When one looks at the revival of Buddhism in India, it seems remarkable that of all the various Buddhist schools that sprouted up in Japan during the Kamakura period—including the numerous variants of Pure Land, Nichiren, and Zen—it would be Nichiren Buddhism that would take root in India. This is due to the forceful and spirited campaigns of the Soka Gakkai organization and their application of the principle of shakubuku—“conquering evil aggressively”—which the founder of the sect, Nichiren, introduced as a method to correct Buddhist schools that had lost their way.
Just as remarkable is the fact that while Nichiren Buddhism was established in the 13th century in Japan, it continues to appeal to the same social groups in India today as it did in feudal Japan. In those days, Nichiren Buddhism was mainly practiced by the rising middle class of merchants and craftsmen, and Nichiren continues to be popular among India’s middle class today, the professionals of modern society having replaced the craftsmen.
Most young Nichiren Buddhists in India, many of them Bollywood stars, business managers, models, professionals in metropolitan centers, will swear that “Nam Myoho Renge Kyo” was brought to the shores of India at some point in the 1960s, by their beloved sensei, Daisaku Ikeda, the present and “Eternal President” of Soka Gakkai International.
The story of Nichiren Buddhism in India, however, begins in the year 1931.
Nichidatsu Fujii was born in Japan on 6 August 1885. He was ordained as a monk at the age of 19, and at the age of 28 he had a dream that his destiny was to spread the teachings of Nichiren. Relying on a prophesy in the Lotus Sutra that Buddhism would spread from East to West, he decided to travel West. Unfortunately, the imperial government convinced him that west was Manchuria and China. Together with a group of like-minded disciples he formed the Nippon-zan Myohoji Dai-sangha (Japan-Mountain Wonderful Dharma-Temple Great Sangha), funded by the government, and the members of the sangha were given military titles.
During his time in China, Nichidatsu send dispatches to the imperial government, providing them with valuable intelligence on the movements of Chinese troops and other logistics. This arrangement, however, came to an abrupt end when the disastrous earthquake of 1923 struck Japan. Nichidatsu attributed the earthquake to the sins of the Japanese government—as Nichiren did in his time when disaster struck Japan—resulting in him breaking ties with the government. It was during this time that it dawned on Nichidatsu that “west” might refer to India, the land of the Buddha.
Nichidatsu arrived in Calcutta in 1931, and met Mahatma Gandhi at his ashram in Wardha in 1933. Their first meeting was very short, but “Nichidatsu was so overcome with emotion at being in the presence of Gandhi that he could only stand with his hands pressed reverently together while tears of joy poured down his face. . . . It is thanks to Gandhi that Nichidatsu became completely dedicated to the cause of non-violence.”(Montgomery 1991, 256) After the meeting, Gandhi asked Nichidatsu to remain at his ashram and gave him the name “Fuji Guruji.”
The experience of Ghandhi picking up Nichidatsu’s drum and chanting left a deep impression on Nichidatsu. He writes in his memoirs, “When Gandhiji beat the Dharma-drum of Namu Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo . . . the independence of India was assured in the near future. . . . We were drawn into the laughter of Gandhiji and laughed rejoicingly together. It was like a dream.” (Fujii 1980, as quoted in Montgomery 1991, 257)
Nichidatsu is best known for constructing pagodas all over the world as symbols of peace. He started the initiative after World War II, and the first peace pagodas were erected in the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where more than 150,000 people, mostly civilians, perished due to the atomic bombs. After building these two pagodas, Nichidatsu returned to India to build a peace pagoda in Rajgir, in 1965. Probably the first gohonzon* in India was enshrined in this pagoda.
In addition to the pagodas, Nippon-zan Myohoji has been involved in various movements for peace and justice around the world.
“We must go out among the people.” Nichidatsu taught. “In the sutra there is a line that states, ‘So this man, practicing in the world, shall disperse the gloom of living.’ Religion, which does not ‘go’ will not be able to provide the relief which must be brought about. . . . Religion becomes isolated from the happenings of the world because it tends to be occupied in seeking solutions to one’s own spiritual matters. If we fail to prevent a nuclear holocaust, one’s desire for security is nothing but a dream. All must be awakened.” (Dharma Walk)
Almost 30 years after Nichidatsu first set foot in India, another Japanese monk, Surai Sasai, followed in his footsteps. Bhadant Nagarjun Arya Surai Sasai was born in 1935 and went to India in 1966. In India, he met Nichidatsu Fujii, whom he helped to build the Peace Pagoda at Rajgir. After a disagreement with Nichidatsu, Surai Sasai originally intended to return home to Japan, but a dream stopped him. In the dream, a figure resembling Nagarjuna** appeared, saying: “Go to Nagpur.”
In Nagpur, Surai Sasai met Wamanrao Godbole, who had organized the mass conversion ceremony in 1956, with Dr. B. R. Ambedkar. According to Surai Sasai, a portrait of Dr. Ambedkar in Godbole’s home, made him realize that it was in fact not Nagarjuna, but Dr. Ambedkar who had appeared in his dream. Surai Sasai built the second Myoho temple in Nagpur, the first having been built by Nichidatsu in Raigir, and was granted Indian citizenship in 1987. He is one of the main leaders of the campaign to “liberate” Mahabodhi Temple at Bodh Gaya from Hindu control—the law governing the administration of Mahabodhi Temple ensures that the committee in charge of the temple will always have a Hindu majority.
Many years ago, I was travelling in the region of Nagpur, visiting various historical and archeological sites. At one point, we stopped at a little house at the foot of a hill that was thought to house a temple with the remnants of Nagarjuna’s alchemical laboratory. The man living in the house with his family was called Angulimala by the locals and was the caretaker of the monastery across the road. Over a cup of tea, we learned that before he converted to Buddhism, Angulimala was a “bill collector”—a contract killer. Like the Angulimala of legend he had stopped in his tracks when he encountered Buddhism. In one corner of the humble abode was a small shrine with a Nichiren gohonzon given to him by Surai Sasai. His daughter was keen to do some chanting with me, so we sat crosslegged in front of the shrine and chanted “Nam Myoho Renge Kyo” for about five minutes.
In his case, Shakubuku had worked.
* A gohonzon, an object of veneration in Nichiren Buddhism; a calligraphic mandala inscribed by Nichiren.
** One of the most important Mahayana Buddhist philosophers.
Aspi Mistry is a coordinator and founding member of the Dharma Rain Centre for Buddhist Studies in Mumbai. A book and poetry lover, a practicing Buddhist interested in all spiritual traditions, and a Free Tibet and human rights activist, who likes to say, with apologies to Shantideva, “May I be a thorn in the sides of those who desperately need a thorn in their sides . . .”
Montgomery, D. B. 1991. Fire in the Lotus: The Dynamic Buddhism of Nichiren. London: Thorsons Publishing.
Fujii, N. 1980. Buddhism for World Peace. Translated by Y. Miyazaki. Tokyo: Japan-Bharat Sarvodaya Mitrata Sangha