Writings of Nichiren Shōnin Doctrine 2, pp. 162-164
Two Nichiren Texts, pp. 111-113
The Writings of Nichiren Daishōnin I, pp. 375-376
As Kanjin Honzon-shō comes to a close, Nichiren cites a passage from Saicho’s (767-822; known posthumously as Dengyō) Outstanding Principles of the Lotus Sūtra, in which that founding patriarch of the Tendai School described the current age as one beset by war and strife. Nichiren agrees, writing, “The time of ‘war and strife’ in this citation refers to two current problems facing Japan: domestic disturbance and the Mongol invasion of western Japan.” (Hori, p. 163) Nichiren had predicted these two calamities in his earlier writing the Risshō Ankoku-ron (Treatise on Spreading Peace Throughout the Country by Establishing the True Dharma). In that work he quoted from The Sutra of Golden Light (or Sutra of Golden Splendor, The Great Collection Sutra (or Sutra of the Great Assembly, The Benevolent Kings Sutra, and The Medicine King Sutra to make the case that natural and man-made disasters would strike a country whose rulers failed to protect the Dharma. From those four sutras Nichiren derived his prediction that Japan would face invasion from without and civil war from within. At the time of writing Kanjin Honzon-shō, Nichiren felt that his predictions had been fulfilled.
On January 18, 1268, envoys from Kublai Khan (1215-1294), the Mongol emperor of northern China and Korea, arrived in Japan with a letter requesting that Japan acknowledge Kublai Khan as the new emperor of China by sending him yearly tribute or else incur the displeasure of the Mongols. The imperial court took this as an invasion threat, but the shogunate refused to respond to it. Nevertheless, panic swept the nation for several months. Over the next several years more envoys came from the Mongol empire. They were also ignored. No one knew when an attack would come, but Nichiren felt that it was imminent. The Mongols did in fact attempt to invade Japan in October of 1274 and in May 1281. Both invasion attempts ultimately failed, but even on his deathbed Nichiren in October of 1282 was not convinced that Japan would ever truly be out of danger until its rulers and people turned away from lesser teachings and put their faith in the Lotus Sūtra.
The prediction of civil war came to be fulfilled in February 1272 when the regent Hōjō Tokimuni had to quell an attempt to overthrow him led by his elder half-brother Hōjō Tokisuke (1248-1272). Fighting broke out in both Kamakura and Kyoto between different factions of the Hojo clan. In the end, Tokisuke and his co-conspirators were all killed. Dissatisfaction within the Hojo regency continued however, especially because the Hojo vassals did not feel adequately rewarded for their efforts against the Mongol invaders, even as the rulers lavished support on the Shingon and other temples that had claimed credit for the victories due to their prayers and rituals. In 1333 the Emperor Go-Daigo (1288-1339) was able to overthrow the Kamakuran Shogunate by taking advantage of this situation.
Nichiren’s ability to predict foreign invasion and civil war was not based upon any form of psychic power to see the future. Rather, it was the result of reading the sūtras and using the process of elimination to see which disasters they predicted had not yet occurred. Nichiren had a total faith in the sūtras, as they contained the word of the Buddha. Furthermore, Nichiren undoubtedly heard reports of the Mongols conquests in China and Korea, and also must have known about rivalries within the Hōjō regency. Nichiren’s role as a prophet was not due to an ability to forecast future events, but rather with his keen understanding of current events and where they were leading.
In Risshō Ankoku-ron, Nichiren spoke of the disasters that had come (earthquakes, drought, famine, plagues, storms, flooding, and ominous astronomical events such as comets) and those that were to follow (invasion and civil war) in order to warn the Hōjō rulers that they must stop patronizing Pure Land Buddhism and put their faith in the Lotus Sūtra. In Kanjin Honzon-shō, Nichiren claims that these are all signs of the coming of the bodhisattvas from underground. In such a time of civil war and threatened invasion he says, “This is the very time when the original disciples of the Buddha should spring up from underground, attend both sides of the Eternal Buddha revealed in the Original Gate of the Lotus Sūtra, and establish in this land of Japan the supreme focus of devotion in the world.” (Ibid, p. 163) Further on he speaks of the natural disasters.
Now we have had great earthquakes, appearances of comets, and other calamities in recent years. These calamities were not seen in the Age of the Right Teaching of the Buddha or in the Age of the Counterfeit Teaching of the Buddha. These calamities were not caused by garudas, asuras, or dragons. They must be an omen that the four great bodhisattvas will appear [in this country]. (Murano. p 112-113)
Nichiren’s conviction was that all the portentous events happening in Japan in the political and natural realms have reference to the Lotus Sūtra. He wrote, “When the sky is blue, the land is bright, so those who know the Lotus Sūtra can see the reasons for occurrences in the world.” (Hori, p. 164) This view is very alien to us today. Though some might predict national disaster if one or another political party or candidate won a presidential election, few of us would think to blame earthquakes or tornadoes on people’s political, religious, or social views. Of course, there are still religious fundamentalists who would, but in Nichiren’s time the view was much more common even among the educated upper classes. In fact, it was the common assumption among agrarian people that nature and the weather reflected the approval or disapproval of the gods or God, and that the ruler was specifically responsible for keeping the gods or God happy through prayer, morality, and good government. From a Buddhist point of view, the ruler was responsible for upholding the Dharma and it was the gods as well as the bodhisattvas who would ensure that all was well if they did, and the various demons that would take advantage if they did not.
It is a bit disturbing to see that Nichiren is basing his upon the assumption that politics, nature, and even the course of the sun and moon are determined by the ruler’s religious preferences or the imminent appearances of celestial bodhisattvas. The whole argument he makes would seem to be invalidated by modern astronomy, meteorology, and geology. For instance, we now know that the shifting of tectonic plates, not the displeasure of supernatural entities, causes earthquakes. Even in the realm of human activity, modern economics and sociology show that religion is just one among many factors (and not always a major one) that causes wars, epidemics, and famine.
Nichiren had his own rhetorical purposes and worldview, but I think we need to step back and not take the sūtras passages so literally to see if we can find a meaning that speaks to us today. I think if the Dharma really is “the way things are” then to uphold the Dharma is to uphold the truth, to face facts squarely, to see the interdependent nature of the world, to be responsible for one’s acts and the consequences thereof, and to be compassionately motivated by the view of interdependence and the selfless nature of things as they really are. To behave dishonestly, irresponsibly, callously and blindly would be to invite disaster – to turn our world upside down in a manner of speaking. If those who govern a nation act like this – the consequences will be enormous and far-reaching. Many nations and societies have indeed toppled because of irresponsible rulers and a compliant populace. Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, Fascist Italy, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, and others have all come to ruin. Their fate included an impact on the natural world as well. And how many deaths have been caused by famine and earthquakes and flooding because the government mismanaged resources, or refused to uphold certain building codes or maintain a proper infrastructure and emergency system? Human decisions can indeed lead to the exacerbation of natural disasters, and can sometimes cause them in the first place. I would not argue that failing to be a Buddhist will cause an earthquake, but I would say failing to live in accord with what we Buddhists call the Dharma leads to personal and even national or even worldwide disaster in the long run. In this sense, I think the sūtra passages and Nichiren’s conclusions based on them can be taken seriously.
What about the argument that ominous signs and disasters are omens signaling the appearance of the bodhisattvas from underground, who are to fulfill their mission to uphold and propagate the Lotus Sūtra? I think we can take this to mean that trying times are the very times when we all will be called upon to support one another and to think more deeply about our lives and their meaning or lack of meaning. The “bodhisattvas springing up from underground” are the bodhisattvas or compassionate beings of this world. They are no one but us. It is we who must step up and meet the challenge of natural and man-made disasters. It is we who must have the foresight to prevent disasters, mitigate those that are perhaps unavoidable or unpredictable, and cope with them heroically and with compassion and fortitude. Every disaster or potential disaster is indeed a sign or call for us to be those bodhisattvas and to live the spirit of devotion to the Wonderful Dharma. That is how I at least choose to understand Nichiren’s insistence that disasters are omens of the appearance of the bodhisattvas from underground.
Gosho Translation Committee, editor-translator. The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin. Tokyo: Soka Gakkai, 1999.
Hori, Kyotsu, comp. Writings of Nichiren Shonin: Doctrine Volume 2. Tokyo: Nichiren Shu Overseas Propagation Promotion Association, 2002.
Murano, Senchu, trans. Two Nichiren Texts. Berkeley: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, 2003.