The Origins of Japanese Buddhism

By Frank Simons

Buddhism entered Japan from Korea as early as the year 535, at a time when the Japanese were suffering in a state of feudal warfare. There was a sense that the Japanese needed a new strategy and a new system of values to organize the affairs of the nation. The Japanese wanted to know how Buddhism could strengthen the power of the emperor and make peace with an indigenous religious tradition that, in many ways, was distinctly Japanese. This tradition is what we know today as Shinto, or “The Way of the Gods,” the indigenous nature and spirit worship of Japan, often associated with sacred places, such as Mount Fuji, and with the powerful phenomena of nature, such as the sun. The list of possible deities includes not just the forces of nature but anything that has superior power, like ancestors and the emperor. The most important deity is the sun goddess Ameterasu. The rising sun is the symbol of Japan, its power understood as being present in the lineage of the emperors. Shinto posed a challenge to Buddhism,and some perceived it as a threat. The two traditions eventually were seen as complementary; the deities of Shinto and Buddhism could be worshipped together.

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Buddhism: Part 21, “The Origins of Japanese Buddhism”
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One of the most important figures in the early history of Japanese Buddhism was Prince Shotoku, a confirmed and devout Buddhist, who felt Buddhism could unify the nation and promote the welfare of the people. He changed the ranks in the court to conform to a Chinese model, reformed the principles of etiquette, adopted the Chinese calendar, built highways to tie the empire together, established a system of government chronicles, and went on a building campaign to promote the worship of Buddha. During the Nara period (710–784), less than a century after the death of Shotoku, Buddhism effectively became a state religion. The Nara emperors sponsored serious monastic practice and attempted to introduce some of the philosophical traditions common in China. There was strong interest in key Mahayana sutras, especially the Golden Light, which stressed the ideal of the bodhisattva and the doctrine of Emptiness. One of its most attractive features was the prominence it gave the role of the king. At the end of the Nara period, the capital was moved to Kyoto, and Japan entered the Heian Period (794–1185), a time of peace, prosperity, and courtly sophistication.

The Heian period produced two important Buddhist schools: the Shingon, “True Word,” founded by Kukai and based upon a Chinese version of the Mantrayana, its elaborate, esoteric rituals having immense appeal in the Heian court; and the Tendai, founded by Saicho, based upon the Chinese T’ien-t’ai School, stressing the Lotus Sutra, teaching the “one vehicle” as a unifying principle, with political as well as religious significance. When the Heian period ended and the need for new approaches to Buddhist practice arose, the variety of the Tendai school was a source for the most innovative new teachings.

The course of 24 lectures is presented by Professor Malcolm David Eckel, Professor of Religion and Director of the Core Curriculum at Boston University. He holds graduate degrees from Oxford and Harvard. An expert on Buddhism, comparative religion, and Asian faiths, Eckel has written insightful books on Buddhist philosophy, including Buddhism: Origins, Beliefs, Practices, Holy Texts, Sacred Places.

 

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