The term Nara Buddhism refers to Buddhist scholarship and monasteries in Nara, the first permanent capital of Japan, during the Nara period (645–794 c.e.). From the time of the official introduction of Buddhism to Japan in the mid-sixth century, the Japanese acquired a wide variety of Buddhist scriptures and other texts from Korea and China, where doctrinal schools had developed. By the Nara period, Buddhism in Japan was classified into six philosophical schools. These schools did not comprise exclusive sectarian organizations, but were custodians of doctrinal traditions studied freely by monks and nuns.
The six doctrinal traditions were: (1) the Jōjitsu, which denied the permanent reality of the self and the world; (2) the Kusha, which denied the permanent reality of the self but not the world; (3) the Sanron, which asserted that the self and the world are empty; (4) the Hossō, which asserted the nature of reality as a function of the mind; (5) the Kegon, which linked all existences into a web of connections; and (6) the Ritsu, which taught the precepts governing the lifestyle of monks and nuns. Large monasteries such as Tōdaiji, Kōfukuji, and Tōshōdaiji served as home bases for these schools.
Nara Buddhism was incorporated into the government, which enforced a legal code for monks and nuns. The code prohibited clergy from practicing and propagating Buddhism in the countryside and restricted them to their home monasteries. The government also limited the annual number of monks receiving ordination, which could only be carried out at an officially sanctioned ordination platform. The court conferred ranks on leading monks, thus creating a sense of gratitude and obligation as well as a chain of command used to regulate the clerical community. The official system gave rise to illegal monks, who were often self-ordained and worked freely among the people.
The court also created a national system, the provincial temple system (kokubunji, rishŌtŌ). The central monastery was Tōdaiji, which established a branch monastery in each of the provinces. This national system emphasized the power of the court as the central political authority, and also placed Buddhism in the service of the nation. The provincial monasteries were dedicated to the ritual protection of the country.
Large families and clans also built private monasteries. Kōfukuji, for example, was the clan monastery for the powerful Fujiwara family. At the family level, Buddhist rites were conducted for the well-being of the clan, and for commemorating their ancestors. Nara Buddhism thus consisted of the national system, family monasteries, and illegal monks working among the people.
Late in the Nara period, the monk DŌkyŌ (d.u.–772) gained political power through an intimate relationship with a reigning empress, and attempted to usurp the throne. The scandal highlighted the significant power and influence that the Nara Buddhist establishment had gained, and the court, for many reasons including its concern about Buddhist interference, decided to move the capital out of Nara. The new permanent capital was located in Heian-kyō (now known as Kyoto), and while Nara continued to be an important site for Buddhist learning and practice, new forms of Buddhism, namely Tendai (Chinese, Tiantai school) and Shingon, arose in the succeeding Heian period (794–1185).
George J. Tanabe, Jr.