Japanese Buddhism

Brief Overview of Buddhism in Japan

Buddhism in Japan
Japan is one of the largest Buddhist countries with about 96 million adherents (Agency for Cultural Affairs, 'Shukyo Nenkan' [Annual Statistics of Religion]). There are estimated to be about 75,000 temples and more than 300,000 Buddhist statues, which is the largest number out of the Buddhist countries in the world. Japan also has the oldest wooden temple in the world, Horyu-ji Temple, as well as the oldest Buddhist scriptures. On the other hand, most Japanese these days do not have a specific religion or religious beliefs, and have few opportunities to be conscious of themselves as Buddhists.

Genealogy and Sects of Japanese Buddhism
Japanese Buddhism includes many sects. This section describes the genealogy and sects of the thirteen sects of the traditional so-called thirteen sects and fifty-six schools.

For sects other than the thirteen sects, those which split and became independent from the thirteen sects or other sects, the fifty-six schools or other schools, and relatively recent new religions derived from Buddhism, refer to the respective articles.

Nara Buddhism line (Nanto Rokushu, or the Six Sects of Nara)

Kegon sect: founders (in Japan) included 'Shinjo', head temple is Todai-ji Temple.

Hosso sect: founded by 'Dosho' (his name could be written 道昭 or 道照), head temples include Kofuku-ji Temple and Yakushi-ji Temple.

Ritsu sect: founded by the high priest 'Jianzhen' (Ganjin in Japanese), head temple is Toshodai-ji Temple.

Heian Buddhism (the Two Heian Sects) and Esoteric Buddhism lines

Shingon sect (Tomitsu): founded by Kobo Daishi 'Kukai', head temples include To-ji Temple on Mt. Hachiman and Kongobu-ji Temple on Mt. Koya.

Tendai sect (Taimitsu): also called the Hokke En Sect, founded by Dengyo Daishi 'Saicho', head temples include Enryaku-ji Temple on Mt. Hiei.

Hokke line (the Hokke line of Kamakura Buddhism)

Nichiren sect: founded by Rissho Daishi 'Nichiren', head temples include Kuon-ji Temple on Mt. Minobu.

Jodo line (the Jodo line of Kamakura Buddhism)

Jodo sect: founded by Enko Daishi 'Honen' (also called Genku, Kurodani Shonin and Yoshimizu Shonin), head temples include Chionin Temple on Mt. Kacho, Komyo-ji Temple on Mt. Hokoku (Nagaokakyo City), also known as Awafu Komyo-ji Temple, and Zenrin-ji Temple on Mt. Shojuraigo (Kyoto City).

Jodo Shinshu sect: also called the Shinshu sect or the Ikko sect, founded by Kenshin Daishi 'Shinran' (Shinran Shonin), head temples include Hongan-ji Temple on Mt. Ryukoku (Nishi Hongan-ji Temple) and Shinshu Honbyo Mausoleum (Higashi Hongan-ji Temple).

Yuzu Nenbutsu sect: also called the Dainenbutsu sect (it is also regarded as of the Heian Buddhism line), founded by Shodaishi 'Ryonin,' the head temple is Dainenbutsu-ji Temple.

Ji sect: founded by Shojo Daishi and Ensho Daishi 'Ippen' (also called Ippen Shonin or Chishin), the head temple is the Shojoko-ji Temple on Mt. Fujisawa (Yugyo-ji Temple).

Zen (the Zen line of Kamakura Buddhism) and Zen sect lines

Soto sect: founded by Joyo Daishi 'Dogen' (Dogen Zenji), head temples are Eihei-ji Temple on Mt. Kissho and Soji-ji Temple on Mt. Shogaku.

Rinzai sect: founders (in Japan) included Senko Kokushi 'Eisai' (Eisai Zenji), head temples include Kennin-ji Temple, Enkaku-ji Temple, Myoshin-ji Temple, and Tofuku-ji Temple.

Obaku sect: formerly the Obaku school of the Rinzai sect, founded by Shinku Daishi and Kako Daishi 'Ingen' (the origin of the Japanese word for kidney bean, 'ingenmame'), the head temple is Manpuku-ji Temple on Mt. Obaku.

Byodo-in Temple, the world heritage site in Kyoto
Kiyomizudera Temple, the world heritage site in Kyoto
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History of Japanese Buddhism

Asuka Period
According to "Nihonshoki" (The Chronicles of Japan), Buddhism was introduced during the Asuka period when, in 552, King Seong of Baekje sent a gilt bronze statue of Buddha, sutras and other items. However, based on the phrases "the twelfth day of the tenth month in the year tsuchinoe-uma (583), during the reign of Emperor Kishishima (Kinmei)" in "Jogu Shotoku Hoo Teisetsu" (a biography of Prince Shotoku) and "the twelfth month of the year tsuchinoe-uma, the seventh year of the reign of Emperor Amekuni Oshiharuki Hironiwa (Kinmei)" in "Gango-ji Garan Engi" (a history of the origins of Gango-ji Temple), many people seem to think that Buddhism was introduced in 538. History textbooks show this year (for details, refer to the Official Introduction of Buddhism).

According to "Nihonshoki," the introduction of Buddhism caused an uproar. When Emperor Kinmei asked retainers about the pros and cons of Buddhism, Shintoists such as MONONOBE no Okoshi and NAKATOMI no Kamako were against it. On the other hand, SOGA no Iname said, "All people in countries to the West believe in Buddhism. How can Japanese people not help but believe in it?" and told him to convert to Buddhism. On hearing this, the Emperor gave Iname the Buddha statue, sutras and others. Iname changed his residence into a temple and worshipped the Buddha statue. After that, plagues became prevalent and Okoshi and the others, believing that 'because he worshipped a foreign god (Buddha), he has brought the wrath of the gods of the land down upon us', set fire to the temple and threw the statue into a canal at Nanba. The dispute over the pros and cons of Buddhism was continued by MONONOBE no Okoshi and SOGA no Iname's children (MONONOBE no Moriya and SOGA no Umako) and lasted until MONONOBE no Moriya was killed in the conflict concerning Emperor Yomei's successor. In this battle, Prince Umayado (later called Prince Shotoku) fought on the Umako side. Prince Umayado prayed to the Four Heavenly Kings ('shitenno' in Japanese) for victory in the battle and had Shitenno-ji Temple built in Settsu Province (Tennoji Ward, Osaka City) when his prayers were answered. Umako also prayed to various 'tenno' and 'shinno' (guardian deities), vowing that he would have temples built for them and spread the three treasures of Buddhism, or 'sanpo', if he were victorious. For this reason, Umako had Hoko-ji Temple (also known as Asuka-dera Temple, and called Gango-ji Temple after it moved to Nara) built. Prince Umayado played an active role in the introduction of Buddhism, writing the "Sankyogisho" commentaries on the three sutras of "Hokke-kyo" (the Lotus Sutra), "Yuimagyo" (Vimalakirti Sutra) and "Shomangyo" (Srimala Sutra) and the second article of the Seventeen-Article Constitution, which states, "Sincerely revere the three treasures; the three treasures are the Buddha, his laws and the priesthood". After that, Buddhism became a tool for the protection of the nation and the Imperial family willingly had temples built.

Emperor Tenmu had Daikandai-ji Temple (later Daian-ji Temple) built and Emperor Jito had Yakushi-ji Temple built. Such movements reached a peak during the reign of Emperor Shomu.

Nara Period
In accordance with the development of Buddhism in China and Japan, the 'soni-ryo' or Monks and Nuns Act, which determined the regulation of monks and nuns (not of Buddhism itself) was introduced as part of Ritsuryo law. However, it is interesting that, while in China the priesthood was persecuted for opposing Confucian ethics by destroying the order of the 'family', in Japan it was incorporated into the bureaucracy through the 'soni-ryo' and the Sogo (Office of Monastic Affairs) and official certification system under the concept of 'nation protection' (priests with ranks such as 'Sojo' or 'Sozu' were government officials, or 'sokan', literally 'priest officials', under the Ritsuryo system). In addition, it is also thought that such regulation was different between official temples built by nation and private temples built by nobles and common people. It is controversial how regulation against the latter was implemented.

As a result, the Sanron, Jojitsu, Hosso, Kusha, Ritsu and Kegon sects, known as the 'Nanto Rokusho', became dominant. In addition, Emperor Shomu abdicated in favor of Emperor Koken and became a priest. Emperor Shomu, influenced by Empress Komyo, was deeply religious. Therefore, he ordered the construction of provincial monasteries and nunneries and had the statue of the Buddha Vairocana (Birushana in Japanese) made in Todai-ji Temple, a provincial temple in Yamato Province. The retired Emperor Shomu became a priest and even called himself 'a servant of the three treasures'. As Buddhism became established, there arose the theory of 'honji-suijaku' in which Japanese gods were held to actually be incarnations of Buddha. The 'honji' (true form of the Buddha) for various gods were decided upon and sometimes images of gods were based on monks. However, as Buddhism gained popularity, the number of priests who ignored religious precepts increased, so that Jianzhen was invited during Emperor Shomu's reign. Jianzhen set up a 'kaidan' (ordination platform) at Todai-ji Temple and gave precepts to priests. The Emperor Shomu was also given precepts by Jianzhen. Jianzhen had the Toshodai-ji Temple built and lived there.

Heian Period
Later, these temples began to get involved in politics. Emperor Kanmu moved the capital to Heian-kyo (present-day Kyoto) in order to weaken their influence and sent Kukai and Saicho to China with the Japanese envoy to the Tang Dynasty to learn Esoteric Buddhism. He wanted to use new Buddhism to oppose the old Buddhism of Nara. He gave Mt. Hiei to Saicho (the Tendai sect) and Mt. Koya to Kukai (the Shingon sect), and made them found temples to spread Esoteric Buddhism. The middle of the Heian period saw the two thousandth anniversary of the Buddha's death. It was thought that after one thousand years of 'Shobo' (True Dharma) and one thousand years of 'Zobo' (Imitation Dharma), the age of Mappo (Final Dharma), the dark age when Buddhism perished, would begin. In the age of Mappo, nobody would be able to attain enlightenment no matter how hard they tried. The country would decline, the people's hearts would become barren and they could not expect happiness in this world. This situation led to the popularity of Jodo-shinko (Pure Land Buddhism), which prayed for happiness in the after life. The nobles relied on Amida Buddha and, hoping to be welcomed to the Sukhavati paradise, had many 'raigo-zu' (images of the Amida Buddha's descent to welcome the dying) drawn and ultimately had Byodo-in Temple built at Uji. The temple's Hoo-do Hall (Phoenix Hall) was a copy of the Amida Buddha's palace in Sukhavati. However, towards the end of the Heian period, social unrest spread and there was an increased risk of large temples, which owned vast tracts of land and had grown wealthy, attracting thieves. As a result, both priests and the laity took up arms, becoming known as 'sohei' (warrior monks), to guard against invaders from outside. However, the sohei themselves, aiming to expand their power, gradually developed into armed forces. This use of military force to attack opposing sects and temples and to influence the Imperial Court became another source of social unrest. In addition, fortified temples with stone walls and moats within the precincts began to appear.

Kamakura Period
In the Kamakura period, disturbances which had continued from the end of the previous period resulted in a change in Buddhism. Although mainstream Buddhism had emphasized ceremonies and study for the nation and nobles under the name of 'nation protection,' it gradually changed to emphasize salvation of the common people. Centered on the priests who studied at Mt. Hiei, a popularization of Buddhism popular was planned and new sects were established. Unlike conventional sects, these sects preached a simple teaching ('igyo', literally 'easy progress') which could be practiced by lay believers in their spare time instead of difficult theories and severe ascetic practices. These sects included the Nichiren sect, which taught that people could find salvation by reciting the nenbutsu (Buddhist invocation) 'Nam Myoho Renge-kyo'; the Jodo sect, which taught that people could find salvation by reciting 'Namu Amidabutsu' continuously (Invocation of the Buddha's Name); the Jodo Shinshu sect (the Ikko sect), which taught Akuninshoki, a teaching that 'if good people, that is, pure people without any Bonno, or earthly desires, can be reborn in the Pure Land, how much more so for evil people, that is, people with Bonno'; the Yuzu Nenbutsu sect, which recommended reciting the nenbutsu while dancing; and the Ji sect. In this way, a flood of new sects appeared during the Kamakura period. These sects had all been suppressed by conventional sects until they had become established but, at the same time, they led innovations in the old religious sects. Even amidst all the denunciation, Nichiren of the Nichiren sect was famous for his radicalism. Since it criticized other sects and insisted that the nation would be ruined without reciting the Nichiren chant, it was strongly suppressed by the shogunate. However, after it spread down to the common people, this suppression was gradually reduced.

The Kamakura period was a time when the samurai were usurping power from the nobility and gradually gaining strength. In this period, the two Zen sects of the Rinzai sect and the Soto sect were introduced from China one after another. Since these sects were favored by the increasingly powerful samurai, many Zen temples were built in Kamakura and other places, where they flourished. Among them, the five major temples were called the 'Kamakura Gozan Temples. 'In addition, Kokan Shiren wrote "Genko shakusho", a history of Buddhism.

Moreover, criticism of the existing situation increased among conventional Buddhism sects. Some sects, in particular the Ritsu sect and its off-shoot the Shingon Ritsu sect, were even more reform-minded than the new sects, for example, not only did they participate in the salvation of the common people through social work but also rejected the state-proscribed kaidan and began their own original 'jukai' (handing down the precepts) ceremonies.

Northern and Southern Courts period to Muromachi period
The Kamakura shogunate fell in 1333 and, from the period of the Northern and Southern Courts to the Muromachi period, the center of politics moved to Kyoto. After the fall of the Kamakura shogunate, Emperor Godaigo instigated the Kenmu Restoration. The Gozan system was changed from Kamakura temples to Kyoto temples, becoming the Kyoto Gozan. After Takauji ASHIKAGA established a military government in Kyoto, the five temples of the Zen sect, which had long been popular among samurai, were established and the Rinzai sect came under the protection of the shogunate. At the beginning of the Muromachi period, the Zen sect, such as Nanzen-ji Temple, and the old Buddhist groups, such as Enryaku-ji Temple, often clashed, causing political problems for the new shogunate. In addition, Soseki MUSO and his disciple Myoha SHUNOKU, who cooperated with Takauji's dispatching of trade vessels to the Yuan dynasty in order to raise funds to build Tenryu-ji Temple, also had political influence. When the third Shogun, Yoshimitsu ASHIKAGA, opened trade between Japan and the Ming Dynasty in China, their disciples worked as advisers on diplomacy. This coming together of samurai and Buddhist society influenced both aristocratic and samurai culture. This fusion can be seen in the Kitayama culture, such as Rokuon-ji Temple (Kinkaku-ji Temple), of Yoshimitsu's rule and the Higashiyama culture, such as Jisho-ji Temple (Ginkaku-ji Temple), of Yoshimasa ASHIKAGA's rule. The culture of the Muromachi period also saw the birth of many aspect of Japanese culture that remain today, including 'suibokuga' ink-wash painting, the 'shoin-zukuri' style of residential architecture, the Japanese tea ceremony, ikebana flower arrangement and dry landscape gardens. In addition, in order to secure a stable income, some temples entered the money lending business, using revenue from their territories and from 'shidosen' (mortuary donations) as capital. Moreover, some people entrusted their money to temples, which at that time were becoming fortified, and this money was also used as capital. However, sometimes people who could not bear the high interest rates rose up demanding cancellation of debt (tokusei ikki) and attacked the temples.

The Soto sect was influential in the provinces and among common people. The Nichiren sect spread amongst the merchants and traders of Kyoto. In addition, Rennyo of the Jodo Shinshu sect and Nisshin of the Nichiren sect were famous propagandists of the time. Later, the Honganji Kyodan organization, which was revived and established by Rennyo of the Jodo Shinshu sect after overcoming obstructions from Mt. Hiei amongst others, set up a powerful lay organization called Monto, which came to be equal to the sengoku daimyo (Japanese territorial lord) who replaced the shugo daimyo after the Onin War. Moreover, under the name 'Ikko sect' (although 'Ikko sect' can also refer to sects other than the Jodo Shinshu sect) and united by faith, they reduced the power of the traditional shugo daimyo. Most notably, the well-known uprisings (Ikko Ikki) by Ikko sect followers, such as that in Kaga Province put pressure on the shugo daimyo and led to expanded autonomy (mainly in jurisdiction and the right to collect taxes). For this reason, sengoku daimyo who hoped to expand their control, were forced to choose between compromise or conflict with these groups, with most of them choosing to compromise.

Among the Ikko Ikki in various provinces, Gansho-ji Temple in Nagashima, Ise Province in particular fought against Nobunaga ODA with great tenacity. Later, Nobunaga slaughtered the inhabitants and destroyed the temple. Moreover, Ishiyama Hongan-ji Temple, the headquarters of Ikko followers, grew into an organization that was a strong as the sengoku daimyo families. However, during Kennyo's time, it became mired in war, (known as the 'Ishiyama War'), for ten years (including a ceasefire) and withdrew from Ishiyama. Additionally, in Mikawa Province, where Ikko followers were especially powerful, they were suppressed by the young Ieyasu TOKUGAWA, causing a conflict that split the movement in two. There is also a famous story that Nobunaga ODA held a religious debate (known as the Azuchi shuron) between priests of the Nichiren sect and priests of the Jodo sect, declaring the Jodo sect the winner. It is said that in this debate he handed down a judgment favorable to the Jodo sect because he was tired of the aimed Nichiren sect's conflicts with other sects.

Azuchi-Momoyama Period
Hideyoshi TOYOTOMI built Osaka-jo Castle on the site of Ishiyama Hongan-ji Temple, but he basically tried to remain on good terms with temples. For example, he dispatched his younger brother, Hidenaga TOYOTOMI, to Yamato Province, where war had caused a great deal of damage to the temples but the warrior monks still held a lot of influence, and was able to bring about a peaceful settlement. In addition, he carried out a 'Sword Hunt' confiscating the weapons not only of peasants but also of temples, which played apart in the disarmament of temples. The regulation and disarmament of temples would also be a big issue for the Edo shogunate.

Edo Period
Ieyasu TOKUGAWA, who seized power after the death of Hideyoshi TOYOTOMI, regulated Buddhism by enacting the 'jiin shohatto' (temples law) and assigning jisha-bugyo (magistrates of temples and shrines). In addition, under the 'terauke seido' (temple guarantee system), people were forced to register with any temple. The results of this can be seen in Buddhism's position as the primary religion for performing funerals. Ingen, who came to Japan from Ming China in 1654, spread the Obaku sect. Taking advantage of a succession dispute within the Jodo Shinshu sect, which was the largest Buddhist sect at the time, he made it split into 'east' and 'west', which resulted in the weakening of the sect.

Meiji Period
In the latter part of the Edo period, the study of Japanese classical literature was begun by Norinaga MOTOORI, which led to the Meiji restoration. The Meiji government, which was influenced by the study of Japanese classical literature, was established by people from the former Choshu Domain. For this reason, the restoration of imperial rule and the transfer of political power back to the Emperor saw the new government introduce policies promoting Shinto, which together with the nationwide anti-Buddhist haibutsu-kishaku movement, led to a decrease in the number of temples. In 1871, the Meiji government issued a 'Dajokan tasshi' (Grand Council of State proclamation) abolishing the Fuke sect to which the mendicant 'komuso' monks belonged. In addition, the propagation of Fuju-fuse School, whose members believed nothing should be received from (fuju) or given to (fuse) those of other beliefs, and Christianity was legalized. Each Buddhism sect promoted modernization and undertook social welfare work and educational work such as establishing universities.

Showa Period to Today
The modern government had controlled religion by Daijokan proclamation, fragmentary laws and regulations, and administrative notifications since the Shinto and Buddhism Separation Order. The Religious Organization Law of 1939 was the first integrated law. In the process of establishing the State Shinto system, shrines were treated under public law as artificial corporations rather than religions. However, religious bodies such as Buddhism, Sect Shinto and Christianity were not treated as public interest corporations under civil law. The necessity of a law on religion was also recognized in political world. The first draft law on religion was proposed in the House of Peers in 1899, but was rejected. Another draft law of religion was proposed to parliament in 1927 and 1929, but they never got to the debating stage. With the enactment of the Religious Organizations Act, general religious groups became legal entities for the first time and Christianity also gained legal status for the first time, but it was a very restrictive and controlling law.

After World War II, the Religious Corporation Ordinance was established and enforced on December 28, 1945, and the regulations on religious corporations were abolished. The Religious Corporation Ordinance was abolished in 1951 and the Religious Corporation Act, which introduced a certification system, was established. The Aum Shinrikyo incident triggered amendments to the Religious Corporation Act in 1995.

Tenryuji-temple, the world heritage site in Kyoto
Kinkakuji-temple, the world heritage site in Kyoto

Heian Bukkyo and Kamakura Bukkyo

Heian Bukkyo
Heian Bukkyo (Heian Buddhism) is a Buddhist sect established during the Heian period. Specifically, the term is used for two religious groups: the Shingon sect and the Tendai sect. Sometimes the Yuzu Nenbutsu sect is also included.

One background of the transfer of the national capital to the city of Heian-kyo by Emperor Kanmu (in the year 794) was the problem of the tyranny of Nara Buddhism (Nanto rokushu, or the six sects of Buddhism that flourished in ancient Nara). There were circumstances in which Emperor Koken favored the Buddhist monk Dokyo, and Dokyo, hoping for a little luck, even tried to become the emperor but was prevented from doing so by WAKE no Kiyomaro, and therefore one motivation for the transfer of the capital to Nagaoka-kyo and Heian-kyo was to eliminate the influence of Nara Buddhism, which wielded too much power under the protection of the court.

As new Buddhist sects that could challenge Nara Buddhism, Emperor Kanmu protected the Tendai sect, which Saicho had introduced from the Tang Dynasty, and the Shingon sect that Kukai had introduced.

Particularly, Saicho sensed a strong rivalry with Nara Buddhism and led a bitter dispute with the sect of the monk Tokuitsu Hosso. Meanwhile, Kukai took a conciliatory attitude toward Nara Buddhism.

One such feature is Mountain Buddhism. While Nara Buddhism was an urban form of Buddhism, Saicho founded Enryaku-ji Temple on Mt. Hiei and Kukai Kongobuji Temple on Mt. Koya.

Another feature is that it was an esoteric Buddhism with incantations and prayers. Shingon's esoteric form of Buddhism was called Tomitsu, and the esoteric Buddhism of the Tendai sect was called Taimitsu; thus the two competed for supremacy. This Heian Buddhism was characterized by the strong desire to fulfill the worldly interests of the Imperial Family and the nobility. Basically, it had the characteristics of an aristocratic Buddhism for the Imperial Court and the Fujiwara clan.

In the mid-Heian period, the Jodo (Pure Land) sect became stronger, with Genshin of the Tendai sect preaching salvation after death at the hands of Amida Nyorai (Amitabha Tathagata). Hoo-do Hall (the Phoenix Pavillion) of Byodo-in Temple in Uji is a representative legacy of the Jodo-shinko (the Pure Land faith) of the nobility. The Yuzu Nenbutsu sect also appeared within this context. Eventually, in the late Heian period, with the spread of Senju Nenbutsu (the Single-Minded Recitation of the Nenbutsu) of Honen, Heian Buddhism ceased to be an aristocratic form of Buddhism and spread to the entire populace, whereupon it heralded the Kamakura New Buddhism (new schools of Japanese Buddhism founded during the Kamakura period).

Kamakura Bukkyo
Kamakura Bukkyo (Kamakura Buddhism) refers to the movement for Buddhist reform developed from the end of the Heian period to the Kamakura Period. Kamakura Buddhism was newly established by the influence of the spread of Jodo-shiso (Pure Land Buddhism) and the introduction of the Zen sect.

Based on the common view, Kamakura Buddhism refers to the 6 sects consist of the Jodo sect (Honen), the Jodoshin sect (Shinran), the Rinzai sect (Eisai), the Soto sect (Dogen), the Ji sect (Ippen), and the Hokke sect (the Nichiren sect, Nichiren).

Although Heian Bukkyo (Buddhism in the Heian period) had been for court nobles, Kamakura Buddhism spread among newly rising samurai class (especially, the Rinzai sect and the Soto sect) and among the common people (especially, the Jodo sect, the Jodoshin sect, the Ji sect and the Nichiren sect). However, partly because of the suppression by Sanmon (the Tendai sect) and by the powerful families who cooperated with Sanmon, it was after the Sengoku period (period of warring states, Japan) that those sects began to have a power (except the Rinzai sect which was protected by Kamakura bakufu [Japanese feudal government headed by a shogun]).

It is considered that 'the independence from the nation' and 'the relief of the individual' were the most important factors of Kamakura Buddhism, and these two factors made them possible to change from the Heian Buddhism for the court nobles, to the Kamakura Buddhism for the common people.

Todaiji-temple, the world heritage site in Nara
Famous dragons drowing in the ceiling of Kenniji-temple in Kyoto

Important Concepts of Japanese Buddhism

Concept of Mahayana Buddhism
Mahayana Buddhism is a sect of Buddhism that has been traditionally practiced in central and eastern Eurasian Continent. According to this sect, to seek to become a Buddha, one must aspire to Buddhahood only in the sprit of wanting to save all suffering living things (Issai Shujo), in other words, from the Mahayana point of view; this spirit of 'ritagyo' (altruistic practices) is the mark which differentiates Mahayana Buddhism from Nikaya Buddhism.

The word Maha (great) yana (vehicle) first appeared in the "Hannya-kyo Sutra" (Prajna Sutra), and it is thought that the religious community that compiled and defended the "Hannya-kyo Sutra" was central to the beginning of the Mahayana Buddhism movement in general. Based on the content of the Hannya-kyo sutras, it is thought that the teachings by Shomon (Sharavakia), or Setsuissaiubu (Sarvaastivaadin), which were very influential at that time even among other sects of Nikaya Buddhism, were called Hinayana by the Mahayana Buddhism side; however, this remains unclear. It is said that teachings of Mahayana were theorized by Nagarjuna and others about 700 years after Shakyamuni's death.

On the other hand, it can be seen as a major thought shift in Buddhism occurring from a standpoint of criticism against Theravada Buddhism, which includes the principle of devoted practice of the teachings of Shakyamuni in order to attain nirvana (deliverance from the wheel of life); as the practitioner ultimately remains no more than a believer of the Buddha's teachings, one cannot reach the state of recognizing the truth as a 'Buddha' (Nyorai (Tathagata)). Based on the Jataka Legend that Shakyamuni continued his mortification to save all living things (Issai Shujo) from suffering, this school had a theory, if they kept doing charity after the example of Shakyamuni's spirit (aspiration for Buddhahood), in the distant future, they too could have a life as a Buddha (Sango Jobutsu). This trend is subtle in the "Hannya-kyo Sutra," but some sutras, including the "Hokke-kyo Sutra" (the Lotus Sutra) and the "Nehan-gyo Sutra" (The Sutra of The Great Nirvana) stipulated it clearly.

Ritagyo, which gives preference to salvation of others over one's own Gedatsu (being liberated from earthly desires and the woes of man), had not been practiced in Buddhist regions before Mahayana. It is said that, around the time of birth of Christ, Buddhist regions were so devoted to the study of Shakyamuni's teachings that they were unable to respond to wishes of ordinary people. On the other hand, the defining feature of Mahayana Buddhism is that it declared that ordinary people, those who had not renounced the everyday world and become monks, could become a Buddha in the future world as long as they continued ritagyo. Although shomon and engaku (paccekabuddha, who have come to Bodhi independent of any other person) attain nirvana by rejecting life as humans, they themselves cannot convey new teachings or save people from suffering. However, Mahayanic seekers claimed that they could ultimately become Buddha even as they lived in the real world, called themselves Bosatsu (Bodhisattva), and created Mahayana Sutras that conveyed their new thoughts, often using artistic expressions.

The idea that Shakyamuni was not the only Buddha to appear in history, but that Buddhas had appeared in the past and will appear in the future, existed before Mahayana; however, according to Mahayana Buddhism, countless Bosatsu had completed the path to becoming a Buddha by attaining enlightenment, and each of them exists in their own world, separate from this corrupt world both temporally and spatially. These many Buddha include Amida Nyorai (Amitabha Tathagata) in the Western Pure Land and Yakushi Nyorai (the Healing Buddha) in the Eastern Pure Land. In addition, the teachings of Shakyamuni as a historical and physical personage are not simply transmitted verbatim, but, as Mahayana Buddhism, have developed in various ways and have produced various schools.

This ideological movement was linked with ancient Tantrism, creating a point of view that Buddha is a self-expression of a non-historical existence (hosshin (Dharma Body)) that may be called 'Butsujiji', and this existence was assumed to be Dainichi Nyorai (Mahavairocana). This Buddhism is called 'Esoteric Buddhism', and it is differentiated from exoteric Buddhism because it places its viewpoint behind the part that appears on the surface of history (exoteric Buddhism). It is said that sutras of Esoteric Buddhism were preached by Dainichi Nyorai, not by Shakyamuni. They preached 'Sokushin Jobutsu' (Attaining Buddhahood with the Present Body), saying that one can complete the path to Buddhahood by performing Sanmitsukaji (three mystic practices) to symbolize this non-historical existence: thinking of Buddha in your heart, chanting mantra, and making symbolic signs (gestures) with the fingers.

The Jodo (Pure Land) sect also appeared, preaching, based on the Mappo-shiso (the "end of the world" belief), that Buddhism loses its effectiveness 1500 years after Shakyamuni's death, the difficulty of Jodo in this corrupt world in the era of Mappo (Age of the Final Dharma) (Jirikishodomon), and that, by giving it up, one can perform Jodo in the Pure Land of Amida Buddha after dying (Tarikijodomon).

It may seem mysterious that creeds which look as incompatible as Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism, exoteric Buddhism and esoteric Buddhism, and jirikimon and tarikimon exist within one religion, but of course, the three seals of the dharma, which are said to be the proof of Buddhism, are common to all schools.

Jodo (Pure Land)
Jodo (Pure Land) is a Buddhist concept which pointed to a world clean and pure. It is also called "Josetsu", "Jokoku" or "Jokai. "This word is heteronymous to Edo (impure land in Buddhism. )

The Edo, as opposed to Jodo, is also called Ekoku (defiled land), a land filled with Eaku (impurities).

The Bukkokuhon (the chapter of Buddha-land) "Yuimagyo (Vimalakirti Sutra)" describes that 'there are hillside, mine-pit halls, thorns, a million stones, earth and sand, many mountains and all filled with impurities. 'It describes lands, such as desert and undeveloped wastelands, as Ekoku.

The volume of "Muryoju-kyo Ubadaisha Ganshoge-chu" (Commentary on [Vasubandhu's] Upadesa on the Sutra of Immeasurable Life) says 'When you see three existences (past, present and future) of Edo, there is the dimension of the fallacious, the dimension of rotation and the dimension of infinitude, like an inchworm that circles or like a silkworm which ties itself in a cocoon. 'It means that Edo is the world of the fallacious, protean, where people circle around a ring like an inchworm does, and suffer by tying themselves up like a silkworm does within their cocoon.

In this place, the human beings have tied themselves up, looking at delusions without knowing they are delusional. They are obsessed with, and suffered from, these delusions, and this is the world of Bonno (earthly desires).

As opposed to Edo, where people can not feel any material and spiritual well being, Jodo (Pure Land) is a pure clean land. This sort of pure land is the legitimate land of Buddha. Hence, Jodo is the Buddha-land.

"Yuimagyo" says 'following that spirit being pure, hence the land of Buddha is pure', and "Shinjikan-gyo Sutra" also describes that 'Because the spirit is pure, the world becomes pure and because the spirit is impure, the world becomes impure. 'As seen from this, the pureness of the world depends on spirituality. Thus, the purity or impurity of the land is dictated by the spirit of the residents who live there.

Hence, the legitimate Jodo is the place Buddha resides, and the land of Bosatsu (Bodhisattva) who is devoted to becoming a Buddha. From this point of view, Jodo is the land of Buddha. However, although Jodo is the land of Buddha, the land of Buddha is not necessarily Jodo. The world for Buddha's edificatory purpose is also the land of Buddha, hence, the world of Bonpu (ordinary unenlightened person) could be the land of Buddha. This means the lands of Buddha indicate the adobe of Buddha and all edificatory worlds. Hence, the Jodo is the world of Bosatsu attaining to become a Buddha.

There are various traditions devoted to various Jodo. Amongst them, the Amida Buddha's "Seiho Gokuraku Jodo (The West Pure Land)" is a famous one. However, Ashuku-butsu's (Aksobhya Buddha) "Toho Myoki Sekai (the Eastern world of Delight)", Yakushi-butsu's "Toho Joruri Sekai (Eastern Pure Land)" and Shakamuni-butsu's "Musho Shogonkoku" are also well known. In that sense, the word 'jodo' (pure land) is a common noun rather than a proper noun.

If you ask what Jodo exists for, it is for Buddha himself to obtain the Horaku (pleasure of a pious life) as well as to lead people to this land and provide the Buddhist benefits in order for them to be spiritually awakened. The world of the impure hinders the ascetic in training from becoming a Buddha. That is why each Buddha leads one to Jodo and provides these Buddhist benefits in order to make it easier to do ascetic training. In this sense, the Jodo is a place for Buddha's satisfaction, and for the benefit of others - the satisfaction for both parties.

These Jodo are not in this world that we live in, but built in another world. People only go there when their life ends in this world, hence, the concept of Ojo Jodo (Birth in the Pure Land) exists. Significantly, the Amida-Buddha's Seiho Gokuraku Jodo forms the Jodo sect which takes the position of the Ojo Jodo.

There is another school of thought that, rather than teaching about the building of Jodo in another world, teaches that the world will shift to Jodo as is. More specifically, "Yuimagyo" states that if the spirit is pure then even soil is pure, and even in this world there could be the soil of pureness. For example, "Hokkekyo (Lotus sutra)" preaches to alter this corrupt world to the land of lapis lazuli of the Jodo world (Shabasoku jakko). This concept was taken by the Ryozen Jodo of Shaka (Shkyamuni) and the Lotus Matrix World of Birushana-butsu (Vairocana).

Places worshipped, like the Buddha-land, includes the inner temple of Tosotsuten (The fourth of six heavens in the world of desire) of Miroku Bosatsu (Buddha of the Future, Bodhisattva of the Present), and the Hodarakusen (Potalaka) of Kannon Bosatsu (Kannon Bodhisattva). In a certain sense, these places conform to Jodo.

The predominant feature of Jodo is the concept that besides the existence of Jodo in this world, Jodo was built by Buddha. To go to that Jodo, and attain enlightenment through being led by Buddha, is the belief of Jodo.

Towers in the Yakushiji-temple in Nara
Muryojuji-temple in Hyogo prefecture

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