views updated May 09 2018


NICHIREN (12221282) was a Japanese Buddhist monk of the Kamakura period (11921282) and eponymous founder of the Nichirenshu (Nichiren sect). In his radical insistence on the priority of the Lotus Sūtra (Skt., Saddharmapuarīka Sūtra; Jpn., Myōhōrengekyō; also known by its abbreviated title, Hokekyō ) over all other teachings and forms of Buddhism, Nichiren established himself as one of the major figures in the history of Japanese Buddhism. His influence persists to this day through the various schools and movements that look to Nichiren as their founder.


Nichiren was born in the village of Kominato in Awa Province (Chibaken), the son of a fisherman and minor manorial functionary. His talents as a youth brought him to the attention of the lord of the manor, who had him enter the Tendai monastery Kiyosumidera (Seichōji) in 1233 in order to begin his formal education. In 1237 he became a monk and adopted the religious name Renchō. Later, Nichiren left the Kiyosumidera for Kamakura, the seat of the military government, where he studied Pure Land Buddhism and Zen. The year 1242 found Nichiren on Mount Hiei, the center of the flourishing Tendai sect, and thereafter he studied on Mount Kōya, the center of the Shingon (Esoteric) school, and in the ancient capital of Nara. Convinced of the inadequacy of the Buddhism of his times, Nichiren returned to the Kiyosumidera in 1253 and began his self-appointed mission to bring what he believed to be true Buddhism to the Japanese. On April 28 of that year he publicly denounced all other forms of Buddhism as incomplete and ultimately false, and advocated a wholehearted faith in the teachings of the Lotus. It was at this time that he adopted the name Nichiren.

The remainder of Nichiren's life was marked by his conflicts with the government and the leaders of the established Buddhist sects. The year 1253 found Nichiren expelled from Kiyosumidera and disseminating his teachings in Kamakura, where he became deeply concerned about the social and political disorder of the times. In 1260 he presented his treatise Risshō ankokuron (Establish the right law and save our country) to the government. In it he ascribed the increase in floods, pestilence, famines, political strife, and conspiracies to the government's refusal to accept the Buddha's true teachings as found in the Lotus and their tolerance of the false doctrines of "heterodox" schools. He admonished the Hōjō rulers (military regents from 1213 to 1333) to abandon these expedient teachings and warned of the inevitability of rebellions and foreign invasions that would result from failure to embrace the true Buddhism. His criticism of the Hōjō family provoked the eldest member, Hōjō Shigetoki, a fervent Nembutsu (i.e., Pure Land) practitioner and a patron of Ryokan, the chief priest of the Shingon-Ritsu temple in Kamakura and one of Nichiren's foremost rivals. It is highly probable that Nichiren's hermitage in Kamakura was destroyed in 1260 by outlaws hired by Shigetoki. In 1261 the government exiled Nichiren to the province of Izu (Shizuoka-ken), only to pardon him in 1263. While visiting his home province in 1264, his old enemy Tōjō Kagenobu, a Nembutsu follower, planned an ambush from which Nichiren narrowly escaped.

In 1268 a Korean envoy arrived in Japan demanding the payment of tribute to the Mongolian ruler, Khubilai Khan. Nichiren submitted a proposal to the government reminding the Hōjō rulers that he had foretold such foreign invasions in his Risshō ankokuron and claiming that only he and, of course, faith in the Lotus, could save the country. Although the government ignored both the request of the envoy and Nichiren's warning, the masses, fearing the threat of invasion by Mongolian troops, turned in greater numbers to Nichiren's school. Concerned over Nichiren's growing popularity, the monks of several established Buddhist sects in Kamakura brought formal charges against Nichiren. These resulted in his arrest and, in 1271, his exile to Sado Island. After more than two years, in 1274, he was pardoned and returned to Kamakura. Soon after, Nichiren retired from public life and secluded himself in a mountain retreat in Minobu (Yamanashi-ken). There he became ill; in 1276 he moved to Ikegami in Musahi Province (Tokyo), where he died in 1282.

Thought and Works

Although Nichiren remained fundamentally within the Tendai tradition, he is known as a reformer, if not a radical, who departed from many of the teachings of Saichō, the founder of that sect. Indeed, he virtually reduced Tendai doctrines to the sole practice of chanting the Daimoku ("sacred title") of the Lotus Sūtra, that is, the recitation of the formula "Namu Myōhōrengekyō " ("Adoration be to the Lotus of Perfect Law"). The Daimoku, according to Nichiren, contains the entire universe and symbolizes absolute truth or, in other words, Śākyamuni Buddha. In his Kanjin honzonshō (The object of worship revealed by the introspection of our minds), written while exiled on Sado Island, Nichiren established Śākyamuni as the true object of worship and the Daimoku as the practice for revealing the absolute truth.

An integral aspect of his method of conversion (shakubuku ) was the condemnation of the popular sects of Buddhism. Nichiren held that by deliberately provoking people and raising their anger he would cause them to evaluate their beliefs. Anger and hatred, in Nichiren's system, were productive and creative emotional states. While at Kiyosumidera Nichiren's denunciations were focused primarily on the proponents of Nembutsu and Zen practices. He criticized Pure Land for engaging in expedient practices that would lead (he claimed) to rebirth in the lowest of hells and for emphasizing the notion of a Western Paradise, a belief, Nichiren held, that discourages people from establishing peace in their present lives. He criticized Zen for stressing a transmission outside scripture and for their belief in the efficacy of "no-words." Nichiren argued that without sūtra s and words the teachings of the Buddha could not be transmitted at all. Later, Nichiren added Ritsu (Vinaya), Shingon, and the esoteric subsects of Tendai to his list of heterodox schools.

Nichiren's exile on Sado Island proved to be a period of great creativity. Among the essays and treatises he wrote during this period was the Kaimokushō (Liberation from blindness). Here he departs from traditional Tendai notions of spiritual filiation by claiming that he is the successor to and reincarnation of the Viśiacāritra Bodhisattva (Jpn., Jōgyō Bosatsu), to whom Śākyamuni is said to have entrusted the Lotus Sūtra and whose reappearance is prophesied in that text. Another work, the Daimandara (Great maala) reiterates this theme. The maala itself, inspirationally revealed to Nichiren, represents all living beings in the Buddha world expressed in the Lotus Sūtra. It depicts the Daimoku surrounded by the names of Śākyamuni, various bodhisattva s led by Viśiacāritra, śr̄avakas, Japanese gods (kami ), and Tendai masters arranged on levels in descending order. The image of Śākyamuni and the Daimandara became the chief objects of worship in Nichiren's thought. Other of Nichiren's writings include 434 essays and epistles and a commentary on the Lotus Sūtra. The original of this commentary, which is still extant, is written on the back pages of a copy of the Triple Lotus Sūtra, a set of three sūtra s including the Myōhōrengekyo (Lotus Sūtra ); the Muryōgikyō, regarded as an introduction to the Lotus; and the Kan Fugen bosatsu gyōhōkyō, an epilogue to the Lotus. Aside from the Risshō ankokuron, the most significant of Nichiren's essays include Kaimokushō, Kanjin honzonshō, Senjishō (Selection of the Proper Time), and Hōonshō (Requitment of Favors).

See Also



Primary Sources

The collected works of Nichiren are available in the Shōwa teihon Nichiren Shōnin ibun, 4 vols., compiled by Minobusan Kuonji (Yamanashi, 19521959). Some of these works have been published in English. These include The Awakening to the Truth; or Kaimokushō, translated by Ehara Ryozui (Tokyo, 1941); Risshō ankokuron; or Establish the Right Law and Save Our Country, translated by Murano Senchu (Tokyo, 1977); and Nyorai metsugo go gohyakusaishi kanjin honzonshō; or, The True Object of Worship Revealed for the First Time in the Fifth of Five Century Periods after the Great Decease of the Tathagata, translated by Murano Senchu (Tokyo, 1954).

Another collection of Nichiren's works is the Nichiren Daishōnin gosho zenshū (Tokyo, 1952). Portions of this work are now being published in English under the title The Major Writings of Nichiren Daishōnin, edited and translated by the Seikyo Times (Tokyo, 1979).

Secondary Sources

Anesaki Masaharu. Nichiren, the Buddhist Prophet (1916). Gloucester, Mass., 1966.

Anesaki Masaharu. Hokekyō no gyōja Nichiren. Tokyo, 1933.

Masutani Fumio. Nichiren. Tokyo, 1967.

Matsunaga, Alicia, and Daigan Matsunaga. Foundations of Japanese Buddhism, vol. 2, The Mass Movement (Kamakura and Muromachi Periods). Los Angeles and Tokyo, 1976. See chapter 3.

Mochizuki Kankō. The Nichiren Sect. Translated by Murano Senchu. Tokyo, 1958.

Motai Kyōkō. Kanjin honzonshō kenkyū josetsu. Tokyo, 1964.

Nichiren Shōnin ibun jiten. Edited by Risshō Daigaku Nichiren Kyōgaku Kenkyūsho. Yamanashi, 1985.

Nichirenshū jiten. Published by the Nichiren Sect Headquarters. Tokyo, 1981.

Ōno Tatsunosuke. Nichiren. Tokyo, 1958.

Renondeau, Gaston. La doctrine de Nichiren. Paris, 1958.

Satomi, Kishio. Japanese Civilization: Its Significance and Realization, Nichirenism and the Japanese National Principles. London, 1933.

Takagi Yutaka. Nichiren. Tokyo, 1970.

Watanabe Hōyō. Nichirenshū shingyōron no kenkyū. Kyoto, 1979.

Yamakawa Chiō. Hokke shisōshijō no Nichiren Shōnin. Tokyo, 1934.

New Sources

Christensen, J. A. Nichiren: Leader of Buddhist Reformation in Japan. Fremont, Calif., 2001.

Hurst, Jane D. Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism and the Soku Gakkai in America: The Ethos of a New Religious Movement. New York, 1992.

Montgomery, Daniel B. Fire in the Lotus: The Dynamic Buddhism of Nichiren. New York, 1991.

Osumi Kazuo. "Buddhism in the Kamakura Period." In The Cambridge History of Japan, vol. 3: Medieval Japan. New York, 1990.

Snow, David A. Shakubuku: A Study of the Nichiren Shoshu Buddhist Movement in America. New York, 1993.

Watanabe HŌyŌ (1987)

Revised Bibliography


views updated May 21 2018


BORN: February 16, 1222 • Kominato, Awa, Japan

DIED: October 13, 1282 • Ikegami, Japan

Japanese religious leader

Nichiren was a Buddhist prophet (divine messenger) and monk who lived in thirteenth-century Japan. He gave his name to a sect, or subgroup, of Buddhism called Nichirenshu, or the Nichiren sect. He did not, however, think of himself as its founder. Nichiren is best known for his belief in the importance of one of Buddhism's sacred texts, the Lotus Sutra. This text describes the virtues of the Buddha and teaches that all people can attain enlightenment. (Enlightenment is the realization of the true nature of reality and the universe.) He helped to unite Buddhists in Japan by calling for the establishment of Buddhism, especially Nichiren Buddhism, as the Japanese state religion. In the twenty-first century many schools of Buddhism continue to practice the form of the religion that Nichiren taught.

"If you wish to free yourself from the suffering of birth and death you have endured through eternity and attain supreme enlightenment in this lifetime, you must awaken to the mystic truth which has always been within your life."

Birth and early life

Born in 1222, Nichiren was the son of a fisherman who lived in the village of Kominato in the Awa Province of Japan. At birth his name was Zennichimaru (or sometimes just Zennichi). In addition to fishing Nichiren's father worked at a manor house, or a house occupied by the owner of an agricultural estate. Nichiren was such a talented student that the lord of the manor encouraged him to begin his formal

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education at the Tendai monastery called Kiyo-sumidera in 1233. Tendai refers to a sect, or subgroup, of Buddhism practiced by the monks who lived there and their followers. After he was ordained, or officially made a monk, in 1237, Nichiren changed his birth name to Ren-cho. He left the monastery for the city of Kama-kura, where he continued his studies, focusing on other forms of Buddhism.

He moved from Kamakura to Mount Hiei, the center of the Tendai sect of Buddhism, and then to Mount Koya, the center of another school of Buddhism. He studied in each of these places, learning more about Buddhism and its various practices in Japan. In 1253 he returned to Kiyosumidera, where he began a mission to bring to Japan what he believed was true Buddhism. It was at this time that he took the name Nichiren. The name Nichiren comes from the Japanese word nichi, meaning "sun." He interpreted this name to mean "standing for the Light of Truth as well as for the Land of the Rising Sun," wherein the Land of the Rising Sun was Japan. The syllable ren means "lotus" and refers both to the lotus flower and to the Lotus Sutra.

On April 28, 1253, Nichiren publicly declared that all other forms of Buddhism were false. He claimed that only by following the teachings of the Lotus Sutra could one practice true Buddhism. The Lotus Sutra is the most popular Mahayana text. Mahayana Buddhism is one of the two main branches of Buddhism. Nichiren Buddhism is a subgroup of Mahayana. The Lotus Sutra discusses the importance of realizing one's essential Buddha-nature. Buddha-nature is present in every person and allows him or her to grow and obtain greater understanding and ultimately achieve enlightenment.

That same year, Nichiren was banned from Kiyosumidera, and he traveled to Kamakura to spread his teachings. This marked the start of a life filled with banishments and pardons. Nichiren would spend the rest of his life traveling around Japan, in conflict with other schools of Buddhism and with the government.


In 1260 Nichiren presented to the government a treatise, or essay, titled "Establish the Right Law and Save Our Country." He wrote the document in the form of a dialogue between an ordinary citizen and a visitor. The dialogue examined the nature of the times in Japan. Nichiren claimed that floods, famine, political conflicts, and other difficulties were increasing because of the government's refusal to accept the Buddha's true teachings as detailed in the Lotus Sutra. He proposed that his version of Buddhism become the state religion of Japan. He also warned that rebellions and foreign invasions would occur if the government did not adopt the true Buddhism.

In the treatise Nichiren divided Japanese history into three eras since the time of the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama (563–483 bce; see entry), the founder of Buddhism. Nichiren saw the world of the thirteenth century as the third age, an age of collapse called End of the Law. He believed that only by following the teachings of the Lotus Sutra could Japan survive and prosper.

The government responded in 1261 by exiling Nichiren to the province of Izu, in Japan's main island of Honshu. Two years later, however, he was pardoned and continued to preach his form of Buddhism. From 1264 to 1268 Nichiren traveled around Japan preaching and winning converts, but he continued to have conflicts with government authorities.

In 1268 Mongols from Central Asia arrived in Japan and demanded tribute, or payments one government makes to another for protection or to acknowledge submission to the other country, to the Mongolian ruler Kublai Khan (1215–1294). Nichiren had predicted in his 1260 essay that such an event would take place. Once again he called on the government to establish his form of Buddhism as the state religion. He believed that by doing so, the government could unite the Japanese people and protect itself from foreign invaders such as the Mongols.

The government ignored both Nichiren and the Mongols. Many Japanese people, however, were alarmed that Japan was under threat from foreign invaders. They turned increasingly to Nichiren's teachings. In 1271 he was arrested after Buddhist monks from other groups brought charges against him. He was put on trial, convicted, and sentenced to banishment again. In December of that year he was taken to the island of Sado, where he remained until 1274.

While on Sado, Nichiren wrote Kaimoku Sho (Eye-Opener or Liberation from Blindness), in which he continued to express his views about religion and the state. In the book he made three vows: that he would be the pillar, or support, of Japan; that he would be the eyes of Japan; and that he would be the "vessel" of Japan, meaning that he would contain the truth in the form of his teachings.

Final years

Nichiren was released from Sado in 1274. He returned to Kamakura, where he continued to preach his views about the Lotus Sutra and about the need for a more militant state religion. The government of Kamakura by this time was willing to be more tolerant towards him, so he was left alone. He settled near Mount Fuji, and in his final years he built temples there and in other locations. These temples continue to be sacred sites for Nichiren Buddhists into the early twenty-first century. He died in 1282 in the town of Ikegami while he was reciting verses from the Lotus Sutra.

On October 12, 1922, the emperor of Japan conferred on Nichiren the posthumous (after death) title of Rissho Daishi, which can be translated as "Master of the Establishment of Righteousness" or "Great Teacher of the Right Dharma." "Dharma" refers to the path to enlightenment detailed in the Buddha's teachings. Nichiren is also called Daishonin, which means "Great Holy Man."

Nichiren Practices

Nichiren Buddhists continue to practice many of his teachings. For example they believe that the benefits of this sect of Buddhism can be achieved by chanting the title of the Lotus Sutra, "Myoho Renge Kyo." By this and other words from the Lotus Sutra, a person can supposedly reach "Buddhahood," which is an awakening to the true nature of life. He or she can then see how all of creation is connected and how people have the ability to change and influence the world.

Additionally, Nichiren Buddhists respect the Gohonzon. This is a scroll, written in Chinese characters, that contains the laws of the sect. Many individuals have such a scroll in their homes, and it becomes a focal point for their daily rituals and prayers. The Gohozon is thought of as a spiritual mirror. By sitting before it and chanting words from the Lotus Sutra, a person is said to be able to recognize his or her own Buddhahood. A devout Nichiren Buddhist does this chanting each morning and evening.

Nichiren Buddhism

To understand the significance of Nichiren and his teachings, it is necessary to have some understanding of Buddhist sects in Japan and the place of the Lotus Sutra in Buddhist thought. During the Buddha's lifetime none of his teachings were written down. After his death his followers gathered on at least three occasions to refresh their memories of these teachings. Only after one century had passed did the Buddha's words begin to be written down in texts called sutras. Because the lessons had been passed along orally for so long, each of the sutras begins with the words "Thus have I heard."

During the early centuries of Buddhism, people began to interpret the Buddha's teachings in different ways. This was another reason that Buddhists were determined to write down the Buddha's teachings, to avoid reinterpretation. Nevertheless, the differences that had already emerged resulted in a split in the religion, and two major branches emerged. These are Theravada and Mahayana. Although each individual Buddhist varies, some rough distinctions can be made between the two branches.

Theravada Buddhism is the most traditional form of Buddhism. Its practices and beliefs are based on a literal interpretation of the original, early teachings of the Buddha. Theravada places great emphasis on self-awareness and meditation. Theravada monks were the first to write down the Buddha's teachings, and they believe these to be the most accurate accounts of his lessons.

The other main branch of Buddhism is called Mahayana Buddhism. Mahayana Buddhists are less strict in their interpretation of the Buddha's teachings, and they recognize more sutras, or sermons, than do Theravada Buddhists. While Theravada Buddhists give reverence, or great respect, only to the Buddha, Mayahana Buddhists recognize many enlightened beings, called bodhisattvas, who help people on the path to enlightenment.

Nichiren Buddhism is a subgroup of Mayahana, as are the other schools of Buddhism that Nichiren studied before he started spreading the teachings of the Lotus Sutra. These other schools include Pure Land Buddhism, which is ruled over by the Buddha Amitabha. Buddhists who do not achieve nirvana, or the end of suffering, upon their death can be reborn into the Pure Land, where they will be helped on their path. Another subgroup studied by Nichiren is Zen Buddhism. Zen places great emphasis on meditation and simplicity. Zen Buddhists learn by a question-and-answer session between masters and students, called koans. The koans often seem illogical and require intense thought and self-examination to understand. They are believed to help people achieve greater spiritual knowledge and move closer to enlightenment.

The Lotus Sutra, which is a shorthand name for the text, is a sacred writing of Mahayana Buddhists, although different Mahayana subgroups may place greater emphasis on other teachings. In the original Sanskrit language, the Lotus Sutra is called the Suddharma-Pundarika Sutra. In Japanese it is called Myohorengekyo, often written as separate words: Myoho-renge-kyo. This name is often shortened to Hokekyo. In English the translation of the title would be "White Lotus of the True Dharma."

Nichiren believed that the Lotus Sutra contained the essence of the Buddha's wisdom. He accepted the teachings of Tendai Buddhism, the sect popularized by the Chinese philosopher and teacher Chih-i (538-597). Tendai Buddhists claim that the teachings of the Buddha, and therefore the sutras, can be divided into five groups, ranging from the earliest to the latest. The earlier sutras are followed by Theravedan Buddhists, but the Mahayana branch believes that only the later sutras, including the Lotus Sutra, contain the truth that the Buddha wanted people to follow.

One of the chief doctrines, or principles, of the Lotus Sutra is that any person can achieve "Buddhahood." This means that enlightenment and salvation are open not just to monks, but to any person who follows the teachings of the Lotus Sutra and other late sutras. One reason that Nichiren accepted the Lotus Sutra as the true teaching of the Buddha was that in the previous sutra, the Innumerable Meaning Sutra, the Buddha had said, "In the past forty odd years, I (Sakyamuni Buddha) had not yet expounded [given or set forth] the truth." Nichiren and his followers believed that the Lotus Sutra, which followed this declaration, then must represent the truth about enlightenment that the Buddha was finally revealing to his followers.

Two additional points about the Lotus Sutra should be noted. One has to do with the significance of the lotus flower. For Buddhists, the lotus flower represents purity. The flower became a symbol in Buddhism because it thrives in clear water, so it is never muddied or soiled. The belief is that a Buddhist, like the lotus flower, should avoid being "soiled" by the circumstances of life. The second has to do with the structure of the Lotus Sutra. The sutra consists of twenty-eight chapters. The first fourteen deal with the "historical" Buddha, that is, the real human being who lived in the physical world. The last fourteen chapters deal with the "enlightened" Buddha, the Buddha who is eternal because his teachings will live forever.

Nichiren Buddhism in modern life

The early twentieth century was a difficult time for Nichiren Buddhism, and Buddhism in general in Japan. Beginning in the late nineteenth century Shinto was declared the state religion. The purpose of this was to unite Japanese culture and society as the country tried to establish an empire in Southeast Asia and throughout the Pacific. This desire for empire eventually led to Japan's involvement in World War II (1939–45; a war in which Great Britain, France, the United States, and their allies defeated Germany, Italy, and Japan). Buddhists had little choice but to go along with the government's decision. Some dealt with the new order by creating a form of Buddhism called Imperial Way Buddhism. This form of Buddhism supported the Japanese state and the nation's emperor, partly by declaring Japanese Buddhism superior to all other forms of the faith, such as those practiced in China.

After World War II ended, Buddhists in Japan were able to reassert their religion. In the decades that followed, Nichiren Buddhism became primarily a lay movement, or one practiced more by ordinary people than by monks and other religious devotees. The term Nichirenshu is generally used to refer to some forty religious institutions, lay associations, and new religious movements in Japan and throughout the world that follow the teachings of Nichiren. Little focus is placed on ritual or formal teachings. Nichiren Buddhists put more emphasis on making a difference in the world through social action, such as campaigning for world peace.

For More Information


Christensen, J. A. Nichiren: Leader of Buddhist Reformation in Japan. Fremont, CA: Jain Publishing, 2001.

Kirkpatrick, Marge. Waking the Lion: The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin. Bloomington, IN: Authorhouse, 2004.

Watson, Burton, trans. The Lotus Sutra. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1993.


"What Is the Buddhism of Nichiren?" Soka Gakkai International-USA. (accessed on May 26, 2006).


views updated May 23 2018


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.

His Banishment

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

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 Sources

Kirimura, Yasuji, The life of Nichiren Daishonin / EDITION:First ed, Tokyo: Nichiren Shoshu International Center, 1980. □


views updated May 23 2018

Nichiren (1222–82). Japanese Buddhist monk who was the founder of Nichiren Shū, and whose name literally means ‘Sun Lotus’, ‘sun’ standing for Japan and ‘lotus’ for the Lotus Sūtra. While young, he travelled to various temples in search of a form of religious teaching and practice which he could regard as ‘true Buddhism’. In Kamakura, he studied the teachings of Pure Land school (Jōdo Shū) and Zen. Later, after a brief return visit to Seichōji in his home village, he enrolled in the monasteries of Mount Hiei and began an intensive study of Tendai teaching and practice. Because of his radical ideas, he was driven out of Mount Hiei, and so he moved on to Mount Kōya to study the esoteric teachings and practice of the Shingon (‘True Word’) school of Buddhism. It was during his study on Mount Kōya that he finally concluded that the only true form of Buddhism was that taught by Saichō (Dengyō Daishi, ‘great teacher Dengyō’), who had established the Tendai (Chin., Tʾien-tʾai) School of Buddhism in Japan in the 8th cent. Saichō taught the superiority of the Lotus Sūtra over all Buddhist sūtras. Nichiren, after discovering the Lotus Sūtra for himself, returned to his home village and began preaching to the common people that enlightenment was available to every human being through simple trust in the truth (dharma) expressed in this sūtra.

The act of faith which Nichiren taught was the invocation of a specific mantra which he called daimoku, ‘sacred title’: namu myōhō renge kyō, ‘I take refuge in the Lotus of the Wonderful Law Sūtra.’

In Feb. 1260, Nichiren wrote his well-known essay, Risshō ankoku-ron (Treatise on the Establishment of Righteousness to Secure the Peace of the State).

Because of the radicalness and outspokenness of his criticism of the government and his attacks against other schools of Buddhism, Nichiren was arrested in 1261 and exiled to the Izu Peninsula for two years. He was pardoned in 1264. However, Nichiren did not recant. He returned to Kamakura and began publicly denouncing the government in sermons he preached on the streets of the city. Nichiren was again arrested, this time receiving the death sentence. According to tradition, the executioner's sword was struck by lightning just at the moment he began to strike at Nichiren's neck. Whatever happened, the execution was stayed, and he was again sentenced to exile, this time on the isolated island of Sado in the Sea of Japan.

During the three years of his second exile on Sado Island (1271–4), Nichiren wrote Kaimokushō (Treatise on Opening the Eyes) and Kanjin Honzonshō (Treatise on Contemplating the True Object of Worship).

Together with Risshō Ankokuron and two later works, Senjishō (Selection of the Time) and Hōonshō (Repaying Kindness), these two treatises comprise Nichiren's major writings. Along with 230 letters collected in his Gosho (Sacred Writings) these serve as scripture for Nichiren Buddhism. Nichiren is also believed to have created the original Object of Worship, the gohonzon, a calligraphic inscription on wood of the invocation, namu myōhō renge kyō. The Nichiren Shū claims it is enshrined at their headquarters temple at Mount Minobu, while the Nichiren Shōshu claims it for theirs at Taisekiji.

Again Nichiren was pardoned on 13 Mar. 1274. During this final stage of his career, he set out to establish ‘Vulture Peak’, the mythical mountain where the historical Buddha, Śākyamuni, is said to have delivered the teachings of the Lotus Sūtra. Nichiren believed the earthly form of Vulture Peak was in Japan, and he selected Mount Fuji (Fujisan) as the site, and established a temple, Kuonji, nearby on Mount Minobu.

Nichiren died on 13 Oct. 1282, at the home of a patron named Uemondayū Munenaka Ikegami. According to Nichiren Shū teaching, Nichiren's remains are now enshrined at Mount Minobu. For subsequent developments, see NICHIREN SHŪ.


views updated Jun 11 2018


Nichiren (1222–1282) is regarded as the founder of the Hokke (Lotus) or Nichiren school, one of several new Buddhist movements that emerged in Japan's Kamakura period (1185–1333). Of humble origins, Nichiren was ordained at age sixteen at Kiyosumi Temple in Awa province (now Chiba prefecture) and trained especially in the Tendai school's teachings of the Lotus SŪtra (SaddharmapuṆḌarika-sŪtra) and in esoteric Buddhism. Later he studied in Kamakura, site of the new shogunate or military government, and at the great Tendai center on Mount Hiei, as well as at other major Buddhist temples in western Japan. Eventually he based himself in Kamakura and won followers among the eastern warriors. Nichiren's early writings are critical of Pure Land Buddhism, especially the newly popular Pure Land doctrine of HŌnen (1133–1212), which he saw as undermining traditional Tendai emphasis on the Lotus and esoteric teachings. Over time, however, Nichiren developed a doctrine of exclusive devotion to the Lotus Sūtra, which he regarded as the Buddha's highest teaching and the sole vehicle for realizing buddhahood now in the final dharma age (mappō). He advocated chanting the daimoku or title of the Lotus Sūtra in the formula "Namu Myōhō-renge-kyō," and he devised a calligraphic mandala, depicting the assembly of the Lotus Sūtra, as an object of worship (honzon) for his followers. While defining himself in opposition to the established Buddhism of his day, Nichiren also creatively assimilated into his Lotus exclusivism many older elements of both exoteric and esoteric Buddhist thought and practice.

Based on MahĀyĀna and especially Tendai teachings of the profound interrelationship between persons and their outer world, Nichiren saw contemporary disasters, including famine, epidemics, and Mongol invasion attempts, as karmic retribution for collective rejection of the Lotus in favor of "inferior" teachings; conversely, he asserted, the spread of faith in the Lotus Sūtra would transform this world into a buddha land. This conviction underlay his commitment to shakubuku, an assertive approach to spreading the dharma by directly critiquing opposing views. Nichiren's repeated criticisms of the Buddhist establishment and of its patrons in government incurred the wrath of the authorities; he himself was twice exiled and attempts were made on his life, while his followers were arrested, banished, and in a few cases executed. Undeterred, Nichiren urged defiance of worldly authority when it contravenes Buddhist truth, and he valorized encounters with harsh trials. Undergoing such persecution, he taught, serves to eradicate past evil deeds, proves the validity of one's practice, and guarantees the realization of buddhahood. Nichiren's ideal of establishing the buddha land in the present world has inspired modern followers, who have assimilated it to a range of political agendas as well as social and humanitarian projects. Today more than forty religious organizations claim association with him, including traditional schools and new religious movements.

See also:Exoteric-Esoteric (Kenmitsu) Buddhism in Japan; Kamakura Buddhism, Japan; Tiantai School


Habito, Ruben L. F., and Stone, Jacqueline I., eds. Revisiting Nichiren. Special issue of Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 26, nos. 3–4 (1999).

Lamont, H. G. "Nichiren." In Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan, Vol. 5. Tokyo: Kodansha, 1983.

Stone, Jacqueline I. "Nichiren and the New Paradigm." In Original Enlightenment and the Transformation of Medieval Japanese Buddhism. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1999.

Watanabe Hōyō. "Nichiren." In The Encyclopedia of Religion, Vol. 10, ed. Mircea Eliade. New York: Macmillan, 1987.

Yampolsky, Philip B., ed. Selected Writings of Nichiren, tr. Burton Watson and others. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.

Yampolsky, Philip B., ed. Letters of Nichiren, tr. Burton Watson and others. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.

Jacqueline I. Stone


views updated Jun 08 2018

Nichiren a Japanese Buddhist sect founded by the religious teacher Nichiren (1222–82) with the Lotus Sutra as its central scripture. There are more than 30 million followers in more than forty subsects, the largest now being Nichiren-Shoshu, which is connected with the religious and political organization Soka Gakkai.