Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Age of Tranquility and Peace, Heian Japan #9: Enlightenment for the masses, Amidism

I present the ninth 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 part three of a mini-series on Buddhism during the Heian era. For a general overview of Buddhism, see this entry. For a discussion of the two major sects popular during the period, see this entry.


Last week, I discussed Shingon and Tendai Buddhism, both major sects that received aristocratic and even some imperial patronage. The Heian era was no different than any age in history--most people in Heian society were on the bottom of the socio-economic period. The pomp and circumstance of some aspects of the Shingon and Tendai sects was directed more toward aristocrats than the poor, ignorant masses. While the old ways of Shinto influenced all levels of society, the Heian era also saw the spread of a type of Buddhism that would in later centuries gain mass appeal in all levels of society: Amidism,  Pure Land Buddhism.

Pure Land beliefs descended from the various Pure Land traditions that originated in the second century in India and were later transmitted to Japan via China. In a broad sense, the Pure Land traditions focus on the the bodhisattva Amida Buddha. Amida is the Buddha of Everlasting Light and Comprehensive Love. While the perception of the exact nature and historicity of Amida Buddha vary by sect, he's often suggested to be a previous incarnation of  Siddharta. In this original incarnation, Amida refused to accept enlightenment unless he could ensure eternal happiness in the Pure Land, a sort of heavenly celestial realm and, ultimately, enlightenment for all sentient beings. This concept is usually referred to as the "Original Vow". Depending on the interpretation of the sect or individual tradition, there are multiple Pure Lands.

The intercession of Amida provided a sort of general hope of enlightenment for everyone. Calling upon him by name repeatedly (the nembutsu) with sincere faith using "Namu Amida Butsu" would allow the a person to be reborn into the Pure Land after death. What's notable is though meditation and other Buddhist practices were part of the Pure Land tradition, and later more formalized Pure Land sects, in a sense the Pure Land tradition was, on some level, offering believers a bypass for the more complicated rituals, methods, and paths to enlightenment present in the more aristocratic traditions.

The Pure Land, it should be noted, is not the same thing as achieving enlightenment. True enlightenment would be the ultimate release for the soul, an escape from the cycle of rebirth. Once in the Pure Land (in the Heian era it was often thought of as the Western Paradise), the perfection of the realm was supposed to help facilitate true enlightenment. Many Amidists, however, effectively ended up more interested in being reborn into a heavenly realm than the ostensible Buddhist goal of release.

While there wasn't a true formal Pure Land sect in the Heian period, the ideas gained currency, particularly with the help of Genshin (942-1017), originally a Tendai scholar. In 985, he wrote  Ōjōyōshū (The Essentials of Salvation or the The Essentials of Birth in the Pure Land), a three-volume treatise on Amidist ideas. Interesting enough, Genshin emphasized visual meditation rather than the nembutsu but the latter would gain more general popularity, perhaps because of the relative ease of chanting.

Ōjōyōshū, besides spending a large amount of time describing the glories of the Pure Land, also put a lot of emphasis on Hell realms. The descriptions were even potent enough to influence conceptions of horror throughout the centuries and, arguably, still do. Genshin would pen many other works promoting Amidist ideas. Key to his conception underlying Pure Land ideas was that Heian society had fallen into corruption. He argued that not only had society become corrupt, but in fact the world had entered a fundamental age of decline.

With its promise of universal salvation and implicit critique of the structure of society (and thus implicit critique of the wealthy and powerful), the Amidist ideals gained considerable currency among the masses, though more than a few aristocrats fell under the sway of the Pure Land.

Although formal Pure Land sects woudn't really be crystallize until after the Heian era, Amidist ideas had firmly penetrated the consciousness of Heian society as can be seen in period diaries and period fiction such as references in The Tale of Genji.

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