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History of Japanese Buddhism





To some extent, Japanese Buddhism can be thought of as a series of imports from China. Over the centuries, starting as early as 500 C.E., both lay devotees and monks traveled to the mainland, bringing back with them layer after layer of Buddhist teachings and practices along with other Chinese cultural traditions. At the same time however, as the religion developed in Japan, it often did so along paths not followed on the mainland.

The official story of the arrival of Buddhism to Japan states that a political delegation arrived from Korea in 538 C.E.

Among the gifts it brought for the Emperor were a bronze Buddha image, some sutras, a few religious objects and a letter warmly praising the most excellent Dharma. After initial opposition, the gifts were accepted, and a temple was built to house the objects. However, an epidemic which ravaged the land was interpreted as bringing the wrath of the indigenous kami (Japanese Shinto deities) down on the nation. This led to the objects being thrown into a canal and the temple being destroyed.

Nevertheless, during the course of the next half century,

Japan witnessed the firm establishment of Buddhism as a religion officially recognized and actively supported by the imperial court, thus overcoming doubts about its efficacy as a means of preventing disease, and also overcoming the fear of the national kami. In these early days, the most important aspect with regard to the flow of Chinese culture into Japan was the introduction of the Chinese script. This provided the means for the Japanese (who did not possess an indigenous writing system of their own) to assimilate the vast tradition of Chinese classics, and the Chinese version of the Buddhist canon. Only very few imported Chinese texts were translated into Japanese; most have continued throughout their history to be used in their original version.

The main three characteristics of the arrival of Buddhism in Japan are as follows.

Firstly, it did not come to Japan on a popular level, but was only accepted by the imperial court and then disseminated in the country from the top. Often, Buddhist faith in Japan is connected with absolute devotion to a leader with emphasis on veneration of the founders of sects, and the majority of sects keep close relations to the central governmental authority of their times.

Secondly, Buddhism was often associated with magic powers, and was used by the court as a means of preventing or curing disease, bringing rain and abundant crops etc.

Thirdly, Buddhism did not replace the indigenous kami, but always recognized their existence and power. This led to numerous varieties of Shinto-Buddhist amalgamation, in which often the kami were considered manifestations of the Buddhas. This is typical of how Buddhism favours harmonious coexistence with indigenous beliefs, and it was to be a similar story when Buddhism subjugated local gods and spirits in Tibet a few centuries later.

During the course of the development of Buddhism in Japan,

the prevailing tendency is to search for fulfillment and ultimate truth, not in any transcendental sphere, but within the structure of secular life, neither denying nor repressing man’s natural feelings, desires or customs. This perhaps explains why many Japanese arts and skills are pervaded by Buddhist spirituality. Well known examples being the tea ceremony, the arts of gardening, calligraphy and the No play.

The initial period saw the introduction onto Japanese soil of the six great Chinese schools, including the Hua-Yen and Lu, that became respectively the Kegon and Ritsu in Japanese. In terms of geography, the six sects were centered around the capital city of Nara, where great temples such as the Todaiji and Hokkeji were erected. However, the Buddhism of this early period – later known as the Nara period – was not a practical religion, being more the domain of learned preists whose official function was to pray for the peace and prosperity of the state and imperial house. This kind of Buddhism had little to offer the illiterate and uneducated masses, and led to the growth of “people’s priests” who were not ordained and had no formal Buddhist training. Their practice was a combination of Buddhist and Taoist elements, and the incorporation of shamanistic features of the indigenous religion. These figures became immensely popular, and were a source of criticism towards the sophisticated academic and bureaucratic Buddhism of the capital.

Heian Period (794-1185)

This architeture, which is called Byuoudouin,was build in Heian Period.
This architeture, which is called Byuoudouin,was build in Heian Period.

In 794, the imperial palace of Japan moved to Kyoto,

and it is from this date that important changes and developments take place which result in the emergence of a more characteristically Japanese form of Buddhism. Two schools – the Tendai and the Shingon – particularly came to the fore, in time supplanting the other established schools, and laying the foundations for future developments.

Two monks, Saicho (767 – 822) and Kukai (774 – 835),

effected this change which so decisively affected the future of Japanese Buddhism. By their comprehensive syntheses of the Chinese doctrine, two systems of teaching and practice were created, which effectively furnished all the essentials for the entire further development of Japanese Buddhism .

Saicho, the founding father of the Tendai school,

entered the sangha at an early age. After years of study and practice, he became especially partial to the teachings of the Chinese grand master Chih-I and the T’ien-t’ai School, which were based on the Lotus Sutra. In 804, he went to China, and returned with an improved knowledge of various teachings and practices, along with many sutras. He established his base on Mount Hiei, and received permission to ordain two novices every year. Official recognition of his Tendai sect soon followed, and it became one of the two dominating schools of Japanese Buddhism during the Heian period.

The teachings of Chih-I form

a far-reaching synthesis of Buddhist tradition inspired by the Lotus Sutra, and Saicho was to add three further elements: the practice of Chinese Ch’an; the commandments of the Mahayana which are based in essentials on the Bonmokyo, and parts of the esoteric teaching of the “True Word”, Chen-yen (Shingon in Japanese). All this helped to make a decisive step away from the academic Buddhism of the early period, to a revived active kind of religion based on belief. An essential element in the doctrine of the Tendai was the teaching in the Lotus Sutra that the possibility of salvation is given to all.

Kukai and his secret doctrine,

known as the True Word, Shingon, had a mysterious radiance, which encouraged the formation of legends about him. During his early studies in Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism he came to know one of the principal texts of the esoteric canon, the Mahavairocana Sutra, but did not reach a deeper understanding of it. In 804, he traveled to China where all his doubts and questions with regard to the sutra were resolved; he returned to Japan with many new skills and instructions to impart. He founded his headquarters on Mount Koya on the Kii peninsular. His career was successful to the extent that he was allowed to build a Shingon temple in the emperor’s palace, where he performed esoteric rituals and ceremonies. In 835, Kukai sitting in deep meditation fell into complete silence. In the eyes of his devotees he is not dead, but still sits in timeless meditation on Mount Koya.

Esoteric practices

Esoteric practices were very influential to the point that they dominated the Heian period, and had a decisive influence on the subsequent Kamakura period. Even the more philosophical Tendai school adopted esoteric rituals in order to make it more popular with the general population, whilst figures such as Kukai succeeded by means of esoteric rites in making rain after a time of drought, giving Buddhist esotericism a magical attraction.

Towards the end of the Heian,

the dissemination of more popular devotional forms of Buddhism began, which were mainly derived from the Pure Land cult of Amitabha (Amida in Japanese). This was connected with the somewhat pessimistic philosophy of a deteriorating “final period of the dharma”, which became widespread during this time. The devotional cults basically propounded the notion that salvation was only possible through the intercession of buddhas and bodhisattvas, for example through the recitation and repetition of simple formula such as the Namu-Amida-butsu (the Nembutsu – “thinking on the Buddha”). There were other faith-based doctrines during this time, the most noteworthy being the belief in the bodhisattva Jizo, who dispenses help to beings on all levels of existence and it is still alive today.

Kamakura Period (1185-1333)

Architecture - Kamakura Period
Architecture – Kamakura Period

From the end of the 11th century,

a new military aristocracy in the provinces increasingly evaded the control of the central government, culminating in war between the Taira and Minamoto families. The latter were victorious and thereby acquired absolute power of the country, setting up a military government in Kamakura in the vicinity of present-day Tokyo. Minamoto-no Yoritomo received the title of Shogun with supreme military and police power, thus transferring rule from the court aristocracy to those of the warrior class (samurai). Inevitably, this was to change the whole cultural climate.

This new climate did not favour the study of abstruse philosophy or the performance of elaborate rituals, so more robust and generally accessible teachings became the order of the day. The Tendai and Shingon schools declined, and more earthy democratic movements such as Zen and the devotional schools advanced.

The doctrine of the Pure Land

The first of the three great traditions of Kamakura Buddhism, the doctrine of the Pure Land, continued the development which had begun in the Heian period. There was the founding of an independent Japanese sect of the Pure Land known as Jodo-shu by Genku (1133-1212), better known as Honen. He decided that Enlightenment was no longer achievable by the strength man alone, and that the only possible way was to surrender to Buddha Amida and rebirth into the Western Paradise Pure Land. New in Honen’s philosophy was that, while he recognized the scholastic apparatus of Mahayana philosophy, he concentrated on an intensified religious feeling which found expression in the simple invocation of the name Namu-Amida-Butsu, stamped by unshakeable faith in rebirth into Amida’s paradise.

Honen’s successor, Shinran-Shonin (1173-1262)

founded the True Sect of the Pure Land, Jodo-shinshu, which is the largest Buddhist sect in Japan today. In his chief work written in 1224, he explains that the doctrine, practice, belief and realization are all given by Amida Buddha and that nothing depends on man’s “own power” (jiriki). Instead, everything depends on the “power of the other” (tariki), namely that of the Buddha Amida. Shinran emphasized that the recitation of the Namu-Amida-butsu was simply the expression of thankfu joy for having received everything from Amida. It is worth noting that Shinran was a monk who decided to take a wife, with which he had five children, and thus he symbolizes a decisive turn in Japan towards lay Buddhism. He stressed that obedience to the Buddhist commandments and the performance of good deeds were not necessary to obtain deliverance; in fact it is precisely the bad man who can be assured of rebirth in Amida’s paradise if he wholeheartedly appeals to Amida.

While belief in Amida proceeds from the “strength of the other” (tariki),

Zen Buddhism teaches that man can come to deliverance and Enlightenment only from his own strength (jiriki). Zen (Chinese Ch’an, from Pali, jhana and Sanskrit, dhyana) places supreme emphasis on self-power: on the active mobilization of all one’s energies towards the realization of the ideal of enlightenment. There had been contacts between Japan and Zen doctrine since the 7th century. However, a lasting tradition that concentrated on Zen practice and led to the formation of a separate sect, was first created by the Tendai monk Eisai (1141-1215). During his studies in China, he had been introduced to the practice and doctrine of a branch of Zen which went back to Lin-chi (called Rinzai in Japanese), and on his return to Japan he started to disseminate the new doctrine.

Eisai established firm relations with the new military government in Kamakura

and the military caste that held sway there. They found the simple, hard and manly discipline of Zen more to their taste than the ritual and dogma of the old schools. In contrast to this, Zen Buddhism was greeted with less enthusiasm by the intellectual elite of cities such as Kyoto. There, established practice was represented by Tendai, Shingon and Pure Land with their beautiful rituals. The fierce demands of Zen, with its emphasis on personal effort and the promise of enlightenment rather than heaven, seemed rebarbative and disturbing to the elite. Eisai is also linked to the introduction of tea drinking in Japan, which in time was to lead to the creation of the “tea-way” which, though non-religious, was strongly influenced by the spirit of Zen and the Tea Ceremony.

In general, the monks involved in the transmission of Zen from China to Japan also transmitted Neo-Confucian values and ideas, which were themselves strongly influenced by Ch’an Buddhism and Hua-yen philosophy. The Zen masters added a Confucian moral to Buddhist spirituality, which appealed to the new warrior-class of the Kamakura. For many centuries, the big Rinzai temples in Japan were centres of Chinese learning in general, and Neo-Confucianism in particular. Furthermore, the Rinzai school is closely associated with Japanese arts and the “ways” – the aforementioned “tea way”, the “flower way”, the “way of archery” and others.

A second Chinese school of Zen, the Ts’ao-tung (Soto in Japanese),
introduced to Japan by Dogen (1200-1253). After four years of training in China under Master Ju-ching, Dogen returned to Japan in 1227, and eventually established the Eihei-ji temple in a remote province, which to this day remains one of the two main temples of the Japanese Soto Zen school. The foundation of Dogen’s Zen is the constantly emphasized principle that practice does not lead to Enlightenment, but is carried out in the state of being Enlightened; otherwise it is not practice. In a logically constructed picture of the world, he equates all being – the believer, his practice and the world – with the present moment, the moment of enlightenment. Striving for enlightenment would therefore be going astray. Dogen’s chief work was the Shobogenzo (The Eye and Treasury of the True Dharma).

After Pure Land and Zen,

the final great reformer and sect-founder of the Kamakura period was Nichiren (1222-82). After studying in Kamakura and training in Tendai doctrine and practice, he came to the conclusion that the highest, all-embracing truth lay in the Lotus Sutra, known in Japan as the Myoho-renge-kyo, the fundamental canonical text of the Tendai sect. However, Nichiren thought that for the simple ordinary person, Tendai dogma and the reading of the Lotus Sutra were too difficult. He proclaimed that the title, Myoho-renge-kyo, was the essence of the whole sutra, and that it was in fact identical with the state of Enlightenment of Shakyamuni Buddha. It was therefore sufficient to utter the title and find oneself in the state of highest enlightenment. This condition gave rise spontaneously to morally right behaviour, so that it was necessary for the state and society that all should follow the practice of the “invocation of the title.”

Two issues isolated Nichiren:

the militant style of his presentation, and his insistence that the Lotus Sutra should inform the practice of government. He constantly made his views public, and the hot worded language which he used spared neither secular or Buddhist establishments, and led to his eventual banishment to the island of Izu. He was soon pardoned, but his continued attacks on institutions so provoked government and clergy that he was sentenced to be executed. According to legend, the axe which was raised to behead him was struck by lightning. Off the hook, he again went into exile and further developed his writings. When he finally returned to the mainland, he devoted himself to his missionary activity and to the training of monks on Mount Minobu, until today the main temple of the Nichiren sect. In recent times, certain branches of Nichiren have been connected to nationalistic tendencies within Japan.

Later Periods

The demise of the Kamakura regime

inaugurated a new era of internal strife and fighting in Japan, which was to last into the seventeenth century. It also signaled the end of the truly creative phase of Japanese Buddhism. A slide into stagnation occurred, which was to broadly last until the end of the nineteenth century. According to the twentieth century Zen writer D.T. Suzuki, after the Kamakura period “what followed was more or less the filling-in and working out of details.”

In the 14th and 15th centuries,

the privileged relations of the Rinzai Zen sect with the military government permitted it to gain tremendous wealth. This led to the creation of what is known as the “Culture of the Five Mountains” which constitutes the summit of Japanese Zen culture. It included all the arts, such as architecture, painting, calligraphy and sculpture, as well as printing, gardening and medicine. Ikkyu (1394-1481), a priest of the Rinzai sect, was particularly known for his unconventional character, and he was an accomplished poet, calligrapher and painter.

Tokugawa Shogun
Tokugawa Shogun
The Tokugawa Shogunate

was to rule Japan from its bastion in Edo (Tokyo) for over two and a half centuries. It was to be the longest period of peace, and for the most part, prosperity in the history of the country. This was basically achieved by closing the country to the outside world, and establishing a regime of inflexible authoritarian control that created stability and order, but stifled all creative change and innovation. The Buddhist clergy was under the strict control of the government, and it was forbidden to found a new sect or build a new temple without special permission.

The Shogunate encouraged the Buddhist clergy of the sects in scholarly pursuits, hoping thereby to divert them from politics. Therefore a huge amount of learned literature was produced, and by the second half of the seventeenth century, editions of the Buddhist canon appeared, the most influential being that by Tetsugen of the new Obaku-shu sect.
Obaku-shu had been founded by the Chinese master Yin-yuan Lung-ch’i, a Rinzai Zen priest. It added a new flavour to Japanese Zen, not only by its syncretism (it contained elements of Pure Land Buddhism), but also by the introduction of rituals, customs and a new architectural style imported from Ming China.

From the Zen school during this period,

a few influential figures did emerge, the poet Basho and the Rinzai Zen masters Bankei and Hakuin being chief among them. Matsuo Basho (1644-94) was a poet who consciously transformed the practice of poetry into an authentic religious way; many of his finest poems (seventeen syllable haiku form) are thought to succinctly catch the elusive, often melancholy magic of the passing moment, and thereby express the true spirit of Zen. Bankei (1622-93) was an iconoclast who challenged orthodox Zen teaching. He spent many years intensively pursuing Enlightenment, and then at last he realized that he had been in possession of what he had been seeking all along, and decided that the term Un-born best described it. He thereafter advocated that people simply awaken to the unborn in the midst of everyday affairs, and he won himself a large audience which did not go down well with the Zen establishment.

Hakuin (1685-1768) is considered to be the restorer of the Rinzai sect in modern times. He revived the use of the koan, statements of Zen masters that are used as problems set to novices in Zen monasteries. They cannot be solved by rational thinking, and are designed to help open the mind to Enlightenment. Hakuin invented many new koans himself, adapted to the need of the times, in that they do not presuppose any scholarly knowledge of the Chinese Zen classics. His most famous koan being, “The sound produced by the clapping of two hands is easy to perceive, but what is the sound produced by one hand only?”

The restoration of the imperial regime in 1868

signaled the end of Japanese isolation. The pressure on Japan to reopen her doors simply becoming too great. There followed a temporary persecution of Buddhism when Shinto was made a state cult, however Buddhism was too firmly established in the affections of the Japanese people for this to last for long, and its religious freedom was effectively soon regained. For the first time in centuries, contact was made with other Buddhist countries, along with Western ones as well, and this served to encourage Buddhist scholarship, and various Buddhist universities were established by the first half of the twentieth century.

During the last 50 years,

the evolution of Buddhism has been closely linked to Japan’s history. The grip of the government during the Second World War over Buddhist institutions was rigid, and any writings in which Buddhism was placed above the authority of the state or the emperor were suppressed. The only opposition to this came from the Soka-gakkai, founded in 1930 as a non-religious society of teachers, and they were severely persecuted. Since the end of the war, Buddhism in Japan has once again revived, and there has been the foundation of many new sects, along with an ongoing reinvigoration as a result from sustained contacts with other peoples and cultures. Japanese Zen has also been successfully exported to many Western countries, in particular North America.

From Wisdom Books

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