Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Age of Tranquility and Peace: Heian Japan #8: Secret Teachings and Art as Enlightenment: Shingon and Tendai Buddhism

Sorry for the delay. My internet went down last night (been a continuing problem in recent months).

I present the eighth in my series on Heian-era Japan. If you have no clue what I'm talking about, just click here for an overview of the Heian era.


This is the second of a three-part series on Buddhism during the Heian period. You may want to start with the first post here if you don't know anything at all about Buddhism. Today, I'm going to tackle the two major sects of the Heian era, Tendai and Shingon, and next week I'll finish up this initial exploration of Buddhism during the Heian era by discussing the beginnings of Amidist Buddhism, which wasn't necessarily a fully realized sect at the time but still had important implications for the changing nature of Buddhism in Japan. Although these three were not the only forms of Buddhism around during the period, they were forms with the most significant contemporary influence.

As discussed last week, Buddhism is tremendously diverse in the local observation of the religion. The Buddha taught an arguably difficult, but fundamentally simple path. As Buddhism spread from India to China and then from China to Japan over the centuries, that simplicity was often left in the past.

Both Heian-era Tendai and Shingon contained strong elements of Esoteric Buddhism. It'd take a whole other article to probe the intricacies of Esoteric Buddhism, but briefly speaking, Esoteric Buddhism involves secret teachings passed from masters to students and reliance on formalized ritual as opposed to more direct meditation and thought.

Heian Tendai descended from of an earlier form of Chinese Buddhism, Tiantai. Incidentally, though forms of Shingon and Tendai still exist in Japan, this article will be confined only to the state of the sects during the Heian era.

The Tendai sect was started by a monk, Saichō, after his return from China on a Buddhist-study mission in 805. He had previously established a temple on Mount Hiei, a mountain to the northeast of Heian-kyo in 788. Right away, one can see the advantage granted by proximity to the capital in terms of influence. With the move of the capital at the start of the Heian era and the accompanying distance to established Buddhist temples, the influence of these other Buddhist institutions suffered.

Indeed, it quickly became associated with the patronage of the imperial court. They also earned patronage from the Fujiwara clan. Although Tendai did not have an exclusive lock on aristocratic or Fujiwara support, their heavy influence made them almost the de facto form of state Buddhism.

The sect gained wealth and power that many felt corrupted them, leading to later attempts at reform both internally and via breakaway sects. Besides spiritual and political power, they even had military power in the form of the sōhei, warrior monks that would, particularly in later centuries, be considered a serious enough military threat that they attracted the negative attention of Japanese warlords.

Heian Tendai directed worship toward various individual Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Indeed, many times when someone is referring in English to various Japanese Buddhist "deities", they often are referring to a Buddha/Bodhisattva rather than something that is a god controlling an actual sphere of existence. That being said, the rather open and syncretic nature of Tendai allowed the sect to accommodate Shinto kami by identifying these native spirits and deities with Buddhas or Bodhisattvas.

On a more practical level, the Tendai proponents formulated doctrines that taught that detachment from the world did not mean avoiding things prized by the Heian aristocracy such as poetry and art. They were just considered part of the world and meditation upon artistic works could aid in enlightenment.

Heian Tendai placed a lot of emphasis on mantras (chants and phrases) and mudras (symbolic gestures) as a way of placing an adherent closer to enlightenment. Some of these elements were particularly associated with the more esoteric aspects of the sect, and the idea of a Tendai initiate having to work his way up toward enlightenment and ritual tools is well-attested in historical literature. I should note, however, that Tendai wasn't a completely esoteric sect. That is to say, they did not limit transmission only to "secret" paths. This aided in accessibility to lay people, such as influential aristocrats, but it wasn't as open as Amidist Pure Land Buddhism, which I'll discuss next week.

The sect, overall, was tolerant of different sects and even internal disputes. Obviously, if a religion can find a way to absorb entire native pantheons into its metaphysics, a couple of minor doctrinal disputes isn't necessary going to lead to schism. That being said, it's not that Tendai was without conflict in the Heian era (and certainly not later), but this conflict tended to focus more on questions of fundamental sect organization or challenges that appeared to potential put the entire sect's position at risk. So, basically, more political challenges rather than theological challenges.

Shingon Buddhism was as syncretic as Tendai and also managed to neatly absorb a lot of Shinto kami. Shingon descended from Esoteric Buddhist sects that arose centuries earlier in India and then firmly established themselves in China. Interestingly, a monk, Kūkai, founded Shingon in 806 following an 804 trip to China to study Buddhism. So, we have the two major sects of Heian Buddhism being founded within a year of each other.

Though Shingon was transmitted from China, just as with Tendai, it had a much more Indian character than the other sect. It placed emphasis on such elements as mandalas (ritual paintings) that contained ritual writing that often referenced assimilated forms of Hindu deities. The mudras used in Shingon had a much clearer relationship to certain elements from various Hindu sects. A popular Shingon ritual, Goma, a spiritual cleansing ritual involving feeding a fire, chanting, and drumming was influenced by Hindu tradition.

Shingon placed a slightly stronger emphasis on secret teaching from teacher to student, particularly for its most important doctrines. Although Tendai was not without secrecy, Shingon was often so secretive that it wasn't until the 20th century that many pieces of Shingon material began to circulate.

Tendai may have had no issues with art and literature, but Shingon took broad acceptance to a much higher level. They put a particular emphasis on art music and literature. The Shingon argued that, in some cases, the true nature of their teachings was so esoteric that it could only truly conveyed through pure artistic expression. The Shingon were so associated with the arts that many credited Kūkai with developing the Japanese syllabic kana systems that freed from the Japanese from pure Chinese characters (even if the aristocracy, particularly the males, still held Chinese writing in high regard). Unfortunately for the Shingon and their founder, the present historic linguistic evidence point away from that.

This love of art was paired with a heavy emphasis on impressive ceremonies and rituals. These often dramatic and impressive religious events did a lot to endear them to the spectacle-loving Heian aristocracy. Though they never did achieve the power and influence of the Tendai during the Heian period, they still earned patronage from powerful aristocrats including the Fujiwara clan.

Though one could spend weeks (if not years) talking about these two sects, the above overview should be enough to at least understand their general place in the context of the Heian era. As noted above, both of these sects were particularly popular with the aristocrats. Next week, I'll spend some time discussing a more populist, as it were, form of Buddhism, Amidism.


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