Kamakura Buddhism, Japan

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Kamakura Buddhism is a modern scholarly term referring to a phase in the development of Japanese Buddhism coinciding with the Kamakura period (1185–1333). The term also refers to several new Buddhist movements that appeared during that time, specifically, Pure Land, Zen, and Nichiren. These movements eventually became the dominant schools of Buddhism in Japan. Kamakura Buddhism is typically contrasted to Nara Buddhism and Heian Buddhism, which denote other forms of Buddhism and the periods in which they emerged. These three categories—Nara, Heian, and Kamakura Buddhism—provide a historical periodization as well as a conceptual framework for the classification of Buddhist schools. Of the three, Kamakura Buddhism is frequently portrayed as the most significant, especially in light of the large memberships of its modern denominations. This threefold classification appears in most surveys of Japanese Buddhism, although some scholars question whether it accurately reflects the character of Buddhism in each historical period and the actual course of its development.

The foundations on which Kamakura Buddhism arose were the religious traditions of the Nara (710–784) and Heian (794–1185) periods. These periods correspond to the time when Japan's capital was located first in the city of Nara and then in Heian (Kyoto). The Kamakura period is likewise named after a city, Kamakura, where the first warrior government was established in 1185. Hence, the periodization of Japanese history, as well as the classification of its Buddhist schools, has arisen as an extension of Japan's geography and political history. There are questions whether this political framework offers the best structure for categorizing and analyzing Japanese Buddhism, but it has become the most common template used in presentations of Japanese Buddhism.

Nara and Heian Buddhism

Nara Buddhism is typically equated with six schools, or more properly six traditions, of Buddhist scholarship. These developed during the eighth century at major monasteries in and around Nara, such as Tōdaiji, Kōfukuji, Gangōji, Daianji, and Tōshōdaiji. The six consist specifically of: (1) Kusha, the study of the AbhidharmakoŚabhaṢya, a treatise that analyzes all things into atomistic units; (2) Hossō, the study of YogĀcĀra, a philosophy attributing this atomistic reality to mind only; (3) Jōjitsu (Chinese, Chengshi), the study of a treatise that recognizes discrete elements at a conventional level, but not at an absolute level; (4) Sanron, the study of Madhyamaka, a philosophy using emptiness as a concept to refute the standard ideas of existence and nonexistence; (5) Kegon (Chinese, Huayan), a philosophy of interdependence and mutual identification among all things; and (6) Ritsu (Sanskrit, Vinaya), a systematic exposition of the rules, procedures, and lifestyle applying to the Buddhist clergy.

These six schools represent a complex body of knowledge transplanted from the Asian mainland and studied by clerics as correlative systems rather than as competing philosophies. The state sanctioned and supported the monasteries in which they flourished, and sought to make Buddhist learning and the entire Buddhist order its own preserve. It oversaw who could become priests and nuns, and issued regulations governing them. Such control, aimed at protection of the state and concrete benefits, is considered a defining characteristic of Nara Buddhism. Despite the state's efforts, Buddhist beliefs and practices began to spread more widely in the population, primarily through itinerant Buddhist preachers such as Gyōki (or Gyōgi, 668–749).

Heian Buddhism refers specifically to the Tendai and Shingon schools, which emerged at the beginning of the Heian period (794–1185) and quickly dominated religious affairs in Japan. This new phase commenced soon after the imperial capital was moved from Nara to Kyoto in an attempt to distance the government from the encroaching influence of the Nara temples. Heian Buddhism arose in a sense as a reaction to Nara Buddhism, and also as a continuing expansion of Buddhism from the Asian continent. The Heian founders, SaichŌ (767–822) of Tendai and KŪkai (774–835) of Shingon, studied Buddhism in China and introduced into Japan trends they encountered there, along with adaptations of their own. Each considered his own form of Buddhism superior to

those preserved in the Nara temples. The Tendai tradition that Saichō established claimed the Lotus SŪtra (SaddharmapuṆḌarika-sŪtra) as its core text; propounded the doctrines of emptiness, provisional reality, and the middle way; and developed a complex monastic program of meditative training and rituals, influenced in part by Kūkai's esoteric teachings. Saichō also sought to make his monastic community, located on Mount Hiei northeast of Kyoto, independent of the Nara Buddhist organization by developing his own procedures for ordaining clerics based on MahĀyĀna precepts.

Kūkai, for his part, advanced the Shingon idea of the all-pervasive presence of Dainichi (Mahāvairocana) Buddha and the actualization of buddhahood through physical, verbal, and mental acts of ritual. Instead of distancing himself from Nara Buddhism, Kūkai introduced Shingon esoteric ritual into Tōdaiji and other temples, and at the same time developed his own Shingon institutions at Tōji in Kyoto and on Mount Kōya near Osaka. Tendai and Shingon Buddhism thus took their place alongside Nara Buddhism as the religious establishment of Japan, and in many ways superseded it. Both operated in partnership with the ruling powers, creating a religious and ideological foundation for governance. Materially, they benefited from the burgeoning estate system in the Japanese medieval economy, which richly endowed their temples and monasteries and allowed them to develop elaborate traditions of religious training, ritual, doctrine, and iconography. Their beliefs, practices, and institutions, especially those found on Mount Hiei, were the matrix from which Kamakura Buddhism arose.

The emergence of Kamakura Buddhism

Kamakura Buddhism is commonly presented as a reaction to Heian Buddhism, just as Heian is considered a reaction to Nara Buddhism. By the twelfth century the burgeoning Tendai and Shingon institutions, combined with the Nara temples, formed the prevailing religious order of Japan, frequently referred to as the eight schools (hasshū). The fledgling movements that eventually grew into the Kamakura schools emerged out of this milieu and to a certain extent reacted against it. Their teachings and practices were inspired by the existing traditions, and their founders received training at established monasteries and temples, particularly on Mount Hiei. But they approached mainstream Buddhism selectively, embracing some teachings and rejecting others. All three forms of Kamakura Buddhism—Pure Land, Zen, and Nichiren—thus developed different orientations from Tendai, Shingon, and Nara Buddhism, and quickly diverged from their norm.

Pure Land Buddhism was perhaps the largest and most pervasive segment of Kamakura Buddhism. The specific Japanese schools commonly classified in the Pure Land category are the Jōdoshū school founded by HŌnen (1133–1212), the Jōdo Shinshū school founded by Shinran (1173–1263), and the Jishū school founded by Ippen Chishin (1239–1289). All three lived during the Kamakura period, and emphasized devotion to AmitĀbha Buddha and rebirth in his Pure Land paradise. Pure Land beliefs and practices had already emerged as prominent elements in Japanese Buddhism, particularly on Mount Hiei and in aristocratic society. But the Kamakura founders stressed them even more, often to the exclusion of other forms of Buddhism. Hōnen, who was the most prominent Pure Land master of his time, advocated exclusive practice of the nenbutsu, invoking or chanting the name of the Buddha Amitābha in the form Namu Amida Butsu. Shinran, who was his disciple, believed that it is Amitābha's power that leads people to enlightenment in the Pure Land and that infuses them with nenbutsu practice and faith (shinjin). Ippen, an itinerant Pure Land holy man, considered the nenbutsu an act wherein the Buddha and the believer merge, and he spread the nenbutsu widely through distribution of amulets inscribed with it. Hōnen's initiatives inspired an independent Pure Land movement, but also provoked a harsh reaction from established temples and monasteries, resulting in his banishment from Kyoto for four years. Shinran's following, which grew to be a mass movement two centuries later, was distinctive in that its clergy, in accord with his example, forsook Buddhism's clerical celibacy, and married and begot families. And Ippen's activities led to an extensive network of dōjō (congregational meeting places) of nenbutsu practitioners.

Zen, the second form of Kamakura Buddhism, consists of the Rinzai school, founded by Eisai (or Yōsai, 1141–1215) and others, and the Sōtō school, begun by DŌgen (1200–1253). Both were monks on Mount Hiei, and both traveled to China for further training in monasteries. Each emphasized Zen meditation as a crucial religious practice, though for somewhat different reasons. Eisai considered Tendai Buddhism on Mount Hiei to be in decline, and he sought to revitalize it by introducing China's method of Zen training (and also by emphasizing clerical precepts anew). But Mount Hiei rejected his initiatives. Eisai, nonetheless, found an ally in the recently established warrior government, which first supported him as a Zen master in the city of Kamakura and later sponsored his new Zen monastery, Kenninji, in Kyoto. These institutions, along with others established by subsequent Chinese and Japanese masters, became the basis for the Rinzai branch of Zen. Dōgen, for his part, also trained on Mount Hiei and then at Kenninji before traveling to China. He regarded the Zen method he learned there as Buddhism's most authentic form, and upon returning to Japan he quickly built a following around it, separate from his previous affiliations. Eventually he received patronage from a regional lord who enabled him to establish a monastery, Eiheiji, in the remote province of Echizen. The monastic rules and routines that Dōgen formulated there became the starting point of Sōtō Zen in Japan. At the heart of his teaching and monastic community was Zen meditation, which he considered the very practice of enlightenment.

Nichiren Buddhism, known widely in medieval times as the Hokkeshū, or Lotus school, comprises the third tradition of Kamakura Buddhism, which is named after its founder Nichiren (1222–1282). Nichiren was active somewhat later than the other Kamakura founders, but like most of them he was trained for a period in Tendai Buddhism on Mount Hiei. Early in his career he was exposed to various forms of Buddhism including Pure Land, Zen, and Shingon, but on Mount Hiei he fixed upon the Lotus Sūtra, Tendai's central scripture, as the highest teaching. While utilizing Tendai terminology and doctrine to articulate his ideas, over time Nichiren came to emphasize single-minded and exclusive devotion to the Lotus, and he promoted the practice of the daimoku, chanting the title of the sūtra in the form Namu Myōhō-renge-kyō as the quintessential expression of the Lotus Sūtra's truth and power. This practice existed in certain Tendai circles prior to Nichiren's time, but he championed it with a fervor surpassing all previous proponents. At the same time, Nichiren began to criticize other forms of Buddhism—specifically, Pure Land, Zen, Shingon, and Ritsu. This action earned him the enmity of the warrior government in Kamakura, which patronized them. On two occasions the government banished Nichiren to remote parts of Japan as punishment. These events marginalized Nichiren and his following, even as he continued to attract believers, including a significant number of women, to his Lotus teachings.

Kamakura Buddhism as a scholarly category

The classification of the Pure Land, Zen, and Nichiren movements as Kamakura Buddhism occurred largely in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Scholars then began to identify Kamakura times as a period of significant and lasting change in Japanese religion. To highlight this change they coined the terms New Buddhism, to refer to the six schools traceable to the Kamakura period, and Old Buddhism, to indicate the eight schools originating in Nara and Heian times. Scholars further attributed distinct characteristics and orientations to New Buddhism that set it apart from the earlier forms. Specifically, New Buddhism tended to reduce religious practice to a single simple activity that could be performed by most people, such as the nenbutsu, Zen meditation, or the daimoku. New Buddhism was oriented more to the salvation of regular people than to the lofty goals and arduous lifestyle of monastic elites. Such practices were not predicated on a mastery of complex doctrine, but usually involved a simple religious stance of faith, sincerity, and devotion. Also, such practices did not require the intercession of priests, but could be performed on an individual basis. This focus on specific uncomplicated religious practices made New Buddhism more exclusivistic, distilling religion to the bare essentials, in contrast to Old Buddhism, which was more inclusivitic, integrating a vast array of practices, beliefs, texts, deities, rituals, and ecclesiastical ranks into a multifaceted religious culture. In the process, New Buddhism set aside many of the magical and apotropaic concerns of Old Buddhism in order to concentrate on personal salvation. Overall, the new Kamakura movements are portrayed as the democratization of Japanese Buddhism—that is, the extension of Buddhism beyond a predominantly upper-class, male, clerical elite to include lowly, female, and lay adherents. This view of Japan's religious development has dominated scholarship for the last century, though it has been subject to a variety of refinements and critiques.

A by-product of this characterization of Kamakura Buddhism has been the tendency to compare it to the Protestant Reformation in Europe. In fact, the example of the Reformation may have influenced the way scholars conceived of Kamakura Buddhism and the features they highlighted. The parallels most often cited between the two are an emphasis on faith, the emergence of a married clergy, the decentralization of religious authority, and the diminished role of clerical intercessors. Among the various forms of Kamakura Buddhism, Shinran's school, the Jōdo Shinshū, has attracted the greatest attention. Shinran himself is frequently compared to Martin Luther. Were it not for Shinran and his school, however, it is questionable how germane the Reformation model would be for analyzing Japanese Buddhism. The tendency to equate Kamakura Buddhism to the Protestant Reformation has declined in recent decades, especially as scholars examine Japanese Buddhism in greater depth and identify dissimilarities. Nonetheless, the terminology of reform has persisted, even though Kamakura is now treated as its own distinct example of reform.

One difficulty in attributing special characteristics to this New Buddhism is that many of the reforms identified in it also occurred in Old Buddhism. Hence, one of the refinements to the category of Kamakura Buddhism has been to extend its boundaries to include various movements and new developments in the Heian and Nara schools too. It is well known, for instance, that various eminent priests of Tendai, Shingon, and the Nara temples were drawn to the nenbutsu as a religious practice, and some to Zen meditation also. In addition, various clerics from Nara, such as Jōkei (1155–1213) and Myōe KŌben (1173–1232), promoted popular and easily practiced devotions to Buddhist deities, including Śākyamuni Buddha, the future Buddha Maitreya, and the Bodhisattva Mañjuśrī. Though not as widespread as Pure Land devotions to Amitābha, these practices were often conducted in a similar manner—for instance, chanting the name of the buddha or bodhisattva before an enshrined image or sacred object. Another initiative in Old Buddhism was to revive the Buddhist precepts, just as Eisai sought to do alongside Zen meditation in his monastery. Ostensibly, this was done to revitalize the Buddhist order, which was considered lax and in decline. But administering the Buddhist precepts was not limited to clerics. Nara proponents such as Eison (1209–1290) developed mass ceremonies for administering lay precepts to ordinary people as well. Thus, Old Buddhism responded to their needs and religious proclivities as much as New Buddhism did. This wave of popular practice, however, did not displace traditional rituals and doctrine in the established temples, but emerged alongside them. In fact, some learned priests such as GyŌnen (1240–1321) and Kakuzen (b. 1143) compiled systematic accounts of doctrine, compendiums of beliefs and practices, and historiographies of Buddhism as another way of revitalizing their schools. Hence, Old Buddhism was equally caught up in the religious ferment of the Kamakura period, even while maintaining its traditions of the past.

The most important critique of Kamakura Buddhism as a scholarly concept is found in the alternative theory of medieval Japanese religion proposed by the historian Kuroda Toshio (1926–1993). This theory centers on the idea that the dominant form of religion in medieval times was Kenmitsu, or exoteric-esoteric, Buddhism. Specifically, this refers to an array of practices and assumptions found widely in the temples, monasteries, and organizations of Tendai, Shingon, and Nara Buddhism, rather than in the new Pure Land, Zen, and Nichiren movements. Kenmitsu Buddhism was, in short, Japan's medieval orthodoxy, binding together the mainstream institutions through commonly recognized esoteric rituals, even while they diverged on exoteric doctrine. Esoteric ritual was considered efficacious in achieving both spiritual and worldly goals, so the ruling powers of Japan looked to Kenmitsu Buddhism for support and, in turn, patronized and promoted it. Inherent in this depiction of religion is the supposition that the new Kamakura movements were, at best, minor participants in medieval culture and, at worst, heretical fringe groups. The upshot of this view is that Nara and Heian Buddhism are recognized as greater and longer influences on Japan's history than is commonly acknowledged. The Kamakura Buddhism model thus reflects a projection back onto medieval times of the early modern and modern religious order, since most of its institutions gained prominence only around the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, toward the end of the medieval period.

The Kenmitsu theory offers a critique of the presumption that Kamakura Buddhism was the focal point and the most representative expression of medieval Japanese religion. This critique is built on an astute analysis of medieval religious institutional culture, and it provides an important correction to the tendency to inflate the significance of the new Pure Land, Zen, and Nichiren movements in medieval Japan. But whether the Kenmitsu theory can actually lay to rest the Kamakura Buddhism model is another question. For all its shortcomings, the model underscores the point that over time Japan underwent notable changes in its religious outlook and practice, which are embedded in the dominant forms of Japanese Buddhism today, and that those changes had their inception, if not their heyday, in the Kamakura period. This assumption is so pervasive in the study of Japanese Buddhism that the Kamakura model is likely to continue as an important category in explaining the development of Buddhism in Japan.

See also:Chan School; Exoteric-Esoteric (Kenmitsu) Buddhism in Japan; Japan; Nenbutsu (Chinese, Nianfo; Korean, Yŏmbul); Nichiren School; Shingon Buddhism, Japan; Tiantai School


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