It was a thing to be wondered at, mused Nichiren, to be dying in bed at the age of sixty-one, surrounded by disciples and lay followers. He had been certain, more than ten years before, that he would be spared the agonies of old age, starvation, and illness by the sudden stroke of an executioner’s blade. Would he have felt the cut? Would there have been a moment of searing pain and disorientation as his head fell away? Would his eyes have been able to look back upon his body lying upon the beach, his ears hear the cries of his followers, his mind understand that his sacrifice for the sake of the Lotus Sūtra was complete before his spirit fled? Or would he have instantly found himself among the assembly of the ongoing Ceremony in the Air at the Pure Land of Eagle Peak?
It was in the middle of the afternoon on the twelfth of the ninth month of the eighth year of the Bun’ei era (1271), two days after being brought before the Council of State, when Hei no Saemon led several hundred foot soldiers clad in dō-maru armor, a light lamellar cuirass and skirt, and ebōshi, black cloth hats, with naginata in hand and tachi swords at their sides. As they burst onto the grounds of the hermitage their eyes glared and they shouted angrily for everyone to submit to arrest. All present were astounded, for the amount of force arrayed against Nichiren and the dozen or so monks at the hermitage was far larger in scale than previous arrests of suspected conspirators over the past two decades. It was clear that they suspected Nichiren not simply of predicting domestic disturbance but of actively fomenting rebellion against the Hōjō regency.
Nichiren and his six main disciples and other monks who had been listening to a lecture on the sūtra presented themselves on the veranda of the hermitage. Nichiren looked upon the outrageous show of force and said to his disciples, “The time has come to fulfill my wish. I am overjoyed. From the eternal past down to the present, I have sometimes lost my life in vain, but not even once for the sake of the Lotus Sūtra. Now I shall be beheaded on account of the sūtra, succeeding the Venerable Āryasimha, the last patriarch of Buddhism who also gave his life for the Dharma. My merit of propagating the Lotus Sūtra will be more than that of the great masters Tiantai and Dengyō. My name will be added to the list of twenty-five patriarchs of the True Dharma and the list will be changed to include twenty-six names. My practice will be more meritorious than that of Never Despising Bodhisattva. Śākyamuni Buddha, Many Treasure Buddha, and the emanation buddhas of the worlds of the ten directions will not know how to treat me. How lucky I am to be able to sacrifice my life for the sake of the Lotus Sūtra.”
Hei no Saemon strode forward, dressed in the formal robes of his office as the Chief Deputy of the Board of Retainers. “You and all those with you here are under arrest. If you are lucky, you will only be exiled.” He looked over all the monks present and assured himself that no one was armed or likely to resist. He signaled to his vassals and they rushed up the steps onto the veranda. “Take them into custody! Search the grounds!”
Nichiren tucked the fifth fascicle of the Lotus Sūtra that he had been lecturing upon into the front collar of his robes and stepped in front of the oncoming warriors. In a firm voice he spoke over their heads to Hei no Saemon, “As we all know, the rulers of Japan are able to do anything they wish. Yet, in a lawsuit, the rulers should call both sides to a meeting in order to listen to what each will say to the other to come to a judgment. Why is it that in only my case they did not hold such a meeting? Shouldn’t I be allowed to meet in debate against the teachers of the other schools before being sentenced to such a serious punishment? This is nothing but a breach in proper conduct! Even if I were a felon, such illegal treatment would throw the administration of our country into chaos, with peace lost.”
In a rage at Nichiren’s insolence, Shō-bō, a ranking vassal of Hei no Saemon, rushed at him. He snatched the fifth fascicle of the Lotus Sūtra from out of Nichiren’s robes. Like all such scrolls it was wound around a heavy wooden rod. Shō-bō struck him in the face with it again and again before unrolling it and tearing it to pieces. Nichiren was stunned and disoriented, unable to block the blows or take back the scroll. He fell back into the arms of Nisshō and Nichirō. As he regained his senses he looked down upon the scraps of the fascicle that was now being trod under the sandals of the warriors who were storming past him into the hermitage. He suddenly realized, the scroll used to beat him was the very one that contained the words, “Ignorant people will speak ill of us, abuse us, and threaten us with swords or sticks. But we will endure all this.”
Inside the warriors scattered the remaining nine fascicles of the threefold Lotus Sūtra that were upon the lecture stand, stepped on them, wrapped themselves in them, and scattered them all over the straw mats and the wooden floor of the house. Seeing this riotous behavior, Nichiren uttered in a loud voice, “How amazing! Everybody, look at Hei no Saemonnojō Yoritsuna losing his head! He is now going to fell the pillar of Japan! I, Nichiren, am the chief support of Japan! When you kill me, you will cut the pillar of Japan! Before long, there will be a civil war, in which the Japanese people will fight among themselves, and foreign invasion, in which many people in Japan will not only be killed but also captured by foreign invaders. Unless all the temples of the Pure Land and Zen schools such as Kenchōji, Jufukuji, Gokurakuji, Daibutsuji, and Chōrakuji are burned down and their monks all beheaded at Yuigahama Beach, Japan will be bound to be destroyed.”
Hei no Saemon and his vassals as well as Nichiren’s disciples were all struck dumb and astonished. Nichiren had regained his poise, though it was he who was in disgrace in the eyes of the world. The warriors, on the contrary, went pale. They stopped what they were doing, shamefaced and now regretting that in their anger they had torn and scattered one of the sacred sūtras that contained the teachings of the Buddha.
Finally, Hei no Saemon gathered his wits and said, “Still you persist in calling for the burning of temples and the execution of holy monks?”
Nichiren said, “I had a copy of the Treatise on Spreading Peace Throughout the Country by Establishing the True Dharma sent to you, but evidently you did not read it. Still you fail to grasp my true meaning.”
After that things calmed down somewhat. Nichiren and his disciples were bound around the upper arms and chest and marched like criminals to the government offices where they were kept under guard in a courtyard until that evening. Nichiren was set upon a mat before the steps leading into the building while Hei no Saemon sat at the top of the steps. He looked down upon Nichiren and interrogated him once more. Nichiren refused to recant any of what he had said in the previous interview. He explained in detail to Hei no Saemon that the Mantra school was an evil teaching that would destroy the country, that Zen Buddhism was a false teaching of heavenly devils, that nembutsu leads to the Hell of Incessant Suffering, and that the proof of the lack of power of those who followed teachings other than the Lotus Sūtra could be seen in the failure of Ryōkan’s prayer for rain. While listening to this, Hei no Saemon sometimes scornfully laughed and other times got fiercely angry. Unable to defend Ryōkan’s failure, Hei no Saemon ended the interrogation in disgust.
Sometime around midnight it was announced that Nichiren was to be taken into custody by Hōjō Nobutoki, the Lord of Musashi Province, to await exile to some distant region. Though unbound, he was set upon a saddleless horse. Accompanied by Hei no Saemon and his vassals, both foot soldiers and mounted warriors, he was paraded as a prisoner in front of the Tsurugaoka Hachiman Shrine. In the streets of Kamakura, despite the late hour, the followers of Ryōkan and other slanderers of the True Dharma whom Nichiren had denounced came out to point, laugh, and jeer as the procession passed by.
They had told Nichiren that he was being taken to the home of Homma Shigetsura, one of Hōjō Nobutoki’s vassals. However, the road they were taking was not the way to Echi, where Shigetsura’s manor was located, but to the execution grounds upon the beach at Tatsunokuchi, the Dragon’s Mouth. The public sentence may have been exile, but it was quite evident that Hei no Saemon intended to execute him that night.
When they came to the crossing of the bridge over Young Prince Avenue that passed in front of the Tsurugaoka Hachiman Shrine, Nichiren stopped his horse. This was the place where one would have to dismount in any case to show respect to the Great Bodhisattva Hachiman, but Hei no Saemon’s vassals clustered around Nichiren warning him not to cause any trouble. He said to them, “Keep quiet, I have nothing special in my mind except that I want to speak to the Great Bodhisattva Hachiman.”
Nichiren dismounted, turned north to face the shrine, and in a resounding voice declared, “Great Bodhisattva Hachiman, are you truly a god? In ancient times, when Wake no Kiyomaro was about to be beheaded at the order of the corrupt monk Dōkyō, did you not protect Kiyomaro by appearing as a ten foot wide moon? When the Great Master Dengyō lectured on the Lotus Sūtra, did you not present him with a purple kesa? Now I, Nichiren, am the foremost practitioner of the Lotus Sūtra in Japan. Besides, I have committed no wrongdoing whatsoever. What I have been preaching is the doctrine to save all the people in Japan, who are sure to fall into the Hell of Incessant Suffering for slandering the True Dharma, the Lotus Sūtra. Yet, I am about to be beheaded because of it. How can you, bodhisattva, just sit and watch me be executed? When the Great Mongol Empire invades this country after I am put to death, will even such guardian deities of Japan as Amaterasu Ōmikami and Great Bodhisattva Hachiman be safe?
“Moreover, when Śākyamuni Buddha taught the Lotus Sūtra, Many Treasures Buddha, various buddhas and bodhisattvas from all the worlds in the ten directions gathered together and arranged themselves so that they shone like suns, moons, stars, and mirrors. Then the Buddha asked numerous gods as well as virtuous deities and sages of India, China, and Japan to take an oath to protect practitioners of the Lotus Sūtra. Each of them wrote such an oath, did they not? If this was the case, you ought to immediately carry out what you swore without any reminders. Why don’t you appear right here to prove your sincerity?”
After a pause, he added, “Upon arriving at the Pure Land of Eagle Peak after being beheaded tonight, I will, without hesitation, first report to Śākyamuni Buddha that Amaterasu Ōmikami and Great Bodhisattva Hachiman are two deities who do not keep their pledges. If you feel at a loss, you had better reconsider and act quickly.”
Having spoken these things, Nichiren got back on his horse. Hei no Saemon and his vassals were speechless. Who would dare to chastise the Great Bodhisattva Hachiman in such a way? Surely, this monk was not in his right mind. The warriors murmured, fearful of even being in the presence of such a madman and blasphemer, lest the ground crack open to swallow him up and perhaps anyone else who happened to be standing too close.
They proceeded along the beach. In front of Goryō Shrine, Nichiren told the escorting soldiers, “Please stop for awhile. Here, I have a person to whom I want to inform about this matter.” A boy named Kumaō-maru was then dispatched to the home of Shijō Kingo, who lived nearby.
Shijō Kingo and three of his brothers rushed to join the procession. Nichiren saw that they were all barefoot, having run out of their home so fast they had not even stopped to put on their sandals. Because of his standing as a samurai who was a retainer of one of the vassals of the Hōjō clan, Shijō Kingo was allowed to accompany Nichiren. He took hold of the bridle of the horse Nichiren rode and led it himself.
“What is happening? What is this?” Shijō Kingo stammered.
Nichiren told him, “I am going to be beheaded tonight. This is what I have been longing for the past several years. In past lives I was born in this Sahā world many times. Sometimes I was born as a pheasant only to be captured by a hawk; and other times as a rat only to be eaten by a cat. Even when I was born a human being, I lost my life for my wife and children, and to my enemies, more often than the number of particles of the great earth without sacrificing my life for the sake of the Lotus Sūtra even once. As a result, I was born to this world as a poor monk unable to serve my parents as much as I would like and repay what I owe to my country. This is the time for me to dedicate my head to the Lotus Sūtra and present its merit to my parents and what is left to my disciples and followers. This is what I have been saying these days and it will become a reality tonight.”
Shijō Kingo burst into tears. When he could finally speak he said, “If you are to die tonight then I will commit seppuku and follow you in death, right here upon this beach.”
The procession stopped. They had arrived at the Dragon’s Mouth. The warriors began to mill around in excitement. Some of them set up a camp curtain around the perimeter of the place of execution. A straw mat was laid down for the condemned monk while a folding chair was set out for Hei no Saemon to sit upon while he observed the execution. A brazier was set in place to provide light. A fierce wind blew in from Sagami Bay, causing the camp curtains to billow. Lightning flashed over the waters of the bay. The crash of thunder joined the roaring of the breakers.
Nichiren was taken to the mat and made to kneel. Holding his juzu before him he put his hands in the añjali mudrā and began to chant, “Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō, Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō…” The executioner took up his position behind Nichiren and drew his sword.
Shijō Kingo, standing by the curtain with his brothers and still holding the reins of the horse began to cry, saying, “The last moment has come!”
Nichiren turned to Shijō Kingo and his brothers and said, “How cowardly you all are! You should be laughing at such a wonderful occasion as this when I am going to present my malodorous head to the Lotus Sūtra. It will be like exchanging sand for gold or pebbles for jewels. Why do you break the promise you had made?”
Nichiren resumed chanting the daimoku. The executioner forced Nichiren to lower his head and then raised his sword. The storm was making him nervous. It was not a wise thing to be holding a naked blade upon a beach with lightning flashing overhead. Executing a monk, even one as mad as this one, was also tempting fate. The executioner looked to Hei no Saemon, waiting for the order to strike. Did the Deputy Chief really dare to go through with this?
Just at that moment, something shining like the moon flew like a ball from Enoshima Island, going from southeast to northwest. It was still before daybreak and was so dark that faces could not be seen clearly. However, the night was so brightened by the shining object that all present were able to see each other as clearly as on a moonlit night. The executioner dropped his sword and fell to the ground as though blinded. The other warriors became frightened. Some ran out of the perimeter of the tent, others dismounted from horses and squatted down on the ground, while others remained stiff on horseback.
In chanting the daimoku, the power of the whole sūtra and all its protectors had been invoked. Who had sent that ball of lightning across the sky at just that moment? Perhaps it had been World Voice Perceiver Bodhisattva, of whom the Buddha sang in the verses of chapter twenty-five of the Lotus Sūtra, “Suppose you are sentenced to death, and the sword is drawn to behead you. If you think of the power of World Voice Perceiver, the sword will suddenly break asunder.”
Nichiren shouted, “Why do you stay away from a felon like me? Come back here quickly!” None of them, however, were anxious to come near the mad monk who now also seemed to be under divine protection. “Daybreak is coming very soon; what can you do if it gets light? If you have to kill me, do it right away. It would be unsightly if you wait until daylight.”
Not even Hei no Saemon dared to respond.