Rev. Nikkyo Niwano, the late founder of Rissho Kosei-kai, was born on Nov. 15, 1906, in Suganuma, a small village in Niigata Prefecture, northern Japan. He was born into a farming family that was respected by the other villagers for their integrity and service to the community. His father and grandfather, who were both known for their kindness and generosity, were influential in shaping his character.
At the age of seven, the young boy entered elementary school, but even then he was expected to fulfill many responsibilities at home. Following the local custom of the time, he completed his formal education at the age of twelve and took his place among his family members as an adult.
In 1923, while still in his teens, he received permission from his father to go to Tokyo to find employment. His first job was with a rice shop; later he was employed by a charcoal dealer.
After serving three years in the Japanese navy, from 1926 through 1929, he returned to his last employment. A year later he married. After the birth of his first daughter in 1931 he went into business on his own, setting up a shop dealing in Japanese pickles. For several years after his return to Tokyo, he studied and practiced various spiritual disciplines and folk beliefs.
In August 1934 the Niwanos' second daughter, only nine months old, fell ill with Japanese sleeping sickness. At that time, the Niwanos could not afford hospital treatment for her. After exhausting every other possibility, the young father decided to accept the advice of a neighbor and consult Sukenobu Arai, a leader in a religious organization called Reiyukai. Niwano soon joined Reiyukai and began to follow its practice of offering reverence to the spirits of one's ancestors. Very quickly his daughter's physical condition improved. To Niwano, this proved the merit of Reiyukai, but what impressed him even more was the organization's emphasis on the Lotus Sutra, one of the most important scriptures of Mahayana Buddhism.
Revered by Buddhists as the core and culmination of the Buddha's teachings, the Lotus Sutra appealed to him as the perfect net in which to save all the world's people. It could help individuals as well as society as a whole, both physically and spiritually. He was deeply affected by what he learned. The more he read the text of the sutra, the more he was moved by its subtlety, profundity, and power. Two of its teachings suited his innermost feelings exactly: the way of compassion of the bodhisattva - helping others and serving all people in the world - and the ability of the lay believer both to save and be saved. The spirit of conviction he felt welling up inside him would not allow him to continue the halfway measure of spending most of his time at his job, devoting only his spare time to religious activities.
He then decided to change his occupation to one that would give him ample free time while it provided the opportunity to meet a great many people. He decided to open a neighborhood milk dealer's shop. In the milk business, home deliveries in the early mornings and evenings were the most pressing duties, leaving much of the rest of the day available for religious undertakings. One of his good customers was a woman who ran a small shop that sold ice in the summer and baked sweet potatoes in the winter. She was pale and sickly, frail from many years of pain and hardship caused by her former husband's infidelity and the death of their only child. She suffered from a variety of illnesses, and her doctors believed she did not have long to live.
Soon after she began receiving religious guidance from Niwano, however, her persistent ailments seemed to miraculously disappear. Once she felt certain of the efficacy of the Reiyukai teachings, she began enthusiastically taking part in its services. Even more surprising to the many who knew her was the vigorous way in which she went about conveying the teachings to others. On a single day she and Niwano, working together, brought nearly fifty people into the organization. This woman was the late Mrs. Myoko Naganuma, later to become known to many thousands of people as "Myoko Sensei."
Although Reiyukai's rapid growth at that time caused considerable excitement among its members, there were frequent disagreements among its top echelon of leaders. Although Niwano also felt excited, shadows of doubt were developing in the back of his mind. During a national meeting on January 7, 1938, its president made the statement that lectures on the Lotus Sutra were an out-of-date concept and that anyone who delivered them was in serious error. On the very next day, Niwano and Mrs. Naganuma agreed that because Reiyukai's position now was totally counter to their profound respect for the Lotus Sutra, they would have to resign as members. After further discussion they decided to form a new group, which originally consisted of about thirty members, people whom Arai, Niwano, and Mrs. Naganuma had taught in guidance sessions.
Ceremonies were held at Mrs. Naganuma's residence to solemnize the founding of the new organization, and a room in Niwano's home was made its headquarters. This was the birth of Rissho Kosei-kai, on March 5, 1938. Founder Niwano was then thirty-one years old and Cofounder Mrs. Naganuma, forty-eight.
Rissho in the organization's name means "establishing the teaching of the true Dharma (that is, the Lotus Sutra) in the world." The ko of Kosei signifies the mutual exchange of thoughts among people of faith - that is, the principle of spiritual unity among all human beings. Sei represents the perfection of one's personality, or the attainment of buddhahood. Kai simply means association or society.
Spiritual contacts and divine revelations were an important aspect of the practices and beliefs of Reiyukai in which Founder Niwano and Cofounder Naganuma had been trained by Arai. Several revelations directed Founder Niwano to devote himself fully to the Lotus Sutra. One of the earliest of these had to do with his reading: "You have the duty to spread the teachings of the Lotus Sutra throughout the world. Abandon all other reading and dedicate yourself to it alone." In abiding by this revelation, the founder developed an understanding for the most subtle aspects of the text.
By 1941, membership in Rissho Kosei-kai had reached one thousand, and the construction of a separate headquarters building became an absolute necessity. It was completed in May 1942. In the meantime, Founder Niwano and Cofounder Naganuma gave up their businesses to devote themselves full-time to their religious activities. Not long after the new headquarters was completed, however, it was already proving to be too small to hold all the people who came to receive guidance or attend religious services. Many members had to sit out-of-doors on grass mats. The meetings of the groups that gathered for counseling guidance came to be known as hoza sessions. These have remained among Rissho Kosei-kai's basic practices since its inception, although at the beginning the format was not fixed and the sessions could be held anywhere, at any time.
After Rev. Naganuma received a renewed lease on life as a result of her religious faith, she resolved to devote all her remaining years to disseminating the Lotus Sutra. Despite her advancing years, she worked tirelessly at this and providing guidance to Rissho Kosei-kai members. Her labors ultimately took a severe toll on her health. She gradually lost her appetite, yet as her illness progressed her mood seemed to brighten. She passed away peacefully on the evening of Sept. 10, 1957, at the age of sixty-seven. The funeral services were held on the following Sept. 14 and 15. As many as 250,000 members from all parts of Japan came to pay their final respects to her.
In 1958, Founder Niwano declared his intention to move actively into a new phase in which the true purpose of Rissho Kosei-kai would become clearer. The first step was the affirmation that the main focus of devotion for all members is the Great Benevolent Teacher and Lord, Shakyamuni, the Eternal Buddha.
Other important steps were undertaken at the same time. First, because the founder considered education so vital, he realized that the way to make the truth apparent to others was for each member to study the Lotus Sutra thoroughly and to apply its teachings in practical ways in all phases of their daily lives. To create a nationwide pool of energy for the application of the teachings in society at large, Founder Niwano revised the organizational structure of the branches to make them responsible to a local dissemination center.
In 1960 it was announced that Founder Niwano's eldest son, Nichiko, would succeed him as president. The decision to follow Japanese tradition and make the presidency hereditary was made by the Board of Trustees in accordance with Rissho Kosei-kai regulations.
In 1964, following eight years of construction, the Great Sacred Hall was completed as part of the headquarters complex in Tokyo and was formally opened as the main center for religious activities. A special image of the Eternal Buddha, as described in the Lotus Sutra, was enshrined there. The occasion was one that the founder and all members had long anticipated.
Six years later, Rissho Kosei-kai celebrated the completion of another facility in the headquarters complex, Fumon Hall. Fumon means "the gate open to all people." The hall is intended to be both a place that welcomes all regardless of race or creed and a site at which members can share fellowship and mutual experiences related to their faith.
The completion of Fumon Hall also symbolized a new direction for Rissho Kosei-kai. Starting from the late 1960s, increasing amounts of time, money, and effort have been devoted to the improvement of local communities, to interreligious cooperation, and to activities to promote world peace.
From Founder Niwano's first encounter with the Lotus Sutra, he had held that all religions spring from the same root. He felt that interreligious cooperation is possible if believers are enlightened to the universal truths of their own faith while respecting the beliefs and rituals of other religions.
As a first step toward promoting interreligious cooperation, the founder helped to establish Shinshuren (Federation of New Religious Organizations of Japan) in 1957. The following year Shinshuren became affiliated with the Japan Religions League. This was a landmark event in the early days of the ecumenical movement, when many established religions were less than friendly to new ones.
In 1965 Founder Niwano was the only non-Christian invited by Pope Paul VI to attend as a special guest the Second Vatican Council. The pope expressed his appreciation for the founder's efforts for interreligious cooperation, saying, "It is important for people of religion not to cling to factions or denominations, but to recognize one another and pray for one another." The pope's words reinforced the founder's determination to become a bridge between people of all faiths.
When the founder took part in the Peace Delegation of Religious Leaders for Banning Nuclear Weapons in 1963, he became acquainted with North American Unitarians. Ties between that group and Rissho Kosei-kai were strengthened when the late Dr. Dana McLean Greeley, then president of the Unitarian Universalist Association of America, visited Rissho Kosei-kai after attending the Japanese-American Inter-Religious Consultation on Peace in Kyoto in 1968. Dr. Greeley and Founder Niwano saw eye to eye in their strong desire to further interfaith dialogue. Unitarians have long cherished the goal of interfaith cooperation, and it was they who organized the International Association for Religious Freedom (IARF) in 1900. The meeting of Dr. Greeley and Founder Niwano led to the latter's being invited to the 1969 IARF Congress in Boston, which voted unanimously to welcome Rissho Kosei-kai as a member.
Liberal American religious leaders first conceived of a world religionists' conference for peace in the early 1960s. After several preparatory interreligious meetings, in which Founder Niwano was actively involved, the project came closer to fruition with the founding of the World Conference on Religion and Peace (WCRP) that eventually was to draw the participation of all of the world's major religious organizations. In 1969 Founder Niwano became chairman of the Japan Religions League's Committee for International Affairs, which in 1970 sponsored the first General Assembly of the WCRP, held in Kyoto. Some three hundred representatives of the world's leading religions from 39 nations discussed three major issues--disarmament, development, and human rights --and called for an end to the war then raging in Vietnam. Since that time, the WCRP has held general assemblies in Belgium, the United States, Kenya, Australia, Italy, and Jordan.
As a WCRP representative, Founder Niwano addressed the first Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly Devoted to Disarmament (SSD I) in 1978. He urged the leaders of the superpowers to work for general and complete disarmament, saying, "Instead of taking risks with arms, please take major risks for peace and disarmament."
In April 1979, the prestigious Templeton Foundation Prize for Progress in Religion was awarded to Founder Niwano in London for his achievement in interreligious cooperation and mutual understanding. In December of that year, Founder Niwano was asked by national senators and religious leaders of the United States to meet Iranian political and religious leaders to persuade them to release the Americans being held hostage by Iranian students in the U.S. embassy in Tehran. He met with the Iranian ambassador in Tokyo and explained his understanding of the issue, expressing the WCRP's hope for a peaceful solution. The following year he received an invitation from the Islamic Republic of Iran to join the International Conference on U.S. Intervention in Iran at Tehran. He met with Iranian Foreign Minister Qotbzadeh, requesting him to affect the prompt release of the hostages.
In July 1981, during the 24th Congress of the IARF, Founder Niwano was elected the 25th president of the IARF and it was decided that the organization would hold its triennial Congress in Japan in 1984, meeting for the first time in Asia. In June 1982, he addressed SSD II on behalf of the IARF. Rissho Kosei-kai had already mounted a nationwide campaign in Japan to collect signatures on a petition calling for disarmament and the abolition of nuclear weapons. The campaign amassed twenty-seven million signatures that were submitted to the UN at SSD II. In September the founder traveled to the Soviet Union at the invitation of the Russian Orthodox church. He visited the Kremlin, where he met with high-ranking Soviet officials to call for the prohibition of first use of nuclear weapons. In 1988 he addressed SSD III at the UN headquarters as the president of Rissho Kosei-kai.
On Nov. 15, 1991, his eldest son, Rev. Nichiko Niwano, succeeded him to become the second president of Rissho Kosei-kai, in the ceremony of the Inheritance of the Lamp of the Dharma. On April 13, 1994, Mrs. Naoko Niwano, who assisted the founder as his wife of 64 years, always holding a firm faith in the Lotus Sutra, died peacefully, with her husband and family at her bedside. On Nov. 3 of that year, Founder Niwano delivered the opening address at the opening session of WCRP VI, held in the Vatican's Synod Hall, as an honorary president of WCRP. Pope John Paul II, who sat beside Founder Niwano at the center of the dais, delivered a commemorative address at the opening session. In March 1998, Rissho Kosei-kai celebrated its sixtieth anniversary at the Great Sacred Hall with the attendance of many of the world's leading religious figures, who were in Japan to participate in a WCRP meeting. In March 1999, his dedication to interreligious cooperation for peace was the source for an autobiographical account published in Japanese under the title of Kono Michi: Ichibutsujo no Sekai o Mezashite (This Way: In Aspiration for the World of the One Buddha Vehicle). Founder Niwano passed away of natural causes in Tokyo on October 4, 1999.
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