Buddhism is considered to have been officially introduced to Japan in A.D. 538 when the ruler of Baekje, a Korean kingdom, presented a brilliant image of the Buddha along with scripture-scrolls and ornaments to the Japanese Emperor Kimmei. In those days, Emperor Kimmei ruled Japan with his court nobles and immediately controversy started over whether or not such a foreign cult should be accepted. The orthodox Mononobe and Nakatomi clans strongly opposed this new religion on the grounds that Japan already had its traditional and indigenous religion of Shinto. But the influential Soga clan favored Buddhism; they believed that it had much to offer for the enrichment of their culture. Thus in the end, despite the disputes that took place among the court nobles, the emperor deferred the matter to the Soga clan.
About 40 years later, the pious Prince Regent Shotoku (A.D. 574–621) was appointed regent to the Empress Suiko, at which time he declared Buddhism as the official religion. Prince Shotoku was a great statesman and a devout Buddhist. He strongly believed that only with Buddhist teachings could he make Japan a unified and culturally refined country.
In order to carry out his plans, Prince Shotoku issued the 17–Article Constitution in 604, which emphasized Buddhist and Confucian principles. Article II of this injunction reads, “Fervently respect the Three Treasures.” Prince Shotoku stressed that everyone should faithfully revere the Three Treasures (the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha) as the supreme and unmistakable guidance.
He also ordered the government to build many Buddhist temples among which the most famous is Horyu-ji temple, the world’s oldest wooden structure now standing near the former capital of Nara. It was because of his patronage and devotion that Buddhism was firmly established on Japanese soil.
Therefore, we can see that in the beginning the introduction of Buddhism to Japan was highly motivated by political and cultural reasons. The court wanted to establish a system in which the existing clans could be consolidated. Buddhism offered both moral and intellectual benefits which Shinto lacked and it was these cultural learnings that attracted the court. Since Japan did not have a formal written language at the time, all of the Buddhist scriptures that were used were in Chinese. Thus at first, Buddhism was almost exclusive to the court families. However, the subsequent history of Buddhism in Japan demonstrated a gradual process of Buddhist acculturation downward through a ladder of social strata.
After the death of Prince Regent Shotoku, Buddhism continued to flourish among court nobles, monks, and artisans. National Buddhist temples, called kokubunji, were built by the Emperer Shomu in every province, the headquarters of which was at Todai-ji temple in Nara. Buddhist scriptures were introduced from China and without much modification they were studied by the Japanese monks. Buddhist images and ornaments were made by the Japanese artisans, some of which can still be seen in the older temples in Japan.
Buddhist temples in those days were the center of culture; they were not only used as places of worship, but also as schools, hospitals, dispensaries, orphanages, and refuges for older people. The monks were also school teachers, physicians, engineers, and developers of many construction projects. Therefore, the Japanese government encouraged and supported the Buddhist institutions and monks spiritually and materially, so that they could work with the government and the people more effectively.
As the numbers of monks increased, they were gradually classified into six Buddhist schools; namely, the Sanron, Hosso, Kegon, Ritsu, Kusha, and Jojitsu. These schools were direct importations from China and were studied at the various government-established temples.
These six schools were not independent sects, but existed in one temple side by side just like various departments in a college, and each school contributed much to the development of later Buddhist thought in Japan.
In 784, the Japanese capital was transferred from Nara to Kyoto, and accordingly became the Buddhist center of Japan. Soon after, two new Buddhist schools were introduced from China, namely Tendai and Shingon. The six Buddhist schools were gradually overshadowed by these two schools.
Saicho (767–822) established a Japanese Tendai school on Mount Hiei near Kyoto, and tried to synthesize all the then existing philosophical concepts. While in China, he studied Esotericism, Zen, and Pure Land Buddhism along with the Tiantai Buddhism. He also studied the Brahmajala Sutra (Bonmokyo), a modification of the Hinayana precepts. Upon his return to Japan he refuted the standpoints of all other schools, particularly of the Sanron and Hosso schools, and instead expounded the Ekayana doctrine based on the Saddharma Pundarika Sutra. It emphasized the belief that all forms of life stood on an equal basis in attaining Buddhahood, so that even conciliation between Buddhism and Shinto was made possible.
In those days all the Buddhist monks had to accept the Hinayana precepts at the official ordination platform (kaidan), otherwise they were not admitted or qualified as Buddhist monks. Saicho, dissatisfied with this rule, wanted to be recognized under the Mahayana precepts which were suitable for Japanese monks. Several times he submitted a petition to the Emperor Saga to open a Mahayana ordination platform on Mount Hiei, and only after his death was the request granted by the Empreror in 822. From this time on, the Tendai school gained independence from the older schools in Japan, and from the fetter of the Hinayana precepts.
After Saicho there were two outstanding leaders in Tendai Buddhism: Ennin (794–864) and Enchin (814–891), who had studied both Tendai philosophy and the rituals of esoteric Buddhism in China. It was due to their contributions that Japanese Tendai could meet the desires of its supporters for esoteric rituals. Saicho, their master and the founder of Japanese Tendai, was not able to embrace the esoteric teachings completely. In the course, however, his successors were to fulfill the unfinished work of their master Saicho. Saicho’s all inclusive Buddhism was thus gradually enriched by his faithful disciples.
Kukai (774–835) was a contemporary of Saicho, and he also studied Esoteric Buddhism in China. Upon his return to Japan, he established the Shingon school on Mount Koya, and expounded the mystical teaching of Oneness with Vairochana Buddha based on the text of the Mahavairocana Sutra (Dainichikyo). Unlike Saicho, Kukai did not deny the validity of the Hinayana precept. He accepted both the Hinayana and the Mahayana precepts and interpreted them according to his own esoteric teaching. He classified Buddhist thought into two parts: esoteric and exoteric, and taught that all schools of Buddhism other than Shingon were exoteric, because they were known and revealed by the historical Shakyamuni Buddha.
On the other hand, in esoteric Buddhism, truth is hidden and must be revealed. There are in the universe the knower and the known, and they must be identical with Vairochana Buddha through the mystical practices of mantra (invocations) and mudra (hand gestures) in order for the universe to be in harmony. Kukai also classified the then existing concepts into ten parts according to the degree of profundity: 1) No doctrines at all; 2) Confucianism and Taoism; 3) The Sankya and Vaiseshika schools; 4) The Kusha school; 5) The Jojitsu school; 6) The Hosso school; 7) The Sanron school; 8) The Tendai school; 9) The Kengon school; and 10) The Shingon school. According to him, the Shingon school is the supreme and complete form of religion, while the other schools are lesser and incomplete.
However, the philosophical speculation of Tendai and the mystical ritualism of Shingon had only attracted the minds of court nobles, monks, and scholars who were weary of studying Buddhism theoretically without religious practice. The monks, belonging to either the Tendai or Shingon schools, became independent from the six schools and defended themselves from the influence of the government.
Once they obtained the privilege of being monks, they lived together at the leading temples and became a third power standing against the Imperial government and its counterpart. The temple life became lax and there was degeneration and corruption among some of the monks in Buddhist institutions. Seeing this, the ordinary people were greatly discouraged and deeply impressed by the impermanency and vicissitudes of life.
Buddhism was confined to the privileged classes of court nobles, monks, scholars, and artisans who had enough time to master the complicated philosophy and rituals of Buddhism. It was in the Kamakura period that a drastic change took place in the field of religion; Buddhism became for the first time the religion of the masses.
The old court eventually fell to a new military government which brought about the Kamakura period (1192–1333). The increasing discord and chaos of the times led to disillusionment and a call for the revival of faith. It was during these troubled time that Honen (1133–1212), Shinran (1173–1262), Eisai (1141–1215), Dogen (1200–1253), Nichiren (1222–1282), and other Buddhist leaders appeared and expounded their teachings of salvation for all.
They were always on the side of the masses, discarding the existing aristocratic Buddhist hierarchy and its theoretical implications. Before this, only the elite class could enjoy the grandeur of Buddhist art and ceremony represented by glorious images, paintings, and ornaments. Strongly dissatisfied with these phenomena, these Buddhist leaders tried to reevaluate Buddhism through their own painful life experiences. The conclusion reached was that everyone had a potential Buddha Nature and thus could be saved by the mercy of the Buddha if one had firm faith in him. The new thoughts were based on the Bodhisattva doctrine of Mahayana Buddhism, particularly that of the Tendai school, which advocated that every sentient being has a Buddha Nature and is capable of becoming a Buddha.
As the new military government was established by Minamoto no Yoritomo at Kamakura in 1192, five prominent Buddhist schools were founded one by one, namely the Jodo, Jodo Shin, Rinzai Zen, Soto Zen, and Nichiren. They had common stand-points; they were established on the foundation of the Tendai doctrine and yet transcended it in their own respective ways.
Honen (1133–1212) studied the Tendai doctrine thoroughly on Mount Hiei, and yet he was dissatisfied with a teaching which only taught the definition of salvation and the superiority of the Tendai doctrine as opposed to other schools of thought. However, what he wanted was a way to relieve others from suffering and to gain salvation himself. One day he came across the Genshin’s Ojoyoshu (The essentials of rebirth) in which he found a passage by the Chinese monk Shandao, “Only call the name of Amida Buddha with one’s whole heart—whether walking or standing still, whether sitting or lying—this is the practice which brings salvation without fail, for it is in accordance with the original vow of the Buddha.”
In this passage he had at last found what he was seeking. He did not, however, deny the validity of other elaborate teachings and methods found in other schools. But he was convinced that this simple and straight forward calling of Amida Buddha was the only way for him and for everyone else who needed relief in that turbulent and degenerate age, because it required no elaborate rituals or complicated philosophy, but only the nembutsu, “Namu Amida Butsu,” which anyone can do anywhere.
In 1175, Honen established the independent Jodo (Pure Land) school which was based on three canonical texts, the Larger Sukhavativyuha Sutra (Muryojukyo), the Smaller Sukhavativyuha Sutra (Amidakyo), and the Amitayurdhyana Sutra (Kan Muryojukyo). He wrote the Senchakuhongan Nembutsushu (Passages on the selection of the nembutsu in the original vow) in order to defend his standpoint against the orthodox schools, and preached the teaching of the nembutsu (the recitation of Namu Amida Butsu) to the masses of the people.
However, his ever-increasing popularity among them encountered strong opposition from other schools and government, so that in 1207 his teachings were prohibited and he was exiled to the Isle of Shikoku with a handful of disciples. Later he was permitted to return and his teachings were officially recognized. One of Honen’s disciples, Shinran, further developed his teachings and established the Jodo Shin school.
Shinran (1173–1262) deeply perceived the weak nature of human beings, and had become convinced that salvation could only be found in self-surrender and in complete reliance on the saving power of Amida Buddha. What mattered to Shinran was no longer Amida Buddha, as the object of worship, but “Namu Amida Butsu.” Amida Buddha as upaya (expedient device) can be objectified, but not “Namu Amida Butsu,” for it is the actual interrelationship between subject and object; it is not a static “thing;” but a dynamic “event.”
He totally abandoned the precepts of both Hinayana and Mahayana which were “musts” for all monks in those days. Instead he got married and called himself the most wicked man in the world. He simple wanted to identify himself with ordinary people in order to save his wretched self and to pave the way of relief for other suffering people.
Zen Buddhism was introduced to Japan by Eisai and firmly established by Dogen. Eisai (1141–1215) studied the Tendai doctrine on Mount Hiei and then went to China where he found that the Tendai (Tiantai in Chinese) had already declined and the study of Zen was flourishing. He therefore studied Zen and brought back to Japan many Zen texts such as the Linchi-lu (Analects of Master Linchi; known as the Rinzai-roku in Japan), the Pi-yen-lu (The blue cliff record; known as the Hekigan-roku in Japan), and the Huaiangou-yu (The story of the country Huaian; known as the Kaian Kokugo in Japan), and established Rinzai Zen. Zen Buddhism teaches that there is nothing to rely upon but one’s true self. Everyone has the Buddha-nature and the potentiality to become a Buddha, and yet it is hidden because of our illusions.
The aim of Zen is to throw off one’s illusions and all artificiality and to see directly into the innermost nature of one’s being. In order to awaken oneself and gain an intuitional understanding of life, Rinzai Zen stresses the practice of sitting in meditation and koan study. The koan is a pedagogic device which generally is put in the form of a problem. For example, “What was your original face before your mother gave birth to you?” or “When your corpse is cremated and the ashes are scattered to the winds, where are you?” These highly metaphysical questions must be answered immediately without resorting to any kind of logical reasoning process, because Zen is not a philosophical exercise but a way of life. This teaching was greatly favored by the military class, particularly by the Hojo family at Kamakura, and the government assisted the building of monasteries and temples for Eisai and his disciples.
Dogen (1200–1253) also studied Zen in China, and upon his return to Japan he established Soto Zen. From the beginning, Dogen disliked to engage in worldly affairs and hated to submit to the authority and power of the military government. He built Eihei-ji, the mountain monastery, in Fukui Prefecture and wrote 95 volumes of essays. Soto Zen teaches that the practice of sitting in meditation is the sole means to discover our true selves and to attain enlightenment. It does not require any reasoning or inferring.
Zen meditation is not a mystic union with Buddha or the simple confrontation with a religious object for one in a prescribed discipline at a specific time and place, but rather a way of life for everyone in any circumstances. It teaches a way to live and to die peacefully, meaningfully, and pleasantly. This teaching particularly attracted the warriors whose lives were constantly threatened by their enemies. The Bushido, the warrior’s spirit, developed out of its teaching.
Nichiren (1222–1282) studied the then existing Buddhist schools of thought extensively, from which he chose the Lotus Sutra (Saddharma Pundarika Sutra) as the most reliable text. He established the Nichiren school which is of Japanese origin and proclaimed that the eternal life of the historical Buddha is revealed in us. He stressed that by reciting the name of this text, “Namu Myohorenge Kyo” in Japanese, with our whole heart, we can become one with the eternal Buddha and gain enlightenment. He denounced all other existing schools strongly on the ground that their teachings refer to salvation only in the next world.
According to him, no texts except the Lotus Sutra are a direct and authentic revelation to us who are living in this world. Since he wrote the Rissho Ankokuron (The establishment of righteousness in the rule of the country) and tried to persuade the government also to be blessed and ruled by his teaching, he was punished by the government and exiled to the Izu Peninsula and the Isle of Sado. Later he was pardoned to return to Kamakura. He built the Kuon-ji temple on Mount Minobu afterward and settled there for the rest of his life. His worldly and patriotic spirit accelerated the rise of the new subsects which we see in contemporary Japan.
There were many other fine personalities living during this period, but they are somewhat less significant compared to the above mentioned Honen, Shinran, Eisai, Dogen, and Nichiren. No new major schools have arisen since the Kamakura period. Those that did arise were more or less the filling-in and working-out of details in the existing ones. That is, after the Kamakura period, there was nothing that stimulated the growth of new thought except the flourishing Jodo, Zen, and Nichiren schools of the Kamakura period.
Although during this period little productivity in art and literature was seen, a well-disciplined and concentrated spirit, as well as religious zeal and originality were crystallized by the founders of the newly established schools. Therefore, it was a time in Japanese history that religious consciousness attained its highest peak, and individual minds were freed from all the external bondages which had long obstructed spontaneous growth.
Though the military government at Kamakura unified the country and won battles against the two Mongol invasions of 1274 and 1281, it began to decline and collapse in the next century. Once again Japan was in chaos and encountered great political and social unrest with many civil wars. The ordinary people were perplexed and ill at ease. As a natural consequence, the people were obliged to seek solace by relying on religion. The worship of Avalokiteshvara (Kannon), the Bodhisattva of Infinite Compassion, flourished among the people at large.
When the new military government was established by Ashikaga Takauji in 1336, Japan was once again unified. More temples and monasteries were built through the patronage of the government or by contributions from the people. Buddhist culture also became highly developed during this period. The introduction of painting, calligraphy, tea ceremony, flower arrangement, and gardening by the monks from China greatly influenced the formation of refinements in Japanese culture that have continued to develop up to the present time.
However, partial favoritism of certain schools by the government or the Imperial Household caused jealousy among Buddhist institutions and they either fought against each other or against the government. Particularly the leading temples on Mount Hiei and Mount Koya became the citadel of the priest-warriors of the Tendai and Shingon schools. The priests were more conspicuous as a military and political force than in their proper religious sphere.
Zen temples and monasteries, however, became hermitages for the monks who detached themselves from worldly affairs and either concentrated their minds on meditation or engaged in artistic creation. The Jodo and Jodo Shin schools were less significant during this period, but they quietly and steadily increased their influence among the populace.
When Oda Nobunaga overthrew the military government of Ashikaga in 1573, he actively suppressed Buddhist institutions because he feared the increased power of the leading temples and monasteries which sided with his enemies. He favored the newly introduced foreign cult of Christianity for purely political reasons.
After the death of Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi took over his stand and also suppressed Buddhist institutions with the idea of bringing the ecclesiastical completely under the sway of the secular. With the surrender of the Buddhist institutions to the secular power of Nobunaga and Hideyoshi, Buddhist art gradually lapsed into insignificance and was replaced by secular art.
When Tokugawa Ieyasu established the Tokugawa shogunate in 1603 at Edo (the present Tokyo), he prohibited the Japanese to leave the country and foreigners to enter with few exceptions. The isolation of Japan lasted for the next 260 odd years; and during that time, Buddhism became purely ecclesiastical. The temples and monasteries destroyed by Nobunaga and Hideyoshi were restored by Ieyasu as comparatively modest and unfortified buildings. Ieyasu personally favored the Jodo school and assisted in building Zojo-ji temple in Tokyo, Chion-in temple in Kyoto, and other temples.
He also assisted in building Higashi Hongan-ji for financial and administrative reasons and divided the Jodo Shin school into two subsects—Nishi Hongwanji and Higashi Hongwanji. The following successors of Ieyasu also followed his policies and continued to patronize Buddhism and to prescribe Christianity. These measures were taken in order to weaken and control the power of the Buddhist institutions and to protect Japan from foreign invasion. During this period, all temples became registry offices where births, marriages, deaths, and funerals had to be registered with the priest in charge and they were accordingly considered family temples. The priest lived in ease and idleness and they often gave the people cheap and worldly instruction.
Despite these unfavorable circumstances, Zen Buddhism continued to show some vitality. Hakuin appeared and revitalized Rinzai Zen with his fine personality and sermons. Basho, who brought into fashion the 17-syllable haiku poetry, owed much to Zen. Ingen established Obaku Zen when he was invited from China to Japan in 1655. Tetsugen published a reprint of the Ming edition of the Buddhist canon (Tripitaka) in 1681 which is remarkable for its clear type printing.
However, from the 17th century on, the influence of Buddhism gradually declined and was overshadowed by the rise of the rival religious and political philosophies of Confucianism and Shinto. In the first place both Buddhism and Shinto were identified by the decree of 1614, but later due to the roles of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Shinto, the three were completely separated; i.e., Buddhism functioned in the sphere of religion; Confucianism in the moral; and Shinto in state politics. The idea of separation of these roles was consciously or unconsciously implanted in the minds of the Japanese and has been continuously held by them up to the present time. Buddhism was no longer a vital religion, but retained only its tradition which was handed down by the priests and monks from the Kamakura period.
The Meiji Restoration in 1868 ended the long isolation of Japan and restored the power of the Imperial Household which had been under the shadow of successive military governments for the previous 800 years. Japan opened its door to the world and encountered the impact of Western culture and technology. The policy of the Meiji government, therefore, went to both extremes in order to cope with modern nations. That is to say, Japan adopted Western culture and technology as a means of modernizing Japan and reaffirmed the Imperial Household, which was transferred from the ancient capital of Kyoto to the present day Tokyo in 1868, as the supreme sovereignty of Japan.
The Emperor was the object of worship as a living god of Shinto; and since Buddhism had no room in this schema, it was completely separated from Shinto. Buddhist beliefs and worship were banned by the order of the Meiji government in 1868. Many temples and valuable works of Buddhist art were either destroyed or sold. A large number of priests and monks were forced to return to lay life, although this ban was later lifted. The Buddhist institutions were, however, classified under 13 denominations and 56 subsects and the founding of any new sect was strictly prohibited.
Fortunately or unfortunately, Buddhism had already been accepted by the Japanese as part of Japanese culture and tradition. Therefore, apart from its religious beliefs and practices, Buddhism had permeated even to the lowest strata of the people and was removed from few of them. Only a very small number of priests and monks endured and reaffirmed their Buddhist discipline despite the hardships.
They also reevaluated their religion in the light of modern scholarship. However, as time went on, this critical study and application of Buddhism was often interrupted by the nationalistic military government, and Buddhist institutions were once again utilized by it during two World Wars.
Since the militaristic Imperial government surrendered to the Allied Powers in 1945, Buddhism has been neither the monopoly of Buddhist institutions nor of the government nor of a certain privileged class of people. Buddhist studies have been accelerated by the monks, ministers, and scholars in temples, institutions, and universities. Ancient treasures of Buddhist art have been preserved at temples and museums under the protection of the government. Once ruined temples have been restored and have become centers of study and worship. International Buddhist conferences have been held in Japan in which a number of programs have been initiated for the exchange of knowledge and individuals.
As can be seen from the above brief history of Buddhism in Japan, two streams of Buddhism have come to exist; one which flows from top down and one which flows from the bottom up. In other words, the former can be characterized as “Higher” or “Normative” Buddhism to which many of the Buddhist monks and their denominations belong, though not a form of state religion with official status; while the latter can be characterized as “Lower” or “Popular” Buddhism to which lay members usually profess. In the course and development of Buddhism in Japanese history, when the former acted too progressively, the latter appeared to regress; on the other hand, when the former became hopelessly stagnant, the latter demanded reform movements with religious zeal which ushered in changes in response to the social, economic, and political climate of the day. Because of these two streams which have been interacting with each other, Japanese Buddhism has come to the present time, enriching and developing both its inner and outer forms.
The Japanese word for “faith” sometimes means “progress” as well, which can mean including something better from outside. Therefore, we see in Japanese Buddhism heterogeneous elements from other beliefs such as Hinduism, Shinto, Confucianism, Taoism, Christianity, and folk religion. Most Japanese Buddhists prefer substance and quality over name or form and regard the virtue of the Buddha permeating to all corners of the world. It is pervasive but formless; it is difficult to grasp unless we are a part of it and living in it. This idea is in accordance with the teachings of Mahayana Buddhism. That is why we are taught that all sentient beings, whatever we profess to, are within the hands of the Buddha.
Some say that this all-embracing attitude of Buddhists is nothing but degenerating Buddhism from its original for, making it insignificant and secular. But we do not believe that this is so. By assimilating other elements such as modern technology and Western thought, Buddhism in Japan has enriched and expanded its tenets and power while retaining its century-old traditions. In this way, it continually recreates itself.
However, at this juncture, Buddhism in Japan stands where its road forks—leading either to self-destruction or development. If it stands idle, it may lead to self-destruction, but if it looks ahead and struggles, it may lead to prosperous development.
At the time when the rigorous austerities, intellectualism, and self-affirming egoism have entered a blind alley, there is great perplexity, can these not be set free by the all-embracing sensitivity and ever-renewing selflessness of Buddhist teachings? In this sense, Buddhism in Japan would play a great role in order to give birth to a new sense of value not only in the present world but also in the world to come.
At present, the Japanese have an opportunity to open their eyes to see Buddhism not only as a part of their culture and tradition, but also as a religion and a way of life. Moreover, they are assured of freedom of belief. Individual minds are once again freed from all external bondage and fetters. At this time, they are free to choose their own belief from the already established or not-yet established systems of thought, religion, philosophy, and morals. It seems that they are now struggling to find the best and most suitable discipline to be the guiding light of their lives. No one can tell exactly where they are going, but one thing is clear, that is, they will never tread the same way as in the past. Instead of becoming tools of an already established culture and tradition, they are becoming fine designers of their own future.