3. The Youthful Priest Zesho-bo Rencho


The Life of Nichiren Daishonin

The Youthful Priest Zesho-bo Rencho

Historical Background
At age sixteen, Nichiren Daishonin was formally ordained into the
Buddhist priesthood receiving the name of Zesho-bo Rencho. In the
short span of about one year, Zesho-bo Rencho had completely read
the entire collection of sutras and commentaries in the library of
Seicho-ji temple. During this time, Zesho-bo Rencho prayed everyday
to a statue of Bodhisattva Kokuzo1 enshrined at Seicho-ji temple2 “to
become the wisest person in all Japan.” Nichiren Daishonin describes
this particular episode in his life in Letter to the Priests of Seicho-ji3
when he wrote,
[As a youth,] he received supreme wisdom from Bodhisattva Kokuzo.
He had been praying to the bodhisattva to become the wisest person
in Japan. The bodhisattva must have taken pity on him, for he
presented him with a great jewel as brilliant as the morning star,
which Nichiren tucked away in his right sleeve. (Shinpen, p. 946; M.
W., Vol. 2, p. 264)
Zesho-bo Rencho’s prayer to become the wisest man in Japan was so
that he would discover the true meaning of Buddhism and save all
the people who had fallen into despair throughout Japan.
During the spring of the first year of En’o (1239), having just turned
eighteen and seeking to thoroughly research all possible doctrines
and documents, Rencho departed on a journey for Kamakura.
The city of Kamakura was the seat of Shogunate government and the
principle center of Japan. Kamakura was also a city where Buddhism
flourished, therefore, many major Buddhist sects and other sub-
schools competed with each other to quickly complete construction of
their temples and learning centers. Of these Buddhist schools, the
Jodo, or Pure Land sect, and the Zen sect came to Rencho’s attention
and their doctrines became the objects of his research. These two
religious creeds were popular during this period. The Jodo sect was
widely accepted amongst the common people while the Zen sect
spread amongst the ruling warrior or samurai class. In order to
inquire into the principle origins of all Buddhist sects, Rencho
searched through the sutra repository within the complex of the
Tsurugaoka Hachiman Shrine4 in Kamakura.
Rencho studied in Kamakura for four years. In the third year of Ninji
(1242), at the age of twenty one, he composed what is considered to
be his first literary work, the Kaitai Sokushin Jobutsugi, or “Principles
of the Substance of Precepts that Lead to the Attainment of
Buddhahood in this Lifetime.”5 In this writing, Rencho cites the
Hinayana and Provisional Mahayana doctrines, the Lotus Sutra, and
the four types of precept substances of the Shingon sect. He explains
that the Provisional Mahayana teachings can not lead to
enlightenment. He teaches that it is truly the substance of the
precepts of the kaie6 (“opening up and merging”) of the Lotus Sutra
that is the embodiment of the precepts of the cause for and effect of
Buddhahood. In this document he firmly refutes the Nembutsu7
During this year, Rencho also journeyed to Enryakuji temple on Mt.
Hiei, the center of Japanese Buddhism. Enryakuji temple was founded
in the fourth year of Enryaku (758) by Saicho, the Great Teacher
Dengyo.8 Enryakuji flourished as a temple of the sanctuary of the
provisional teachings of the Lotus Sutra. However, the will of Dengyo
for Enryakuji temple to be a center for the transmission of Buddhism
based mainly on the Lotus Sutra was maintained only up until the
time of Gishin9 who succeeded Dengyo. Notwithstanding Dengyo’s
dying wishes, the veritable law of the Lotus Sutra later became
completely distorted at Enryakuji temple as this institution promoted
the mistaken doctrine of Shingon10 being the true teachings of
Buddhism and the Lotus Sutra being secondary or merely close to the
Shingon teachings. These heretical doctrines spread throughout
Enryakuji temple (and subsequently effected the entire Tendai sect
in Japan). These were the conditions that had prevailed at Enryakuji
temple and that Rencho was confronted with.
It is said that Rencho first lived within the priests’ residence at the
eastern tower of Ento-bo and later resided within Jokoin temple in
the Yokawa area within the Enryakuji temple complex. For Rencho,
the purpose of his studies at Mt. Hiei was not to merely pursue his
research in the doctrines of Tendai Buddhism, but also to verify the
profound significance of the Lotus Sutra being the highest of all
Shakyamuni’s teachings and then to substantiate this fact from the
standpoint of the teachings of the various sutras, together with
personally seeing and understanding the actual state of affairs at
Enryakuji temple at that time.
However with Rencho’s strong spirit of wanting to seek out the truth
of the teachings of Buddhism and embracing his great objective of
saving all living beings, he grasped every opportunity to discuss
Buddhism with highly esteemed and scholarly priests and strictly
refuted them for having forgotten the traditions of the Great Teacher
Dengyo while having allowed the Buddhism of Mt. Hiei to degenerate
into the heretical doctrine of mixing and (deliberately) confusing the
provisional with the true teachings. Consequently, Rencho’s scholarly
virtues and fame increasingly echoed all throughout and beyond the
walls of Enryakuji temple and Mt. Hiei.
Besides the pursuit of this sort of scholastic research, in the first year
of Kangen (1243), at the age of twenty-two, Rencho composed his
Kaiho Mon, or The Doctrine of Precepts11 and in the following year
wrote Shikishin Niho Sho, or The Two Laws of Body and Mind.12 In
this way, over a period of three years, Rencho carried out his studies
and research on Mt. Hiei and then finally thoroughly investigated the
profound truth of the one vehicle of the Lotus Sutra.
In the fourth year of Kangen (1246), in addition to his research at
Enryakuji temple and feeling that he had to also study the principle
teachings of the other Buddhist sects, Rencho journeyed at the age of
twenty-five, descending Mt. Hiei to visit and research the history of
all the surrounding temples and major Buddhist institutions. The first
temple that Rencho visited was Onjoji temple13 in Mii (present day
Otsu City, Shiga Prefecture). Onjoji temple which had been founded
by the Great Teacher Chisho14 had been a temple based mainly on
the doctrine of the Tendai sect, however, it had become a sub-sect of
Tendai Buddhism which also considered Shingon to be the true
teachings and the Lotus Sutra to be secondary or merely as close to
the Shingon teachings. Onjoji temple later naming itself the Jimon
branch (the “Temple Order”) of Tendai Buddhism continued for many
years to struggle for authority with Enryakuji temple on Mt. Hiei
which later became the Sanmon branch (the “Mountain Order”) and
armed warrior-priests which broke the precepts of Buddhism
brandishment of violence. During his stay there, Rencho searched
through the library of Onjoji temple which stored many of Chisho’s
During the same year, Rencho visited Senyuji temple in Kyoto and
carried out research in this temple’s vast library of sutras from Sung
Dynasty China. It is said that Rencho met with the priest Ben’nen of
the Rinzai sect15 and then later with Dogen16 of the Soto sect17 and
discussed the principle doctrines of Zen Buddhism.
Rencho next entered the city of Nara and began researching the six
schools of Buddhism of the Southern Capitol. These six schools are the
Kusha,18 Jojitsu,19 Ritsu,20 Hosso,21 Sanron22 and Kegon Sects23.
As religions of the past, these six Buddhist schools fell to a steady
path of decline. However, they remained proud only of the majestic
appearance of their temple buildings and monasteries. These
institutions stored a vast number of sutras, treatises, and other
important Buddhist documents. In the first year of Hoji (1248) when
he was 27 years old, Rencho went to examine the immense sutra
repository at Yakushiji temple24 in Nara.
During the second year of Hoji (1248) while he was still twenty-
seven years old, Rencho proceeded for Kongobuji temple located on
Mt. Koya (in present day Ito county, Wakayama Prefecture), the head
temple of the Shingon sect. Rencho also later visited the two other
noted Shingon institutions of Toji25 and Ninnaji26 temples in Kyoto.
During his visits to all of these temples, Rencho thoroughly studied
the doctrines of each branch of the Shingon sect.
Beside his research of all the various sects in Japan, Rencho also
studied Confucianism, Japanese classical literature, Waka (thirty-one
syllable Japanese Tanka poetry) and calligraphy.
Afterwards, Rencho returned in the first year of Kencho (1250) to
Mt. Hiei and wrote the Shogan Joju Sho (“On Attaining All Prayers”).
In the second year of Kencho (1250), Rencho visited the oldest
Buddhist temple in Japan, the Shitennoji temple27 in Osaka and
entrenched himself in the great achievements of Prince Shotoku28
while examining all the Buddhist documents of that era. By the third
year of Kencho (1251), Rencho had examined most and transcribed
many of the documents stored at Shitennoji temple.
In August of the fourth year of Kencho (1252), Rencho’s journey of
study and research finally started to come to a close. To complete his
work, Rencho once again went to Onjoji temple in Mii for further
study, devoting himself to reviewing all the sutras and other
documents stored at that temple. Rencho then traveled throughout
many provinces as he headed back to Seichoji temple on Mt.
Kiyosumi in his home province of Awa.

1. Bodhisattva Kokuzo: Also referred to as the “Bodhisattva of Space”
because his wisdom and good fortune were said to be as limitless as
the universe itself. Bodhisattva Kokuzo is a central figure in Shingon
Buddhism, but has been worshipped in Japan since ancient times.
Bodhisattva Kokuzo was the principal and original object of worship
of Seicho-ji temple in Kominato where Nichiren Daishonin took the
tonsure and began his studies and formal training as a Buddhist
priest. Nichiren Daishonin stated in a number of his writings that he
prayed to this statue of Bodhisattva Kokuzo in order to become the
wisest man in all Japan.
2. Seichoji: Also referred to as Kiyosumidera. Seichoji Temple is
located on Mt. Kiyosumi in Kominato, Chiba Prefecture. At the time of
the Kamakura Period (1185-1333), when Nichiren Daishonin entered
the temple, the traditions and practice at Seichoji were a mixture of
three sects, Tendai, Shingo, and Jodo.
3. Letter to the Priests at Seichoji: Written on January 11, 1276,
while the Daishonin was living in retirement at Mt. Minobu.
4. Tsurugaoka Hachiman Shrine: A major Shinto shrine located in the
heart of Kamakura, dedicated to the Japanese mythological protective
deity Hachiman.
5. Shinpen, p.1;
6. Kaie (“Opening up and merging’) of the Lotus Sutra: The Buddha
first expounded various provisional teachings in the pre-Lotus sutras
and then in the Hoben chapter of the Lotus Sutra, merged them into
the one vehicle. Nichiren Daishonin taught that this one vehicle is
7. Nembutsu: A provisional sect of Mahayana Buddhism. Nembutsu
is also referred to as the Jodo or “Pure Land” teachings.
8. The Great Teacher Dengyo (767-822): Founder of the Tendai
school of Buddhism in Japan.
9. Gishin (781-833): The first chief priest of Enryakuji temple, the
Head Temple of the Tendai sect in Japan.
10. Shingon: A provisional Mahayana sect of Tantric Buddhism
founded in Japan by Kukai, also known by his posthumous title Kobo
Daishi (“the Great Teacher Kobo”). Kukai brought back these
teachings from China and founded the Shingon sect in Japan as an
independent school of Buddhism in 809. The Shingon sect’s doctrines
are based primarily on the Dainichi and Kongocho Sutras.
11. Shinpen, p.12
12. Shinpen, p.20
13. Onjoji temple: Commonly referred to as Miidera, it is located on
the shores of Lake Biwa, north of the ancient Japanese capital of
Kyoto. Onjoji is the head temple of the Jimon (“Temple Order”) branch
of the Tendai sect of Buddhism.
14. The Great Teacher Chisho (814-891): The post-humous name of
Enchin, also referred to simply as Chisho. The fifth chief priest of
Enryakuji temple and high priest of the Tendai Sect. Chisho was born
in Sanuki Province (present day Kagawa Prefecture, Shikoku Island)
and was a nephew of Kobo (also referred to as Kukai or the Great
Teacher Kobo, 774-835), the founder of the Shingon sect in Japan
15. Rinzai sect: One of the major sects of Zen Buddhism in Japan. The
Rinzai sect was widely observed by the ruling warrior, or samurai,
class in Japan.
16. Dogen (1200-1253): A noted Japanese Zen priest and founder of
the Soto sect of Zen Buddhism in Japan.
17. Soto sect: Another one of the major sects of Zen Buddhism in
18. The Kusha Sect: A Hinayana or Theravada school of Buddhism
based on the Abidatsuma Kusha Ron (commonly referred to as the
Kusha Ron) of Vasubandhu, an Indian Buddhist scholar from the
fourth or fifth century.
19. The Jojitsu Sect: A Hinayana or Theravada school of Buddhism
based on the Jojitsu Ron (“Treatise on the Establishment of the
Truth”) of Harivarman and translated into Chinese in the Fifth
Century by Kumarajiva.
20. The Ritsu Sect: A Hinayana or Thervada school of Buddhism
which emphasizes the strict adherence to the vinaya or rules of
monastic discipline.
21. The Hosso Sect: A provisional Mahayana sect of Buddhism which
aims at clarifying the ultimate reality by analyzing the aspects of all
phenomena. The basic tenets of this school are comprised of six
sutras and eleven treatises, and are derived from the Consciousness-
only school of Maitreya, Asanga and Vasubandhu.
22. The Sanron Sect: A provisional Mahayana sect of Buddhism based
on the Chu Ron (“Treatise on the Middle Way”) and the Junimon Ron
(“Treatise on the Twelve Gates”) by Nagarjuna and the Hyaku Ron
(“The One Hundred Verse Treatise”) by Aryadeva.
23. The Kegon Sect: A provisional Mahayana sect of Buddhism based
on the Kegon Sutra (“Flower Garland Sutra”).Todaiji temple in Nara is
the head temple of this sect in Japan today.
24. Yakushiji temple: One of the two head temples of the Hosso sect,
together with Kofukuji temple. Upon completion of Yakushiji temple,
a statue of Yakushi Buddha was enshrined, hence its name.
25. Toji temple: The head temple of the Toji branch of the Shingon
sect, built in 796 by the Emperor Kammu. Toji temple is located in
Kyoto, has the tallest pagoda in Japan and houses a statue of Yakushi
Buddha as its principle object of worship.
26. Ninnanji temple: The head temple of the Omuro branch of the
Shingon sect, built in the second year of Ninna (886, hence its name)
by the Emperor Koko. Ninnaji temple is located in Kyoto and houses a
statue of Amida Buddha as its principle object of worship.
27. Shitennoji temple: Founded in 587 by Prince Shotoku, this temple
is presently the head temple of the Wa sect of Buddhism, a sub-sect
of the Tendai school. This temple was built to enshrine statues of the
or Shitenno, or “Four Heavenly Kings” (the Buddhist protective gods
or Shoten Zenjin of: Jikokuten, Komokuten, Bishamonten and Zojoten),
hence its name.
28. Prince Shotoku (574-622): The second son of Emperor Yomei and
regent during the reign of Empress Suiko. Prince Shotoku was a
devout believer of Buddhism and a noted Buddhist scholar (with
particular regard for the Lotus Sutra) who carried out important
reforms and governed in both domestic and international affairs. In
604, Prince Shotoku formed the Seventeen Article Constitution which
stressed importance for the Three Treasures of Buddhism of the
Buddha, the Law and the Priesthood. In his relations with Sui
Dynasty China, Prince Shotoku opened the way for the introduction
of Buddhism into Japan. Prince Shotoku founded Horyuji temple in
Nara and Shitennoji temple in Osaka, the oldest existing Buddhist
temples in Japan.

1. Seichoji Taishuchu (“Letter to the Priests of Seichoji”), Shinpen,
p.945-948; M.W., Vol. 2, pp. 263-269.
2. A Dictionary of Buddhist Terms and Concepts, Nichiren Shoshu
International Center.
3. A Dictionary of Japanese Buddhist Terms with Supplement, Heian
International, Hisao Inagaki
4. Zoho: Bukkyo Gaikan Shihyo (“Supplementary Edition: General
Historical Outline of Buddhism”), Shigeru Atsuta, Nichiren Shoshu
Publishing Association.
5. Bukkyo Tetsugaku Daijiten (“Comprehensive Dictionary of
Buddhism and Philosophy”), Vols. I-V, Soka Gakkai Study Dept.
6. A History of Japan to 1334, Vol. I, George Sansom, Tuttle.
7. Historical and Geographical Dictionary of Japan, E. Papinot, Tuttle.
8. Kamakura Happyakunen (“Eight Hundred Years of Kamakura”),
Asahi Shimbun.
9. Modern Reader’s Japanese-English Character Dictionary, Second
Edition, Andrew Anthony Nelson, Tuttle.
10. Dictionary of Oriental Literature – East Asia Edition, Tuttle.
11. Japanese Religion – A Survey by the Agency for Cultural Affairs,
Kodansha Int’l.
12. Buddhism in Japan – With an Outline of its Origins in India, E.
Daie Saunders, University of Pennsylvania Press.
13. Japanese Temples, J. Edward Kidder Jr., Thames and Hudson,
14. Buddha and the Gospel of Buddhism, Ananda Coomaraswamy,
University Books.

©1995 Nichiren Shoshu Monthly