From New World Encyclopedia
Nichiren Shonin, by Takahashi Yuichi

Nichiren (日蓮) (February 16, 1222 – October 13, 1282), born Zennichimaro (善日麿), later Zeshō-bō Renchō (是生房蓮長), and finally Nichiren (日蓮), was a Buddhist monk of thirteenth century Japan. A controversial figure during his lifetime, he is the founder of Nichiren Buddhism, a major Japanese Buddhist stream encompassing several schools of often widely-conflicting doctrine. His was the first Buddhist school to take the name of its founder. Most of post World War II Japan’s new religious sects emerged from Nichiren Buddhism. Nichiren’s lively and aggressive approach triggered severe persecution unknown to other religious figures. This persecution inspired him to deep insight, and he devised Daimoku, chanting a short passage repeatedly, as a way for ordinary people to reach enlightenment. He taught that salvation must concern itself with the actual world rather than the afterlife. His teachings are unpopular with modern intellectuals, who prefer Zen Buddhist theory, but have a wide appeal to the general public.

Nichiren’s ideal of establishing a Buddhist ideal land on earth appealed to religious reformers in the post-World War II Japan, when rebuilding the nation was an urgent task. Komeito (“New Clean Government Party”) which was established in 1964 by members of Soka Gakkai, a Nichiren Buddhist sect founded in 1937, continues to be one of leading political parties in Japan.


Birth, Education, Initial Teaching

Nichiren was born in 1222 in the fishing village of Kominato in the province of Awa. Though Kominato still exists in today's Chiba Prefecture, its site at the time of Nichiren's birth is believed to now be submerged in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Chiba.

Nichiren began his Buddhist study at a nearby 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 Kyoto-Nara 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 Myoho Renge Kyo for the first time, marking his Sho Tempōrin (初転法輪: "first turning the wheel of the Law"). At this time, 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; the kanji character for nichi (日) means "sun" and that forren (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.

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

First Remonstration 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. One common source of such controversy is Nichiren Buddhists' insistence that only the school they follow is the correct form of Buddhism, a conviction that started with Nichiren himself.

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.

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.

Based on prophecies made in several of Sakyamuni Buddha's sutras, he 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. Nichiren 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 Sakyamuni 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 disasters, including armed conflict and, specifically, internal rebellion and foreign invasion.

The banishment of Nichiren in 1261. The disciple Nichirō wished to follow but was forbidden to do so

Nichiren submitted his treatise in July 1260. It drew no official response, and instead 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; for example, he was exiled to the Izu peninsula in 1261 and nearly assassinated in November 1264.

Turning Point

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 Ryokan (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 it was told that some sort of astronomical phenomena—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 kempon" (発迹顕本).

"Hosshaku kempon" means "discarding the provisional and revealing the true": Nichiren, at this point, claimed that he discarded his "provisional" identity as a mortal priest and began to identify himself as the reincarnation of the Bodhisattva Jōgyō (上行菩薩) or as the True Buddha (本仏: hombutsu).

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.

Konpon Temple, built on Sado Island where Nichiren lived during his exile

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 productive segments of his lifetime of teaching. While on Sado, he won numerous staunch converts and wrote two of his main 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.

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). 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. He also inscribed numerous Gohonzon (mandala) 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.

Thought and works


Nichiren was active during the period of the Japanese middle ages, when the aristocratic Heian period had ended and the samurai Kamakura era was beginning. Nichiren was profoundly distressed by the terrible disasters occurring in the political, religious and even the natural worlds at that time.

In 805 ( Heian period ), Saicho visited China and brought back Tiantai (Tien-tai, Lotus Sutra) and elements of several other Buddhist teachings including Zen, esoteric Mikkyo, and Vinaya School. Saicho established Tendai-shu , a school of the Tiantai (Lotus Sutra school) founded by Zhiyi (Chihi) (538-597 C.E.) during the Sui Dynasty in China. Saicho built a temple on Mt. Hiei and flourished under the patronage of the imperial class. Saicho’s Tendai played a central role in Japanese Buddhism for many years. Several founders of new Japanese Buddhist schools, including Nichiren, studied Saicho’s Tendai at some time.

At that time the Buddhist monkhood had become very degraded through a too-cozy relationship between the religious and political worlds, and some monks lived hedonistic lives of luxury and privilege. In response to this, a number of pious Buddhists and monks descended from Mt. Hiei and started new Buddhist sects. Among these monks, the most eminent was Honen, founder of Jodo (Pure Land) Buddhism. After studying and researching the Buddhist doctrines, Nichiren concluded that the reason for the occurrence of so many disasters was the people’s neglect of the teachings of the Tiatani, especially of the Lotus Sutra. Nichiren strongly believed that Japan needed the true teaching of Buddhism, and with this conviction he started to reintroduce Lotus Sutra.

The Theory of Tiantai (Tien-tai)

Throughout a long history, many Buddhist sutras had been introduced from India to China. Most of these sutras declared their own legitimacy, meaning that each sutra asserted itself as the direct words of Shakyamuni (the historical Buddha). There was a great deal of confusion over these sutras in the Chinese Buddhist world, while Confucianism and Taoism had clear primary texts. There was a great deal of discussion and disagreement over the legitimacy of Buddhist texts, similar to the struggle of Scholasticism in Christian Europe. Zhiyi (Chihi) organized sutras in five stages in a chronological order and selected the Lotus Sutra as the primary text of the Buddha. Nichiren followed Zhiyi's interpretation.

According to this theory, the first sutra preached by the Buddha was Avatamsaka; however it was so difficult for the people to understand that he taught the Agamas Sutra, which lasted twelve years and became the principle of Hinayana (Theravada) Buddhism. At the second stage, gradually Buddha began to teach Mahayana (the Great Vehicle) Buddhism. The third stage, which lasted eight years, was that of the Vaipulya (Vimalakirti) sutras, and was not for monks but for laymen. The fourth stage, that of the Perfection of Wisdom sutras, lasted 22 years; in its sutras he explained the theory of the Emptiness. The last stage was that of the Lotus Sutra, which were the final statement of Buddha before his parinirvana. In that time Buddha was 72 years old. Nichiren concluded based upon his chronological analyses of sutras that Buddha's final teaching was the Lotus Sutra, which was Mahayana’s Mahayana, or the essence of Mahayana.

Zhiyi (Chihi) formulated this theory of five stages. Nichiren followed his footsteps. In modern philology these chronological stages are no longer accepted because modern Buddhism scholars have found that the Lotus Sutra seemed to have fabricated around the first century C.E. Zhiyi built the Tiatani Buddhism doctrine upon the theory of five stages, and over a long period his disciples gradually added to and improved this doctrine.

The Beginning of Nichiren’s Theory

Nichiren conceived the Lotus Sutra as the primary text. This meant, in Nichiren's view, that the other sutras, or so-called teachings of Buddha, could not explain the real truth and were false creeds. Nichiren firmly believed that adherence to these false creeds was causing all the disastrous phenomena occurring in nature and society at the time.

In Nichiren’s time, Honen was a descended monk from Mt. Hiei. A brilliant and renowned Buddhist scholar, Honen is credited with the establishment of Jodo Buddhism. He thought that the traditional course of studying and trying to understand the meaning of the Buddhist sutras was too difficult for laymen to follow, so he created a new method for people to be saved. It was simply to recite a nembutsu (namu amida butu meaning “becoming a devout believer in Amida Buddha”) and to believe in re-birth in Pure Land. The people accepted this simplified theory and the Jodo School became popular.

Nichiren, however, condemned the Jodo School mainly because Jodo was using sutras other than the Lotus Sutra. These sutras were heresies that did not explain the truth, Nichiren declared. Nichiren’s criticism of the Jodo school was very harsh, but Nichiren did accept two important points of Honen’s: that the last days (consummation) of Buddhism commenced in 1052 (Buddhism eschatology), and that the people were beginning to realize that they were unenlightened. Nichiren applied Honen’s idea of reciting an encapsulation of belief to his Buddhist practice. Nichiren’s recitation was the Daimoku (nam Myoho Renge Kyo meaning “becoming a devout believer in Lotus Sutra”). For Nichiren, the Daimoku nam Myoho Renge Kyo is the essence of the Lotus Sutra and all sutras, and at the same time, the encapsulation of the universe.

With this conviction, Nichiren started to practice "Shakubuku" ("leading people to the Buddhist faith by preaching persistent arguments”). He preached not only to the other Buddhist sects but also to the Shogunate, and his preaching was so severe that he made many enemies. Nichiren was also considered a prophet. In 1260 he wrote the Rissho Ankoku Ron (“Treatise on Securing the Peace of the Land Through the Establishment of the Correct”). Nichiren submitted this book to the supreme leader of the Shogunate, Hojyo Tokiyori. In this book, Nichiren issued a stern warning to abandon false Buddhist creeds and believe in the Lotus Sutra, and predicted that if this did not happen disasters would continue and a foreign invasion would come. After the submission of this book to the Shogunate, the other Buddhist sects and the Shogunate began to persecute him. In the history of the Japanese religious world, no religious leader was ever persecuted like Nichiren.

The Thought of Nichiren’s Two Masterpieces

During his exile at Sado Island, Nichiren wrote two books: the Kaimoku Sho ("On the Opening of the Eyes"); and the Kanjin no Honzon Sho ("The Object of Devotion for Observing the Mind in the Fifth Five-Hundred Year Period").

In Kaimoku Sho he was examining the meaning of suffering and his own persecution. Just before his exile to Sado Island, Nichiren was arrested by a group of soldiers and was almost beheaded, but at the last minute he was rescued. That event held significant meaning for him. Nichiren interpreted the event as a resurrection, or rebirth. After the event, even though Nichiren was exiled to Sado, he felt that he had become a different person. He thought that he was the Reincarnation of the Bodhisattva Jogyo or Vishishitacharitra (by Sanskrit), who was mentioned in the Lotus Sutra as the leader of a vast army of Bodhisattvas who came up from below the earth to worship the Buddha. Nichiren was confident that his real identity was Bodhisattva Jogyo, who was sent to this world by the Buddha in Mappo (the Last Day of Buddhism eschatology) for the purpose of disseminating and circulating the truth.

In Kaimoku Sho, Nichiren explained that only the Lotus Sutra was the truth. If it was the truth, in what way was it better than other Sutras? In the teachings of Hinayana (the Lesser Vehicle) and even in most of the teachings of Mahayana (the Great Vehicle), salvation for the people was limited. However, in the Lotus Sutra the Buddha explained salvation of all.

Zhiyi (Chihi) explained that the transient world of phenomena is seen as one with the unchanging, undifferentiated ground of existence. This doctrine was elaborated in a complex cosmology of 3,000 interpenetrating realms of existence. At any instant our thoughts are connected to all 3,000 realms, which include realms of anger, hell, starvation, human, battleground, compassion, mercy and so forth. Zhiyi taught that through intense meditation one could discover the Buddha among all these realms and reach enlightenment. From Nichiren's perspective, Zhiyi's method of intense meditation is not possible to ordinary people.

Nichiren developed a new method of salvation (probably he gained a hint from Honen's method). Nichiren was convinced that, through reciting a phrase called Daimoku (nam Myoho Renge Kyo, meaning “becoming a devout believer in Lotus Sutra”), people would gradually purify their hearts and finally become one with Buddha.


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 formal styles.

Some of Nichiren's kanbun works, especially the Risshō Ankoku Ron, are considered masterworks of the style, while many of his letters show empathy and understanding for the downtrodden of his day. Many modern observers also read a political message into several of his works, and during the pre-World War II period the government insisted that numerous 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 temple 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 also includes 81 works not published in the aforementioned Gosho Zenshu. The book excludes 32 that had been previously published in another compilation but judged unauthentic, and identifies 17 whose authenticity is as-yet unclear.

Nichiren's teachings after his passing

After Nichiren's death, his teachings were interpreted in different ways by several of his disciples, in particular the six senior priests that he had named shortly before his demise. As a result, Nichiren Buddhism encompasses several major branches and minor schools, the most significant being the Nichiren Shu and Nichiren Shoshu branches. Each branch and school has its own set of interpretations of Nichiren's teachings. The largest such difference focuses on whether a school considers Nichiren to be the True Buddha (Nichiren Shoshu and other sub-schools stemming from the priest Nikko (priest)|Nikkō) or positions him as a mere saint, great teacher, or prophet (Nichiren Shu and other schools descendant from the other five of the six senior priests).

Posthumous names and titles of respect

Since his passing, Nichiren has been known by several posthumous names intended to express respect for him or to represent his position in the history of Buddhism. Most common among these are Nichiren Shōnin (日蓮上人; usually rendered "St. Nichiren" in English) and Nichiren Daishōnin (日蓮大聖人; "Great Holy Man Nichiren"). Preference for these titles generally depends on the school a person adheres to, with Nichiren Shōnin being most commonly used and Nichiren Daishōnin preferred by followers of schools derived from the Nikko 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 (as in this article).

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


  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.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Anesaki, M. Nichiren, the Buddhist Prophet. London: Oxford University Press, 1916.
  • Christensen, J.A. Nichiren: Leader of Buddhist Reformation in Japan. Nichiren Buddhist International Center Jain Publishing Company, 2001.
  • Gosho Translation Committee. The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, Volume 1. Soka Gakkai, 1999. ISBN 978-4412010246
  • Gosho Translation Committee. The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin - Volume II. Soka Gakkai, 2006. ISBN 978-4412013506
  • Kirimura, Yasuji.The Life of Nichiren Daishonin. Nichiren Shoshu International Center, 1982. ISBN 978-4888720090.
  • Kirkpatrick, Marge. Waking The Lion: The Writings Of Nichiren Daishonin. Authorhouse, 2004.
  • Rodd, Laura Rasplica. Nichiren: a Biography. Occasional Paper Series, number 11. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1978.
  • Rodd, Laura Rasplica. Nichiren: Selected Writings. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1980. ISBN 978-0824806828
  • Watson, Burton. The Record of the Orally Transmitted Teachings. Soka Gakkai, 2005. ISBN 4412012867
  • Yampolsky, Philip B. (ed.). Letters of Nichiren. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996. ISBN 978-0231103848
  • Yampolsky, Philip (ed.). Selected Writings of Nichiren. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990. ISBN 978-0231072601

External links

All links retrieved November 14, 2022.


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