Buddhism in Japan

Esoteric Buddhism and the Imperial Court

Culture History

Brought to Japan from China at the end of the eighth century, the new teachings of esoteric Buddhism quickly gained a following at the imperial court. Over the centuries that followed, the two main schools of esoteric Buddhism coexisted as rivals, both deeply embedded in the power structures of state and nobility.

The Lack of a Comprehensive Philosophical System

As we saw in the previous installment of this series, eighth-century Japan finally succeeded in importing the three elements (Buddhist images, the “Dharma,” or law, and the “sangha,” or community of monks) it needed for Japan to be officially considered a Buddhist country. But this was not the same as importing the religious doctrines and disciplines that the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, had taught in India centuries before. The advent of the new Mahayana scriptures had given birth to a mind-boggling array of different Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. These were treated as objects of worship and imbued with mysterious powers similar to the kami of Japan’s indigenous Shintō traditions. Buddhist priests were revered as powerful spell-weaving figures who used incantations and rituals to evoke the magical powers of the Buddhas. In the priesthood as it existed in Japan, there was little trace of the community of monks as it had been originally envisaged by early Buddhism—the sangha who would devote their lives to spiritual practices to dissolve their illusory desires and liberate themselves from suffering.

From its capital in Nara, the court established schools and set monks to study the Buddhist doctrines and scriptures to spread the teachings widely and capitalize on the religion’s magical powers to protect the state. The philosophies and rules of Buddhism were divided into six areas and taught separately. It was believed that mastering these recondite doctrines would provide proof that students possessed the special abilities they needed as Buddhist priests. The six areas of study were known as Sanron, Jōjitsu, Hossō, Kusha, Kegon, and Ritsu. Each dealt with a particular area of recondite Buddhist teachings. These later became known as the Six Southern Schools. But these academic schools offered a curriculum that was designed to train priests and enable them to gain qualifications recognized by the state. They were not a comprehensive philosophical system that would give a comprehensive understanding of Buddhism as a whole. At this point Japan still lacked a philosophical framework for understanding the true essence and full extent of Buddhism from an overall perspective.

The Tendai School and the Lotus Sutra

This situation continued until the end of the eighth century and the beginning of the ninth, around the time when the capital was moved to a new location in what is today Kyoto. Around this time, two new philosophies that seemed to encapsulate the Buddhist teachings were brought back to Japan by monks who had traveled with embassies to Tang China to study the latest continental learning. One was Tendai (Tientai in Chinese) Buddhism, introduced to Japan by Saichō (762–822). The other was Shingon Buddhism, brought back by Kūkai (774–835). Together, these two schools would form the core of Japanese Buddhism for centuries to come.

The Tendai school represented the most advanced form of Buddhist philosophy at the time. It incorporated all the diverse forms of Buddhist thought that had been brought to China from India in a long series of exchanges since the first century of the Christian era. At the same time, and unlike previous schools, the Tendai school established a complicated series of logical relationships among these different doctrines, and sought to reach a comprehensive understanding of the vast Buddhist cosmos as a whole. Of course, since these different ideas had been created by different people living in India at different times, there was not any obvious way to combine them into a coherent whole. They did not belong together in any real sense. But this did not prevent the Tendai school from using all the logic and arguments at their disposal to unite them. At the pinnacle of the Tendai understanding of Buddhism was the Lotus Sutra. The Tendai was a Chinese school that had been born out of the distinctive history of Buddhism in East Asia. It incorporated all the different sutras in a systematic hierarchy of texts, with the Lotus Sutra as the most revered text of all.

These new teachings were embraced as soon as they were introduced and taught in a systematic way by Saichō. The vast Buddhist cosmos, which people in Japan had only glimpsed in fragmentary form until that point, was at last revealed in all its glory, in a form that could be comprehended as a single coherent system.

The Supreme Teaching

Soon after this, Kūkai returned from China with a new set of doctrines that would form the basis for the Shingon (mantra) school. Unlike the Tendai teachings, Shingon was not an accumulation of previous doctrines. It was a new interpretation of Buddhism, known as esoteric Buddhism (mikkyō, or “secret teachings,” in Japanese). Built on a new set of tantric scriptures, this school represented the final stage of Buddhism’s evolution in India. Its appearance marked the culmination of a long historical process by which the religion had developed and changed by incorporating and surpassing previous teachings. As the final result of this process, esoteric Buddhism was presented as a form that possessed supreme spiritual power and enjoyed a position at the pinnacle of all the Buddhist thinking that had existed in the past.

The original Buddhism of Shakyamuni taught that a person should look within and change his life and destiny through his own efforts. In a world in which no external savior existed, there was no other way. But during the centuries that followed, as Mahayana Buddhism came to the fore, these original teachings became overlaid with accretions of mystical belief and magical thinking. In esoteric Buddhism, which represented the final stage of this process, the teachings had become so transformed that they now taught that one could become a Buddha simply by becoming aware of one’s own connection with the fundamental energy of the universe. The teachings had become almost indistinguishable from Hinduism. The doctrines were shrouded in secrecy and mysticism, and the profoundest secrets could only be divulged to individuals who had completed certain tests or undergone special initiation rituals. And it was believed that the experience of union with the energy of the universe was something that could not be expressed or talked about in words.

Kūkai brought esoteric Buddhism to Japan as an integrated whole, a robust single system of thought. Until now, Japanese Buddhism had been a mélange of imported practices and rituals, valued chiefly for their magic-like spiritual powers. Esoteric Buddhism came as a revelation—the most profound and powerful version of the teachings anyone had encountered so far in Japan. It also seemed more coherently put together than the teachings of the Tendai school, which tried to combine different teachings and present them as a unified whole. Even Saichō’s followers felt this, and they started to add elements of the latest esoteric teachings on top of their own Tendai doctrines, so that Tendai teachings too gradually took on the complexion of esoteric Buddhism.

This is how it came about two different forms of esoteric Buddhism came to exist side-by-side in Japan: the Tendai sect, which had given a lightly esoteric tint to a fusion of different teachings from a wide variety of previous schools, and the Shingon sect, which had brought the esoteric teachings to Japan as a unified whole.

Founder Head temple Teachings
Saichō Enryakuji, Mount Hiei (between Kyoto and Ōtsu, Shiga Prefecture) All sutras are arranged in a hierarchy, with the Lotus Sutra as the pinnacle.
Kūkai Kongōbuji, Kōyasan (Wakayama Prefecture) The final stage of the historical evolution of Buddhism in India. Practitioners seek to become one with the energy of the universe.

Religious Class Structures and Accommodation with Political Power

It is important to remember that Japanese people at the time were not aware of the changes that had affected Buddhism over time. Since all the Buddhist scriptures that had been brought to Japan were the word of the Buddha, they were all seen as legitimate parts of the teachings, though some differences of profundity were agreed to exist between them. Different schools differed in their responses to the question: “Of all of the holy scriptures, which best represent the message that the Buddha wanted to convey?” The response of the Tendai sect was the Lotus Sutra (in Japanese the Myōhō Renge-kyō or Hokekyō, interpreted in an esoteric manner). For Shingon, the most important scriptures were tantric texts such as the Mahavairocana Sutra (Dainichikyō) and the Vajrasekhara Sutra (Kongōchō-kyō). At the time, there was little historical understanding of how the religion and its traditions had developed. People did not think of esoteric Buddhism as the latest interpretation of the teachings, or see it as having emerged as the final stage of a long evolutionary process that had taken the place over the course of Buddhist history.

One characteristic of esoteric Buddhism was that it tended to place value on hierarchy and authority. Although one of its basic teachings was that anyone could achieve enlightenment in this lifetime by awakening to the Buddha nature in every human being and becoming united with the energy of the universe, the reality was that this experience was only possible for people with special qualities and those who had completed rigorous spiritual practices that were beyond the reach of ordinary people. This meant that most people could not hope to achieve enlightenment through their own efforts. Instead, they must look up to these special individuals with extraordinary powers and ask for their help in achieving merit in the here and now. Esoteric Buddhism taught that there were essentially two types of people in the world. There was a minority of holy beings or “living Buddhas,” who had achieved union with the energy of the universe, and there was the mass of ordinary people whose best hope was to receive the gift of happiness by paying reverence to the small number of people blessed with special gifts. The world was built on a hierarchical system. In a sense, this structure can be seen as a natural consequence of the fact that this version of Buddhism had developed under the strong influence of Hinduism, with its religiously sanctioned caste system.

In the centuries that followed, the sects of Japanese Buddhism that diversified from these beginnings all inherited this aspect of esoteric Buddhism. They therefore developed according to the same basic framework, which divided the world into a small group of special people with extraordinary gifts and qualities, and a mass of ordinary people whose only hope was to obtain merit by revering this minority. A classic example of this tendency was seen during World War II, when the Buddhist schools in Japan all agreed to grant the emperor a semidivine authority and power, and cooperated in the prosecution of the war. This behavior ultimately sprang from the same understanding of Buddhist teachings.

Esoteric Buddhism and the Court Nobility

From the eighth century onward, the Tendai and Shingon schools played a leading role at the center of the development of Japanese Buddhism. Since both these schools tended to respect authority, they naturally both valued close connections with state power, embodied in the figure of the emperor. It would be fair to say that the two sects engaged in a prolonged tug-of-war to bring the emperor over to their side. During this tussle, the schools of Nara Buddhism allied themselves with the Shingon side, reacting against what they saw as a disrespect for the Nara schools on the part of the Tendai sect, which had its head temple in Kyoto.

A situation arose in which the two schools of esoteric Buddhism, Tendai and Shingon, continued in an uneasy coexistence as competitors within the structure of authority based around the emperor and the rest of the court nobility. The main features of Japanese Buddhism at this stage were as follows.

  1. There was no sangha run according to the Vinaya Pitaka disciplinary code, and no strict rules to govern the daily lives of Buddhist monks and priests. This continues to be a characteristic of Japanese Buddhism to the present.
  2. In terms of its philosophy, Japanese Buddhism inherited the traditions of Mahayana Buddhism, but was essentially built on the framework of esoteric Buddhism, which discriminated between a small class of people with special abilities or training and the ordinary masses.
  3. The religion was driven to form alliances and close connections with political power and authority.

This situation continued in place for around three centuries, until the foundations of power began to shift away from the court nobility into the hands of the samurai class and eventually to ordinary people. Buddhism too began to change, giving rise to a wide diversity of different schools. How this happened, and what the consequences were, will be the subject of subsequent installments in this series.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner image: A statue of Kūkai, who brought the Shingon school of esoteric Buddhism to Japan. © Pixta.)

religion Buddhism China history Kūkai