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History of early Buddhism in Japan
March 27th, 2013

illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)

History of early Buddhism in Japan

Buddhism reached Japan thanks to gifts from a kingdom in present-day Korea, probably seeking military alliance. It was initially accepted but with circumspection and kept as private gifts rather than in an official setting. Buddhism did develop, maybe simply as a precaution (one is better off praying an unknown god, rather than taking the risk of upsetting the god?), but the initial development was not based on much understanding of what Buddhism was about.

The Nara Period (710 - 794) marks the period when emissaries regularly travelled to China with accompanying religious people who then studied in China before returning with sūtras, teachings, etc.

Almost each travel —a long and dangerous endeavour at the time— ended up with monastics training in different monasteries in China, and bringing back substantially different schools of Buddhism to Japan. In some sense, it can be said that Japan is thus playing "catch-up" with different historical evolutions of Buddhism in India and China.

The beginning of the Nara period hence saw the arrival of six major schools,
• Kusha (relying on Vasubandhu's 'Hinayana' writings),
• Jojitsu (pushing the notions of impermanence and emptiness),
• Ritsu (Vinaya),
• Hosso (Mind-Only),
• Sanron (Madhyamika),
• Kegon (Flower Garland and "One vehicle").

Kusha comes from 'kosa' in Abhidharma-kosa-sastra, and it is based on the teachings of Vasubandhu. The teachings were presented as Sarvāstivāda, however they often actually support the views of Sautrantika.
Jojitsu is based on the Jojitsu-ron (Satyasiddhi-sastra). It goes beyond the view of self-less-ness of the 'person' by also addressing the self-less-ness of the skandhas, thus reaching toward the "two emptinesses". This is not yet Mahāyāna (as there isn't necessarily much focus on other Mahāyāna ideas) but has been seen in Japan as "the most outstanding of the Hinayana".
Ritsu means Vinaya, and is the school that introduced 'proper' Buddhist 'monasticism' in Japan, with ordination ceremonies, etc.
Hosso is the "Cognising only" school (derived from Yogacara) which explores how 'form' arises in our Mind from Emptiness. It considers 5 levels, 4 aspects, 3 natures and 3 non-natures, 4 nirvāṇas…
Sanron means "Three Treaties" and is based on 3 major texts, notably the Chu-ron (Mulamadhyamakakarika of Nāgārjuna). It focuses on the reductio at absurdum, without providing any separate 'positive' presentation of truth (although it also considers Bhavaviveka's points). It considers 8 negations, 4 types of analysis, 4 levels of 2 truths…
Kegon is based on the Kegon-gyo (Flower garland sūtra) and presents the notion of "One Vehicle". It considers 5 teachings (Hinayana, initial Mahāyāna, final Mahāyāna, sudden, and perfect —associated to Vairocana) and 10 traditions…

Late Nara also saw the introduction of esoteric Buddhism, leading to the shools:
• Tendai and
• Shingon,
although these truly developed only during the Heian period.

All these traditions are presented in the Hasshu-koyo ("the Essentials of the Eight Traditions") by Gyonen, from the 13th century which indicates their long-lasting influence.

Some key characteristics common to the six "Nara schools" are: collaboration between schools, philosophical understanding of Buddhism beyond the sole ritualistic focus, and aristocratic elitist patronage.

During the Nara period, the six schools studied one another and maintained (mostly) amicable contacts. As already indicated, it was a period of accelerated incorporation and study of a millenium of development in Buddhism (in India and China) and it is indeed remarkable that Japan could grasp the essentials of such wildly varied evolution over a century or so. The spirit of relative collaboration between schools surely helped.

Buddhism was very elitist though, with no real contact with the general population. This aristocratic patronage —mostly imperial— may have helped with the collaborative study though.
When the patronage stayed aristocratic but less centralised, sects immediately drifted further apart by siding with their local patrons and conflicting on buddhist teachings for the sole purpose of aligning their conflicts with the political conflicts of the noble families.
When a few centuries later, Buddhism in Japan started relying on patronage from the local and general population, it obviously broadened the influence of Buddhism to all society but it also allowed for huge conflicts between sects. It is thus important to note that the many sectarian conflicts in the history of Japan are not so much found during the Nara period in spite of six schools in close proximity. The collaboration surely speeded up the understanding and appropriation of the teachings.

Thanks to this collaborative success, and mere richness of the cultural and religious transfer between China and Japan (e.g. about forms of government, literature, architecture, etc.), the Nara schools were the solidly-established foundation for Buddhism in Japan (beyond a mere 'god' to pray to, as a precaution).

The Nara period is marked as the beginning of a real 'understanding' of Buddhism in Japan, but it is also marked by the official support it received which helped not only the transfer and the construction of temples, etc., but obviously created an interest by those who sought proximity with the imperial power.

Interestingly, Kusha, Jojitsu and Ritsu would usually be classified as Hinayana schools, and Hosso, Sanron, Kegon as Mahāyāna schools; however, because of the initial spirit of collaboration and because of the importance of the "One Vehicle" doctrine (given much importance by Kegon (and later by Shingon)), all these six schools may also be seen as Mahāyāna.

For example, it has been reported about the Ritsu school that Vinaya Master Tao-hsuan said, "This Dharmaguptaka tradition is, in its principles, Mahāyāna", a judgement considered authoritative in "the Essentials of the Eight Traditions" by Gyonen. The same text of Gyonen states that "all the various Buddhist traditions are subsidiaries of the Sanron" (i.e. Madhyamaka). Hinayana is simply integrated with Mahāyāna in the "One Vehicle", they're merely various teaching devices to teach people of various capacities, and they're all consistent once one can see beyond provisional teachings…

This all-inclusive Japanese perspective can surely be associated with the initial collaboration between schools (rather than their later conflicts for influence).

#Buddhism   #history   #buddhistcircle  
[photo: Seated Nikko Bosatsu (Suryaprabha) with one leg pendent. Tokyo national museum (]