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This article is part of an online special section about Nichiren Buddhism. We hope that by gathering these articles in one place and making them freely available, our Buddhist conversation will be broadened and that we can, all of us, more fully know ourselves in knowing one another. Read the other articles here.
Western scholars have observed that Nichiren was the first Buddhist leader to speak with a truly prophetic voice, insisting that Japanese leaders embrace the dharma and make it a social reality. What inspired Nichiren to take such a bold step, risking his life to assert a Buddhist vision of society in a country where religion had traditionally been expected to support the existing power structure rather than hold it to account? You’re right that in Japan religion has traditionally been expected to support authority. Nichiren’s very different response to power holds a key to understanding his character.
Nichiren felt compassion for the sufferings of the common people and a sense of responsibility for doing something about this. And this empathy and earnest commitment to social transformation are at the very core of all Nichiren’s actions.
Thirteenth-century Kamakura Japan was a terrible time to live. Life was constantly threatened by earthquakes, droughts, and other natural disasters, as well as famine, pestilence, and armed conflict. But neither the political nor the religious authorities of the day were able to see beyond their attachment to their own power and position to take effective action. The result was a pervasive sense of powerlessness and despair among the populace. Nichiren was by nature incapable of turning a blind eye to other people’s pain. So he spoke out, launching a battle of ideas that challenged the existing order.
Daisaku Ikeda and his wife, Kaneko [second from left], visiting members of the Soka Gakkai International in Tokyo in 1979. © Seikyo Shimbun
That sounds very risky. It was. But Nichiren understood the risks. In 1260, he presented his treatise, Rissho Ankoku Ron (On Establishing the Correct Teaching for the Peace of the Land), to the highest de facto authority of Japan, the retired regent Hojo Tokiyori. He did this because he was convinced that in a feudal society, changing the awareness of those at the top of the pyramid of power was essential. In the years that followed, in spite of persecution and the constant threat of assassination or execution, Nichiren fiercely maintained his independence, insisting on holding those in power to account. He gained many adherents among the common people at this time by teaching them that happiness in this world was indeed possible. But his influence among the downtrodden sectors of society was naturally perceived as a threat by those in power.
Nichiren had clearly foreseen all of this, and his writings record with great frankness the doubts and questions that assailed him early in his career as he pondered whether or not he should speak out. At one point he confessed to a disciple: “I, Nichiren, am the only person in all Japan who understands this. But if I utter so much as a word concerning it, then parents, brothers, and teachers will surely censure me, and the ruler of the nation will take steps against me. On the other hand, I am fully aware that if I do not speak out I will be lacking in compassion.” After a process of intense self-questioning, Nichiren recalled the words of the Lotus Sutra urging that this teaching be spread after the Buddha’s passing, and he made a great vow to transform society and enable all people to live in happiness.
How did the Soka Gakkai take Nichiren’s legacy forward? The Soka Gakkai’s first leaders, Tsunesaburo Makiguchi and Josei Toda, were both innovative educators dedicated to the reform of educational practices in Japan. Mr. Makiguchi converted to Nichiren Buddhism in 1928, two years before he founded the Soka Gakkai, and Mr. Toda followed him in embracing faith in Buddhism soon after. Like Nichiren, they dedicated themselves to the happiness of ordinary people struggling to live their lives.
During World War II, however, they found themselves facing persecutions when they resisted the currents of Japanese militarist fascism and criticized the state’s use of Shinto to spiritually unite the Japanese people behind the war effort. They were arrested and imprisoned as a result. In 1944, Mr. Makiguchi died in prison from extreme malnutrition. He was 73 at the time of his death. Mr. Toda emerged from prison to rebuild the organization amid the devastation of defeat.
But it wasn’t just the military government that opposed the Soka Gakkai’s message of peace and radical inclusion, correct? That’s right. During the almost seven centuries since his death, Nichiren’s Buddhism had become desensitized to the interests and concerns of the common people. At times it had even been interpreted as a highly nationalistic teaching. Mr. Makiguchi rediscovered Nichiren Buddhism as a religion dedicated to the happiness of ordinary people. He sought to promote such happiness, starting at the foundations of society, by reforming educational practices in Japan. With time, his goals expanded to include sharing the practice with people from all walks of life as a means of transforming the lives of ordinary people and thus society itself.
Didn’t Nichiren Buddhism also unite behind the war effort, as required by the government, like virtually all other schools of Japanese Buddhism? During Japan’s years of militarist madness, the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood, with which Makiguchi was associated, gave in to pressure from the political authorities. For example, they agreed to modify or delete passages from the writings of Nichiren that were considered problematic by the authorities. In contrast, Mr. Makiguchi upheld the original intent of Nichiren Buddhism—a humanistic dedication to the happiness of ordinary people—and died in prison as a result.