Imperial Power and Buddhism

Buddhism spread eastward to Japan around the middle of the sixth century from the kingdom of Baekje (located in the southwest part of the Korean peninsula). According to legend, the practice of Buddhism in Japan began with the powerful Soga clan, and it was Prince Shōtoku (574-622) with his close relations to the Soga clan who established the foundations of Buddhism in Japan. After the civil disturbances of the middle seventh century, Japan came to emulate the laws and statutes used in the Sui and Tang dynasties of China, becoming a country with a centralized authority. Buddhism was incorporated into this nascent government, officially making Japan a “Buddhist nation.”

The Japanese monk Kūkai (774-835) traveled to Tang China in 804 to seek Buddhist teachings and founded the Shingon (“True Word”) sect of esoteric (Mikkyō) Buddhism in Japan. This form of Buddhism employs rites of blessing and prayer to bring out the power of spoken mantras. For the purpose of protecting the country or bringing about a better life, it was especially widespread among members of the imperial family and the aristocracy. In addition, belief in Amida (Amitabha) Buddha rose in the Heian period (794-1192) as well, its ideas about the Pure Land and being reborn in the paradise there attracting a wide audience.

From the Asuka period (592-710) to the Heian era, changes in policies towards Buddhism and in society led from clan-based to national Buddhism and aristocratic Buddhism. The result is the rich and diverse forms of Buddhism that we see today in Japan.

Buddhism and
the Law

Starting in the year 600, Japan began sending emissaries to China, which was ruled by the Sui dynasty, in a policy that did not end until the ninth century during the Tang dynasty. These emissaries brought the laws, institutions, and culture of the Sui and Tang dynasties back to Japan. On the one hand, they helped form the legal and political tradition for government (ritsuryō) in Japan and, on the other, brought material culture and ideas as well, leading to the absorption of Chinese culture. At the time, Buddhism was an important link in national policy; the ruling class sponsored the construction of many temples as part of faith in Buddhist protection of the state. The transcription and reciting of Buddhist scriptures also became widespread.

Esoteric and Pure Land Buddhism

Japanese monks who had gone to Tang dynasty China in the ninth century to seek Buddhism not only spread the teachings, they also brought back to Japan sculptures and images related to esoteric Buddhism.The style and content of esoteric Buddhist paintings and sculptures convey an awesome and mysterious quality to the uninitiated, being something quite different from the usual. By the latter half of the tenth century, the religious beliefs based on the Lotus Sutra and the rebirth in the western Pure Land were deeply rooted in the private life among the aristocracy in the Heian period. Many nobles and elite gentries also vowed to build halls for the Amida Buddha, sponsor to commission the Amida sculptures, and paintings depicting the Buddha’s arrival to receive the departed illustrated the unique expressions of Pure Land (Jōdo) Buddhist art.