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Buddhism in Japan - Part one - A little history

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24 Jan 2008 21:15 #10513 by Garm
This is a short history compiled from \"Myths, Deities and Demons of the Far East\" by Brian Katz


Buddhism in Japan

Until the introduction of Buddhism, Japanese religious practices lacked moral dictates and belief in an existence after death that contained reward, penance, or punishment for the actions taken in life. Shintoism was a system of prayers and offerings that in a very pragmatic way were centered on the natural cycles of agriculture and life.

Although the first icon of Buddha came to Japan from Korea, the primary teachings came from China by way of India. In China, Buddhism had already been influenced by Taoist and Confucian ideals. Chinese Buddhism is a distinctly different version from that the Japanese eventually embraced. Buddhist monks traveled from China to teach in Japan; in turn, after monasteries were established, Japanese monks journeyed to China to study. The first Buddhist scripture to appear in Japan was the Giso, compiled by Prince Shotoku in the seventh century. One of the main Buddhist tenets explained in that text was that everything past, present, and future coexisted-that the concept of lineur time was an illusion.

The Chinese developed a school of Buddhism known as Ch’an. In Japan, the Ch’an school became the Zen school-the most influential of the many forms of Buddhism.

Buddhism developed in Japan during four distinguishable periods. The first was inaugurated by a great statue of Buddha erected in the Todaiji Temple at Nara, circa A.D. 752. This icon, influenced by Chinese art, made Nara the first Buddhist capital. The bronze Buddha was seated on a sacred lotus flower and measured 68 feet in height. It was the Buddha of no time, no place, and no race, and evolved into one of the five guardian Buddhas of meditation. The Japanese praised it as the “great sun Buddha.” Dainichi-nyorai.

The second period in the development of Japanese Buddhist thought occurred in Kyoto between the years 794 and 835. Dengyo Daishi and Kobo Daishi were two Japanese monks who developed a completely Japanese form of Buddhism. Kobo Daishi wrote one of the most important texts of the time, the Ryobu, or Shinto with Two Faces. He taught that Buddhism and Shintoism could coexist. One important belief introduced by the Ryobu was that the Shinto kami were bodhisattvas, or spiritual guardians of the Buddhist temple. Dengyo founded the Tendai sect, which later became associated with the imperial family. Dengyo and Kobo’s impact lasted until the year 894, when the third period began. The sect formed by their combined teachings became known as the Shingon.

The third period came about as Japanese Buddhism matured and established uniquely Japanese traditions. This important period is also symbolized by one of Japan’s greatest works of literature, The Tale of Genji, written by Lady Murasaki.

The fourth period, the Kamakura, reflected the development of four distinct schools of Japanese Buddhism. They were, first and second, the Jodo and the Shinshu, which eventually converged and become known as the Amida sect. Jodo was founded by Honen and Shinran; together they taught the word and worship of the Amida Buddha as well as the seven Gods of Fortune. The third and fourth sects were Nichiren and Zen. Nichiren, the founder of the Nichiren sect, was opposed to all other forms of Buddhism, claiming that his version alone was the only true version of Buddhism. Eisai was believed to have been the first to introduce Zen, into Japan. (There is a saying, “The Tendai is for the Royal Family, The Shingon for the nobility, Zen is for the Warrior classes, and the Jodo are for the Masses.”)

Most of the mythological tales not pertaining directly to the Buddha revolve around the exploits of Japanese heroes. These legends are usually associated with the samurai and thus reflect Zen beliefs.

Zen had a significant influence on Japanese culture. This philosophy explored life from within as well as from without and bloomed in a society built on the performance of rituals. The Zen influence is felt in many important Japanese art forms: archery, swordsmanship, painting, gardening (stone gardens), ceramics, architecture (teahouses), poetry (the haiku), diet, and Noh theater. (In Noh drama, masked spirits represent demons, ghosts, or witches. They enter over a wooden bridge as if coming from another world. Noh drama is an exercise in the economy of gesture, movement, and symbolism. The audience experiences yugen, a deep feeling of contemplation of beauty.)

In the quest for enlightenment, Zen dismisses traditional patterns of thought along with the language of reason that expresses such thought. Reaching true awareness, a state of consciousness known as the ‘Buddha mind,” requires the freeing of the mind from reason. It cannot be taught but must rather be attained, through zazen, “seated meditation,” and the use of koans, mental puzzles of which perhaps the most famous is “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” Only when the mind is free of the prison of rational can true insight be attained. This breakthrough-which takes the form of a sudden flash of insight referred to as satori-generally takes years to achieve, and represents the first step on the road to true enlightenment.

In Japan, Zen’s disciplined and practical approach appealed to members of the warrior class, the samurai. Why would something as peaceful and harmonious appeal to a warrior? The answer lies in Zen’s reliance on intuition as opposed to intellect. It was only through transcending thought (mushen, “no mind”) that one achieved enlightenment. Zen helped the warrior overcome mental restrictions in order to find the transcendent in ordinary experience. The way of the Zen warrior became known as bushido.

There is a story about Menechika, who was asked by Emperor Ichijo (986-1011) to forge a sword. This was a great honor and Menechika would not even think of disappointing the Emperor. Menechika called upon the bodhisattva Inari, the Shinto goddess of rice, to help support his endeavor. The goddess came and whispered instructions to him, and the sword he made was magnificent. Thus, the sacred sword-two of them are worn by the samurai, with one small than the other-is not an object of destruction, but rather a symbol of inspiration.
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