Search This Blog


My Street version of Japanese Buddhist History From Kukai to today

In this blog entry I'm going to write in my words what I learned about Buddhism in Japan on my own.

While I might meander a bit, you'll get a gist of why I might annoy people with my style of writing. >:)

You will also see why Japanese are born Shinto, live like Buddhists, and despite the current trend with those church weddings, are nominally Christian except for the whipping and the martyrdom. If you're Christian back in ancient times, you might meet up with a Buddhist or Shinto fanatic who might either beat you up or worse, force you to trample on Christian icons to prove you are Shinto.

While that does not happen anymore except when the far-right Shinto fanatic gets rowdy and so jealous of too many church weddings by gullible people who become Christianity.

So gaman, suck in your gut, and drink a bit of sake before you read this entry, because it's brutal. Man, sitting on your ass for the 99 minutes it might take you to read through it may be straight up brutal! Sorry, I kid. :)

Please note that this is a street version of Buddhism in Japan.

Due to my writing style, I am currently going to skip what I forgot and write of what I remember.

Bearing that in mind, Google "Japanese Buddhism" and look for the wikipedia entries. For the adventurous who are learning Japanese, I dare you to use the Japanese characters to find the hidden information on the Japanese version of Wikipedia. It will help you learn why we Japanese are religious, no matter whether it is Shinto, Buddhism and the occasional church weddings. :p

As for the less adventurous I have added a few references pointing to wikipedia articles used in updating this blog post.

First, we begin with Kukai and Shingon, the Vajrayana gone K-town i.e. Kyoto for political reasons. Though East Asia practices Mahayana Buddhist, Vajrayana was sufficiently compatible with Mahayana to inspire its introduction to Japan by Kukai.

Kukai's inspiration began while learning to memorize Akasagarbha Memory Retention Practice in three months whilst hiding out in Shikoku.

In ancient times, Shikoku was popular for Shinto pilgrims being the most rural of all Japan over a thousand years ago. Today, it's for Buddhist pilgrims. However, that's because the Shinto of today aren't allowed oppress Buddhists. Back in ancient Japan, the Shinto had the right to oppress others if need be due to the divine Emperor dogma.

One day a long time ago, Kukai had a dream in which the Buddha Akasagarbha appeared to him saying: "Go read the Mahavairocana sutra. It is the mother of good magic, and can protect the Emperor."

When he checked out the temple that had a copy of the sutra, Kukai found it was written in Chinese so old that even he had a hard time understanding. Obviously, whoever copied it copied what they couldn't understand as is, even preserving the Sanskrit. So it had major mojo!

On realizing this, Kukai set sail for China to find the monk who knew this sutra to teach him to read Sanskrit and improve his Chinese.

By the time he arrive in China, the monk was on his deathbed. After realizing this man was the only one who could memorize the Mahavairocana perfectly, the old man made Kukai his Successor. Many Chinese monks helped Kukai learn Chinese & Sanskrit well. Then they let him read the Mahavairocana in the raw, in Sanskrit, preserved for centuries.

Thanks to the Tang emperor, who was a Taoist fanatic and a faithful Confucian, the old monk knew esoteric Buddhism was going to die out soon. This realization was contained in the concept of Mappo, which is the Japanese Buddhist term about the Buddhist End of Days, a time when few people will wish to know what the Buddha said, his Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. That dying monk realized that Kukai was the man destined to revitalize faith in Mahavairocana.

Then the monk achieved mahaparinirvana which happens when a Buddhist priest passes away and his body is prepared for cremation, while his consciousness is said to return to the Absolute. Right after succeeding as head monk, Kukai thanked all of remaining monks and left China with the Mahavairocana memorized leaving the country without any scrolls on him.

After the old monk's death, Kukai became head monk, and other monks asked him to wrote the old man's eulogy. It was so well done the other monks helped him learn Sanskrit to faithfully translate the Mahavairocana sutra into Chinese for them. Later, he also translated the sutra into Japanese when he came home.

After that was done Kukai sailed back to Japan, and introduced the Japanese emperor to esoteric Buddhism in the Buddhist sect known as Shingon. Being a superstitious man who believed in magic keeping the empire going, and the crops and women fertile, the Emperor willingly became his best pupil.

Overall though, Shingon Buddhism didn't find popularity among the people because it was for the elite. Its mojo just couldn't be learned overnight.

Later on, Shingon would become popular for accepting a devout nobleman's family's child to a nunnery or a monastery. Pretty soon, power brokers like shoguns and their samurai security guard guards were getting into this trend.

Isn't it amazing how the laws of karma can be abuse? ;)

In ancient Japan, the elites may have originally been foreigners themselves who needed to invent a class system to separate themselves from the common people, who originally may have been the conquered people, and were destined to remain peasants.

Above them were boss men called merchants. Usually they became bosses of villages because business leads to relations with samurai, the level above that. The samurai originally body guards of Emperor, later shogun and other nobles and later merchants.

It is said that noble families were of two kinds: originally they arrived from Formosa (today's Taiwan) and possibly Ryukyu Island. Later they came from Korea — most likely from Paekche. When Kukai was born, they came from Korea, and married into the Emperor's family and his first cousins.

That's Feudalism 9th century style.

If you mention this to a knowledgeable Japanese national, then he might reply "Korea never contributed to the lineage of our Emperor, and they never appreciated all we did for them when we occupied Korea before the war." That's true, but I never said they did. It would make sense for the Imperial bloodline pure "Even so," he'll add, "that's OK now since we give all Korean musicians their big break to fame and fortune by introducing them to JPOP fans all across Japan!" What he means is, "I don't believe your BS about Japanese emperor lineage because it causes cognitive dissonance to listen to your crackpot theory about the pure line of emperors who were Japanese first! You're dissing my main god and that's not right! Oh, and you just implied the shoguns were not native to Japan!"

At this point in the conversation, it is preferable to agree politely and not argue the point. A wise man lives a long life when he is tactful when in dialogue with learned men.

Moving right along...

Even though the peasants had to produce food for the needs of each fiefdom, according to the understanding of the noblemen, it is not acceptable for peasants to learn Buddhism due to their coarse nature. It was more appropriate for Buddhist priests — usually of the noble class, and sometimes of the samurai class, provided they gave up the sword — to perform Buddhist rites for the lower classes (peasant and merchant) after accepting their offering, be it produce, food, or even their children.

In the case of Shingon, it became a respected Buddhism due to the superstitious nature of the elite.

Even the Shinto priests learn some Buddhism while gossiping over sake. That might lead to a lot of trouble like wars due to professional jealousy since Buddhism was considered a foreign religion that was not good for anything but monks on a mountain.

See what happens when a religion becomes organized? ;)

Because a few of the Japanese nobility's sons who became monks were just biding their time until they became the new power brokers, Buddhist monks on a mountain made an army of sohei (warrior priests) to protect their interests from the rival Shinto priests, who had the backing of the oldest family of samurai.

Yet Shinto priests controlled a faction that led to the myth of divine emperor, and had originally tried to drive out Buddhism because the emperor lacked faith in the Buddha and lost face when a foolish Shinto priest who adopted Buddhism didn't know the magic words and couldn't stop a small plague or even keep crops and women fertile. In response, the Shinto faction took the bell donated to the Buddhist faction and threw it into a marsh.

And thus began a rivalry with Shinto, the way of the gods, and Buddhism, the way of the Buddha that was only ended when the shogun in later times made Buddhism a school of Shinto with the Buddhist pantheon of gods, buddhas and bodhisattvas being whittled down to a more manageable handful rather than the whole thing.

In time Shingon was followed by the adapting of T'ien T'ai Buddhism from China and making it their own as Tendai Buddhism. Yet the nobleman Buddhist priest still offered himself an intercessor in the form of Buddhist priest for the common people with the usual exchanging of offerings such as food, goods or child for much-appreciated assurances about afterlife.

Other forms of Japanese Buddhism also arrived, but those warrior priests were getting feisty.

Then it happened: a monk decided that Tendai Buddhism was good for nothing because the playboy sons of samurai were biding their time in the monastery during the day and sneaking out to enjoy the usual pastimes of rich kids.

His name was Honen. He formed Jodo Shu, which represent a Buddhism around a Buddha whose early worship originated in Gandhara Kingdom of western India (1500 BCE to 11th Century CE) called Amida Buddha.

This Buddhism states that if you chant the name of this Buddha Amida you get reborn in a land of bliss where you listen to the Buddha preach the dharma until it's time to be reborn again.

One of Honen’s star pupils was Shinran. He too was fed up with the shenanigans of Tendai opening the gates to rich kids who never learned the dharma but wanted to fight with you to the death just because you wanted to learn the dharma in earnest rather than sneak out, have a few brewskies and return to the temple before the head priest locked the gate.

One day Shinran had left his life at the Tendai on a retreat at a famous temple in Kyoto. It was a Shinto temple, but had a Buddhist monk running things, because the Shinto priests were out at Nara for their own safety to cater with the nobles who were their patrons.

One night, Shinran was allowed to sleep rest after helping out with cleaning the place and other work, like explaining that there's not much difference between Buddhism and Shinto practice, because the Buddha had conquered the Shinto gods and now they work for Buddha.

That night he dreamed of Prince Shotoku who is considered an incarnation bodhisattva (angel) of of Avalokiteshvara, who has a male and a female form due to his gender-free form. He was an interesting bodhisattva that might appeal to gay Buddhists and straight Buddhists today.

Overall, in ancient times, we might view Japanese noble men and women as pansexual with limited opportunity to be heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual and of course, transgender. Even so, they had Japanese terms for sexuality and gender that are less precise than the ones the modern world uses.

In Japan, Buddhism got in the way of all that because if you sent your kids to a nunnery and a monastery, they would only know their fellow gender kind and not marry, have kids and follow their father's wishes about a career.

Shinto is all about fertility - end of story. Hence all of the gossip by Shinto priests that sometimes led to war.

In the dream, Prince Shotoku said to Shinran, "Go talk to Honen. He knows the way to enlightenment to free the common people from ritual."

So he did that, got tutored and began preaching the Nembutsu cult's message.

when the monks of Tendai heard about it through their contacts, they instructed their warrior priests to talk to these potential rivals, who preached to commoners and nobles alike, about a novel approach to salvation by chanting the Nembutsu ten times rather than making an offering to priests of Tendai, thus assuring of rebirth in the Pure Land of Bliss.

Each side of this battle claimed that the Pure Land is the land that all living beings go, but they differed in who gets to go there. Though the Nembutsu cults said that anyone can be reborn there in the afterlife if they recite Nembutsu ten times. Tendai said only a priest recite for a devoted peasant or merchant.

Most likely, they either read the sutras wrong or adapted the intercessor aspect of Tendai priest from the Shinto.

Eventually a couple pupils of Honen got executed because they were bad boys with slippery tongues, and annoyed the Tendai school and their political allies in Kyoto.

As a result of this tragic turn of events, Honen was banished mainly because by that time in Japanese history, the Buddhist precept of not killing a sentient being was considered a useful social more.

Additionally Shinran was banished because he didn't argue with the warriors priests either. There were also other students of Honen who didn't argue and thus they just carried on their own. Most of this latter group each formed their own separate schools of Nembutsu Buddhism, but later they were absorbed into both Jodo Shu and Shinran's Jodo Shinshu with most of them being absourbed into Shinran's.

Jodo mean Pure land School; Jodo Shinshu means Pure Land School of Truth or True Pure Land School. However, I think they were named much later than has been written because putting the schools' names on a temple might have annoyed the Tendai monks.

Additionally, a new rival of both Jodo Shu and Jodo Shinshu, the emperor-worshipping Nichiren became popular for his firebrand style of proselyting. After many trials with the noble court, Nichiren started to be critical of Jodo Shinshu, so the ruling elite reduced their persecution of him.

We now leave this history and segue into the modern era circa WW2.

Back then Japan's military government pressured the Japanese Buddhist community into compliance, except for the Nichiren lay Buddhist organization Soka Kyoiku Gakkai, whose leadership was jailed, including Soka Gakkai founders Makiguchi and Toda.

After the war, both men went on to make Soka Gakkai the strong humanistic Buddhism that shines around the world as Soka Gakkai International (SGI).

During the modern era, Jodo Shu and Jodo Shinshu leaders were pressured by military police to play by the rules during WW2 and not saying peace is better than war.

Anyone faithful to Amida and knew the truth about militarization (it steals boys from families and now the crops can't be picked so the elites, now secular militarists, can be well fed while the common people starve and are oppressed by the elites.

It is said the faithful Shin Buddhists had a woman who was arrested on trumped up charges for helping starving children and protecting her fellow Buddhists from paranoid military men who thought learning about Amida is a traitor's way because only Shinto would help them win the war against British India, and especially the Americans.

According to Shinto rhetoric, Buddhism might still be a foreign religion. You know how rabid fanatical military types can get in the Far East, like that communist leader Mao, who purportedly was of a son of a farmer.

So this lady suffered in prison, but survived and her followers of fellow Shin Buddhists welcomed her home. After all, by then Japan was occupied by the US.

I present the case of this lady because it shows that, contrary to propaganda in the Americas, some of the Japanese Buddhists were never enemies of peace in wartime Japan.

Returning to Buddhism proper, Mahayana in particular comes in different flavors, but it's the meditation that's been helpful when -simplified- the religious parts are filtered out, inspiring even psychotherapy such as cognitive behavior therapy & dialectic behavior therapy.

Originally posted: October 29, 2012 10:14 AM PDT


Japanese Buddhism:

1 comment:

Radha Santadharma said...

Just so you know; in Japan, a Nichiren Buddhist has two books on him: 1) the Buddhist Bible and the 2) the Gideon Bible.

I don't need either Bible; I gotz bUddha in me heart.