Nichiren’s Life and Times
(Transcriber’s Note: I did the best I could to transcribe exactly what I heard. Sometimes, I had to guess…and if I couldn’t make out a word or a line at all I inserted brackets with three dots […]. I also did the best I could with Japanese spellings and tried to sound out what I heard. Please forgive any errors. If you are sure of a correction, please contact me at email@example.com. Thanks, and I hope this helps with your studies.)
A lot of people don’t know what to make of Nichiren. They think of him as a grumpy old man…kind of an arrogant, forceful – somebody you might not want to bring home to dinner. But, I feel a tremendous amount of gratitude to Nichiren for what he did for his life for what he absorbed. I see him as a very complicated man. I also see him as a product of his times. I think it’s very important for us to understand his times, to understand the role of the country he lived in, to understand what he was about and to develop a sense of gratitude.
Japan in the 13th century was very different from our country today or really any other part of the world at all. So, I would like to spend a little bit of time just outlining that – just going over that.
Buddhism first came to Japan in the year 552…and this is roughly about 1,000 years after the Buddha was alive. Now, when the Buddha was teaching, he made a prediction that after he died…after his body left the earth…for 1,000 years there would be a period of what he called the period of True Dharma when people would practice and understand his true teaching. Then after that there would be another 1,000 years called the period of Imitative Dharma when there would be many statues, many temples built, many people would copy and expand on his work, but it wouldn’t be quite the same as what he was teaching. And, strangely enough that second thousand year period also corresponds to a great time in art flourishing not only in India, but in the Middle East and Europe. There were a lot of people building statues, building churches. So, in 552 we’re moving into the second thousand year period.
There was an emissary that came to Japan from Korea. Now, this was probably not the first time that an emissary from the King of Korea came to Japan. In fact, it is widely thought that there were three main migrations on the Japanese island. The first was from the North – from Siberia. The second was from Malaysia – the PacificIslands in the south. And, there was another migration that came from Korea. So a lot of people in Japan are able to trace their origins back to Korea and to Africa where we all came from in the first place. But, this emissary from the court of Korea to the emperor of Japan was probably not the first contact between Korea and Japan.
Now, what this emissary wanted was for the Emperor of Japan to form an alliance with him to go off and fight with somebody else. And, as was the custom when somebody would come and ask favors like that, they would send gifts. And these would be statues, they would be cloth, they might be food, and who knows what. One of the gifts that was brought over was a large chest full of scrolls of the Buddha’s teachings. And, there was an inscription on the chest that said “This is the Most Excellent Doctrine.” Now, the court at the time opened the chest and started reading it and it took off like wild fire. People started reading this and found that it was a teaching unlike what they were used to reading before. What was being practiced in Japan at the time was what has become now known as Shinto which is roughly “the way of the gods” and it was a more nativist religion and there hadn’t been something like Buddhism introduced in Japan. And, somehow the two managed to co-exist. But there was still quite a bit of scholarship and quite a bit of study that was done on Buddhism.
About 40 years after that there was a Prince in the Japanese court named Prince Atofu and he became a Buddhist scholar. He wasn’t the emperor…he was the Crown Prince…but he became in affect the ruler of the country. He had been studying Buddhism. He had been asked to form a set of laws for Japan. One of the Sutras he noticed…one of the sutras he read that was in that collection of Sutras was the Lotus Sutra. So he used the Lotus Sutra for the basis of the very first set of laws in Japan. So you look at Japan and it’s got at its very foundation, Buddhism. Buddhism is right there in the middle of everything.
So between 710 and 1194 there was a capital city set up in Nara which is southeast of Tokyo. And there many large temples set up and many large government buildings. Temples up to that point had sprung up around different teachings of the Buddha…different practices…and they were honestly more interested in influencing the government…getting things for themselves than they were in benefiting the people as a whole. And it got to be so bad that Emperor began to realize that all these temples were fighting among each other…he said forget this, we’re moving. And, he packed up the whole capital of Nara and moved it to Kyoto.
Well, that worked for a couple of years. But, then the temples picked up and followed him…they just moved to Kyoto, too. So, the temples got to be stronger, they got into angry confrontations between the people in the temples, there got to be these monks who developed warrior habits…they learned how to fight…which seems rather strange…but they felt they had to defend themselves. So, there was this atmosphere of competition among the temples.
And, then out in the provinces that decided why should we put up with all the stuff that’s going on in the capital. We’re going to raise armies of our own and we’re not going to put up with all this stuff that’s going on. So, this is a big threat to the emperor. And, he decided that he was going to get these two different families to help him out. He was going to back and conquer all these other provinces. That worked for a little while, too, until the two families started fighting with each other until one of the families eventually won over the other one. The Noritoma over the Minomoto clan won the fight between the two families and they let the emperor stay where he was, but they were the ones that really had the power. What they wanted to do was set up their own place outside Kyoto in Kamakura which is southwest of Tokyo.
By this time with all this fighting going on back and forth there had been basically two classes in Japan…there was the peasantry and there was the royalty. Well, between these two, came up the Samurai…they were the warriors. They were the ones that were needed by any group of aristocracy to maintain order…to maintain discipline…to make sure no one would come and do bad things to them.
So, the samurai who were working with the Minomoto clan moved to Kamakura…that was the real capital of Japan…that was everything was really happening…even though the royal couple…the emperor’s capital was in Kyoto at the time. Also, at that time there was a new merchant class that was starting to rise up because there was a lot of trade that was going on with China at that point and Kamakura is right on the sea coast so it was a trading port…a very big trading port.
So, you had a lot of money coming in, a lot of stratification, you had people very rich, you had people very poor…not much in the middle. You had a lot of fighting still…a lot of suspicion because you never knew if there was a spy or a traitor or somebody coming in. So this is the world in 1222 into which Nichiren was born.
Now, he lived his first 11 years or so in a small fishing village called Kominoto northeast of Tokyo. Now, fishermen at that point were part of the lower class. They weren’t seen as very useful. Their job was to go catch fish, pay their taxes, and be good citizens. And, they were very much cut off from society as a whole and what people were doing and all the intrigues. And, they just had a very simple life at that point. And Nichiren was born on February 16, 1222. There were lots of miracles associated with his birth. Lotus flowers bloomed and […] I’ll talk about that a little more later.
It’s said that his family…that his father was this great Samurai and that explains a lot of what he was able to do later on in his life […]. I tend to believe that Nichiren’s father was the  Samurai because from a very early age Nichiren was very interested in what was going on in the world around him…not just what was going on in the fishing village, but in was happening in the court, what clans were fighting each other, all these different branches of Buddhism that had sprung up…and at that point there were three main branches of Buddhism. One was Zen…and this was favored by the warrior class. It is a very austere practice. The idea is that you don’t need the sutras, everyone’s got this Buddha nature within themselves, you don’t need teachings, you don’t need anything written down. You just have to sit and if you sit in meditation long enough all this stuff will just come roiling up out of us. It’s also a very hierarchical practice…there’s a huge emphasis on teachers and again, this had a lot of favor with the warrior class because they tend to be very strictly hierarchical…you work for them and they work for them…and that’s the way the teachers had to work also. The influences of Zen were seen in architecture, in how temples were designed…they were seen in pottery, in the arts, in poetry…haiku came from Zen originally…I don’t know if you’re familiar with haiku; it’s a very set way of doing syllables…the tea ceremony…it came from Zen.
Another main branch of Buddhism at the time was called Shin-Gon…that’s two words…and this was a practice that involved a lot of mystic poses and hand signs and mudras or special phrases that were spoken and it depended again on a very priestly class. These were people who would do Buddhism and they would do it for the sake of everyone else and everybody else’s job was to just sit and watch and do what they were told. This was favored by the aristocracy. The warriors liked Zen and the aristocracy liked Shin-Gon.
And, then there was another branch called Jodo and this was the branch that favored Amida Buddha. Now, Shinran, who started Jodo, wanted to come up with a form of Buddhism that was very simple for anybody to practice, because most people in Japan at that time were illiterate…they couldn’t read…they couldn’t be expected to read. So, he came up with a very simple formula for them to use. If they would recite the name of Amida Buddha they would be reborn after this life in the PureLand off in the East with the Amida Buddha. Now, if that sounds familiar to us living in a Christian culture in the 21st Century, I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Now, that practice got to be so extreme in the time of Nichiren that people believed that if they chanted the name of Amida Buddha 10,000 times and then killed themselves, they would immediately be reborn in the PureLand. Imagine the kind of havoc that kind of practice created.
So, anyway there were these three branches of Buddhism.
Nichiren is aware of all this stuff going on. Even as a young child he asks a lot of questions. Why are there all these branches? Why are people fighting among one another? Buddhism is supposed to bring peace. Why are we always at war? What’s going on here? And, I’m convinced that he was learning to read and write at that point…his father was teaching him…or his mother was teaching him…a lot of people were teaching him…and it became very obvious that here was this young man whose intelligence was going to be far more than what the resources of that little fishing village could give to him. And, so his father enrolled him in a temple in Inasumi which is very close to Kominoto. And, enrolled him with the master of temple…a man named Dozen…and Dozen was a very ardent practicer of Pure Land Buddhism…Namu Amida Butsu…But, he also recognized the intelligence of this young man and taught him…Nichiren entered at the age of 11 years old and by the time he was 15 years old…4 years later…he had been ordained as a minister…he had read every single piece of writing in the library at Inasumi…and he didn’t get any answers to his questions. He still didn’t know. Why are there so many branches of Buddhism? Why did the Buddha teach all these different ways of practicing? Why are there still fights between people if Buddhism brings peace? He fasted for 21 days in front of the statue of the Boddhistva of Wisdom, Kokuzo…21 days he praying and fasting until he had a vision that Kokuzo gave him the Wisdom Jewel…he told him I want you to go off and be the wisest man in all Japan.
So, after he became ordained, he asked permission from his master, Dozen, to leave Inasumi and go and study more about Buddhism at other temples that had more resources for him. By that time he was 17 years old. He knew nothing but this little fishing village where he grew up and this little temple where he had been since he was 11 years old.
And where does he go? He goes to Kamakura…the effective capital of Japan. I can’t imagine what a shock that was to his whole system going into that huge city…going to learn about Buddhism, and what did he walk into? He walked into a city where, again, there’s this huge disparity between rich people and poor people. He described seeing people dying of starvation in the alleys…open sewers going down the street…smells that assaulted him. He probably didn’t have that in the fishing village…he had the smell of dying fish, but that’s still not the same as the smells of the city that size…and the assault on his ears. And, any time anyone wanted to get somewhere, they just came barreling down the street…they didn’t care if anybody’s in their way or not. So somebody gets trampled…so what? Who cares? And, it’s the whole attitude that people had to have in that city. In the fishing village, I’m sure everyone knew everyone else. Everybody took care of each other. Somebody didn’t get a lot of fish in or had a bad harvest…somebody would take care of them. He gets to a big city like Kamakura and everybody is for themselves. You’ve got to fight to survive. And, he had gone there to learn about Buddhism.
I’m sure that was the first time he had ever been robbed. I’m serious. I mean this is my embellishment to the Nichiren story…you be sure to note that. But, look at the environment he jumped into and look what he had to do to survive.
So, he stayed in Kamakura for two years. And then he goes back to Inasumi to visit his master…visit his parents…and then decides, “I’ve learned everything I can in Kamakura, I’ve got to go somewhere else.”
And, so he goes to Kyoto to the Imperial capital...Many more temples, many more studies, many more things to learn. Now, among the things he learned in Kyoto…one thing was how to debate. And how debate would help was that when people went to study the sutras, they would learn as much as they could, and then they would go into a darkened room and there’d be one person debating another…all very formal…the two people debating would be on platforms…and they would debate each other. And then the person who lost the debate, in order to save face, could simply leave out of the darkened room. But, I’m sure these debates were very forceful…a lot of energy…a lot going back and forth. This is a warrior society…again back to the Samurai background. This is somebody used to fighting for what he believes in.
So for 15 years, from the time he was 17 to the time he was 32, Nichiren has gone to Kamakura, he goes to Kyoto, he goes to […] which is the center of Shin-Gon…and I actually had an opportunity to visit there, and it’s actually pretty eerie to walk into a graveyard that’s 1500 years old.
And, he comes to the conclusion that the teaching of Nembutsu…this teaching of devotion to Amida Buddha…is wrong…that the true teaching is the Lotus Sutra. This is what he needs to start propagating. And he realized at the same time that this is not going to go over well. But, the people who sent him off to go learn this are expecting him to come back and confirm what they believe in. They’re not expecting him to come back and tell them you’re wrong. Nobody likes being told they’re wrong. I don’t. Do you?
So, after 15 years he goes back to Inasumi. Now, what’s strange to me in this part of the story is he goes back by himself. Now, again, I need to go back and do more study on my own, but I would expect him to go back with some other people. But then again, maybe there’s a reason he didn’t. He had to have convinced somebody while he was out there doing all that teaching. Why didn’t anybody else go with him? Maybe it was something to the effect that if he came with somebody else they would think he had been changed or converted…he had to come back as a son of that town…as somebody who was coming back of his own volition to do what he thought needed to be done.
The other embellishment I would like to put on the story is…well, let me continue with the story…He came back to Inasumi and on April 28, 1253 to celebrate […] he stands up on the Mountain of Inasumi and hollers “Namu-Myoho-Renge-Kyo”…the first time that had been heard anywhere in the saha world. At that point, his life changed forever.
People knew he was back. He’d been there for a week already. And, they expected him to come and give a talk…the result of 15 years of study. He meditated for seven days deciding what to do…should I come back and tell them what they want to hear or should he tell them the truth? Should I tell them what I learned from my studies or do I tell them something that will keep me safe? And, here’s my other embellishment…I think before he gave his famous first sermon, he went to his master, Dozen, and said this is what I’m going to do. I know enough about the relationship between a sensei and a disciple. There’s a tremendous amount of respect both ways that the disciple has for the master and the master has for the disciple. And, you see this later in Nichiren’s life when he learns that Dozen has passed on, he wrote the Treatise on Gratitude. So, all his life, even though he learned something different than his master learned, he remembered what his master had taught him. He remembered the kindness his master had shown him. So, to me it makes perfect sense that before he would give that sermon that he knew was going to enrage a bunch of people, he went to Master Dozen and said “here’s what I’m doing.” And, Master Dozen said to him, “I understand. You have to do what you have to do.”
So Nichiren gets up and in front of the people who come to hear him speak, the son who had traveled for 15 years, he traveled all the way to Kyoto, studied all the sutras he could get his eyes on…he would come back to their little town…their little temple…and tell them what he had learned that would be of benefit to them. And, what he said to them was very direct, very simple, very forceful…he said, those people who practice Nembutsu are going to hell! The people who practice Zen are devils! The people who are practicing Shin-Gon are ruining this country!”
He knew what was going to happen…he knew exactly what was going to happen. There was the regent…the local lord…Toko […yori]…he got really upset and chased him out of the room, and again, this is where I think Dozen was prepared…Dozen smuggled him out, got him someplace safe, got him where he could go and see his parents, but made it clear to him, “You gotta get out of here. These people are angry.”
So, why did he have to be so forceful? Why couldn’t he have said, “Well, you know…” and couched what he had to say in nice pleasant terms that we’re used to using today. Why did he have to say this is the way it is…unquestionable? This is what’s going on.
There’s a friend of mine…lives in San Jose…and he has this wonderful phrase, and he uses it when he’s describing these plans that our boss would come up with…something to the effect that I don’t want to be confused that I’m praising this with faint damnation. I think that was exactly what Nichiren was trying to do also. He wanted to make absolutely sure that these people understood what he had learned.
Now, I don’t think to be mean…[he wasn’t…them]…and, maybe he could have taken a little more time to explain exactly what he was talking about, but again, this was the culture…a very confrontational culture. The son of a samurai had gone back to learn or to live in these different ways in the big city…and again, he’s 32 years old…he’s been living in Kyoto…he’s been living in Kamakura…he’s been living in this highly contentious society…for a long time. That’s what he’s used to…that’s the environment he’s used to being in. I think I got a little bit of a glimpse of this last night…I was here with […]…and I had forgotten to put some toothpaste. So, she was going to give me a ride to the Kroger’s that’s about a mile down the road…and we get there…and this big parking lot…bigger than the one I’m used to in Lexington…and I notice this security guard in the parking lot…and I’m thinking, “What’s up with that?” In Lexington we don’t have security guards in the parking lots…I hadn’t seen that before. I go inside the store, and Marion told me…well, the toothpaste is over there…and I walk in the door and all I see is this line of about 20 checkout stands and each one of them is blocked by a grocery cart. And, I’m standing there trying to figure out, can I get around this way, can I get around that way? And, there’s a young man probably 19 years old standing at one of the checkout stands, and he said, “Hey! You gotta go around.” Now, you know, in Lexington, I’m not used to that kind of talk, OK. I’m used to walking into a store and hearing somebody say, “Hi, Welcome to Kroger. Nice to have you here. Is there anything I can do for you? Can I help you?” Nice and polite. Not some kid, “Hey! You gotta go around!” Now, I have the right chromosome…obviously male…so that immediately kicks in my whole defense system…like…Don’t talk to me like that! But, whatever…so, I kind of squeezed past one of the carts…and, so on the way out, I’m asking Mary, “So what’s up with this guard in the parking lot? Is it really necessary?” And, she says, “Well, yes, as a matter of fact it is. We’ve got people who will stalk people right here in this parking lot and will follow them home and take their groceries or even worse. Having the security guard here isn’t going to solve the whole problem, but it’s going to help.”
And, I’m thinking, here I am coming from tiny little Lexington, Kentucky…population 300,000 to big ol’ Houston…population I don’t know how big…and that young man is not like people I deal with in Lexington. I’m used to having somebody walking around the parking lot saying, Hi, how you doing? Nice to see you. This guy saw somebody coming in from the parking lot and he doesn’t know what’s going on with them. That’s the kind of stance he’s got to take with them. And, that’s the interaction I had with him at that point. And, again, I’m not perfect…I’m practicing. And instead of looking at the situation and saying…instead of seeing how I could better the situation…it’s like Boom! There’s my habit. So I talk to him…sometimes I can keep from doing that…but this time I did it…Guilty, Thank you.
That to me explains a lot about Nichiren. He had been in an environment from the time he was 17 until he was 32. Fighting was normal. This is how you got things across. You had to be strong…you had to be tough. To translate that directly into our world and say, “We’ve got to go out there and fight the way Nichiren fought.” Well, maybe, OK. But, I don’t know, all right. And, again, we’ve got to make up our own minds. We’ve got to look at the situation around us to realize what is the best approach we can take? How are we going to work with all this?
Now, I’ve got lots more to talk to you about Nichiren. But, I think Martha’s going to want to come and talk to you. Let me answer a few questions…
Question: “I think the hardest thing…and, thank you so much for doing that…is changing behavior. And, my challenge personally is to change habits that are multigenerational…the dynamic between siblings, parents, and partners and that is the crux of it all. I mean, it’s walking one’s talk. [….]…change my habits in relation to the people closest to me. I think that’s core issue for me personally. So, I think this is kind of like […] behaviors…getting information…it’s like what you said…when we’re up against the wall…whether we’re caught up in traffic or our partner says something to us or presses a button…to change our response to our partner or to our sibling…so much is like learned behavior…we get into these patterns of behavior…multifunctional or dysfunctional behaviors. So, you know what I’m saying? I mean even like in our practice…whether it’s a religious organization or whatever…we all had our parts as human beings…we all were fragile and had our egos, and issues, and politics…and like a flawed nature.(?)[…] We’re all part of the human family…so…
Rev. Warner: Well, let me say a couple of things to that. Again, this is something I can say but I’m not real good at it. OK.
To me Buddhism is about reality. It’s about saying what we know. But, more importantly it’s about not saying what we don’t know. OK. So many times I get myself in trouble in relationships with people when I say something I don’t know about somebody else…Like, “You’re trying to hurt me. You’re being mean”…that can be very easy to say where you’re blaming someone else for something you feel…that you’re [assigning] a motive or a desire that may not be there at all. And, in our society, we’re used to thinking, “Well, it’s somebody else’s fault.” Where the person we see as creating that environment…that had to be created for them, too. Now, a lot of times if they’re angry with us…that anger has nothing to do with us. So, we feel like they’re directing it at us…like we’re the cause of it somehow…and we want to make them stop it. At the same time, there’s another element of our society that makes it very difficult to look weak, to look humble, to look hurt. And so in a situation where somebody says something that’s hurtful, it’s been more productive for me instead of to say, “How could you say that?! How could you be so mean? How could you be so cruel?”…to say “That really hurts me.” And to come back and say, I know it really hurts me. Now, I’m saying that…not in the sense that you’re trying to hurt me…but in the sense that that hurts. And let them take it from there.
Rather than blaming somebody.
[…]People are into their own habits.
Yeah, like the guy who cuts me off in traffic? Where does that come from? That’s not me. I had a guy at work about a year ago…he just started blue streak cussing at me for 5 minutes…in the middle of a meeting! OK. So it’s like this thing…what do I do? […] And the conclusion I came to…I knew that maybe there was something I may have done to encourage the situation or to contribute to the situation…and again […]…a contribution is a little more healthy to talk about I think, but there is nothing that I could have possibly done to make me deserve that reaction that I got from him.
Now, whether that behavior is appropriate in the work place, or what the company as a whole can do about that…[…] I don’t have anything to do with that. I’ll bring to their attention. But, I’m not going to make a big deal about it…get him fired…get him out of here. It ain’t going to happen. I’m not going to do that. But what I can say is we need to get this meeting back on track…
But, the best thing to do when somebody is angry is to find something that they’re right…because you get into that spiral of anger…you can’t stay angry unless somebody is feeding your anger.
But, again. I think you’re absolutely right about the patterns…they’re not only come from our lives…they’re coming from our parents.
Question: […] they’re transmitted from one generation to another. […]Arrogance…whatever they maybe…
Rev. Will: That’s the ego-less-ness comes in. […] we’ll have a chance to talk about becoming Bodhisattvas tomorrow. But, I think that stepping outside one’s identity…I think that’s when a lot of anger really starts…when someone says something about you that doesn’t conform to your image of yourself. That’s where anger really starts.
Person: And, sometimes that’s like [...] says…it’s like where did that come from. That’s not who I am.
Rev. Will: Well, changing people’s beliefs is really tough. Changing behavior is a little easier. […] The other part is…and this is the part that I personally have a lot of trouble with…admitting weaknesses…and asking someone to do something for me…asking for something very specifically…not like “don’t get mad at me.”…it’s more like, I would like you to do this for me. And, the difference is the demand…if you don’t do so-and-so, I’m going to…but, more like this is something I would like…to make the request known…that can be very complicated. But, it can be very empowering….and you can see yourself…I mean, that will take you right out of the victim role because things aren’t just happening to me…It gets back to the person and the truth, right?
It’s important to make our desires known honestly…not as demands or threats.
Let me close this talk…there’s a quote I would like to read and I dig it out when people start to get confused about Nichiren’s arrogance. You may have heard this before, but I’m going to read it anyway. I’m not quite sure where this came from…I tried to look it up before I came here…
“If you desire to attain immediate Buddhahood, lay down the flag of pride; cast away the sword of resentment; and trust yourselves the only truth. Our hearts ache and our sleeves are dressed with our tears until we see face to face the gentle figure of the one who says to us I am your father. Our hearts beat at the thought just as it does when we see the bright clouds in the evening sky in the pale moonlight of oncoming night. Should any season pass without thinking of the compassionate promise? I think of you constantly. […] Amen.
“Should any day or month be spent without honoring the teaching that there is no living being that cannot attain Buddhahood? Devote yourself with all your soul to the adoration of the sutra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Law, Namu-Myoho-Renge-Kyo. Chant it yourself as well as teaching others to do the same. Such is your task in this human life.”
Those are not the words of a fanatic. Those are not the words of an arrogant teacher. Those are not the words of a grumpy old man. Those are the words of a great Bodhisattva. And, I am tremendously grateful to him for all that he taught us about Buddhism.