A High Priest Enshrines Shakyamuni’s Statue

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Posted on August 11, 2009

Nissei –17th High Priest, Nichiren Shoshu.

This is the first in a series of articles on former high priests of Nichiren Shoshu and how they contributed, or hindered, the spread of Nichiren’s Buddhism.

Nissei is known for two major doctrinal errors. One was the establishment of a statue of Shakyamuni as an object of devotion, and the other was mandating the recitation of all twenty-eight chapters of the Lotus Sutra.

Nissei originally came from Yobo-ji temple, which had splintered from the Fuji school, the lineage of Nichiren Buddhism descended from Nikko Shonin, Nichiren’s direct disciple. Nissei became a disciple of Nichiju, the sixteenth high priest of Nichiren Shoshu, who had also been a Yobo-ji priest. In 1632, Nichiju transferred his office to Nissei. The following year, Nissei transferred the office to Nichiei, the eighteenth high priest, who had been his senior at Yobo-ji.

But in 1637, due to Nichiei’s illness (he died in 1638), Nissei returned to Taiseki-ji to assume the office of high priest once again. Nissei’s increasing influence and rise to the office of high priest at Taiseki-ji, was due in large part to the powerful patronage of Kyodai-in, the widow of Hachisuka Yoshishige, an influential governor of Awa province on Shikoku Island.
Nissei formed a close relationship with Kyodai-in, eight years his elder, considering her his “adopted mother.” Kyodai-in built Hosho-ji in Edo to honor her husband, who died in 1620. In 1623, on the recommendation of Kyodai-in, Nissei became the chief priest of Hosho-ji. There he enshrined a statue of Shakyamuni as an object of devotion and encouraged the recitation of the entire Lotus Sutra. In 1633, one year after he became high priest, he wrote a thesis later known as “Zuigi Ron,” attempting to justify his unorthodox practices and silence the criticism brought against him. He writes at the end of the “Zuigi Ron”: “A year after the completion of Hosho-ji, I had a statue of the Buddha made. Priests and lay believers of this school then brought up questions and criticism. To dispel the mist of their delusion and to avoid sinking into oblivion, I took up the writing brush to put down this one volume” (Essential Writings of the Fuji School, vol. 9, p. 69).

In his thesis, Nissei explains that Nichiren Daishonin did not establish Shakyamuni’s statue as an object of devotion simply because he constantly had to move from one place to another; it was never his intent not to establish Shakyamuni’s statue. Later Nichiin, the thirty-first high priest, added his commentary at the end of the thesis, stating that Nissei’s doctrines “differ greatly from the essential teachings of this school.”
Regarding Nissei’s errors, Nichiko Hori, the fifty-ninth high priest, states: “As Nissei established the foundation in Edo and started to build branch temples there to increase the sect’s influence, he at last began propounding the worship of the Buddha’s statue and the recitation of the entire Lotus Sutra, thus bringing into [this school] the doctrine that Yobo-ji was then propounding” (Essential Writings of the Fuji School, vol. 9, p. 69).

Shakyamuni’s statues were enshrined at more than ten branch temples over which Nissei had influence.

Nikko Shonin left Mount Minobu because of the doctrinal errors committed by Hakiri Sanenaga, the steward of the Minobu area, including Hakiri’s establishing Shakyamuni’s statue as an object of devotion. Nikko Shonin maintained that only the Gohonzon should be the object of devotion. Nikko Shonin foresaw the appearance of aberrant high priests such as Nissei in the future and wrote: “Do not follow even the high priest if he goes against the Buddha’s Law and propounds his own views” (GZ, 1618).

Powerful Lay Patron Appoints High Priest

As quickly as Nissei had risen to the office of high priest and enjoyed rare privileges in the shogun’s court through the patronage of Kyodai-in, his status fell when he argued with his powerful patron. In 1638, after Nissei and Kyodai-in had a falling out, Nissei abruptly left Taiseki-ji. The Fuji school and Taiseki-ji were without a high priest for three years from 1638 to 1641 until Nisshun, the nineteenth high priest, arrived to assume the office.

The powerful lay patron Kyodai-in in effect appointed the high priest. The head temple could then renew the deed to its property and maintain its status as a head temple. If Taiseki-ji had remained without a high priest, the Fuji School would have lost its independent status and become a branch temple of some other school. (Without a chief priest, the head temple was to be condemned.)

Only after a reconciliation between Nissei and Kyodai-in took place in 1645 was there a transfer of the office of high priest from Nissei to Nisshun.

Even after he relinquished his office, Nissei continued to enjoy some influence in the Fuji school. Many branch temples continued to enshrine Shakyamuni’s statue. Only after Nissei’s death in 1683 could Nisshun, the twenty-second high priest [a different person from the nineteenth high priest, whose name is pronounced the same yet spelled with different Chinese characters], and Nikkei, the twenty-third high priest, both of whom originally came from Yobo-ji, remove Shakyamuni’s statues from Taiseki-ji’s branch temples. Shakyamuni’s statues were enshrined as objects of devotion for nearly fifty years at some branch temples and even sixty years at others. Even after the removal of those statues, Yobo-ji’s influence continued to be felt in the Fuji school until Nichikan, the twenty-sixth high priest, thoroughly refuted its teachings.

This article is based on Chapter Seven of The Untold History of the Fuji School: The True Story of Nichiren Shoshu.