Jisei Nagasaka Persecutes the Atsuhara Persecution
For one year Priest Jisei Nagasaka (JN) made the Atsuhara Persecution a key theme of his ministry. He has urged his members to follow the example of the Atsuhara farmers who, he states, exemplify “the true Hokkeko spirit.”
JN’s description of the Atsuhara events, however, is a stripped-down version that is stingy in describing the depth of drama inherent in the Atsuhara persecution. JN indeed had the opportunity to poetically describe the power of faith that powered the response of the Atsuhara believers but his words are hollow. Furthermore he denudes Atsuhara of its meaning and significance by failing to portray how Atsuhara believers evidenced the heart of Nichiren.
Clueless about what creates diamond-like faith
JN portrays Atsuhara as an uncomplicated matter: a group of simple farmers become loyal believers and, despite terrible persecution, they refuse to recant their faith; as a reward the farmers attain enlightenment.
This treatment is but a barebones account of Atsuhara. Amazingly—unbelievably—JN ignores any analysis about how the strong degree of faith displayed by the Atsuhara martyrs was nurtured. Exactly what did Nikko do to create such an intense level of faith among his believers that defied even death? Nikko Shonin must have exhibited the lions’ roar of faith which pierced the hearts of the Atsuhara believers and filled them with unsurpassed pride in their religion and joy in their practice. Nikko Shonin did not create this powerful unity by parroting weak slogans like JN’s “Let’s chant jigyo-keta daimoku” or “Let’s shakubuku our friends and family.”
By not providing historical context JN leaves his listeners believing that the faith of the Atsuhara leaders was mystical to the point of being unapproachable. JN could have avoided this pitfall by comparing to more recent historical events to the unity of the Atsuhara believers. Just maybe their courage was of the same mettle as that of the heroes of Valley Forge, the Warsaw Ghetto, Soweto, Gdansk, the Indian Salt March, and Montgomery, Alabama. If so, his listeners might be more likely to strive to reproduce this level of faith in their own lives.
Unfortunately, by dimming the brilliance of the Atsuhara events, JN’s conveys a much chillier message for his temple members: “Even poor farmers had this degree of loyalty—why can’t you?”
JN is no Nikko and Myosetsuji is no Atsuhara
History teaches us that only a total opening of the heart, an outpouring of humanity, exceptional leadership, and the deepest bonds of comradeship can give rise to actions such as those evidenced by the Atsuhara martyrs. This is nothing less than the spirit of the Bodhisattvas of the Earth who emerge in the 15th chapter of the Lotus Sutra.
Yet JN is ambivalent about even whether or not his followers are Bodhisattvas of the Earth or simply followers of the Bodhisattvas of the Earth. To his congregants, he claims, “We are able to attain enlightenment in this lifetime as the followers of the Bodhisattvas of the Earth.” He is even ambivalent about the status of the Atsuhara martyrs, claiming “they were surely able to be reborn into the highest grade of life as Bodhisattvas of the Earth and continue to shakubuku their friends and families with their compassionate practice of Jigyo-keta.” What? Only in the next lifetime did even Jinshiro, Yagoro, and Yarokuro, the three Atsuhara martyrs, qualify as Bodhisattvas of the Earth? This seems unbelievable given the fact that their actions prompted Nichiren to inscribe the Dai Gohonzon!
There is a pattern behind this confusion. A review of JN’s sermons posted on his website find almost no references that encourage his congregants to be independent, creative, joyful, and powerful actors on the stage of life. Yet developing such a life condition is the very point of faith. Perhaps due to this blind spot he cannot see the true nature of the Atsuhara martyrs. Although JN describes them as “modest farmers,” historical sources indicate that they were accomplished in both learning and the military arts. They were trusted and intrepid, true leaders of the people. Such great individuals were able to discern and deeply appreciate the indomitable character of Nikko and vow to follow him to the end. This is a far cry from the passive lay members of NSTNY who do not rock boats, pose no problems, and who are easily intimidated and easy to control.
Come on, JN, just say it loud and clear, “Those who fight for Kosen Rufu are all Bodhisattvas of the Earth!” Be unequivocal. You yourself quote the Gosho passage “Were they not Bodhisattvas of the Earth, they could not chant the daimoku” (MWND, Vol.1, p.93). Forget about “followers of the Bodhisattvas of the Earth.” Let your members feel that they are the very people described in the 15th Chapter of the Lotus Sutra who vow to take full responsibility for creating world peace. Unleash them from perceptions that they are just secondary players, mere followers.
Ignoring the practice of a true disciple
Through his explanation of the events of Atsuhara JN patronizes his members and infantalizes the practice of Buddhism. He conveys such a cheap vision of enlightenment that disregards the inner longing of people to lead vibrant, meaningful, and value-creating lives.
To him the death of the three martyrs was about a tit-for-tat exchange. “[They] had surely changed their poison into medicine when they encountered their execution.” He grants them “rebirth within the highest grade of human life,” rebirth within 48 minutes. JN postulates, “None the less (sic), through their struggles they were all able to attain nirvana, a life free from the sufferings of birth and death in which all fears and aversions towards death are eliminated.”
Were these types of promises what motivated the courageous stance of these three martyrs? It seems evident that “nirvana, a life free from the sufferings of birth and death” had no place in the core of their lives; their lives stirred to much deeper strains of music: the call to justice and freedom. The sounds of joy filled their hearts. At the point of death their eyes were clear and their souls were unshaken.
This sentiment has been often captured in music. In Man of La Mancha Don Quixote sings: “And I know if I’ll only be true/ To this glorious quest/ That my heart will lie peaceful and calm/ When I’m laid to my rest./ And the world will be better for this/ That one man, scorned and covered with scars/ Still strove with his last ounce of courage/ To reach the unreachable star. Jean Valjean and his compatriots sing the same story at the barricades: “Do you hear the people sing?/ Singing a song of angry men?/ It is the music of a people/ Who will not be slaves again!/ When the beating of your heart/ Echoes the beating of the drums/ There is a life about to start/ When tomorrow comes!/
This was what the hearts of the Atsuhara martyrs were singing. To live this way, to die this way: this is enlightenment. For this reason Atsuhara constitutes a chapter of indelible significance in the history of human rights.
Blind to the nature of evil
In describing the Atsuhara Persecution JN missed the opportunity to fully relate to his members the nature of evil. Nichiren showed with his entire life that a requisite of faith is to perceive and fight against evil. The Atsuhara Persecution highlights the phenomenon that many of the advances in history have been driven by people-centered heroes who rebel against religious and political evil. This has also been true throughout the history of Buddhism. It is equally true of more recent leaders such as Gandhi, Dr. King, Lech Walesa, and Mandela who combated entrenched, institutional evil.
In order to recognize and combat evil we need to understand its manifestations. Evil warps patterns of rhyme or reason; people get entrapped in it even though it is illogical. JN fails to point out the irony that Gyochi, the deputy chief priest of Ryusen-ji who instigated the Atsuhara Persecution, was a priest of the Tendai sect which recognized the supremacy of the Lotus Sutra. Yet Gyochi wrote the directive that forced his temple’s priests to renounce faith in the Lotus Sutra and instead recite the Nembutsu. Blinded to this logical inconsistency, Gyochi responded to the baseline of jealousy or power, making up his own rules as time passed. For this reason he was described by Nichiren as “an animal dressed in priestly robes” (WND, 760).
There are unsettling similarities between NST priests and Gyochi. For example, JN claims that there is a vertical “thread between [members] and the Dai-Gohonzon connected through the guidance of the High Priest and Chief Priest.” Does JN really believe that he is the Thruway between a member’s faith and the Dai Gohonzon? This is unsupported by anything that is in the Gosho. Neither status, leadership position, geographical proximity, nor length of practice have any relationship to faith. In fact, the three martyrs only joined in 1278, one year before their persecution. Even with this short span of practice they were able to fully express their faith.
Gyochi pushed out of his temple priests who exemplified the spirit of justice and propagation. NST priests also kicked out of their temples the true fighters for peace leaving behind a ragtag core of docile and angry people. For this reason Makiguchi stated, “Of all the Nichiren schools today, Nichiren Shoshu is the one that most resembles the Tendai School of the Daishonin’s day.”
Regrettably, although JN praises the heroism and faith of the Atsuhara martyrs, NST has historically taken the role of head choppers and not martyrs. During World War II, in the January 8, 1944 Dai-Nichiren magazine, there is an article soliciting financial contributions for munitions. The author, who identifies himself as the ‘Person-in-Charge,’ states: “We need weapons to blow their [American and British soldiers’] filthy heads off at every opportunity available.” NST effectively chopped off the head of Tsunesaburo Makiguchi when it openly accepted the Shinto talisman at the head temple and banned him from pilgrimages. Much in the spirit of the Atsuhara martyrs, Makiguchi died in prison.
Then, in 1979, exactly 700 years after the height of the Atsuhara Persecution, NST attempted to launch a spiritual beheading of the SGI, forcing the resignation of Mr. Ikeda as president of the Soka Gakkai. Again, in 1991, NST assumed the role of head chopper by launching “Operation C,” “C” literally referring to cutting off the head of the SGI.
Missing the flow of Kosen Rufu
JN’s treatment of Atsuhara fails to address the inevitable flow of Kosen Rufu, a flow that occurred at the time of Atsuhara and which is occurring presently as well.
JN stated: “In 1274 after returning from Sado Island, the Daishonin secluded Himself (sic) at Mt. Minobu to educate many young Priests (sic).” This is quite a self-serving aggrandizement of what Nichiren actually attempted to do while on Minobu. Nichiren was thoroughly certain that indomitable groups of followers would emerge from among ordinary people, that a great community of believers dedicated to Kosen Rufu would appear: “Therefore, I say to you, my disciples, try practicing as the Lotus Sutra teaches, exerting yourselves without begrudging your lives! Test the truth of Buddhism now” (The Selection of the Time, WND, p. 584). Time after time he encouraged his disciples to take responsibility for the battlefront of propagation. To Toki Jonin he stated, “Those who call themselves my disciples and practice the Lotus Sutra should all practice as I do” (WND, p. 978). To Jakunichi-bo he states, “Therefore, those who become Nichiren’s disciples and lay believers should realize the profound karmic relationship they share with him and spread the Lotus Sutra as he does” (WND, p. 994).
Up to this point the Daishonin alone weathered the brunt of persecution; now his disciples would lead the efforts for peace and he understood that they would face persecution from evil priests in conjunction with political authority. In Reply to Yasaburo he urges, “If they were people who understood their obligations or were capable of reason, then out of the two blows that fell on me, they would receive one in my stead” (WND, p. 828). Now throughout Japan waves of propagation started which were often followed by persecution. Nowhere, however, was the persecution as rampant as in Atsuhara.
Nikko reported all of the unfolding events at Atsuhara to the Daishonin. The Daishonin’s detailed and composed responses shows the extent to which he was prepared for these events. In response after response he assumes the role of a poised and unassailable general. In Reply to Sages and Others to Nanjo Tokimitsu he writes, “You must not be afraid. I am sure that if you keep advancing strongly this are certain to become clear” (Gosho Zenshu, p. 1455). In On Persecutions Befalling the Sage he states, “Each of you should summon up the courage of a lion king and never succumb to threats from anyone. The lion king fears no other beast, nor do its cubs…Nichiren’s followers are like roaring lions” (WND, p. 997).
JN also omitted the full story of the victory of Atsuhara. The persecution continued well after the execution of the martyrs. But the dynamic faith and actions of Nanjo Tokimitsu protected the believers of Atsuhara until they could weather the storm. JN also neglected to point out the ongoing tragedy of Atsuhara which continued well beyond 1279. Nikko Shonin died in 1333, soon after the death of Nanjo Tokimitsu. Without strong, leading practitioners who understood the spirit of Nichiren Daishonin to instruct and encourage them in faith, the farmers in the region eventually lost confidence and were swayed in their beliefs. Because of their conflict with Nikko Shonin the Minobu priests looked at the Atsuhara area as a prime target for propagation and people in the Atsuhara area have become predominantly believers of the Minobu sect. The more similar that Nichiren schools appear in practice and doctrine, the more vigilant we must be in pointing out the differences.
Thus JN missed the full scope of the Atsuhara story: the dynamic call of the mentor, the heartfelt response of the disciple, the emergence of common people who practice with joy, the manifestation of evil, the people’s rejection of evil and their ultimate triumph. Not only did this happen in the past; it is occurring today as millions of people have emerged to practice Nichiren’s Buddhism. They too have faced the powerful enemies of evil priests and will triumph.
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