Buddhism for the Modern Age: Messages from Nichiren on His 800th Birthday

History Society

The end of the Heian period and the early Kamakura period saw frequent disasters and tumultuous changes in society, and a succession of new religious sects arose to bring peace of mind through the teachings of the Buddha. One of the most significant was that founded by the Buddhist priest and saint Nichiren. Today, 800 years since the birth of this major religious figure, we look at the life of Nichiren and his influence on Japanese Buddhism and society.

The Softer Side of a Revolutionary

The year 2022 marks the 800th anniversary of Nichiren’s birth. Numerous events have been held to mark the occasion; many new books and articles have been published and major exhibitions held. On a personal level, I compiled a collection of Nichiren’s letters, which was published by Kadokawa Sophia Bunko, and appeared on NHK’s 100-pun de meicho, “Classics in 100 Minutes”—a long-running program that introduces a different classic of literature, philosophy, or history each month—to talk about Nichiren and the approachable human personality that emerges from a reading of his correspondence.

Some 340 letters by Nichiren survive, either in his own hand or in copies. This volume of correspondence exceeds by far anything we have for the founders of other sects of Buddhism. Reading these letters allows us to encounter Nichiren’s true character, a personality of warmth and humanity. We see him writing to a mother who has lost her child, full of empathy and compassion, and giving realistic and concrete advice and encouragement to people struggling with relationships in their careers or at home. Reading the letters reveals a side of the man quite different from his common reputation as an aggressive, nationalist personality.

One of his correspondents was the samurai Shijō Kingo, an important retainer of the Hōjō clan that held real power within the Kamakura shogunate. Shijō endured several attempts on his life by rivals jealous of his high office and closeness to his powerful patrons. Nichiren’s letters offered detailed warnings and advice on how to protect his life, but there is no hint in them of the provocative attitude for which Nichiren is famous. Far from advising his friend to “kill before you are killed,” his advice is focused on defense.

I was astonished reading his letters to find him repeatedly sounding warnings about issues that are still pressing concerns for us today, including climate change and war. In “Reply to Hyōe-sakan,” a letter to a high-ranking samurai associated with the Ikegami family, he wrote:

In the Latter Day of the Law . . . people have become so greedy that strife rages incessantly between sovereign and subject, parent and child, elder and younger brother, and all the more so among people who are unrelated. When such conflict occurs, the gods abandon the country, and then the three calamities and seven disasters begin, until one, two, three, four, five, six, or seven suns appear in the sky. Plants and trees wither and die, large and small rivers dry up, the earth smolders like charcoal, and the sea becomes like boiling oil. Eventually flames fill the atmosphere, arising from the Avīci Hell, hell of incessant suffering, and reaching the Brahmā heaven. Such is the devastation that will occur when the world reaches its final dissolution.

Tagore’s Prediction

All of these are real problems that we are facing today in the twenty-first century. The Indian poet, thinker, and musician Rabindranath Tagore was a major figure of the last century who predicted that people would turn their attention to Buddhism again in the twenty-first. When Dr. Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, Vice-Chancellor of Visva-Bharati, the university founded by Tagore, visited Japan, he told me about a series of predictions the celebrated polymath had made about how the countries of Asia might come closer together in the future: “Asia must be united, but not by politics or strength of arms, he said. It must become united through culture. In the past, there was such a time. This unification was accomplished through Buddhism. In the twenty-first century, people will turn their attention to Buddhism again.”

I remember asking Dr. Bhattacharya what had made Tagore speak so highly of Buddhism, even though there have been almost no Buddhists in India since the thirteenth century. He didn’t have time to do more than mention three points: first, that in its original form, Buddhism preached total equality; second, that it excluded all superstition, fortune-telling, and dogma; and third, that it did not argue in favor of a Western code of morality.

I’d like to add a fourth point: that Buddhism prioritizes the idea of the Law or dharma as universal truth, and stresses the importance of awakening to reality and the true self. In the course of my life as a scholar of Buddhism, I have thought a lot about the meaning of these points. Here, I would like to address the meaning of the third point in particular, and consider the question of morality and ethics in Buddhism.

Presumably the Western ethics that Tagore had in mind was the system of morality that arises as a kind of commitment to an absolute, all-powerful God who created human beings and everything else in the universe. In this case, it is possible that even killing can be legitimized if it is done in the name of God. God becomes the end and people are just the means. Life itself becomes a means to an end. And ideology can easily replace God as the justification for all kinds of acts.

In Buddhism, by contrast, there is no all-powerful absolute. Nakamura Hajime, the great Japanese scholar of early Buddhist scriptures, discussed this difference when he noted in his book Genshi Bukkyō no shakai-shisō (Social Thought in Early Buddhism) that “in the West, God as an absolute is separated from humanity, but in Buddhism the essence of the absolute (the Buddha nature) is something that exists inside all human beings—indeed, it is here a person’s true self resides.”

Early Buddhist scriptures contain these lines on the nature of morality:

All beings tremble at the rod;
All are afraid of death.
Seeing their likeness to yourself,
You should neither kill nor cause to kill.
(Dhammapada; trans. Valerie J. Roebuck)

As I am, so are these.
As are these, so am I.
Drawing the parallel to yourself,
neither kill nor get others to kill.
(Sutta Nipata; trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu)

No absolute being appears here. Ethical behavior is put forward in simple of real relationships between human beings. People are not treated as means, but as ends in themselves.

Buddhism never placed ultimate value anywhere except in human beings and life in general. The Mahā-prajñāpāramitā-śāstra’ (Great Treatise on the Perfection of Wisdom) says, “the greatest virtue in the world is to treasure life,” and says that “all living beings, even the insects, value their lives.”

Life Itself Is the Highest Value

Of all the Buddhist sutras and scriptures, the most important of all for Nichiren was the Lotus Sutra. In “The Blessings of the Lotus Sutra,” he wrote:

All the other rules of conduct begin with the prohibition against the taking of life. Every being, from the highest sage on down to the smallest mosquito or gnat, holds life to be its most precious possession. To deprive a being of life is to commit the gravest kind of sin.

When the Thus Come One [the Buddha] appeared in this world, he made compassion for living things his basis.

This thinking was echoed in other writings, such as “The Gift of Rice”: “Life is the foremost of all treasures. . . . Even the treasures that fill the major world system are no substitute for life.” And in “Letter from Sado,” he expounded: “The most dreadful things in the world are the pain of fire, the flashing of swords, and the shadow of death. Even horses and cattle fear being killed; no wonder human beings are afraid of death. Even a leper clings to life; how much more so a healthy person.”

The references here to the pain of fire and the flashing of swords are surely descriptions of warfare in a time before missiles and cannon.

Placing ultimate value outside of humanity or life risks turning these things into mere means to an end. Buddhism emphasized the importance of not placing ultimate value in anything else besides human beings and life itself. And the first step to realizing the nobility and preciousness of life is to become aware of the nobility of the self. It is by realizing the nobility of your own self that you can come to know and believe in the precious nobility of others.

In “On Attaining Buddhahood in This Lifetime,” Nichiren expressed this idea as follows: “If we understand that our life at this moment is myō [supreme, most precious] then we will also understand that our life at other moments is the Mystic Law [supreme teaching, most precious existence]. This realization is the mystic kyō, or sutra.” If we see that our own heart is something precious and wonderful, in other words, we can turn our eyes to others and understand the supreme teaching that allows us to see the precious wonder in their lives too. Wishing to communicate this to other people, we give expression to it through language. And this is the noble expression of the mystic kyō, or sutra. These lines of Nichiren encapsulate with remarkable concision the indivisible relationship between the self, others, and language that have guided my studies over the course of my career.

Elsewhere, Nichiren writes: “Here a single individual has been used as an example, but the same thing applies equally to all living beings.” Behind the Buddhist ideas of equality and the preciousness of the life of all other things is the idea of the awakening and enlightenment of each individual.

Some time ago, a criminal who had carried out an act of indiscriminate violence was reported as saying, “I just wanted to kill, I didn’t care who it was.” His words made me feel that here was a person who had grown up without receiving affection from his parents, and who had never been blessed with an opportunity to realize the preciousness of his own life. This had driven him to this mad act of despair and destruction.

The Essence of the Lotus Sutra

The Lotus Sutra contains moving depictions of the recovery of the lost self. Another figure who appears is the Bodhisattva Never Disparaging, who continues to respect others and repeatedly says to people: “I do not disparage you. . . . I have profound reverence for you, I would never dare treat you with disparagement or arrogance . . . I would never dare disparage you.” This bodhisattva was the inspiration for the “Blockhead” character in Miyazawa Kenji’s famous poem “Ame ni mo makezu” (trans. “Strong in the Rain”), and Nichiren drew on the example of this bodhisattva in talking about himself.

Bodhisattva Never Disparaging did not devote his time to reading or teaching the scriptures, but simply went about bowing to people. His actions were not understood and he was regularly cursed and abused. However, he did not give in to anger or emotion, but continued to behave in the same way, saying, “I would never disparage you.” When he was on the point of death, he heard voices from the sky intoning the Lotus Sutra, even though no one around him was reciting the scripture. He was able to understand and accept the verses immediately. His lifespan was extended and he started to preach the Lotus Sutra. He was able to achieve enlightenment for himself and for a multitude of others.

There is an important message included here. The sound of the Lotus Sutra is suddenly heard from the skies, even though no one is reading the sutra, and Bodhisattva Never Disparaging is instantly able to understand its message. This monk never recited the scriptures or preached about their meaning. He failed to fulfill even the minimal requirements of Buddhist practices. But he respected all people. And this act in itself fulfilled the heart and spirit of the Heart Sutra. Even though he didn’t read the Lotus Sutra in language, his behavior and his attitude of respect for all people embodied the essence of the sutra itself. He had absorbed its meaning and message.

The essential message of the sutra is a sardonic criticism of hierarchy-obsessed monks and adepts who spend their days reading the sutras and engaging in recondite and erudite debates and discussions, but look down on others. Whether a person performs the forms of Buddhist practice in terms of the sutras is of secondary importance. Respect for human life is the heart of the Lotus Sutra, and the essence of true Buddhism.

In this sense, we can say that figures like Nelson Mandela, who withstood 27 years in prison and dedicated his life to the anti-Apartheid movement, and the Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. also practiced the Heart Sutra in their lives. The idea that whether a person is a Buddhist is of secondary importance, and that respect for human beings and all life is what really counts and what truly embodies the message of the Lotus Sutra, is an idea that can be said to transcend sectarianism, placing respect for humanity and for life itself at the foundation of ethical conduct.

The full title of the Lotus Sutra in Sanskrit is the Saddharma-puṇḍarīka-sūtra, the “supreme teaching like a white lotus.” This metaphor of the white lotus, esteemed as the most precious of all beloved flowers in India, is based on the essence of the Lotus Sutra, which teaches the importance of respect for human beings.

Nichiren revered the Lotus Sutra and preached urged people to “return” to its teachings. Almost until the moment of his death he continued to appeal for risshō-ankoku, which means “Establishing the Correct Teaching for the Peace of the Land.” His purpose in criticizing the leaders of the country is made clear in a passage in his “On the Protection of the Nation,” where he says, “some . . . having become rulers of a nation . . . fail to heed or understand the afflictions of the populace” and “sink down into the evil realms.” In “On Establishing the Correct Teaching for the Peace of the Land,” he writes: “If you care anything about your personal security, you should first of all pray for order and tranquillity throughout the four quarters of the land. . . . If you live in a country that knows no decline or diminution, in a land that suffers no harm or disruption, then your body will find peace and security, and your mind will be calm and untroubled.”

Early Buddhist history is marked by a famous king who regretted the many massacres carried out in his name and who converted to Buddhism and became an ideal king who respected all life: Ashoka, who ruled during the third century BCE. In the ninth year of his reign, he invaded the country of Kalinga and took 150,000 prisoners. Of these, 100,000 were killed. Many more lost their lives in the chaos of war.

Repenting these acts, he became a Buddhist, and in the tenth year of his reign went on a pilgrimage to places associated with the life of Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha. He opened almshouses for the poor as well as hospitals for people and animals, cultivated medicinal herbs and planted trees along the roadways throughout his kingdom, and had wells dug at regular intervals along the main roads and established rest places for travelers.

He determined that he would rule “by the Dharma,” and dedicated the remainder of his life to the belief that even a king received the benefits and blessings of all life and that government should be carried out in a way that would repay that debt. He said that “all the subjects in my kingdom are my children.” This echoes the line in the Lotus Sutra, in which Shakyamuni Buddha says, “Now this threefold world is all my domain, and the living beings in it are all my children.”

Original, early Buddhism, the Lotus Sutra, and Nichiren all preached the same truth: the essential nobility of life human beings and all life. The message of this essential truth is perhaps more vital today than it has ever been before.


(Photo: A portait of Nichiren from the collection of the temple Kuonji in Yamanashi Prefecture.)
(Photo: A portait of Nichiren from the collection of the temple Kuonji in Yamanashi Prefecture.)

Buddhist priest of the Kamakura Period (1185–1333) and the founder of the Nichiren sect of Buddhism, one of the major schools of Kamakura Buddhism. Born on February 16, 1222, in Kataumi, a fishing village in Awa Province (now Kamogawa, Chiba Prefecture). At the age of 12, he entered the temple Seichōji in Kiyosumiyama, where he studied under the resident monk Dōzenbō. He took the tonsure at 16, and adopted the name Zeshōbō Renchō.

Wishing to study the teachings of different sects, he traveled to study at the major centers of Buddhist learning in Japan, particularly Enryakuji on Mount Hiei outside Kyoto, as well as Onjōji (Miidera) near Lake Biwa and Kōyasan in Wakayama. In around 1252 and 1253 he returned to Seichōji and started to preach the Lotus Sutra. In 1253, he moved to Kamakura, where he started his proselytizing activities in earnest, adopting the name Nichiren.

In August 1257, Kamakura was hit by a major earthquake that caused widespread damage. In 1260, he wrote the Risshō-ankokuron, in which he warned that unless the government repressed the Pure Land sect and took refuge in the Lotus Sutra, the country would be beset by internal unrest and would come under attack from foreign powers, questioning the religious responsibilities of those in power the government. He sent his essay to the regent, Hōjō Tokiyori, the supreme political authority in the country. Suspicion of his radicalism on the part of the Kamakura shogunate and followers of the Pure Land sect triggered the repression of his teachings, and Nichiren was sent into exile (to Izu in 1261 and to the remote island of Sado in 1271). He died on October 13, 1282.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: Statue of Nichiren at the temple Myōhonji in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture. © Jiji.)

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