The Letters of Nichiren to Women Followers

Hello,

Recently while on a trip to Portland, OR, I stopped at the famous Powell’s City of Books, which is a huge, local bookstore that is very popular too. It was a great bookstore and I found lots of useful books that are hard to find elsewhere. In the Buddhism section I found a rare book on the letters of Nichiren published by Nichiren-Shu press, not the fringe Nichiren Shoshu and SGI publishers. Most Nichiren books in English are published by the latter.

Anyhow, the book is titled the nyonin gosho (女人御書) which is a collection of Nichiren’s letters to women followers. The book is bi-lingual, so the pages on the left are English, while the pages on the right are the Japanese version. The book was high quality and surprisingly readable.

It’s also a rare chance to read Nichiren’s letters in English from more mainstream Buddhist sources, and I’ve read several letters already. The letters give a lot of insight to Nichiren’s personality, some positive, some negative, so I wanted to post a few interesting quotations.

One of the interesting letters was to a female disciple he named Nichimyō Shonin (日妙上人) who was living alone in Kamakura, raising her infant daughter by herself. Her husband had been absent for a long time, and was not trustworthy. She was deeply devoted to Nichiren and even visited him (carrying her daughter) on Sado Island when he was in exile. Nichiren was deeply moved and wrote in 1272:

相州鎌倉から佐渡の国まで、その距離は約百里に及ぶ。険しい山を越え、濤々とした海を渡らなければならない。風や雨は時を構わず襲い、山賊や海賊は充ちている。。。。このような時に一人の幼児を連れて、頼みとする夫はあてにならず、また別れて久しい。その苦しさを何と言っていいのか、筆にも表せず心にも述べがたいので、これでとどめる。

It is about 250 miles from Kamakura to Sato. You have to cross steep mountains and a swift ocean. Winds and storms attack you enroute, and the way is full of bandits and pirates….Besides, you have a small child, and you cannot depend on your husband. You have been long separated from him. I feel so sorry for you that I cannot continue to write. I do not know what to say, so I will close here.

Nichiren was unusual in his treatment of women. Most of his letters were addressed to women, not men, and frequently contained praise of women using examples from the Lotus Sutra. In this letter to Wife of Lord Shijō Kingo he writes:

「法華経」以外の経典を見る限り、私は女人にはなりたくありません。ある経典には女人を地獄の使いとしていますし、他の経典では大蛇であると説き、又ある経典には曲がった木のようだと言われ、ある経には仏を焼き焦がしてしまうと説かれています。。。。この「法華経」のみに、この経を持つ女人は全ての女人よりもすぐれているだけでなく、一切の男子にも超えていると説かれているのです。

Reading all Buddhist scripts other than the Lotus Sutra, I don’t want to be a woman. Some sutras say women are messengers of hell, other sutras say women are like a serpent or a bent tree, while still other sutras say that their seeds of Buddhahood are toasted….But it is only the Lotus Sutra that declares: “A woman who upholds this sutra is superior to not only other women but also men.

On the other hand, you can see Nichiren at times being kind of smug and abrasive, such as this letter to Lady Oto:

蒙古の日本侵入を見ない前の今日の人々の威張り方は、貴女も存じの通りでした。しかし去年の十月からは一人もいばる者はありません。すでにお聞きのように私、日蓮がただ一人外寇を予言していたのですが。。。これは全く我が国が、釈尊のお使いであり「法華経」の諸行である日蓮を真言、念仏、律等の僧侶ににくまれて。。。

You remember how arrogant people today were before the Mongol invasion of Japan, but ever since last October, no one has been haughty. As you heard, I, Nichren, was the only one who predicted the foreign invasion….This [invasion] is solely because this nation let the priests of Shingon, Pure Land, and Ritsu Sects criticize me, who is the messenger of Shakyamuni Buddha and the practicer of the Lotus Sutra.

Anyhow, the letters of Nichiren to his female followers has been a fascinating read. It shows many sides to Nichiren, some progressive and noble, others kind of petty and abrasive. One thing is for sure, Nichiren was really committed to what he believed, and wouldn’t let popular trends and politics of the time affect his thinking:

このように言えば、理解のない人は、日蓮の自讃だと言いますが、そうではありません。この事を言わなければ「法華経」の行者といえず。。。

Some people, who do not understand me, may call me self-conceited for what I say. I am not self-conceited. As a practitioner of the Lotus Sutra, I must speak out.

I hope to post more letters in the future. Although I don’t consider myself a Nichiren Buddhist, I do feel that awareness and studies of Nichiren Buddhism have been somewhat behind in the West, so I hope to get more information out. 🙂

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Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

2 thoughts on “The Letters of Nichiren to Women Followers”

  1. Was Freud talking about Buddhism when he said everything is about sects? Okay, a little play on words to lighten up these many difference which seem to be splintering and not uniting. These writings from so long ago show that differences due to interpretation have been and probably will be with us for some time.
    Is there a place to explore and celebrate our commonalities?
    Vincent

    Like

    1. Hello,

      Yeah by today’s standards, Nichiren’s writings can really rub people the wrong way but it’s important to remember that the situation then was different.

      Buddhist institutions were supported by the state in those days because it was widely believed that they were essential for the prosperity of the state. So Nichiren’s assertion is that the government “backed the wrong horse” essentially.

      Other famous Buddhists of the era (Dogen, Honen, Shinran, Ippen) were also reformers alarmed by the state of affairs but seemed more interested in reforming the existing system either through new practices from China or making Buddhism more accessible. Nichiren’s sense of purpose was similar but his approach was perhaps more strident, more politicized. My sense from the letters so far reminds me of a modern day activist willing to fight for his cause.

      In general too, Japanese Buddhism is unusually factional compared to mainland Buddhism and history/politics play a large part.

      Liked by 1 person

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