1271: Not Nichiren, at the Tatsunokuchi Persecution

Add comment October 17th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1271, the Japanese Buddhist priest Nichiren was taken away to be executed by his political foes … only to find them spooked off completing their mission by terrifying heavenly signs.

He’s the founder of the still-extant school of Nichiren Buddhism, his name concatenating the words for Sun (Nichi) and Lotus (Ren) — for he centered his philosophy on the Lotus Sutra.

Nichiren (English Wikipedia entry | Japanese) was a major, and controversial, teacher in the mid-13th century: attributing a series of devastating natural disasters in the 1250s to the enervated spiritual condition of the populace owing to non-Lotus Sutra strains of Buddhism attracted enough enmity that he faced multiple assassination attempts, and was exiled to the Izu Peninsula in 1261. (He was suffered to return a couple of years later.)

Nichiren’s doomsaying got a lot more credible — a lot more dangerous — by the end of that decade when the expanding Mongols reached the coasts of China and Korea and started threatening Japan. He’d literally forecast foreign invasion as a consequence for failing to get your lotus right and the arrival of that very prospect drew followers to Nichiren. He intensified his preaching against the rival, but state-favored, varietals of Buddhism.

Summoned to court for questioning, Nichiren remonstrated effectively with his opponent Hei no Saemon. By the prophet’s own account, “on the twelfth day of the ninth month” of Japan’s lunisolar calendar — corresponding, per this calendar converter, to the 17th of October of 1271 by the Julian calendar — an armed host abducted Nichiren and carried him to Tatsunokuchi for beheading.

Instead the would-be executioners were shaken to their core, as Nichiren described in his autobiographical The Actions of the Votary of the Lotus Sutra.

That night of the twelfth, I was placed under the custody of the lord of the province of Musashi and around midnight was taken out of Kamakura to be executed. As we set out on Wakamiya Avenue, I looked at the crowd of warriors surrounding me and said, “Don’t make a fuss. I won’t cause any trouble. I merely wish to say my last words to Great Bodhisattva Hachiman.” I got down from my horsee and called out in a loud voice, “Great Bodhisattva Hachiman, are you truly a god? When Wake no Kiyomaro was about to be beheaded, you appeared as a moon ten feet wide. When the Great Teacher Dengyo lectured on the Lotus Sutra, you bestowed upon him a purple surplice as an offering … If I am executed tonight and go to the pure land of Eagle Peak, I will dare to report to Shakyamuni Buddha, the lord of teachings, that the Sun Goddess and Great Bodhisattva Hachiman are the deities who have broken their oath to him. If you feel this will go hard with you, you had better do something about it right away!” Then I remounted my horse.

Finally we came to a place that I knew must be the site of my execution. Indeed, the soldiers stopped and began to mill around in excitement. Saemon-no-jo, in tears, said, “These are your last moments!” I replied, “You don’t understand! What greater joy could there be? Don’t you remember what you have promised?” I had no sooner said this when a brilliant orb as bright as the moon burst forth from the direction of Enoshima, shooting across the sky from southeast to northwest. It was shortly before dawn and still too dark to see anyone’s face, but the radiant object clearly illuminated everyone like bright moonlight. The executioner fell on his face, his eyes blinded. The soldiers were filled with panic. Some ran off into the distance, some jumped down from their horses and huddled on the ground, while others crouched in their saddles. I called out, “Here, why do you shrink from this vile prisoner? Come closer! Come closer!” But no one would approach me. “What if the dawn should come? You must hurry up and execute me — once the day breaks, it will be too ugly a job.” I urged them on, but they made no response.

The warriors could by no means be persuaded to do their duty in the face of this dread omen. Eventually the lot of them — executioners and former prisoner alike — wandered off together and drank some well-earned sake as comrades. Nichiren’s official pardon arrived the next morning.

The incredible event is known as the Tatsunokuchi Persecution, and (obviously) remembered as a watershed moment in Nichiren’s life.

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Entry Filed under: 13th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,History,Japan,Last Minute Reprieve,Lucky to be Alive,Not Executed,Pardons and Clemencies,Power,Religious Figures

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1793: Jean-Sylvain Bailly, moonstruck

Add comment November 12th, 2011 Headsman

See Bailly, likewise of Paris, time-honoured Historian of Astronomy Ancient and Modern. Poor Bailly, how thy serenely beautiful Philosophising, with its soft moonshiny clearness and thinness, ends in foul thick confusion — of Presidency, Mayorship, diplomatic Officiality, rabid Triviality, and the throat of everlasting Darkness! Far was it to descend from the heavenly Galaxy to the Drapeau Rouge: beside that fatal dung-heap, on that last hell-day, thou must ‘tremble,’ though only with cold, ‘de froid.’ Speculation is not practice: to be weak is not so miserable; but to be weaker than our task. Wo the day when they mounted thee, a peaceable pedestrian, on that wild Hippogriff of a Democracy; which, spurning the firm earth, nay lashing at the very stars, no yet known Astolpho could have ridden!

Carlyle

On this date in 1793, French astronomer turned revolutionary Jean-Sylvain Bailly was guillotined during the Paris Terror.

Bailly ditched a family trade in the arts — his father was a supervisor at the Louvre — and turned his gaze skyward.

Studying astronomy under Lacaille, Bailly made a quick splash in astronomical circles with meticulous work on Halley’s Comet and the moons of Jupiter. He was inducted into the French Academy of Sciences while still in his twenties. Not quite the guy every schoolchild knows, but a significant scientist in his time. As one twentieth-century reviewer put it,*

Bailly was not a great thinker or the discoverer of new concepts; no case can be made for placing his name beside those of Newton, Leibnitz, and Laplace. But he should not be denied a niche among the numerous competent and persevering work-a-day scientists who, perhaps, in the long run make possible the achievements of a few great men. His observations and reductions, his application of a mathematical discipline to the movements of the heavenly bodies, and his detailed publications had brought him, by 1766, considerable credit among fellow scientists.

His “considerable credit” in the public sphere, enhanced by his widely-admired writing, set him up for election to the Estates-General in 1789. Indeed, Bailly was elected to head the body’s Third Estate.

On June 20th of that pregnant year, days after the Estates-General had constituted itself a National Assembly with ambitions far outstripping the limited purpose of revenue collection the king intended them for, Louis XVI locked the delegates out of their meeting-room.

Bailly, in consequence, would lead one of the pivotal actions of the embryonic French Revolution. “I do not need to tell you in what a grievous situation the Assembly finds itself,” he said to the assembly reconvened at a nearby tennis court. “I propose that we deliberate on what action to take under such tumultuous circumstances.” The result of that deliberation was the Tennis Court Oath.


Detail view (click for the full image) of Jean-Sylvain Bailly administering the Tennis Court Oath, in Jacques-Louis David‘s sketch of the event.

When the Paris provost — an archaic municipal office — was shot by the mob on Bastille Day, Bailly became the City of Light’s first mayor.

But as with other principals of the Revolution’s earliest stirrings, like Bailly’s ally Lafayette, the man was left behind by the rapid progress of events. He’d been two years retired out of public service in Nantes when he was hailed before the Revolutionary Tribunal on the preposterous charge of having conspired in Louis XVI’s attempted flight and guillotined on that basis.

A lunar crater — the largest crater visible from earth — is appropriately named after this prolific observer of the heavens.

* Edwin Burrows Smith, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, New Series, Vol. 44, No. 4 (1954).

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Intellectuals,Politicians,Power,Treason

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1449: Ulugh Beg, astronomer prince

Add comment October 27th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1449, Timurid sultan and astronomer Ulugh Beg was beheaded at the order of his son.


Ulugh Beg and his famous astronomical observatory, depicted on a Soviet stamp.

Grandson of the conqueror Timur (Tamerlane), Ulugh Beg had hitched along on some of those legendary military campaigns.

As power passed to Ulugh Beg’s father Shah Rukh, our man settled in as governor of the silk road city of Samarkand, in modern Uzbekistan — and turned it into an intellectual capital of the empire.

A great patron of the sciences, Ulugh Beg was a brilliant astronomer in his own right, nailing NASA-quality precise calculations of heavenly bodies’ positions and the revolutions of the earth a century ahead of the likes of Copernicus.

An inscription on the madrasah he erected summed up the city’s philosophy under its philosopher-prince: “Pursuit of knowledge is the duty of each follower of Islam, man and woman.”

Wedding scientific genius to political power enabled Ulugh Beg to build a great observatory in Samarkand. Though this structure unfortunately did not outlive Ulugh Beg himself, it made Samarkand the world’s astronomical capital in the 1420s and 1430s.

But the flip side of wedding scientific genius to political power was that the guy had to govern — which wasn’t his strong suit. Within two years of his father’s 1447 death, Ulugh Beg had been overthrown by his own son* and summarily beheaded.

* The son became known as “Padarkush”, meaning “parricide” … and appropriately, he was overthrown by his own cousin within months.

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Entry Filed under: Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Execution,Famous,Heads of State,History,Intellectuals,No Formal Charge,Power,Royalty,Summary Executions,Timurid Empire,Uzbekistan,Wrongful Executions

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