Nikkyo Niwano (born 1906) was president of Rissho Kosei-kai and one of the most important religious leaders of modern Japan.
President Nikkyo Niwano of Rissho Kosei-kai, a Japanese lay Buddhist organization, received two international awards in the late 1970s: the Albert Schweitzer (United States) and the Templeton (England). Both were given in recognition of his leadership in religion, marking him as one of the most important religious leaders in Asia and the world. This was quite an accomplishment for a man who only had a primary school education (but became a lifetime student) and whose sect of Japanese Buddhism was related to Nichiren Buddhism (often noted as the most nationalistic and narrow of Buddhist groups). In addition, his involvement in international concerns did not begin until the late 1960s. His life was a testament to overcoming obstacles to achieve greatness.
Born in the snow country of northern Japan on November 15, 1906, as Shikazo Niwano, he was the son of Jukichi Niwano, a farmer. He learned the special kind of cooperation that was needed to survive the most severe winter climate in Japan. At the age of 17 he left home and went to Tokyo, only to arrive there five days before the great earthquake of 1923. He returned home but again went to Tokyo the following year, working first as a gardener and then in a charcoal shop. In 1926 he entered the Japanese navy and served for three years. Upon discharge he returned to the charcoal shop, got married, and began a family. His interest in the owner's practice of fortunetelling led him into esoteric and traditional folk religion. Serious illness of his first children, both daughters, led him to explore folk spirituality — paranormal phenomena such as faith healing, prophecy, and knowledge of personality traits from physical correspondents such as name interpretation. He joined one of the so-called new religions named Reiyukai.
Young Niwano began to neglect both his family and his newly started pickle business for his religious work, so he opened a milk shop in order to have enough time to continue his religious practices. One of his customers was Masa Naganuma, who was ill, and he interested her in faith healing. Internal dissension within Reiyu-kai led Niwano and some 30 others to start their own religious group. On March 5, 1938, Niwano and Masa Naganuma founded Rissho (establishing the teaching of the law in the world) Ko (mutual exchange of thought) Sei (perfection of the personality and the attainment of Buddhahood) Kai (association, society). Niwano changed his first name to Nikkyo and Masa Naganuma to Myoko (she became known as Myoko Sensei, teacher Myoko). Rissho Kosei-kai was classified by the government as a new religion as it brought together folk and Nichiren Buddhist elements. (This misnomer fails to account for religious strains going back centuries in Japan — hardly a new religion. Some scholars have finally noticed this discrepancy.) Because the militarists believed that Nichiren Buddhism was nationalistic, little pressure was brought to bear on Rissho Kosei-kai during its first years. In August of 1941, however, President Niwano and Myoko Sensei were arrested on charges brought by their former religious group — that they were confusing the local people. Because of the arrests, many ceased their membership. This became known as the "first flight of steps."
In 1944 Niwano faced a crisis of a personal nature. Myoko Sensei had a revelation for Niwano to live similarly to a Buddhist monk, so he sent his family to the country. She also revealed to him that he was to do no other reading than the Lotus Sutra. He used the next ten years for study and discipline. But in 1954 he brought his family back, choosing a Buddhism of laity rather than that of the clergy. His harder decision was between revelations from mediumship and knowledge from the Lotus Sutra. He finally opted for the latter when there was any discrepancy between the two. Within three years Myoko Sensei died and the use of mediums ended.
In 1956 the "second flight of steps" occurred when more members left after a newspaper attacked the organization, its business practices, and its leadership for a three month period. Even though the criticisms were refuted, nearly 20 percent of the membership had walked away.
With Myoko Naganuma's death in 1957 President Niwano made Shakyamuni Buddha and the Lotus Sutra the central focus of Rissho Kosei-kai. The postwar years saw phenomenal growth. A practice of meeting together in small groups presided over by a leader conversant in the teachings of the Lotus Sutra may have contributed to this growth more than any other factor. The practice was called Hoza.
Receiving advice to avoid controversies with Sokagakkai over what was the true Buddhism, Niwano began to involve Rissho Kosei-kai in sharing Buddhism's compassion for suffering and concern for peace beyond his own country. This came at a time when Japanese were not too welcome in most parts of the world. Through cooperation with the International Association for Religious Freedom (IARF) and with the World Conference on Religion and Peace, Niwano began ten years of work and service that would culminate in the two international awards mentioned earlier. Then in 1981 he was elected president of IARF and brought the first IARF Congress to Asian soil.
Niwano built in Rissho Kosei-kai the most international religious organization in Asia as evidenced by the relief campaigns for Southeast Asia and Africa in the 1980s. His Niwano Peace Foundation gave annual recognition to persons whose activities advanced religion and peace. Another measurement of his influence was his work with the United Nations (UN), the Vatican, and the World Council of Churches; there was growing expertise within Rissho Koseikai (RKK) in international diplomacy. A stream of dignitaries passed through RKK's headquarters to talk with Niwano or the RKK staff. Niwano's efforts for peace and worldwide cooperation made him one of the most active religious leaders in the world.
Niwano's autobiography has been translated into English as Lifetime Beginner (1978); other writings by him include The Richer Life (1975), Buddhism for Today (1976), and A Buddhist Approach to Peace (1977); Liberal Religious Reformation in Japan (1984) by George M. Williams. □