Glimpses from medieval Japanese philosophy

Helal Uddin Ahmed and Mehrabul Ferdausi   | Published: November 04, 2018 21:35:19 | Updated: November 06, 2018 21:31:17

Medieval Japanese philosophers (from left to right) Kukai, Honen, Dogen Kigen, and Nichiren were influenced by Buddhism. Their views played an important role in the philosophical growth and upbringing of the Japanese people, their society and culture during those times.  

Japanese philosophers have wielded considerable influences on the society and culture of Japan as well as the Southeast Asian countries since the ancient era. This article presents a chronological review of some of the major Japanese philosophers of the medieval era (500-1500 CE). The philosophers covered by this piece are: Kukai (774-835 CE), Honen (1133-1212 CE), Dogen Kigen (1200-1253 CE), and Nichiren (1222-1282 CE).

The medieval Japanese philosopher Kukai (774-835 CE) founded the Shingon or Tantric sect of Buddhism in Japan. He turned his attention to Buddhism in his youth instead of completing formal education. Subsequently, he undertook a comparative study of Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism, and published his views in a brilliant essay titled 'Sango Shiki'. He rejected the prevalent accusation that Buddhist monasticism was an abandonment of filial responsibilities and instead condoned it as a higher calling. Kukai entered the Todai-ji temple in Nara as a novice at the age of twenty. He was later fully ordained as a priest at the age of twenty-two.   

Kukai travelled to China in the year 804 after being dissatisfied with the materials that were available to him on Buddhism in Japan. He studied Esoteric Buddhism there under the tutelage of Hui-Kuo (d. 805 CE), who was a patriarch of Esoteric Buddhism and a disciple of Amoghavajra (705-774 CE). Alongside Tantric ritual meditation, he also studied Tantric art and Sanskrit language. On his return to Japan, he established the tradition of applying Sanskrit vocabulary to many religious customs and generated Japanese vocabulary based on Sanskrit phonetics. His initiation under Hui-Kuo was considered to be a proof by the Shingon school of Buddhism of his status in an authentic lineage traceable to the Buddha Gautama himself. Kukai also earned fame as a poet of Chinese verse, a calligrapher as well as a highly talented artist.

Shingon Buddhism postulated that a human being can be perfected through a long path of praxis; and the praxis has to include all three means through which Karma is produced, i.e. body, speech, and mind. Bodily practices covered seated and moving meditations, standing under waterfalls, daily dousing of naked body with cold water during winter, as well as Mudras or specific hand and finger positions. Speech practices encompassed not only recitation of scripture, but also mystic phrases termed 'Mantras' and 'Dharani'. Exercises of the mind included visualisation of complex images of Buddha and his environment, or arrangement of a series of Buddhas and Bodhisatvas in a geometric pattern or order called 'Mandalas'.

Also known as Genku, Honen (1133-1212 CE) has been considered to be the founder of 'Jodo-shu' or 'Pure Land' school of Japanese Buddhism. Many Buddhist sutras support the hypothesis of salvation through reaching the realm of Buddha Amitabha. This place of salvation acquired the terminology of 'pure land' in Chinese translation, because it is believed to 'purify' the surroundings. This tradition of Buddhism is differentiated through attaching explicit importance to faith as a precondition for receiving the grace of Buddha Amitabha, which is not the case in most other forms of Buddhism.

Honen's religious awakening to the 'Pure Land' form of Buddhism took place at the age of 43 years, when he was studying a commentary by the T'ang Chinese priest Shan-tao, called 'Kuan wuliang-shou ching-shu'. The year was 1175, and Jodo-shu sect counts this as their founding year. The commentary delineates 13 varying visualisation meditations and notes nine grades of human ability in performing these practices. Shan-tao adopted the unusual stance of affirming that the sutra's message lied not in the difficult meditations, but in Buddha's promise of simplest Buddha-name recitation practice called 'Nembutsu' - meant for people belonging to the lowest of the nine grades.  

The Pure Land Buddhist beliefs and practices penetrated Japanese Buddhism starting from the 8th century onwards. Honen ignited a movement by asserting that sincere 'Nembutsu' practice was sufficient for the salvation to Buddha's realm, without the requirement for difficult meditations or comprehension of the Buddhist philosophy. It is grounded on the pre-eminent position of faith in the power of the Buddha to effect spiritual realisation within the individual - whether aimed at rebirth in Buddha's realm after death, or in hopes of attaining a supernatural vision of the Buddha while alive. Honen's system drew accusations that it eliminated the need for religious awakening or 'Bodhicitta' (aspiration for enlightenment), which has long been a mainstay in all forms of Mahayana Buddhism.

The Zen Master Dogen Kigen (1200-1253 CE) has remained as one of the most respected figures in the history of Japanese culture. He is considered by many as the greatest Japanese philosopher of all time as well as the spiritual founder of the Soto School. He was famous because of his prodigious and subtle intellect as well as a strikingly poetic style of rendition.

Although born in an aristocratic family of Kyoto following the chaotic era of 'Heian', Dogen lost his parents during childhood. He had an extensive and elaborate education in Chinese classics. He left for China at the age of 23 for pursuing his religious and philosophical quest after he completed his studies and practices in various Japanese monasteries. He stayed in China for one year and met his teacher - the Cao-dong (Soto) Master Ru-jing, which led to an experience of profound enlightenment very soon.

Dogen founded a series of Zen temples in Japan's rural areas after his return to the country, where he successfully taught sitting meditation as a means of realising enlightenment. He was also a prolific writer of philosophical essays and poetry inspired by nature. He provided practical instructions regarding meditation and the general conduct of life. Dogen was also the first Zen philosopher to write in the Japanese language instead of the customary Chinese version. He succeeded in setting up genuine religious communities devoted to authentic practices in an era marked by pervasive corruption in Japanese Buddhist institutions. But his health began to deteriorate soon, and he died at the age of 53 years, which was quite early for a Zen master of his status.

'Shobogenzo' (The Treasure of the Eye of the True Dharma) was the major work by Dogen. It consists of 92 chapters comprising varying lengths, which reflected his concerns and existential comprehension of the human condition. But although his praxis-oriented writings were quite comprehensible, several chapters are considered to be among the most difficult texts in the philosophical tenets. Coinciding with his esoteric and philosophical concerns, Dogen's primary focus was the idea of 'Buddha-nature' (Bussho). He argued that all beings were sentient, and were therefore 'Buddha-nature' (instead of possessing, manifesting or symbolising it). He associated 'Buddha-nature' not only with the dynamic 'emptiness' of Mahayana Buddhism, but also with the impermanence of the whole universe. 

The next prominent Japanese medieval philosopher Nichiren (1222-82) was the founder of one of the major schools of Japanese Buddhism called 'Nichiren-shu'.  His early interests were the exoteric and esoteric doctrines of the Tendai and Shingon schools, which espoused original enlightenment (bongkaku) and the core Tendai teaching of 'Lotus Sutra'. He ultimately devoted himself to the latter. Nichiren's writings assumed the 'Mappo' doctrine, in which the world had entered a degenerative stage of social anarchy where the efficacy of traditional methods for achieving salvation and enlightenment was doubtful. He radically interpreted the warnings of 'Lotus Sutra' based on its teachings and asserted that anyone who did not hold the lotus as the supreme truth was resorting to blasphemy.

The Buddha had targeted sentient beings of the weakest spiritual capacity, because that was appropriate for the 'Mappo' era of chaos. Nichiren considered Japan as the ideal nation in regard to land, customs and people while considering the place where the universal teachings of Buddha could prosper best. He believed in a proper sequence in the dissemination of religious truth. He held the view that his era was that of propagating 'Lotus Sutra' itself, and the subsequent period was to focus on praxis. The final stage was meant to take the truth to the four corners of the earth. He published his best known work 'Establishing the Right Teaching and Securing the Peace of the State' (Rissho ankokuron) in 1260. It blamed Honen's 'Pure Land' movement for past disasters and called for its suppression in the hope of getting approval for establishing a national church. Apparently, the government of the day did not take him seriously. Rather, his enmity towards other denominations of Buddhism led to his repeated persecutions and exile during his lifetime.

A review of the medieval Japanese philosophers as outlined in the above paragraphs, therefore, clearly shows that Buddhism had a profound impact on the philosophical growth and upbringing of the Japanese people, its society and culture, during and beyond the medieval era.

Dr. Helal Uddin Ahmed is a former editor of Bangladesh Quarterly.

Mehrabul Ferdausi is a lecturer of Japanese language and culture at Stamford University, Dhaka.


Share if you like