The emerging Japanese state, through the eighth century, was commercially underdeveloped even for its era. It was founded, moreover, upon an imported Chinese Imperial-Confucian vision of society, consisting largely of self-sufficient agricultural villages, coordinated and presided over by a small, ritual-bound, central governing elite,(1) Some scholars question, moreover, whether the Japanese economy was sufficiently developed even to support this simple agrarian imperial model.(2) Yet Buddhism came to Japanese shores at this time, propelled by vast, if not always very strong, economic currents that were flowing across maritime and continental Eurasia in the early centuries of the Christian era, from the Mediterranean world to India and China, and finally even brushing against Japan - for which the surviving evidence of Persian and other Western motifs on Japanese art objects from this period offers silent testimony.(3)
These larger commercial waves may have only just barely reached Japan at this time, but they exerted a decisive impact nonetheless. Their relative neglect in conventional histories of the period is attributable in part to their undeniably small scale, but also to the limited range of acceptable elite interests in traditional East Asian civilization. The world of merchants and tradesmen passed largely beneath the recorded notice of bureaucrats and literati, whose complacent view of the lives of commoners was confined largely to docile (or, sometimes, rebellious) peasant villagers. While this unitary Confucian high culture is itself a thing of no little beauty, there are too many unaccounted for strangers passing furtively between the lines of the official histories. Here, I wish to explore the degree to which the Buddhist transmission to Japan, and East Asia more generally, occurred beyond official notice or record, and was entangled with private and sometimes even illegal international commercial activity and population movements.
THE COMMERCIAL VECTORS OF EARLY BUDDHISM
Buddhism traveled to East Asia along established trade routes, and swelled the pre-existing volume of trade by itself creating new religious incentives for travel, and a demand for imported religious articles. Buddhism legitimated private commercial wealth as a vehicle for serving sacred needs through generous donations, and Buddhism lubricated foreign exchange by overcoming narrow local prejudice with a radically more cosmopolitan, international, perspective. The developing cult of Avalokitesvara (Ch., Guanyin; J., Kannon) as the patron bodhisattva of mariners also gave the faithful courage to confront the inevitable perils of distant voyages.(4) Buddhism was thus in many ways conducive to the growth of trade - and trade to the spread of Buddhism.
In China Buddhism stimulated the practice of making pilgrimages - especially to Manjusri's reputed abode in the Wutai mountains - which in turn promoted the circulation of goods and ideas.(5) In 636, for example, the Sillan (Korean) monk Chajang had an (alleged) encounter with Manjusri on Mt. Wutai, who bestowed upon Chajang a relic, valuable robe, and alms-bowl and recommended an equivalent pilgrimage site in Korea where "ten-thousand Manjusris constantly dwell? The south Indian brahmin Bodhisena was drawn to make the voyage to Tang China by the lure of Mt. Wutai, but being informed upon arrival that Manjusri had been reborn in Japan, departed for Japan in 736.(7) Discounting the miraculous elements of these tales, it is clear that Buddhist faith occasionally acted as a spur to wide-ranging travel.
Religious practice also demanded certain ritual commodities that could only be obtained from (or through) India.(8) Along the ancient central-Asian Silk Roads, "among the Indian export items Buddhist paraphernalia . . . probably dominated in terms of value."(9) In the South Seas the spread of Buddhism created a demand for "holy things" in the fifth and sixth centuries - incense, icons, and other religious materials - which exceeded the earlier secular traffic in elite luxury goods.(10) In China Buddhism stimulated private production and distribution of copies of the scriptures and sacred images, and encouraged the early development of print technology - a popular commercial market for printed religious texts and calendars having developed during the Tang dynasty unnoticed by officialdom, except in passing criticism.(11)
Although the following sequence of transactions concern official embassies -almost the only kind of inter national exchange that traditional East Asian historians deigned to record - rather than private trade, it nonetheless demonstrates how Buddhism could facilitate commodity exchanges linking Southeast Asia, through China, to Japan. In 503 King Kaundinya Jayavarman of Funan (in what is now Cambodia and southern Vietnam) offered a coral Buddha in tribute to the Southern-dynasty Liang emperor of China).(12) In 539 Liang sent a monk to Funan to receive a hair of the Buddha; in 540 Funan requested Buddhist images and texts from Liang; in 541 Paekche (Korea) requested Buddhist texts from Liang.(13) In 542, then, Paekche sent offerings of Funan goods, and two slaves, to Japan.(14) The gift of Funan goods was followed three years later by a Paekche present of southern Chinese goods to the Japanese outpost in Korea, coinciding with a royal Paekche Buddhist invocation calling for the spiritual release of all things living under heaven.(15)
Buddhism prospered in China "because it offered the Chinese unlimited means of turning material wealth into spiritual felicity": even the rich - especially the rich - could earn salvation through generous sharing of their wealth with the Sangha.(16) The popularity in fourth and fifth century China of the Vimalakirti figure, a comfortably wealthy layman who was nonetheless spiritually unassailable, undoubtedly reflects the aspirations of many in his audience.(17)
The Sangha was therefore liberally endowed by pious laymen, many of whom were no doubt landowners or officials, but at least some Of whom were merchants. "South Sea traders all served with honor," for example, a certain central Indian monk (Gunavrddhi, d. 502) who arrived in the Southern-dynasty Chinese capital (modern Nanjing) circa 479, "and made offerings as they came and went" so that he became selflessly rich in the service of the Buddha.(18)
The financial resources of the Buddhist Sangha became so great that, in the fifth century, Wang Sengda (423-58) could use his official position to extort "several million" in cash from one monk.(19) In China the Sangha turned some of its vast resources to novel commercial purposes, lending out grain for a profit and experimenting with pawnbroking already in the fifth and sixth centuries.(20) D. D. Kosambi speculates that in India monasteries provisioned caravans and lent essential capital to merchants in the early centuries of the Buddhist era, although other scholars express skepticism that Indian Buddhists would have participated so directly in commercial activity.(21) It remains plausible, however, that the early Sangha did fill something of the role performed by the modern secular commercial infrastructure, facilitating financial services and long-distance communication.(22)
Contact between peoples belonging to different cultures can generate ethnic friction, and even open hostility.(23) Buddhism's universalistic ethos helped to smooth over such parochial suspicions.(24) In East Asia Buddhist monks themselves initially presented a truly outlandish spectacle, with their uncovered right shoulders, saffron robes, shorn heads, and bare feet.(25) Individual Chinese, like the hermit Gu Huan (420-83) and Emperor Wu of the Northern Zhou (r. 561-78), did object to these and other alien practices, but the Buddhist reply was that "in the extremity of the Dao there is no . . . near or far," and that all such differences are simultaneously both relative and irrelevant: at one level the Chinese empire itself had incorporated a number of what had once been foreign states and cultures, while at another level China and India were similarly just sub-regions in the vast realm of the great Buddhist Jambu Cakravartin king.(26) As the Chart (Zen) patriarch Huineng (638-713) is alleged to have quipped: "For people there are north and south. For the Buddha-nature, how could there be?"(27)
In Japan, the quarrel over whether or not to accept Buddhism, as it is presented in the surviving written sources at least, was couched in terms of the same opposition between native parochial interests and internationalism, with the latter eventually winning, less for noble philosophical reasons than simple pragmatism: "All the states of the Western foreigners worship it - how could Japan alone turn its back?"(28) There is, of course, good reason for handling all such early Japanese accounts with caution. They are the purposeful literary creations of later generations, not pristine archival records. Still, the famous tale of Buddhist internationalism triumphing over nativist exclusion in Japan may reflect some faint echoes of the true story.(29)
The Buddhist spirit minimized regional differences. Prince Nagaya of Japan (684-729) reportedly ordered a thousand monks' robes to be embroidered with the following passage: "The mountains and streams of different lands share the wind and the moon of the same heaven. It is up to all the children of Buddha to bind their destinies together."(30) When Saicho (767-822) re-embarked for Japan in 805, following his brief initiation into Tiantai (Tendai) Buddhism in Tang China, the Chinese governor of Taizhou observed that, while "in appearance the priest Saicho is from a foreign land, his nature truly springs from the same origin."(31) Much as Christianity in Europe at about this same time fostered a sense of shared Latin civilization amid the cloisters of what were sometimes truly multi-ethnic monasteries, Buddhism in East Asia carried an international flavor.(32) When the Chinese monk Ganjin (687-763) set sail on his sixth and final attempt to introduce the proper Vinaya to Japan in 753, in addition to his Chinese party he brought with him in his …