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World Buddhism

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Richard Bowning & Peter Kornick


Buddhism is a faith wholly different from Shinto. The goal of the Buddhist disciple is interior enlightenment, as experienced and subsequently taught by the Buddha in India. The kernel of the Buddha’s teaching is that the world as we ordinarily see it is unreal, insubstantial, and productive of suffering. Suffering stems from desire and desire arises through the notion of ‘self’. Only extinguish this cause, realize the world and our ‘selves’ as they really are, and suffering will cease. The Way to extinguish our fundamental illusions is the Buddha’s dharma or teaching.


The Buddhist Way, which saw the source of ill as being within our own minds, thus stood in sharp contrast with Shinto, which looked entirely to the external world. The kami, or deities of Shinto, were conceived as bestowers of material blessings outside the competence of man, never as revealers of interior or ultimate truth. Most religious effort in early Shinto seems to have been directed towards divine favours in this world, such as bountiful harvests and protection from famine and disease. There was no tradition in Japan, comparable to Taoism in China, of a spiritual method directed to altering inner consciousness to comprehend an expanded mode of truth.

By the time Buddhist teachings reached Japan in the late 6th century, this original, simple but dauntingly difficult path had been overlaid by an elaborate doctrine and an iconography of saviours designed to make it easier to follow. The Mahayana school of Buddhism, which had made its way from India eastwards to China via the silk road through central Asia, claimed in particular to be capable of offering salvation not only to the dedicated individual but to the broad mass of humanity. To this end a pantheon of Bodhisattvas had been generated who were dedicated to helping weaker sentient beings, and in addition there were other supernatural protectors such as the Four Deva Kings. From the Mahayana school likewise came a stream of anonymous sutras, which not only expounded metaphysical doctrine, but also promised the disciple magical aid in every conceivable difficulty if he copied and recited the potent words.

Buddhism in Japan has always shown two different aspects which provide for two different kinds of people. For the majority, who have no real aspiration to carry out the Buddha’s teachings to the letter and who are unwilling to submit themselves to a regime of strenuous discipline, Buddhism has always provided two important services, neither of which has any connection with the original message of the Buddha. It provides familiar worldly benefits. In most sects, there are temples which derive much of their income from spells for a range of favours which include the curing of sickness, safety from traffic accidents and finding a congenial bride. Second, Buddhism takes care of the dead, in both a practical and a spiritual sense. Unhampered by the fear of pollution which always made death problematic for Shinto, Buddhism from the earliest times offered requiem obsequies, which were considered the most potent means of setting the dead to rest and obviating their curses. In this sense it filled an important gap in Japanese spiritual life, but in doing so moved further away from its doctrinal origins.

For the majority of Japanese who have experience the call to the spiritual life, and who perceive the world to be insubstantial and full of suffering, Buddhism has supplied several viable methods of spiritual practice, whereby the disciple can hope to bring about the requisite transformation of consciousness. Notable among these are the meditative practices of Shingon school, of Tendai, and of Zen, all of which require total commitment and taxing levels of concentration. Given this emphasis on the inner life, it is hardly surprising that Buddhism supplied from the Japanese a whole dimension of ethical concepts hitherto unknown. In Shinto there is no moral vocabulary. Buddhism gave Japanese culture the words for compassion, wisdom, mercy, kindness, all related to the spiritual end of Buddhist awakening.

One of the major strengths of Buddhism lies in its flexibility and in its recognition that there are many paths to the same final truth. There have been some notable exceptions: the Nichiren sect claimed sole and total truth of itself and denounced other versions in violent terms, and the history of Buddhism in late medieval Japan was one of constant strife. But, broadly speaking, sectarian strife is not common and Buddhism is characterized by its very variety.


When Buddhism first reached Japan from Korea it arrived in semi-magical form. It came as sutras which promised protection from the whole land if properly recited, images of merciful Bodhisattvas ready to succour and protect in any contingency, and a new, dazzling art, sculpture and architecture. It was natural therefore that for two centuries the new religion should have been understood as simply another and more potent means of producing the kind of this-worldly favours always sought after from divine beings in Shinto.

Buddhism was quickly adopted by the courts as the official state religion, established to promote the welfare of the land. From Prince Shotoku (late 6th century) to Emperor Shomu (mid 9th century), who ordered temples to be built in all provinces and who constructed the Todai-ji at Nara and the huge statute of Buddha within, the court was a devout patron, providing lavish support for the temples and the monks in return for the divine protection they afforded.

New and remarkable forms of art and architecture arose under the guidance of skilled craftsmen from Korea. Great temples were built on the Yamoto plain, in and around Nara after the capital was established there in the early 8th century, and enshrined here were countless images of Buddhas such as Shaka, Dainichi and Yakushi, and Bodhisattvas such as Kanon, Fugen and Monju. The contrast with Shinto, a religion without icons, is marked. Within these temples were sponsored a series of seasonal rituals, based on Mahayana sutras and designed to protect the state. Those texts considered especially efficacious were the Lotus Sutra, the Sutra of golden light, and the Sutra of benevolent kings. The Lotus sutra was valued in particular for its extra virtue of helping the dead by annihilating their karmic sin. It became the most highly venerated scripture in Japan.

These sutras contained, besides spells and promises of help, passages of metaphysical doctrine, which were studied by groups of scholar priests and which in turn gave rise to what are known as the Six Schools of Nara Buddhism. Although these abstract theories themselves never reached further than the confines of the monasteries, some of the vocabulary and key concepts were eventually to percolate through to literature and culture in general.


From the 9th century, when the capital moved north to what is now Kyoto, Buddhism settled down in the form that was to persist for many centuries. The most notable aspect was its accommodation with Shinto. Far from branding the native beliefs as pagan or simple superstitions, the kami were simply brought within the Buddhist fold, becoming local guardians with their special shrines in Buddhist temple precincts. More sophisticated doctrinal systems were later devised which converted kami into local and temporary manifestations of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Despite their differences then, both religions merged into a common system, which served as the religion of the majority of Japanese for most of their history.

It was during the Heian period that Buddhism gradually began to change from a scholastic institution supported by the elite for its own purposes into a religion with truly popular appeal. This development began with the arrival in Japan of two sects from China, Tendai and Shingon.

Tendai, introduced by Saicho (767-822), gave paramount importance to the Lotus sutra but also placed great emphasis on the belief that there were many paths to truth. The aim of the Chinese founder, Zhiyi (538-97), had been to create a new synthesis of competing doctrines. So it was that Tendai incorporated a number of different practices including the study of other sutras, Zen-like contemplation and magic and ritual. The underlying belief of Heian Buddhism was that perfection was attainable in this present life. Given its eclecticism, it is hardly surprising that it was Tendai that became the starting point for subsequent sectarian and doctrinal developments.

The other sect, Shingon (‘True word’) was introduced by the eminent scholar Kukai (724-835), later known as Kobo Daihi. Shingon placed greater emphasis on esoteric secret practices that could only be carried out by initiates; in this sense it was far more exclusive than Tendai. It made its political impact by laying claim to spell and prayers that could bring rain, cure disease and vanquish enemies, but on a more personal level it offered a viable method of spiritual practice, invoking the doctrine of ‘Buddha nature’: ‘Buddha nature’ exists within all people, perfect, original, awakened and identical with the Buddha, but is hidden and must be rediscovered by means of spiritual exercise. Shingon demanded a complex ritual, involving gestures of the hands, mantras and visualizations, whereby disciples could so transform their consciousness as to rouse their hidden oneness with the Buddha. By this method, claimed Kukai, we may ‘become Buddha in this very body’. Shingon is a manifestation of late Tantric Buddhism which now only survives in Japan and in those areas of the world where Tibetan Buddhism is still practised.


It was not until the 13th century that any further major developments emerged. They came as a result of the gradual spread of Buddhism throughout the population and the perceived need for less complex teachings which could offer more immediate hope of salvation to the common people. A combination of natural disasters, civil war, famine, earthquake, and a conviction that the dharma was already in an advanced state of decay in which people were too weak and ignorant to follow the original precepts of the Buddha, led to the emergence of new forms.

Devotion to and faith in the saving power of the Buddha Amida to rescue believers at the moment of death and personally conduct them to his paradise, the Pure Land, had been common since the 11th century at court, but it now took strong root throughout Japan, In Amidism, Buddhism came close to evolving into a monotheistic religion with paradise and salvation in the afterlife as the primary goal. It is not an exclusively Japanese phenomenon by any means, but its emergence shows just how far Buddhism could diverge from its origins. To invoke the grace of Amida, in accordance with his original Vow, all that was needed was recitation of his name in a formula known as the nenbutsu. Several schools based on this teaching arose during the 13th century, notably the Jodo or Pure Land sect, founded by the monk Honen, and Jodo Shinshu, followed by his disciple Shinran. Both sects are characterized as relying on tariki, ‘force from the other’, on the assumption that effort from ‘self’ alone is of little avail. It was also with these sects that one finds priests deciding to reject celibacy, preferring instead to partake of the lay life. Jodo Shinshu still has huge numbers of followers in modern Japan and supports many prosperous temples.

The Nichiren sect, named after its founder Nichiren (1222-82), likewise offered an easier way to salvation. Starting from a foundation in Tendai and so preaching the primacy of the Lotus sutra, Nichiren believed that everyone could be brought to salvation merely through the act of reciting with sincerity the name of the sutra in the formula known as the daimoku. Nichiren was a patriot: he saw himself as the incarnation of a Bodhisattva and claimed that it was owing to the efficacy of this practice that the Mongol invasions of Japan in the late 13th century had been thwarted. He was bitterly intolerant of all other sects which neglected the Lotus sutra, particularly Jodo Shinshu with its rival invocation to Amida, and his strong views brought him into conflict with the military authorities. The Nichiren sect continues to thrive to the present day, numerous sub-sects having hived off from the original group in recent years. Prominent among these is the aggressive Soka Gakkai, which through propaganda and vigorous conversion techniques has managed to establish branches all over Japan and in many countries abroad.

In contrast to both Nichiren and Amidism, Zen offered another method of spiritual practice whereby disciples might recover their Buddha nature. Less complex than Shingon practice, it is no less difficult. Disciples may ‘see their own nature and become a Buddha’ by means of a special method of meditation, and spiritual transmission from master to pupil. This method ‘points directly to the mind’ without the use of words, which are recognized as ineffectual either in scripture or as means of communicating the enlightenment. Zen teachings came to Japan from China in two branches. The Rinzai sect, better known in the West, makes the koan exercise central to its meditation. These riddles, not soluble by the rational mind, are set as disciplines to force the mind out of its accustomed habits. The Soto branch, on the other hand, founded by the celebrated master Dogen, avoids the use of koan, believing them to be counterproductive to the end they profess. The school relies instead on shikan-taza, ‘just sitting’, a method which is said to favour the advanced disciple and to be difficult for the neophyte.


Although no major developments occurred during this long period, the history of Buddhism from the 14th century was hardly uneventful. Zen prospered under official patronage and spread its influence into all forms of art and culture, while those sects with a more popular appeal began not only to feud among themselves but also to come under considerable pressure in an increasingly disturbed and warlike environment. They were seen as potentially subversive and often misused their undoubtedly privileged position. The power of the Tendai sect, for example, was such that it could act at will, imposing its demands upon the capital by threatening armed force. It was only broken by the first unifier, Oda Nobunaga, who in 1580 ignored threats of divine retribution and burned their main temples to the ground for flouting his authority.

Once the Tokugawa regime was firmly established in the 17th century, this warlike behaviour of the major sects was remembered and the shogunate decided to place Buddhism as an institution under strict government supervision. In many cases temples were reduced to little more than registration centres for all Japanese families. Although true worship undoubtedly continued, the power of Buddhism as an institution was broken forever. The history of Buddhism in this period becomes a patchwork of occasional colourful figures, some lay, some priests, who stand out as rebels, eccentrics or saintly figures.

The coming of the Meiji Restoration in the late 19th century brought little comfort. Indeed the early Meiji could be seen as Buddhism’s darkest hour since 1580, as the new nation state set about reviving and recreating Shinto as the state religion. The centuries-old accommodation between the two faiths was broken and in the process many temples were destroyed and much land lost. Since that time, however, Buddhism has slowly regained much of its hold on the hearts and mind of the ordinary Japanese and the old accommodation is alive again. Many new sects have emerged, older sects have retained their foothold, and the financial base of most temples is now secure. The increasing prosperity in the country has been reflected in the refurbishment of temples, and Buddhism remains the major candidate to fill the spiritual vacuum that many Japanese feel to be the legacy of their breakneck and modernization.

Source: Richard Bowning & Peter Kornick (1997),The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Tapaz, Kyoto.

Computer typing: Lydia Quang Nhu
Update : 01-12-2001

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