Trade-Buddhism: Maritime Trade, Immigration, and the Buddhist Landfall in Early Japan

By Holcombe, Charles | The Journal of the American Oriental Society, April 1999 | Go to article overview
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Trade-Buddhism: Maritime Trade, Immigration, and the Buddhist Landfall in Early Japan

Holcombe, Charles, The Journal of the American Oriental Society

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.


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.

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