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A statue of Nichiren outside Honnoji in the Teramachi District of Kyoto.

Nichiren (Japanese: 日蓮) (February 16, 1222 – October 13, 1282) was a Buddhist monk who lived during the Kamakura period (1185-1333) in Japan. Nichiren taught devotion to the Lotus Sutra, Nam-Myōhō-Renge-Kyō, as the exclusive means to attain enlightenment and the chanting of "Nam Myo ho Renge Kyo" as the essential practice of the teaching. He is credited with founding what has come to be known as Nichiren Buddhism, a major school of Japanese Buddhism encompassing numerous sects espousing diverse doctrines.



Nichiren (portrait)

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Birth, education, initial teaching

Nichiren was born on February 16, 1222 in the village of Kominato, Nagase District, Awa Province (located within present day Chiba Prefecture). Nichiren's father's name was Mikuni-no-Tayu Shigetada, also known as Nukina Shigetada Jiro (d. 1258) and his mother's name was Umegiku-nyo (d. 1267). On his birth, his parents named him Zennichimaro (善日麿?) which has variously been translated into English as "Splendid Sun" and "Virtuous Sun Boy" among others. The exact site of Nichiren's birth is believed to be submerged off the shore from the present location of Kominato-zan Tanjo-ji (小湊山 誕生寺), a temple in Kominato memorializing Nichiren's birth.

Some traditions suggest that Nichiren's family was associated with the Fujiwara clan. However, Nichiren himself never made such a claim and historians are skeptical. Nichiren himself wrote proudly that he was "the son of a chandala family who lived near the sea in Tojo in Awa Province, in the remote countryside of the eastern part of Japan."1 This has been interpreted to mean that Nichiren's family made their living in the fish trade, an occupation viewed with disdain by idealistic Buddhists of the time.2 Another suggestion is that Mikuni-no-Tayu Shigetada, Nichiren's father, had been a samurai, but had grown disillusioned with violence and retired to Kominato to make a living as a fisherman.3 Nichiren makes no such claim in his authenticated writings.

Nichiren began his Buddhist study at a nearby Tendai temple, Seichoji (清澄寺, also called Kiyosumi-dera), at age 11. He was formally ordained at 16 and took the Buddhist name Zeshō-bō Renchō. He left Seichoji shortly thereafter to study in Kamakura and several years later traveled to western Japan for more in-depth study in the KyotoNara area, where Japan's major centers of Buddhist learning were located. During this time, he became convinced of the pre-eminence of the Lotus Sutra and in 1253, returned to Seichoji.

On April 28, 1253, he expounded Nam Myōhō Renge Kyō for the first time, marking his Sho Tempōrin (初転法輪: "first turning the wheel of the Law"). With this, he proclaimed that devotion to and practice of the Lotus Sutra was the only correct form of Buddhism for the present time period. At the same time he changed his name to Nichiren, wherein the kanji character for nichi (日) means "sun" and that for ren (蓮) means "lotus". The significance of this choice, as Nichiren himself explained it, is manifold and rooted, among other things, in passages from the Lotus Sutra. Simple explanations—such as "nichi stands for the sun"—though not wrong, should therefore not be taken by themselves or regarded as representing the whole story.

After making his declaration, which all schools of Nichiren Buddhism regard as marking their foundation (立宗: risshū), Nichiren began propagating his teachings in Kamakura, then Japan's de facto capital since it was where the shikken (regent for the shogun) and shogun lived and the apparatus of government were seated. He gained a fairly large following there, consisting of both priests and laity, and many of his lay believers came from among the samurai class.

First remonstrance with authorities and early years of teaching

Nichiren was an extremely controversial figure in his own time, and many of the schools stemming from his teachings continue to inspire controversy today (see Nichiren Buddhism). One common source of such controversy is the perception that Nichiren Buddhists insist that only the school they follow is the correct form of Buddhism. The perception can be traced to Nichiren's remonstrations of government and religious leaders of the thirteenth century Japan; he criticized leaders for their manipulations of the populace for political and religious control. Using Buddhist doctrine, Nichiren argued the flaws of other Buddhist schools, specifically critiquing the leaders of Buddhist schools who Nichiren saw as having manipulated Buddhist teachings for the leaders' own gain (see the compilation of Nichiren's exchanges with government leaders and Buddhist practitioners in "The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin" 1999).

Some groups today characterize Nichiren's efforts as an attempt to reform contemporary Buddhism; Nichiren, however, was not trying to reform other sects. Rather, his intent was to have government patronage for them ceased and to dissuade people from practicing them because he was convinced that the other schools were leading people down the wrong path, away from the "truth of the Lotus Sutra," away from their potential enlightenment, and towards more suffering. Nichiren stated this purpose clearly, outlining it in the Risshō Ankoku Ron (立正安国論?): "Treatise on securing the peace of the land through the establishment of the correct"[1]), his first major treatise and the first of three remonstrations with the authorities. He felt that it was imperative for the sovereign to recognize and accept the singly true and correct form of Buddhism (i.e., 立正: risshō) as the only way to achieve peace and prosperity for the land and its people and end their suffering (i.e., 安国: ankoku). This "true and correct form of Buddhism," as Nichiren saw it, entailed regarding the Lotus Sutra as the ultimate Buddhist teaching and practicing it as he taught. False doctrine was to be suppressed by the government, ruled specifically by one emperor, before this truth embraced the whole world transformed into Pure Land of Sakyamuni Buddha (Nichiren is well known for his merciless polemics against the cult of Amitabha, arguing that Honen would be an evil spirit after death). It has been suggested that Nichiren thought this was best done by withdrawing lay support so that the deviant monks would starve to death, but he is known to have also sanctioned fighting by his followers.

Based on prophecies made in several of Shakyamuni Buddha's sutras, Nichiren attributed the occurrence of the famines, disease, and natural disasters (especially drought, typhoons, and earthquakes) of his day to the sovereign's and the people's adherence to all other forms of Buddhism. He considered these to be heretical or, while perhaps fit for a previous day, unfit for contemporary times, according to a Buddhist view of time that divided history after Shakyamuni Buddha's passing into three periods. In his treatise, he also noted that, according to the same prophecies, failure to adopt the correct form of Buddhism would leave the country open to more and some as-yet unexperienced disasters, including armed conflict and specifically internal rebellion and foreign invasion. His predictions were based on the Buddhist principle that the environment reflects the minds and hearts of the people who dwell there.

Nichiren submitted his treatise in July 1260. Though it drew no official response, it obviously had not fallen on deaf ears inasmuch as it prompted a severe backlash, especially from among priests of other Buddhist sects. Nichiren was harassed frequently, several times with force, and often had to change dwellings.

When Nichiren is exiled in 1261, Nichirō wants to follow Nichiren ; but Nichirō is forbidden to do so -- Postcard artwork, circa 1920s.

Nichirō agreed with Nisshō's defense of Nichiren as a Tendai reformer. He founded a practice hall that became part of Ikegami Honmon-ji, the site of Nichiren's death. His school is now part of Nichiren-shū.

Nichiren was exiled to the Izu peninsula in 1261; and he was nearly assassinated in November 1264.

Failed execution attempt

The following several years were marked by successful propagation activities in eastern Japan that generated more resentment among priests of other sects and the authorities. After one exchange with an influential priest called Ryōkan (良観), Nichiren was called in for questioning by the authorities in September 1271. He used this as an opportunity to address his second government remonstration to Hei no Saemon (平の左衛門, also called 平頼綱: Taira no Yoritsuna), a powerful police and military figure.

Two days later, on September 12, Hei no Saemon and a group of soldiers abducted Nichiren from his hut at Matsubagayatsu, Kamakura. Their intent was to arrest and summarily behead him; but, according to legend, some sort of astronomical phenomenon — a great flash of light—over the seaside Tatsunokuchi execution grounds terrified Nichiren's executioners into inaction. The incident is known by Nichiren Buddhists as the Tatsunokuchi Persecution and regarded by many of them as a turning point in Nichiren's lifetime called Hosshaku kenpon (発迹顕本).

Hosshaku kenpon means "discarding the provisional and revealing the true": Nichiren, at this point, discarded his "provisional" identity as a mortal priest and began to reveal his "true" identity as the reincarnation of the Bodhisattva Jōgyō (上行菩薩) or as the True Buddha (本仏: hombutsu), depending on which school's interpretation you accept.

Unsure of what to do with Nichiren, Hei no Saemon eventually decided to banish him to Sado, an island in the Japan Sea known for its particularly severe winters and a place from which few returned.

This exile, Nichiren's second, lasted about three years and, though harsh and in the long term detrimental to his health, represents one of the most important and productive segments of his lifetime of teaching. While on Sado, he won numerous staunch converts and wrote two of his most important doctrinal treatises, the Kaimoku Shō (開目抄: "On the opening of the eyes") and the Kanjin no Honzon Shō (観心本尊抄: "The object of devotion for observing the mind in the fifth five-hundred year period"), as well as numerous letters and minor treatises whose content contains critical components of his whole teaching.

It was also during his exile on Sado, in 1272, that he inscribed the first Gohonzon (御本尊), the mandala that he intended as a graphic representation (or, in some schools, as the very embodiment) of the essence of the Lotus Sutra—Myōhō-Renge-Kyō, or the "Mystic Law" of cause and effect that underlies all phenomena in the universe (see Nam Myoho Renge Kyo).

Nichiren was pardoned in February 1274 and returned to Kamakura in late March. He was again interviewed by Hei no Saemon, who now was interested in extracting information from him about a feared invasion by the Mongols: The appearance of several Mongol messengers demanding Japan's fealty had spooked the authorities into believing that Nichiren's prophecy of foreign invasion was about to materialize (which it did in October; see Mongol Invasions of Japan). Nichiren, however, used the audience as yet another opportunity to remonstrate with the government.

Retirement to Mt. Minobu

His third remonstration also unheeded, Nichiren—following an old Chinese adage to the effect that if a wise man remonstrates three times but is ignored, he should leave the country—decided to go into voluntary exile on Mt. Minobu (身延山) in May 1274.

With the exception of a few short journeys, Nichiren spent the rest of his life at Minobu, where he and his disciples erected a temple, Kuonji (久遠寺) and he continued writing and training his disciples. Two of his works from this period are the Senji Shō (撰時抄: "On the selection of time") and the Hōon Shō (報恩抄: "Recompense of Indebtedness"), which, along with his Risshō Ankoku Ron, Kaimoku Shō, and Kanjin no Honzon Shō, constitute his Five Major Writings[citation needed].He also inscribed numerous Gohonzon for bestowal upon specific disciples and lay believers. Many of these survive today in the repositories of Nichiren temples such as Taisekiji (大石寺) in Fujinomiya, Shizuoka Prefecture, which has a particularly large collection that is publicly aired once a year in April.


Nichiren spent his final years writing, inscribing Gohonzon for his disciples and believers, and delivering sermons. But his health began to fail, and several people encouraged him to travel to hot springs for their medicinal benefits. He left Minobu in the company of several disciples on September 8, 1282.

Upon arrival ten days later at the residence of Ikegami Munenaka, a lay believer who lived in what is now Ikegami, Tokyo, Nichiren sensed that his end was near and he began to make preparations. On September 25 he delivered his last sermon on the Risshō Ankoku Ron, and on October 8 he appointed six senior disciples—Nisshō (日昭), Nichirō (日朗), Nikkō (日興), Nikō (日向), Nichiji (日持), and Nicchō (日頂)—to continue leading propagation of his teachings after he was gone.

On October 13, 1282, at the hour of the dragon (around 8:00am), Nichiren "passed into nirvana" in the presence of many disciples and lay believers. His funeral and cremation took place the following day. His disciple Nikkō left Ikegami with Nichiren's ashes on October 21, reaching Minobu on October 25. Nichiren's original tomb is sited, as per his request, at Kuonji.


A section of the Risshō Ankoku Ron

Some Nichiren schools refer to the entirety of Nichiren's Buddhism as his "lifetime of teaching," quite an apt description in light of the number of writings he left behind. Many are still extant in his original hand, some in full and some in fragments, and yet more survive as copies made by his immediate disciples. Today, students of Nichiren—whether as faithful or as academic—have access to well over 700 of his works, including transcriptions of orally delivered lectures, letters of remonstration, and even graphic illustrations.

In addition to treatises written in kanbun (漢文), a formal writing style modeled on classical Chinese that was the language of government and learning in contemporary Japan, Nichiren also wrote expositories and letters to disciples and lay followers in mixed-kanjikana vernacular as well as letters in simple kana for believers who could not read the more-formal styles, particularly children.

Some of Nichiren's kanbun works, especially the Risshō Ankoku Ron, are considered exemplary masterworks of the style, while many of his letters show unusual empathy and understanding for the down-trodden of his day. Many of his most famous letters were to woman believers, whom he often complimented for their in-depth questions about Buddhism while encouraging them in their efforts to attain enlightenment in this lifetime.

Several modern observers also read a political message into a number of his works, and during the pre-World War II period the government even insisted that passages and even whole documents be deleted from published collections of his works because they were considered insulting to the emperor.

Nichiren's writings are known collectively as go-ibun or gosho and are available in a number of compilations, some more comprehensive than others. Several appear in Iwanami Shoten's 102-volume anthology of classical Japanese literature published in the late 1950s and early 60s, as well as other similar collections of classical literature. The most famous of the dedicated compilations is the Nichiren Daishonin Gosho Zenshu (日蓮大聖人御書全集: "The complete works of Nichiren Daishonin") compiled by 59th Nichiren Shoshu High Priest Hori Nichiko and first published in 1952 and revised and reprinted several times subsequently by Soka Gakkai. Taisekiji also issued a new compilation in 1994 called Heisei Shimpen Nichiren Daishonin Gosho (平成新編 日蓮大聖人御書). This book presents Nichiren's writings in chronological order starting with an essay authored in 1242 (around the time Nichiren was studying at Mt. Hiei in Kyoto) and including 81 works not published in the aforementioned Gosho Zenshu, excluding 32 that had been previously published in another compilation but since judged by this compilation's editors as unauthentic, and identifying 17 whose authenticity its editors could not confirm. See the references and external links below for access to English translations.

Nichiren's teachings after his passing

Nichiren (second from right) depicted as pacifying the spirit of a cormorant fisherman in print of 1885 by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi

After Nichiren's death, his teachings were interpreted in different ways by several of his disciples, in particular the six senior priests (or elders) whom he named shortly before his passing. As a result, Nichiren Buddhism encompasses several major branches and minor schools, each with its own set of interpretations of Nichiren's teachings. Some of these schools are more, and some less, similar to the others depending on the detail, but the most significant differences focus on schools' positioning of Nichiren in the development of Buddhist history and their objects of veneration. See Nichiren Buddhism: Schools and Nichiren Buddhism: Doctrine and practices for more information.

His appearance in art which is based on anecdotes drawn from the life of Nichiren illustrates the extent to which the thrust of his life has been encompassed by popular culture.

Nichiren and the game of Go

Nichiren is considered by some to have been a master of the game of Go in his day.[2] Greg Schneider, a University scholar, writes:

Nichiren, the founder of Nichiren Buddhism, was reputedly the greatest player of his day. He introduced the method of documenting games for study, and thus one of his own games is said to be the first recorded go game in history. However many scholars believe this to be a 19th century forgery.[3]

Nichiren's views on women

Nichiren, along with other well-known East Asian Buddhist teachers like Dogen, also declared that women could attain enlightenment.

Posthumous titles of respect

Since his passing, Nichiren has been known by several posthumous names intended to express respect toward him or to represent his position in the history of Buddhism. Most common among these are Nichiren Shōnin 日蓮聖人 "St. Nichiren" or "Sage Nichiren" (also spelled, outside the Nichiren schools, 日蓮上人 "Rev. Nichiren" or "Priest Nichiren"), and Nichiren Daishōnin 日蓮大聖人 "Great Sage Nichiren". Preference for these titles generally depends on the school to which a person belongs, with "Nichiren Shōnin" being most commonly used, while "Nichiren Daishōnin" is preferred by followers of schools derived from the Nikkō lineages. Japanese Nichiren Buddhists always refer to Nichiren using one of these respectful forms of address, or by a title of respect alone (e.g., "the Daishōnin"), and may be offended if the title is omitted.

The Japanese imperial court also awarded Nichiren the honorific designations Nichiren Daibosatsu 日蓮大菩薩 "Great Bodhisattva Nichiren", and Risshō Daishi 立正大師 "Great Teacher Risshō; the former title was granted in 1358, and the latter in 1922.


See also


  • The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, Soka Gakkai, 1999.)
  • Nichiren Daishōnin Shōden (日蓮大聖人正伝: "Orthodox biography of Nichiren Daishonin"), Taisekiji, 1981
  • A Dictionary of Buddhist Terms and Concepts, Nichiren Shoshu International Center (NSIC), Tokyo, 1983. ISBN 4-88872-014-2.
  • Kirimura, Yasuji: The Life of Nichiren Daishonin. NSIC, 1980
    Note: NSIC, publisher of the foregoing two works, is no longer connected with Nichiren Shoshu.
  • Heisei Shimpen Nichiren Daishonin Gosho (平成新編 日蓮大聖人御書: "Heisei new compilation of Nichiren Daishonin's writings"), Taisekiji, 1994
  • The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin. Soka Gakkai, Tokyo, 1999.


  • Letters of Nichiren. Burton Watson et al., trans.; Philip B. Yampolsky, ed. Columbia University Press, 1996 ISBN 0-231-10384-0
  • Selected Writings of Nichiren. Burton Watson et al., trans.; Philip B. Yampolsky, ed. Columbia University Press, 1990 ISBN 0-231-07260-0
    Full disclosure statement: Soka Gakkai retains the copyrights on the foregoing two works and financed their publication; nonetheless, they show some deviation from similar works currently published under Soka Gakkai's own name.
  • The Record of the Orally Transmitted Teachings, hard cover, Burton Watson, Translator, Soka Gakkai, 2005, ISBN 4-412-01286-7
  • The Soka Gakkai Dictionary of Buddhism (Seikyo Press), Tokyo, 2002.

External links


  1. ^ Also translated as "On establishing the correct teaching for the peace of the land" (The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin), "Establishment of the legitimate teaching for the protection of the country" (Selected Writings of Nichiren), and others.
  2. ^ "History of Go". American Go Foundation. Retrieved January 12, 2007. 
  3. ^ "The Religious Dimensions of Go". University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Retrieved January 12, 2007. 


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