Japanese Buddhism

Nara Buddhism

Yamato Buddhism   In 552, the emperor of the Korean Paekche sent to Japan an image of Buddha along with some Buddhist scriptures. The Emperor of Japan, Kimmei, was pleased with the gift and the head of the most powerful clan in Japan, the Soga, urged that Buddhism be embraced as the new religion of Japan. For Buddhism was the religion of the civilized west and Japan had just begun actively importing the culture of China and Korea.

   Outside of the Emperor and the Soga, the reception given Buddhism was less than enthusiastic. Each of the clans worshipped their own kami , or gods; the chief of these gods, the Sun Goddess Amaterasu, was the creator of the world. Japan was the center of creation and the Japanese a select people. Buddha, on the other hand, was a foreign god, one that did not create the universe or have any central role in the pantheon of gods. Was it worth angering one's native gods? What did Buddha have to offer that the powerful gods of the native Japanese religion couldn't?

   The conservative reaction against Buddhism was overwhelming. The Soga set up a shrine for the image of Buddha and began to venerate it, but when an epidemic spread across Japan, the conservative aristocracy demanded that the Emperor destroy the image. The Buddha image was cast into a moat and the Soga were forced to burn their shrine.

   A few decades later, Buddhism made its way back to Japan in 584. Again, the Soga clan was instrumental in its arrival. When a member of the Soga clan was given two images of Buddha, he then set up a temple for them and had a girl ordained as a Buddhist nun in order to attend to the shrine. As before, an epidemic swept through Japan and the images were destroyed. But Korea had begun to send Buddhist monks and priests and managed to convince Prince Shotoku, the regent who composed the Japanese Constitution, to convert to the religion. Shotoku, in fact, became a fervent Buddhist; the establishment of Buddhism in the royal court certified its permanence.


Nara Buddhism   The Nara period (709-795 AD) saw the flowering of Buddhism in Japan; it was limited, however, to the capital and the royal court. For the bulk of Japan was culturally unaffected by the adoption of Chinese urban culture and Chinese Buddhism. Nevertheless, the earliest stages of Nara Buddhism were dominated by Korean and Chinese monks and priests. They brought with them Buddhist rituals, clothing, architecture, art, and books; the Nara period represents the most active period of cultural imports into Japan. Not only did the Buddhist priests and monks flooding Japan bring cultural artifacts, they also brought non-Buddhist ideas, such as the Chinese schools of Taoism, Confucianism, and the Yin-Yang physical theories.


Buddhism
Mahayana Buddhism
   Because the bulk of Japanese Buddhists in the Nara period were Korean and Chinese, Nara Buddhism was essentially identical with Chinese Buddhism of the same period (T'ang China). Three main schools dominated Chinese and Japanese Buddhism at the time: the "Three Treatises" school (in Japanese, Sanron ), the Dharma Character school (in Japanese, Hosso ), and the "Flower Wreath" school (in Japanese, Kegon ). Each of these schools, like all Chinese Buddhism, were branches of Mahayana Buddhism which had arisen in India in the second century AD. All three schools believed that the universe was in constant flux and constant change. All external reality and all perceptions change as well, so there is no certainty in things. The goal is to attain the Ultimate Truth, which is equivalent to the overall principle of the universe; this Ultimate Truth can only be attained if one frees oneself from the external world and deceptive sense perception. At the same time, all three schools were overwhelmingly moral in their outlook. Like most forms of Mahayana Buddhism, they did not expect full participation by everyone. For those who could not dedicate themselves to the monastic life, there still remained the possibility of starting down the road towards enlightenment by behaving in an altruistic manner in the current life. The Kegon school, for instance, taught that all beings are interrelated as if they were part of a large wreath of flowers; they emphasized communion and friendliness.


   The ultimate Buddhist ideal, however, was rule by a priest of Buddha; such a sovereign would create a Buddha-Land here on earth. In 766, Japan came very close to realizing this ideal when the Empress Shotoku tried to abdicate her throne in favor of the master of the Hosso, Dokyo. The conservative aristocracy, however, rebelled and Japan failed to become the first Buddha-Land.

Richard Hooker



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1996, Richard Hooker
Updated 6-28-97