Nichiren Shonin: A Teacher of Equality

Based on letters Nichiren Shonin wrote to his female followers, Myokei Caine-Barrett explains why the thirteenth-century champion of the Lotus Sutra was a practical feminist.

By Myokei Caine-Barrett

Nichiren Shonin in exile on Sado Island where he wrote many of his teachings. Henry L. Phillips Collection, Bequest of Henry L. Phillips, 1939

In the Kaikyoge (“Verses for Opening the Sutra”) that we recite daily are the words “honor be to the Sutra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Dharma, the teaching of equality, the great wisdom, the one vehicle.” This phrase speaks to the great significance of the Lotus Sutra; in today’s world, it is a significance that cannot be ignored.  

What does it mean to call the Lotus Sutra “the teaching of equality”? What practical application does it have in our lives and the lives of others?

When I think of the Lotus Sutra as the teaching of equality, a very pointed and singular passage in Chapter 5, “The Simile of Herbs,” comes to mind:

I see all living beings equally.
I have no partiality for them.
There is not “this one” or “that one” to me.
I transcend love and hatred.

I am attached to nothing.
I am hindered by nothing.
I always expound the dharma
To all living beings equally.
I expound the dharma to many
In the same way as to one.

I always expound the dharma.
I do nothing else.
I am not tired of expounding the dharma
While I go or come or sit or stand.
I expound the dharma to all living beings
Just as the rain waters all the earth.

Lotus Sutra, Murano version

Whenever I hold the sutra and recite these words, I am reminded that my hands and mouth become the Buddha’s hands and mouth. I am mindful that because I am a practitioner, when I walk in the world, my heart must respond in the same manner as the Buddha—one who aspires for enlightenment—and my conduct must be in accord with the four great vows we recite daily.

From the earliest days of my practice, the teaching of equality became the refuge I sought from discrimination as a person of mixed ethnicity. The Lotus Sutra affirmed my place in the world as no other teaching had, and from the beginning, I learned it was my responsibility to share this dharma with others so they too could find a sense of belonging. The longer I practiced, the greater my understanding of inequality in the world, born from humankind’s apparent desire to actively seek separation from any living being considered to be “other.”

Over the last few decades, various movements have created positive change around the world, increasing the visibility and recognition of previously disenfranchised groups. For women, victories have been bittersweet as an increasingly reactionary backlash attempts to chip away at hard-won gains. There is, however, growing recognition that nations cannot thrive if half the population is excluded from education, work, or decision-making.

Despite inclusion in the sangha since the Buddha’s time, women were thought to be incapable of attaining buddhahood.

Women today may regard their status with trepidation, yet they do not suffer the same limitations placed upon women during Nichiren Shonin’s time. Despite inclusion in the sangha since the Buddha’s time, women were thought to be incapable of attaining buddhahood. Buddhism’s five hindrances, three obligations, and eight rules were among the societal standards and mores designed to keep women in limited spaces. The five hindrances speak to the incapability of a woman to become a brahma, a shakra, a devil king, a wheel-turning king, or a buddha. The three obligations of women stem from “the Confucian moral that they should obey fathers at home, husbands when married, and children [sons] when widowed.” The eight rules were specifically addressed to nuns and concerned their conduct around monks. Some of these limitations remain in place today in various societies around the globe and continue to govern how women can practice as Buddhists.

Nichiren Shonin was a thirteenth-century Japanese Tendai monk who, based on extensive study, sought to return the Buddhism of his time to the pure intention of the Lotus Sutra. He was certain that incorrect teachings created the conditions for national unrest and myriad national disasters, reflecting the declining latter age of the dharma (mappo). Accordingly, Nichiren Shonin’s attitudes toward women were based on the Lotus Sutra and reflected his understanding of the Buddha’s teachings on equality, not the standards of medieval times. The great devotion and compassion he had for his female followers is seen clearly in his many letters to them, twenty-two of which are collected in a volume called the Nyonin Gosho.

In his reply to the wife of Lord Shijo Kingo, Nichiren wrote, “Reading all Buddhist scriptures 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.”

In “On the True Entity of Life,” he writes, “In the time of mappo, there should be no discrimination among those who propagate the five characters of Myoho-Renge-Kyo, be they men or women. If they are not bodhisattvas of the earth, they could not chant the odaimoku [chanting the title of the Lotus Sutra].” The great equalizer, for Nichiren, is simply faith in the Lotus Sutra itself.

Nichiren understood the limitations of the times and the extra burdens placed on women, which affected their ability to practice Buddhism. He was a practical feminist and encouraged women not by abandoning or breaking with tradition but by finding ways to work within social norms. In doing so, he gave his female followers strong support for meeting the challenges in their lives and pursuing the path of enlightenment. I think of Nichiren’s way as empowerment, a way of telling women followers, You are capable. Never give up.

The courage that Nichiren Shonin praised and inspired in these women reveals both their resilience and their willingness to challenge themselves. While we may not know their given names and personal stories, Nichiren’s letters to female followers are instructive. We can easily find ourselves walking in the same shoes as these women and finding support in Nichiren’s words.

A Letter on Menstruation

In a letter to Nichiren Shonin, a woman follower asks about practice during menstruation. Nichiren replies, “This is the anguish of every woman, which many people have tried to answer in the past… I can’t think of any sutra or discourse showing dislike of menstruation… I believe menstruation isn’t uncleanliness coming from outside but a physiological phenomenon peculiar to women, and [it] is indispensible for the continuation of the human race.”

In his reply, Nichiren describes the doctrine of Zuihobini, or “adapting precepts to a locality,” which specifies that “we should not go against manners and customs of the country unless it means a serious breach of Buddhist precepts.” He then declares that it would be a breach for a woman to set aside her practice during menstruation. Those who advise against practice during a woman’s cycle, says Nichiren, intend to “break your true faith” and force a woman to commit “the sin of abandoning the true dharma by saying that practicing the Lotus Sutra during menstruation means showing disrespect to it.”

Nichiren could have instructed the woman to refrain from practice and follow local customs, but instead he responds with deep respect for his follower and gratitude for her faith. He honors the challenges of practicing the Lotus Sutra, along with the specific difficulties of a woman’s practice, and reminds her of the innumerable merits resulting from such practice. These are a few words of joy to encourage her continuing practice. They serve us today as well.

Yearning to See the Buddha

Nichimyo Shonin was a follower long separated from her husband and essentially a single mother to her infant daughter. She traveled with her daughter from Kamakura to Sado Island and Mt. Minobu, difficult journeys at best in those times of turmoil and unrest. Certainly their safety would have been in jeopardy. Yet despite the risks, Nichimyo Shonin traveled on several occasions to meet with Nichiren. 

Nichiren’s letter to Nichimyo Shonin introduces the idea of “yearning to see the Buddha.” He tells several stories to illustrate the manner in which one should approach faith and practice. In each example, he shares the willingness of Buddhist seekers to hear and learn the dharma by any means necessary.

The extraordinary measures individuals would take to hear the dharma might be unimaginable to us now in an era of easy access to knowledge and instantaneous communication. Imagine being told to “peel off your own skin to make a sheet of paper, sharpen your own bone to use as a pen, smash your own marrow to use as ink, and squeeze your own blood to use as water to write it down.” Or consider telling a demon, “I will give you my body, so please tell me the remainder of the verse.” These stories, recounted by Nichiren, are instructive for those of us who do not have to strive to hear the dharma. Even gaining access to the Lotus Sutra is relatively easy; therefore, we do not have to sacrifice in the same manner to receive the teachings.

The endeavor to seek the dharma lends itself to the development of character, moral fiber, and the ability to persevere.

Sacrifice is often thought of as a surrender or giving up of one thing for the sake of something else, the idea being that what one gives up will result in some degree of personal suffering. When such sacrifice is required, seeking the dharma may seem an undesirable task. One may not wish to undergo any hardship whatsoever, viewing the cost as too great. However, it may be easier to accept the need for sacrifice when one understands the value or preciousness of what is being sought. In this case, the meaning of sacrifice does not carry with it the same notion of loss or disadvantage. 

The endeavor to seek the dharma lends itself to the development of character, moral fiber, and the ability to persevere. And it places one in a journey of opening, awakening to an understanding of the meaning of the dharma in one’s life. In this way, one develops a spirit of constant seeking without begrudging one’s life for the effort required. 

This is the spirit and the tenacity that Nichiren Shonin addresses when he describes Nichimyo Shonin’s journey from Kamakura to Sado and the obstacles she encountered along the way. He is deeply moved by her ongoing efforts to seek the dharma despite the hardships. He reminds her that “The Lotus Sutra is the most truthful of the true” and gives her the name Nichimyo Shonin, saying she is “the greatest female practitioner of the Lotus Sutra in Japan.” Her example of faith can be a guide for those of us facing great challenges in our lives. 

The One Garment

Nichiren Shonin had several women followers named Myoho-ama. This letter’s recipient is the one thought to have lived in Okamiya in Suruga Province. In 1278, she lost both her husband and her elder brother, Lord Jiro Hyoe of Owari.

In the letter, Nichiren Shonin tells the story of Sanavasa, a merchant who assisted a priest named Pratyekabuddha, who was found unconscious on the beach. Sanavasa nursed the sick man back to consciousness, cleaned him, and wrapped him in a cloth made of hemp. Pratyekabuddha then died comfortable and clean. As a result of his kindness, Sanavasa was reborn “in heaven on earth” wearing the garment. He became the third transmitter of the dharma and a sage. He taught for twenty years.

Sanavasa’s name comes from the garment he wore at birth, known as “Sana cloth.” It is believed that all beings in the six realms are born naked, and only those in heaven are born clothed. Sana cloth never stains or becomes soiled, similar to a lotus flower in a muddy pond. The Sana cloth is said to have grown as Sanavasa grew and to have adapted to seasonal changes. Sanavasa entered the priesthood under Ananda, and the garment became the “ceremonial robes of gojo, shichijo, and kujo,” which are the five-, seven-, and nine-panel style of kesa worn by Nichiren-shu priests today.

The Buddha preached that “all the happiness and wonder of Priest Sanavasa stemmed from this one garment.” I think of this garment as representing the Lotus Sutra, which always remains pristine and allows us to adapt to all changes that occur in our lives. When we are “dressed” in the Lotus Sutra, we gradually transform our lives to be moral, ethical, and wise. We are also able to transmit the dharma to others by virtue of the character of our lives. This is the true garment of the dharma.

Pregnant with Faith

In a letter written to the wife of Matsuno Rokurozaemon-no-jo, a woman of significance among Nichiren’s followers, Nichiren points to developing and maintaining faith in the Lotus Sutra:

The moon does not reflect on dirty water, and birds do not build nests in dead trees. Likewise, Shakyamuni Buddha does not reside in the body of a woman without faith. However, a woman who believes in the Lotus Sutra is like a body of pure water. The moon, Shakyamuni Buddha, reflects upon it.

He continues by comparing the development of faith to the experience of pregnancy:

To put it figuratively, a woman can’t feel her pregnancy in the beginning, but after a while she begins to suspect it until she knows for sure that she is pregnant…. The same could be said about the doctrines of the Lotus Sutra. If we believe in the merit of Namu Myoho-Renge-Kyo, Shakyamuni Buddha will be conceived in our hearts before we know it, just as a woman is pregnant before she knows it.

We can’t feel it in the beginning, but as the months pass we begin dreaming of the Buddha residing in our hearts, until we feel happiness within us…. It is easier to begin putting faith in the teaching of the Lotus Sutra than to keep on believing in it to the very end.

Much can be drawn out of these few sentences with respect to faith and its development. Practitioners in faith-based traditions can no doubt relate to the growth of faith and how one feels as faith is developing. Continuous practice creates lives that are transformed from a state of “dirty water” to “pure water” on which the teachings of the Buddha are reflected. This transformation affects the way we show up in the world as we come to reflect the buddhanature arising in our lives and hearts. Further, the path of faith is not an easy one, especially as the growth of faith is often unremarked until such time as we may be called upon to act out of our faith.

photo of Myokei Caine Barrett

Myokei Caine-Barrett

Myokei Caine-Barrett, Shonin, was the first American woman and the first person of African Japanese descent to receive full ordination as a Nichiren priest. Today, she is the bishop of the Nichiren Shu Buddhist Order of North America. Based in Houston, where she is the guiding teacher of Myoken-ji Temple, she also leads two prison sanghas and has been active in Healing Warrior Hearts (a program for veterans returning home) and The Gathering: Buddhist Teachers of Black African Descent.