by Stephen L. Klick | 37,321 words
These are the Dharma lectures from the early years of the Buddhist Information ministry. The writing style is not as developed as it would later become but the content is wonderful because it is Dharma. Many of these lectures bring back fond memories of the very early days when we were not quite sure of the direction we would take. We often spent f...
“The Life of Nichiren” is called a hagiography, which means that it idealizes the person being written about instead of looking at him in a more objective manner. This type of document often serves a valuable purpose; in this case it is intended to inspire people with the greatness of Nichiren Daishonin’s life and teachings.
It is immediately followed by “My Perfect Teacher,” which examines Nichiren’s life from the historical perspective and concludes with a short Dharma lecture.
Today we will be discussing the life of Nichiren Daishonin. He was born into the lowest strata of Japanese society, the son of a poor fisherman. Japan was a Buddhist society and any job that caused you to kill was avoided. So his family was not only poor, they were reduced to doing a job that no one wanted to do. This is important to understand.
The other two historical Buddhas were born into the very top of their respective societies, and there was a good reason for this. Only the wealthy had time to think about things other than survival. The number of people these teachers could reach was accordingly small.
But Nichiren had to reach everyone, in the latter day of the law. If he had been wealthy the message could not have been the same. The Daishonin (Great Sage) was born into this class of people to show the unimportance of such things. It is good to remember that one of the most important men to be born into the human race came from a group that was considered by many to be ‘untouchable.’
On February 16, 1222 Nichiren was born and his parents named him "Splendid Sun Child." When he was 12 his parents enrolled him in the closest educational center, Seicho Ji Temple. Here he learned to read and write in both Chinese and Japanese. This temple was dedicated to the study and practice of Tendai Buddhism. The Tendai sect followed the teachings of T’ien T’ai of China and Dengyo of Japan, who both taught the supremacy of "The Lotus Sutra."
When he was sixteen his basic education was finished, but Nichiren decided to stay in the monastery and become a priest. The name he took meant "Sage under the Sun—Lotus Growth."
In a letter he wrote (from "On Refuting Ryo-Ken") he states, "not only have I sought for learning since childhood, but I also began to pray at the age of 12 before the statue of the Bodhisattva ‘Kokuso’ so that I would become the wisest person in all Japan. There are profound reasons for the prayers I offered, but I cannot go into them in detail here. Afterwards I first listened to the "Jodo" and "Zen" sects, and studied at Mount Hiei, Mount Koyo and other countryside temples…"
(The "Jodo" sect is a ‘pure land’ group represented in this country by the ‘Jodo Shu’, and the much larger ‘Jodo Shinshu’. There are many followers of ‘Pure Land’ teachings in the Kansas City area. ‘Zen’ is found all over the United States, of the many schools the most common are "Rinzai," "Shaolin", "Soto", "Vietnamese", and "Korean". Kansas City Kansas has one Korean Zen group.)
So, Nichiren…"Studied the teachings of the other sects," and also studied the tenants of his own school, yet he wrote, "I found it difficult to clarify the doubts I had." Eventually, through reflections and study, our teacher realized that "The Lotus Sutra" contained the highest teaching of the Buddha.
Early on the morning of April 28, 1253, the then 32-year old priest faced the rising sun, and for the first time chanted "Nam Myoho Renge Kyo." Later that day he changed his name to "Sun Lotus" or "Nichiren." He wrote, "Giving myself the name "Nichiren" signifies that I attained enlightenment by myself." Taking the name "Nichiren" thus demonstrated his conviction and realization that he was the votary of the "Lotus Sutra" in the Latter Day of the Law.
He wrote, " Is there anything brighter than the sun or moon? Is there anything purer than the Lotus Flower? The Lotus Sutra is like the sun and the moon and the Lotus Flower, therefore it is called Myoho Renge Kyo. Nichiren is also like the sun and moon, and the Lotus Flower."
Taking the Name Nichiren also indicated that he was filled with the desire to shed light upon the evil and impure age of the Latter Day of the Law, and that he wanted to benefit all beings everywhere. So, April 28, 1253 is an important date for us because not only did our teacher chant Nam Myoho Renge Kyo for the first time, he also followed up by taking action (an example we should all follow).
The action he took was to publicly teach what he had realized. According to tradition Nichiren told the assembled audience the great truth he had perceived, and he also pointed out that the popular forms of Buddhism prevalent in Japan contained errors, because they were based on partial truths found in the provisional sutras.
His audience was less than thrilled with his proclamation of the superiority of "The Lotus Sutra." Why did our teacher conclude that "The Lotus Sutra" is Buddhism’s highest teaching? "The Lotus Sutra" tells us in the Buddhas own words, "Good sons! After six years’ right sitting under the bodhi tree of the wisdom throne, I could accomplish perfect enlightenment. With the Buddha’s Eye I saw all the laws and understood that they were inexpressible… I knew that the natures and desires of all living beings were not all equal. As their natures are not equal, I preach the law variously… in forty years and more, the truth has not yet been revealed."
"In the laws preached by the Buddha you should develop great strength of faith, for at length after the Buddha’s preparatory teaching he must now proclaim the perfect truth."
This kind of evidence was impossible to ignore for any honest seeker of the truth, but Nichiren’s audience became very hostile. It was an act of great compassion to show these priests that they were mistaken, but if you’ve had the experience of correcting some practitioner’s error (something we have to do if we are a serious student of the Buddha) you already know the kind of reaction our teacher was exposed to.
"The Lotus Sutra" informs us that if we practice and propagate this sutra, "…many will curse and abuse us, and beat us with swords and staves…" "Monks in that evil age will be heretical, suspicious, warped, claiming to have attained" what they have not attained. Their minds will be full of arrogance, and they will curse, abuse, and insult us. But we will wear the Armour of Perseverance, and endure these hard things.
That is what the sutra tells us will happen if you spread these teachings in the Latter Day of the Law and that is what happened to Nichiren, right after he finished speaking. Most people would not expect monks and priests to behave violently, as they spend much of their time preaching love, peace, and tolerance. But these men proved the truth of the Sutra’s prediction—they were warped indeed. They were not only angry, they tried to kill Nichiren and it was only through the kindness of a former teacher named Dozen Bo that he managed to escape unharmed.
In spite of this initial hostile response, Nichiren spent the rest of his life helping others to understand the teachings of the Buddha. Nichiren first visited his parents and spent time teaching them. They became devout followers for the rest of their lives. In this way he repaid the debt of gratitude he owed to his parents and also set an example for the rest of us to follow.
In one of the major writings ("The Opening of the Eyes") our teacher tells us that, "there are three types of doctrines that are to be studied." The first are the doctrines of Confucius. Now, why would that be? Confucius was a reformer who helped his society by reestablishing a moral system from China’s past. If he ever had an original thought he never wrote it down. He was a scholar of the history of China but the wisdom he uncovered applies to all people in every era.
One of the central themes taught was respecting and caring for your parents. So Nichiren spent the time needed to benefit his parents and then he began to teach and help the people around him—he spent the next few years teaching anyone who was willing to learn, and he also engaged priests from different sects in religious debate, which won him many supporters.
Nichiren was greatly skilled in the art of Buddhist debate, and since the sects that opposed him found that they could not win they began to think of other ways to rid themselves of this troublesome menace to their income.
In August of 1256 a torrential rainstorm flooded Kamakura, leaving the area in ruin. A few days later an earthquake struck, destroying one of the temples only a few miles away. The aftershocks lasted for four months. January of 1257 saw the disasters continue unabated. Fires burned down several temples. The constant rainstorms ruined the majority of the crops leading to widespread starvation for all of Japan.
Desperate and unscrupulous people began to steal the flesh from the dead, or worse, from the young or helpless; they took meat from wild game, mixed the two together, and they sold this mixture to the populace. Unwittingly the people of Japan had become, as Nichiren put it, "flesh eating devils."
Through his studies Nichiren discovered that various sutras described what was happening to Japan. This is a doctrine known as the three calamities and seven disasters. This doctrine states that slanderers of the True Law would suffer war, pestilence, droughts, Internal strife, inflation, peculiar and strange occurrences in the heavens, lunar eclipses, solar eclipses, and unseasonable dryness.
All but two of these had already occurred in Japan and Nichiren informed the rulers that further problems would occur because the country was slandering the True Law. He sent a document entitled "On Establishing The Correct Teachings For The Peace Of The Land" that warned of internal strife and attacks from outside of Japan.
Since the other five signs were present, Nichiren was confident that rebellion and invasion would happen as well. This missive has been preserved in the Gosho (Honored Writings) and is today considered to be one of our teacher’s major writings. It states, "evil monks, hoping to gain fame and profit, in many cases appear before the ruler, the crown prince, or the other princes, and take it upon themselves to preach doctrines that lead to the violation of Buddhist laws, and the destruction of the nation. The ruler, failing to perceive the truth of the situation, listens to and puts faith in these doctrines, and proceeds to create regulations that are perverse in nature and do not accord with the rules of Buddhist discipline. In this way he brings about the destruction of Buddhism and of the Nation."
What are these disasters that will destroy the nation and Buddhism? "When the sun and moon depart from their regular courses, when the seasons come in the wrong order, when a red sun or black sun appears, when two, three, four, or five coronas appear around the sun, this is the first disaster.
When the twenty eight constellations do not move in their regular courses, when the metal star (Venus), the broom star (a comet), the wheel star, the demon star, the fire star (Mars), the water star (Mercury), the wind star, the ladle star, the southern dipper, the northern dipper, the great stars of the five garrisons and all the many stars that govern the ruler, the three high ministers and the hundred officials—when each of these stars manifests some peculiar behavior, this is the second disaster.
When huge fires consume the nation, and the people are burned to death, or when there are outbreaks of demon fire (fires of unknown origin), dragon fire (when clear liquids caught fire), heavenly fire (fire caused by lightning or objects falling from space), mountain god fire (volcanic eruptions), human fire (arsons, accidental fires), tree fires (forest fires), or bandit fire (fire caused by invaders or robbers)—when these prodigies appear, this is the third disaster.
When huge floods drown the population; when the seasons come out of order and there is rain in winter, and ice, frost and hail in the sixth month (in Japan the last month of summer), when red, black or green rain falls; when mountains of dirt and stones come raining down, or when it rains dust, sand or gravel; when the river and streams run backwards, when mountains are afloat and boulders are washed away—when freakish disasters of this kind occur, this is the fourth disaster.
When huge winds blow people to their death, and the lands, the mountains and rivers, and the trees and forests are all at one time wiped out; when the great winds come out of season, or when black winds, green winds, heavenly winds, earthly winds, fire winds, and water winds blow—when prodigies of this kind occur, this is the fifth disaster. (The different kinds of winds are dust storms, tornadoes, dry gusts, and hurricanes.)
When heaven and earth and the whole country are stricken by terrible heat so that the air seems to be on fire, when the thousand plants wither and the five kinds of grain fail to ripen, when the earth is red and scorched and the inhabitants all perish—when prodigies of this kind occur, this is the sixth disaster.
When enemies rise up on all four sides and invade the nation, when rebels appear in the capitol and the outlying regions…and the population is subjected to devastation and disorder, and fighting and plundering break out everywhere—when prodigies of this type occur, this is the seventh disaster."
This is a very brief excerpt from that Gosho, with this kind of evidence it is hard to understand why the Japanese authorities behaved the way they did. They were Buddhist, and these words we’ve been listening to come straight from the sutras. But, nothing happened. It was as though Nichiren never sent the letter.
This period of his life saw Nichiren focusing on teaching people about Buddhism and building the foundation for our movement. He continued to win converts until the sects around him decided to "remove" him.
On August 27, a band of men who claimed to practice the Nembutsu teachings attacked his place of residence and tried to kill him. Nichiren was forced to flee for his life. He settled down at the home of Toki Jonin, a famous Samurai familiar to any causal reader of the Gosho. During this time Nichiren gave daily lectures and the circle of staunch believers was rapidly growing.
Common sense led our Teacher to leave the Kamakura area, you can’t teach people if you’re dead, but his great compassion led him to return in the spring of the next year. This time, instead of a clumsy mob, Nichiren was seized by authorities and without investigation or trial he was sentenced to exile on the Izu Peninsula (southwest of Kamakura) which was an area mostly populated by ‘Pure Land’ followers.
Since the country was for the most part Buddhist, the ruling class was not comfortable with the executions of priests, so exile was widely used instead. But exile in Japan very often amounted to the same thing. Strangers were not welcome and exiled strangers were not given food or shelter. So, death from exposure or starvation was not uncommon.
Nichiren was dumped on an empty beach and was, no doubt, expected to die. A fisherman who was passing by saw some quality in our Teacher that led him to take this total stranger into his home and keep him alive. This fisherman also managed boats and he is often referred to as ‘Boat manager’ Yasaburo. In later years, Yasaburo became a devoted follower.
It was during this exile that Nichiren realized that Chapter thirteen of "The Lotus Sutra" was directly applicable to his life. In that chapter it states: "The evil monks of that muddied age…will confront us with foul language and angry frowns; again and again we will be banished."
Approximately one month into his stay on Izu Nichiren was invited to stay with Lord Ito, the Steward of the region. (The Steward was the official representative of the ruler of Japan.) Lord Ito had a personal reason for the invitation, he was a very sick man, and he wanted the Daishonin to pray for him. When Lord Ito recovered his health he became a lifelong follower of the Daishonin and a devoted student of "The Lotus Sutra."
On February 22, 1263 the government pardoned Nichiren. No explanation was ever given. Our Teacher returned to mainland Japan in 1264 but he was unable to visit his home district. One ‘important’ government official hated him because of the first lecture he gave back in 1253. This is really sad. Here’s a man who calls himself Buddhist, and who disagreed with what Nichiren was teaching. Instead of confronting him in debate or having some kind of rational discourse, his solution to what he perceived as "the Nichiren problem" was to abuse his authority and try to kill the Daishonin.
When Nichiren’s father died he could not return home, but the government had seemingly changed its opinion of Nichiren, since they freed him and then left him strictly alone. He quickly resumed propagation efforts and met with great success. Then news reached him that his mother was seriously ill—possibly dying.
In spite of the risk, he returned home in the fall of 1264. Maybe it was the joy she experienced when she saw him, or perhaps it was the care he provided, certainly, he prayed for her. He wrote, "when I prayed for my mother, not only was her illness cured but her life span was prolonged by four years."
Whatever the reason, or combination of reasons, his mother quickly recovered her health. The local communities of believers were delighted to see Nichiren again. He began to visit local practitioners, giving guidance or advise when needed.
On Nov 11, 1264 Nichiren and various disciples were going to visit a member at home when the same ’important’ official led a band of men and ambushed the group. The killers were turned back, but two of Nichiren’s disciples were dead, the Daishonin was cut on the forehead, and his left hand was broken.
This direct attack on his life did not deter the Daishonin. He remained in the area until 1267, working and helping the people who wanted to understand the teaching of the Buddha. In 1264 Nichiren returned to Kamakura. The predictions he made in the document "On Establishing the Correct Teaching for the Peace of the Land" were being realized. He predicted internal strife and it occurred. He also warned of foreign invasion and the Mongols, under Khubilai Khan, were threatening to make war.
In January 1268, the Mongols sent a letter to the Emperor stating that Japan must become part of the Mongol empire and send yearly tribute. This was sort of an early tax scheme. Anyway, the Mongols wanted money and if Japan did not send it to them every year the Mongols were going to invade. (This is not the only time in history that the Mongols had an effect on Buddhist history. They encountered a teacher in the Tibet region who convinced them to stop slaughtering people (in that area, anyway.) The Khan was so impressed with this teachers courage that he gave him a title and made him the ruler and religious leader for that area. The Dhali Lama remained the political ruler of Tibet until just a few years ago when the Chinese invaded. He continues to campaign for Tibetan freedom and it is possible that he would again become the political leader of his country if the opportunity arises.)
Nichiren spent the next few years attempting to alert the government to the reality of what was happening in the country. There is nothing in the historical record to show that the government of Japan responded in any way to the numerous letters he wrote to various officials.
On September 10,1271 Nichiren was summoned by the head of Military and Police affairs. (He was called the Deputy chief but the "chief" in this case was the Regent.) Two days later, on September 12, 1271, at 4:00 in the afternoon, this official brought hundreds of armor clad warriors to the Daishonin’s cottage. He reportedly understood that the humble residence was the headquarters of a band of criminals. He supposedly believed that many weapons were hidden there. What he found was Nichiren and a few students. The army ripped up the floors and tore off the doors but no weapons were ever found.
Nichiren was arrested and, strangely enough, charged with treason. He was sentenced to exile on Sado Island. Although the Daishonin was in exile once again, certain religious leaders were not happy. They wanted Nichiren dead.
In the early part of the year 1272, an unbelievable, almost unthinkable meeting took place. Dozens of ‘important’ priests converged on Sado Island to demand of the deputy constable the death of the priest Nichiren. However, a letter had come from the government that stated, "Nichiren is no ordinary, contemptible criminal."
The deputy constable was ordered to keep the Daishonin safe. I suspect this official found it weird, if not sick, that these particular men would want to engage in this sort of behavior. No doubt, when they returned home, they went right back to preaching peace and love and collecting money. This official looked at these men and said "instead of killing him, why don’t you confront him in religious debate"?
Finally! The voice of reason was heard! The public debate took place on January 16 and 17, 1272. Hundreds of priests gathered to debate one man. The various priests spoke first, quoting the doctrines of whatever sect they belonged to, and many of them were quite eloquent. But Nichiren was a scholar of Buddhism and he was, in fact, a Buddha. The priests were left speechless and many people took faith on the spot. Many more people became followers during the Daishonin’s stay on Sado Island.
On March 8, 1274 a messenger delivered an official pardon for the Daishonin. No reason was ever given. Nichiren returned home but the years of privation (and age) were taking their toll. Never again would he have the energy to devote to propagation of the teachings.
In a way, his exile to Sado was very good for Nichiren, he wrote some of his most important teachings there, but there was also great physical suffering from the poor living conditions.
On April 18, 1274 the Daishonin met with a government official for the last time. The meeting was very courteous. It could not possibly escape the attention of anyone that every word the Daishonin had written to the government had been realized. Nichiren answered the official’s questions; first he wanted to know when our teacher thought the Mongols would attack Japan. Since Nichiren had predicted this event years before, he was the logical person to ask. This official also wanted to know if it was possible to attain enlightenment through any sutra other than the "Lotus."
Nichiren spent time with this official and took great care to give him good advice, soundly based on the sutras. Two days later Nichiren realized that his advise had been ignored. There is a Chinese proverb that says that a wise man should leave the county if the sovereign disregards his advise three times. Nichiren decided to retire, and begin the most important task of his life, preserving the teachings and making them available to later generations.
He watched his students grow, and as they developed, they also began to propagate the teachings; so it wasn’t long before the authorities began to persecute these people. In September, twenty farmers who practiced the Daishonin’s Buddhism were rounded up and arrested. These farmers were tortured, and ordered to give up their faith. They refused and on October 15, three were randomly selected and murdered.
Nichiren wrote, "It is something extraordinary that they chanted ‘Nam Myoho Renge Kyo’ at the time of execution." He was sickened at the evil stupidity that led misguided authorities to commit such acts, but it was very clear that his students were now truly committed—they had developed Buddhist faith to the point were they feared nothing. Nichiren had given a few Gohonzon to those who exhibited extraordinary faith, but now the community, as a group was ready and had shown that this mind of faith was the rule, rather than the exception.
On October 12, 1279 Nichiren gave the Great Mandela (called the Dai Gohonzon) to all people so that any of us who seek enlightenment can find the path that leads directly to nirvana.
On October 13, 1283, while quietly chanting "Nam Myoho Renge Kyo," Nichiren died. It is not possible for me, one of his students, to properly express the gratitude I feel for what the Daishonin did for all of us. The gift he has given me is enormous and beyond my poor ability to describe with anything close to adequacy. Our teacher worked all of his life to benefit as many beings as possible. Let us follow that example and bring this Kosen Rufu, movement to fruitation before the end of this 21st century.
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