Who was Nichiren?

Nichiren Daishonin (1222–1282) was a Japanese Buddhist priest and religious reformer who stressed the teachings of the Lotus Sutra. A firm believer in the unity of faith and social action, he challenged the political and religious order of his day, which favored a wealthy elite with little concern for the challenges faced by ordinary people or the sufferings of the poor. Nichiren taught that attaining Buddhahood in this lifetime was possible for virtually anyone, including women and people with no formal learning or religious instruction, simply by chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo (“Devotion to the Lotus Sutra”) with an attitude of intense devotion and faith.

Nichiren began his career as a Tendai monk on Mt. Hiei. The Tendai tradition holds a comprehensive view of Buddhist doctrine and practice. Therefore Nichiren was able to study all schools of Japanese Buddhism as a young man. In 1253 he declared that only the Lotus contained the complete and perfect teaching of Shakyamuni Buddha. This set Nichiren at odds with the religious and secular powers of his day. In 1260, as a result of his public criticisms of the Pure Land movement, one of the most popular forms of Japanese Buddhism, he was attacked and nearly assassinated— the first of multiple attempts. In 1271 he escaped execution at the last moment when a meteor flashed above the executioner’s head and his captors fled in panic.

Nichiren was persecuted and his teachings were suppressed throughout most of the remainder of his life. His final years were spent in poverty and exile on Mount Minobu, in southcentral Japan, where he wrote a number of his most famous treatises and letters. Many of the latter were addressed to peasants and farmers as a gesture of thanks for food or articles of clothing and contain some of his most profound teachings. It was Nichiren’s concern for the well-being of ordinary people and his belief in their inherent capacity for Buddhahood that most characterize his approach to Buddhism.


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