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.

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[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.