Buddhism in Japan

An Explosion of Faith: Buddhist Diversity in the Kamakura Period

Culture Society History

From the end of the Heian period through the Kamakura years, Buddhism in Japan underwent major change, spawning new sects and approaches based on Tendai school teachings. The religion spread to encompass the rigorous meditation of Zen even as it opened up to the masses in a country that took to it in all its flavors.

How the Tendai School Gave Birth to New Sects

The twelfth and thirteenth centuries were a period of transition in Japan, marking the end of the courtly age and the rise of the samurai warriors as a new ruling class. The period was also marked by a rapid diversification within Japanese Buddhism. Previously, the two great sects of esoteric Buddhism, the Tendai and Shingon schools, had vied with each other for influence and the patronage of powerful aristocratic backers at court. In the Kamakura period (1185–1333), new Buddhist groups emerged, each insisting on the salvific powers of its own approach and its own sacred texts. A period of conflict ensued, in which these different groups jostled for power and influence.

The source of much of this diversity was the Tendai school. Because Tendai teachings were a pliable amalgam of all the different strains of Buddhist thought that had emerged over many centuries in India and China, the school provided fertile soil for new growth as people searched for new interpretations of Buddhist ideas. Monks who had trained in the Tendai school became dissatisfied with the mind-spinning complexity and sophistries of the sect’s attempt to being Buddhism’s diverse strands together in one whole. Looking for a stronger, more cohesive interpretation of the world, different monks latched onto different streams of the diverse philosophies incorporated within the Tendai teachings, each group declaring theirs to be the true version of the faith. This happened numerous times during this period of tumult and change, giving rise to many new schools of Buddhism that competed energetically for followers.

In this new age, the quest for salvation through a transcendent power was no longer restricted to the narrow world of the court nobility. It was now open to the whole of Japanese society. Buddhism became a religion of true significance to ordinary Japanese people for the first time.

These new groups that had sprung from the matrix of the Tendai school espoused doctrines that found favor not only with the nobility but with people from all sections of society: samurai warriors, merchants, and farmers. At the same time, the two main schools of esoteric Buddhism that had previously been close to the court nobility responded to this movement by speaking for the first time to the masses, and promising salvation for ordinary people. It was during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries that Japanese Buddhism became conscious for the first time of the important role that religion can play in bringing relief from human suffering.

Pure Land Buddhism and the Lotus Sutra

The new groups that emerged at this time preached methods of salvation that can be broadly divided into two main categories. The first was a view that posited the existence of an ideal world separate from this one, inhabited and ruled over by a powerful Buddha. By praying to this Buddha, it was believed that people could be reborn into his paradise after death. This doctrine teaches that we can escape this world of suffering into a better world. The classic examples of this kind of thinking are the Pure Land philosophies founded by preachers like Hōnen (1133–1212) and Shinran (1173–1262).

The other main school of thought posited the existence of an invisible Buddha who is present all around us in the present world. By reciting certain sutras and performing certain rituals, we can harness the powers of this Buddha to change the world into a more pleasant and peaceful place to be. This doctrine teaches that we can change our reality through the power of faith. The best-known example of this strain of beliefs is the Lotus Sutra School founded by Nichiren (1222–82).

From the perspective of the two established major schools of esoteric Buddhism, the arrival of these new groups preaching refined versions of single strands of Buddhist doctrine was highly unwelcome—the newcomers threatened to undermine the vested interests of the established sects. Violent antagonism sprung up as these new groups expanded their influence, leading to armed conflicts and political oppression around the country. Ultimately, however, it proved impossible to stem the gathering popularity of these rising voices speaking directly to the aspirations of ordinary people. Inexorably, their influence and power expanded.

Japanese Buddhism thus developed a tripartite structure: there was the Shingon school, which espoused pure esoteric doctrines, the Tendai school, which taught a combination of Buddhist philosophies united under an esoteric atmosphere, and the new religious groups that had started by focusing on one strand of the disparate philosophies embraced by the Tendai school. Eventually, after a period of conflict, a kind of compartmentalization took place, with each of the various schools coming to occupy its own place in the religious environment. As this process of diversification makes clear, the foundations of much of modern Japanese Buddhism were built on the worldview of esoteric Buddhism.

The Austere Intellectualism of Zen

In the early years of the Kamakura period, Zen Buddhism was added to this mix. Zen was a new version of Buddhism that started during the fifth or sixth centuries under its founder, the legendary Bodhidharma, who is said to have brought the teachings to China in the fifth or sixth century. Originally, Buddhism as taught by Shakyamuni in India was a system of teachings whose followers aimed to reform the self through meditation and other spiritual practices. A detailed “curriculum” was laid out for these practices in the early teachings. The Buddha clearly outlined the procedures by which anyone could set out along the path to enlightenment and ultimate release from suffering. Zen redefined this experience as something mystical and beyond words—it was something that could only be understood through experience, and was impossible to convey in language. In the day-to-day life of monks and other practitioners, therefore, Zen Buddhism focused above all else on the devoted concentration typical of the state of meditation itself. More than philosophy or worldview, this new sect emphasized a life of learning and meditation.

These characteristics of Zen made it popular among the literati in China, and the teachings spread rapidly from the eighth century. Then, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Zen began to arrive in Japan. There are three sects of Zen in Japan today: Rinzai, Sōtō, and Ōbaku. Of these, the Rinzai and Sōtō sects were founded during the first period of expansion out of China. The Ōbaku school came later, when it was brought to Japan by Ingen (1592–1673) in the seventeenth century.

Because of Zen’s unique approach, which values a life of meditation and learning, it does not have a fixed set of doctrines. For example, Eisai, who founded the Rinzai school, was an admirer of esoteric Buddhism, while Dōgen, who founded the Sōtō school, developed his own philosophy based on the idea that we all have the Buddha nature within us, and can be awakened to this truth through the experience of meditation. Although the philosophies of the three main schools of Zen in Japan are different, they are united by an ascetic and intellectual approach to life centered on rigorous meditation practices. This approach was embraced by many literate people in Kamakura-period Japan, and proved particularly influential among the new elite of the samurai warrior class. Zen acted as an important conduit, helping to bring the latest cultural innovations from China into the country. Zen has always had close associations with ikebana, the tea ceremony, nō drama, and other Japanese artforms marked by the wabi sabi esthetic of rough-hewn simplicity—qualities that reflect the Zen philosophy, grounded in a somewhat austere, cerebral lifestyle of learning and meditation.

In this way, four main versions of Buddhism established roots in Japan during the Kamakura period. In addition to the esoteric schools already present since the Heian period (794–1185), there were now two salvatory schools, in the Pure Land sects and the Lotus Sutra sect, and Zen Buddhism, which advocated an austere life dedicated to enlightenment through meditation. The foundations of Japanese Buddhism that were laid down in these years have lasted 800 years and continue to the present day.

Japanese Buddhism’s Journey Back to its Starting Point

Comparing the history of Buddhism in India with the development of the religion in Japan is an interesting exercise. In India, Buddhism began as a system of meditation and other spiritual disciplines based on the teachings of the historical Buddha. The teachings offered a way for the self to become liberated from illusory thinking and the suffering that it entails. Over the centuries, these early teachings shifted, and became more mystical, leading to the emergence of the various strains of Mahayana Buddhism, which placed faith in the power of supernatural beings who could intervene to help human beings achieve enlightenment and salvation. Finally, esoteric Buddhism emerged as a way of trying to reunite these varieties of mystical belief. This version of the faith eventually merged with Hinduism, and Buddhism disappeared from the land of its birth.

Japanese Buddhism began with the introduction of esoteric Buddhism, which represented the final stage of that evolutionary process in India. In other words, the history of Buddhism in Japan begins at the end, with the final, latest form of the religion. Over time, people who felt that these teachings did not offer a true path to enlightenment turned to the vast repository of pre-esoteric Mahayana doctrines kept alive by the Tendai school and chose from among them the single strand that seemed to offer them the best path to salvation, creating their own groups based on this set of teachings.

This was the state of Japanese Buddhism in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. If we see Zen as a kind of Mahayana version of the original teachings of Shakyamuni, we can take the view that the original essence of Buddhist ideas was reintroduced to Japanese Buddhism at this time, at least in part. Japanese Buddhism moved backward, from esoteric teachings to pre-esoteric Mahayana doctrines and then further back to the teachings of the historical Buddha, albeit in partial form. It was a paradoxical movement back through the long history of the faith’s development across Asia.

This situation continued until the nineteenth century. Then, in the years following the 1868 Meiji Restoration, Japan reopened itself to the world and actively looked to import ideas and knowledge from the outside world. For the first time, information about Theravada Buddhism, the direct descendant of the original Indian Buddhism, entered the country from Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, and Japanese Buddhism took another step back toward the original starting point of the faith.

Thinking of the Japanese history of Buddhism in this way—as a kind of regression, slipping backward through history to the time when it was born in India—is one way to understand the overarching trend of the religion’s development in this country. As a result of this history, Japanese Buddhism today encompasses a compendium of just about every strand of Buddhist thought, from philosophical approaches to enlightenment close to those of the original teachings of the historical Buddha to esoteric sects and everything in between. In that sense, Japanese Buddhism is a palimpsest of Japanese cultural and intellectual history, and a living embodiment of the many approaches that people throughout Asia have used to try to resolve the mysteries of life over the past 2,600 years or more.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: Monks in meditation at a special dōjō at Zuisenji, a Rinzai Zen temple in Inuyama, Aichi Prefecture. © Yomiuri Shimbun/Aflo.)

religion Buddhism history Tendai Shingon