Even though one may encounter a wise teacher and the true sutra and thereby embrace the correct teaching, when one resolves to break free from the sufferings of birth and death and attain Buddhahood, one will inevitably encounter seven grave matters known as the three obstacles and four devils, just as surely as a shadow follows the body and clouds accompany rain. Even if you should manage to overcome the first six, if you are defeated by the seventh, you will not be able to become a Buddha.
Let us leave the first six for now. The seventh is caused by the devil king of the sixth heaven. When an ordinary person of the latter age is ready to attain Buddhahood, having realized the essence of all the sacred teachings of the Buddha’s lifetime and understood the heart of the important teaching set forth in Great Concentration and Insight, this devil is greatly surprised. He says to himself, “This is most vexing. If I allow this person to remain in my domain, he not only will free himself from the sufferings of birth and death, but will lead others to enlightenment as well. Moreover, he will take over my realm and change it into a pure land. What shall I do?” The devil king then summons all his underlings from the threefold world of desire, form, and formlessness and tells them: “Each of you now go and harass that votary, according to your respective skills. If you should fail to make him abandon his Buddhist practice, then enter into the minds of his disciples, lay supporters, and the people of his land and thus try to persuade or threaten him. If these attempts are also unsuccessful, I myself will go down and possess the mind and body of his sovereign to persecute that votary. Together, how can we fail to prevent him from attaining Buddhahood?”
This letter is also referred to as “Before and after Sado” because it makes a clear distinction between the teachings the Daishonin expounded before his exile to Sado Island and those during and after his Sado exile. He compares the former to the pre-Lotus Sutra teachings, which Shakyamuni preached as an expedient to lead his disciples to the Lotus Sutra. Concerning his true teaching, the Daishonin says, “I secretly conveyed my teaching to my disciples from the province of Sado.” Quoting the Buddha’s words, he refers to that teaching simply as “this great Law.” More precisely, this teaching was explained in two of his most important writings, The Opening of the Eyes and The Object of Devotion for Observing the Mind.
The recipient of this letter is generally believed to be Misawa Kojirō, a lay follower of the Daishonin who was the lord of Misawa in Fuji District of Suruga Province, though some consider it given to Kojirō’s grandson, Masahiro.
At the start of “Letter to Misawa,” Nichiren Daishonin describes in a very simple way the nature of the devil king of the sixth heaven. He explains that because of this devil’s workings he has encountered one great persecution after another, and he indicates that a person qualified to be a genuine teacher of Buddhism in the Latter Day of the Law is one who has thoroughly defeated this devil king. According to this letter, Misawa and Nichiren had not been in contact for some time. But when a messenger arrived from this follower with whom he had long been out of touch, it seems Nichiren took the opportunity to offer important guidance and encouragement that would help deepen his faith. Nichiren makes three main points in this letter. First, he explains that his battle against the devil king of the sixth heaven has led him to encounter severe persecution. In doing so, he communicates the imperturbable life-state of someone who has triumphed over the devil king. Second, Nichiren asserts that the body of his teachings should be classified into two periods—“pre-Sado” and “post-Sado.” For his third point, the Daishonin states unequivocally that the erroneous teachings of the True Word school would in fact lead to the country’s destruction.
The Greater the difficulties and challenges we encounter, the greater the life-state we can develop. Therefore, we mustn’t be intimidated by the three obstacles and four devils. Nichiren himself faced the major ordeals of the Tatsunokuchi Persecution and the Sado Exile with supreme confidence and composure. Through battling great hardships, individuals can establish an inner state of indestructible happiness. And their example can open the way for countless others to similarly free themselves from suffering. The essence of devilish functions is to deprive people of their benefit and even their lives. This is achieved through undermining people’s resolve. Such functions work to destroy people’s desire to seek and continue advancing on the path to attaining Buddhahood. People persevere in faith and stay firmly committed to moving forward will remain impervious. Developing such inner strength is the true purpose of our Buddhist practice.