Medieval Japan (12th-16th century) is often characterized as a period of instability and rapid social, political, and religious transformation. With the rise of the samurai warrior class, and the founding of the Kamakura Period (1195-1333) by Minamoto no Yoritomo 源頼朝 (1147-1199), militarism and violence became a major concern in many people’s lives. As a result, new approaches to Buddhist thought and practice emerged. Buddhist thinkers at this time began to seek new answers to questions like:How do we continue to follow the path when the world itself seems to be in flames? How can those incapable of practice, those stricken by poverty or violence, still benefit from the compassion of Buddha? At this time, Tendai Buddhism was at the vanguard of Japanese Buddhist thought, producing new approaches to meditation, devotion, scholarship, and beyond. Even as new traditions developed, it was Tendai Buddhism that medieval Japanese Buddhist innovators drew upon. Thus, in this time period Mt. Hiei became known as the “Mother Mountain” of Japanese Buddhism.
Amida Hall on Mt. Hiei
Medieval Tendai Thought: Kuden 口傳 and Hongaku 本覺
Early on, as Tendai Buddhism developed into a major tradition in Japan, a variety of lineages developed innovative approaches to Buddhist thought and practice. These teachings were passed down from teacher to disciple in the form of secret oral transmissions, or kuden 口傳. From the late-Heian to early-medieval periods, one of the central philosophical concepts that developed within this evolving body of Tendai Buddhist literature was known as hongaku 本覺, or “original enlightenment.” It could be said that hongaku thought was fundamental to medieval Tendai Buddhism. Because Tendai Buddhism was so influential in medieval Japan, therefore, hongaku thought was also fundamental to Japanese culture, philosophy, and religion more broadly. According to hongaku thought, all beings are ultimately already awakened. Awakening is already fully present in every moment. However, due to our ignorance, we cannot activate that potential, we do not see the reality of what is within us and all around us. Buddhist practice, then, is meant to awaken beings to that which is already present. This means that the “path” to awakening and the “goal” of awakening are not apart from one another. Practice and awakening may in some sense be taken to be the very same thing.
Some of the earliest Tendai hongaku literature was often posthumously attributed to Genshin, and is focused on Pure Land philosophy. Is the Pure Land far away? Is the Buddha Amitābha separate from ordinary beings? Is the bliss of nirvana beyond the suffering of this world? Or, is the “Pure Land” actually an aspect of this very world? Is the “Buddha” actually part of the minds of ordinary beings? Is “nirvana” to be found within this world of impermanence and suffering? Ultimately, they are One.
Tendai hongaku thought is rooted in Chinese Tiantai thought, which holds that enlightened Buddha reality and the ignorant reality of ordinary beings, and everything in between, is already fully interconnected. There are also important connections to Esoteric Buddhism’s non-dualistic approach to Mahayana Buddhist practice which holds not only that awakening may be achieved in this very body, but also that the human body is a potent tool to be utilized on the path to awakening. Precedent for hongaku ideas may also be found in the Avataṃsaka-sūtra, Vimalakīrti-sūtra, and others, as well as various schools of Buddhist philosophy such as Tathāgatagarbha, Madhyamaka, and Yogācāra.
For more information on medieval Tendai hongaku concepts, see:
- Habito, Ruben L. F., “The Logic of Nonduality and Absolute Affirmation: Deconstructing Tendai Hongaku Writings.” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies1-2 (1995): 83-101.
- Shirato Waka. “Inherent Enlightenment (hongaku shiso) and Saichō’s Acceptance of the Bodhisattva Precepts.” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies2-3 (1987): 113-127.
- Sueki Fumihiko 末木文美士. “Two Seemingly Contradictory Aspects of the Teaching of Innate Enlightenment (hongaku) in Medieval Japan.” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies1-2 (1995): 3-16.
- Stone, Jacqueline. “Medieval Tendai Hongaku Thought and the New Kamakura Buddhism: A Reconsideration.” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies1-2 (1995): 17-48.
- Stone, Jacqueline. Original Enlightenment and the Transformation of Medieval Japanese Buddhism (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1999).
- Tamura, Yoshiro. “Japanese Culture and the Tendai Concept of Original Enlightenment.” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies2-3 (1987): 203-210.
Medieval Tendai and the Precepts: The Candle of the Latter Dharma
Traditional Buddhist views of history suggested that people’s capacities to practice Buddhism correctly and effectively would decline over time. Buddhists in early-medieval Japan believed that they were living in the “final age” where it was imperative to rely upon the power of the Buddha. Furthermore, because of their perceived precarious position, medieval Japanese Buddhists developed new understandings of Buddhist practice and traditional Buddhist literature.
The Candle of the Latter Dharma is a short text posthumously attributed to Saichō that essentially makes the case that because traditional practices are ineffective, traditional understandings of the precepts are therefore outmoded. This text presents a new understanding of what it means to be a monk. Rather than being a person whose way of life, dress, and actions set them apart from ordinary people, instead, in this decadent time, a true monk must rather be one who lives as an ordinary person while continuing to teach the Dharma and lead beings to awakening. In other words, in an era of decline it may be impossible for monks to follow all the precepts. But, if one embraces the Buddhist teachings and the role of a nominal monk, and continues to live as an ordinary person, that is enough to achieve awakening. This text, though not really written by Saichō, was influential in the medieval period, and thus likely exemplifies the way that some Tendai monks saw their evolving role in society.
“Kamakura New Buddhism”
The largest schools of Buddhism in Japan today are the Pure Land, Zen, and Nichiren schools. The founders of these traditions are commonly grouped together under the label “Kamakura New Buddhism.” This is because the early-Kamakura period (ca. 1200s) was indeed an era of rapid religious, social, and political transformation. New religious movements began to spring up, building upon and reacting to, the older traditions like Tendai Buddhism. In fact, all of the Kamakura New Buddhism founders began their careers as Tendai monks. Furthermore, most likely, many of them also imagined themselves to be proponents of reforms within Tendai, rather than as the founders of new religious movements.
Hōnen bō Genkū 法然房源空 (1133-1212)
Image of Honen: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Honen_Shonin_by_Ninkai.png
Hōnen is regarded as the first of the Kamakura New Buddhism founders. Hōnen entered the monastic path on Mt. Hiei, and studied widely in the philosophical and ritual traditions of East Asian Mahayana Buddhism. It is said that he read the whole of the East Asian canon three times. In response to the chaos of his time, rather than pursue an academic vocation on Mt. Hiei, Hōnen chose to focus he energies on the study of Pure Land Buddhist doctrine and practice. Hōnen ultimately came to the conclusion that the best Buddhist practice must necessarily be the easiest: the chanting of the nenbutsu, or the name of Amitābha Buddha: “Namo Amida Butsu 南無阿彌陀佛.” According to Hōnen, if Buddha reality is ultimately characterized by infinite compassion, then the most important and effective practice cannot be the complicated and expensive Esoteric Buddhist practices, but rather, the simple practice that anyone can do, regardless of education or wealth. Hōnen quickly gained popularity among elite monks and aristocrats as well as peasants and commoners alike. Due to his superlative education, Hōnen was a skilled debater, but because of his promotion of universal salvation of all beings through the compassionate activity of Amitābha Buddha, he gained wide appeal. Unfortunately, conservative and elitist factions on Mt. Hiei did not take kindly to Hōnen’s radical egalitarianism and ultimately convinced the emperor to exile Hōnen and his main disciples. The Pure Land movement continued to prosper, nevertheless. Like Hōnen, many of his top disciples were Tendai monks who employed the breadth and depth of their practice to inspire diverse new Pure Land traditions. Hōnen continued to keep the precepts throughout his life, an important aspect of Tendai practice, and cultivated samādhi practice focusing on the Pure Land of Amitābha, ultimately leading to mystical visions. It is said that though Hōnen inspired new religious movements that ultimately moved beyond Tendai, Hōnen likely considered himself a Tendai monk until the day he died and the Pure Land Schools maintain a close relationship with Tendai Buddhism even today.
For more information on Honen, see the following resources:
- Jōdo-shū Research Institute
- “The History of Pure Land Buddhism”
- Senchaku hongan nenbutsu shū選擇本願念佛集 (BDK English Translation)
Myōan Eisai 明庵榮西 (1144-1215)
Image of Eisai***second image, http://www.tendai.or.jp/rekishi/kaiso.php
Eisai was born into a family of Shinto priests, and pursued training in Tendai Buddhism on Mt. Hiei. During his lifetime he was well known as a master of Tendai Esoteric Buddhism. Later on, he would become known as the founder and transmitter of the Japanese Rinzai Zen School 臨濟禪宗 (pronounced Linji Chan in Chinese). Though Saichō had received training in a Zen lineage in China, for the most part, Zen meditation was subsumed within the traditional Tendai shikan meditation training regime. Chan, the Chinese pronunciation of Zen, eventually emerged as a major distinct tradition in China, and so, it eventually became imperative for Japanese Buddhists to travel to China and study this new teaching. Zen was controversial, though. Seen by some as antinomian, iconoclastic, and too radical, early attempts to establish a distinct Zen lineage in Japan failed. However, thanks to the efforts of Eisai, a Tendai monk and contemporary of Hōnen, Zen Buddhism was eventually established in Japan. Eisai’s journey to China yielded not only the transmission of Zen, but also Chinese tea culture and new Tendai texts. Eisai made an impassioned plea to the government to allow the establishment of Zen, arguing that it will help Japan be peaceful and prosperous. Like Hōnen, Eisai likely regarded himself as a Tendai monk until the day he died, seeing Zen as an important component of the broader Tendai tradition. Over the medieval period, Zen Buddhism would emerge as a distinct tradition that helped facilitate intercultural dialogue between China and Japan.
For more information on Eisai, see the following:
- Official Website of the Joint Council of Rinzai and Obaku Zen
- “What is Zen Buddhism and How do you Practice It?”
- “How to Practice Zen Koans”
- A Treatise on Letting Zen Flourish to Protect the State
Shinran 親鸞 (1173–1263)
Image of Shinran https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Shinran_(Nara_National_Museum).jpg
Like Hōnen and Eisai before him, Shinran began his career on Mt. Hiei as a Tendai monk. Unlike Hōnen and Eisai, Shinran eventually rejected the monastic lifestyle and exerted only marginal impact upon the Buddhism of his day. Nevertheless, the contemporary Jōdo Shinshū tradition that looks to Shinran as its founder is not only the largest school of Buddhism in Japan today, but also one of the most influential schools of Buddhism in the world. Thus, Shinran’s impact upon Buddhism is great indeed. As a young monk on Mt. Hiei, Shinran’s practice was focused on Pure Land contemplation. However, Shinran struggled with what he perceived to be his “foolish” nature. Shinran found himself confronting fundamental problems in the Buddhist tradition as he understood it. How come some people strive and strive, and yet, progress very little? How come some practitioners seem to excel in practice and attainment, and yet, continue to lead unethical lives? Shinran noted that for some, intense Buddhist practice seems to lead to egotism. In his crisis of faith in his own abilities, and his general skepticism about the abilities of others to truly act altruistically, Shinran sought counsel with the Bodhisattva of Compassion. While praying for 100 days, Shinran had a vision in which the Bodhisattva told him to seek out Hōnen. Under Hōnen’s tutelage, Shinran found the answer to his problem. Rather than striving and continuing the pretense of being a pure monk, he would rely solely upon the “other power” of the Buddha Amitābha. Shinran came to regard himself as “neither monk, nor layman.” In other words, Shinran felt that he could continue to function as a teacher of the Dharma as an ordinary member of the community, an ordinary person with a wife and family. Shinran regarded the egotistical pursue of awakening as self-defeating. In the decadent era in which he lived, Shinran believed that our only recourse is total reliance on the compassionate activity of Buddha reality in the form of Amitābha Buddha. Ultimately, for Shinran, the chanting of “Namo Amida Butsu,” was not a mechanism for attaining awakening, but rather, an act of gratitude in recognition of the Buddha’s embrace and guidance to awakening in the Pure Land.
For more information on Shinran, see:
- Jōdo Shinshū, USA (Buddhist Churches of America)
- “What is Jōdo Shinshū?”
- “The Path of Gratitude”
- Dobbins, James C. Jōdo Shinshū: Shin Buddhism in Medieval Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2002.
- Kyōgyōshinshō: On Teaching, Practice, Faith, and Enlightenment
Dōgen Kigen 道元希玄 (1200-1253)
Image of Dōgen https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dogen.jpg
Dōgen is known as the founder and transmitter of the Sōtō Zen School 曹洞禪宗 (pronounced Caodong Chan in Chinese) in Japan. He is also widely regarded as one of the greatest philosophers and thinkers in the world. Like Hōnen, Eisai, and Shinran, Dōgen began his career on Mt. Hiei, training in the breadth of Tendai Exoteric and Esoteric teachings and practices. The breadth of his education and training is apparent in his prolific output of philosophical treatises and teachings on meditation. Like Eisai, Dōgen traveled to China to learn about the cutting edge of Buddhism in his day. While studying in China he had an enlightenment experience and returned to Japan, eventually establish his own temple and tradition. Today, Sōtō Zen is one of the largest schools of Japanese Buddhism, after Jōdo Shinshū, and internationally it has significantly impact the practice of meditation. Dōgen argued that meditation did not work in a mechanistic way (if you meditate, you will become enlightened), rather, he saw meditation and awakening as non-dual (meditate because you are already Buddha). In other words, the practice of meditation and the attainment of awakening, the path and the goal, the journey and the destination, are ultimately one.
For more information on Dōgen, see the following resources:
- “Dōgen’s Instructions for Zazen”
- “The Lamp of Zazen”
- “What if our Delusions Aren’t a Barrier to Enlightenment?”
- Film: Zen, The Life of Zen Master Dōgen
- Shōbōgenzō: The True Dharma-Eye Treasury
Nichiren 日蓮 (1222-1282)
Image of Nichiren: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nichiren_Daishonin_Hakii_Portrait.jpg
Like the other Kamakura New Buddhism founders, Nichiren was educated in the Tendai tradition on Mt. Hiei, including the study of Pure Land, Esoteric Buddhism, and the Lotus Sutra. The degree to which Nichiren drew upon and critiqued each of these is but one of the qualities that makes his thought both intriguing and challenging. During a period of intense introspection, Nichiren concluded that because the Lotus Sutra represented the ultimate teaching of the Buddha, it was precisely the Lotus Sutra that beings could and should rely upon in the turbulent Kamakura era. While Hōnen and Shinran argued that the chanting of the name of Amitābha, “Namu Amida Butsu,” was the only effective practice, Nichiren selected the chanting of the title of the Lotus Sutra: “Nam-myō-hō-renge-kyō 南無妙法蓮華經,” as the fundamental practice that would guide beings along the path to awakening. Rather than devotion to the Buddha Amitābha, Nichiren that our world was the “Pure Land” of Śākyamuni Buddha, and so, our devotion should be directed toward him. Nichiren referred to his tradition as the Hokke-shū 法華宗, a term commonly used to refer to Chinese Tiantai and Japanese Tendai, but later generations in his lineage referred to his tradition as the Nichiren School 日蓮宗. It is possible that Nichiren saw himself as refining or reforming Tendai, and many of the architects of the early Nichiren movement were in fact Tendai monks.
For more information on Nichiren, see the following resources:
- “What is Nichiren Shu?”
- “Nichiren Shonin: A Teacher of Equality”
- Kaimokushō, or Liberation from Blindness
- Risshōankokuron and Kanjinhonzonshō
- Stone, Jacqueline. Original Enlightenment and the Transformation of Medieval Japanese Buddhism (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1999).
Mainstream Medieval Tendai Buddhist Pioneers
As mentioned previously, Pure Land, Zen, and Nichiren Schools are the largest schools in Japan today. Because their founders were active in the early medieval period, modern and contemporary sectarian scholarship tends to deemphasize the importance of medieval Tendai Buddhist traditions. In fact, as modern interpreters influenced by European Protestant historiography recast “Kamakura New Buddhism” as a religious reformation, they also tended to portray medieval Tendai Buddhism as in decline. This could not be further from the truth. Medieval Tendai and the “Kamakura New Buddhism” schools should rather be taken together to represent the vitality and dynamism of Japanese Buddhism during the medieval period. One could even make the case that figures like Honen, Eisai, and Nichiren may have in fact understood themselves to be reformers working within the broader umbrella of Tendai. Throughout the medieval period, Tendai Buddhism continued to produce a number of important poets, philosophers, and teachers of the Dharma.
Jien 慈圓 (1155-1225)
During the Kamakura period (1195-1333), Jien was arguably one of the most powerful and influential monks and Buddhist cultural figures in Japan. Jien served in the position of abbot of Enryakuji Temple, the head temple of the Tendai School, four times. In 1219 the wrote the Gukanshō 愚管抄, a religious history of Japan. He was also a famed poet whose poems appear in a number of medieval poetry collections such as the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu 小倉百人一首 and the Shinkokinshū 新古今集. Jien pioneered an approach to poetry that emphasized the devotional aspect, seeing poetry as a form of offering to gods and buddhas. Jien strongly emphasized the importance of scholarship and adherence to the precepts, an understandable position in the radically changing world of the Kamakura period.
For more information on Jien, see:
- Morrell, Robert E. Early Kamakura Buddhism: A Minority Report. Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture, 1987.
- Hambrick, Charles H. “The Gukanshō: A Religious View of Japanese History.” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 1 (1978): 37-58
- Brown, Delmer, and Ishida Ichiro. The Future and the Past: A Translation and Study of the Gukanshō, An Interpretative History of Japan Written in 1219. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1979.
- Ogura Hyakunin Isshu 小倉百人一首
Shōshin 證眞 (fl. ca., 1153–1214)
Shōshin was a prolific and important scholar of Tendai Buddhism on Mt. Hiei in the Kamakura period, and close associate of Jien. Shōshin wrote commentaries on a number of important Tendai texts and treatises. A recently translated work written by Shōshin, Essay on the Similarities and Differences between the Two Schools of Tendai and Shingon, critiques the notion that Shingon Buddhism has a superior understanding of Esoteric Buddhism, emphasizing that Tendai Buddhism’s all encompassing approach to Buddhism fully integrated Esoteric Buddhism. Thus, Shōshin’s comprehensive approach to Buddhist scholarship reflects the Tendai Buddhist tradition of his day.
- McMullen, Matthew D. “The Development of Esoteric Buddhist Scholasticism in Early Medieval Japan.” PhD Dissertation, University of California-Berkeley, 2016. (See, pp. 215-314, for a translation of Shōshin’s Essay on the Similarities and Differences between the Two Schools of Tendai and Shingon)
Shinsei 眞盛 (1443-1495)
Shinsei is regarded as the founder of the Shinsei branch of the Tendai School. Shinsei emphasized the importance of keeping the precepts as well as Pure Land practices such as the fudan nenbutsu不斷念佛, or “constant practice nenbutsu.” Shinsei rebuilt Saikyōji 西教寺, a temple associated with Genshin, and was known for his lectures on the Ōjōyōshū 往生要集
For more information on Shinsei, see: