The Life of Nichiren Daishonin

Nichiren Daishonin was born in 1222 in Japan, a time rife with social unrest and natural disasters. The common people, especially, suffered enormously. Nichiren wondered why the Buddhist teachings had lost their power to enable people to lead happy, empowered lives.While a young priest, he set out to find an answer to the suffering and chaos that surrounded him. His intensive study of the Buddhist sutras convinced him that the Lotus Sutra contained the essence of the Buddha's enlightenment and that it held the key to transforming people's suffering and enabling society to flourish.

The Lotus Sutra affirms that all people, regardless of gender, capacity or social standing, inherently possess the qualities of a Buddha, and are therefore equally worthy of the utmost respect.

Based on his study of the sutra, Nichiren established the invocation, or chanting, of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo as a universal practice to enable people to manifest the Buddhahood inherent in their lives and gain the strength and wisdom to challenge and overcome any adverse circumstances. Nichiren saw the Lotus Sutra as a vehicle for people's empowerment—stressing that everyone can attain enlightenment and enjoy happiness in their present existence.

Nichiren traveled to Kamakura, Japan's political capital, where he continued to expound his teachings, gaining both followers and adversaries. His persecutions worsened after he submitted a treatise titled, "On Establishing the Correct Teaching for the Peace of the Land," which drew a direct correlation between the national calamities and the practice of erroneous teachings, warning of internal strife and foreign invasion if the nation stayed on its current course. Nichiren was critical of the established schools of Buddhism that relied on state patronage and merely served the interests of the powerful while encouraging passivity in the suffering masses. He called the feudal authorities to task, insisting that the leaders bear responsibility for the suffering of the population and act to remedy it. His stance, that the state exists for the sake of the people, was revolutionary for its time.

Nichiren's claims invited an onslaught of often-violent persecutions from the military government and the established Buddhist schools. He refused to compromise his principles to appease those in authority. Wherever he went, regardless of personal risk, he continued to share Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, converting many people to his teachings.

He admonished the government and religious authorities for slandering the Lotus Sutra. As a result, Nichiren was arrested on trumped-up charges on September 12 and sentenced to exile. The chief of military police, Hei no Saemon, attempted to have him executed at Tatsunokuchi. Nichiren's absolute confidence in his teaching and his role in its propagation, together with the appearance of a bright object in the sky—probably a meteor—caused the military to call off the execution, and Nichiren was sent into exile on the remote and bleak island of Sado.

There he and a single faithful follower, Nikko Shonin, lived in a tumbledown shack, in an area where corpses were abandoned without burial. Nichiren wrote several crucial treatisesduring this period, despite the harsh physical circumstances, which gradually improved as they gained support from among the local populace.

His prophecy of "internal strife" was fulfilled in 1272, as the ruling clan of Japan fell to fighting amongst themselves.

Two years later, pardoned by the government, Nichiren Daishonin returned to Kamakura, to repeat his warning of foreign invasion. Though he was given a hearing this time, and treated more respectfully, he was still not taken seriously.

Sure the government would never heed him, Nichiren left Kamakura in May 1274 to live in retreat at the foot of Mount Minobu, where he continued writing the many letters he sent to individual followers throughout his life. In October that year, the Mongols attempted the invasion he had long predicted. Though Nichiren could only lament the agony it caused the Japanese people, it surely strengthened his determination to lessen human suffering.

Throughout the next several years, with Nichiren's encouragement, his close disciples continued to propagate his teachings, especially converting many in the Atsuhara area. As more people were converted, including priests of other Buddhists schools, tensions from the government and leaders of other Buddhist schools rose toward Nichiren and his followers. Nichiren's followers endured heavy persecution, displaying their commitment to follow his teachings despite obstacles.

Most notable was the Atsuhara persecution, in which 20 of his followers were arrested and tortured. Unwavering in their faith, three of them were later executed. Moved by the courageous faith of the Atsuhara farmers, on October 12, 1279, Nichiren inscribed the Dai-Gohonzon, of which all Gohonzon are replicas, with the intention of enabling all humanity to attain Buddhahood everywhere and at any time.

Three years later, on October 13, 1282, watched over by disciples chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, Nichiren passed away in Ikegami, near modern-day Tokyo.