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Nichiren Buddhism and The Tokugawas

Nichiren Buddhism had a mixed relationship with the Founders of the Tokugawa regime. Initially it was largely hostile. Later it settled into an uneasy accommodation. The Tokugawa regime wanted one thing, first power, then subservience. And as a result it early on used the aspirations of rival "Daimyos" or fuedal 'barons' against on another. And it also used the rivalries and aspirations of native and foreign religions. For instance the Tokugawas first encouraged their Spanish and Portuguese visitors and then when they saw that Christianity was making inroads in the south of their country, they then brutally suppressed it. They even went so far as replacing the Catholics with Dutch traders as recounted in the great book by James Clavell "Shogun." Likewise with Buddhism they first used and then suppressed potential rivalries. Those rivalries included the Nichiren School's centers in the Kyoto Region, Mt. Hiei, the Jodo Schools, expecially Jodo-Shinran. In order to control each potential rivalry each of the three founders; Oda Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and the first of the Tokugawa family, dealt differently with the Buddhist Religion. However, each of these people suppressed the Nichiren religion.

Taiseki-ji in the Edo Era

Nissho Shonin

In February 1602, when Nissho, the 15th high priest, was in office, Tokugawa Ieyasu established a shogunate government in Edo (present-day Tokyo). Around 1635, to solidify its control on the populace as well as to prevent the spread of Christianity, the Tokugawa government instituted a new Buddhist temple parish system. The system was established nationwide by 1638 when the Christian revolt in Shimabara was brutally quelled. Under the parish system, people had to be registered with a Buddhist temple in their area in order to prove that they were not Christians. The punishment for being accused of being a Christian was usually death, often by crucifixism after a hearty inquisition (torture) by the local authorites. Additionally, unless people had a permit issued by their Buddhist temple, people were unable to work or travel. As people's lives essentially depended upon a temple permit, the authority of chief priests grew stronger. Even a parish leader, if he did not visit his temple on an appointed day, had his name deleted from the register and he would be reported to the government. Put simply, under the parish system, Buddhist temples functioned as a government census bureau to control people.

The Tokugawa shogunate government also prohibited religious debate. No religious sect could publicly praise itself and criticize others. This government ordinance became effective around 1615. It prevented any overt religious propagation. Since the parish system made it extremely difficult for people to leave their parishes, their desire to improve their spiritual lives was greatly stifled and Buddhism in Japan became increasingly conservative and ritualistic.

Since the government discouraged religious propagation, Buddhist temples conducted more rituals to entice parish members to frequent their temples, thus generating income. Many temples, regardless of their sects, promoted rituals and formalities related to death -- such as funerals; posthumous Buddhist names; memorial services; Buddhist tablets for the dead; thrice-yearly tomb visits in spring, summer and fall; and so on. For this reason, some critics, refer to Japanese Buddhism as "funeral Buddhism."

The parish system also required priests to see their parish members when they died. Upon confirming that the deceased were in fact in his parish and not Christians, he would bestow upon them posthumous Buddhist names and recite prayers for their repose. So people always had to invite priests to funerals. If they did not, they would run the risk of being labeled Christians and thus executed. Buddhists who belonged to different sects, or who might have independent views than the temple they were assigned to were sometimes charged with being "Christians" by priests who wanted to punish them.

Most of the Buddhist formalities surrounding funerals and memorial services were introduced during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These formalities included the necessity of family tombs, memorial books, memorial tablets, Buddhist altars and so on. Parish members were required to make offerings to a priest at every service they attended. People's discontent with the Buddhist clergy grew, and many sayings from the Edo period attest to the corruption of priests at that time: "All profit for priests." "If you hate a priest, you hate even his robe." "A priest recites a sutra only for what he is paid." "A priest snatches an offering without reciting a sutra." "Money talks even in hell." Even today it is customary to invite a priest to a funeral in Japan. This tradition, however, has nothing to do with any original Buddhist teaching or with one's enlightenment. It is a remnant of the parish system established by the Tokugawa shogunate government in the seventeenth century.1

Nisshun Shonin

In June 1641, Nisshun, the nineteenth high priest, received from the newly appointed third shogun, Tokugawa Iemitsu, a deed re-authorizing Taiseki-ji's property and its status as a head temple. At this time, Taiseki-ji also started to register its parish members and vouch for their non-Christian status. Following the trend of the Buddhist community, out of fear of the severe punishments that the Tokugawa Regime visited upon those who challenged them, Taiseki-ji like many Nichiren Temples, stopped its propagation efforts and started to promote rituals and formalities such as funerals and memorial services. As a result, Taiseki-ji's parish members grew dependent on their priests and became negligent in their own personal practice such as sutra recitation or gongyo. Instead of doing gongyo, they would go to the temple and ask their priests to pray on their behalf. This priest-based faith has since become the norm within the school headed by Taiseki-ji, which later became known as Nichiren Shoshu. Today Nichiren Shoshu priests still offer various prayer services for lay believers: "prayer for health," "prayer for traffic safety" "prayer for warding off evils," "prayer for good grades" and so on. They still haven't recovered from their adaptations to the successful repressions of the Tokugawa Shogunate followed by the more diabolical measures taken by the Meiji Restoration.

The tendency to emphasize believers' dependency on priests is the antithesis of the self-reliant faith the Daishonin strongly advocated. He states:

"Muster your faith and pray to this Gohonzon. Then what is there that cannot be achieved?" (MW1, 120). "The fact that Nichigen-nyo's prayers have gone unanswered is like a strong bow with a weak bowstring or a fine sword in the hands of a coward. It is in no sense the fault of the Lotus Sutra" (MW3, 73). "No matter how earnestly Nichiren prays for you, if you lack faith, it will be like trying to set fire to wet tinder. Spur yourself to muster the power of faith" (MW1, 246). And "Whether or not your prayer is answered depends upon your faith; [if it is not,] the fault in no way lies with me, Nichiren" (MW5, 305). In light of these passages, it becomes evident that depending on a priest pray for one's happiness or enlightenment is contrary to the Daishonin's intent.

The government instituted parish system encouraged the further corruption in Japan's Buddhist community. Under the strict government control and protection, the majority of Buddhist priests became oblivious to their role as spiritual teachers to their parish members and increasingly became consumed with the pursuit of worldly fame and material gain. This is in exact accord with the Daishonin's warning:

"The Buddha stated that during the Latter Day of the Law, priests and nuns with the hearts of dogs would be as numerous as the grains of sand in the Ganges. By this he meant that the priests and nuns of that day would run like dogs after fame and fortune. Because they wear robes and surplices, they look like ordinary priests and nuns. But in their hearts, they wield a sword of evil, hastening here and there among their patrons and filling them full of countless lies so as to keep them away from other priests or nuns. Thus they strive to keep their patrons to themselves and prevent other priests or nuns from coming near them, like a dog who goes to a house to be fed but who growls and springs to attack the moment another dog approaches. Each and every one of these priests and nuns is certain to fall into the evil paths." From "The Fourteen Slanders", (MW3, p. 206)

Under the parish system the Buddhist clergy was encouraged to develop a sense of superiority as a further measure to alienate them from their lay believers. Since priests essentially acted as government agents who held sway over people's lives, they viewed their relationship with their parish members as that between lord and serf. The Buddhist clergy's feudalistic view and people's acceptance of their spiritual serfdom persisted in Japan long after the priesthood's political influence disappeared with the demise of the Tokugawa shogunate government in the late nineteenth century. The priests were expected to not marry, to live celibate lives, and yet were also forced to do these things that violated their Mahayana Precepts to propagate the faith and save suffering beings. This was expecially hard on Nichiren Priests, because Shakubuku is a central admonition of Nichiren Buddhism, and to be prohibited from doing shakubuku forced them to look inward. It was during this time period that many of the Nichiren schools began to seriously study their writings and to form schools and sects.2

Questions and Answers

Question: Why did Taiseki-ji and other Buddhist Sects refrain from Shakubuku during this period?

Answer: Because to have acted contrary to the Tokugawa Shogunate would have brought down murderous retribution.

Question: What proof do you have of this?

Answer:Michael Ryuei, writing about the Kansho Accords tells of what happened to the Nichiren believers of the Kyoto area (Forever Kansai) during the reign of Tokugawa Ieyasu. He says:

In 1608, a new blow was dealt to Nichiren Buddhism by Tokugawa Ieyasu who was now the new shogun. In that year, Nikkyo, the chief priest of Myomanji Temple, was invited to the Tokugawa Castle in the new capital of Edo to debate Shakudo of the Pure Land school. The night before the debates, intruders broke into Nikkyo's quarters and beat him so badly that he was unable to debate the next day even though the Tokugawa Ieyasu ordered him carried in on a stretcher. The Shogun declared Shakudo the winner by default and sentenced Nikkyo and five of his followers to have their noses and ears removed.

Tokugawa Ieyasu also demanded that the Nichiren Buddhists cease their propagation efforts. Nichion, head priest of Kuonji Temple at Mount Minobu refused to go along with that order and he was arrested and sentenced to crucifixion. Fortunately for him, one of the Shogun's concubines, the Lady Oman, threatened to kill herself in front of her children if Nichion was executed. The Shogun relented and Nichion was released, though he did not return to Kuonji Temple for fear of not being able to propagate Nichiren Buddhism if he should resume his position as chief priest. This event is called the Keicho Persecution, after the era in which it occured.3

The only Nichiren Buddhists who continued propagation efforts during this period were those who were part of underground movements such as the Kempon Hokke schools, or those who were willing to face such severe punishment.

Further Readings:

Within this website:
, Fuji School,Nichimoku Shonin (who sought to establish a fuji school presence)
These pages detail some of the complex relationship between the Tokugawas and the Nichiren Schools an Abstract of a paper I'd like to get my hands on)
A page that includes some information on the "kempon Hokke" schools view of what happened


One of my original sources was a post by Terry Ruby at "dejanews"/Now Google. As I did more research I found out a broader picture of what was happening to Nichirenism:*&hl=en&lr=&ie=UTF-8&safe=off&


  1. August 1998 "Living Buddhism", pp. 6-9. Untold story of the Fuji School chapter six, see also Fuji School
  2. Same issue of Living Buddhism

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