Nichiren (1222-1282) was a Japanese Buddhist monk and the founder of the Nichiren sect of Buddhism. He was one of the protagonists of the "new Buddhism" of the Kamakura Period (1185-1333).

Nichiren (日蓮), also known as Nichiren Daishōnin (日蓮大聖人), was born in the seaside village of Kominato in Awa Province (nowadays part of Kamogawa in Chiba Prefecture) where his father probably worked as an overseer of an estate. At the age of 12, he was sent to a nearby Tendai temple, Seichō-ji (清澄寺), also known as Kiyozumi-dera Temple, for his education. From the outset of his studies, he felt doubt about the beliefs of Pure Land Buddhism and prayed to Kokūzō Bosatsu (虚空蔵菩薩), an esoteric bodhisattva enshrined at Seichō-ji. Nichiren was ordained at the age of 16 as Zeshōbō Renchō (是生房蓮長) and embarked on a journey to the major centres of Buddhist studies in the Kansai area (Hieizan, Miidera, and Kōyasan) from where he returned in 1253.

Nichiren's early works show an inclination to the esoteric teachings of the Tendai and the Shingon sects, growing faith in the Lotus Sutra (南無妙法蓮華經 Myōhō Renge Kyō), one of the most venerated scriptures of Mahāyāna Buddhism, and a strong dislike of Pure Land Buddhism.

Move to Kamakura

The day Nichiren started to preach against the Jōdō and Zen sects at Seichō-ji, the 2 June 1253, is regarded as the founding of the Nichiren sect. His denunciations stirred a conflict with Tōjō Kagenobu (東条景信), the steward of Tōjō village and a devout follower of Jōdō, over the control of the temple. In the following year, Nichiren was banned from Awa Province and settled in Kamakura. There, he turned away from his esoteric beliefs, gradually embracing early Tendai teaching. He believed increasingly in the supremacy of the Lotus Sutra with its doctrine of universal salvation and in Buddha Shakyamuni.

Despite his dislike of the Jōdō sect, Nichiren was probably inspired by its practice of the Nembutsu, the invocation of the name of Buddha Amida as a means of securing birth in the Western paradise when he developed the practice called daimoku (題目, "title"), a chanting invocation of the phrase Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō ("I take my refuge in the Lotus Sutra"). The daimoku affirms the devotee's belief, brings salvation and - according to Nichiren - contains all the merits of all the scriptures and virtues of the Buddha. At the same time, he established his early concept of blasphemy (unbelief in the Lotus Sutra). Even silence or tolerance in the face of blasphemy was seen as complicity in the sin.

Based on these ideas, Nichiren completed his "Treatise on Pacifying the State by Establishing True Buddhism" (立正安国論 Risshō Ankoku Ron) in 1260. He blamed the Jōdō sect for recent calamities and disasters and urged its suppression; elsewise more tragedies such as uprisings and foreign invasions would strike. He presented his treatise to Hōjō Tokiyori (北条時頼, 1227-1263), the fifth shikken (regent) of the Kamakura shogunate, but drew no official response. An angry backlash from the followers of other Buddhist sects forced Nichiren to flee. In 1261, he was exiled to the Izu Peninsula.

First banishment to Izu

Not much is known about his time in Izu. His surviving works from that period show increasing doubts in esoteric Buddhism and the perception of being the persecuted ascetic (行者 gyōja) of the Lotus Sutra. In 1263, Nichiren was released from Izu and returned to Kamakura. He travelled to Awa in 1264, where his old archenemy Tōjō Kagenobu almost succeeded in having him assassinated. For a few years, he preached in other provinces and returned to Kamakura in 1268. In the same year, the first Mongolian embassy arrived in Japan and convinced him that his predictions of foreign invasions made in the Risshō Ankoku Ron might fulfil themselves. He increased his attacks on the Jōdō and the Shingon sects as well as Zen Buddhism and even denounced Ninshō (忍性, 1217-1303), a prominent priest of the Ritsu sect. His fanatic behaviour and the arming of his followers led to Nichiren's arrest. They almost resulted in his execution in September 1271: according to legend, or rather Nichiren's own account, he was brought to Tatsunukuchi Beach in Shichirigahama for execution, when some bright celestial phenomenon startled the executioner, and his life was spared.

Second banishment to Sado

After a few weeks of arrest, Nichiren was banished to Sado Island. Deserted by most of his followers, he and a few of his former disciples moved into a small local temple, Konpon Temple (根本寺), where they lived under dire circumstances. Despondent and expecting his imminent death, Sado marked a critical point in his religious life characterised by several apologetic works, such as the Kaimoku Shō (開目抄, "Opening the Eyes") written as a testament to his followers, and Kanjin no Honzon Shō (観心本尊抄, "The Object of Devotion for Observing the Mind"). During this time, Nichiren specifically began to identify his life with two bodhisattvas mentioned in the Lotus Sutra: Jōfukyō (常不軽, Skt: Sadāparibhūta) who was persecuted for his preaching, and Jōgyō (上行, Skt: Viśiṣṭacāritra), two of the four great perfected bodhisattvas who attend Gautama Buddha and protect the Lotus Sutra and its devotees.

Around this time, Nichiren started to defend his long-standing tactic of shakubuku (折伏, "brake and subdue"), the aggressive critique of others' blasphemies that even some of his followers viewed with suspicion and that had led to Nichiren's banishment. Nichiren retorted that his policy of shakubuku was more appropriate in the age of mappō (末法), the degenerate age of dharma, than shōju (摂受, "gather and accept"), a more tolerant policy of accepting the relative truth in other teachings as a basis for conversion.

While still on Sado, Nichiren began to compose his first calligraphic mandala written in Chinese characters and arranging Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and other deities around the daimoku of the Lotus Sutra. He distributed these mandalas to his most faithful followers as objects of worship and amulets. About 100 of his original mandalas have survived to this day. Around 1271-72, his situation in Sado improved: he had gained new converts and achieved success in debating local monks. In 1272, some of his disciples regrouped and visited him on the island. This new optimism is reflected in one of Nichiren's most sophisticated works, Kanshin Honzon Shō (観心本尊抄, "The Spiritual Introspection of the Supreme Beings"), composed for his inner circle of disciples in 1273. So successful was his missionary work in Sado that his adversaries attempted to suppress his local following. The efforts to secure Nichiren's release finally paid off: he was released on 14 February 1274 and left the island in March.

Return to Kamakura and retirement to Minobu

Nichiren contended that Hōjō Tokimune (北条時宗, 1251-1284), the eighth shikken (regent), had intervened on his behalf, following the accuracy of his predictions; however, it is more likely that some of his followers had used their connections to arrange for his release. When summoned by the shogunate and asked about the next Mongolian invasion, he again tried to persuade the government that only the adoption of his faith could repel the Mongols, but to no avail. In May 1274, he left Kamakura deeply disappointed. Travelling through Kai Province (modern-day Yamanashi Prefecture), he had learned from Nambu Sanenaga (南部井実, 1222–1297), a magistrate in southern Kai who had converted to Nichiren's sect in 1269, that several of his staunch supporters had held out in the mountains of the province. Nichiren settled in Minobu, where he remained until his death eight years later.

In Minobusan, Nichiren was surrounded by many of his disciples. He stayed in contact with his growing number of followers, many of whom were subject to persecution, by prolific and voluminous correspondence. This tight network of correspondents allowed Nichiren to stay well-informed on political events and helped him share his views and teachings with his followers. His writings from that period attacked Tendai representatives, especially later esoteric writers like Ennin (圓仁, 793-864). They showed a great interest in Buddhist history and in depicting his own role in it. He carved out the shika-no-kakugen (四箇の格言), the four maxims of denouncing other sects: (1) reciting the name of Amida leads to everlasting hell, (2) followers of Zen are devils, (3) Shingon will be the ruin of the country, and (4) members of the Ritsu sect are traitors. The daimoku is the quintessential expression of the Lotus Sutra teachings.

Nichiren summarised the core principles of his teachings in the Three Great Secret Laws (三大秘法 sandai-hihō):
  1. the chief object of worship (本尊 honzon) is defined either as Shākyamuni Buddha or the impersonal truth itself. It is a ritual drawing showing the name of the Lotus Sutra surrounded by the names of divinities mentioned in the sutra.
  2. the daimoku, the "title" of the Lotus Sutra.
  3. the place of ordination (戒壇 kaidan) as the sacred place where one chants the daimoku.

Nichiren had always believed in the inevitability of a successful Mongol invasion of Japan which he considered a suitable punishment for the unbelief in his teachings. The failure of both invasions (1279 and 1281) was a source of great disappointment to him. In Minobu, he finished two works, the Senji Shō (撰時抄, "The Selection of the Time") and the Hōon Shō (報恩抄, "Repaying Debts of Gratitude") which constitute, along with Risshō Ankoku Ron (立正安国論), Kaimoku Shō (開目抄), and Kanjin no Honzon Shō (観心本尊抄), Nichiren's five major writings.


After years of illness, his followers convinced him to travel to the hot springs of Hitachi (in present-day northern Ibaraki Prefecture) to cure his ailments. Nichiren left Minobu in October 1282 but died in the presence of several of his disciples in Ikegami (in Ōta Ward of modern Tōkyō) on 13 October. His ashes were returned to Minobu on 25 October.


Apparently, Nichiren's views on salvation changed in his later years. While he identified with Pure Land in his earlier years and never completely gave up on the principle of Sokushin jōbutsu (即身成仏, "Becoming a Buddha in one's present body") as propagated by the Tendai and Shingon schools, he later emphasized future rebirth in Ryōzen jōdo (霊山浄土), the Pure Land of the Eagle Peak, an idealisation of Mt. Gridhrakūta where the Lotus Sutra was preached.

Nichiren has remained a controversial figure to this day and many of his teachings have been distorted by his adversaries. H.G. Lamont outlines Nichiren's achievements as follows:

His own loyalty was ultimately to the transcendent truths of the Lotus Sutra to which the political order was supposed to conform. His religion, a fusion of several elements of old and new Buddhism (with an increasing preponderance of the latter), was upheld by his magnetic personality and clearly filled a need among lower-level warriors, from whom he drew many of his followers and who saw in him a master, not unlike their military leaders. His frequently intemperate language and reputation as a fanatic must be balanced against his scholarship and genuine concern for his followers.



  • Deal, William E., Ruppert, Brian, A Cultural History of Japanese Buddhism, Wiley-Blackwell 2015
  • Lamont, H.G., Nichiren, Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan, Vol. 5., 1983
  • Sato, Hiroo, Habito, Ruben, Nichiren's View of Nation and Religion, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies. 26/3-4: 307–323, 1999
  • Stone, Jacqueline I., Review article: Biographical Studies of Nichiren, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies. 26/3–4, 1999
  • Stone, Jacqueline I., Original enlightenment and the transformation of medieval Japanese Buddhism, University of Hawai'i Press 2003
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