April 28. This is an important date in SGI Buddhism. On this day in 1253, Nichiren, our founder first chanted Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo, and proclaimed his teaching as one that could help change the karma of each person and allow that person to attain Buddhahood. In celebration of this event, I’d like to post part 1 of my essay on The Life of Nichiren.
The Life of Nichiren, part 1
Nichiren Daishonin (1222-1282) established the form of Buddhism practiced by the members of the SGI (Soka Gakkai International). He lived in feudal Japan in what is now known as the Kamakura period. This was a violent and brutal time, a time of social unrest and natural disasters. Nichiren was only a common priest, yet because of his tremendous seeking spirit to uncover the truth of life, he succeeded in starting a religious revolution that would provide all people with the means to overcome every one of their problems and thereby achieve true world peace. Overcoming tremendous opposition from the government and the priests of other Buddhist sects, Nichiren taught people how to chant Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo and inscribed the Gohonzon (object of worship) for the happiness of all humanity. Because of his incredible courage and perseverance, not to mention his great wisdom, Nichiren Daishonin was successful in establishing the foundation for a philosophy and religion which would benefit humankind for many years into the future. This is the story of his life…
Nichiren Daishonin was born on February 22, 1222 in Kominato, a small fishing village on the Pacific coast of Japan. His parents called him “Zen’nichi-maro.” Zen” meaning “good,” nichi “sun,” and maro, was a common ending for a boy’s name. Unlike Shakyamuni Buddha who was born a prince, Nichiren’s father was a fisherman.
Little is known of Nichiren’s childhood, but he must have thought deeply about life and its problems. In one Gosho (the writings of Nichiren Daishonin. The word, Gosho literally means “honourable writings”) he says:
“From childhood, I, Nichiren, studied Buddhism with one thought in mind. Life as a human being is pathetically fleeting… No one, wise or foolish, young or old, can escape death. Therefore I thought that I should first learn about death, and then learn about other matters.” (Gosho Zenshu, p. 1404).
He was certainly a serious and sincere young man!
So at the age of twelve, the young Zen’nichi-maro left his home to study at nearby Seicho-ji Temple. In those days in Japan, there were no public schools. If someone wanted to study, he had to go to a Buddhist temple.
It wasn’t long before Zen’nichi-maro found that there was something fundamentally wrong with the world of religion. Put very simply, Buddhist prayers did not work! Almost everyone prayed for happiness and peace, but in this violent period of Japan’s history, few people if any achieved the state of life that they were praying for.
Zen’nichi-maro became increasingly aware of this situation and he strove to find an answer.
To do this, he studied all the Buddhist sutras, trying to sort out the puzzle as to which of these writings contained the true teaching that Shakyamuni tried to communicate to the people. Beginning early in his stay at Seicho-ji, Nichiren would pray before a statue of Bodhisattva Space Treasury enshrined at the temple with the desire and vow to become “the wisest person in all Japan” (cf. WND, 175).
“…From the time I was a small child, I prayed to Bodhisattva Space Treasury, asking that I might become the wisest person in all Japan. The bodhisattva … bestowed upon me a jewel of wisdom as bright as the morning star.” (WND pp 175-176)
The young Zen’nichi-maro had made a vow and had exerted tremendous effort to achieve his goal of becoming the wisest person in Japan. As a result, he now understood the essence of Buddhism. His next task would be to learn as much as he could in order to communicate his enlightenment to others.
At the age of 16, Zen’nichi-maro decided to become a priest and devote himself exclusively to Buddhism. He studied under Dozen-bo, a senior priest at Seicho-ji and took the name, Zesho-bo Rencho. He did not stay in Seicho-ji temple exclusively, however. He travelled around the country to many Buddhist centres of learning. He studied all the Buddhist scriptures and sutras available, not only to learn as much as he could, but to be able to utilize these sutras to explain his own enlightenment to others.
In The World of Nichiren Daishonin’s Writings, President Ikeda explains Nichiren Daishonin’s early struggle:
“The Daishonin’s vow was to become the wisest person in Japan so that he could enable those to whom he was indebted to realize true happiness. As he studied, his vow deepened into the desire to bring happiness to all people of the Latter Day. This became his great wish for kosen-rufu (which led him to declare the establishment of his teaching. (The World of Nichiren Daishonin’s Writings, Volume 1, pg. 24)
President Ikeda goes on to explain that Nichiren could have simply enjoyed the peace and security provided by his new-found wisdom. Instead, he made a vow to bring this happiness to all people, however difficult that might be.
At age 32, Rencho was now ready to begin his journey to enable all people to obtain enlightenment. He returned to Seicho-ji Temple where he had first made his vow to become the wisest person in Japan. His first sermon was set for noon on April 28, 1253. From his extensive study of Buddhism, and of course from his own intuition, Rencho knew that from the moment he proclaimed his teaching, he would be met by tremendous persecutions.
He was ready; but how would the people react to hearing Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo for the first time?
To be continued….
Map of Japan—Nichiren was born in Awa Province, (today, Chiba Prefecture) marked in red on the above map
Depiction of Awa Harbour in Kominato, Nichiren’s place of birth