The Japanese Buddhist monk Nichiren (1222-1282), also known as Rissho Daishi, was the founder of the Nichiren sect. Different from other Buddhist leaders of his time because of his uncompromising attitude toward religion and state, he intended to purify and unite Buddhism.
Nichiren was born the son of a humble fisherman in Kominato, Awa Province. He was given the name Zennichimaru, but in 1237 he was ordained under the religious name of Rencho, which he later changed to Nichiren (nichi, "sun," standing for the Light of Truth as well as for the Land of the Rising Sun, and ren, "lotus," for the Lotus Sutra). He received instruction in Amidist ideas but apparently from the beginning doubted the efficacy of the nembutsu (invocation of Amida's name).
From 1243 to 1253 Nichiren studied at the Tendai center on Mt. Hiei. He came to feel that the true teaching lay in Tendai doctrine, not, however, the degenerate one of his own times but that of Saicho, the founder of the sect. Tendai since Saicho, he felt, had degenerated, for it had been largely infiltrated by Esoteric practices. Thus Nichiren's aim was to unify and to purify Japanese Buddhism. In 1253 he left Mt. Hiei and returned to his former monastery at Kiyozumi. There he preached his new doctrine: hope for the present degenerate age lay in the Lotus Sutra.
Views on Religion and State
Concerned about the state of the nation, Nichiren in 1260 presented to the regent a tract entitled Rissho ankoku ron (A Treatise on the Establishment of Righteousness and the Peace of the Country). This important work was conceived in the form of a dialogue between a householder (Nichiren, probably) and a visitor with whom he discusses the times. The author claims that religion and national life are one and the same and proposes that his doctrine become a kind of state religion. The intolerance of his tone is striking: killing heretics, he claims, is not murder; and it is the duty of the government to root them out by the sword. He especially censures Honen and his works.
There is definitely an apocalyptic character about this work. Nichiren divided Buddhist history into three millennia since the death of the historical Shakyamuni, which, according to Chinese reckoning, took place in 947 B.C. Thus the world of the 13th century was in the third period, that of disintegration, or mappo (End of the Law). The Lotus Sutra tells how the bodhisattva of Superb Action (Vishishtacharita; Japanese, Jogyo) was to preach the doctrine after the Buddha's death. Nichiren considered himself to be the reincarnation of this bodhisattva, and his aim was to fulfill the prediction by specifically preaching the Lotus Sutra. The Sutra, he maintained, was concentrated in the invocation namu myo ho renge kyo (Hail to the Scripture of the Lotus of the Good Law). Sakyamuni, as the eternal, omnipresent mind, encompasses all. Every grain of dust can become Buddha, for it exists in the Buddha mind and shares its essence. In the Rissho ankoku ron Nichiren was uncompromising in his disdain of other sects, especially Jodo; but elsewhere Zen, Shingon, and Ritsu receive the same treatment. Kukai he called Japan's great liar (Nihon no dai mogo), and Zen a doctrine of demons and fiends.
The government was shocked at the Rissho ankoku ron, and a mob was incited by his enemies to attack his hermitage. Nichiren escaped, but on his return to Kamakura in 1261 he was banished to Izu Peninsula. For reasons unknown, the banishment was short, and he returned, unrepentant, to Kamakura.
In 1264 Nichiren returned to his native village, for his mother was seriously ill. Her unexpected recovery, he claimed, was due to the intervention of his prayers. Then, from 1264 to 1268, he traveled on missionary work throughout the eastern provinces, where he was successful in making many converts.
As he had predicted in the Rissho ankoku ron, Mongol envoys arrived in 1268 to demand tribute; and Nichiren called on the government to adopt his teachings as the national religion, claiming that this was the only way to save the country. For 3 years the government made no move; but in 1271 Nichiren was arrested, tried, and sentenced to banishment. But according to the custom at the time, the authorities had the right to execute if they so wished, and the death penalty was set for Oct. 17, 1271.
There are a number of stories of how the execution was stayed while Nichiren was on the very execution ground, Nichiren himself claiming divine intervention. He was detained in Kamakura until December of that year and then sent to the isle of Sado, off Echigo, where he remained until 1274. There in 1272 he wrote his famous Kaimokusho (Eye-opener), in which he vehemently confirmed his intention of continuing his former activities. In it he set forth his three vows: he would be the pillar of Japan, the eyes of Japan, and the great vessel of Japan, by which he doubtless meant that he would be the receptacle that contained the Truth that was to save the country.
In 1274 he was released from Sado and returned to Kamakura, where he found a more conciliatory government despite his continued adamancy. He left Kamakura and with some disciples settled at Minobu near Mt. Fuji. He built temples there and at Ikegami which are still the chief sites of the sect. He died at Ikegami reciting stanzas from the Lotus Sutra. He was accorded the posthumous title of Rissho Daishi.
Nichiren in his aggressiveness corresponded to the rough warrior type of the age. He reacted strongly against what seemed to him the flaccidity of the Amidists. Salvation had to be strived for by positive action; it was not enough to put oneself passively in the hands of a saving divinity like Amida. In this period of warfare, interest turned to Zen on the one hand, with its direct, anti-intellectual apprehension of the Truth, and to the crusading spirit of Nichiren's beliefs.
Further Reading on Nichiren
Translated excerpts from some of Nichiren's writings are in Ryusoku Tsunoda, William Theodore de Bary, and Donald Keene, eds., Sources of Japanese Tradition (1958; 2d ed. 1964). Masaharu Anesaki, Nichiren: The Buddhist Prophet (1916; repr. 1966), is an informative and readable account of Nichiren and his beliefs. A good short essay on Nichiren by G. B. Sansom is in Sir Charles Eliot, Japanese Buddhism (1935).
Additional Biography Sources
Kirimura, Yasuji, The life of Nichiren Daishonin / EDITION:First ed, Tokyo: Nichiren Shoshu International Center, 1980.