Nichiren in Medieval Japan and his Legacy

Written by Dmitry Filippov. Edited by Nathaniel Robinson.

The rise of the samurai in the late 12th century heralded profound change for religious life in medieval Japan. The nadir of the Imperial court’s opulent and refined culture and way of life accompanied by brutal wars and cataclysms manifested itself in a spreading sense of apathy and despair. The Gempei war of 1180-1185 between the samurai clans of Taira and Minamoto culminating in the latter clan securing victory and establishing the first shogunate underpinned the notion of the existing order of things crumbling, which forced common people to turn to religion in search of solace and salvation.

It is no wonder that amidst these calamities, a particularly popular theme preached by the many new Buddhist sects that emerged during this time was the eschatological idea of Mappo, or the end of the Law, which was expected to happen sometime after 1052 and which would plunge the land into darkness and ignorance.

Among these new Buddhist movements and sects, the most extreme and bellicose ideas were spread by a monk known as Nichiren. Few hard facts are known about Nichiren’s life as both stories about him written by his disciples and later scholarly biographies are by and large based on the information he himself provided in his letters and essays. In these documents, he would often describe the same events in different ways depending on the intended audience, which makes discerning the truth problematic.

What is undeniable, however, is that Nichiren’s sermon was the most radical among Buddhist sects of that time. Not only did he renounce any teaching not rooted in the Lotus sutra, he considered them dangerous for Japan and called for their eradication. Nichiren’s diatribes targeted all major schools of Buddhism, for instance condemning the Jodo (Clean Land) sect for praising Buddha Amida above the historical Buddha Shakyamuni. Nichiren considered these rival schools enemies of Dharma and preached dealing with them by “breaking and subduing” (shakubuku) which, in his view, even warranted murder. While Buddhist sects chastised and quarrelled with each other before, Nichiren was the first to directly call for extermination of the adherents of the “false teachings”. Fighting other Buddhist traditions, therefore, became an integral part of Nichiren’s school of thought.
Nichiren preached that it was people abandoning the Lotus sutra that caused cataclysms, wars and other harbingers of Mappo. There was, however, one person who alone could save the world from ending, and that person was naturally Nichiren himself.

Nichiren is sometimes considered a forefather of Japanese nationalism in the sense that he considered Japan a jewel of a country, one which could shed Buddha’s light on the rest of the world once Mappo had arrived. Despite that, there is evidence to suggest that he put allegiance to the Lotus sutra even above his loyalty to Japan – he warned the authorities of an impending Mongol invasion, and when Kublai Khan’s fleet set sail towards Japanese shores in 1274, Nichiren was ready to welcome the invaders with open arms. In his mind, they arrived to punish Japan for spurning the sutra and spreading false doctrines.

Unsurprisingly Nichiren’s ardent sermon made him more than a few enemies. His abode in Kamakura was burned down, he was exiled, became a victim of a failed assassination attempt which left him with a scar on his face, arrested for possession of weapons, and sentenced to exile again. En route to the place of his exile, the guards escorting Nichiren tried to kill him in secret (whether they did so at the authorities’ behest or of their own volition is unknown). According to Nichiren’s own account, he was miraculously saved by a glint of the sun which blinded the headsman preventing him from carrying out the execution.
After spending several years in exile, Nichiren settled down on Mount Minobu and, after penning several hundred essays, passed away in 1282.

Nichiren had comparatively few adherents during his life or straight after his death. However his teachings inspired popular religious uprisings in the 15th century which condemned the government and were consequently persecuted by it. In late 19th century, after the Meiji Restoration, Nichiren’s ideas of a theocratic state based on the cult of the Lotus sutra were used as a foundation for Buddhist nationalism which gave Nichiren himself a dubious reputation. While he was hailed as a patriot of Japan before World War II, even then some of his essays were censored, with calls for the demise of his corrupt country being expunged. Scholars have also emphasised that, even though he wanted to see Japan spread the Law of Buddha across the world, Japan’s greatness per se was never his main goal.

His creed, however, did inspire some pre-war nationalists, most notoriously the League of Blood (Ketsumeidan), who in early 1932 perpetrated a series of assassinations, killing former finance minister Junnosuke Inoue and the director-general of the Mitsui corporation Takuma Dan among others. As was customary in Japanese revolutionary circles, the criminals later surrendered themselves to the authorities, informed them of a brewing conspiracy against other members of political and business elite, and ended up receiving short prison sentences.

The ideas of Nichiren, while certainly toned down and interpreted less radically, are alive and well today. Organisations such as Rissho Koseikai and Soka Gakkai preach Nichiren’s brand of Buddhism in Japan and beyond, with Soka Gakkai backing the New Komeito, the third largest Japanese political party.