, Research Paper
The Main Religion of the Heian Period
Two Buddhist sects, Tendai and Shingon, dominated religion in the Heian period.
The word tendai means heavenly platform, and the word shingon means true word. Both
of them belonged to the Mahayana, Great Vehicle, branch of Buddhism originating in
India, and both of them were imported from China by the Japanese court at the beginning
of the ninth century. In their new surroundings, the sects came to terms with the change
from the centralized monarchy of early Heian times to aristocratic familism. Together the
spread throughout the countryside, absorbing Shinto in the process, and became a fruitful
source of artistic inspiration. In those years, two prominent scholar-monks, Saicho and
Kukai, each at the height of his powers, returned to Japan from a period of study in China.
Saicho, the founder of Tendai Buddhism, was born in 767 in the province of Omi
into Mitsuomi family, who were originally immigrants from China. His father was such a
devout Buddhist that their house was turned into a temple. At the age of 12, Saicho
entered the Kokubunji monastery of Omi and became a disciple of Gyohyo where he
received his first ordination at the age of 14 (in 785 C.E.) His life was relatively
uneventful up until this point, until he received his complete ordination at the age of 19.
Then, three months after his ordination he went to live in a small hermitage on Mountain
In 788, Saicho established the Hienzanji temple where the carved image of
Yakushi the healing Buddha is a central image. It was sometime during this period that he
began studying Ti’en-t’ai scriptures. As a devoutly religious idealist, Saicho was very
impressed by the undiscriminating and universal aspects of Ti’en T’ai and thought the
Teachings would be a welcome change to the somewhat sterile theology of the Six Nara
Sects of the day.
The mood of the Nara sects was scholastic rather than devotional, and the major
Nara practices were magical rites to improve memory or to expand the mind for study,
and on occasion to impress the aristocracy. These were far from the daily devotional
exercises found in the writings of Chih-i, the founder of Chinese Ti’en-t’ai.
In 802, in favoring monks like Saicho, Emperor Kammu doubtless intended to
strengthen the State?s control over ecclesiastical affairs. Apart from any immediate
checks to the political power of the Nara Monks, the move to a new capital marked a fresh
start in religion as well as politics. In Nara, the monks had taught the higher arts of
civilization and government to the dynasty and its ruling elite. In Kyoto, the imperial
house and bureaucracy were to be the sponsors rather than pupils of Buddhism.
Saicho himself enthusiastically argued that religion should not only submit to the
political authorities but also actively help them in their task of administration. A patriot at
heart, he held that monks should be ready to put their learning and special skills at the
disposal of the national community. Partly to enable them to do this, he insisted that his
followers study, as he himself had done, all the variously teaching of Buddhism. As a
result, Tendai came to be the most scholarly of the sects and Hieizan the seat of Japanese
These two principles, of partnership with the state, and stress on education, are
illustrated by some of the rules Saicho framed for his pupils.
Students shall be appointed to positions in keeping with their achievements after
twelve years training and study. Those who are capable in both action and speech
shall remain permanently on the mountain as leaders of the nation, and those capable in
action but not in speech shall be the functionaries of the nation.
Teachers and functionaries of the nation shall be appointed with official licenses as
Transmitters of Doctrine and National Lecturers. They shall also serve in such
undertakings which benefit the nation and people as the repair of ponds and canals, the
reclamation of uncultivated land, the reparation of landslides, the construction of
bridges and ships, the planting of trees, the sowing of hemp and grasses, and the
digging of wells and irrigation ditches. They shall also study the Sutras, and cultivate
their minds, but shall not engage in private agriculture or trading. Two lay intendants
will be appointed to this Tendai monastery to supervise it alternately, and to keep out
robbers, liquor and women. Thus the Buddhist Law will be upheld and the nation
However, Tendai was never simply a branch of the public service that happened to
be organized as a religion. The document quoted makes it clear that while its monks had a
duty to the world, they were not to be of the world. Neither Saicho nor the later leaders of
the sect doubted that a monk? fundamental business remained what it always had been:
self-guidance through study and moral discipline to a state of spiritual enlightenment
where he would cease to be reborn (nirvana). They also agreed with the older sects in
thinking that this individualistic vocation could best be fulfilled in a monastery. There, the
seeker after truth would find books and instructions as well as the bare necessities of food,
shelter and clothing.
Where Tendai did differ from the Nara sects was in its actual doctrine. It was the
first fully Mahayana (Great Vehicle) teaching in Japan and with Shingon, eclipse the older
Hinayana (Small Vehicle) teaching found at Nara. In other words, since about the end of
the tenth century, Japanese Buddhism has been very largely one or other school of
Mahayana Buddhism developed in India and China over the period 100-600 A.D.
Having many branches and much subtle philosophy, it is a vast and complicated field of
study. However, one can say that both Tendai and Shingon retained the Hinayana
concepts of rebirth (karma), monasticism, and self-effort. Man was fated to suffer in
existence for so long as he remained attached to an illusory, sinful world and to his own
selfish desires. The only way he could escape was to listen to the Buddhist message, enter
a monastery, and once there learn to rid himself of any sense of attachment. To this stock
of basic ideas the Mahayana Buddhists added some equally important dogmas of their
One of these was the bodhisattva ideal. Bodhisattvas were a class of exceptional
beings who had acquired sufficient merit to enter nirvana, but had given up this reward in
the interests of help9ing others along the path to enlightenment. The role of bodhisattvas
in Mahayana Buddhism is similar to that of saints in Christianity. It was believed that a
bodhisattva would increase the spiritual purity and welfare of those who prayed to him.
This idea is known technically as the doctrine of the transfer of merit, and was quite
contrary to the strict Hinayana insistence on the monk? achieving nirvana through his own
determination and without any outside help. As a religious ideal, the bodhisattva stood for
compassion and service to others rather than for self.
Tendai Buddhism incorporated this theory of bodhisattvas in its general
philosophical system. Illustrious figures like Saicho came to be regarded as bodhisattvas
after their deaths, and the sect? emphasis on ecclesiastical participation through personal
For Tendai Buddhism’s philosophy, there are ten major realms (or destinies):
. Buddhas (Buddha-like)
. Bodhisattvas (bodhisattva-like)
. Private Buddhas (pratyekabuddha-like)
. Direct disciples of the Buddha (sravaka-like)
. Heavenly beings (divine)
6. Fighting demons (combative)
7. Human beings (human)
8. Hungry ghosts (to be full of insatiable appetite)
9. Beasts (brutish)
10. Beings in hell (hellish)
Each of these ten realms shares in the characteristics of the others, which makes
Then there are ten such-likenesses:
. Such-like character
. Such-like nature
. Such-like substance
. Such-like power
. Such-like activity
. Such-like causes
. Such-like conditions
. Such-like effects
. Such-like retributions
. Such-like ultimate-identity-of-beginning-and-end
Each of the 100 realms shares in the 10 such-likenesses, making 1000 realms.
Each of these 1000 realms has three aspects: Living Beings, Space, and the aggregates
(skandhas) which constitute the dharmas, so there are 3000 total realms. Each of the 3000
realms is involved in every single moment, and necessarily so, because the reams are all
Of far greater importance to religion in the Heian period was the Mahayana teaching about
the eternal and universal Buddha. It taught that the historical Buddha (Gautama) was a
temporary and relatively unimportant manifestation of the cosmic (i.e. eternal and
universal) Buddha. The relationship between the historical and cosmic Buddhas is rather
similar to that in Christian thought between God the historical Jesus Christ and God the
everlasting and invisible father. It was this concentration on the Buddha as an abstract
force, above or behind all things and at the same time in all things, that allowed Mahayana
to develop many of its special characteristics.
Not only Gautama but also all other deities and sages could be considered
manifestations of the cosmic Buddha, even if until then they had been associated with
non-Buddhist systems such as Shinto or Confucianism. This comprehensive point of view
obviously helped Buddhism to fuse with Shinto, and it its recorded that Saicho sought the
blessing of the local Shinto god (or called the King of the Mountain) as well as of the
Buddha, when he first took up residence on Hieizan.
The idea behind the threefold truth lies in the desire to transcend the dichotomy of
tradition Mahayana twofold truth (absolute and relative), thus the distinction between
Emptiness, Conventional Existence (Temporary ness), and The Middle Path. The doctrine
of the cosmic Buddha meant that everybody and everything contained an element of him,
however small. In other words, all mankind and other forms of life would eventually
develop their inherent Buddha-nature. Nobody was too bad to be saved. This idea of the
essential unity of existence weakened the rigid Hinayana distinction between monks and
laity, and ran classes of humans were completely beyond redemption. The powerful
Hosso sect in Nara to which Saicho?s main antagonists belonged held such a view.
Tendai was broadly founded on the teachings of the Mahayana or Greater Vehicle
school of Buddhism. Its basic scripture, the Lotus Sutra, purportedly contained Gautama’s
last sermon, in which he revealed to his disciples the universality of the Buddha potential.
The Buddha asserted that until this time he had allowed individuals to practice Hinayana,
the Lesser Vehicle, and to seek their own enlightenments. Now mankind was prepared for
the final truth that everyone could attain buddhahood. In the Buddha’s words as found in
Those harassed by all the sufferings
To them I at first preached Nirvana
Attainable by one’s own efforts.
Such were the expedient means I employed
To lead them to Buddha-wisdom.
Not then could I say to them,
you all shall attain to Buddhahood.?
For the time had not yet arrived.
But now the very time has come
And I must preach the Great Vehicle.
Shingon Buddhism came to Japan from China in the 9th century by the monk
Kukai whose teachings have been little changed since. Earlier Buddhist sects had been
very esoteric and secretive, but Shingon proved considerably more popular. It placed
great emphasis on chants, magical rituals, and ceremonies for the dead, much to the
delight of the average worshipper. The sect was responsible for spreading the Chinese
religion far beyond the ruling class and continues to be a major faith today.
Shingon Buddhism resembled Tendai in the general circumstances of its foundation
and development. It was introduced into Japan by Kukai (774-835, alias Kobo Daishi).
In his youth, Kukai had received the Confucian training suitable for an official career but,
growing disenchanted with such a prospect, became a Buddhist monk and studied
assiduously. He was also sent by Emperor Kammu in 804, and returned to Japan in 806, a
convert to the Shingon school of Buddhism. It is possible that he did not spend all his time
overseas in the Chinese capital of Ch’ang-an, but traveled to the far south of China where it
borders on India.
Shingon is a form of Japanese esoteric Buddhism, it is also called Shingon
Mikkyo. This school was founded in 804 AD by Kukai (Kobo Daishi) in Japan. The
teachings of Shingon are based on the Mahayana Sutra and the Vairochana Sutra, the
fundamental sutras of shingon. Through the cultivation of three secrets, the actions of
body, speech and mind, we are able to attain enlightenment in this very body. When we
can sustain this sate of mind, we can become on with the life force of the Universe, known
as Mahavairocana Buddha. The symbolic activities are present anywhere in the universe.
Natural phenomena such as mountains and oceans and even humans express the truth
described in the sutras.
The universe itself embodies and cannot be separated from the teaching. In the
Shingon tradition, the practitioner uses the same techniques that were used over 1200
years ago by Kukai, and have been transmitted orally generation after generation to the
present. As Shingon Buddhists, there are three vows to observe in their lives:
. May we realize Buddhahood in this very life.
. May we dedicate ourselves to the well-being of people
. May we establish the World of Buddha on this earth.
Within Kukai’s monastery the Shingon initiate spent much time reciting mantras
(sacred words or incantations), and practicing mudras (sacred gestures). He also studied
mandalas (sacred pictures) which represented in diagrammatic form the boundless power
and presence of the cosmic Buddha. The object of these pious exercises, like that of the
Indian yoga they resembled, was to bring the monk into a state of ecstatic union with the
cosmic Buddha. In other words, Shingon held out the promise of full realization of one?
Buddha-nature in this lifetime.
Shingon is centered on belief in the cosmic Buddha Vairochana. All things including
the historical Buddha, Gautama, and such transcendent beings as Yakushi are merely
manifestations of this universal entity. Shingon relied its idea just as much as Tendai, but
went even further than Tendai in affirming the value of this present life. Tendai taught that
full enlightenment would come only after all earthly existences were completed. Shingon,
on the other hand, claimed that a person with proper insight and training could achieve his
spiritual aim of enlightenment in this present life. Whereas Tendai considered the material
world a partial reflection of an ideal world, Shingon held that the world of things was
completely identical with the spiritual world. In other words, the cosmic Buddha was just
as perfectly within the universe as he was outside it.
This development marked an important transition from the idea of escape from
existence (nirvana) to the idea of enlightenment while still in existence (satori) as the
supreme objective of religious endeavor. Kukai at one point argued for instantaneous
Buddhahood in these vigorous terms:
According to exoteric doctrines, enlightenment occurs only after three existences; the esoteric
doctrines declare that there are sixteen chances of enlightenment in this life. In speed and excellence
the two doctrines differ as much as Buddha with his supernatural powers and a lame donkey. You
who reverence the good let this fact be clear in your minds.
Kukai?s outstanding talent as an artist, and his idea of satori or union with the
cosmic Buddha in this life, help to explain the great importance that Japanese Shingon
placed on sacred art. It was the business of such art to portray both the awesome and the
genial sides of experience, because ?good? and ?bad?, ?pleasant? and ?unpleasant? were
all equally important as attributes of the cosmic Buddha. Shingon art is made memorable
by this inspiration. Moreover, it identified satori with the elation or heightened awareness
imparted by a masterpiece of art.
Shingon enjoyed immense popularity in Heian Japan. Its emphasis on art appealed
to the well-developed aesthetic sense of the nobles, who also enjoyed the lavish rituals
associated with its sacred words and gestures. Even the Tendai communities on Hieizan
were deeply influenced, taking over its images and ceremonial. For most of the Heian
period the two sects were intermingled.
Despite this, Tendai always retained a distinctive bias towards scholarship and an
intellectual, rather than emotional, approach; it also continued to have somewhat closer
links than Shingon with the court as an administrative body. Moreover, in judging the
relative spiritual progress of people who were not monks, Tendai relied on the existing
class structure. Those born in fortunate circumstances were reaping the rewards of special
merit in previous lives and could look forward to even greater blessings in lives to come.
In short, though all beings were destined to be saved eventually, aristocrats were superior
to the common people in religion as in everything else. It is easy to see that such teaching
would flourish in Heian Japan, which was a predominantly aristocratic society.
As religions of the aristocracy and this government, the two sects were thought of
protectors of court and State. They performed special rituals at times of political
uncertainty arising from such things as the accession of a new emperor, provincial
rebellion or natural disaster. Buddhism had had this protective role since Nara times, but
the Heian sects? links with the court led them to full participation in society and
government quite apart from abnormal occasions.
For Buddhists as well as everybody else, direct contact with china dwindled
though it never lapsed. This was an extraordinary change from the time when Japanese
Buddhism had been little more than a branch of mainland mature, and took on a
distinctively Japanese or national character. Religion, like politics and literature, was
This meant that Heian Buddhism conformed to the prevailing pattern of group
privilege and local independence within a broad framework of national unity. The sects
were deeply involved in the development of Shoen, and, as elements in the metropolitan
elite; they ranked with the great aristocratic families. Like the latter, they remained
separate and to some extent competing units, deriving their ultimate authority from close
association with the court. At the same time, they gained greatly from the weakening of
centralized government, which enabled them to amass huge incomes from shiki rights, and
to enjoy a large measure of political independence.
However, Buddhism did not just passively accommodate itself to prevailing
secular trends; it was a positive influence in its own right. Japanese politics under the
Fujiwara and cloistered emperors were remarkably free from bloodshed and cruelty, and
this was at least partly due to Buddhist emphasis on the sanctity of life. During the Heian
period Buddhism also ceased to be an exclusively aristocratic religion. Spreading among
the common people, it carried with it – as always – arts, crafts and opportunities for
learning. So, in the long run, Heian Buddhism helped enormously to close the great
technological and cultural gap that had divided the provinces from the court since the days
of the Taika Reform.
Buddhism in any form had always been a missionary religion. Mahayana
Buddhism was not only anxiously to make converts, but was eager to absorb local
religions. In Heian times, Shinto shrines throughout the country were taken over by
Buddhist priests. The deities for whom the shrines had originally been built were now
esteemed as minor manifestations of the cosmic Buddha, and time-honored village
festivals and other community rites continued under Buddhist sponsorship. This
amalgamation of Buddhism and Shinto was the dominant form of religion in Japan from
the eleventh century to the mid-nineteenth century. Even after the forcible separation of
the two faiths for political reasons in the 1870s, the amalgam has lived on among the
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