A Survey Of 12th Century Japanese Buddhism
Institute of Buddhist Studies Berkeley, CA
The twelfth century was a time of chaos and change for Japan. The governmental organization changed dramatically. The economic structure began to shift. There were innumerable battles of varying sizes. There were a number of devastating natural disasters. There was little or no governmental control over much of the country for much of the time. All this could not help but have an effect upon the religious climate of the country. Buddhism provided the context in which the chaos of the century was viewed. The climate of the age, which was interpreted through Buddhism, also changed the priorities of Buddhists. New sects started and old sects changed their emphases. Some of the new sects took Buddhism, which had been primarily the province of the aristocracy, and began expanding its scope to touch the rest of the population.
According to traditional historical reckoning, the twelfth century includes the end of the Heian era and the beginning of the Kamakura era. I will first describe the situation in the first part of the century, and then will describe how the situation changed towards the end of the century.
The Imperial Court in the First Part of the Century
In the first part of the twelfth century, Japan was ruled by the imperial court. The court was located at the city of Heian, which is now known as Kyoto. Although the emperor was officially in control of the government, the emperor was usually a young man or boy with limited political powers. The real control tended to rest in the hands of regents, retired emperors (who were older and had more experience than the emperors), chancellors, and other high ranking members of the aristocracy. There was often fierce political infighting and jockeying for power between the highest officials. Family allegiance played an important part in these political struggles.
Position in the government was determined by birth. Many important governmental posts became hereditary positions of certain families. Often the highest positions would be held by boys who were barely in their teens. Instead of devoting their attention to the dull details of governance, the aristocracy devoted much of their energy to cultural pursuits such as poetry, calligraphy, dress, the mixing of perfume, and codified forms of courtship. The Heian era was a time of flowering for Japanese culture. Aristocrats placed a high value on poetical ability and on other artistic talents. Elegance, refinement, and aesthetic taste were respected more than hard work or endurance. Ostentatious displays of wealth were the rule. Showy exhibitions were preferred in private life, public life, and religious life.
As ability and education were only occasionally used as factors in deciding appointments to important positions, and the aristocracy spent much of their energy and resources on cultural rather than governmental pursuits, the government’s potency was not as high as it might have been. In reality, the imperial court had little control over the outlying provinces. As there was no official order, the strongest families in a region would take control by force of arms, and keep control over the area by maintaining an armed force. These families were the origins of the warrior class. They acted as governors, and for the most part, were free to manage the regions they controlled however they chose. The governors usually exploited the peasants under them, extracting extremely high taxes. Battles and skirmishes between opposing forces were common. However, the provincial rulers generally continued to acknowledge the sovereignty of the imperial court, even if that acknowledgement did not always translate into obedience of imperial dictates.
The imperial government’s lack of control over the provinces ended up weakening the emperor’s economic position. Originally, several hundred years earlier, all of the land in Japan had been officially owned by the emperor. This gave the imperial government the right to tax all the land. However, special dispensations were granted to certain landholders which made their land into “shoen,” or untaxable land. Although the invention of shoen was not originally a problem, over the centuries more and more land was claimed as untaxable land. This was made possible by the disorganization of the national government. No one had kept careful track of which land had officially been granted tax-exempt status, and which land had not. Whatever system there was was further confused by the policy of allowing local governors to grant tax-exempt status to land within their jurisdiction. Although the imperial government made repeated attempts to halt the rapid increase in tax-exempt land, none of these attempts were successful.
Another area the imperial government traditionally controlled were the Buddhist temples. Buddhism had been imported to Japan from China approximately six hundred years earlier, in the sixth century. It had been accepted by the aristocracy, although they had little understanding of its philosophies. The aristocracy viewed Buddhism as a particularly potent form of magic which could help them gain blessings. Temples were set up in the capital (which at that time was in Nara), and the religious organization was divided into six schools, each of which studied a different part of the Buddhist canon. These schools are known as the six Nara sects. The Nara schools did not try to reach anyone outside the aristocracy. Monks in the Nara schools studied the scriptures and performed rituals designed to protect the nation. The government sponsored the temples and had a large degree of control over their leadership and decision making. In the twelfth century, the Nara schools were still active and comprised an important part of Buddhism.
In the early ninth century, two other sects of Japanese Buddhism had developed. These were Tendai and Shingon. They were developed, respectively, by Saicho and Kukai, who were contemporaries. Both visited China and studied Buddhist developments there.
Kukai studied Tantrism in China. Tantrism is a form of esoteric Buddhism, in which the many of the important teachings are traditionally secret and are transmitted orally. Kukai brought Tantric Buddhism to Japan and made it into the Shingon sect. He taught that all things are a manifestation of the cosmic buddha Vairochana (called “Dainichi” in Japanese). In order to enter a realization of this oneness, one must practice the three mysteries of speech, body, and mind. In practice, this took the form of reciting spells and performing rituals. Intricate mandalas which diagram the Shingon view of the cosmos are used in meditation.
Shingon quickly gained great popularity among the aristocracy. They were attracted to the beauty and intricacy of the mandalas. They also were impressed by the spells and rituals.
Saicho, the founder of Tendai, did not originally give esoteric Tantrism preeminence his teachings. Saicho’s philosophy integrates the various Mahayana teachings of esoteric ritual, Zen meditation, and the importance of the Lotus Sutra. He made room for almost every sort of Buddhist practice, feeling that they all had an essential unity, leading the practicer towards enlightenment. Saicho taught that enlightenment was possible for everyone.
Tendai, being less showy than Shingon, did not gain immediate popularity among the aristocracy. In order to gain aristocratic patronage, the early leaders of Tendai quickly learned all they could about Tantrism. Tendai soon became nearly as focused on Tantrism as was Shingon, and correspondingly gained aristocratic support.
It was vital to Shingon and Tendai to have aristocratic support, because the imperial government had almost complete control over the fortunes of the young sects. They could not ordain their own priests and monks until granted permission to do so by the imperial government. They were dependent upon the aristocracy for financial support and for the construction of temples. Once temples were built, the government could decide who would be in charge of them and what practices would be taught in them.
By the twelfth century, Shingon and Tendai had long been established as state sponsored sects. Together with the six Nara sects, they comprised official Japanese Buddhism. Each of the sects had temples which they traditionally controlled. Tendai had a major center on Mount Hiei. Shingon did not have a major center, but was spread between several temples. Temples also controlled tax exempt estates, of the type discussed above. It had become common for wealthy land owners who wished to curry favor with the government to give land to the temples. These estates were often quite extensive, and contributed significantly to the financial strength of the temples.
The estates required maintenance. The scholarly (and aristocratic) monks in charge of the temples naturally did not want to look after the farms themselves. Therefore, they began to recruit and ordain low-ranking lay priests who performed menial tasks such as cooking, cleaning, farming, and so forth. The estates also needed protecting from bands of warriors. Therefore, priest-soldiers came into being. These were recruited from among the lay priests. By the twelfth century, major temples all had large numbers of priest-soldiers. Mount Hiei was home to so many priest-soldiers that for all practical purposes it was an armed camp.
The existence of the priest-soldiers caused an enormous amount of chaos. They were constantly getting into brawls and battles. There were fights between the scholar-monks and the lay-monks over which group should have primacy. On one occasion a fight erupted over which group should have precedence in the bath house. It grew to such proportions that governmental troops had to be called in and a battle occurred in which over three hundred people died. This occurred in 1203, but was typical of the events of the twelfth century.
There were also frequent battles between competing groups within sects. Arson was extremely frequent. One temple’s warriors would torch a competing temple. Then the torched temple would retaliate. Bands of soldier priests would fight each other in temples, on Mount Hiei, or on the streets of the capital. The fighting was almost constant. If the imperial government tried to appoint abbots whom the soldier-priests did not favor, the soldier-priests would come into the capital and attack the warriors of the imperial house. Even when the government was not interfering in the affairs of the temple, there were frequent brawls between the soldiers hired by the aristocracy and the soldier-priests. These armed priests were powerful enough that the government was often cowed into conciliatory action in order to preserve the peace. Shirakawa, the powerful ruler of the imperial government (in power 1072-1129), once said, “There are three things in this world beyond the control of any man: the roll of the dice, the floodwaters of the Kamo river, and the monks of Hiei.”1
True understanding of Buddhism was not a high priority in the temples. The lower ranks of the priesthood filled with uneducated and often violent laymen. The higher ranks were comprised primarily of retired aristocracy. It became customary for abdicated emperors to become priests. (Emperors usually reigned for a few years and then retired. Retired emperors had more freedom and consequently more fun than reigning emperors.) Aristocracy followed suit, and also took the tonsure upon retiring from private life. Due to the high rank of these novice priests, little training was required before they were ordained. If high ranking people wanted to be priests, the Buddhist sects let them, regardless of these people’s understanding of or commitment to Buddhism.
Some of the aristocracy who officially became monks continued living their lives just as if they were not monks. They kept wives and concubines, engaged in politics, and in every way acted like any other aristocrat. Others took their vows more seriously and got themselves installed as the leaders of temples. Some of these leading aristocratic monks were truly devout Buddhists and had a deep understanding of the teachings. Others did not have such a clear understanding, and these monks muddled the transmission of the teachings.
Monks who wanted to follow a less worldly and more spiritual path often left the corrupt imperially sanctioned temples and wandered alone through the mountains, living in small huts or travelling the countryside, teaching the common people and writing poetry.
In short, the established Buddhist sects were corrupted by violent lay-priests and by aristocratic leaders who did not understand the true meaning of the religion they taught. Worldly things were generally more valued than enlightenment. Although there were always monks who were inspired by a true feeling for the teachings and a sincere desire for the enlightened state, they unfortunately were in the minority and often did not maintain strong ties to the established religion.
The lay aristocracy attended rituals at Buddhist temples regularly. These functions often served the aristocracy as social meeting places. They enjoyed the magnificent sights of the elaborate temples, the elegant silk robes worn by the clergy, the golden decorative objects, the sounds of the chanting. Religious ceremonies also served as chances to meet people and excuses to dress up. Women particularly appreciated the opportunities ceremonial occasions allowed them to get out of the confinements of their homes and talk to other women (or even meet lovers).
Aristocracy did truly believe in the power of the Buddhist rituals. During wars, leaders tried to avoid battling on the days of major Buddhist holidays. People who wished to gain merit would write out copies of the sutras, often burying the copies in sealed jars. Just as Buddhist blessings were believed to bring good luck, Buddhist curses were believed to bring bad luck. On at least two occasions, people were exiled on suspicion of casting curses on members of the aristocracy. Temples often spent large portions of time conducting exorcisms of angry spirits. Religious leaders felt that one of the primary purposes of Buddhism was to protect the state, both by getting rid of negative cosmic influences and by increasing positive cosmic influences.
Buddhism affected the thought of the aristocracy in another way. There was a Buddhist theory that after the historical Buddha died, his teachings would gradually deteriorate. First there would be a period in which the teaching, practice, and attainment of Buddhist doctrines would be possible. Then there would be a period where the teaching and practice would exist, but attainment would be impossible. Finally, there would be a period where only the teachings would be left, but practice and attainment would both be impossible. This last period was called mappo. By Japanese calculations, the period of mappo started in 1052 (or 1055, depending on which book you look at). The idea that the world had entered a degenerate age of mappo was easily adopted by the aristocracy. The degeneracy of the age was amply demonstrated by the confusions caused by the soldier-monks.
Buddhist doctrine, particularly the teaching of karma, also caused an emphasis on the impermanence of all things. This was played out in the aesthetic arena, particularly in poetry. Images such as the dropping of a cherry blossom were popular. The sense that everything was impermanent heightened the sense that one must relish the pleasures of the moment. A refined sense of bittersweet pathos was typical of the writings of the aristocracy. Belief in mappo increased the sense of pathos.
Unfortunately, the belief that one should relish the pleasures of the moment in the twelfth century led to aesthetic appreciation degenerating into pure hedonism.
Upheaval in the Second Half of the Century
Thus, by the middle of the twelfth century, Japan’s imperial court was controlled by hedonistic aristocrats who had almost no control over the rest of the country. Even the religions, which had been one of the last arenas decisively under imperial control, were now becoming uncontrollable due to the rampages of violent bands of soldier-monks. The imperial government was weakened by the inattention of governmental officials to their posts and by the loss of revenue caused by the unchecked increase in tax-exempt lands. The outlying regions of the country were controlled by local chieftains who ruled by force of military power. As the real power in the land lay with the warrior class, or samurai, it is not surprising that they began to claim more of the central power. How did this change in the central power structure take place?
It began in the 1150s. In 1156, due to an incredibly complicated set of venomous political maneuverings, there was a battle between members of the imperial court. This is known as the Hogen disturbance. Two clans of warriors, the Taira and the Minamoto, fought in the disturbance on the same side. Both served equally well. However, because they had stronger political connections, the Taira were more richly rewarded for their service. (It was rumored that an important member of the Taira clan was the illegitimate son of a powerful past emperor.) This inequality led to increasing friction between the two clans.
The Taira gradually increased their involvement in the imperial court. They were appointed to high level governmental positions. Their power slowly increased. They managed to get a Taira daughter appointed as a consort of the emperor. She gave birth to a son, and the Taira hoped that this son could be made the emperor, who could then be controlled by the Taira. Other members of the court were unhappy about the Taira’s rise to power, and tried to undermine the clan. The resulting confusion eventually led to a full scale war, which lasted from 1180 to 1185. The Minamoto clan, who did not like the Taira, offered to fight against them, and were eagerly accepted by the opponents of the Taira. The war was long and fierce, and resulted in the complete defeat of the Taira.
Once the Minamoto had triumphed, they were not content to merely return to their own lands just as before. Immediately after the war there were several years of chaos in which the Minamoto leader, Yoritomo, consolidated his position, killing off all potential military threats. Finally, in 1192, he got the emperor to appoint him seiitaishogun. This made him officially the supreme military commander and constable in the land. He set up an administration in the village of Kamakura. He brought the country under control. Among other things, he set up a system of land stewards who collected tax from all lands, even the ones which had traditionally had tax exempt status.
The shogun never rebelled against the imperial government. He was officially appointed by the emperor. The imperial government retained many powers and administrative functions, but it was not as powerful as it had been before.
During the chaos caused by the wars and battles and political unrest of the late twelfth century, the welfare of the country was even further decreased by a series of natural disasters. One author, Kamo no Chomei, described a fire in 1177 that burned a large portion of the capital city, a whirlwind in 1180, famines in 1134 and 1181-1182, and an earthquake in 1185. Of these, the most serious was certainly the famine of 1181-1182. There were starving beggars in the roads. Many died in the streets, and were left there to rot. Tens of thousands of people died.
Between the constantly rioting priests, the wars, and the natural disasters, the theory that this was the era of mappo was given enormous credence. Most people agreed that mappo had certainly arrived. The aristocracy had already believed in that the age of mappo had come, but this belief become much more significant to their lives. Before they had had romantic, aesthetic notions about life being as brief as the beauty of a cherry blossom. Now the aristocracy’s dominant role in the country had been stripped from them, and no one was foolish enough to think that they were likely to get it back. The very real affects of impermanence had been brought home to them. Their mood changed from one of enjoyment of fleeting pleasures while sorrowing that the pleasures were fleeting to a more serious tone of despair and gloom.
Some of the aristocracy renewed their commitment to culture and the fine arts. The next century was a time of flourishing literature as displaced aristocrats focused their energies on poetry. Other aristocrats turned their energies towards Buddhism.
Innovations in Japanese Buddhism
The aristocracy was not the only group which was shaken by the events of the late twelfth century. Many Buddhist clergy were trying to figure out the appropriate way to be a Buddhist in the time of mappo when both practice and realization were supposedly impossible. It was a difficult problem. Also, with the decline of the aristocracy, the primary supporters of Buddhism were no longer a powerful force in the world. New Buddhist movements were more likely to succeed if they appealed to other audiences. Two new Buddhist sects began in Japan in the late twelfth century, one oriented towards the common people, and the other oriented towards the samurai. In addition, the old sects instituted some reforms.
Pure Land Buddhism
The most important development in Buddhism in the twelfth century was probably the Pure Land movement started by Honen. The bases of the Pure Land movement were power of Amida Buddha, the desirability of going to Amida’s realm or Pure Land after death, and the efficacy of reciting the nembutsu (or Amida’s name). Different sects combine and interpret these elements differently, but each of them are a part of all Pure Land Buddhism.
Pure Land devotion was already present in Japan. It was one of the many practices known to the Nara sects. More importantly, it was one of the doctrines which formed the basis of Tendai. Concentrating on the Pure Land was an important meditative technique in Tendai practice. The nembutsu was also incorporated into Shingon thought, although it was regarded as being a technique to be used by monks of inferior ability who nonetheless were striving for salvation.
Several monks had taken Pure Land practice to the common people. The most notable of these was Kuya (903-972). Pure Land faith was generally mixed indiscriminately with other devotions and magical rituals. Most Pure Land devotions stressed the importance of repeated repetitions of the nembutsu. The more frequently it was repeated, the greater the positive effect of the practice. Some people recited the nembutsu as often as 120,000 times a day.
The first organized sect which practiced solely Pure Land devotion was Yuzu Nembutsushu, which was started by Ryonin and which was active from 1124 to 1182.2 This sect encouraged the repeated recitation of the nembutsu, claiming that each person who chants it helps to purify not only himself, but all of society. Each person contains the entire universe, so purifying oneself also purifies the rest of the universe. This purification is caused by surrendering to Other-power, to the power of the universal Buddha. Although Ryonin gained over five hundred followers, Yuzu Nembutsushu did not became a major movement in the twelfth century.
Honen (1133-1212), on the other hand, started an extremely major movement. Honen entered a provincial Tendai monastery when he was nine, after his parents were killed in a territorial dispute. He studied at this monastery and at Mount Hiei, and was ordained when he was fourteen. He did not like the atmosphere on Mount Hiei, for the soldier-priests were rampaging regularly. When Honen was seventeen, he moved to a quiet section of the mountain where Tendai Pure Land meditations were taught. He studied there for twenty-five years. During this period he visited Nara, where he learned about other forms of Pure Land devotion: most notably those forms which stressed Other-power and the compassion of Amida.
Eventually, Honen decided that the visualization of the Pure Land advocated by Tendai was not sufficient. He left Mount Hiei and started his own sect. Honen stressed that what was important was faith in the compassion of Amida Buddha. He felt that in the current degenerate age of mappo, following specific rules of conduct did not make any difference in whether one reached the Pure Land after death. Practice could no longer lead to attainment of the Pure Land, so the only way to gain attainment was if Amida granted it to you. However, Honen’s life contained a certain amount of contradiction, for while he said that following rules of conduct was not important, he always followed the monastic rules himself. Similarly, though he said that one should just have faith in Other-power, he thought that reciting the nembutsu acted as a purification, with each recitation washing away sin. This position definitely comprised a belief in self-power. Honen did not resolve these difficulties, leaving to his followers the task of clarifying his teachings.
Honen’s sect grew tremendously popular. It gave people in an uncertain and chaotic age hope for a happy fate after death. The practice was simple enough that anyone could do it. Honen gained followers among the common people, among the aristocracy, and even among the samurai. His disciples tended to focus on the need for faith. They felt that acting morally was not important.
Eventually, Honen’s Pure Land sect was formally opposed by the established temples, particularly those of the Nara schools. Although the issue did not come to a head until the beginning of the thirteenth century, resentments were brewing towards the new sect throughout the last part of the twelfth century. Part of the reason the established sects disapproved of Honen’s sect was jealousy. The established sects were declining in importance just as this new sect was beginning to flourish.
This was not the only reason the old sects disapproved of the Pure Land sect, however. There was also the matter that Honen had not gained imperial approval for his sect, as was the custom. Instead, he had boldly preached his doctrine without any official authority to do so. This was considered a shocking sign of self-aggrandizement. In addition, bringing religion directly to the common people upset the control of the government over the masses.
The most important charges against Honen’s sect, however, were doctrinal. The established sects felt that the new sect was wrong in its claim that personal conduct and morality were not important in determining one’s fate after death. Honen’s disciples were known to break the moral code of Buddhism in public in order to demonstrate the unimportance of morality. This naturally offended the traditional Buddhists, who were afraid that Honen’s teachings would completely undermine morality in the country, leading to an even greater state of chaos than the country was already in.
Although the opposition of the established sects made life difficult for Honen, it was not capable of stopping the expansion of his religious movement, which divided into various sects and has long been the most popular form of Buddhism in Japan.
Developments in Established Sects
A major reform movement occurred in the Nara schools in reaction to the development of the Pure Land sect. The Nara schools were also trying to address the theological problem posed by living in the age of mappo. However, the Nara schools moved in the opposite direction from the Pure Land sect. Pure Land thought was that since this was an age in which proper practice of the teachings was impossible, the appropriate thing to do was stop trying to practice and trust in the saving power of Amida. The Nara schools, on the other hand, thought that since this was an age in which the proper practice of the teachings was not occurring, the appropriate thing to do was study the teachings, and practice them as well as was humanly possible. If the Buddhist community practiced well enough in the traditional manner, then a brighter era would be restored, and attainment of enlightenment would once again be possible through proper practice.
The Nara schools revived the strict rules for monks and followed them. They studied and venerated the historical Buddha, following his guidelines for practice to the best of their ability. Nara schools had tended to separate faith and theology, but in the new revival the two became intertwined.
The Nara reforms were directed towards the practice of monks. The Nara schools never made an effort to reach the common people, so the schools never grew much.
Neither Tendai nor Shingon changed much during the twelfth century. Tendai did begin to write down the teachings which had traditionally been orally transmitted. Most of the Tendai monks who disliked the corruption of the sect did not try to change Tendai, but instead left it and either practiced on their own or joined another sect. Although all the major new Buddhist sects which began during the Kamakura era had their roots in Tendai, Tendai itself did not prosper. The development of the Pure Land sect only changed Tendai in that most of the Tendai monks who were attracted to Pure Land worship left Tendai and joined the Pure Land sect. Pure Land worship within Tendai declined.
In Shingon, there was an increase in all varieties of nembutsu practice. Then, a bit later, there was a movement to stop emphasizing rituals and nembutsu, and to restore the teachings of Kukai, the founder of Shingon.
By the end of the century, the golden age of the eight sects of Heian Buddhism was over.
The Beginnings of Rinzai Zen
Eisai (1141-1215) was the first person to arouse Japanese interest in Zen. He was trained as a Tendai monk and was ordained when he was fourteen. He also received training in Tantric practices. Eisai was disgusted by the corruption in Japan, and was convinced that the true teachings of Buddhism could be rediscovered in China. He managed to visit China twice. The second time, he was trained in Zen and was given official transmission of the doctrine which gave him authority to teach Zen. Eisai returned to Japan in 1191 and began to teach Zen. He encountered resistance from the established sects in Kyoto, and in 1195 received an edict prohibiting the dissemination of Zen teachings. In 1199, Eisai moved to Kamakura, the center of samurai power. He found a much more receptive audience in Kamakura than he had in Kyoto. Barred from concentrating on Zen, Eisai taught both Zen and esoteric Tendai Buddhism.
Although Eisai did not teach a pure form of Zen, he succeeded in arousing the interest in Zen, both in several young monks and in the samurai leaders. In the subsequent century, several young monks travelled to China and studied Zen there, returning to Japan to disseminate their new knowledge. Also, several Chinese Zen masters came to Japan and taught Zen. Eventually, a pure form of Zen was accepted in Japan. Zen’s main supporters were the samurai. However, all this happened after the twelfth century. Just the very beginnings of an interest in Zen were kindled by Eisai in the twelfth century.
The twelfth century saw the beginning of radical changes in Buddhist Japan. For the first time, there was a major move to bring Buddhism to the masses. Buddhism was about to become the religion of the vast majority of the Japanese people. Also for the first time, sects appeared which disseminated one and only one practice, instead of the eclectic hodgepodge of practices offered by the older traditions. State control over religious practice showed some signs of diminishing. Buddhism began the twelfth century bogged down by institutional corruption and worldliness. By the end of the century, two exciting, sincere, young sects had begun to poke their heads into Japan. A third was soon to follow. Like a phoenix rising from its own ashes, the descent of Heian Buddhism led to the spectacular arising of the Kamakura Buddhist sects.
1 John Stevens, The Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei, (Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1988), p. 35 2 Yuzu Nembutsushu was revived in 1321 and still exists today, having over 350 branch temples.