The Buddhist teacher, Nichiren (1222-1282), questioned the political and social conditions of his time. In the 13th century, Japan was steeped in political and social turmoil. The Mongols were threatening to invade, the Japanese were fighting among themselves, the powerful inflicted great injustices upon the weak, and thousands were dying in the streets. "It was [in this] period that several religious giants appeared, and their lives and teaching became a beacon for so many others," Habito says.
Nichiren was one such leader. Based on his religious convictions, he questioned why there was so much violence in society, which led to a search for answers in the collection of Buddhist teachings called the Lotus Sutra. What he sought, Habito says, was a way to transform a society of injustice and turmoil to one grounded in principles of justice and truth. Nichiren felt it was important that the principles of Dharma -- living truth -- be practiced throughout society. "Nichiren wanted to change his society to one that emphasized greater equality, less discrimination, one that was more humane," Habito says.
Because Nichiren was a vocal opponent of the injustices he saw, his inquiries and criticism were unpopular with authorities, and he was persecuted for his beliefs. "That convinced him all the more of the authenticity of his religious mission," Habito says.
Habito first considered a contemporary analysis of Nichiren's writings while a graduate student at Tokyo University. He launched the work in 1995 when he received a Henry Luce III Fellows in Theology Grant. His research on the past elicits questions of reverence today, "about how one's religious convictions can lead to action toward greater justice and equality for all peoples," he says.
Habito, who joined SMU in 1989, earned degrees from Tokyo University, Sophia University, and Ateneo de Manila University. His more than a dozen books include Originary Enlightenment: Tendai Hongaku Doctrine and Japanese Buddhism, Mission and Ministry in Global Perspective: Religious Pluralism and Challenges to the Church, and Healing Breath: Zen Spirituality for a Wounded Earth.