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History of Japanese Buddhism
Asuka period (592-710)
According to the “Nihonshoki” (The Chronicles of Japan), Buddhism was introduced during the Asuka period when, in 552, King Seong of Baekje sent a gilt bronze statue of Buddha, sutras and other items. However, based on the phrases of various archives, many people seem to think that Buddhism was introduced in 538.
According to Nihonshoki, the introduction of Buddhism caused an uproar. When Emperor Kinmei asked retainers about the pros and cons of Buddhism, Shintoists such as Mononobe-no-Okoshi and Nakatomi-no-Kamako were against it. On the other hand, Soga-no-Iname said, “All people in countries to the West believe in Buddhism. How can Japanese people not help but believe in it?” and told him to convert to Buddhism. On hearing this, the Emperor gave Iname the Buddha statue, sutras and others. Iname changed his residence into a temple and worshipped the Buddha statue. After that, plagues became prevalent and Okoshi and the others, believing that “because he worshipped a foreign god (Buddha), he has brought the wrath of the gods of the land down upon us,” set fire to the temple and threw the statue into a canal at Nanba. The dispute over the pros and cons of Buddhism was continued by the children of Mononobe-no-Okoshi and the children of Soga-no-Iname (Mononobe-no-Moriya and Soga-no-Umako) and lasted until Mononobe-no-Moriya was killed in the conflict concerning Emperor Yōmei’s successor. In this battle, Prince Umayado (later called Prince Shōtoku) fought on the Umako side. Prince Umayado prayed to the Four Heavenly Kings (“shitennō” in Japanese) for victory in the battle and had the Shitennō-ji Temple built in Settsu Province (Tennōji Ward, Osaka City) when his prayers were answered. Umako also prayed to various “tennō” and “shinnō” (guardian deities), vowing that he would have temples built for them and spread the three treasures of Buddhism, or “sanpō,” if he were victorious. For this reason, Umako had the Hōkō-ji Temple (also known as the Asuka-dera Temple, and called the Gangō-ji Temple after it moved to Nara) built. Prince Umayado played an active role in the introduction of Buddhism, writing the “Sankyōgisho” commentaries on the three sutras of “Hokke-kyō” (the Lotus Sutra), “Yuimagyō” (Vimalakirti Sutra) and “Shōmangyō” (Srimala Sutra) and the second article of the Seventeen-Article Constitution, which states, “Sincerely revere the three treasures; the three treasures are the Buddha, his laws and the priesthood.”
After that, Buddhism became a tool for the protection of the nation and the Imperial family willingly had temples built. Emperor Tenmu had the Daikandai-ji Temple (later the Daian-ji Temple) built and Emperor Jitō had the Yakushi-ji Temple built. Such movements reached a peak during the reign of Emperor Shōmu.
Nara period (710-794)
In accordance with the development of Buddhism in China and Japan, the “sōni-ryō” or Monks and Nuns Act, which determined the regulation of monks and nuns (not of Buddhism itself) was introduced as part of “Ritsuryō” law. However, it is interesting that, while in China the priesthood was persecuted for opposing Confucian ethics by destroying the order of the “family,” in Japan it was incorporated into the bureaucracy through the sōni-ryō and the “Sōgō” (Office of Monastic Affairs) and official certification system under the concept of “nation protection” (priests with ranks such as “Sōjō” or “Sōzu” were government officials under the Ritsuryō system). In addition, it is also thought that such regulation was different between official temples built by nation and private temples built by nobles and common people.
As a result, the “Sanron-shū,” “Joujitsu-shū,” “Hossou-shū,” “Kusha-shū,” “Risshū” and “Kegon-shū” sects, known as the “Nanto-Rokushū,” became dominant. In addition, Emperor Shōmu abdicated in favor of Emperor Kōken and became a priest. Emperor Shōmu, influenced by Empress Kōmyō, was deeply religious. Therefore, he ordered the construction of provincial monasteries and nunneries and had the statue of the Buddha Vairocana (Birushana in Japanese) made in the Tōdai-ji Temple, a provincial temple in Yamato Province. The retired Emperor Shōmu became a priest and even called himself “a servant of the three treasures.”
As Buddhism became established, there arose the theory of “honji-suijaku” in which Japanese gods were held to actually be incarnations of Buddha. The “honji” (true forms of the Buddha) for various gods were decided upon and sometimes images of the gods were based on monks.
However, as Buddhism gained popularity, the number of priests who ignored religious precepts increased, so that Jianzhen was invited into Japan during Emperor Shōmu’s reign. Jianzhen set up a “kaidan” (ordination platform) at the Tōdai-ji Temple and gave precepts to priests. The Emperor Shōmu was also given precepts by Jianzhen. Jianzhen had the Tōshōdai-ji Temple built and lived there. Such movements reached a peak during the reign of Emperor Shōmu.
Heian period (794-1185)
Later, these temples began to get involved in politics. Emperor Kanmu moved the capital to “Heian-kyou” (present-day Kyoto) in order to weaken their influence and sent Kūkai and Saichou to China with the Japanese envoy to the Tang Dynasty to learn Esoteric Buddhism. He wanted to use new Buddhism to oppose the old Buddhism of Nara. He gave Mt. Hiei to Saichou (the “Tendai” sect) and Mt. Kouya to Kūkai (the “Shingon” sect), and made them found temples to spread Esoteric Buddhism.
The middle of the Heian period saw the two thousandth anniversary of the Buddha’s death. It was thought that after one thousand years of “Shoubou” (True Dharma) and one thousand years of “Zoubou” (Imitation Dharma), the age of “Mappou” (Final Dharma), the dark age when Buddhism perished, would begin. In the age of Mappou, nobody would be able to attain enlightenment no matter how hard they tried. The country would decline, the people’s hearts would become barren and they could not expect happiness in this world. This situation led to the popularity of “Joudo-shinkou” (Pure Land Buddhism), which prayed for happiness in the after life.
The nobles relied on Amida Buddha and, hoping to be welcomed to the Sukhavati paradise, had many “raigou-zu” (images of the Amida Buddha’s descent to welcome the dying) drawn and ultimately had the Byoudou-in Temple built at Uji.
The temple’s Houou-dou Hall (Phoenix Hall) was a copy of the Amida Buddha’s palace in Sukhavati.
However, towards the end of the Heian period, social unrest spread and there was an increased risk of large temples, which owned vast tracts of land and had grown wealthy, attracting thieves. As a result, both priests and the laity took up arms, becoming known as “souhei” (warrior monks), to guard against invaders from outside. However, the souhei themselves, aiming to expand their power, gradually developed into armed forces. This use of military force to attack opposing sects and temples and to influence the Imperial Court became another source of social unrest. In addition, fortified temples with stone walls and moats within the precincts began to appear.
Kamakura period (1185-1333)
In the Kamakura period, disturbances which continued from the end of the previous period resulted in a change in Buddhism. Although mainstream Buddhism had emphasized ceremonies and higher education of the nation and nobles under the name of “nation protection,” it gradually changed to emphasize salvation of the common people. Centered on the priests who studied at Mt. Hiei, a popularization of Buddhism was planned and new sects were established. Unlike conventional sects, these sects preached a simple teaching (“igyou”, literally “easy progress”) which could be practiced by lay believers in their spare time instead of difficult theories and incredibly ascetic practices. These sects included the “Nichiren-shū” sect, which taught that people could find salvation by reciting the “nenbutsu” (Buddhist invocation) “Namu-Myouhou-Renge-kyou”; the “Jōdo-shū” sect, which taught that people could find salvation by reciting “Namu-Amidabutsu” continuously (Invocation of the Buddha’s Name); the “Jōdo-Shin-shū” sect (the “Ikkou-shū” sect), which taught “Akuninshouki,” a teaching that if good people, that is, pure people without any “bonnou,” or earthly desires, can be reborn in the Pure Land, how much more so for evil people, that is, people with bonnou (It goes without saying that evil people with bonnou can be reborn in the Pure Land.); the “Yuuzuu-Nenbutsu-shū” sect, which recommended reciting the nenbutsu while dancing; and the “Ji-shū” sect. In this way, a flood of new sects rose during the Kamakura period.
These sects had all been suppressed by conventional sects until they became established but, at the same time, they led innovation in the old religious sects.
Even amidst all the denunciation, Nichiren of the Nichiren-shū sect was famous for his radicalism. Since it criticized other sects and insisted that the nation would be ruined without reciting the Nichiren chant, it was strongly suppressed by the shogunate. However, after it spread down to the common people, this suppression was gradually reduced.
The Kamakura period was a time when the “samurai” (warrior) were usurping power from the nobility and gradually gaining strength. In this period, the two Zen sects of the “Rinzai-shū” sect and the “Sōtō-shū” sect were introduced from China one after another. Since these sects were favored by the increasingly powerful samurai, many Zen temples were built in Kamakura and other places, where they flourished. Among them, the five major temples were called the Kamakura-Gozan Temples. In addition, Shiren Kokan wrote “Genkou-Shakusho,” a history of Buddhism. Moreover, criticism of the existing situation increased among conventional Buddhism sects. Some sects, in particular the “Rishuu” sect and its off-shoot the “Shingon-Risshu” sect, were even more reform-minded than the new sects, for example, not only did they participate in the salvation of the common people through social work but they also rejected the state-proscribed “kaidan” and began their own original “jukai” (handing down the precepts) ceremonies.
Nanboku-chou and Muromachi period (1336-1573)
The Kamakura shogunate fell in 1333 and, from the period of the Northern and Southern Courts (“Nanboku-chou”) to the Muromachi period, the center of politics moved to Kyoto. In the latter part of the Kamakura period, the Emperor Godaigo started an anti-Shogunate movement and when the “Kenmu” Restoration by the Emperor Godaigo began after the fall of the Shogunate, the Five Mountain System was reformed to meet with Kyoto.
After Takauji Ashikaga established a military government in Kyoto, the five temples of the Zen sect, which had long been popular among “samurai,” were established and the “Rinzai-shū” sect came under the protection of the shogunate.
At the beginning of the Muromachi period, the Zen sect, such as the Nanzen-ji Temple, and the old Buddhist groups, such as the Enryaku-ji Temple, often clashed, causing political problems for the new shogunate. In addition, Souseki Musou and his disciple Myouha Shunoku, who cooperated with Takauji’s dispatching of trade vessels to the Yuan dynasty in order to raise funds to build the Tenryuu-ji Temple, also had political influence. When the third Shogun, Yoshimitsu Ashikaga, opened trade between Japan and the Ming Dynasty in China, their disciples worked as advisers on diplomacy.
This coming together of samurai and Buddhist society influenced both aristocratic and samurai culture. This fusion can be seen in the “Kitayama” culture, such as the Rokuon-ji Temple (the Kinkaku-ji Temple), of Yoshimitsu’s rule and the “Higashiyama” culture, such as the Jishou-ji Temple (the Ginkaku-ji Temple), of Yoshimasa Ashikaga’s rule.
The culture of the Muromachi period also saw the birth of many aspect of Japanese culture that remain today, including “suibokuga” ink-wash painting, the “shoin-zukuri” style of residential architecture, the “sadou” Japanese tea ceremony, “ikebana” flower arrangement and “kare-sansui” dry landscape gardens.
In addition, in order to secure a stable income, some temples entered the money lending business, using revenue from their territories and from “shidousen” (mortuary donations) as capital. Moreover, some people entrusted their money to temples, which at that time were becoming fortified, and this money was also used as capital. However, sometimes people who could not bear the high interest rates, rose up demanding cancellation of debt (“tokusei-ikki”) and attacked the temples.
The “Sōtō-shū” sect was influential in the provinces and among common people. The “Nichiren-shū” sect spread amongst the merchants and traders of Kyoto.
In addition, Rennyo of the “Jōdo-Shin-shū” sect and Nisshin of the Nichiren-shū sect were famous propagandists of the time.
Sengoku period (1493-1590)
After the “Ounin” war, the religion gained military power, affecting peace and order. Radical religious groups caused a religious war. In 1532, the “Nichiren-shū” sect followers destroyed and burned the Yamashina-Hongan-ji Temple. In 1536 the Nichiren-shū sect came into conflict with the Enryaku-ji Temple on Mt. Hiei. (“Tenbun-Hokke-no-Ran”) Most notably, the well-known uprisings (“Ikkou-Ikki”) by “Ikkou-shū” sect followers, for examle in Kaga Province, put pressure on the “shugo-daimyou” and led to expanded autonomy (mainly in jurisdiction and the right to collect taxes). Moreover, the Ishiyama-Hongan-ji Temple, the headquarters of “Ikkou” followers, grew into an organization that was as strong as the “sengoku-daimyou” families. For this reason, sengoku-daimyou who hoped to expand their control were forced to choose between compromise or conflict with these groups, with most of them choosing to compromise.
However sengoku-daimyou Oda Nobunaga in Owari thoroughly subdued the religious powers that resisted. Oda Nobunaga had conducted genocidal killings in the cases of the fire attack against Mt. Hiei, “Nagashima-Ikkou-Ikki” (an uprising of the Ikkou-shū sect followers in Nagashima), and the “Ishiyama” War.
There is also a famous story that Oda Nobunaga held a religious debate (known as the “Azuchi-shūron”) between priests of the Nichiren-shū sect and priests of the “Jōdo-shū” sect, declaring the Jōdo-shū sect the winner. Oda Nobunaga made Nichiren-shū sect promise not to criticize other denominations. It is thought that these were the measures used to suppress religious power.
Azuchi-momoyama period (1573-1603)
After Oda Nobunaga was killed in the “Honnouji” Incident, the job of unifying the control of Japan was inherited by Toyotomi Hideyoshi. The “Negoro-ji” Temple’s size grew and was significantly militarized with priest soldiers, which Toyotomi Hideyoshi determined as disrupting the peace. In the spring of 1585, a large army attacked Mt. Negoro, totally destroying the Negoro-ji Temple and executing many of the priests. Toyotomi Hideyoshi strengthened the control of temples by various measures. The regulation and disarmament of temples would also be a big issue for the Edo shogunate.
Edo period (1603-1868)
Tokugawa Ieyasu, who seized power after the death of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, regulated Buddhism by enacting the “jiin-shohatto” (temples law) and assigning “jisha-bugyou” (magistrates of temples and shrines). In addition, under the “terauke-seido” (temple guarantee system), people were forced to register with a temple. The establishment of terauke seido forced the public to choose a certain temple as their “bodaiji” (family temple) and to become “danka” (supporters of the temple).
Taking advantage of a succession dispute within the “Jōdo-Shin-shū” sect (the largest Buddhist sect at the time), he split it into “east” and “west” and weakened the sect as a result.
Ingen, who came to Japan from Ming China in 1654, spread the “Ōbaku-shū” sect.
Meiji period (1868-1912)
In the latter part of the Edo period, the study of Japanese classical literature was begun by Norinaga Motoori, which led to the Meiji restoration. For this reason, the restoration of imperial rule and the transfer of political power back to the Emperor saw the new government introduce policies promoting Shinto, which together with the nationwide anti-Buddhist “Haibutsu-kishaku” movement, led to a decrease in the number of temples. In 1871, the Meiji government issued a “Dajoukan-tasshi” (Grand Council of State proclamation) abolishing the “Fuke” sect to which the mendicant “komusou” monks belonged. In addition, the propagation of “Fujuu-fuse” School, whose members believed nothing should be received from (fujuu) or given to (fuse) those of other beliefs, and Christianity was legalized.
Each Buddhism sect promoted modernization and undertook social welfare work and educational work such as establishing universities.
In general, Haibutsu-kishaku means the destruction of Buddhist facilities caused by the policies of “Shintou-kokkyou” (establishing Shinto as a state religion) and “Saisei-icchi” (uniting Shinto and politics) including “Shinbutsu-Bunrirei” (Ordinance distinguishing Shinto and Buddhism), an edict of “Dajoukan” (the Grand Council of State) dated on April 5, 1868 as well as “Taikyou-Senbu” (Establishment of Shinto), an Imperial edict dated February 3, 1870, which the new Japanese government established after the Meiji Restoration issued. Although neither Shinbutsu-Bunrirei nor Taikyou-Senbu aimed boycotting Buddhism, both of them eventually gave rise to a civil movement called the Haibutsu-kishaku Movement (the Movement of Haibutsu). Under this movement, syncretism of Shinto and Buddhism was abolished, use of Buddhist statues for “shintai” (an object for worship housed in Shinto shrines) was prohibited and other Buddhism-like elements were dispelled from shrines. Since various actions were taken hastily, including the decision of enshrined deities, the elimination of temples, Buddist priests’ conversion to Shinto priests, the destruction of Buddhist statues and Buddhist tools, the prohibition of Buddhist rites and the compulsion of citizens’ conversion to Shinto, the society became chaotic. Although the storm of that movement calmed down around 1871, it took a long time to restore the normal system.
In additional, territories of temples and Shinto shrines (“jisha-ryou”), which had been granted in the Edo period, were confiscated by “Agechi-rei” in 1871 and 1875. In this way, the temple which suffered such violent destruction lost an economical base, became even poorer, and went to ruin.
However, it is also thought that people had a strong antipathy against temples because the system of supervising people through Buddhist priests was enshrined into law in the Edo period by the “Terauke” system (compulsory temple registration of individuals) enforced by “Jisha-bugyou” (magistrates of temples and shrines) and because such a system had become a hotbed of corruption, so Haibutsu-kishaku became violent.
It promoted reflection of the world of Buddhism and was tied to the modernization of traditional Buddhism.
The early part of the Shouwa period (1926-1945)
After the Shinto and Buddhism Seperation Order, the modern government had controlled religion by use of the “Daijoukan” proclamation, fragmentary laws and regulations, and administrative notifications. The Religious Organization Law of 1939 was the first integrated law. In the process of establishing the State Shinto system, shrines were treated under public law as artificial corporations rather than religions. However, religious bodies such as Buddhism, Sect Shinto and Christianity were not treated as public interest corporations under civil law. The first draft law on religion was proposed in the House of Peers in 1899, but was rejected. Another draft law of religion was proposed to parliament in 1927 and 1929, but they never got to the debating stage. With the enactment of the Religious Organizations Act, general religious groups became legal entities for the first time and Christianity also gained legal status for the first time, but it was a very restrictive and controlling law.
From the middle of the Shouwa period to today
After World War II, the Religious Corporation Ordinance was established and enforced on December 28, 1945, and the regulations on religious corporations were abolished. The Religious Corporation Ordinance was abolished in 1951 and the Religious Corporation Act, which introduced a certification system, was established. The Aum “Shinrikyou” incident triggered amendments to the Religious Corporation Act in 1995.
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