The Life of Nichiren

[From the Doctrine of Nichiren book] This is a very good portrait of our Founder. It is copied from one preserved in the Temple of Minobu, which contains the sepulchre of Nichiren and stands at the head of all temples of the Sect. When Nichiren was still alive, Sanenaga Hakii, one of his most eminent adherents, employed a painter to sketch his portrait. It is this which is now preserved in the Temple of Minobu.
[From the Doctrine of Nichiren book] This is a very good portrait of our Founder. It is copied from one preserved in the Temple of Minobu, which contains the sepulchre of Nichiren and stands at the head of all temples of the Sect. When Nichiren was still alive, Sanenaga Hakii, one of his most eminent adherents, employed a painter to sketch his portrait. It is this which is now preserved in the Temple of Minobu.
By Wakita Gyozwn,
Tonsured Priest of the Nichiren Sect of Buddhism

Two thousand one hundred and seventy-one years after the departure of Sakyamuni from the world – i.e., in the year 1222 of the Christian era – there was born in Japan a great religious hero; one destined to bring about a great revolution in the Buddhist religion as he found it. This man, known to us today by the name of Nichiren, or Sun Lotus, was a native of Kominato, a small village in Nagase, a district of the province of Awa. His family belonged to the Fujiwara clan, and was called Nukina; his father’s name being Shigetada Jiro. It was at the early age of twelve that Nichiren entered the priesthood, assuming the tonsure when he was sixteen. As he grew older, he undertook journeys in various directions, visiting many eminent sages and teachers of Buddhism in quest of the True Doctrine. Many years had elapsed since Buddha had entered Nirvana, and meanwhile so many errors, heresies, and misconceptions had crept into the popular expositions of the Buddhist creed that it was impossible to place full faith in what was taught. Buddhism was split up into a congeries of rival sects – the Tendai, the Shingon, the Jodo, and the Zen, among others – and these sects were divisible into two schools or groups. One taught self-reliance on the part of the devotee; the other inculcated reliance on the merits and assistance of the Buddha. The former teaching soon became too subtle, speculative, and esoteric to commend itself to men of ordinary intellect, while the latter degenerated into a sort of vulgar sentimentalism, and was marked by a tendency to pusillanimity on the part of its adherents. In fact, the sects of both schools had strayed from the right way as laid down by Sakyamuni; and such being the main characteristic of all the authoritative teaching of the time, it is not surprising that the gravest dangers, in a religious sense, threatened both State and people.

This condition of affairs impressed Nichiren so deeply that he determined to discard the opinions of the sectaries altogether, and search for the Truth in his own spiritual consciousness and in the sacred writings. With this in view, he ceased all intercourse with the rest of the world, and shut himself up in a storehouse of sacred books well furnished with the treatises he required. These he studied carefully, reading them through and through. The end of it all was his discovery that the true reason of the descent of the Buddha into the world is to be found, and found only, in “The Holy Book of the Lotus of the Good Law”; he saw that the pure doctrines of that “Holy Book” were alone fit to tranquillize and settle both individuals and the State; and by virtue of these he determined, if possible, to revolutionise the whole religious world. From that time he set out to establish a new sect — what would be, in point of fact, almost a new religion. Nichiren was by this time thirty-two years old. Study had oc cupied him hitherto ; the moment foraction had now arrived. It will have been observed that he seems to have regarded the influence of Buddhism in its relation, not only to individual adherents, but to the State as a corporate whole ; and it was this connection of his new principles with the idea of nationality that formed one of his most prominent characteristics. Thus we find the works he wrote bearing such titles as “To Guard the People and the State,” “To Establish the Good Law and Tranquillize the State,” and so on. The former is, of all his books, the most replete with the idea of nationality, and it is known in Japan as the Risshu-an-koku Ron. It was his prevision of the invasion of the country by the Mongols under Kublai Khan that induced Nichiren to write this book and present it to the de facto Government of his day. The sovereignty was then in the hands of a family named Hojo, the power of the Imperial House being merely nominal.

In this work Nichiren lays down the axiom that the prosperity or decline of a State depends entirely upon the truth or perversion of its religion, and says boldly that both the rulers and the ruled were at that time wandering in error. He insists upon the substitution of truth for falsehood as a sine qua non for the peace and prosperity of the country, and launches defiance at the authority of the Government. It seems as though he had written the book with blood hot from his very heart, and used his own bones for pencils. The composition consists of more than ten thousand characters; his arguments cut sharp and deep, and his diction is full of sense and fire. It must be remembered that Nichiren appeared subsequent to all the other great religious founders, and that his mission was to discredit and suppress the existing sects. Of course this made him enemies; and so hot was their rage against him that, after suffering no small persecution, he was eventually exiled from the country. But he was not the man to be discouraged or put in fear. He set so high a value upon the welfare and prosperity of the State that he was ready to sacrifice life itself in defence of the Good Law, and accepted punishment and execution as though they were sweet food and pleasant drink.

The situation of Japan at that period was very similar to that of the Frankish Kingdom during the last days of the Merovingian dynasty. The later Merovingian kings were effete and powerless, the affairs of State devolving entirely on the Mayors of the Palace, the most famous of whom was Charles Martel. During his Mayoralty the kingdom was invaded by the Saracens. Charles defeated them, and drove them back to their own country. And Pepin, Charles’s son, was so powerful as to dethrone his master, and usurp the sovereignty himself. Much the same thing happened in Japan at the time of which we are writing. The country was then de facto under the sway of the Hojo family. The chief of this family, to whom Nichiren offered his work “To Establish the Good Law and Tranquillize the State,” was a man named Tokiyori, whose ancestors had deposed and banished many emperors; and his son, Tokimune, defeated the Mongolian army, one hundred thousand strong, who had dared to invade Japan. In fact the power and authority of the Hojo family may well be compared with those of Charles and Pepin. It was the good fortune of the Imperial House that the chiefs of this warlike clan stopped short of the audacity of Pepin. Bold and heroic, indeed, must he have been who dared to defy their despotism!

Besides, the Hojo family were adherents of the Zen persuasion, tendency of which is to deny, or ignore, any difference between the Buddha and his disciples, or between the sovereign and his subjects. They were, therefore, the first and greatest foes of Nichiren upon religious grounds. It was in vain he urged them to suppress all the sects, not excepting the Zen. Unquestionably he here embarked on a dangerous and difficult enterprise; his efforts, however, were not altogether fruitless.

At the age of sixty-one Nichiren entered Nirvana – just six hundred and twelve years ago. His most distinguished disciples at this time numbered a little over forty, and all of them bore their share in his arduous and risky work. He left some thirty or forty volumes behind him, all which are still extant. At present the Nichiren sect has five thousand tera or temples, seven thousand priests, and more than two millions of adherents. The largest and most important temples are those with which Nichiren himself had some personal connection.

There are some biographical critics who speak of this great reformer as the Luther of the East. The comparison, however, is open to arraignment, as being based upon a superficial acquaintance with Nichiren’s character and mission. To appreciate the eminence of his virtue, the extent and profundity of his learning, the heroism and grandeur of the man himself, it is necessary to read his works. “If,” says Nichiren, “my benevolence is really great and far-reaching, the ‘Holy Book of the Lotus of the Good Law’ will continue predominant a million years.” And again: “Indian Buddhism came from the West to the East. Japanese Buddhism will go from the East to the West.” There are signs even now that his words are being fulfilled.

Doctrines of Nichiren (1893)