It was only in the sixth century, at the beginning of the Asuka Period (538–710), that writing was introduced to Japan. Before that nothing was written down so, we assume, there was probably not a great deal of philosophical activity. What there was can hardly be called philosophy: it was an animistic spirituality that centred around the idea that everything in the universe is connected by a spiritual force or energy called musubi, manifestations of which were called kami, a rough translation of which is ‘gods’ but it is more accurate to describe them as spirits. National treasures could be kami, as could awesome natural features like Mt. Fuji and the sun, phenomena like hurricanes, venerated individuals like emperors and great warriors, and supernatural beings like the ‘gods of the earthly realm’, called kunitsukami, or the heavenly deities from the Japanese creation myths, called amatsukami, like Izanagi and Izanami, the (respective) male and female creators of the world. This spiritual, arguably religious, tradition was Shintō, though many don’t like to call it Shintō because they think ‘Shintō as we know it’ didn’t turn up until way later. They acknowledge that Shintō came out of whatever this was, though, and that its core tenets were present from earliest times, so there really is no harm in just calling it Shintō for the sake of simplicity.
It was the introduction of Buddhism in 552 that represents the beginning of Japanese intellectual history.
It was the introduction of Buddhism in 552, however, that represents the beginning of Japanese intellectual history. As the story goes, King Seong of the Korean Kingdom of Baekje sent a diplomatic mission to the Japanese Emperor Kinmei containing Buddhist artefacts and scriptures, Buddhism having reached the Korean Peninsula from China much earlier. At a similar time, merchants, monks and scholars began to emigrate to Japan from Korea, bringing with them Confucian texts from which the Japanese learnt to read and write. The language of the Japanese court was, therefore, Chinese; it would not be for hundreds of years until the Japanese could write their own language.
The first written document in Japanese history was the Seventeen-Article Constitution written by the pseudo-historical Prince Shōtoku in 604. Though it’s called a constitution (kenpō in Japanese), it is little more than a set of highfalutin moral aphorisms without much practical application. Most of the articles are pretty hollow, when it comes down to it, saying things like “let us cease from wrath, and refrain from angry looks” and “give clear appreciation to merit and demerit”. Many were clearly ignored, like the injunction that “decisions on important matters should not be made by one person alone”. In fact, the only articles that look like constitutional laws are the sixteenth, which mandates corvée labour in the winter months rather than in the summer, and the twelfth, which prohibits provincial governors from levying taxes. That makes the document a lot more interesting philosophically than politically or legally.
The heart of the constitution is a politico-ethical philosophy of harmony expressed in the first sentence: “Harmony is to be valued, and an avoidance of wanton opposition to be honoured”. The rest of the document is a means to achieving this harmonious ideal, which includes the reverence of Buddhism (officiating it as the state religion), absolute obedience to the imperial commands, and the cessation of ‘wrath’ and ‘angry looks’ – which is probably a call to the end of the civil war which had dominated the sixth century which Shōtoku and his clan had come out of on top.
The heart of the constitution is a politico-ethical philosophy of harmony.
Shōtoku was a statesman, not a philosopher prince. What puts the Shōtoku Constitution at the beginning of the history of Japanese philosophy is that it sets the scene for everything that comes after it because it is syncretic. What that means is that it is a synthesis of various intellectual sources; in this case, of Buddhism, Confucianism and Shintō – and arguably Taoism and Legalism too. They are mixed in the constitution in two ways. The first is that different articles are inspired by different sources, such as the obviously Buddhist urge to cease from gluttony and abandon covetous desires and the clearly Confucian expectation that ministers will act with propriety (li in Chinese, rei in Japanese).
The second way the document is syncretic is through the creation of new theories combining different intellectual traditions. The harmonious ideal is the best example of this, the statement that “harmony is to be valued” coming from Confucius' Analects but, unlike in Confucianism, harmony is not to be obtained through ceremonial propriety alone, but through personal moral development, which has a source in Buddhism, and through natural balance, which comes not only from Confucianism but from Shintō and Taoism too.
For the next two hundred years there were still no Japanese philosophers. Buddhism continued to flow into Japan, increasingly dominating intellectual life. There was a great proliferation of temples sponsored by the imperial household and the elite families like the Soga and the Fujiwara. A monastic social class began to emerge which was closely connected with the aristocracy, their sons entering the priesthood and monks serving as teachers and advisors for the aristocrats. However, as Buddhism became increasingly united with Japanese politics, it began to divide on doctrinal grounds into different sects and, by the time of the Nara Period (710–794), Japanese Buddhism was defined by the Six Nara Schools. They were Ritsu, Kusha, Jōjitsu, Sanron, Hossō and Kegon. The first three of these belong to the Hīnayāna tradition of Buddhism and the others are Mahāyāna.
Rather than focusing on transcendent metaphysics, Japanese Buddhism leant into aesthetic practice grounded in phenomenal reality.
The distinction between Hīnayāna, or ‘small vehicle’, and Mahāyāna, or ‘great vehicle’, Buddhism was a construct of the Mahāyānists. Hīnayāna Buddhists believe in an impersonal path to enlightenment, hinged on self-restraint, introspection, and a gradual detachment from worldly emotions. Mahāyānists, on the other hand, advocate for a communal approach to enlightenment, emphasizing empathy, compassion, and interpersonal connections. The latter dominated Japanese Buddhism, distinguished by its distinctive heuristic methods that democratize access to enlightenment. This shift towards a more egalitarian ethos is a defining feature in the historical evolution of Japanese Buddhism, setting it apart from its Chinese counterpart. Rather than focusing on transcendent metaphysics, Japanese Buddhism leant into aesthetic practice grounded in phenomenal reality.
Another important idea of the Mahāyānists was the Buddha’s embodiments. The historical buddha is the individual buddha that was Siddhārtha Gautama (or Shakyamuni, in Japanese). The celestial buddha refers to eternal celestial beings who’ve never been human. They can be understood as personifications of various aspects of the enlightened mind, and their purpose is to aid sentient beings on their path to enlightenment. The third is the cosmic buddha, which is the universal principle whose presence permeates everything. Japanese Buddhism emphasized the cosmic buddha over the other two, which is perfectly consistent with its phenomenalistic bent: because the buddha is in everything, enlightenment can be found in everything; to attain buddhahood is to experience everything as it really is.
All Six Nara Schools were exoteric, which meant that their teachings were accessible to anybody willing to put the effort into understanding them through scriptural study and adherence to established doctrines and rituals. Two opponents to this orthodoxy emerged at the beginning of the ninth century. They were Saichō and Kūkai, who brought esotericism to Japan from China, which focussed on the transmission of teachings from masters to their disciples through secret rituals, advanced meditation techniques, visualization practices, and sacred utterances called mantras to attain enlightenment.
Saichō founded Japanese Tendai Buddhism and established the influential temple complex of Enryakuji at Mt. Hiei. He was trained by the Chinese Tiantai philosopher Daosui, ‘Tendai’ being the Japanese translation of ‘Tientai’, but Tientai was exoteric. Allegedly, whilst waiting for his ship to arrive and take him back to Japan, Saichō visited Yuezhou (modern Shaoxing) where he learnt about esoteric Buddhism which he would incorporate into the Tendai school. Saichō happened upon esotericism, but Kūkai was specifically trained in it by the Chinese Tangmi monk Huiguo, returning to Japan to father Shingon Buddhism which was esoteric through and through.
When Kūkai returned to Japan, Saichō befriended him, copying his esoteric texts and receiving instructions on rituals. Both abandoned the capital at Nara for the mountains. The Nara Schools were predominantly intellectual and often academic in nature, whereas Saichō and Kūkai were considerably more religious in the sense of combining intellectual and practical Buddhist pursuits. Saichō would send students to Kūkai for instruction when he set up residence in Kyoto at Mt. Takao, but the relationship between the two eventually soured as competition between their sects increased.
Shingon and Tendai defined Buddhism in the Heian Period (794–1185), but it was one specific topic which consumed mediaeval Japanese philosophy, and that was the Original Enlightenment Debates. The doctrine of original enlightenment is the idea that everything originally or inherently has within it the germ of buddhahood, and that everything can eventually attain enlightenment.
The doctrine of original enlightenment is the idea that everything originally or inherently has within it the germ of buddhahood…
The topic became a major point of disputation, especially between Saichō and the Hossō monk Tokuitsu, which grew into a four year long doctrinal debate that would become one of the most important in the history of Japanese Buddhism. Saichō propounded universal buddhahood, which was the view that all beings will ultimately become buddhas, which he thought to be an ideal expounded in the Lotus Sūtra. Tokuitsu, on the contrary, championed the Yogācāra division of men into five categories of different latent potential, one of which being those for whom buddhahood is hopeless, meaning that it could not be the case that all being will ultimately attain buddhahood. It was Saichō’s promotion of universal buddhahood that won this philosophical feud.
Original enlightenment discussions later developed from the basic claim that everything has the potential to become a buddha to a more radical position of absolute nonduality in which everything is connected together as part of one buddha reality. They took Mahāyāna phenomenalism to its logical extremes, eradicating any distinction between the phenomenal world and the ultimate reality of enlightenment. Ryōgen and Kakuun, both tenth century Tendai monks, would even come to accept plants as within the realm of buddhahood, a topic which was broached earlier in China in the seventh century by Jicang and later, in the eighth century, by Zhanran. It became a common aphorism to say that “the grasses, trees, mountains, and rivers all attain buddhahood”, and that “the worldly passions are precisely enlightenment”.
Eventually the idea of original enlightenment reached its apex in concluding not only that everything has within it the potential to become buddha, but that all beings are already enlightened as buddha. In Chinese Mahāyāna Buddhism there was the idea that the mundane world is simply buddha reality misunderstood; that there is no mysterious buddha behind reality. Buddha nature is reality as it is experienced; all we have to do is correctly interpret our experience. Japanese Buddhism went a step further though to say that buddha nature is nothing but reality as it is experienced.
The rise of Pure Land Buddhism was an explicit rejection of original enlightenment. It centred on the achievement of rebirth in the Pure Land – a magical realm in which it is easier to achieve enlightenment than in this world. Pure Land Buddhists thought that they were in the final of the Three Ages of Buddhism: the Degenerate Age of the Buddhist Law, or mappō. The first two were the Age of the Right Buddhist Law, or shōbō, which was the first millennium after the death of the Buddha in which his disciples upheld his teachings, and the Age of Semblance Buddhist Law, or zōhō, which was the next millennium where his teachings were practiced. Following them was ten thousand years in which the Buddha’s teachings would decline. In the degenerate age, it’s thought by Pure Land Buddhists that they must rely on the ‘other-power’ of a buddha to escort them to enlightenment. Because their current era and everything in it was corrupted and that, far from everything already being buddha just as they are, buddhahood could no longer be achieved through ‘self-power’.
The rise of Pure Land Buddhism was an explicit rejection of original enlightenment.
The buddha relied on by Japanese Pure Land Buddhists was Amida. The main practice that Pure Land Buddists taught was ‘mindfulness of the Buddha’. Brought to Japan in the ninth century by Ennin (known posthumously as Jikaku Daishi), it was the repetition of the name of Amida (called nianfo in Chinese and the nembutsu in Japanese). The phrase normally recited is “Namu-Amida-Butsu” which means “I take refuge in Amida Buddha”. The twelfth century monk Hōnen, originally of the Tendai sect, decided that the religious goal of achieving buddhahood was no longer possible in the degenerate age and announced that the nembutsu and rebirth in the Pure Land was the only way of attaining enlightenment. He thereby became the founder of Pure Land Buddhism.
Even more radical, though, was True Pure Land Buddhism which was characterized by the absolute primacy of faith in Amida Buddha. Shinran, one of Hōnen’s disciples and founder of the new sect, completely gave up all monastic practice, relying wholly on his faith in Amida. He thought that true faith is bestowed upon a believer and does not arise from within them, and interpreted the nembutsu as nothing more than an expression of thanks or praise for this endowment. In the fifteenth century, thanks to the efforts of Rennyo, hailed as the ‘restorer of the sect’, True Pure Land grew to be the largest and most influential Buddhist sect in Japan, which it remains today.
Still more radical was the Pure Land sect called Jishū, founded by the twelfth century itinerant monk Ippen. Whereas Shinran maintained the primacy of faith for rebirth in the Pure Land, Ippen taught that not even faith was necessary for salvation; simply chanting the nembutsu alone was sufficient.
Pure Land Buddhism was one of the Kamakura New Religions; new Buddhist movements that emerged in Japan during the Kamakura Period (1185–1333). The other two were Nichiren Buddhism and Zen.
Like Pure Land Buddhists, the thirteenth century Tendai monk Nichiren tried to tackle the challenges to attaining enlightenment associated with the degenerate age. The Kamakura Period was stricken by civil war, so most Buddhist schools of this period accepted the idea that Japan had entered the degenerate age but differed in their solutions to this malaise. Nichiren did not think that entrusting oneself to Amida Buddha was the correct course of action. Instead, what he declared was exclusive reliance on the Lotus Sūtra. Rather than “Namu-Amida-Butsu”, his followers chanted “Namu-Myōhō-Renge-Kyō”, meaning “Devotion to the Mystic Law of the Lotus Sūtra”. His first concern was to restore Tendai Buddhism to an exclusive reliance on the Lotus Sūtra, and then to convert the entire nation to this belief. He therefore sought to make Buddhist theory practical and actionable so laymen could manifest buddhahood within their lifetime without committing themselves to monkhood and decades of dedicated study.
Nichiren studied all ten schools of Japanese Buddhism over a period of two decades.
Nichiren studied all ten schools of Japanese Buddhism over a period of two decades. He doubted the efficacy of the nembutsu, which he had been practicing, and therefore sought other means to attain enlightenment. He began his study at the Tendai temple on Mt. Kiyosumi in 1233 and it was there that he returned in 1253 to present his findings after twenty years; that it was the Lotus Sūtra on which they all ought to rely for enlightenment. However, he left the temple after only a short while and established himself in Kamakura. Between 1254 and 1260, half the population perished due to a succession of calamities; drought, earthquakes, epidemic, famine, fire, storms and the like. Nichiren claimed that these were the result of the mass adoption of Pure Land teachings. In 1260, he submitted a tract On Securing the Peace of the Land Through the Propagation of True Buddhism to the regent of the Kamakura Shōgunate, Hōjō Tokiyori, in which he attacked Pure Land Buddhism as a sinister cult and stated the need to embrace the Lotus Sūtra. If the shōgunate did not heed his advice, Nichiren predicted, further calamities would befall the nation, including a foreign invasion, which did in fact occur just over a decade later with the Mongol Invasion of Japan in 1274. The petition was ignored, though, and instead brought the other Buddhist schools down upon Nichiren. Ironically, one year after Nichiren submitted his remonstration to the shōgunate, it was he who was expelled from the capital.
He spent most of his life in three exiles in total. In his lifetime, ‘Nichiren Buddhism’ was unified under him. After his death, however, it fragmented massively into six sects, each following one of the six senior priests Nichiren had named to uphold his teachings: Nikkō, Nisshō, Nichirō, Nikō, Nitchō, and Nichiji.
Zen Buddhism, the most significant of the Kamakura New Religions, traces its origins back to an episode known as the Flower Sermon. In this legendary event, Shakyamuni Buddha stood before his disciples ready to give a sermon. However, he didn’t say anything and instead held up a white flower. This left his disciples scratching their heads, except for Mahākāśyapa (who lived in either the sixth or the fifth century BCE), known in Japanese as Daikashō or Makakashō. He alone smiled, supposedly signifying his understanding. This silent exchange symbolized the transmission of profound wisdom beyond language, which the Buddha acknowledged, saying, “The subtle Dharma Gate does not rest on words or letters but is a special transmission outside of the scriptures. This I entrust to Mahākāśyapa”. Thus Mahākāśyapa earned his place as the inaugural figure in a lineage of twenty-eight Indian patriarchs, marking the birth of Zen Buddhism.
It was from China where it was called ‘Chan’ that Zen Buddhism came to Japan.
It was from China where it was called ‘Chan’ that Zen Buddhism came to Japan. Indian Buddhism was transmitted to China in the first century via the Silk Road where it underwent a process of Sinification as it was accommodated into Chinese culture. Of course, it was translated into Chinese from Sanskrit by scholars such as Kumārajīva and Buddhabhadra in the fourth and early fifth centuries, but it was also synthesized with Taoism and other native Chinese sensibilities in the same way that Confucianism and Buddhism were synthesized with Shintō in Japan.
Zen was established in Japan as an independent school called Daruma in the twelfth century by Dainichibō Nōnin. A Tendai monk, Nōnin encountered Zen texts that had made their way from China and were in the possession of the Tendai School. Inspired by these writings, he initiated his own solitary Zen practice and, in 1189, he sent two of his disciples to the Chan master Zhuoan Deguang with a letter outlining his revelations. Nōnin received back a letter certifying that he had awakened without a master but, because of his nonstandard spiritual bloodline, having awoken without a master, the Daruma School was thought of as teaching an unorthodox, syncretic ‘mixed Zen’ rather than a ‘pure Zen’ like in China. The school was short lived, however, for in 1194 the government shut it down at the Tendai School’s request.
The Rinzai school of Zen lasted much longer, however. In 1168, Myōan Eisai went to China where he studied Tientai Buddhism for two decades. He went again in 1187, this time learning about Chan from the Linji School. Upon his return in 1191, he established in his native land a Linji branch, in Japanese called Rinzai, and built the first Japanese Zen temple. Eisai never renounced his status as a Tendai monk, however; practicing in multiple schools was common within Mediaeval Buddhism. It remained for later masters to establish a pure Zen that was not an admixture of the doctrines of various Japanese Buddhist schools.
Dōgen thought that meditation isn’t about seeking answers. Instead, to meditate is to fully engage with the process of life itself.
The other main Zen school that was established in the Kamakura Period was the Sōtō School – the Japanese equivalent of the Chinese Caodong School of Chan. Sōtō Zen was brought to Japan by Dōgen in 1227 who had studied in China under Tiantong Rujing. Upon his return, he initially settled at Kennin-ji, but was driven out of Kyoto in 1230 by Tendai monks because of his extreme opinions about seated meditation and the primacy of Zen. For Dōgen, practice and enlightenment are not two separate stages but are fundamentally intertwined. To practice is to be enlightened, and enlightenment is nothing more than practice. His philosophy was deeply experiential and emphasized the importance of personal experience and direct understanding. He believed that the intellect could become an obstacle – even intellectual ‘understanding’ – if it led away from the immediate experience of reality. Dōgen thought that meditation isn’t about seeking answers. Instead, to meditate is to fully engage with the process of life itself.
The key difference between Zen and other Buddhist schools is that Zen instruction is based upon the ‘dharma transmission’ of a master to his disciples rather than upon doctrinal texts. That’s why Nōnin was considered an unusual case and his school impure; because he had awoken without a master. The principal practical difference between Sōtō and Rinzai Zen is that, in the former, meditation took the form of ‘just sitting’, or shikan taza, whereas the Rinzai sect employed riddles and metaphors known as kōan to reach enlightenment. In terms of doctrinal differences, the main one was their difference in understanding ‘non-thinking’, which was the aim of meditation. Rinzai began by negating discriminative thinking and went on to negate self-centred thinking; Sōtō, on the other hand, first eliminated self-centred thinking which they judged to be part of a later stage of negating all discriminative thought.
Buddhism had been closely connected to the political power structures in Japan since it was first introduced to the country, enjoying patronage from the ruling elites, which included the imperial family, the shōgunate, and the aristocracy. Fierce competition between the sects meant that they became increasingly militarized throughout the Muromachi Period (1336–1573), developing their own armies of warrior monks known as sōhei. Conflict between them came to a head in 1467 when the Ōnin War kicked off in Kyoto over who would succeed Shōgun Ashikaga Yoshimasa, commencing a century and a half of civil war known as the Sengoku Period (1467–1615).
Tendai Buddhism had powerful armies of warrior monks; Pure Land Buddhism, however, amassed the Japanese citizenry. It had a broad following among the common people in Japan because of its egalitarian teachings. Unlike other sects, it taught that all people could attain salvation simply by expressing faith in Amida Buddha, and that complex rituals and ascetic practices were unnecessary. Faced with harsh conditions and heavy taxation, leagues of Pure Land Buddhists – both monks and laymen – rose up against the shōgunate and local feudal lords known as daimyo in peasant revolts throughout Japan called Ikkō-ikki. They formed self-governing communities, often centred around fortified temples, and at times they were even able to seize control of entire provinces.
However, more than a century of perpetual warfare had dire effects for Buddhism. The rampant violence often targeted Buddhist institutions, leading to the destruction of temples and the loss of religious texts and artefacts. This violence disrupted the Buddhist monastic system, eroding its economic base and diminishing its influence over society. What is more, the inability of Buddhism to prevent or mitigate the ongoing violence led to a crisis of faith among many Japanese. The Buddhist teachings, which emphasized impermanence and suffering, offered little solace or practical guidance in a time of social unrest.
The rampant violence often targeted Buddhist institutions, leading to the destruction of temples and the loss of religious texts and artefacts.
The death knell of Buddhist influence was sounded when Oda Nobunaga, the ‘Great Unifier’ of Japan who would bring the warring states period to a close, moved against the militant Buddhist sects who posed a threat to his authority. He first targeted the Tendai centre at Mt. Hiei in 1571, burning down the temple complex and slaughtering thousands of monks and civilians in the process. He then turned to the destruction of the Pure Land Ikkō-ikki, assaulting their fortress at Nagashima, setting it ablaze. Not one of its twenty thousand inhabitants survived. The other major fortress, the Ishiyama Hongan-ji, held out for eleven years, making it the longest siege in Japanese history, but the Abbot Kōsa was persuaded to surrender in 1580.
This crushed any potential for Buddhism to remain a powerful political force in Japan, bringing to a close the Buddhist Phase of the history of Japanese philosophy. This left a philosophical vacuum in the intellectual landscape. What would fill it was an ancient Chinese philosophy with a brand new finish.
This is the first part of the shortest history of Japanese philosophy. You can find the next part right here: Part 2: The Confucian Phase.
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B.V.E. Hyde is a researcher with polymathic interests in philosophy, history, sociology and Japanology. He is currently employed as a philosopher of science and an ethicist, but has an enduring interest in Far Eastern philosophy. Some of his books on the topic (for which he is currently looking for a publisher) include The Tale of the Japanese Mind, a whistlestop tour of the history of Japanese philosophy, Lectures on Japanese Philosophy, an introduction to and overview of the subject, and a Commentary on the Shōtoku Constitution, which is a reference book much more academic than the other two. You can follow him on Twitter (@bvehyde) to stay up to date with his publications.