The twenty-first and twenty-second lectures by Prof David Eckel on Buddhism look at the background to the introduction of Buddhism to Japan, and then at some of the great teachers and the schools they founded.
Buddhism entered Japan in the sixth century of the common era. In the early years, during the reign of Prince Shotoku (574–622) and during the Nara Period (710–784), Buddhism was invoked to promote the welfare of the nation.
The indigenous Japanese tradition known as Shinto, or “the Way of the Gods,” was codified to respond to Buddhism, or “the Way of the Buddha.” When the imperial capital was moved to Kyoto in the ninth century, two new Buddhist schools emerged that changed the face of Japanese Buddhism.
The Shingon School, founded by Kukai (774–835), brought the colorful symbols and rituals of Tantra to Japan.
The Tendai School, founded by Saicho (767–822), introduced the synthesis of the T’ien-t’ai School and served as the spawning ground for several important movements that shaped later Japanese
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During the Kamakura Period (1192–1333), Japan suffered wide social and political unrest, in part because of the military threat of the Mongol invasion. Some Buddhist thinkers began to doubt whether it was possible to practice Buddhism successfully in such a “degenerate age” (mappo).
Honen (1133–1212) and Shinran (1173–1262) argued that the Japanese people should abandon any attempt to save themselves and should rely on the compassion of Amida (Amitabha) Buddha by chanting Amida’s name with faith.
Nichiren (1222–1282), one of the most distinctive prophetic figures in Buddhist history, denounced the degenerate practices of his time and said that Japan could be saved only if it expressed devotion to the Buddha in the form of the Lotus sutra.
Honen, Shinran, and Nichiren changed the face of Buddhism in Japan, and the traditions they set in motion have had enormous impact wherever Japanese Buddhism has traveled in the rest of the world.