Nichiren was born in a fishing village called Kataumi in Awa Province, part of present-day Chiba Prefecture east of Tokyo. The date was the sixteenth day of the second month of 1222 on the lunar calendar in use at the time, a date that corresponds to April 6, 1222, on the Gregorian calendar.1 His family made their living by fishing, which, because it involves the taking of life, was looked on as a very lowly occupation.2
At age twelve3 he entered a nearby temple called Seichō-ji to begin his primary education. Since no public school system existed at that time, education for children of unprivileged families was available only at Buddhist temples. Seichō-ji was an influential temple of the Tendai school, which upholds the teachings of the Lotus Sutra, but at this time it was also a place of practice for Esoteric Buddhism and the Pure Land doctrine, neither of which hold the Lotus Sutra in high esteem.
As a boy at Seichō-ji, Nichiren tells us, he used to pray before a statue of Bodhisattva Kokūzō, or Space Treasury, that was enshrined there, hoping and vowing to become “the wisest person in all Japan.” Why such an extraordinary desire? We may surmise from his writings that he sought the wisdom to answer certain vital questions that troubled him.
In 1221, the year before Nichiren’s birth, the Retired Emperor Gotoba, the de facto leader of the imperial family, along with two other retired emperors, had attempted to overthrow the shogunate, the military government headquartered in Kamakura. That event, known as the Jōkyū Disturbance because it took place in the third year of the Jōkyū era, ended in the defeat of the imperial forces and the exile of the three leaders. The young Nichiren wondered why the imperial family, the legitimate ruler of Japan, had suffered such a tragic defeat, though it had sponsored prayers for victory by priests of the prestigious Tendai and True Word schools.
Japanese Buddhism at this time was made up of a number of different schools, preaching a variety of doctrines and urging the adoption of this or that religious practice. Nichiren wondered why Buddhism had become divided in this fashion when it was the teaching of a single Buddha, Shakyamuni. He was concerned that, though Buddhism existed to save people from suffering and to bring peace and stability to society, it apparently lacked the power to accomplish these goals. As a young man he tried to determine just what truth Shakyamuni had awakened to, and how he himself could lead the people away from suffering. Hence he prayed for the wisdom needed to realize these aims.
At sixteen he decided to become a priest, renouncing secular life and devoting himself to Buddhist studies. Entering the priesthood under the tutelage of Dōzen-bō, a senior priest at the temple, he later continued his studies at the major centers of Buddhism in Kamakura, Kyoto, and Nara. Carefully reading all the sutras available to him, he delved into the essential doctrines of the various schools of both Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhism. In Letter to the Priests of Seichō-ji, written in 1276, he describes his spiritual pursuit at that time, referring to himself in the third person:
[As a youth], he received great wisdom from the living Bodhisattva Space Treasury. He prayed to the bodhisattva to become the wisest person in Japan. The bodhisattva must have taken pity on him, for he presented him with a great jewel as brilliant as the morning star, which Nichiren tucked away in his right sleeve. Thereafter, on perusing the entire body of sutras, he was able to discern in essence the relative worth of the eight schools as well as of all the scriptures.4
The “great jewel” to which he refers can be identified as the wisdom of the Mystic Law, or Wonderful Law, the universal Law by which all Buddhas become enlightened and the foundation of all the Buddhist teachings.
In the course of his studies, Nichiren arrived at some key conclusions, which may be summarized as follows:
(1) The Lotus Sutra is supreme among all the sutras that Shakyamuni expounded.
(2) The Wonderful Law to which Nichiren awakened is Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, the core teaching of the Lotus Sutra. The sutra describes the Buddha entrusting the Bodhisattvas of the Earth with the mission of spreading this core teaching and enabling the people in the Latter Day of the Law to attain Buddhahood.
(3) Nichiren recognized that the various Buddhist doctrines that prevailed in his time all shared a common element—that of slandering or going against the correct teaching of the Buddha as it is embodied in the Lotus Sutra. He decided to reveal and rebuke the slander committed by those schools, fully realizing that he would meet with the great persecutions that the sutra predicts will assail a practitioner who does so.
Now it was clear to him what course he should take, though he might face harsh opposition and even place his life in peril.
At noon on the twenty-eighth day of the fourth month of 1253, Nichiren stationed himself in one of the buildings of Seichō-ji temple and delivered a sermon to an audience of priests. His preaching, in which he was supposed to announce the results of his years of study, turned out to be a surprise to the gathering, for he relentlessly refuted the Pure Land doctrine and other Buddhist teachings endorsed by his hearers. Then he proclaimed Nam-myoho-renge-kyo to be the only teaching capable of leading people to enlightenment, or Buddhahood, in the Latter Day of the Law. This event is known as the declaration of the establishment of his teaching.
News of this reached Tōjō Kagenobu, the steward of the village where the temple was located, who was an ardent believer in the Pure Land teachings. Nichiren suspected that he might face bodily attack from Tōjō Kagenobu’s retainers, but through the help of fellow priests, he was able to leave the temple unharmed. Then he departed for Kamakura, the seat of the military government, which would thereafter become the center of his propagation activities.
In Kamakura he took up residence in the area of Nagoe, in a simple dwelling, from which he disseminated his teachings. He refuted the popular doctrines of the Pure Land school and the teachings of the Zen school, both of which were widely supported by members of the warrior class. Nichiren tried to awaken people to the correct teaching, the Lotus Sutra, chanting its daimoku, or title, Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, and encouraging others to do likewise. In the eleventh month of 1253, a priest visited him and took faith in his teachings. The priest would later be named Nisshō and designated by Nichiren as one of the six senior priests of his teachings. Nichiren held lectures at his dwelling and other places and wrote such works as On Attaining Buddhahood in This Lifetime. Around 1256 a number of others became followers of his teachings, including Shijō Kingo, Toki Jōnin, and Ikegami Munenaka.
In those days, the country was troubled by natural disturbances such as unusual weather patterns and major earthquakes. Grievous famines, fires, and epidemics added to the alarm. In particular, a severe earthquake rocked Kamakura in the eighth month of 1257, toppling many important structures and inflicting widespread injury. The people were plunged into misery and despair by these events.
Faced with these troubled times, Nichiren set out to discover the fundamental cause for such disasters and to seek some means of relieving the people’s afflictions. He pored over the Buddhist sutras in order to find the solution. Around that time, a young priest, whom Nichiren would later name Nikkō, became his disciple. On the basis of his research, he wrote a treatise entitled On Establishing the Correct Teaching for the Peace of the Land. On the sixteenth day of the seventh month of 1260, he submitted it to the retired regent, Hōjō Tokiyori, the de facto leader of the shogunate. This event is known as his first remonstration with the rulers of the nation.
The treatise first points out that the cause for the nation’s calamities lies in the fact that the people have turned their backs on the correct Buddhist teaching and instead support erroneous doctrines and teachers. The prime example of such an erroneous teaching is embodied in the doctrines of the Pure Land school founded by Hōnen. The treatise states that if the people of Japan, both the rulers and the ruled, withdraw their support from this “one evil doctrine” of the Pure Land school and other erroneous doctrines and take faith in the correct teaching, this will bring about peace and security in the nation. It warns, however, that if they do not heed this advice, calamity will result. The sutras predict that seven types of calamities will befall those who oppose the correct teaching. Five of the seven types had already occurred, and the treatise predicts that the other two types, internal strife and foreign invasion, will invariably follow. It therefore urges the rulers to act immediately and accept and uphold the correct teaching of Buddhism.
The shogunate leaders, however, ignored this earnest appeal. Worse, passionate Pure Land adherents, with the tacit support of key shogunate officials, conspired to attack Nichiren. In 1260, on the evening of the twenty-seventh day of the eighth month, a throng of Pure Land believers stormed his dwelling, intending to kill him. This incident is known as the Matsubagayatsu Persecution. Nichiren narrowly escaped the assault and, for a time, left Kamakura.
When he returned the following year, the shogunate ordered him arrested and, without a full investigation of the charges against him, on the twelfth day of the fifth month exiled him to Itō on the Izu Peninsula, on the Pacific coast southwest of Kamakura. A fisherman named Funamori no Yasaburō and his wife supported and protected him during the exile. Because of these hardships that he encountered in propagating the Lotus Sutra, Nichiren at this time became more convinced than ever that he was the very type of votary of the sutra described in the sutra itself. In the second month of 1263 he was pardoned from what is known as the Izu Exile and returned to Kamakura.
The following year he visited his home province of Awa to look after his mother, who was critically ill. As he wrote later, his prayer not only cured the illness but prolonged her life span by four years. On the eleventh day of the eleventh month of the same year, when Nichiren and several of his followers were on their way to the home of a lay believer, known by his family name Kudō, they were attacked in ambush by the steward of the region, Tōjō Kagenobu, and his retainers. Kudō received word of the attack and rushed to defend his teacher with a party of warriors. He was fatally wounded in the fight, and another believer was killed on the spot. Nichiren received a sword cut on the forehead and his left hand was broken. This incident is known as the Komatsubara Persecution.
In the intercalary first month of 1268 an official missive from the Mongol Empire arrived in Japan. It stated that if Japan did not comply with the demands of the Mongol Empire and acknowledge fealty to it, compliance would be forced upon it by military means. Nichiren perceived that his prediction of foreign invasion, made in his writing On Establishing the Correct Teaching, was about to come true. In the tenth month of that year he wrote to eleven leaders, including Regent Hōjō Tokimune and other shogunate officials and priests of major Kamakura temples such as Ryōkan of Gokuraku-ji and Dōryū of Kenchō-ji, reminding them of his prediction and requesting that a public religious debate be held between himself and representatives of the leading Buddhist schools. Neither the government nor the religious leaders responded in good faith to his request. On the contrary, the government officials regarded Nichiren and his followers as a threat and considered ways to suppress their activities.
Despite the growing danger, Nichiren continued to point out the doctrinal errors of the major Buddhist schools, indicting four of them in particular in the brief statements known as the “four dictums”: (1) Pure Land leads to the hell of incessant suffering; (2) Zen is an invention of the heavenly devil; (3) True Word is an evil doctrine that will ruin the country; and (4) Precepts is a traitor to the nation.
In 1271, during a severe drought, Nichiren received word that Ryōkan of Gokuraku-ji temple, an influential priest of the True Word Precepts school, intended on behalf of the shogunate to conduct official prayers for rain. Nichiren sent Ryōkan a message, challenging him to a contest to determine the validity of their respective teachings.
Nichiren proposed that if Ryōkan, through his prayers, could cause rain to fall within seven days, Nichiren would become his disciple. If, however, rain failed to fall within that period, Ryōkan would agree to follow Nichiren’s teachings. Ryōkan accepted the challenge. For seven days, beginning on the eighteenth day of the sixth month, he and a number of other priests conducted prayers for rain, but not a drop fell. Ryōkan requested another seven days to carry out his rituals. Not only did he fail once more, but this time a fierce gale arose. Rather than admit defeat, Ryōkan had his follower Gyōbin, a Pure Land priest, file a formal complaint against Nichiren. In addition, working through women who attended his sermons and were wives of influential shogunate officials, Ryōkan incited the government to inflict punishment on his rival.
Such machinations carried out by well-known and respected priests are predicted in the Lotus Sutra. The Chinese Buddhist scholar Miao-lo describes such priests as “arrogant false sages,” the most powerful of the three kinds of enemies of the Lotus Sutra listed in the sutra itself.
On the tenth day of the ninth month of 1271 Nichiren was summoned by the shogunate and interrogated by Hei no Saemon-no-jō, deputy chief of the Office of Military and Police Affairs. Nichiren remonstrated with him, explaining from the standpoint of Buddhist teachings the correct attitude the leader of the nation should adopt in order to secure peace in the land.
Two days later, on the evening of the twelfth day, Hei no Saemon-no-jō, leading a group of armed soldiers, stormed Nichiren’s dwelling and placed him under arrest, treating him as though he were a traitor. Nichiren, calling himself the spiritual pillar of the nation, admonished the group, declaring that, by persecuting him, they were toppling the pillar and leading the nation to ruin. In consequence, he stated, the last two calamities described in the sutras—internal strife and foreign invasion—would inevitably occur.
The Kamakura shogunate decided to exile Nichiren to the island province of Sado in the Sea of Japan. High government officials, however, planned to have him killed in secret. In the pre-dawn hours of the following morning, a group of soldiers took Nichiren to a place called Tatsunokuchi, or the Dragon’s Mouth, on a beach near Kamakura. But just as they were about to carry out the order to behead him, a brilliant object appeared in the sky. As Nichiren described it later, “A brilliant orb as bright as the moon burst forth from the direction of Enoshima [a small island off the shore], shooting across the sky from southeast to northwest.”5 The soldiers, terrified, abandoned their attempt. This incident is known as the Tatsunokuchi Persecution.
This event is extremely significant in the context of Nichiren’s lifetime teachings. He mentions it in The Opening of the Eyes, written in 1272, where he states: “On the twelfth day of the ninth month of last year, between the hours of the rat and the ox [11:00 p.m. to 3:00 a.m.], this person named Nichiren was beheaded. It is his soul that has come to this island of Sado and, in the second month of the following year, snowbound, is writing this to send to his close disciples.”6
The passage may be interpreted as follows: Nichiren as an ordinary person died, while the soul of Nichiren as the Buddha survived. This is a figurative indication that he had cast off his provisional identity or role as an ordinary person and revealed his true identity as the Buddha. In technical terms this is called “casting off the transient and revealing the true.” In this new role, Nichiren inscribed “my life [or more literally, soul] in sumi ink”7 in the form of the mandala known as the Gohonzon. With faith in the Gohonzon, Nichiren states, all people can manifest their innate Buddhahood, which is the meaning of “attaining Buddhahood in one’s present form or body” in his teachings. This concept is repeatedly referred to in The Record of the Orally Transmitted Teachings.
After the abortive murder attempt, the shogunate failed to reach agreement as to how Nichiren should be treated. For about a month he was held at the residence of Homma Shigetsura at Echi in Sagami Province, in what is now northern Atsugi City in Kanagawa Prefecture.
Finally it was decided that he should be sent to Sado Island, where Homma was deputy constable and a steward. Taken from Echi on the tenth day of the tenth month of 1271, Nichiren began the long journey to Sado, escorted by a party of warriors. When he reached Sado, he took up his residence in the dwelling assigned to him, a small, dilapidated hut called Sammai-dō in a graveyard called Tsukahara. It was mid-winter, the first day of the eleventh month, and he faced Sado’s frigid winter, a shortage of food and other daily necessities, and hostile Pure Land believers who posed a threat to his safety.
On the sixteenth day of the first month of the following year, several hundred priests and adherents of various Buddhist schools from Sado and the neighboring provinces gathered and challenged Nichiren to a religious debate. He accepted the challenge and in that encounter, known as the Tsukahara Debate, refuted his opponents’ arguments and the erroneous doctrines of the schools they represented.
During the second month of 1272, an attempted coup occurred within the ruling Hōjō clan, and fighting broke out in Kamakura and Kyoto. Thus the calamity of internal strife came about just 150 days after Nichiren’s prediction made at the time of the Tatsunokuchi Persecution. In early summer, in the fourth month of that year, he was transferred from Tsukahara to more comfortable quarters in Ichinosawa. The relocation, however, did not diminish the threat to his life posed by angry Pure Land believers.
His disciple Nikkō accompanied him in exile on Sado, continuing to serve and learn from him. Meanwhile, Sado residents began to convert to Nichiren’s teachings, among them such devout believers as Abutsu-bō and his wife, the lay nun Sennichi; the lay priest of Kō and his wife; and the lay priest Nakaoki.
While in exile on Sado, Nichiren wrote many important works, among them The Opening of the Eyes and The Object of Devotion for Observing the Mind. Dating from the second month of 1272, The Opening of the Eyes is known as the treatise that reveals the object of devotion in terms of the Person. It clarifies Nichiren’s role as the Buddha of the Latter Day of the Law, who embodies the three virtues characteristic of a Buddha: those of sovereign, teacher, and parent.
The Object of Devotion for Observing the Mind, written in the fourth month of 1273, explains the Gohonzon, the object of devotion that embodies the Law of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. For this reason, it is known as the treatise that reveals the object of devotion in terms of the Law. Faith in the Gohonzon, Nichiren states, enables all people to attain Buddhahood.
In the second month of 1274, Nichiren was pardoned from exile in Sado. He returned to Kamakura on the twenty-sixth day of the third month and on the eighth day of the following month met again with Hei no Saemon-no-jō and strongly warned against using prayers based on erroneous Buddhist teachings to ward off a Mongol attack. In response to Hei no Saemon-no-jō’s inquiry, he predicted that the Mongols would surely launch an attack on Japan within the year.
In the tenth month of 1274, a large Mongol military force did in fact attack Japan’s southern island of Kyushu and two small islands off its shore. Nichiren’s prediction of the two calamities of internal strife and foreign invasion had come true. In The Selection of the Time, written in 1275, he cites these words from a Buddhist text, “A sage is one who knows the three existences of life—past, present, and future,” and states, “Three times now I have gained distinction by having such knowledge.”8 He refers to the following three occasions: first, when he submitted On Establishing the Correct Teaching to Hōjō Tokiyori in 1260; second, during the Tatsunokuchi Persecution in 1271, when he told Hei no Saemon-no-jō that the latter’s attempt to do away with Nichiren would topple the pillar of Japan and lead the nation to ruin; and third, in 1274, on his return from exile on Sado, when he admonished Hei no Saemon-no-jō and predicted that the Mongol forces would attack Japan within the year.
All these remonstrations went unheeded, and Nichiren left Kamakura. In his Letter to Kōnichi-bō (1276) he wrote: “I now had remonstrated with the authorities three times for the sole purpose of saving Japan from ruin. Mindful that one whose warnings are thrice ignored should retire to a mountain forest, I left Kamakura on the twelfth day of the fifth month [of 1274].”9
Five days later he took up residence in the forest slope of a mountain called Minobu in Kai Province, in present-day Yamanashi Prefecture, in the district of Hakii. The district was governed by the steward Hakii Sanenaga, who took faith in Nichiren’s teaching through Nikkō’s persuasion.
At Mount Minobu Nichiren continued to devote himself to the explanation and propagation of his doctrines. He produced many important writings there, including six of what Nikkō later designated as Nichiren’s ten major writings. He also lectured on the Lotus Sutra and other subjects, pouring energy into the fostering of able disciples who would spread his teachings. As he had done in Sado, he wrote many letters to individual followers, continually encouraging them in faith and instructing them on how to cope with the harsh realities of daily life.
He also revealed more of his profound teachings on the Lotus Sutra, and it is said that his immediate successor, Nikkō, set them down in writing and gave them shape as The Record of the Orally Transmitted Teachings (1278).
After Nichiren entered Mount Minobu, Nikkō took charge of propagation activities in the Fuji area of Suruga Province, in present-day Shizuoka Prefecture. He succeeded in persuading a number of believers of the Tendai and other schools of Buddhism to discard their earlier beliefs and convert to Nichiren’s teachings. Two long-established Tendai temples in the area, Shijūku-in and Jissō-ji, angered at his success, began to harass and try to intimidate Nichiren’s followers.
Still another Tendai temple, Ryūsen-ji, was managed by a lay priest named Gyōchi, who acted as the temple’s deputy chief priest. He also was hostile toward local farmers in Atsuhara who had converted to Nichiren’s teachings, bullying and harassing them. Finally, on the twenty-first day of the ninth month of 1279, twenty of them were seized on a false charge of illegally harvesting rice from the temple’s paddies. They were taken to Kamakura to the private residence of Hei no Saemon-no-jō, where they were harshly interrogated. The interrogation, which amounted to torture, was intended to force them to give up their faith in the Lotus Sutra. The farmers, however, held fast to their beliefs.
In his On Persecutions Befalling the Sage, written in 1279, Nichiren declared that he had fulfilled the purpose of his advent in the world. He had already propagated the Lotus Sutra, which he defined as “the Buddha’s will,” and had undergone the persecutions that the sutra predicts will befall its votary. The phrase “the purpose of one’s advent” refers to the reason for a Buddha’s appearance in the world, which is to lead all people to Buddhahood. That was also the original vow that Nichiren made in 1253 when he first declared his teaching. Nichiren realized that his vow had finally been fulfilled because he had established Nam-myoho-renge-kyo of the Three Great Secret Laws, bringing his teaching to completion.
The unyielding faith of the Atsuhara believers had deeply moved Nichiren, but it would soon face the ultimate test. Three of the imprisoned farmers were executed on the fifteenth day of the tenth month (or, according to another account, on the eighth day of the fourth month of the following year) and the remaining seventeen were banished from Atsuhara.
On the eighth day of the ninth month of 1282, at the suggestion of his followers, Nichiren left Mount Minobu for Hitachi Province, which included most of present-day Ibaraki Prefecture and part of Fukushima Prefecture, hoping to treat an illness he suffered from in the hot springs there. But on the way to Hitachi, he stopped at the home of a lay follower, Ikegami Munenaka, in Musashi Province, in what is now Tokyo, where he could meet many of his followers, and he gave instructions regarding matters to be observed after his death.
On the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month, despite his illness, Nichiren lectured on his work On Establishing the Correct Teaching. On the eighth day of the tenth month, he designated six senior priests to act as key figures and take responsibility for propagation in their respective areas. They were, in order of their conversion, Nisshō, Nichirō, Nikkō, Nikō, Nitchō, and Nichiji.
On the thirteenth day of the tenth month of 1282, Nichiren’s life came to a peaceful end at age sixty-one.