Hōon-jō is an extensive work written by Nichiren Shōnin as an offering of merit for his deceased master Dōzen-bō, and is counted as one of his "Five Major Works".
Nichiren Shōnin entered Seichōji Temple in the first year of Tenpuku (1233) when he was 12 years old, and officially left the home life (ordained as a Buddhist monk) with Dōzen-bō as his master in the third year of Katei (1237), when he was 16. Later, having awakened his faith in the Lotus Sūtra, Nichiren Shōnin came under attack from local influential Nembutsu believers. Worried and concerned for Nichiren Shōnin’s safety because of this, Dōzen-bō had him evacuated from Seichōji Temple. However, although Dōzen-bō cherished Nichiren Shōnin, he unfortunately did not take refuge in the teaching of the Lotus Sūtra at that time.
Dōzen-bō passed away in the second year of Kenji (1276), and the news of his passing reached Nichiren Shōnin in the mountains of Minobu soon thereafter. Because he had left the world and entered seclusion in the mountains, Nichiren Shōnin couldn’t descend the mountain, and so instead of delivering his message of condolence in person, he put his message in writing as the Hōon-jō, which was sent with instructions that it should be read aloud in front of Dōzen-bō’s grave as well as two or three times in the Asahigamori forest of Mt. Kiyosumi, where Seichōji temple is located. (Asahigamori is said to be the place where Nichiren Shōnin, as a young man who had just finished his studies, chanted the Daimoku with determination before beginning his lifelong mission of propagation)
The content is, so to speak, the culmination of Nichiren Shōnin’s thought, summarising the knowledge of Buddhism that he had cultivated over the course of his lifetime and describing the significance of his own practice. It may have been intended to be a report of the results of his studies to his master, or to encourage Dōzen-bō’s adoption of faith in the Lotus Sūtra at his life’s end.
At the beginning is the sentence, "The old fox never forgets the hillock where he was born." An old fox, when it is nearing death, is said to return to the burrow where it grew up. Nichiren Shōnin says that, in this way, even animals do not forget the kindness of being raised, so giving back (Hō-on 報恩) is most important for humans as well. And in order to achieve true “repayment”, we must master the excellent teaching of Buddhism. However, in order to master Buddhism it is necessary to practise and study without losing one’s focus, leaving aside even parents and masters. Śākyamuni Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, also abandoned his parents at first in order to leave the home life, but after becoming the Buddha went on to become the person with the most filial piety in the world with his merit ... In this way, what appears at first to be a lack of gratitude is necessary to be able to achieve the true repayment of kindness which is only possible with Buddhism.
In this work Nichiren Shōnin recalls how he had left his parents and his master, Dōzen-bō, to embark on his path of research into the Buddha’s teachings, going on to summarise the broad and deep knowledge of Buddhism that he had obtained as a result of that quest. After reviewing the entire history of Buddhism, he draws the conclusion that the Lotus Sūtra is the number one teaching of all the Buddha’s teachings.
The Tendai School, which was established by Tendai Daishi (Zhìyǐ) in China and made popular in Japan by Dengyō Daishi (Saichō), is based on the Lotus Sūtra, and Nichiren Shōnin had also once studied at its Head Temple on Mt. Hiei, and deeply respected its teachings. However, Nichiren Shōnin expressed his determination to go further and spread the teachings of the Lotus Sūtra which “have not been preached until now”. The “teachings which have not been preached until now" are formulated as the “Three Great Hidden Dharmas” (sandai hihō 三大秘法) and are presented at the end of this work.
First, people in Japan and around the world should have the Buddha who preached the Honmon section* of the Lotus Sūtra as their “Gohonzon” - Principle Focus of Reverence. In the Honmon section of the Lotus Sūtra, Śākyamuni Buddha sits side-by-side with the Buddha of the past, Many-Treasures Buddha, in the stūpa of treasure, and summons the Bodhisattvas of the Earth, his true disciples, and reveals that his true form is eternal (see: Kanjin Honzon-shō). This Eternal Buddha, Śākyamuni, is designated as the “Honzon” - the Principal Focus of Reverence.
The second Hidden Dharma is the Kaidan (Precept Platform) based on the Honmon section (Origin Gate) of the Lotus Sūtra. The Term “Precept Platform” literally refers to the place where one receives the precepts, in other words, the place where the ceremony in which one becomes a Buddhist is held. Nichiren Shōnin did not leave a detailed explanation of his Hidden Dharma of the “Precept Platform”, but it seems to refer to the place where, having met the Lotus Sūtra, one realises and implements one’s faith.
Thirdly and lastly, Nichiren Shonin says in conclusion that people all over the world should chant the Daimoku of “Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō” as a priority above all else.
Nichiren Shōnin consolidated his unique teachings and practice in the form of the “Three Great Hidden Dharmas”, the Honzon, Kaidan and Daimoku, that is, to face the Gohonzon at the “Precept Platform”, and chant the Daimoku, “Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō”, and then said, “If my (Nichiren’s) compassion is truly broad and far-reaching, “Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō” will continue to spread long into the future.”
At the end of the Hōon-jō Nichiren Shōnin concludes with the words: “Flowers return to the roots, and the essence remains in the soil. These merits gather in the Holy Spirit of the late Dōzen-bō”, expressing his wish that just as flowers which have bloomed return to their roots, and the taste of fruit which has ripened and fallen remains in the ground from which it has come, the merits of his practice and propagation of the Lotus Sūtra will accumulate in the Holy Spirit of Dōzen-bō.
*Honmon Section (Origin Gate): The Lotus Sūtra is made up of 28 chapters. The first half, from Chapter 1, “Introduction” up to Chapter 14, “Peaceful Practices” is known as the “Shakumon” 迹門 (Trace Gate) section; and the second half, from the 15th Chapter, “Appearance of Bodhisattvas from Underground” to the 28th Chapter, “The Encouragement of Samantabhadra Bodhisattva” is called the “Honmon” 本門 (Origin Gate) section.
The grave of Nichiren Shōnin’s master, Dōzen-bō, at Seichōji Temple.
The first page of the Hōon-jō, “Essay on Repaying Kindness” written by Nichiren Shōnin in 1276. Kept at Ikegami Honmonji Temple.
Seichōji Temple, where Nichiren Shōnin was ordained, and where he gave his first sermon having completed his studies across Japan.