Part One: Buddhism Arrives in Japan
Scholars today give the years 552 CE or 538 CE as the most likely dates for Buddhism’s introduction to Japan. During this period King Seong Myong of Baekje (a kingdom located on the western Korean peninsula) sent a political mission to Japan that included Buddhist monks and nuns who brought with them sutras and Buddhist art.
They also brought with them a writing system; Japan did not have a writing system and as the sutras were written in classical Chinese, many of the court aristocrats had to learn to read Chinese to learn more about Buddhism. Eventually Chinese symbols were adopted by the Japanese and became the kanji that comprise much of Japan’s writing system today.
Buddhism was met with mixed attitudes among the nobility, but with support from the powerful Soga clan, opposition to Buddhism by conservative forces was defeated. In 592 CE Japan’s regent Prince Shotoku proclaimed Buddhism the official state religion and began the construction of Shitennō-ji (四天王寺) in 593. Shitennō-ji is often viewed as Japan’s first Buddhist temple and it still stands today.
Prince Shotoku, often referred to as the ‘father of Japanese Buddhism’ worked to promote Buddhism and in 604 CE authored the ‘Seventeen Article Constitution’ that was both influenced by and promoted Confucian and Buddhist philosophy and ethics.
When the prince died in 622 CE Buddhism was flourishing among the nobility. Buddhism gave Japan a writing system and a sophisticated philosophy that would inspire new forms of art and culture and shape Japanese society in many positive ways.
WrPart Two: Buddhism Takes Root and Gains Influence
By the mid seventh century C.E. Buddhism had firmly taken root in Japan. To facilitate the growth of the religion the imperial court sent delegations to Korea and China to obtain sutras. By this time there were a number of temples, religious orders, priests and icons in the capital and throughout the nation.
By the eighth century monks such as Saichō and Kūkai had established monasteries that became prominent centers of study. Both Saichō (767–822) and Kūkai (774–835) had studied in China and brought back sutras, teachings and ritual practices to Japan. Kūkai established a monastery on Mount Kōya and developed Shingon Buddhism. Shingon is one of the few surviving Vajrayana Buddhist lineages in East Asia, and today is a major denomination in Japan.
Saichō is the founder of Tendai Buddhism and his teachings would influence later monks such as Dōgen (Zen), Hōnen and Shinran (Pure Land) and Nichiren (Nichiren Buddhism). While in China Saichō copied and translated numerous sutras and brought these back to Japan with him.
Despite differences in theology, both Saichō and Kūkai supported one another in their efforts to spread Buddhism and develop their monasteries.
During this time Buddhism began to play a role in government; many powerful clans belonged to various denominations and Buddhist temples were both influenced by government and at the same time influencing government themselves. For example, the Tendai school was popular with the upper class and imperial court. As such it not only developed respect, but began to gain both military and political power.
Nor was this limited to just the Tendai school. Other forms of Buddhism competed for power and influence. At times this led to conflict among the denominations as well as conflict among different political factions. Unlike today, where Japan’s constitution enshrines separation of church and state, religion played a strong role in state affairs.
Written by Robert C. Piemme
This will be my first article in a series about my travels. I lived in Japan for one year and took every opportunity I could to travel and visit historical sites. In December 2014, while living in Japan, I went with a friend and her family to Minobu-san, the headquarters of Nichiren-shu (a Buddhist organization) and the place where Japanese Buddhist saint Nichiren spent his last years teaching. I hope you enjoy the article!
Minobu-san refers to Minobu Mountain and the Kuonji-Temple located at its base. Kuonji-Temple (called Minobu-san) is the grand head temple for the Nichiren Shu Buddhist Order. On December 30, 2014 I had the privilege of being able to join a Japanese friend and her family on a trip to the temple
The temple was founded in 1281 by Nichiren (1222-1282) who is one of the most interesting and certainly the most controversial figure in the history of Japanese Buddhism.
Today Minobu-san is home to the Kuonji Temple, Founder's Hall (a memorial temple to Nichiren), a newly built white colored temple which enshrines most of Nichiren's ashes and is generally not open to the public, a red pagoda and several buildings (lecture halls, administrative building, pilgrimage complex etc.)
At the top of Minobu Mountain is a temple dedicated to the parents of Nichiren. I was told that it was his habit to climb to the summit every day and pray for his parents. He planted four trees at the temple entrance, which still grow to this day! The temple is also home to a gray colored tower that housed his ashes until the new tomb was built. Although his home has long since disappeared, the area where it stood has a stone fence built around it.
Although I am not a Nichiren Buddhist, I find Nichiren to be a fascinating figure and have deep respect for him. In all, I visited four temples related to his life, teaching, persecution and death and I will be writing about those visits.
Nichiren taught that the Lotus Sutra was the highest teaching of the Buddha and that one could be saved by chanting the mantra: Namu Myoho Renge Kyo (praise to the lotus teaching). Because he also criticized the religious and government leaders of his day for what he understood as corruption and false teachings, he was exiled twice and nearly beheaded on one occasion.
Nichiren retired to Minobu in 1274 where he established a small home for himself.There he wrote numerous letters to his followers and taught students. When he died in modern day Tokyo in 1282, he was cremated and his ashes were returned and entombed in a stupa (Buddhist tower) near his home in Minobu.
Today there are roughly 20 million Nichiren Buddhists worldwide belonging to organizations such as Nichiren Shu, Soka Gakkai International, Nichiren Shoshu and Nipponzan Myohoji, among others. Kuonji is the head temple of Nichiren Shu which has about 3 million members.
I joined a Japanese friend and her family on a visit to Minobu on December 30, 2014. It was an amazing experience. Having study the life and teachings of Nichiren and read many of his letters, I have developed not only interest in Nichiren, but a respect for him and his 'always victorious spirit' as I call it. Being able to chant Namu Myoho Renge Kyo at his tomb and meditate underneath the beautifully painted Japanese dragon on the ceiling of Kuonji, was surreal.
Being able to see the site where his house had been located was also particularly moving. Climbing the steps on the top of Minobu mountain past the trees he planted to the temple built in honor of his parents was another amazing moment.
Having been to Japan three times, including living there for a year, I have traveled through Tokyo and to Kamakura, Osaka and Kyoto. I have visited many famous shrines and temples, taken part in Shinto rituals and a tea ceremony. Of all my experiences in Japan, this simple and humble visit to Minobu-san stands out as one of the most cherished. I hope to return to Japan in 2022 to take part in Nichiren Shu's commemoration of the 800th anniversary of Nichiren's birth.
I did not have much cash on me, but I did buy a few omamori at Minobu. Omamori are religious charms that are sold at Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. I collect them and purchased many while living in Japan. The black charm featuring a dragon -a depiction of the one painted on the ceiling of Kuonji -is a charm for victory. I was told that I should keep it one me so I could have the power to overcome obstacles and reach my goals. I actually keep it in my humble Buddhist meditation altar. I do not keep it on me out of fear that it may become damaged or lost.
I also picked up a small green charm that has a picture on Nichiren on it. It is designed to be kept in the wallet to ward off misfortunes.
I also bought a small green and gold talisman that was meant to be a charm you put on your juzu (Buddhist prayer beads). Instead I turned it into a pendant.
Robert C. Piemme is an undergraduate student (international relations) and avid gardener, hiker and writer.