Exoteric-Esoteric (Kenmitsu) Buddhism in Japan

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Kenmitsu, or exoteric-esoteric, Buddhism is a scholarly term for the dominant system of Buddhist thought and practice in medieval Japan. It encompasses a wide variety of beliefs, doctrines, rituals, deities, traditions, and ecclesiastical structures that were characteristic of the mainstream religious institutions of the period. At their core were esoteric (mitsu) teachings and practices that gave cohesion to the entire system. In addition, there were exoteric (ken) doctrines, which differed from one institution to another, though each considered its own doctrines to be a rational explanation of the hidden truths found in esoteric practices. This system emerged in Japan around the tenth century, and it functioned as Buddhism's medieval orthodoxy. Subsumed under it were many beliefs, practices, and sites that are now identified as Shintō. As the dominant religious worldview, Kenmitsu Buddhism gave structure to medieval society and provided legitimacy to the ruling authorities. Over time, it became diversified and elaborated in a variety of ways. During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries a number of reformers and dissenting figures began to appear and challenge its claims. But these were inconsequential at the time, and the Kenmitsu system endured for the most part until the fifteenth or sixteenth century.

The Kenmitsu theory

Kenmitsu Buddhism as a scholarly designation was proposed by the Japanese historian Kuroda Toshio (1926–1993). In doing so Kuroda sought to dislodge the prevailing view of Buddhism's development that dominated scholarship in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This view was built around a threefold historical classification: (1) Buddhism of the Nara period (710–784), comprising six schools based at the major temples of Nara—Kusha, Hossō, Jōitsu, Sanron, Kegon, and Ritsu; (2) Buddhism of the Heian period (794–1185), consisting of the Tendai school centered on Mount Hiei near Kyoto and the Shingon school at Tōji in Kyoto and on Mount Kōya near Osaka; and (3) Buddhism of the Kamakura period (1185–1333), encompassing three schools of Pure land Buddhism (Jōdoshū, Jōdo Shinshū, and Jishū), two schools of Zen (Rinzai and Sōtō), and the Nichiren school. Each new phase of Buddhism's development was portrayed as a reaction to the previous stage and an improvement on it, and the Kamakura schools were perceived as the apex of Japanese Buddhism. Since the Kamakura period was considered the beginning of the medieval era, the Kamakura schools were treated as the prevailing form of Buddhism then, and the Nara and Heian schools as precursors to it. Hence, the primary focus was on Kamakura Buddhism, which indeed evolved into the largest and most pervasive schools of Buddhism at the close of the medieval period.

The Kenmitsu theory offered by Kuroda critiqued this model in several ways. First, it questioned the historical periodization on which it was based. Kuroda claimed that the medieval era began not in the twelfth century with the Kamakura period, but in the tenth century with the emergence of an estate-based economy that supported elite society and religious institutions alike. This social, economic, and political structure persisted until the fifteenth or sixteenth century, and was controlled conjointly by three ruling elites: the imperial court and aristocracy, the warrior government and its functionaries, and the leading religious institutions. In this medieval context the religion that dominated Japan was Kenmitsu Buddhism.

The second critique was that the dominant forms of medieval religion were not the new Pure Land, Zen, and Nichiren movements, but rather Tendai, Shingon, and Nara Buddhism. These possessed the largest number of clerics, temples, and resources in medieval times, and were the ones most frequently mentioned in medieval documents and texts. With a few exceptions, the new movements developed into influential religious organizations only in the late 1400s or early 1500s. Hence, Nara and Heian Buddhism should be considered the norm for medieval Japan instead of Kamakura Buddhism. And the new Kamakura movements should be regarded as fringe groups rather than as mainstream religion.

The third critique found in the Kenmitsu theory was of the concept of sects or discrete schools of Buddhism. Beginning in the Tokugawa period (1603–1868) Buddhism was structured into individual sectarian organizations, each with an orthodox body of teachings, a centralized religious authority, a defined set of rituals, a liturgical calendar, an apologetic history, and a hierarchy of member temples. Buddhist schools such as Tendai, Sōtō Zen, or Pure Land's Jōdoshū thus became distinct, independent entities. This sectarian structure, according to Kuroda, has been mistakenly projected onto the medieval setting, thereby producing a distorted view of religion. The Kenmitsu theory presented medieval Buddhism as less rigidly segmented and the boundaries between groups as more permeable. Religious institutions such as monasteries, temples, chapels, wayside shrines, and private meetinghouses all existed, but people could easily cross lines to participate in multiple settings. Priests of the Nara monasteries, for instance, studied the teachings across the various Nara schools as correlative philosophies rather than as rival sectarian dogma. Likewise, Tendai and Shingon clerics frequently looked beyond their own doctrinal circles and sought instruction in other settings or guidance from other masters. The fluidity of religious activity across putative schools contributed to the creation of a systemwide medieval orthodoxy in the form of Kenmitsu Buddhism.

The actual content of Kenmitsu Buddhism varied from one institution to another, but it was predicated on the assumption that esoteric practices (rituals, chants, meditations, prayers, invocations, use of sacred texts, physical austerities, etc.) had the capacity to actualize Buddhahood in this world and to engage the vast and complex spirit world of MahĀyĀna Buddhism. Such practices were the stock and trade of most religious institutions and were passed down in master– disciple lineages through secret transmissions and initiation ceremonies. Attached to these practices were a variety of ideas explaining and legitimizing them. This secret lore constituted the esoteric teachings (mikkyō) of Kenmitsu Buddhism. Beyond them were the exoteric teachings (kengyō), the systems of thought and doctrine, which were likewise a major enterprise of medieval institutions. Those doctrines and philosophies operated alongside esoteric teachings and were considered supportive of them. But exoteric teachings usually differed across institutions, thus distinguishing them from each other. What drew them together, however, was their common recognition of the efficacy of esoteric practices and their perpetuation of them as the core of Buddhism. In every major tradition, esoteric practices were considered primary and exoteric teachings secondary. This shared recognition gave cohesion to Kenmitsu Buddhism as Japan's medieval orthodoxy.

Japan's medieval Buddhist establishment

One major center of Kenmitsu Buddhism was Enryakuji, the Tendai monastic complex on Mount Hiei, founded by SaichŌ (767–822). Tendai doctrine revolved around the Lotus SŪtra (SaddharmapuṆḌarĪka-sŪtra) and the teachings of Zhiyi (538–597), founder of the parent Tiantai tradition in China. But Saichō also adopted esoteric teachings, which were introduced into Japan by his contemporary KŪkai (774–835). Later generations of Tendai leaders such as Ennin (794–864) and Enchin (814–891) traveled to China, trained extensively in esoteric Buddhism, and brought back what they learned to Mount Hiei. The ideas and doctrines proposed by them, and also by Annen (841–889?), a major systematizer of Tendai thought, yoked esoteric teachings inextricably to Tendai doctrine. With these teachings the conceptual framework of Kenmitsu Buddhism was firmly established on Mount Hiei. In the tenth century, as members of Kyoto's aristocracy entered the Tendai clergy in increasing numbers and occupied positions of ecclesiastical authority, Mount Hiei inculcated its Kenmitsu understanding of Buddhism in them. Under their leadership Mount Hiei rose to eminence and began to exercise considerable social, political, and economic influence in Japan. Throughout the medieval period Mount Hiei remained a force to be reckoned with and, wherever it asserted its influence, it extended its Kenmitsu construction of Buddhism. Kuroda claimed that the crowning formulation of Kenmitsu Buddhism on Mount Hiei was original enlightenment (hongaku) thought, which became prominent around the twelfth century. This strand of teaching was built on the idea of the inherent and immediate enlightenment of all things, and it was preserved through master–disciple lineages and secret transmissions. But other scholars have questioned Kuroda's claim, pointing out that these teachings were not considered esoteric Buddhism proper, but rather a tradition of exoteric doctrine on Mount Hiei.

The Shingon and Nara temples were also included in the framework of Kenmitsu Buddhism. Kūkai, the founder of Shingon in Japan, was largely responsible for introducing the vocabulary of esoteric and exoteric Buddhism and developing the discourse around which the Kenmitsu order could coalesce. In his hierarchy of teachings he placed esoteric Buddhism at the top, above the exoteric teachings of Tendai and various Nara schools of thought—Hossō, Sanron, and Kegon. These views and this vocabulary became the default religious premises of the institutions that Kūkai organized, Tōji and the Shingon monastery on Mount Kōya. The temples of Nara also opened their doors to the wealth of rituals, initiations, and esoteric practices that Kūkai commanded. His establishment in 822 of the Kanjōdō hall at the powerful Tōdaiji temple, where esoteric initiations were to be performed, marked the beginning of Nara's full-scale appropriation of esoteric Buddhism. Hence, throughout the medieval period the Shingon and Nara institutions constructed their systems of doctrine and exoteric thought on a foundation of esoteric ritual and practice, just as Mount Hiei did. Though Kuroda tended to highlight the role of Mount Hiei more, it is clear that the Nara temples also flourished in this Kenmitsu culture, and built up not only religious authority but also social, political, and economic influence.

Kenmitsu Buddhism, as it pervaded the major religious institutions, emerged as the orthodox worldview of medieval Japan. It also functioned as a legitimizing ideology for the social and political order. The interaction between religious and nonreligious authorities occurred at several levels and in various modes. Society at large recognized Buddhism's capacity to engage the spirit world and to deliver humans from illusion and misfortune. The rituals and practices of esoteric Buddhism were largely aimed at these goals—from actualizing buddhahood in the body itself (sokushin jōbutsu) to securing good fortune and averting calamity. Hence, the imperial court, aristocracy, warrior government, and other agents of power relied on the Buddhist clergy to perform these functions in their behalf. They in turn became major adherents, supporters, and patrons of Buddhism—sponsoring rituals, building temples, and sending offspring into the ranks of clergy. But medieval Buddhism did not merely provide religious support to the privileged and powerful; it also served as one of the governing agents of Japan. That is why Kuroda included the large religious institutions among the medieval ruling elites (kenmon), alongside the imperial court and the warrior government. Each had its own sphere of influence, claim to authority, network of functionaries, economic base in the estate system, and means of enforcement. The religious sector, unlike the others, also used ritual and thaumaturgic powers to assert its influence. But none of the three could gain ascendancy over the other two, and thus had to work in collaboration with them, even while maneuvering for advantage whenever possible. Kenmitsu Buddhism articulated the nature of this relationship as the interdependence and mutual support of Buddhist teachings (Buppō) and royal law (ōbō). Each flourished only when they worked together, likened by medieval apologists to the two wheels of a cart or the two wings of a bird. This ideology of mutual dependence and benefit was articulated by the Buddhist establishment, but also embraced by the other ruling elites, for it confirmed and bolstered their authority too.

The dominance of Kenmitsu Buddhism

Kenmitsu Buddhism's ritual power was considered efficacious in engaging a vast range of spirits and sacred beings including buddhas, bodhisattvas, deities of heaven and earth, spirits of the dead, demons, ominous spirits, and also local gods (kami), the class of deities associated with Shintō. One of the contributions of Kuroda's theory was to refute the idea that Buddhism and Shintō have been separate and distinct religions. This, he argued, is largely a modern conceptualization arising from the forced separation of buddhas and gods and their religious institutions by the government during the Meiji period (1868–1912). This successful partition consolidated the idea of Buddhism and Shintō as independent religions, which was then superimposed on earlier periods of Japanese history. What is now known as Shintō, Kuroda claimed, was actually submerged in Kenmitsu Buddhism during medieval times. Rituals to gods were performed alongside rituals to Buddhist deities, and shrines to gods were integrated with Buddhist temples, as exemplified by the Kasuga Shrine and Kōfukuji temple complex in Nara. Moreover, a variety of explanations and rationalizations of the gods emerged in Kenmitsu doctrine. They ranged from the idea that the gods are protectors of the buddhas and Buddhism to the belief that the gods themselves seek Buddhist liberation and enlightenment, just as humans do. The most important and pervasive interpretation, though, was the honji suijaku principle: that the gods are none other than worldly manifestations of the buddhas and bodhisattvas in Japan, and that the buddhas and bodhisattvas are the true essence of gods. Hence, they cannot be separated, and certainly should not be seen as rivals. This view provoked widespread pairings of specific gods with particular buddhas or bodhisattvas in medieval religious institutions, so that the sun goddess Amaterasu was frequently identified with Dainichi (Mahāvairocana) Buddha. Such perceptions held sway as part of Kenmitsu Buddhism throughout the medieval period, and persisted widely until the nineteenth century when Shintō was forcibly extracted from Buddhism.

The dominance of Kenmitsu Buddhism in medieval Japan—in the major religious institutions, in its partnership with other ruling elites, and in the very fabric of popular belief and practice—casts the so-called new schools of Kamakura Buddhism in a very different light. Previously they were seen as the culmination and highest expression of Buddhism in the medieval period. But the degree to which they diverged from the Kenmitsu standard suggests that they were more an anomaly of the period. Mount Hiei was where most of the founding figures of the new Pure Land, Zen, and Nichiren movements received their first inspirations. But in each case they left Mount Hiei because of disenchantment with one aspect or another of the Buddhism there. They criticized the ambitions and self-indulgences of priests in the religious hierarchy, and they championed streamlined religious alternatives—chanting Amida (AmitĀbha) Buddha's name, practicing Zen meditation, or chanting the title of the Lotus Sūtra—which challenged the authority and relevance of esoteric practices and exoteric doctrines. The reaction of Mount Hiei and the Nara centers of Kenmitsu Buddhism was twofold: to suppress these dissenting groups and to initiate reforms of their own. Some mainstream priests actually embraced these alternative practices, but sought to integrate them into the Kenmitsu framework. The dissenting movements in many cases survived suppression, but tended to hover at the margins of medieval Japan's religious world, attracting only meager followings. Those that gained institutional stability and strength in the 1300s and 1400s usually did so by building ties with Kenmitsu institutions or by developing similar religious functions. Zen's Rinzai monasteries, for instance, performed rituals for the benefit of their imperial, aristocratic, and warrior patrons. But the new Buddhist movements were largely peripheral and were frequently regarded as aberrant or even heretical.

Kenmitsu Buddhism finally lost its hold on Japan during the so-called Warring States period (1467–1568). Its decline coincided with the disintegration of medieval Japan's political and economic order. Though Kenmitsu Buddhism dominated religious affairs throughout medieval times, it never completely functioned as a seamless, monolithic system, especially as internal tensions and contradictions arose from it. The dissenting Kamakura movements were one product of these tensions, and they eventually became the successors of Kenmitsu Buddhism itself. With the emergence in the fifteenth and sixteen centuries of powerful new religious organizations such as Pure Land's Jōdo Shinshū, Nichiren's congregational alliances of Kyoto, and Zen's Sōtō school, the ascendancy of Kamakura Buddhism over Kenmitsu was finally realized.

See also:Huayan School; Japan; Japanese Royal Family and Buddhism; Kamakura Buddhism, Japan; Meiji Buddhist Reform; Shingon Buddhism, Japan; Shintō (Honji Suijaku) and Buddhism; Tiantai School


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James C. Dobbins