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:
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:
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:
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:
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. :)