On this date in 1253 Nichiren, a Japanese Buddhist monk, chanted Nam Myoho Renge Kyo publicly for the very first time and declares it to be the essence of Buddhism, thus establishing the sect of Nichiren Buddhism. Nichiren (日蓮) (April 6, 1222 – November 21, 1282) lived during the Kamakura period (1185–1333) and taught devotion to the Lotus Sutra (entitled Myōhō-Renge-Kyō in Japanese)— which contained Gautama Buddha’s teachings towards the end of his life — as the exclusive means to attain enlightenment. Nichiren believed that this sutra contained the essence of all of Gautama Buddha’s teachings related to the laws of cause and effect, karma, and leading all people without distinction to enlightenment. This devotion to the sutra entails the chanting of Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō (referred to as daimoku) as the essential practice of the teaching.
Nichiren Buddhism includes various schools such as Nichiren Shōshū, Nichiren Shu and lay movements such as Risshō Kōsei Kai or Soka Gakkai , each claiming to be the only true follower of their founder, with their own interpretations of Nichiren’s teachings. However, despite the differences between schools, all Nichiren sects share the fundamental practice of chanting daimoku. While all Nichiren Buddhist schools regard him as a reincarnation of the Lotus Sutra’s Bodhisattva Superior Practices, Jōgyō Bosatsu (上行菩薩), some schools of Nichiren Buddhism’s Nikkō lineages regard him as the actual Buddha of this age, or the Buddha of the Latter day of the Law and for all eternity.
Nichiren was born on February 16, 1222 in the village of Kominato (today part of the city of Kamogawa), Nagase District, Awa Province (within present-day Chiba Prefecture). Nichiren’s father, a fisherman, was Mikuni-no-Tayu Shigetada, also known as Nukina Shigetada Jiro (d. 1258) and his mother was Umegiku-nyo (d. 1267). On his birth, his parents named him Zennichimaro (善日麿?) which has variously been translated into English as “Splendid Sun” and “Virtuous Sun Boy” among others. The exact site of Nichiren’s birth is believed to be submerged off the shore from present-day Kominato-zan Tanjō-ji (小湊山 誕生寺), a temple in Kominato that commemorates Nichiren’s birth. In his own words, Nichiren stated that he was “the son of a chandala family who lived near the sea in Tojo in Awa Province, in the remote countryside of the eastern part of Japan.”
Nichiren began his Buddhist study at a nearby temple of the Tendai school, Seichō-ji (清澄寺, also called Kiyosumi-dera), at age 11. He was formally ordained at 16 and took the Buddhist name Zeshō-bō Renchō (Rencho meaning Lotus Growth). He left Seichō-ji shortly thereafter to study in Kamakura and several years later traveled to western Japan for more in-depth study in the Kyoto–Nara area, where Japan’s major centers of Buddhist learning were located. In 1233 he went to Kamakura, where he studied Amidism—a pietistic school that stressed salvation through the invocation of Amida (Amitābha), the Buddha of infinite compassion—under the guidance of a renowned master. After having persuaded himself that Amidism was not the true Buddhist doctrine, he passed to the study of Zen Buddhism, which had become popular in Kamakura and Kyōto. He then went to Mount Hiei, the cradle of Japanese Tendai Buddhism, where he found the original purity of the Tendai doctrine corrupted by the introduction and acceptance of other doctrines, especially Amidism and esoteric Buddhism. To eliminate any possible doubts, Nichiren decided to spend some time at Mount Kōya, the centre of esoteric Buddhism, and also in Nara, Japan’s ancient capital, where he studied the Ritsu sect, which emphasized strict monastic discipline and ordination. During this time, he became convinced of the pre-eminence of the Lotus Sutra and in 1253, returned to Seichoji.
On April 28, 1253, he expounded Nam-Myōhō-Renge-Kyō for the first time, marking his Sho Tempōrin (初転法輪: “first turning the wheel of the Law”). With this, he proclaimed that devotion and practice based on the Lotus Sutra was the correct form of Buddhism for the current time. At the same time he changed his name to Nichiren, nichi (日) meaning “sun” and ren (蓮) meaning “lotus.” This choice, as Nichiren himself explained, was rooted in passages from the Lotus Sutra.
After making his declaration, which all schools of Nichiren Buddhism regard as marking their foundation (立宗: risshū), Nichiren began propagating his teachings in Kamakura, then Japan’s de facto capital since it was where the shikken (regent for the shogun) and shogun lived and the government was established. He gained a fairly large following there, consisting of both priests and laity. Many of his lay believers came from among the new samurai class (that is, samurai drawn from the peasant class and not the nobility) .
Among other things, in 1253 Nichiren predicted the Mongol invasions of Japan: a prediction which was validated in 1274. Nichiren viewed his teachings as a method of efficaciously preventing this and other disasters: that the best countermeasure against the degeneracy of the times and its associated disasters was through the activation of Buddha-nature by chanting and the other practices which he advocated.
Nichiren then engaged in writing, publishing various works including his Risshō Ankoku Ron (立正安国論?): “Treatise On Establishing the Correct Teaching for the Peace of the Land” his first major treatise and the first of three remonstrations with government authorities. He felt that it was imperative for the sovereign to recognize and accept the only true and correct form of Buddhism (i.e., 立正: risshō) and the only way to achieve peace and prosperity for the land and its people and end their suffering (i.e., 安国: ankoku). This “true and correct form of Buddhism”, as Nichiren saw it, entailed regarding the Lotus Sutra as the fullest expression of the Buddha’s teachings and putting those teachings into practice. Nichiren thought this could be achieved in Japan by withdrawing lay support so that the deviant monks would be forced to change their ways or revert to laymen to prevent starving. Based on prophecies made in several sutras, Nichiren attributed the occurrence of the famines, disease, and natural disasters (especially drought, typhoons, and earthquakes) of his day to teachings of Buddhism no longer appropriate for the time.
Nichiren submitted his treatise in July 1260. Though it drew no official response, it prompted a severe backlash, especially from among priests of other Buddhist schools. Nichiren was harassed frequently, several times with force, and often had to change homes. Nichiren was exiled to the Izu peninsula in 1261, and pardoned in 1263. He was ambushed and nearly killed at Komatsubara in Awa Province in November 1264.
The following several years were marked by successful propagation activities in eastern Japan that generated more resentment among rival priests and government authorities. After one exchange with the influential priest, Ryōkan (良観), Nichiren was summoned for questioning by the authorities in September 1271. He used this as an opportunity to make his second government remonstration. This time to Hei no Saemon (平の左衛門, also called 平頼綱: Taira no Yoritsuna), a powerful police and military figure issued the summons.
Two days later, on September 12, Hei no Saemon and a group of soldiers abducted Nichiren from his hut at Matsubagayatsu, Kamakura. Their intent was to arrest and behead him. According to Nichiren’s account, an astronomical phenomenon — “a brilliant orb as bright as the moon” — over the seaside Tatsunokuchi execution grounds terrified Nichiren’s executioners into inaction. The incident is known as the Tatsunokuchi Persecution and regarded as a turning point in Nichiren’s lifetime called Hosshaku kenpon (発迹顕本), translated as “casting off the transient and revealing the true,” or “Outgrowing the provisional and revealing the essential.”
Unsure of what to do with Nichiren, Hei no Saemon decided to banish him to Sado, an island in the Japan Sea known for its particularly severe winters and a place of harsh exile.
This exile, Nichiren’s second, lasted about three years and, though harsh and in the long term detrimental to his health, represents one of the most important and productive segments of his life. While on Sado, he won many devoted converts and wrote two of his most important doctrinal treatises, the Kaimoku Shō (開目抄: “On the Opening of the Eyes”) and the Kanjin no Honzon Shō (観心本尊抄: “The Object of Devotion for Observing the Mind”) as well as numerous letters and minor treatises whose content containing critical components of his teaching.
It was also during his exile on Sado, in 1272, that he inscribed the first Gohonzon (御本尊). This mandala is a visual representation, in Chinese characters, of the Ceremony in the Air. This ceremony is described in the 11th (Treasure Tower) to 22nd (Entrustment) chapters of the Lotus Sutra. Within these chapters it is revealed that all persons can attain Buddhahood in this lifetime and Shakyamuni transfers the essence of the sutra to the Bodhisattvas of the Earth led by Bodhisattva Superior Practices (Jogyo), entrusting them with the propagation of the essence of the sutra in the Latter Day of the Law. For Nichiren, the Gohonzon embodies the eternal and intrinsic Law of Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo, which he identified as the ultimate Law permeating life and the universe.
Nichiren was pardoned in February 1274 and returned to Kamakura in late March. He was again interviewed by Hei no Saemon, who now was interested in Nichiren’s prediction of an invasion by the Mongols. Mongol messengers demanding Japan’s fealty had frightened the authorities into believing that Nichiren’s prophecy of foreign invasion would materialize (which it later did in October of that year. Nichiren, however, used the audience as yet another opportunity to remonstrate with the government.
His third remonstration also went unheeded, and Nichiren—following a Chinese adage that if a wise man remonstrates three times but is ignored, he should leave the country—decided to go into voluntary exile at Mt. Minobu (身延山) in 1274. With the exception of a few short journeys, Nichiren spent the rest of his life at Minobu, where he and his disciples erected a temple, Kuon-ji (久遠寺), and he continued writing and training his disciples. Two of his works from this period are the Senji Shō (撰時抄: “The Selection of the Time”) and the Hōon Shō (報恩抄: “On Repaying Debts of Gratitude”),which, along with his Risshō Ankoku Ron (立正安国論: “On Establishing the Correct Teaching for the Peace of the Land”), Kaimoku Shō (“The Opening of the Eyes”), and Kanjin no Honzon Shō (“The Object of Devotion for Observing the Mind”), constitute his Five Major Writings. He also inscribed numerous Gohonzon for bestowal upon specific disciples and lay believers. Many of these survive today in the repositories of Nichiren temples such as Taiseki-ji (大石寺) in Fujinomiya, Shizuoka Prefecture, which has a particularly large collection that is publicly aired once a year in April.
Nichiren spent his final years writing, inscribing Gohonzon for his disciples and believers, and delivering sermons. In failing health, he was encouraged to travel to hot springs for their medicinal benefits. He left Minobu in the company of several disciples on September 8, 1282. He arrived ten days later at the residence of Ikegami Munenaka, a lay believer who lived in what is now Ikegami, the site is marked by Ikegami Honmon-ji. On September 25 he delivered his last sermon on the Risshō Ankoku Ron, and on October 8 he appointed six senior disciples—Nisshō (日昭), Nichirō (日朗), Nikkō (日興), Nikō (日向), Nichiji (日持), and Nitchō (日頂)—to continue leading propagation of his teachings after his death. Nichiren Shoshu believe that Nichiren designated five senior priests, and one successor, Nikko.
On October 13, 1282, Nichiren died in the presence of many disciples and lay believers. His funeral and cremation took place the following day. His disciple Nikkō left Ikegami with Nichiren’s ashes on October 21, reaching Minobu on October 25. Nichiren’s original tomb is sited, as per his request, at Kuonji on Mt. Minobu.
A large political change occurred in the Kamakura period. Before the Kamakura period, the samurai were guards of the landed estates of the nobility. The nobility lost control of the Japanese countryside and fell under the militaristic rule of the peasant class samurai. A military government was set up in Kamakura in 1192. Once the positions of power had been exchanged, the role of the court banquets changed. Before this period, the court cuisine emphasized flavor and nutrition, but it changed to a highly ceremonial and official role.
The first shogun was Minamoto Yoritomo. He punished other samurai who followed the earlier showy banquet style of the nobility. The shogun banquet was called “ōban(椀飯).” The ōban was attended by military leaders from the provinces. The origin of the ōban was a luncheon on festival days attended by soldiers and guards during the Heian period.
The menu usually consisted of the followings:
pickled plum (umeboshi)
salt and vinegar for flavoring
However towards the end of this period the honzen ryori banquet, a return to elaborate displays, became popular again.
The cuisine of the new samurai class came distinctly from their peasant roots. The meals prepared emphasized simplicity, avoided refinement, ceremony and luxury and shed all Chinese influence.
The Buddhist vegetarian philosophy strengthened during the Kamakura period. It began to spread to the peasants. Those who were involved in the trade of animals which were slaughtered for food or leather were discriminated against. Those who practiced this trade were considered in opposition to the Buddhist philosophy of not taking life. They were thought of as defiled under Shinto philosophy. This discrimination intensified, and eventually led to the creation of a separate caste called the burakumin.
A plain dish of rice and pickles is still a popular breakfast in Japan. Once when I was in a simple ryokan (guest house) in Uji, center of green tea production, I was sitting at my laptop in the dining area in the early morning and the owner brought me rice and pickles – unasked !! Now rice and pickles is a common staple for me.
One day I will write a post on the different forms of rice and methods of cooking in Asia. All regions have their own styles (and methods of serving and eating). Japanese rice is shorter grained and glutinous, either polished or unpolished. Uruchi mai is the most common kind of Japanese rice used today. Most of the Japonica rice for sale in the U.S. is grown in California, where the method is dry planting instead of flooded fields, so the quality is a bit different, but acceptable.
I use a rice cooker, so it’s straightforward to make perfect rice every time, and keep it warm for the duration of a meal. Otherwise cook it in the traditional way. Wash the rice in a sieve under cold running water until the water becomes clear. Place in a heavy pot with an equal quantity of water. Bring to a boil, turn the heat down to a low simmer, and cover with a tight lid. Cook for 20 minutes then turn off the heat and let steam, still covered, for another 20 minutes. There is a real art to doing this which is why I, and millions of Asians, use an electric cooker.
I used to make my own Japanese pickles, which involves preparing a tub of the fermented leftovers from sake production. Something of a chore, although the end results are great. It’s easier to buy the pickles in an Asian market.