Nichiren Daishonin (1222-1282; Daishonin is a title meanng "great holy man") was a man inflamed with a sense of mission who lived during a volatile time in Japanese Buddhism. His contemporaries included Shinran (1173-1263), founder of the Jodo Shinshu school of Pure Land; and Dogen (1200-1253), the father of Japanese Soto Zen. Nichiren lived also during the Kamakura period (1185-1333) of Japanese history, a time of profound political and economic transition.
As a youth, Nichiren studied Buddhism intensely, primarily at Enryaku-ji, a famous Tendai monastery at Mt. Hiei, near Kyoto. Tendai, a school of Buddhism that originated in 6th century China, teaches that all paths to enlightenment are united in the Lotus Sutra. Tendai considers the Lotus Sutra (Sanskrit, Saddharmapundarika Sutra) to be the most important of the Mahayana sutras because it completely presents all of the Buddha's teachings.
The Key to Liberation
So, it is not surprising that Nichiren arrived at the age of 30 with the firm conviction that the Lotus Sutra was the supreme sutra. However, he also believed Buddhism had entered a time of decay. In those years Japan was beset by natural disasters -- earthquakes, storms, famines -- which persuaded Nichiren that the Buddha had withdrawn his protection from Japan. The people of Japan must be led to the truth of the Lotus Sutra, he thought. But how?
On April 28, 1253, Nichiren was seized with the solution. Nichiren compacted the teachings of the Lotus Sutra to the daimoku, a practice of chanting the phrase Nam Myoho Renge Kyo, "Devotion to the Mystic Law of the Lotus Sutra." Through daimoku, people had a simple and direct means to actualize the teachings of the Lotus Sutra. Sincere, daily daimoku could enable anyone to realize enlightenment.
Challenging the Establishment
In 1260, Nichiren attacked all other schools of Buddhism in a widely circulated essay, denouncing their leaders as traitors to Japan. The nation must drop all Buddhist doctrines and practices except for those of the Lotus Sutra, he said.
The highly annoyed leaders of the denounced Buddhist sects persuaded the government to banish Nichiren to the isolated Izu Peninsula in 1261. This was only the beginning of a series of exiles and persecutions. Yet, although Nichiren was exiled, the numbers of his followers grew and challenged the Buddhist status quo on his behalf. At one point the exasperated government sent soldiers to execute Nichiren. Just as the fatal blow was about to be struck, a ball of fire illuminated the sky, and the soldiers fled in terror.
After this close brush with death, Nichiren was even more determined to carry out his task of bringing all Japan together in devotion to the Lotus Sutra. He endured more years of exile and persecution, but his following continued to grow.
A Broader Goal
When Nichiren finally was freed, he was nearing the end of his life. By then he was certain his task was to spread the Buddhism of the Lotus Sutra to the world, not just Japan. But the fiery reformer was now gentled by ill health. He spent his last few years writing and delivering sermons, and also overseeing the building of a temple, Kuonji, at Mt. Minobou.