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Nichiren, Leader of Buddhist Reformation in Japan

Nichiren, Leader of Buddhist Reformation in Japan bookcoverFrom the Author’s Preface

In the centuries-long history of Buddhism In Japan, no missionary, no priest, no teacher of Sakyamuni Buddha’s Dharma has ever had a greater effect upon that religion than the man who became known as Nichiren (Nichiren Shonin) and no religious leader has, perhaps, been more misunderstood – especially in the English-speaking world. Western writers often describe him as “combative,” “over-zealous,” “obstinate,” “arrogant,” and “fanatical,” failing to realize that such adjectives certainly do not describe a leader who was capable of creating a sincere belief, a deep love, and an undying devotion within his followers. Nichiren did all that – and more.

It possible that, in our time, we have become so used to following our political and religious leaders in an unthinking manner, or so used to living with a feeling of futility in a world of bureaucratic red-tape, that we find it difficult to believe that a sane man is capable of speaking out against political inefficiency and religious intolerance. Nichiren did all that – and more.

If he were “combative,” “overzealous,” “obstinate,” “arrogant,” and “fanatical,” he was so only in his actions toward the wealthy aristocracy, and toward those government officials, those religious leaders of his time, who were far-removed from any concern with the common man. With the humble, the meek, the poor, and the sorrowful, he was a man of unlimited compassion – a man capable of the deepest and tenderest love. And how we need such men in our own time!

It is my sincere hope that, through these pages, the reader will come to understand Nichiren as the man he really was: a scholar of great learning, a teacher of great ability, and a man of great compassion.

In Gassho,

J.A. Christensen
Salt lake City, Ljtah
August, 1978


Lotus Sutra Summary


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A Courageous and Compassionate Pattern of Living

Rencho often spoke to [Johon, a book merchant] earnestly and sincerely of his belief in The Lotus Sutra, explaining how the great teaching was not just an object of piety, something merely to be read with the eyes and understood with the mind. It was something to be read by the body, to be lived with all one’s flesh and blood; for it offered a courageous and compassionate pattern of living if one followed the examples and the vows of those divine beings who had heard the true teachings of Sakyamuni.

Nichiren, Leader of Buddhist Reformation in Japan

The Four Principles of Learning

The Nirvana Sutra was the last lesson taught by Sakyamuni just before his death; and it was this lesson that Rencho had accepted as part of the “Treasured Gem” which he had received through his vow to Akasagarbha (Kokuzo Bosatsu), the Bodhisattva of Wisdom. The four principles of learning which the sutra established were:

  • Rely on the law (The Dharma), and not on any person;
  • Follow only the teachings of that sutra which is regarded as complete and final;
  • Follow meanings, not words;
  • Follow wisdom, not biased thinking.

With these guidelines strong in his mind, Rencho began the final steps of his studies in fulfillment of the vow he had made to Akasagarbha. He would read every Buddhist text ever brought to Japan, the writings of every saint, and the commentaries of every great thinker; he would master the teachings of all ten Japanese Buddhist Sects; he would draw the truth from them in order to discover the true meaning of Buddhism and the one Sutra which revealed that meaning.

Nichiren, Leader of Buddhist Reformation in Japan

The Treasured Gem

From the moment of [Nichiren’s] recovery [after 21 days of prayer and fasting before the image of Kokuzo Bosatsu], a new clarity began to enter his life. Through his diligent studies, he began to recognize differences among the various sutras. This recognition was based upon what he called “The Treasured Gem” – a gift of knowledge divided into two parts. The first part was drawn from the Nirvana Sutra that said: “Rely on the Dharma, and not on any person.” Thus, a man could never be misled by clever people. The second part was to rely on reason, on written proof, and finally, on that proof drawn from one’s own experience.

Nichiren, Leader of Buddhist Reformation in Japan

Establishing the Lotus Sutra in Japan

To accommodate the increasing number of visitors to the hermitage [at Minobu], a lovely temple – the Myo-hokke-in Ku-on-ji – was finally erected; and, on November 21, 1281, Nichiren lectured for the first time in the newly-completed edifice.

“I, Nichiren, am not the founder of any particular Sect, nor do I belong to any subordinate denomination. This earth has only one sun, and man has only one Buddha. I believe Buddha intended for me to establish The Lotus Sutra here in Japan, and I feel that I am fulfilling that task in this Age of the Latter Law.”

Nichiren, Leader of Buddhist Reformation in Japan

The First Day

On the first day of his mission of restoring the Buddha’s truth, Nichiren had, therefore, proclaimed his religion to the rising sun, had preached his first sermon at the sun’s height, had made his first converts at the sun’s setting, and, in the cover of darkness, under the threat of death, had fled to safety beyond the angry hands which sought to destroy him.

Nichiren, Leader of Buddhist Reformation in Japan

The Name Nichiren

The word nichi, meaning “sun,” is reference to in the 21st chapter of the Lotus Sutra where it says: “Just as the light of the sun and moon expells all dimness and darkness; so this man, living and working in the world, drives out the darkness (illusion) of all living beings,” The word ren meaning “lotus,” is referred to in chapter 15 of the same sutra where it says: “Be not influenced by environment. Lo, the Lotus blossoms, never to be soiled by the muddy waters whence it grows.

Nichiren, Leader of Buddhist Reformation in Japan

The Morning of April 28, 1253

For Seven days, he knelt in fervent prayer among the muted pines, preparing himself for the restoration of the true teaching of the Buddha to the people. Finally, on the night of April 27, 1253, his mind clear, his actions fully planned, he rose to his feet and made his way upward to a high peak where the forest of Asahi-ga-mori and the Pacific Ocean spread before him in the sheltering, voiceless darkness.

As the first rays of the morning sun brushed across the horizon, driving away the night and spreading a golden hush across the land, Rencho stood, motionless, facing eastward, his hands clasped in gassho, his face aglow with the truth. Nothing broke the stillness of this high place, neither wind, nor wave, nor song of bird. The world was silent as though it held its breath in patient expectation. And then the silence shattered as a resounding cry echoed from the young priest’s lips: “Namu Myo-ho-ren-ge-kyo!” “Adoration to the Sutra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Law!” The words thundered and resounded through the clear, mountain air.

It was the morning of April 28, 1253 – the beginning of a new day. The first step in restoring the truth had finally been taken.

Nichiren, Leader of Buddhist Reformation in Japan

The Lotus Sutra

This is a summary of the Lotus Sutra excerpted from “Nichiren, Leader of Buddhist Reformation in Japan” by Jack Arden Christensen

Lotus Sutra: Part One

“I had gone to many centers of the religion,” Rencho wrote in later years, “in the quest of Buddhist truths. The final conclusion I arrived at was that the truth of Buddhism must be basically one in nature. Many people lose themselves in a maze of studies and learning through believing that every one of the many teachings may help them attain the Buddhist ideals.” However, not only would there be one truth; but it would be eternal. It would also be simple enough, and available enough, that all men, no matter what their virtue or wisdom might be, could easily understand it. This simple truth Rencho found in The Lotus Sutra.

The Sutra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Law was
originally written in India where it was known as the Saddharma-Pundarika. In Japan, where it was introduced in the sixth century, it was known as Myo-ho-ren-ge-kyo, although the title was often shortened to Hokekyo. In Buddhist tradition, the lotus flower is a most important symbol; for, although its roots grow in muddy water, its pure white blossom rises above the impurities and the pollution which surround it. For this reason, the Lotus Sutra received its name; like the pure white blossom of the lotus flower, its teachings rise above the confusion, the chaos, the evils of the world which surround it. The sutra, itself, says; “Be not influenced by environment. Lo, the Lotus blossoms, never to be soiled by the muddy waters whence it grows.”

The sutra is a very beautiful work, often referred to as “the crown jewel in which all Buddha-laws are clearly taught”; it was highly revered among early Japanese Buddhists until its truth became lost amidst the many teachings and trivial debates of later sects. But Rencho vowed to restore it to its rightful place as the only true teaching of Sakyamuni Buddha.

The setting for The Lotus Sutra is Vulture peak in northern India. There, on that sacred mountain, the Buddha once sat in meditation, surrounded by eighty thousand saints, monks, nuns, holy kings, and gods. “And as soon as the Lord had entered upon his meditation, there fell a great rain of divine cloudflowers, covering the Lord and his followers; and the earth moved from one end to the other.

“And at that moment, there issued a ray of light from the circle of white curls between the eyebrows of the Lord, and eighteen thousand worlds in the east became visible by the light,” Filled with reverence and awe, the throng sat silently, expectantly, waiting to hear what the Lord Buddha meant to reveal.

“The Lord then rose with recollection and consciousness from his meditation and spoke to Sariputra, one of his most brilliant disciples. “The wisdom of the present Buddhas,’ he said, ‘cannot be understood by those who seek enlightenment for their own sake only, and not for the enlightenment of other living beings as well. This is because the present Buddhas gained their wisdom, mastered the profound Law by practicing – in their previous existence – the teachings of the past Buddhas. Their wisdom is also difficult to understand because they are teaching the Law in various ways according to the abilities of all living beings to understand.

“Ever since I became a Buddha, I have explained the Law with many stories of previous lives, with parables, and with examples. But the complete Law can be fully understood only by the Buddhas and the Bodhisattvas (Bosatsu) who are firm in their beliefs. For this reason, I have, of nececity, taught three paths – The Three Vehicles – to understanding.”

“But why has it been necessary for you to teach three paths?” Sariputra asked. “What is the true Law? How does one practice the way? Teach us the true Law.”

The Buddha, however, refused, saying: “If I do, arrogant people will doubt me and will surely Fall into hell.”

Three times Saniputra asked, and three times the Buddha refused; finally, he said, “I will explain the Law.”

“The Buddhas appear in the world to help all living beings to enter the Way to Buddha-understanding. But not all beings are the same; therefore, the Buddhas teach the Law in various ways, according to the ability of all living beings to understand.

“All the Buddhas of the past explained the Law with many stories of previous lives, with parables, and with examples; all the Buddhas of the present, and all those of the future, will do the same. The Buddhas appear in those vile and evil worlds where the living beings are filled with illusions, with greed, and with jealousy. In order to help these beings to understand the Buddha-wisdom in the simplest way, they divide the One Buddha-vehicle, the one path, into three. But there is only one teaching, the One Vehicle, in the worlds of the ten quarters. All other teachings are merely temporary until the final truth can be revealed. They are merely steps in understanding the One.

“Just so have I, in the past, taught the Three Vehicles out of necessity; but, know, Sariputra, that even though there are still stupid men, and men of little wit who cannot believe this Law, I have decided that now is the time to proclaim the supreme Way, to proclaim the undivided Law. As I once led all living beings with the teaching of the Three Vehicles, now I am saving them by the Great Vehicle.”

Following the Separate paths of the Three Vehicles, the Lord Buddha then explained, some men took the path of the Sravaka (Shomon). With no concern for the enlightenment of others, these men, having heard the Four Noble Truths, worshipped the Buddha and followed the Way; thus did they attain enlightenment.

Some men took the path of the Pratyeka-buddha (Engaku). With no concern for the enlightenment of others, these men, having never heard the teachings of the Buddha, followed their own personal beliefs; thus did they attain enlightenment.

Some men took the path of the Bodhisattva (Bosatsu). With great love, with great concern for the enlightenment of others, these men, having heard the Law, lived it fully and were destined for full enlightenment; yet, they postponed that enlightenment in order to help others; thus did they eventually become Buddhas.

“The Buddhas teach only Bodhisattvas (Bosatsu),” the Lord Sakyamuni continued, “I, too, now teach full enlightenment only to the Bodlffsatlvas; for, with the establishment of the undivided Law of the Great Vehicle, there are no longer Sravakas (Shomon) among My disciples. With the establishment of the undivided Law of the Great Vehicle, all living beings are equal.

“Anyone who hears this Law will become a Buddha. Anyone who hears even a verse of this Sutra will become a Buddha because the Buddha-seed, the Buddha-nature dwells in every living being. And anyone who rejoices at hearing this Law, and utters but one single word of it, has already paid homage to the Buddhas of the past, present, and future.

“Teach this sutra to wise men who have true wisdom, who hear much, who remember well, and who seek the enlightenment of Buddha; to those who have compassion toward others; to those who respect others; to those who are upright, gentle, and respectful of the Buddhas; or to those who seek this sutra. These people will be able to understand this sutra by faith.

In this manner did the Buddha speak to the assembled throng. And to make his meaning of the One Vehicle even clearer to those who listened, he taught them with many parables and examples. He taught them ‘The parable of the Burning House,” “Simile of Herbs,” “The Parable of a Magic City,” and, in like manner, his disciples answered with parables and examples to show their understanding of the true Law.

Then, in this manner, the Buddha spoke again in the presence of the eighty thousand great leaders: “After the extinction of the Tathagata, anyone who rejoices, for a single moment, at hearing even a single word or a single verse of The Lotus Sutra will receive perfect enlightenment. If anyone in this world rejoices at hearing this Sutra, I will appear before him and assure him of his future attainment of Buddhahood.

“Anyone who receives, keeps, leads and recites, teaches,
and copies even a single verse of this sutra, or respects a copy of the sutra just as he respects the Buddha, or makes offering to it in various ways with flowers, incense, perfume, garlands, ointment, powder, garments, umbrellas, flags, banners, and music, as well as revering it with folded hands, can do so because he came to this world in order to save all living beings. He will become a Buddlra in his future life.

“If my good sons and daughters receive and keep, read and recite, teach, or copy even a single word of this sutra, or make offerings to it in various ways, these people will be looked up to by all the worlds. Make the same offerings to them as you do to me. They are great Bodhisattvas (Bosatsu) who have accomphshed perfect enlightenment, and, out of compassion for all living beings, are willingly born in this world, and widely proclaim and teach The lotus Sutra.”

This and much more the Buddha spoke to the eighty thousand as he taught them the undivided Law of the One Vehicle. And, as he spoke, a wondrous stupa, adorned with precious jewels and fragrant with sandalwood, sprang up from the earth and hung in the sky before the Buddha. The door remained closed; but from within came a loud voice, praising and saying: “Excellent! Excellent! World-honored Sakyamuni has taught The Lotus Sutra to the great multitude. So it is; So it is. The teachings of Sakyamuni Buddha are all true.

Then one disciple said to the Buddha: “For what reason has this stupa sprung out of the earth? Why is the voice heard from within?”

“Within that stupa,” the Buddha answered, “dwells Prabhutaratna (Taho), the Buddha of many-treasures. As a Bodhisattva (Bosatsu), he made a vow. ‘I shall become a Buddha in my life; however, after I pass away, if the Lotus Sutra is preached in any country in the universe, my stupa shall rise and appear there, so that I may prove the truthfulness of that teaching.

“And may we not See the Many-Treasures Buddha?” the disciple asked.

“The Many-Treasures Buddha made another vow,” the Buddha said, “that he would never reveal himself to others unless the Buddha who taught The Lotus Sutra gathered his manifestations before the stupa.”

Then the Buddha sent forth a ray of light from the circle of white curls between his eyebrows, and the light illumined all the worlds of the ten quarters. Many Buddhas in those worlds were manifestations of the Sakyamuni Buddha; so, led by the light, they gathered before the door of the stupa.

Thereupon, Sakyamuni Buddha arose, and with his right finger he opened the door. Within sat the Many-Treasures Buddha who spoke, saying: “Excellent, Sakyamuni Buddha. You have taught The Lotus Sutra, and I have come to hear the sutra. Take this seat beside me.”

Sakyamuni Buddha entered the stupa, and, sitting down on that half throne, he folded his legs. Thus, seated by the Many-Treasures Buddha, he spoke: “Now is the time to spread the teaching of The Lotus Sutra in this world. This is the most excellent sutra, for this sutra is myself. To follow this sutra for even a moment is as filled with merit as to follow all my other teachings. Those who, in coming generations, can read and keep this Sutra are my sons. Those who can teach its meaning shall be the eyes of the world for gods and men; and he who, in the dreadful age of fear, can teach it even for a moment, shall be worshipped by all gods and men.”

Lotus Sutra: Part Two

On the throne beside the Many-Treasures Buddha, Sakyamuni Buddha continued his teaching of The Lotus Sutra to the eighty thousand gleat leaders. As they heard his words, many of them promised to spread the Law of the sutra, not only on this earth, but in other worlds as well.

“But,” some said, “the monks in this evil world will be cunning, arrogant, and corrupt. They will pretend to be wise, but they will despise ordinary men. They will preach for gain. They will slander The Lotus Sutra as the teaching of heretics, and they will sometimes drive us from our own temples. Yet, we shall endure all this in order to keep the sutra from extinction.”

Then, Manjusri Bodhisattva (Monju Bosatsu) asked of the Buddha: “World-honored One, how can an ordinary person preach this sutra in the evil age to come? Is there nothing he can do to keep from being spoken ill of, struck with sticks, threatened with swords, and driven from his temples?”

“Let that person abide in patience,” the Buddha answered. “Let him be gentle and agreeable, neither hasty nor arrogant; and let his mind be calm. Let him not cling to any extreme, nor let himself be surprised by misfortune.

“Let him refrain from approaching kings, princes, ministers, and other government leaders. Nor shall he approach the followers of other religions nor those who seek enlightenment for their own personal gain. Neither shall he approach writers of wordly literature; nor should he, himself, resort to brutal sports and amusements. Let him refrain from associating with keepers of pigs, sheep, fowls and dogs, hunters, and fishermen. Yet, whenever such people as these may come to him, he shall preach the Law to them, expecting nothing in return.”

This and other admonitions did the Buddha give to Manjusri Bodhisattva (Monju Bosatsu) and the throng of followers.

“Be willing to sit in meditation,” he said, “to live in a
retired place, and to concentrate your mind.

“See things as they are. Do not look upon others with jealousy. Do not flatter or deceive them. Do not criticize them and take pleasure in pointing out their faults. Do not hate them. Do not involve yourself in meaningles arguments with them. Give up anger and conceit. Be simple and honest, teaching with a gentle countenance and a cheerful heart.

At that time, there came many Bodhisattvas from other lands who saluted the Buddha, saying: “If the Buddha will allow us, we will protect, keep, and preach this sutra after his extinction.”

But the Buddha answered: “Enough, my good sons. You
need not do so. There are already persons in this world who are able to do this work.

As he spoke, the earth trembled and quaked; innumerable Bodhisattvas (Bosatsu) sprang from beneath the four quarters of the world. Approaching the stupa, they bowed in homage to the Many-Treasures Buddha and Sakyamuni Buddha. Among the host were four leading teachers to whom the Buddha spoke, calling them “My Good Sons.”

“We have never seen these Bodhisattvas before, * said Maitreya Bodhisattva (Miroku Bosatsu). “Where have they come from? Why are they here? Who taught the Law to them?”

“I taught them,” the Buddha answered, “in this Saha-world after I attained Perfect Enlightenment. These are my disciples. Thev are my sons.”

“This is difficult to believe,” Maitreya (Miroku) said. “The World-honored One, when he was a prince, left the Sakya palace; and, not far from the city of Gaya, he sat beneath the Bodhi-tree and attained Buddhahood. Yet, little more than forty years have passed since then. How, in such a short time, were you able to teach so many Bodhisattvas (Bosatsu)? Also you say you taught them in the far past. How can you have taught them before you attained Buddhahood? Such a matter as this will be hard for the world to believe.”

Thereupon, the Buddha said: “You are wrong to think that I attained the Enlightenment a little more than forty years ago. I attained Buddhahood long ago in the far-distant past. Since then, I have taught the living beings of this world, explaining the duration of my life differently, according to their abilities to understand. Only to those of little virtue who sought the Lesser Vehicle, have I said, ‘A little more than forty years ago, I left home and attained Perfect Enlightenment.’

“The tathagata knows and sees the world of the past, present, and future as it really is. To him, there is neither birth nor death. Nothing comes or goes; nothing is real or unreal. The duration of my life is endless. I am eternal; therefore, I shall never be extinct.

“I appear rarely in this world. It is difficult to see me. The living beings of little virtue do not know this. They think that they can see me at any time, and they do not plant the roots of good. In order to save them, I will disappear from this world in the near future. When they see me pass away, then they will realize the difficulty in seeing me.

Then, so that they might understand him more clearly, the Buddha taught Maitreya (Miroku) and the other; “The Parable of An Excellent Physician” in which he compared himself to a doctor whose children had taken poison by mistake. Making a compound of herbs, the good physician gave it to the children, saying: “This is good medicine. Take this, and you will be cured,”

Some of the sons took the medicine and recovered their health; but others, because they had already lost their right minds, refused to do so. Therefore, the father decided he must use some other means to make them take the medicine.

Leaving the medicine behind, he departed from the children, and after a while, sent a messenger to say: “Your father has just died.”

Hearing this, the confused sons were very sad. “If our father had been with us,” they thought, “he would have loved us and protected us. Now we are lonely and helpless. We have no refuge.”

When they thought of this, the confused sons recovered their right minds; so they took the medicine their father had left, and they were cured of their sickness. Hearing that all his sons had recovered their health, the father returned home to their joyful suaprise.

“I am like the father,” the Buddha said. “The Law is like
the medicine of herbs which the father left behind. It is eternal, always there for those who will partake of it. And all living beings are like the sons. Those who listen to the Law, who perform good deeds, are gentle and upright and able to see that I always live here. But those who have evil karmas are confused. They refuse to accept the Law; therefore, in order to save them, I shall, like the father, disappear from the world. When they see me pass away, they will make offerings to my relics with love and respect; they will become devout, upright, and gentle. Then will I show myself to them again on Vulture Peak.”

The assembled throng was filled with wonder and amazement so that they rejoiced at these words. Then the Buddha taught them further in the Law, how they might gain merit by rejoicing at hearing the sutra, how they might gain merit as teachers of the Law; and the Bodhisattvas (Bosatsu) surrounding the stupa, those who had sprung from beneath the ground, made a solemn vow to keep the sutra, to read it, to teach it, to copy it, and to make offerings to it.

Pleased with the vow, the Buddha resumed his teaching, speaking to several of the Bodhisattvas (Bosatsu) concernin their previous lives. When finally he turned to the eighty thousand leaders once more, he said: “If there is anyone who keeps, reads, or recites this sutra, memorizes it correctly, practices it, or copies it, know that he attends on Sakyamuni Buddha as if he were hearing the sutra from the Buddha’s mouth. I shall praise this person, lay my hands upon his head; and, saying ‘Well done,’ I will cover him with my robe. He will not be attached to the pleasures of the world. He will not read the writings of other religions, or apptoach the followers of those religions. He will not approach prostitutes, or hunters, or butchers, or those who breed pigs or sheep or fowls or dogs. He will not be greedy, ignorant, angry, jealous, or arrogant. He will not be attached to clothing, bedding, food, drinks, or any other thing for living. He will be honest, upright, happy, and virtuous. He will want little and feel contented. What he wishes will be fulfilled. He will attain Perfect Enlightenment and teach the Law.

“Those who abuse him, who blame him, who laugh at him, will suffer in their present and future lives. Those who make offerings to him will be given rewards. Respect him lust as you respect me!”

When the Buddha taught this sutra, the eighty thousand great leaders, and all the other living beings in the congregation had great joy, kept the words of the Buddha, paid homage to him, and withdrew.

Nichiren, Leader of Buddhist Reformation in Japan