"Nichiren, the founder (1222-1282): He was a complicated guy. The story is that Nichiren was the gifted son of a family that made its living from fishing. He described his family as candala - outcastes or untouchables, related to the fact that they made their living by killing (fish). Notwithstanding, his patroness seems to have been the widow of the imperially appointed lord of the area in present day Chiba prefecture, and the only thing that makes sense is that she supported him throughout his education from his training at the local Imperial temple, to his studies in Kamakura, and then later in the capital region including several years at Mt. Hiei. Suffice that although he was supported in extensive studies, he knew very well his status in society. He made no attempt to hide his humble background throughout his life and chided disciples who went to the capital to study and adopted the speech and mannerisms of the capital. He identified with the character of the people of the Kanto region, which might be something like the rugged frontiersman in American lore.
He seems to have been a sturdily built guy who could hold his own in a fight - he survived several assassination attempts including one where two of his guards were killed and he suffered a broken hand. He also survived two exiles, one of which was to Sado Island after being pardoned from an execution sentence. When he arrived in Sado it was the beginning of winter and his lodging was in a shrine with a hole in the roof and where the locals were hostile to him. This toughness probably served him well as a street preacher in Kamakura which was the military capital at the time. Its speculated that his "salt of the Earth" character won him support and sympathy, even from people he strongly disagreed with. Despite his troublesome activities, he seems to have had some sympathy from the highest levels of society who understood that his ultimate intention was concern for the people of Japan. He was offered government patronage after his return from Sado, but turned it down, instead retiring to Mt. Minobu where he spent most of the rest of his life.
Many of his direct disciples also suffered persecution including his followers in the Fuji district, three of whom were beheaded for refusing to renounce faith in the Lotus Sutra. Others lost their positions in the government and were dispossessed of their fiefs.
Nichiren Buddhists have been marginalized from the start. Its probably woven into our character - to be thorns. I'll come back to this.
Arguably, Nichiren's most important writing is Rissho Ankoku Ron (On Securing the Peace of the Land). It was presented to Hojo Tokiyori, the "retired" regent of the Kamakura Shogunate, on July 16, 1260. Though retired, Tokiyori in reality ruled Japan. The essay argued that the natural and human disasters afflicting Japan at the time were due to the abandonment of the True Buddha Dharma embodied in the Lotus Sutra. In particular, he criticized a particular form of Pure Land Buddhism that had spread widely in Japan at the time which encouraged single minded yearning for rebirth in Sukhavati while precluding any possibility of enlightenment or even progress on the path here in this life. The popularity of the message throughout the country amounted to a prevalent attitude of existential hopelessness. I think its unfair to put this all on the particular of Pure Land teachings - I think the real existential problem was due to the belief that the Degenerate Age of Dharma (Mappo) had started and amid the hardships of life of the time, Buddhism in general was believed to have lost efficacy. Anyway, the argument pissed a lot of people off - particularly those devoted to the Pure Land teachings which included at least one branch of the Hojo family.
The Doctrines - Nichiren's message is radically present oriented. It is derived from Tiantai/Tendai Buddhism which centers on a teaching called the Three Thousand Realms in a Single Thought Moment. In literal terms, its complicated, but I believe the message can be boiled down to this: Enlightenment is universally imminent; the causes of enlightenment are constant, ubiquitous, unavoidable even;the effects are constant, ubiquitous, unavoidable, even; Awakening is accomplished here and now, in all phenomena and activities, no matter how trivial or mundane; there is no particular practice to be followed, nor is any practice particularly not efficacious.
Nichiren recast the teaching somewhat. First, he retreated from the catholic message of Tendai to an extent. Kamakura Buddhism is characterized by "single practice", whether we consider Honen and Shinran (Pure Land), Dogen (Meditation), or Nichiren (Lotus Sutra). In a way, the Single Practice was a retreat from the chaotic melange of practices of Hiei, which at this time had also come to include numerous esoteric lineages. In any event, the "single practice" itself can only be understood in the context of Tendai, and so arguably, all Kamakura Buddhism is fundamentally Tendai, in the sense that Brook Ziporyn describes Tientai/Tendai being about Omnicentric Holism, ie. the center of the dharmadhatu is exclusivelylocated in every dharma, simultaneously. It follows that any practice leads to buddhahood, though some are implicitly more direct than others. Nichiren believed that the most direct path was the Lotus Sutra which he understood not as just a text, but the fundamental True Aspect of reality, which, all paths ultimately lead to anyway; we therefore should not bother with the roundabout paths that lead back to this path anyway - the only path is the True Aspect, everything else is diversion. Losing sight of this, one gets lost in the thicket of views.
Nichiren's explicit and uncompromising emphasis on the single True Aspect of Reality of course brought him into conflict with Pure Land which advocated rebirth in Sukhavati intermediate to the goal of enlightenment; "Zen" which asserted a transmission from the Buddha outside the Sutras (he has a great caricature of a zen practitioner in Conversation between a Sage and Unenlightened Man that I think many might find amusingly accurate when one encounters the comically opaque discourse in some zen circles); Shingon because of the assertion that esoteric rites were necessary to awakening; and institutional Tendai because it had become confused with the assimilation of so many different ideas and practices.
So, the here and now emphasis, the single practice emphasis, led to here and now energetic criticism of teachings that were in conflict with Nichiren's message. He focused on Pure Land criticism most simply because there were more Pure Land Buddhists in Japan at the time than anything else.
One other thing about Nichiren and his ideas before moving on - and this is critical - the entire dynamic of propagation and persecution lies at the heart of Nichiren's teachings on attaining enlightenment. Nichiren drew particular inspiration from certain stories in the Lotus and Mahaparinirvana Sutras about the Buddha's previous incarnations - Bodhisattva Sadaparibhuta (Never Disparaging) who was violently persecuted for constantly honoring people as future Buddhas, and King Sennyo who was all but killed protecting Buddhism from corrupt monks and nuns. These past lives, in which the Buddha had yet to attain any significant insight, were understood as pivotal points in Shakyamuni's spiritual evolution from which he no longer regressed. The forebearance and diligence despite only the meanest understanding of Buddha Dharma in the face of violent obstacles were understood to be like a blacksmiths fire which burns away all the impurities. By taking on and enduring hardships for the sake of spreading and protecting dharma, one is walking the profoundest Buddhist path. This idea framed all of the hardship Nichiren faced, and so he willingly endured and urged others to do the same.
This is the disposition of the persecuted as well as the revolutionary, and might well be why this message appeals to people who face profound struggles in their own lives, why so many black American Buddhists are Nichiren Buddhists. If life is tough, you have to be tough, and so you're religion is probably going to be tough, too. If your life is relatively comfortable, I don't know if this kind of passionate practice is going to appeal. Anyway, I think the teaching generally disposes us to always be for the underdog, fearlessly, to be thorns in the sides of those who would otherwise run roughshod over others.
So, Nichiren and his ideas set the stage to be consciously separate from other forms of Buddhism.
This separation has been a major theme in the development of Nichiren Buddhism - leading to not only separation from other schools, but rather stark distinctions within the tradition.
In the Kyoto civil wars of the 15th-16th c. Nichiren Buddhism became the creed of the merchant classes (in the Japanese class hierarchy, the lowest class, excluding the Burakumin or untouchable class). When the civil war came to its culmination, it basically led to the near complete genocide of Nichiren Buddhists in Kyoto. Out of that movement came the doctrine of fuju-fuse which means Not giving, not receiving (alms), and was an explicit rejection of Oda Nobunaga's calls for ecumenical reconciliation between the various Buddhist sects.
The forms of Nichiren Buddhism that are most prevalent in the US are probably SGI and then Nichiren Shoshu, the former being a splinter from the latter... Well, actually, is it correct to call it a splinter when SGI represents the majority of practitioners? Anyway, they were once closely aligned and acrimoniously split in the 1990's. Nichiren Shoshu is a fuju-fuse school, and so SGI, at least in its historical inception, was a fuju-fuse movement.
If you read old SGI literature, like The Human Revolution, and Ikeda's writings from the 60's and 70's, the fuju-fuse attitude is embedded. Kosen Rufu, the goal of SGI - a term derived from the Lotus Sutra - means wide propagation and was believed to be mean the conversion of 1/3 of humanity to Lotus Sutra faith. Now I think it has a gentler, vague meaning - World Peace.
Kosen Rufu was a massive goal, and at least in the 60's and 70's, even 80's, that was the actual goal of SGI. The teachings they spread were also radically, fire and brimstone Nichiren - in that any deviation from the Lotus Sutra, embodied for them in the Daimoku and Gohonzon, was an unacceptable compromise.
I think many people are familiar with how that agenda played out. It resulted in arguably the widest, most diverse propagation of Buddhism in the modern era, across the globe. At the same time, something that aggressive also has its collateral damage, and for the outsiders most aware of SGI which is probably other Buddhists, they became keenly conscious of downside of SGI and their activities, not to mention any legacy antagonism if they followed a Japanese tradition.
Chalk up some of the antagonism to some of the stuff brought up already - the Non-Nichiren Buddhist community tend to be white, new-agey, crunchy, relatively educated and affluent?, and the baggage that crowd carries from their high church backgrounds is going to lead to a little arrogance against a movement that is fairly colorful and proletariat.
A lot of it, though, I think derives from Nichiren's fundamental stance in setting himself apart. Those of us who are his spiritual heirs, this sets a baseline about how we view problems and guides us in activities."