Original Enlightenment (Hongaku)

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The doctrine of original enlightenment (Japanese, hongaku) dominated Tendai Buddhism from roughly the eleventh through the early seventeenth centuries and profoundly influenced medieval Japanese religion and culture. This doctrine holds that enlightenment or the ideal state is neither a goal to be achieved nor a potential to be realized but the real status of all things. Not only human beings but ants and crickets, even grasses and trees, manifest innate buddhahood just as they are. Seen in its true aspect, every aspect of daily life—eating, sleeping, even one's deluded thoughts—is the Buddha's conduct.

Especially since the latter part of the twentieth century, considerable controversy has arisen over the cultural significance and ethical implications of this doctrine. Some scholars see in original enlightenment thought a timeless Japanese spirituality that affirms nature and accommodates phenomenal realities. Others see it as a dangerous antinomianism that undermines both religious discipline and moral standards. Beginning around the 1980s an intellectual movement known as Critical Buddhism (hihan BukkyŌ) has denounced original enlightenment thought as an authoritarian ideology that, by sacralizing all things just as they are, in effect bolsters the status quo and legitimates social injustice. Such sweeping polemical claims, however, have tended to inflate the term original enlightenment beyond its usefulness as an analytic category and to ignore its specific historical context within medieval Tendai.

Terms and texts

No scholarly consensus exists as to the best way to translate the word hongaku. In addition to "original enlightenment," the expressions "original awakening," "innate awakening," "primordial enlightenment," and others are also used (for the pros and cons of various translations, see Jacqueline I. Stone, Original Enlightenment and the Transformation of Medieval Japanese Buddhism, p. 369, n. 1). The term original enlightenment has its locus classicus in the Awakening of Faith (Dasheng qixin lun), attributed to the Indian master AŚvaghoṢa (ca. 100 c.e.), but was probably composed in China around the sixth century. There, original enlightenment (Chinese, benjue; Japanese, hongaku) refers to the potential for enlightenment even in deluded persons, and forms a triad with the terms nonenlightenment (bujue, fukaku), the deluded state of those ignorant of that potential, and acquired enlightenment (shijue, shikaku), the actualizing of that potential through Buddhist practice. In medieval Japanese Tendai literature, however, original enlightenment no longer denotes merely a potential but indicates the true status of all things just as they are.

Original enlightenment thought as a distinct Tendai intellectual tradition appears to have had its inception around the mid-eleventh century, when hongaku teachings began to be passed down from master to disciple in the form of oral transmissions (kuden). Eventually, these transmissions were written down in a few sentences on single sheets of paper called kirikami, which were in turn compiled to form larger texts, attributed retrospectively to great Tendai masters of the past, such as SaichŌ (767–822), Ennin (794–864), or Genshin (942–1017). Thus the precise dating of any specific collection, or of the ideas contained in it, is extremely difficult. In the thirteenth through fourteenth centuries, the doctrines of these oral transmission collections began to be systematized; Tendai scholars also began to produce commentaries on traditional Tiantai texts and on the Lotus SŪtra (SaddharmapuṆḌarīka-sŪtra) itself, reinterpreting them from a hongaku perspective. It is only from about the fourteenth to fifteenth centuries that the dating and authorship of some of this literature can be established with relative certainty.

Major ideas

Original enlightenment doctrine has been described as a pinnacle in the development of MahĀyĀna concepts of nonduality. In particular, it is indebted to the great totalistic visions of the Huayan school and the Tiantai school, in which all things, being empty of fixed substance, interpenetrate and encompass one another. Another important influence on the development of original enlightenment doctrine was tantric Buddhism, particularly its claim that all phenomena—forms, colors, sounds, and so on—are the activities of a primordial or cosmic Buddha who pervades the universe. The noted scholar Tamura Yoshirō (1921–1989) observed that, in original enlightenment thought, the absolute realm of abstract truth or principle (ri) and the conventional realm of concrete actualities (ji) are conflated. In other words, there is no reality beneath, behind, or prior to the phenomenal world; the moment-to-moment arising and perishing of all things, just as they are, are valorized absolutely as the expressions of original enlightenment. This idea is commonly expressed by such phrases as "all dharmas are the buddhadharma," "the defilements are none other than enlightenment," and "saṂsĀra is none other than nirvĀṆa."

From this perspective, the buddhas represented in the sūtras, radiating light and endowed with excellent marks, are merely provisional signs to inspire the unenlightened. The "real" buddha is all ordinary beings. Indeed, "he" is not a person at all, whether historical or mythic, but the true aspect of all things. This buddha is said to be "unproduced," without beginning or end; to "constantly abide," being always present; and to "transcend august attributes," having no independent form apart from all phenomena just as they are. This view of the buddha is associated with the "origin teaching" (honmon) of the Lotus Sūtra, which describes Śākyamuni Buddha as having first achieved awakening at some point in the unimaginably distant past. Reinterpreted from the standpoint of hongaku thought, this initial attainment by Śākyamuni in the remote past becomes a metaphor for the beginningless original enlightenment innate in all.

Practice and enlightenment

This reinterpretation has significant implications for Buddhist practice. According to conventional views, enlightenment is attained as the culmination of a linear process in which the practitioner gradually accumulates merit, extirpates defilements, and eventually reaches awakening. Original enlightenment literature describes this view as the perspective of "acquired enlightenment," which "proceeds from cause (practice) to effect (enlightenment)"; it is judged to be, at best, an expedient to encourage the ignorant, and at worst, a deluded view. Original enlightenment doctrine reverses this directionality to "proceed from effect to cause." In other words, practice is seen, not as the cause of an enlightenment still to be attained, but as the expression of an enlightenment already inherent. One could also express this as a shift from a linear to a mandalic view of time, in which practice and enlightenment are simultaneous.

Original enlightenment doctrine has often been criticized as leading to a denial of religious discipline: Why practice, if one is already enlightened? While the danger of this sort of antinomian interpretation certainly exists, original enlightenment thought is more accurately understood as representing a transformation in how practice is understood. It opposes instrumentalist views of practice as merely a means to achieve something else, and instead redefines practice in nonlinear terms as the paradigmatic expression of the nonduality of the practitioner and the buddha.

Moreover, despite its thoroughgoing commitment to a nondual perspective, original enlightenment doctrine distinguishes between the experiential state of knowing (or even simply having faith) that "all dharmas are the buddhadharma" and that of not knowing it. It is only on the basis of insight into nondual original enlightenment that such statements as "saṃsāra is precisely nirvāṇa" can be made. Based on such insight or faith, however, not only formal Buddhist practice but all other activities of daily life can be seen as constituting the buddha's behavior.

Hongaku doctrine and medieval Japanese culture

Original enlightenment teachings developed within, and also contributed to, a broader medieval tradition of "secret transmission," deriving largely from private master-to-disciple initiation into the ritual procedures transmitted within lineages of esoteric Buddhism. In time, knowledge, not only of ritual and doctrine, but of poetry, the visual and performing arts, and also many crafts came to be handed down through master–disciple lineages. The "orally transmitted teachings" of original enlightenment thought were similarly elaborated and passed down within specific Tendai teaching lineages. Chief among these were the Eshin and Danna lineages; each had several sublineages. Despite conventions of secrecy, evidence points to considerable exchange among lineages and to individual monks receiving transmissions from more than one teacher.

The premises of original enlightenment doctrine were also assimilated to other vocabularies and influenced the broader culture. One such area of influence was Shintō theory. From around the mid-Heian period (794–1185), local deities (kami) had been understood as "traces" or manifestations projected by the universal buddhas and bodhisattvas as a "skillful means" to benefit the people of Japan. This view clearly subsumed kami worship within a Buddhist framework. Original enlightenment thought, with its emphasis on concrete actualities as equivalent to absolute principle, set the stage for a revalorization of the kami as equal, or even superior, to buddhas, and thus played a key role at the theoretical level in the beginnings of formal Shintō doctrine.

Original enlightenment thought also influenced the development of medieval aesthetics, especially poetic theory. Though the composition and appreciation of verse were vital social skills in elite circles, many clerics saw poetry as a distraction for the committed Buddhist because it involved one in the world of the senses and the sin of "false speech." Original enlightenment ideas provided one of several "nondual" strategies by which poets, many of whom were monks and nuns, reclaimed the composition of verse, not only as a legitimate activity for Buddhists, but, when approached with the proper attitude, as a form of Buddhist practice in its own right. From this perspective, poetry, or art more generally, was seen, not as a second-level representation of a higher, "religious" truth, but as an expression of innate enlightenment.

See also:Exoteric-Esoteric (Kenmitsu) Buddhism in Japan; Kamakura Buddhism, Japan; Poetry and Buddhism; Shingon Buddhism, Japan; Shintō (Honji Suijaku) and Buddhism; Shugendo; Tantra


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Tamura, Yoshirō. "Japanese Culture and the Tendai Concept of Original Enlightenment." Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 14, nos. 2–3 (June–Sept. 1987): 203–210.

Jacqueline I. Stone