Academic journal article Japanese Journal of Religious Studies

The Lotus Sutra as the Core of Japanese Buddhism: Shifts in Representations of Its Fundamental Principle

Academic journal article Japanese Journal of Religious Studies

The Lotus Sutra as the Core of Japanese Buddhism: Shifts in Representations of Its Fundamental Principle

Article excerpt

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I was born into a temple family of the Nichiren sect in Nagasaki, and I have devoted my academic life to the study of the Nichiren Buddhist faith. In my twenties, having read through the entirety of Nichiren's writings, I resolved-perhaps one could say I made a vow-to read all of the works that Nichiren himself had read. Unfortunately, although I am now in my eighties, I have still not fulfilled that aspiration. Nichiren was extraordinarily well read. The dramatic persecutions he encountered and his bold speech and actions may be the images that first come to mind when he is mentioned, but when we look carefully into his writings, we can understand that his conduct stemmed from thorough reflection grounded in his vast reading.

Of course there are various opinions about Nichiren's writings. But when we view them in the context of the history of Japanese Buddhist thought, we can see, for example, how he both analyzes the doctrines of individual sects and also makes evaluations based on a comprehensive perspective, at times displaying superlative insight. Through Nichiren's writings, one can gain an overview of the general countours of Japanese Buddhist thought.

Nichiren ...(1222-1282) understood the prior history of Buddhist thought in India, China, and Japan-especially the history of Buddhist thought based on the Lotus Sutra-from the perspective of the Tendai Lotus teachings, while at the same time systematizing it from the unifying standpoint of his own, distinctive interpretation of the origin teaching (honmon ...), the latter fourteen chapters of the Lotus Sutra. Nichiren was among the last of the teachers of the new Bud- dhism of Japan's Kamakura period (1185-1333), and, in pinning down the essen- tials of the eight or ten schools of Japanese Buddhism that had spread up until that point-the six Nara schools; Tendai and Shingon, established during the Heian period (794-1185); and also Zen and Pure Land-he set forth a classification of teachings and an explanation of practice based on the origin teaching of the Lotus Sutra. If we study his writings in detail, we can grasp almost all the essential points of Japanese Buddhist thought up until his time.

The Kamakura new Buddhist movements were born out of the Tendai Lotus School established by Saicho ... (766/767-822), which has its headquarters on Mt. Hiei. Along with Saicho, the other preeminent figure of Heian Buddhism was Kukai ... (774-835), who promoted Shingon Esoteric teachings. Saicho incorporated the Esoteric teachings in which Kukai specialized into the Tendai Lotus School. In so doing, he took as his textual basis the Darijing shu ... (later revised as the Darijing yishi ...), a commentary on the Esoteric scripture Mahavairocana-sutra by the Chinese monk Yixing ... (684-727) based on oral teachings given by the Tripiaka Master Shanwuwei ... or Subhakarasiha (637-735). In China, Esoteric Buddhism had already been fused with Lotus thought since Subhakarasiha's time. Given this fact, along with Saicho's incorporation into Tendai of the Esoteric teachings, we could say that the essentials of Japanese Buddhist thought since the Heian period come almost entirely under the umbrella of Lotus Sutra thought.

Here I would like to adopt precisely that perspective, namely, that Japanese Buddhism developed with the Lotus Sutra as its core. The content of the Lotus is quite diverse, but what is its fundamental principle? In the following pages, I explore how that fundamental principle has been understood as well as shifts in how it has been represented within Japanese Buddhist thought.

The Fundamental Principle Found in the Lotus Sutra by Zhiyi

The Buddhism in Japan that is based on the Lotus Sutra takes Saicho as its his- torical founder, but the patriarch of the Tendai Lotus School that Saicho estab- lished was of course Zhiyi ... (538-597). Zhiyi's teachings on the Lotus Sutra took shape as lectures that were edited into the so-called "three great works of the Tendai Lotus School": the Fahua xuanyi . …

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