Buddhism in Japan

Early State Buddhism in Japan

Culture Society

In the sixth century, Japan’s rulers took a historic decision to import Buddhism. But many frustrations lay in store before this ambitious state project could be realized. This third installment in our series on Buddhism in Japan looks at how Chinese Buddhism became established in Japan and some of the changes it underwent in its new environment.

Recognition as Part of the Chinese Cultural Sphere

By the sixth century, Japan had started to develop a sense of itself as a unified state, but there was still considerable disagreement at court about how this state should be ruled. Fundamentally, the argument boiled down to this: Should Japan look to become a member of the prestigious Chinese cultural and political sphere, or should it reject external influences and try to go it alone with a distinctively Japanese approach? This argument eventually led to a military clash that ended in a victory for those who espoused closer links with China. Following their victory, the country’s elite became more proactive in their efforts to import continental culture and looked to build a system of government on the Chinese model.

Buddhism was attractive in this context as a diplomatic tool way to indicate that Japan had joined the Sinosphere. By becoming a Buddhist country like China, the country’s leaders believed, Japan could show itself to be a legitimate member of the Chinese sphere of cultural influence. These were some of the considerations behind the decision to import Buddhism as a state project.

What did Buddhism in China look like at the time? Since the first and second centuries of the common era, a diverse range of Buddhist doctrines had entered the country along the Silk Road. Numerous schools of Mahayana Buddhism had grown up, each one taking a different view on which of these diverse traditions represented the “true teachings” of the Buddha. Starting in the sixth century, there was a movement to organize these multiple teachings and bring them together as an integrated whole. While recognizing the disparate doctrines of all the different schools, the movement sought to make logical sense of the doctrines espoused in these diverse teachings and reach a comprehensive understanding of the vast Buddhist cosmos. One of the most important examples of this movement was the Mahayana school known as Tiantai (Japanese “Tendai”) Buddhism. The Tendai teachings were brought to Japan by Saichō (767–822) in the ninth century. From this later developed many of the most important schools of Japanese Buddhism. But that’s a topic for a later installment in this series.

Zen, a new form of Buddhism that had arisen in China (where it was called Chan), was still a new and relatively unimportant school at the time. Likewise esoteric Buddhism, the final form that Buddhism reached in India, had yet to make any meaningful inroads into China. Both Zen and esoteric Buddhism flourished in China in subsequent centuries and came to have an important impact on the development of Japanese Buddhism. But these developments came later. At the time when Buddhism was imported into Japan, neither of these traditions had yet become influential.

The Challenges of Importing a Community of Monks

As we have seen, Japan took the decision to import Buddhism as a state project in the sixth century. But what did it mean for the state to import the religion officially? According to the traditional interpretation, Buddhism consists of three elements: the Buddha, the “Dharma” or law, and the “sangha,” or community of monks. Importing Buddhism meant bringing all three of these elements from the continent. Only after all three of them were present would Japan be recognized as having become a Buddhist country.

Importing the first two elements—the Buddha and the Dharma—was the easy part. The “Buddha” meant Buddhist images, and the Dharma was represented by sutras and other scriptures. All that was necessary to satisfy these first two requirements was to load some Buddhist images and scriptures on a boat and bring them to Japan. This was relatively straightforward. The third element was much more difficult. The sangha was a community of Buddhist monks. Importing the sangha into Japan therefore meant bringing considerable numbers of Buddhist monks from the continent.

According to the rules set down by Shakyamuni in the Vinaya Pitaka, a quorum of four monks was required to constitute a sangha. Four male monks would form a male sangha, while four nuns would form a sangha of women. But another rule said that a lay person needed the permission of at least 10 monks to take the tonsure. This meant that to establish the sangha on a sustainable basis in Japan, it would be necessary to persuade at least 10 monks to make the extremely hazardous voyage to Japan by sea from China. This was the challenging problem that Japan needed to overcome to become officially a Buddhist country.

The Arrival of Jianzhen and Japan’s Official Birth as a Buddhist Country

One of the leading figures who worked hard to import Buddhism into Japan at this time was the regent Shōtoku Taishi (574–662), but it proved impossible to bring a functioning sangha of monks to Japan during his lifetime. Despite his fame as the person who brought Buddhism to Japan, in fact he only managed to import Buddhist images and scriptures. In the years that followed, numerous temples were built all over Japan, and Buddhist rituals and prayers were performed for the peace and safety of the nation. But a self-sustaining Japanese sangha was not established for a long time even after this. It was only in 754 that the issue was finally resolved, and that Japan finally became a full-fledged Buddhist country in the official sense.

The key figure in the breakthrough was Jianzhen, or Ganjin in Japanese (688–763), a monk famous in China at the time for his learning and piety. Burning with missionary zeal to spread the teachings of the Buddha, Jianzhen responded to Japan’s request and resolved to undertake the perilous journey. As well as being a specialist in the Risshū school that studied and practiced the rules of ascetic discipline laid out in the Vinaka, he was also a revered priest with a sophisticated knowledge and understanding of the various schools of Buddhist philosophy. He also had numerous disciples, so that bringing over the 10 or more monks that Japan needed should have been easy. But Jianzhen’s attempts to travel to Japan were repeatedly frustrated by shipwrecks and other disasters. He finally managed to reach Japan on his fifth attempt, by which time he had gone blind.

The Yamato court located at Nara welcomed Jianzhen and his companions as honored state guests. Jianzhen and a quorum of his fellow monks officially ordained Japanese applicants for the priesthood. This was the moment in which a sangha was born in Japan, and the moment when Japan officially became a Buddhist country.

Buddhism Begins as a State Religion

But the attitude of the court in the years that followed did not always align with Jianzhen’s wishes. The Japanese court wanted to establish a self-sustaining Japanese sangha because that was one of the conditions they needed to fulfill to be recognized as a Buddhist country. Getting Jianzhen and at least 10 monks to Japan was a necessary step in this direction. Once these conditions had been fulfilled and Japan was able to produce monks of its own, the next priority for the court was to use Buddhism as a tool for political rule and control.

As a natural consequence of this, the kami or native deities and spirits that had been worshiped in Japan before the introduction of Buddhism continued to be revered and respected. The old religion was never replaced by the new imported Buddhism. The preexisting faith in the kami and the newly imported Buddhism from the continent were both accepted as suitable objects of worship, and eventually fused to form a new syncretism. This would eventually produce the typically Japanese view that regarded all these various deities as different manifestations of the same supernatural beings. This syncretic fusion between Buddhism and the native traditions continues to be deeply rooted in Japanese society today, where the culture happily embraces both Shintō and Buddhism and for the most part feels no need to choose between them.

Jianzhen came to Japan hoping that he and his disciples would become the foundations from which Buddhism would spread throughout the country. But the court was looking for something different. For the court, Buddhism was something that would play an important role as part of the apparatus of state authority. Buddhist monks were state-sanctioned holy men whose job was to pray for the security and prosperity of the country. They were also diplomats who played an important role in cultural exchanges with the continent.

Since monks held a position akin to that of state officials or civil servants, it was inconceivable that they would be allowed to form a sangha and govern themselves as an autonomous community according to the Vinaya Pitaka. This refusal to grant the monks autonomy was tantamount to a failure to understand an essential part of Shakyamuni’s teachings. The Buddha had instructed his followers to remove themselves from their secular lives and take refuge within the community of monks, where they could work to bring about change within themselves by concentrating on their spiritual disciplines within the community. To make matters worse, the sangha did not even have the authority to ordain new monks, a right made the exclusive prerogative of the authorities. The daily lives of monks were ruled not by their own autonomous code of conduct but by the laws of the state.

The first form of Buddhism in Japan, which put down roots in Nara, was a religion that was administered through and by and for the state. This was the starting point for the future development of Japanese Buddhism. Next time, I want to look at how this Japanese form of the religion developed and changed in the centuries that followed.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: Image of Jianzhen in the Jianzhen Memorial Hall at Daming temple in Yangzhou, Jiangsu Province, China. The memorial hall was designed with reference to the Kondō [Golden Hall] at Tōshōdaiji in Nara, founded by Jianzhen in the eighth century. © Pixta.)

religion Buddhism China history Shōtoku Taishi