably deranged.

At the end of the 1271-1272 winter Nichiren's conditions 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. Nichiren was pardoned on February 14, 1274 and returned to Kamakura one month later on March 26th.

Minobu and death

Deeply disappointed by the government's refusal to heed his advice, Nichiren left Kamakura one month later, on May 12th, determined to become a solitary wayfarer. Five days later, however, on a visit to the residence of Lord Hakii 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 life.

During his years at Minobu, the strain of the past seemed to catch up with him and instead of sticking to his resolve based on only the Lotus sutra, he started to attack  the mystical and esoteric practices (mikkyō 密教) that had been incorporated into the Japanese Tendai school. It becomes clear at this point that he was doing just what he had criticised in all the other schools - creating his own form of Buddhism.

He and his disciples built the Myō-hōkke-in Kuon-ji Temple (久遠寺) in 1281, which burnt down in the 19th century.

In 1282, 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.

 

References

Main work

Risshō Ankoku Ron (立正安国論) (On Establishing the Correct Teaching for the Peace of the Land) - The Risshō Ankoku Ron is now considered by Japanese historians to be a literary classic.

Other works

The numerous letters and minor treatises he wrote in Sado include

  • The Kanjin no Honzon Shō (観心本尊抄: "The Object of Devotion for Observing the Mind") and
  •  The Kaimoku Shō (開目抄: "On the Opening of the Eyes") - In this he stated that facing adversity should be regarded as a matter of course: "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."
  • Mandala Gohonzon (御本尊). - dated to July 8, 1273 to be used as an object of devotion or worship. More followed and at the bottom of each mandala he wrote: "This is the great mandala never before revealed in Jambudvipa during the more than 2,200 years since the Buddha's nirvana." He inscribed many Mandala Gohonzon during the rest of his life. More than a hundred Mandala Gohonzon preserved today are attributed to Nichiren's own hand.

It is worth noting that the Gohonzon is a calligraphic representation of the cosmos and chanting daimoku to it is Nichiren's method of meditation to experience the truth of Buddhism. He believed this practice was efficacious, simple to perform, and suited to the capacity of the people and the time.

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, counseling on personal matters, and explaining his teachings in more understandable terms.  Two of his works from this period are:

  • the Senji Shō (撰時抄: "The Selection of the Time") and
  • the  Hōon Shō (報恩抄: "On Repaying Debts of Gratitude")

Observations

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