Nichiren The Original Face of Buddhist Terror

On Tuesday, May 7th, Tenzin Gyasto, the 14th Dalai Lama, told an audience at the University of Maryland,

Really, killing people in the name of religion is unthinkable, very sad. Nowadays even Buddhists are involved in Burma . . . Buddhist monks  . . . destroy Muslim mosques or Muslim families. Really very sad.”

It might surprise you to learn that millions of Buddhists today follow the teachings of a man who openly advocated killing people in the name of religion.

I’m not talking about U Wirathu, the self-proclaimed “Buddhist bin Laden” and leader of a ultra-nationalist Buddhist movement, whom many believe is responsible for inciting anti-Muslim violence in Burma, where, as the NY Times reported on June 21, 2013, “Buddhist lynch mobs have killed more than 200 Muslims and forced more than 150,000 people, mostly Muslims, from their homes . . .” – the man Time Magazine labeled  “The Face of Buddhist Terror” on the cover of their recent Asian edition.

No, not this monk who refers to Muslims as “the enemy” and “mad dogs,” who wraps his twisted message around the idea of “protecting” Buddhism, and appeals to the Burmese people’s nationalist pride, telling them they must think and act as nationalists, for the good of the country, and says “I am proud to be called a radical Buddhist.” [1]

I am referring to Nichiren, a 13th century Japanese priest who promoted a single practice based on the Lotus Sutra, and who declared that the entire nation of Japan should abandon all other forms of Buddhism and take faith in his dharma or suffer dire consequences. Like U Wirathu, Nichiren claimed he was only trying to protect Buddhism and his nation.

There are close to 40 different Nichiren factions currently active in the world, and if the numbers of these “believers” were combined, it would make Nichirenism one of the most followed forms of Buddhism, topped only by Pure Land. One group, the lay organization Soka Gakkai, alone claims to have 12 million members worldwide.


Nichiren’s intolerance and extremism has been almost universally glossed over, minimized by his followers, and by modern Buddhist academia. This “free pass” is regrettable. Convinced of the superiority of the Lotus Sutra, Nichiren taught that all other forms of Buddhism were not only heretical but also invalidated by the Lotus teachings. He predicted that followers of other Buddhist traditions would “invariably fall into the great citadel of the Avichi hell”. [2]

In a letter to a woman named Konichi-bo, Nichiren wrote of an incident in which he was confronted by a number of government officials (who later exiled him to Sado Island),

I attacked the Zen school as the invention of the heavenly devil, and the Shingon school as an evil doctrine that will ruin the nation, and insisted that the temples of the Nembutsu [Pure Land], Zen, and Ritsu priests be burned down and the Nembutsu priests and the others beheaded.” [3]

Today, Nichiren’s followers will argue he really didn’t mean it. However, as Nichiren’s letter continues, ask yourself if this sounds like a man who doesn’t mean what says,

[I] repeated such things morning and evening and discussed them day and night. I also sternly informed [the government official] and several hundred officers that, no matter what punishment I might incur, I would not stop declaring these matters.”

In Senji Sho, “The Selection of the Time”, he tells the same story, this time saying that he told the government official,

Nichiren is the pillar and beam of Japan. Doing away with me is toppling the pillar of Japan! . . . All the Nembutsu and Zen temples, such as Kenchoji, Jufuku-ji, Gokuraku-ji, Daibutsuden, and Choraku-ji, should be burned to the ground, and their priests taken to Yui Beach to have their heads cut off. If this is not done, then Japan is certain to be destroyed!”

Nichiren (1222-1282) described himself as the “son of a fisherman,” medieval Japan’s lowest class. He was educated at a backwater temple that had ties with nembutsu followers within the Sanmon Tendai faction. The temple’s abbot was a nembutsu priest [4]. Nichiren’s lack of a “formal” education and lower-class origins provide some insight into his thinking. Based on scholarship by Yutaka Takagi (Nichiren: sono kodo to shiso, Tokyo: Hyoronsha, 1970), Laurel Rasplica Rodd writes in her biography of Nichiren,

Nichiren’s lowly origins were unique among the religious leaders of the Middle Ages in Japan. Honen, Shinran, Dogen, and Eisai all came from noble or samurai families . . . [At Mt. Hiei, the Japanese center of Buddhist learning] Probably Nichiren was not admitted to the circles of disciples gathered around the famous teachers. Thus while Nichiren could attend public lectures he was forced to draw his own conclusions from scriptures and commentaries as he might not have done had he been directed by one of the masters.” [5]

This might explain how Nichiren when he studied Nagarjuna was unable to appreciate the great philosopher’s warning about grasping for the absolute, and why, as noted by Bruno Petzold [6], even though “Nichiren incorporates into his own system the whole Tendai philosophy,” he could not fathom the subtlety of that school’s doctrine.

Nichiren had convinced himself that the seemingly unprecedented spate of natural disasters befalling Japan, and later, the threat of foreign invasion, was directly attributable to the proliferation of “evil religions”: heretical forms of Buddhism.

Superstition and an mistaken view of Buddhist history, such as the notion that the Buddha was born circa 3000 BCE, that the Buddha directly taught the Mahayana sutras, and the idea of the degenerative age of Mappo (“Latter Day of the Dharma”), contributed to Nichiren’s radical position. And yet, other Buddhist teachers of the same era labored under the same beliefs and misunderstandings and they did not adopt such  extremist views.

Unlike the militants in Burma today, Nichiren had more regard for the “foreign enemy” than he did for his fellow Japanese Buddhists. When Kublai Khan began sending messengers to Japan demanding the nation either pay tribute to him or face invasion, Nichiren wrote, “How pitiful that they have beheaded the innocent Mongol envoys and yet failed to cut off the heads of the priests of the Nembutsu, Shingon, Zen and Ritsu sects, who are the real enemies of our country.” [7]

Reading Nichiren, one is impressed with how at times he could be poetic, tender and wise, and yet a disturbing thread of paranoia and self-aggrandizement permeates his writings:

Now the great earthquake and the huge comet that have appeared are calamities brought about by heaven, which is enraged because the ruler of our country hates Nichiren and sides with the Zen, Nembutsu, and Shingon priests who preach doctrines that will destroy the nation!”

Senji Sho, “The Selection of the Time”

[Among] all the sacred teachings expounded by the Buddha in the course of his lifetime, the Lotus Sutra alone holds the position of absolute superiority.”

Jimyo hokke mondo-sho, “Questions and Answers on Embracing the Lotus Sutras”

I, Nichiren, am sovereign, teacher, and father and mother to all the people of Japan.”

Kaimoko Sho, “Opening of the Eyes”

I, Nichiren, am alone, without a single ally.”

Nanjo Hyoe Shichiro dono gosho, “Letter to Hyoe Shichiro” (“Encouragement to a Sick Person”)

It’s not a matter of taking these statements out of context. These statements are the context. If they were merely isolated remarks that could be excused or rationalized, but these declarations are repeated almost ad nasuem.

Contrary to his claim, Nichiren actually had many supporters and allies, including a great many samurai. Buddhism in Japan, especially during the Kamakura period, was a rather violent affair. Many of the Buddhist sects maintained small armies, and some of the influential teachers had at least a small band of armed warriors about them. Some scholars have suggested Nichiren, too, maintained a small army, and it is not unreasonable to consider. And while there were violent clashes between various Japanese Buddhist sects, as far as I am aware, Nichiren is the only Buddhist leader to actually advocate killing in the name of religion.

On several occasions, Nichiren’s followers were accused of arson, even murder; charges that they denied and blamed on Nembutsu (Pure Land) believers. The counter-charge was that they were framed by people who wanted Nichiren’s downfall. This paranoid sense of persecution still resonates among some contemporary Nichiren followers.

Today, these Nichiren believers will maintain that his radical Buddhism belongs to the past. However, my own experience as member of a Nichiren tradition for 12 years, the experiences of many others I’ve known and spoken with, as well as numerous published anecdotes and documented episodes, all tell a different story. The seeds of Nichiren’s intolerance and extremism continue to ripen and bear fruit.

And that is the point: Buddhist extremists and fundamentalists are not contained merely in one or two Asian countries. They may be in your city, in your neighborhood, down the street, maybe next door to you. They may not be dangerous, and yet, extremism is hardly ever harmless.

More about that next time.

– – – – – – – – – –

[1] Washington Post, June 21, 2013

[2] Yakuo-bon tokui sho, “Essence of the Medicine King Chapter”

[3] Konichibo gosho, “Letter to Konichi-bo”

[4] Alicia and Daigan Matsunaga, Foundations of Japanese Buddhism Vol. II, Buddhist Books International, Los Angeles-Tokyo, 1976; and others.

[5] Rodd, Laurel Rasplica, Nichiren: A Biography, Arizona State University, 1978

[6] Petzold, Bruno, Buddhist Prophet Nichiren: A Lotus in the Sun, Tokyo: Hokke Journal, Inc., 1978

[7] Moko Tsukai Gosho, “Writing on the Mongol Envoys”

All Nichiren quotes taken from SGI versions of these writings found in the Major Writings of Nichiren Daishonin series.


Dylan at Todai-ji

Here is a real video treat to commemorate Bob Dylan’s 72nd birthday today.

BD-GME-1BIn May 1994, Dylan performed at The Great Music Experience, a concert starring Japanese and international musicians staged in front of the 8th century Buddhist temple of Todai-ji, in Nara, Japan. Todai-ji is the headquarters of the Kegon (Huayen or Flower Garland) sect, and is also houses the world’s largest statue of a Buddha, a bronze figure of the Buddha Vairocana, also known as Daibutsu, which you can see in the video below.

The concert, put on in cooperation with UNESCO, was held over three nights (May 20-22) and, in addition to Dylan, featured performances from such people as Joni Mitchell, Jon Bon Jovi, Wayne Shorter, Richie Sambora, The Chieftains, INXS, Ry Cooder, and a host of Japanese singers and musicians.

Bob and Joni Mitchell in the finale.

Dylan’s performance marked the first time he was back by an orchestra, the Tokyo New Philharmonic orchestra, conducted by the late, great Michael Kamen. Bob does three songs, A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, I Shall Be Released, and Ring Them Bells. The video clip also includes the all-star finale, a reprise of I Shall Be Released. Bob’s performance is stellar.

It was reported that when he walked offstage, Bob remarked that he had not sung so well for 15 years. Some months later, Q Magazine wrote, that  A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall was “no ordinary version…[he] really opens his lungs and heart and sings, like he’s not done for many a year…The only word for it majestic.”

Bob passes by Buddhist monks on his way offstage.
Bob passes by Buddhist monks on his way offstage.

You might also notice among Bob’s backing musicians, percussionists Jim Kelter and Ray Collins (of Elton John fame). The music was later mixed by Beatles’ producer, George Martin.

I had never seen this until a few days ago and I found it stunning. Majestic, indeed. Soaring. Beautiful arrangements and orchestrations, Bob singing at his nuanced and melodic best, and a truly magnificent setting. Watch for yourself.

Musicians said the collaborations, however rewarding, were difficult given the differences in musical backgrounds. “The only thing holding us together this evening is the shining Buddha,” said Michael Kamen. (New York Times)

Thanks to, Nothing but Dylan FaceBook page, and hollisbrown000.


Thinking of Sakura

It’s spring now and soon the cherry blossoms will come to Japan. It’s a big deal. The entire nation celebrates with festivals, and viewing parties and picnics, and after dark, the parks always seemed to be filled with strolling couples admiring the trees in the moonlight. The newspapers and the TV news carrying special features each day updating everyone on the “sakura front”, charting the progress of the cherry blossoms as they bloom their way across the country.

To say that the Japanese appreciate the beauty of the sakura is an understatement. I imagine that for many this year they will as excruciatingly poignant as they should be exquisite, for cherry blossoms, which drop from the trees soon after blooming, represent the transient nature of life.

Some Japanese poems on the subject of cherry blossoms . . .

We cannot behold
the beauty of the blossoms
enshrouded by haze –
yet steal us their scent, at least,
spring breezes blowing from the hills.

Yoshimine no Munesada (816-90)

How many times now
have I crossed over hill crests
with the image
of blossoms leading me on –
toward nothing but white clouds?

Fujiwara no Shunzei (1114-1204)

Everyone feels grief
when cherry blossoms scatter.
Might they then be tears –
those drops of moisture falling
in the gentle rains of spring?

Otomo no Juronushi (late 9th century)

The pathway I marked
when last year I made my way
into Yoshino –
I abandon now to visit
blossoms I have not yet seen.

Monk Saigyo (1118-1190)

Thoughts still linger  –
but will those who have parted
return once again?

Evening is deep in the hills
where cherry blossoms fall.

Shinkei (1406-1475)

A fallen blossom
Returning to the bough, I thought –
But no, a butterfly.

Arakida Moritake (1473-1549)

From Traditional Japanese Poetry An Anthology, translated by Steve D. Carter


Erin go Bragh and the Happy Hearts Fund

Ah, it’s St. Patrick’s Day, when anyone can put on some green and be Irish for a day, even Alfred E. Neuman. Whenever I think about my Irish heritage, I am reminded of that great quote by William Butler Yeats:

Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.

Yes, we Irish do have our special charm.

Yesterday’s post included a quote from Petra Nemcova, a survivor of the 2004 tsunami in Thailand. I don’t know how many people clicked on her link, but I thought it deserved special mention.

After her experience in the tsunami, which she survived by clinging to a palm tree for eight hours with a broken pelvis, Ms. Nemcova, a Czech model and television host, founded the Happy Hearts Fund, “a non-profit foundation dedicated to improving children’s lives through educational and sustainable programs in natural disaster areas.”

HHF has directly helped children in several post-disaster areas, including Haiti, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Peru, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Hurricane Katrina-affected areas of the United States. Globally, HHF is active in eight countries and has built/rebuilt 46 schools and kindergartens. Its programs benefit more than 12,000 children and 230,000 community members annually.

As we all deal with the anxiety over the events in Japan and send thoughts of loving-kindness to the victims, we should not forget that in this saha world, money can be a useful tool to help relieve suffering. The Happy Hearts Fund looks like a place where donations are put to wise and effective use. You can check them out here.

However, I think there might be a need for more immediate donations to help those affected by the earthquake in Japan and tsunami throughout the Pacific and the Red Cross is a good place for that. However, if you text your donation, be aware that text donations can be delayed by a month or more, because organizations typically don’t receive the cash from the phone company until after donors pay their bills.

Remember, be as generous as you can, it’s the Irish thing to do.

Erin go Bragh!


A Priest Discusses Earthquakes

I was in a major earthquake once. Not as devastating at this one in Japan, but it was close enough. As I watch the news, I can’t help but think back to the Northridge quake. It is one of the rare times in life when you can say like you know how it feels and come close to meaning it. I also keep thinking about Nichiren, the 13th Century Japanese Buddhist upon whose teachings the Soka Gakkai is based.

Nichiren calming the sea. (Note the title of the Lotus Sutra on the waves.)

Nichiren (Sun-Lotus) was a pretty feisty guy. Opinionated, stubborn, hard to get along with, didn’t play well with others. Not your typical laidback Buddhist priest. I believe he was largely self-educated, especially in regards to Buddhist doctrine; a Tendai priest who became a street preacher. His was an outlaw sect. Later on, he probably had a small army around him. Most of Buddhist sects in Japan at that time did. Japanese Buddhism has gone through some violent periods.

Nichiren’s claim was that the Lotus Sutra was the supreme sutra, the one and only sutra, and all other Buddhist teachings were dangerous. Here’s his famous declaration from Senji-sho or “The Selection of the Time”:

There can be no doubt that the Nembutsu [Pure Land Buddhism] leads to the hell of incessant suffering, and that the Zen school is the work of the heavenly devil. And the True Word [Shingon] school in particular is a great plague to this nation of ours.

He once said that the priests of other schools should have their heads lopped off. Definitely not a inter-faith kind of guy. Nichiren believed that since Japan had turned its back on the Lotus Sutra, it had invited disaster. In the same work quoted above, he says,

Now the great earthquake and the huge comet that have appeared are calamities brought about by heaven, which is enraged because the ruler of our country hates Nichiren and sides with the Zen, Nembutsu, and True Word priests who preach doctrines that will destroy the nation!

Nichiren lived during a period when Japan was hit with a series of natural disasters. He thought he knew what lay behind it. In “A Sage Perceives the Three Existences of Time”, he says,

The entire populace of Japan has in fact [slandered Nichiren and] had their heads broken. What else do you think caused the great earthquake of the Shoka era [1257] and the huge comet of the Bun’ei era [1264]?

Yes, Nichiren thought he was the one all right. But here, from “Letter to Akimoto”, is my all-time favorite:

I, Nichiren, am like the great earthquake of the Shoka era (1257), a freak of the earth that had never before occurred in this land.

Well, he might have been a freak, or maybe the person who chose the wording of that line should have had their head broken.

In 1268, Nichiren warned that if Japan did not see things his way, the country would face foreign invasion by the Mongols. He was so acrimonious about it that he was sentenced to death, a penalty later rescinded in favor of exile. The Mongols did try to invade Japan but their fleet was destroyed by a typhoon-like “divine wind,” which is where the Japanese term kamikaze comes from.

Anyway, in light of recent events, I thought some readers might find this interesting. Nichiren was a superstitious, like most people in medieval times, and he believed in a lot of nonsense. Unfortunately, he built his entire doctrine on that nonsense. In all fairness, he wasn’t a total freak. At times, he could be quite poetic, and when he wasn’t self-aggrandizing or being overly dogmatic about the Lotus Sutra, he could make a rather good point. As in this passage from “Letter to Niike”:

How swiftly the days pass! It makes us realize how short are the years we have left. Friends enjoy the cherry blossoms together on spring mornings and then they are gone, carried away like the blossoms by the winds of impermanence, leaving nothing but their names. Although the blossoms have scattered, the cherry trees will bloom again with the coming of spring, but when will those people be reborn? The companions with whom we composed poems praising the moon on autumn evenings have vanished with the moon behind the shifting clouds. Only their mute images remain in our hearts. The moon has set behind the western mountains, yet we shall compose poetry under it again next autumn. But where are our companions who have passed away? Even when the approaching Tiger of Death roars, we do not hear. How many more days are left to the sheep bound for slaughter?

Deep in the Snow Mountains lives a bird called Kankucho which, tortured by the numbing cold, cries that it will build a nest in the morning. Yet, when the day breaks, it sleeps away the hours in the warm light of the morning sun without building its nest. So it continues to cry vainly throughout its life. The same is true of people. When they fall into hell and suffocate in its flames, they long to be reborn as humans and vow to put everything else aside and serve the three treasures in order to attain enlightenment in their next life. But even on the rare occasions when they happen to be reborn human, the winds of fame and fortune blow violently and the lamp of Buddhist practice is easily extinguished. The squander their wealth without a qualm on meaningless trifles but begrudge even the smallest contribution to the Buddha, the Law, and the Priest. This is very serious, for then they are being hindered by messengers from hell. This is the meaning of “Good by the inch invites evil by the yard.

Nichiren quotes: